Wednesday, May 29, 2013

The story of my sixth grade trauma . . . set to music.

Here's the story of how I broke my wrist in sixth grade set to music far too good to be used for such stupid purposes. Check it out!

Monday, May 27, 2013

Memorial Day Weekend! Now With More Crazy Family!

Ah, Memorial Day weekend! That awkward mini break that my friends in Fairfax County Public Schools only get if there hasn’t been too much snow that year, and officially signifies the end of students caring about school. I don’t even know why we have classes until mid-June.

My extended family likes to celebrate Memorial Day with a big barbecue on our ancestral holdings in PA. There’ll be me and my family, my grandmother, great grandmother, my mom’s brother’s kids, great aunts and uncles, my cousin and her husband, and representatives from all the major purse dog species. We cook more food than we can eat and everyone still brings a dish to the gathering. I’m pretty sure that my Aunt Sally and Uncle Joe get the majority of their groceries via hosting potlucks.

Per my sister’s request, Mom made pasta salad. Per my great grandmother’s request, my grandmother made her famous pork barbecue. Not only are the women in my family long-lived—we’ve also got pretty strong teeth (*most of us*). We locked my crazy dog up at my grandmother’s house so she couldn’t beat up the purse dogs (just kidding, the purse dogs bite her legs and drive her crazy).

Joe said the barbecue would start at three, but that family members could come earlier, so we showed up at . . . noon. My cousin Sam was baking cookies and watching Arrested Development, which is a TV show some people care about. I don’t put much stock in her personal taste, because she doesn’t watch Game of Thrones. And this is a woman married to a man who we caught reading a Warhammer 40,000 novelization called Space Wolf. Get with the program, people! How am I supposed to have intelligent adult conversations if I can’t toss out a Game of Thrones reference every five minutes?

Can I sic your dragons on them, my queen?

A Yorkie and something called a Morkie (a curly haired yorkie) have locked jaws and are tumbling around on the floor like two crocodiles competing for a mate. Sally pops in and tells us that the eight packages of spicy Italian sausages aren’t gonna cut it.  Joe says he’ll drive down to the store and get more. “You want to drive the convertible, Liz?”

My heart stops. My father also has a BMW Z4. The ‘4’ key on my keyboard also produces the ‘$’ character, which probably isn’t a coincidence. My father has never let me near his precious, precious car. Granted, I don’t know how to drive a stick shift. But still.

“Really?” I say.

“Yeah, really.”

So that’s how I found myself sitting behind the wheel of the most expensive car I’d ever seen, wincing as I put my foot on the gas. “Give it a little more juice,” Joe says, and I push my foot down another fraction of a degree. We inch towards the grocery store at thirty five miles per hour, with Joe continuously reminding me to not slam my foot on the brakes before going around curves. Apparently, going around curves quickly is what sports cars are built for.

Our sausages procured, Joe drove us back to his house in a third of the time it took me to drive to the store. He quickly accelerated to sixty miles per hour and back down again, whipping around corners at forty five, continuously proving I drive like a wimp. No wonder my father won’t let me drive his sports car.

When we got back, Sam was rolling chunks of cookie dough into disks. Not seeing the point in the intermediate oven step, I swiped one of the disks and set out to find an empty place in the house to eat it. That empty place happened to be right by the front door. There I sat, chewing on my little ball of egg, sugar, and chocolate until the worst came to pass—I saw my mother pull up.

I heard her walking up the path, pushing my elderly great grandmother in a wheelchair, and did something I’m not proud of—slipping the cookie dough into my pocket and running into the next room. Then I realized the first place they’d bring my great grandmother was that room and my mom would ask me why I was running away. So I dashed out into the kitchen, where Sally and Sam were cooking, and I ducked down the basement stairs.

Now, it was pretty dark in the basement, and I didn’t want to go all the way down the steps, since I couldn’t see. But I didn’t want to draw attention by turning on the lights, so I just crouched down at the top of the steps and munched on my lump of cookie dough until it was done, at which point I came out and greeted my mother and great grandmother.

My mom’s brother, Dave, and his wife, Patrice, showed up with their two kids in tow, the youngest of whom is still a baby and seems to believe that the best game in the world is dropping things on the floor and making me pick them up. For some reason, all babies play this game. It’s encoded in their DNA.

My father had a lot to talk to Dave about, on the difficulties of raising young children. “You’ve got to watch out for those late afternoon naps,” he said sagely, as someone’s toy poodle rammed its head into the baby’s chest. Cue laughing baby. “You put them down in the crib and you have a few beers, and you’re drinking, and eventually you’ve had two or three, and your kid wakes up and starts crying . . .”

“Actually, I haven’t been drinking much since they were born,” Dave says, shooting my father an odd look.

Meanwhile, the two toy poodles are running in and out of the house, the Yorkie and Morkie on their heels, Occasionally, they jump on top of each other and spar for food like something from The Hunger Games. A gigantic dog with crazy eyes joins them and they crash around together, narrowly avoiding my great grandmother, who is eating her second meat sandwich.

Dad tries to get Molly to eat some of Sam’s handmade strawberry rhubarb pie by putting it on a fork and holding it up to her mouth, like how Dave tries to feed his infant. Only Molly isn’t fooled by airplane noises. “What’s a rhubarb?” she asks.

“A type of fruit!” Dad says, but Molly isn’t buying it. So my father spends three minutes of his precious, irreplaceable life trying to convince a thirteen year old girl to eat a piece of pie. And as Sam’s husband quickly informs him, a rhubarb is a nasty vegetable that looks like red celery, and if he saw it on the side of the road, he wouldn’t eat it.

The evening ended up like most of these things do: with me in the kitchen, talking to Joe and Sally, until someone point out that my parents have already left, and thus I mutter a curse word and run for the door. 

Friday, May 24, 2013

Book Review: The Compostela Cube, by Paul Cavilla

So many thrillers revolve around conspiracies--books where action and mystery intertwine in a seamless whole. Fans of anything by Dan Brown will be familiar with The Compostela Cube's pattern--a history buff unravels an ancient puzzle surrounding a priceless artifact. The mythology surrounding the titular cube in Paul Cavilla's book is intriguing, yet grounded in the reality. But what doesn't feel grounded is the rest of the story--where flat characters battle ridiculous antagonists with the fate of all mankind hanging in the balance.

Look! The all-seeing eye of the Illuminati!
The story begins promisingly enough: with a professor and a priest attending an exorcism at the bedside of a comatose hermaphrodite, whose death foreshadows a coming darkness. Doctor Natasha Rossi--whose beauty will be mentioned much more than her Ph.D., is restoring artifacts in her shop. Adventurous archaeologist Gabriel Parker breaks into a drug lord's castle to steal the Cube of Compostela, which, according to his late adoptive father's journal, holds the key to his destiny. And Christian Antov, a wealthy but abused young man, has just learned his family's wealth and power comes from a diabolical deal struck eons ago. The atmosphere reminded me of Indiana Jones and The DaVinci Code. All eyes are focused on the mysterious Cube, and it's up to Natasha and Gabriel to protect it from the forces of evil as the world erupts in chaos around them.

The best part of this book, and the only part that kept me reading, was the mystery of the Cube. Cavilla shuffles around several of the major monotheistic heresies into an knot that's quite fun to try and puzzle out. Some of the artifacts and ancient booby traps the character encounters are intriguing, puzzling, and draw on the reader to figure them out. However, the interesting psuedo-history is pushed aside in many places by the chaos raging across the world as the shadowy Vanderhoff Group, a secret world government, enacts its plan to start World War Three in hopes of pushing the world to the brink of unifying under regional dictators.

While the possessed Christian Antov can be genuinely frightening, I felt like over a third of the book focused on him. At times, he felt like a cartoon villain, who went off on lengthy monologues about how humans were sheep who needed to bow to their rightful masters and such. And the ideas behind the Vanderhoff Group seemed a little ridiculous--no matter how the author tries to justify it, it's a stretch to say that one entity could hold the reins of power in the world while still going unnoticed, especially when that group is giving orders to the President of the United States. Lip service is given to the crash of the American economy, but the world where the story begins simply feels far to close to our own to justify this massive leap. And when the zombies come out? The plot grows weirder with every passing page, and it gets harder and harder to believe in the author's world.

Furthermore, Gabriel and Natasha are hardly interesting. The second they meet, they fall in love. No matter how must destiny is supposed to be pulling them together, no couple is perfect. You'd think they'd chafe at knowing their romantic lives were out of their own control, but both of them seem perfectly fine being attached to a perfect stranger. And Natasha has no personality traits next to her beauty. While romantic leads in thrillers don't always need to be deep, they should at least have other interests besides the male lead. Natasha's background in artifact preservation rises up whenever a handy piece of exposition is needed, but she rarely displays any passion for anything but Gabriel.

While perhaps unavoidable in a book about saving humanity from damnation, this book contains very little moral grey area. It provokes one of my pet peeves in a scene where the good guys gather from all over the world and instantly become close friends (seriously, would it kill these groups to have internal struggles?) and  despite all the turmoil happening in the world, our protagonists have it pretty easy--a prophetic vision tells an old nun in their group that they should pack their things before descending into the catacombs, because they won't be returning. Because when thousands of people are dying all over the world, God (the author, in this case) won't let his precious protagonists go without a pair of dry socks. There's simply got to be a better way of ensuring your characters have the supplies they need.

There's a good amount of wit in these pages, especially from the elderly priests and nuns who accompany Natasha and Gabriel on their journey. The action scenes are well written, and the ancient artifacts fascinating.  But by trying to make the stakes global, Cavilla looses realism, which is key even in fantasy. Just telling us about conflicts around the globe doesn't make sense--we need to see those conflicts reflected in the microcosm of the characters lives.

My rating? As a thriller, three and a half stars. As a novel, three.

You can purchase The Compostela Cube here. You can also find my novel, Iceclaw, here.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Why 'Divergent' isn't a true dystopia

So I just took a class on what make utopian and dystopia literature, and how those genres are defined. Here's my last essay on why the teen hit Divergent isn't dystopian at all.

Dystopia’s the new hot thing in young adult literature. Ever since the bestselling success of The Hunger Games and its sequels, by Suzanne Collins, lots of other authors have tried to capitalize on this trend. One of these so-called dystopias, Divergent, by Veronica Roth, has been met with considerable success. Having read both, it’s apparent to me that The Hunger Games is superior—not only in terms of plot in characters, but in following the traditional conventions of ‘utopian’ literature.
            The two books resemble each other in some ways: The Hunger Games tells the story of Katniss Everdeen, a young woman from the quasi-Roman nation of Panem, who volunteers to take her sister’s place in the titular Hunger Games, where twenty-four children fight to the death on national television. Divergent follows another young woman, Beatrice Prior, in a futuristic Chicago where everyone must swear themselves to one of five strict factions that each strive to exemplify a different virtue.  Certain surface features of utopias are apparent in each—notably, in that each is a futuristic ‘traveler’s tale’, where a character journeys somewhere new and is introduced to that society’s laws and customs by a guide. Katniss travels from her poverty-stricken hometown in District 12 to the opulent Capitol in the company of Effie Trinket, a chaperone who instructs her on Capitol custom and the preparations for the Games. Beatrice leaves her birth faction, which espouses selflessness, for Dauntless, a faction espousing courage, and is initiated into their customs by Four, an older boy. Katniss’s home country, Panem, is a play on words much like the word ‘utopia’ itself, which can mean both a ‘no-place’ and a ‘good-place’.  Panem refers to an old Latin phrase, panem et circenses, ‘bread and circuses’, referring to how Imperial Rome controlled its population. The word also sounds like ‘pan-american’, referring to how Panem encompasses most of North America.
            On the surface, both stories appear to draw on the utopian tradition. But utopian literature doesn’t just tell the story of a fictional society—it tells the story of our own. Classical utopias, like More’s Utopia and Bacon’s New Atlantis describe societies made perfect by solving a contemporary problem—More envisioned a world where the elimination of private property  would end poverty, and Bacon described a society perfected through public funding and respect of science. Dystopias describe societies ruined by extrapolating a contemporary problem to its extreme—in Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, backlash to the feminist movement creates a strict theocracy that heavily limits women’s rights, and Huxley’s Brave New World creates a society where mass production and materialism dominate every aspect of human life. In The Hunger Games, Collins describes a country where the unequal distribution of wealth dooms millions to life in poverty, where reality TV has degenerated society to the point at which children are given makeovers and interviewed on national television before being sent to their deaths.  But the factionalism in Divergent in no way reflects modern society. Categorizing people by their greatest virtues may be an interesting idea for a story, but it isn’t linked to any contemporary problem in our society. Only one of these popular teen novels offers a commentary on modern life.
            First and foremost, the focus of any utopia or dystopia is on the society. That doesn’t mean individual characters cannot be well written or developed, but that the interactions of the characters should reveal something about the system. In The Handmaid’s Tale, Offred, the narrator, paints a comprehensive portrait of the theocracy of Gilead through her interactions with characters who play different roles in Gilead’s ridged social structure. The relationships between the narrator and the other characters tell the story of the society as well as the individual. In The Hunger Games, Katniss initially only trusts the other people from her home district and doesn’t think of allying with an outsider until one saves her life. Initially, she fears and hates the competitors from the wealthier districts, because she feels they have an advantage in the game. It’s not until she watches those competitors die that she realizes her fear and hate should be directed at the governing authorities that created the Hunger Games in the first place. But in Divergent, Beatrice’s story is much more about finding her own identity and making friends than coming to terms with the society she lives in. Katniss asks herself who the real enemy is—the other children coming to kill her, or the government that created the Games?  Beatrice asks herself whether it’s possible for her to be brave and selfless at the same time (the answer is yes, easily, if you’re a poorly written character in a bad book).
            The word ‘dystopia’ is often used to refer to any story set in an alternate society that has very strict, often oppressive, rules.  While genuine utopias in the style of Thomas More’s are hard to find these days—probably because books without conflict have a hard time holding the reader’s attention—modern dystopian fiction builds off the earlier utopian tradition. Certain thematic elements of utopia are easier to recreate than others, such as ambiguous, symbolic names or framing the story as a traveler’s tale. But the ultimate purpose of a utopia or dystopia is to tell the story of an alternate society that either prescribes a solution (practical or not) to, or shows the harmful extremes of, the writer’s society. While Divergent may take place in an alternate society, its lack of social commentary and connection weaken the case for it to be truly dystopian—and weaken the narrative as a whole.  Novels like The Hunger Games, which use characters to tell the story of a greater struggle in society, and relate to the society readers live in, are more than truly dystopian—they’re truly deep. 

And if you want to check out my own novel, Iceclaw, you can find it here.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Thanks for the page views!

Thanks for the page views, girls from High Rise Five who don't understand comedy!

Here's a nice video, just for you!

Monday, May 20, 2013

How to 'help' your friends move

So I'm finally back in VA and out of that cramped forced triple in Hell Rise Five. While I'll miss my friends over the summer, I sure won't miss that awful dump. Seven stories of misery and pain, filled with the pungent odor of weed and the awkwardness of sharing an elevator with five other strangers who live next door to you. I'll forever remember the joy of the elevator stopping at every freaking floor on the way down, the tiny little kitchen I was forced to share with far too many other people I hated, and how the stairs didn't go down to the ground floor. Apparently, that was supposed to make the building 'riot-proof'

But before I could hit the road and head home, I had to get all of everyone's crap out of my dorm room. And since my mom drove up to get me in her minivan, I offered to help my friends get their stuff into storage. Ayesha's going back to India over the summer, so it's not like she can take all her stuff on the plane (heck, the way airlines are these days, they probably make you bring your own crappy peanut bags and charge you for them). Asta's off to Baton Rouge. Audrey and Sarah will be up here over the summer and don't want to haul all their crap back to the midwest.

 The common sense solution would be to rent a storage locker until Audrey and Sarah get back, at which point they can move everyone's stuff into their apartment. If they split the costs four ways, they'd only need to pay fifteen bucks each. But we're college students. What's fifteen bucks when you could store your expensive textbooks, favorite clothing, and cookware people actually eat off in a dark pit filled with spiders?

We loaded up a cart I'd dragged away from a bunch of boys busy loading bedding into another minivan. They're men, they can lift their own freaking sheets. So we pile the cart with boxes of bedding and that freaking annoying fan that keeps falling off the window and drag them out to the car. We shove in Ayesha's clothing, which is partially stuffed in plastic trash bags we stole from the bathroom, and we shove in Audrey's snowboard and climbing gear and ski equipment . . . you know, I'm thinking she should probably pick one sport and stick with it.

Then we drive down to the ski house, the vaguely remembered site of the salsa incident, and carry heavy boxes across the street, dodging buses and vans and whatnot. Turns out, the basement where Audrey's friends promised she could store her stuff is nothing more than a gigantic hole in the ground. A hole guarded by bees, filled with flies and old newspapers, smelling of mildew and decay. The Pit.

Also, you can only get in there by stooping under the porch, so carrying boxes under it is a whole lot of fun! (Not really).

The next day, we had to help Asta and Xinting get Asta and Sarah's stuff out of Balch Hall--the all women dorm, build before the invention of wide hallways and elevator access (but after the invention of dark, horrible pits). We grab the first cart we can find and wheel it over to the elevator. Then we wait. And wait, and wait, and wait. Because the elevator is one of those primitive contraptions with a gate you need to close by hand, it can often take hours to arrive at your floor, especially when people on all other floors are trying to do the exact same thing as you. And of course, my friends live on the sixth floor. The elevator only goes up to the fifth.

Yes, this building has six stories

So there I was, waiting for half an hour on the fifth floor as my friends ran up and down, bringing boxes full of random crap down to the cart. Boxes of stuff like cookware that probably should have been taped shut were instead just hanging open (to provide easy access to the spiders in The Pit). Sarah also left behind a binder full of loose-leaf paper and a CD that, despite it being flat and square, she decided to balance precariously on the top of the box, instead of putting it on the bottom. It fell out four times.

We played charades in the hallway until Asta finished packing her last box. I was always it, either because I'm the most creative one or the only one willing to act out pop culture milestones. Ayesha and Audrey are surprisingly good at guessing my charades. TV show? 'Game of Thrones'. Book? 'A Game of Thrones'. Book? 'A Clash of Kings'. They cut me off before I could act out 'A Dance with Dragons', which is a pity, because I had some great dance moves planned.

Somehow, we manage to get everything in the car and back over to the ski house. I decided to wait with the car as the girls carried their stuff down into the parts of The Pit that aren't even lit by a single bare, dangling bulb. As we leave, up pulls a pick-up truck driven by a girl wearing a headlamp. Clearly, someone came prepared.

Monday, May 13, 2013

Book Review: Blurry, by Sherri Fulmer Moorer

Breaking with my usual pattern, I picked up Blurry, by Sherri Fulmer Moorer. This contemporary YA novel focuses on Rachel, a college bound senior who finds it's more than just college driving a wedge between her and her friends. When her ex-boyfriend's new girlfriend dies in a suspicious car accident, Rachel undercovers a criminal organization pulling the strings in her town--and some of her friends may not be as on her side as she used to believe.
Pro tip--your title doesn't have to describe your title image.

All Rachel wants is to finish senior year peacefully. Too bad the police are interrogating her about if her ex-boyfriend, Danny, is a possible murderer. She broke up with Danny because his love of illegal street racing made it clear he'd always be trouble, but she doesn't think he's capable of killing in cold blood. To make matters worse, kids in school are spreading rumors about her social life and her old friend Josh is pulling away right when she needs him the most. The more she learns about Danny's racing pals, the more she's convinced that something criminal is occurring in her town . . . and someone close to her's about to sell her out.

The concept is interesting and the big solution of the mystery at the end comes as quite a shock. I enjoyed reading about the underground movements of the racing ring--which was one reason I was disappointed that the action focused so much on Rachel and her friends from school. We're dropped all these hints about the money that's involved, the fast cars--but we don't get a single scene of a actual racing. This distances the reader from the real conflict and makes the stakes abstract, not real.

I also feel that Rachel's character could have been better developed. She displays a few Mary Sue tendencies  For example, random strangers compliment her good traits in situations where they normally wouldn't. The police officer interviewing her about a potential murder runs through a long list of all her accomplishments--her good grades, her musical talent, her writing skill--calls her a 'beautiful young woman' and a 'wise young woman'. Frankly, that scene reads like he's hitting on her, and I can't help but feel that hitting on a high school student is a good way for a cop to lose his job. If it was explained that the cop had a crush on her, that'd be one thing, but I felt like it was just a scene to showcase how good Rachel is.

And anyone who speaks out against Rachel is automatically cast as a bad guy. There's Marielle, described as a 'typical popular girl', who is blond with blue eyes, a cheerleader, and rich. Yeah, she shouts at Rachel in the scene she's introduced, but her best friend was just supposedly murdered by her boyfriend (who's also Marielle's friend). Instead of sympathizing with her emotional fragility, Rachel asks if they teach rich people manners. And when another student suffers from depression, a close friend of that student accuses Rachel of being too sheltered to notice what's going on. Rachel and her best friend Natalie quickly decide that girl can't be their friend anymore, even though what she said feels totally reasonable to me. This lead to me disliking her character--the story makes it clear that Rachel can do no wrong, even when some of the things she does are quite rude.

While the book is a little blurry itself at the beginning, it clears up a lot when the action gets going. Strong supporting characters like Danny, Micah, and Sasha help invigorate the text. There's quite a few good twists and turns in there you won't see coming. But the dullness of the main character and lack of connection to the criminal plot dampen down the overall tone of the novel.

My rating? As YA contemporary, three stars. As a novel, three stars.

You can find Blurry here. You can also find my book, which does not include illegal car racing (but has dragons) here.

Saturday, May 11, 2013

Book Review: The Contaminants, by Devin K. Smyth

Yet another hard sci-fi story of teens surviving in space, The Contaminants would fit well with William Woodall's Tycho. Both feature a desperate flight into space as humanity's last hope of surviving the apocalypse. But Devin K. Smyth's The Contaminants does what Tycho doesn't--create believable, sympathetic narrators and stick to a tight paced storyline. While a few minor details remain fuzzy and some bits of backstory could have been re-arranged, The Contaminants will please any fans of H.G. Wells style of short, hardcore science fiction.
Photoshop glow effect, how I love thee.

When Earth's overpopulation threatens to destroy the planet, the American government conspires to wipe all humans off the face of the earth--save a select group to be sent up in luxury space ships to repopulate the worlds. But when the rest of the world learns about the plot, they declare nuclear war, and only a small fraction of the chosen few survive.

Jessil Callowyck is not one of the chosen few. She and her brothers stowed away on the only surviving ship. With less than a thousand remaining humans, she doesn't think it matters if her genetic sequence is up to par--until the day a video feed from Earth indicates that her father may have survived the blast. Her delight turns to horror when she learns the ship's chief scientist is planning to kill any of the humans remaining on the surface. He doesn't want anyone with 'contaminated', or less than perfect, DNA repopulating the planet.

Soraj Guyat is the mad scientist's son--a teenage boy who helps his father research the conditions of the devastated Earth, but can't find the words to admit his crush on Jessil. He's never broken a rule in his life before Jessil convinces him to help her stow-away on a reconnaissance mission to Earth. It's there he'll have to choose between his friendship with her and his love of his father--if they can survive the mutated creatures swarming over the surface of a world they thought they knew.

Smyth's characters are strong and wonderfully voiced. Jessil's energy and enthusiam contrasts nicely with Soraj's caution and computer-savvy. The world is beautifully rendered--from the ship's broken luxury to the mutated jungles on Earth--and no detail is omitted. I particularly enjoyed the mention of the ship's church, which has been turned into a storage room, because 'people gave up hope long ago'. The devastation, fear, and the tiniest threads of hope are all quite palpable.

While I would have liked Soraj's father's motives to be a little more fleshed out--what's so bad about these humans' DNA that they can't be permitted to reproduce?--I found him a decent antagonist, and the supporting characters, in particular, the ship's Captain Monumba, well fleshed out and interesting. The only major change I would make would be relocating the third and forth chapters (both of which give us Jessil and Suraj's backstories) to later in the story and slimming them down. Like I pointed out in my review for But The Children Survived, after the reader knows that the world's ended, backstory's a killer unless it's extremely pertinent to the main plot.

Other than those minor details, The Contaminants is an excellent story with engrossing characters--and better yet, a plot that moves quickly enough to hold the readers' interest! I think it's apt to compare it to H.G. Wells--especially The Island of Doctor Moreau and The Time Machine. While readers of modern YA may not be thrilled by the lack of romance, fans of classical sci-fi will be thrilled.

My rating? For YA sci-fi, four and a half stars out of five. For a novel, four and a half stars.

You can purchase The Contaminants here. You can also go here and purchase my book, Iceclaw.

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Book Review: Rowan, by Christina Channelle

This week, we're featuring an author who I've worked with before: Christina Channelle, author of the Blood Crave series. I reviewed the first book in the series, Dahlia, and the follow-up novella, Fallen Tears. The second official book in the series, Rowan, builds nicely on the ground established in the earlier books while introducing a new cast of characters that are much stronger than the ones we meet in the first. A combination of good characterization and mostly well handled pacing makes Rowan the best book of the series so far.

Rowan, one of the world's last remaining vampires (or lamia, as they're known in this book), awakens from a four year slumber when her need for blood grows too great to be controlled. Stumbling out into the streets of Fallon (a city partially controlled by fallen angels, or lapsus), she feeds off passing humans, only to stumble across a dead boy in an alley. Impulsively, she decides to turn the boy into a vampire to save his life--and we discover it's Sam, Dahlia's foster brother from the first book and one of my favorite characters in this series.

With her blood supply rapidly dwindling, Rowan seeks out Remy, the lapsus who she lived with until his mother was murdered. While the Remy of the Fallen Tears novella was young and slightly geeky, he's grown up a lot in the years since Rowan's last seen him (though his crush on her hasn't faded). Together, Sam, Rowan, and Remy decide to seek out the lapsus who murdered Remy's mother. But a mysterious new power stalks the streets of Fallon--a centuries old entity who preys on supernatural creatures to extend its own life.

 Rowan's a much more proactive heroine than Dahlia, but little details like her fear of the dark (and her struggle to hide it from Sam, who she looks upon as her student in all things vampire) keep her feeling human and vulnerable. Her voice has a lot of attitude, but it's easy to see that it's mostly a front she puts up to hide her personal self-doubt. I also like the way her relationship with Remy develops. He may not be Rowan's first love, but the two do have history together. Most importantly, they relate to each other as equals. Their banter and their friendship make their relationship equally entertaining and real.

One of my big critiques of Dahlia was that I felt not enough was happening. There's a lot more stuff going on in Rowan, and the narrative follows a much more traditional pattern of action. Villains new and old pop up to threaten the main characters. My one complaint with the pacing is that there's a slice of exposition inserting a break between a giant twist scene and the book's emotional climax (which, no spoilers, made my heart sink in my chest). While it is a set-up for the next book in the series, it holds readers' attentions on its own.

I would have also liked to see more development of the world. The city of Fallon feels somewhat generic--there's no feelings of local culture, or real landmarks, and there's nothing visual that sets it apart from any other city in the world. That makes the story feel small, isolated--like nothing exists beyond the lives of the main characters. Worldbuilding is key to giving a story the proper scope.

Faster pacing, stronger character voice, and increased emotional draw make Rowan a much stronger installment in this series. My rating? For YA paranormal romance, four stars. For a novel, four stars.

You can purchase Rowan here.

Sunday, May 5, 2013

The Dumbest Classes Cornell Offers (and how to BS them into something that looks good on your resume)

A few weeks back, I wrote a modest proposal for a new class and was approached by quite a few people who wanted to know if it was a real thing. Sadly, Cornell does not offer deer hunting as a class. But it does offer some interesting substitutes. 

College is supposed to be the place you go to learn the skills you'll use to build your career. One of the many  useful skills you learn there is bullshit--the art of making something useless, pointless, and worthless sound important, pertinent, and complicated. What follows is a list of the most useless classes my university offers and a helpful guide for explaining to your future employer why you took them:

AAS 4550
Race and the University

On the surface, an in-depth examination of the role race plays in higher education sounds like a good use of your time. You might learn about the historical struggles of minorities to obtain higher education, or the debate surrounding affirmative action. But you'll be hard pressed to explain to your future boss why this counts to your major in Asian American Studies. 
Not a racial stereotype. At all. 

That's right. The class on race and higher education is in the Asian department. Since I'm white, I can't exactly say this is racist--but the course says it will focus on examining America's 'major research institutions' and explore how it is 'that certain knowledge formations and disciplines come to be naturalized or privileged within the academy?'

How would I explain this to my future employer? Hand them the course description and say, 'I understand this'.

ASRC 6517
The Oprah Book Club and African American Literature

Yes. This is a real thing. I understand that Oprah's a major icon for the African-American community, but she has more classes named after her than Martin Luther King Jr, President Obama, and Fredrick Douglas combined. I could understand a course on Oprah's role in the African-American community--perhaps focusing on how she's inspired black women, or on how she's worked outside cultural boundaries. But a class on Oprah's Book Club? 

ASRC 6517 promises to 'draw on a range of critical and theoretical resources related to the Oprah Book Club archive', a sentence your average Oprah's Book Club reader can't even understand. The very fact one watches Oprah indicates you don't really have that much to do during the day. Next thing you know, the American History department will be offering courses on Honey Boo Boo and What Not To Wear

How do you explain this class to your future boss? 'It was a requirement for my major. The department chair was Oprah herself'.

EAS 1220

You can say this much about this introductory Earth sciences class--it sounds like a direct to DVD sequel to Airplane!, but one that'd be slightly better than Airplane! II. I understand the importance of making your course sound memorable, bu t come on, this is Cornell. Part of the Ivy League tradition is taking classes with pretentious names. 'Introduction to Anthrobotany in Geographically Isolated Systems' just sounds better than 'People Farming On Islands'. Adding an exclamation mark after the course title will convince absolutely nobody to take it. 
Or watch your horrible, horrible movie.
This class is supposed to be about understanding how natural disasters occur and are mitigated. The first half of the course focuses on building earthquake proof buildings, which is probably good knowledge for society to have. There's a lot of stuff in there about analyzing data and public communication, which sounds pretty boring for a class with an exclamation mark in its title. But this class doesn't just focus on plain old earthquakes. Rather, it covers volcanoes, tsunamis, and the ever exiting 'threat of extinction from a future impact by an extraterrestrial body' 

How to explain this to your future boss? 'Ever seen Armgeddon'? 

SHUM 4864
Pirate Humanities

Yo ho ho and a bottle of rum! This class (which is BYOR, by the way), sounds like it can't quite be what it sounds like. This is about media piracy? Right? Nope. Offered through the Cornell Society for the Humanities, this class 'examines pirate assemblages as an ineluctable underside of capitalist modernity'. In other words, where you've got money, people are gonna try and steal it. This is an actual class about actual pirates.

You will always remember this as the day you almost  had Professor Jack Sparrow!
And yet the course description makes it sound like the most boring class ever. 'Within a framework of control and emergence (derived largely from contemporary theories of risk, biopolitics, and securitization), the course seeks to develop a posthumanist understanding of the pirate'. Seriously? What does that even mean? It's a course on freaking pirates! Stop trying to make it sound all smart and stuff. Anyway, there might be some good stuff in this seminar  but it's limited to 15 people, so I suggest illegally downloading Pirates of the Caribbean instead. 

How to explain this to your future boss? Tell him it was a current events course about crime in the failed state of Somalia. Try to look somber. 

DSOC 4210
Theories of Reproduction

Is this class about . . . reproducing machines? Reproducing ancient texts? Nope. It is exactly what it sounds like. A four thousand level course on human reproduction. Keep in mind, this is something human beings have done for thousands of years without any real need for explanation, but apparently Cornell students are so nerdy they need an advanced class on the correct procedure for baby-making. 

This class will empathize 'gender-based' theories of reproduction. I'm assuming this lecture will begin with 'When a man and a woman love each other very much . . .' I'm not sure how you could have a theory of human reproduction that wasn't gender based. It will also examine what makes 'families have any, few, and many children', and I assume the answer will be closely related to sex. Isn't this material taught in ninth grade health classes across the country. The very existence of this class puts the future of the American educational system in doubt. If you take this class, it actually lowers your chances of getting laid. Or you might just be a developmental sociology major, in which case, sorry. 

How to explain this to your future boss? Don't.