YA Book Review: Shiver by Maggie Stiefvater

Okay.

I’m writing another YA book review. I don’t know why I read this one, except that another reviewer that I really respect gave it 4/5 stars. But it’s still YA, so I still expect it to suck. So sue me.

Worse, it’s YA Paranormal Romance. Ugh.

But I read it. And I finished it. Which means it didn’t suck as badly as I thought it would.

Actually Shiver didn’t suck at all. It was a decent, if simple, book. The plot wasn’t so derivative that I knew what Stiefvater was after from page one. Actually, the ending was a bit of a surprise. Pleasant, even. Weird, right?

For the most part, Stiefvater’s language was complicated enough to be interesting without being so purple that I couldn’t get through it. I know there are some reviews that focus on particularly bad lines. But I’m willing to overlook these in the greater scheme of things. “I am a leaking womb” is not the greatest imagery to pass through my ocular filter and make it into my brain. However, surprisingly, it is not the worst either. And that shit doesn’t happen often enough for me to write off the whole novel for the sake of it.

I’m a forgiving person.

Can I just say, now, that I’m not into werewolves. Or vampires, or any other kind of monster you can think of that might make a good love interest for a female teenage protagonist. But Shiver, although it does follow the paranormal romance formula, did not strike me as “just-another-teeneage-werewolf-romance” kind of book. Granted, I haven’t read enough of them to know the difference.

What I do know is that I didn’t hate Grace, the protagonist. And although he was a bit of an emo wimp, I didn’t hate Sam either. In fact, I felt that both of these characters transcended their stereoptypes and became “real.” That’s a big statement coming from a YA hater, such as myself. Both characters grow more than thier Hunger Games contemproraries, and although this world is more similar to ours, I felt like Shiver was saying more that HG was in the first novel of the trilogy.

To be fair, I am partly in love with the fact that the text is colour coordinated with the cover. I.e. it’s blue for Shiver. Green for Linger. Etc.

But I swear, the story was decent too…

…If you can get past the awkward teeneage romance aspect, that is.

Was it really this painful when we were going through it? I don’t remember teenage love being like this at all. Maybe I’m a freak. I’m willing to accept that. But seriously. Who is considering marriage at 17 years old?

These gripes aside, Shiver is actually an interesting novel about two young people attempt to find a place in the world. Stiefvater’s take on family and society is interesting and unforgiving, which I like. I like that she doesn’t pretent the world is a wonderful place and she makes room for weirdness even in the most “normal” of relationships. Grace is a likeable character, even if she’s a little emotionally removed. Stiefvater gives us enough background to explain why this is. Conversely, Sam is an interesting counter-type to Grace and his own backgrouned adds to this rather than complicating things unnecessarily. I liked them both.

I actually liked all fo the characters, and felt that they remained true to their types throughout the novel.

Okay, Sam’s lyrics kind of suck. But he’s an 18 year old guy. I’d be a little suspicious if they didn’t suck, really. And they do get better as the novel progresses. And you’ll like Sam. So you’ll be able to forgive him for being that shaggy haired douche in your English Lit class, I swear.

Just read it, okay?

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Collaborative Writing Opportunity for SF Lovers

Hi, all!

I just discovered a wonderful blog, and I wanted to share. If you’ve ever wanted to write a novel, but don’t have the time, or have a ton of great ideas and can’t find a way to bring them all together, you might want to check out The Stone Soup Novelist.

This blog is dedicated to writing a science fiction novel with the collaboration of as many SF readers and writers who are willing to share their ideas. Check out “The Story” page for some background on the backbone idea, and then start brainstorming!

Of course, there is no guarantee that your ideas will be used in the final product. The author is using a voting system to decide which ideas are best. Even if you don’t have an idea to share, you can still vote for your favourites. But don’t be shy! The more ideas are posted, the more conversation will be generated, and the more interesting the end work will be. I think this is a great idea, and I will be contributing. I think the more people who get involved, the better the novel will be (and I’m sure the Stone Soup Novelist would agree).

So if you have a few minutes to spare, jump in and start tossing some ideas around. This is a great opportunity for all of you creative people who are looking for an outlet. Focus that energy!

Resource for SF Writers: Small Press Publishers

Greetings from the cold, wet prairies. No, I’m not happy about it either. It’s almost June, people, make with the sunshine already.

Now.

Today’s post is something that will hopefully be useful to my fellow first-time SF and Fantasy writers. To the unwashed (or is that just me?) and unpublished (perhaps the two are connected) masses of hopeful future novelists, I dedicate the following list. But first, a word from your fearless leader:

I’ve recently been looking into smaller publishers, and submitting my science fiction manuscript The Timekeepers’ War to them as well as to literary agencies. If I’m honest with myself, I really don’t want to publish with a small press. I, like all (commercial) writers, have big dreams of seeing my novel in grocery store checkout lanes, in airports, and every other random outlet for those trashy NYT Bestseller racks. I want to be able to make a living at this writing shtick. I’m not interested in winning some hoity-toity literary awards and only being read by intellectual assholes. I’m in it for the money.

Which makes me an idiot.

Because making decent money at writing is kind of the literary equivalent of winning the lottery. It’s a matter of luck, skill, talent, luck, and more luck. Just ask anyone who’s made it. It really kind of just happens. So I have my fingers crossed. And the “big dream” is one of the reasons I’m choosing to seek agent representation in the first place. I realize that a lot of writers do not go this route. They take on the massive burden of pimping themselves to the little guys, and do really well with it. Someday, that might be me. But hopefully, I can have someone do the dirty work for me, and I can just write. That’s what I want.

But, and there is always a “but”, even an agent can be hard to find. So I decided to start looking into the little guys just in case I don’t have the kind of luck required to land a massive multi-novel book deal. You know, just in case reality catches up with me and I find myself sobbing into my latte while I place my first order on Lulu.

And when I decided to look into small press publishers, I realized something. They’re frackin’ hard to find. There’s a bazillion of them out there, but just try to google that shit. Especially as a writer of genre fiction, it can be hard hours of slogging through website after website to find A) Publishers that accept Sci-Fi and B) Publshiers (even small ones) that are open to unsolicited submissions. Plus, most small presses have the life-expectancy of a fruit fly. So just when you thin you’ve hit the jackpot, and you find a list of small press publishers of science fiction—think again. At least half of those links will be rerouted to “buy this domain” websites, and also, strangely, mattress warehouses.

So, I’m going to give you a list of links I found that are still what they are supposed to be: someone to publish your awesome book. I can’t claim that this list will remain current for any specific period of time, but for those of you suffering through the process with me, it will work. Keep in mind that some submissions may be closed at the moment, but will be open later this year. So get your bookmarking fingers ready. Here it is:

Anarchy Books
Fairwood Press
Changeling Press for erotic fiction with sci-fi or fantasy themes
Mundania Press LLC
Old Earth Books
Arkham House Publishing
Necro Publications
for their SF, see Bedlam Press imprint
ChiZine Publications
Elder Signs Press
Sofawolf Press
accepts anthropomorphic fiction only
Tyrannosaurus Press
Edge/Tesseract Books

This list is by no means complete, but I have narrowed these 12 sites down from a list five times its length on The SF Site. I did the work so you don’t have to! I will like likely continue adding to it as I find more. In the meantime, if you want to continue your search, check out this site. I haven’t gone through all the links yet, but once I do I’ll post the good ones here. If you find, or if you are, a small press publisher that you would like to see on the list please let me know. I have purposely discluded those publishers whose websites state that they will be closed to submissions for longer than one year, as well as those who do not accept unsolicited or unagented manuscripts.

Just a quick note about small press publishing. Most small presses offer a higher percentage of net book sales to their authors, which is great! They also tend to have a higher staff:author ratio, so it can be easier to get more personalized service from them. Another great thing about small presses is that they can afford to take risks that larger publishers can’t, so if your work is new and different, a small press might be the best way to go at first. Larger publishers have a lot more pressure to go with the “tired and true” novel formulas, so keep that in mind. The downsides (potentially) to small presses are that they print in smaller runs, and their exposure may be limited. Also, they have a tendency to start up and disappear due to financial difficulty. But there are lots of resources for writers out there if you want to check out a particular agent or publisher’s track record.

If you have a small press publisher that has offered you a book deal, that’s great! But be sure to check them out on Writer Beware before you sign anything. This is a great resource for new writers who want to avoid being scammed by people trying to take advantage of how awesome you know your book is. And it’s a good place to check if an agent or publisher has a good or bad history with their previous clients.

I hope this was useful. Thanks again for reading, and I’ll keep you posted when I find more publishers to add to this list.

 


The Adventures of Querying Continue

Hello, all.

Thank you for sticking with me these days. I hope you’re enjoying some of my other material while we anxiously await news of my query letters. I’ve got book reviews, short fiction, and haiku to distract me (and you) from the elephant in the room. Is that the right use of that expression?

It doesn’t matter.

Some exciting news this week! I’ve had one other agent request a partial of my manuscript. I had to snail mail it to him, which was expensive, so I hope I don’t have to do that too often. But there was something much more real about stuffing my manuscript into an envelope than there is in emailing them, and I think that was the first moment I really felt like “I’m doing this!”. It was kind of cool.

I’ve also had a request for a full manuscript from a small publishing press! That’s my first request for a full, which I’m totally stoked about. It’s kind of backwards, as I had wanted to score an agent before submitting to publishers. But I have found a few publishers who accept unsolicited and un-agented works from new writers, so I’m going to try my luck with them too.

My hope is that, if a small press offers me a deal, I can use that deal to land an agent. Apparently agents are a little more eager to represent clients who already have an interested party. And why not? At that point it’s essentially free money for them, right? Well, not exactly, I guess. But sometimes finding a publisher is the hardest part of the job for an agent. I’ve heard tales of writers who finally found an agent, only to discover that it sometimes takes years for an agent to land you a book deal.

Zoiks!

I can only hope that won’t be me. Anyways, I’ve also sent off a full to another small press: one that doesn’t take queries, it just takes the MS right off the bat. That’s exciting, but it’s not as cool as having someone read your query and then actually ask to see more. I’m also printing off another hard copy to send to an imprint of Penguin books that—miraculously—accepts unsolicited complete manuscripts. It’s a long shot, but DAW would be a pretty major publisher to land without an agent, so I’m going to bite the bullet and ship my MS to them (another $25 “invested,” at least!).

I feel like I have a better chance with agents and publishers who take full manuscripts instead of partials. When an agent requests a partial, it’s usually only 20-50 pages of your work. I guess I’m a little insecure about the beginning of my novel, but the narrative style is a little unusual and I’m not sure that 50 pages is enough to “get it”.

Those of you who’ve been beta readers for me can feel free to jump in and assuage my fears anytime, now.

But anyways, I’ll keep you posted. If anyone knows of any super-awesome SF small presses, let me know in the comments.

YA Book Review: The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins

   Okay. So I’m probably the last person on the face of the planet to read The Hunger Games. And I’ve only read the first book, so keep that in mind for this review. I don’t really know why I put it off for so long. I did the same thing with Harry Potter, years ago. And I’ve still never read Twilight (and I won’t, so don’t even try). I guess a part of me kind of resents having to read YA Fantasy and SF when there are so many “real” books awaiting my ever-rapacious bookwormy appetites. Or maybe that’s my problem; I have trouble seeing YA as real books. I loved them when I was a kid, of course (though, usually a much younger kid than they were intended for). But I grew out of YA fiction well before I was out of my young adult years. And coming back to them as an adult always leaves me feeling a little cheated.

Which is why I am consistently baffled by book review sites and blogs that are dedicated almost entirely to the YA Fantasy genre. For some reason, there seems to be a kind of cult status around reading YA books amongst  20-35 year old adults (mostly women, apparently). And I have never been able to share in their enthusiasm. That being said, I was pleasantly surprised by the first three Harry Potter books. I was intrigued by Brom’s The Child Thief (a modern retelling of Peter Pan with some seriously disturbing imagery). And The Chronicles of Narnia are books one can come back to as an adult and truly appreciate on a new level. So it’s not as if I’ve written the genre off entirely. But for the most part, there seems to be something lacking in many of the most popular YA books out there. I’m torn between a genuine respect for anything that gets young people reading and the sad and disturbing question, “Why aren’t our kids reading smarter books?”

Now that I’ve got that out of the way, I’m sure you’re all prepped for a scathing review of Collins’ blockbuster The Hunger Games. But I must say, I didn’t hate it. I just read it yesterday, start to finish. (I devour books on a regular basis so don’t get too excited) If I can finish a book in a single sitting, it probably means is was short and/or simple. Maybe too short and simple. And as for The Hunger Games, I think this was a borderline issue for me. It’s definitely and easy read. And by easy, I don’t just mean simple language. I mean there wasn’t much to think about as I read.

The Hunger Games is actually very entertaining, in its own way. The plot is pretty  much non-stop action, which is fun. And Collins’ writes action scenes brilliantly. She really does. There isn’t a moment in the entire book where you feel like the plot is stagnating, and she moves us from crisis to crisis quite seamlessly with just the right amount of recovery time in between. But it’s more like watching a movie than reading a book (and I haven’t seen the movie yet, but I can see how it could be a great screenplay).

One would assume, or at least I did, that for a post-apocalyptic novel set in North America–particularly for one with a dystopic political landscape–that Collins’ would give her readers something to think about. But it seemed to me that the setting is a little bit too spoon-fed to generate real questions. Panem is just the backdrop for Collins’ to revel in the Games themselves, with all characters who question the world they are living in (mainly Gale and Peeta) remaining very much in the peripheral of the story. Katniss plods along a little too willingly to make a very interesting character on a personal level, and it is only in the very end of the novel that we start to see some growth and development in her. And even this is cut short by the ending of the first book.

I understand that this is a part of a trilogy, and that we are only seeing the beginning of Katniss’ growth as a character. But there is something distinctly unsatisfying about a novel that ends before the main character achieves any kind of (substantial) awareness of herself and her world. We are left hanging at the edge of Katniss’ metamorphosis (I hope) with no real evidence that she is on the right track. Even in her own mind, Katniss is only at the beginning of the “questioning” stage of her development, without attempting to answer anything yet. It feels as if Collins had originally written more for this first book, but that it was chopped off prematurely by her editor in order to encourage readers to pick up the next in the series. (I’m giving her the benefit of the doubt here because I do get the sense that Collins is a good writer, maybe even a great writer, time will tell)

Ultimately, Katniss is a stagnant character in The Hunger Games. I found her almost likeable at times, but she never really steps up. Her most endearing moments are when she is unaware of herself: volunteering as tribute, shooting the apple at the Gamekeepers’ dinner, calling out Peeta’s name when the contest rules change, her fit of anger when Peeta doesn’t return their signal call, her panic when the Doctors take Peeta away at the end of the games. But she never owns up to the flashes of her true self. There is some suggestion that she is capable of growth, which is even more frustrating when we don’t get to see it.

Peeta also disappoints. He never wavers from his “good guy” stereotype. Peeta is just a love-sick idiot who’s willing to die for a girl who barely registers his existence. Katniss’ suspicion of Peeta is too contrived to be believable, so the entire time she’s questioning his motives she just appears clueless. Even during the games, Peeta doesn’t make a convincing bad guy. And it’s as frustrating to see his idolization of her as it is to see Katniss’ obliviousness to it.

Both characters are nearly the same people at the end of the book as they are at the beginning. Perhaps that will not be true for the series, but when looking at the first book on its own merit, that is how I feel. The most interesting, or potentially interesting, characters are kept on the sidelines; Gale, Cinna, and Haymitch are the only truly subversive characters in this book. Katniss stands to grow a lot through their mentorship, and I hope to see them (and her) come into their own in the next two novels.

Now, these sound like major drawbacks. And they are, or they would be if this was a stand-alone novel. But because it is the first in a trilogy, I’m not going to hold it against Collins just yet. Like I said, most of these peeves smack of editorial interference. I am expecting to see most of my issues addressed in the next two books. And Collins does seem to know what she’s doing. There are moments of real emotional honesty in this work, for all that our heroine is a bit emotionally retarded. Collins’ portrayal of Katniss’ relationship with Prim is quite heartfelt. I think The Hunger Games marks the first time that a novel has been able to choke me up in the first 20 pages. That says something huge about the author’s ability.

I’m afraid The Hunger Games hasn’t broken the chain of unfulfilling YA reads for me, but I’m willing to give Collins her fair shot. I look forward to reading the next two instalments and I’ll post my thoughts here. I’m sure there is a horde of rabid fans just waiting to call me out over this review, so please rant freely in the comments section. Perhaps there is more going on in the book than I picked up on, and I’m more than willing to consider the error of my ways if only someone will point out where I’ve gone astray. But until then, I’m afraid The Hunger Games will remain a 2 out of 5 for me.

Publishing Update (or not)

Well, I realize I haven’t said much in the last couple of weeks about my adventures in publishing. And it’s not that I don’t like you anymore, it’s just that literally nothing has changed. Which is probably a good thing, since I no longer have the urge to scour my inbox for rejection letters every 30 seconds; I can get on with my life.

It’s funny (funny strange, not funny haha, unless you’re cruel and unusual) how I saw so many responses within the first couple of weeks and now nothing. Then again, except for one agent and one writer friend, those responses were all form rejections. And Granted, they all warned me that they could take the obligatory 6-8 weeks to get back to me. But I didn’t actually believe that I would have to wait. That warning is for all of the bad novelists, right? Definitely not for me.

Forget about the rejections. They mean nothing.

So in the meantime, I’m going to write some book reviews and I’ll try to post a bit of my short-fiction stuff here as well. I’ve also started a little offshoot blog called Hai-choo! where I’ll be posting photos and poetry, and little bits of images and imagery that catch my fancy. So check that out too, if you get a moment. I often write longer posts than I intend to, so for those of you who don’t have time to read one of my rants–we can hang out on your coffee break at Hai-choo!.

Thank you all for your continued support and interest. And don’t be afraid to comment!

Non-Fiction Book Review: The Magic of Reality by Richard Dawkins

ImageIf you haven’t heard of Richard Dawkins’ The Magic of Reality yet, then you can send me a nice thank you note for this post. Maybe some wheat-free brownies, if you’ve never heard of Dawkins’ or The Magic of Reality. Because you owe me, now.

The Magic of Reality is a book that I wish had been written in 1995, so that it could have fed my science-hungry little brain when it still accepted real-life instead of retreating into itself in an ostrichy homage to make-believe. It might have changed my life, literally. Although, if it had been I might, right now, be a exobiologist (it’s a thing!) instead of a struggling sci-fi writer with an unhealthy penchant for books. I’ll let you decide how great a loss that would be.

Hint: It would be earth-shattering.

Now, if you’re not already a massive Dawkins fan–well, I won’t tell you how to live your life. But we can’t be friends anymore. However, even if you don’t support his call for militant atheism you may still be able to appreciate The Magic of Reality. Because it’s not about atheism per-say. It’s about reality. Specifically, it is about how we know what’s really true–the book’s subtitle–and what is myth, legend, or just plain lies.

And what’s best about this book is that it’s for kids! The Magic of Reality is Dawkins’ attempt to make science and reality interesting for kids. Even kids who aren’t otherwise that into science, kids who like the ideas but not necessarily the equations, hypotheses, and lab-experiments that don’t involve things that go boom. Kids like me!

And, if you’re like me, you probably had a moment–possibly after you just fell asleep on your desk and drooled on your assignment sheet–where the question dawned upon you: When did Science get so boring? Like me, you probably have fond memories of your elementary school years where you learned about volcanoes and dinosaurs and outer-space. You know, back when science was fun!

Unfortunately, there comes a time in most school curricula when the fun seems to get siphoned out and replaced with pedantic memorization of terminology, formulas, and diagrams. For most of us, Science class becomes just another thing you have to force yourself through in order to pass onto the next grade.

Sure, there are a few who are intrigued by the more practical applications of these courses. Fortunately there are enough that we still have people who go on to become chemists, physicists, and biologists. But for most of us, school ruins science. Forever.

The Magic of Reality makes Science fun and interesting again. No, really. It does. Dawkins’ begins each chapter with a question about the world, or the universe, and how it works. He then discusses ways in which human beings have tried to explain these things–like rainbows, earthquakes, and miracles–without the aid of science. He tells colourful myths from all across the globe which, along with the rest of the text, are illustrated by the brilliant artist Dave McKean (you may recognize his work with Neil Gaiman on Coraline).

Image

After poking a little fun at ourselves for all of the silly things we have believed about the world in the past, Dawkins goes on to tell us the truth about the world. And he tells us how we know that it’s the truth through science. Although The Magic of Reality is a kids’ book it never comes off as dumbed down or patronizing. Dawkins gives his readers an admirable amount of credit which, for the 13 year old reader, will likely add a lot of credence to what he has to say. He’s also not shy about pointing out where his knowledge is limited and never tries to explain things vaguely when he doesn’t have the necessary know-how.

As an adult who, as I’m sure is true of many of you, hasn’t though much about the nitty gritty of Science–elements, atoms, sound waves, natural selection, etc.–The Magic of Reality is a wonderful refresher course. Even topics that I’m a littler more well versed in were worth a read, simply for the unique perspective that Dawkins takes. And to be honest, there’s a lot of “basic” stuff in here that I haven’t fully grasped until reading this book. Impressive, sir, impressive.

McKean’s illustrations are beautiful, often full-page, works of art. The entire text is wonderfully supported and enhanced by these images, and the effect is quite stunning. In case that isn’t enough, Dawkins includes website addresses for video demonstrations, and virtual experimentation tools to supplement the work itself. If The Magic of Reality doesn’t reach out to an internet savvy multi-tasking pre-teen brain, I’m not sure there is a print media capable of the task.

Oh. In case you’re not interested in print media version–check out the iPad app.

Really, the only beef I have with this book is Dawkins’ handling of the myths. I love that he included them, and I love that he included Judeo-Christian myths as well. I think this is important to give a little perspective on why we believe the things we believe (but I won’t go into that too much, here. I’ll either be preaching to the choir or causing a ruckus)

I think The Magic of Realitya great way to teach kids how to evaluate the information that they receive on a daily basis from all kinds of sources–church, school, parents, television, books–about what makes a fact a fact, and how to decide what is true.

What I don’t love about the inclusion of the myths is that they seem to be used merely as a tool to demonstrate our past ignorance and celebrate our intellectual development in the last couple of centuries. Since this is a book about truth and knowledge, it would have been nice if Dawkins gave a little props to his fellows in the Social Sciences and Arts who study myths and what they can teach us about the cultures from which they originate. Dawkins treats myths as silly stories, kind of fun to talk about, but ultimately discrediting them as “not true”. This is an unfortunate and potentially damaging position for Dawkins to take, and to encourage children to take, when so many cultures are losing their traditions and beliefs to modernization.

Folklore and Mythology, although not strictly “true”, still have much to teach us. We can derive cultural information from oral-histories and traditions that are not implicit in the mere study of artifacts and burial sites. Mythology helps to supplement what little information we have about many ancient religious practices, ritual objects, and cosmologies. Not to mention what it can tell us about social structures, gender roles, cultural taboos, etc. Myths should be treated as living history, and I feel Dawkins should have given them their due.

That being said, The Magic of Reality is definitely a book that I would recommend to any and everyone. Even those people who think science is boring. Because there is nothing boring about life, and that’s essentially what The Magic of Reality is all about. Dawkins does a fantastic job of showing just how spectacular the world around us is, even without magic and miracles.