Book Review: Worldshaker

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Book: Worldshaker
Series: Worldshaker, Book 1
Author: Richard Harland
Genres: YA, steampunk, sci-fi, adventure

Synopsis (from Amazon book page):

“Col Porpentine understands how society works: The elite families enjoy a comfortable life on the Upper Decks of the great juggernaut Worldshaker, and the Filthies toil Below Decks. Col’s grandfather, the Supreme Commander of Worldshaker, is grooming Col as his successor.
Used to keep Worldshaker moving, Filthies are like animals, unable to understand language or think for themselves. Or so Col believes before he meets Riff, a Filthy girl on the run who is clever and quick. If Riff is telling the truth, then everything Col has been told is a lie. And Col has the power to do something about it—even if it means risking his whole future.”

Notes of Interest:

The last book review I did was on the steampunk novel Boneshaker. It is therefore necessary to mention these books have nothing to do with each other and were written by two different authors.
I chose to read this book because I was looking for something steampunk to read. I didn’t realize it was YA because it was a borrowed book, rather than a purchased book. But as soon as I started reading that became apparent through both the character depictions and the writing style. (Not a bad thing for me; I enjoy YA.) The main characters are teens, and the plot is very straightforward; its message concerning class revolution and the incompetence of biased education systems is very overt.

What could have made it better for me:

If it wasn’t a YA book, I would say it’s under-developed. This is the kind of story that could have all kinds of subtle layers, especially if parts of it had been told from the pov of the characters living on the lower decks or through the eyes of the upper crust villains to flesh them out more.

What I liked about it:

It satisfied my desire for a steampunk story. I enjoyed the corny humor offered in the classroom and the tongue-in-cheek commentary on how the education system plays up to privilege. I like that the leading female was a leader, but the focus of the book wasn’t on her. (Considering the second book is called Liberator, I assume her story becomes the focus of the second book in the series.)
Personally, my favourite parts were the various ways that the virtues of the upper class were pressed upon the youth. I think I internalized this because of my own experiences growing up in religious schools, but the schoolmaster admonishing his students with, “We must live pure lives and think pure thoughts,” hit a little too close to home. It was over the top in how it had the schoolmaster’s means of dealing with “impure” thoughts by beating the students with canes and how he carried this division between “good” and “bad” to extremes … such as instructing the students that a “right” angle is a good angle, but an “obtuse” angle is a bad angle. Yet there is so much in reality I could reflect on regarding an upbringing where using the “rod” to correct impure thinking is acceptable, and everything (literally everything that influences culture) must be categorized as “good” or “evil”.
That same philosophical darkness resulting from “thought policing” or indoctrination is shown in how and why the filthies are turned into menials. Upon preparing to surgically alter Riff’s mind, Ebnolia says, “These are your limiters, to limit your mind. … You have so many more thoughts than you really need. When you’ve been limited, you’ll still have lots of nice small thoughts, but no big nasty ones.” Of course, this kind of authoritarian environment brings up ethical questions regarding free will, human rights, and abuse of power, which I enjoy reading about regardless of how subtle or overt the plot exploring the concepts.
I also enjoyed the author’s take on an alternate history based in the Napoleonic Wars and Industrial Revolution.

Recommendation:

This was an entertaining, easy read. It’s a good introduction to plots regarding class warfare and revolution. It had an exaggerated humour about it that could be a hit or miss depending on the reader’s sense of humour. Part of me wishes the characters or plot had been more complex, but its method of characterization was effective for straightforward storytelling purposes. For YA genre, that is an acceptable allowance.

Book Review: Growing Up Dead

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Book: Growing Up Dead (The Life and Undeath of Mortimer Drake)

Series: Mortimer Drake Vampire Series, Book 1

Author: Greg Wilkey

Genres: YA, Urban Fantasy

Synopsis (from Amazon book page):

“Mortimer Drake discovers that he is the product of a supernatural mixed-marriage. His mother is human and his father is a 925 year old vampire. His life is completely turned upside down as he struggles with this knowledge and his emerging vampiric nature. The truth behind the myths and legends of the vampire are revealed as Mortimer enters into a centuries old war of the Undead.”

Notes of Interest:

I think the reason I got this book was because of its about a boy finding out his father was a vampire and he’s a half-blood. There are loads of stories out there that follow a character from the moment he first turns until he reaches an acceptance of what he has become (or a way to fight it). And there are a lot of books out there that deal with warring factions of undead. These are genre staples when it comes to vampire characters or plots that revolve around them. But “awakening” plots are a little different — where someone doesn’t know she or he is a vampire, but must find out the truth the hard way. It adds a slightly different twist to learn that his whole previous life was a lie.

While I don’t know that I’d classify this as a horror genre read, it has horror elements. This is not a romance or comedy. It’s more like urban fantasy because of the way it handles magical beings living hidden among the mainstream populace. It uses Greek mythology to explore vampire existence, drawing upon such tales as the legend of Persephone and Hades, so it’s heavier on the mythology and family ties than blood and gore. But having said that … where’s there’s vampires, unless you’re talking about Bunnicula, there’s going to be some blood.

What could have made it better for me:

The technical errors in this book was the main distraction. There were more than average, mostly typos. That and the unbroken shifts in point of view made immersion difficult. One minute you would be in Mortimer’s head hearing his thoughts, and then suddenly you’re inside his father’s head hearing his thoughts, too. And this wasn’t a once or twice thing. It was a constant throughout the book. I’m sure the goal was third person omniscient point-of-view, but it jumps between characters’ minds without warning, paragraph breaks, or chapter breaks. It needed better editing.

The other thing that fell flat for me was the emotional depth of the characters. I will note that perhaps the reason for this is the difference between long adult novels and short, quick-read novels, which YA sometimes tends to be. What is adequate for the genre should be taken into consider here because it’s difficult to fully express a character’s emotional depth during life-altering upheavals when the plot demands that the character get over it and move on for the sake of low word count. But most of the time, the emotional reactions of the characters simply didn’t feel convincing. If the characters had shown a deeper attachment to each other or been more vulnerable to their losses and trauma(considering the events in the plot, which I won’t mention due to spoilers), the story would have felt more credible and engaging.

What I liked about it:

I enjoyed seeing a different take on a child vampire’s awakening and related struggles. I was glad to see that Wilkey didn’t hold back on some of the consequences of having a friend who’s a vampire, as opposed to everyone saying, “Cool!” and carrying on normally as if nothing had changed.

I liked the way the Greek mythology was brought into the vampire family history. It’s not the first time I’ve seen the Persephone and Hades connection used to explain the existence of fictional vampires, but I always enjoy seeing different takes on how it could have happened.

My favourite scene was probably when Mortimer was learning to fly. That’s something that is usually taken for granted among magical vampire talents, or it doesn’t exist as one of their talents; but it’s not often you get to see them bumbling about and falling into the ocean like baby birds falling from the nest, until they can claim their power.

I got the book looking for light entertainment and it accomplished that objective rather well. I imagine much of the technical problems were “first book” related, so the rest of the series is probably more polished.

The conflict between the warring vampire factions got off to a good start in this volume, so I assume that deepens in interest and plot twists as the saga continues in the books that follow.

Recommendation:

I’m undecided whether I’ll buy the rest of the series. The editing was off-putting, so I hope that improves in later volumes. But the content is interesting enough that I could be persuaded to give the next one a try. I like this take on the “coming of age” theme, and it has a nice balance between plot and character focus. Overall it was a light, entertaining read — exactly what I expected.

Book Review: Of Fur and Ice

Of Fur and Ice cover
Of Fur and Ice by Andrea Brokaw

My old blog had branches out to a few other blogs for book reviews, games,  and vampire lore. I’ve debated doing the same for this blog, but for now I think I will keep everything central. Therefore … here’s a book review to get things started! 🙂


Book: Of Fur and Ice

Author: Andrea Brokaw

Genres: YA, romance, urban fantasy


Attacked by a were-creature of no known identification, high school student Michaela is transferred to a school for were-students in Alaska. She must wait until the next full moon’s change before anyone can find out what kind of creature turned her. But signs indicate that whatever turned her seems to have followed her there and has become a threat to the were and human communities. The were-community needs to catch it before it draws too much attention to their packs or causes serious harm to anyone. But how can they catch it if they don’t know what they’re after?

Michaela is befriended by a family of were-foxes, some were-leopards, and a were-bear to aid her transition. But then there’s Warren — the wolf. She’s not sure what to think of him because one minute he’s all wolf; the next he’s … actually kind of nice … for a wolf, that is. My personal favourite character was Seth, the were-leopard, but I’m not sure whether it’s because of a preference for cats or that his hair was long and two-toned. Or maybe it’s just the fact that he was willing to buck tradition and listen to his heart to do his own thing.

I found this story to be entertaining. It’s got a bit of a “Beauty and the Beast” theme to it, along with themes of friendship and love, betrayed and lost, and the insecurities that are naturally part of a coming-of-age or life-change story. (Will your friends and loved ones still accept you if they see the real you?)

Told from first person perspective, its humor is light where Michaela and her friends are concerned. Each character’s personality is distinct. And I don’t remember reading any other stories where a were-beast was as uniquely designed the way Michaela and her “sire” are.

Brokaw’s style is well-organized, informal, and has an easy flow to it, quite suitable for the intended audiences. It’s suitable for younger teens, as well, in my opinion, though it does have some mild language in it. Her words are clear, and her ideas are well-developed.

I enjoyed this book and would recommend it to anyone interested in the above genres, particularly if you favor high school settings, romantic dramas, lycanthropic stories of various kinds, or winter sports.


One final note: I used to give star reviews — points for whether certain elements were included or not. I’ve decided against continuing to do that in my text, though I may still click “star-bait” on sites where I share my reviews.

After participating in many discussions on why people rate books the way they do, I’ve come to realize how inconsistent readers are in how they reward (or punish) “good” and “bad” books.

Some readers rarely give five stars because they say a book must be absolutely perfect to deserve that, and that never happens; so five-star ratings must be reserved only for the best of the best. Other readers give a book five stars if they liked it … for no specific reasons other than that they liked it. While other readers, like me, had “grading” systems that acted like points: one star for grammar, one star for character development, one star for plot, etc.

In reverse, I’ve seen a one-star review for a book because a reader didn’t like that it was YA … when the book was clearly labeled and marketed as YA. Why would a reader buy a book knowing it’s a genre he dislikes, then give it such an awful review for being what it is? That makes no sense. The reader obviously has very strong opinions about YA, but the fact that he purchased a book from a genre he doesn’t like is his fault, not the book’s. People who like YA enjoyed the story.

So, it’s important to remember not everyone has the same taste in what they prefer to consume, but everyone can make their own decisions about what they consume if the ingredients in the recipe are not ambiguous or entirely grounded in opinion. Since the purpose of the book review is to communicate with other readers — to help them decide whether a book has elements they might like or dislike — words do a better job at offering literary analysis than stars. Stars may grab the initial attention, but words are what reveal the literary elements readers look for.

I worked on this book as editor and illustrator. It would be very easy for someone to accuse me of favouritism in star reviews for it. So it’s more helpful toward matching other readers with books they may (or may not) enjoy if I offer specific information about the elements within any books I review. 🙂

The Virtues of YA

My head is killing me and my eyeballs are about to bleed, but I’ve made over 10,000 word cuts to The Atheling so far. My tactic for downsizing the story while keeping every scene is working, so far. I’m under my goals every chapter, if not every scene, and I have 5 chapters left in the fourth revision. My goal was to revise a chapter a day, so I have not taken any days off since the beginning of May, but … ganbarimasuyo!  (I’m working hard and giving it my best!) I will have this book done by July if it kills me. Apologies again for the late deadline in order to do a fifth revision.

What’s been keeping me going since I have no time for weekends? Korean dramas, raamen, and lots of coffee. It takes me about an hour to edit one scene. Then I try to accomplish one task around the house. Then I watch one episode of a drama, then go back to work on the next scene. I start around six in the morning … end around midnight. It’s been a long month. But if the story turns out better, it’s worth it. 🙂

Most of the dramas I’ve been watching have been YA lately. YA has gotten a bad rap in recent years, yet it remains one of the biggest selling genres on the market. When I was a kid, there was no YA genre. There was only children’s literature, juvenile literature, and adult fiction. I enjoyed reading all three. When I first started writing, I wanted to write for teens because I was a teen myself, and I appreciated writers out there who created teen protagonists for readers. Though my first novel series is not currently marketed as YA, I’m still sometimes introduced by friends or family as a YA writer. My books have many elements that could qualify it as YA, so one of the reasons I’ve been revisiting visual YA through the dramas is to help me make up my mind whether my books qualify as YA or not … and whether I should switch marketing, or not.

What is YA, and what are its virtues?

The only difference between the “Young Adult” genre and ordinary adult fiction genres is that it contains a “coming of age” theme in at least one of its plots.

There is usually at least one character in his teens, late teens, or early 20’s. And that character must endure some kind of “first” as a plot trial that forces him to step away from childhood dependency, make a mature and independent decision, and face the consequences of that adult responsibility. Like with all characters from any genre, sometimes it takes these characters more than one try to resolve their problems.

I like YA characters because since they’re starting without experience, they have enormous potential for growth throughout the story. It’s not that adult characters can’t be dynamic, it’s just that they already have baggage from decades of experience. The other reason I like YA characters is they tend to be more resilient for that same reason.

YA Is Too Dark

I’ve heard lots of people complain that YA of recent years is too dark … what with all the focus on vampires, werewolves, magic, depression, love triangles, and general Dystopian atmosphere. This is simply not true. In fact I started watching YA again because I needed something fun to make me laugh and wake me up away from the computer briefly.

Look again at that list of literary elements and tell me none of that is present in adult fiction. Dark elements are present in fiction because dark elements exist in reality. Whatever forms the monsters and crucibles take is secondary to the lessons we learn from them. Fiction is truth within lies because it’s easier to digest a fantasy than to look in a mirror. YA is far from being the only genre that does this. All fiction does this in one way or another.

The other issue going on with this complaint is the lack of understanding that YA has subgenres. If you want to read a coming of age story with a young protagonist, reach for YA first. Then choose as you would any other fictional genre. Do you like romance, historical, sci-fi, fantasy, comedy, horror, adventure, or  paranormal? YA has it. You’ll just see it through the eyes of a less experienced protagonist.

YA Is Too Light

Just like people complain that YA is too heavy and dark, there are people who complain that YA isn’t heavy enough. I admit I tend to lump YA into the “shallow” category frequently, but I don’t mean it in a bad way. Perhaps I should switch my use of the term “shallow” to “light”. The problem with comedies and “light” reading is that no one takes it seriously. More awards are given to stories that depict tragedy and trauma than those that make us laugh. But laughter is good, too. Again, this is true of all genres. YA is not the squeaky nail sticking out from the rest.

Although some reader and writer elitists would say otherwise, light literature is not bad. There is value in a story just being a story that can entertain you. It doesn’t have to have layers upon layers of depth to do that. If you need something to help you laugh, and it has you laughing out loud, it accomplished what the author intended. But who says light literature can’t have depth?

Lots of times when people complain about literature being shallow, it’s because they’re looking at the pop culture packaging, rather than truly analyzing the story. And, yes, it takes critical thinking skills to analyze light reading, just as with heavy reading. So, instead of dissing a light work because it’s marketed as pulp fiction, trying digging a little deeper. You might be surprised at what lurks beneath the surface.

I just watched a drama called Shut Up Flower Boy Band about a group of high school boys from a poor neighborhood who wanted to become famous rock stars. I know many people that would roll their eyes at a title like that. But before the story was done I had found three major themes that were surprisingly deep: a reality check on what it takes to succeed in the entertainment industry, a reality check on what happens when dreams fall apart, and the sad truth that when friends grow up, they often grow apart. Believe it or not, the story reminded me of the classic YA book The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton, but with a modern, musical twist.

And one of my favourite examples of teen pop culture covering up an incredibly deep plot is Final Fantasy X (yes, the Playstation game). On the surface, it looks like a bunch of young adults heading out to fight the monster that destroys their homes every 10 years. Underneath is a story of a man who thought he was protecting his home, but his desire for revenge ended up destroying everything. It’s a story of necromancy and hypocritical leadership that betrays the trust of its civilians. It’s about a cycle of martyrdom that ends up feeding the destruction again and again and again, simply because no one has the courage to challenge the corrupt authority and make the changes required to end it.

The next time you consider a story “shallow”, I challenge you to look again.

Why Do So Many Adults Read or Watch YA?

Adults face the same challenges as teens, but in a different environment. Everything experienced in youth continues into adulthood under different guises.

The “mean girls” from high school now exist in the PTA. The bullies or rich brats might now be your co-workers, or bosses. Cliques still exist in communities based on interests and familiarity. The feelings of running in the hamster wheel, but not getting anywhere in life no longer apply to mounds of homework and tests, but take on the form of dirty dishes and laundry, lawns that need to stay trimmed, budgets, bills, business reports, and client management. And in the case of divorce, a child leaving home, a move, a marriage, a job promotion, continuing education, etc. … sometimes, you have to start over doing something you’ve never done before. Suddenly you’re the new kid on the block again … the freshman entering high school on the first day of classes.

Themes like rejection and relationship issues, dependency, depression and suicide, crime and violence, poverty, worries about the future, and wanting to make life better but not knowing where to begin exist throughout a lifetime because they’re part of the human condition. Youth just isn’t as numb to it as a way of life yet. First experiences are more profound than routines.

The awkwardness of crushes, insecurities, and inexperience can seem nostalgic. Who wouldn’t prefer worrying about a math test to worrying about debts? Boyfriend troubles pale in comparison to the personal and financial price of divorce. … That’s not to trivialize anything experienced during the teen years. Most adults, even if they wish they were younger, would rather die than repeat high school because growing into adulthood is tough!  🙂 But looking back on that stage of life can serve as a refresher course for the challenges that lie ahead because resilience is necessary in reality no matter what age we are.

In other words, YA virtues are the same as the virtues of any other kind of fiction. There is just as much substance in YA literature as there is in any other kind of fiction. It’s just seen through a young protagonist’s perspective. And with all literature, it is the reader’s responsibility to understand what he’s reading or viewing and how to appreciate it for what it is, so he can get the most out of it.