Monday, June 2, 2014

Ave Atque Vale, TMI: City of Heavenly Fire Review

City of Heavenly Fire is the sixth and final installment of YA bestseller Cassandra Clare’s “The Mortal Instruments” series. While I still wish Clare had ended with the excellent conclusion of the original trilogy, CoHF is better than the previous two books combined. Much of the clumsiness and stale fanservice of City of Fallen Angels and City of Lost Souls are traded for the deft mix of action and wit-tempered angst that made the original books so fun, bringing the series to a satisfying close. 

As usual, there’s a good balance between the main plot and the character arcs. There are no huge surprises in store, but Sebastian Morgenstern is a suitably deranged villain (I can’t help but picture him as a young, bleached-out Ramsay Snow) and the conflict propels the reader quickly along. While Clare’s numerous romantic subplots are often in the foreground, she is surprisingly at her best here when she explores other types of love—familial, and platonic. For instance, as invested as many readers are in Alec and Magnus (and yes, this ‘ship remains in focus), the most poignant and best written of Alec’s scenes instead explore his relationships with Simon, Jace, and his father. The concept of parabatai remains one of the most interesting facets of Clare’s ‘verse, and there are ample hints here that it will play a primary role in her forthcoming series, “The Dark Artifices.” (For the record: I’d put my money on a Parabatai-in-Forbidden-Love scenario with new characters Emma and Julian, but I wish someone would encourage Clare to ease off the romance peddle and try something else—she would really be great at it!).

There are some good payoffs to be found here for fans of Clare’s Victorian Shadowhunter trilogy, “The Infernal Devices.” Particularly satisfying is a logical and plot-related fix-it for the somewhat ludicrous “twist” at the conclusion of Clockwork Princess

{My actual face upon finishing Clockwork Princess.}

And for readers who followed Clare’s ascent from the depths of fandom…well. Let’s just say that there is a sex scene that reads so blatantly, awkwardly, and wonderfully like the beginning of mediocre fanfiction smut that said readers are warned not to eat or drink anything they might choke on while reading this particular scene, because they will definitely be howling with laughter.

(I say this purely from a theoretical standpoint, obviously!)

The book’s only real shortcoming is that it’s unnecessarily long. A number of the action sequences feel superfluous. It isn’t so much the writing itself, but the issue of the Shadowhunters being so OP. There are casualties, but very rarely does the reader have a true sense of dread over the protagonists’ fates. The other issue here is that there’s a significant chunk of the book devoted to setting up “The Dark Artifices.” A gaggle of new and mostly interchangeable kid characters are introduced in the beginning and returned to throughout in what feels like exposition+. Their interactions with Clary and co. are limited enough that I skimmed the majority of their segments, as I do not intend to read TDA. Likewise, the battle scenes are easily skimmed without missing much pertinent information.

Clare has demonstrated a habit of pouring out the angst only to mop it up in an overly-rosy conclusion, and there’s no difference here. I imagine that fans will be divided on this point, particularly in regards to the fate of one of the protagonists. However, I do think there might be something to be said for happy endings in a YA market saturated by downers. Of the popular YA lit I’ve encountered in the past couple years, I think the most upbeat ending could at best be described as “bittersweet.” Ultimately, my eye-rolling at the ending was paired with an understanding that, in a classically escapist genre, sometimes young readers could use a break from the gloom and doom.

I may have purchased City of Heavenly Fire out of my begrudging loyalty to Cassandra Clare and the fact that I had a six hour flight ahead of me, but I can’t stress enough how pleasantly this book surprised me. Whether it was my low expectations after the underwhelming CoFA and CoLS, or the fact that Cassie never fails to deliver on writing my favorite brand of sassy one-liners, I devoured this one. A satisfying end to uneven but fun series. Ave atque vale, TMI.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014


I have a (somewhat-self-imposed) April 1st draft deadline, so I'm currently immersed in a writerly fog. I've just hit that point where I'm starting to feel fully enveloped in my characters and story. It's a wonderful and terrifying moment. On the one hand, I just want to hole up in my writing cave and bang away at the keyboard; but on the other, I'm feeling preemptively guilty about all the people and things I will inevitably blow off over the next couple months in favor of hangin' with my imaginary friends. Flipping this switch on and off is a personal struggle. Once I settle myself into the world of my novel, I hit a remarkably productive writing groove that makes it difficult to pull myself back to the real world. This, I think, is the real reason why I needed this year to focus solely on writing. I need to bring myself to this place in order to create good work, but lord knows I'm not getting anything else done while I'm here!

I am keeping up with my reading, though any reviews will be indefinitely delayed due to my writing frenzy. Perhaps in April? There are a few half-written reviews in my drafts folder from the tail end of 2013, and I'll have some more to add for the new year. So far, 2014 has included a quick and enthusiastic reading of Hugh Howey's Wool Omnibus, and about a third of Susanna Kearsley's The Winter Sea.

Speaking of reading...I just sent out my first "teaser" for the novel to be beta read! It's only the first couple pages, and I only sent it to my mom; but this is the first glimpse anyone else will have of what I've been working on, and I'm excited to finally get a little feedback. Writing in a vacuum is incredibly weird and frustrating. However, I've been hesitant to share anything besides a full draft for fear of ruining the magic of reading the complete story, as it's meant to be read. I don't want to spoil any surprises. This particular selection is about as spoiler-free as possible, though, so I'm hoping to make my mom happy and get a little positive feedback to cheer me on.

As Chuck would say,

...but also awesome. =)

Monday, January 6, 2014

New Year, New Goal

Happy New Year!

The past couple months have been a whirlwind of traveling and hosting. I feel incredibly lucky to have been able to spend the holidays with so many people I love.

{Yes, even this weirdo.}
Now that I'm settled back in LA, I am:

1. having a really difficult time not constantly bragging about how much warmer I am than my poor Northeast-dwelling peeps (sorry, guys! I really am trying!)
2. really, really excited for what 2014 has in store.

I'm typically awful at making New Year's resolutions, mostly because they're often a setup for disappointment. Nothing rubs the salt into one's wounds of inadequacy like continually failing to do the things you already sucked at doing in the first place, right?

Last year, though, I decided to brainstorm a few small, positive changes I could make in my life, and then pick one to focus on that would be both manageable and meaningful. I resolved to read one book each month, selected only for my personal enjoyment and relaxation (ie, books read for school/teaching don't count). I not only stuck to this goal--even during those crazy few months back in the Spring when I changed teaching loads and even school buildings like four times--but exceeded it! Reading for pleasure was one of those little things that had gradually slipped away over time (perhaps ironic for a liberal arts major and English teacher?), and reintegrating it in my life proved surprisingly meaningful. It was a welcomed escape from the stresses of my job and hectic life, it introduced me to worlds, words, and writing styles previously unfamiliar, and it helped refocus me on some deeper personal goals that I'd been putting on the back burner for literally years.

In 2014, I'm aiming for a similar type of resolution: small changes in my daily routine that can lead to simple yet positive boosts in my overall quality of life. After brainstorming a few options, I think I've settled on something surprisingly...well...domestic. This year, I'd like to make more of an effort to maintain my living space; specifically, I'd like to do more cooking and cleaning.

Shocking, I know!

Here's the situation, though:

1. I work from home. I'm in my apartment nearly 24/7. It's suddenly really important to always feel comfortable and clean here, but also surprisingly difficult to switch from the "I'm at work and should be working" mentality to the "Damn, I should probably move from my desk/computer and take stock of the state of the rest of my apartment" mentality.
2. Also living here is my dear, sweet boyfriend: the world's most lovable slob. We've lived together for a couple years, but this is the first time we've both been here more or less every day for an extended period of time (he used to travel during the week as a consultant). "Exponential" is a word that comes to mind when contemplating the increase in messiness.
3. The bf eats at work during the week, so I mostly "cook" meals for one. Often, this ends in me realizing, "Oh shit, it's 7:30? I'm starving!" and making a PB&J. I also despise grocery shopping more than any other chore, which leads to unsurprising stretches of barren refrigerator syndrome.

So...while I'm definitely not striving to be the next Martha Stewart or anything, I would like to make some sort of regular cleaning schedule I can easily stick to--and maybe even *gasp!* get my boyfriend to help with--and to make an effort to actually prepare a hot meal that doesn't involve microwaving at least a couple times per week. Nothing too crazy. I am supposed to be some sort of "adult" now, after all. ;-)

(Naturally, this goal is separate from my 2014 writing-related goals. Since this is now my actual JOB, though, I'm treating those less as resolutions and more as necessities--as they should be!)

Monday, November 18, 2013

Book Hangovers and The Secret History

Help! I’m in the throes of what can only be described as a “book hangover”—that space between novels where I can’t quite bring myself to abandon the world of the book I’ve just finished to start reading something new.

The book in question is Donna Tartt’s The Secret History. Yes, I know that it’s Tartt’s new release, The Goldfinch, that’s garnering so much buzz recently. I’d heard so many wonderful things about her first novel, though, that I felt compelled to read it before checking out the new one. As an added bonus, it also came highly recommended for its strong sense of atmosphere. This is something I’ve been seeking in my reading lately (see last month’s The Night Circus), so I was eager to give The Secret History a look.

My first impression: How did someone not recommend this book to me sooner?

The Secret History is a thriller on its surface—a sort of murder mystery in reverse, where readers discover the murder of a young student at the hands of his friends in the opening pages, and then backtrack to chart the course of events that lead to the murder and its aftermath. Its real power, though, comes not from the murder plot, but from the protagonist’s gradual decay as he becomes enveloped in the turmoil of one of the strangest and most seductive friend groups I’ve seen portrayed in a novel.

Narrator Richard Papen is an outsider in every sense of the word. He’s just as out of place with his unsupportive, working class family in California as he is in the snooty, upper crust, liberal arts college he attends in New England. Almost immediately, Richard becomes drawn to eccentric professor Julian Morrow and his exclusive ancient Greek program. Julian operates largely outside of college jurisdiction, and demands that his hand-picked students take classes only with him for their entire tenure. Despite warnings about the practicality of these studies, Richard becomes enamored with the cool, untouchable Greek students—scholarly and stoic Henry, charismatic twins Charles and Camilla, shrewd and flamboyant Francis, and pompous jokester Bunny—and he soon finds himself joining their ranks. 

Richard’s a little Gatsby, a little Pip. His clear desire to belong and his self-acknowledged fascination with aesthetic beauty and artifice create a believable descent into trust and complicity with the rest of the group, even as red flags begin to emerge. Tartt excels at presenting characters who intrigue and even evoke a kind of sympathy from the reader, despite the fact that these characters are fundamentally rotten individuals. Much like a Walter White or a Tony Soprano—though younger and often significantly more angst-ridden—Tartt’s group of young adults will occasionally display the barest flashes of morality or kindness or helplessness just at the moment when you begin to genuinely hate them. Choosing Richard, who is not exactly “pure” from the outset, but who experiences perhaps the most dramatic moral decline, as well as having the most objective vision of events, is key in achieving much of this balance. His excitement at being included within this exclusive group, to finally rewrite his own life story into something more glamorous and interesting, is predominantly what makes his actions believable and even relatable (if not wholly sympathetic).

I mentioned earlier that I came to this book for the atmosphere; and damned if that isn’t why I stayed! Tartt’s writing is gorgeous, her prose lush and evocative. Descriptions of the New England landscape abound, portrayed with the same sense of fierce and somewhat terrifying beauty with which the Greek students become so obsessed. The students themselves are wonderfully anachronistic. They dress sharply, their speech is eloquent and old-fashioned, and they eschew modern pursuits for lawn games, cards, and discussion of antiquity (apparently any history past Greek and Rome is unimportant, as one particularly strange and funny moment finds the unflappable, brain-the-size-of-a-planet Henry totally shocked to discover that man has walked on the moon). While set in the late 80s, the book has a timeless feel to it that I absolutely loved. What can I say? I’m a sucker for any novel that includes bookish students drinking bourbon out of teacups.

While the third quarter sags a bit with some slow scenes (the murdered friend’s funeral is dragged out for what feels like a hundred pages), the final section moves quickly and the entire first half is absolutely riveting—like, can’t-put-it-down-for-300-pages riveting. Some of the content encroaches a little on “Lifetime special” territory (I’m talking alcoholism, drugs, abuse, incest, orgies, you name it), but the writing consistently elevates the material, especially in conjunction with the novel’s major themes. The result is a strange hybrid of literary fiction and salacious page-turner that is just the most delicious sort of combo I could imagine.

Seriously, this is one of those rare books where I’m torn between “I wish I’d written this” and “Thank goodness I didn’t, or I’d miss out on extreme pleasure of reading it.”

Simply awesome.

Thursday, October 31, 2013

October Reading Roundup

Happy Halloween! My October booklist just happens to be appropriately uncanny (coincidentally or subliminally?), so I figured I’d do a quick reading roundup instead of breaking down the reviews separately. Here’s what I’ve been reading this month!

THE NIGHT CIRCUS, by Erin Morgenstern

Wow, is this book gorgeous. The premise—two magicians caught in a lifelong duel to produce increasingly enchanting illusions amidst the backdrop of a nocturnal circus—has a timeless, fairytale quality to it. The story itself is simple, narrated with a sort of dreamlike detachment as it progresses through an engaging if not unpredictable plot. But the writing! I selected this book specifically looking for examples of well-developed, atmospheric setting; and this is exactly the arena in which Morgenstern demonstrates her own magic. The descriptions of the circus itself—mysterious, hypnotic, and beautiful to its visitors—are stunning, full of evocative detail and conveyed through highly sensual prose. I could only describe this to my friend as “wordporn” while reading it.* The language and syntax mirror the dark, lush dreamscape of the circus; and if it’s perhaps a little over the top for your typical novel, it works wonders within the context of this one. I’ve read some complaints about the development of the central love story; but without giving away too many spoilers, I personally found it to be perfectly resonant with themes regarding art, illusion, and the way in which people perceive themselves and others through the conduit of art. Apart from a small section at the conclusion that felt a little didactically ham-fisted, this novel had me completely engrossed from beginning to end. I only wish there were a real night circus!

*Note: wordporn is not to be confused with erotic fiction; it applies to the sensuality of the language itself rather than the content of the text!


 Wicked Gentlemen was my dark horse selection for the month. I don’t read many books these days without a friend/family recommendation or some publisher hype, but I stumbled on this one through a Goodreads search. I’ve been researching examples of non-hetero, primary protagonists in genre fiction (specifically fantasy and sci-fi), where the protag’s sexuality is a part of his or her character without being the character’s defining feature or the focus of the novel. This one fit the bill! The novel is a modern-ish, alternate history fantasy with mystery and crime elements. The protag is a Prodigal, part of a race of demonic descendants who live among normal humans but are threatened by a theocratic government. He’s also a private detective, and his services are quickly tapped by an Inquisitor (a cop/priest) following a series of brutal murders and the disappearance of the Inquisitor’s sister. This is a classic case of “love the characters, couldn’t care less about the plot.” If you can get past some “broken protagonist” angst, the two main characters are incredibly sympathetic and likable. Their relationship develops slowly throughout the novel in a way that is natural and fun to read. My issue was that, while the relationship was clearly not the main focus of the novel, I found myself far more interested in how the characters were developing within and between themselves than I was in the actual plot. The mystery starts out intriguing, but runs out of steam shortly before what should be the final sprint toward the conclusion. The world-building also falls a bit flat, but has enough potential that I felt cheated to learn that there are no sequels that might better develop it—especially since I so enjoyed the premise and the characters.

THE UNCANNY, essays by Sigmund Freud; translated by David McLintock; Introduction by Hugh Haughton

I read a few snippets of this collection in college and have been 
planning ever since to read the entire volume. It’s obviously not light reading, but I think it would be fascinating to anyone interested in psychoanalysis who has never seen Freud apply his theories explicitly to art/literature/creativity in general (something English majors may have personally done in critical theory-focused classes, but which I imagine few others have). His examination of how the uncanny manifests itself not in the great unknown, but in mysteries far closer to our homes and inner lives, is stirring and intensely thoughtful. The Penguin Classics edition has an introduction by Hugh Haughton that includes specific portions prefacing each of Freud’s essays. I found these very helpful. Also helpful was my pad of sticky notes, which I was glad to be using to mark pages when I decided that the book cover was too damn creepy to look at anymore. Pro Tip: Post-Its work great for hiding scary covers!

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Hey, Assbutts! It's Supernatural Tuesday!

{Obviously. Also, see #3 on my Wish List.}

Supernatural’s 9th season premiers tonight! I was seriously late to the game on this show, but now I can’t get enough of Team Free Will doing what they do best: “Saving people, hunting things…the family business.” 

{Or, perhaps more accurately: "Manly brooding, eye-fucking each other...the fan-servicing business." Ahem. For reals though, this show is the best.}
I was sad to hear that the incomparable Ben Edlund, creator of The Tick and scribe of many of SPN’s best episodes—for instance, Season 5’s “The End” and Season 6’s “The French Mistake”—left to write for Revolution. Nonetheless, I have faith in Jeremy Carver and the current writing team to play out the ramifications of Season 8’s strong finale. The promos that the CW’s been running feature more Abaddon action, the introduction of a new angel played by Battlestar Galactica’s Helo, and the trials and tribulations of the newly-human Castiel. Our favorite Horseman even makes an appearance! 

{How exactly does one go about conveying one's love for Death? Seriously, I just want to eat fattening, delicious food with this droll motherfucker.}
Carver reportedly has a story arc planned through the 10th season, but that will not for one second deter me from selfishly coveting some checkmarks on my own Supernatural wish list!

From the reasonable to the reasonably ridiculous, here’s what I’m hoping for in season 9.

Top Five SPN S09 Wishes – (BONUS) Now By Category!

#1) Biggest Character-Related Wish: Epic Villainy
Remember how delightfully disturbing Ol’ Yellow Eyes was? Not since Azazel has SPN brought on a truly epic Big Bad. Lilith only really had the season 3 finale to shine; Lucifer was underutilized (and, c’mon, honestly kind of likable); Dick and the Leviathan were visually creepy-cool but otherwise dull; Eve’s potential was quashed before it could play out; and I am beyond sick of the “Oops—I’m the bad guy!” Cas card. Crowley is a truly fantastic character and came into his villainous own in season 8; but I don’t really see him as a Big Bad on the same level as someone like Azazel. He’s too fun and cuddly to be truly frightening, and now, of course, he’s even more in the gray. Sidebar: I am immensely looking forward to this development. Let’s hope for more HBO references. “You know nothing, Moose Winchester!” Aaaanyway, my fingers are so crossed that Abaddon will turn out to be as epic a villain as she has the potential to be. SPN needs more well-developed and consistent female characters. I would love for an epically evil, badass knight of Hell to be one of them!

{Girlcrush status.}

#2) Biggest Feels Wish: The Return of The Samulet
C’mon, I can’t be the only one still incredulous about the fact that both Sam and Cas just let Dean toss the amulet in the trashcan. It’s been so many seasons since then, so I know it’s not likely to return. But seriously, guys…couldn’t Sammy have fished it out and tucked it away somewhere? Pretty please?

{Remember the Christmas special? All the feels!}

#3) Biggest Resurrection Wish: Bring Back Gabriel, Already!
Yes, I love Bobby. Yes, I love Team Free Will. Honestly, though, the writers should take Dean’s advice: sometimes, what’s dead should stay dead. There are no stakes involved when we anticipate that the brothers will always be resurrected; and continuing to bring back a character like Bobby only cheapens the poignancy of wonderful episodes like “Death’s Door” (for this same reason, I’ll also be bummed if we see Meg again). If they’re going to resurrect characters, I’d rather see someone like Gabriel come back. Richard Speight is a fan favorite, and the Trickster episodes were consistently among the best. Gabriel was arguably the most interesting character on the show with his hilarious but deadly antics and his complex backstory/development. Maybe it’s because I just re-watched “Changing Channels,” but I would seriously love to see this guy back in the fold!

{My sentiments exactly.}

#4) Biggest MOTW Wish: No Bland Standalones, Please
I know that there are fans who still favor the Monster of the Week episodes. I am not one of those fans. There is nothing worse than having the story arc stall at a critical moment for the brothers to go hunt some random vampire. Murderous mannequins? The terrible episode with the man-witch and the familiar? The random mythic gods and goddesses? Please stop. Just stop. If there must be a MOTW, I would rather it be a funny episode, a la “The French Mistake” or last season's "Hunteri Heroici." I’d also be okay with a truly creepy episode, something that mostly disappeared after the first season. “Woman in White,” “Bloody Mary,” “Something Wicked”…as much as the show improved when the myth arc picked up, I did really enjoy those genuinely spooky early episodes. Although I know it wasn’t a popular episode, I also didn’t mind the found-footage werewolf episode, “Bitten,” in season 8. I’d rather see something intriguing: a unique format, a frightening episode, something meta or funny (or both)…or not have a MOTW episode at all.

 {Still giggling over Castiel's critical analysis of Roadrunner and Coyote.}

#5) Biggest Fandom Wank Wish: Dean Can Dig Elvis
Human Cas develops an interest in music, and he takes an especially strong liking to Elvis. He’s riding shotgun in the Impala with Dean. “Can I put something on?” he asks when Dean’s Metallica cassette finishes. Dean raises his eyebrows and shrugs, because really, since when does Cas listen to or even care about music? He’s curious to see where this is going. Cas flicks through radio stations until he hears the syrupy croons of Elvis. He grins and settles back into his seat. Dean can’t help but smirk. He’s about to make a snarky comment about Cas’s choice in music; but his companion is smiling contentedly, head bobbing gently along to the tune. Dean swallows his sarcasm and just shakes his head and laughs. So Cas likes Elvis, huh? Okay. Sure. Dean can dig Elvis.  *Aaaaand fandom explodes.*

{Not sure if Misha Troll-ins, or just a coincidence... But no, I would not recommend reading "Twist and Shout" unless you like your fic fundamentally traumatizing. If you don't know what "Twist and Shout" is, please ignore my ramblings and carry on.}

 In conclusion: Crowley.

{Really, let's just have every episode be about Mark Sheppard being handsome and sly. Cool?}
Enjoy your pie and purple nurples. Happy viewing!

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