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Review – Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe

Standalone by Benjamin Alire Sáenz

⭐️⭐️

At first, I thought I was less than impressed because it was super reminiscent of Ray Bradbury, particularly Dandelion Wine. I need to be in a very specific and rare mood to enjoy Dandelion Wine type books. However, as I kept going (and skimming through the first third), I realised that Aristotle’s uneven narration isn’t actually worthy of the comparison. There are lines here and there that shine, but it’s mostly the writing equivalent of stage tricks that one finds in lazy literary fiction. Repetition masquerading as strengthening an observation or impact, over-simplification (at its worst when “depicting” a romantic kiss between any couple), and my favourite: general wheel-spinning.

Like many a disappointing LGBTQ romance with only one character’s perspective, the romance is less romantic than it is distressing. For most of the book, Ari not only denies so much as being attracted to Dante, but genuinely seems to be telling the truth. The 180 turn at the end was simultaneously a relief and a betrayal. It felt like watching someone do a crappy magic trick and hating the entire performance because I knew how it was done.

There’s also a smattering of boring rehashes of things from other similarly plotless gay romance, like sexless female friends, physical assault (no conclusion, because that would look too much like plot and too little like tastelessly trading on the existence of hate crimes), and too-easy acceptance because there’s only a few pages left before the end.

What had the most positive effect on me was when the titular characters talked about being “Mexican enough.” As a mixed race Mexican American, I worry about being perceived as too white. Dante’s worries that he wasn’t Mexican enough made me cry, and Ari’s joy over having a properly Mexican pick-up truck felt super familiar. It wasn’t a major part of the book, and it didn’t always resonate with me, but it was still nice to read it.

This kind of slice of life narrative is not usually my thing. When it’s done badly, it suffers from nothing much going on. Anything that does happen runs the risk of never concluding, underlining the nonexistent plot, or being superfluous. I never liked Ari as a character, even when I sympathised with him, and Dante felt like a good character who was often literally shuffled out of the way. Not very romantic. Even their friendship seemed tenuous and its lifespan can only be explained by the words “author mandate.” I feel like I know what this book wanted to do, and yet I can’t deny that it was executed poorly.

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Review – Soundless

Standalone by Richelle Mead

⭐️⭐️

What a disappointment. This was the first book I’ve ever read by Richelle Mead, of whom I’ve heard lots of good things. I hope that since this is a standalone, it isn’t indicative of whether I’ll like any of her series. I don’t want to write her off as a Not For Me author based on this book. The writing isn’t bad, per se, but the story is a letdown.

Soundless looked like all of my catnip for YA. Asian mythology, mysterious happenings in a cut-off mountain village. A micro world where no one possesses the ability to hear. I expected something special from this mix as well as each individual element.

Instead, my impressions while reading can be summed up in three words: tedious and lazy. The setting is unbelievably weak. If you changed the names, it could be any imaginary low fantasy or pseudo European medieval world. This became most apparent in a scene where the man character Fei describes eating a noodle dish like a tourist. She has reasons to find it unfamiliar, but I just didn’t buy it. The story doesn’t earn anything because it doesn’t work for anything. There’s a blonde woman who appears out of nowhere, I guess to show that the township is metropolitan and has immigrants. She doesn’t do anything or serve any purpose.

The mass deafness of the villagers was mostly confined to their having no concept of hearing as a sense and to let the only hearing villager behave like Spiderman. Mead seemed to constantly struggle with depicting a culture with no sound. In the scrolls that Fei consults to learn what hearing is like, almost all of the descriptions of sounds rely on a knowledge of sound to be understood. Fei herself points this out, but it’s not Better Than a Bare Bulb. The worst bungle is that although the villagers all use sign language to communicate, it was always too much like audible speech in construction. They use too many words and they sign in times when they should be using their hands to do something else. At best, it came off looking like telepathy.

My saddest face came from realising that the mythology/supernatural elements don’t show up until the end. Seriously, the world is mundane until the second to last chapter, and then the magical stuff solves everything. Magically.

Pros: Fei is likeable enough, if somewhat bland, and although I found her view of her artistic talent to be twee and pretentious, it is a legitimate talent which she actually uses to solve more than one problem. Not simply informed or never used. The romance is fine. Technically, there is a love triangle, but I found it to be Blink and You Miss It. I thought that the obstacle keeping the couple apart was cheap and ill utilised (different castes, but it totally didn’t work), but I believed in their mutual feelings and they complemented each other nicely. The ending is suitably lovely.

I’m terribly picky, so even though disappointment is my reigning feeling/opinion, I would hardly “warn” other readers away from this book.

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Review – The Glass Sentence

#1 in the Mapmakers Trilogy by SE Grove

⭐️⭐️⭐️

I have mixed feelings about this one.

The premise is undeniably cool: an event referred to as The Great Disruption broke time and separated the world into different Ages. I haven’t gotten to read a lot of Historical Fantasy (outside of Romance) so I was pumped. …until I realised that none of the Ages resemble actual real world historical periods. I could have sworn that places like Boston were mentioned, and there were real places on the maps at the front. The locations seemed more like stuff out of Oz books or Furthermore. It didn’t really matter that it was 1891 in Boston.

But the writing is quite good. Some of the descriptions are truly great, it all flows well, and I liked the more poignant twists especially. Even though the supporting cast is rather more mild than they are interesting, with the weird uniting aspect of all being boringly good people even if they were pirates. Theo being willing to lie and steal honestly made him a bit of a breakout character. As a main character, I found Sophia capable and likeable.

Sadly, aside from the premise only half-delivering by giving us what is basically an original magical world, it doesn’t even have consistency rules/method/logic to the most central magic of its world–map-making. For all that there’s a tonne of discussion of cartology (like cartography wasn’t a good enough word?), I never got how or why it worked. Or even what it actually did. What practical use are memory maps? They seemed like cool things that were hard to make and completely useless despite everyone talking up how useful they are.

I think when it comes down to a basic question like, “Would I recommend this or not?” the answer is Sure. It isn’t a difficult read, nor is the language or story insultingly simple. I would add the caveat to expect nothing, though. There are a lot of red herrings–the worst of which is made much of at the beginning and hand-waved in the epilogue–and to be honest, there isn’t a lot here that you can’t find in another book.

Maybe if someone could amend the description to tell you what you should actually expect. A plucky young girl goes on a quest to rescue her kidnapped uncle and makes a lot of friends in different magical lands. There’s a guy named Mazapán who makes edible props like chocolate teapots. I have always wanted a chocolate teapot.

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Villains Scenes Sans Heroes (guest post)

[My hands are shot, so Dither stepped in at the eleventh hour to help me out. I requested him to cover one of his favourite topics.]

I love villains!

I like to meditate on narrative design, and something about villain scenes has been bothering me for some years: the scenes of villains being demonstrably villainous in the presence of, … no main cast members. It seems to go against good storytelling practices. Yet, these scenes worked. Why?

The first scene that comes to mind is Vader’s conference with the Moffs from A New Hope. As a kid, this was easily one of the most boring scenes to me because I didn’t understand why Vader Force-choked the rude engineer guy. Sure, he called Vader a sorcerer, but then Vader demonstrates his magic by tickling the man’s Adam’s apple. That came out wrong.

I didn’t understand until I was an adult the “senate” that was “dissolved,” and that the conference was about how the Emperor was consolidating political power. The scene is still kind of boring now, but at least I know what’s going on – moreover, it helped me to realize the scene was helping to establish something about the setting itself… it’s an expository scene: featuring Darth Vader.

The second scene, and the far more recent example, is Voldemort’s execution of Charity Burbage at the beginning of Deathly Hallows. Unlike the attacks that Harry witnessed as a result of his connection to Voldemort, this scene seemed like a mistake in my view – either because we shouldn’t see something the main characters can’t see, or because it betrays the fact Snape is one of the good guys.

Something else is going on though, and that’s exposition: in the scene we find out that Voldemort is disappearing people and going about his “New Wizard Order” business. It’s important to note that what is going on isn’t important because it’s from the point of view of the antagonist (or any of the villains), it’s a specific method of delivering exposition.

As a writer, you must be careful about what you show the audience. You don’t want to show the villain being evil for evil’s sake. You risk alienating your audience with arbitrariness, or worse, making the villain more sympathetic or likeable than the protagonist – as is often the case with cartoon villains prior to oh, the 90s. It’s the logical (unfortunate) extreme of “Villains Act, Heroes React.”

If you create a scene in which the villains appear independently of the heroes, remember that you’re writing an expository scene – whatever happens, the purpose of the scene is to deliver to the reader information about the setting or situation (which can be seen as similar to, or as an extension of, the setting itself). It isn’t about characterizing the villain, at least not primarily.

Here’s the thing though: exposition is frequently viewed as boring to the modern audience, and scenes featuring villains doing stuff are often a welcome change of pace. In fact, showing the villains doing stuff can be way better than just having someone tell the heroes that the villains have done Bad Things – it’s part of that whole “show don’t tell” thing we hear all the time about storytelling.

Moreover, using a villain as a vehicle of exposition gives you the opportunity to inject character into the exposition: and you should take that opportunity. If you need the hero galvanized to action by the heinous arson/murder/jaywalking of the villain, then make sure you show the interesting or unique method by which your villain does so: maybe he jaywalks to polka?

It might sound like I’m contradicting myself, telling you to do something that I just told you not to, but you should be used to getting contradictory advice about writing: the point isn’t that there are hard and fast rules to storytelling – but more you should be aware of what you’re doing when you tell a story. “If you’re going to do this thing, but don’t do it like that.”

Villain Scenes Sans Heroes can work when they inject character and perspective into what might otherwise be dry exposition. You don’t have to use them, and oftentimes they might not actually lend anything to the work: and yet, they can be an effective tool in the right story. For example, if you need to introduce your antagonist in Act 1 but the hero doesn’t meet him until Act 3.

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Little Birthday Boy

optimistic

I’m officially 32 weeks pregnant, otherwise known as eight months~ And boy do I feel it. Uff da.

Today is Owen’s last birthday as the only child! We’ve got a family party planned and I have tidying up to do, so I’m taking the day off from other stuff.

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Review – The Glasswrights Series

ebook series bundle by Mindy Klasky

Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Goodreads.

⭐️⭐️⭐️

This was a hard review to write. I thought about writing a paragraph about each book and then some overall notes. But the books are available separately, with quite a few reviews for each. What I concerned myself with was delineating why the series is great. This bundle is when you want/need all of it at once. It’d certainly be a good thing to pick up before a long relaxing holiday.

I had no idea what I was getting into when I requested an early review copy. I left it a little late, because these books are quite dense. Going by the titles, I thought this would be a cute YA series in the vein of things like the Midwife’s Apprentice or maybe something more complex and serious but still rather whimsical, like Fly by Night. Silly me.

The Glasswright books are not YA. The main character Rani begins at the age of thirteen, but time passes quickly from book to book, and the themes and events of the book are intense and incredibly dark. There are consequences throughout for deaths that occur in the first book. The second book has a child army, which I felt a bit dubious about at first, since it felt unsustainable and a bit ham-handed for drama, but it took a turn I didn’t actually expect. As a whole, this series is great at delivering surprises. I never knew what to expect, usually in a good way.

I would have liked more about glassmaking and the guild, which I think could be a common sentiment among readers. I wasn’t always into the romantic subplots, however, I got the feeling that they were an extension of other uncomfortable things in the books. They made me think. Just like a lot of Rani’s more despicable or harsh actions. She makes a lot of bad decisions. This could get frustrating, except when she got hit with the consequences for them.

There were many locations, and they all had their own cultures, with the unifying theme of different kinds of castes. I loved all of the faction and political intrigue, although I was confused whenever the good guys were characterised by their desire to keep the oppressive status quo, and the first book’s villainous organisation was characterised by the desire to break down the caste system and allow the people to live as equals. Perhaps it’s simply my culture showing, but that didn’t make any sense to me. The antagonists were threatening evil villains, but their goal was noble and not really diminished by any of their behaviour. Of course, things turned out to go deeper than that.

If I were to compare this series to anything, it would be classic fantasy of the 80s as well as more modern dark fantasy. The only weird thing is that there were previews for the next book after the last chapter/epilogue of each book. That worked out quite nicely for me though–I tended to finish a book in the wee hours of the morning, so I couldn’t get to the next one right away without losing more sleep than was technically healthy. How nice that I could force myself to stop at the end of the preview and pass out.

(I received an ARC from NetGalley in return for an honest review.)

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King of Teeth

One of the better jobs was simply maintaining the cage. Quiet, predictable work that was always done in a group or at least a pair. No chance that a grudge might sneak up on kill you. The others in the group didn’t even have to be allies. You were all united in not wanting to add to the blood you had to scrub off the concrete. Cleaning the cage was a little spot of peace in the Underground.

A flash of light caught Zaymie’s eye. She set down her bucket of rinse water and crouched, careful not to let her bare knees meet a soap-covered stain. No immediate joy. One of her locks slid over her shoulder as she  turned her head this way and that, trying to get the firelight from the sconces outside the cage to catch on the mystery object.

There. More of a glint this time, flashes over more than one angle, as if the thing had many facets. Her hand shot out and she jumped back to her feet. “Found a tooth,” she called out, palming it. “Who’s got the bag?”

“I do.” Tiger appeared at her side, the curt reply the only sound he made. Only long acquaintance with the short knife fighter kept Zaymie from jumping. He handed her the smelly burlap sack reserved for debris such as teeth and fingers.

Ill fortune. If Kickaby had been holding the bag, he would have simply thrown it to her, never mind the chance of spilling. When it came to a sharpness contest, Tiger was a dagger and Kickaby was a bowl. “Thanks.” She reached into the bag and relaxed her hand, not quite letting go of the thing. “I’m gonna see if it has any fellows.”

Their eyes locked. Tiger’s normally straight-lipped expression broke into something akin to a bemused smile. The cage was designed to be a heatsink, to cool the combatants in the sweaty, literal heat of battle. Not the sort of environment that allowed for flushed skin. Certainly not from something as basic as lying.

Goosebumps rose to sharp points, prickling hard across her neck like sandpaper under her skin. “Unless you want to be the King of Teeth.”

“Not today.” He turned away first, his breath and shoulders shaking. Laughing at her.