Wednesday, March 23, 2011

I Am Number Four & Ingo

It might be because of all my writing motivation and my renewed love for the young adult fiction genre. I've been reading it like crazy lately. This week I finished Ingo by Helen Dumore and I Am Number Four by 'Pitticus Lore' (*cough* James Frey).
Ingo came to my attention a couple of years ago, when lots of girls around the age of 11 kept coming into the store asking after the series. Ingo is the first in the series, a rather clever little piece of work about a girl whose name is unfortunately Sapphire. She and her brother are convinced that their missing father isn't dead and is instead in the underwater land that humans can't reach without drowning, Ingo. Sapphire finds herself increasingly drawn to this place, and to the Mer that inhabit it. It really isn't half bad, though a little meandering at times. The way Sapphire is called by the sea is particularly vivid. Dumore definitely captures that playfulness, the search for adventure and magic. There are three more books. I'm curious to see how repetitive it's going to get.

I am Number Four. I was expecting this to be as painful as Gone by Michael Grant, but the two writers who put this book together are not so sloppy. It's the story of Four/John Smith and Henri, his guardian. They are from the planet Lorien, which was invaded when John was a child. Eight more children and guardians escaped to earth, a magic bond created by a Lorien guardian to make sure they can only be killed in a certain order (hence the number in the title). John is next. The Loric kiddies are waiting to develop their powers or 'Legacies', while evading detection by the alien race that invaded their planet. This race wants them dead, and may indeed be planning to invade earth as well. One day, the nine of them intend to fight back and regain their home planet.

It's certainly colour-by-numbers teen fiction, make no mistake. This is book onc in what will surely become a profitable franchise. You've got all the boxes ticked here. Obligatory love interest that isn't at all interesting and not quite believable, all the plot points adding up to a big finale. Some wooden repetition work with the dialogue that is supposed to be meaningful. Example: at one point in the middle of the book, Henri gives some speech to John about how there's always hope. And towards the end, near the final battle, John parrots this back. Cue violins, then dramatic battle music.
It's not the worst book, not by a long shot. The action sequence is a bit dull, the bully turning into a good guy at the end underdeveloped. There's more problems but there's no point listing them, because they're common problems in teen action books. 'Pitticus Lore' can write. It's even moving at times. But it just feels like it was made in a YA factory. I will read the next book, which is more than I can say for Michael Grant's painfully bad Gone etc series. But it's missing something important. Maybe it's hope. Or possibly just depth.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Endings and the potential failure they bring

So I do go on a bit about the fact that 'I am writing/finishing/redrafting a novel blah blah blah' at the moment. Tell me when this gets boring. Turns out, second/third drafts can have moments where you just want to bash your head against the wall. I am fixing up the middle and the end and am thus thinking a lot about endings. Mainly, how I don't want my ending to suck. Just because it's a YA novel, doesn't mean it can be half-baked crap. This leads me to think about some of the books I've read that seem to be let down by their endings. I'm not just talking about first novels here, (although yeah, those can have really painfully bad endings. Rocks in the Belly, I'm looking at you ). I recently sped my way through the first Dexter novel, Darkly Dreaming Dexter by Jeff Lindsay. I also finally finished reading The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver. Yes, two vastly different books. One might argue that they're not even in the same league. But to be fair to Jeff Lindsay, his first book is very well written. I was surprised by how evocative and clever it was, as I don't usually enjoy the crime genre. The ending seems a little underdeveloped though. He spends the whole book leading us up to it and when we are finally in the same room as Dexter and 'the bad guy' (I am protecting those of you yet to read/watch this) it's like he just skips to the end. Why?

Now to The Poisonwood Bible. This is a brilliant book. I am about, what, ten or so years late for a review? It's been out since 1998. I'm sure many people have raved more eloquently than I can about how cleverly she captures the voice of each female narrator in the Price family and how vividly she depicts The Belgian/newly 'independent' Congo during the unrest in the 1960's, as well as showing missionaries at their worst. But the ending I find a little baffling. She continues the story for several decades after the family's traumatic exit from the Congo. And while it is beautifully written and provides some important details for character development, I do wonder how essential it was for her to continue the story so long after the major events. I'd have thought it would have worked better with the whole thing framed inside that major story line/setting. It's almost like having one false ending, and then a slowly-moving second one showing the family's life after, (something found a lot in Wes Anderson films...)
Though that's just my opinion, it's still a wonderfully layered book and I'm only this critical because the standard she is setting with it is so damn high.

Endings are hard, full stop. They're even harder for those of us who are working on our first manuscripts. It doesn't matter how great your beginning is, or even the middle, if the end falls flat. The ending is the last thing readers are left with. It's your chance to bring the whole thing together, to reach back to the beginning and prove you know what you're doing.
Let's hope I do know what I'm doing.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Why do badly-written books become popular?

I found out about a self-published author who has been doing really well. There's been some noise on the net about her lately, just because her success began through the medium of ebooks on and the media obviously find this fascinating, given the state of the book industry right now. Her name is Amanda Hocking.

From what I can tell, she isn't a very accomplished writer. At least not yet. Her books fall under the YA category, but I wonder if it happened by some kind of default due to the writing quality and the fact of young characters? The one and a half books I read came across as pretty juvenile in style and substance - some people incorrectly assume YA doesn't need to be particularly clever or deep. Being a writer myself, close to finishing my own first novel, I was curious. I mean hell, let's be honest, we all love a good news story about writers making it big. She offers her ebooks very cheaply on Amazon, so I downloaded Switched for 99 US cents.

I don't have room here to adequately describe all the flaws in this book. They seem to be the standard kind you find in the works of novice writers: simplistic plot twists, poor dialogue, shallow character development, bad evocation of setting and place. Terribly written action sequences. Lack of skill in creating a sense of anticipation and mystery, with information revealed too slowly, the main character strangely unaware of obvious things. There must be something to it that keeps you reading, for I did read the whole thing. It is an interesting concept at least (about Changlings), though not at all an original one. But there is so much lacking in the execution that it isn't enough to save the book.

People have a tendency to bring up Twilight whenever another successful YA novel comes to light. But in her case, there are clear parallels, simply due to the poor writing quality. The above could be said about all of the Twilight books. The only difference that I can see is I am not offended by Amanda Hocking's politics. I don't feel particularly wonderful writing a harsh critique on her stuff, only because I think she's quite awesome. She writes pretty candidly about her experiences as a writer trying to get published on her blog, and she seems like a fairly cool person.

But I don't know if I will ever get it. Why do badly-written books do so well? It makes me think that all my effort to write beautiful sentences and evocative setting is for nothing. That I could do just as well if I spun a lot of cliches together and had the girl get the guy in the end.

Questions, comments?

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

I may have failed to win but I didn't fail to try + Bird Cloud

The last day of February and I can safely say that I have failed. I did not adequately fast from books. I was very bad. There were special extenuating circumstances. One, the company work for (Borders) has recently gone into Voluntary Administration. That is depressing. It requires books to ease the pain. I know, I know - I am a sad person. Do I look like I care? I do not care.

The second important circumstance was that Annie Proulx released a new book, Bird Cloud. The third important factor in my demise? Amazon UK is doing a free-shipping thing to Australia at the moment. And I was unable to resist. I am part of the problem. But that's why I bought Bird Cloud from my local independent book retailer. So you see, it all has a perfectly reasonable explanation. But I still failed. Oh well.

I have learned to be more thrifty and I do intend to be more careful with my finances and will not be adding books at too crazy a rate to my scary, scary pile. Which is good because of my potentially unstable employment situation.

On to the reviewing. I am only half-way through Bird Cloud, but it is so far very much like an extended episode of Grand Designs. If Grand Designs were written by a prize-winning author who is able to subtly evoke the beauty in her geographical surroundings. Bird Cloud is a memoir about Proulx's connection to place and her search for a home that truly represents her. She talks a little about childhood homes and former dwellings that had too many flaws to be livable in the long term. The familiar Grand Designs staples are there though. The house she dreams about for the Bird Cloud property is complex, with found metals, an unconventional shape and an isolated location. Problems arise early, with builders almost impossible to source. The architect lives nowhere near her and she herself lives a distance from the property, while also having to travel out of the country frequently. This isn't a fast-paced, tell-all memoir. It is a wonderfully meandering book that shows you all the small things in her rural surroundings that Proulx draws from for her creativity. It is, in short, a chance to follow her thoughts and see into the mind of a fascinating writer.