Sunday, August 19, 2012

Review: The Unnaturalists

I wish The Unnaturalists was as cool, clear, and well-defined as its cover is.

I was so ready to love this book the minute I read the summary. Girl scientist in a steampunk, alternate Victorian London? Soooooo sweet. I was beyond excited when I got an ARC in the mail (thanks for the heart attack, Simon & Schuster Canada!), because usually they just send me ARCs of sequels to books I haven't read and then I have to give them away.

I was still set to love it when I read the first, breathtaking sentence: "The Sphinx stares at me from her plinth." Right on the first page, Vespa Nix is in the Museum of Unnatural History, being cornered by a freaking Sphinx. You soon find out that the Sphinx is frozen in a time-warp forcefield thing and of no real danger, which is an epic mind trip. God, the first page is so cool.

But after that -- very soon after, on like the second page -- the book becomes muddled. Vespa is pushed (by a mysterious, anonymous hand) into the forcefield and she's trapped in a forcefield-like room thing where the Sphinx is ALIVE and ABLE TO HARM HER, and you're all like OH SHIT MAN WHAT'S GOING TO HAPPEN HOW'S SHE GOING TO ESCAPE?!?!

But... the Sphinx just kinda looks at her. And stuff. It seems like the author is going for a super-tense, omg-is-she-about-to-spring-and-attack? kind of moment, but it drags on for, like, a couple pages of description of the moment so it ceases to be tense anymore because you're pretty sure the Sphinx is still frozen, in the author's own description freeze-frame, so she can't possibly hurt Vespa anyway.

And oh, Vespa. Vespa Nix. What an awesome name. And she's a POC (maybe mixed race?) girl in the book AND on the cover, whoot! But unfortunately, not even that -- and not even her killer dress -- can save her for me. She sounds like a Valley Girl, and in a Victorian (or pseudo-Victorian) setting, it's just so, so distracting. Also, for all that they try to make her this passionate scientist, she spends all of two minutes studying science in this book. She talks on and on about how much she wants to be the first female scientist in her world, but she never even talks or thinks about her so-called passion. She's too busy fawning over her brand-new, shiny Love Interest, Pedant Lumin/Hal/Bayne/The Architect.

I hate the love interest, by the way. He honestly had four names, and he's called each of them quite a lot of times. Who is this guy?!?! He's a scientist at the museum. No, he's a secret agent for the Architects. No, he's a lord's son. He had a major identity issue; I couldn't identify him, much less swoon over him, because I never got a clear picture of him.

I should probably mention the POV of this book. Half of it is in Vespa's first-person POV. The other half is third person POV following a young (how young, though, I wasn't really sure... maybe 12 or 13?) Tinker (think gypsy) named Syrus Reed. The two stories are barely related. The POV characters see each other a handful of times and they're loosely connected in a plot kind of way, but the discrepancy between the POVs is just too big. It felt like two novels stuck roughly together. I would have greatly preferred this book to be entirely in Syrus's third person POV. But that book, if it existed, would fit much better into the middle grade world.

I dunno. This book was just muddled.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

My Bad Writing: Betrayal by Family, Part 3

When we has left Ea and Emmith, they were... hugging! Pass my smelling salts!

What happen next is more idiot romance:

Evening found the two of them in the small town of Kingston. Ea had enough gold coins to get a room at a little inn on the outskirts of town. They had a pleasant meal of bread, potato, and some cheese. There was only one small bed in the room, and Emmith said that since Ea had paid for the room, she should have the bed. But Ea said that since Emmith had rescued her, he should have the bed. 

Oh, just freaking sleep together already.

They could not settle the matter, so they shared the bed. It was moderately comfortable, and they were tightly squeezed to the sides, as it felt odd to be so close to each other. Ea fell asleep first that night, and Emmith, before he fell asleep, kissed Ea every so lightly on the forehead.

Meh, I got my wish.

But I hate this. Hate with a passion. It's that stupid old trope of chaste bedsleeping between characters who are obviously attracted to each other. Ridiculously lame.

Speaking of ridiculously lame... after buying Ea "commoner dresses" in the town...

"Emmith, last night you kissed me, didn't you?"

Emmith was suddenly quite embarrassed. 

"What? Oh, uh, yes I did," he stuttered. "Why do you ask?"

Ea smiled. "You could have just told me you liked me, you know. Not that I didn't like it." She looked at him.

Emmith was taken aback. "You -- you enjoyed it?"

Ea cocked her head and grinned. Emmith reached out for her hand and they walked back to the inn hand-in-hand.

Hahahahaha. He takes her hand and they walk hand-in-hand. L-O-fricking-L.

Then some soldiers arrive at the inn, looking for Queen Ea Mara. Ohhhhhh shit! Ea and Emmith escape to the roof while the soldiers search the inn, but not before they overhear the innkeeper telling the soldiers the names of the people staying at the inn and Ea hears him say "Emmith Greene and his wife, Eve."

So when the soldiers are gone, they continue journeying. Emmith is the strong, silent type.

They had been traveling for about an hour along a dusty road. Ea was practically crying. Emmith hadn't said a word since before the soldiers arrived at the inn, which was totally out of character for him. 

"Emmith, what's wrong? You have been ignoring me! Please, just talk to me!" she cried. 

Emmith turned to face her, his brown eyes full of hurt and confusion.

"Didn't you hear the soldiers talking to the innkeeper? They said Queen Ea Mara! Either something terrible happened to your father or he abdicated as king! You are now queen!" He was breathing heavily. "Now it's crucial that we get you to Peterberg Palace." He sat down on a log beside the road. "It was -- well -- I was hoping we could settle down together and forget your heritage."

He was close to tears. Ea sat down beside him and hugged him.

"Me too. I'm not so sure I want to be queen, now. I don't want so many people after me, hating me. I just want to be normal. And with you." She buried her face in his shoulder as he hugged her.

"I know, me too, Ea," he whispered. "Let's keep walking."

I just want to slap the two of them into next week.

The next night, they sleep in a barn. Ea goes into Emmith's backpack while he's out searching for food, because she's really good at personal boundaries, and finds his journal. Of course he keeps a journal. Of course. She reads the latest entry, which tells us absolutely nothing new. Emmith talks about the soldiers arriving at the inn, and finding out that Ea is queen. Then he sounds like a super conceited bastard as he waxes on and on about how Ea should be with him because he doesn't care about her money, unlike foreign princes or whoever else wants to marry her.

And then we get proof that Ea's head is a hollow gourd full of stale air and bits of lint.

Ea closed the journal in wonder. Did he really feel that way about her? But, then again, why did he write it if he didn't?



Monday, August 6, 2012

My Bad Writing: Betrayal by Family, Part Two

Welcome to Part Two! If you missed it, here's Part One.

When we last left Ea and Emmith, the idiotic heroine and hero of my unfortunate tale, they were running away from Ea's evil Uncle Unriché, who had planned to kill Ea... at some point. He just had dinner with her, alone. Why didn't he kill her then?


The next chapter picks up with this gem of a line:

Next morning, Ea woke to the smell of fish.

...all I want to do is *facepalm*. Serious cringe. Ahhhh, don't look at me, I'm not the same writer as the one who wrote this line!

It only gets better.

"Where am I?" she said sleepily as she looked around her. She was in a small clearing in a forest, and on the other side of the clearing Emmith sat with his back to her, crouched over a campfire.

"Oh, Princess, you're awake. I made some breakfast, if you want it," he said, blushing.

"Thank you, Emmith. And you don't need to call me princess, just Ea is good." She sat up on her bed of leaves and rubbed her eyes. "So, Emmith, where exactly are we?"

Oh god. Braided ropes. Beds of leaves. The silliness continues.

And continues:

Emmith shrugged. "I dunno, exactly, but we're about nine, possibly ten kilometers from your uncle's palace, approximately."

Sigh. Then we get the obligatory "heroine looks intently at hero and realizes he is the smexiest guy evah" paragraph.

Ea looked at him intently. He was a very good-looking boy with nearly shoulder-length curly dark brown hair framing his adorably innocent face and big brown eyes. All Ea's ladies in waiting fancied him, and he was the talk of their sewing sessions. Emmith was a young blacksmith's apprentice and he made swords for the king and his knights.

HA. Will Turner, is that you?!

And then, basically, Ea sees that he brought a sword with him and she asks "What if my uncle sends soldiers after us?" and Emmith basically says "Meh, ain't no thang" and then they eat fish for breakfast. Bleh.

Then we flash back to the palace for the best villain moment I've ever written.

Lord Unriché stood in the great hall sniggering to himself and waiting for his niece to make her appearance. 

"Captain," he shouted at a soldier.

"Yes, my lord?"

"Has the princess come down yet?"

"No, not yet, sir."

"Lazy oversleeper. Send her maid to wake her. I'm getting impatient."

"Yes, sir."

Lord Unriché chuckled. He was feeling quite happy that day. His brother and that wife of his captured by soldiers in Stevron, and their only child was to be arrested where she thought she was safe. 

"My lord, she's gone!" a young soldier approached Unriché.

"What? What do you mean, she's gone?" he spat.

"Her window was open and the bed is empty! No sign of her!"

"Are you sure? She couldn't have just disappeared! Send men into the grounds to find her! Search everywhere within a mile of here!" he shouted. His good mood was temporarily ruined.

Can't... stop... laughing.

Unriché, it's your fault. You should've just arrested her at one of the million opportunities you had earlier. Quit chuckling and sniggering to yourself and get some kidnapping done.

Okay, then the POV snaps back to Ea and Emmith, who are crouched in some bushes listening to some soldiers who randomly appeared near them. This scene is boring. They overhear a page-long argument about whether to go east or west. It's unremarkable, except for the part where "a voice shouted at a stubborn voice."

And then this happens:

Emmith smiled worriedly at Ea, who was white with fear. Then Emmith did something he had wanted to do ever since he met Ea eight years before. He pulled her close to him in a tight embrace, and to his surprise she didn't resist. She just sank into his arms, and there she stayed for minutes that seemed to be hours.

To my eleven-year-old mind, this was blush-inducing, perfect romance. A hug. Really. I kind of feel like reaching back in time and slapping myself, because to no one else is hugging a distraught person who just heard a bunch of people say that her uncle was going to murder her romantic. It's just a decent thing to do. Also, Emmith is still an idiot. And a Will Turner ripoff. And a Josh Groban wannabe.

I forget if there's a part coming up where he sings, but knowing my eleven-year-old self, I'm sure there must be.

Thank you for reading! Stay tuned for Part Three!

Saturday, August 4, 2012

Discussion: Character names

Inspired by the awesome Michelle Krys's post, I started thinking about character names.

I freaking love names. They fascinate me. I keep a mental list of all the awesome real names I've heard in my lifetime (topping the list are Peter Brilliant, Manley Gage, and Carla Holy).

I don't know if you could get away with a Peter Brilliant, Manley Gage, or a Carla Holy in a novel. Sometimes real life is stranger than fiction. With character names, I find you have to strike a balance between distinctive and ordinary most of the time. The name has to suit the character to some extent. Not always literally -- don't name a wise character Sophia just because Sophia means wise -- but you have to take the character's parentage and circumstance in life into account when you name them.

For example, the bride of a Medieval king is unlikely to be named Destiny. But a girl born in the mid-nineties? That works. A girl with Buddhist parents being named Mary Catherine? Yeah, probably not. But if she was born into a Catholic family, it makes a lot more sense.

In the early stages of writing, a character feels nebulous to me until I find the perfect name. Once I do, everything comes together. Their personalities often come from their names, in some strange way. Here's a quick sample of this at work in my writing:

Tristan Tennant (protagonist of A BRAVER THING): Tristan is a soft, lilting kind of name, which is definitely how I'd describe Tristan's personality. His nickname is the androgynous Tris, which fits his appearance. His surname, Tennant, is a nod to his Anglophilia -- David Tennant, anyone?

Prince Malcolm (A BRAVER THING): He's the Prince of Wales, so his lack of a surname fits his station in life. He has a bazillion middle names, though, which comes from his royal heritage, too. But his first name, Malcolm, is very unorthodox -- it's Scottish, which is a little bit scandalous for a British prince. But Malcolm himself is a little bit scandalous.

Lauren Alfredsson (protagonist of a new WIP, WONDERFUL): The name Lauren has always conjured up a tall, solidly-built blonde girl to me, so her physical appearance is tied to her first name. One of her parents is from Sweden, which accounts for her surname. Plus I just love the way the name rolls off the tongue... which is handy, since this WIP is written in third person instead of first, so I have to use it a lot more!

So, yeah, I'm curious: if you're a writer, where do your character names come from? How do you pick them? Do they matter a lot to you, or is it more like, if it fits, it fits? If you're a reader, how do you feel about the names of characters you read? Do they matter to you?

Hope you're all having a lovely summer out there! Anyone watching the Olympics? (I am. Rather obsessively.)

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

My Bad Writing: Betrayal by Family, Part One

Oh, God, just looking at that title makes me wince. Betrayal by Family... what was I thinking...

Well, I can pretty much tell you exactly what I was thinking. I was eleven years old. I bored as hell. And judging by the content of this fifty-page story (27 smudged, torn notebook pages, front and back), I was boy-crazy and full of gooey romantic ambitions.

The Story

Betrayal by Family follows the life of a young princess named Ea Mara. Yeah. Her name is Ea. Pronounced Eee. I deserve to be shot for that name alone.

Anyway, the story opens with this line, written in bubbly cursive:

Princess Ea Mara sat in the carriage, not exactly thrilled with her parents for making her go 'there'.

Y'know what, it's not an awful opening line. It's bad, but it isn't super cringe-worthy. If I were allowing myself to rewrite, I would change it to "Ea sat in the carriage, not exactly thrilled that her parents made her go there." But I'm not allowed to rewrite. I have to relive this without making it easy for myself.

"There" is her Uncle Unriché's palace (oh, FML... Unriché should NOT be a name that exists). I go into a tell-don't-show spree as I explain absolutely everything you need to know about Unriché throughout the entire story:

Ea never liked her uncle Unriché. He was rather sly and cold. His gray eyes always glinted with malice, and he was never very kind. But she had to stay with him in his large and unwelcoming palace. Just until her parents could come and take her home.

Yep, I know what you're thinking: I wonder if this Unriché fellow could be the villain?!?! Well, I won't spoiler it for you. You'll find out soon enough.

And, wow. Disappearing Parent Syndrome. Of course. I was eleven. Parents were the devil.

The footman opened the carriage door and Ea looked out at Uncle Unriché's palace. Large and gray, the palace sat alone on a giant hill. 

"Thank you, Jeeves," she said to the driver. 

"Your highness," he said gruffly. 

Ea stepped onto the walkway up to the palace as the carriage pulled away. Her uncle walked up to her with a few soldiers behind him.

Jeeves? Jeeves? Seriously?

Also, "her uncle walked up to her with a few soldiers behind him." Lol forever. 

Anyway, Unriché says some stuff in an "oily voice" and then he leads Ea up to the palace. I'm actually really surprised I didn't take this all the way up into Ea's bedroom and describe every last detail of her bed and pillows and wardrobe. I'm impressed.

But I had more important things to describe. Like the love interest.

In the bushes outside the palace, Princess Ea Mara's only hope hid. Ea's father's swordcrafter, a 17-year-old young man named Emmith had heard of a plan being plotted by Lord Unriché. He knew right away he had to save Ea before it was too late. He brushed away his curly brown hair and looked up at Ea's window. It took all of his effort to control himself from screaming up to her, telling her the plot. But he didn't. His only hope of taking her with him was if he whisked her off at night. He wasn't quite sure what he would do, where he would take Ea once he had her. But that didn't matter yet. He sat in a tree braiding and tying rope to make a rope ladder that he would use to climb to Ea's window that night.





Oh my God, I wish I was joking. I wish I had never written this paragraph. Braiding... and tying... rope. WTF?! If the rope is, in fact, rope, it would already be serviceable in its ropey form. Why must it be braided, Emmith? Why?! Why are you sitting in a tree, brushing your curly brown hair and braiding what I can only picture as long chunks of stringy hemp in order to fashion your dashing method of escape? If speed is so important, why didn't you bring a pre-made rope ladder? Or just a ladder? Why in the name of God are you braiding your own rope?!!??!

*deep breath*

Okay... so, meanwhile, Ea goes to dinner with "her hair perched on top of her head in an elegant bun," in an "unappealing dove gray dress that she hated" (for some undisclosed reason). At dinner, "the food was good, but the company was terrible. Unriché just ate, smoked his pipe, and stared into the fire." 

And then it becomes a bodice ripper.

Well, not really. But Ea goes up to her room after dinner and the instant she's alone, she "ripped off her dress and crossed the road to her bed in her petticoat" -- crossed the road? -- "only to look up and realize she wasn't alone in her room."

That's right! Everyone's favourite rope-braider is sitting on her bed!

Now I'll treat you to a choice excerpt, demonstrating my fabulous dialogue-writing skills.

When she saw Emmith sitting on her bed, she jumped with surprise.

"Emmith! What -- what are you...?" she stuttered. Emmith cut her off.

"Quick, Ea, pack your things and come with me! Your uncle means you harm! We must leave..." he blurted out, crossing the room to the princess.

"Emmith, tell me why we must leave! Please!" Ea cried.

Emmith sighed. "All right, but you have to believe me, okay?"

Ea nodded.

"When you go down to the great hall for breakfast in the morning, your uncle will put you under arrest! Your parents have been captured in the north, on their way to Stevron. I decided to come and save you, because I was the only one with courage enough to do so," he sighed. "And also I wanted to -- to -- to," he looked at his feet. "Oh, I'll tell you later. We have to go." He gathered up the rope ladder, secured it and turned to Ea. "Do you need help to get down?"

"That would help," she said, stunned. "You may help me, yes." 

He helped her onto the rope ladder and held her waist as he climbed down. After they were safely on the ground two stories from the window, Emmith cut the rope ladder down, and the two of them disappeared into the night.

My God. What to pick on first? The idiot rope ladder, which would be a thousand times slower than if Emmith just broke into the palace? The constant use of names in the dialogue? The exclamation points? The use of "he sighed," even though exclamation points previously pointed out that they were excited and, well, not sighing? 

I'm not going to lie. I just burst out laughing at so much of this scene. And as I leafed through the pages and read some lyrics doodled in the margins, I remembered that I pictured Emmith as Josh Groban. 

"Why would I braid my own rope ladder when 
there were perfectly reasonable alternatives?
You wrote me as a moron, Becca."

Sorry, Josh. I did it out of love. 

Stay tuned for part two! Lots more idiocy to come!