Saturday, June 25, 2011

Fairies and Shadowhunters

Two books. Two first-time authors. Two heroines living in NYC with a secret magical past to reveal.

I just finished reading City of Bones by Cassandra Clare and Wondrous Strange by Lesley Livingston. I found them while browsing for new books to read at the library. I had never heard of either one, but plucked them off the shelf, flipped through a few pages, and added them to my stack for check out. I didn't know what to expect from either, and based on the covers and titles, didn't expect them to be so similar.

Interestingly, both books use similar terminology to describe the secret magical world within NYC that is hidden from mortal eyes. Similar situations reveal similar aspects of this world to our heroines. Both girls are willful, independent, red-heads who can see through magic veils referred to as glamour.

 City of Bones is the story of Clary (Clarissa) Fray. While at a party with her friend / childhood sweetheart Simon, Clary sees something she shouldn't be able to see: three shadowhunters track down a demon at the party and kill him right before Clary's eyes. Clary tries to stop them, thinking the boy they have tied up with wire is just that - an innocent boy tied up with wire. Clary tries to get help to stop what she believes is cold blooded murder, but no one else can see the boy or the three killers. After they finish, they simply disappear, without a single drop of blood visible as evidence that she isn't going crazy.

After this encounter, Clary's world is turned upside down. When Clary comes home one night to find her mom gone and their apartment in shambles, she must turn to the three shadowhunters - Jace, Alec, and Isabelle -  for help. Shadowhunters, she learns, are members of a super secret organization that use magic and runes to hunt down demons and keep evil beings from wreaking havoc on the mortal world as well as their own hidden homeland, Idris. Clary learns that her mom has been kidnapped by evil rogue shadowhunter Valentine, who'll stop at nothing to find the mortal cup and build a shadow hunter army of his own. Clary faces off against vampires, werewolves, demons, undead, and shadowhunters, while learning shocking secrets about herself and her mother's past.

City of Bones was one of those books that I had a hard time getting into. The teenage dance club with blue haired kids having sex in storage closets (only implied never described), Clary's  I don't need a parent to tell me what to do attitude, and the overall immature feeling of the writing style didn't leave a very positive first impression on me. I wasn't at all surprised to notice that the book was published by Simeon & Schuster, who seem to be the leaders in pumping out shoddily written YA fantasy in the hopes of making profit off any phenomenon they can get their hands on.

I kept reading because a story with a secret organization of demon hunters, vampire / werewolf turf wars, and flying motorcycles certainly has potential. Unfortunately, Cassandra Clare's first attempt at novel writing didn't rise to that potential. Perhaps a few more drafts to her editor would have helped. It certainly would have fixed the typos and perhaps improved the pace of the plot.

Characters, in my opinion, should do more than stand as a means of moving along the plot. Having a great idea for a story plot is all well and good, but it means very little without good strong characters. I've read that when developing a plot, that plot should stem from the characters, not the other way around. I wasn't sure how I felt about this idea until I read City of Bones. The plot of a book should be the means by which we come to know the character. The problem with City of Bones, is that there is very little sense of character identity. Snobbish, hostile, or secretive characters go out of their way to helpfully provide Clary (and readers) with ample explanations about who they are, what they are doing, and what their motivations are. Clary never has to search for answers herself, they are all dropped right in her lap. Because of this, the characters and narrator all flow together in one voice. We get a lot of very interesting plot, but it means little without characters to back it up.

Wondrous Strange, by comparison, was like eating warm popcorn and snuggling in a soft blanket fresh out of the dryer. Seventeen-year-old Kelley Winslow is a theater school drop-out, pursuing her dreams the hard way in NYC. Kelley wants nothing more than to become a theater actress, and catches her big break when she she goes from stagehand / understudy, to playing Titania in A Midsummer Nights Dream. However, learning her lines becomes the least of her worries after she unwittingly rescues a kelpie horse from drowning in Central Park, only to later find it camped out in her apartment bathtub. Add in a couple chance encounters with changeling Sonny Flannery, and Kelley finds her self thrown into the secrets of the Faerie world. Central Park is really a gateway to the Faerie lands, and Sonny is one of 13 gatekeepers struggling to keep tricky Fae from crossing into the mortal world. Unfortunately Sonny can't keep Kelley out of his mind, and somehow she keeps ending up in Central Park - in danger. It turns out Kelley has a secret Faerie heritage that even she doesn't know about. But someone in the Otherworld does, and that person wants Kelley dead. As the secrets unfold and the danger heightens, Kelley relies on her dreams of being an actress and her growing love for Sonny to remind her of who she is and what she wants as she struggles with the temptations of faerie power and the trickery of faerie politics. 

Wondrous Strange is a fun read, with enough humor, action, and romance to appeal to a wide variety of (female) fantasy readers. It's true that Sonny's great revelation to Kelley about her secret past is very disappointing and anticlimactic; but for the most part, the writing is simple, clean, and consistent, making for an enjoyable and fast read (less than 24 hour read). If you like fantasy and you're looking for a quick, fun read, I highly recommend Wondrous Strange. The main characters are loveable and the story is magical and charming. If an author has done her job well, then you don't want to leave her world and characters when you are finished. I am impressed by Lesley Livingston as a first-time author and hope to see her improve and grow in her craft.


Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Welcome to the Cafe!


I've had it in my mind for some time that I wanted to start a book blog. I started a personal blog a few months ago, but hadn't found the right inspiration to keep writing on it. I never wanted a blog to be my online journal, for all the world to know my secrets and my shortcomings. I never felt like my day-to-day was something interesting or worthwhile enough to grace the online world with its minutiae. I needed a blog with a theme and with a purpose - something worth writing about.

It just so happens that I am an avid book lover. I don't just love to read books. I love books. I love the way they look, all perfectly lined up on the shelf, their covers a smooth and even line just a few inches back from the edge. I love the way they smell (except maybe a few used books - you have to be careful with those). I love the way it feels to hold one in my hand as I curl up on the couch, in the bed, or outside on a blanket. Best of all, I love what is inside. I love stories. I love the sound of words flowing together in rythmns and patterns. I love the characters -  their goals, their triumphs, their shortcomings, their delusions. I love the many paths that I travel as I wander through the worlds described on the page. I love the lessons learned, the heartaches felt, the battles fought.

I love the words of Jasper Fforde who wrote,

"Humans like stories. Humans need stories. Stories are good. Stories work. Story clarifies and captures the essence of the human spirit. Story, in all its forms - of life, of love, of knowledge - has traced the upward surge of mankind. And story, you mark my words, will be with the last human to draw breath."

Stories and story telling are a part of who we are, as human beings. Books and their stories help us understand a part of ourselves. As we read about the struggles and subsequent triumphs of characters in a story, we somehow find greater strength to overcome our own challenges. As we read about suffering and tragedy, we find the comfort we need for our own suffering. As we read about love and romance, we value more the loved ones in our own life.

I believe reading a book is a very individual and personal experience. Fforde writes,

"Reading . . . was as creative a process as writing, sometimes more so. When we read of the dying rays of the setting sun or the boom and swish of the incoming tide, we should reserve as much praise for ourselves as for the author. After all, the reader is doing all the work."

I try to avoid saying that a book is "good" or "bad." A book that I love, another person might not enjoy at all. In fact I know this to be true of many of the books that I consider to be my favorites. My reading and enjoyment of a book is based on my own experiences and perceptions of what the author is trying to portray. A person's mood, experience, and expectations all have a lot to do with how they feel about any given book at any given time. I try, as I read, to remember that even though I might not enjoy a book, it is still loved by someone else, and there is always a reason for that enjoyment. There is always something to learn from a book, even if it's only a deeper understanding of your fellow human beings.

That all being said, this is a blog about my own experience and journeys with the books I read. I hope my wandering and ramblings will be of benefit to someone. If you ever wanted to get to know me better, you are likely going to learn more about me than you ever wanted to know. I believe you can learn a lot about a person by learning about their experiences with books.

Enjoy! Please leave comments and tell me what you think. Please try to be considerate of others (and me) in your comments, but don't be afraid to stir up a little debate and discussion either.

Be aware that my posts will range anywhere from simple summary and review to flat out analysis and religious or philosophical pontification. I'll try to include a break in the post before I start off-roading it too far off the paved and easy to follow trail.



Forde, Jasper. Thursday Next: First Among Sequels. New York: Penguin, 2007.