Thursday, August 30, 2012

Visibility Super Survey and Giveaway

I reviewed a really excellent indie book in 2010 called Visibility. I fell in love with its unique plot and effective characterization, to the point where it became my seventh favourite book of 2010. When I found out that Visibility had been taken on by a new publisher and they were conducting a blog tour, I was thrilled! They’re even having a giveaway, where you can win:

A grand prize of a fifty dollar Amazon giftcard
A fifty-five giftcard for an indie bookstore

But there’s not just one prize, because two runners-up will get twenty-five dollar giftcards! All you have to do is check out the blog posts on the tour and find out what our ideal superpowers are. The superpower works as a password, so you can type in the password in the contest and receive more entries to win. Sounds awesome, right? Then be sure to join after you’ve read all the blog posts this week.

Now, onto the Super Survey! My superpower might surprise some of you. Well, if you don’t follow my twitter, that is.

What is your super power?

The ability to communicate with cats. Because, come on, can you really think of a better conversational companion? They’re independent, they regularly pull shenanigans, they have strong personalities, and no one knows what’s going on in those tricky brains of theirs. Sometimes I just hate humans and their dumb small talk, so it’s nice to relax with an engaging discussion with a cat.

Have you told anyone about it?

Nah, cats are all about their secrecy. And besides, it’s way more fun to talk about humans behind their backs. It’s like I’m in a secret club, so why would I want to lose my special privileges?

Have you chosen to use it for good, or evil?

The great thing about catspeak is that I can change my motivations on a case-by-case basis. Have the urge to go on an abused-kitty saving spree? I’m ready to go. Want to prep for world domination? Cats know a lot about that stuff. I’d like to think that I use my powers whenever the mood strikes. It helps when trying to console a friend or figure out what seafood is the freshest, as well as when I need to figure out which weapon would be most appropriate for surviving the zombie apocalypse. Seriously, I don’t know how, but they’re very good at answering killing related questions.

Have you had any super power–related instances at school/work? (pick one)
I tend to get frazzled when doing school things too long, so cats are always there for cuddles and quality conversation about how dumb humans are. My favourite thing is when they can help with English assignments. Whenever I’m forced to write in the perspective of something non-human, I get a first hand resource. The outdoor cats are also exceptionally good at describing alleyways, which is usually helpful for the kind of fiction I like to write. 

Spandex, or no spandex?

Hah! I’m pretty sure the cats would laugh at me and never interact with me ever again if I wore one of those get-ups. I’m more a shorts-and-tee-shirts kind of superhero, and that’s only when I have to run around.

If you couldn’t tell, my secret password is cat communication. Be sure to check out the tour and sign up for the giveaway! a Rafflecopter giveaway

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Fallout: Equestria

First there was a My Little Pony review. Now there is a My Little Pony fanfiction review. Yep. Getting weird, right? Well, I made a promise to a person that I would give my online opinion about this realllly long Friendship Is Magic fanfiction, and it only seemed fair that I follow through.

Fallout: Equestria is a crossover fanfiction between Fallout the video game and My Little Pony the TV show. Yeah, I don't know who decided that was a good idea either, but this is the internet. In it, Littlepip leaves her Stable home to go find and bring back her crush, Velvet Remedy. Needless to say, the journey doesn't exactly go as planned.

For most people, when you say fanfiction, you think really poor quality writing. (Fifty Shades of Grey or Twilight porn, as I like to call it, is not helping this perception of fanfiction.) While you usually have to wade through a lot of awful stories to get to the good stuff, there's a lot of exceptionally crafted pieces out there if you look hard enough. Fall Out: Equestria is clearly one of them.

The action scenes are suspenseful and the story logic impressive in its details. Littlepip is a fun character to read about, and her voice is genuinely witty and ironic. The writing is well done and the relationships are realistic. The pacing may seem a bit strung out, but it wouldn't be fanfiction without a lot of chapters. The best part is seeing how the original canonical Friendship is Magic characters are infused into the brand new world and plot line - it's a clever development, and the most interesting aspect of the piece in my opinion.

It's a little bizarre to see sunshiney My Little Pony rewritten with rape, murder and governmental problems, but the piece is good enough to surpass its stark contrast from canon.

Of course, while it's a quality fanfiction, it's still a fanfiction. Fallout has a needlessly repetitive chapter starter structure and a lot of infodumps at the beginning that wouldn't work for a regular novel. Fanfiction is a different medium than fiction, though, so none of this surprised me. I could have done without the boring, rhythmic chapter openings, though.

Overall: I don't know how many bronies follow me, nor how many would actually be interested in reading a 40+ chapter fanfiction, but Fallout: Equestria is an excellent proof that fanfiction can be engaging and high quality. Fandoms are strange, magical places, and I understand why the brony community loves this particular piece so much.

Educate Emma: TV: My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic

Yeah, that's right. You read the title correctly. It says My Little Pony, and I'm not embarrassed about it. Mostly, anyway.

Friendship is Magic does have a huge fandom, which includes many of the people I know and admire. Still, it feels a little weird to watch a children's show that doesn't hold any nostalgia for me. It might take another season for me to get over the weirdness of watching something so twee.

Regardless, the show was a delight to watch. I can't say that I really understand why there is such intense online adoration for this story, but it is well-written, funny and charming. It's hard to find genuinely amusing kids' shows these days, especially ones that infuse a moral without it being boring or unnecessary. Friendship is Magic manages to do both, and sometimes its humor even reminded me of all my favourite parts of the internet.

The world-building is clever, the personalities distinct, and the relationships could easily exist in real life. It's just a lot of fun to watch, and incredibly refreshing. The only thing that confuses me is internet's obsession with the piece, because I don't find it to be original or ground-breaking. For it to resonate so largely with youth and adults, I assumed that it would provide a new perspective or a particularly special voice, but I didn't see anything awe-inspiring.

Overall: Pretty brilliant, and a fun way to spend a lazy day. I still don't think that it's a must-see, but if you want a smart and lovable show to help you remember what good TV looks like, this is a place to start.

Favourite episode: If I had to pick, it would be The Cutie Mark Chronicles, due to how it presents back story in a clever and interconnected way. I really loved the pilot, though, and A Dog and Pony Show was absolutely hilarious. There are a lot of smart and humorous episodes here.

Least favourite episodes: I didn't like Stare Master and A Bird in the Hoof as much as the other episodes, largely because they didn't feel as important as stories. I love Fluttershy, but episodes that center on her just don't seem to appeal to me as much.

If you do watch Friendship is Magic, let me know why you like it and who your favourite character is! I must say that Twilight Sparkle is my spirit animal, but I really like how Rarity has developed.

Monday, August 6, 2012

Educate Emma: TV: Buffy the Vampire Slayer, S6

I adored season five of Buffy, because it made me feel like the series was starting to go somewhere again. Season six continued this trend, and now I definitely understand why it's everyone's favourite season.

Season six basically deals with the aftermath of season five, and it is not an exaggeration to say that nothing happy occurs in the whole season. Sure, there are moments of comedy and cheerfulness, but none of the positivity is long-term. This season's quality could suffer from its lack of external obstacles and traditional barriers, but somehow the internal turmoil that all the characters experience heightens the brilliance of the season. From Buffy's struggle with mortality and darkness to Xander's uncertainty about his future with Anya, everyone deals with complex emotional issues. In fact, the antagonist of the season doesn't show up until very late, and they're an externalization of the psychological torment of the season. All of the emotion of previous seasons seems compounded in season six, only darker, grittier, and better written. It certainly makes for a riveting TV experience.

I can honestly say there's not a bad episode in the entire bunch, and that's a big difference from the horrifically campy plots of season one. It's virtually impossible to compare seasons five and six, as they are very different from each other, but I can say that they mark the peak of the series. I can't say whether season seven continues the trend, but I'll let you know when I find out.

Favourite episodes: Yeah, I really can't pick one in this case. There's the amazingly brilliant Once More with Feeling, which embodies everything good in this world. Seriously, it's a great piece of plot-driven creativity that must be seen by everyone ever. My other pick for favourite is a four-way tie, as the last four episodes work as their own big finale. They are all enthralling, and I can't imagine how people waited for a week each when it aired live.

Least favourite episodes: On a critical level, I can't say any of the episodes were bad. Doublemeat Palace was fun for its critique of the fast food industry, but I found it a little hard to follow. Then again, I was organizing my room whilst watching that episode, so take my opinion with a grain of salt. As You Were also left me feeling lackluster, but mostly because it had Riley in it.

Do you like your television seasons with more internal or external conflict? I'm curious to know.

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Educate Emma: Books: The Thief Lord by Cornelia Funke

Dust Jacket Description:

"Welcome to the magical underworld of Venice, Italy, where hidden canals and crumbling rooftops shelter runaways and children with incredible secrets...

Proper and Bo are orphans on the run from their cruel aunt and uncle. The brothers decide to hide out in Venice, where they meet a mysterious thirteen-year-old boy who calls himself the "Thief Lord." Brilliant and charismatic, the Thief Lord leads a ring of street children who dabble in petty crimes. Prosper and Bo delight in being part of this colorful new family. But the Thief Lord has secrets of his own. And soon the boys are thrust into circumstances that will lead them, and readers, to a fantastic, spellbinding conclusion."

Characters: Due to the title and dust jacket description, I expected The Thief Lord to be...more about The Thief Lord. I was wrong, however, as The Thief Lord is a vital character for only a very short period of time. After about a hundred and fifty pages, becomes an average side character. The main characters then become Prosper, Bo, and the detective, Victor, whose job is to find them. I was kind of disappointed with this deception from the marketing team, but the cast of characters is still a solid one. The street kids were resourceful and easy to read about, and Prosper's protectiveness of Bo made him likable. None of the personalities truly stood out, but I did enjoy their story. 4 flowers. 

Writing: I loved Funke's descriptions of Venice. The structure of the third person narrative really works for the content, and the pacing never feels too fast or slow. Funke is clearly experienced. However, the cover and opening of the story made me wish her writing style was more magical and gripping. The Thief Lord's tone reminded me more of my favourite contemporary MG books than my top fantasy picks  - which still makes it a great book, but the cover, description and title were misleading.  4 flowers.

Plot: As I said in the writing section, I felt slightly cheated by the packaging of The Thief Lord. I expected something a little more mystical and elusive. The plot does contain quality fantasy elements, but the tone was not mysterious or magical, and I found myself disappointed. While this being true, I  did love reading about the well-crafted conflict  and subplots in The Thief Lord. It'll definitely be a recommendation in the future. 4 and a half flowers.

End: Fun, predictable and witty. 4 flowers. 

Dust Jacket Description: Misleading. 2 and a half flowers.

Cover: I love everything about this cover. My concerns with misrepresentation have mostly to do with the title, so the cover gets a big stamp of approval. 4 flowers. 

Overall: It wasn't quite what I expected, but excellent regardless. It's well written and endearing, with a great setting. I plan on reading more Funke in the near future. 4 flowers. 

Educate Emma: Books: Life of Pi by Yann Martel

Dust Jacket Description:

"After the sinking of a cargo ship, a single solitary lifeboat remains bobbing on the surface of the wild, blue Pacific. The crew of the surviving vessel consist of a hyena, an orang-utan, a zebra with a broken leg, a 450-pound Royal Bengal tiger and Pi Patel, a 16-year-old Indian boy. The stage is set for one of the most extraordinary pieces of literary fiction in recent years, a novel of such rare and wondrous storytelling that it may, as one character claims, make you believe in God. Can a reader reasonably ask for anything more?"

When it comes to wildly successful novels, I have to say that I am rather the literary hipster.

Ever since Twilight came as a hideous, crushing disappointment, I've been weary of extremely popular books. I thought Life of Pi would be one of those overly sentimental pieces of literature that seems to be in love with the sound of its own narrative voice. Thank goodness I had to read it for English class, because I was proven wrong and then some.

Characters: The author's note and dust jacket suggest that Life of Pi is a story that will make you believe in God. While I'm still a big ol atheist, it's largely because of this book that I have more than just a thin respect for religion. In fact, I now see it as one of the most imaginative and necessary paradigms in the known word, and how it holds a deep connection to the humanity in all of us.

Pi is a great character to help aid in the description's sales pitch. He's a polite, creative and analytical boy with three religions. It was during Pi's elaborations on his religious beliefs that I softened and truly became enamoured with his perception of the universe. Pi certainly grows as a character through out the trials and tribulations of the novel, but he's consistently likable and interesting to read about. Martel crafts Pi's coming of age with precision, and also manages to show how his intense relationship with God keeps him from fully surrendering to the dark.

Most of the side characters were distinct, but didn't really hold my attention. The anthropomorphizing of Richard Parker the tiger was incredibly fascinating, though, and Pi's kinship with the animal proved to be a great metaphor.

I wouldn't say that the characterization is the crowning glory of Life of Pi, mostly because Pi feels emotionally distant from the reader. I have a feeling that this was Martel's intended purpose, though, and this element of the story still proves as a blank slate for Martel's compelling ideas. 4 and a half flowers.

Writing: Martel's writing is so multi-layered that I couldn't help but love it. The metaphors were constant and thought provoking, and the reality-bending nature of the piece was stunning. The tone is perfection all the way through. There's nothing to fault here, and that's saying something. 5 flowers.

Plot: The pace is a little slow, but it works for the story. There are enough elements to keep readers interested at all times, from Pi's survival on sea, to the unreliability of the narrative, to Richard Parker's interactions with Pi. It feels classical in pacing, and I liked that. Even when I was a little bored of wondering where Martel was going, I had to keep following. 4 and a half flowers.

End: I'll admit, I merely liked this book before the end. Once I read the third part, I finally fell in love with it. The real point of the story is seen during the third act, and it makes you completely reevaluate everything that came before it. In a world where most recent novels seem to advocate for secularism, it's refreshing to read a pro-religion story with an unusual narrative. The moral is something to think about a long time after the book is closed. 5 flowers.

Dust Jacket Description: It's so perfect, until you see the classic mistake of a rhetorical question. It's like the copy editor knew how easy it was to sell Life of Pi on its originality and then gave up at the end. 4 flowers.

Cover: I still can't decide whether I like it or not. The font is good, as well as the feel of the illustration, but I have flip-flopping feelings about the tiger's face. 3 and a half flowers.

Overall: If you were as turned off by the success of this book as I was, don't be. It's unusual, exciting, intriguing and well-crafted. It's worth reading, mostly because of the kind of discussion you can have after you've finished. 5 flowers.

Saturday, August 4, 2012

Educate Emma: Books: Princess Academy by Shannon Hale

Dust Jacket Description:

"High on the slopes of rocky Mount Eskel, Miri's family pounds a living from the stone of the mountain itself. But Miri's life will change forever when word comes that her small village is the home of the future princess. All eligible girls must attend a makeshift academy to prepare for royal life. At the school, Miri finds herself confronting bitter competition among the girls and her own conflicted desires to be chosen. Yet when danger comes to the academy, it is Miri, named for a tiny mountain flower, who must find a way to save her classmates - and the future of their beloved village. "

Characters: Miri was an absolutely fantastic heroine. It's been a while since I've had a sincere emotional affinity for a protagonist - in fact, I could probably argue that I haven't had a strong connection to a main character of a novel since March. Miri broke this 2012 trend, though, as her determined and genuine nature made me love her. I haven't read any of Hale's other works, but I finally understand why Goose Girl is such a well loved book. Miri has compelling internal conflict, a flawed personality, and an admirable sense of loyalty and curiosity. I'd be more than happy for any young girl to be acquainted with Miri. She's a realistic portrait of the regular middle grade aged girl. The side characters also manage to have distinct personalities, and I was amazed to find myself honestly excited about a romantic side plot. This is what fantasy MG is at its best. 4 and a half flowers.

Writing: The vivid descriptions of Mount Eskel and thoughtful internal monologues made me love both Miri and her world. I definitely have to read more Hale in the future.  5 flowers.

Plot: I really loved the world building of Princess Academy. The fact that Mount Eskel is a territory of Danland reminded me of the political geography of Canada, and viewing it from that perspective made it feel more relevant to me. The economic structure of Mount Eskel felt real, and I loved the community within the area. The pacing is well done and realistic, and the conflicts presented were natural. On a whole, I was riveted. 5 flowers.

End: Maybe a little too convenient, but I can excuse it because of its charm. 4 flowers.

Dust Jacket Description: I would have mentioned Miri's separation from quarry life and the tensions Mount Eskel has with the rest of Danland, but it's a clear description. 3 and a half flowers.

Cover: The design would easily appeal to the MG female audience. I like the look on the girl's face, but she seems a bit too young to be Miri. 4 flowers.

Overall: If you have a 10-14 year old girl in your life with a love of fantasy, please pass this along to her. Its strong heroine is enough of a reason to try it. When you add its excellent world and quality writing, it's a must-read. I cannot wait for the sequel that's coming out later this month! 4 and a half flowers. 


Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Educate Emma: Books: Coming of Age on Zoloft by Katherine Sharpe

Dust Jacket Description:

"When Katherine Sharpe arrived at her college health center with an age-old complaint, a bad case of homesicknesss, she received a thoroughly modern response: a twenty-minute appointment and a prescription for Zoloft - a drug she would take for the next ten years. This outcome, once unlikely, is now alarmingly common. Twenty-five years after Prozac entered the marketplace, 10 percent of Americans over the age of six use an SSRI antidepressant.

In Coming of Age on Zoloft, Sharpe blends deeply personal writing, thoughtful interviews, and historical context to achieve an unprecedented portrait of the antidepressant generation. She explores questions of identity that arise for people who start medication before they have an adult sense of self. She asks why some individuals find a diagnosis of depression reassuring, while others are threatened by it. She presents, in young people's own words, their intimate and complicate relationships with medication. And she weighs the cultural implications of America's biomedical approach to moods."

I received this book for review.

Review: When I signed up to review this book, I wasn't entirely sure what to expect. A mix of personal writing and journalistic fact had the potential to become a very disastrous mess, especially with the delicate subject matter. I'm very glad I followed my reader instincts rather than my skepticism, though, because Coming of Age on Zoloft is a great general overview of Generation X's experience with SSRI antidepressants. Sharpe's stories enhanced the piece, and the book itself maintains a fairly neutral perspective on the question of how effective drugs are in helping people with their mental illness.

From the introduction of the piece, I couldn't put the book down. As a modern-day teen, I am used to being in a peer environment in which we all pathologize our problems. Angst and sadness are usually attributed to some kind of depression or self-defect, and I am included in this phenomenon. Reading about how this social paradigm came into being fascinated me, and it also brought up some interesting questions about my own associations with mental illness and medication.

But Sharpe doesn't only tackle the dry facts. Her own interwoven experiences demonstrated the deeply personal elements of using SSRIs. While Sharpe's personal essays showed the emotional side of the topic, stories from other anti-depressant users revealed how wide-spread the issue of SSRIs really is. Usually I get annoyed with a large amount of individual blurbs in my non-fiction, but Sharpe used it to get her point across.

I'd highly recommend this book to anyone dealing with mental illness, especially those who are considering taking anti-depressants. Sharpe's voice is powerful, but it is also gentle and questioning. She never seems to have recovery figured out for herself, and that humility allows her readers to normalize their own uncertainty in the process. All she does is provide her readers with historical and social context, and promises that they're not alone. And that may be exactly what certain readers need to start the healing journey.

Please, pick this up. It's guaranteed to start an interesting dialogue, and since the subject is such a big part of our current society, it's worth reading. 5 flowers.