10 Things I Love About This Character: Ellie Linton, The Tomorrow Series

Last year I wrote an article about the “strong female character” which was very well received. (It was even featured by WordPress in their “Freshly Pressed” section.) Since then, I’ve been thinking about doing a series devoted to individual characters that I consider “strong.”

This series will not be limited to female characters–I will include male characters–and may even decide to write about a few that aren’t human.

As I said, I’ve been toying with the idea for a while, but really got excited about starting it a few weeks ago. Because I encountered a character that I believe is perfect to kick off this series.

I had heard many good things about Australian writer John Marsden’s young adult Tomorrow series. The first book, Tomorrow, When the War Began, first came out over 20 years ago, in 1993. There are seven books in the series, and a sequel series called “The Ellie Chronicles.” I finally downloaded the first book from Audible and was immediately blown away by the characters and the story.

Continue reading “10 Things I Love About This Character: Ellie Linton, The Tomorrow Series”

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My Review of the Movie Divergent, Where I Don’t Compare it to That OTHER Franchise

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MILD SPOILERS FOLLOW FOR THE MOVIE DIVERGENT:

There was once an episode of All in the Family where Edith was recounting the story of how she hit a car with a can of cling peaches (in heavy syrup). Archie got so sick of hearing her say cling peaches, Edith began replacing the words with “Mmm-Mmm.”

I am so darn sick of reading reviews about Divergent comparing it to The Hunger Games (and alleged “think pieces,” like this especially jerky one by Entertainment Weekly’s Owen Gleiberman) that any time I feel compelled to do the same, I’m going use “Mmm-Mmm” instead.

Continue reading “My Review of the Movie Divergent, Where I Don’t Compare it to That OTHER Franchise”

Why Allegiant by Veronica Roth Didn’t Work For Me—It’s Not The Reason You Think

Allegiantcover

THERE WILL BE SPOILERS FOR THE BOOK ALLEGIANT BY VERONICA ROTH—PLEASE STOP HERE IF YOU PLAN TO READ IT.

Another week, another fandom meltdown.

In some ways it’s justified. In others, not so much.

The biggest controversy over Allegiant by Veronica Roth, the final book in the young adult dystopian series that started with the novel Divergent, is not the worst thing about it.

It’s not good, but not for the reasons most fans are flipping out over it.

Some fans are already writing up PETITIONS (groan!) to demand Roth rewrite the ending. Some are actually tracking her down at book signings and complaining to her face-to-face. Some are being total jerks about it, hiding behind the anonymity of the internet to say some hateful things about her, which is not cool, EVER.

The Divergent universe is author Roth’s to do with as she pleases. I’m not a fan of readers treating books like a game of Mad Libs, where they think they should have the right to command the story come out the precise way they wanted it to.

That’s as far as I’m going to go in defending the book. Because while some of the reaction is entirely inappropriate, it doesn’t change the fact that I found it deeply flawed.

I truly enjoyed the first book in the series, Divergent, which set up an intriguing dystopian society and a terrific main character, Tris. Roth’s dystopian society, divided into factions—Abnegation, Dauntless, Erudite Amity and Candor—and set in a real city, Chicago, felt very fresh.

I was less enthralled by its follow-up, Insurgent, feeling that it meandered too much, but chalked that up to the “sophomore curse.” I still had high hopes for the final book, which were quickly dashed.

Here are my major problems with it:

1. An aura of complaisancy. There’s no other way to put it: it seems as though Roth phoned this one in.

Everything that bothered me about Insurgent was magnified in Allegiant. Too many new and unmemorable characters, too much exposition (more on that later) and way too much internalizing by the characters made it very difficult to slog through the book. There seemed to be far less care taken with the writing style. Most of all, it felt unfocused.

Some other reviewers have mentioned that the book felt a lot like a first draft. I have to agree with that assessment. I doubt Roth made a conscious choice to coast through this last book because it was a guaranteed best-seller. Perhaps it was rushed to market by the publisher so the complete trilogy would be available for sale by the time the movie version of Divergent is released next year. Whatever the reason, the result is a less-than-stellar effort.

2. Exposition dumps galore. I have already written a couple of times about how much I loathe exposition-heavy books. This book is a wall-to-wall exposition dump, with the explanation of how the dystopian society came to be changing more than once.

When I think about some of my favorite dystopian novels—1984, Brave New World, The Hunger Games, This Perfect Day—I notice they all have one thing in common: there is not a lot of time spent on explaining how the dystopian society came about. Sure, in some great dystopians there are plot twists where the world turns out to be far different from what the characters think it is. But there isn’t a ton of exposition—whole chapters, even—devoted to explaining it.

Roth is far from the only dystopian author who has done this—I had a similar reaction to Hugh Howey’s Shift, which is a prequel that explains (in excruciating and sometimes slightly goofy detail) how the dystopian world in his books Wool and Dust came about.

I really hope this is not the beginning of a trend.

3. Sudden change in the story’s format. Unlike the other two books, Roth chose to alternate between Tris and Tobias’ points of view.

I have no problem with an author who does this. In fact, I quite enjoyed another YA series, Across the Universe by Beth Revis, which alternated point of view between the hero and heroine.

However, in that case it was done from the first book. Also, Revis gave her two main characters very distinctive voices.

Roth did not do this in Allegiant. I listened to the audiobook, which had a female and male narrator voicing Tris and Tobias. Even so, I couldn’t help being struck by how similar they sounded. There are complaints in reviews by those who read it in book format that they sometimes lost track of which POV the story was in at any given moment.

4. Character arc that’s not really an arc. Here we come to the issue that has driven many fans to utter distraction (AGAIN, BIG SPOILER WARNING): she kills off her main character Tris.

I admire authors who have the cojones to kill off major characters—WHEN it’s appropriate to the story AND when it’s an important part of their character arc.

Neither is the case in Allegiant.

Tris’ sacrifice is not truly necessary and does nothing to increase our understanding of her (we already knew she was brave enough to sacrifice herself; she came close several times throughout all three books) nor is it an example of her character’s growth (ditto).

When Sydney Carton in Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities sacrifices himself by taking his friend’s place at the guillotine, it’s a true character arc because he started out the story as a lazy alcoholic who saw no meaning to his life. By saving his friend, he goes to his death believing his life was worth something. His sacrifice satisfies both the internal and external conflict of the story.

Again, I have no problem with a main character—even THE main character—being killed off. I do have a problem when it serves little real purpose other than to make readers angry.

It’s possible to have a true character arc over a trilogy—an example would be Luke Skywalker’s in the first Star Wars trilogy. Luke had to struggle throughout with his hatred for Darth Vader, which threatened his development as a true Jedi. It felt like a natural progression of his character when he tried to save him. Anakin Skywalker in the Star Wars prequels, on the other hand, had an arc into villainy that felt forced and artificial.

Tris’ arc as a sacrificial, almost Christ-like figure also suffers from feeling forced and artificial.

5. The story effectively ends—and then keeps going for several chapters. As if that’s not enough, there’s an epilog. All of it loaded with more exposition.

Sigh.

6. Deep misunderstanding of reader expectations. As I said, it’s absurd on one level for readers who were upset by the ending to demand a new, happy one.

On another level, it’s not so absurd.

A pitfall Roth avoided was creating a love triangle, one thing I loved about Divergent. The reason I don’t like triangles is you’re automatically setting up a large portion of your readership for disappointment by the ending.

However, Roth set up a romantic couple that was, well, kind of romance-y.

And people generally expect a romance-y love story to have a happily ever after.

I am not one who demands a HEA every time, far from it—but if you condition your readers to expect one, you can’t be too surprised when there’s a strong pushback.

Perhaps if Roth had eschewed or toned down the romantic storyline, fewer readers would have been angered by the ending.

I’ve said it before and still believe it: it’s impossible to make everyone happy. Sometimes I feel both readers and TV viewers fetishize the endings of series a wee too much. I can’t help thinking in this case, though, that if everything else about the novel had been on point the level of negative reaction against it would not be this high.

Have you read Allegiant yet? Was your reaction to the ending and the novel in general positive or negative? Let us know in the comments!

Are Young Adult Movie Franchises Dead in the Water?

cityofbonesThis past week Publisher’s Weekly linked to an article by Tara Aquino on the web site Complex.com about the failure of three YA movie adaptations this year: The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones, Beautiful Creatures and The Host.

While she doesn’t exactly come to the conclusion that young adult franchises are a dead commodity, she does seem to be dismissing the YA movie franchise trend as a passing one.

It’s true the movies she cites have all underperformed at the box office. Yes, it was recently announced that The Mortal Instruments sequel has been put on hold indefinitely—which may be code for “on hold forever.”

But some movies based on YA books not attaining the popularity of the Harry Potter, Hunger Games and Twilight franchises doesn’t mean all, or even most, YA franchises are doomed to failure. This would be like saying that superhero movies are on the way out because The Green Hornet and The Green Lantern bombed.

Even more to the point, YA is not a genre the way that superhero movies are a genre. YA is simply a category based on the age of the main characters. Young adult books can be any genre—sci-fi, fantasy, contemporary, historical, suspense—there are very few genres that are not represented in YA fiction.

It’s obvious Aquino has a condescending attitude towards young adult fiction. She compares YA books to mediocre pop music bands, and assumes that the success of Twilight and The Hunger Games is at least in part due to audiences being obsessed with the real-life love lives of their stars.

Sigh.

Is every YA book a masterpiece? Far from it. The Twilight series is the Da Vinci Code of the YA world—wildly popular yet also despised by many.

But there’s a reason why so many adults are reading young adult fiction—there is some serious talent writing some terrific books. Assuming most are cheesy, poorly-written romances exposes a serious ignorance of the subject.

However, Aquino has a point when she says the aforementioned box office failures were rushed into production. This is the way of Hollywood. It latches onto what it thinks is the craze of the moment and starts buying up books to make into movies, and sometimes the results leave a lot to be desired.

One theory I have for why The Mortal Instruments and Beautiful Creatures flopped is because they fall into the urban fantasy genre, which seems to do much better on television than on the big screen. True Blood, The Vampire Diaries, Teen Wolf all flourish on TV. The newly-minted TV series Sleepy Hollow, though not YA but definitely in the same general category (real world meets fantastical elements) just achieved outstanding ratings for its premiere.

Other reasons they may have failed? The same reasons any movie might fail: poor execution, casting mistakes, badly thought-out marketing campaigns, openings scheduled at less than optimum times of the year. It’s really quite easy for movies to fail.

And even though all three movies cited were based on best-sellers (the Mortal Instruments just completed two years on the best seller list), unlike Harry Potter, The Hunger Games and Twilight, none of them were pop culture phenomenons in the way those three series were even before they hit the screen.

My predictions for the movie adaptations coming down the pipeline? I think Divergent, based on the series by Veronica Roth, will do very well. Divergent has a lot of crossover from The Hunger Games fandom and an excellent cast. Dystopian/sci-fi tends to attract larger audiences than urban fantasy and its love story is more of a subplot, so it will probably attract more male movie-goers.

It’s harder to say with the other two projects Aquino mentions, The Maze Runner series, based on the books by James Dashner, and the Chaos Walking series, based on the books by Patrick Ness. Personally, I think the Chaos Walking series (the first book is called The Knife of Never Letting Go) faces a lot of challenges going from page to screen. That’s not to take anything away from the books, but not everything translates from one medium to the other that easily.  With a director and screenwriter the caliber of Robert Zemeckis and Charlie Kaufman, it stands a good chance of overcoming the challenges. Also, Lionsgate is the studio behind it. They have done a stellar job of marketing and making fans happy with The Hunger Games—they should do as well here. The Maze Runner should have no trouble translating, and it’s a series that appeals to both boys and girls.

Should Hollywood be pickier about which YA books to adapt? Absolutely. Should they take more time to carefully nurse book adaptations into outstanding movies? Sure.

But we’re talking about Hollywood here.

When everything shakes out, and they realize what most of us already realize (that not everything should be made into a movie) they will become pickier and more successful YA franchises will be born.

It just takes Hollywood a little while to learn.

Fan Films: Filling In The Gaps Left By Hollywood

hangingtreeRecently, Mainstay Productions released on YouTube a fan-made short film entitled The Hanging Tree. Under twelve minutes long, it dramatizes a brief vignette from the childhood of the character Katniss Everdeen of The Hunger Games.

The crew that shot the film is made up of several people with professional film credits, though mostly with independent films. The script was written by Shylah Addante, a staff member of one of the most popular Hunger Games online fan sites, Down With The Capitol.

The films by Mainstay are produced on an almost zero-dollar budget. According to interviews with director John Lyde, they are mostly a labor of love, but he has also used them as samples of his work and the work of the actors. One actress who appeared as Katniss in a previously-made Hunger Games short was able to parlay that into an audition for the Hollywood movie.

I was mostly very happy with the Hollywood adaptation of The Hunger Games, but inevitably, certain elements of the book had to be sacrificed. Telling a story cinematically is profoundly different from telling a story with prose. There are also time limitations. Characters have to be dropped, events truncated, details skimmed over.

One of the most important elements of the books that had to be dropped in the movie adaptation was the relationship between Katniss and her father, who is already dead when the story begins. His presence is strongly felt throughout all three books. A big part of who Katniss is comes from her father’s influence. Not surprisingly, this is only touched on briefly in the movie, because to dramatize it would have dragged down the pacing considerably.

This is where Shylah and Mainstay come in. In this short film, they dramatize the first time Katniss goes hunting with her father.

I’m not exaggerating when I say it blew me away.

Every beat of this short film is so perfect and true to the source material. The one and only way that Shylah expanded from the canon slightly is to show Katniss’ father explicitly sowing seeds of rebellion in Katniss, teaching her not only hunting and survival skills, but to question the society they live in. I think this is a wonderful expansion of what we know of Katniss’ relationship with her father, because although Katniss struggles with reluctance over her role as a rebel against the Capitol, it’s also clear that she has long been a rebel at heart. The actors, Darin Southam as the father, and Bailee Johnson as young Katniss, do a remarkable job of capturing the essence of the characters.

Generally, I’m not a fan of prequels, but I think this works so well because it’s not a full-length treatment of Katniss’ backstory. Dramatizing one critical moment from a character’s past is much more effective and impactful.

Another fan contribution to the film is the tune set to the words to The Hanging Tree. The song is an important motif in final book in the series, Mockingjay. The lyrics were written by author Suzanne Collins. The music used here was created by fan Adriana Figueroa. She originally posted her version of the song on YouTube about a year ago.

Mainstay has also done film shorts about other Hunger Games characters, including Haymitch and star-crossed lovers Finnick and Annie (the latter also written by Shylah), as well as shorts based on other popular YA books, such as Unwind by Neal Shusterman and Legend by Marie Lu.

Fan fiction and fan art have long been outlets for fans to pay tribute to and expand their enjoyment of their favorite books, movies and TV shows. Now with technology that makes it possible to make inexpensive films, fans can express themselves through this medium as well.

I love it, and hope Mainstay and other fan filmmakers give us more short films that illuminate the parts of our favorite books that get left out from the movie adaptations or end up on the cutting room floor.

Six Things That Bug Me About Modern Young Adult Fiction

young adult fictionI love modern young adult fiction. I read it more now than I did when I was a young adult. I’m constantly stunned by the variety in genre, the talent of many of the writers, and the pure inventiveness of many YA books. But there are a few things that annoy me that pop up more frequently than I would like. (Books and authors will remain nameless as these are issues that appear in more than one book and often in books I really like otherwise.)

1. Too much power and authority handed over to teens. I’ve read a few too many YA books where kids are given an insane amount of authority, as if there are no adults who can lead a community, save the world, overthrow a totalitarian government or catch a criminal. I know there’s often an element wish-fulfillment in YA fiction, but one of the major things that defines being a kid/teen is powerlessness. Unless all the adults are dead (and yes, there are some books like that) having the kids in charge makes little sense.

2. The story is written in present tense. I know, I know — it’s all the rage now. Supposedly, stories written in present tense have more of a sense of immediacy, but it drives me up the wall. For some reason, I can tolerate first person present tense, but when it’s in third person, I rarely finish the book. It reminds me too much of poorly written fanfic.

3. Love triangles. I don’t like them. There, I said it. They make a female protagonist look fickle and a male protagonist look like a dog. No Team This or Team That for me. The thing I really don’t understand is, why would a writer want to intentionally piss off a huge chunk of their readership? Because that’s what happens, no matter how the story resolves.

4. Bitchy female secondary characters who exist solely to make it more difficult for the heroine to get the guy. Come on, a lot of YA is written by women, can we please get rid of this trope forever? I’ve come across some truly unpleasant secondary female characters in otherwise amazing books. That doesn’t mean they have to be nice, but at times these characters are closer to caricatures. A little bit of depth would be appreciated.

5. Throwing a romance in the story just to have one. There’s nothing better than a wonderful love story, but if it doesn’t evolve organically from the story, why have it? Friendship and familial love can carry a story just as well.

6. Not having the guts to kill off major characters if the genre demands it. If a story is in a genre where there is going to be a high body count – if it’s about war, or an apocalyptic event, or some other dangerous setting, then you gotta kill off some major characters. I read one post-apocalyptic series where not one of the protagonist’s family members dies, even though they are spread out all over the country and millions of people are wiped out from the initial event and the aftermath. That is impossible to imagine. Sure, it’s fiction, but again, there has to be some sense of reality.

Are there things that bother you about YA books? Let us know in the comments section!

5 Great Books Left Off NPR’s Top 100 Teen Novels List

Ship BreakerLast week NPR published the results of their poll for the 100 best young adult novels of all time. Yes, moi participated and voted. To say I’m a little perplexed by some of the books that weren’t included is an understatement. (Even more perplexing is some of the books left out of the original list voters could choose from.)

Yes, lists are always problematic and no one is ever completely happy with what is chosen. But here are five that strike me as glaring omissions from the list:

1. Are You There God? It’s Me Margaret, by Judy Blume: I mean, seriously? SERIOUSLY? Every girl of my generation read this book. It didn’t even make the first cut! O.K., so maybe the characters spend a bit too much time talking about having your first period, but Margaret is so relatable. Whether dealing with normal adolescent confusion or what she feels about religion (coming from a mixed marriage) she’s somebody you feel you know.

Need to be convinced some more that it belongs on the list? Hello, Sawyer was shown reading it on Lost!

sawyer are you there god, it's me margaret

2. Ship Breaker, by Paolo Bacigalupi: in my opinion, this is one of the best of the YA post-apocalyptic novels of the past few years. I’m stunned it didn’t make the final list. It tells the story of “ship breaker” Nailer, a teen who works salvaging wrecks after climate change has destroyed the current coastlines. This is a tough book about a tough world, but it never fails to engage the reader.

3. The Witch of Blackbird Pond, by Elizabeth George Speare: again, SERIOUSLY? I’ll be honest, I read more YA books now that I’m adult than I did as a teen, but this was hands-down my favorite YA book when I was young. The story of Kit, a young girl who grew up in Barbados and is forced to impose herself on her Puritan relatives in Colonial Connecticut when her grandfather dies, is a classic in every way. Speare had a remarkable talent for writing about young people in historical settings that still resonates with modern teens. This didn’t even make the first cut! Nor did any of Speare’s other fine books. Shame! Shame!

4. Airborn, by Kenneth Oppel: this is the first novel in Oppel’s superb Matt Cruse series and it was my introduction to alternate history/steampunk. Matt Cruse is a cabin boy on an airship called the Aurora. He meets an upper-class passenger named Kate who wants to prove there are amazing and strange creatures who live in upper regions of the atmosphere. The three books in the series (Skybreaker and Starclimber are the other two) are breathtaking adventure stories with fantastic characters.

5. Everlost, by Neal Shusterman: another one that didn’t even make the first cut. Shusterman does appear on the final list with his novel Unwind, which is fine, but this should have at least been a finalist. It tells the story of Nick and Allie, who don’t know each other but are killed in the same auto accident. When they fail to go into the light, they end up in Everlost, a place not in or out of this world. This is the first book in Shusterman’s Skinjacker series, and I can’t even begin to articulate how inventive, funny and poignant these books are. I’m going to cut the committee a bit of a break and assume they passed it over because it could conceivably be thought as more middle grade than YA, but then, so could many of the Harry Potter books.

What’s even more aggravating is that these books might have made the list if some books that are CLEARLY NOT YA books had not been included. Dune is not YA. The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy is not YA. I don’t care if young people read those books. I read Gone With The Wind and Jane Eyre when I was a teen, so did a lot of my friends, and I don’t see them on the list.

Are there books you think were unfairly left off the list? Let us know in the comments section!