Best and Worst of 2010

December 31, 2010 at 8:50 pm (Best of, book review, books, Caitlin R. Kiernan, fantasy, fiction, horror, Kelley Armstrong, L. J. Smith, novels, reading, urban fantasy, vampires, Worst of)

It’s New Year’s Eve and that means it’s time to roll out the best and worst reads of the year.

I only read seventy books in 2010. That’s thirteen less than I read in 2009 and eleven less than I read in 2008. And even though I posted ten reviews this year, two more than I did last year, my output over the past six months has been pretty paltry. As usual I have my reasons, the most salient being that I spent the last six months orchestrating a move and finding a new job. Even though I’m all settled now I’m still trying to get into a comfortable routine, and for that reason reviews may be few and far between for several months to come.

But I do love a good year end wrap up. As regular readers know I split my year end top ten into two top five lists: the five best books I read and the five worst. The lists consist of books I read this year, not necessarily ones that were published this year.

The Best:

1) Feed by Mira Grant – This haunting tale follows a team of news bloggers covering the Presidential election in a zombie ravaged USA. The characters and relationships are strong, the world well conceived, and the consequences of living in a fear-based culture all too familiar and relatable. Feed was so good I couldn’t even write a review for it despite numerous tries. I was so in love, I couldn’t articulate all of the things I liked about it without sounding like a moronic fan girl. So, best advice? Go buy yourself a copy and see for yourself why I’m speechless.

2) Daughter of Hounds by Caitlin R. Kiernan – All the elements I’ve come to expect of a Kiernan yarn are present in this outstanding novel – the creative wordplay, the strong description and character development.  Kiernan creates a Lovecraft-ian world you can see, smell, taste, and touch from the very first page.

3) Men of the Otherworld by Kelley Armstrong – Comprised of one novella and three short stories, Men of the Otherworld is a delight from start to finish. Long time fans will find that the tales add texture and depth to the Otherworld series, and newcomers will find it an excellent introduction to series.

4) Psybermagick by Peter Carroll – Once upon a time I was a practicing pagan. This year I decided to weed my New Age book collection, and that included reading all the books I never got around to reading while I was still practicing. Although I know many pagans and ceremonial magicians who frown on chaos magick, they do themselves a great disservice by writing off Psybermagick. This extremely humorous look at magic and mysticism had me doubled over with laughter. A fine addition to any New Age library for the insider jokes alone.

5) Living with Ghosts by Kari Sperring – This atmospheric fantasy novel was such a pleasure to read. Another book with strong characters and believable relationships, not to mentions loads of political intrigue and personal sacrifice, this story stayed in my head for weeks after I finished it.

The Worst:

1) Hell Hollow by Ronald Kelly – This ho-hum horror novel is full of extraneous words and adverbs, unrealistic and unnecessary dialogue, and clunky sentences that make the book a nightmare to read. Craft considerations aside, the story itself is neither scary nor particularly original.

2) The Vampire Diaries: The Return: Shadow Souls by L.J. Smith – Like Hell Hollow this novel is overflowing with needless scenes, dialogue, and characters that slow the pace of the narrative and add nothing to the readers’ understanding of the primary characters or plot points. Worst of all Smith killed all of the character growth her heroine Elena Gilbert underwent in the previous five books in the series, leaving nothing but a shallow, self-absorbed, and completely unsympathetic main character.

3) Sensual Celibacy by Donna Marie Williams – This book presented itself as an examination of celibacy within the realm of women’s studies, and turned out to be a study in false advertising. Despite the claims made on the jacket what I found was a book mired in stereotypically sexist assumptions about women’s sexuality, fanatical Christian declarations about the sinfulness of sex out of marriage, and out right lies about the effectiveness of birth control and sex education in schools.

4) The Path Through the Labyrinth by Marian Green – There’s a reason this beginner level book on magic and witchcraft is out of print. The advice and resources listed inside are dated and of little use to most modern day pagans.

5) Confessions of a Demon by S.L. Wright – I picked up Confessions of a Demon hoping for a detailed urban fantasy romp through my home town, but all I got was a predictable paranormal romance that treated New York as a backdrop rather than an integral part of the story.

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The Vampire Diaries: The Return: Shadow Souls by L. J. Smith

May 26, 2010 at 6:29 pm (fantasy, fiction, L. J. Smith, novels, romance, young adult) (, )

NOTE TO READERS: This book review contains SPOILERS. Read at your own risk.

My love affair with The Vampire Diaries started back in 1991 at the age of twelve. I took an immediate shine to Elena, Stefan, and the rest of the gang, and spent many a night snuggled under my bed covers with the latest volume in hand, letting L.J. Smith’s spare and fast paced prose transport me from my hot New York City bedroom to the tree lined streets of Fells Church, Virginia.

I was beyond psyched when I found out Smith was reviving the series after seventeen years, but like many of the grown women who as pre-teens formed Smith’s original fan base, I was immensely disappointed in the result. The Vampire Diaries: The Return: Nightfall contained more holes than a block of Swiss cheese and more filler than a jelly doughnut. Drastic changes in tone and world rules made the book feel like it belonged to a totally different series. I, however, took comfort in the knowledge that after writing something as awful as Nightfall there was nothing Smith could do to make The Vampire Diaries series any worse.

I was wrong, of course; dead wrong. In The Vampire Diaries: The Return: Shadow Souls, Smith finds new and creative ways to destroy her characters, plotline, and world rules.

Shadows Souls picks up right where Nightfall left off. To rescue Stefan from the menacing kitsune, Damon, Elena, Bonnie, and Meredith must descend into the Dark Dimension, a land of eternal twilight where demons and vampires rule, and damned souls live out eternity as slaves with little hope of ever ascending to Heaven.  As they search for the hidden halves of a mystical key that will free Stefan, Damon and Elena grow closer until Elena is unsure which brother she truly loves.

Shadow Souls sports many of the same problems as Nightfall. For one, the timeline is still screwed up. Not that I expected the original timeline to have been magically restored. There’s not really anything Smith could have done to fix it short of creating a time warp, or saying the events of Nightfall were all just a dream. I have to give Smith credit, though, for reducing the presence of 21st communication technology in Shadow Souls. While it doesn’t restore the timeline, it does make the story feel a little more “timeless” thereby making it easier to imagine the action taking place in 1992 (as it should have  had Smith stuck to her original timeline) instead of 2009.

And, while I’m at it, I also have to give Smith credit for reinstating the original symbolism behind the act of exchanging blood. In the original tetralogy, exchanging blood was a metaphor for sexual intercourse. In Nightfall, however, Smith killed the metaphor by asserting that vampires don’t actually have sex because blood lust takes the place of sexual desire. The shift wasn’t just abrupt and disconcerting to fans, but it robbed the series of its sensuality and removed the idea of pleasurable, consensual sexual intercourse within a committed relationship from the series.

But Smith attempts to correct that mistake page 4 of Shadow Souls in which Elena states that “vampires show love by exchanging blood.” Sure, it’s not entirely on target, but saying that exchanging blood denotes love is far more in line with the original metaphor than the sexless, loveless definition put forth in Nightfall. And since “making love” is a euphemism for sex, I’m willing to accept Smith’s little revision. In addition to the reduced presence of 21st century communication technology, her willingness to revise a problematic definition shows that Smith did indeed listen to her disgruntled fans, and made an effort to correct the problems as best she could.

Still, it’s not enough to save Shadows Souls. At 608 pages it is just as bloated as Nightfall; overflowing with needless scenes, dialogue, and characters that slow the pace of the narrative and add nothing to the readers’ understanding of the primary characters or plot points. Smith’s editor over at HarperCollins should be given her walking papers because she’s obviously not doing her job.

In Nightfall, Smith indulged in what I rather generously called “character back-tracking.” Other readers called it “total character decimation,” but I tried to cut Smith some slack. Though I recognized many of the abrupt character turn arounds as inconsistent and illogical, for example Damon’s inexplicable return to vain, bad boy head space after taking small but firm steps to coming a good person in The Fury and Dark Reunion, I still thought the behaviors as “in character” based on the previous books.

I can’t cut Smith any slack for Shadow Souls, though. This time she really has  successfully managed to annihilate one of her main characters. The victim? Elena Gilbert, herself.

One of the primary pleasures of the original tetralogy is watching Elena go from self-centered, conceited “mean girl” to caring, selfless, and ultimately noble human being as her narrow world view expands. She grows, she allows herself to be changed by her experiences, and by the end of Dark Reunion she is a totally different person than she was in The Awakening.

In Shadow Souls, however, Elena morphs back into the conceited princess she was at the start of the series. It’s evident on page 3 when she says, “I…don’t think it’s vain to say that I’m beautiful. If I didn’t know I was, I’d have to have never looked in a mirror or heard a compliment.” And on page 14, when explaining that her supernaturally-charged blood is irresistible to vampires, she says, “… [N]aturally, they come after me…It’s as if the world is full of honeybees and I’m the only flower.” Elena has not talked about herself like this since The Struggle! Once she realized she was not the center of the universe, that there were people in her life who she loved more than herself, she stopped viewing herself as an object. Elena’s vanity is three books in the past, and seeing it pop up in Shadow Souls without any explanation or foreshadowing is jarring because it negates all the growth she underwent in volumes three through five.

Smith doesn’t seem to realize there is a disconnect between the selfless Elena of The Fury and Dark Reunion, and the selfish, conceited Elena who shows up in Shadow Souls. Throughout the book supporting characters go on about how caring, selfless, loyal, beautiful, and all around perfect Elena is despite the fact that she doesn’t do anything to warrant the praise, and actually does quite a lot to contradict it, the most obvious being *SPOILER ALERT* her decision to cheat on Stefan with Damon.

From the start of the book there is a heat between Elena and Damon that was not present in the last three volumes. Smith gives no explanation as to where this new passion came from or how it developed. Literally, you just open Shadow Souls and, boom, there it is. By page 26 Elena and Damon are “exchanging blood” and continue to do so right up until they rescue Stefan around page 500.

The fact that Elena cheats on Stefan, the boyfriend she claims to love so much she’d willingly die for him, and cheats on him with the brother who is responsible for putting his life in peril in the first place indicates a remarkable lack of caring and common sense on Elena’s part. She obviously isn’t thinking of Stefan’s feelings while she’s making it with Damon. She isn’t even thinking of Damon’s feelings. As Damon grows more attached to her, rather than end their little affair she fans the flames, continuing to tease and flirt with him, all the while claiming she could never ever be with him, that Stefan is her true love. Those don’t sound like the actions of a loyal, selfless, compassionate person, do they?

Smith realizes how badly this scenario reflects on her characters, so she uses magic to justify their behavior. She attributes Damon’s attraction to Elena to her supernaturally-charged blood that is virtually irresistible to vampires. He is thus compelled to “exchange blood” with her. By taking free-will out of the equation Smith saves Damon from being held responsible for his actions, much as being possessed by the kitsune excused him from being blamed for all the chaos he wrought in Nightfall.

Whenever they kiss a psychic link opens up between Elena and Damon, allowing them to access each others thoughts and internal landscapes. The first time they kiss Elena comes face to face with Damon’s inner child. (I’m serious. She really does. I’d tell you to stop laughing but…there’s no reason you should.) Elena feels such compassion for this scared little boy, wants so much to comfort him that she feels she must continue the affair with Damon just so she can save his inner child! By framing Elena’s conscious and repeated transgressions as compassionate Smith tries to redeem Elena in the eyes of the reader, but the whole inner child subplot is so ridiculous this attempt is a complete failure.

Now, I could have bought the Elena and Damon plotline if Smith had tried giving it some depth. Elena is only eighteen, and eighteen year olds DO do stupid shit like cheat on their boyfriends for no other reason than because they can. It seems like the only reason Smith included the inner child subplot was because she was unwilling to let Elena be imperfect. Ironically, it’s that choice that gives rise to Elena’s old vanity, destroys all of her previous character growth, and turns her into an unlikable heroine. Rather than watch Elena carry on the affair convinced of its necessity to saving Damon’s inner child, I would have liked to see her wrestle with her decision to cheat on Stefan. I would have liked to see her try to justify her actions to herself through non-magical means. I would have liked to see Elena experience some moral quandary or internal conflict over her feelings and actions. I would have liked Smith to allow Elena the luxury of being a person rather than an ideal. Doing so would have given the book some much needed grounding, and given Smith the opportunity to deal with relevant themes like honesty in relationships, desire versus love, and developing a of personal code of ethics. Furthermore, it would have allowed Elena to grow as a character. She would have had to face a new challenge – one just as frightening as any supernatural threat – and wrestle with questions she’d never had to ask herself before: Is it possible to love two people at the same time? Is it morally right? How do I deal with these feelings without hurting anyone? Is it even possible? What do my actions say about me as a person? Do I like what they say? These are questions teenagers across the globe ask themselves when entering the arena of sex and love. I have no doubt readers would have been receptive to a confused and imperfect heroine who was a little easier to relate to.

The only redeeming aspect of Elena’s “mean girl” persona back in The Awakening and The Struggle was her self-confidence and assertiveness. Elena Gilbert always got what she wanted and always had a plan for how to get it. Smith may bring back the bitch in Shadow Souls but she forgets the self-confidence and assertiveness. With her true love in mortal peril what’s Elena’s big rescue plan? Leave everything up to Damon. Follow Damon’s lead, let Damon decide what to do, do everything Damon says. Elena has virtually no agency and it’s really sad.

Oh, and did I mention that Elena cries or gets teary-eyed no less than 33 times through the course of the book? That’s once every 18 pages! Now, correct me if I’m wrong, but isn’t Bonnie supposed to be the cry-baby? Tears punctuate emotionally moving experiences. But when a person cries at everything none of their experiences seem special. Elena cried so often that instead of sharing her pain or joy when she did, I just rolled my eyes at how overly-emotional she was being.

I did not recognize the Elena Gilbert I’d come to know over the course of five books in the helpless, thoughtless, conceited little girl who showed up in Shadow Souls. I spent all 608 pages trying to figure out why Smith was trying so hard to prevent her characters from growing and evolving, what narrative purpose was served by allowing Elena and Damon to regress. Then, it hit me: Smith doesn’t know how write anything else. All of her books contain the same recycled love triangle, the same seductive bad boys and resistant Mary Sues. She never gives the reader anything new or different. She hasn’t let Elena and Damon grow because she doesn’t know how to write growth or how to depict characters other than the tried and true “types” she has been using for decades. That realization was, for me,  a stake through the heart of The Vampire Diaries series.

I have a rule. I call it the two book rule, and the two book rule states that if any writer to whom I’ve been unwaveringly loyal writes two books in a row that fail to bring me pleasure I stop buying their books. I created the rule to save myself both time and money, and to affirm that I wasn’t willing to waste precious minutes of my life on crappy books. Reading Nightfall and Shadow Souls wasn’t just a joyless experience, it was downright painful. So, it’s with great regret that I say I will not be buying any more books by L.J. Smith, not even the final installment of The Return trilogy. I don’t care about Elena, Damon, Stefan or the rest of the gang anymore because it’s obvious they are done growing, and where’s the fun in reading about people who don’t grow or change?

If you’re a fan of The Vampire Diaries I advise you to keep your distance from Shadow Souls. Reading it will only piss you off. This review only touched upon the most troublesome aspects of the story, but there are tons more. For instance, Smith’s continual use of female victimization and slavery as a plot device void of any social context or commentary. I could write a dissertation around that topic alone.

Don’t read Shadow Souls. Don’t read Nightfall, either. Instead, watch The Vampire Diaries television show. The writing, plot lines, character and relationship development, and pacing are all infinitely better. Smith could learn a thing or twelve.

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