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.
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.
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.
Holly Carver is a witch on the rise. Despite a freak childhood accident that rendered her unable to perform “Big M” magic, she and her business partner, the lethally handsome and chronically undead Alessandro, have managed to eek out a nice living exorcising haunted houses and helping people find lost objects. She has a great boyfriend, lives in a house that has belonged to her family for generations, and is eager to start business school in the hopes of one day expanding her business.
But when dead bodies start popping up all over campus, Holly has to put her life on hold. Called in to help with the investigation, Holly and Alessandro can tell these are more than just run of the mill sorcerer or vampire attacks. Someone is trying to start a war, and it’s up to them to find out who. But, it’ll take more than “little m” magic to find the culprit…or for Holly to resist Alessandro’s charms.
I’m not a huge fan of romance novels, but I picked up Sharon Ashwood’s Ravenous, the first book in the Dark Forgotten series, because it sounded more action adventure, urban fantasy-esque than paranormal romance.
And, yes, I admit it, I liked the cover art. Pretty, leather-clad chick crouching against an urban landscape dangling a dagger from her hand? What’s not to like? In his fiction writing guide, Cunning & Craft, author Peter Selgin wrote, “What readers of fiction most want to learn about is people,” and that is definitely true for me. I picked up Ravenous because I wanted to learn more about the woman on the cover; wanted to reach below the surface and see what kind of woman lived beneath that outer vestige.
Ravenous turned out to be a good reminder of why one should never judge a book by its cover. Ashwood has populated the world of the Dark Forgotten with flat characters. Not one of them possesses even an ounce of personality. Holly is a witch who comes from a long line of powerful witches, and hopes to become a successful paranormal investigator. In 334 pages that’s all we find out about her. Ashwood does not bother to give her interests outside of those related to her magical abilities. Holly has no hobbies, no individual quirks, and no friends aside from those she accumulates through the murder investigation.
The same is true of the hero, Alessandro. He is draped in vampire cliché from the moment he steps foot on the page; he’s foreign, lethal, breath-takingly gorgeous, and covered from head to toe in black leather. That’s as deep as his character ever gets. About half way through the novel we learn Alessandro is a musician, that he plays numerous instruments and can sing in seven different languages. But, we never get to observe him enjoying a piece of music, playing a guitar, or singing a song. We never so much as hear him hum a tune under his breath. If Ashwood had bothered to bring this aspect of his personality to life through action it would have done wonders to flesh out his character. As is, they’re nothing but words on a page, as flat and featureless as Alessandro himself.
It’s a shame the people who populate the realm of the Dark Forgotten are so, well, forgettable, because Ashwood has actually succeeded in creating a compelling world. In it, vampires, werewolves, and supernaturals of all stripes have been integrated into human society. They own homes, have respectable jobs, and are issued social security numbers. While there are definite advantages to fitting in to human society, like not having to hide or pretend to be something they are not, supernaturals must also deal with the discrimination leveled at them by prejudiced humans. Additionally, supernaturals strive to preserve their own ancient traditions and customs in a modern world. It’s a scenario ripe with conflict, and I hope Ashwood will explore some of the more explosive possibilities as the series moves forward.
But, is having an interest in the world itself enough to make me continue on to the next book in the series? Probably not. I need to have people, people who captivate and surprise me, who I can relate to and sympathize with, and the world of the Dark Forgotten just doesn’t have them. Ashwood’s prose may be solid, she may be a talented writer, but without three dimensional characters she’s got no moral and emotional center for the reader to latch on to. Strong characters are what breathe life into a written work, and Ravenous is, like the murder victims chronicled within, dead on arrival.
I was twelve when the first book in The Vampire Diaries tetralogy was released back in 1991. I was immediately taken with the pretty, popular, and strong-willed Elena Gilbert, as well as her two vampire suitors, the sensitive Stefan and his womanizing brother Damon, not to mention Elena’s loyal friends Meredith, Bonnie, and Matt. Reading The Vampire Diaries was a transformative experience for me. I found Smith’s deliberate and well paced prose incredibly appealing. I also found her ability to make the simplest physical interactions between characters sensual without becoming sexually explicit, very admirable. When I wrote my senior thesis during my final year as an undergraduate Creative Writing major, I listed Smith as one of my primary influences as a writer.
Smith went on to write three more YA trilogies with a supernatural slant, as well as the successful Night World series, before withdrawing from the writing world one book short of completing the Night World series. Twelve years after the publication of her last novel and eighteen years after the publication of the last volume of The Vampire Diaries, Smith is back with the fifth installment, The Vampire Diaries: The Return: Nightfall. Though Nightfall is the first book in The Return trilogy, the series picks up right where Dark Reunion left off, making them the continuation of a series rather than a stand alone trilogy.
It must be noted from the get go that I have not picked up a YA novel since I was sixteen. Coincidentally, I outgrew YA fiction around about the same time Smith stopped writing it. As a result, I don’t really know what appeals to the YA audience these days, and can’t even guess at how a reader in the appropriate age demographic would respond to this novel. I can only evaluate it as a grown woman and long time fan that still possesses a great deal of love for the series.
It having been such a long time since I’d read the first four books, before starting Nightfall, I hauled out my first edition paperbacks and re-read the entire series to refresh my memory. My response this time around was less favorable than when I was twelve. I found it very difficult to like most of the characters. Elena is incredibly selfish and manipulative. I couldn’t figure out why I identified so much with her when I was younger. Of course, I realize the series is all about how Elena goes from being your stereotypical “mean girl” to a caring, selfless, and ultimately noble person, but that doesn’t change the fact that she remains almost entirely unsympathetic through the first two books. Stefan’s insistence on blaming himself for every negative thing that happens to the people he loves struck me as narcissistic. I liked Damon up until he forced Elena to exchange blood with him by threatening to kill her little sister, thus resulting in a metaphorical rape scene that is later referenced as the night Elena “succumbed” to him. I thought Bonnie was too sensitive and Matt was a door mat. Don’t get me wrong, all the characters have redeeming qualities. I just felt their flaws outweighed their virtues, making them difficult to like. The only character I didn’t have to work at liking was Meredith whose occasional “mean girl” tendencies and biting sarcasm were eclipsed by her level-headedness and compassion.
The writing, however, held up. Simple and descriptive, spare and deliberate; every scene, sentence, and snippet of dialogue advanced the plot. There wasn’t an ounce of fat to trim. Every single word in those books needed to be there. There are precious few writers in the world who can construct such tight stories, and it’s the primary reason I loved Smith’s books.
That said, twenty pages into Nightfall I knew something was wrong. Dark Reunion, the fourth book in the series, ends on the morning of June 21, 1992, and Nightfall picks up seven days after. Yet, all of a sudden there is 2009 technology in a 1992 world. Damon carries a hand held video recorder. Stefan has a personal computer. Everyone has a cell phone and they all make video calls to each other on a regular basis. None of these devices were readily available in 1992. If they had been, the first four books would have been significantly different since many of the most frightening scenes occur because one character can’t get in touch with another.
There is nothing I hate more than authors who disregard their own timelines or world rules. I think it’s the hallmark of a lazy writer. After seething for a while, I came up with an idea that I thought might explain the sudden time shift. I went down to my local Barnes and Noble and picked up a copy of the most recent edition of The Vampire Diaries. And there it was, just as I’d suspected – the years had been removed from all the diary entries in the reissued texts. On the final page of Dark Reunion, the diary entry Bonnie writes is simply dated June 21st, instead of 6/21/92 as in my first edition paperback.
I can understand Smith and HarperCollins wanting the books to appeal to today’s teens and thinking the only way to do so is by making the books as modern as possible. But disregarding the original timeline only hurts the series. First, it makes the books inconsistent. Assuming Smith hasn’t made any major changes to the original texts, having the characters go from possessing no modern tech devices in the first four books to having tons, is jarring. It changes the tone and alters the intensity of the dangers the characters face. Second, assuming that YA readers won’t read anything that isn’t set in the present is absurd and shows a marked lack of faith in young readers. If they can suspend disbelief long enough to accept that vampires walk freely among us, surely they can acknowledge a time when cell phones and the internet were not part of everyday life. Young readers can be drawn into a well written story even if it doesn’t take place in the present. I don’t see anyone rushing to modernize Little Women, The Secret Garden, or The Outsiders, and I’m pretty sure those books remain popular. Third, it totally disregards their other target demographic, pre-existing fans of the series; those of us who are already invested in the story and already familiar with the timeline. Making such a dramatic changes disregards the continuity of the series and the intelligence of the readers.
Though that was the first, unfortunately it was not the only problem I had with Nightfall. At 592 pages, Nightfall is a bloated novel. Though Smith has always written epic fiction, none of her previous books contained so much unnecessary material. There are entire scenes that do nothing to advance the plot, reveal character, or add depth to relationships. For instance, the first half of the book contains multiple love scenes between Elena and Stefan that reveal nothing the reader doesn’t already know. They serve no purpose other than to bog down the narrative. There is lots of unnecessary dialogue and redundant description, both of which are very uncharacteristic of Smith. I figure she could have cut a good 250 pages without sacrificing anything essential. The deliberate plotting, tight prose, and good pacing I’ve come to expect from her are completely absent here.
The story itself is simple – seven days after returning from the dead Elena Gilbert has forgotten everything she ever knew. She can’t talk, write, and can barely walk. She doesn’t recognize her friends and is completely reliant on Stefan. Elena’s return super-charged the already mystically saturated Fell’s Church, turning the town into a beacon of power that can be sensed by supernaturals across the globe. New beings with bad intentions begin flocking to Fell’s Church. When a handful of pre-teen girls start making uncharacteristically bold sexual advances on the men in town, Bonnie, Matt, and Meredith know something’s up and enlist the help of Stefan, Damon, and Elena to get to the bottom of it.
A number of things have changed in YA literature since Smith’s last novel hit the shelves. It is now acceptable to openly address matters like sex, pregnancy, and sexual orientation. It’s more acceptable for teenage characters to curse. Topics that had to be tip toed around back in 1992 are now fair game, and Smith does her best to throw each and every one of them into Nightfall. Characters who never so much as uttered the word “darn” in previous books shout “hell,” “slut,” and “bullshit” in Nightfall. Though the words themselves are not particularly shocking, they are out of character for the kids using them.
Sex plays a key role in Nightfall. There are several scenes in which barely dressed pre-pubescent girls proposition Matt while rubbing suggestively against him. These graphic scenes leave the reader feeling so dirty, showering at the end of each chapter is well advised. In the first four books the act of exchanging blood is used as a metaphor for sexual intercourse. In Nightfall, the metaphor is made blatant when it is explained that vampires don’t actually have sex because bloodlust takes the place of sexual desire. This was hinted at in the previous books, but by refraining from stating it outright Smith allowed the reader the choice of taking the metaphor at face value or imagining that there was more to the act than what was being stated outright. Over-clarifying the metaphor not only robs Damon and Stefan of their sex appeal, but it robs the reader of their fantasies. Before, a reader could imagine Damon or Stefan having sexy fun time with Elena. Now, that option is off the table. It removes the idea of consensual sexual intercourse within a committed relationship from the story, replacing it with the aforementioned pre-pubescent advances which ultimately paint sexuality as a dangerous thing. This marks a drastic change in tone. In the first four books tact, subtlety, and imagination were king. Controversial topics were handled delicately and that sensitivity was very attractive. It indicated a willingness on Smith’s part to trust her readers to piece together what was going on without having to be told outright. Nightfall, on the other hand, is all about getting in your face. The garish sexual displays and over-explanations rob the series of its sensuality.
Many readers and reviewers have stated that Smith tossed all the character development she built in the first half of the series out the window in Nightfall. I wouldn’t go that far. Nightfall contains plenty of solid character development that’s in line with the previous books. Take Matt for example. In Nightfall he finally gets sick of being a push over and begins standing up for himself. Bonnie is still determined to be brave in the face of danger, and we get to witness her failures and successes. Elena sacrificed her life in The Fury, and played guardian angel to her friends in Dark Reunion. Since she spent four volumes becoming a better person, it makes sense that she would return to Earth as a living angel, at least temporarily.
But there are a number of irregularities, and some character back-tracking. For example, at the end of Dark Reunion it’s indicated that consummate villainess, Caroline, is on her way to mending her rift with Elena, Bonnie, and Meredith. Yet, Nightfall opens with Caroline making a deal with a demon to “get back” at Elena. Her motivation is skimpy at best. On page 10, Caroline explains “I’m just so tired of hearing about Elena this, and Stefan that…and now it’s going to start all over.” But, for all intents and purposes Elena is still dead. The only people who know or can know she is alive are the people who saw her materialize in the woods. Since no one can know she is alive, Elena can’t over shadow Caroline the way she used to, therefore Caroline doesn’t have anything to fear and her sudden shift back to mega-bitch makes no sense.
Damon’s struggle to come to terms with his noble side continues in Nightfall. We see him show concern not just for Elena, but Bonnie, Meredith, and even Caroline, referring to them collectively has “his girls.” We see him save Bonnie from certain death more than once, not because anyone forced him to, but because he wants to. The only problematic aspect of his character arch is his sudden decision to actively start pursuing Elena again even though he seemed to have given up the quest and accepted her love for Stefan by the beginning of The Fury.
Both Caroline’s and Damon’s decisions to go after Elena are instances in which Smith sacrificed character continuity in the name of plot. Rather than allowing her villains the redemption they were well on their way to earning in Dark Reunion, she turns them back into “bad guys” to keep things interesting. This is what readers are railing against when they go on about the demolition of character in Nightfall. These particular choices feel forced and are not in line with the character development that took place in the original books.
Overall, Nightfall was a let down. I wanted to adore this book the way I adored its predecessors, but the choppy prose, changes in tone, and disregard for the original timeline prevented me from doing so. I could have accepted everything else if only the writing and continuity held up. Fans across the Web are hailing this book as the worst in the series. Even Smith herself admits Nightfall is not her best novel. I hope Smith will take in the criticisms and listen to what her fans are trying to tell her. The bad reviews aren’t meant to insult. They are the pleas of frustrated fans trying to remind Smith why they loved her work to begin with, and hoping she will bring wayward elements back in line with the original text as the series progresses.
Key to Conflict is a good idea that suffers from poor execution.
Gillian Key is a paramortal psychologist. In a world where humans exist along side supernatural beings, including vampires, werewolves, fairies and elves, it is Gillian’s job to provide them with the same caliber of mental health care available to humans. Also a gifted empath, Gillian is able to receive feelings from and project feelings to the living and the dead, a rare talent that puts her at the top of her profession. Not only that, but she is a retired Marine Special Forces operative.
The books opens as Gillian makes her way to Romania, having been sent to provide short-term therapy to both vampire Count Aleksei Rachlav, and a local ghost Dante Montefiore who has been terrorizing the inhabitants of a nearby castle. But Gillian’s legitimate role as therapist is also her cover. As an undercover field operative she has been charged with the task of pumping Aleksei and Dante for information about a rumored vampiric uprising led by the legendary Count Dracula.
Key to Conflict presented me with a heroine I wanted to read about in a situation I was interested in watching her navigate. However, a decent premise is all the book has to offer.
It’s full of mistakes you’d expect from a beginning writer, the most glaring of which is Gryphon’s complete dismissal of the classic writing axiom “Show, don’t tell.” Rather than draw readers in through carefully constructed scenes played out by dynamic characters, she “tells” her readers what is going on instead of allowing them to watch the story as it unfolds. This distances them from the material and prevents readers from really getting into the story.
Similarly, her idea of character development is to list all the positive and negative qualities she claims her characters possess rather than allowing readers to see them display these qualities through their actions. There is often a huge disconnect between the qualities she says her characters possess and the qualities she actually shows her characters to possess.
For instance, Gillian is supposed to be a fearless Marine, yet, when in danger she is more apt to run, hide, or look for a nice man to save her. She is supposed to be a highly decorated Captain, yet she fouls up every plan of attack she attempts. As a therapist, she shows a remarkable talent for leaving her patients worse off than they were when they came to her. Gillian is supposed to be a strong, independent , modern woman, but what Gryphon gives us is a helplessly dependent, petulant brat who constantly complains about how no thinks she can take care of herself, even though she never does anything to prove she can.
It isn’t just the constant “telling” and lack of character development that mark Key to Conflict as the work of a novice. The text is full of run on sentences, unnecessary dialogue, unnecessary repetition, and grammatical errors, all of which cause the story to drag. The main plot involving Count Dracula’s coup lacks urgency and does not come across as particularly dire. Gryphon seems to think the only time it is appropriate to insert an actual scene into the story is when something of a romantic or sexual nature occurs. Don’t get me wrong, romance has its place, but a book that’s nothing more than overly explanatory narrative injected with the occasional sex scene wears thin very fast.
Essentially, Key to Conflict is a starter novel; the one a new writer works on for years that ultimately ends up collecting dust at the bottom of their desk drawer because no one will, or should, publish it. I’m actually astounded this book made it into print. Written by an author lacking in both technique and story telling ability I am confounded there is an editor on the planet who thought this work worthy of mass production. Though, it does give struggling novelists hope. After all, if Talia Gryphon can get published, anyone can.
I have been a full fledged Buffy fanatic ever since the first episode of Buffy, the Vampire Slayer aired way back in 1997. Like so many other teens and twenty-somethings I connected with Buffy and the Scoobie Gang because I saw aspects of my own life reflected in their travails. Not only do I love watching the show, I love reading about it as well. As the academic area known as Buffy Studies grew, spawning conferences and the online literary magazine Slayage, I devoured any and all academic material I could find relating to Buffy. Seven Seasons of Buffy: Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers Discuss Their Favorite Television Show had been on my wish list for some time, so when I got it for Christmas I dove in with glee.
Unfortunately, it wound up being one of those mixed bags I so often find myself writing about. There were only a handful or really stand out essays. Roxanne Longstreet Conrad’s essay “Is That Your Final Answer…” takes the form of a long essay question on a young demon’s midterm. The question? Identify and prove the identity of the most powerful individual force for good in Sunnydale. What makes this essay really interesting, aside from the inventive frame, is the respondent’s thoughtful answer that Xander Harris is the most powerful force for good. In “A Slayer Comes to Town” Scott Westerfield interprets Buffy through his own theoretical framework, identifying the central themes that Buffy has in common with several other science fiction and fantasy oriented shows. And in “Unseen Horrors & Shadowy Manipulations” Kevin Andrew Murphy looks at how the demands of censors and studio executives shaped the series.
However, most of the essays were disappointing. In “A Buffy Confession” Justine Larbalestier spends thirteen pages lambasting people who constantly whine that the show was better last season, and then turns into one of those people in the last page of the essay. Sherrilyn Kenyon puts forth the absurd argument that Buffy is really a psychic vampire who feeds off the testosterone of all the men in her life in “The Search for Spike’s Balls.” It would be interesting if she actually used evidence from the show to back up her thesis.
One of the problems with this collection is the editor has chosen to include several essays on the same topic, all of which eventually come to the same conclusion. There were a number of essays about Buffy’s love life, or that specifically cited it as an example to illustrate another point. Yet, there was almost no variation in the interpretations. They all concluded that Buffy and the Scoobies have had almost uniformly horrible love lives. Tell me something I don’t know! With so many different essays on the same topic, I would expect each to present a different view on the issue. Reading so many authors come to the same conclusion was not only redundant but a massive waste of my time as a reader.
And that, as I said, isn’t the fault of the essayists, but of editor Glenn Yaffeth. It wasn’t until after I’d placed Seven Seasons of Buffy on my bookshelf that I realized I’d had a bad experience with his work in the past. He also edited a collection of essays on The Matrix called Taking the Red Pill: Science, Philosphy, and Religion in The Matrix that I was less than dazzled by.
I also had Five Seasons of Angel, a book of essays in the same vein and also edited by Yaffeth, on my wish list for a while. After reading Seven Seasons of Buffy it came off. I have come to the realization that Yaffeth and I simply do not mix. The five or six good essays are worth the read if you are a hardcore Buffy fan, but don’t spend money on the whole thing. Borrow the book from a friend or read through it at the library or in Barnes and Noble. If a truly stellar collection of academic Buffy writings is what you’re looking for I highly recommend Buffy, The Vampire Slayer and Philosophy edited by James South. Or if you’re specifically interested in what the series has to say about religion, check out What Would Buffy Do by Jana Riess.