A Literary Playground: When Characters Run Amok In Your Head

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Note: To the 72 email subscribers who received an accidentally published WordPress post a few days ago with a very, very rough draft of this review, I apologize and hope that those of you who took the time to read it were thoroughly entertained by my unedited exclamations to myself. 

Title: Midnight Thief

Author: Livia Blackburne

Genre: Realistic Fantasy

Publishing Info: July 8, 2014 by Disney Hyperion

Jukebox: Finding a song to fit Midnight Thief was harder than normal. I had to find a dark song because this is a dark novel, but I also had to find one that is constantly moving because the main character Kyra strikes me as the sort who is always alert, eyes roving and taking in the situation even if the rest of her body is still. What I came up with is Tesselate by Alt-J. At 55 seconds, the instrumental break embodies the graceful way Kyra can climb up any wall:

 

I’ve mentioned Tamora Pierce a few times already because of my great respect and love for her Tortall series. Since I began reading her novels in fourth grade, I haven’t met anyone who is quite as reverent as I am of her beautiful, no-nonsense prose and her incredible worldbuilding skills. Until now.

Introducing Livia Blackburne: author of her incredible debut novel Midnight Thief, graduate of both Harvard and MIT, blogger of psychology and neuroscience, Taiwan-born, and most importantly, as awed by Tamora Pierce as I am. Ms. Blackburne also cites Graceling by Kristin Cashore and Daughter of Smoke and Bone by Laini Taylor as her favorite books.

Basically, the Jukebox Muse can die happy now that she’s found her doppelgänger (except for the neuroscience part).

There are several reasons why I am in such a tizzy over this book and why others should be too. I rarely encounter two strong main characters, a fleshed-out world, a true threat, and a surprising plot in one book. Yet Blackburne managed all of them, and from the semi-cliff-hanger ending, I predict at least two more books. Now that she’s put all that good foundation work in, the rest of her series is her playground. And if Amazon’s labeling of Midnight Thief as “Grades 7 and up” gives you doubts about its maturity, ignore it. Pierce’s books are also tagged as “Grades 7 and up,” and I just reread it last week.

Blackburne sets up her world and her main characters so smoothly, I didn’t even notice it was happening. Unlike the infodumping issue I talked about in Samantha Shannon’s The Bone Season, Blackburne introduces her two main characters, Kyra and Tristam, by walking us through their daily routines. Kyra, a 17-year old talented thief, lives at the Drunken Dog Inn with her patchwork family of Bella, resident cook, and Flick, longtime friend and fellow former street rat. She steals because honest work is scarce and she needs money. And plus, she’s eerily good at climbing walls. But just because she’s a thief doesn’t mean we get to know Kyra by watching her steal things. We watch her interact lovingly with Bella and Flick. We follow her down the dirty streets as she visits Idalee and her sister Lettie, two street orphans who are living the same, unforgiving childhood that Kyra barely survived before Flick and Bella took her in. We understand through these experiences why Kyra’s identity is more than her thieving abilities.

On the other side, Tristam is a 20-something knight working for the Master of Strategy. He has an unbending loyalty to the Palace, but dislikes the confining atmosphere of urban life and regularly volunteers for patrol so he can ride in the open forest that reminds him of his country estate. When strange Demon riders who train wildcats as their own children begin raiding farms and murdering innocents, including his close friend, Tristam immediately devotes all hours to finding the threat, to take revenge and to keep the city safe. Rather than giving us immediate satisfaction in the form of developing a character via intense battle sequences and dramatic dialogue, Blackburne gives us the day-in-the-life view of her characters. I’d rather discover with Kyra that the blood from her first kill doesn’t wash away in one night rather than watch her win an epic battle. Blackburne has let Kyra and Tristam sit in her mind for years, and her patience has paid off.

Blackburne has not only created two smart characters who nevertheless ruthlessly question their own decisions and morals, but she has also described them with natural prose. Not beautiful, natural. We are routinely awestruck by beautiful prose that describes otherworldly and unattainable experiences and people. Natural prose makes us feel every little hope and disappointment that all of us experience daily. Mountains and valleys as opposed to bumps in the road. While beautiful prose can make us cry and sigh for a heartbreaking minute, I can tell you confidently that I will more likely come back to a world carved in natural prose, a world like Blackburne’s created, because it’s a world in which one can live and breathe and stay for a while. It’s a world that, once planted in readers’ minds, will grow by itself, filling in holes and edges, able to take the information presented in the book and extrapolate.

Like the world, the main threat in Midnight Thief is layered. Though the Demon Riders that Tristam is hunting are a large antagonist, Tristam and Kyra are, for all intents and purposes, mortal enemies before they meet and decide to work together. Throw in James, head of the Assassin’s Guild (Blackburne also published a novella filling in James’s background that she says should be read after Midnight Thief), who convinces Kyra to break into the Palace but never tells her the reason behind her assignment, and Blackburne has a nice Jack-in-the-box of a plot to surprise us with its multiple outcomes.

Midnight Thief is 384 pages. I learned from Tamora Pierce’s FAQ on her website that publishers used to limit YA novelists to 250 pages because they thought the teenage audience wouldn’t have the attention span to read more. The Golden Compass and Harry Potter pushed that limit up to 300, but it still takes a lot of convincing to get more pages. I wonder if that was the deal with Blackburne and Disney Hyperion. With the amount of time and depth that the plot covers, Blackburne could easily fill up 500 pages with more of Kyra and Tristam’s backgrounds. There’s some authors that need the 300 page limit because it forces them to cut all the unnecessary content. However, I didn’t want Midnight Thief to end after 384 pages, to the point where I put the book down after four chapters so I could savor what Blackburne did decide to include. Now that it’s finished, all I and others can do is wait eagerly for the next installment in the series.

Blackburne said herself that Midnight Thief “is my homage to the medieval fantasies I grew up reading. Most notably, Tamora Pierce’s Song of the Lioness, which I’ve read and reread countless times. Unlike the Lioness Alanna, Kyra is a thief instead of a knight, and the challenges she faces are different. But I hope I’ve captured the same spirit, vulnerability, and courage that drew me to my favorite girl-power fantasies from my childhood.” Knowing Tamora Pierce’s literature as well as I do, I can congratulate Blackburne on the fact that I see a lot of Tamora Pierce in her writing choices. I also see a lot that is purely Blackburne, a gift that is backed by her education in some of the best fantasy literature out there.

Rating: 9 – so crazy good that if the plot, characters, and world were real I would just run away and join them

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Waxing Poetic: We’re all romantics at heart

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Title: The Fault In Our Stars

Author: John Green

Genre: Realistic Fiction

Publishing Info: January 2012 by Dutton Books

Jukebox: First of all, the movie soundtrack for the book is spot-on. Second of all, I’m not going to use the soundtrack because where’s the fun in that? So here’s “Riot Van” by Arctic Monkeys. Every time I listen to it, I start imagining Hazel’s life after the book ends: some depression, some confidence, and some contentedness. Anyone who knows Arctic Monkeys knows their usual lively, garage-rock sound, so this laid-back, drifting song is rare. It’s a song that Hazel could be listening to while lying down in her back lawn:

Here we are again with one of those hyped-up books and one of those cult followings and one of those movies. I wonder if original movie ideas actually exist anymore (Planes 2? Really Pixar?). Putting all originality complaints aside, this book-to-movie adaptation is actually worth discussing.

The question I always ask first with what I’m beginning to call “hype books” is whether John Green and TFIOS really deserve all the publicity versus other books that weren’t lucky enough to get a movie, like Joan Bauer or Sarah Dessen‘s veritable treasure trove of realistic fiction. Of course I’m not going to say it deserves ALL the social media buzz, because when teenage girls and a hot male lead who waxes poetic get involved, everything always get way crazy (remember Team Edward and Jacob? It never stops). However, Green is quickly building a legacy for himself that deserves to be lauded alongside Joan Bauer and Sarah Dessen.

Plus, he’s a boss. Green didn’t get famous overnight after his first stab at writing. TFIOS may be his jackpot, but he’s well used to writing successful books: Paper Towns and Will Grayson, Will Grayson are both on my TBR list. As if that wasn’t enough, he’s also a youtube giant who started VidCon.

With Green’s online presence in mind, it’s not surprising that TFIOS got so popular so quickly. And the story is attractively Nicholas-Sparks-like: Hazel, a 16-year old cancer patient meets 17-year old Augustus at cancer support group and they go to Amsterdam to meet a reclusive author and fall in love along the way. I won’t say what comes next, but c’mon guys, it’s a sad cancer story, you have to go into this novel with some expectation of being depressed. I certainly was pleasantly mopey for a couple days after finishing the book. And I caught myself imagining what Hazel’s life would be like after the book ended. It’s always a good sign when we want to continue a story in our own heads.

The difference between this book and the annoyingly sappy, repetitive Nicholas Sparks books is the hilarious dialogue. John Green puts so much of himself in all his characters, and in this case it works well. Green is a smart and quirky guy, therefore his characters have smart and quirky dialogue. The constant comments about the awkward, face-palm moments in life make the book flow naturally and feel realistic. However, the dialogue is also Green’s Achilles heel. There were many times when I was jolted out of the story because the dialogue had turned into a slew of pretentiously mature witticisms. That’s the danger zone: trying to be smart and funny while still making readers believe people actually talk like that in real life. The simple test is whether the dialogue can be read out loud in a convincing manner. I understand that Augustus’s outrageous one-liners are deliberately outrageous and he probably practices his speeches in front of a mirror, but there’s only so much Green can include of Augustus waxing poetic before it makes me cringe.

And while I don’t want to bash John Green too hard because I do think he’s created some quietly hilarious characters, I have to mention the first kiss scene while we’re on the subject of plausibility. I can deal with the improv kiss because emotions are just too overwhelming sometimes, but why must we have the important first physical connection in Anne Frank’s house (aka memorial of a 13-year old victim of the Holocaust)? With people clapping afterwards?? I’m sorry, but that’s really not how real life works. It would be fine if Green didn’t try so hard for the rest of the book to be a teenager’s realistic life, but the appeal of his book is that these kids are just like us. And while it’d be cool to have an audience applauding me after every major relationship checkpoint, that sadly hasn’t happened to me yet.

I only call out the occasional pretentious dialogue and that one ridiculous scene because it’s out of place in an otherwise perfectly flawed story. Hazel, quiet and sympathetic, and Augustus, wonderfully over-the-top, work well as the modern star-crossed couple. The few appearances of Hazel’s parents, who act as both supportive parents and best friends with their only daughter, were a close second to the main couple’s relationship. All in all, I thought the book was too short. John Green left me wanting more. Which is fitting, for a love story between terminal cancer patients and a moral about how fleeting life can be. I was stumped for a while on whether Green treated the effect of cancer on a teenager’s life too simply, but in the end I guess the book’s about struggling to have a life with cancer, not struggling to beat cancer while having a life.

Contrary to the book, I have no major complaints about the movie, a surprise to both you and me, I bet. I liked the characters of Hazel (played by Shailene Woodley) and Hazel’s parents (Laura Dern and Sam Trammell) even more, and I appreciate Ansel Elgort’s ability to toss off Green’s pretentious dialogue as fake douchebaggery. It still doesn’t fly in the book, but it’s endearing in the movie. Gosh, Hazel and Gus have such great chemistry, considering that the actors played siblings in their previous movie, Divergent. There was a never a point in the movie where I lost focus or checked the time, thanks mostly to Shailene and Ansel’s impressive range of facial expressions. Plus, the voiceover was tastefully used to preserve Hazel’s first-person narrative. The movie did skip a lot of Gus’s health slowly deteriorating after the Amsterdam trip, but one has to make cuts somewhere in order to get the full immersive effect of other, more important scenes. It really was an incredibly faithful representation of the novel. So faithful that the first kiss scene was just as fairy-tale-like in the flesh as I imagined it to be.

It was a long, fulfilling movie. What felt like six hours was probably only two. It alleviated my worries about the book being too short to create enough depth in Hazel and Gus’s relationship and treating cancer too simply. It felt like a life had been lived, and that’s all we really ask for.

Rating: 8 – loved it: would definitely recommend, solid characters, writing, plot; might reread in a couple years

The movie soundtrack is worth a quick listen too. As individual songs, Birdy’s “Not About Angels”, M83’s  “Wait”, and STRFKR’s “While I’m Alive” stand out to me. The rest are a little to generically pop for my tastes. Regarding it as a whole, the collection of young artists delivers a fresh sound, representing the ups and downs of the story in all its teenage glory. Here’s the full soundtrack: