Cover Love: Everneath by Brodi Ashton

Everneath by Brodi Ashton

Now, normally I don't like covers with girls in fancy dresses on them. They're boring. They're overdone. They were pretty once but now they're no more original than your basic long-haired Fabio holding swooning maiden on the cover of a bodice-ripper. However, this one grabbed me. Besides being featured in a lovely review by Zoe's Book Reviews, it's just plain well done. The color scheme is unified; grays and blacks and whites and reds, distributed evenly so it doesn't look like someone just picked swatches at random. The title is a unique but clean font (and NOT Papyrus or a rip off of Nightmare Before Christmas' title text) with enough of a flourish to make it pretty. And the dress. This is no ordinary dress. Your stereotypical ballgown has been transformed into billows and tendrils of smoke that turn this belle of the ball into a dark goddess. One look and you must know why she's vanishing into wisps. The description of the book seems pretty unique too, and I'm actually going to add this to my reading list. But remember...it's the cover that caught me. Don't underestimate the power of good quality photoshopping and clean graphics.

And because I am obsessed covers of all kinds and don't get to talk about them enough, here's how it works. I give you a cover and a cover. Yeah, I know, it's weird. Just go with it. So, anyhoo, there was the book cover. Now here's a song cover: "Land of Confusion" by Disturbed. Genesis (that's Phil Collins' band for those of you youngins...you know, the guy who wrote the music for Tarzan. Okay, I wasn't actually born when Genesis was big but...still.) did the original version of this powerful quasi-political song. Disturbed amps it up with their trademark growly vocals (without the death metal -esque screams that turn some people off) and a hard electric guitar. Considering the subject matter of Everneath, it might be an appropriate accompanying song.



Review: The Restorer by Amanda Stevens

TITLE: The Restorer
AUTHOR: Amanda Stevens
PAGES: 384
FORMAT: Kindle
ISBN: 978-0778329817
BUY IT: Amazon
RATING: 8/10 [I changed this. Because in retrospect, it's definitely more than a 7. Then again, psychology says that any scale with more than 9 parts is useless to the human brain, so don't get too hung up on the numbers, eh?]
RECOMMENDED FOR: Adults, Older teens

My name is Amelia Gray. I'm a cemetery restorer who sees ghosts. In order to protect myself from the parasitic nature of the dead, I've always held fast to the rules passed down from my father. But now a haunted police detective has entered my world and everything is changing, including the rules that have always kept me safe.
It started with the discovery of a young woman's brutalized body in an old Charleston graveyard I've been hired to restore. The clues to the killer—and to his other victims—lie in the headstone symbolism that only I can interpret. Devlin needs my help, but his ghosts shadow his every move, feeding off his warmth, sustaining their presence with his energy. To warn him would be to invite them into my life. I've vowed to keep my distance, but the pull of his magnetism grows ever stronger even as the symbols lead me closer to the killer and to the gossamer veil that separates this world from the next.

There aren't a lot of original plots and concepts in the world of crime fiction, but Amanda Stevens has created one in her novel The Restorer, first in the Graveyard Queen series. Ghosts themselves are often neglected members of the supernatural community, but Stevens' ghosts have a special flair and are so well thought out that the reader immediately feels that, (a) this is not just another slumber party ghost story and (b) this is an otherworld they can believe in. Moreover, Stevens demonstrates an authority with her survey of the gentile South and the study of cemeteries that, while essential to a book like this, is difficult to master. Amelia sounds like a born-and-bred Southerner who is truly an expert in her field—not the mouthpiece of an author who has been doing a bit of Googling.

Because I'm an advocate for pulling band-aids off quickly, I'll get to the criticisms first. Then we can get that out of the way so I can leave you with all the fantastic qualities about this book, of which there are plenty. My main criticism for the book lies in Chekov's famous statement: "If in the first act you have hung a pistol on the wall, then in the following one it should be fired. Otherwise don't put it there." It can be difficult when you're setting up a series and not a single book; you want to get everything out there, establish all the rules of your universe. However, there are so many intrigues in this book that only a few of them can be satisfactorily tied up before the end. For example, one of the biggest mysteries in the book (highlight here if you've already read, otherwise avoid the spoiler: The Order of the Coffin and the Claw) becomes entirely irrelevant by the end. There's also one character (highlight: Macon) who could be entirely thrown out. The reader feels a little tricked.

There is also the case of Too Many Suspects. There's nothing wrong with having multiple leads or with making everyone a potential suspect. But you have to give the reader a good reason to favor one person over the other. I found that everyone was so suspicious I stopped trying to guess who the killer was. By the end, I felt that the actual killer was set up so little in comparison with the others that I could not look back and say, "Aha! I should have known!" In addition, the plot races beautifully towards a climactic discovery, but Stevens pulls back, puts the case on the backburner, and lets time pass slowly. Having been filled with so much suspense, I was impatient to get through what felt like filler parts. The ending itself was good, except for one tiny, nitpicky detail. Even in series, I feel that each book should stand alone. You should be able to read it by itself, even if not all the secrets are wrapped up. The reference to the sequel in the end didn't allow me to feel the satisfied end-of-book feeling I enjoy, when you may not know what's next for the character but you're happy to see this chapter (ha) in their life closed. Again, nitpicky.

Before you jump to crazy conclusions . . . I did love this book. I don't usually go for strong romantic plots, but I'm obsessed with graveyards and I just couldn't resist. I'm glad I tried it. Stevens is a beautiful writer. While she may harp a little on some themes in the beginning (e.g. Amelia wondering over the identity of Devlin's ghosts and taking a bit too long to suspect what seems an obvious suspicion), it's barely noticeable in the face of her clear, detailed writing. Some of the images she presents of the graveyards and of the Southern scenes are absolutely breathtaking. However, she sprinkles these in carefully so there's never a flowery feeling. This lets the reader move through at a quick pace—which is good, because I was so enthralled with the mystery that it was difficult for me not to peek ahead. Stevens owes me several very groggy days because "one more page" became "one to two more hours of reading." Amelia's ghostly abilities mesh perfectly with her role in the investigation—but in ways that cleverly avoid the cliché of "dead man wants me to find his murderer."

Amelia herself is a wonderful character. She's strong and clever but has plenty of insecurities, making her much more relatable than some of the gorgeous talented heroines you see. Even though she's strongly attracted to Devlin, she still takes control of her own life—another romance trope I was glad to see avoided. The grave restorer concept is made absolutely believable and is a wonderful, original take on the idea of a murderer leaving secret clues. It's like The Da Vinci Code with a morbid twist. Amelia's (and Stevens') love for the graveyards resonates so strongly through the text, and the facts about graveyards, Southern custom, and Gullah superstition are given in manageable amounts and made perfectly understandable even to total newbies. Besides, what's more pretty and poetic than a murder in the South that centers around Victorian cemetery poetry? I'm not a big romance reader so I was more focused on the murder, but the romance between Amelia and Devlin is definitely gripping. You want them to be together and you can feel the tension in Stevens' writing.

I could keep talking about all the wonderful bits I especially liked, but we're running long. So I'll leave you with this. It's a fast-paced, highly original, tightly written murder mystery with strong characters and twisted intrigues.


Essay: Urban Fantasy vs. High Fantasy: The City Takes Over

I faintly remember a time when Lord of the Rings and The Chronicles of Narnia were coming out in theaters, Eragon lined the Border's shelves, and Harry Potter was still a tween. A time when Tamora Pierce revived the Tortall books and Diana Wynne Jones turned high fantasy on its head with Dalemark and Howl's Moving Castle. A time when high fantasy was a young adult and teen staple. Perhaps "staple" is a strong word. Pierce and Jones had their niche followings but were never the sensations of Rowling or even, briefly, Paolini. Harry Potter was high fantasy only at its core; instead of an otherworld, its stage was Earth. And Lord of the Rings . . . not exactly young adult, though the movie were key in attracting many young adults to read the older books.

Which raises a question: why has high fantasy struggled against its flashy urban fantasy cousin when it comes to the young adult and teen audience? I can't speak for the time before my birth, of course. But where the 90s, 00s, and early 10s are concerned (doesn't that feel weird to type), pure high fantasy has stayed pretty well away from the Young Adult shelves while high fantasy elements find new life in a modern world. Once the vampire craze died down, that is. Magic, gods, and goddesses find a home in Rick Riordan's Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief. Angels take hold in Hush, Hush by Becca Fitzpatrick. Trolls, of all things, make their debut in Trylle by former indie author Amanda Hocking. Wicked Lovely by Melissa Marr has fairies (or faeries, if we must). Witches and wizards . . . need I invoke Rowling again? All staples of pure otherworld high fantasy. All set in the modern world. That's not to say that pure high fantasy for teens isn't out there. It's just not getting the kind of press that its urban counterparts are.

What is it about urban fantasy that satisfies the YA and teen audience where high fantasy doesn't? Or rather, why aren't the high fantasy books out there making the same waves that angels, demons, dystopians, and urban fantasies are? I have a few theories. First, realism. Strangely enough, urban fantasy may seem more real to teens. You could be that loser kid from New York who finds out his father is a god. You could get a letter revealing your wizard heritage (a letter I was quite disappointed not to receive at age eleven). You're not the son of a vassal to the Duke Somelandia in the magical realm of Worldplace. Maybe you could be the son of a banker who gets magically sucked into Worldplace, but even that is scarce on the shelves.

Why? High fantasy has been done. Read the lists of clichés and you hear the same things. We're sick of elves. We're sick of dwarves. We're sick of grand battles between good and evil. Experimentation with all these clichés has been big in the adult fantasy realm, but it hasn't taken root in the teen world. Another guess? Characters. Dystopian, vampires, fairies, angels. The one thing common to all these trends is character-driven books with steamy romances. Take a close look at most of the worlds and they start to fall apart, but it doesn't matter; the characters drive the story and win the hearts of young adults and teens who are lost, hormonal, and looking for some wish fulfillment. High fantasy? Well it's always had a problem with characters taking space cuts in favor of worldbuilding and exposition. You just can't make a whole new world without explaining it a little, making it real enough for your readers to live in. That takes page time. That takes reading time for teens who want something quick they can dive into immediately. Tortall is familiar in some of its fantasy tropes, but it still takes time before you understand the rules. Teens know Earth. They know large-scale tragedy. When the only new bits are the fantasy characters, you can get a little crazier without teens getting overwhelmed. That's where Trylle gets bogged down in complicated troll politics while Percy Jackson has a little leeway using characters that pop up all the time in stories and pop culture.

And when it comes down it . . . maybe people aren't writing it as much. It takes a great deal more time to invent a grand new fantasy world than to stick a few fantasy/horror stereotypes in Brooklyn. (Restate: A good, thorough grand new fantasy world.) People don't want to take the risk. Publishers don't want to see the same old Ye Olde Hero plotlines. Young adults and teens want something darker, grittier, more relatable. If high fantasy is going to make it as big as Twilight and Cassandra Clare, it's going to need a facelift.


Excerpts: The Beginning of My New Crazy Urban Fantasy Novel

So last night, while watching Notting Hill and wallowing in self-pity (okay, just a little! everyone's entitled to a little!) and all that great stuff, the idea for a new novel hit me.  As long as all my old files are being held captive on my fried computer and I can't access them, I might as well do something new.  And I'm actually really excited about this.  It's a long time since I've worked on anything new, and I'd like to go indie with this one.  So this is going to be a bit of a whirlwind.  Here's a sneak peak of the first page.  Still super rough, but hey, that's how it goes.  Enjoy! 

title:  To be determined
working title:  The Realm of It
genre:  Urban fantasy
description:  Something a little light and crazy, inspired by Gaiman, Carroll, Lewis, and a lot of snippets I've had locked away in my head for a long time.  Female teenage main character.  Some adventure.  Some romance.  Some crazy characters and wild places.  Get stoked! 

= = =

There is a day in every person’s life that he or she will never forget. 
In this day there’s a moment, just a single second, when two separate worlds touch and everything about both of those worlds changes. 
My day was a Wednesday.  I had the day off school and I was shopping by myself in the city.  It was a cool, rainy day with the kind of wind that can only be found on Clark Street where the lake breeze flops about between buildings and blows even sturdy people halfway across the crosswalk.  This day was one of the most blustery and my raincoat flapped around like crow’s wings.  My umbrella had blown inside-out blocks ago, so my hair was dampened into strings by the drizzle.  I’m pretty sure I had mascara blotched under my eyes too.  I only tell you this because when my moment came, I didn’t look pretty, or dazzling, or special.  When the wind knocked me into the side of the Rock’n’Roll McDonalds and we locked eyes, I looked like a drowned rat. 
He looked like some kind of lost thing, maybe a lost dog, rushing along minding his own business until the wind blew me into his path.  His eyes were hazel, one kind of greener than the other.  I couldn’t tell his hair color—rainslicked like mine, only his curled over his forehead like he was drenched for a photoshoot.  He was standing with his arms awkwardly straight at his sides, one of them gripping something that looked like a teapot.  I was clutching the wall, too stunned to stand straight.  And we stared at each other. 
By now you think that I’m going to tell you how I fell in love at that moment.  How I saw my future in that boy’s eyes, and we were instantly fiercely connected to each other. 
But that wasn’t my moment.  My moment was the moment right after that, when the boy with the hazel eyes lifted his teapot and cracked it into the side of my head.    


Bizarre Fantasy Writing Prompts

Two days into the new year! Clearly that means it's time to get writing. Since I've been in a huge fantasy mood lately, we're going to continue the bizarre writing prompts series with some fantasy-themed fare. Enjoy! Feel free to post others if you think of them.

1. Write a story centered around a lonely minotaur who enjoys classical music, sharp cheese, and chasing maidens.

2. Write a story in which every character has some ability to use magic except for your main character. (I mean NO magic, not even a little bit, not even the power to pull fluffy bunnies out of hats.)

3. Write a story in which a fluffy bunny of some magical consequence is the key to defeating the villain.

4. Write a story in which the villain is 100%, certifiably insane--but has a really powerful delusional reason for wanting to cause trouble / be evil.

5. Write a story in which magic exists and can be extremely powerful, but saps the life from you every time you use it.

6. Write a story in which at least five creatures show up at some point to be helpful/harmful, and none of them exist in Earth in any mythology or otherwise.

7. Use at least five of the worst, most groan-worthy fantasy cliches--and then turn them all on their heads by the end of the story.

8. Your Earthling character gets dropped into a fantasy world. They can't speak the language. If they are able to be taught it, it takes a reasonable amount of time for them to pick it up. Two weeks is not reasonable.

9. A main character who is super powerful and important but is just a plain dreadful, unpleasant person.

10. A fantasy world with modern technology. Go.

Happy writing!


Review: Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman

(Why review a book that's been out so long, you ask? When so many other people have read it? Well, as I see it, as you are browsing your local bookstore or Kindle store or whatnot, you have thousands of options for books to buy. Maybe a book will catch your eye out of the blue and you'll buy it, but most of the time, you look for the books that have been recommended to you. By friends, magazines, book bloggers. That's all well and good for new books that are all over the blog circuit, but what about those older books that you missed out on? How will you ever know that they're there if no one tells you? So that's where I come in. If there's an older book that I find absolutely fantastic, I'll be your nagging "You have to read this!" friend, there to illuminate some gems that you might have missed the first time around. And now, to the fun stuff...)

TITLE: Neverwhere
AUTHOR: Neil Gaiman
PAGES: 400
FORMAT: Paperback
ISBN: 978-0380789016
BUY IT: Amazon
RATING: 9/10

Richard Mayhew is a plain man with a good heart -- and an ordinary life that is changed forever on a day he stops to help a girl he finds bleeding on a London sidewalk. From that moment forward he is propelled into a world he never dreamed existed -- a dark subculture flourish in abandoned subway stations and sewer tunnels below the city -- a world far stranger and more dangerous than the only one he has ever known...Richard Mayhew is a young businessman with a good heart and a dull job. When he stops one day to help a girl he finds bleeding on a London sidewalk, his life is forever altered, for he finds himself propelled into an alternate reality that exists in a subterranean labyrinth of sewer canals and abandoned subway stations below the city. He has fallen through the cracks of reality and has landed somewhere different, somewhere that is Neverwhere.

Neverwhere is a fantastic example of urban fantasy, a dark Alice in Wonderland with all the black humor, sarcasm, and whimsy that Gaiman is known so well for. The bumbling-boy-follows-competent-magical-girl-into-danger-and-gives-up-former-love-interest-for-said-girl plot is straight out of Stardust, but the wildly different world in Neverwhere keeps it fresh. The characters keep you reading, even when it doesn't seem that all that much is going on. Confused, resistant Richard is the perfect guide into Gaiman's world, surrounded by the feisty Door, hilariously dandyish Marquis de Carabas, and the darkly humorous duo of Messers Croup and Vandemar. London Below itself is as real and fleshed out as real London, a clever extension of the Underground train system that builds a fantasy out of what already is. One can almost imagine going to Earl's Court station and finding the Earl eating grapes in his car.

The plot begins slowly and seems a little too packed into the last half, but what the beginning lacks in pace, it makes up in wonder. The reader walks with Richard as he finds the injured girl and unwittingly steps into a place both chaotic and unimaginable, a place where rats speak, doors open between impossible places, and people who exist only below gather in London's hotspots for a market trading magic, trinkets, and a lot of good curry. Then the story picks up as Richard finds himself jumping train cars, fighting monsters, and dodging murderous madmen, all leading to a final battle that finally shows Richard who he really is, and an exciting twist that left me gasping. It's a thrilling read and there's just something so silly and fanciful about even the dark parts that just couldn't be anything but Gaiman.