Sunday, September 27, 2015

Book Review: The Walled City

The Walled City by Ryan Graudin

Goodreads Description: 730. That's how many days I've been trapped.18. That's how many days I have left to find a way out.

DAI, trying to escape a haunting past, traffics drugs for the most ruthless kingpin in the Walled City. But in order to find the key to his freedom, he needs help from someone with the power to be invisible....

JIN hides under the radar, afraid the wild street gangs will discover her biggest secret: Jin passes as a boy to stay safe. Still, every chance she gets, she searches for her lost sister....

MEI YEE has been trapped in a brothel for the past two years, dreaming of getting out while watching the girls who try fail one by one. She's about to give up, when one day she sees an unexpected face at her window.....

My Review: The Walled City starts off by introducing us to our three main characters, Jin, Dai, and Mei Yee. Their first person POV chapters gives the reader a full view of the Walled City of Hak Nam. Though it's a dark book with a lot of edgy content, including human trafficking, forced drug torture, and prostitution, the underlying hope each character carries within them keeps it from feeling overwhelmingly depressing. Each character is exceedingly well crafted and their personalities shine through in a myriad of ways. Each one had motivations, dreams and a history that intersected perfectly and gave them sympathetic reasons for being in such a horrible city.

Aside from the character development, the other strength of this book is the author's ability to build tension and suspense. Though information is withheld from the reader about certain characters, it's not done in a way that feels annoying or intrusive to the story. As well, the three alternative POVs allows the reader to be privy to information that the characters haven't realized yet-- that Mei Yee is Jin's sister, that Dai is the strange boy Mei Yee sees in the window-- these little things leaves the reader-- or at least me-- squealing and bouncing in my seat, eager to see how the reveal will come, not to me, but to the characters.

The sense of place is incredibly strong within The Walled City. The city is based off a city that once existed in Hong Kong, but had since been torn down. Ryan Graudin creates an incredible setting by detailing the places and people who dwell within. Graudin keeps true to the Chinese history and keeps the culture rich within her own Walled City. The diversity was delightful to see, especially because the level of detail made me feel like I was standing in those cramped, dark streets.

Speaking of detail, the writing in this book is absolutely gorgeous. It flows and flowers without being overbearing, which I found to be absolutely delightful. The level of symbolism and metaphor as well is heavy and very well done-- from the dying flowers in Mei Yee's hotel room to the seashell and ocean representing her freedom-- the pages are lined with the type of writing that makes me heart sing.

I adored this book from start to finish. It drew me in and made me fall in love. At no point did I find something that annoyed me or I didn't enjoy, and at the end I shed a tear, not because the ending was sad, but because it was so good and I was happy with how things resolved.

If you want a beautiful story filled with rich Chinese culture, I suggest you pick this up. If you're worried about it too dark, don't let that stop you. The heart of the story keeps it hopeful.

TL;DR: 5/5 stars. So. Freaking. Beautiful.

Thursday, September 17, 2015

What's in a Number?

Just an average day at work
I work in a mental health office for kids and their families, but my immediate surroundings are filled with people at least twice my age, and most of my correspondence is with people who could probably be my grandparents, let alone my parents.

I'm 23 and work as the file manager in an institution filled with kids with severe mental health issues, Talk about inspiration for writing, am I right? I've been in this position a few years and worked very hard to get where I am, and in the last year or so I've encountered some prejudice from some of the people I work with. These are some of the most caring people in the world, those who devote themselves to trying to help people, who work non-profit, and yet I still encounter what you would call "micro aggressions" from them. All because of my age.

It's nothing rude, mind you. Just talking over me, talking to my boss or coworkers on issues and departments that I not only approach them on, but that I am the sole person working on. It's frustrating to be treated in a way that undermines all the work I do, simply because of my age. It reminds me of my teenage years, fists clenched, eyes blazing, demanding to be treated like an equal and not an idiot.

Back in those days, I wrote furiously. Every free moment (and during the classes I skipped), were filled with furious typing. Even back then I was obsessed with having an authentic voice. I was determined that as I grew older, I would never allow myself to resent kids and look down on them. But more so, I never wanted to forget what it felt like to be a teenager. I didn't want to turn into an adult that didn't think teenagers had opinions or issues or dreams.

I never wanted to become what I hated.

As I grew into a young adult, graduated high school, dabbled around in university, it all seemed too easy. It felt like growing up was impossible, but even then I knew my voice had shifted. What I wrote was and is so affected by my life because those issues and ideas are what's writing from my heart. I let my voice shift and experimented with new things, But I also kept writing YA, right up to when I got my job at the mental health agency and began a shift of focus in my life.

I began volunteering with the kids at the agency, those who lived on the campus where I worked, some who had undergone unspeakable tragedies, abuse, had lost their parents, were parents themselves, and on and on. Yet at the heart of it these were still just kids, and I saw a lot of myself from just a few years ago in them. I'm close enough in age to some of them that a kid will play a song that's on my iPod and I can't help but bust out a jam. Yet despite how close in age I am, there is a world of difference between me and them, between who I was and who I am. And it made me realize something.

Adults cannot write young adult fiction without having some contact with kids and teens. Whether you're a parent, a teacher, work in child care, have friends who have kids, volunteer with kids-- you cannot create an authentic voice and story for kids and teenagers without actually talking to some.

Yes, yes, we were all kids once. And that experience is vital to creating fiction for teens. But you also have to accept that you're looking at it all through the lens of an adult. Your experiences since you were 16 have vastly changed you and how you view the world. There is plenty of adult fiction out there starring teenagers-- it's not considered YA because it is written with an adult audience in mind and so touches on thoughts and experiences that teenagers won't relate to as much.

What makes YA, YA? The target audience.

A "positive thought" left in my Positive Thoughts Bowl at work, written by a teenage client. Sorry it's crappy quality.

It's great that so many adults read young adult fiction these days. Hell, I'm an adult that reads YA. But I'm not who it's written for. The voices and experiences it needs to reflect are for those teenagers out there looking for something to relate to. They want a reading experience that speaks to them, and that is the entire point of young adult. It's to give a voice to teenagers and children. And the only way to successfully do that is to talk to teenagers, interact with them in some way or another. Consider it research, a very important kind.

Yeah, I hear you. Sometimes teenagers suck, Especially the ones that roll their eyes at you, or call you a little c**t, or get charged with assault. But just reading other YA novels as research into the "current" teenage experience isn't enough. That's a dangerous way to create a circle-jerk of outdated or false information. If you don't actually take the time to relate to those you're actually trying to market to, you run the risk of talking over your audience instead of giving them a voice.

What does that look like? It looks like creating a 'moral' for your readers to take away. It's purposefully forging characters to be perfect role models instead of creating true to life people. It's minimizing what might be 'offensive' or 'inappropriate' or  what you 'don't think kids/teens can handle.' It's assuming you know what's best for them and undermining their intelligence. It's inauthentic and kids can always tell.

If you really want to inspire a lifelong love of reading and literature in kids and teenagers, you have to create authentic experiences they can relate to, and touch on ideas and emotions that will leave lasting impressions on them. If you only focus on imposing a moral or lesson on them, on speaking over them, then it feels too much like work or school or the rules they're used to at home. If they sense the catch, they will drop your book in a heartbeat and probably drop reading not long after, if every other book they read is the same experience.

When you start to think you know what's best for young readers, you take away their autonomy, which is so vital in a world where young people seem to have so little of it. It's such an easy thing to do, and I'm certain I'm guilty of looking down my nose at those younger than me at times. In order for me to keep my promise to my younger self, to keep my voice authentic and true to the teenage experience, I will get to know my target audience and do my best to always be the conduit to their voice, and not its silencer.

I hop you will too.

Monday, September 7, 2015

Book Review: The Unbound

Book Review: The Unbound by Victoria Schwab 

Goodreads Description: Last summer, Mackenzie Bishop, a Keeper tasked with stopping violent Histories from escaping the Archive, almost lost her life to one. Now, as she starts her junior year at Hyde School, she's struggling to get her life back. But moving on isn't easy -- not when her dreams are haunted by what happened. She knows the past is past, knows it cannot hurt her, but it feels so real, and when her nightmares begin to creep into her waking hours, she starts to wonder if she's really safe.
Meanwhile, people are vanishing without a trace, and the only thing they seem to have in common is Mackenzie. She's sure the Archive knows more than they are letting on, but before she can prove it, she becomes the prime suspect. And unless Mac can track down the real culprit, she'll lose everything, not only her role as Keeper, but her memories, and even her life. Can Mackenzie untangle the mystery before she herself unravels?

My Review: The sequel to the Archived starts off with Mac dealing with the events of the previous book-- her fight with Owen and the lasting scars. It's refreshing to see in a fantasy the main character actually be traumatized by the horrible things that happen to them. It's one thing to be upset by what happened, quite another to start breaking down and questioning your sanity. Mac is dealing with horrific nightmares that make it impossible to sleep and moments of blackness where she can't remember what she did, or at least has great trouble. She keeps a lot of her fears bottled up due to the very real threat that the Archive may find her unfit to be a Keeper if she's losing her mind. And so the nightmares get worse, and her paranoia grows...

This book blew me away. The beginning starts off very focused on Mac and her real life as she tries to get her life back to normal. Not easy with her brother's death still hanging over her family, let alone settling into a new school year. The opening is smooth and solid, bringing Mac into a new world with a new circle of friends. Questions quickly begin piling up-- why is Mac having black spots in her memory while out hunting? Why are people who come in contact with her disappearing? And why are Crew from the Archive following her? The best part of all these questions is the deeper one Mac keeps asking herself: is any of her suspicions of foul play real, or is it all in her head?

As the story progresses, that question only amps up to the max. Mac's breakdown is so beautifully written and articulated it had me crying while waiting in lines at a convention. Despite everything weighing against her and the very real possibility of losing everything-- her job as a Keeper, any chance with Wesley, and her relationship with her parents-- Mac continues to fight for what she thinks is right. You could almost call what Mac does a troupe-- refusing help and not confiding in the Archive about what's really going on-- but it is written in such a way that is not only justified perfectly, but that suits Mac's character and contributes to her breakdown. So when she turns around and keeps fighting with such a profound weight on her, it just felt so awe-inspiring and invigorating.

And the romance? Oh, god, the romance between Wesley and Mac is gorgeous. Mostly because it relies on their need for each other and the shared connection they have. Not to mention their shared way of "hearing" people-- Wesley's rock band noise and Mac's thunderstorms-- really adds a unique angle to their romance that left my toes tingling.

Story aside, the pacing is perfect and the writing itself is absolutely stunning without being overbearing. The plot fits together like a puzzle that does an excellent job of circumventing your expectations. I went into The Unbound expecting a decent story, as I really enjoyed the first, and came away absolutely inspired and in love. I couldn't find a single thing I didn't enjoy about it, and it has easily become one of my favourite books. I'm not usually one for rereading, but I can easily see myself going back for this one. It it something else.

TL;DR: 5/5 stars. If you buy one book this year, make it this one. This book is utter magic.