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Warning: This Is NOT How Boys Work

I was originally planning to get The Vampire Diaries out of the way in one gigantic, OMGwhyamIevendoingthis gulp. Then I got started, and realised my review was getting so enormously long that I was going to have to it in chunks. Okay, I thought. Five chapters at a time. That’s do-able.

Then I got to Chapter Six, and it all got a little out of hand.

There are so many books I’ve read recently that I adored, and can’t wait to tell you about at great length. I don’t want the “Reviews” strand of my blog to turn into a massive exercise in snarkiness. But I hate leaving projects unfinished, and damn it, pulling The Vampire Diaries to pieces is just so much fun to do! So maybe there’s maybe room for just a little bit of snarkiness. Just once a week or so, in among the other stuff.

Maybe I should pick a specific day for it. Undead Tuesdays, or something…

Anyway, what I’m saying is; I think we’re going to have to go to a post per chapter to get through it all. Sorry about that. There will be other stuff as well. But once you’ve heard the siren call of the Immortal Undead, there’s no way back for any of us.

Chapter Six
We open on Elena, writing in her diary, speculating about that guy who had his blood drained out of him the other week (I do love that strange blindness all inhabitants of Vampire fiction are required to practice in order to avoid noticing that they’re, like, surrounded by vampires and stuff) and completely losing her shit over Stefan. Apparently this one time, in History class, he was totally staring at her – sitting sideways in his chair to do it and everything! – and oh, Dear Diary, do you think this means he might be interested in me? Seriously, if I didn’t hate Elena so much I might actually feel sorry for her.

Ah, you know what? I kind of feel sorry for her anyway. It’s hard not to pity someone who regards sending herself red roses from a made-up Frenchman as 1) normal 2) worthwhile or 3) ensuring that “my social position’s secure”.

On the other hand – waaaay over-invested in Stefan. He is, apparently, unlike any other boy she’s ever known. Okay, on the one hand, he is a soul-less member of the Immortal Undead, so on some level he probably is unlike any other boy she’s ever known. On the other hand, her evidence for Stefan being unlike any other boy seem a little thin:

Reasons Why Stefan Is Unlike Any Other Boy Elena Has Ever Known

1. He is on the football team. Clearly a freak, then.
2. He doesn’t hang around much with any of the guys apart from Matt. Or, as I would like to phrase it, “since arriving in town precisely twenty-two days ago, has already made one good friend.”
3. He doesn’t hang around with any of the girls either. Yes, every teenage boy I ever knew simply loved to spend hours of his day talking to girls about girl stuff and – oh wait, hang on a minute.
4. He doesn’t go to the cafeteria.
5. He doesn’t go to the coffee shop. Better call the FBI, Flopsy, I think we’ve got a live one on our hands.

...and the appeal of the Haemovore lifestyle is instantly clear.

Elena finishes with the following delightful thought: “How can I ever get him somewhere he can’t get away from me?”

Just for a minute, let’s imagine a boy expressing this sentiment. JUST SAYING.

Next up, we’re back at Fell’s Church High School for the Matt and Elena show, in which we get to enjoy what is surely the world’s least unlikely conversation between a man and a woman, anywhere, at all, ever [note from the future: actually, I think I called this one a little early]. Elena belatedly realises that her I-was-shagging-a-Frenchman scheme may possibly have upset the guy who was at the time her actual flesh-and-blood boyfriend just a little tiny bit, and apologises to him. From this, Matt instantly divines that Mr Red Roses was made up, and furthermore, that he was only made up because Elena was so upset about Stefan not liking her after she’d known about his existence for a whole thirty-eight minutes.

I can just about buy that Matt realised Elena had invented Monsieur l’Oignon for some strange, dysfunctional purpose of her own. But how he got from “She’s inventing all kinds of shit” to “because that noob didn’t want to count her eyelashes by the lockers” is beyond me. Maybe boys in Fell’s Church have some weird genetic mutation that makes them all ludicrously intuitive.

Or maybe – just maybe – the boys in this book are nothing at all like boys in real life. Your pick.

Anyway. It turns out we’re only just beginning to see the sublime heights of sensitive insight that Matt the Lapdog is capable of. According to Matt, Stefan seems to have put up this, like, wall around him? A wall that, like, no-one can get through? And Matt doesn’t think he’ll ever let anyone through the wall? Which is totes a shame and stuff? Because, like, behind that wall, he thinks that Stefan is, like, really really miserable? (To be fair to Smith, Matt doesn’t actually say any of this in a Valley-girl voice. But that’s how I heard it in my head.)

Find me one teenage boy who has ever given more than about five seconds’ thought to the emotional state of another boy. Just one. JUST ONE. Find me just one, send me the evidence and I’ll sell a God-damned kidney and give the proceeds to the charity of your choice.

Just so we're clear: Manga drawings do not count.

One thing I will say for Elena; she likes to have a plan. Unlike Bella, who mostly just mopes around the place waiting for stuff to happen to her, Elena takes control of her destiny. Her latest foolproof scheme is that Matt will now help her, Elena, to get behind the wall? That wall that Stefan’s living behind? Because that would be, like, a really good thing to do and stuff? (Sorry, still not actually written in Valley-girl, but I just can’t help it.)

Unfortunately for Matt, this plan involves Matt being responsible for taking Stefan to the Homecoming Prom.

Here’s why this would never happen. With a few courageous and admirable exceptions, teenage boys – even the ones who are actually, irrefutably gay – are paranoid about looking gay. This shouldn’t be true. I hope that one day it will cease to be true. But right now, it is true.

Knowing this fact, even as we despise it – is Matt going to ask Stefan to the prom?

The Internet now officially contains all things imaginable to the mind of man.

How This Conversation Should Actually Have Gone

Elena (distraught): Matt…I’m sorry!
Matt: About two-timing me with that French dude? So you should be!
Elena: I made him up.

[PAUSE]

Matt: Um…sorry, what?
Elena: Because I wanted Stefan to be interested in me.
Matt: You sent yourself red roses to make some dude you met three weeks ago want to date you? Are you for real?
Elena: He’s not like any guy I’ve ever known. Do you ever get the feeling that he’s put up this wall around him?
Matt [BACKING AWAY]: What? What wall? What the fuck are you talking about?
Elena: Please will you bring him with you to the Homecoming dance so I can try and get my freak on with him?
Matt: Never, ever speak to me again as long as I live.

But hey, this is Vampire fiction, folks! And in Vampire fiction, boys – the Undead ones, the Were-ones and even just the plain old ordinary ones – are as sensitive as all get out, and simply love running around after girls who have dumped them, then retrospectively cheated on them with a made-up Frenchman.

Maybe it’s best if I just walk away from this line of thought. In the next scene, it’s Prom Night, and Elena is being made beautiful by her minions, who clearly have nothing better to do with their evening than groom the Alpha Female. Somehow, whenever I read a scene like this, I always think of chimpanzees, so that’s how I’m picturing this scene: a nice, pretty chimpanzee girl in an ice-violet frock. Being groomed makes me feel all happy and relaxed, but Elena is mostly being grim, miserable and determined. In fact, she actually describes herself as (and I’m quoting here) “a very young soldier being sent to the front lines”.

Okay. This is YA fiction, and Young Adults are, by definition, young. This means they’re allowed to be immature, self-absorbed and melodramatic in all the wrong places. But the spoilt and beautiful Homecoming Queen comparing herself to “a very young soldier being sent to the front lines”, in a world where very young soldiers are actually being sent to the front lines?

Words fail me.

Oh, of course Elena’s the Homecoming Queen! Was there ever any doubt? And of course, this means she can have absolutely anything she wants, including a relationship with a boy who has basically no interest in her, because those are totally the rules when you’re Queen. Bonnie and Meredith said it, so it must be true. So, that’s nice. Then they go downstairs, and Elena’s aunt’s boyfriend Robert gives Elena a long and creepy stare, then announces that he has just realised that Elena is a form of Helen, as in Helen of Troy, and that’s who Elena reminds him of.

Compliments You Can Expect To Get From Your Aunt’s Boyfriend On Prom Night

1. “You look nice”
2. “That’s a nice frock”
3. “Those are nice flowers”
4. “That’s a nice thing you’ve got in your hair”
5. “I’m sure you’re going to have a very nice evening”

Compliments You Will Never Be Given By Your Aunt’s Boyfriend On Prom Night

1. Anything involving laboured allusions to doomed heroines from antiquity

Inexplicably, Stefan has accepted Matt’s shy invitation to Prom Night, and has come wearing his best cashmere sweater, and a wondrous black blazer, which is subtly different and more elegant to any other blazer ever worn by human boy before. Ms Meyer’s lawyers will please note the care with which Stefan has avoided the colour beige.

And then, the moment! Stefan asks Elena to dance! Because people tend to notice shit like two people standing deadly still and staring at each other for hours without moving, I’m assuming the amount of time this occupies in the narrative is about as long as you’d expect; i.e., a maximum of seven or eight seconds. However, it’s possibly the busiest seven or eight seconds of Elena’s life to date.

Things Elena Realises In The Time It Takes Stefan To Ask Her To Dance

1. she’s beautiful
2. She’s playing with either
a) fire or
b) something she doesn’t understand (I’m going to be generous and presume she’s capable of understanding Fire)
3. An instinct older than civilisation is prompting her to run
4. Surprisingly, this same instinct is also telling her to not run
5. This the most intense moment she’s ever experienced with a boy
6. Stefan’s eyes are green like oak-leaves in the summer
7. Stefan is having a good time
8. Stefan is somehow also not having a good time
9. Stefan looks as if he’s in pain (I sympathise)
10. Stefan’s eyes are going black with desire
11. Stefan is thinking about kissing her
12. Stefan is hypnotised by her beauty

Damn, this girl is good at realising and noticing! I’m exhausted just reading about it.

It’s probably a good thing for the emotional energy of everyone involved that at this point, Evil Caroline (remember her?) turns up and claims Stefan for her very, very own. Clearly, this breaks Elena’s heart, because obviously every word Caroline says is totes true and isn’t in any way designed to upset Elena and make her feel bad, because srsly, who would do that? – and, and, and –

Okay, I need to get over myself, because this is is just a trope of the genre, isn’t it? The 1739 Standardisation Of Romantic Tropes Act clearly states that in any ambiguous situation, all romantic heroes and heroines are required by law to look at the possible options, find the absolute worst explanation available for what they’ve just witnessed, and believe that one. As is traditional, Elena decides heal her shattered heart by dancing with every other boy who isn’t fast enough to run away from her, and then going off to the cemetery with some meathead called Tyler.

Ohhh, I can feel a rape-rescue scenario coming up here. [Note from the future: damn, I’m good.]

Best line of the chapter: “You only want everybody and everything revolving around Elena Gilbert.” Matt, for this brief but deadly moment of clarity, I salute you.

If you absolutely must, you can buy The Vampire Diaries from Amazon, here. But why would you want to do that? Instead, why not buy The Atheist’s Daughter, by the fabulous husband-and-wife team Renee Harrell? You can read my review here, and you might also like to swing by Renee Harrell’s blog at MarsNeedsWriters.com.

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In Which Self-Publishing Comes Of Age

It’s past September 14th, hooray! That means I can post my review of “The Atheist’s Daughter” – the book I’ve fallen madly in love with in the last couple of weeks, and which I got a sneak preview of so I could review it, and which has just – just – been published.

In the small, insular town of Ashfork, Kristin Faraday lives an isolated and penniless life with her single mother Becky – an adorable but feckless artist, who Kristin seems to end up parenting quite a lot of the time. Her adolescence has been difficult and lonely. Apart from two close friends, she feels disconnected from the rest of her peer-group, and longs to escape. Then, a group of oddly-assorted people arranged into a loose approximation of family move into town, and Kristin realises there is something sinister about them…

If you’re thinking these ingredients sound familiar, well, you’re probably not wrong. This is described by its authors (Renee Harrell being the nom du plume of a well-established writing partnership) as being “a supernatural thriller, posing as a Young Adult paranormal novel, written for a crossover audience”. The YA crossover genre is probably best known for the love-it-hate-it-please-God-make-it-stop trainwreck that was the Twilight saga, and every element I’ve mentioned above appears in Meyer’s books. Here’s why “The Atheist’s Daughter” is orders of magnitude better.

See, I have a theory. (I promise it doesn’t involve the relative width of brontosauruses at various points along their length.) With genre fiction, it’s not just about the basic ingredients; these are pretty much determined from the start. The magic, or lack of it, comes from what you do with them. With “Twilight”, Meyer took the basic YA / Supernatural elements of disconnected teens, small-town weirdness, one-sided romance, unexpected Speshul skills and vampy bad guys, and made this huge, syrupy, sugary, over-decorated…thing. And suddenly everywhere you looked, there it was, sickly and enormous and heavily promoted. And we were all seduced by its promises of oozing sweetness, and we ate it and ate it and ate it, even though it made us sick, forcing ourselves to go on to the end even though we’d had more than enough after the first five mouthfuls, because after all, we’d paid for it now, right? And then after we finished we all thought, “Shit. Really shouldn’t have done that” and had to go and lie down for a couple of hours and then exist on a Spartan diet of something very sour and indigestible, like James Joyce or something, for at least two weeks afterwards.

And then, sometimes, it goes the other way. Sometimes, you’re just wandering round town one day, and you spot a lovely little patisserie you’ve never even heard of before. So you go in, and you know what? They have something that looks sort of like that obscenity-in-carbs you got at Meyer’s Sickening Cakes the other week. Only this one, “The Atheist’s Daughter”, looks…different. It looks better. In fact, it looks downright gorgeous. The person who made this cake made it with love, and skill, and attention. It’s beautifully crafted, resting in its little paper case like a work of art. When your teeth sink into it, it’s got texture and bite. Its flavours are complex and tantalising. You eat it slowly, so you can savour it. When you’ve finished it, you lick your fingers clean, and then find you want another one. And you have this huge urge to go out and tell everyone you know about this fantastic, gorgeous little place you have just personally discovered.

Okay, so maybe my English teacher was right when he took to writing “Blimey” in the margins of my essays whenever I came up with a particularly purple metaphor.

I’ll try again. Let’s stop talking about cake (although I do like cake. If you feel like talking more about cake, click here or here, or maybe even here) and talk about the things that make “The Atheist’s Daughter” such a brilliant read.

I’m going to start with the heroine, Kristin. Like Bella, or Buffy, or Katniss, or Aislinn, or any other of the recent generation of YA heroines, Kristin has a gift. Hers is that she can see when people are lying. When someone tells a lie, she experiences an especially frightening vision where their mouths appear to disappear behind an overgrowth of skin.

Speshulness is, of course, a required trope of the genre. What makes this interpretation of Speshul so great is what happens to Kristin as a result. Instead of having every boy who lays eyes on her fall in love with her (or, indeed, leading a bloody revolution or enjoying a disturbingly intimate relationship with her teacher) Kristin’s talent lands her in a mental institution. She loses an entire year of her life – only finally being released when she learns how to muffle her screams when she sees someone’s mouth disappear from view. When she gets out, she’s the official Town Madwoman, and even fewer people want to be her friend than they did before, and her life is even lonelier than before she was admitted. Now, this is exactly what you’d expect to happen to a real-life girl with psychotic hallucinations. But it’s not what you’d expect to happen to a supernatural heroine. The clever trick here is that it fits perfectly into the plot, and is also convincing.

Next, there’s the bad guys. They’re not exactly vampires, but they’re definitely on the spectrum…Vampesque, possibly? Vamp-ish? I don’t know. Point is, most authors who do the not-exactly-Vampires trick like to pick the nice bits; the insane good looks, the effortless charm, the super-strength and super-speed and super-fuckableness and the epic, turbo-charged moping. Mrs Norton and her crew, by contrast, have all the horrible bits. The absence of compassion. The utter, utter selfishness (their alliance, like anything built entirely on self-interest, is clearly an uneasy one). The tendency to regard humans as prey. The consuming and relentless hunger. It’s hard for a YA novel to have scenes which are genuinely chilling to an adult reader while remaining age-appropriate, but this book pulls it off. Like all truly great horror writing, the writing takes us right up to the edge of the terror and then tantalisingly pulls away again, leaving just enough detail for the reader to fill in the blanks with awful stuff.

So, that’s the heroine and the bad guys taken care of. Time to talk about the other characters, and I’m going to start with the mother. Again, the YA genre dictates that the heroine’s parents must be either hopelessly ditsy (so the heroine can sneak out every night and fight bad guys without her parents caring or indeed noticing), or tragically dead (so the heroine can sneak out every night and fight bad guys without her parents caring or indeed noticing). Kristin has one of each, which is perfectly fair. But, for the first time ever, Kristin’s mother has a character.

I think this is so cool that I’m going to say it again; Kristin’s mother has a character. She might be a bit impractical with money and a lousy cook, but she also loves her daughter, fiercely and without limits. In fact, it’s not giving too much away to say that her daughter is only alive at all because of her mother’s wild-eyed, monomaniac, mama-bear love. Kristin’s mother, in fact…is a mother. A believable, functioning, flawed, human mother. I honestly can’t think of another YA story containing a woman like Becky Faraday.

Similarly, although Kristin’s father is the obligatory headstone in the local graveyard, his death isn’t just the typical convenient off-screen accident. In fact, the occasion [must not spoil] and the manner [no, really, must not spoil] of his death [trying so desperately hard not to spoil here] is, to be honest, [can’t – stop – the spoiling!] sort of integral [forgive me, Father, for I fear I may have spoiled] to the entire plot [okay, I’m stopping there].

Then, there are the BFFs. Kristin’s two sidekicks are the frankly rather scrumptious Gideon Hawkins (and damn, but I totally would) and Liz, a pleasingly self-aware airhead who turns up about halfway through. (One small criticism; Liz arrives rather too late in the story to feel as integral as she really ought to.) But that’s a detail. The key word here is pleasing. She’s fun to read about. I can see why Kristin likes her. Shucks, I like her myself. She brings a lovely, girly frivolity to proceedings. But she’s not just there to be someone more shallow / worse at fighting / less pretty than the heroine. She’s actually important to the plot. In “Twilight”, Meyer could have changed the names, appearance and defining personality traits of every single one of her sidekick characters on a chapter-by-chapter basis, and I honestly don’t think I would have noticed. By contrast, if you take Liz out of the story, the plot simply doesn’t work. Absolutely nothing in this book is extraneous.

And as for Gideon…well, can I say how much I love it that the obligatory one-way swooning is Kristin’s love for Gideon, rather than Gideon’s love for Kristin? Or that the elements that keep them apart are explained by stuff that happens in the story? Again, I can’t tell you too much about this; the fun of seeing the authors’ meticulous plot unfolding around you like a fantastically good piece of origami is just too good to ruin. But trust me, when you get to it, you’ll be smacking yourself on the forehead and going, “Oh, of course! Blimey! But – that’s so clever…!”

I’m going to close with a couple of zeitgeisty observations regarding the book-publishing industry. First off, “The Atheist’s Daughter” is self-published, and not because the authors couldn’t find a publisher. They successfully placed the manuscript; but they made a conscious choice to go it alone. I was so intrigued by this that I asked them why, and the answer was illuminating. Basically, they chose self-publishing because they wanted to retain creative control of their book.

Historically, the ability of the author to write whatever the hell they wanted to has been one of the risks of buying self-published fiction. When you bought self-published, you might have been getting access to a work that the publishing industry was just too dumb to appreciate. However, the more realistic possibility was that you were buying a book that no-one in their right mind but the author would publish. But these days, self-publishing is a decision that’s being made by, you know, good authors. Authors who could have a conventional publishing deal if they wanted one. People, in short, who can actually write.

Which brings me to my second zeitgeist observation. I was lucky enough to get a sneak preview of this lovely, brilliant, well-crafted book solely because of its title. I happened across it via a Facebook shout-out, looking for bloggers who would be willing to review it. Apparently, established reviewers were turning it down because it contained, in its title, the word Atheist.

Atheist, atheist, atheist. Three syllables, an excess of vowels, and just for the record, I am one. Is this word, this concept, really so offensive? Well, apparently, in the US the answer is yes. This word is so charged, so politically sensitive, that conservative reviewers refused to review it in case it contains stuff about atheism, and liberal reviewers turned it down in case it contains stuff about God. Being British, I find this astounding. Commitment to a defined theological position – whether that position is “God is great” or “God is a myth” – is something I completely understand. But refusing to even read something because its title contains the ‘A’ word? Srsly?

Yah, well, they’re all missing out, those strangely blinkered idiots on both sides of the debate. No doubt a conventional publisher would have changed that title, and probably had a good old fiddle around with the rest of the book as well. Would it have been better for being packaged, renamed and edited by a third party? In this case, I’m struggling to see how.

I don’t think self-publishing is going to replace the conventional route to market any time soon. Most of us (like me) don’t know enough about how the book market works to even think about taking on the mind-boggling amount of work needed to effectively promote and distribute a book. Many more of us (me again) need the discipline of a damn good editing to stop us from waffling on and on and on and on and on and on and on, until our readers scream and throw the book at the wall and run away with their coats over their heads. But it’s definitely an industry that’s coming of age, and “The Atheist’s Daughter” is part of that. I admire the Renee Harrell team for publishing “The Atheist’s Daughter” themselves, with the title they chose, and with the words they chose, in the order they chose, and then taking on all the skilled and difficult work of promotion and distribution. I admire them for producing a book that’s so tightly-plotted, and written with such elegant economy, without the support given to most authors of a skilled editor. Most of all, I admire them for opening an intime little bistro rather than a soulless by-the-numbers franchise. And I’m thrilled that, for once in my late-majority, late-to-the-meme existence, I get to be one of the lucky people sharing the news.

“The Atheist’s Daughter” is available from Amazon.co.uk as a Kindle edition priced £1.71, and Amazon.com for $10.99 in paperback or $2.72 for your Kindle. To learn more about the fantastic team behind Renee Harrell, you can swing by their blog at marsneedswriters.com
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