Favorite Books and Films 2017 Edition!

Favorite books! (In no particular order!)

1.) Age of Heroes Trilogy – Kelley Armstrong
I got so engrossed in this series that I plowed through the last book in one sitting, even though I had to be up early for work the next day. I loved how different the two heroines (sisters Ashyn and Moria) are from one another and the contrast in their story-lines and perspectives is presented in a way that keeps the reader invested in both of their journeys. I loved all the characters, the romance, and the unique world-building, and I can’t wait to get into some of Armstrong’s other books.

2.) The Goose GirlShannon Hale
This book was just so adorable and sweet and I absolutely loved it. The romance is probably my favorite that I read this year because it was presented in such a genuine, earnest way, and Ani is one of my favorite protagonists of all the books I read this year for her bravery, generosity, and relatable disposition. Based on the German fairy-tale of the same name, this is a more lighthearted, yet captivating tale with a protagonist who can speak to birds, and I highly recommend if you’re look for a cute, quick dive into a well-developed fantasy world.

3.) His Dark Materials TrilogyPhilip Pullman
I know, I know… I am way late to this party. But better late than never! I actually saw the film version of The Golden Compass back in 2007 and was unimpressed, which is part of the reason why I put off reading this series for so long. Now, I see what all the fuss is about; the books are phenomenal, and Pullman created a vivid and spectacular fantasy world and characters who feel real. He doesn’t shy away from controversial opinions or views (especially on religion) and the books are all the more stunning for it. Polar Bear king Iorek Byrnison (one of few things I did like in the film) shall forever be one of my favorite literary figures of all time. I think it’s better that I read this series as an adult, because some of the messages and themes hit me harder now than they would have back when these books were first published.

4.) The Great Hunt and The Great Pursuit Wendy Higgins
I was absorbed by both of these books and ended up reading The Great Pursuit all in one day, more or less in one sitting. I’m a sucker for a good fantasy, even those with familiar story-lines, and these books have enough twists and engaging characters (Aerity in particular is stellar) to keep readers enthralled through both volumes. I also really enjoyed the romance in this duology – it’s so easy to get sick of seeing the same romantic subplots over and over again, but familiar scenarios feel fresh in these books. Also, I’m glad this wasn’t stretched out over three books, as it worked very well as a duology and might have been too thin for three volumes.

5.) EntwinedHeather Dixon
This twist on the fairy-tale The Twelve Dancing Princesses (which I was unfamiliar with prior to this book) is a quick, fun read and Azalea was a wonderful heroine to read about – the sort that is “girly” without being too much of a “damsel,” and is capable of saving herself. It’s a fairly straightforward story about dancing and danger, family relationships, love, and sisters, and it manages to adhere to the familiar fairy-tale format while adding twists and turns to keep the reader on their toes.

6.) The Jessica Darling SeriesMegan McCafferty
I cannot believe I missed out on the series when it was being released – this series is a hilarious, poignant, and occasionally daring look at growing up, high school drama, deciding your place in this world, and falling in and out of love, as told through the eyes and observations of the outrageously witty Jessica Darling. I wasn’t really crazy about the last book, but the entire series works together to form an arc that captures the turbulence and the emotional journey of stepping into young adulthood, and Jessica’s voice changes accordingly in each book, which made for a pleasant reading experience.

7.) The Girl Who Chased the MoonSarah Addison Allen
A simple little read about a small town, a girl trying to find her place in this world, a woman trying to do the same, and a family that cannot go out at night, I did not expect to be so engrossed in this book, but the characters are all so realistic and well-written that it was impossible not to be drawn in. Plus, there’s a tiny bit of paranormal in it, which is just the right amount for me.

8.)  Glass Faerie, Shadow Faerie, and Rebel Faerie by Rachel Morgan
I absolutely love the Creepy Hollow books (I read Violet’s saga in a matter of like, 2 days back in 2015) and was so happy that the story continued with Emerson’s POV in Glass Faerie, with new characters and old favorites alike. With a unique perspective on the ideas of faeries and magic, compelling characters and relationships, and an engaging story-line, the latest trilogy brings the Creepy Hollow series to a fitting and satisfying end. I look forward to rereading all 9 from the start!

9.) The Girl from Mars – Brenda Hiatt
Hiatt’s Starstruck series is not a collection I expected to resonate with me, but they did on a level I didn’t expect, so I’m glad the story has continued through the eyes of a new heroine. These stories feel very genuine and are super cute, wholesome, and fun, and Kira, the titular girl from Mars, has a believable and relatable mindset that is easy to follow. I also like the world-building in this series, especially the society on Mars and the ties to Irish culture. It adds a unique twist to familiar scifi tropes, and I hope there’s another novel to follow!

10.) Walk on Earth a StrangerRae Carson
This book took me back to the good ol’ days of playing Oregon Trail in computer class back in elementary school. Set during the gold rush and following the protagonist Leah Westfall across the country as she tries to escape those who seek to use her unique “gift” to sense gold, the story is engrossing and Leah’s voice is both charming and easy to read. She is a wonderful protagonist, the plot and all the characters are intriguing, and though I haven’t picked up the next book in this series, I look forward to continuing it.

Favorite Films! (In order!)

*I am not going to include Moonlight and La La Land on this list, since they came out in 2016 and I saw them so early into 2017. Just know that I loved them both. Also, this list is just my favorites. The list of “BEST” films would be different.

10.) Lady Bird
Greta Gerwig’s directorial debut is a stunner that encapsulates what it’s like for a teenage girl to grow up and go through adolescence/young adulthood in post-9/11 America. The conflict between “Lady Bird” (Saorise Ronan) and her mother (Laura Metcalfe) is mesmerizing, and each member of the ensemble case delivers layered, nuanced performances. Plus, I think everybody who grew up in the 90’s/early 2000’s knew a Kyle, am I right?

9.) Wind River
A film I did not expect to stick with me the way that it has, Wind River is a poignant look into the state of Native American affairs in the U.S. and how Native Americans are treated in terms of the law/justice. Also, this is my favorite Jeremy Renner performance, thus far – he and Olson make a great team, and Gil Birmingham is fantastic in a supporting role, as is the rest of the cast.

8.) Guardians of the Galaxy vol. 2
“I’M MARY POPPINS, Y’ALL!” Enough said.

7.) Logan
Not gonna lie… I have about a 0% investment in the current X-men films. Actually, after the total abomination that was Last Stand, I have about a 0% investment in the past films, too. But Logan really turned it around for me, with it’s gritty portrayal of the world and the way mutants are treated, coupled with the cynical, dark, gruff, and emotionally broken version of Wolverine. Jackman’s swan song as the titular character is a fitting one, and is easily his best performance as the character overall. I usually hate excessive violence and swearing in films, but in Logan, I didn’t even mind – the film packs enough of an emotional wallop, I didn’t mind all the physical ones.

6.) Dunkirk
Admittedly, I am a Chris Nolan fangirl and thus inclined to like anything he puts out. Dunkirk is not a film I’ll watch over and over (and may never watch again) but the unique narrative structure (three viewpoints out-of-sync with one another until they converge) lack of dialogue and gripping music created a remarkable cinematic experience and atmosphere during which I was so tense I forgot to eat my Reeses Pieces. The ensemble cast turns out excellent performances all around and the cinematography is stellar. If you are a fan of war films, you should definitely check it out; though the experience in cinemas, with the sound and the massive IMAX screen, will likely be difficult to recapture in a living room on a television.

5.) Thor: Ragnarok
While I love Marvel movies, I was never much for the Thor films… especially The Dark World. But the third installment in the Thor series totally makes up for the lackluster middle film. Ragnarok amps up the humor, packs on the action, features an amazing cast, and segues nicely into the next major installment in the franchise, the upcoming Infinity War. This film is comedic gold, and features so many quotable lines and memorable scenes that I’m giggling at my computer now just remembering Mark Ruffalo dive-bombing onto Bifrost.

4.) Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
I have never hated, loved, hated, then kind of maybe liked, then definitely liked a character more than Sam Rockwell’s character Dixon in this film. This black comedy about a woman who buys three billboards to criticize the police over the unsolved murder of her daughter is carried by an all-star cast and a plot that is original, occasionally hilarious, and full of unexpected moments that literally made my jaw drop more than once.

3.) Beauty and the Beast
Was this film needed? No. Did I love it anyway? YES.
Also, I LOVE DAN STEVENS. The end.

2.) Star Wars: The Last Jedi
Despite the massive divide in the fandom over this film, I loved The Last Jedi and thought it was an apt continuation of the series. Following directly after The Force Awakens, our new hero Rey continues to search for her place in this world, Finn teams up with a new friend to try and save the Resistance, and Poe learns a valuable lesson about what it means to truly be in command and be a leader. Packed with action, shades of the previous films, and a whole lot of new and unexpected twists, TLJ is an undeniable spectacle, no mater which side of the fandom you fall on. Mark Hamill is outstanding in his return as conflicted Jedi Master Luke Skywalker, and a particular moment between him and another character was powerful enough to reduce me to tears. Adam Driver’s evocative performance as the internally-conflicted Kylo Ren/Ben Solo has already made him the most convincing villain in the franchise, and the tension between Kylo and Rey is a major highlight of the film. You can actually feel the struggle while watching it unfold onscreen. For all the issues folks have with the film, I found it to be one of the strongest across the entire series, an “awakening” of sorts, and though I had some issues with it (Canto Bight, how criminally underused Phasma is, Snoke’s treatment, a couple of other nitpicks) it still made me all the more excited for episode IX and the conclusion of the sequel trilogy.

1.) Wonder Woman
Not only was the Patty Jenkins-directed Wonder Woman my favorite cinematic experience of 2017, the “No Man’s Land” sequence is actually my favorite film scene overall of 2017. This film is not just a great superhero film helmed by a woman and starring a woman; it’s a great comic book film overall, easily one of the best super hero origin stories, and I definitely rank it as the best superhero film of the year. Plus, it’s 10000% the best DC film thus far, no contest. Gal Gadot nails the role of Wonder Woman, the music is fantastic, the chemistry between the leads is stellar, and it’s probably the first DC film that has more than a couple of genuinely funny moments, and a lot of emotional impact to boot. It didn’t try too hard to be an amazing film or outdo similar films – and it is a badass film all on its own.

 

 

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I’M WITH YOU on the road…

I’m taking my YA novel I’m With You on a virtual book tour starting TOMORROW!

Here’s the LINK for the tour, if you’d like to keep up with the stops! I wrote up some fun guest posts and there are a couple of interviews, which I hope folks will look forward to reading. And in conjunction with the tour, I’ve got some additional news…

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I’m With You is now only $1.99 in ebook format (down from $4.99) and $9.99 in paperback (down from $12.99)! Check it out if you haven’t yet!

Here’s the Amazon LINK if you’d like to take advantage of the deal!

Summary: When fifteen-year-old Ciarán Morrigan eavesdrops on a conversation between his father and two mysterious strangers, his life–and the life of his little sister, Remiel–is changed forever. After their father makes a startling decision, the Morrigan siblings are forced to flee the only life they’ve ever known and embark on a dangerous adventure across the nation of Empirya. With the help of a disinherited vagabond, a cynical violinist, a fire-juggler with a fierce temper, an aspiring mechanic, and a cheerful librarian, Ciarán and Remiel must fight to escape those who have been hired to hunt them. But will Remiel’s dark secret prevent the Morrigan children from finding a place they can truly call home?

The Kindle Edition of I’m With You is currently FREE! 1/14-1/16

My YA novel, I’m With You, is currently FREE in Kindle format for a limited run, from 1/14 through 1/16! If you like YA adventure/fantasy fiction with a vaguely steampunk feel, a dash of romance, and a pinch of supernatural, then please give I’m With You a shot!

It’s FREE, so you have nothing to lose! Here is the link: Amazon

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Synopsis: When fifteen-year-old Ciarán Morrigan eavesdrops on a conversation between his father and two mysterious strangers, his life–and the life of his little sister, Remiel–is changed forever. After their father makes a startling decision, the Morrigan siblings are forced to flee the only life they’ve ever known and embark on a dangerous adventure across the nation of Empirya. With the help of a disinherited vagabond, a cynical violinist, a fire-juggler with a fierce temper, an aspiring mechanic, and a cheerful librarian, Ciarán and Remiel must fight to escape those who have been hired to hunt them. But will Remiel’s dark secret prevent the Morrigan children from finding a place they can truly call home?

Top 10 Books and Films 2016 Edition!

After 113 books, 28,731 pages, and 30 trips to the movie theater for 26 films this past year, it is difficult to narrow down my favorites. But, after some careful consideration and introspection, I have pared the lists to my top 10 favorites in each category, and here they are! For the full list of books and films I consumed over the course of 2016, click HERE.

1.) Girl of Fire and Thorns SeriesRae Carson
I’ll admit, I initially figured that I’d be able to predict what happens in this series pretty easily, and ended up staying up til 2AM one night to finish the last book in this series because I couldn’t wait to see what happened next. Elisa was a different sort of heroine; I found her voice and experiences to be refreshing and enjoyed seeing her grow and change over the course of the novels. This series features a unique fantasy world, intriguing characters/relationships, a fair amount of action and surprises, and it presents interesting thoughts on faith/service/religion. All in all, I found it to be a solid trilogy.

2.) RookSharon Cameron
The thing that stood out to me the most from this book was the unconventional setting/plot, largely for how unique/intriguing they were, but also due to how the story unfolded so naturally and smoothly without the use of excessive exposition and massive amounts of backstory in order to make sense of things. It provided a new type of “dystopian” future, so to speak. Plus, the characters were outstanding; Rene might be my favorite male lead of the year, and I appreciate finding a love triangle in YA that isn’t really  a triangle in the typical sense, and avoids falling on overused tropes.

3.) Front LinesMichael Grant
The idea of this novel – presenting an alternate reality where girls/women were drafted into WWII the same as boys/men – drew me in right from the beginning, and the cast of characters kept me engaged. I enjoyed all of the perspectives of the various characters, though Rainy’s might have been my favorite. Definitely a standout for a unique concept and compelling, interwoven stories. The sequel is coming out soon (this month, I believe,) and I look forward to seeing how the story continues to unfold.

4.) This Dark EndeavorKenneth Oppel
I mentioned this in a previous post, but I was a HUGE fan of Oppel’s Silverwing series when I was younger, and read through it several times, so when I stumbled across this title in the Nook shop, I decided to give it a go. And now, I have been charmed once more by his sort of spinoff to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, which explores Victor’s teenage years and delves deeper into his personal history and mindset. I haven’t bought the sequel yet, but I look forward to reading it as well.

5.) RuinedAmy Tintera
I have read a lot of fantasy, but this one stood out to me because although it uses familiar concepts that are somewhat “traditional” or common in the genre, this book does them well, and also adds in a lot of nuances and differences that make it stand out from the norm. It throws you into the action straight away, not relying on lots of exposition and narration to explain, and the characters reveal their personalities and motivations in a very organic way. I liked both Em and Cas’s perspectives, and look forward to seeing their adventures unfold in the following installments.

6.) Thirteen Little Blue Envelopes and The Last Little Blue EnvelopeMaureen Johnson
As someone who spent a small portion of my late teens traveling throughout England, these two books really resonated with me. It was a realistic story that hit on a lot of touching and emotional notes, and I enjoyed following the lead character, Ginny, on her journey of self-discovery across Europe, inspired by a challenge delivered from her deceased aunt. The characters – mainly Ginny, but also the supporting cast – are so well-written to the point where they feel like real characters, and I think this is one of a handful of books/series I read this year where I enjoyed the sequel just a tad bit more than the first, as I loved seeing the characters grow and change across the two stories, or, in some cases, not change much at all.

7.) Life As We Knew ItSusan Beth Pfeffer
This is one of those books that caught me by surprise. The premise intrigued me – it’s told in a journal style, and follows the life and perspective of a girl named Miranda after the moon is struck by an asteroid and knocked closer to Earth, resulting in dramatic changes to the entire world. At first, it sounded absurd to me… but I found the writing enchanting and engaging and the characters felt very real, especially the protagonist. It’s certainly a bleak story, at times, but never really loses charm or sense of hope, even as the situations of the character(s) shift along with the condition of the world.

8.) The Scorpio RacesMaggie Stiefvater
While I was never a “Horse Girl” (I knew several, however) this book captivated me from start to finish. The novel follows a unique concept (about what is essentially a life-or-death annual horse race) and features an interesting cast… both human and equine. It’s a well-paced story and it’s easy to feel invested in the lives and actions of the characters, to the point where I didn’t even know who I wanted to win the race in the end.

9.) Confessions of Georgia Nicolson SeriesLouise Rennison
This series was absolutely hilarious, with one of the most unique narrators/voices I’ve encountered in a long while. It took me about a book and a half to really get into this series, but they’re quick reads, and extremely entertaining. I think I plowed through the entire series in about a week. Georgia is a character/narrator who is easy to hate or get frustrated with at times, but it’s also pretty easy to relate to her and laugh at the antics of her and her friends. I mean, there’s viking hats, a cat the size of a Labrador, and consistent references to nunga-nungas… it’s definitely a wild ride.

10.) RemembranceMeg Cabot
I read the entirety of Cabot’s Mediator series last year because I was late to the Meg Cabot party, so I had much less time to wait for her final installment than those who read the books at their original publication. Of all of Meg Cabot’s series/books, I might like this series the most, and I think this book was a solid conclusion to the story of Suze and Jesse and their friends/family. It’s definitely more mature than the other installments plot-wise, but not distressingly so… the characters feel as though they’ve grown and changed naturally from teens to adults (or, in Jesse’s case, ghost to human) and the story reflects that. Despite a few differences, they’re the same voices and characters and retain the same charm and quirks from the previous novels. I am so glad Cabot decided to add this story to the series.

Films

1.) Kubo and the Two Strings
This film better be nominated for Best Animated Feature at the Oscars; it might be the best animated film I’ve seen in the last couple of years. I loved Laika’s previous work on ParaNorman, but felt that Kubo took their style and film-making to new heights. The character designs were stellar, the voice cast was great, the stop-motion and puppetry was superb, and it told an engaging, unique story, laced with touching themes about love and family with elements of Japanese mythology/folklore. I almost enjoyed watching behind-the-scenes videos as much as the film itself, and definitely recommend that anyone who is interested in these movies to take a look at how much work and effort goes into these projects, because it is truly mind-blowing.

2.) Hello, My Name is Doris
My tiny Pennsylvania town occasionally gets limited release films at one of our two local theaters, so luckily, my mom and I were able to see this movie early in the year. Sally Field was brilliant in her role as quirky office-worker Doris, who fantasizes about a relationship with a younger coworker and attempts to completely alter her lifestyle in order to win him over. It’s a small, intimate film, and I found myself really feeling for and sympathizing with Doris, even though I found some of her actions frustrating; a testament to a well-written and well-acted protagonist. The supporting cast is excellent, as well.

3.) Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice
HEAR ME OUT, OKAY? I in no way believe this to be a great film. But for all it’s flaws, it’s still visually stunning, the action was fantastic, Batfleck was BRILLIANT, and it was an overall intense experience, especially in IMAX. I also personally like Cavill/Snyder’s interpretation of Superman, which I know is a contentious point for some… though for a movie that is technically about him, he should have had more screen-time. The introduction of Wonder Woman was handled well and her scenes stole the show, along with Bruce Wayne/Batman. The plot was definitely bloated; it felt like they were cramming a 4 hour movie into 2.5 hours. However, I also don’t think it was as awful as several critics claimed it was. The Ultimate Edition of the film is significantly better, but I don’t think the theatrical edition should be crucified. I had a good time, and I’ll be watching it again.

4.) Doctor Strange
…That said, I think both Marvel offerings from this year were superior superhero films. I enjoyed Doctor Strange far more than I thought I would, since I was mostly unfamiliar with the material beforehand. This film manages to stay true to the MCU, adhering to familiar tropes, humor, and plot, but there are some significant differences, especially in the climax of the film, which I thought was a very unique and dynamic change. Also, the visual effects were unlike anything I’ve seen from Marvel thus far. The cast was wonderful, and it was nice to see a non-hero female lead (Rachel McAdams) who isn’t completely dependent on the hero saving her life, and I’m also predicting a Best Supporting Actor nod for the brilliant performance of the Cloak of Levitation. I easily consider this one of my favorite installments in the MCU thus far, and I look forward to seeing the snark of Steven Strange in future films. If he meets the Avengers, as it seems he will, his interactions with Iron Man should be very, very interesting.

5.) Captain America: Civil War
I won’t drone on about what I loved in this film, but for the record, I certainly could. For a movie that easily could have been an absolute mess, with so many characters/personalities and an intricate plot, the execution was stellar. It’s a standard Marvel film, but it also breaks new ground because it is adding more and more without losing the qualities that fans come to expect of these movies, which are growing bigger and bigger by the year. Even though it’s meant to be a primarily Captain America film, I think the highlights for me were the introduction of Black Panther, Ant-Man meeting the crew, Falcon and Bucky’s hostile bromance, and the amazing airport fight sequence. Now that “phase 3” of the MCU has begun, the upcoming films have a strong legacy to continue and to live up to.

6.) The Lady in the Van
Maggie Smith is one of those actresses who, in my eyes, can do (almost) no wrong. This movie is worth seeing just for her, to be honest, but it fires on all cylinders. The film, based on the true story of Mary Shepherd, a woman who spent a considerable amount of time “living” in a van on the property of writer Alan Bennet, is charming and touching, with excellent characters and writing. Bennet’s narration, provided by actor Alex Jennings, is the heart of the film. It’s hilarious one second and deeply emotional the next, but with seamless transitions and a natural flow. One of the last scenes in the film is so strange and unexpected that I burst out laughing at the absurdity, and yet, it still seemed to fit.

7.) The Jungle Book
The animated version is not one of my favorites (though I love the music) but I thoroughly enjoyed the live-action version. The visuals were astounding, and I thought it built well on the original Disney-fied story; staying somewhat true to the animated version while still making changes. I loved hearing snippets of “The Bear Necessities” and Christopher Walken’s version of “I Wanna Be Like You,” and thought the voices were done extremely well. In particular, Ben Kingsley absolutely killed it as Bagheera and Bill Murray was a wonderful Baloo. Newcomer Neel Sethi was also the perfect Mowgli – I can’t imagine having to act against so much green/blue screen and CGI as the only “real” character in the film, and still manage to give a convincing performance.

8.) Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them
I’m a Harry Potter fan through and through, having read all the original books and seen all the movies, but I must admit… I may have liked Fantastic Beasts more than I liked the Potter films. I fell off the Hogwarts Express before The Cursed Child, so I’m unfamiliar with some of the new material and books and such, but this film has made me excited for new installments in this side of the franchise. I liked seeing a new side of the Wizarding World, with fresh, interesting characters, a well thought-out story and a captivating new setting, and I can’t wait to see how it expands in the future.

9.) Manchester by the Sea
*cries forever* This movie is wrenching. Heart-wrenching, soul-wrenching, gut-wrenching. Brilliant cast, astounding cinematography, and beautiful writing. Definitely not a movie you want to see if you need a cheerful boost, or if you’re looking for something action-packed and fast-paced. It’s a movie that feels very, very real, and the emotions seem so raw. Throughout the entire thing I just wanted someone to give Casey Affleck a hug. Some might consider it a bit slow at times, but it certainly deserves the acclaim and recognition it’s been getting as the award season starts to pick up traction, and I hope to see it get some statues in the future.

10.) Rogue One: A Star Wars Story
Since I loved TFA enough to see it three times in theaters, I went into this film with high expectations, and even though I had some idea of what was going to happen (given the start and some of the content from A New Hope) I still anticipated some surprises from the first of these “standalone,” anthology films. Rogue One is easily the darkest and grittiest film in the franchise, but also features some of the best action/space fight scenes the films have offered thus far and a litany of unique settings and characters. It really puts the “war” in Star Wars, so to speak, and with no Jedi in the film (technically) it shows a new side of the rebellion that we’ve not really seen before. My main gripe is that the characters could have all been fleshed out more, including the two “leads,” but I only say that because I found them so intriguing and I loved what I did see of them, so it made me wish they had more depth than what we were given in the constraints of a 2+ hour film. The performances were all great, however – and I suppose the lack of “knowing” them contributes to their unsung hero quality. However, as far as characterization goes, a brilliant scene near the end of this film will reinforce the idea that one should be very, very afraid of Darth Vader. Absolutely badass. And, not to spoil anything, the film connects to A New Hope in a very poignant way – it was great to see how the two stories eventually collide to kick off the much beloved and lauded original trilogy. From now on, when things get tough, I will remember… I am one with the force, and the force is with me.

BONUS:
Top Shows of 2016:
Game of Thrones (HBO)
Westworld (HBO)
American Horror Story: Roanoke (FX)

*Minor Spoilers Ahead*
I’m not much of a TV watcher these days, but Game of Thrones is a consistent favorite of mine, and this past season was no exception. It’s been a long wait for the next book, but the show is so brilliant it makes the wait easier. Standout episodes were The Door (I CRIED LIKE AN INFANT), Battle of the Bastards, and The Winds of Winter, all of which received well-deserved Emmy nods. I still think Season 4 is the best thus far, but with the hype-meter climbing ever-higher with each season, the show continues to deliver episodes that pluck at your heartstrings while simultaneously making you feel like you’ve been stabbed in the gut. The cast is stellar, as always, with particularly amazing performances this year from Kristian Nairn (still crying, btw), Sophie Turner, Kit Harington, Maisie Williams, Lena Headey, Liam Cunningham, Natalie Dormer… the list goes on, and on. The Winds of Winter might be the best 69 minutes of television I’ve seen, so far. I look forward to the new season (even though it’s shorter AND delayed) and I can’t wait to go to the Game of Thrones Concert Experience in March!

It’s new sister show, Westworld, is also fantastic and had probably one of the best seasons I’ve ever seen for a freshman show. I started watching because the trailer snagged my attention and I needed something to make the wait for new Thrones easier, and I’m glad I gave it a go, because I was hooked from episode 1. When Dolores smacks the fly at the end of the first episode, I audibly gasped and said “Holy shit.” The entire season kept me guessing, but none of the twists and turns (and there are plenty) felt gimmicky or forced; proof of how well the show is written and all the intricate planning that must have gone into it. The cast was stellar, too – each character was distinct and there were way too many standout performances to list. I am sad that we have to wait for 2018 for the next season, but if that means they’re putting in their best efforts to deliver a new season that will live up to the first, then that’s fine by me.

This might be an unpopular opinion, but I enjoyed the latest season of American Horror Story. That said, I started watching in season 4 (loved it) and thought season 5 was lukewarm, so I can’t compare the latest installment, Roanoke, to the first three. In truth I think Roanoke really killed it during the ‘documentary’ style portion of the season, which lasted for the first 5-6 episodes, but the latter half of the season was a bit too gory. In fact, blood, violence, torture, and gore seemed to take the place of actual plot at some points, which made it drag a little. But still, I  found the premise exciting and unique, the acting was great, and it made me look forward to next season to see what AHS has planned for the future.

Goodreads Giveaway Announcement!

Want to ring in the new year with a new book? Well, from today, December 11th, to December 26th, I am running a giveaway on Goodreads for my debut YA novel, I’m With You! Five print copies are up for grabs!

For more details and your chance to win, click the link HERE!

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I’m With You is the story of fifteen-year-old Ciarán Morrigan and his little sister Remiel, who must flee the only home they’ve ever known to escape their unstable father. Along the way, Ciarán and Remiel recruit a band of misfits (including a fire juggler and the disowned heir of an automobile empire) to help them evade the hired hands sent to hunt them down. But when Remiel’s darkest secret is revealed, will their new friends abandon them, or will the Morrigan siblings find a place they can truly call home?

Writing Techniques: Character Names

Minor/minimal spoilers ahead.

Like a lot of authors/writers, I prefer to give my characters unique names – and I often choose names with particular meanings. This is not the case for all names I choose, as some are just selected by random, but most of the names I pick have a specific meaning and purpose.

My main technique is to browse name websites. I have three sites that I use the most frequently, and they are:

Nameberry.com
Behindthename.com
20000-names.com

The last one is the one I use the most, but the other two sites are also incredibly helpful. Usually, I’ll try to filter through names by their meanings or by their origin, depending on which character I’m deciding a name for. Sometimes I just want a name that starts with a particular letter, or consists of only a particular amount of letters, and I narrow them down from there. It can be a tedious process, but it’s better to put the work in than to settle.

My other method is using Google Translate and indifferentlanguages.com. This can often be far more involved, but for this technique, I look up different words in various languages and either morph them into something that sounds like a name, or I fuse two/multiple words together. I’m currently working on a fantasy project and this method works for that kind of story, but might not work for a more “realistic” setting and purpose. For example, if you were creating a name for a character and wanted the name to mean “strong” and “fire,” you can take the Japanese word for “strong,” which is tsuyoi, and the Maltese word for “fire,” which is nar, and you get Tsunar. I prefer using this method to craft surnames as opposed to first names, and I also google the names I come up with just to make sure I haven’t accidentally “created” a swear word or offensive term, or inadvertently stolen an already well-known name.

In regards to the characters in I’m With You, there is only one name I wish I had changed prior to publication, and that is Ciarán. I wouldn’t actually change his name though; just the spelling. I would have gone with Kiran or Kieran, only because it’s easier to pronounce – I actually had to google the proper pronunciation of Ciarán when I decided on it, which should have been an indication that switching it might be wise. But regardless, I chose the name because it means “little dark one,” and Ciarán has dark hair – and it initially caught my eye after I saw the actor Ciarán Hinds in a movie. Simple enough.

Remiel is a modification of the name “Ramiel,” who is one of the seven archangels. I am admittedly not well educated in religious terminology, but some translations have the name meaning “thunder of God,” and I’ve also seen “mercy of God.” Ramiel is apparently described as both an angel of “hope” and is associated with another “divine” characteristic (don’t want to reveal too much), which I thought were fitting to Remiel’s character.

Ramus means “branch” and can also refer to a “portion of bone.” I came up with this name YEARS before the book was even written. He (and many of the other characters in I’m With You) were created back when IWY was a significantly different story, but when the plot changed to become what it is today, his name stuck. Because he is a character that provides support to many other characters, I thought “branch” was a solid meaning. Plus I liked the sound of it, and I wanted “Ram” as a nickname. He narrowly avoided being renamed “Ramsay,” but I didn’t think it suited him.

Valkyrie’s name is obviously chosen from the war goddesses featured in Norse mythology, and though it is traditionally a feminine name/term, I thought it fit him well. It is also derived from a word that means “chooser of the slain,” and though I often toyed with changing his name to something else, I could never come up with one that I felt happy with. I’m glad I kept it in the end.

Camilla’s name means “acolyte” or something similar, but can also mean “noble.” Her character underwent some changes in personality/demeanor as the plot of IWY shifted, and as such, her name doesn’t fit quite as well as I typically prefer, but I liked the name enough to keep it for her regardless. The Basshunter song “Camilla” might have played a part in this, as well, because I was a big fan of the song back when IWY was in early planning stages.

Kaz’s name (somewhat ironically) means “peacemaker.” To avoid potential spoilers, I won’t go into detail, but there is a specific reason for this choice which should be clear to those who have read the novel. Also, it’s a little tongue in cheek due to the fact that “making peace” is certainly not his priority when he makes his first appearance.

Mitzi is the name of a dog my mom owned during her childhood. I just like the name, to be honest. There was no deeper meaning, but the name apparently can mean either “Wished-for-child,” or “bitter/rebellion,” which is a pretty significant contrast, and thus fitting for Mitzi’s personality, so I suppose it worked out well.

Kia’s name is actually a play on the term K.I.A, which means Killed in Action, and it also means “season’s beginning” or “hill.” Kia and Kaz were originally intended to be twins (and both were meant to be villains) way back in the preliminary stages of planning, so that is why both of their names start with “K” and are the same amount of letters. Berach means “pointed” or “sharp,” which was meant to indicate that despite the fact that he’s big and silent and more likely to follow orders than to make his own plans, his skills are not to be underestimated. Dahlia is, of course, a reference to the flower. Markone is just an invented name, as far as I know – it might be a real name, but I did not intend for it to have  a specific meaning. Maverick, however, means “noncomformist” and “independent,” which certainly suited his character, even though he is mainly referred to by his surname.

As for the secondary characters, Dianna’s name is a reference to Roman goddess Diana, and it means “heavenly” or “divine.” If you’ve read the novel, I hope you will understand my choice there. Ernest means “serious; determined,” and Neima means “strong” or “pleasant.” Eliron means “My God is song.” Zoran means “dawn” or “daybreak” and Lunette is a reference to the moon, as their names are intended to complement one another. Cinderflynn’s name is probably the most unusual, and one of the exceptions to my self-imposed “names should have meanings” rule. I hate to shatter this grandiose illusion, but “Cinderflynn” is a combination of “Cinder,” as in Cinderella, and “Flynn,” which is a reference to… Kevin Flynn from Tron. What can I say? I love Tron.

And that covers most of it! If you have difficulty coming up with names for your characters and are looking for a new strategy, you could give one of these methods a try… it might work for you, too.

Forced To Read (But Actually Enjoyed): High School Edition

Students of all ages – even those who enjoy reading novels of various genres and styles from a multitude of time periods – are forced to read books throughout their academic career. As a lifelong, avid reader, I usually didn’t mind being assigned to read books, but I know for some people, being forced to read seems to suck the enjoyment out of it and turns reading into a chore, regardless of whether they like the book or not. In my classes, there was often a clear disparity between people who “loved” a book we were assigned and could appreciate it despite it being an assignment, and people who “hated it,” which generated intriguing discussions.

During my time at school, there were a couple of books that were given as an assignment and, despite literary legacy and widespread appeal, I ended up hating them (here’s looking at you, The Scarlet Letter), but, had they not been assignments, I might have enjoyed them more. On the flip side, there are several novels that I was forced to read during my English classes and I loved them so much they are now my personal favorites.

Here are the novels from my high school years that I was assigned to read but actually enjoyed on the initial read through!

Shane by Jack Shaefer
I honestly don’t know why Shane stuck with me as much as it did, because when I found out we had to read it, I dreaded it. I had to read this book over a break during my 9th grade year, and I remember coming back and discussing it with the rest of the class, only to discover that I was one of only a few who enjoyed it. The stump, man. The stump. The symbolism was so on point in this book. I’m not a huge Western fan, but there are a few titles that have impacted me in film (The Searchers, Stagecoach, McCabe and Mrs. Miller)… and yet, Shane is the only Western novel that I loved reading from start to finish. It’s a pretty straightforward, simple read – but despite that, it hits hard. It’s not a big, action-filled book rife with Western tropes, which I think makes it all the more of an effective story about working together, overcoming obstacles, and it redefined the image of a “cowboy” for me.

Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton
I. LOVE. ETHAN. FROME. SO. MUCH. It is one of my favorite books of all time, and one that I absolutely need to reread soon. This was another book that we read over a break and when we came back to class to discuss it, I was one of few voices who spoke positively of it, and I could not fathom why. It’s a simple book, and yet, it’s so powerful – the tale of a man suffering from crippling indecision and who grapples with his own growing desires and a staunch sense of moral obligation, which culminates in a disastrous sled ride. I remember getting to the end and realizing that it was the most realistic, if depressing, conclusion that the characters could have come to. It’s not a happy book by any means, and, even though it’s basically a book  about crushed hopes and dreams, which discusses futility, desire, and the cruelty of fate, that’s why it worked so well for me – and that final plot twist at the end hit me right at the heart. That pickle dish haunts me still – such an effective symbol.

A Separate Peace by John Knowles
I was the only person in my 9th grade English class who liked A Separate Peace. Literally the only one – which still confounds me. We had to read it the summer before classes started and I haven’t read it since, so some of the details are a bit fuzzy. I just remember Gene’s conflicted feelings and jealousy toward Phineas and his guilt over Phineas’s accident being so clearly depicted and well-written that I could almost feel it myself. It’s a novel that resonated with me because it felt very real, and all of the characters felt like they were actual people, not just names and descriptions on paper. It was a novel that was both blatant in some ways and subtle in others, spelling some messages and events out clearly while leaving others to be inferred, which is always a plus for me. Also, my hatred of Brinker lives on to this day.

Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury
We had to read this novel over the same summer we read A Separate Peace, and my class definitely preferred this one as a whole. This book redefined my personal definition of scifi. I always pictured science fiction as aliens and the like, but thanks to books like Fahrenheit 451, my horizon has broadened for the better. The book presents intriguing ideas about censorship (as books are outlawed) and depicts an image of a corrupt society that discourages nonconformity. Firemen are literal firemen in this world – they set fire to books and banned materials instead of putting fires out. But ultimately, the book presents a hope for the future and belief in the ability of humanity to rise from the ashes. I find it extremely ironic and hilarious that this book is frequently challenged, likely because it supposedly encourages “dangerous” ideas about rebelling against social construct or whatever.

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey
This is a book that I fully expected to hate. I found the entire premise of the novel extraordinarily unappealing and dreaded when I saw it on the syllabus. Ultimately, my expectations were totally wrong and I ended up loving this novel. Like an ogre, this novel has layers upon layers, which are continually revealed through the interactions of the complex characters with each other and with the infamous Nurse Ratched. This book explores the dark side of life in an asylum (as it was back in that time period) and does not shy away from the horrific realities of mental illness / the poor treatment of the mentally ill, and presents a compelling, yet haunting commentary on authority and control. And the film adaptation is one of few that I’ve seen that remained faithful to the novel and evoked the same emotions that I felt from reading it. To this day, Chief Broom remains one of my favorite literary characters.

Lord of the Flies by William Golding
This is one of few books I read after I saw the movie adaptation; specifically, the 1990 version. I actually stumbled upon the film partway through when it was on TV one morning, and was utterly horrified by some of the events that took place, but completely engrossed nonetheless. The images of two significant death scenes still haunt me. I was assigned to read the book over the summer in 10th grade (I think…it may have been 11th) and ended up reading the entire thing in one sitting. It was just as compelling as the film version, with greater insight into certain events/characters and how the mentality of the boys changes as their time on the deserted island grows bleaker and more hopeless. The descent into savagery is both disturbing and captivating. It’s chilling to think that the dystopian events of the novel could potentially happen in the real world…to a group of children, no less.

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
I don’t think this one needs much explaining. I’m fairly certain that every person in my 10th grade class enjoyed reading this novel. TKAM is a beautiful book. Atticus Finch is like, the epitome of a hero character. No, I haven’t read Go Set a Watchman, nor do I ever intend to. I want the magic of TKAM to remain unblemished in my mind.

The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck
The circumstances under which I read this book are a bit strange. We were assigned to read it during the summer before 11th grade… and I put it off until literally the day before my assignments were due. This is a 450+ page novel, mind you. I did finish it in one day… mostly because I really didn’t have a choice, but also because it gripped me right from the start. It’s not a happy book. It’s very grounded in reality. Reading about the various Joads, and their hopes for the future as they venture west to embark on a new life… I honestly anticipated a happy ending. But The Grapes of Wrath was one of the first definitive examples I’ve ever read of an ending that, while there is a glimmer of hope left, the lives of most of the Joad family are in shambles. Things just get progressively more awful as the book goes on, and there’s very limited reprieve. They get to their destination, the place they’ve been dreaming of, and things just get worse. This book hit me hard – even harder than Of Mice and Men, which I also loved. I honestly thought Steinbeck couldn’t produce anything sadder than Lennie and the rabbits… but that was before The Grapes of Wrath.

A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens
I have a conflicted opinion of Dickens – his writing is renowned and revered for a reason, and I would never deny that he is a brilliant writer, but his books are always hit or miss for me. It is literally either the best of times or the worst of times whenever I pick up a Dickens title. I like A Christmas Carol. I hated Great Expectations. I absolutely LOVED A Tale of Two Cities – it is my all time favorite Dickens novel. It was assigned to my 12th grade English class and remains one of my favorite books today, even though it is, admittedly, a difficult read. I’m actually glad I was assigned to read it because I likely never would have read it otherwise. In this tale about the contrasting political and social structures of London and Paris before and during the French Revolution, Dickens weaves a compelling story with brilliant characters, delivering powerful messages about life, death, justice, and forgiveness. Sydney Carton is a hero, and his final words are some of the greatest ever written.

Brave New World by Aldous Huxley
Like Fahrenheit 451, BNW paved the way for my enduring love of classic scifi. I was hooked right from the baby-shocking bit… that sounds wrong, but I just mean that the entire section shocked (no pun intended) me so much I had to know just how messed up the rest of the “utopian” society presented in this book was. And it totally delivered. The ideas presented in this novel are jarring, as is the picture Huxley paints of a warped future in a World State where “everyone belongs to everyone else” and “Lord” is replaced with “Ford.” The characters are all flawed, to some degree – making no clear hero, though one might say John is the closest to such an idea. To put it simply, the book expresses how messed up the future can become when conformity rules all and aberrations are seen as a threat. When I think of how long ago this book was written, the themes and content presented becomes even more alarming. The entire book is brilliant and it made a big impact on me. I absolutely consider it my favorite scifi novel of all time, and that is not likely to ever change.

Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë
The character of Jane Eyre is, to put it simply, a literary badass. She refuses to comply by the restraints foisted upon her by society, follows her own path, and has a strong sense of morality and dedication to her faith. Though she loves Rochester, she refuses to marry him once she learns he is already married. She is stubborn and spirited and totally admirable, and, as she is an independent female protagonist from a male-dominated time period, that really stuck with me. That, and the novel itself, presenting captivating ideas on feminism, morality, love, and spirituality  is exceptionally written and I was hooked from the start. Jane herself might be my favorite literary heroine of all time. And Rochester, a well-developed character in his own right, is a total catch, okay? Despite the whole crazy wife debacle, I like him even more than Darcy!

The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
Honestly… did anyone not like this book? The writing is utterly beautiful and the themes are well placed throughout in various symbols and the actions of the characters. The characters themselves are conflicted, intriguing, infuriating, multi-faceted, and their motivations, while at times unclear, are what kept me turning the pages. I have never hated a character more than I hate Daisy Buchanan. It’s a book that can be interpreted in many different ways depending on how each reader envisioned the characters – some may see Gatsby as a hero doomed by love, some think him a fool chasing an idea and denying reality. THE GREEN LIGHT, PEOPLE. It resonated with me as it did for Gatsby.

BONUS: Junior High

The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton
This is the only book from 7-8th grade that has gone on to become one of my favorites. I loved the book so much I finished it in one sitting and then went through it again. For me, this book will always stay gold…see what I did there?