Tuesday, 12 April 2011

Lily/James Fanfic Recommendations

It's no secret that I adore Lily/James Marauders-Era fanfiction. I've never been into kooky stuff where it turns out Dumbledore is OMG evulz and must be destroyed and then Harry has to go back in time or become a ridiculously powerful Boring Invincible Hero and inherit bazillions of money and become Lord Potter-Black or whatever and meanwhile Hermione's gone and had a makeover and Draco's like OMG she's so hawt I will ignore all my previous characterization and start writing flower poems and declare my true love for the Mudblood, but Hermione's all like no, no, I must go back in time and redeem Tom Riddle with the POWER OF LOVE and have lots of hot sex with him-

Sorry. Get very angry there. (Ron/Hermione forever, people!) There's some weird stuff in that fandom. But I do love a good story of unrequited love, lots of lovely yearning, crazy annoying friends, prank wars, kinky jokes, angst-oh-what-angst, immature teenagers, getting drunk, late night parties, plenty of oh-god-my-crush-doesn't-like-me-my-life-is-RUINED-FOREVER!, Quidditch matches, Voldemort rising... and then it all getting really depressing and ending with everyone dying or going to prison or betraying each other. In other words, I love Lily, James and Marauders fanfiction.

I'm a bit picky about fanfiction, and especially with Lily/James, there's a whole load of cliches and pet peeves that I get obsessive about, and like any popular fandom pairing, there's a lot of bad stuff in the genre. Luckily, as Sod's Law states, there's also at least 10% of good stuff, so here's a list of highly recommended Marauders-Era fanfic, due it being either tragic, funny, romantic, exciting, or just a plain good guilty pleasure;

  • Where Dwell The Brave At Heart (and the Outtakes) - Sirius, Remus and Harry go through Remus's school photo collection, each photo flashing back to the moment it was taken. A collection of non-chronological oneshots framed in an emotional style. It's a whole universe revolving around them, and it's epic. There's a lot of Lily/James romance, but there's also a love interest for Remus - love her/hate her Anna Lovett - and for Sirius - Slytherin ice-queen Electra Nott. (Also, this author adores Remus Lupin, so if you like reading about him, well, pretty much everything she's written centers around him in some way.)
  • A Lost Generation - The first James/Lily I ever really loved. It's definitely not a coming-of-age comedy; only the early chapters are set in Hogwarts, and it mostly concerns their life in the Order, the pressure of war, and the loss of all their friends. The writer's creation of Dorcas Meadowes, Lily's doomed best friend, is gorgeous, as is her failed romance with Sirius. I did have problems with Sirius's characterization; he's kind of an asshole here. The James/Lily romance, though... it's superb. It's incredible. (I wouldn't read this if you're just looking for a light piece of fun).
  • Tears On The Balcony (and its sequel, Kisses On The Balcony) - A funny, raunchy take on James', Lily's and the rest of the gang's seventh-year. It's lighthearted at first, and goes for a Skins'-esque version of Hogwarts; sex, drinking, partying, broom closet make-out sessions and what's more, writes it well. Riley, Lily's best friend and Sirius's love interest, is pure awesome. It has a few liberties with canon (Lily is an orphan, James comes from a large family and has a lot of siblings), and takes a chapter to get going, but it's well worth it.
  • Nobody Sees Me Wishing - Focused on a Sirius/OC romance rather than James/Lily, it's narrated by Lily's roommate Ivy Bennett, an aspiring writer who is hopelessly in love with an oblivious Sirius. It's a hell of a lot better than most OC romances, and comes to a sad ending. Seriously, if anyone's interested in Sirius/OC romances, this is practically the definitive work.
  • She Said What? - A first person account of Lily's seventh-year at Hogwarts as she tries not to go mad. As well as being an accurately depressing account of school life and stress, it's extremely funny and has a real knack for making mundane events hilarious.
  • Commentarius - It is impossible not to love this version of Lily. She's an awkward, self-conscious ginger with a temper problem and seriously weird friends. It's also written in a Bridget Jones's diary manner, and Lily's musings on love and life are sometimes hilarious, yet painfully realistic. The author rarely updates though, so you might be in for a wait to get this finished.
  • Written In The Stars - Written is the dark horse of the selection. It takes a bunch of traditional J/L tropes - Lily being shocked at James becoming Head Boy, James mysteriously maturing, Lily running out on their first kiss, James and Lily being involved in a Halloween misadventure, Lily having two best friends, one of which is beautiful, sharp-witted, likes fighting with Sirius and is *sooo not secretly in love with him*, and another who is quieter, shyer and falls for Remus - and writes them really well. Seriously, it writes them how they could and should be written. Not yet finished, but it's clear how much the writing has improved over the course of the story; the first chapter is pretty standard, and the last chapter is brilliant. Also, Eva/Sirius romance... :)... Damn, whyyy am I such a softie for Sirius Black romance???
  • The Marauders And The Rogues - One of those stories where Lily and her band of friends are also Animagi pranksters and arch-enemies with the Marauders. In this case, the Rogues - Lily, Hannah, Jamie and Regan - are each the counterpart and love interest to the respective Marauders; James, Sirius, Remus and Peter. I do have problems with the characterizations of the Marauders, but on the whole, I recommend this, because A) it's hilarious, B) the dynamic between the Rogues is terrific, and C) it's creations of Hannah and Regan are awesome, as is its version of Lily. It's not yet complete, and it's hanging on a surprising cliffhanger. (I think the story's currently on hiatus and may or may not be discontinued. Still, worth checking out - it's good fun.)

Review - Havemercy, by Jaida Jones and Danielle Bennett

Summary; Four very different men become unexpected heroes in winning and ending the war between their kingdom, Volstov, and its enemy, the Ke-Han.

Thanks to its elite Dragon Corps, the capital city of Volstov has all but won the hundred years' war with its neighboring enemy, the Ke-Han. The renegade airmen who fly thecorps's mechanical, magic-fueled dragons are Volstov's greatest weapon. But now one of its members is at the centre of a scandal that may turn the tide of victory. To counter the threat, four ill-assorted heroes must converge to save the kingdom; an exiled magician, a naive country boy, a young student - and the unpredictable ace the flies the city's fiercest dragon, Havemercy.

I'd wanted to get hold of Havemercy ever since I finished Jaida Jones's co-authored fanfiction, The Shoebox Project, of which I have a lot of thoughts on (in a generalized rush; as much as I adore the humor, characterization and James/Lily romance, for some reason I can never warm to the Remus/Sirius pairing). I was curious to see whether published work she was involved in stood well on its own, seeing the work of the other famous fanfiction writer who went onto a published career isn't all that great. (One thing I was wondering was whether the characters - four males - would bear basic resemblance to the four Marauders, the lead characters in the fanfic, seeing that was the big problem with Cassie Clare's writing - Jace/Cassie!Draco/Will are all the same bloody character. I digress, a rant over Cassie Clare is something for another day).

I needn't have worried. Danielle Bennett and Jaida Jones (or, as they are sometimes called, JaiDani), are a terrific pairing, and it's clear that they are debut authors - occasionally the plotting feels a little clumsy - but the prose is wonderful, and each of the four narrators develop clear, defined, original personalities. 

Like Shoebox, Havemercy is more character-based than plot-based, and the book unfolds at a leisurely pace, letting readers get to know each character; laddish Rook, studious but unworldly Thom, sophisticated and disgraced gay magician Margrave Royston and naive country boy Hal. The setting switches between the country - where Royston is suffering depression after his betrayal by his ex-lover, and Hal is slowly bringing him out of it - and the Dragon Corps barracks - where Thom is unsuccessfully trying to teach etiquette to the squaddie-like Corps. Myself, I preferred the Rook and Thom dynamic, as well as the ensuing HoYay. (Seriously, is there any project that Jaida Jones is involved in that doesn't involve copious amounts of homoerotic action? Not that I'm complaining). There's some subtle social commentary on the Dragon Corps and how institutionalized soldiers become during and after wartime, and Rook's character, which would've become just plain misogynistic in the hands of lesser writers, is well-handled; there's a moment between him and his dragon, Havemercy, that is one of the most touching in the whole book. Towards the climax of the book, a - fairly overused - reveal to the true nature of Thom and Rook's relationship comes to light, and to give credit to JaiDani, it's handled in a sensitive and relatively cliche-free way.

I loved the Hal/Royston romance. I'm picky with romances; it's all too easy to fall into common cliches and the like, but JaiDani handle it perfectly; Hal and Royston's descent from friendship, to hidden sexual tension, to fully-fledged romance was gorgeous.

There are some issues with the plotting - the reveal as to what will win the war and save the magicians is secondary to the effects this has on the relationships, and it's clear that the authors were more concerned with writing a character study than a fully-fledged high-fantasy warfare adventure. There's also a notable absence of prominent female characters, although I've heard this is rectified in the third novel. However, with its (mostly) lovable and unique characters, the story works very well, and I really enjoyed reading it. It's a well-crafted story, and for anyone who is sick of common dragon novel tropes and stereotypes, I will highly recommend this novel.

4/5. I had a couple of problems with the pacing, but it was a great story, and I'm looking forward to reading Shadow Magic and Dragon Soul.

Review - Vampire Academy (Books 1 - 3), by Richelle Mead

Summary; Rose Hathaway, a teenage dhampir, is training to be a bodyguard to her best friend Lissa Dragomir, a Moroi vampire princess, to protect her from the Strigoi, a race of evil vampires hellbent on destroying the Moroi.

(Note; I've only read the first three, so I'm reviewing the first three as a whole, and when I get round to reading the last three, I'll review them as a group. I'm weirdly obsessive like that).

I'll be straight here. I enjoyed Vampire Academy. I wasn't expecting to, and I have my reservations, but I did like it. Out of the storm of young adult books published in the whirlwind of post-Twilight vampire/paranormal/forbidden romance/fantasy knock-offs that hoped to cash in on the success of the franchise, Vampire Academy is the only one I ever liked.

Rose Hathaway herself is a major reason why. She's headstrong, clever, loyal, flawed, and ultimately likable. What's more, her flaws are actually addressed and she isn't treated like she's perfect. Richelle Mead, already you are head and shoulders above nearly every other young adult vampire writer in the business. Like most current heroines, she is gorgeous and has a harem of guys drooling over her, but still, it manages to avoid being annoying. (Besides, Rose is a good flirt. The funniest scenes in the books involve Rose discussing killer geese and broken hearts with Mason).

Still, it's difficult to get behind the Rose/Dimitri romance. Rose and Dimitri have chemistry. They compliment each other, they grow emotionally for each other. Dimitri himself was more likable than a typical "dark and brooding love interest"; he's intelligent, doesn't race in to play the hero in the way Rose does, and backs up what he teaches with proof that he is a powerful Strigoi hunter. But the student/teacher factor is still present, and for this reason, it is difficult to root for the pairing. And that's a shame, because I felt that I would've liked the romance otherwise. Dimitri's turning Strigoi element is unexpected, though, and I look forward to see how Rose deals with losing her first love in the later books. (And I'll admit that I would like to see some Rose/Adrian action. If only to piss the queen off).

One thing I do really like about the books is its depiction of teenage school life. Some of them smuggle alcohol in, get smashed, flirt, have parties, have sex and talk about it, and as well as that, often have their own insecurities and worries, and some of them have to see counsellors, take anti-depressants and the like. It's a refreshingly realistic representation of the teenage experience, especially coming from the YA paranormal romance genre, which has a tendency to gloss over some aspects and present a packaged, sugar-coated version of adolescence. I found Lissa's depression and self-harm storyline to be realistic, well-handled and touching. How the girls eventually dealt with it was good; Rose understanding that Lissa can't cope alone, Lissa eventually accepting that she needs help.

Otherwise, Lissa Dragomir is a wasted character. Originally, she seemed to be created as a foil and polar opposite of Rose, but so far, she's failed to grow out of her princess/damsel in distress mould and grow into a fascinating character. As Rose grows more and more complex, Lissa simply becomes insanely dull. Part of this arises from Frostbite; Lissa has recovered from her self-harm and depression, and it would be a great time to showcase what she can really do. However, she's pushed aside in this book to make way for Rose's developing relationships with both Dimitri and Mason, as well as introducing Adrian Ivashkov and Tasha Ozera. She isn't even present in the climax, and for the secondary female lead, that's disappointing. As a result, by Shadow Kiss, she's far less identifiable as a character; a reader doesn't know her as well, and now she has her depression cured and under control, she doesn't have many struggles that readers can sympathize with. (I'm guessing that the series is going to climax with some sort of dethroning of the Queen, and Lissa taking her place as the new queen. Unless she develops more of a personality later on, I can't find myself caring too much about her story-line). There are some interesting themes of classism touched upon in regard to Lissa and Rose's relationship; Rose is ordered by the bloody queen to lay off Adrian so he marry Lissa, Rose is expected to arrange her life to fit around Lissa's. Again, as Lissa is on the inside in all these situations, it's difficult to care about her, but Rose does give her a pretty heavy calling out at the end of Shadow Kiss, so I'm looking forward to how she develops in Blood Promise.

I do recommend this series. It has some touching moments, some hilarious ones, some genuinely tense places and when it comes to current vampire YA, Vampire Academy is definitely by far one of the better series. It's not perfect, it's not going to revolutionize the genre, but it's a good story.

3/5. It's a well-crafted story and has some great characters, but for every interesting character and good romance, there's something there to counteract this. Still, it's an entertaining read.

Monday, 11 April 2011

Review - Losing It, edited by Keith Gray

Summary; An anthology of short stories dealing with teenagers losing their virginity, finding their sexuality and figuring out the consequences and taboos that come with it.

Will you? Won't you? Should you? Shouldn't you? Have you...? A gift? Or a burden?

Virginity and sexuality is a touchy topic in modern YA. In a genre ruled by no-sex-before-marriage propagandists like Stephenie Meyer and shameless slut-shamers such as Becca Fitzpatrick, it can become a dangerously taboo subject with little good literature dealing with teenage sex currently being published. However, the blurb of Losing It calls itself "Everything you wanted to know about virginity but your parents were too embarrassed to tell you." It's not lying.

Complete with some of the most intelligent writers in YA today, such as Anne Fine and Melvin Burgess (both of whom have some of the most stellar reputations in the entire genre), Patrick Ness (author of Chaos Walking Trilogy, and one of my favorite writers), Sophie McKenzie (author of Girl, Missing, one of my sister's favorite books) and Bali Rai (author of The Last Taboo, and deals heavily with racism and interracial culture), the anthology came with high expectations, and I am really, really pleased to say that it did not disappoint. It is the sort of YA that should be dominating bookshelves, the sort that should send moral guardians into a panic, make Daily Mail readers campaign to ban it from libraries and send Stephenie Meyer and Becca Fitzpatrick slinking back to their holes in shame.

Patrick Ness's Different For Boys, a novella on boys coming to terms with homosexuality and trying to figure out what virginity even means, is the most memorable, introducing a concept of blacking-out all swear-words - and considering this is about teenage lads obsessed with manhood, whole paragraphs are sometimes blacked-out (in hindsight, it's not surprising, coming from Ness. His Chaos Walking series has recurrent themes of censorship). A character even leans on the fourth-wall and comments, "Certain words are necessary because this is real life, but you can't actually show 'em because we're too young to read about the stuff we actually do." I'm guessing this is going to resonate with a lot of teenagers that feel patronized or misrepresented.

Despite Different For Boys being the most striking (and arguably, the most shocking, along with The White Towel), it's not the only standout in the book; Anne Fine's Finding It is a touching story of a world-weary teacher having to teach the school's dreaded Sex Ed class, and finds herself reflecting on her first time, her later love, and her wonders on what lies in store for her students in their future. If you've had a bad first time, are worried that sex isn't all it's cracked up to be, or are just worried about the future of sex and relationships, well, this story might not put to bed those worries, but it may lessen them somewhat. It did with me.

By far the funniest in the anthology is The Age Of Consent, where a grandmother openly discusses her first time to her shocked family. The parents of the teenagers present are appalled, but the experience gives a valuable lesson to the sixteen-year-old granddaughter. This humorous piece subtly highlights a serious topic; adults need to be able to discuss sex with their children. (Without her crazy grandmother's advice, this girl could well have regretted her first time). Other stories in the series tell slightly more familiar tales; Scoring, written by the anthology's editor (whose other work I have not read but am now pretty tempted to get hold of), discusses the pressure of sex on teenage boys, contradicting advice coming from his coach, football team, other friends and girlfriend, and The Way It Is is another story about not giving in to pressure about sex. Despite the not uncommon premises, the writers to inject the storylines with refreshing, unsure, likable characters, and do incite the readers to care about them and their predicaments.

And adding a bitter tinge to the often funny stories about finding sex, love and yourself, come such heavier offerings as The White Towel and Charlotte; the former dealing with the taboo and dire consequences that a girl faces in a traditional Indian community when it is rumored she is not a virgin on her wedding night, the latter following a destitute Victorian girl as she is forced into prostitution to provide for her family. Discovering the darker side of what losing virginity can mean to some people adds a more sombre tone to the book; sex can have undeserved and unexpected consequences for some people, and needs to be treated with respect.

In all, the anthology is highly recommended; when we come of age, we worry heavily about virginity, sexuality, and whether it's even okay to be thinking these thoughts. We need books like this in our culture, letting us know it's okay to be nervous or curious, virgin or promiscuous, straight or gay, or whatever the hell we want to be, rather than the multitude of novels ingrained into pop culture and aimed at young adults (Twilight being the most iconic offender), dictating that teenagers must be in straight, attractive, chaste, so-unremarkable-it's-remarkable romances. I love this book.

5/5. Definitely.