Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Welcome to NUI Galway

This is the second installment in the Ireland Series about studying abroad in Galway, Ireland. Read Part I here.

AS MUCH AS I WOULD HAVE LIKED to jump on the first bus to Cork, Limerick, or the Cliffs of Moher and go exploring—there was that school thing. We Arcadia students assembled first thing early in the ivy-clad courtyard of the NUI Galway Quadrangle to sign up for fall classes. NUI Galway has an estimated 12,000 undergrad (4,000 grad), and hosts around 500-600 visiting students each year.

 Class registration wasn’t how it is these days—the kind where you log onto your computer, and in a few swift clicks, you’re registered. The undergrad system at NUI Galway differed from the American one I was used to as well. As early as freshman year, Irish undergrads tend to specialize in a certain area—Medicine, Arts and Social Sciences, Commerce, Engineering, Science—because those classes will determine what programme they’re accepted into for their Bachelor’s (3-4 years until completion, Medicine takes longest). There are no elective or general requirements. Unfortunately with today’s job market and the rising financial costs of attending college, knowing what you want to major in from the get-go is vital. I’d chosen the Arts and Social Sciences route on my application.

Now all of us waited in a long line that wound twice around the courtyard, waiting to register (we definitely had enough time to think about what classes we’d like to take). Sadly, I hadn’t gotten up early enough, and so my coveted Jane Austen Seminar was already filled. I ended up with a primarily Humanities-focused schedule: a Playwright Literature class, an Irish Women in History one, a Tom Murphy seminar, and to round it out: a Criminology class (what the heck, try something new, right?). The majority of those classes would transfer over to my American university. We would be graded based on a combination of Continuous Assessment, research papers, and final exams.

Ruin on the way to school.

There were also a lot of afterschool clubs to join like rowing, cycling, and rugby--which a lot of my East Coast friends were very excited about. I ended up signing up for the dance club, since the autumn/winter rains made me think twice about rowing down the freezing River Corrib. I don’t know how those swans did it.

I already mentioned the awesome housing-style living in place of dorm rooms. Student residences were primarily these red brick two-three story slender houses all nestled together in “courts.” Our neighborhood, the Gort na Coiribe, was one of the larger ones that housed some 657 students, but there were smaller residences like Donegan Court (54 students). A third housing option was what a fellow study abroad friend of mine did—she found her own apartment-style housing in town instead of relying on a program like Arcadia to set it up, which is probably cheapest. I think her roommates were young, local workers. They definitely knew Galway inside and out, hooked her up with a bike, and showed her around. If I’d been older, that’s the way I would have liked to experience Galway--if only to avoid the Circle of Death.

 The Circle of Death is this innocent-looking roundabout that the poor car-less pedestrian must endure to reach the places of food: Tesco, shopping mall, ect. When I was looking through my Galway pictures, I noticed all these pictures of a roundabout and thought, "Why the hell did I take so many photos of that?" And then I remembered--the countless minutes spent praying for a lull in the traffic so I could run to the first median in the center. More minutes trickling by as I waited again to bolt to the safety of the shopping center parking lot, the growl of my stomach growing louder. There might have been one "crosswalk," but it mostly served as decorative paint on the cold, impassive cement face watching you throw your pitiful body through traffic to reach the gleaming sign for Tesco. It was even more fun coming back from the store, because then your arms were laden down with grocery bags. Thankfully, they were the sturdy, reusable kind--you have to pay a fee to use plastic bags per Ireland's PlastTax--which is good for the environment and good for pedestrians whose feeble plastic bags might otherwise break while traversing the Circle of Death, condemning innocent oranges and vegetables to an instant demise. Yeah. Just some road design notes.

My Arcadia roommate and I shared a small room with three other Irish flatmates. I noticed our flatmates often went home over the weekend to do laundry or visit family—many of them didn’t live too far away!—so my roommate and I would have a whole house to ourselves. Then we’d invite our friends over, and we could have in-house collective dinners or go out. There was also a coin laundry on premise.

 It really mattered if your house was designated as a party place or not. Just around the corner, one house in Gort na Coiribe routinely tried to cram as many people as possible into the small living/kitchen area for weekday parties. The cost? One large shattered front window and a whole bunch of decimated furniture. I don’t recall how long it took to repair that giant window, but man, the wait must have been cold.

A local mall

Farmer's market

Main square; construction for new townhouses

On the topic of weekday parties: when my favorite Irish roommate came bursting into our room, asking if we wanted to go out clubbing, I was kind of confused—wasn’t it Tuesday night? In my American university experience, Tuesday was the deadest, dead night of the week. I know. My birthday fell on a Tuesday one time back home and we tried to go out—the bars and clubs were empty. In Galway, Tuesday was possibly one of the best nights to grab a drink. Downtown Galway was throbbing and awake with lots of hole-in-the-wall bars and alleyway venues—I think that night we might have gone to Club Karma. Needless to say, my Irish flatmates’ habit of heading home on the weekend wasn’t unique; many did, and thus weekdays became the best nights to go out when the most people were around.

That would prove to work out extremely well, for there were a lot of tour groups offering trips into the surrounding hinterlands like the Burren and the Cliffs of Moher on the weekends. When Arcadia offered a good deal to take a ferry ride across the bay to the Aran Islands, a huge group of us eagerly signed up.

Read Part III of the Ireland Travel Series here.

Disclaimer: the above is presented as fiction, not fact.

“Study Abroad at NUI Galway.” National University of Ireland Galway. 2013.

Monday, April 14, 2014

April 2014 Book Review: The Iron Traitor

ATTN: A while back, I made it a goal to reach 10,000 blog views in 100 posts. You guys made it possible in 98 posts and already over 10,000 views! Here's post #99 and thank you for your continued support! Now, time to shoot for 100,000 views, baby! Thanks again all :)


By Julie Kagawa

~Book Review~

 *Contains MAJOR spoilers, proceed at your own risk*

ALRIGHT, Meghan’s little brother: what’ve you got? 

The Iron Traitor is Book II of the Call of the Forgotten Series, based in Julie Kagawa’s Iron Fey world. This is a spin-off series that switches the narrator from Meghan Chase to her younger half-brother, Ethan. The Lost Prince is the first book, in which Ethan reconciled (somewhat) with his fear of the fey by going on a little Faeryland adventure of his own. On the way, he befriended (somewhat) his sister’s princeling son, Kierran; Kierran’s boring summer fae love interest, Annwyl; and he more-then-befriended his classmate Makenzie, who is dying of leukemia and thus finds the fey world exhilarating.

Before we begin: 
I’m an uber huge fan of The Iron Knight (Iron Fey Book IV), which had no annoying Meghan and focused on Ash and Puck’s bromance as they underwent one of the most creative and jaw-dropping fantasy adventures ever through Faeryland—to the “End of the World” itself. Everything was well-paced and plotted, and the characterization? You couldn’t ask for better character chemistry. So I was super excited to hear about Kagawa re-visiting Faeryland in the Call of Forgotten Series, although I was apprehensive when I heard the narrative voice would shift to Ethan.

Ethan’s okay. He’s not too riveting, but he’s not one-dimensional, either; he’s just kinda a guy who wants to do the right thing. And who cares, when he’s gonna show us more of Faeryland, with its devious, deal-making Fae, intricate world-building, and the king of one-liners, Grimalkin.

In Iron Traitor, Ethan attempts some semblance of a normal life with his now-girlfriend, Makenzie, before he receives news that Kierran has gone missing. Since Kierran’s life revolves around Annwyl, a very passive but beautiful banished Fae who is Fading, it doesn’t take too long for Ethan to figure out that Kierran is attempting to stop her Fade by dealing with some very seedy characters. All Fae fade if they spend too much time away from Faeryland or if they’ve been forgotten by humankind. Speaking of, the Forgotten Fey are back, and they’re determined to no longer remain forgotten in the minds of humans through any means necessary.

Ethan jumps to help Kierran and Annwyl (hey, it’s more interesting than anything he’s got going on at home) and thus faces a series of difficult decisions as to how far he will go to save a loved one’s life—which successively get harder and harder, and more convoluted, and more destructive.

Of course, such decisions don’t seem to be too difficult for our boy Kierran, and you have to give him points for how long he’s able to manipulate the group. At other times, you have to rant. Excuse me for a moment.

KIERRAN, Kierran, Kierran. *Pats him on the shoulder and sighs*. Okay, maybe Ethan gets a pass on Politics 101 because he obviously spends his school days hanging out in the principal’s office rather than in class (*cough, cough* and is content to blindly follow your rebellious little teenage butt around *cough*). But Mr. Prodigy Son of Meghan and Ash! When the merciless Queen Titania--who is an awesome wicked character in her remorselessness but who has never once done something remotely beneficial to others—makes you the following offer:



How ‘bouts dis: you go into the realm of my SWORN enemy, the Winter Fae, and kill off this giant mysterious beastie living in the heart of the Frozen Wood, and then I’ll consider lifting dear sweet Annwyl’s banishment. Consider. Consider. CONSIDER.

A.k.a: ha ha, no.

Her insane offer is so blatantly obvious that Annwyl’s reinstatement ain’t never gonna happen that she’s practically insulting the main characters’ intelligence. Which is funny, but they take her seriously. How desperation dost blind the brain past any sense of reason (Kenzie, that would have been a good time for you to step in). Let’s consider why Titania would want some age-old power living in her opponents’ realm dead. Hmmm, out of the goodness of her heart to get a terrible monster off the Winter Queen’s plate? No. If it’s causing havoc in the Winter realm, then she has a lot of motivation to let it be. So why would she want a beneficial/neutral creature in the Winter realm gone? Obviously by getting rid of it, then it will benefit Summer somehow. Make Winter more vulnerable. Probably piss them off a lot. And since she’s so vague about why she wants it dead, then you know the stakes are pretty high—as in game-altering-causing-a-war type of high. Maybe a little more negotiating and turning the attention back to Summer and asking if there’s any pesky Fae running around Summer’s territory that they could get rid of, they would be able to tease out her true intentions instead of accepting her lies at face value.

But then we wouldn’t see Ethan and Co. face down a giant, terrible ice monster, and who doesn’t want to see Ethan fight an epic battle with an ice monster out of Kagawa’s fantastic imagination? No arguments here.

So Kierran’s soul is being corrupted and he doesn’t give a damn about Winter and Summer. Clearly this corruption comes with a little stupidity, too. But whatever. We get a cool journey through the Winter Realm and an epic showdown. From there, you’d think the answer would be to knock Kierran out and have his ass fired from the “saving Annwyl” operation, but he’s more interesting when he’s running around causing mayhem. And boy, does he. The interesting question in the third book—besides if we’ll see Titania fight more—is if Kierran can redeem himself.



So if you can suspend your disbelief for more than just the hobgoblins running around New Orleans and understand that all of the characters’ actions are going to be along the lines of: “Yeah…we probably shouldn’t be doing this…but what the hell. We’ve gotta save what’s her name—Annwyl,” then you are in for yet another entertaining adventure in Faeryland, far more intriguing than Book I: The Lost Prince, in my opinion. Kagawa brings up fascinating dilemmas like how the fey know they can live forever…as long as they aren’t forgotten (what must they do to ensure that?) and I still think her Summer/Winter Fae conceptions are some of the best ‘round fantasy town. Here’s to Book III—and given the shocking (but not unforeseen) cliffhanger to Book II, whatever delightful surprise Kagawa has waiting for us next.

Recommend for fans of: Melissa Marr, Richelle Mead, Andrea Cremer

Upcoming April Book Review: Sweet Evil by Wendy Higgins

Monday, April 7, 2014

My Writing Process Blog Tour

I'd like to give kudos to Kyra Halland for inviting me to the Writing Process Blog Tour. This one's been ongoing for quite a while and authors from all over the blogosphere have been weighing in about how they write what they do. Read Kyra's contribution here.

My Writing Process (The Heffinator Style)

1) What am I working on?

As usual, my mind goes in many directions before it finally hones in on one writing project to get it done (or as done as it get can get, anyway). I'm currently working on the first Changeling Sisters novella (Summer 2014) about a minor character in the Year of the Wolf who really surprised me by demanding to share her story about what really happened to her. I'm also formulating the plot for Changeling Sisters III: Year of the Dragon, in which the stakes get higher for our Alvarez sisters, as well as streamlining ideas into my Afterlife Chronicles II cache, so the latter two are still in their nebulous phases.
2) How does my work differ from others of its genre?

My work stems off others in the fantasy genre in a lot of ways from a lot of different time contexts, because I grew up reading fantasy favorites Tamora Pierce, Terry Brooks, Roger Zelazny, Octavia Butler, Robert Jordan, Ursula K. Le Guin, T.A. Barron, J.K. Rowling, Eoin Colfer, and those authors can never leave my writing. So in a way, I processed fundamental writing techniques from their books that I really enjoyed--memorable characters, fully-realized fantasy worlds--and channeled them into my own world-building and writing. While I developed my craft, the urban fantasy phenomena was unfolding to a wide-reaching audience. However, high fantasy books like Eragon still enchanted readers as well, so I definitely saw how contemporary and high, epic fantasy elements could combine to create resonating stories that capture the imagination. 

My personal touch is to tweak or turn tropes of the fantasy genre on their head. I'd like to challenge how they came to be that way, or make them feel uncomfortable. Why is a happy ending equivocated with a main character finding their soul mate, when many of us go through many different kinds of soul mates during our lives? What happens when neither the hero or the villain wins, leaving the state of things in an unclear mess? What am I reproducing when invoking "Light" as good and "Dark" as bad; how can I complicate such binaries? How did concepts like the hero's journey or characterizations like Mary Sue/Gary Stues become things, anyway, and how do they serve to constitute what's considered "normal"?

3) Why do I write what I do?

In mainstream fantasy regulated by the traditional publishing market, I did see how a certain dominant narrative was re-articulated again and again. Main characters are often white and heterosexual, as are all of their friends. People of color are relegated supporting roles; gay characters are routinely cast as "the gay best friend". People with differently-abled and marginalized body types are also non-existent, unless the entire story revolves around Character A being fat, for example. We've all heard the stories about publishers pushing for a main character's age to be younger than perhaps what the original manuscript called for (ahem, high school instead of college age). 

When Citlalli Alvarez revealed to me that she would, no ifs, whats, or buts about it, be the lead kick-ass heroine of the Changeling Sisters Series, I realized that I had a choice about whether or not to perpetuate this dominant mainstream narrative. I chose to craft the Changeling Sisters world in a way to disrupt that, to incorporate Korean and Mexican-American culture and language as dominant and just as legitimate as "white", to challenge the mainstream reader with what they may be unfamiliar with, and to spark their curiosity about what they're missing by sticking to traditional publishers who sell a certain kind of story. I'm white, so my presence is still there, and any mistakes I make are my own. But I have the opportunity to write about the world and friends I know, a colorful, diverse world, and I will keep taking that path again and again.

4) How does your writing process work?

*It begins with a question or an idea. For example, with The Tribe of Ishmael (Afterlife Chronicles I), I read Dante's Inferno for class and found myself riveted by one encounter with the demons, who had been cast into Hell to torment wicked human souls for an eternity. I wondered about how Hell would look when built from their views and experiences.  

*So I build the fantasy world, pulling on things I've seen outside of me and more often than not, dreams. Dreams are awesome world-building fuel because they combine things in ways you would have never imagined in waking life. 

*From there, I search for my main character(s) to carry the story and explore their relationship with the world. Have they just been dropped into it? What could have brought them there? How do they interact with each other and why? I'll usually settle on four main characters, one of which is...

*The villain(s)! Where's the points of friction between them and the main character(s)? Where do their interests coincide, in that they could seduce the main character(s)? What's the baddie's back-story (No one ever comes out of a vacuum)?  

*By now the beginning just flows out of me. Easy as pie. Stream of consciousness. It could go in all directions, it touches on a mystery and attracts attention, it's wonderfully bizarre and difficult to make sense of. It might be a sign of my generation: I think in terms of multimedia. I plot out "scenes" through movie or video game frames, and then I translate these visuals to paper. Anyway, beginnings are easy to write because they could go anywhere.

*The middle is tough. There aren't as many possibilities. What gets told and by whom needs to be weighed and re-examined. I might have to go back and re-write the beginning, or re-assess a previously minor character's role. The story is unfolding toward some semblance of an "end," and I have to choose where that resting spot will fall and the degree to which it will be satisfactory. The middle is also difficult because it is where many nuances in character development take place, so they've grown to a point the reader can recognize as "changed" by the time the climax approaches. During this middle part, I often write brief character conversations or scenes I see revealed in the end.

*I like writing the climax. Dispense with all flowery imagery--(although I'm prone to doing that)--just use hard, fast verbs that convey urgency and atmosphere. Then the winding down after the climax isn't so bad either--although by that point, my characters will probably already be waving on a path(s) ahead about where they see themselves going next. The hardest part is to leave them to wave so I can revise, revise, revise, edit, edit, edit, and then glance up to see if they're still there.

*Beta-reading time: I submit the manuscript to people I trust--and people I trust to be honest with me--and hope that what I wrote makes sense. Do they understand what I was trying to do with Character A? To what degree do I succeed? How does the story feel all together? I put away the manuscript and don't look at it for a while so I can re-visit with a fresh pair of eyes. Maybe I write about my waving characters and ideas for future books, but by then, the moment has been lost.

*I collect the varying sources of in-put and continue re-editing. At some point, the manuscript reaches finished-draft status. Then I get to share it with everyone I know and everyone I don't, which makes me incredibly happy! The engagement process with the book continues with every new reader who reads, and I truly enjoy hearing how their reading experience unfolded, what worked, and what didn't. After all, writing is a process and it is constantly in a state of becoming, never finished.

The Writing Process Blog Tour continues! Pop by next week to visit:

Dennis Upkins
Upkins is from Atlanta, Ga. An urban fantasy author, his writing credits include Hollowstone, Stranger Than Fiction, and West of Sunset. Upkins also regularly critiques and analyzes the representation and portrayal of minorities in comics and media as a regular contributor to Ars Marginal. Follow him at and on Twitter, @drupkins.

Also check out:

Autumn M. Birt
Birt, author of elemental and epic fantasy books, shares her thoughts

Yvonne Hertzberger
Hertzberger shares her love of magical realism here.