16 September 2015

Cut Both Ways by Carrie Mesrobian

I spent several months anticipating the release of Carrie Mesrobian's latest, CUT BOTH WAYS. Everyone who read it before its release raved about it (at least, everyone that I respect), and it sounded outstanding.

It was.

But in some ways it was also the toughest of Mesrobian's books to read, because it touched on subjects that hit a lot closer to home for me.

Will Caynes is constantly being torn in two. He's torn between his divorced parents, a father that borders on alcoholism and a mother that's distant and distracted. He's torn between homes: his father's gutted house that he's been trying to help renovate, and his mother's McMansion that's cold and loveless.

When, at age seventeen, he finally has his first kiss, he's torn again: because it's with his best friend, Angus, while they're both drunk and high. And he isn't gay, but he kind of likes it. But then he meets Brandy, a sophomore that babysits for his dad's neighbors, and he likes kissing her, too. He strikes up relationships with both of them, even though he knows, deep down, that someone (mabye everyone) is going to get hurt.

Only now, as I write this, do I realize what an important role the search for identity has played in all of Carrie Mesrobian's books: Evan's identity as a victim and a survivor; Sean's identity as a young man; and now Will's identity as a sexual person. Will doesn't know who he is or what he wants, and figuring it out isn't easy when you don't feel like there's anyone you can turn to, except for the people you're having sex with.

One of the things that amazes me about Carrie's writing is her gift for using the ordinary to examine the extraordinary—how Will's simple job at his dad's friend's diner can, in micro, come to define all the best parts of Will and his life: constancy and direction and friendship.

The ending was rough. I was not surprised: life is messy and endings are never as final as they seem. But CUT BOTH WAYS's ending hit me harder, because it tapped into the fear that so many questioning kids have: being rejected, being kicked out, being homeless, being cut off from the people that are supposed to love us unconditionally. I (very selfishly) wanted to know how things panned out with Will's family once shit hit the fan. I have to hope things turned out okay for him, because I have to hope that for everyone.

CUT BOTH WAYS was a stunning, honest, and brave book. It tapped into my own fears and twisted my heart around. And, like Will, I couldn't stop myself: I had to keep going back for more, even though I knew I was going to get hurt.

14 September 2015

If You Could Be Mine by Sara Farizan

Growing up, I never read any book with Iranian characters in them. So when Christa Desir mentioned Sara Farizan, an Iranian YA author, I searched out her books at once.

IF YOU COULD BE MINE tells the story of Sahar, a girl in Tehran who, at age six, told her mother she one day wanted to marry her best friend, Narsin—also a girl.


Sahar is a lesbian, in a country where being homosexual is illegal.

I’ve never been to Iran—all my experience with Iranian culture comes from my interactions with my family and their circle of Iranian friends. The closest I’ve come to visiting has been in movies.

Iranians are a joyous people—at least, all the ones I know are—but Sahar’s Tehran is a melancholy place, and Sahar’s story is a melancholy one.

Certainly, the fact that Sahar is a girl—rather than a boy—affects the prism of her experience. It was deeply rewarding to live in Sahar’s head and see Iran through her eyes.

Despite the melancholy, there were so many ways when reading Sahar’s story felt like being at home: all the little things Sahar mentioned that I recognized from my own life, like how some Iranian women shave off their eyebrows and then get eyebrows tattooed on them. Which has always seemed weird to me.

I knew, going in, that IF YOU COULD BE MINE was going to be sad. How could it not be? But I’m a romantic, an optimist at heart, and I wanted some hope at the end. Maybe I got that. But it also felt like Sahar was stuck in a trap of her own making, and I so desperately wanted her to get out.

There is an Iranian cultural concept—tarof—which is hard to translate. The closest I've ever heard is exalting another by debasing yourself. In everyday life, that means politely refusing food you want a few times before finally giving in; or offering to do something you really don't want to do, because the other person is supposed to decline anyway. But in Sahar's case, it meant putting everyone else's desires before her own.

It was heartbreaking, but I knew exactly where it came from, too.

11 September 2015

Proxy by Alex London

When I put down Alex London’s PROXY, my first thought was:

Why isn’t this a bigger deal?

It’s a brilliant dystopian story, unique in its execution, with dual protagonists who are compelling and brilliantly written, and it kept me on the edge of my seat the entire time.

Not an easy feat.

And then there’s the fact that Syd, one of the two protagonists, is gay, and that the book handles it brilliantly: it’s a necessary, integral part of who he is, but it never defines him or his story. It makes his life harder, but it’s not what drives his struggles.

What drives his struggles is this: Syd is a poor kid, an orphan, who was “rescued” by society (a society driven by capitalism at its most ruthless) as a baby and saddled with what amounts to a lifetime’s worth of debt. His debt was bought by the father of a spoiled, rich brat—Knox, the novel’s other protagonist—and thus Syd became Knox’s Proxy. Whenever Knox did something bad, rather than being punished, he had to watch Syd be punished instead.

Knox was a pretty naughty kid.

PROXY alternated between the two boys’ POVs, and it was clear from the start that Knox was insufferable, even unlikable—and yet so very compelling. Even though he was not likable, there were little glimmers of who Knox might have been with a better environment, the seeds of empathy that might have blossomed in other circumstances. Syd, on the other hand, was downtrodden but resourceful, likable from the start, even though his life was pretty shitty.

When Knox accidentally kills someone in a brash show of youthful stupidity, Syd is saddled with the punishment: being branded and then sent to a work camp for essentially the rest of his life. Syd excapes, though, and a chance meeting with Knox sends them both searching for a way to escape: Knox from his overbearing, manipulative father, and Syd from his debts and the soldiers of bureaucracy who will stop at nothing to see him dead.

PROXY is filled with twists and turns and betrayals, and while these are the bread and butter of any dystopian tale, PROXY managed to surprise me at every turn, because each betrayal came from an unexpected source, and the characters I identified as most-likely to betray Syd or Knox ended up being the truest allies.

The ending surprised me even more. Watching Knox and Syd grow and change was so rewarding, and then when things came to their inevitable climax: wow.

I hope more people read PROXY. Meanwhile, I can’t wait to read the sequel, GUARDIAN.

03 September 2015

How Not To Be Wrong by Jordan Ellenberg

I came across Jordan Ellenberg's HOW NOT TO BE WRONG via a discussion on Twitter, and it sounded fun and intriguing.

I have a pretty complicated relationship with math. When I was in sixth grade, I skipped a year of math, and when I was in seventh grade I skipped another year of math, which meant that I took eleventh-grade math in ninth grade and it was hard and all my classmates were older and treated me weird and I kind of ended up hating math, despite the fact that I was supposed to be "good" at it.

I mean, really, when was I ever going to use math?

So, fast forward to now, when I pick up HOW NOT TO BE WRONG: THE POWER OF MATHEMATICAL THINKING. I don't know what I was expecting, really, other than I expected it to be good, because it came highly recommended.

Here's Ellenberg's thesis: mathematics is really an extension of common sense by other means.

And to prove that, Ellenberg gives example after example showing when, exactly, people are "ever going to use this."

From armoring the weak points on World War II planes, to examining the science of polling, to how a bunch of people gamed the lottery system in Massachusetts, Ellenberg jumps from instance to instance of the real-world applications of math.

I suppose I felt like the examples were still far more specialized than anything I ever do—but it was a compelling argument, nonetheless. And Ellenberg's prose was exceptionally enjoyable. I took note of one particularly funny line:

There are aspects of the natural world-I'm thinking pandas here-that seem more likely to have resulted from grudging bureaucratic compromise than from the mind of an all-knowing deity with total creative control. 

Which was hilarious. And the chapter titles were great, too, like: 

Are you there, God? It's me, Bayesian Inference

Overall, HOW NOT TO BE WRONG was enjoyable and enlightening. It made me feel smarter for having read it.

Did it make me less likely to be wrong? Maybe not. Then again, I am rarely wrong anyway, soooo...

01 September 2015

Ten Reasons You Need Andrew Smith's STAND OFF

Back in July, I had the supreme privilege of receiving an Advance Reviewer Copy of Andrew Smith's STAND OFF, the sequel to WINGER, which releases on 8 September.

Here is a picture of us, with the ARC in question:

Suffice it to say, I devoured it in one sitting and have been so excited for the final release.

Herewith are the top ten reasons you should be, too, in no particular order (except for number one, which is, in fact, in particular order):

#10: Rugby—Because I never in my life wanted to play rugby until I read WINGER, when it seemed like so much fun, and it's just as fun in STAND OFF. I love the nicknames and I love the camaraderie and Ryan Dean's teammates are great fun.

#9: Nico Cosentino—Joey's younger brother, who may or may not be avoiding Ryan Dean, but who has some my favorite scenes in the book.

#8: Joey Cosentino—Even though he's gone, Joey's ghost is never absent from Ryan Dean's senior year. Joey was one of my favorite characters, and seeing Ryan Dean deal with his grief and heartbreak helped me process my own.

#7: Annie Altman—Ryan Dean's girlfriend, who calls him out on his shit when he needs it but loves him anyway. STAND OFF features one of the sweetest, most honest depictions of a growing relationship I've ever read.

#6: Comics—Ryan Dean's drawings have been plagued by N.A.T.E., ruining his enjoyment of them, but not mine. The comics were rough drafts in the ARC, but there have been some previews of the final art posted, and they look brilliant.

#5: Road Trips!—Because what would the sequel to WINGER be without a road trip filled with frightening and memorable characters? I will never look at cheese the same again. (Okay, that's a lie. I will always look at cheese with nothing but love and devotion.)


#3: Consent Boy—In WINGER, Ryan Dean acted like a little bit of a dirt bag. Not unsurprising, given most fourteen-year-old boys are at times. But in STAND OFF, Ryan Dean has to take a health class, where they discuss condoms and consent. It's so great to see Ryan Dean learn how to be a gentleman.

#2: The Abernathy—Sam Abernathy, Ryan Dean's new roommate, is a twelve-year-old freshman at Pine Mountain. He's insufferably adorable, earnest, and annoying—and boy does he grow on you. Also, he watches the Cooking Channel, and for someone who doesn't watch television, Andrew Smith has an impressive knowledge of advanced cooking techniques.

#1: Ryan Dean West—Because there are few more earnest characters in fiction, and none that I can think of that are as full of love as Ryan Dean West. It's a true joy to spend time with him and see him grow up.

STAND OFF releases 8 September. I've already got mine preordered. Why haven't you?

26 August 2015

Perfectly Good White Boy by Carrie Mesrobian

Last week, I read Carrie Mesrobian's SEX & VIOLENCE, and it was amazing, so of course I dove right in to her second novel, PERFECTLY GOOD WHITE BOY.

I'd already heard bits of PERFECTLY GOOD WHITE BOY before, when Christa Desir read from a few scenes during workshops at Midwest Writers Workshop, so I already knew it was another excellent, voice-filled novel. In SEX & VIOLENCE, Evan was compelling and so, so readable, but PERFECTLY GOOD WHITE BOY's Sean was even moreso: whereas Evan grew into being a likable narrator, Sean started off that way. He was a good guy with a good heart, doing his best to figure shit out.

Sean's got a pretty crappy home life. His parents are getting divorced, his dad is in rehab, and he's constantly at war with his older brother. He wants to get away and join the Marines, but he knows there's no way his Mom will approve of that, so he has to wait until he's eighteen and she can't stop him. Sean hooks up with Hallie, a senior girl at a party, and their relationship is brief and intense—Sean loses his virginity to her—but then she leaves for college, leaving Sean heartbroken.

Enter Neecie, Sean's coworker at the Thrift Bin, who used to wear hearing aids (and still does, but they're less obtrusive), and is apparently hooking up with the school's hockey stud on the sly. Sean and Neecie become fast friends, and maybe more—Sean isn't sure about that part.

PERFECTLY GOOD WHITE BOY was an amazing study of a boy about to become a man, complete with all the firsts and foibles that go with it. Much like SEX & VIOLENCE's Evan, Sean makes mistakes sometimes, but he tries and he tries.

I adored PERFECTLY GOOD WHITE BOY. It was absorbing and it was lovely and it really made me think.

More on that last point, but it's kind of a spoiler, so you should definitely go read the book first.

I can wait...


There's a scene toward the end of the book where Hallie—who Sean has been "casually" hooking up with—tells him that she had an abortion. And then she admitted to Sean that he wasn't the only guy he had been sleeping with.

And my immediate, visceral reaction was: What a slut.

I'm not proud of it. I think I was more hurt on Sean's behalf than anything, because it felt like Sean still had feelings for her, and it seemed like such a huge betrayal.

But it was an intense reaction. It really shocked me how quickly I fell into slut-shaming. I never thought that about Evan in SEX & VIOLENCE, after all, and I didn't think it about any of the females in SEX & VIOLENCE either, even when they were sleeping around with multiple partners. Was it because I was in Sean's head that time? Is it a general failure of my own empathy as a man? A cultural thing?

What do girls who read PERFECTLY GOOD WHITE BOY think about how Hallie acted? What if Sean and Hallie's genders had been swapped?

I don't know. But in a way, I'm glad I had the reaction I did, because it's important to think about these things, and PERFECTLY GOOD WHITE BOY really made me think.

25 August 2015

The Naming of Things

It is a strange truth that, at age 31 (I know, I still cry about it sometimes), I'm still as self-conscious of my name as when I was four years old.

My name, Adib, means scholar in Arabic—which is interesting, since I'm actually half-Iranian. Iranians speak Farsi and use the Persian alphabet, but due to the Islamic conquest of Persia many centuries ago, the two languages and alphabets are closely intermingled. So, even though my sister has a Farsi name, mine is Arabic, and that's cool, I guess.

But living in America—the Midwest, no less—it's not always easy to have a name like Adib. When I introduce myself, the general response is "huh?" or "what?" or sometimes even "Steve?" if the person has a hard time discriminating voiced and unvoiced consonants.

My middle name is Kevin, which is fairly innocuous, though the last name negates that. Should I have gone by Kevin growing up? Maybe. I didn't actually know there was such a thing as Going By Your Middle Name until I was in fourth grade or so, at which point all my classmates already knew me and it was far too late.

So now, today. I'm fairly self-confident, at least as much as a bald guy who used to be a hundred pounds heavier can ever really be. I'm decent at being a grown-up adult. I have a pretty strong sense of humor, even if it's a little weird at times.

So why do I still feel weird when I have to give my name at a Starbucks?

Well, not really a Starbucks, because no one comes out of Starbucks with their name on their cup. But other coffee shops, or restaurants, or even just shaking someone's hand. Why do I feel so self-conscious?

I heard a joke a few days ago, in reference to San Francisco Giants pitcher Madison Baumgarner, the bane of the KC Royals (GO ROYALS! GO SPORTSBALL!):

Which statement makes more sense:

"Madison won the World Series" or "Madison's mom is bringing orange slices today"?

Names affect how we perceive people. So maybe the problem is I'm not sure if my name fits how I want other people to perceive me.

I'm not saying I want a different name. I like my name. I think it fits me fine.

But I wonder if the me I see when I hear my own name is the same me that other people see when they meet me.

20 August 2015

Sex & Violence by Carrie Mesrobian

Carrie Mesrobian's books had been on my radar for a while, for a number of reasons, but they became even more imperative after I met author Christa Desir at Midwest Writers Workshop. At the sessions I attended, Mesrobian's books were used as examples of excellent voice (in general), excellent guy voice, and authentic, honest portrayals of sexuality.

And then I started listening to the podcast that the two authors co-produce, The Oral History Podcast, which is about sex in YA literature, and it's hilarious and wonderful and everyone should listen to it.


Even Carter's father moves around so often, he's never finished a year of school the same place he started it. He's always the new kid, and he never has any friends, but he finds ways to meet people: he's identified the profile of The Girl Who Would Say Yes, so at least he has someone to hook up with. But at his latest school, when he hooks up with a girl whose ex isn't over her, he ends up getting attacked—so badly he gets a ruptured spleen—and his father moves him (again!) to his old home in Minnesota to recover.

I knew going in that SEX & VIOLENCE would be so much more than the title suggested, but I was still surprised at the turns it took. The story follows Evan's struggle with PTSD, his work with his therapist, and his making friends for the first time ever. It follows Evan getting to know his dad for the first time. And it follows him redefining his own attitude toward sex.

I can't talk about the things that most impressed me with the story without giving away the ending. But here's what I can say:

I loved the voice. It was spot-on. I've read a lot of books lately that had male narrators where the guy felt stifled, robbed of emotion and depth. Carrie Mesrobian got Evan spot on: he felt things deeply and passionately, he just didn't know how to express them out loud. But he knew how to express them to me, the reader.

I loved the cast of characters. I felt like I was really on that lake in Minnesota with him, like the friends Evan made were all people I knew.

I loved that Evan made mistakes, even when he knew he was making them, and he didn't know how to break his own pattern of behavior. That's one of the truest struggles of being young: knowing something is wrong but not knowing how to fix it.

I loved how honestly sex was portrayed. It was never romanticized, but it was never sensationalized, either. And I saw what a big part of Evan's character sex was: not the having it, but his attitudes toward it, his formative experiences with it. There were some surprises in there that I was not expecting.

I loved watching Evan heal and regress and grow up and grow wiser and still do stupid shit sometimes.

SEX & VIOLENCE was not a "fun" read. It was dark and moody at times, and I so desperately wanted Evan to be okay. But it was a truly enjoyable one, hard to put down and impossible to forget.

I'm already most of the way through Mesrobian's next book, PERFECTLY GOOD WHITE BOY, and I can't wait for her forthcoming third book, CUT BOTH WAYS.

And, of course, I can't wait for the next episode of The Oral History Podcast.

Christa Desir was right: It really is like a dirty Prairie Home Companion.

17 August 2015

Shadowshaper by Daniel José Older

I've never before gotten to the end of a book and said to myself, "This book was badass." Until now.

Daniel José Older's SHADOWSHAPER was freaking badass.

SHADOWSHAPER tells the story of Sierra, a Puerto Rican girl living in Brooklyn who works on murals in her spare time and has found that boys always stop being interesting to her as soon as they open their mouths. And she's a little self-conscious of her body and her hair but mostly she's cool with who she is and where she's at in life.

That is, until she gets thrown into the world of shadowshaping: the ability to communicate with and empower the spirits lingering in Brooklyn by creating art that the spirits can inhabit.

Sierra finds out her own role in the shadowshapers' legacy, even as she has to contend with a villain trying to destroy it. With the help of her friends, her brother, and Robbie, a Haitian boy with a shadowshaping legacy of his own, Sierra tries to outwit, outfight, and outspirit her foe.

I mean...seriously. This book was just awesome.

It had a brilliant cast of characters. Sierra was so enjoyable to read, so vividly drawn, so different from the typical protagonist and so freaking real.

Her gang of friends and her family were spot-on, layered, and had their own nuances.

And Brooklyn was presented in all its contradictory glories: the mix of old and new, of gentrification versus tradition, of wealth and poverty. Brooklyn burst with life (and death!).

I really freaking loved SHADOWSHAPER. The ending was perfect. It really felt like Sierra's story could go on—but there was no messy cliffhanger to annoy me. Instead, I felt really good at the end, and hopeful that I will get to see Sierra and company again.

Also: wow! Diversity in YA is kind of a big thing right now. But it's been a while since I read something that got things as right as SHADOWSHAPER did. The cast was full of diversity, but not to fill some quota: these were real people, with lots of facets, and the story was so strong because of it.

13 August 2015

The Last Time We Say Goodbye by Cynthia Hand

Man. I've read so many books about suicide this year. THE LAST TIME WE SAY GOODBYE was another addition to that stack, but it was definitely one of the better ones.

High school senior Lex's younger brother Tyler committed suicide just before winter break. In the months since then, Lex has drifted apart from her former friends, broken up with her boyfriend, and has been going through the motions at school, despite being a straight-A student with ambitions of getting into MIT. Her divorced parents have been struggling, too: her distant Dad never talks about Tyler, and her mother has taken to self-medicating with white wine.

THE LAST TIME WE SAY GOODBYE's approach is different from the other books about suicide survivors I've read: it's a family story, studying how Lex and her family cope with the loss and try to move forward with their lives. That's not to say there's no focus at all on why Tyler did what he did—it's just not the main thrust.

Hand's prose was melancholy and achingly beautiful, but it was so heavy at times, it was hard to sustain my usual reading pace. I had to put the book down several times to get a breather. I think that's okay—hard books should be hard to read. Ty's specter hung over the entire plot, and I getting to know him through Lex's recollections made me lament his death all the more.

I liked THE LAST TIME WE SAY GOODBYE a lot, but I didn't quite love it. The characters never excited or moved me as much as I wanted them to be. They were real, well-drawn people, but the sort of cathartic change I enjoy in books never really occurred.

All that said: I would definitely recommend THE LAST TIME WE SAY GOODBYE to anyone who asked.

11 August 2015

On Daylight

I know it's a bit late to make the observation, but: It's summer.

Summer means sunshine.


But generally, summer is sunny, if humid. And there is something about sunny days—especially the nice, high-pressure ones with low humidity and a little breeze—that makes me feel very creative.

Today is one such day. I feel bursting with energy.

It makes me wonder if the Sensory Deprivation Closet is the right writing environment for me.

More and more, I dream about a desk in an office with a great big window, or even a solarium!

I don't know what the solution is right now. But I am doing some serious thinking.

10 August 2015

You and Me and Him by Kris Dinnison

I had been looking forward to YOU AND ME AND HIM for a long time. I had read the blurbs and it sounded amazing. I almost pre-ordered it.

I'm glad I didn't.

I wanted so, so much to love this book. The setup was brilliant, the voice was stellar. I started off in love with the characters.

But somewhere along the way, everyone and everything started to feel flat. No one surprised me the entire book.

Maggie, the girl with weight issues, never really transcended herself. She wallowed in her body-image issues and then found her fabulousness or whatever. She stood up to her bullies.

Nash, her gay best friend, was melodramatic and never transcended the stereotype of the gay best friend that we've seen time and time again.

Tom, the flirt, was flirty the whole time and that was his thing, and though we occasionally got glimpses that maybe, maybe there was more to him, he ended up doing something to remind us of how shallow he was.

Kayle, the bitchy former-friend, stayed a bitchy former-friend.

No one changed. No one grew.

I got what the book was trying to do. I really did. It just...didn't work for me.

What DID work for me, and what deserves a lot of praise, his how Maggie's issue with her weight was handled. She was honest and heartbreaking and proud and insecure and all the things I felt when I was overweight (and still feel now that I am a healthy weight). One of the characters said, more or less, I still see myself as fat, and that's absolutely true.

I loved the setting. Cedar Ridge was beautifully rendered. A road-trip to Seattle was vividly rendered. 

It was well-plotted and well-paced. I raced through it.

And then it left me feeling empty inside. It was like one of Maggie's delicious cookies: exciting but ultimately unfulfilling.

I was so sad.

05 August 2015

The Story of Owen: Dragon Slayer of Trondheim by E.K. Johnston

For some reason or another, this book kept popping up in recommendations for me from various sites, so I finally bit the bullet and read it.

THE STORY OF OWEN: DRAGON SLAYER OF TRONDHEIM takes place in a version of our own world where dragons are everywhere, where they feed on carbon emissions, and family lines of dragon slayers are the only line of defense.

It's a great setup, and Johnston executes it well, giving us the story of Siobhan McQuaid, a classmate of Owen Thorskard, the scion of the Thorskard family of dragon slayers. Siobhan becomes Owen's bard, teammate, and, eventually, best friend, following him around Thorskard, a small town in Ontario, as Owen trains to be a slayer.

THE STORY OF OWEN was fun, whimsical, and oh so Canadian. Except there was no poutine, which is delicious, but anyway...

Even though I liked the concept, the book didn't end up exciting me. It felt like Johnston was pulling her punches quite frequently, and so many of the relationships left me terribly unsatisfied.

Siobhan and Owen never even entertained the idea of being romantically linked, and I thought that was brilliant—it's great to see a strong platonic friendship rather than romance for a change. But said friendship never deepened the way it needed to in order to be fulfilling.

The same could be said of most of the relationships in the book, and indeed of the adventure as a whole. Even the fight scenes, which should have been great set pieces, ended up just a bit shy of awesome.


All that being said, I found THE STORY OF OWEN charming and fun. I enjoyed it enough that I already picked up the sequel.

One last thing: I noticed a lot of typos in the hardcover. It was a little off-putting. I don't hold that against the story, though.

04 August 2015

Rattle That Lock

Anyone who knows me knows that I'm freaking obsessed with David Gilmour.

He's got a new album coming out in September, and I'm seeing him live (!!!!!!!!!!!!!!) in Chicago next April, a mere 248 days from today.

In the meantime, I must sate myself with the music video for his album's title song. It's got some really slick animation that reminds me a little bit of Miyazaki and a little bit of Gerald Scarfe.

03 August 2015

The Leftovers by Tom Perotta

Tom Perotta's THE LEFTOVERS came out back in 2011, and I put it on my to-read list after reading a review, probably in Entertainment WeeklyIt took me four years to get around to reading it.

I kind of wish I had waited a little longer.

I imagine with the HBO series based on the book, people are at least familiar with the premise of THE LEFTOVERS: a Rapture-like event (which got termed the Sudden Departure since no one could agree if it was the Rapture or not) caused a portion of the world's population to vanish. The selection seemed to be random: the worthy and the wicked were taken, without any discernible pattern.

THE LEFTOVERS, as the name implies, follows the lives of those who remained, as they try to live in their new world. The novel followed the sometimes-interweaving stories of several characters, but tended to focus on Kevin Garvey, a small-town mayor whose wife left to join a cult, whose son (ironically) also joined a cult, though a different one, and whose daughter has lost her direction in life.

I don't know. I didn't really like it.

The characters were all real, but in a sort of unlikeable way. Because the narration was omniscient, it was harder to find heroes and villains, or even to sustain empathy for characters when they would behave sympathetically one moment and egregiously the next.

I don't know.

I liked the premise. It was absolutely brilliant. And Perotta's prose was lean and mean and did its job. I just didn't connect with the story.

It turns out Perotta wrote the novel ELECTION, upon which the film—one of my least favorite films from my teenage years—was based. I didn't know that going in, but it makes sense: both paint a more cynical portrait of humanity than I enjoy reading.

It's cool, though. It's good to read widely and I don't regret reading THE LEFTOVERS.

31 July 2015

Finding Audrey by Sophie Kinsella

FiNDING AUDREY's titular character suffers from crippling anxiety. She wears sunglasses all the time because she can't stand making eye contact with people, and she's more or less stayed at home since the incident, excepting a stint at a mental hospital.

It's a pretty heavy setup, but FINDING AUDREY is anything but: it is bursting with love and hope and laughter. It shows that recovery is possible, even if there are roadbumps along the way, and it illustrates beautifully how important family is.

Audrey's family is full of memorable characters: her mother that's obsessed with whatever The Daily Mail has published; her invested but occasionally clueless father (he reminded me a bit of Arthur Weasley in his enthusiasm for his children's lives); her gaming-obsessed older brother; her rambunctious younger brother; and Linus, her brother's friend, who...well, you know. It's kind of written on the wall. And on the blurb.

FINDING AUDREY is light-hearted and, dare I say it, cute. Not in a sickening way, but in a way that left me smiling most pages. I didn't feel like it treated Audrey's illness flippantly: it acknowledged she'd already gone through her lowest points, and it focused on her recovery.

I was a bit concerned that it would present a "love-fixes-mental-illness" narrative, but thankfully, it did not. Audrey sees a therapist, takes her medication, and though Linus supports her and challenges her to do the things her therapist recommends, he does not "fix" her. Indeed, he shows the sort of bewilderment that all of us who love people with anxiety have: the desire to help coupled with the inability to do so, and the misplaced anger that can cause.

FINDING AUDREY was fun, heartfelt, and honest, and I so valued the chance to get to know a narrator who dealt with anxiety. As I said, I have several friends and family who struggle with it, and the way Audrey described struggle perfectly matched theirs. It was nice to get inside her head, and I felt like I learned more from living her moments with her, rather than observing them from the outside.

Apparently, Sophie Kinsella is a fairly well-known name for her SHOPAHOLIC series, which I had never heard of. I don't know that I'll check out her other work—it doesn't sound for me—but I quite enjoyed FINDING AUDREY.

30 July 2015

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

Okay, I have a confession:

Until this year, I had never actually read Harper Lee's TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD.

WAIT! I have seen the movie, and I have read (and worked on a production of) the play. But this was my first time reading the novel.

I can see why it's become a classic. I mean, it's bursting with voice and vivid characters, with a plot that's easy to understand, and it still rings true today.

I have a second confession:

I decided to read it because of all the press that GO SET A WATCHMAN has been getting.

I don't think I'm going to read GO SET A WATCHMAN any time soon. While I could understand TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD's appeal, it was far from a favorite book for me. I don't know that I can point to specific problems with it, so much as it just...didn't really do it for me. While the characters were vivid, I did not become attached to them as I have to, say, Harry Potter or Ryan Dean West. Their voices didn't linger with me past the closing page.

I am glad TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD is being taught in schools, though: there are lessons in empathy we can all learn from it, even if our heroes were later torn down by the "sequel." And if TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD can inspire honest discussion about race in America, so much the better. We still have a long ways to go.

29 July 2015

Midwest Writers Workshop - Day 3

Day three!

Saturday started with what was, in my humble opinion, the best activity I've ever attended at a conference. It was called Buttonhole the Experts, which did lead to some snickering, but whatever.

There were eight-person tables filling the Assembly Hall, and each person had an expert with a topic to discuss: Social Media, Revisions, Comedy, Queries, Picture Books, and more. You sat at a table, spent twenty minutes having a small-group conversation, and then the bell rang and you moved to a different table.

I sat with Janet Reid for her table on queries (and also to introduce myself, since I've been a long-time blog reader, and to ask about Felix J. Buttonweezer); with Martha Brockenbrough for her table on comedy, where we took a deep dive into different issues each of us were having and Martha gave suggestions on how to tackle them; with Brooks Sherman, to discuss social media (and also pitching horror stories); and then with Nicole Sohl, to discuss the role of an editor and how subrights work.

Next was Christa Desir's workshop on Sex in YA literature. I think the biggest takeaway from that was that, even if your character is not having sex, they are developmentally at the stage where they are forming their opinions on the matter. It's something they're very aware of, even if they avoid it.

I checked out the Thai restaurant in town for lunch, got Spicy Thai Basil Fried Rice to go, and hung out with some friends I had made the first day of conference.

After lunch, I attended Christa's second workshop of the day, a look at the world of gay romance. Christa works as an editor at Samhain Publishing, and she mostly examined the adult side of gay romance, though she did mention YA a couple times, including a shout out to ARISTOTLE AND DANTE DISCOVER THE SECRETS OF THE UNIVERSE, which is of course an excellent book.

I had no idea that straight women were the number one consumers of gay romance. Who knew?

Next was the Agent/Author Relationship workshop. Christa Heschke and Annie Sullivan were on hand, along with Brooks Sherman and his clients Heidi Schulz and Sarah Cannon. It was enlightening and extremely amusing as well.

I had a critique in the afternoon. It was excellent. More than excellent. I don't want to say too much, as I don't really like sharing specifics about my writing (especially work in progress) on the blog, but it was truly helpful. I got some great insights and help articulating things that I had been struggling with.

After that was the Writerly Resources Panel, with Janet Reid, Jane Friedman, and Dana Kaye. They answered questions about publicity, promotion, how to have a career as an author, and more.

And then, it was time for dinner and the closing keynote speech. I had the fortune and pleasure of sitting with some of the faculty at dinner (though I will refrain from naming names to protect their privacy), discussing life outside of writing and interacting as normal human beings.

Then it was time for Janet Reid's keynote address. I hope that some day a transcript will become available, because it was one of the best speeches I've ever heard: funny and heartfelt and truly inspiring. The main point of it was that if you take risks, believe in yourself, and be willing to try (even if you fail), you will grow and eventually you will succeed. And sometimes you will find yourself holding a boa constrictor and using your body heat to warm it up.

Then it was time to go and sleep. There was a Dairy Queen down the block from my hotel, and despite my attempts to resist, I ended up getting a Reese's Peanut Butter Cup Blizzard and curling up with a book in my hotel room.

I drove home the next day, listening to the four short DIVERGENT stories about Four. Um, I hope that sentence made sense.

I was also very sad that I got a chip in my windshield on the drive.

As you will.

Still, Midwest Writers Workshop was amazing, and I hope I can go again next year. I learned so much and had a great time.

28 July 2015

Midwest Writers Workshop - Day 2

And here we come to it: Day 2 of the Midwest Writers Workshop!

The morning started with the agent panel. I've made no secret of my great admiration for Janet Reid—she's kind of the reason I chose to attend MWW—so it was exciting beyond belief to be there when she took the stage with the other agents. All the agents seemed cool, and there was some friendly ribbing going on. The questions were fair to middling, for the most part. Again, as a reader of Janet's blog, I already knew what the answers to many were. Some questions had indeed previously precipitated rants on said blog, so it was kind of a treat to see a live rant.

After that, I left for workshops. My first workshop was on revision, with the hook that it was a workshop on revision for people already tired of their books. It was taught by mystery writer Lori Rader-Day, a confirmed pantser (with whom I share pantsly solidarity). We examined the different kinds of revision that books undergo through the stages of their life. The biggest takeaway, for me, was when she said "If you spend time now getting tired of your book, some day you'll love it again."

Then there was lunch (TACO BAR!!), and an excellent keynote on Jane Friedman, focusing on how to make a living as a creator.

My first post-lunch workshop was taught by Heidi Schulz, author of the excellent Middle Grade novel HOOK'S REVENGE. It examined the different kinds of humor, the rules and techniques for getting it onto the page, and it included some delightful activities. There were several writing exercises in workshops throughout the day, but I think this is the only one I got brave enough to share at.

Following that was Julie Hyzy's workshop on "The Voices in your Head." To be honest, I thought it was going to be about character voices, but it was much more important: it was about how to ignore the voices of self-doubt, guilt, and all the other voices that stop us from being able to create freely.

My last workshop of the day was again taught by Lori Rader-Day, and it was a one-hour mystery bootcamp. Normally she teaches that workshop in two hours, so the compression made it rather exciting! We examined the crucial elements of a mystery, the various subgenres, and the guiding principles of the mystery genre. The top rule: play fair with your reader.

Following the end of workshops, there was a sparsely attended dinner and then the Message in a Bottle Activity, wherein writers were drawn by lottery to read for three minutes from their work. I was expecting there to be some sort of structure for response to those works, but it was purely a reading. I think I would have liked the chance to discuss the pieces, but I guess that would require quite a change in format.

Day two ended a little early, which meant I got to get some sleep and prepare for day three!

27 July 2015

Midwest Writers Workshop - Day 1

So, I know I said I was going to try and keep up with the workshop on the blog, but holy cow the workshop kept me super busy! So, herein we begin the recaps of the experience.

Day one was the day of intensives. I did a day-long workshop with author (and all-around delightful human being) Christa Desir on how to draw on our own lives to lend authenticity to our writing. We spent a lot of time talking about our lives, doing exercises, and examining what we connect with in storytelling.

There were two workshops in the afternoon, one on pitching and one on querying, and because I despise pitching I went to the querying one instead. I will say that most of the questions in the querying workshop had already been answered on Janet Reid's blog, and I was at a loss as to why everyone doesn't read it.

Indeed, nearly every time querying came up ANYWHERE in the conference, certain questions kept coming up. Maybe people were just nervous and wanted something to say.

The final event of the evening was a welcome, keynote address (by Michael Shelden, on how to get serious about success), and then a Find Your Tribe activity, where I got to meet the other YA writers at the conference. We were such a big group we had to stay in the assembly hall, so there wasn't a whole lot of one-on-one camaraderie, but it was still cool.

And then I went to my hotel room and slept.

22 July 2015

Midwest Writers Workshop - Day 0

Today I depart for the 2015 Midwest Writers Workshop in Muncie, Indiana. It's my second writing conference and I am super excited for it.

The drive from Kansas City to Muncie, Indiana is about eight and a half hours, so I have acquired the audiobook of GRASSHOPPER JUNGLE to get me through the drive. Even though I will be driving through Missouri and Illinois and Indiana instead of through Iowa, it felt like a good choice.

Blogging will be sporadic but I hope to—at some point—write about each day of the conference.

21 July 2015

Vivian Divine is Dead by Laurel Sabel

I'd had Lauren Sabel's VIVIAN DIVINE IS DEAD on my list for months. Months! I read about it when I was looking for thrillers and/or books about celebrity, and since it had both, I leapt at the chance.

Vivian Divine is the quintessential young Hollywood actress: rich, famous parents, precocious talent, accolades and awards, a hot boyfriend and a famous best friend. Then her mother is murdered, and her own life is threatened, and she has to go on the run to Mexico, right around the festival of the Day of the Dead.

The book started like a shot, roaring off into action straight away. The setup was compelling, if a little clichéd: in the months since her mother's murder, Vivian's father has become even more distant, her boyfriend has cheated on her (painfully and publicly) with her best friend, but she's had to put a brave face on everything for the tabloids. I was kind of hoping the book would delve more into what it's like living under that kind of spotlight and constant scrutiny, but I felt like Vivian just kind of scraped the surface of what that kind of life is like.

Vivian's flight to Mexico, and her budding relationship with Nick, her local-boy rescuer, was fun and flirty and swoony, but then again, I felt like it was the kind of thing I'd seen before.

Ultimately, I felt that way about most of the book: the characters were likable and readable, but nothing particularly new. The plot twists were great, but at times too easy to predict.

The ending left me feeling REALLY unfulfilled. It felt like the middle book in a trilogy, but as far as I can tell it's supposed to be a stand-alone.

In the end, I had very mixed feelings about VIVIAN DIVINE IS DEAD. The writing was crisp and compelling, the voice was relatable and fun, but ultimately, the story wasn't where I wanted it to be.

20 July 2015

Because You'll Never Meet Me by Leah Thomas

There is something delightful about epistolary novels. One of my favorite things in life is getting an actual handwritten letter from a friend (I have two with whom I exchange mail fairly frequently). There is something very honest about writing a letter that lets you into the very heart of someone.

In BECAUSE YOU’LL NEVER MEET ME, we get into the heart of two people: Oliver Paulot, an American boy who’s allergic to electricity, and Moritz Farber, a German boy with a pacemaker who was born with no eyes and somehow developed the ability to echolocate like a bat.

It’s a weird setup, to say the least. But it works.

As Ollie unburdens himself in uninhibited verbal diarrhea, Moritz is cautious, even rude at first, but he eventually opens up as well.

Ollie tells Moritz about his friend Liz, the first girl he ever met (and the first girl he ever fell in love with). He writes about his life in the woods, far away from any sources electricity. He's not just allergic to it: they repel each other, like magnets with the same polarity.

Moritz tells Ollie all about his travails with the school bully, his difficulty making friends, and his home life. He eventually trusts Ollie enough to tell him about his mother (a pretty chilling character) and his life story.

It turns out, the two are more connected than they ever realized.

Often in books with two points-of-view, one will dominate the other, or be more enjoyable (subjectively) than the other. That was not the case with BECAUSE YOU’LL NEVER MEET ME. I enjoyed Ollie’s erratic stream-of-consciousness just as much as Moritz’s taciturn but earnest writing. Both were pitch-perfect, and felt both timeless and timely.

Ollie and Moritz's stories end like all good letters end: with a fond goodbye, and the hope for a bright future.

16 July 2015

The Last Leaves Falling by Sarah Benwell

I had my eye on Sarah Benwell’s THE LAST LEAVES FALLING for a long time before I finally got my hands on it. It sounded absolutely amazing:

Abe Sora, a teenager in Kyoto, was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), and has slowly withdrawn from the world as his physical abilities diminish. As he takes solace in the writings of ancient samurai, he also finds unexpected friendship with a pair of teens on an Internet forum.

A simple enough setup, but I just knew it was going to be beautiful and heartbreaking.

First off, I need to say how beautiful Sora’s narration was. I never once felt like I was seeing an alien culture: Sora was Japanese, but I was seeing Japan through his eyes, and it was completely normal to him. That’s rare in books like this.

I loved every character in THE LAST LEAVES FALLING, from Sora’s friends Kaito and Mai, to his loving and dutiful mother, to his riotous grandparents. Sora stayed focused on the positive parts of his life, never wallowing, even when he had every right too. He was realistic—fatalistic, even—but he was not depressing.

My heart ached as Sora contemplated his own future, and even more so, his mother’s future. As he depended on her for more and more, his guilt grew until it was nearly suffocating. Sora’s struggle was clear and heartbreaking and hopeful all at once.

I think there’s something hard to contemplate about dying with dignity. It’s a fraught subject, and one that’s so heavily wrapped up in religion and politics (at least, in America) that it can be incendiary. But THE LAST LEAVES FALLING treats the subject with care and compassion and reflection.

The ending was lyrical and quiet. Normally I would have wanted a big, grand cathartic ending, but that would have been both out-of-place with Sora’s story and, I think, culturally inauthentic. I have two Japanese in-laws, and I’ve talked with them at length about cultural differences, including how much more demonstrative Westerners are than they are used to. Benwell reigned herself in, but I know she has the chops to go big if the situation calls for it.

I can’t wait to see what else she writes.

15 July 2015

Anything Could Happen by Will Walton

It’s hard when you fall in love with someone who doesn’t love you back.

It’s even harder when you know that there’s no chance at all that they might.

Knowing that, you’d think Will Walton’s ANYTHING COULD HAPPEN might be depressing: Tretch, the narrator, is in love with his straight best friend, Matt Gooby. There’s no ambiguity, either, no distant hope that Matt might be gay. Tretch knows Matt will never love him that way.

And that part is pretty heartbreaking.

But what lifts up Tretch—and his story—is all the love he does find in his life.

Tretch has great friends, especially Matt, the kind of best friend that’s life-changing. He has a loving brother, Joe, and kind, patient parents (even if they have their troubles). And as Tretch discovers, there’s more love out there for him: the girl at the bookstore with a misplaced crush on him, the girl at the diner that’s falling for Matt, his kooky grandparents, and more.

Tretch’s voice was absolutely compelling. I remember the exact moment when I knew that I had to have my own copy of ANYTHING COULD HAPPEN:

Matt purses his lips and inflates the space beneath his nose with his breath. Then he lets it go.

It’s a little observation, but it was so true to life. I do the same thing!

There were lots of other great moments, even if they were painfully awkward, like the scene where Tretch is in Matt’s room when Matt gets ready for a shower, giving Tretch an eyeful (his internal monologue was utter perfection).

ANYTHING COULD HAPPEN is a story of unrequited love, but that doesn’t mean it has an unhappy ending. There is more than one kind of love. And as Tretch learns, it’s all around us, if we know how to find it.

14 July 2015

Tap Out by Eric Devine

Eric Devine’s TAP OUT was recommended to me based on my interest in boxing and mixed martial arts, but TAP OUT is about so much more than that. I’ve read books about living with poverty, and I’ve read books about living with violence, and I’ve read books about living with abuse, but TAP OUT combined those three elements in a way that was, at times, harrowing.

Tony Antioch calls himself white trash. He lives in a trailer with his mom and whatever abusive boyfriend she’s currently seeing. He goes to school where he sleeps through most of his classes. He goes to bed hungry most nights. But his friend Rob wants him to join Tap Out, the MMA gym in town, to work out some of his aggression.

When Tony gets in trouble at school—trying to, of all things, avoid joining Tap Out—he ends up forced by his principal into joining after all. When Tony was younger, he showed academic promise, with a ridiculously high IQ score, but years of abuse have taken their toll. He’s still bright, but he’s lost all hope for the future, except the hope he gets taking Vo-Tec classes in automotive repair.

Add to that the biker gang of drug dealers in the neighborhood, and it’s an explosive combination.

TAP OUT tackled a lot of things I’ve never been exposed to. Tony spent most of the book hungry. It was so hard to read about that, but it was also good to read about it. A lot of kids (and adults) in the US go to bed hungry every night, but this might be the first time I’ve read about that struggle.

The threat of violence hung over the entire plot like a shroud. It was chilling and intense. The sense of hopelessness, of there not being a choice or a way out, made Tony both sympathetic and absolutely frustrating, because even when he had a choice, he didn’t see it. He’d had hope beaten out of him.

I loved the MMA scenes. I’ve never fought, but I’ve watched my trainers fight (I do boxing and kickboxing for fitness) and it’s a thrilling sport to watch. TAP OUT captured that thrill really well.

It was inevitable the story would turn to violence, and that Tony would have to make hard choices. I was disappointed several times in the choices he made, especially as TAP OUT roared to its climax. But what bothered me even more was the adults in Tony’s life, who kept backing him into corners. I just wanted to smack them. It was like they didn’t understand how to help him. Instead of drawing him out of his shell, they kept shoving him back into it.

I don’t think the adults in Tony’s life were uncaring—not all of them, at least—but they didn’t do a terribly great job trying to understand him.

When the last bell rang, TAP OUT was an intense, gripping novel, and it tackled some tough issues with grace and skill. I really enjoyed it.

13 July 2015

More Happy Than Not by Adam Silvera

Why is it so hard to talk about the books that mean the most to you?

I had my eye on MORE HAPPY THAN NOT for a long time before it came out. I entered several contests for ARCs of it, and didn’t win any, so I had to wait like everyone else for it. And then, I ordered a signed copy from Books of Wonder in New York because I decided I was going to start trying to get signed copies of things. No one ever comes to Kansas City.

So, it took me a while to get MORE HAPPY THAN NOT, and then I had to wait a few days to make sure I would have time to dig in to it. I knew that it would prove distracting if I had to split it up over too many sittings, and that work would be impossible.

There are plenty of glowing reviews for MORE HAPPY THAN NOT, and they talk about it far more eloquently than I can. This book is so close to my heart, I’m having trouble articulating more than that I LOVED IT.

Okay, there actually is more that I want to articulate, but it’s kind of a spoiler, so you’ve been warned.


What got me right in the gut about MORE HAPPY THAN NOT wasn’t the Aaron’s struggle with his sexual orientation. It wasn’t the gay-bashing he got at the hands of his supposed friends. It wasn’t even the heartbreak at the end.

What I responded to most strongly was the heartbreak when Aaron finally realized that he was wrong, and that Thomas wasn’t gay. And Thomas’s sweet response to Aaron:

“If I’m being one hundred percent honest, I think our friendship even confused me a little, but I’m also one hundred percent sure that I’m still straight because I would’ve been chasing after you if I wasn’t.”

Aaron’s not the first gay guy to fall in love with a straight boy, but what made this situation worse—much worse—was the hope that Thomas wasn’t actually straight. And it wasn’t even wishful thinking; it was just drawing the wrong conclusion from the available evidence. And I think nearly every gay man has had that experience.

There’s one other thing I want to say about MORE HAPPY THAN NOT.

I think it’s the only book I’ve ever read that actually depicted two boys having sex. It wasn’t explicit or anything, but it came out and said it: Aaron and Collin had sex. And it was so refreshing to see that it wasn’t treated as any different than when straight characters have sex in YA novels.

I absolutely adored MORE HAPPY THAN NOT, and I know I’m going to read it again and again. Author Adam Silvera has mentioned that he might one day return to Aaron’s story. I hope he does.

I’m not quite ready to say goodbye yet.