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 clich├ęd: 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.

09 July 2015

When I Was The Greatest by Jason Reynolds

It’s funny: despite my efforts to read more diverse books, this is actually the first one I’ve picked up with a black boy as the narrator. I’ve read books with gay narrators, intersex narrators, disabled narrators, Latino and Asian and Middle Eastern narrators, but this is the first one with a black narrator.

WHEN I WAS THE GREATEST is the story of Ali, a boy from Brooklyn’s Bed-Stuy neighborhood. He, his mother, and his sister Jazz live straddling the poverty line, but life is mostly good: he takes boxing lessons, he stays out of trouble, and he’s best friends with his neighbors, Noodles and Needles. (Both got their nicknames courtesy of Jazz).

I don’t know if it’s Ali’s narration or my own preconceived notions, but the threat of violence seemed to hang over WHEN I WAS THE GREATEST like the sword of Damocles. I’m terrified that it’s my own preconceived notions. I used to watch a lot of Law & Order reruns.

The thing is, WHEN I WAS THE GREATEST was so much warmer than that. It was not about gangs, or drugs, or violence. It was about friendship and brotherhood and family.

Ali’s father left when he was a kid—gone to jail for a violent (but thankfully non-deadly) crime, though he’s since been released. And Ali and Jazz still love their father, even if they don’t agree with what he does for a living.

Needles has Tourette’s Syndrome, but everyone in the neighborhood loves him. Everyone except Noodles, who can’t get along with his brother at all.

When Ali and Noodles get invited to the party, it’s on the condition that Needles gets to come, too—and that’s what really sets things in motion, spinning Ali into a direction I expected but with an outcome I didn’t expect at all.

WHEN I WAS THE GREATEST was absolutely lovely: the type of book I certainly need to read more of. We all need our prejudices challenged, especially the ones we don’t realize we are carrying. I am going to keep my eyes peeled for more books like it.

08 July 2015

The DUFF by Kody Keplinger

Kody Keplinger’s THE DUFF got a lot of publicity the last year when a movie came out based on the book. It didn’t sound like my type of movie, but it was from a popular YA book, and since I’ve been immersing myself in the category it seemed worth reading. I never did see the movie, but I finally got around to reading the book.

DUFF stands for Designated Ugly Fat Friend, and that’s what man-whore Wesley Rush calls Bianca at the outset of THE DUFF. It stings, because Bianca realizes it’s true: she’s not as pretty or popular (in her mind, at least) as her best friends Casey and Jessica.

Bianca gets so offended that she throws her Cherry Coke at Wesley and storms off.

Bianca’s home life isn’t great. Her parents are headed toward divorce, and her dad’s a recovering alcoholic. And she has lots of self-esteem issues, just like any teenager. So when she ends up thrust together with Wesley Rush on a class project, she finds a release valve for all her stress.

Yes, that one.

Through a strange conceit, Bianca and Wesley become enemies-with-benefits. 

What really stood out to me about THE DUFF was not its story, which isn’t really that different from a lot of its peers. I mean, everyone in the story except Bianca could see where it was headed, and many of them told her as much, too. What set THE DUFF apart was its characters: somehow, they all come across as charming and lovable, even when they’re really not. And they all grow and learn from each other.

THE DUFF is one of the best examples of supportive female friendships I’ve read in a while. There was jealousy at times, and the girls made mistakes with each other, but they were true friends, supportive and forgiving and truly kind to each other. That’s something I haven’t seen a lot of.

I wasn’t sure going in if THE DUFF was the kind of book I would like, but I ended up enjoying the hell out of it. Part of me wants to see the movie (which stars Mae Whitman [her?], whom I adore), but part of me doesn’t, since apparently it’s very different from the book.

I’ll have to make up my mind at some point. And, just because I am thinking of Mae Whitman...

07 July 2015

Brave New World by Aldous Huxley

I have a confession: I haven’t read that many classics. I read the Required High School Tour of English Literature and then, well, not much. But BRAVE NEW WORLD came up in reference to a number of dystopias I read over the last five years or so, and it was finally time to read it.

A lot of classics can be dry and stuffy, but BRAVE NEW WORLD was surprisingly compelling. It had interesting characters, snappy dialogue, a chillingly realized world, and real questions to ask about human nature.

What surprised me most about BRAVE NEW WORLD was that the first thirty pages or so were a complete infodump. Seriously. We weren’t introduced to a main character for quite a while. It was flat-out world building, with no effort to contextualize it in action that affected our main characters.

And it worked anyway.

BRAVE NEW WORLD starts off with the Director giving a tour of the facility where humans are bred and conditioned to fit into their proper social cast: Alphas, Betas, Gammas, Deltas, and Epsilons. Lower casts are exposed to alcohol and other stressors to limit their development, and all the children listen to “hypnopaedic” tracks as they sleep, absorbing the rules of their kind.

From there, we are introduced to Bernard Marx, an Alpha-Plus but a misfit, who is taking a trip to New Mexico to visit the uncivilized people that live there. While there, he meets John, the son of the Director and his weekend fling, Linda, who had visited New Mexico years ago but got separated. When Bernard decides to bring John back, well, all hell breaks lose.

John is a figure of instant celebrity, and as his keeper, Bernard gets to bask in the reflected fame. But things turn quite sour, quite quickly, as John realizes how terrible the regimented society is, how infantile the populace has become, and how the concepts of romance and monogamy have been lost.

In the end, John has to retreat from the society he once idolized, claiming his own right to be unhappy if he chooses.

BRAVE NEW WORLD asked a lot of great questions. The world it presented was at once idyllic and repulsive. And yet, nothing was ever too far a cry from what we know about human nature today.

And the ending left me feeling pretty depressed.

All in all, BRAVE NEW WORLD was a great read. I enjoyed it far more than I expected to going in. If all classics were this fun, this provocative, and this unpretentious, I would read a lot more of them.

06 July 2015

Bonk by Mary Roach

I don’t even remember how this got added to my list. It’s probably because it sounded funny.

BONK: THE CURIOUS COUPLING OF SCIENCE AND SEX is pretty much exactly what it sounds like: an examination of the way that scientists have gone about studying sex, from the Greeks all the way up to the modern period. It examines how scientific views have changed over the years, as well as the breakthroughs in technology that have allowed us to better study human sexuality, and to treat sexual dysfunctions.

BONK is one of the most hilarious nonfictions I’ve read in some time. Mary Roach is not afraid of embarrassing herself in the name of her research, and she even drags her husband into some of her research, such as when she volunteered him (only halfway with his knowledge) to be MRI’d while having sex.


Not only are the situations amusing, but Roach’s prose sparkles with wit. One of my favorite passages is from a passage discussing research into pheremones:

Michael called the purported rhesus pheremones "copulins," a word I cannot write without picturing a race of small, randy beings taken aboard the starship Enterprise.

I absolutely adored BONK. I’ve already added Roach’s other books to my list.

02 July 2015

The Invasion of the Tearling by Erika Johansen

Erika Johansen’s THE QUEEN OF THE TEARLING was a breath of fresh air in the high fantasy genre: a world that felt rich and full and unique, yet so similar to our own; a heroine who was determined but inept, who was fiercely independent and yet yearned for the approval of others; who was nowhere near the “classical” ideal of beauty but had the force of personality to inspire loyalty in others.

QUEEN ended on a high note, with Kelsea performing a literal miracle. I could not wait for the sequel.

THE INVASION OF THE TEARLING was even better than its predecessor. While a lot of trilogies suffer from a slump in the middle, INVASION ratcheted up the tension, the characterization, and the stakes. It gave us more points-of-view than we’d ever seen before, including a dim-witted but competent jail guard, and, most importantly, Lily Mayhew, a woman who lived Pre-Crossing—before the journey that took Kelsea’s people’s ancestors from the United States and Britain to the new world of The Tearling.

Somehow, Kelsea is seeing visions, sharing Lily’s life. And what she learns about the Pre-Crossing world is horrifying.

Sexual violence against women has come up a lot lately: depictions of rape in Game of Thrones, the oppression hinted at in Mad Max: Fury Road, and others. And, rather ironically, it came up quite a bit in THE INVASION OF THE TEARLING. Lily Mayhew lives in a world where women have become second-class citizens. Lily is beaten and even raped by her husband, Greg, on several occasions, in scenes that were some of the most difficult I’ve read in a long time. And even the heroes in Lily’s world have to pretend to hurt her, just to save face with their allies.

Despite the difficulty of the scenes, I don’t know that we would have seen how bad Lily’s world was, otherwise. I have tried to think of other ways it could have been depicted and am coming up short. So, maybe it was necessary? I don’t know. Maybe if this book had come out a few months before or a few months later, I would not be thinking about it so much.

Regardless, as Kelsea and Lily’s stories mingle in interesting ways, the Mort invasion of the Tear proceeds, and we see Kelsea finding the limits of her own abilities. She grew up a lot in INVASION—facing darker impulses than she’d ever faced before; dealing with her burgeoning young sexuality; and learning that sometimes, her actions had consequences beyond what she could anticipate or control.

For the most part, her choices were portrayed empathetically, though there were times when she was pushing against what I was willing to believe.

All in all, I loved THE INVASION OF THE TEARLING. I only really had one complaint: that Kelsea, who had spent all of THE QUEEN OF THE TEARLING being a badass who wasn’t bothered (well, not that much) by her lack of conventional beauty, spends INVASION being slowly transformed by magic into a conventional beauty. It made me so sad, and angry, too, and I hope Kelsea finds her way back to her original, authentic self. I worry about the pernicious ideas about beauty that young women are exposed to and I desperately hope that the next book in the saga of the Tearling won’t give in to stereotypes.

01 July 2015

On Character Growth

A few days ago, I was in the shower and thinking (as I often do) about books: namely, what made me love the ones I loved.

I was thinking in particular of two books—AN EMBER IN THE ASHES and THE QUEEN OF THE TEARLING—which I enjoyed immensely, though I enjoyed AN EMBER IN THE ASHES more than THE QUEEN OF THE TEARLING. I couldn't really clarify why I liked one more than the other until THE INVASION OF THE TEARLING was released, and I liked it so much better than its predecessor.

The reason is this:

Character growth.

It's something we hear about, think about, and write about all the time. But what does it really mean? How do you quantify character growth?

It's supposed to mean that a character comes out of a story changed by its events. And I think, usually, that's supposed to be a positive thing. But I think there's a scale. How much can a character believably change? And what effects did those changes have on the people surrounding that character?

In THE QUEEN OF THE TEARLING, Kelsea's journey seemed less about change than it was about actualizing herself—unleashing the potential she already possessed. In THE INVASION OF THE TEARLING, though, she truly did change—she explored her sexuality, she dug deep into her own darkness, and she found strength to make the choices she didn't think she could actually make. She grew up.

In AN EMBER IN THE ASHES, both Elias and Laia grew immensely as well: Elias finally understood what it meant to draw a line in the sand, to say "No more!" and live with the consequences; and Laia discovered her own agency, her ability to do things without the help of others.

All of my favorite books have this kind of transformative character growth in them. And so many of the books I've liked, but not loved, have fallen short.

It's something I'll have to keep an eye out for in the future.