Saturday, December 31, 2011

Wednesday Words: The Book You're Meant to Write

I know it's not Wednesday, but I really wanted to end the 2011 entries to this blog on a high note, so consider this Wednesday Words: Saturday Edition.

I've never been in love, not even close. I'm one of those perpetually single people - my life is full in infinite ways, I just don't happen to have a boyfriend right now. But I'm okay with that because I've been falling in love with stories my entire life and discovering that stories are all around us, you just have to pay attention. In songs with and without lyrics, the sound of crickets on a summer night, in an impossibly delicate sunset or painting, in television shows, in movies, and of course in books.

Though I feel like in my life, despite my voracious reading habits, I have a hard time finding books that leave me with the feeling like in some magical cosmic way it was meant for me, that the author somehow knew that this shy yet smart-mouthed nerdy girl from Illinois was in need of a story that clicked with her. But then Harry Potter happened when I was 11 and I "met" Hermione, and suddenly I didn't feel so alone anymore. Then I got older and last year I read According to Jane by Marilyn Brant and it's awesome how similar my life is to that of the protagonist.

Yet this itch remains, and this past year I started to write more stories myself. Over the course of the summer, I wrote a first draft of a YA novel in which the protagonist has an awful lot of me in her - she's the protagonist I often wanted to read about but couldn't find.

When her latest book The Scorpio Races came out this past October, Maggie Stiefvater wrote about why she wrote the book on her blog. Her answer is simply poetic: this isn't a story that she just snapped her fingers and it came to her overnight, but the story she always wanted to read but had never found on the bookstore or library shelves. As she says, it's the "most Maggie" book she has ever written, the book she was meant to write. At my last count, this novel has gotten five starred reviews which leads me to what I believe is an obvious conclusion: this isn't just a book for Maggie, but a book that a lot of people maybe didn't realize they were also looking for until it finally existed. Her anti-NaNoWriMo post was one that hit home with me in November when I was near tears and neck-deep in another first draft, but looking back and really thinking about it, this particular post about how this book finally came to be is my favorite of hers. It's advice that I try to follow in my own writing as I work to write the story that only I can tell and I haven't already seen on my library shelves. I want to write the book that will hopefully do what Hermione did for me when I was also a precocious bookworm of an eleven year old.

If you're a writer, may Maggie's words help you as they have also helped me. If you're a reader, may you have the best of luck as you search for that book that perfectly fits you on the shelves. May all of you have a very Happy New Year. I hope to see you all back here in 2012. Bring a friend while you're at it. Spread the word, the more the merrier!

Comments welcome, and as always, happy reading.

Friday, December 30, 2011

Looking for the Bright Side: Instructions for a Broken Heart

Instructions for a Broken Heart by Kim Culbertson
Sourcebooks Fire, 2011

I'm one of those typical Caucasian Americans who has a blissfully messy European background. Italian, Irish, German, English, Austrian, Polish, and on and on and on. That being said, I've always been a fan in learning about the countries of my ancestors, trying to visit them, and reading books that take place there. When I read the description for Kim Culbertson's Instructions for a Broken Heart, it sounded like it was right up my alley - the majority of the story takes place during a girl's spring break trip to Italy.

Unfortunately, that's also where my excitement ended, and it really does pain me to say that because I had such high hopes for this book and was praying that it would turn around somehow.

Jessa's troubles start in the first chapter when she walks in on her boyfriend making out with another girl from their high school's drama club, only days before the club is to leave for a tour of Italy. Not wanting to let a boy ruin her plans to see the country she's dreamed of her whole life, she decides to go on the trip even though it will mean having to watch the new couple be all over each other.

It's an awkward and unfortunate situation to be in to be sure. I can empathize with being in Italy with a broken heart and I know it's not fun. However, it's not enough of an excuse for the often bizarre events that happen, Jessa's self-centered and all around poor attitude, and the fact that despite the fact that the whole story takes place over the course of 10 days, I felt lost half the time. Names, places, and an endless supply of Broadway references that non-thespians won't understand piled up into a big emotional mess. While I expected there to be a bit of over-dramatic flair given the fact that this is a high school drama club, this was simply ridiculous.

The titular instructions for a broken heart are laid out by Jessa's friend Carissa who was unable to make the trip, so instead she lays out 20 tasks Jessa must complete while she's away. While her intentions may have been good (and I use that word incredibly loosely), the results are disastrous more often than not. And since I found the main character to be pretty one dimensional, it shouldn't come as a shock that I wasn't exactly blown away by the 'supporting cast' either. The inclusion of a tour group from another school only added to the confusion. Another aspect of the story that irked me was that Culbertson would build up to reveals only to have them be incredibly anticlimactic.

I could honestly keep going on about why this book just fell short for me (don't even get me started on the ending), but I think you catch the drift of what I'm saying. Were I a person in Jessa's shoes, maybe I'd be more sympathetic to her views and actions, but to me this story was so full of cliches and half-thought-out ideas that I can't say I'd recommend it.

Comments welcome and happy reading.

Kim Culbertson's Website

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Wednesday Words: The (Completely Accidental) Fault in Our Services

One of the many things I love about storytelling, no matter which medium it is being conveyed through, is that it is a unique experience for each individual. Jane Austen's novels have been read for many many years and by people all around the world, but they manage to say something different to each person. Her books may be over 100 years old, but they were new to me when I was a teenager looking for a story to be lost in, and I got to discover that world for myself in a completely fantastic way - spoiler free.

Books, movies, music, really the arts in general have an incredible ability to always be new to someone because they're constantly being discovered by a new audience or generation. But sometimes, intentionally or unintentionally, parts of that experience are soured by stories being leaked and revealed.

Last week, Barnes & Noble accidentally shipped out preordered copies of John Green's upcoming novel The Fault in our Stars. To say this book is highly anticipated is a bit of an understatement. When he promised to autograph tip-in pages for the entire first printing, the demand was so overwhelming that the first-printing is 150,000 copies plus his publisher moved up the release date from March to January. Things were going relatively smoothly (or at least John was putting on a really great game face for the last few months) until this accidental shipment.

Once these orders were sent out, I can't imagine that there's a whole lot that can be done. It's not like they could all be tracked down and taken back. Needless to say, some people got this book three weeks before the rest of us will and it leads to a big question: to read it or to wait?

Temptation is a powerful force. If I got it early (which, to be clear, I did NOT), I could read it early and finally know this amazing story, but is three weeks really that long to wait? And if I read it early, it's not like I'd be able to talk to anyone about it - I would NEVER want to spoil the reading experience for others. (The "highway overpass spoiler" incident that occurred when Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince came out left me disgusted.) So while it would be incredibly tempting to read it early, I think I'd wait instead. I imagine it's like when expecting parents have to decide if they want to know the sex of their unborn child or not - once you know something, you can never un-know it, and in the grand scheme of things, is it really that long to wait?

While it is an unfortunate situation for Penguin, John, and Barnes & Noble to be in, I must say that I've been impressed with how professionally and honestly it has been handled. Were it my book, I'd probably be sobbing that my hard work now seems tarnished in some way, but John has put on a good face. He's addressed his thoughts on his Tumblr as well as on the YouTube channel he and his brother Hank share. Is he devastated? Yes, he says so. But it was just one of those things, an unfortunate accident that happens from time to time, and he and so many others are continuing to work hard to make sure that the reading experiences of others can still be times of exploration, thought, and discovery.

So chin up, John, and may January 10th still be a very special day for you and DFTBA. In the meantime, if you are someone who has not yet read one of Green's novels, check out Looking for Alaska (my review can be found here), An Abundance of Katherines, Paper Towns, Will Grayson Will Grayson (co-authored with David Levithan), and Let it Snow (co-authored with Maureen Johnson and Lauren Myracle).

John Green's YouTube Vlogbrothers Response:

Comments are welcome, as always.

Monday, December 26, 2011

The Pains of Living: Willow

Willow by Julia Hoban
Dial, 2009

Julia Hoban takes on a lot of complex emotions, relationships, and issues in her debut novel Willow. A selection on this year's Illinois Secretary of State Read for a Lifetime list, it's rarely on the shelves at the library where I work - to say it's been popular is an understatement. I was anxious to see what it was about this book when I finally got a chance to grab a copy.

Last spring, Willow's entire world changed in the worst way and she's convinced it's all her fault. Don't even try to tell her that it's not. After all, she was the one driving the car when the accident happened and now since both of her parents are dead, she's living with the guilt and staying with her older brother, his wife, and their baby. She knows that everybody knows she's the girl who killed her parents, but what they don't know is how she's been coping with it all, one cut at a time.

Hoban doesn't shy away from the nitty gritty in this book. Her writing style is captivating and kept me interested, but I wasn't quite as invested as I was expecting to be given how popular the book is. The exploration of "why do people cut themselves?" is handled in an exceptional way - I had friends who were cutters in high school and I could never understand why they did it, but this book gave me a few moments of clarity about how this truly is an illness and that it's an incredibly hard question to answer, and that the answer is different for everybody.

However, there were other areas of the book that I felt could have used a bit more explanation. I understood that Willow was in pain (physically and emotionally) and that she blames herself, but it was hard for me to be sympathetic to her at times, especially when she would refuse to listen to Guy, the boy who enters her life and learns her secret, or when she was convinced that everyone must be talking about her all the time. Having been in Guy's position myself, I could empathize with the situation he found himself in, but I also had some trouble with him as a character - he was just a little too good to be true, he needed a flaw to make me believe that like Willow, he could easily be a real person.

If you're a reader who is interested in "issue" novels such as Laurie Halse Anderson's Speak, give Willow a chance if it's on your local library's shelves. It's not a story for the faint of heart or, at times, stomach, but it is a story worth reading.

Comments welcome and happy reading.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Wednesday Words: Yes, Virginia

I have no doubt that there is plenty of book related news going on at the moment. What books are making popular gifts this year? How are e-readers faring this shopping season? Are there any more good "best  of 2011" lists that are worth taking a look at?

But in honor of Christmas and the spirit of the season, this edition of Wednesday Words is going to be a bit different. Instead of book news about what is happening now and in the future, I'm looking to the past. 1897, to be precise.  And without further adieu, here it is: My absolute favorite editorial of all time, printed in The New York Star.

I am 8 years old. Some of my little friends say there is no Santa Claus. Papa says, 'If you see it in THE SUN it's so.' Please tell me the truth; is there a Santa Claus? 

VIRGINIA, your little friends are wrong. They have been affected by the skepticism of a skeptical age. They do not believe except [what] they see. They think that nothing can be which is not comprehensible by their little minds. All minds, Virginia, whether they be men's or children's, are little. In this great universe of ours man is a mere insect, an ant, in his intellect, as compared with the boundless world about him, as measure by the intelligence capable of grasping the whole of truth and knowledge.

Yes, VIRGINIA, there is a Santa Claus. He exists as certainly as love and generosity and devotion exist, and you know that they abound and give to your life its highest beauty and joy. Alas! how dreary would be the world if there were no Santa Claus. It would be as dreary as if there were no VIRGINIAS. There would be no childlike faith then, no poetry, no romance to make tolerable this existence. We should have no enjoyment, except in sense and sight. The eternal light with which childhood fills the world would be extinguished. 

Not believe in Santa Claus! You might as well not believe in fairies! You might get your papa to hire men to watch in all the chimneys on Christmas Eve to catch Santa Claus, but even if they did not see Santa Claus coming down, what would that prove? Nobody sees Santa Claus, but that is no sign that there is no Santa Claus. The most real things in the world are those that neither children nor men can see. Did you ever see fairies dancing on the lawn? Of course not, but that's no proof that they are not there. Nobody can conceive or imagine all the wonders there are unseen and unseeable in the world.

You may tear apart the baby's rattle and see what makes the noise inside, but there is a veil covering the unseen world which not the strongest man, nor even the united strength of all the strongest men that ever lived, could tear apart. Only faith, fancy, poetry, love, romance, can push aside that curtain and view and picture the supernal beauty and glory beyond. Is it all real? Ah, VIRGINIA, in in all this world there is nothing else real and abiding.

No Santa Claus! Thank God! he lives, and he lives forever. A thousand years from now, Virginia, nay, ten times ten thousand years from now, he will continue to make glad the heart of childhood.

Happy reading and Happy Holidays.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Choices and Courage: Divergent

Divergent by Veronica Roth
Katherine Tegen Books, 2011

I immediately feel a sort of kinship with Veronica Roth. From reading her blog and following her on twitter, I'd like to imagine that if we ever met, we'd be friends. We're the same age. We both hail from Chicagoland. We both attended Big 10 schools. Both of our names end in "ica" which is just kind of fun. But while I may fancy myself a writer, she actually is in a very big way. We're talking New York Times best selling BIG. If you haven't heard of her debut novel Divergent, a runaway hit that recently won the title of Goodreads Best Book of 2011, you're missing out.

Beatrice is 16 years old living in a dystopian Chicago. In this future, Lake Michigan has dried up into a marsh, buildings of the past are crumbling down, and society divides itself into factions, each one devoted to a different virtue. And when you're 16, you have a choice to make: do you want to continue to stay with the faction of your parents and family, the one you have been raised in and have identified with until now, or are you willing to leave all of them behind and join a new faction? An aptitude test is supposed to help you make your choice, but the choice is still yours. Unfortunately for Beatrice, her test results are inconclusive which is very dangerous thing to be.

I read this entire book in a day because I could NOT put it down. This is a high-action book and while there is a bit of a romantic relationship at play too, it is by no means the whole of the story (Think Hunger Games - it plays a supporting role). Roth paints an incredibly vivid picture and explores a question that many people struggle with - what does it mean to be brave? The relationships among characters are complex and Tris (she gives herself a new name) is too. Roth captures being 16 perfectly in that delicate dance between still being a child in many ways, but in just as many others being an adult. 

The only reason I can't give it five stars is because there were a few things that I felt a bit perplexed over when I was done. The first book in a planned trilogy, I'm hoping some of them will be answered in the future, but for now I can't help but wonder what drove this society to the faction system? How is it they can afford these serums and simulations, but not to pave roads? How come sometimes Tris says the food is manufactured/processed, but later it appears that it's fresh? Little things, I know, but they might have significance and so I'm curious. 

If you're a Chicagoan, a fan of debut novels, a lover of dystopian fiction or looking to give it a try, I urge you to pick up Divergent. It seems to be a book people either love or hate, and I definitely fall into the former category.

Comments always welcome, and happy reading!

Veronica Roth's Website
Veronica Roth on Twitter
Veronica Roth on Tumblr

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Wednesday Words: Trying Something New

To anyone who has been reading this blog or simply looks at the tag cloud in the sidebar, one thing about my reading habits is extremely obvious: I LOVE YA. I'm not embarrassed at all by this fact that at 23 years old, I get an incredible amount of joy from reading books primarily aimed at 14-18 year olds. In my defense, as if I need to provide one, I didn't start reading these books until a graduate school course on it this past spring, but now that I've tried it I don't think I could ever give it up.

That being said, I've been afraid lately that I've become too comfortable just sticking to YA lit with my reading tastes. Don't get me wrong, it's fabulous the way that YA can cross genres and still discuss really intelligent issues, but I am 23 years old and I do have an English degree and lately, that itch for wanting something a bit more difficult has been there. Again, this is in no way putting down YA and saying it can't be, but I mean my brain wants a book that I don't always understand what it's saying, that I need to make sure I have access to a dictionary, and that I can't speed through. So this week, I started reading Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game by Michael Lewis. It's nonfiction, it's aimed at baseball enthusiasts (I'm a moderate fan but I'm not obsessed with the game or stats), and I have to take my time.

Honestly, it's been a welcome change. Have I also been reading YA on the side? Yes, but Moneyball is my main read right now. As readers, I think it's important that every now and again, we be willing to look outside of the box every now and again. It's so easy to get comfortable with one series or genre or author and not stray too far from the things we know we like. After all, reading for fun should be enjoyable, not work, right?

Well, yes. And no. People that read are, in my opinion, people who enjoy being stimulated. After all, unlike movies or TV where everything is laid out in front of you, reading requires work. Your imagination has to fill in the gaps, or you have to consider an issue and make a narrator come to life in your head. In that sense, reading is already a challenge, so why not really push ourselves every now and again?

Baseball isn't my favorite sport, hockey is, yet I find myself picking up a book exploring the world of the Boys of Summer every few years. I can watch a game and understand the general gist of what's happening, but I'm not passionate about it. I have a favorite team, but unlike the Chicago Blackhawks, I don't follow the stats of the Cubs. Yet here I am, reading a baseball book. And there are statistics involved, too (math has never exactly been my forte). Yet I can't put it down. I'm so interested in learning about how Billy Beane's mind works and how these other numbers and baseball enthusiasts somehow changed the way the draft is approached. Just because I was willing to try something I wouldn't normally consider.

So what genres do you stick to and which ones are you considering giving a chance? Let me know in the comments below and, as always, happy reading.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Fight to be Heard: Five Flavors of Dumb

Five Flavors of Dumb by Antony John
Dial, 2010

People just want to be heard. No matter what your age is or where you live, it's a common trait among human beings because it's a basic need. We want to be listened to and understood and know that we are contributing to the bigger picture.

But for Piper, the protagonist in Antony John's YA novel Five Flavors of Dumb, that's easier said than done for a couple of reasons. She's never been the most popular girl in school. She has a hard time getting her parents to consider where she's coming from, let alone her peers, and as if all of that didn't suck on its own, throw in the fact that she's deaf. She started losing her hearing when she was six years old and between her hearing aids and stellar lip-reading skills, she's able to scrape by life at school and home with people who can't or won't use sign language.

All Piper wants and dreams of is to get away from her parents in Seattle and go to Gallaudet University next year, a college for the deaf and hard of hearing in Washington, D.C. Her mother's parents, both of whom were deaf, gave her money when they passed away specifically for that. However when her little sister is born deaf, her parents decide to use the money instead to give baby Grace cochlear implants.

Sick and tired of being ignored or overlooked and misunderstood by her family, Piper breaks out in a big way and finds herself the new manager of Dumb, a rock band made up as students at her school. She's smart and has big ideas, but it is challenging managing a band when you can't actually hear if they're any good or not.

I have long been interested in deaf culture. I think that American Sign Language is completely beautiful and I did my student teaching in college at a high school with a fairly large deaf education program. John, a man who actually has a fairly extensive music background, therefore had big expectations to fill for me as a reader, and I'm glad to say I think he did a solid job. The story, band members, and Piper's family all show their opinions on what it's like to be a hearing person or a deaf person and the role that sound and silence can play in our lives. There were times when I would have liked a bit more depth because at times the plot felt a bit rushed or forced. Also, it wasn't always clear to me when Piper was interacting with people via sign or if she was lip reading - this ambiguity made some situations she was in a bit too convenient if you catch my drift. On the positive side, John clearly did his homework in terms of music history, especially as it relates to Seattle, and this added a level of authenticity I appreciated.

Overall, I was happy with this book and on Goodreads I give it a 3 out of 5 stars. Piper's story is one about making sure you are heard and it's one that a lot of people should be able to relate to on one level or another.

Comments welcome and as always, happy reading!

Antony John's Website

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Wednesday Words: The Barriers on Bloggers

A few days ago, I was following a discussion going on via YA author Maureen Johnson's twitter account. While much of what she writes here is delightfully strange, this time the topic was on a bit more of a serious note: are publishing companies holding book bloggers to a different set of rules?

For more information on this, I started digging around and found this article by The Guardian. In a nutshell, it seems like HaperCollins' imprint William Morrow is telling book bloggers who request ARCs of books (that's "advance reader copy" and not a large boat filled with animals) what they'd like to see happen with those thoughts. This is part of what bloggers got to read:

"You will no longer receive titles piece-meal. Instead, you'll receive 1–3 emails during the month with all of our upcoming titles available for your review, one month ahead of the on-sale date … Your job is simply to review the book within a month of receiving it and post your thoughts on your blog or site. Ideally, we'd like for reviews to appear online within two weeks to a month after the on-sale date, so you might keep this in mind when selecting books,"

Not exactly a stance that welcomes a whole lot of discussion. 

Now I'll admit, this is all very new to me. As you can see from my list of past posts, I've barely been at this two months. The books I review have often been out for months if not years and I get them from my local library or, on occasion, they're books I already own and feel they deserve more love than they currently receive. This blog is something I do for fun in my free time and I in no way profit from it. I talk about books because it's essential for my existence and because they feed my soul. 

What are my thoughts on the issue? I'm still soaking it in, to be honest. I guess I don't think it's too out of line for publishers to want reviews to be posted when the book is still new and trying to garner marketing attention - book blogs are in many ways a virtual version of "hey did you hear about this book?" But to basically demand that a review has to be up within a month seems odd to me. If you're afraid that a book will no longer be of interest or relevant in a month, then there's a bigger issue, there. I also feel like it discourages people who write the blogs from trying something different or out of their comfort zone when it comes to selecting ARCs. This date makes blogging feel much more like homework and much less recreational or to spread a love of reading.

It's an interesting issue to be sure, so please, if you're reading this, take to the comments! Voice your opinions! Tell your friends and family to come here and they can say what they want too!

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Current Historical Fiction: The Future of Us

The Future of Us by Jay Asher and Carolyn Mackler
Razorbill, 2011

Carolyn Mackler  (The Earth, My Butt, and Other Big Round Things) and Jay Asher (Thirteen Reasons Why) capture the spirit of 1990s in their new collaborative novel The Future of Us. The premise is one that is so simple, yet these writers expand the subtleties of the situation in such a way that older readers who remember the 90's will find themselves reminiscing about the past while younger readers my find themselves contemplating what their futures may look like in 15 years.

Meet Emily and Josh, two teenagers in 1996, who already have enough on their plates. Emily is dealing with her mother's latest marriage, her dad's new family, a boyfriend she doesn't really like all that much, and the fact that she hasn't really talked to Josh since last fall when things very suddenly got really weird. Josh is trying to figure out where he went wrong with his friendship with Emily, his overbearing parents, and just getting through his sophomore year with his friends. Then Emily gets a computer and Josh brings her a CD-ROM for 100 free hours of America Online (something everyone over the age of 20 no doubt remembers getting in the mail week after week). But something goes funny when Emily goes online - she's brought to a weird website called Facebook and the woman in the picture looks like an older version of her.

Suddenly the pair find themselves playing with the powerful force of time and discover that all of the choices they're making in the present seem to have a huge impact on their future lives. Emily is continually unhappy with the version of her life she's looking at and trying to change things, but Josh is at the opposite end of the spectrum and doesn't want to mess with anything too much because 1) he likes what his future looks like and 2) he wants to focus more on now.

This is a novel that readers of all ages will be able to appreciate on different levels (and, weird as it may sound right now, is being classified as historical fiction). I found myself laughing at the references to times past - dial-up, disc-mans, the music playing on the radio. Younger readers may wonder how we ever lived so primitively and it may be interesting for them to see how dealing with life, friends, and family was so much different before the technological revolution of the 2000s. (At one point, Emily goes to the library to look at phone books because there's no such thing as a search engine for that kind of data yet - how old school!) The book is also seamless in terms of story telling- while Emily and Josh (who take turns narrating) each have distinct voices and points of view, the flow of the story is never stifled by this. They fit together so well and each character leaves you considering a new point.

In the end, this novel really reaffirmed my happiness that Facebook didn't yet exist when I was in high school. I know how incredibly ironic or hypocritical it may be for me to say this on a blog (which I advertise via my Facebook account and Twitter), but the book made me long for a different time when talking to people actually meant physically speaking to an actual person. This book, like the others by these two extremely talented writers, sucked me in, made me think, and took me on a satisfactory journey as a reader from start to finish. For the social media-inclined reader in your household, this book is a must read.

Comments welcome and, as always, happy reading!

Jay Asher on Twitter
Carolyn Mackler on Twitter