Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Top Ten Tuesday: Best Ten Books I Read In 2014

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly feature hosted by The Broke and the Bookish.

You guys, I'm going to cry! There are at least 5 books I still need to review because I've been putting it off for so long! I have so many feelings about all of them but am sadly lacking in the mental capacity and endurance it will require to write about them. I'm pretty long-winded in case you haven't noticed... In the meantime, let's just keep things moving right along with this week's Top Ten Tuesday, which, incidentally, I've also been seriously slacking on. (I can't help it! Work has been busy and it's holiday season and, and, and...)

This week we are talking about TOP TEN BOOKS IN 2014. This year I read so many great books – in fact, I read more books this year than I have in the past (the first Goodreads challenge I've successfully completed, woo hoo!). But there are a select few that really rise to the top for me. So in some rough semblance of order...

10. Tell the Wolves I'm Home by Carol Rifka Brunt. The writing is so effortless and beautiful, the story sticks with you, and the places and details are just mesmerizing. This is the book that inspired me to make a trip all the way up to the Cloisters. It makes me want to explore every little crevice, every corner, every alleyway of New York City.

9. Daughter of Smoke and Bone series by Laini Taylor. (By the way, I'm counting series as one book. Because it's my blog and I can do whatever I want. I'm also just now realizing that I don't have posts about a lot of the books in my top ten list this week because I didn't start this blog until halfway through the year. Womp.) I still think about some of the passages in this book because they are so dreamy and magical. Also, I need this shirt.

8. Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein. I finally got around to reading this a few weeks ago! Even though it is purely fiction, it is so painstakingly researched that everything that happened felt entirely plausible. One of the most intense books I've ever read in my entire life – by the time you reach the end, the only words you will be able to say are "MIND BLOWN." I'm going to hold this book up as the highest standard one could reach for a historical fiction novel.

7. Throne of Glass series by Sarah J. Maas. This is a series that has really grown on me as it progressed. The more I discover about Celaena Sardothien, the more I like her and – surprisingly – relate to her. I'm excited for Book 4 to come out next year.

6. Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller. I hate/love this book. It is the worst/best book. It will make you want to love someone/be alone forever. The ending makes me die/gives me life.

5. Dept. of Speculation by Jenny Offill. This book captured everything I love and fear about, well, love. It made me cry for days. For me, Dept. of Speculation was one of those books that echoed my deepest beliefs but also taught me new things about myself, which is partly why I think it was one of my favorites from 2014. I waxed poetic about it in my review, so read that if it strikes your interest.

4. Lumatere Chronicles series by Melina Marchetta, goddess of everything. I thought I loved Evanjalin, but then I discovered Froi and Quintana and my life was never the same after that. Melina Marchetta is one of those authors with a crazy talent for taking imperfect, flawed people and striking a match to them (err... you know what I mean, right?) and bringing them to life. This series is one of my favorites in particular because the setting is so grandiose and the events that occur are so trying that all the characters' personalities and character are really magnified.

3. This Lullaby by Sarah Dessen. I read a bunch of Sarah Dessen novels earlier this year, when I was stuck on the idea of love, and this is the one that really punched me in the gut. Remy Starr is my favorite Sarah Dessen narrator. She and I look at the world, at relationships, at people in eerily similar ways. It's enlightening to experience her shift in perspective.

2. Wild Awake by Hilary T. Smith. (When is this lady's next book coming out??) Love, love, love this book. I love Skunk. I love Kiri. I love the way they interact. Wild Awake explores mental health, not as something debilitating, but just as a daily part of life – this is something I relate to and strongly respond to. Like many of the other books in this list, I'm sure I've mentioned and/or talked about this one in previous Top Ten Tuesday posts...

1. Jellicoe Road by Melina Marchetta. Of course. Could my absolute favorite book of 2014 have been anything BUT this one? Taylor Markham is one of the best narrators I've read this year – she has a complicated history that has left her a little bit vulnerable, a little bit angry, a little bit cynical – but still she finds beauty and wonder in the past, in the people around her... I have a lot of feelings about this book. Honestly, it was probably the first book I had actually purchased in years – I loved it so much that I needed a physical copy for my personal collection. Je ne regrette rien!

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Review: Trouble by Non Pratt

Title: Trouble
Author: Non Pratt
Publisher: Walker Books
Publication date: March 6, 2014
Rating: ★★★

Summary (via Goodreads):

When the entire high school finds out that Hannah Shepard is pregnant via her ex-best friend, she has a full-on meltdown in her backyard. The one witness (besides the rest of the world): Aaron Tyler, a transfer student and the only boy who doesn’t seem to want to get into Hannah’s pants. Confused and scared, Hannah needs someone to be on her side. Wishing to make up for his own past mistakes, Aaron does the unthinkable and offers to pretend to be the father of Hannah’s unborn baby. Even more unbelievable, Hannah hears herself saying “yes.”

Can we just talk about this book cover for a second? I somehow completely missed all the little sperm swimming around at first but, um, GENIUS.

Okay. Moving on now.

I had such conflicting feelings about Trouble. I saw it on the shelf at the library and picked it up, read the summary on the back cover, and put it back on the shelf... continued browsing... then circled back, picked it back up again, and brought it to the checkout. Books about teen pregnancy are not really my thing. I get all squeamish and my throat constricts and my arms get kind of itchy... but I've seen this book all over the book blogosphere so I decided to give it a chance. When I finished Trouble, I gave it 4 stars, then I changed it to a 3.5, and then decided this was a solidly 3 star book.

Almost all of the characters were intriguing – Katie, Marcy, Tyrone, Rex, Aaron, Jay, and of course Hannah – which is promising, given my obsession with character development. But it seemed like many of them were explored and then dropped out of nowhere. One of my biggest literary frustrations is when an author introduces really compelling and complex characters and writes about them and makes them feel significant, but then lets them taper off and disappear completely. I also hate when characters start out as complex individuals with both flaws and redeeming qualities, but become very black/white over the course of the book.

I just expected the story to be more (especially with the amount of focus on specific characters) and was kind of disappointed that they turned out only to be a means to an end. Tyrone was the reason for Marcy to hate Hannah. Marcy was the reason for Katie to ditch Hannah. Rex was the reason for Marcy to hang out with Katie, who was the reason for Hannah to make new friends.

Based on what we saw of Jay, it was difficult for me to understand why he mattered so much to Hannah – quite frankly, he seemed like a terrible human being. I was also kind of surprised that nothing really ever happened with him – he was such a big talking point in the second half of the book that I expected something to come out of it. For all the conflict and struggle that Non Pratt built up throughout the story, the ending of Trouble felt like a cop-out, almost as though we were missing 40 pages from the book.

I did love the way teen pregnancy was illustrated. Nothing was glorified a la Teen Mom, but it didn't feel like a public service announcement either. I liked the way Hannah came to terms with pregnancy but she still remained fifteen years old. She still had exams and wanted to look good and had friend drama, and that was a nice realistic detail.

In general, I also liked the way Non Pratt discussed sex – she wasn't overly preachy (if anything, she may have been a bit overly encouraging...) and clearly Hannah was comfortable with her own sexuality. Mostly I'm glad that there was no sex-shaming (or if there was, that it rolled right off Hannah's back).

However, none of these things were enough to really make me enjoy this book. It just felt like too much stuff going on and not enough space to really tie up all the loose ends.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Review: This is Not a Test by Courtney Summers

Title: This is Not a Test (This is Not a Test #1)
Author: Courtney Summers
Publisher: St. Martin's Griffin
Publication date: June 19, 2012
Rating: ★★

Summary (via Goodreads):

It's the end of the world. Six students have taken cover in Cortege High but shelter is little comfort when the dead outside won't stop pounding on the doors. One bite is all it takes to kill a person and bring them back as a monstrous version of their former self. To Sloane Price, that doesn't sound so bad. Six months ago, her world collapsed and since then, she's failed to find a reason to keep going. Now seems like the perfect time to give up. As Sloane eagerly waits for the barricades to fall, she's forced to witness the apocalypse through the eyes of five people who actually want to live. But as the days crawl by, the motivations for survival change in startling ways and soon the group's fate is determined less and less by what's happening outside and more and more by the unpredictable and violent bids for life – and death – inside. When everything is gone, what do you hold on to?

Yes, yes, I am in the minority of those who did not like this book. I didn't just "not like" this book. I straight up COULD NOT STAND IT. Courtney Summers can write some mean prose, but I found the entire book to be well-worded fluff. For a zombie novel, nothing really happened. There was a significant amount of walking and showering and having the same conversations over and over. But what really irritated me about this book was how stale all the characters seemed.

Let's start with Sloane, the narrator of this story. I'm just going to put it out there: I found her to be painfully unbearable, such a stark contrast to people who actually wanted to survive but couldn't. I found myself not caring whether she lived or died. In retrospect, I don't know if there was nothing happening in the book so much as that Sloane was only telling us the things she cared to see. She doesn't seem like the most reliable narrator.

Next: Lilly, Sloane's missing sister. I still don't understand why she had such a significant place in the story. I mean, it's not hard to infer – older sibling who cares for and bonds with younger sibling over their abusive father – but quite frankly, based on what Sloane tells us of her, Lilly sounds like a hypocritical control freak who just decided to cut loose.

Then there's Grace and Trace, whom Sloane finds herself hiding out with. Both Trace and Grace are utterly ridiculous and a pain to read. They are privileged, self-righteous, and obnoxious, and they are somewhat disturbingly obsessed with each other. Also, they are twins. Named Trace and Grace. Enough said.

Little Harrison was useless from beginning to almost the end. Courtney Summers could have left him out of the book entirely, and I honestly doubt anyone would notice – which is unfortunate since he's ignored and pretty incompetent and slightly invisible in the book as well.

Rhys and Cary were the only redeemable characters, in my view. Aside from Sloane, they are the only ones who had to make hard decisions, who did the best they could given the circumstances. I found it so frustrating that both of them were constantly torn down (mostly by T(/G)race) for having to make those decisions. Maybe I'm naive but in times of utter chaos/panic/uncertainty, I assume that people will work together to survive, instead of criticizing each other to no end. Sure, in real life, there are always those who will take advantage of others, but when people are in suffering and suffering together, I've always noticed people letting down their walls a little bit and compromising and forming more of a community. I don't know. Maybe my experiences and the stories I've heard are an outlier.

And I just have to ask... what was the point of Mr. Baxter? He was entirely a means to an end – he came out of nowhere, literally. All we got were some random details about his life before the zombie uprising and some vague notions of what happened after, but that whole part of the plot felt completely slapdash.

Honestly, This is Not a Test was probably the one book I found most difficult to finish this year. It was so nihilistic and filled with senseless death. I think there's meant to be a flicker of hope at the end of this book, but quite frankly I was too caught up in trying to figure out what all just happened in the last 15 pages to really grasp it.

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Top Ten Tuesday: 10 Books I Want To Reread

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly feature hosted by The Broke and the Bookish.

When it comes to rereading books, I'm sort of... persnickety. If I'm obsessed with a book, you bet I'll reread my favorite passages over and over again, if not the entire thing. But if I love a book, then that's a different story.

Love and obsession are two entirely different animals, you see. Obsession comes and goes, and that's normal. Love is something you hope will last for a long, long time. And sometimes I'm afraid to go back and reread a book that I love for fear that it won't be as good as I remembered... because really, your reaction to a book often just comes down to timing. And sometimes you grow out of a book you once loved.

I'm very sentimental and can't stand the thought of that happening, which is why I don't always reread books, even though I would like to. These are my top ten books that I would like to reread someday. Some of them are books that I read too quickly and want to go back and savor; some are books I want to study and analyze a little bit more; and some are just books that I loved and think would still resonate, given where I'm at in life.

Days of Blood & Starlight by Laini Taylor. I can't remember this one all that clearly anymore, to be honest, but I know it sucker-punched me in the gut, and that's something I would apparently like to relive again.

Froi of the Exiles and Quintana of Charyn. Again, I would like to go through the heart-wrenching rediscovery of Froi and Quintana. I think Froi may be my all-time favorite Melina Marchetta boy. (I think I might love him even more than Jonah Griggs. Don't tell Jonah.)

I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith. I read this pretty quickly and found it kind of melancholic but thoughtful. The narrator has a perspective on life that mirrors my own, so it's somewhat eye-opening for me to read. A form of self-analysis, you could call it.

There is No Dog by Meg Rosoff. Kind of an edgy, dark book, if I remember correctly. It's got pretty low reviews on Goodreads, but for some reason I gave it 4 stars and I want to know why.

Heir of Fire. Truthfully, I love all the books in Sarah J. Maas' Throne of Glass series, but this one feels the saddest and pulls at my heart strings the most. Plus, I love the amount of character development that happens in this book, and it feels like every single person is at a turning point in Heir of Fire and it's filled with tension and just ahhhhh.

The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman. One of my favorite books, yet I've only read it the one time. It's a good book to read in the fall, with a warm blanket wrapped around you and a nice mug of hot chocolate in hand.

Lighthousekeeping. My favorite Jeanette Winterson book. (Okay, okay. The only Jeanette Winterson book I've ever actually finished.) It is filled with the most beautiful passages. For a few years, I wanted one tattooed on me. I better reread this just to make sure that's still a good idea.

When I Was Five I Killed Myself by Howard Buten. Extremely intense book. I read this the summer I graduated high school and thought it was one of the most well-written, poignant books I'd ever read. I actually own a copy (found at Strand Bookstore after years and years of searching fruitlessly), so I could actually get on that.

The Song of Achilles. Such a tragic story, as most Greek myths tend to be, but what can I say? As evidenced by this entire list, I'm clearly a sucker for books that make me cry. The language is heavy and delicate at the same time, and I sort of want to memorize all of Madeline Miller's beautiful sentences.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

A Brief Intermission: The Song of Achilles

I just finished reading The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller. It's the story of Achilles and Patroclus and it is flawless from the first page to the last. I will have so much more to say about it over the next week or two, but first:

Achilles was looking at me. "Your hair never quite lies flat here." He touched my head, just behind my ear. "I don't think I've ever told you how I like it."

My scalp prickled where his fingers had been. "You haven't," I said.

"I should have." His hand drifted down to the vee at the base of my throat, drew softly across the pulse. "What about this? Have I told you what I think of this, just here?"

"No," I said.

"This surely, then." His hand moved across the muscles of my chest; my skin warmed beneath it. "Have I told you of this?"

"That you have told me." My breath caught a little as I spoke.

"And what of this?" His hand lingered over my hips, drew down the line of my thigh. "Have I spoken of it?"

"You have."

"And this? Surely, I would not have forgotten this." His cat's smile. "Tell me I did not."

"You did not."

"There is this, too." His hand was ceaseless now. "I know I have told you of this."

I closed my eyes. "Tell me again," I said.

Monday, October 20, 2014

A Brief Intermission: Wildlife

I'm very behind on my posting schedule (oops!). But between my last post and now, I've hit my reading goal of 50 books this year, hooray! It's been a challenging few weeks of reading. I finished the first three books in Sarah J. Maas' Throne of Glass series and loved them so much that it was hard to read anything else afterwards. I started a couple new books, read a few pages, put them down, picked them back up, read another few pages, but could never really get into any of their stories because I couldn't stop thinking about Celaena and Rowan and Chaol and Dorian and Manon. (Book 4, please come out sooner!)

Anyway, the first book I've been able to read in its entirety since then is Wildlife by Fiona Wood. My first Fiona Wood novel, in fact. (I accidentally skipped Six Impossible Things, oops!) Full review to come, but I wanted to share these two pars that I loved so much I took pictures to remember.

Isn't this a lovely sentiment? Some relationships are just inevitable... They defy all logic. Every so often as I'm walking through the city, I experience this feeling of being drawn to complete strangers because there's just something about them that's captivating. It's completely senseless, but it's somehow a weird, instinctual thing. This passage reminds me of something straight out of a Jeanette Winterson novel.

This one I just liked because it's something I can relate to – I constantly wish I could skip right over the social norms, the "getting to know you" stage of a relationship. What can I say, I'm a classic INFP with an intolerance for small talk. I'm a sucker for intensity. (This is probably why Michael's my favorite character from this whole book. I hope Fiona Wood writes a story about him someday.)

That's all for now. More regularly scheduled posts coming up soon!

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Top Ten Tuesday: Books For Readers Who Like Character-Driven Novels

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly feature hosted by The Broke and the Bookish.

For a self-proclaimed lover of character development, this Tuesday's post was harder than I anticipated. But I think I ended up with some good picks that are hopefully a little unexpected. Let me know what you think! Have you read any of these books? Did you like/dislike the characters in them? Did that affect whether or not you enjoyed the book as a whole?

Pretty much anything Melina Marchetta (goddess of everything) has written, ever, but more specifically: the Lumatere Chronicles, starting with Finnikin of the Rock. You will want to read about Froi. You will hate Froi in the first book. You will think he is the scum of the earth, and to be fair, he kind of is. However! Spoiler alert! You will fall in love with him, irrevocably, by the end of the series.

This Lullaby by Sarah Dessen. Remy Starr is your girl. She's so emotionally closed off and so risk-averse. She's a classic ESTJ, in my opinion. Reliable, responsible, efficient. She believes in order and lives in a world made up of facts and principles. She's a little bit inflexible and often struggles to understand that not everyone wants to live the same way that she does. I love seeing how she grows and changes for the better in this book.

Friday Brown by Vikki Wakefield. This book is all about a girl who is running away from the ghosts of her past, trying to define herself when the person who has done so her entire life is no longer there. This book is about the people she meets. It's about how the characters work together, interact with each other, take care of each other, and – in some cases – manipulate each other.

Witch Baby and Missing Angel Juan by Francesca Lia Block. I know FLB's glitzy writing style is not for everyone, but what I like about these two books is that they follow Witch Baby as she finds her true self and allows herself to be free – not just from the expectations of her surrounding friends and family, but also from a suffocating, co-dependent form of love.

Wild Things by Clay Carmichael is a completely underrated book, but it's one of my all-time favorites with some of the loveliest, most human characters you'll ever meet. It's the story of a cagey but fiery 11-year-old girl named Zoe and her uncle Henry, a reclusive but renowned artist and surgeon. When Zoe's mother dies, she goes to live with her uncle and transforms herself and the people around her in the process. Wild Things explores the way people (and animals) change and learn to trust and love each other.

Burial Rites by Hannah Kent. This book is an updated portrait of Agnes, a real woman who lived in Iceland some hundred years ago. By expanding the true story of Agnes Magnúsdóttir, the author has brilliantly painted a new picture that reveals more to her story and keeps us wondering who she really was.

Wild Awake. Hilary T. Smith is amazing for writing this book about people living with mental health issues. It doesn't tiptoe around anything but neither is it your standard clinical categorization of "so-and-so suffers from this and that." It's a barbaric yawp over the rooftops of the world, in more ways than one – yes, it's about mental illness, but it's also about life and how we choose to exist in and interact with the world. Unexpectedly, Kiri and Skunk have become one of my absolute favorite literary couples. They're both so imperfect and screwed up and uncontainable and dealing with their own traumatic memories, yet they help one another become healthier and happier without forcing each other to be different.

Just One Year. Willem is my everything. I've found that I tend to prefer Gayle Forman's companion books than the originals. She gives such depth and complexity to her male characters, and you get to explore a character's perspective in a way that polishes the first book (in this case, Just One Day) and makes it feel more like a gem.

Graffiti Moon by Cath Crowley is a charming novel written from three perspectives: Lucy's, Ed's, and occasionally Leo's. Each character has a unique voice and adds a meaningful depth to the story as a whole. Not only do you see Lucy, Ed, and Leo's outward-facing personalities – that is, their sense of humor, their external reactions, etc. – but you also see what's going on behind the curtain. You see the softer, more complex side of things, like their insecurities, motivations, fears. You know that Lucy is a smidge obsessive and starry-eyed, but her thoughts and ideas help you understand why. On the outside, Ed is quiet but his chapters reveal that his voice is strong. I love this book because the characters are explored and unraveled slowly. Cath Crowley literally seduces you with character development, and it's wonderful.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Review: Tell the Wolves I'm Home by Carol Rifka Brunt

Title: Tell the Wolves I'm Home
Author: Carol Rifka Brunt
Publisher: Random House
Publication date: June 19, 2012
Rating: ★★★★★

Summary (via Goodreads):

1987. There's only one person who has ever truly understood fourteen-year-old June Elbus, and that's her uncle, the renowned painter Finn Weiss. Shy at school and distant from her older sister, June can only be herself in Finn's company; he is her godfather, confidant, and best friend. So when he dies, far too young, of a mysterious illness her mother can barely speak about, June's world is turned upside down. But Finn's death brings a surprise acquaintance into June's life – someone who will help her to heal, and to question what she thinks she knows about Finn, her family, and even her own heart.

Tell the Wolves I'm Home was one of the best books I read this summer. As soon as I got to the last page, I took a deep breath to process and then immediately added it to my list of books to buy because it's something I want to come back to, again and again in the years to come. The characters in this story are well-written, but it's their interactions that really steal the show.

At its core, Tell the Wolves I'm Home explores family relationships and the way those relationships shift in complex circumstances. We delve into the love between two sisters, fraught as it may be with jealousy and rivalry and, beneath it all, a yearning for recognition and acceptance. We look at different kinds of romantic love, each taboo in its own way but no less profound – after all, the heart loves what it loves.

Toby was right. Finn was my first love. But Toby, he was my second. And the sadness in that stretched like a thin cold river down the length of my whole life.

Carol Rifka Brunt has an effortless way of writing that tethers your soul to her words but still leaves you floating through the pages. In her novel she explores so many aspects of humanity and makes you feel each emotion acutely. There are moments of loss, regret, joy, disappointment, wonder, fear, shame, frustration, fondness, hope.

Set in the 1980s, the story may at times feel distant – younger readers may not truly register the significance of being gay in the 80s or the impact of AIDS at the time. However, the author recreates a world that remains completely accessible, despite having occurred some 30 years ago. It's not a world of niche 80s cliches or trendy pop culture references. Without overshadowing, the setting provides a necessary and meaningful context for the events that happen.

"What’s the one superpower of June Elbus?"

I thought about myself from head to toe. It was like being forced to read the most boring part of the Sears catalog. Like leafing through the bathroom accessories pages. Boring brain. Boring face. No sex appeal. Clumsy hands.

"Heart. Hard heart," I said, not sure where it came from. "The hardest heart in the world."

"Hmmm," Toby said, tapping a finger in the air. "That’s a useful one, you know. Very handy. The question is..." Toby paused like he was considering this all very seriously.

"What’s the question?"

"The question is, stone or ice? Crack or melt?"

Tell the Wolves I'm Home is a poignant and profound story. Because it is based on sad truths and the disappointing reality of ignorance in the 1980s, it transforms into a tale that moves you without ever making you feel manipulated. It has a strength of its own. It's a story in which the good and the bad merge and become the same. One can't exist without the other, and you have to wonder if maybe it's better to take the bad-awful-terrible-tragic things in life, if they lead to something that is beautiful in the end.

Friday, September 5, 2014

Shop Talk: Writing Resources

For the past year, I've been half-assedly trying to write a novel. I know my characters (for the most part, at least – I'm sure they'll reveal more of themselves to me as time goes on), and I have a very vague, general sense of what happens and how my main character grows. I have 7,000+ words saved in a file named "DRAFT 5," and I think I might scrap 6,500 of them.

So I'm reworking some things, while also keeping in mind that, as Terry Pratchett says, "The first draft is just you telling yourself the story." I thought I might put together a master post of links and resources that I'm personally finding helpful in structuring a plot and "long-distance writing." Maybe this will inspire others to make progress (or get back to work) on their original story...

Resources for creating a compelling character
What do YOU want to see in YA? A 4-page long discussion on the NaNoWriMo forums.
Relationships that I Want to See More of in Fiction. Because love doesn't have to be the end-all fix for everything.
Boys I Want to See in YA. Resist the temptation to write a swoony bad boy!
Characters don't have to be likable. They just have to be compelling. Interesting advice from Courtney Summers.
What motivates your characters? Get inspired with these questions.
Character Flaws. All characters need 'em. Here's a short list of ideas.

Resources for developing a well-crafted story
Outlining Your Novel (with some useful links, including a 30-min exercise from Alicia Rasley).
Seven Extremely Good Reasons to Write the Ending First. Know where you're going!
Tips for writing a good ending. More advice from Amanda Patterson.
Major Writing Errors: How to Fix Them. Avoid happy beginnings, stories without fear, and loaded dialogue.
10 Storytelling Elements. For those of us who can't remember what a story actually and technically is.
Camp NaNoWriMo: How to Make Sure Your Plot is Compelling. Advice from Drusilla Campbell.
What to do when you've lost your motivation. First, don't feel bad. Next, figure out why you've lost your muse.
I have characters but no plot! A selection of helpful links to build out your plot.

Besides forcing myself to be more thoughtful about what makes for a good book, one of the reasons I started this blog was so that I could interact with other writers and learn how to strengthen my own writing skills. It's encouraging to know that the things I struggle with are fairly prevalent and that there is never just one right answer when it comes to writing. We all seem to be in this universal exploration of words and characters and places and themes, trying to figure out how to craft something that hits home.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Top Ten Tuesday: Characters Who Would Be Sitting at My Lunch Table

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly feature hosted by The Broke and the Bookish.

In high school, I rarely ate in the cafeteria if I could help it. I was a big fan of sneaking out during lunch so that I could (a) hide out in the library with all my nerd friends who didn't share the same lunch period as me, or (b) hide out in the art room with all my art friends who hated the cafeteria ecosystem. So the concept of "the lunch table" is a little bit lost on me.

Here are ten characters that would make for the greatest lunch crew ever though:

Lucy from Graffiti Moon. To remind me of all the fun, sassy, weird art kids I used to eat with, and the fun, sassy, weird conversations we used to have.

Lara Jean from To All the Boys I've Loved Before. For discussions about our boy obsessions and to analyze every little thing that so-and-so said or did today... Because what is lunch for, if not girl talk?

Stargirl from Stargirl. I loved Stargirl as a teenager. I wanted to be friends with her. She was so weird yet comfortable in her skin, and she was supremely generous. She also had the strangest hobbies and interests, which I'm sure we would share if we were lunch buddies. (We'd collaborate on our anonymous card-making operative and make up stories about strangers and figure out the perfect gifts to give to the people we love.)

Francesca Spinelli from Saving Francesca. There's always that one person who has a little extra pinch of attitude. She calls us out when we're being stupid about our problems and tells it like it is.

Mindy Kaling from Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? Okay, so I know this totally shouldn't count because Mindy Kaling isn't a character so much as a real person. But she is a protagonist in a book (who cares if she wrote it?). I just want to be friends with her, okay?? LET ME HAVE THIS.

Anna from Anna and the French Kiss. To talk about our wanderlust and Paris and what we'll do and where we'll go when we're out of school. We'll eat pain au chocolat and baguettes and cheese for lunch and call it a well-rounded meal.

Kenji from the Shatter Me series. For the lulz. Every lunch table needs a comedian.

Raffy from On the Jellicoe Road. Because somehow you just know she'd be packing the best lunches. And she seems like the type to share.

Noah Czerny from the Raven Cycle series. For the days you don't feel like talking – it's always nice to have someone who will sit with you in comfortable silence, and I think Noah would definitely be one of those people.

Dexter from This Lullaby. I have no idea what we would ever talk about, but I'm sure he'd keep the conversation flowing (and ridiculous). Also, he has great chemistry with Remy, who is one of those book characters that reminds me of myself, so I think Dexter and I would get on quite well.

(I love reading these, so feel free to link me to your Top Ten Tuesday post down in the comments!)

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Review: Open Road Summer by Emery Lord

Title: Open Road Summer
Author: Emery Lord
Publisher: Walker
Publication date: April 15, 2014
Rating: ★★★½

Summary (via Goodreads):

After breaking up with her bad-news boyfriend, Reagan O’Neill is ready to leave her rebellious ways behind... and her best friend, country superstar Lilah Montgomery, is nursing a broken heart of her own. Fortunately, Lilah’s 24-city tour is about to kick off, offering a perfect opportunity for a girls-only summer of break-up ballads and healing hearts. But when Matt Finch joins the tour as its opening act, his boy-next-door charm proves difficult for Reagan to resist, despite her vow to live a drama-free existence. This summer, Reagan and Lilah will navigate the ups and downs of fame and friendship as they come to see that giving your heart to the right person is always a risk worth taking. 

Open Road Summer is a lighthearted summertime read with a strong friendship and the kind of romance we've all probably daydreamed about at some point. However, there are a bunch of things that niggled at me, which made for less pleasant reading experience overall.

Reagan is an interesting narrator – aggressively defensive (how's that for an oxymoron?), rebellious but reforming, fiercely loyal. She reminds me of Nastya from Katja Millay's The Sea of Tranquility, which, incidentally, I disliked so much that I could not read past page 49. Both Reagan and Nastya are a little bit cynical. They wear this protective layer – a "don't mess with me" look on their faces – and it feels like they are constantly daring the universe to try and do its worst. Their affection is hard won, and they are both judgmental, often holding other girls to the same double standards that they scoff. There's quite a bit of condescending girl hate in Open Road Summer, which is one of my biggest pet peeves in a book.

Fortunately, Reagan is a little more tolerable than Nastya. I think a big part of it is that her friendship with Dee makes you see her in a better light, in spite of all her flaws. Dee is your standard all-American country singer. I equate her to Taylor Swift, except authentically Southern and possibly a bit more squeaky clean. Dee and Reagan seem to be complete opposites, so it makes their relationship unexpected but endearing.

The romance in this book isn't particularly electric, but it's definitely very sweet. There are a handful of passages that make you sigh and want to go listen to the old love songs from Taylor Swift's self-titled album. (Or was that just me?)

If we could capture feelings like we capture pictures, none of us would ever leave our rooms. It would be so tempting to inhabit the good moments over and over again. But I don't want to be the kind of person who lives backwardly, who memorializes moments before she's finished living in them. So I plant my feet here on this hillside beside a boy who is undoing me, and I kiss him back like I mean it.

Matt Finch of former boy band fame (he's somewhere between Hanson and the Jonas Brothers in my head) is your average Nice Guy™ – kind, witty, very persistent, quite sassy... He's normal, which makes him immediately likable. He's perhaps not a character you might fall in love with, but you can certainly see why someone else might. The banter between Matt and Reagan is well-written and realistic. In fact, most of the dialogue in Open Road Summer feels that way – realistic, candid, unforced – despite the fact that we're talking about a major country singer, a former pop star, and a summer-long cross-country tour.

Parts of this book do feel trivial – the conflict is somewhat self-imposed and you can't help but wonder why everyone's making such a big deal out of everything. At the same time, although they are kind of silly, the problems in Open Road Summer aren't the type that weigh heavy on your heart once you close the book. It's a carefree novel that makes you appreciate good friends and innocent love. Quick and easy to read, Open Road Summer is a solid debut from Emery Lord. Summer's almost over but this book helps it live on.

Monday, August 25, 2014

Review: Saving June by Hannah Harrington

Title: Saving June
Author: Hannah Harrington
Publisher: Harlequin Teen
Publication date: November 22, 2011
Rating: ★★★★½

Summary (via Goodreads):

Harper Scott’s older sister has always been the perfect one – so when June takes her own life a week before her high school graduation, sixteen-year-old Harper is devastated. Everyone’s sorry, but no one can explain why.

When her divorcing parents decide to split her sister’s ashes into his-and-her urns, Harper takes matters into her own hands. She’ll steal the ashes and drive cross-country with her best friend, Laney, to the one place June always dreamed of going – California.

Enter Jake Tolan. He’s a boy with a bad attitude, a classic-rock obsession and nothing in common with Harper’s sister. But Jake had a connection with June, and when he insists on joining them, Harper’s just desperate enough to let him. With his alternately charming and infuriating demeanour and his belief that music can see you through anything, he might be exactly what she needs.

Except June wasn’t the only one hiding something. Jake’s keeping a secret that has the power to turn Harper’s life upside down – again.

The one perk of being home sick is that you have a lot of reading time. I read this book in one sitting, and it was perfect for helping me escape my stomach flu (for a couple of hours, at least). Great character development, a sophisticated exploration of family and friendship, a road trip to California, and some eclectic playlists, to boot – thank you, Hannah Harrington. I loved this book.

Saving June has a cast of complex, intelligent characters who are flawed in many ways yet still have redeeming qualities. Harper, our narrator, is something of a dark horse – tired of constantly being compared to her sister June who has recently passed away; unable to express the "right" emotions at the right times; unwilling to pander to her dysfunctional, broken family. She's dark and cynical but also extremely self-aware, which is the balance the story needs to make it still readable, rather than angsty.

Laney is Harper's best friend and so great to read about. She's very different from Harper but she's a great friend to her (and vice versa) throughout the story. There are a bunch of lovely moments between them, and their dynamic never feels false. They fight and they argue, but they also make up, and at the end of the day, they support each other and fight for each other and take care of each other and defend each other.

"You know, just because you think bubblegum pop on the radio represents all that is wrong with society, that doesn’t mean there’s not someone out there who needs that shitty pop song. Maybe that shitty pop song makes them feel good, about themselves and the world. And as long as that shitty pop song doesn’t infringe upon your rights to rock out to, I don’t know, Subway Sect, or Siouxsie and the Banshees, or whichever old-ass band it is you worship, then who cares?"

And course we can't forget Jake Tolan, the imperfect love interest. I hate to use the term "bad boy" because it's so cliché – plus, he's not really a bad boy in Saving June. He's just different from his suburban Michigan neighbors. There's a lot of things I like about Jake. I like that he's kind of a grouch but he's still sensitive and thoughtful and optimistic. I like that he comes alive when he talks about music. I like that he sings "Tears in Heaven" for Harper (but I still can't believe she's never heard that song before... I mean, really?). I like that his story is revealed slowly.

Moments like these make me want more from him than I have ever wanted from any guy – or even just another person, period.

I do wish his backstory with June were more interesting or compelling – it felt kind of trivial, when all along it was made out to be this huge life-changing secret. I also wish he didn't own a fedora (why, Hannah Harrington, just why?). But he is one of the more captivating male characters I've read in a while, so I guess I'll give him a pass... for now.

A word of warning – Saving June explores family dynamics, but things don't always get resolved. If you like everything wrapped up neatly, i's dotted and t's crossed, this may not be the book for you. Mothers don't come back, and absentee fathers don't wake up one day and realize what they've been missing. Stuff remains ambiguous here. Relationships aren't always repaired. Questions aren't always – can't always – be answered. And I'm okay with that. I hope you are too.

Saving June is a great book. It's engaging and funny and sad but never bleak. We get to explore what it means to be alive in a way that feels thoughtful and candid and, ultimately, hopeful. This is a story of imperfect people and what happens when they come together. It's about the weird things that happen on a road trip and how you never really know what you're going to get. It's about how you deal with those things, what you learn from them. It's about what you let go of and what you let in.

Friday, August 22, 2014

Mini-Review: Burial Rites by Hannah Kent

Title: Burial Rites
Author: Hannah Kent
Publisher: Little, Brown and Company
Publication date: September 10, 2013
Rating: ★★★★★

Summary (via Goodreads):

Set against Iceland's stark landscape, Hannah Kent brings to vivid life the story of Agnes, who, charged with the brutal murder of her former master, is sent to an isolated farm to await execution.

Horrified at the prospect of housing a convicted murderer, the family at first avoids Agnes. Only Tóti, a priest Agnes has mysteriously chosen to be her spiritual guardian, seeks to understand her. But as Agnes's death looms, the farmer's wife and their daughters learn there is another side to the sensational story they've heard.

Burial Rites is best read at a slow pace, where you can linger over the evocative descriptions and the heavy events in Agnes Magnúsdóttir's life (as well as those surrounding her). Hannah Kent describes this book as a dark love letter to Iceland, which sounds about right to me. Everything feels painstakingly researched and written, and although much of it is speculative, it remains plausible enough that you convince yourself all of those things form the hidden truth.

Memories shift like loose snow in a wind, or are a chorale of ghosts all talking over one another. There is only ever a sense that what is real to me is not real to others, and to share a memory with someone is to risk sullying my belief in what has truly happened.

The ending of this novel is inevitable yet shocking. The writing is lush and captivating and the stories that are revealed will haunt you for days and days on end. But it's a beautiful work that has managed to bring Agnes back to life so that we can hear her side of things and remember her differently. In some ways, it's given Agnes a new legacy, where she is more than a murderess, more than an example to would-be criminals. She is a woman whose fate rested in the hands of those who were predisposed to punish. It is a true testament to Hannah Kent's storytelling ability that we walk away seeing her in a more ambiguous light.

Those who are not being dragged to their deaths cannot understand how the heart grows hard and sharp, until it is a nest of rocks with only an empty egg in it. I am barren; nothing will grow from me anymore. I am the dead fish drying in the cold air. I am the dead bird on the shore. I am dry, I am not certain I will bleed when they drag me out to meet the axe. No, I am still warm, my blood still howls in my veins like the wind itself, and it shakes the empty nest and asks where all the birds have gone, where have they gone?

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

A Brief Intermission: The Unbearable Lightness of Being

Here's a broad generalization based on my singular personal experience: The Unbearable Lightness of Being seems to be one of those contemporary classics (?) that everyone means to read but no one actually ever does, unless you're majoring in philosophy maybe.

I started reading this book while I was studying abroad in London a few years ago but didn't get very far – shortly thereafter I ended up buying a used copy somewhere but still never took it off my bookshelf.

Finally, three years later now, I've borrowed a copy from the library to read. I am really enjoying the story and the way it's written. If you're an Amélie fan, you might like it as well. It's very much about love and relationships and human nature. Kind of profound but also very quirky and clever.

I came across this passage over the weekend:

While people are fairly young and the musical composition of their lives is still in its opening bars, they can go about writing it together and exchange motifs... but if they meet when they are older, like Franz and Sabina, their musical compositions are more or less complete, and every motif, every object, every word means something different to each of them.

It may be hard to understand without some context, but in an attempt to provide some grounding... the narrator is referring to the way we sometimes encounter an object, an event, a theme, and turn it into a symbol or "motif" that follows us throughout the course of our lives and adds a layer of beauty and meaning to our day to day.

I just really love this par because I feel like, as human beings, we're constantly looking for people who will understand or can relate to us. But part of that depends on whether or not we speak the same language as the other person – not just verbally or physically but also experientially. And the older we get, the wider the gap becomes. Maybe I'm a little cynical. It's just something I've been pondering over a lot lately...

Monday, August 11, 2014

Mini Review: These Broken Stars by Amie Kaufman & Meagan Spooner

Title: These Broken Stars (Starbound #1)
Author: Amie Kaufman & Meagan Spooner
Publisher: Disney Hyperion
Publication date: December 10, 2013
Rating: ★★★★½

Summary (via Goodreads):

It's a night like any other on board the Icarus. Then, catastrophe strikes: the massive luxury spaceliner is yanked out of hyperspace and plummets into the nearest planet. Lilac LaRoux and Tarver Merendsen survive. And they seem to be alone.

Lilac is the daughter of the richest man in the universe. Tarver comes from nothing, a young war hero who learned long ago that girls like Lilac are more trouble than they’re worth. But with only each other to rely on, Lilac and Tarver must work together, making a tortuous journey across the eerie, deserted terrain to seek help.

Then, against all odds, Lilac and Tarver find a strange blessing in the tragedy that has thrown them into each other’s arms. Without the hope of a future together in their own world, they begin to wonder – would they be better off staying here forever?

Everything changes when they uncover the truth behind the chilling whispers that haunt their every step. Lilac and Tarver may find a way off this planet. But they won’t be the same people who landed on it.

Two words. Character. Development. These Broken Stars is chock full of it. It's glorious and magnificent, watching Lilac and Tarver slowly change their minds about each other. Their relationship is the most compelling part of the story, and its development is so well-paced that when you reach the end of the book you just want it to continue on for another 50 pages because their time together feels so hard-earned.

The story is written from two perspectives, but it feels cohesive – kudos to Amie Kaufman and Meagan Spooner. I didn't realize the book was co-authored until maybe halfway through; it was written that seamlessly. It must be the magic of Aussie lit – delicious, intense prose that makes your heart beat a little bit faster.

I'm somewhat disappointed that the next book in the Starbound series is about a different set of characters, because I don't feel that Lilac and Tarver's story is complete, and I don't know how much it can develop if it's told through someone else's point of view. At the same time, I'm glad that Amie and Meagan (yes, we're on a first name basis now, I've just decided) don't seem to be forcing them into a tired, played out, dystopian novel cliche. I'm happy to let them rest, so to speak. To me, Lilac and Tarver's relationship and personal growth are really the core of the story; everything else falls by the wayside.

Monday, August 4, 2014

A Brief Intermission: These Broken Stars

Over the past week or so, I've been slowly reading this monstrosity of a book. I call it a monstrosity because it's a freaking heavy 6x10 hardcover novel that barely fits in my bag and makes my fingers cramp up when I carry it in hand. Ha. Ha. Haaaa. The struggles of a walking life.

Anyway. Should we talk about books, and not the problems I invent for myself?

I'm really liking the slow burn of These Broken Stars so far. It's unexpectedly compelling, which is saying a lot, since I've been reading this on my subway commute to work and at various parks in the city – none of which are particularly great places to read somewhat dark, dystopian novels. Especially when you're easily distracted, like me. On the upside, I'm less likely to cry over characters when I'm in public spaces surrounded by tourists and dogs. So there's that.

I highlighted this quote over the weekend:

There are moments like this when I can actually imagine her at my parents' cottage. I can see her hauling wood with the rest of us, chopping vegetables, going for long walks and calling it entertainment. I think my parents would like her.

It's kind of an odd pick, and maybe doesn't mean much out of context, but still I keep rolling these words around in my head. Lately I've been having conversations with people about the dating scene in New York. I always bring up this Refinery 29 article, how dating is easy because there are so many people around you and so many things you could do, and how it's hard because there are so many people and you're not always willing to commit. And what Tarver says here is so different from all of that... It's about a simpler life, away from everything, from all the distractions and activities that preoccupy us... and it sounds nice, doesn't it? The idea of longs walks, nature, family, someone you love – all of that being enough to make you happy.

Thursday, July 31, 2014

Review: Love and Other Perishable Items by Laura Buzo

Title: Love and Other Perishable Items
Author: Laura Buzo
Publisher: Knopf Books for Young Readers
Publication date: December 11, 2012
Rating: ★★★★

Summary (via Goodreads):

From the moment Amelia sets eyes on Chris, she is a goner. Lost. Sunk. Head over heels infatuated with him. It's problematic, since Chris, 21, is a sophisticated university student, while Amelia, 15, is 15.

Amelia isn't stupid. She knows it's not gonna happen. So she plays it cool around Chris – at least, as cool as she can. Working checkout together at the local supermarket, they strike up a friendship: swapping life stories, bantering about everything from classic books to B movies, and cataloging the many injustices of growing up. As time goes on, Amelia's crush doesn't seem so one-sided anymore. But if Chris likes her back, what then? Can two people in such different places in life really be together?

Ever since I finished reading Love and Other Perishable Items, I've been wavering on how I feel about it. On one hand, I love it a lot. It brings to mind favorites like The Piper's Son by Melina Marchetta and, to some extent, Megan McCafferty's Jessica Darling books. On the other hand, it still feels lacking, somehow. Or maybe it's just me who is left feeling empty.

The book is split between two perspectives. Part of the story is told through Amelia, who is young and hopeful and naive. The other part is revealed through pages from Chris' journal, filled with gritty truths, some dark humor, and the reality of a life not filtered through a rose-colored lens.

I could have provided strawberries, poetry and orgasms, but James, on the other hand, will provide a house in Vaucluse and a six-figure salary.

In this coming-of-age story, Amelia and Chris are ordinary people who are remarkably likable. Amelia is stuck in a bumbling stage of adolescence – she is socially awkward, giddy, childlike at times, but simultaneously struggling with very complex issues, including family dynamics, gender roles, and disappointing literature. Chris, in contrast, is legally an adult and participates in his fair share of adult activities, including alcohol consumption, drugs, and lots of sex. He's melodramatic, self-deprecating yet sanctimonious, hopelessly romantic. He lives in quiet desperation.

When I read back over what I'd written, I seriously thought about ripping out all the pages. It was a pretty poor showing all the way through, but when I got to the bit where I was writing out the lyrics from the Dire Straits "Romeo and Juliet" song, I had to rip that out.

But then, I really want to be more honest in this diary than I have been in past ones, so everything else stays in. It's bad enough that I present such a heavily edited version of myself to my friends and family; if I start editing my diary, it will reinforce my already overwhelming tendency to be gutless. But let us never speak of it.

For the record, she really did cry when we made love and said she loved me like the stars above and would love me until she died. But, you know, people say shit in the moment.

Chris and Amelia's relationship is fascinating to watch unfold. They are both caught in an in-between stage and seem to find kindred spirits in each other. What's hilariously frustrating and brilliant is that you actually kind of want it to work out between the two of them. Never mind that they're each in completely different places in life, with different wants and needs. Never mind that it's totally illegal and more than slightly sketchy on paper. They make each other happier and better, and they talk about things that matter, and you just want them together, for Pete's sake!

And yet... it's one of those universal relationship things, isn't it? Bad timing. You can't force something to happen through sheer willpower. The reality of life takes its course, and sometimes it's disappointing and sometimes it feels tragic.

5. Get together with Amelia. Accompany her to her tenth-grade formal. Fruitlessly try to convince her family that I am a perfectly decent chap. Ignore raised eyebrows from family and friends. Content myself with holding hands and kissing. Accompany Amelia on the upcoming round of her friends' sweet sixteen parties. Attempt to smuggle her into bars for my friends' birthday parties.

Unfortunately, for a coming-of-age story, Amelia never really changes in a significant way. She remains naive and idealistic – a true youngster – which is fine, except that she doesn't ever seem to learn anything. She remains enamored with Chris, and her relationship with her family doesn't evolve but for a small degree of increased understanding and disillusionment. In many ways, this book feels more like Chris' story than Amelia's.

All the same, at the end of the day, Love and Other Perishable Items remains a fascinating story. It scrutinizes contemporary feminism. It explores the failures of human nature as we eavesdrop on Chris and Amelia's conversations about fictional characters. It questions what growing up really looks like.

We learn that there's never a single line that we have to step across to enter adulthood. Sometimes we are shaped by unexpected revelations, disappointments, realizations that things aren't always black and white. Other times it's the choices we make that propel us into a new stage of living. Love and Other Perishable Items is innocent and gritty all at once. It never feels flowery or fluffy or unrealistic. It's the quiet but powerful story of imperfect characters who are just trying to find their way in the world. It's a story that lingers.

Monday, July 28, 2014

Review: Dept. of Speculation by Jenny Offill

Title: Dept. of Speculation
Author: Jenny Offill
Publisher: Knopf
Publication date: January 28, 2014
Rating: ★★★★★

Summary (via Goodreads):

Jenny Offill’s heroine, referred to in these pages as simply “the wife,” once exchanged love letters with her husband, postmarked Dept. of Speculation, their code name for all the uncertainty that inheres in life and in the strangely fluid confines of a long relationship. As they confront an array of common catastrophes – a colicky baby, bedbugs, a faltering marriage, stalled ambitions – the wife analyzes her predicament, invoking everything from Keats and Kafka to the thought experiments of the Stoics to the lessons of doomed Russian cosmonauts. She muses on the consuming, capacious experience of maternal love, and the near total destruction of the self that ensues from it, as she confronts the friction between domestic life and the seductions and demands of art.

I've been sitting here, staring at this blank screen, trying to figure out what it is I could possibly say about Jenny Offill's Dept. of Speculation. I think it's perhaps one of the best books I've read this year and definitely one of the most well-written. (Between the stories and quotes and trivia, it feels a bit like a Jeanette Winterson project, or Nicole Krauss' The History of Love, or Siobhan from the no-longer-maintained serialcomma.net.) (I started transcribing my favorite passages but thought I might be better off just investing in my own copy of the book because there were too many to list.)

Dept. of Speculation is about a lot of things. The slow descent into love. The process of finding someone you want to keep and who wants to stay with you too. How it sometimes feels like wading through water. It's about the gradual formation of a family and the life that comes with it and all the lives we give up. It's about the way our brains are wired, the way we make associations, the way we move from one thought to the next. It's about writing – the art and the science and the self-awareness, and how we sometimes have to trade our sanity and our happiness to create a thing of mad beauty.

This book is about the human condition. As you acquaint yourself with Jenny Offill's narrator, you think, "Christ, she is terrible, self-absorbed, judgmental, just awful," but meanwhile you're nodding in agreement. "I can't say I blame her. I would probably feel the same." It's the painful brutality of truth. She writes with such precision that if we were to say half the things she thinks, I think maybe we would all break into a million pieces, like sticking a pin into a fracture point.

And, anyway, maybe that's why you change your mind about her – you think, well, she's not so bad, because everything she says is spot-on. And suddenly it feels like we are justified in all our despicable, weak, human ways. Because she's insightful and she makes observations about the things we want, the things we need as human beings. Not just to survive – no, more than that. The things we need in order to feel fulfilled. To feel safe, intact, protected. The things that make us want to stay. She shows us all of these things in short, pithy statements, and you can't help but think to yourself, Yes, yes, that's right. And soon enough it doesn't matter so much that you did a horrible thing, or that he did things that left scars, because you realize we're all just struggling, trying to figure out how to exist in this fragile human state. (The book jacket is so very accurate. This universal shipwreck that unites us all, indeed.)

It's a terrible book to read if you're even a little bit cynical about love. Or if you're scared to fall in love. Or if you think love conquers all. It's terrible and frightening and exactly right, and it will make you rethink everything you know. Life is a series of gray lines that get grayer and grayer as time goes on.

There's an old expression: Things always look better in the morning. That's what this book feels like – like nothing is ever set in stone, like maybe life looks better once you've lived through it.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Review: Graffiti Moon by Cath Crowley

Title: Graffiti Moon
Author: Cath Crowley
Publisher: Knopf Books for Young Readers
Publication date: February 14, 2012
Rating: ★★★★½

Summary (via Goodreads):

Lucy is in love with Shadow, a mysterious graffiti artist.

Ed thought he was in love with Lucy, until she broke his nose.

Dylan loves Daisy, but throwing eggs at her probably wasn't the best way to show it.

Jazz and Leo are slowly encircling each other.

An intense and exhilarating 24 hours in the lives of four teenagers on the verge: of adulthood, of HSC, of finding out just who they are, and who they want to be.

I. Loved. This. Book. Graffiti Moon was filled with all of the things I need/want/adore in literature: thoughtful, funny characters who are simultaneously weird and normal; luscious writing that doesn't go over the top; relationships between people who see the best in each other. Plus, graffiti and art talk! Bonus!

The style itself is reminiscent of Hilary T. Smith's Wild Awake – with its quirky characters who are utterly imperfect but fit so well together – as well as Melina Marchetta's Jellicoe Road, which is likewise filled with compelling relationships and reckless boys and all around flawlessness. I am obsessed with both of these books, so surely that will tell you something about my reaction to this one.

Graffiti Moon is split into three perspectives, which work especially well here. Each character has such a unique, interesting voice that the multiple perspectives feel welcome. First there is Lucy Dervish who, much like her name, is dreamy and lyrical. She has interesting hobbies (glassblowing and staring up at the stars until her life feels insignificant) and interesting goals (to find Shadow). Her thoughts on love and art are the kind of thoughts you want to seep into your brain and contemplate for days on end.

Next comes Ed Skye. Ed is pensive. He's romantic. He's a little bit lost. But there's something in him – not a spark, exactly, but something that resembles embers burning beneath the surface. He feels hopeless, but he's hopeful in spite of himself. Ed has a strong artistic voice that is balanced with pragmatism. His pages are enchanting to read because everything he says sounds significant.

I felt like I needed to run but my skin wouldn't let me. I had this urge to throw cans at the windows so I could hear a noise that sounded like escape.

Finally, there's Leo the poet. Leo's pages are few and far between, but they are powerful. His poems are short and sweet, and by sweet, I mean honest and spot-on and desperate and hopeful and sad. Lucy and Ed are ultimately the heart of the story, but Leo's poems shed some much-appreciated light on what's happening elsewhere. His words provide a richness, a depth, to the story as a whole.

Lucy and Ed's relationship unfolds through candid conversation, which we experience in what feels like real time. We learn about their shared history. We fall in love as they each hold their own in their verbal (and non-verbal, as you'll see below) sparring. There's very much an "I'll show you mine if you show me yours" mentality between Lucy and Ed. It's all the better knowing who Ed is and being able to watch everything slowly unravel. That, my friends, is the right way to accomplish the slow burn. 

I look over at Ed. He's staring out the window giving Leo the thumbs-down. I wait till he's looking at me, then I give him two fingers up. He gives me two fingers back. I give him the middle finger. He gives it back to me. I don't know any more signs, so I make up one. Three fingers. Take that, mister. He sticks up four. I call your four and raise you five. He skips straight to ten and does something with his thumb that disturbs me. I bounce my hands on my lap. Ed bounces his lap right back.

Cath Crowley is great about underscoring key themes. All throughout the book, the idea of "no guts, no glory" prevails. It starts with Lucy and her best friends Jazz and Daisy as they decide to go all-out on their last night of year 12. It extends to Ed and his assertiveness with his future, his assertiveness with the girls he loves... Circumstance is another concept that's well-explored in this book – whether it defines us, whether our choices matter, whether the outcomes of our lives are inevitable. There's a subtle strand of hope that makes its way through the story.

Art is also an important element in Graffiti Moon, and it is woven into the story in such a lovely, effortless way.  Both Ed and Lucy talk about graffiti and glassblowing so conceptually and thoughtfully that my inner art kid is swooning. They don't ever dumb down what art means, and in fact, they consider all these different ways to interpret and absorb it.

Most times I look at Shadow and Poet's work, I see something different from what the words are telling me. I like that about art, that what you see is sometimes more about who you are than what's on the wall. I look at this painting and think about how everyone has some secret inside, something sleeping like that yellow bird.

The writing in Graffiti Moon is simply brilliant. There are so many pages I love in their entirety. The book is a balance of the poetic and the everyday, the lush and the ordinary. That's what makes it all the more special – that there is beauty and art and poetry in the ugly and mundane. Cath Crowley's prose often stretches to the point of overwhelming, but then she manages to reign it all back in.

I do think the conflict with Malcolm Dove is a bit overblown and almost too conveniently resolved. It would have benefited from a more fleshed-out storyline. The ending also seems rushed, especially given that the rest of the book progresses at a more leisurely pace. However, Graffiti Moon remains beautifully written and, despite some minor shortcomings, still feels resolved. This book is ultimately about relationships – with the people you love and with yourself – and that's what comes through, in the end.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Top Ten Tuesday: Characters I'd Want with Me on a Deserted Island

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly feature hosted by The Broke and the Bookish.

For the record, I would hate being stuck on a deserted island. I don't like being hot, I don't like being out in the sun (that girl hiding out in the shadiest part of the park, smelling like sunscreen? Yes, hi, that's me), and I don't particularly care for sand. However, if I did somehow find myself on a deserted island, these would be my top [nine] picks for people I would want with me – in no particular order...

Percy Jackson from the Percy Jackson & the Olympians series by Rick Riordan. I think he could provide us all with a source of fresh water, what with him being the son of Poseidon. Also, he could summon all sorts of sea creatures including hippocampi. Free transportation!

Marcus Flutie from Megan McCafferty's Jessica Darling series... because if anyone knows how to find zen on a deserted island, it would be him. Also, he would keep me entertained. We would probably write poems on banana leaves and embark on a raw vegan diet together.

Ronan Lynch from The Raven Cycle series by Maggie Stiefvater. He could dream me a house. With air conditioning. And snacks! (For when I inevitably get tired of the raw vegan thing.)

Gansey – also from The Raven Cycle series. Let's be real. Ronan would probably ignore me whenever I asked him for things, and I would end up needing a mediator to deal with his bad attitude. Just planning ahead here...

Hermione Granger. In case the Ronan/Gansey plan doesn't work out. She could also teach me magic, since my Hogwarts acceptance letter never arrived... #squib

Luna Lovegood. Can you imagine all the pseudo-philosophical conversations we would have? Also, I think she would help keep morale high.

Froi from The Lumatere Chronicles by Melina Marchetta, goddess of everything. Because Froi is so prickly. And wonderful. And aren't you sort of curious how he would react to Luna Lovegood?

Come to think of it, I'd want Quintana there too. Because I'm definitely curious how she would respond to Luna. I think Quintana would probably try to bite Luna's face off at first. But then they would become great friends. Plus, together, Froi and Quintana would make for some dreamy entertainment.

And finally, just because I can, Jimmy Hailler from Saving Francesca. He's a sweet baby and he's gone missing for the time being and I just want him where I can see him.

Friday, July 18, 2014

Review: To All the Boys I've Loved Before by Jenny Han

Title: To All the Boys I've Loved Before
Author: Jenny Han
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Publication date: April 15, 2014
Rating: ★★★½

Summary (via Goodreads):

Lara Jean Song keeps her love letters in a hatbox her mother gave her. They aren't love letters that anyone else wrote for her; these are ones she's written. One for every boy she's ever loved – five in all. When she writes, she pours out her heart and soul and says all the things she would never say in real life, because her letters are for her eyes only. Until the day her secret letters are mailed, and suddenly, Lara Jean's love life goes from imaginary to out of control.

To All the Boys I've Loved Before is not the kind of book I want to be caught reading on the subway. The entire cover reeks of starry-eyed girl mooning over, well, all the boys she's loved before. And yet... fanciful cover or not, after skimming the summary, I knew immediately that this was the kind of book that would resonate with me.

Let's face it. I'm exactly the kind of girl who falls in love with strangers, who invents a lifetime of stories about a person without even having to see their face, who may or may not have filled pages in my journal about what-ifs and could've-beens and where-are-they-nows. So when this book came into my library, I was beyond excited to read it.

"What is it with girls and rain?" Peter wonders.

"I don't know... I guess maybe because everything feels more dramatic in the rain," I say with a shrug.

"Did anything actually happen with you two, or were you just standing out in the rain picking up soccer balls?”

We may as well get this out of the way: To All the Boys is by no means a particularly refined book. The writing can be distracting at times. Most notably, our main character Lara Jean Song reads like a 13-year-old, even though she's a junior in high school. And I'll admit, the writing occasionally gave me some major Babysitters Club vibes. (Generally speaking, that isn't a problem for me because I'm quite a big fan of the BSC, but I imagine it's a turn-off for many other readers.)

I will note, however, that when I was 16-going-on-17, I probably sounded and acted the same as Lara Jean. It's a side-effect of living in a comfortable place – read: the suburbs – and having others around to take care of you. Lara Jean is mothered by Margot, to the point where she can't feel confident in her own decisions without some external validation. She exists in la la land where life, for the most part, is roses and daisies and daffodils. In a lot of ways, that's how I was in high school: sheltered, young, and naive. So yes, Lara Jean may have sounded like a child, but it's not unrealistic, nor is it necessarily an inaccurate portrayal of a 16-year-old girl.

Despite the writing level,  I really enjoyed this book precisely because of the characters. It is uncanny how much I identified with Margot, Lara Jean, and Kitty each. In very specific ways, too. It felt as if I could combine all of their weird quirks to form a rough picture of myself.

Also – I'm just going to be blunt here – it's nice to read a main character who is funny and silly and intelligent and sure-footed (in some parts of her life, at least) and normal and not white. I mean, how refreshing is it to see an actual Asian girl on a book cover?! I loved all the bits and pieces of culture that were embedded into this book. I constantly found myself laughing along and nodding.

Lara Jean has such a rich relationship with her family. I continue to believe family dynamics are fascinating, and while the Song family isn't particularly complex, they are still a joy to explore. I particularly adored the development of Lara Jean's relationship with Kitty – the initial clashing and then the closeness that formed as a result of Margot going off to college. The character growth in To All the Boys was an understated kind. Incremental, slow. It was made apparent only when Margot returned for Christmas break and "suddenly" Lara Jean had her own opinions, thoughts, desires. Sure, maybe it felt like nothing was happening, but isn't that how life is sometimes? You change and grow; your hair gets a fraction longer; days pass, and then weeks, and before you know it, you're different, not quite who you once were.

When someone's been gone a long time, at first you save up all the things you want to tell them. You try to keep track of everything in your head. But it's like trying to hold on to a fistful of sand: all the little bits slip out of your hands, and then you're just clutching air and grit. That's why you can't save it all up like that.

Because by the time you finally see each other, you're catching up only on the big things, because it's too much bother to tell about the little things. But the little things are what make up life.

Sadly, the ending of To All the Boys was a bit of a disappointment. It felt abrupt, to say the least. The resolution between Margot and Lara Jean seemed overly convenient. There was practically no mention of Josh, which is odd, given that a big chunk of this book was indirectly about him. Genevieve disappeared, which I thought unfair, and Lara Jean's relationship with Peter was left hanging.

According to Jenny Han, there WILL be one more book, which I hope will provide some much needed resolution. I still wish this could have been a tighter story – I'm a big fan of standalone novels; who's got all that shelf space anyway? – but I'll be generous here. This book has many flaws, absolutely. But it has many redeeming elements as well.

Margot would say she belongs to herself. Kitty would say she belongs to no one. And I guess I would say I belong to my sisters and my dad, but that won't always be true. To belong to someone – I didn't know it, but now that I think about it, it seems like that's all I've ever wanted. To really be somebody's, and to have them be mine.

To All the Boys I've Loved Before is ultimately a story filled with truths. It's a candid exploration of love and relationships. Lara Jean wonders if there's a difference between belonging to and belonging with someone – and maybe the words do matter, and maybe it's just semantics. Either way, it's a curious thing to think about. Equally interesting is the way we come to love people... the way distance can shape a relationship... the way time can corrode it.

If there's one thing that this book has reinforced for me, it's that relationships are both fragile and strong. They are malleable, never fixed. One day, a person may not remember you exist. The next, you run into them at a Model UN conference and they can't stop thinking about you for weeks. That's the allure of this book. It's a study in possibilities, and sometimes the possibilities seem endless.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Things We Leave (and Find) in Books

A few weeks ago, I saw this picture of a left-behind bookmark on my local library's Instagram, and it got me thinking...

When we read, we often (hopefully) come away with something new. Maybe it teaches us something. Maybe it reminds us of something. Maybe it articulates something that we've never known how to explain before. To me, a good book leaves you with more than you started with.

But what about the other way around? Do we ever leave the book with something more? A small piece of ourselves, perhaps? A grocery list. A train ticket. A note to self.

Once, in the middle of my sophomore year in college, I found a green leaf pressed between the pages of a book. It felt like magic at the time. I had reached up to dog-ear the page (sacrilege, I know) to bookmark this gorgeous passage and realized there was already a crease from the previous lender. I turned the page and discovered a bookmark leaf – presumably from June 2007, the last time the book had been borrowed from the library. It was green and fresh and brilliant in the middle of winter, fossilized between pages about fossils.

What's the coolest object you've ever found in a book? Alternately, have you ever left something tucked in between the pages, whether accidentally or on purpose?

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Review: The Dream Thieves (The Raven Boys #2) by Maggie Stiefvater

Title: The Dream Thieves (The Raven Boys #2)
Author: Maggie Stiefvater
Publisher: Scholastic
Publication date: September 17, 2013
Rating: ★★½

Summary (via Goodreads):

Now that the ley lines around Cabeswater have been woken, nothing for Ronan, Gansey, Blue, and Adam will be the same.

Ronan, for one, is falling more and more deeply into his dreams, and his dreams are intruding more and more into waking life.

Meanwhile, some very sinister people are looking for some of the same pieces of the Cabeswater puzzle that Gansey is after...

To be frank, I couldn't decide if I should just copy my Goodreads status updates here, or if I should write a proper review. I figured the former might be a bit too snarky for this space, as my 31 Goodreads comments can be condensed into a few key sentiments:

"Go away Adam"
"Go away Adam"

Needless to say, I just don't get the hype.

Certainly there's lots of good things about The Dream Thieves. For one, the prose is heavy and sophisticated, at times reminiscent of Neil Gaiman's surreal, hypnotic writing. What works well in The Dream Thieves is this blend of lucid dream (literally) and vague fantasy, mixed with a healthy dose of present-day culture. I mean, the Gray Man grooving to the Kinks? Yes, please.

Several characters also continue to show strong development. Adam becomes infinitely darker and douchier… (Granted, I stopped caring about him precisely because he turned into a blockhead… I mean, his use of feminism as an insult? Have we not moved past that yet?) We also develop a much more complex picture of Gansey. (In fact, I quite like Sad Gansey. I think I prefer him to Upbeat Gansey.) As for Ronan, this whole book might as well be called The Ronan Show. We get reacquainted with Ronan from a multitude of angles and it's really satisfying. (Insert bawdy Kavinsky-esque joke here.)

There are two moments between Blue and Gansey that stand out in my mind. One is a homesick phone call that Gansey makes from his family's mansion in Washington, DC. The other occurs at night, on the side of a mountain. Both are moments that allow you to see a different Gansey – truer, softer, without all the walls up. I wish that version of Gansey had been explored more in this book.

The Gray Man is a compelling character as well – a hit man that we come to sympathize with, somehow. Maybe it's the fact that he has decent taste in music, or the fact that other characters help us see the good in him. It's funny how thin that line is between good and evil. One might even say that the line is… gray.

To me, Joseph Kavinsky is easily the most fascinating character we meet. In The Dream Thieves, his life literally is sex, drugs, and cars. And yet there's so much more to him. He's one of the few characters whose point of view we don't get to explore. All we know about him is filtered through Ronan's eyes – which is not a bad thing, per se. We just don't get to learn as much about him as we do with the other characters. It's a shame, because he seems to have one of the most unexpected backgrounds and definitely one of the most dynamic personalities.

As you can see, this book is filled with all sorts of characters who have such interesting backstories and so much potential. Unfortunately, Maggie Stiefvater seems to overextend herself because we end up with half a dozen story lines that are halfheartedly developed. Most of her characters are totally underutilized (don't even get me started on Noah) and plot lines are dropped off and picked back up and dropped again.

Not to mention, the pacing is so bizarre. The plot is so slow for the majority of the book – and I mean, dull as dishwater, watching grass grow-slow. I'm guessing at least half of the entire book is pure character development, which means we're reading, for example, about Adam feeling sorry for himself, or Adam with a chip on his shoulder, or Adam being an entitled jerk. (GO AWAY ADAM.) I'm a sucker for character development, but when it feels aimless, it gets real old, real fast.

This goes on for a few hundred pages… and then in the last 50 pages or so, everything happens all at once and you're just like, "…what? Where did that come from? Why did this book have to drag on and on for that to occur?" It is very much a slow burn, but the problem is that you feel the heat for 400 pages and eventually all you want to do is go jump in a pool and swim away.

Simply put, this book was not for me. It felt too meandering and stray. Good prose and complex characters do not a strong story make.