Monday, January 31, 2011

Building a Better Bedroom for Books

I never had a nightstand in college. The dorm rooms were simply too narrow to accommodate anything beside my sky-high bed. Even when I moved off-campus, I didn’t think to pick one up. It would have been one more thing to move, and in the throes of my nomadic lifestyle (six moves in less than three years), the burden outweighed the benefits. 

During those dark times, I’d often wake up to find my bed strewn with books and the lights still on. (Since I didn’t have a bedside lamp handy, I lost the battle of tired versus cold toes more times than I can count.) It took until February of senior year for the arrangement to wear me down. I bought myself my timber table and never looked back. It took until this last move to get everything exactly how I wanted it, but the results are so worth it:

In my younger years, I’d sometimes watch silly MTV shows. One of my favorites was Cribs, where celebrities took camera crews through their extravagant homes. There were two things every athlete/actress invariably did: show the contents of their refrigerator and say “this is where the magic happens” when they reached their bedroom. So, um, “this is where the magic happens.”


My desk is actually where the magic happens. Ever since I lovingly acquired it from IKEA, it’s been my faithful writing companion as well as the home of my favorite knickknacks. Just this past week, it became the new site of my Super-Scientific Library Book Organizational System (SSLBOS). First though, the knickknacks.



Flowers are a known mood enhancer, especially if they’re surprise tulips from your housemates (who know that red is your accent color of choice).



I adore mugs as decoration, but it’s also handy to have my most special at the ready for a late-night cup of tea. A range of sizes is essential.



My elephant collection sits right next to my mugs. (The white one’s actually a teapot! The silvery pair are salt/pepper shakers.)



Here’s the aforementioned SSLBOS. The books in the left-hand pile (closest to the bed) have been renewed 3-4 times, and the ones in the middle have been renewed 0-2 times. The book on the far right is in the “read and ready to return” stack. (As you can see, I have some work to do.)



Let’s enhance! A close-up of my to-read list.



Moving over a bit, these books are the ones I need to reach before bed. (Thank goodness for my nightstand!) My clip-on lamp ensures that I never have to get out of bed to turn off the lights. (Through the window is the porch mentioned here.)



My divinely comfortable bed. To borrow a quote from an Apartment Therapy commenter, it’s “like sleeping on ground up angel wings suspended in meringue.” My blue-footed booby Sebastian (named by a wonderful guy) keeps me company when I’m knee-deep in a novel.



The last part of the picture is this side table, waiting patiently for a bedroom large enough to accommodate it in its rightful place. (If you look closely, you can see my fuzzy technicolor slippers in the mirror.)





...And there you have it! My beautiful bedroom, built for a bounty of books. There’s no place like home.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Trust the Hours

I guess the weekends are made for poetry. Lazy hours like to be filled with beautiful words.

Lazy hours are also filled nicely with books, but there's so much tempest, so much turmoil in everything I'm reading now. I'm in need of a balm.

I'm also having a little problem with patience. I have so many plans, big dreams, pie-in-the-sky plots. It's nice to have something to look forward to, something stretching out indefinitely ahead, but I can't be sure if the horizon I'm racing toward will continue with the gentle curve of the earth or if it just stops, the sharp drop-off at the end of the world.

Of course, there's a poem for that. The first time I read it, it didn't hit me. Maybe I wasn't paying enough attention. I saved it, put it aside for another time, drawn to its language though its meaning was veiled. Then, I read it when I was sad and the message unfolded. Since then, I've read other things under and around its original intent. (That's part of the appeal, the ability of a poem to hold many different truths together.) It whispers to me: be patient, trust, take a breath. So I try.

Wait
by Galway Kinnell

Wait, for now.
Distrust everything, if you have to.
But trust the hours. Haven't they
carried you everywhere, up to now?
Personal events will become interesting again.
Hair will become interesting.
Pain will become interesting.
Buds that open out of season will become lovely again.
Second-hand gloves will become lovely again,
their memories are what give them
the need for other hands. And the desolation
of lovers is the same: that enormous emptiness
carved out of such tiny beings as we are
asks to be filled; the need
for the new love is faithfulness to the old.

Wait.
Don't go too early.
You're tired. But everyone's tired.
But no one is tired enough.
Only wait a while and listen.
Music of hair,
Music of pain,
music of looms weaving all our loves again.
Be there to hear it, it will be the only time,
most of all to hear,
the flute of your whole existence,
rehearsed by the sorrows, play itself into total exhaustion.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Award-Winning and Such

I blushing from head to little bookworm tail! My new friend Read the Book has bestowed the Stylish Blogger Award on me, and I’m tickled pink. Er, green. (Thanks, my dear.)

My best friend once told me that “there are two things you always accept: breath mints and compliments.” With that in mind, I won’t be bashful and will post the supernice things Ms. Read said:

Simple Little Bookworm--Amy's blog is my most recently discovered treasure, and I love it! She writes about a wide variety of books and is highly entertaining while she does it.”

Aw, man…Now I’m going to have to live up to that! (I think I’m up for the challenge.) But wait! There’s more!

Part of the deal is that I have to share some interesting tidbits about myself. How many, you ask? I think I’ll take my cue from one of my favorite movies: “Three, no more, no less. Three shall be the number thou shalt count, and the number of the counting shall be three. Four shalt thou not count, neither count thou two, excepting that thou then proceed to three.”

1. I guess the first should be that my comedy trifecta is Mel Brooks, Monty Python, and Woody Allen.

2. My three favorite things my mom cooks are beef bourguignon, barbeque brisket, and onion oven-roasted potatoes. At home, I am definitely a meat and potatoes gal. (Out, I’m more Thai/Indian/adventurous.)

3. I’m wrapping up with my three favorite birthday presents. For my surprise sixteenth birthday, my friends got me waterproof crayons because I think best in the shower. On my twenty-first, my parents thought I was responsible enough for a crème brûlée-sized blowtorch. The next birthday, number twenty-two, I bought my-interior-design-loving-self a present: my nightstand.

Disclaimer: That is not my actual nightstand, though mine is indeed identical to it. (The key distinction is that there are not enough books on it.) A “How to Build a Better Bedroom for Books” featuring my nightstand is in the works.

And there you have it! Three times three, which equals my lucky number. (I guess that fun fact makes ten.)

Thanks for listening, and we’ll be back to our regularly scheduled program tomorrow. I’m off to pay it forward!

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Review: Gail Carson Levine’s Writing Magic: Creating Stories that Fly

I read this book and Stephen King’s On Writing back to back. They flowed into each other perfectly, thanks to the ending sentences of King’s book: “Writing is magic, as much the water of life as any creative art. The water is free. So drink. Drink and be filled up.”

Gail Carson Levine (who I treated somewhat badly here and wished more from here) redeems herself with this book. If I were younger, Writing Magic would be the perfect push to get me thinking and dreaming and really working out the mechanics of stories. While she is writing for a different audience, GCL echoes many of the concepts King laid out. She usefully backs each lesson up with concrete examples, some from personal experience and some invented for teaching purposes.

One of the instances I was struck by was a character sketch from her novel The Two Princesses of Bamarre. GCL wanted to make her king a remote father (with the purpose of spurring his daughter into a quest) but couldn’t find an authentic way to do it. The solution came through a prop, a book of homilies the man reveres, that came to her out of the blue: In every situation, instead of speaking from his heart, the king tries to apply something from the book, whether or not it is appropriate. The book unlocked the character, creating the emotional distance Levine was looking for when she began. However, the homilies were slightly ridiculous and their silliness rubbed off on the king, ultimately making him sympathetic. GCL reports she had a great time writing the king, and I, as a reader, completely felt that when I went through the novel. He was memorable and complex, all thanks to one perfect detail.

It is clear that Levine’s heart lies with young readers, both because of this book and because of her blog, where she regularly and responsively answers questions about writing. (Heart you, GCL!) Her constant refrain of “Save what you wrote” is touching, and her final lines speak to her writing philosophy:

“Write to nurture yourself. Write to tell us about being you. Write to tell us about being human. There can never be too many stories.  Add to the reservoir.”

It’s a nice counterpoint to the stratified approach King takes, and I can’t really tell which one is more valuable. I’d like to think with a mixture of hope and a healthy dose of self-knowledge, I might be able to get my feet wet and add just a little something to the literary ocean.

Review: Stephen King's On Writing

I’ve been on a “writing books” kick lately. Actually, I’ve been on that kick since I picked up James Wood’s How Fiction Works. I’d read commentaries on specific books for class before, but reading someone else’s book-long interpretation on writing was a revelation. He crystallizes everything I knew abstractly, putting the knowledge into such beautiful prose and backing it up with such excellent examples. (One that really stuck with me was a Maupassant description used to illustrate characterization: “He was a gentleman with red whiskers who always went first through a doorway.” In just one sentence, you know everything you need to know about that man.) Wood is a master writing on masters.

It was with the hope of “more, more!” that I picked up Stephen King’s acclaimed On Writing. I was instantly charmed. I guess I just can’t resist a book with three cheeky forewords. The rest of the narrative unfolds in a similar fashion, layer after good-natured layer: biography, advice, and circumstances surrounding the book. Credentials, common sense, inspiration. The three parts ran like a cycle, each feeding into the other, so that when I finished, I wanted to start again at the beginning.

Seeing how a writer is “born” was fascinating. The way King told his life story was a tutorial before he even began to give advice: funny and insightful with details that were achingly alive. He writes nakedly of an endless struggle with the craft, alternating the rejection letters with the joy. (I was captured by how lovingly he reflected on his influences and his learning process.) His joy was also evident when he wrote his own love story, paying tribute to his wife Tabitha in some of the most romantic passages I have ever read. In the childhood section, I couldn’t help but be tickled by his constant ear woes. It was humanizing to think of this monolithic writer suffering from the same youthful ailments I did. I also marveled at Dave’s Rag, the newspaper he laboriously self-published with his brother, from a modern blogging perspective.

In the actual how-to section, King gets a little controversial in claiming that there are tiers of writers. At the top are the greats. (They are born great and do not need his book.) Below them are the good and the competent. (His book is to help the competent become good.) Bad writers are trapped at the bottom and no amount of effort will ever unstick them. (I wonder where he would place himself. I also wonder how many people who read this book miscategorize themselves.) In the current climate of “everyone can write” and “the weekend novelist,” his words seem harsh and undemocratic, but I don’t think they’re wrong. (Does that make me an elitist?) Personally, I do believe that every published writer has an innate knack for story that they carry with them until it spills out into a book.* It can be honed and practiced, but there is a spark that needs to be present to begin the journey.

Some other things worth mentioning are the writer’s toolbox and the purpose of jealousy. The toolbox is an appealing conceit, and King nestles all the useful tools of the trade inside. Along with plotting, pacing, grammar, dialogue, description, and vocabulary, he includes the feelings of “Oh! I wish I’d written that” and “I could have done better” as essentials, particularly because it means one is reading widely. He believes that reading is the ultimate way a writer learns and grows, and again, I find myself agreeing. Just like learning a language or playing an instrument, a writer has to develop an ear.

I won’t go into the ending, but anyone who’s read this far better plan to buy, borrow, or steal this book. Unequivocal, enthusiastic recommendation of On Writing for anyone who’s looking to write or anyone who just wants to experience a great read. (I read another writing book around the same time as this one. Go here to find the review.)

*I used the term “published” for a litmus, as I do believe a good book will eventually get published.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Review: Melina Marchetta's Finnikin of the Rock

Call it a classic case of putting your wants out into the universe, but after this post about sequel fatigue, I finally found a standalone fantasy novel. Eureka! (Ironically enough, some parts of Finnikin of the Rock made a very strong case for a series approach to fantasy.) With just one book, Melina Marchetta did an admirable job pulling together a very complex world, an epic plot, and a huge cast of interconnected characters.

The book was slow-going at first. The prologue is pure backstory, and there is a lot of it: A big magical event rocks the kingdom of Lumatere, displacing half the population and trapping the other half inside. In addition, the royal family is murdered, a marginalized population is blamed/massacred, and a usurper seizes the throne. Got it? Good.*

Finnikin and his tutor Sir Topher have been traveling the land of Skuldenore since the “five days of the unspeakable,” trying to gather their destitute exiles and find a new home for their people. Nearly ten years after everything fell apart, they find a girl who claims the rightful heir is alive and well. Finnikin knows that if he finds Prince Balthazar, his childhood friend, all will be well. Thus, the epic fantasy quest.

After I emerged from the plot bog in the beginning, I still found it difficult to continue. It took a while for me to put my finger on it, but I think it was my initial inability to connect with Finnikin. Though the book is named for him, it’s not really his story. This story belongs completely and incontrovertibly to the “mute” novice Evanjalin. The plot picks up when she begins to speak and doesn’t stop until she says it does. (Spoilers to follow.)

It’s very smart to use Finnikin as the narrator, as his limited perspective allows the central secret to stay under wraps. In the beginning though, he’s more of a plot device to be shuffled around. He is first used as the impetus to get his father out of jail, a scheme set in motion by Evanjalin. When he is injured, the scenario shows off Evanjalin’s powers of diplomacy. He is her foil, the pragmatic compromise to her indomitable hope and iron will. I only connected to him when he started connecting to her, developing from a boy who purports to want “a sweet girl” to the man who falls in love with the active, ferocious woman.

There’s a whole lot of grrl power in what looked to me like a “guy book.” (It’s balanced out only a bit by Trevanion and his band of merry men.) You see, all of the characters driving things are women. Seradonna lays the curse that destroys a kingdom. Tesadora keeps an entire corrupt regime at bay. Lady Albie and Lady Beatriss thwart a reactionary war (and a sequel). Evanjalin single-handedly reunites the kingdom using any means necessary. She does what she has to do, and it rocks. (I need to get something out here: I love ruthless female characters. Ruthless really isn’t a word used to describe women often enough.) Additionally, all of the relationships in the book are based on the principle of equality, even if I think the women have the upper hand.

There are also a bunch of Big Issues and Important Messages. (They may have been more noticeable to me, as an older reader and a feminist, so I’m not sure how heavy-handed it was for the target audience.) A quick rundown: the consequences of war, the treatment of refugees, the importance of diplomatic communication (learning the native language), the significance of stories, the construction of identity/home, and the corruption of religion for control/subjugation, not to mention class stratification and rape.** Marchetta also crammed in a few different views of sex, mostly positive.***

Based on the intricacies of the issues/characters, I can’t help comparing this novel to MWT’s Attolia series or Kristin Cashore’s books. (Actually, the hardback edition invites comparison to Cashore, as she has a huge blurb on the back. Candlewick and Cashore together make me “whoo!” for the Boston writing scene.) Though it took a while to get going, Finnikin delivered on several levels, and I would recommend it to the right reader. (If anything, this book makes me want to read Marchetta’s Jellicoe Road and see what she does with a female protagonist.)

To wrap up this enormous review, I want to thank the universe for my break from the glut of YA trilogies. I really appreciated leaving interesting characters at the end of one book, so they could live out the rest of their “lives” through my imagination and not on 800 more pages.

*The prologue was cumbersome but necessary. It's only one book, so there was no time for slow development. With a series, we might have gotten this information in increments, allowing the actual story to start sooner. Maybe if the book started from the first chapter and fed us the tragedy in flashbacks/hints, I might have felt more for Finnikin. (There was a great "recap" spot during the thirdish chapters.) The trauma would have felt more immediate, and my curiosity would have been piqued.

**Some of it was pretty brutal and complex, but I’m not one to rule out kids reading things based on subject matter. It’s all about maturity level. Goodness knows, I never read “appropriate” books for my age/grade. Like my man C.S. Lewis noted: “Those of us who are blamed when old for reading childish books were blamed when children for reading books too old for us. No reader worth his salt trots along in obedience to a time-table.” If teens are exposed to some horrific things, let them learn from it.

***There was one bawdy bit that really needled me, not because it was bawdy but because I thought an opportunity was missed. The pronouncement of “her blood must be spilled for you to be king” was a huge dramatic point throughout the entire book, a prophecy that weighed heavily on Finnikin’s conscience. It was revealed as a joke about virginity, though the character in question had already bled A TON during the course of the book. (SHE STUCK HERSELF WITH AN ARROW ABOVE HER HEART AND THEN PULLED IT OUT.) It would have been more poignant to point that out, to underscore how much she had given of herself to put the kingdom back together, rather than go for a cheap gag.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

The Deep Heart's Core

It’s no secret that I love novels, but there’s a part of my heart (the part that flutters) specifically devoted to poetry. It’s an odd relationship we share, shy and cat-like. I don’t have the same assurance around poems, as I have no talent for writing verse. The knack utterly escapes me. I’ve tried my hand at a few, rapping my knuckles on a glass bell full of butterflies, though they refuse to let me in. Still, I can hold out my hand to other poems, the ones written by those who can commune with them, and see if they come to sit with me for a while.

There’s something so visceral about a great poem. It’s a feeling they leave after I’m done reading, a charge hanging in the air that settles onto the skin and seeps in slowly. They have a voice, a breath, a heartbeat. Some are serious, some silly. They can change my mood as quickly as a song; they can deepen it with new dimensions. At the end, I find I’m braver or more daring. I’m calmer, freer, easier. More thankful, more joyful. Some poems have the ability to elicit different reactions every time I read them. Others freeze my feelings in time, drawing forth the same emotion that I had the first time I finished.

Tonight, I’m a little sleepy and a little escapist. This is the poem for that:

The Lake Isle of Innisfree
by William Butler Yeats

I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree,
And a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made:
Nine bean-rows will I have there, a hive for the honey-bee;
And live alone in the bee-loud glade.

And I shall have some peace there, for peace comes dropping slow,
Dropping from the veils of the morning to where the cricket sings;
There midnight's all a glimmer, and noon a purple glow,
And evening full of the linnet's wings.

I will arise and go now, for always night and day
I hear lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore;
While I stand on the roadway, or on the pavements grey,
I hear it in the deep heart's core.

(It’s strange but interesting to hear someone speak a poem counter to the “natural” rhythm, which is why you should go and listen to Yeats himself read this one out loud. I sometimes play that recording as I’m falling asleep.)

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Invincible Summer

More reviews have been scheduled (Finnikin of the Rock, the Battle Royale manga series, Stephen King’s On Writing/Gail Carson Levine’s Writing Magic: Creating Stories that Fly), but I’m firmly in the grips of the weekend. Today I’m feeling like more reading, less writing and more imagining, less analysis. I can think of no better way to handle this than with my first picture post! (It is relevant, I swear!)

To set the scene: The summer of 2009, before I graduated, my BFL (that’s “best friend for life” or “biffle”) and I took a little “research trip.” She was writing her thesis and had to go to Greece. I was her, um, advisor. We had a grand time cavorting around Athens, Santorini, and Rhodes, but I left my heart in Oia (Eee-Ah).


Located on the northern tip of Santorini, we first made the trek there on a bright orange ATV we named Argo. (Greek pun alert! "Arga/o" means "slow" in Greek and "Argo" was the name of a certain Jason's ship.)



Here was our route (in black). It took us all day, but we stopped to rest on a few beaches. (Much faster than the donkeys we rode the previous day.)

The ATV rental guy proposed to us both.

That breeze-through wasn’t quite enough, so we returned later to watch the famous sunset and do a little exploring. (Here’s where the post gets relevant!) It was then that we found Atlantis Books.

It was like Peter Pan meets quirky shipwreck.


The employees all lived in the store, which was co-founded by a couple of Tufts alums! Small world, no?

Surprises around every corner.


Look what I found in the recommended section!
After I bought a book of Aesop’s collected fables, we went to dine at a place called Ambrosia and Nectar. (Food of the gods, indeed!) In the middle of some delicious pumpkin ravioli, I spied a bride on a donkey and a parade of people coming ever closer. We thought it was a drive-by, but they came to a stop and ate at the long 15-seat table reserved behind us. Magical.

And there you have it, folks. A little bit of sun in this snowy winter. May everyone clap at the end of every sunset. (They did that on Oia, and I thought it a lovely tradition.)

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Sequel Fatigue

So, I was reading James Dashner’s The Maze Runner and was having a pretty good time. (With his last name, how could Dashner write a book with anything but that title?) I pushed past some excessive jargon at the beginning, identifying with the protagonist’s need to know, and built up affection for a few supporting characters. Then, the action started racing along at a pretty good clip. I was along for the ride, but as the pages dwindled, I started getting suspicious: “There is very little room left to wrap up the story, this safety at the end seems very fishy…OHGOSHDARNIT. Not again!” It was then I realized that I had another series in my hands.*

You see, I have a few concerns when it comes to approaching a series of books:

1. I like to come into the reading experience fully aware. That way, I can prepare and manage my expectations. (Even better is when the entire series has already been published, so I can blaze through them.) When I pick up a book and don’t know it’s a sequel/part of a trilogy, I experience frustration level “ARGH!” at the end. It just feels like a trick when I’m only looking for a resolution, messy or otherwise.

2. With a series, there’s always the waiting. Trilogies are the worst. If there’s only one book published, I have to sweat out two more books. If the original and the sequel are out, I usually have a long wait for closure. During the wait, I have to keep up with the release dates and remember enough of the plot (maybe even reread) to get all there is out of the next books. ARGH.

3. The terrible truth of trilogies is that the finale can disappoint and casts a shadow over the rest of the series. (See: Mockingjay) When a series is popular, the pressure to publish is on. The author is writing as fast as they can, cramming in as much as possible and trying to resolve everything. The final installment can reek of panic, even if the author plotted. (That is not to say the opposite can’t be true. Some series get really bloated.) Sometimes, authors can use a little distance, a bit of breathing room to help them avoid wrapping with too much sentimentality or the “over-preach.” (See Megan Whalen Turner, whose four equally awesome books are spaced fourteen years apart.) Fast or slow though, it’s a lose-lose. Even the space can’t help with reader expectations. Harry Potter (which was masterfully plotted and perfect in my eyes) disappointed a ton of people, even if it contained seven books and was a series almost twenty years in the making.

4. Conversely, when you move beyond trilogy territory, you usually have to slog through a TON of books. When I was younger, I made it through most of Redwall before giving up. Ditto Mercedes Lackey and Ann McCaffrey. I simply couldn’t keep up with the sheer volume of output and still read other things. Even now, though I really want to read them, eyeballing The Wheel of Time, A Song of Ice and Fire, and The Sword of Truth series make me want to break out in hives.

I definitely understand the impulse to serialize, especially with fantasy. An author builds a whole world, but it may just “go to waste” if they only set one book there. Readers too grow attached, not wanting to leave the world or the characters an author lovingly crafts. (Oh my gosh, the second of The Kingkiller Chronicle is coming out so soon.) I also see it from a publishing perspective. Series make major money because there is a captive audience waiting to find out what’s next.

Don’t get me wrong, I love me some series as much as the next gal. I adore Susan Cooper’s The Dark Is Rising series. I devoured Meredith Ann Pierce’s Darkangel trilogy. (Those books are how you write interesting vampires, n00bs.) Harry Potter, automatic duh. I am so fond of Louisa May Alcott’s Eight Cousins and (the jump-ahead sequel) Rose in Bloom. I also appreciate the art of the companion novel. They manage to get around some serious series pitfalls, giving the reader a new story while letting them visit someplace familiar (perhaps seeing a few familiar faces as well.) Graceling and its companion Fire by Kristin Cashore? Totally behind those and will wait happily for companion number three. Another longstanding favorite pair is Robin McKinley's The Blue Sword and its “prequel” The Hero and the Crown.

I guess in the end, I do love the pain, even if I’m forced to be on my guard with all current YA literature. I will say this: I think it would be better for everyone involved if trilogies came with a warning label. Don’t just do it for me…Do it for the children.

*I want to be clear that this is not a post booing The Maze Runner. (In summary: Dashner describes the book on his blog as “ENDER'S GAME meets LORD OF THE FLIES meets HOLES, three of my favorite books. Throw in a little LOST, too.” Against those titles, The Maze Runner pales in comparison, but it does fairly well on its own.) While it wasn’t the best thing I ever read, I was engaged enough to want some daggone answers by the end! I was particularly drawn to the idea of keeping societal order in an impossible situation to stave off hopelessness. On more low-brow note, the slang was quite funny. Plus, it’s always nice to run across a male author in YA, even if his monsters were kind of lame.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Review: Rebecca Stead's When You Reach Me

I feel like I’ve been on a journey with this slim little novel, and it wasn’t an entirely metaphorical one. You see, I began by devouring When You Reach Me wholly in transit. (I was lucky enough to glimpse a bird’s eye view of Miranda’s neighborhood from my window seat.) Then I started writing its review from a café in Brooklyn around New Year’s. (It seemed appropriate to write in that spot, so close to Manhattan. The city was such a vital part of the story, a background character looming large in the lives of the “latchkey kids” who called it home.) Unfortunately, I didn’t finish this post at the coffee shop. There’s a lot to tackle, as the book does so much in just 200 pages. (It was the final book I read last year, and it made my Top 10 of 2010.)

When You Reach Me certainly stands out for its length, a standalone story in a sea of sprawling series. Still, the plot is just as rich as a book three times its size, and its brevity means there is not a wasted word or sentence. Tight as it is, the writing breathes, resisting the urge to surge helter-skelter to the end (though I did and immediately wanted to reread it). I couldn’t ask for more from the setting. Its world of 1979 feels distinctly period and timeless at the same time. As for the genre, I struggled with categorizing it. It is a mystery story (with big ideas), but at its heart, it’s a character study. (Mild spoilers beyond this point.)

A lot of my affection has to do with Miranda. Young narrators are difficult to pull off authentically, but Stead really captures the concerns of an adolescent who sees/understands a whole lot but doesn’t quite put everything together. (Miranda can see class differences but not the reason why her best guy friend is pulling away. We can’t either, given the limited information through Miranda, because it’s not any reason we/she would expect. That, of course, is a conscientious reader’s delight.) Through Miranda, we see the delicate dance of adolescent friendship and parent-child relationships. There are a lot of bedrooms and interiors, as the story inhabits the preteen microcosm. We also get a lot of food—Oreos, pizza, sandwiches, lemonade—because that’s what kids do together. Still, the rooms and the food have a secondary purpose in highlighting differences and reflecting worries. The kids feel like kids and the issues are issues, but they play out naturally. The children stretch beyond their problems and yet the problems fit comfortably, as if they’ve been living with them for years.

The view into each child’s world is done with such a light touch, but underneath it, Stead is fearless. She tackles things like racism, epilepsy, single/working parenthood, and poverty in a very true, real way. Nothing feels out of place or preachy. I loved the interactions with the dentist, who could have been a one-off character with a “message” in a lower-quality story. That he feels real and comes back later in the non-superfluous way makes me overflow with joy. That is how you write!

Stead’s compassion extends to all of the adult characters, round people who could have easily been types. The frazzled working mom, her new boyfriend, the gruff restaurant owner, and the neighborhood matron could have devolved into cutouts, but they have real fears and flaws. Stead handles significant details in a brilliant fashion, like the boyfriend’s sailor knots and his key situation, but she can also drop in tidbits without them seeming out of place, like the German translation of “latchkey kids.” (Schlüsselkinder, for those wondering. What a great word!) Details like these bind a book together, and when used correctly, the payoff feels so earned.

Speaking of payoff, the central mystery is phenomenal. Stead manages to integrate a science fiction element into a realistic story and have it not be far-fetched. Meg Murray’s adventures unobtrusively bolster the story, allowing for a peek into a world different from Miranda’s and opening a window in return. (It should be said that I'm a huge Madeline L’Engle fan, but you don’t have to be to love this twist.)

The resolution is one of the most surprising and refreshing things I’ve read recently, maybe ever. It’s the kind of ending that imbues dignity, radiates understanding, and makes the world more magical. I keep returning to C.S. Lewis’ “On Three Ways of Writing for Children,” but it’s perfect. “He does not despise real woods because he has read of enchanted woods: the reading makes all real woods a little enchanted.”

I know I’ve been more vague with this review than I have been with some others, but I don’t even want my spoilers to spoil this book. Though I could gush on about the framing game show device or the playing with Shakespeare or the language, it’s not really about that. It’s not even about “the plot.” Don’t get me wrong, there are big suspenseful moments in this unassuming book. They’re just not the point.

I think what I’m trying to get at is this: In Miranda’s life, nothing radical has changed and yet everything has. That, to me, is the best encapsulation of growing up I can imagine: a series of steps that lead to others, learning about friends, falling back on family, some pain, a little magic, and a lot of discovery.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Stuck in My Head

This simple bookworm has a serious earworm. A certain song has been on instant mental reply for months now. Months! Nothing’s ever stuck so tenaciously before, but it looks like “Creep” is in for the long haul.

I never even saw it coming. I mean, I adore Radiohead, but “Creep” always felt so whiney and so 90s. Whenever the opening notes came on the radio, I automatically changed the station. Its popularity made me seethe. There are tons of more interesting songs in their discography! Why did people love this particular song so much?

I can trace my updated “MMMBop” back to mid-September when I went to see the A.R.T. production Alice vs. Wonderland. Written by a fellow Tufts theater alum, the show promised “Lewis Carroll meets Lady Gaga” in “a fresh, funny, and emotional remix of Carroll's classic coming-of-age tale.” Children’s literature with an experimental dose of musical camp? I was so in.


When the house lights dimmed, I settled into my seat and prepared for a crazy psychedelic glitter explosion. Instead, I heard some familiar opening bars and instinctively reached for my radio dial. The theater tittered with people just like me, too cool for “Creep.” Then we all stopped to listen. Alice (our Alice, my Alice) sang that stale song so earnestly, I heard it with new ears. It was poetry!

All in all, “Creep” was sung through three times. The second time, Alice was joined by her double Maryanne. On the last, all of Wonderland joined in, and an understanding came. Hearing it with a female voice, two female voices, a full chorus made the song finally make sense. I identified with it in a way I never had before, feeling the longing and the aching and the isolation and the defiance. (This was around the same time that The Social Network trailer came out with its awesome choir version.)

I still don’t love the original. I’d much rather listen to Idioteque (or Amanda Palmer’s brilliant cover of it on the ukulele) and I’ll always prefer the electronic sound of In Rainbows, but I get it now.

I guess that’s why I love covers. Some people can’t stand them, claiming they’re a blasphemy of the original, but I love when people riff on songs I love. (See: Robyn go at The Teddybears’ “Cobrastyle,” a Broadway star’s take on Kings of Leon’s “Use Somebody,” or this Youtube user’s version of “Little Lion Man”). I love it even more when people cover songs I don’t immediately appreciate and make me love the original. (Like this cover of The Talking Heads.)*

That’s not to say that there aren’t bad covers. There certainly are. (I can never forgive Glee for murdering “The Dog Days are Over,” but they do redeem themselves with a male/male version of “Baby, It’s Cold Outside.”) On the whole though, I find the practice thrilling. The best covers can breathe new life into a song, retelling a familiar tale in a different voice and adding something of their own. That, to me, is something worth having stuck in your head.

*Movies can do this too. Middle school me thought Romeo and Juliet was a beautifully-written play with a silly plot. (Why did they kill themselves? That’s so dumb!) Then, I saw Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet and got it. The play’s language makes the lovers feel like they’re 30, but after seeing baby Claires Danes and Leo DiCaprio onscreen, I realized how young R+J actually are. I finally believed the breathless, heady cocktail of young love and misunderstandings could lead to such tragic consequences.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Contest Winner (Plus Forgotten Top 5)

And the winner of the first Simple Little Bookworm Giveaway Extravaganza is…Commenter #2! Congrats, Shannon. Perhaps second really is “best,” as they say on the playground. (E-mail me for the deets.)

While I’m here, I just wanted to point out a few more awesome books I left off my Recommended Reads for 2010. (Another reason why I hate Top 10 lists: MAJOR oversights.) To make up for it, here’s my:

Top 5 Books I Overlooked from 2010 (in no particular order)

1. Carrie Ryan’s The Forest of Hands and Teeth and The Dead-Tossed Waves: I can't believe it took stumbling across her Twitter account to remember these books. I was up with a flashlight for both of them…Couldn’t get enough of the dystopian zombies. Though I preferred Mary/her story to Gabry/hers, I enjoyed the deepening and opening up of the Unconsecrated/Mudo mythology. Eagerly awaiting the final book in the trilogy.

2. The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss: With the second installation coming out this March, how could I have forgotten? This 650+ monster of a book grabbed me from the first page and would not let go. Where should I start? The fully fleshed-out magic system, the complex world-building, the eloquent narrator, the huge cast of (non-cardboard) supporting characters, the mystery Big Bad, the muddy motivations, the non-stop interesting? I contemplated skipping work to finish it. (I didn’t and spent the rest of the day yearning to get back home.)

3. Leviathan by Scott Westerfeld: A serious brain meltdown because I enjoyed this book SO MUCH when I read it. I even wrote about how much I was craving its sequel here. The living airships were fascinating, the young heroes hilarious. Steampunk, alternate historical reality, and biology are a match made in heaven. Suspense-filled brain food that goes down easy. Plus illustrations!

4. Philip Pullman’s Once Upon a Time in the North: I have a not-so-secret crush on Lee Scoresby and Hester. Seeing Lee as a young man and watching him meet Iorek was a real treat. The language in this book is just beautiful. It’s the opposite of a “page-turner,” and that’s a good thing. Pullman constructs stunning sentences and invites you to sit with them for a while.

5. Blankets by Craig Thompson: I’m no stranger to graphic novels, but this one was so appealing. It is a quiet tale with quiet triumph, quiet heartbreak, and quiet horror. It enfolds you like a blanket, weaving its themes so subtly that you scarcely notice the artful storytelling. You instead notice the art and the story. I read it all in one sitting and I cried.

...So, the Forgotten Top 5. I'll do better this year, I promise!

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Giveaway!!!

If it’s 1/11/11, it must be your lucky day, my dear blog readers! Allmodern.com, a division of csnstores.com, has gifted me with a $25 coupon code in appreciation of yesterday’s link. To show my appreciation for you, I’m passing this on in my first S.L.B. Giveaway.


This is super-exciting to me for several reasons:
  • I’m a young blogger (not even 3 weeks old), and it’s nice to feel like I’m getting off the ground.
  • It’s a great chance to reward the people who’ve encouraged me on this venture.
  • I am a total interior design freak.
Though I may not show it here, I harbor a secret dream of someday doing work in interior design. (This goes hand in hand with becoming a pastry chef, naturally.) I read design blogs, have an inspiration folder of 1500+ photos, and can watch HGTV all day. (That my apartment-mates don’t want to pay for the cable package that includes Candice Olsen, Genevieve Gorder, and David Bromstad has probably increased my productivity by 200% or more.)

All Modern carries some pretty expensive things, but I’ve done some price-point scouting in the oeuvre of one of my favorites: Thomas Paul. Because it’s for this blog, I’ve tied them into literature. My humble suggestions:
  • For lovers of Moby Dick who love to entertain, you can try this whale tray on for size.
  • Fans of the Iliad and the Odyssey should have a look at these dessert plates or this tray.
  • Though a giant squid is featured in Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, the book also alludes to “The Toilers of the Sea” by Victor Hugo. In that poem, the monster attacking the ship is a giant octopus, though this octopus dish towel is more sweet than savage.
  • These two leafy items (here and here) remind me of that fantastic pear tree scene in Their Eyes Were Watching God. (Plus it was just Zora Neale Hurston's birthday.)
Of course, these are only suggestions. Get whatever you want! (Just tell me about it later. I’m curious!) The coupon code is valid at any CSN Store (like www.cookware.com and www.shoesgotsole.com).

Since a chair started it all, to enter the drawing, tell me about your favorite reading spot in the comments. (This is a great way for any lurkers to introduce themselves!) I will be accepting entries until 11:11PM EST on Wednesday, January 12, after which I'll use a random number generator to select the winning post. Good luck!

PS. I guess today is my lucky day too. Kickass Cupcakes is offering my favorite flavor (Cookie Dough Cupcakes) for a dollar. Boston readers, get thee to Davis Square!

Monday, January 10, 2011

On Such a Winter's Day

Every morning, I walk half an hour to work. Every afternoon, I walk a half hour back home. I know I’m lucky to live in such a foot-friendly city with an abundance of accessible public transportation, but try telling me that when I’m up to my eyeballs in frigid weather. Ice threatens to trip up the hardiest of my snow boots. Buses mock me along their routes, going the exact opposite way from where I need to be. All kinds of precipitation make my morning shower unnecessary. When it’s not pouring down cold water from the sky, my hair freezes.

Today, however, was a welcome respite. The sun was out, beating down on me like the traveler in Aesop’s fable. I unzipped my puffy ski coat and took off my mittens. I smiled like a fool at a dozen other unbuttoned people, kindness invigorated by unexpected warmth. Blood pumped through my veins, awakening the lizard part of me that only wants to sit in the sun.

As much as I love curling up in bed with a book and snuggling under an absurd nest of covers, I’m ready for a change. I want to read outside. I want sun on my shoulders and maybe a beach. Heck, I’d settle just to sit out back on the porch my window overlooks. I could see myself in a hammock, stretched out all reptilian, with a nice iced beverage in arm’s reach. My porch is kind of a small for a hammock though. Maybe a more realistic fantasy would be sitting in this round chair with a fluffy pillow. (Hey, it’s still a good fantasy! I have no budget for awesome modern furniture. Besides, there’s still a tropical drink on the side table to next me.)

Having lived through four Boston winters (well into my fifth), I know I’m only setting myself up for disappointment. Winter here stays for a long time, clinging with icy fingers, and I know I’m in for a lot more snow in the face during my morning commute. Still, a girl can daydream.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Words and Violence: A Reflection

I had something totally different planned for my post today. For anyone who knows me well, this will seem odd. I’m a planner. I love my to-do list. I love making schedules, tracking details, keeping everything organized. Sometimes though, things don’t go according to schedule. Life buffets us and blows us off course. Health scares. Car accidents. Political violence. The to-do list falls to the wayside. Instead of wondering “what I am going to do today?” you ask yourself “what am I doing this for?”

My parents raised me on books. I read everything. Books about animals, books about people, books about other worlds, books about our world. I read books about hope and despair and love and courage and death and playfulness and kindness and depravity. I read about fair and unfair. I read books about what divides us. I read books about how we all fit together.

Books taught me to place myself into the shoes of others, to love justice, to abhor violence. Books taught me mercy. Books taught me that villains can be misguided and that good doesn’t always triumph. Books taught me that people can read the same thing and come away with different ideas. Books taught me to read between the lines, to judge the messages for myself, to understand what their authors are saying and not saying.

I’ve learned about the blurry line between fact and fiction. I’ve learned that unserious books can have serious meaning and that profound ones can been rendered silly. I know how powerful words are. I’ve been moved emotionally by them, and I’ve sometimes been moved to act. I’ve also learned that words are just words. No inherent goodness or badness in any of them. Apply them, string them together. Now, we’re talking, reading, listening, thinking. You have a weapon. You have a hand reaching out. You have a way to soothe, you have a way to muddle.

I like my words to create connections, to spur possibilities. I dream that one day I can make something of myself, disseminating my own words or the words of others to heal and to help. I want not only to stave off harm. I want to actively feed hope. I’m not sure how to do it yet, but I can feed my own hope that I’ll get there.

C.S. Lewis said it best in his essay “On Three Ways of Writing for Children”: Since it is so likely that they will meet cruel enemies, let them at least have heard of brave knights and heroic courage. Otherwise you are making their destiny not brighter but darker…For in the fairy tales, side by side with the terrible figures, we find the immemorial comforters and protectors, the radiant ones; and the terrible figures are not merely terrible, but sublime.

Children who read books can grow up to become anything. Children can grow up to become anything. Let’s tip the scale toward empathy and maybe we’ll get lucky. Maybe they’ll grow up to be the “immemorial comforters and protectors, the radiant ones.” Maybe we’ll reach a critical mass of light and compassion. Maybe it’ll all blow up in our faces. Maybe it all hinges on two words: may be.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Review: Gail Carson Levine’s Ever

You know when you do something bad and you expect your parents to get mad at you, but then they say “I’m not mad, I’m disappointed.” Worse, right? That’s sort of how I feel about Ever.

What a plot to explore! The story of Jephthah is one of the most controversial in the Bible: a rash pledge turned into a tragic human sacrifice, an empty victory. It’s totally the stuff Greek dramas are made of, troubling and tied up in fatal hubris. Like Shakespeare’s Puck once said: “Lord, what fools these mortals be!”(Note: Hamlet taunts Polonius by comparing him to Jephthah. He retorts: "If you call me Jephthah, my lord, I have a daughter I love passing well." His daughter Ophelia later kills herself.) I was excited to see the familiar story from the view of Jephthah’s daughter, to see her wrestle with her fate and faith. (I mean, she doesn’t even get a name in the Bible. It’s always “Jephthah’s daughter.”)

In Ever, the daughter’s name is Kezi. Her father is a weaver, not a warrior, and he makes the vow to “Admat” to save his sick wife. (Admat in this story stands in for an omniscient, monotheistic deity. He’s loving but also cruel. Straight up Old Testament Judaism.) Her story bumps up against Olus, the “Akkan” god of the winds. (The Akkan polytheistic religion is modeled after a Greek or Babylonian mythology). Olus is a young god, curious about humans, so he goes to live like one in the neighboring country of Hyte. He finds work as a goat-herder, conveniently on the land of Kezi’s father, and falls in implausible love with Kezi from afar. (How did this theme of creepily watching a girl become canon law in YA?) Once she is promised as a sacrifice, they meet, fall in love, and try to change her destiny. (Spoilers follow.)

While I appreciate the pieces, it just didn’t come together. I wanted to root for Kezi and Olus, but the romance never really moved me. I didn’t believe their love-at-first-sight was the kind that could thwart fate. No, Kezi doesn’t die. (Though a time-limited romance between a god and a mortal might have been interesting.) To make it less gruesome for kids, we get parallel heroic quests:

To win a chance to become an immortal god, Kezi must obtain a feather from a Warkis, a bird-like creature who lives in the underworld-esque land of Wadir. She is instructed not to stay too long and not to eat/drink anything there. (Implied Persephone-level dire consequences.) Nothing is what it seems in the underground kingdom, and Kezi has to come to an awareness about herself to escape. (How a Warkis is created is horrifying.) Cool, mystical quest, right? Contrast it to Olus’ quest to become “a hero.” He’s trapped in a dried-up well to overcome his fear of being underground. Fear of being underground. I guess he also saves a mortal without the use of his godly powers, but really?

Things kind of unravel after they’re reunited. Too many loose ends are left just so the lovers can get a “happy ending.” Most of the journey was fun though. I loved the quirky Pantheon of Akkan gods, who were just the right balance of human/divine in their interactions, and their powers. I enjoyed when they intruded on the lovers’ story, and I thought it was amusingly appropriate how little they cared for the humans who worshiped them. (Why should they care about creatures whose lifespans are but a blink in their immortal existence?) I also thought the Jephthah set-up was the right amount of dramatic. Kezi’s father makes the vow (sacrifice the first person who congratulates him on his wife’s recovered health) but tries to weasel out of it on a technicality (wait out the three day time limit as a hermit). When a pushy aunt unwittingly begins to fulfill the conditions of the vow, Kezi selflessly sacrifices herself to save her beloved relative. That’s a girl I can root for, even if the ending of her story leaves something to be desired.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Review: Gail Carson Levine’s Fairest (Part 2: The Good)

I didn’t totally hate Fairest. Despite all of that, there were moments that I really liked, maybe loved.

In the first few chapters, we meet zhamM, a gnome who is a breath of fresh hair. I mean, air. He walked into Aza’s inn and made me want to keep reading. Here’s why (spoilers):

“Htun looks black to humans. It is the color I like best, deeper than scarlet, more serene than cerulean, gayer than yellow. Your htun hair is the most beautiful I’ve ever seen.” 

1. zhamM is the first character to be kind to Aza. He sees something beautiful in her hair, which she thinks is sooty black. There’s a message! Not “inner beauty is the most important thing” but “what you have is already beautiful.”

2. He’s foreshadowing something. Humans can’t see the color htun. It belongs to the gnomes. What’s going on with Aza, who happens to be a foundling?

3. Htun itself went a long way for me. It’s an utterly charming detail. Nice language, nice voice. I wasn’t invested until that moment.
    I suppose all of the moments I loved had to do with zhamM. He won a lot of my goodwill. I was intrigued by his job as a judge. Since gnomes can see the future, their judges give punishments to criminals that will best help them. When he looked into the future and saw the best punishment for that particular gnome was no punishment, he carried out that sentence.  

    Seeing zhamM meant things were looking up. The book begins to find a rhythm when Aza “finds herself” in the gnomes’ underground city. She learns to see htun with zhamM holding her hand. She makes a living singing for commission. I wanted to stay there with her, to watch her gain confidence and poise. Too bad GCL spent so much build build build on the court dealings and rush rush rushed through the land of the gnomes to the end.

    I thought the “sleep” of Snow White might be the years spent underground. When she woke up, she would be transformed. The kiss, I hoped, would be “kiss and make up” after the Prince came to apologize for putting Aza in prison without hearing her out. (Yeah, you love her. Sure.) I hoped he’d come to the “I’m a jerk” conclusion by himself, though I think it was zhamM who sent him a letter. Unfortunately, though every other part of the story was changed, the sleep/kiss was poisoned death and waking up. (Though it was lyrical. I enjoyed how “soul limbo” played out.)

    Anyway, this review has gone on long enough. Here’s someone who agrees with me. And here's a rebuttal.

    Review: Gail Carson Levine’s Fairest (Part 1: The Bad, The Ugly)

    Some backstory: Over the holidays, I took home Stephen King’s On Writing and Gail Carson Levine’s Writing Magic: Creating Stories that Fly. (Their joint review is to come.) I’d never read anything by King before, so my decision to pick up his book was influenced by its (well-deserved) prominence in the writing community. I selected GCL’s book because I loved Ella Enchanted. When I noticed she’d written two more books, I knew I had to work my way through them before I tackled her thoughts on writing. Thus, my part 1 review of Fairest. Part 2 is here. (Ever’s review is next.)

    Again, I’m starting a review by making comparisons. Though I hate to pit these two books against each other (it doesn’t seem fair), I can’t help it: Ella Enchanted is a reimagined Cinderella story while Fairest is Snow White retold. Both are the products of the same author and both take place in the same fictional realm. Since GCL delivered one of my favorite books and one of my favorite heroines in Ella, it’s all the more disappointing that Fairest fell short. (Spoilers like whoa.)

    Compelling premises and compelling characters feed each other, creating the plot with their interaction. Let’s map Ella Enchanted. Premise: Ella is cursed with being perfectly obedient. She not only has to listen to whatever she is told, she is magically constrained to do that literal action. Main Character: Ella is spunky, rebellious, and clever. These traits have developed from years of fighting with her curse. She wants to be able to live a normal life, to choose when she is obedient. Secondary Characters: Ella’s nasty stepfamily, the flighty fairy who cursed her, her sassy fairy godmother, her absent father, and her love interest Prince Char. Plot: Ella lives with her petty stepfamily and is obedient even to their insults. (Clean, shut up, go away, jump off a bridge, etc.) Needless to say, she has to keep her curse a secret. (What happens if her stepfamily finds out? What if someone more evil than her stepfamily finds out? What will she be forced to do?) She gets tired of living obediently and sets off to find the elusive fairy who cursed her. (Where will she go? Who will she meet? Will she be in danger? Will she find the fairy? Will the fairy lift the spell?) On her journey, she meets a Prince. (Will they fall in love? Will she tell him? Will they live happily ever after? What happens next?) So, the basic plot of Cinderella still happens, but the new premise deepens it, makes it more interesting.

    Now, for Fairest. Character: Aza’s most pressing concern is that she is “ugly.” Really. The first few chapters exist to show, over and over again, exactly how ugly, how ungainly, how large, how coarse, how clumsy, and how repulsive she is. At first, I thought this was a case of “the lady doth protest too much.” Aza’s probably just plain. She could be one of those “wrong standards of beauty for the society she lives in” ugly. No, there are more pages devoted to her ugliness. Even her parents and siblings confirm it. (To preempt being seen by the customers of her parents’ inn, Aza has a habit of putting her hand in front of her face while talking to people. A writing professor once told me to try and perform any action that you write. If you feel silly or unnatural, drop it.) Her extreme hideousness is a key factor in every interpersonal interaction, except when she meets the kind King (who spends most of the book in a coma), the really bland Prince, and the Prince’s annoying dog. Another trait emphasized ad nauseum is Aza’s voice. She doesn’t just have a good voice. She has one of the best voices ever in the history of the kingdom and can perform an incredible vocal trick that no one else in the kingdom can do.

    Premise: There is none. No “what if.” The premise of the original Snow White is “what if a prettier woman comes along when a wicked queen wants to be the fairest in the land,” but that’s gone. What’s left is a pretty thin plot (with a heavy-handed moral): Does Aza not believe in her musical talent because of her self-esteem issues? Does her unique technique of “illusing” (ill-using) get exploited by someone more powerful? Is this powerful person pretty?* Do they both get found out in a really public way? Does this result in dire consequences for the heroine when it’s not really her fault? Does Aza transform into a beautiful version of herself at some point? Does she eventually learn the error of her ways and choose to go back to her true form? Does the Prince (who inexplicably mistreated her to further the plot) say he’s always loved her just as she is? (Is the romance thinly drawn?) Is there a lesson here? You tell me.

    Look, GCL. If you want to write a book about how inner beauty is everything, at least give us a heroine we can root for and not a two-characteristic cardboard cutout. A standard plot can be saved if we care about the person living through it. Let there be something to appreciate about the interior world of your main character! Self-loathing types and annoying fools can be fantastic if the author feels affection for them.* I felt and feel no affection for Aza. Perhaps Levine wasn’t feeling her either.

    It kind of makes me wonder why she wrote the book in the first place. Because she already had a Cinderella story? Because she missed Ella and Frell? (Embedding your inferior companion novel with sly references your Newbury Honor book only makes reader miss that great book.) Because she wanted to insert some embarrassing songs into her narrative? Because she had something to “teach?” (More on that later.) From where I’m sitting, there was no good reason. (Maybe some: A couple of parts I liked.)

    *I actually felt something for evil queen Ivi. A beautiful girl with a mediocre voice thrust into a kingdom of singers who judge personalities by musical ability? Way intriguing. She was foolish and cruel and vain and misguided, but GCL handled her with more care than Aza. Then, she ruins it. Turns out Ivi’s not really beautiful. She’s actually taking a pretty potion because she’s unhappy with her plainness and just wants to be loved. So again we have an insecure girl who wants to be pretty with a special talent (“fashion”). Two sides of the same coin? Yeesh.

    Wednesday, January 5, 2011

    Review: Maggie Stiefvater's Shiver

    Well, it looks like I’ve finally picked sides, so I might as well declare it: werewolves > vampires.

    (Yes, I’ve read Twilight. Not for me. I barely made it through the first book and had to Wiki the rest of the series. To be in publishing, I know it’s important for me at least to understand the plot/appeal, even if I don’t appreciate them personally.*)

    That being said, it took me a while to start this book. Call it a case of “once bitten, twice shy.” I was wary going into the first chapters. It had all of the same markers as the Vampire-Story-That-Must-Not-Be-Named: obsessional/inexplicable romance, a harsh setting, domesticity/extreme freedom caused by absent parents, orbital friends, even the crappy car. By the time I finished reading though, I couldn’t even make the comparison. This book was what Twilight wanted to be. Let’s break it down.

    Going in, I knew it was a paranormal romance. So, there would be the meeting, the discovery, the romance, the obstacles to their love, and the reaffirmation. The wheel was not going to be reinvented, but Maggie Stiefvater did manage to reinvigorate the wheel. Plus, the language was gorgeous. I do appreciate good prose. (Spoilers ahoy!)

    OK, so their meeting was patently ridiculous: “You saved me from your wolf pack when I was eleven. I’ve been drawn to you ever since. I think I love you.” Still, there was a frisson when they touched for the first time, the wolf overcoming its natural instincts to get close. I felt it. I was in.

    The discovery was where things picked up. I mean, a naked guy who’s been shot is a pretty good way to get the plot rolling. The “powers” of the wolves were exposed slowly, so I had some time to warm up to them. (Those were intentional puns, people who haven’t read the book.) I liked the power struggles within the wolf pack, the fully-formed (interesting! multi-dimensional!) people inside the pelts. I loved the mythology (and its tragic twist). Having the wolf phasing triggered by cold (not the traditional moon) was quite clever. I liked that temperature was the enemy. Having an external force threatening the lovers raised the stakes and added plenty of suspense. The cold also highlighted the scenes inside, where the romance blossomed. Inside and out of danger, the moments between Grace and Sam feel warm and intimate.

    The romance was what did it for me. Both came to the relationship on equal footing, equally fascinated with each other over a period of time. No internal monologue told them they weren’t good enough to be happy with each other. (Shut UP, Bella.) They were cautious in places, but that’s fine. That’s real. (Sam’s thoughts were fantastic. He was turned on, he was nervous, he fantasized, he thought of Grace as “sexy.” I mean, it shocked me at first. “Sexy” in YA? Well, duh! Of course.) They didn’t do anything extraordinary. They drove, talked, read, studied, cooked, slept. They went into town and hung out in a bookstore. He dropped her off at school. They went for a walk in the woods. Later, he took her on an adorable secret road trip to a candy store. They had sex, they “used protection.” (OK, so I audibly cheered at that line. YA straight talk FTW.) That scene when they made the quiche was so tender. They had a comfort with each other that I believed.

    It worked because Sam wasn’t a (sparkly) werewolf. He was a boy who happened to be a werewolf. Bonus? He was never a jerk! Even if he was afraid, even if he was stressed, he handled it or shared his fear. (Though his composed lyrics initially made me think “Oh no, I've read fan fiction like this before,” they won me over eventually.) Grace was also a really ferocious character: active and smart yet still kind. I could believe her heroics and her sadness. I liked how they opposed each other, filling in the gaps. They may have been “types,” but they had their own essence, what my favorite creative writing teacher always referred to as “a touch of the real.” (Speaking of which, I also enjoyed her friends and their dynamic because they felt like teenagers. I’m sure we’ll see more in the upcoming books.)

    Anyway, Team Werewolf. Maybe I’m just sucker for Beauty and the Beast, but I think I prefer werewolves to vampires because of their humanity. Especially in this werewolf mythology, the wolves struggle with what it means to be human, some striving to have a life outside of their curse and some wishing to leave their old lives behind forever. That’s compelling, and it will keep me reading through Linger (just picked up from the library) and Forever (coming out later this year).

    *I know I did a lot of ragging on Twilight here. Maybe I should have devoted more space to Shiver as its own entity, but one of my English teachers told me that “literature doesn’t exist in a vacuum.” I do believe that all YA paranormal romances published in the future will be held up to that book, just like all “magic” books will be compared to Harry Potter. We’re living in the AT (After Twilight) era, for better or for worse.

    Tuesday, January 4, 2011

    Tale as Old as Time

    It was never a question that my favorite Disney princess was Belle. As a bookworm and a brunette, I saw her as a kindred spirit. She wasn’t a princess, and she totally knocked out that wolf all by herself! I loved her pluck. I coveted her library. I taught myself how to walk while reading. Clearly, I internalized a lot of life lessons from that movie (Gaston put me off muscly guys forever), but the best thing Beauty and the Beast ever taught me was the love for a tale retold.


    I worked my way through quite a few B&B adaptations over the years, plus countless others “inspired by.” (It should be no surprise that I’m stoked for Beastly.) When those ran out, I moved on to other fairy tales and folklore. I picked up mythologies and anthologies. I read the reimagined stories of biblical characters and historical figures. I immersed myself in stories based on storytellers and in stories rooted in the “great works.” I read, I related, and I absorbed.

    It was easy to hop from one thing to the next, to go deeper down the literary rabbit hole. Meeting the bunny was one thing, but following it was the adventure. Through the eyes of minor characters, I peered at classic stories from strange angles. Heroes and villains switched sides. Main characters could expound their motivations free of their original formats. Time periods were fluid. Stories I thought I’d known turned out to be more gruesome (and more satisfying). Different traditions added their own new dimensions. Though trying to find the source was sometimes slippery, I could piece the variations together into a satisfying mosaic. 

    My work in college was indubitably influenced by my early investigations. For my English major, I interpreted and connected a slew of literature. In Judaic Studies, I fell into Midrash, the biblical exegesis undertaken by rabbis. My communication and media studies classes examined how people interacted, both with each other and with their sources of information/entertainment. I learned a little too late about anthropology, though my brief flirtation exposed me to Claude Levi-Strauss’ mythemes, ur-myths, the Aarne-Thompson classification system, and Bruno Bettleheim. (More about him later.) It was in this class (Myth, Ritual, and Symbol) that I learned Beauty and the Beast was fairytale type 425C

    What all of this comes down to is that I love to fill in the gaps. The more I learn, the more I understand that all plots tangle and unravel each other. Across cultures, we tell and share and change the same stories. That, to me, is a tale as old as time.