Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Best Books of 2015

Nein. A Manifesto

It's hard to believe 2105 is drawing to a close. Of course I find myself saying that every year. Perhaps this time is especially difficult though because it saw the publication of so many fabulous books. NPR's Book Concierge, a great resource for slimming down your reading list to select the best of the best, has put together their yearly list of the Best Books of the Year. Be sure to check it out to make sure you didn't miss anything in your genre of choice! I also enjoy using it as a guide for when I feel like stepping outside my normal reading patterns, and want to make sure that I'm getting something that's already sparked interest or maybe even controversy.

Personally, I've read some pretty fabulous books this year. Among my absolute favorites though have been "The Country of Ice Cream Star" by Sandra Newman (Postapocalyptic SpecFic), "Newt's Emerald" by Garth Nix (YA SpecFic/Alternate History), "Made You Up" by Francesca Zappia (YA), "The Water Knife" by Paolo Bacigalupi (Postapocalyptic SpecFic), and "When We Were Animals" by Joshua Gaylord (SpecFic/Horror). Of these, I have added "The Country of Ice Cream Star" and "When We Were Animals" to my personal library. Even having spent the year working in and studying books though, I know that there are excellent works that I just missed, due to lack of either time or knowledge of them. As always, I love receiving book recommendations so if you would like to see something reviewed here, let me know! I look forward to sharing more books here in the coming year.

Monday, December 21, 2015

Book Review: "Ms. Marvel" by G. Willow Wilson, Adrian Alphona and Jacob Wyatt

Of the wide variety of comics that I've read for class this past fall quarter, superhero comics have by far been my favorites. The sheer variety of modern superhero comics, and how each one of them qualifies as a superhero comic in its own right according to theory on the subject, capture my imagination in ways that Golden Age floppies of Superman and The Fantastic Four never did.

I'm not the only one getting inspired by the potential of superhero comics. Beginning in February of 2014, the superhero character of Ms. Marvel was revamped. The resulting project by Sana Amanat, Stephen Wacker, G. Willow Wilson and Adrian Alphona introduces us to Pakistani-American teenager Kamala Khan as the current reincarnation of this Marvel superhero. This series has been recognized again and again for its presentation of "otherness" in American culture, particularly for a Muslim teenage girl in a situation where she feels like she intrinsically doesn't belong.

The story in this comic is nothing new: girl gains superpowers, there are villains, she is defeated but doesn't give up, and in the end good triumphs over evil. The art is incredible throughout, although appearing in two very different styles. The use of bright colors, with an incredible number of layers to achieve detail and nuance, pull the eye across the page and draw readers into a vivid world that's recognizable as our own, but also just separate enough to make us want to know more. A personal favorite feature of mine was the entertaining slogans and labels written on boxes, products, and advertisements in the background. Be sure to look closely to get a few more laughs!

What makes this comic truly incredible is the *way* in which the contributors accomplish their depiction of being "outside" of the norm. Kamala is like any teenager in that she doesn't feel she belongs. But the struggles that she faces regarding her self-identity and comfort being herself are so many that my heart aches fro her from the very beginning. This is probably most aptly displayed when she first makes her wish to be Ms Marvel, and finds herself transformed from a Middle-Eastern teenager into the leggy, blond, busty image of Captain Marvel with which she was familiar. As the story goes on though, Kamala's appearance even in the persona of Ms. Marvel shifts and changes. Instead of the traditional revealing costume that makes her feel over-exposed, Kamala adopts parts of her own personal blended culture and, as she starts looking more and more like herself, feels comfortable using her powers in her own unique way to be *her* version of Ms. Marvel.

The creators show that she's "just like us" in that she has personal struggles on many levels, which is admirable. But this recognition of Kamala as "just like us" implies an inherent sense of other-ness. It still implies that you have to look beyond some more obvious, even intrinsic traits of hers (like her ethnicity or religion, and the stereotypes and assumptions that get made because of them) to recognize her humanity and how really she has a lot of the same troubles as any teen. But truly, she does not.

I am a middle-class white female. And as a teenager I went through some rough stuff that still dogs me some days even as an adult. But I never had my peers compliment my hijab in an offhand way, or ask if my parents would "honor kill" me if I took it off. Nobody ever asked me to stand back because I smelled like curry. These are all experiences that Kamala has, being Pakistani-American and Muslim. All this is in addition to having to hide her mysterious new superpowers and try to find out what they mean for her. How should she use them? How can she best represent herself and her values, as an individual as well as as a product of her background, in her newfound position as a superhero?

I'm not sure if recognizing and celebrating her otherness is "better" or "worse" than ignoring it in an attempt to be "colorblind." Where does recognizing differences turn into discrimination, and where does lack of acknowledgement become erasure? I don't know the answers to these questions, and maybe there are no hard rules when it comes to the subject. But I do know that "Ms. Marvel" does a (yeah, I'm going to say it) marvelous job of exploring these questions and others. There's a hefty dose of humor in there as well, which helps to balance out the struggles that gnaw at Kamala both in and out of her superhero suit. If you like superhero comics or movies at all, and if you're ready for a painful, beautiful trip through the life of a person who doesn't quite belong anywhere she's found so far, pick up a copy of "Ms. Marvel" soon! You can find the "floppies" in many local comics shops or get the hardcover compilation at your favorite local, independent bookstore.

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

TED-Ed Vernacular Lessons

Image result for TED ED
Readers, I have a confession to make: I am a TED junkie. Studying English (or any other subject, really) is a commitment to that one subject for a very extended period of time, as it should be. But what about when my brain needs a break from literature and analytical writing?

One of my favorite things to do when I reach that breaking point, which happens no matter how much I might love what I'm studying, is to listen to a TED Talk. TED-Ed has so many great series out there about everything from new groundbreaking polymers to cultural explorations to, yes, stories about literature and language. They're perfect for putting on when I go for a run or head to the gym for a little study break and some exercise. I'm still learning, but I get to do it in a different manner, with some subjects that I may not otherwise find myself exposed to.

Lately, as I enjoy a brief winter break from the rigors of my academic program, I'm listening to a great TED-Ed series called "Mysteries of Vernacular." It explores some of the most interesting or unexpected words in the English language and where they come from. My personal favorite so far? The word "odd." The next time you need a break from the holiday music or want something stimulating to listen to while wrapping those gifts, check out the "Mysteries of Vernacular" series from TED-Ed. You'll learn some fascinating bits to bring up over fruitcake and eggnog at your next holiday gathering.

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Black Girls Matter: A YA Reading List

The dearth of diverse Young Adult books both featuring minority characters and written by minority authors has been especially evident lately. Organizations like We Need Diverse Books and conferences like Sirens Con have sprung up to fight for accurate representation of ALL YA experiences, including mental health and body issues, disability representation, and variety in language, race, ethnicity and culture. This heightened awareness of who we're representing in YA literature and how has led to some great resources for diverse books, including this list from Stackedbooks.org, which gives a great selection of YA books featuring main characters who are black. Take a look, read them through, and pass it along!

Saturday, November 21, 2015

Book Review: "One Hundred Demons" by Lynda Barry

I've been greatly enjoying one class in particular this quarter, entitled "Comics Theory" taught by Eisner Award winner Dr. Susan Kirtley. Recently this class introduced me to artist and writer Lynda Barry, primarily through her work "One Hundred Demons."

I loved this book for a number of reasons, one of which was the origin of the premise. Barry herself explains this in the introduction, so I won't go into it here except to say that it's ingenious and beautiful. Finding inspiration for writing and art projects in other activities is one of the real gifts of begin and artist of any variety. Barry is possibly one of the most versatile writers around right now, and her work displays the myriad ways in which she tackles and attempts to make sense of her childhood experiences. They include questions of identity, race and ethnicity, innocence, coming of age and sexual abuse.

Barry's style particularly in "One Hundred Demons" appeals to me. Its visual aspects, the ways that the collages both tie in the style of her comics panels with bright colors and the way that it serves as almost the opening curtain of the next theatrical short, are at once beautiful and disturbing through how vivid they are. In black and white, or published as a novel, these panels and their stories wouldn't have nearly the same level of impact as they do now. Originally they were published on Salon.com, where the extra printing costs of doing everything in full color weren't an issue. Barry had to fight to have the same color present in the print collection that became "One Hundred Demons" and it's obvious that had she not, this work wouldn't have the impact that it does visually or emotionally.

Another part of this book that I adore is the way that the content is framed by an intro and outro directed at the reader directly from Barry (and her demons). It explains Barry's approach, what started her on the project, and then it invites the reader to try the same process that the author used. This invitation is something that I took seriously, and I've put down a few of my own demons since reading about hers. And like hers, they haven't been the ones I expected. Pick up a copy of Lynda Barry's "One Hundred Demons" at your favorite local independent bookstore and take inspiration from it! It's a beautiful piece of art both visual and literary.

Friday, November 6, 2015

2015 PAMLA Conference


This weekend marks the 113th annual Pacific Ancient and Modern Language Association, or PAMLA, conference in Portland, Oregon. The three-day event takes place in downtown Portland and welcomes scholars from across the United States as well as international figures. Speakers' subjects range from Queerness and Animality to British Literature and Culture and Environment, Ecology and Nature in Italian Literature. The panels offer scholarly discourse and discussion on themes of fiction and nonfiction from an academic viewpoint.

Talks that I'm personally looking forward to attending are Nordic Literature and Culture, Gothic I, Finding Lost Time: Narrative, Nostalgia, Utopia, and two Science Fiction panels. If you're interested in finding out more about PAMLA, including plans for next year's conference and protocol for submitting papers, please check out their website. If you're attending the conference, maybe I'll see you there!

Friday, October 23, 2015

An Interview With Punk Writers

I've recently started working with a group of talented punk writers at Punk Writers. As part of a recent writing project I've written a piece for the upcoming collection "Merely This and Nothing More: Poe Goes Punk." It's a series of stories and poems originally written by Poe, reimagined in various punk genres. As part of that project, I've just done an interview for the PunkWriters website. You can find it here. Enjoy! And if you're a fan of punk genres (steampunk, cyberpunk, splatterpunk, etc.) be sure to keep an ear out not just for "Merely This and Nothing More" but also "Once More Unto the Breach; Shakespeare Goes Punk Vol. II." 

Thursday, October 15, 2015

Book Review: "Storm Front" by Jim Butcher, Dresden Files Book #1

Jim Butcher's Dresden Files are an ongoing series that has achieved a cult status. I've long been suspicious of the urban fantasy genre, since it's a rare thing indeed to find an author who can successfully meld modern living with the legends and power of the world of Faerie. Friends and fellows in the book world have long been suggesting I read Jim Butcher to disprove my stereotype of urban fantasy as too awkwardly meshed or romance-heavy.

I'd say that "Storm Front" is like reading a film noir, much like I described "Shovel Ready" by Adam Sternbergh. But these are two very different novels, not just because of the magical element in Jim Butcher's work; "Storm Front" is classic Bogart where "Shovel Ready" is "Sin City" in the future. Butcher has a much classier, ironic and self-deprecating voice that I immediately adored, and when the plot or certain characters started to disenchant me I stuck with it because of the writing's voice.

Harry Dresden is a modern-day wizard. Yeah, I know what you're thinking. And he thinks it too. It's ridiculous that here in present-day Chicago, he's marketing himself as a practicing wizard. Part of that ridiculousness is that business isn't so hot. But every now and then his associate at the Chicago Police Department brings him in on peculiar cases, and that's how "Storm Front" begins. What follows is an intricately woven tale of murder, mystery and magic with a quirky but lovable good guy who always winds up in the bad situations, an evildoer who is one of those love-to-hate-'em bad guys, and a brief introduction to Harry's dark past and the way that magic interacts with the modern world.

The balance that Butcher strikes between modern-day settings and is well-done in this first volume, focusing on humans who go looking for trouble rather than magical beings that cause havoc. I found this setup much more reasonable than the sort of thing that was played out in "Jackaby" by Raymond William Ritter. The danger that he faces is real, and the snarky, "of course this would happen to me" sort of humor that Dresden adopts as he tracks down a necromancer, avoids the mob and stays out of jail is downright fun to read.

What got to me were some of the social implications that came from the narrative style that's part of that feel of classic film noir. Some of the character tropes were just too spot-on, to the point where I cringed at the implied sexism that went with them. Dresden is the classic down-and-out hero, who retains his manners and a sense of chivalry despite his poor financial circumstances; Murphy is the tough broad with a heart of gold; Susan is the smart, sexy but lacking in self-preservation love interest. I had to keep reminding myself not to get up in arms about how all the women needed rescuing (and only Dresden could do it) and how formulaic relationships, if not the plot, were. And as much as I liked Harry's character, I don't feel like I should have to keep reminding myself that a book isn't sexist. Because if I have to do that, then maybe I'm wrong.

I have so much respect for Jim Butcher as a writer who's founded one of the most iconic fantasy characters of the modern day, and "Storm Front" did help disprove my assumptions about urban fantasy. But because I felt so uncomfortable reading the stereotypical female characters in this first book, I'm not planning on reading any farther into the series. All of the Dresden Files by Jim Butcher can be found at your favorite local, independent bookstore. If you're a long-time Dresden fan, make sure to check there regularly for the next release in the ongoing series!

Saturday, October 3, 2015

The Purpose of Note-Taking

Image result for taking notes

When I was in high school, and  even during my undergrad years, notes served one primary function: to highlight the main points of a lecture or other class material. This helped me to understand what the big takeaway points were in a class, and also helped me to study by pointing to the major points of content with big, florescent green stars and arrows.

I've just completed my first week of classes as a graduate student, and I'm already feeling the pressure of the sheer volume of literature that I have to read for my classes. An English student, I knew that I was in for a lot of reading. That's kind of the point after all. But in an academic atmosphere where I'm reading around a hundred pages of literary theory every couple of days, I've found that note-taking has taken on a new significance and purpose. Now, instead of taking notes solely to highlight the main points of an article or lecture, I'm taking them to remember what I heard and where I heard it.

These sources are important especially in light of the fact that I may need to use them for research material in the near (or distant) future, and being able to glance through an obscenely large file folder of printed articles is much easier when I've scribbled the main points near the title of each one. It also helps to connect material to different classes, underscoring its relevance in literature as a whole regarding the ideas laid out there. Being able to look at an essay by Thomas De Quincey and connect his ideas of absence as meaning with the use of space, textual and artistic, in a graphic novel is something that will be useful to me for the rest of my career. But accessing that information to make those connections is much easier when I can glance through a few pages pull the ones that say something like "meaning in absence" and "the blank space creates meaning."

Note-taking is a real art, to be certain. You have to know yourself as much as the material you're studying, what you want to get out of it and how best to organize it for your future reference, in order to get the most out of it. I'm still regaining my footing as I return to the world of academia, but note-taking is one of the skills that I'm ever so grateful to have retained from my former school years. If you're out of practice, these tips on how to take stellar academic notes from Dartmouth College should help you hone or rediscover your talents.

Monday, September 28, 2015

Banned Books Week 2015

Happy Banned Books Week 2015 everyone! This week in September is set aside by the American Library Association and partners, including independent bookstores. Its purpose is to bring attention to the fact that there are STILL books (and other media) in this country, at this moment, that are banned. Most are for political or religious reasons, like To Kill a Mockingbird and Harry Potter (TKaM supposedly presents offensive racial issues and HP endorses witchcraft. No, I'm not making this up. These are real reasons why these books have been banned in certain United States communities.). Check out your local libraries, independent bookstores, literary foundations and community groups to find out about Banned Books Week events in your area!

Saturday, September 26, 2015

Book Review: "Newt's Emerald" by Garth Nix

With the recent resurgence of Regency romances in YA literature, I've had to be admittedly picky about what I choose to read. Despite their cleverness, intellect and witty repartee, I've never felt particularly drawn to that genre. When you combine it with alternate history, a little bit of magic, mistaken identity and general hilarity though, my interest is definitely piqued. That interest and a history of predominately favorable experiences with his writing led me to pick up "Newt's Emerald," the beginning of a new series by Garth Nix.

Lady Truthful's birthright isn't just her father's extensive property; it's also the great emerald once worn by her dead mother, which is rumored to hold great magical potential. When that emerald is stolen from under her nose, Lady Truthful decides to follow it despite her male relatives' insistence that she stay at home while they undergo various attempts to either regain it or find her a new one. Traveling to London, she finds an unlikely ally in her great aunt and discovers a whole world of subterfuge, magic and conspiracy that draws her in as she searches for her family's emerald.

In order to pursue her line of questioning unmolested, Truthful is forced to take on the persona of a distant relative, a French gentleman bound for the clergy. It is this double life, and the multiple, interwoven cases of mistaken identity that ensue, that make this book such a hilarious, endearing read. As Truthful struggles with both the mystery of her emerald's disappearance and her task of maintaining two distinct identities, her emotions and state of mind are the things that begin to suffer even as she gets closer to the one who may have stolen her emerald. The climax is exciting, imaginative, and endearing all at once and I can't wait for the next installment of this series!

Nix has taken the Napoleonic period and added a thrilling twist of magic to it along with a hefty dash of "The Importance of Being Earnest." It's Regency romance that doesn't take itself too seriously, but recalls the funny little (and not-so-little) foibles in which we all find ourselves embroiled in the pursuit of love, romantic or familial. This is a truly delightful read suitable for a broad range of ages and all genders, especially if you like historical fantasy along the lines of the Temeraire series. "Newt's Emerald" will be released October 13th and can be pre-ordered right now at your favorite local, independent bookstore.

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Is This Book Okay For My Kid?

Even for someone who works in the book industry, it's impossible to stay up-to-date on every new book that comes out. This is a particular concern with children's and young adult literature, since many parents are concerned with whether a given book will be appropriate, subject-wise as well as regarding reading level, for their children. Common Sense Media has a great resource that you can find here that lists books that have been estimated to be suitable for each age group. Additionally book reviews, star ratings and parental commentary are all featured in an easily readable format that will let you either browse for something a young person might like, or look up a particular book in which they've shown interest. Take a look and get some new ideas for a great read or three as the summer winds down!

Friday, July 24, 2015

The College FYE Reading Assignment


In a lot of colleges and universities across the country, part of the Freshman Year Experience is reading a single book, distributed to all incoming Freshmen across campus, regardless of discipline. This book is discussed in different classes over the first quarter especially, examining it from multiple perspectives in an exercise designed to not only give students some sense of unity and commonality, having all read this as an introduction to college life, but to connect classes to one another and introduce students to the kind of analysis and exploration that will be their future in academia.

Communities also often get involved in campus-wide reads, and author visits are not uncommon as part of the large discussion. Books from Science to novels are selected, often by individual schools, to be featured as student reading. NPR has put together a sample list of some of what is being featured for these kinds of programs. You can check it out here.

Saturday, July 18, 2015

Book Review: "Warm Bodies" by Isaac Marion

I normally detest zombie books.

Yeah, part of it is that they're scary and often gory as well. But more than that, I'm just not particularly interested in this brand of the undead. In most of these stories, zombies appear in either a global apocalypse or a small-town nightmare, wander around and moan, eat a few brains, and then are either repelled by a small, desperate group of survivors or triumph, and wander the undead earth forevermore, longing for more brains.

I picked up "Warm Bodies" by Isaac Marion because a coworker said it was her favorite book. She described to me the humor, the insight, the sentiment behind it and then actually let me borrow her loaner copy. Yup, she has a loner copy. That's how much she likes this book. So I read it. And I'll admit, I was skeptical at the beginning. I'd heard about the movie version of this, and had it branded as a sort of zombie "Twilight," teen romance meets necrophilia. While this novel hasn't made me want to go out and play HvZ, it took me by surprise and has challenged some of the assumptions I made about the zombie concept in general.

First of all, this book is hilarious. It's written from the perspective of R, a zombie. When you fall victim to the plague, which everyone does unless someone is good enough to destroy their brain on death, you forget everything. Your name, your memories, even how to read. R begins the story by describing how deeply unsatisfying his (un)existence as a zombie is, wandering around the airport that is the hub of zombie activity in the area. When they get hungry, they go into the city in hunting parties to find and devour human refugees from the huge, reinforced stadium that has become humanity's last bastion of the living. R is profoundly unimpressed with his own existence. He's not content to just moan and shamble any more. So he tries getting married, but even that is a hollow mockery of the meaning he's really looking for.

Then he meets Julie. Or rather, he eats Perry. When he consumes the brain of Julie's boyfriend on an ill-fated (for the humans) salvage trip, R falls completely in love with Julie. The problem? He doesn't know quite what that means or feels like any more. So he kidnaps her, disguises her as a zombie and keeps her with him at the airport for a while. During that time they get to know one another a little bit better, and R finds that parts of Perry's personality are integrating themselves into him. The resulting story is one of the struggle against hopelessness, towards acceptance and the desire to make the world a better place for everyone. It's also a retelling of Romeo and Juliet, which made for some interesting "aha!" moments.

While the story was entertaining, it wasn't particularly inspired. The hypothesized source of the zombie plague, discussed by Julie toward the end of the book, is pretty trite. But it fits in well with the rest of the book. Similarly, the apparent solution and cure for the plague is equally unimaginative and too sappy for me. What actually made this book a great read was R and his introspection. He's honest and matter-of-fact about his own presence and its influence on others, as well as his perceptions of the lackluster (un)life he's (un)living. He discusses the sick parodies of life that take place around him, including zombie sex, which he compares with slapping two dead chickens together. R's connection to Julie both confuses and galvanizes him, leading him to grasp toward more and reject the notion that he will spend eternity as just another one of the shambling masses.

One of my favorite aspects of R was the fact that he challenged the binary concept of life and death. He's (un)dead, but still retains enough of himself to question the point of his semi-existence and wonder after more meaning. Perry, on the other hand, was still physically alive but had lost the will to live or the ability to keep hoping for salvation, for humanity's victory. They make an interesting pair, and Julie's hopefulness is a beacon for R's returning humanity as well as a wake-up call to Perry about what he gave up.

Read this novel if, like me, you're a zombie skeptic. It's got humor, insight, and refreshingly real characters who will make you consider what humanity means, what we need and where we're going. It's been around for a while, so odds are good that you can find a copy of "Warm Bodies" today at your favorite local, independent bookstore.

Saturday, July 4, 2015

Rankings of Classic YA Female Protagonists


This list of 20 classic female YA protagonists claims to have them "ranked." We're not told by what criteria, but by reading through the list one can infer that the ranking is based on, in the colloquial, "badassery." Independence, intelligence, capacity for taking action on one's own intellectually and creatively seem to be the common factors in the high-ranking protagonists, along with a certain sense of quirkiness unique to their specific books.

I'm not sure if it's fair to rank these protagonists and the books to which they belong as "better" or "worse" than one another. After all, while they're all considered "classic" they come from a wide variety of time periods where different standards were the social norm. I'm not saying that in 1913 (when "Pollyanna" was first published) every girl should have wanted to be like her; rather, it's what people expected to see in YA novels "for girls." Once 1979 rolled around it was more acceptable to present young women as they really are: awkward, out of sorts, dissatisfied, creative, brilliant, and fantastic.

So perhaps instead of being a ranked list, this collection of protagonists should be considered a scale of the traditional representation of female domesticity, or a representation of blandest to quirkiest. One might even base some sort of measure of likeability on how closely the protagonists on the list conform to our modern ideal of what being a young woman should be all about. However you choose to view it, enjoy this collection of 20 very different female protagonists from classic YA literature.

Monday, June 29, 2015

Book Review: "Made You Up" by Francesca Zappia

Speculative Fiction is all about the question "What if?" It's about taking things that are unreal in our world and putting them somewhere that they can exist, with the words on the page or screen as the portal between worlds. Sometimes, the unreality of a situation lies not in the setting or the mythical creatures, advanced technology and magic, but rather in the perspective of the characters themselves. We call these characters "unreliable narrators" because what they tell us cannot be trusted as true. However, in many cases it's this unreliability that makes their stories so compelling and beautiful.

That's definitely the case in "Made You Up," a young adult novel by Francesca Zappia. Main character Alex is starting her senior  year in high school. Years ago she was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia, and she's learned tips and tricks in addition to taking her medication that help her to differentiate between hallucinations and reality, like consulting a Magic 8 Ball at work, perimeter checks whenever she enters a room, and taking photos with her digital camera. If the questionable images are still there later when she looks at them, then they were real. She'll be attending a new high school, after a psychotic break and some unfortunate graffiti necessitated her leaving her old school. Alex is doing much better now though. She has a job as a waitress, she's applying to colleges, nobody at East Shoal High School knows her secret, and she even has a friend named Tucker. If she can just make it through this year, she'll be out. She'll be okay.

As part of her community service for her graffiti incident, Alex is placed in a student club that does volunteer prep work for East Shoal's athletic events. In charge of that club is Miles, a social outcast and possible evil genius who reminds Alex uncannily of her first hallucination when she was very young. Tucker warns her to stay away from Miles, but eventually their quirks bring them together. Between her sometimes overprotective mother, her younger sister Charlie, her coping mechanisms and the friendships she starts to develop, Alex thinks the year is going okay. But one night on the way home from a party she has a break in front of Miles. Her secret revealed, she's forced to depend on him more than she'd like to make sure her new school doesn't turn on her the way her old one did. In addition, one of the school's queen bees gets involved in the club and there's something strange going on with the principal and the school's athletic score board. Just when things should be getting better, with a "normal" life and "normal" high school issues, Alex starts to fall apart. She's used to being "crazy"; it's the normalcy that might make her unravel.

Zappia put together a really, truly wonderful novel about someone whose brain just doesn't work the same way as everyone else's, and how rewarding and difficult it can be to finally see some of their world meshing. But she also shows how difficult and frustrating it can be when a person has to ignore what their senses are telling them exists, like a phoenix that lives in your neighborhood or a boy who reminds you of your first hallucination. Alex's character is especially beautiful because it's the little everyday things that make her question her own sanity. She knows she has to be aware of her triggers and her surroundings, knows that some of what she sees isn't real and knows to take care of herself to avoid the same sort of incident that took place at her old school. But as the author points out (brilliantly, I might add) it's not always as easy as knowing that there isn't really a python hanging out of the school ceiling.

This book is the perfect blend of self-discovery and acceptance, young romance, mystery and tough stuff. It starts out as a journey of self-acceptance for Alex and morphs into a budding romance mixed with trying to figure out what's going on with a cheerleader queen and the creepy school principal, and what they have to do with Miles and the athletic club. The two main parts of the story morphed so wonderfully into one another though that it didn't feel like separate issues. Alex isn't the only one learning how she interacts best with the world around her; Miles and Tucker are evolving with her, as is her relationship with her family members. And the evolution doesn't follow a rote script; characters react to events as they unfold, leaves in a stream, instead of being the ones dictating what "should" happen next in the story.

I wasn't entirely satisfied with the end of the book. While I thought Alex made the right choice for her, it wasn't clear that she was the one in charge of what happened next in her life. And the confrontation with the principal seemed a little too black-versus-white, good-versus-evil for a book that did such a great job of blurring the lines between perception and reality. It made me feel like there are "good" kinds of mental illness and "bad" kinds, where in my experience with them there are really just different ways that they manifest. Some coping mechanisms and treatments are obviously much healthier than others, but nothing has inherent value; it's all about how a given person's brain works or doesn't in different situations.

Despite what I thought were shortcomings at the story's end, I enjoyed this book from start to finish. It's written with incredible voice and sensitivity, and what turns out to be real or imaginary in Alex's world isn't what you thought it would be. That's what makes this truly a realistic representation of what things are like for Alex and people like her who deal with different kinds of mental illness that impact their perception of reality. This is one of my favorite YA books to come out this year, and if you're looking for a spellbinding writing style with a main character who will really get under your skin and into your heart, pick up this book. It's witty, it's clever, it's funny, endearing, heartbreaking and encouraging by turns. In other words, it's the complete package and better yet it's available now at your favorite local, independent bookstore.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Motivational Quotes to Keep You Writing


I'll freely admit that I've been in a writing slump lately. I'm working full-time, planning for an interstate move this September, and getting my metaphorical ducks in a row to start my Master's program the same month. Any spare time I have, I've been wanting to spend outside in the summer sunshine and packing in as many adventures and memories with loved ones as I possibly can.

But as many successful writers have observed, one of the most reliable ways to really get your writing out there is to build up the habit of writing every day. Persistence and output will pay off eventually, if you can get over that enormous hurdle of Just Keep Writing.

There are some great resources I've found to help me get back on my writing, committing myself to it and remembering exactly why it is that I do it: I love it. Foremost among them is my friendship with other writers, because the support and encouragement that they've given me, asking if I wrote today and having monthly check-ins on progress, is invaluable. Additionally, I've found things like this collection of quotes, compiled in April, from amazing writers on why they write, and about why it's important to keep writing. Take a look, be inspired, and keep on writing!

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Book Review: "The Water Knife" by Paolo Bacigalupi

Paolo Bacigalupi is probably best-known for his Sci-Fi masterpiece "The Windup Girl," which was awarded both the Hugo and the Nebula awards when it was released in 2009. It's the kind of mindblowingly awesome writing that knocks your socks off, then dances around gleefully with them because you both know that you're never getting them back. I wasn't as impressed with his YA novels, like "The Doubt Factory," but Bacigalupi's most recent work "The Water Knife" features the same kind of intricate plots and razor's edge circumstances that earned "The Windup Girl" such acclaim.

Set in the American southwest, "The Water Knife" evokes a possible near future in which aquifers are all but dry, and the new corporate power players broker deals for water rights in the dwindling Colorado River. The richest can afford luxury apartments in Chinese-built facilities that function as their own ecosystems, with a 90% recycle rate that makes them nearly self-sufficient. But outside, the world is dying around them. With his signature usage of modern-day issues and intricate plot intersections, the author brings together three very different characters who will end by determining the fate of the dying city of Phoenix. Angel is a "water knife," an enforcer for the most famous and ruthless water baron in the southwest; Lucy is a journalist from the East Coast who moved to Phoenix for a story and "went native"; Maria is a teenage girl desperate to get out of Phoenix, hoping that her hard work and playing by the rules will earn her eventual salvation north of the Arizona border.

Part of what makes Bacigalupi's work such a compulsive read is the balance of hope and dread that he maintains throughout. The desperate settings for his best work both fascinate and horrify, because they really are potential future disasters that the Human Race may have to face. In fact much of the foundation for the situation in "The Water Knife" is based on a real book that also appears in the story, "Cadillac Desert" by Marc Reisner. The reader's investment in the outcome of the story is tied directly to the idea that this could very well be a part of our near future.

While engaging, this is not necessarily a fast-paced novel; all three characters make progress in their independent quests, but it doesn't even begin to become clear how those intersect until half-way through the book. The characters don't even all meet until the very end. Overall it's a very rewarding setup, based mainly on character development, to make your way through as a reader. It has all the apparent coincidence and "light bulb moments" of a real-life human interaction. However, this also means that it may be more of a challenging read for people who enjoy more fast-paced, mile-a-minute Sci-Fi.

Character development follows a similar gradual route for Angel, the one for whom the book is named. He begins the story as just another badass enforcer with rubber-stamped legal documents in hand, backed up by elite military forces. But he's changed by betrayal, by seeing the city and its residents up close, and by ending up on the other end of a water baron's wrath. it sounds like a stereotypical transformation, but it's the way in which Angel's character is written that makes  him more than just another redeemed antagonist; it's the sheer weight of events, of what he's pushing himself to do and the disaster around him, that eventually get to him. This is represented brilliantly by the ghost who haunts him with the warning refrain that those who live by the gun will also die by it.

Lucy is a marvelous foil for Angel, hardened to stone in her convictions where he begins to question his, her ideas of what should be right and what should be wrong her only anchor in a place where the normal rules don't seem to apply. She even observes in herself that she's become one of the Phoenix residents in spirit as well as body, that she came for story and found a home for which she's compelled to fight. Maria's story is more like the opposite of Angel's, a coming of age in which she is shown extreme cruelties and faces unimaginable odds, and still tries to get herself out by following the rules in which she no longer believes. They're just what she was taught to follow. She loses literally everything: her family, her income, her home, her best friend, even her virginity in her fight to get out. And in the end, that's all she has left to live for. There seems to be nothing that Phoenix cannot take from her, and it's unclear whether she has the strength or the conviction to fight back, and how she even could.

The end of this book is absolutely perfect. As the climax resolves, Bacigalupi sets up for a traditional good-versus-evil outcome, with the old-school vision of what *should* be the right thing poised to take control. But intervention comes from possibly the least likely source in a delightful twist that sent shivers down my spine and reminded me once and for all that the world we see through the window of "The Water Knife" is not our own. Yet.

"The Water Knife" was released at the beginning of this month and can be purchased now at your favorite local, independent bookstore. I highly recommend it!

Monday, June 15, 2015

William Gibson on the Apocalypse:

William Gibson in 2012. Photo by Gilly Youner.

William Gibson, most recently the author of "The Peripheral," writes visceral, gritty futuristic fiction with the veil of utopia ripped away. At the same time, his plots and characters are as complex as anything Neil Stephenson has written, challenging to piece together and a delight to untangle.

Recently TED did an interview with Gibson to talk about, among other things, his idea of the eventual Apocalypse, his days as a student, and the practice of writing. You can read the (immensely entertaining) interview here.

Saturday, June 6, 2015

Books and Wine: Perfect Pairings

As the beautiful weather rolls on here in western Washington, I've come to enjoy bringing my day to a close with a book and a glass of wine on my deck. And just as different wines have different characteristic flavors, different books leave me with different lingering sensations or emotions. Pairing wines with books for people who enjoy both is a novel idea (no pun intended), translating flavors into emotions and writing styles into mouthfeel. Quirk Books has put together a selection of books and their wine pairings, from rich and complex revenge to sparkling, sweet romance. It's a fun little exercise, and may give you ideas about what you'd like to pair with what you're reading at the moment. My favorite suggestion on the list? The selection for "Outlander," which you'll find at the bottom of the article. What would you pair with your current read?

Monday, June 1, 2015

Book Review: "Rook" by Sharon Cameron

Sharon Cameron is the author of two other great YA books, "The Dark Unwinding" and its sequel "A Spark Unseen." Both of them are engaging, well-conceived stories of the Napoleonic wars that involve spies, inventions, subversion and just enough romance to keep you wondering about what will happen next. In addition, Cameron includes a mentally challenged individual, brilliant but misunderstood at the time, as a main character in these books and beautifully illustrates the special nature of this individual, in how he interacts with the world around him. After my positive experiences with her writing before I was very excited to pick up "Rook," a new standalone book by Cameron. However, this one fell extremely short of my expectations.

The premise to the story is promising: When technology failed hundreds of years before, civilization as we know it collapsed. In the aftermath, the new governing body that controlled what was once Paris banned the development of all but the simplest machines, like the wheel and the wedge. This, they reasoned, would keep people from again becoming too dependent on technology. But as often happens, power bred corruption and soon those in power were imprisoning and executing not just criminals, but property owners and business people whose wealth was coveted by those in the government.

Into this society of fear and opacity came the Red Rook, a figure from myth, to spirit innocent prisoners away from the dreaded prisons. The Red Rook thwarted the authorities, championed the people, and worked to subvert the evil machinations of the men in charge. Nobody suspects that the Red Rook is really a young woman, Sophia Bellamy, the daughter of an impoverished nobleman. But when her brother is accused of the crime, and sentenced to death, Sophia finds herself racing against time to rescue him, free the other prisoners, and perhaps even start a revolution before retiring the persona of the Red Rook.

This book is an homage to the Scarlet Pimpernel, which they even mention in the course of the story. But as interesting as the setup is, it's frankly wasted on what actually transpires here. The characters are stereotypical with no redeeming originality, from Sophia's brave but tortured and romantic idealism to the rogue with the heart of gold to the good man driven mad by desire. Instead of building what could have been a fascinating world with complex politics and a revolution at hand, Cameron focuses solely on the overwrought romance. It's angsty, with "twists" that couldn't fool anyone. I could practically tell when the next big "reveal" would take place. These together formed a sort of lumpy mesa of a plot climax, so exhausting that there didn't really feel like there was true high point to the rising action.

I know that Cameron is a talented writer. It's obvious in her previous two books. But "Rook" was just terrible. It's a beautiful idea left untapped because of too much unoriginal romance, from the unwanted marriage proposal to the declarations of love on scaffolds above restless crowds. It's my great hope that in her future works she'll let go of the overdone romance in favor of her more imaginative approaches.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Think Outside the Book (Rules)

Howl's Moving Castle

There are certain rules that are generally accepted within the SpecFic writing community, and by writers in general. They are basic ideas that help to preserve story cohesiveness, character perspective, and timeline. Fantasy publishing house Tor recently put together a list of books that break these rules, and have still been successful. All of the books here somehow subvert the Big Rules of Storytelling, and yet still draw readers. In fact, it's this innovative approach of breaking rules and still successfully telling a good story that draws some readers to these titles. My favorite on the list? "Howl's Moving Castle" by Diana Wynne Jones. It's quite different from the Studio Ghibli movie by the same name. Check them out!

Monday, May 11, 2015

Book Review: "The Fog Diver" by Joel Ross

Joel Ross, already the author of two adult WWII thriller novels, premiers his middle-grade writing career with this exciting, endearing tale set centuries in the future. Chess, an orphan, was found and raised by Mrs. E. He wasn't the only one, and he and his four adoptive siblings make one of the best salvage crews in the Junkyard, a series of floating docks tethered to a high mountain peak. They sail their rickety airship out over the Fog, a deadly layer that encompasses the world and infects any human who stays in it for long, earning their living by bringing up salvage from beneath the murky vapor. But Mrs. E has finally succumbed to fogsickness, and in order to save her, Chess and his created family will need more than the good luck of one prosperous salvage; they'll have to escape the Junkyard altogether and seek out Port Oro, a city forbidden to anyone living in the Junkyard, under control of the power-hungry Lord Kodoc.

But plans are accelerated when Chess finds something miraculous on a dive: a diamond. It'll be enough to buy their small family passage on a smuggling vessel, if they can keep it safe until then. Other forces are conspiring against their ragged but talented group, though; Kodoc is looking for a boy with strange powers like those Chess displays in the fog, a boy with the same fog-clouded eye that Chess hides behind his hair. If Chess should fall into Kodoc's hands, illegal possession of a diamond will be the least of his worries. So as the net closes around them, Chess and his crew race to find a way off of the mountain, to safety, and for the medical technology necessary to save Mrs. E.

Ross's vision of a future world is both creative and insightful: he blends elements of sci-fi and steampunk to form a unique back story about the rise of the fog, what it is, what it means and how it might be controlled. Even designing the fog and its makeup to specifically target humans, leaving the plants and animals to thrive within it, was a stroke of creative genius. It's a cautionary tale as well as a story of human audacity and survival, living off the bare minimum and hoping for a better future.

Especially humorous to me were the references to what life was like before the fog. Looking through newspaper clippings and other remnants left behind for Chess in his father's scrapbook, the crew learns about pop icons like Elvis Parsley, can identify the constellation Oprah, and knows about now-extinct species like spelling bees and hello kitties. Adventures were even had by the spaceship the X-Wing Enterprise (It's good to know that in the future, apparently the disagreements between hardcore Star Wars and Star Trek fans were set aside.) These hilarious mistaken references had me chuckling throughout the book, and both young readers and adults are sure to find them amusing.

The other focal point of this book that I especially liked was the emphasis on the validity of a created family. Chess and his crewmates Hazel, Swedish, and Bea were all found and adopted by Mrs. E. Thanks to her they had a roof over their heads, food in their stomachs, and people on whom they could rely. Each plays an important role in the family as well as on the salvage raft, a fact that is discussed by their group at one point as well. Swedish, the pilot, is the anchor of the group; Hazel, the captain, is their dreams; Bea, a gifted engineer, is their heart; and Chess is their hope. They all come from different backgrounds, but each brings something essential to the others and all are united by their love of Mrs. E and their commitment to each other. This story and the characters in it strike a perfect balance between the tale of adventure and the message of family ties.

If you're looking for a high-flying adventure full of nanotechnology, derring-do, sky pirates and a delightfully horrible villain, then be sure to pick up a copy of "The Fog Diver" by Joel Ross. It's a treat to read and a good reminder that your true family - blood-related or otherwise - are the ones who will always be there to watch your back and embrace your quirks and follies. It will be released on the 26th of this month and is available for pre-order now at your favorite local, independent bookstore.

Saturday, May 9, 2015

Things We Love About Bookstores

That bookstore vibe

With the days getting warmer and summer just around the bend (already?!), it's the perfect time of year to make an afternoon pilgrimage to your favorite local bookstore. Here in Bellingham, it's popular to find a good read at Village Books and then take a stroll on the waterfront boardwalk to a local coffee shop. There are benches, a sandy beach, and lawns on which to settle down with your book and your beverage to enjoy the lovely weather. To get you started on your own warm-weather book mini-vacation, here's a list of ten reasons to love brick-and-mortar bookstores. Enjoy!

Monday, May 4, 2015

Book Review: "To Hold the Bridge" by Garth Nix

Garth Nix won my heart a long time ago with his Abhorsen books (Sabriel, Lirael, Abhorsen and most recently Clariel). The way he portrays his characters, in a matter-of-fact but sympathetic manner, always made me feel so much a part of their lives, especially when I was the same age as his protagonists. Getting to meet Nix during his tour for Clariel is still one of my most exciting moments as a bookseller to date. His latest work, To Hold the Bridge, is a collection of short stories similar to Across the Wall, a collection that he did after Abhorsen. My relationship with short story collections, particularly when they're all by one author, is decidedly hit-or-miss; either I adore an author even more for their bite-sized installments or I end up questioning myself as a fan.

This isn't fair on my part, and I'm aware of this. After all, it's exceedingly difficult to be able to engage a reader in a short story where, like poetry, every small word counts when you're accustomed to having an entire novel's worth of space to build entire new worlds and introduce readers gradually to nuanced, subtle plot and character details. Writers who can transition easily between formats and produce work that is equally impressive in both (or all) are in my personal experience very rare. While I still adore Nix's Abhorsen books and recommend them on almost a daily basis to customers, I have to say that To Hold the Bridge was a disappointment.

My initial excitement about this collection came primarily from the fact that the title story takes us back to the Old Kingdom, where the Abhorsen books take place. It's a fascinating world full of magic, mayhem and monsters, a constant battle between caustic (literally) Free Magic and the harnessed power of the Charter, which can be controlled by a trained Charter Mage using specific symbols. After having read this first story however, I felt somehow unsatisfied. The story had all the basic essentials: a young person struggling to make his way in the world, an objective and something held dear, evildoers to provide a conflict, a dangerous battle in which our hero must show his true mettle, and eventual victory. But to me it felt as though this story had been written just to appease fans with a nod to Nix's other popular work. Maybe it was the lack of development in the bad guys; you didn't really know who they were or why they attacked the bridge. It can be inferred, of course, but somehow the entire conflict felt unsatisfactory, if not in its execution then in its rationale and in its lack of follow-up.

Some of the pieces included in the collection were quite interesting. One about witches at a Hogwarts-like school of magic had me smiling to myself, and a very innovative story about a radioactive space lizard had me curiously turning to the next page time and again. A piece entitled "Vampire Weather" was full of the wry, dark humor that I generally like. But there were also overly simplistic or unnatural-feeling stories included that gave me the uncomfortable feeling of wanting to massage my brain and ask what went wrong. A piece about a teenage boy who stands up for a pair of new kids in school was stereotypical to the point of nausea, and another featured alien vampire nanomachines as antagonists.

Similarly, the question of intended audience was one that kept arising for me. Some of the pieces included were obvious coming-of-age stories, featuring young protagonists doing the difficult thing because it was right, and emerging victorious in the end. Classic. But the same book that featured a class bully being put in her place made reference to casual sex and whether or not to keep clothes on. I don't mind sexual references. In fact, some of what I read is quite descriptive about things like that. But given the fact that Nix's usual target audience is readers of Middle-grade fiction, I have to wonder about putting such different stories, featuring such an age discrepancy in their protagonists and containing such different levels of content, together in one collection.

Overall I'll say that if you're a Garth Nix fan who collects his complete works, you'll want to be watching for this one to be released in early June. But if you're hoping for a series of awe-inspiring tales that remind you of the Abhorsen books, you will be disappointed, as I was. I didn't expect this to be a continuation of those tales, but I was looking forward to the writing voice that I came to love there, and I just didn't feel it. Maybe you'll experience it differently.

Monday, April 27, 2015

The Quintessential Author Wardrobe

Authors as a whole are a notoriously quirky group of people. After all, most of us spend an undue amount of time living in our own heads. The more successful writers even get to do it as a profession! A number of fashion tropes have been either adopted by or imposed upon the writing community, and some of the best of these have been compiled into "The Illustrated A - Z Guide to Author Wardrobe Staples." Some featured articles of clothing, like the doublet, hearken back to a time where a satirical play could get you killed. Others, like overalls, are directed toward a very specific demographic. For my personal writer's wardrobe, "B" would be for "Bandana, red with skulls and crossbones, and worn to aid in the thinking process."

Monday, April 20, 2015

Book Review: "Neverwhere" by Neil Gaiman

I don't particularly think that the world needs another Neil Gaiman book review. Anyone who's ever browsed the SpecFic section of a bookstore or poked around at all on fantasy forums online has heard the multitudes extol his literary and creative virtues. I'm unashamed to admit that I'm one of those multitudes. If you glance at the recommendations at the bookstore where I work or take a peek at my personal bookshelf you can plainly see that. Reviewers much more prestigious and well-connected than me have declared to all and sundry the glory of Gaiman's writing. So why should I add yet another review to the immense pile? Because his latest collection, "Trigger Warning," is a bestseller and, quite frankly, I wanted to revisit one of my old favorites.

"Neverwhere" was originally published in September of 1996. It's been reprinted since then in many formats, but my favorite version is the one I've included as the image in this post. In the story Richard Mayhew lives an ordinary, boring but admittedly not unhappy life. He works a normal job, has a normal apartment, and wears normal clothes; he met a normal woman, they dated normally, and do normal things like visit museums (which Richard finds boring but not entirely disagreeable). In the normal progression of things they get engaged and are planning the normal festivities associated with a wedding and starting a life together.

But normal can only take you so far in life. And sometimes, when a person isn't prepared to venture forth and find that catalyzing something that will transform their life into an adventure, that thing has a way of finding you. And so it was for Richard Mayhew. One night he saved a bloody homeless girl who he found on the sidewalk, taking her home against his fiancee's wishes and letting her rest and clean up before being escorted away by a mysterious man. Having come into such close contact with Door, a young woman from the mysterious and magic-filled world of London Below, Richard too starts to disappear from the "real" London familiar to the rest of us. He becomes one of the people who "fell through the cracks" of the world, who become part of the strange, ugly, wonderful, harsh but beautiful of London Below. Desperate to reverse what's happened to him, and knowing nobody but Door in this confusing new world, Richard decides to track her down and find out how to return to London Above.

As is often the case with these things, Richard's quest becomes tied to Door's search for answers regarding the brutal murder of her family. Pursued by a pair of delightfully evil assassins controlled by a shadowy figure in the background, Door and Richard have only the unreliable Marquis de Carabas and Hunter, a bodyguard with ulterior motives, to back them up. But they find other help in the forms of small kindnesses from gleefully unique characters like a girl who talks to rats, an earl who holds court in a dilapidated subway car, an order of monks called the Blackfriars, a man who lives on rooftops and hunts pigeons, and a singular being that might possibly be a fallen angel.

Only Gaiman could assemble and choreograph such a beautifully absurd cast of characters. He possesses a proprietary blend of absurdist humor and darkness that just *works* in the kind of fantasy that he writes. Plays on words with places like Knightsbridge (a bridge that Richard must cross through a "night" of darkness and nightmares) and Blackfriars (actually run by an order of monks) provide unique and lovely (but again, very dark) new ways of looking at and interpreting what plays on words could mean. It's almost reminiscent of Piers Anthony's Xanth books, with bad puns and double entendres from cover to cover.

I think that what's particularly special about this book in the library of Gaiman's work is the way that he takes the seedy underbelly of a city, the sewers and transient people and trash and darkness, and uses what's already there to create his world of London Below. He doesn't transform it into some magical place of rainbows and goodness; its just as dark (and arguably darker) than London Above but the reality of it is just shifted. Instead of unicorns or owls, rats and pigeons are the sidekicks, messengers and helpers of the story. Flares and flashlights illuminate spaces instead of glowing orbs of magic. But the wonder, the mystery of this enchanting world remain intact.

Gaiman is a true treasure of an author. Check out any of his work from Chu and "Coraline" to "Neverwhere" and "Trigger Warning" for a spectacularly creative literary treat. Reading his works has inspired countless story drafts and ideas on my part, so whether you're looking to be inspired or just entertained, Neil Gaiman's work will be able to provide you with something incredible. Check out your favorite local, independent bookstore for a selection of his wide-ranging work.

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Book Girls

A girl reclines on a park bench, reading a book.

There's been a lot of debate over the past few years in the book world about the presence of diversity, in both authors and protagonists, in modern literature. Some organizations and conferences, like We Need Diverse Books and Sirens, are committed almost entirely to exploring the presence of representations of a wide variety of people in books. About a year ago NPR came out with an article about the next generation of readers who will conquer the world as we know it: the Book Girls. Read this sweet, encouraging, interesting article about them here!

Monday, March 30, 2015

Book Review: "When We Were Animals" by Joshua Gaylord

Not all love stories are created equal. You can keep your Disney princesses and your happily ever afters, and I sincerely hope that you enjoy them. But they're just not what I want to read about sometimes. They're not author Joshua Gaylord's thing either, as evidenced by his new novel "When We Were Animals." This is not a soft, warm romance; this is a love story about corners and edges and the way your tongue feels when it scrapes across your teeth. I'm not talking about a Christian Gray-type romanticized story of abuse, either. This book is a poetic yet raw look at the brutality of human emotion, particularly of affection, underneath the pretty facades of suburban paradise.

Lumen, the main character and narrator, grew up in a small town with a unique secret: when local youth reach puberty, on the full moon of each month for approximately a year they "go breach." When teens breach they essentially succumb entirely to animal instinct, running wild around town naked and destroying anything they please, fighting, having sex and generally wreaking havoc. Everyone not in the throes of the breach, young and old, remains indoors and tries to ignore the screams and howls from outside, ignores the scratches and bruises on the neighborhood teens the next morning.

When the moon is not full, and during the days, breachers act normally. But going breach is seen within the community as a mark of maturity, and Lumen just doesn't seem to be able to convince her body to take that leap (which I found interesting as a reader, considering the calm, lucid prose with which she expresses herself, and how her behavior as a "good girl" seems much more mature than the breach-drunk antics of her peers). Lumen's lack of breach isn't entirely surprising though, since her mother never breached either. It was unheard-of for someone born and raised in town to avoid the breaching process. But Lumen finds herself in a sort of half-breach, joining her classmates outside on breach nights but retaining her reason and her sense of self. The result is that her narrative becomes half coming-of-age story, told from the perspective of a middle-aged suburban housewife, and half anthropological study of the culture of breaching in the town, as well as how relationships morph within the pack of breachers.

Lumen's unique situation, the in-between space that she occupies, does not go unnoticed by the breachers. Two boys in particular, Peter and Roy, take an interest in her for very specific and different reasons. Peter is a golden boy, every girl's dream, and sees her other-ness as something pure in need of cherishing and protection. She is above the rest of them, he tells her. Roy, on the other hand, perceives her as a physical manifestation of the breach itself, her outward calm and fascination with the breachers just a thin veneer over all the pure ferocity and brutality that defines the condition. And depending on whose company she's in, Lumen takes on to a certain extent the characteristics that each of the boys project onto her. This steers her life in different directions throughout the story but the reader sees Lumen eventually becoming more curious about the shadowed side of her, her ability to explore it without succumbing to it. She also wonders what's wrong with her, why she can never belong to one group or another. While this question is explored frequently and vehemently by her character, it is never answered. That is, in my opinion, the best possible way to handle the situation and author Gaylord did it perfectly.

All through the book, Lumen sees herself as her namesake: a space, an in-between state that both exists and does not, full of nothing but emptiness. She is defined by absence - the absence of her mother, of puberty, of any sense of self aside from what others project onto her. Her father's ideal of her as a "good girl," the influence of her classmates, and later on in life, what her husband expects of her are all things that she adopts like a hermit crab decorating its shell. Her sense of self, and the different definitions of a lumen, are something that Lumen explores throughout the book. The different meanings of a lumen lend significance to the different stages of her personality, of her evolution as an individual.

Lumen narrates the story as a grown woman, married to a nice normal man, a stay-at-home mother living in suburban bliss. She includes anecdotes from her present life not only to contrast it with her upbringing before and during the breach years, but also to illustrate the ways in which she is still unconsciously defined by it. Her seeming lack of empathy , of appreciation for social norms is perceived by those around her (including her husband) as a possible mental illness. But the reader, having heard her story in her own words, appreciates the elegance of Lumen's detached attitude, of her inability to comprehend why the roughened edges of life are things that people want to avoid, to obliterate. She doesn't love her husband or her son any less than the other wives around her; she just has a different perception of what love really is.

"When We Were Animals" by Joshua Gaylord is not a novel to be missed. Whether you're looking for a gripping protagonist, a strange and compelling tale, a bold depiction of humanity in all its animalistic glory, or a story that borders on magical realism in its lyrical prose, this book has it all. Plan on picking up a copy at your favorite local independent bookstore on April 21st. Mark your calendar, especially if like me, you enjoy an author with a singular gift for expressing spaces that are only defined by what goes on around them.

Monday, March 16, 2015

Teenage Reading Habits

A student buries herself in a book in the Shaw Library at the British Library of Political and Economic Science in 1964.

At a time in the book industry when the largest gains are happening in Young Adult and New Adult genres, it may be surprising to hear that teens aren't reading as much as they used to. Back in May, NPR ran a story on why that is. It cites a study done by the nonprofit organization Common Sense Media, and you can listen to it here. What could this means for the future of the reading community?

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Book Review: "The Second Guard" by J.D. Vaughn

When an author writes a book with a specific moral or social agenda in mind, it can be difficult to work it into the story without sounding "preachy" or bashing the reader over the head with the message. The Second Guard, the first installment of a new series by J.D. Vaughn (actually a pen name for two writing partners), is a brilliant example of how when someone writes an exciting, engaging story that draws you into the world the author has created, the right messages flow through the words on their own.

Probably the simplest way to sum up this beautifully written book is to call it a retelling of "Mulan" set in pre-Columbian South America. But that's an oversimplified method at best of describing a story that contains adventure, family, battles, journeys, mystery, friendship and intrigue in masterfully balanced proportions. But instead of  woman warrior hiding who she really is, main character Tali is in her element training to become part of Tequende's elite Second Guard. It's through her that we're introduced to the kingdom's rich, unique history and culture.

"J.D. Vaughn" has created a detailed and idealistic but fascinating environment in which this story unfolds. It's a matriarchal society, peaceful in nature but defended by an elite fighting force as well as advantageous geographic location. In order to ensure a ready fighting force and a constant labor source as well, the second child of each family is sent to serve the crown as either a soldier or a servant for a period of several years. This practice is considered an honor to both families and children, especially in a world ravaged by war where Tequende is the only real bastion of peace and prosperity. This has turned it into a melting pot, full of peace-seeking refugees who have made it their home and adopted the culture there to start a new life.

Tali, recently inducted into training for the Second Guard after her 15th birthday, finds herself in the middle of a plot that could overthrow Tequende's queen and deliver the kingdom into the hands of warring neighbor kingdoms. But as only a soldier-in-training, she's powerless and in her investigation she must be wary not only of her restrictions as a newcomer but also regarding which of her military superiors may be in on the plot. She transcends the social divisions that exist between Tequende's guilds (Sun, Moon, and Earth) through a sincere love of her family and her kingdom. This theme of reciprocated trust between the rulers and the people, idealistic as it is, makes for a wonderful story setting and a great setup for the villains' motivation.

Tali is made to be a soldier. There's no doubt in anyone's mind of this, be they character or reader. But her self-confidence makes her unapproachable at times to others, a realization that she makes early on in the book. She evolves as she learns more about the mindset with which she was raised, that of a future soldier, and her new sense of self-awareness in relation to those around her, what unites them and what makes them different from one another, leads her to better appreciate the unique gifts that they each possess. It's a rewarding transformation to watch even from outside the events themselves, and was artfully written so that no single transformative moment turned her into a completely different person. Tali remains herself, with her own quirks and flaws; but she actively seeks to improve herself, sometimes regarding flaws of which she's aware and sometimes concerning things of which she was previously unaware. The inclusion of a smart, capable, extremely able deaf character was also an inspired way to include diversity as an everyday occurrence in the story.

Cultural tidbits at the beginnings of chapters, excerpts from a fictional historical text, add a lot to the book. They reveal the Tequendian values that motivate Tali and her friends as well as fleshing out the story world and making it more "real" for the reader. They also help to underscore the stereotypes and inequalities that still persist even in this seemingly idyllic society, the challenges that Tali overcomes in her struggle to prevent catastrophe. There's a heavy native South American influence at work throughout the book, from the types of agriculture described to the landscape and the names in the book. Even the book design and layout reflect the influence of pre-Columbian native peoples of places like Chile. The rich cultures of South America and their history seems oft overlooked when authors go hunting for world building resources, and I'm so incredibly pleased that this book's author(s) found inspiration in it and built a wonderful story around and out of it.

I was slightly frustrated by the way Tali, in the heat of the moment, goes off half-cocked in making accusations concerning royal intrigue. However, it wasn't a big stumbling block when I reminded myself that her character, while mature, is still only 15 years old. That, and reminding myself that I'm more accustomed to reading more intense, supremely complicated plots from authors like Jacqueline Carey or Patrick Rothfuss. This book isn't as complicated as theirs, but it has some twists, and it makes sense. Which is really the most important part when it comes down to it, in my opinion.

Overall, The Second Guard by J.D. Vaughn is a fantastic read and I am very much looking forward to the next installment as Tali and her friends make their way up in the world through mutual support and friendship. It will be released on April 14th and you can pre-order it now through your favorite local, independent bookstore.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Good Books I'll Never Read

It's strange to realize that I'll never have time to read everything I want before I die. No matter how many hours a day I spend poring over pages, there will always be books left unread, stories left unfinished. To me, that means that what I choose to spend my time reading is all the more important, since I'm picking it to the exclusion of something else. If I pick up something that looks interesting and it hasn't hooked me twenty pages or so in, I put it down unless it comes with a strong recommendation from a fellow reader who knows my tastes.

This "love it or leave it" approach isn't restricted to new books that are coming out; it also extends to the classics and popular contemporary titles. Susie Rodarme, a writer for BookRiot, has compiled her own list of books she'll never read and explained why that is for each one of them. I'll admit, I've read a good number of the ones she's chosen to ditch. But here are some of my picks for what I know I'll never read:

> "Gone Girl" by Gillian Flynn
> "The Road" by Cormack McCarthy
> "Crime and Punishment" by Fyodor Dostoyevsky
> "The Goldfinch" by Donna Tartt
> "Norwegian Wood" by Haruki Murakami