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.