Monday, December 31, 2012

The Art of Reading: Pace


The Art of Reading: Pace

All bibliophiles have at least one thing in common: the love of books. Still, as I'm reminded every time I talk to another reader, that doesn't mean we express our affection for the written word in exactly the same way. I'm referring to how we read.

This post's theme: pace. How many books do you read? Of course, there are countless ways to measure this. 10 books a year/6 books a month/1 book a week. 30 minutes a day/25 hours a week. 100 pages a day/1,000 pages a month. Not to mention that such measurements obviously involve rounding and guesstimates... unless you really do require yourself to read 100 pages a day, no more no less.

I read approximately 50 books a year or 1 book a week. I'm always trying to bump that number up to 100 books a year, 2 books a week, but I'm deluding myself if I think I have that much free time! I doubt I could give a page number estimate, but in terms of time I try to read at least an hour a day, right before bed. Yay for me whenever I get to read more than that!

Pace is a funny issue, though. Many readers can be rather quiet on this topic, often because such quantifications make them feel inadequate. There's always someone who reads more than you! I especially noticed this when I first started attending literature conferences. Compared to most of my friends and family, my 50 books a year seemed like a lot, but at conferences I meet people who devour books at rates that seem impossible to me.

Of course, there are a lot of factors that affect how much we read. I don't read one book a week because that's as much as I want to read, but because that's as much as I have time to read. If I didn't need to work or do errands and my entire day was my own, I'm sure I would read more! Some people simply have more time than others and it's odd to criticize, say, someone who works three jobs, is taking some college courses, and acting as a single parent for two children for reading less than someone retired, on vacation, or in between jobs etc.

Then there's how fast you can read. When two people read a page at the same time, they might find that one person has to wait patiently for the other to finish. Over my years of avid reading, I've noted that I read approximately one page per minute. True, it varies depending on words per page, font size, and how well the book holds my attention, but it's accurate enough that if I want to read for half hour, I slip my bookmark thirty pages from where it is now and don't even glance at the clock until I reach that bookmark.

Then there's how much you actually enjoy reading. Book addicts find themselves limited by free time and how fast they can read, but there are many people out there for whom reading might be a secondary hobby or even lower on the list. My primary hobbies are writing, reading, sketching/painting, more or less in that order. I adore all three and yet I devote my spare time first to my own writing, then to reading, and last to painting and sketching to the point that I hardly ever paint or sketch anymore. For someone who might have reverse priorities, they probably wouldn't read very many books despite claiming to love reading.

Don't forget size of the books! The page count of books I read varies so much that I might find myself finishing four books in one week, but only one book in the next month. So if you measure your pace by number of books, average page length becomes a factor, too.

How about you? How many books do you read? Feel free to measure in books/pages/ time - per day/week/month/year. We know it's an average! Have you had periods of your life when you hit a reading lull or, better yet, reading highs when your pace astounded you?

Friday, December 28, 2012

WHITE CAT


Review of WHITE CAT by HOLLY BLACK
(first in the CURSE WORKERS series, review based on an advance reading copy)

I didn't particularly like Black's TITHE series, so WHITE CAT wasn't really on my radar...until I heard Black speak at Sirens (a literature conference)
. She was hilarious. I not only shed tears of laughter, but I worked my abdominal muscles pretty well during her keynote! She more than earned a second chance and I'm so glad I tried WHITE CAT, because it lived up to high expectations.

The book hooks right from the start with a unique opening: Cassel, our protagonist, awakens from a bout of sleepwalking to find himself on the school roof in his boxers with a curious crowd watching the spectacle. On second thought, the book hooks even before the first word, with the premise. If you read anything about this novel before starting it, you'll note the compelling magic system. Cassel lives in an alternate world to our own. Much seems exactly or nearly the same from history to pop culture, except, of course, there's magic in Cassel's world. Magic users are persecuted and feared for their power and, since a magic user (called curse worker) has to touch someone to work magic on them, it has become common practice for everyone to wear gloves. As Cassel informs us, “In health class, our teacher used to say that if someone came toward you on the street with bare hands, consider those hands to be as potentially deadly as unsheathed blades.” As if that premise and opening weren't enough promise for a good story, Cassel confesses within the first few pages that he murdered his best friend. If you're like me, you will assume there must be more to that story and, sure enough, the entire book centers around that event and blossoms out with more complications and twists than I ever could have imagined during that first chapter.

The story's packed with turnabouts and shocking revelations. I actually predicted most of the twists, and yet that didn't lessen my interest in the new developments in the slightest. In fact, it might have kept me more riveted, since Black focuses on her characters and the emotional ramifications of each new wrinkle rather than a "Ha! Got You!" sense of satisfaction in blindsiding the reader.

The end kept to this trend. I pseudo called the final surprise, but nevertheless felt as slammed in the gut as Cassel must. Stellar ending. Perfect last line. Black's officially back on my radar.

Monday, December 24, 2012

RUBY RED

Review of RUBY RED by KERSTIN GIER
(first in the RUBY RED trilogy, review based on an advance reading copy, translated by ANTHEA BELL)

I don't like time travel fiction much. I often find myself confused by the chronology of character's lifespan versus historical timeline and skeptical readers like myself usually find logic lapses. (Even when I don't, my brain starts hurting with the effort of juggling events that might not take place in the order one at first assumes or with the implications one at first assumes, etc.) That being said, I still enjoyed RUBY RED, perhaps because it's actually surprisingly light on the time travel.

RUBY RED has a strong first person voice that drew me in within a few sentences and the book turned out to be a quick, easy read from there to the end. Gwen has lived her life in her cousin Charlotte's shadow, whom the family believes carries a time traveling gene. As readers will expect, it turns out that Gwen's the one with the gene, to the surprise of everyone including herself. The story clings very close to the characters, with only a few days passing during the entire novel, and the emphasis remains on Gwen's inner monologue as well as her daily routine and mundane life juxtaposed against the magical elements. (I loved that with all the possibilities of time travel, Gwen’s mother wants her to go to a cellar - specific time period doesn't even matter - so she can finish her homework.) That close focus helped speed the book along towards an ending that still feels like only the beginning of a larger story. (Yes, this is the first in a series.)

RUBY RED contains minimal time travel, focusing more on Gwen's discovery of her power along with a few other intriguing mysteries that remain unsolved for now. The book is also surprisingly light on history. Most of the time travel scenes could take place anywhere, anytime without altering the core. The story roots itself in the characters rather than the premise. I've already mentioned Gwen's fantastic, realistic, and accessible voice, but she also has a fun, funny, awesome best friend named Lesley and a bickering family that, stripped of the time travel specific arguments, feels all too believable.

Friday, December 21, 2012

BRUCE COVILLE


Interview with BRUCE COVILLE

I was born in Syracuse, New York, on May 16, 1950. I started working seriously at becoming a writer when I was seventeen. Like most people, I was not able to start selling my stories right away. So I had many other jobs along the way to becoming a writer, including toymaker, gravedigger, cookware salesman, and assembly line worker. Eventually I became an elementary teacher, and worked with second and fourth graders. I feel like a very lucky person. From the time I was young, I had a dream of becoming a writer. Now that dream has come true, and I am able to make my living doing something that I really love.

What are you reading right now?

FOREST BORN by Shannon Hale, the fourth in her Books of Bayern sequence, which began with the fabulous THE GOOSE GIRL. The reason I'm reading it right now is that I've been directing a full cast recording of the book that I am producing for AudioGO. I'm really lucky in this regard . . . I don't just get to read great books; I get to bring them to life on audio!

What first sparked your interest in writing?

The first time I can remember thinking that I would like to be a writer came in sixth grade, when our teacher, Mrs. Crandall, gave us an extended period of time to write a long story on any topic we wished. I had a lovely and encouraging success with this, largely because I could write what interested me, not simply what was assigned . . . which had been a problem for most of the year.

The story I wrote was called "The Long Tramp" which was a mild rip-off of Sheila Burnford's great animal story INCREDIBLE JOURNEY. I had so much fun doing it that I started planning a book of animal stories. (I never got around to writing it, but that was the first time I can remember seriously thinking about writing a book of my own.)

After that it was all about writers. In 7th grade I discovered Edgar Rice Burroughs. I fell in love with his John Carter of Mars  books and knew that I wanted to do what he was doing.

What do you love the most about writing? The least?

There is a time, sometimes, if you're lucky, when it no longer feels as if you are writing, but as if you are simply a conduit for a story that is somehow being told through you. For me, this usually comes toward the end of the book, after the long struggle to get there. It can be glorious.

What do I like least? All the work it takes to get to the point I just described above!

Tell us a little about your writing process.

Oh, lord. After 100 books and 40 short stories I'm still not sure that I have "a" writing process. Sometimes I just sit down and start, sometimes I kind of flutter around trying to find a way into a story.

I can tell you that I usually outline. Sometimes I follow the outline and sometimes I end up tossing it out and going by the seat of my pants. Other times I do what I call an "ever-expanding outline" where I keep writing ever more detailed versions of the outline, adding dialogue and descriptions, until the outline is almost a book in itself.  And sometimes I make repeated runs at a story, getting ten pages into it the first time, then revising and adding new material, then when I feel stuck going back to the beginning and revising what I have and pushing farther in. When I work that way I may be on the fifth or sixth attempt before I have a full draft. I am a demon reviser, and will keep working on a story until my editor hits me over the head and tells me I have to stop!

What are your passions?

Story, performance, and politics.

Story: I love stories, believe that sharing them is one of the essences of being human. We need stories to understand the world, and even more to understand each other.

Performance: One of the surprising things about achieving some success as an author was that as soon as it happened people wanted me to come out and talk about it. I did not anticipate having a career as a public speaker, but that has evolved out of the writing. I now spend about a third of my year on the road talking at schools and conferences. I've discovered that I love being in front of a group, whether children or adults, and trying to delight and inspire them.

Politics: I care deeply about my fellow humans, my country, and my world. Though many people are very cynical about politics, I believe in my heart and my gut that if we want to change things for the better we have to engage in the political process. While it is undoubtedly true that there are many corrupt politicians, I am not one who believe they are all that way – I think many of them sincerely want to serve the people and improve the world.

What inspires you?

Great art, smiling faces, children, honesty, and stories.

Why fantasy?

Why reality? ; )

Okay, okay . . . first off, I love to read  fantasy, so naturally as a writer it is the genre that I most gravitate toward. Modern fantasy is a natural extension of myth, legend, and folklore, which are the forms in which humankind has long expressed its deepest dreams, fears, and desires.

The human heart longs for a bit of mystery, a touch of wonder, a sense of the unknown. As the world becomes ever more mapped and explored, fantasy literature helps soothe that longing by providing new places to dream on.

How was THE UNICORN CHRONICLES born?

Back in the early 1990's Jean Feiwel, who was then publisher at Scholastic, invited me to come into her office to discuss creating a new series for them. We talked about a few ideas, and the one that sparked for me was a world of unicorns.  I had already written about unicorns – heck, my second book was SARAH'S UNICORN, one of the first picture books about unicorns – and I was excited to do so again. To me they are the perfect fantasy creature.

The original contract was for three novels of about 150 pages each. I had no idea when I signed it what I was actually embarking on . . . or that in the end it would take me 16 years, 4 books, and nearly 1500 pages to tell the complete story!

Back when I first started writing, my dream had been to create a fantasy world of my own. Luster, the world of the unicorns, turned out to be that world. The story that unfolded in that world turned out to be grander, more complex, more layered, than I had begun to imagine when I first started planning it. Writing it stretched me in ways I had never anticipated, and I am still astonished at what an epic it became.

You have written, well, a lot. Do you have a favorite book or story among your own work?

Ah, the "favorite" book or story question, which is pretty much the equivalent of "Which of your children do you love the most?"  Parents know better than to answer that one!

Still, if pressed, I could narrow down this list. And if really pressed, it is likely I would settle on a short story called "The Box." To be honest, I think it is the best thing I've ever written, and (this is somewhat distressing) likely to be the best thing I ever will write. 

Oddly enough, I don't feel I can take much credit for the story. I wrote it on assignment in a graduate class on writing for children taught by Helen Buckley Simkewicz, and it just . . . came to me. I think of it as a "gift story" – I was in the right place to catch it as it went whizzing by! It is a story that I love to tell when I am performing.

Do you have any advice for aspiring authors?

Click here to read Bruce’s writing advice on his website.

Monday, December 17, 2012

RENEGADE


Review of RENEGADE by J.A. SOUDERS
(review based on an advance reading copy)

What a delightfully shiver-inducing opening! RENEGADE follows Evelyn's first person account of her life in a reclusive underwater community designed for those fleeing the war and horror on land...among the dreaded, evil "surface-dwellers." The first chapter opens with Evelyn's saccharine inner monologue, including repetitions of: My life is pretty much perfect. She will be coupled soon with a boy she likes and as daughter to Mother, who leads all of Elysium, she will doubtless play an important role in this society. Then Mother kills someone Evelyn loves right in front of her as punishment for a minor offense. We're still in Chapter One, by the way. Chapter Two, which takes place the next day, causes some serious déjà vu. Not only does Evelyn not remember any of the violence and betrayal from yesterday, but her thought pattern is near identical to the previous day's as she follows a set routine and continues her determined mental chant: My life is pretty much perfect. As I said, delightfully shiver-inducing as it sinks in that Evelyn will not be a reliable narrator and her paradise is a dangerous facade.

Returning to Chapter One, though, Souders seriously impressed me. Killing a character early on can be problematic, because readers often won't feel the death as much if they haven't had a chance to befriend the characters and envision them as real people. In only a few pages, I cared about the character who dies, and a writer's kind of magic - the right words - caused me to feel that horrific scene with all of Evelyn's pain, confusion, and despair, which makes it extra creepy when I still remember what happened vividly and Evelyn's clueless about both the events and her own emotions.

From there, the story morphs into an action book as Evelyn realizes what's really going on...and fights hard to keep that realization. The fact that she can't really trust anyone - even herself - ratchets up the suspense and danger. She only has a handful of allies and none of them convinced me of 100% loyalty. Then there's the issue of Evelyn's mind turning against her so that she betrays herself.

The romance is rather rushed. I usually groan and grumble when characters toss around the word "love" after knowing each other 1-3 days. However, it works in RENEGADE. Of course, it's always open to reader interpretation whether you believe the characters are really in love or just think so, but regardless it's understandable for two people to grow so dependent in so little time when they're literally each others' only hope for survival.

The ending pulls off another eerie, creepy affect similar to the opening. Without spoilers, Souders writes a few pages so that you don't know whether Evelyn has accomplished her goal or if everything has been horribly shattered. I've read numerous reviews of this book that use the phrase "on the edge of my seat!" I hesitate using that phrase, not only because it's cliché, but more because it's hyperbole and I prefer a more literal, if less exciting, description of what a book made me feel. However, RENEGADE really did make me sit up straighter and hunch over the book as though the story might draw me into its depths. What a read!

Friday, December 14, 2012

Identity Crisis Fantasy


Discussion Topic: Identity Crisis Fantasy

Over the years I've become increasingly aware of a baffling trend - fantasy that does not want to be categorized as fantasy. (Same can be said of science fiction or the umbrella term speculative fiction.) Now I'm not trying to assign any blame here - it could be the idea/intention of the author, agent, editor, publisher, etc. and it doesn't really matter - but the end result is a book with magic or other fantasy elements doesn't sit with its siblings in the fantasy sections of bookstores and libraries, but with regular fiction.

To be candid, this annoys me. The usual hope is that the book will sell better to mainstream audiences if it isn't labeled "fantasy," a stereotyped genre that many readers avoid. Of course, it's a little insulting to the fantasy genre - the implication that this particular book doesn't want to associate with its lesser peers. Fantasy, as with any genre, encompasses countless styles, tones, and sub-genres not to mention varying levels of quality. The fantasy stereotype usually jumps straight to Tolkien and other authors of high fantasy that can feel very Tolkien-esque. Not that I'm implying there's anything wrong with Tolkien or high fantasy works, but what few non-fantasy readers realize is how innovative and complex the genre is, from urban fantasy with magic intertwined with the mundane…to the increasingly popular steampunk with a nod to steam-powered gadgets and Victorian style…to slipstream fantasy that broaches boundaries between fantasy and science fiction, fantasy and horror, fantasy and mystery, etc. Yes, there's bad fantasy, and, yes, mainstream readers will judge genres they don't read based on what few books from that genre they know. However, there's something to be said for taking pride in what you are and whenever I see a book with magic, vampires, witches, curses, etc. shelved in mainstream fiction, I think we need a separate section entitled "identity crisis fantasy" for those magical books that can't figure out where they belong or simply don't want to go there.

Some bestseller examples of fantasy books considered mainstream fiction include THE MAGICIANS by Lev Grossman about a college that teaches magic, THE NIGHT CIRCUS by Erin Morgenstern about a duel between two magicians, and A DISCOVERY OF WITCHES by Deborah Harkness about a scholar who finds a bewitched manuscript that awakens a fantastical underworld. I haven't read any of those three, so I would need someone else to present theories on why they're commonly considered mainstream fiction. However, turning towards books I have read, consider Kate Mosse's work, including LABYRINTH and SEPULCHRE, historical novels with a hint of the supernatural thrown in. Or THE SECRETS OF JIN-SHEI by Alma Alexander. For that one, the fantasy element doesn't come into play until a long ways into the book, which could serve as explanation for its placement in fiction.

Of course, this trend isn't limited to fantasy. NEVER LET ME GO by Kazuo Ishiguro and THE HANDMAID'S TALE by Margaret Atwood are both science fiction novels that I never see in the science fiction section. One can find similar examples of rogue books for mystery, romance, and any other genre. Really, genres are just marketing categories that give readers an idea of what to expect. Still I’m confused when a book with magic isn’t in the fantasy section.

To be fair, some books are hard to classify. THE CITY AND THE CITY by China Mieville not only refuses to fit neatly in one genre, but certainly doesn't qualify as mainstream fiction either. If forced to choose, I view it more as mystery and the speculative elements the setting. However, even when you look closer at the speculative elements, there's room for interpretation, and depending on your perspective, this book could count as fantasy or science fiction or neither.

Then there's the "Is it? Isn't it?" type of fantasy book. The ones that might contain magic, but the author won't tell you for sure. WINTERGIRLS by Laurie Halse Anderson, for example, follows a girl with an eating disorder. However, the girl's being haunted by her dead best friend...or she isn't. LIAR by Justine Larbalestier could be fantasy, except the compulsive liar protagonist might just be feeding readers another lie.

I understand when the harder-to-define books bounce around categories or steer away from the fantasy section, but when I notice a without-a-doubt fantasy book hiding out in fiction I wonder if it isn't having a bit of an identity crisis.

Your turn to chime in. Has anyone else noticed this trend? What are your thoughts? Can you think of more examples of "identity crisis fantasy" books?

Monday, December 10, 2012

THE ART FORGER


Review of THE ART FORGER by B.A. SHAPIRO
(review based on an advance reading copy)

I enjoyed THE ART FORGER throughout, but enjoyment never bloomed into adoration. In terms of strengths, the story has a natural, relatable first person voice that put me in mind of some of my favorite chick lit novels, boasts impressive research, and delivers a fascinating mix of fictional and nonfiction art history as well as an intriguing "what if." All those aspects held my investment even when my inner critic caught something worth nitpicking.

It would be misleading to call THE ART FORGER predictable. I never "guessed" exactly what would happen next, but the word predictable still popped into my mind because I never found myself surprised, even at the most climatic moments or dramatic twists. I also felt mildly disappointed when I reached the end and discovered the two distinct plot threads would not intersect, which led to the realization that the secondary one (her volunteer work with troubled teens) could be carved away without changing the plot. While on that plot thread, I did catch a glaring factual error - not art related; Shapiro’s art research seems meticulous, though I'm no expert - that distracted me all the way to the end with wondering, "Mistake? Foreshadowing?” I don't consider it a spoiler to specify: Claire mentions that she's never been fingerprinted, but she could never volunteer with minors, let alone such troubled minors, without being fingerprinted. That detail being outright stated led me down an incorrect path that this inaccuracy would somehow play into the plot, but it appears to be a simple error. My last distraction concerns the romances. The book involves a present romance and a past one that informs the story. Unfortunately, in both cases I couldn't understand why Claire's attracted to these men. In regards to the past one, we only see glimpses of the end of the relationship, which means we only see the bad and not the good that sparked the affair in the first place. As for the present romance, the guy's a typical closed off alpha male who shares none of his thoughts or emotions, leaving Claire and the reader to interpret or project their own analysis of his motivations without any confirmation. In general, though, I found all the characters other than Claire "painted in broader strokes."

Nevertheless, despite noting these criticisms, my attention never waned in the story. The themes kept me reading more than anything else. In particular, I found myself fascinated by the musing that many masterpieces could be forgeries so skillfully done that they fool the so-called experts and also drawn in by the injustices in Claire's life and her response. THE ART FORGER may not be groundbreaking, but it's certainly a worthwhile read.

Friday, December 7, 2012

Random Acts of Reading - Holiday Gifts


JAY KRISTOFF

Interview with JAY KRISTOFF

Jay Kristoff is a Perth-born, Melbourne-based author. His first trilogy, THE LOTUS WAR, was purchased in the three-way auction by US publishing houses in 2011. He is as surprised about it as you are. The first installment, STORMDANCER, is set to be published in September 2012 in the US, UK and Australia. Jay is 6’7, has approximately 13870 days to live and does not believe in happy endings.

What are you reading right now?

I actually just finished WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT KEVIN yesterday, so I’m totally between books atm. I think I’ll go back to the fantasy pile next, so maybe THE STRANGE AFFAIR OF SPRINGHEEL JACK by Mark Hodder, or RAILSEA by China Miéville. I got all of China’s back catalogue from my 100% awesome UK publishers, but they’re all signed and I’m kinda afraid to read them in case I crack the spines. Which I realize is utterly ridiculous. They’re books for crissakes…

What first sparked your interest in writing?

I’d always written as a hobby, but for over ten years, writing was also my job (I worked in advertising), and the last thing you want to do after writing TV scripts all day is come home and work on a book. When I changed jobs, that freed me up to use my brainmeats to write something other than ads for toilet paper. But I’ve always loved writing, telling stories. Lying, basically. I very much enjoy lying.

What do you love the most about writing? The least?
 
The Most: that moment when you write something that makes the hairs on your arms stand up. Those brief and all too rare moments where it’s like the universe is telling you “Yeah, you can do this.”

The Least: Copyediting. Hunting for rogue commas and misused quotation marks, re-reading the same text over and over until it ceases to have meaning. I described it once as “like being bludgeoned to death with a bag of dicks.” I was quite proud of that one…
 
Tell us a little about your writing process.
 
I’m a total pantser. I’ll get an idea for a scene in my head and just run with it. The first scene I thought of for STORMDANCER was the hunt for the arashitora. A big sky-ship hunting a griffin in the middle of a lightning storm. The next books I’ll be working on in downtime (when I’m not doing books 2 and 3 of the LOTUS WAR) are all just embryonic scenes in my head atm. I’m stabby-envious of people who can plot meticulously – to have a grand plan and work towards it. It’s sometimes terrifying not knowing what comes next. But at the same time, you sometimes get these flashes of inspiration that totally surprise you – those moments in STORMDANCER are my favorite in the book. 

What are your passions?
 
My bride. My books. My booze (hmm, how long can I stretch this “B” thing for). I’m a huge film buff and a colossal nerd. I’m also very passionate about issues like the environment, overpopulation, resource depletion. But I don’t talk about that very often because a) it’s depressing, and b) people find it very easy to write you off if they can label you with some kind of “-ist”. 
 
Shenanigans, I say.
 
What inspires you?
 
Do you mean “where do I get inspiration for my books?” There’s no good answer for that. No writer knows where their ideas come from. Anyone who tells you they do is likely trying to sell you something. Probably a book called ”Where great ideas come from.” I sometimes tell people I get them “at the idea store,” because I’m something of a smartass, truth be told. 
 
Why fantasy?
 
I’ve always loved it. I’ve always been a nerd. I still remember the feeling I got when I first read THE HOBBIT at 9 or 10 years old and realized there were books out there for “people like me.” I love the freedom it brings – the absence of rules, the complete lack of limitations it places on you as a writer. To be able to create a world that’s anything you want it to be – that’s a combination of time-travel hovercar awesome and panty-soiling terror.
 
How was STORMDANCER born?
 
It started as a dream I had. A little boy was standing in front of a griffin in a field of dead grass. The kid was screaming at the griffin to fly, but its wings were broken and it couldn’t get off the ground. That imagine – a griffin with broken wings – just stuck in my head. Which is a terribly boring story. If you can think of a better one, let’s run with that.
 
Just make me funny in it. And preferably handsome. Rich would be nice too. 
 
Why did you choose to write a Japanese influenced story?
 
I wish I had a good answer for that. I could make up one about being the scion of a line of gaijin who travelled to Japan in the 19th century and learned the Ancient Art of Awesome… but that’d be pure lies.

I guess I wanted to write a steampunk book because I loved the aesthetic, but European-based steampunk seemed like it had already been done a lot, and done very well. The world had some incredible cultures in the 19th century, and I think fantasy is already shamefully guilty of a European focus.
 
Plus, you know, chainsaw katanas…
 
Do you have any advice for aspiring authors?
 
Other people’s belief in your abilities is lovely, but optional. Your belief in your abilities is mandatory.
 
Is there anything else you would like to tell us about yourself?
 
Just that I feel very grateful and lucky to be here. Thanks for sharing the ride.

Monday, December 3, 2012

VALKYRIE RISING


Review of VALKYRIE RISING by INGRID PAULSON
(review based on an advance reading copy)

I usually open a book with expectations. Of course, what expectations varies depending on the book, but that's another conversation. With VALKYRIE RISING, however, I had the rare reading experience of starting with a blank slate. The cover and the blurb suggested I might like this book, but offered no convincing evidence for or against that hypothesis. I hadn't heard any buzz, I didn't recognize the author, and I'm not familiar enough with valkyrie mythology to know whether or not that's a selling point for me. Nevertheless, I read the book...and now you can count me among Paulson’s devoted fans!

In retrospect: valkyrie mythology - definitely a selling point. So much fantasy draws from the same wells. I'm not necessarily complaining. I enjoy seeing what different people can do with the same material, I love certain myths, fairy tales, or magical creatures so much that I can read about them again and again, and sometimes even a recognizable formula with familiar elements still satisfies. Of course, when the premise starts with less commonly utilized source material, already there's an implicit promise for a more unique read. VALKYRIE RISING delivers! I'm sure if you map the story arch after finishing the book, it might not seem so terribly groundbreaking, but I'm not talking about any intellectual analysis - rather the emotional impact. I couldn't name one moment during the book in which I could predict the plot's next turn and whether the route stayed fairly straight or took sharp curves the story always held me captive. Even if some twists look simple in an outline or summary, they were blanketed in fog as I was reading.

Voice is another key element and Ellie's voice absorbed me from the first scene. She's my favorite kind of protagonist, without being cookie cutter. She's rather quiet and introverted, but through her perspective we know just how much goes on in her mind. She's slightly cynical (or at least not frustratingly naive like some other shall-not-be-named YA leads) and has a wry sense of humor. She does have flaws, though, before you fear I'm describing a Mary Sue. All in all, she quickly became one my favorite heroines.

Moving past Ellie, her relationships also hooked me early on, in particular her relationships with her brother Graham and with his best friend Tuck. Graham has always been a typical overprotective big brother, but after Ellie recruited his help at a party with a guy who came on too strong, Graham took that as an invitation to scare off any guy from now until forever who expresses the slightest interest in her. While Ellie's certainly not a meek character, Graham has the sibling capability of making her feel like a little girl again, even dredging forth feelings of need and dependency, feelings Ellie naturally resents. The opening scene also establishes Ellie and Tuck's flirtatious, playfully insult-riddled, relationship. What Ellie would never admit aloud, though, is how much she really does like Tuck. For starters, he has a reputation with the ladies and Ellie knows better than assuming his interest in her is anything stronger than his interest in every other girl. There's evidence that suggests Ellie might be the one he really, seriously likes (but as his best friend's little sister is off limits), but we don't know for sure and I applauded Ellie's caution with her own heart.

Speaking of well-handled relationships, I also admired Ellie’s opponent/villain. Astrid’s first cocky saunter on stage might conjure up villain stereotypes, but it’s not long before we see glimpses of what’s behind the mask and it’s not evil. She might be an ally if Ellie plays her hand right…or a tragic enemy if circumstances throw them on opposite sides of a war neither one wants to fight.

Paulson choose her combination of characters and magic system well. Ellie has spent most of her life being protected by males, whether she needed the help or not, but as boys start going missing, it becomes clear that not only are males in the most danger here but Ellie might be the only one who can save Graham and Tuck and all the others.

I did catch a few logic lapses, but they're hardly worth mentioning. I can count them on one hand, they did not detract from a riveting story, and one can explain them away with the right interpretation. Sorry for being so vague, but I'm avoiding spoilers.

I particularly loved the ending, which surprised me not once but again and again before I reached the last line. Satisfying finish. Still, sign me up on the list for those who want the next book the moment it's out!

Friday, November 30, 2012

What Is Young Adult Literature?


Discussion Topic: What Is Young Adult Literature?

Okay, here's my simple, cop-out answer: literature marketed towards young adults.

But that's cheating. Anyway, before the marketing step, how does one decide what counts as young adult? Where's this so-called dividing line between young adult and adult literature? Every time anyone has ever defined young adult literature for me, I can think of exceptions. Even with my answer above! You'd think that's a safe response - young adult literature is literature marketed towards young adults - but sometimes adults find themselves drawn to YA titles or a title marketed for adults turns out to have more teenage appeal. In other words, sometimes even the professionals don't know what should go where.

First, I'll mention some definitions I've heard and why they aren't quite inclusive enough for me.

Definition #1: Young adult literature isn't as well written as adult literature. Well, I don't swear, but if I did, my response to this might be nothing more than a string of expletives. Adult fans of young adult literature have certainly encountered this mindset before: that YA lit is something we must put behind us as we age, because it's developmentally beneath adult lit. At least from my experience, though, most of the people who believe this don't read young adult. Those who read plenty already know this isn't true. Those who don't, well, go read some! I'm certainly not claiming every young adult book is well written, but there's the same spectrum of novice to genius workmanship in YA as in adult literature.

Definition #2: Young adult is lighter - in other words, less violence, less sex, less tragedy. Hmm. Again, I find myself wondering if those reciting this definition read young adult. Perhaps if you measured all YA and adult literature for a level of light to heavy tone and then found the average, YA might be lighter. (Anyone volunteering for that undertaking?) However, I have certainly read young adult literature weighing down on the extreme end of heavy as well adult fiction that is light, fluffy, carefree fun. Speaking of heavy YA lit, HUNGER GAMES, anyone? Then there's TENDER MORSELS, often considered young adult, which might be the most violent, horrific book I've read (though I may be a mild measure) and LOOKING FOR ALASKA by John Green, a deeply tragic YA novel that made me sob when I thought books couldn't do that to me anymore. WITHER by Lauren DeStefano takes place in a world in which males die at twenty-five and females at twenty, certainly a depressing hook, but one that presents teenagers with mortality, a theme they don't encounter as frequently as older readers. LIPS TOUCH: THREE TIMES by Laini Taylor, or rather the third and final story in that collection, actually sparked my earlier discussion post about why people like dark literature. Any light/dark measurement comes down to each individual book, but young adult lit is certainly as capable as adult in taking the reader to emotionally or graphically disturbing places. 

Definition #3: The protagonist is a young adult. This might be the most common definition I hear, probably because it's simple and often true. But not always. Here comes the clutter of examples. It makes sense to start with THE CATCHER IN THE RYE. Many bookstores nowadays cross-shelve this one in both young adult and adult, despite the teenage protagonist and coming-of-age themes. As for when it first came out, well, young adult literature wasn't a thing back then! In fact, THE CATCHER IN THE RYE (along with THE OUTSIDERS by S.E. Hinton) is often credited with creating, or at least starting the creation process for, young adult as a separate genre. Now consider something like THE BOOK THIEF, which can also be found in either or both YA and adult, depending on where you go. Death narrates this story. We can assume he's an adult, although he's much older than a human adult! However, Liesel, a child, strikes me as the protagonist. So adult narrator and child protagonist - neither a young adult - but still this book frequently winds up in YA. Sometimes series even leap from young adult to adult, like Ann Brashare's SISTERHOOD OF THE TRAVELING PANTS books. The original four novels, chronicling the friendship of four very different girls and their own coming-of-age stories, are all considered young adult. Recently, though, Brashares released another book, SISTERHOOD EVERLASTING, picking up with the same characters as they near thirty years of age. It's considered adult fiction, even as a continuation of a young adult series. NEVER LET ME GO by Kazuo Ishiguro follows three students in a strange, unsettling boarding school. While the characters are high school age, it's considered adult fiction. Perhaps because the story's all technically a flashback, told from the perspective of one of the students at thirty-one years old. However, PREP by Curtis Sittenfeld might be one of the biggest head-scratchers on this topic. It's a satirical, uncomfortable story following students at a prep school, one in particular who will sacrifice almost anything to be liked. My best guess as to why this one ends up in adult is the unforgiving tone. In some ways, PREP might be a more realistic portrayal, but it's a disconcerting, brutal take on the desire to fit in, especially at that age. How about after high school, though? Where's the cut off between adult and young adult? It's not eighteen, if the YA shelves are any indication. Maria V. Snyder, Mette Ivie Harrison, and Eva Ibbotson are three authors I enjoy who all tend to write female protagonists in their early twenties. However, Snyder (POISON STUDY, TOUCH OF POWER) is commonly classified as adult fantasy while Harrison (THE PRINCESS AND THE HOUND) and Ibbotson (MORNING GIFT, THE COMPANY OF SWANS) both end up as YA. Honestly, I couldn't tell you why; I can imagine all three authors in both categories. Of course, there are also those books that span a lifetime, or even generations. Tamora Pierce's SONG OF THE LIONNESS quartet picks up with a pre-teen child, but follows her well past young adult age. TENDER MORSELS by Margo Lanagan actually follows the characters even longer, from a young girl all the way to an elderly woman more concerned with her daughters' happiness than her own. Another book comes to mind that seems out of place by this definition. I won't mention the specific title, because discussing it in this manner includes a big spoiler, but click here if you want to know to which book I'm referring. In this novel, we're under the impression that the protagonist is a young adult, only to learn later that she's not. In fact, she's not even human. She's only been disguised as a young adult human for her own safety. The last trend I wanted to mention is animal characters. While WATERSHIP DOWN and DRAGON CHAMPION are considered adult (and one fantastical) takes on an animal's viewpoint, David Clement-Davies' FIREBRINGER and THE SIGHT, both sweeping fantasy epics with animal casts sit in YA. Well, there you go. I'm out of examples (and kudos to everyone who plugged through that whole paragraph!), but I hope that proves young adult literature isn't always literature with a young adult protagonist.

Now time for my definition! Young adult literature is about discovery; adult literature about re-discovery. I'm of the opinion that all fiction actually is about discovery, usually self-discovery: learning who you are, what you believe, and how you fit into this world. However, young adult lit often focuses on discovering who you are more or less for the first time. Childhood gives us a lot of freedom to slap on and rip off labels, interests, beliefs, but around our teenage and young adult years we're expected to "settle" a bit more. Thus, young adult literature analyzes this period of "settling into oneself." Whereas, in books marketed towards adults the protagonist often goes through some re-evaluation of their life that leads to another kind of self-discovery, a re-discovery and a shift within themselves. When you "settle," it's easy to get too comfy in a simple, labeled box, but adult literature often encourages its characters to peek outside and see where they still have room to grow. My definition, however, suffers from being highly abstract and that might make it a less desirable go-to explanation for an entire genre.

So how about you? What's your definition of young adult literature? How do you feel about the ones you read here, including mine? Any others you've heard that I didn't mention?

Monday, November 26, 2012

STORMDANCER


Review of STORMDANCER by JAY KRISTOFF
(first in THE LOTUS WAR series, based on a review copy)

If you're looking for unique fantasy, behold STORMDANCER! There's a quote on the cover of this book from Patrick Rothfuss: "What’s that? You say you’ve got a Japanese steampunk novel with mythic creatures, civil unrest, and a strong female protagonist? I’m afraid I missed everything you said after ‘Japanese steampunk.’ That’s all I really needed to hear.” Well, I was won over even more easily; Kristoff had me at “Japanese.” It took me a few chapters before I felt in synch with the voice (which is doubtless distinctive, a virtue or flaw depending on whether or not it resonates with you), but then the story absorbed me and I loved it even more with each new chapter and especially after the climatic, high-stakes ending.

Ah, the Japanese elements. I grappled at length about how and where to address this aspect of the book in my review. STORMDANCER has been harshly critiqued of late for its lack of accuracy and while I adored this book, I wouldn't feel right omitting mention of this controversy. First, let me step back and share my own background. I studied the Japanese language formally for five years with two different senseis (teachers). I've been to Japan for a short three-week exchange and have hosted Japanese exchange students myself. In summary, I'm no expert and though I continue studying the language, culture, and history of Japan on my own, I'm far from fluent in any of the three. Still I knew enough to pick up on instances in which something in the book isn't quite right. I think a quote from the author in this interview summarizes this debate, though: "If you can wrap your head around the idea Shima and Japan might look a lot alike, but aren't the same place, you'll have fun." This book is not set in Japan. Japan served as influence for a fictional land, Shima. Consider medieval fiction: often terribly inaccurate with just enough correct to give a flavor of the time period. Medieval-esque, I like to say. Well, STORMDANCER is Japanese-esque. Of course, the book's being aggressively marketed as a Japanese fantasy, so that's a huge part of why people are disappointed when they realize it's more like a parallel Japan. If it will bother you when a Japanese word is misused or you otherwise catch details that feel inauthentic by a Japanese measure, then you probably won't like this book. If you can set that aside and hop on board with the idea of a story influenced by a particular culture without being a mirror, there is an incredible story here.

Okay, disclaimer behind us. Let’s move forward. I adored this book. I don't even know where to begin, because so many aspects appealed to me that my list will surely forgot some. Despite the author's liberties with accuracy, I treasured a story influenced by Japanese culture when so much fiction feels so similar. I also liked the fantasy's focus on the griffin - or thunder tiger - because we see far fewer griffins these days than, say, vampires, zombies, dragons, fairies, etc. Not that I don't love dragons and fairies, but I'm always pleased to find less commonly used mythological beasts making appearances. The heroine - along with about everyone else - proves an intriguing, complex character. Her developing relationship with said griffin becomes the story's spine and Kristoff handled the shift in their relationship perfectly. This book made me laugh...hard...many, many times. It didn't make me cry, but certain parts did lead to a physical ache in my chest. The story has it all: family complications, a whiff of romance that doesn't steal focus, unexpected alliances, betrayals, political intrigue, folklore and mythology, passionate friendships, blood-chilling villains. Note: this isn't an all-inclusive list.

In particular, I want to single out what I consider two of STORMDANCER's greatest strengths: the writing and the end. If someone described the writing to me, I would be certain I would hate it. STORMDANCER has one of those grammatically rebellious writing styles that normally annoys me, except Kristoff pieces his words and sentences (and fragments) together so that everything feels right and I found myself fawning over specific word choices or grammatically-incorrect-but-emotionally-perfect sentence structures. As the saying goes, "The rules are meant to be broken." That's no excuse to break them without reason or a defense of poor writing, but if you can break the rules for the better, go for it.

As for the end, the story has that perfect build topped off by an unpredictable, nail-biting climax that, mapped out, would contain a few peaks and dips rather than one steady rise and fall. One dramatic line hit me as slightly cheesy (you can probably guess what one after reading the book), but that's really my only single complaint about the end whereas I have numerous aspects that I admired, which I won't list only to avoid spoilers.

If you're looking for a fresh and promising fantasy epic, STORMDANCER might just be the book for which you've been waiting.

Friday, November 23, 2012

LAUREN MCLAUGHLIN

 
Interview with LAUREN MCLAUGHLIN

I grew up in the small town of Wenham Massachusetts. After college and a brief stint in graduate school, I spent ten years writing and producing movies before abandoning my screen ambitions to write fiction full time. Though I fondly remember much of my time in Massachusetts—the marina, the beach, various teenage escapades—I cannot, for the life of me, remember my SAT scores, my GPA, or any of the numbers that once summed me up.

What are you reading right now?

I'm reading Junot Diaz's THIS IS HOW YOU LOSE HER. I adored THE BRIEF WONDROUS LIFE OF OSCAR WAO and have enjoyed some of his shorts. The weird thing about this new book is that I actually already part of it in the New Yorker. The New Yorker's strange that way. They seem to like printing shorts by current literary favorites who have new novels out. I think they did that with Zadie Smith recently. It's almost like they're publishing book trailers. At any rate, I just love Diaz's use of language. It's all extremely conversational and idiomatic without ever being cloying. And the Spanglish is wonderful for me because I used to speak the language really well.

What first sparked your interest in writing?

I can't remember a time when I wasn't writing. I wrote my first poem at age 7 and basically never stopped. I switched from poetry to screenplays in my early twenties, then to fiction in my early thirties. I pretty much always have several stories going in my head. It's useful when I'm trapped in a boring conversation with someone. I can just keep nodding and smiling while disappearing into a more interesting world. Every once in a while I get caught doing it though, which is always socially mortifying.

What do you love the most about writing? The least?

What I love most about writing is falling in love with my characters. At some point in the process they become startlingly real. I begin to care about them as if they were friends (troubled friends always). I begin to feel a sense of responsibility to them. Which brings me to the worst part of writing, which is the heavy responsibility of completing a project in such a way that the initial spark isn't snuffed out by all the mechanics of rewriting. Things can and do go wildly awry during the writing process and the majority of my time is spent trying to get things back on some kind of track. Each novel should feel like a journey. The reader doesn't necessarily have to know where they're headed, but once they get there, they have to believe it was worth the ride. 

Tell us a little about your writing process.

It's constantly changing. I used to do a lot of very detailed outlining, but the outline rarely survived the first chapter of the first draft. For my latest, I scrapped the outline and just took off for points unknown. At the end of each chapter, I asked myself, "If I were a reader, what would be the most thrilling thing to happen next?" I had a vague sense of where I wanted to end up, but by the time I got there, the novel had become something very different from its initial inspiration. This led to tons and tons of painful rewriting, a slog-fest from which I am only now beginning to emerge. I'm still in search of The Perfect Process. So is every writer. If you find it, please tell me. In the meantime, I shall resign myself to a life of slogging through rewrites.

What are your passions?

Besides writing, I love to dance, especially swing dancing. I'm an avid runner. I love baking. I throw lots of parties and enjoy having as active a social life as my writing schedule and three-year-old daughter will allow. I'm passionate about people. They fascinate me. I love meeting new people and getting to know familiar ones more deeply. 

What inspires you?

People inspire me. Especially people who overcome difficulties. I'm inspired by people who work twice as hard as I have ever had to work in order to get half as far in life. I'm inspired by what I see as a dangerous trend toward massive income inequality in the U.S. I'm inspired by technology, which has the capacity to empower people but also to subjugate them. 

Why science fiction?

I can't live in the future, but by writing science fiction, I get to participate in it somehow. I love imagining the ways in which today's technology will mutate into something unfamiliar and even scary. Thinking about these things challenges us by pointing out our prejudices. For example, with SCORED, I wanted to imagine what would happen if everyone (or almost everyone) embraced ubiquitous surveillance. I was already familiar with the critique of ubiquitous surveillance, but what I kept seeing was an unmistakable trend of more and more surveillance all the time. At the same time, I was not seeing an increase in the numbers of people complaining about it. As anyone who reads my book will know, I believe that we are inviting a surveillance state. I wanted to explore what that might look and feel like from within.

Why young adult?

Teenagers are great readers. They have few literary prejudices. They haven't yet settled into any genre loyalties. They'll read SF, fantasy, horror, romance, biography. You name it. This frees up writers who don't have to worry about blurring or crossing any genre conventions. I think if SCORED came out as an adult SF book, SF fandom would complain about the lack of hard core technological specifics in it. They have certain expectations based on the majority of books in the genre. It can start to feel like a bit of an echo chamber and I didn't want to be in it. I wanted no limitations whatsoever on what I wrote. In Young Adult you have that freedom. The only real limitation is the age of the protagonists. But I love writing about teens because they don't have any psychological baggage yet either. They're still in the process of inventing themselves. This is much more exciting to me than writing about adults.

How was CYCLER born?

CYCLER began its life as a screenplay. I don't honestly remember how the initial idea was born. Perhaps it had something to do with the fact that I grew up as a tomboy. In fact, when I was about seven or eight years old I remember telling people: "I'm not a girl. I'm not a boy. I'm a tomboy." I actually believed this was a separate gender and that you could choose it if you wanted to. I think what I liked about the tomboy identity was that it had no limitations. At least in my mind. I could climb trees and get dirty. And I could also do gymnastics and cheerleading. In my mind, there was absolutely no incongruity between these two things. I must have been starting to sense the encroaching limitations of society's rules about gender. That's probably what made me so militant in my self-identity. With CYCLER I wanted to explore what would happen to a girl who desperately wanted to conform to society's rules about gender, but couldn't because her own body kept betraying her. That's what we do with protagonists. We ask "what's the worst thing that could happen," then we make that happen and watch them squirm. It's cruel, really. 

How was SCORED born?

I was living in a rough neighborhood of London on a street where cars were constantly having their windows smashed in. On the same day that I noticed there hadn't been any smashed windows for a while, I also noticed a bunch of new surveillance cameras. The thieves had gotten wise. They'd simply moved on to a different street with no surveillance cameras. The take home message was clear: install cameras everywhere and you'll eliminate theft. This was a lightbulb moment for me because I realized I liked having those surveillance cameras there. They made me feel safe. That's when I got really scared because I realized that ubiquitous surveillance would come to us, not through coercion by an overzealous government or an overreaching corporation, but by invitation. 

Do you consider SCORED a possible future in reality or a fictional “what if”?

I think the world of SCORED is already a reality. We just haven't gone whole hog yet. Education is already reduced to test prep in many places. There's certainly no trend toward reducing the number of cameras in schools. If anything, they're increasing. I don't think it's possible to predict the future accurately, but I don't see any shift in the cultural trends of surveillance and high stakes testing away from the dystopian vision of SCORED. If anything we're moving closer to it.

Do you have any advice for aspiring authors?

The most important thing for an aspiring writer is to read a lot and write a lot. Whoever you are - and no matter how talented - you're going to write a ton of rubbish. Successful writers know how to wade through that and spin it into gold. It's about time served, words typed, drafts completed. There's no way to do it but to sit there and write. A lot. When you've finished something and you've sent it off to editors, agents, your writing group, your teacher, or what have you, start writing something new. It'll be better than what you've just written. Repeat ad nauseam. If you're lucky, you'll get published, and then your troubles really begin.