Tuesday, February 3, 2015

January Reads

I read five books in January:

1) The Witch's Boy by Kelly Barnhill
2) The Maze Runner by James Dasher
3) The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon
4) Legend by Marie Lu, and
5) Prodigy by Marie Lu

Of these, I would have to say that my favorite is a re-read: The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon. This novel follows 15-year-old Christopher Boone, who has a brilliant mind, a pet rat, and a diagnosis of Asperger's syndrome. It takes place in the unlikely town of Swindon, UK, where Christopher and his father struggle with Christopher's autism, a condition that makes him quirky at best and frighteningly violent at worst. Largely unable to relate to other people, Christopher nevertheless decides to investigate the mysterious killing of his neighbor's pet dog, and winds up unravelling the neighborhood's—and his own family's—startling secrets in the process.

This book has to have one of my favorite protagonists of all time. It is fascinating to see the world through Christopher's eyes, and this unique perspective provides a satisfying amount of dramatic irony—just as Christopher can explain a complex math problem that would perplex most people, the reader can understand what Christopher can't: the real danger he puts himself in, and the pain he inadvertently causes his family. The characters are very real and beautifully flawed, their experiences in turns funny, harrowing, and filled with imperfect love.

Next up: A tie between The Witch's Boy by Kelly Barnhill and Legend by Marie Lu. These are two very different books. In The Witch's Boy we meet Ned, a boy haunted by the loss of his twin, and Aine, the practical daughter of the Bandit King. But what do the two children have to do with one another, with Ned's mother's wayward magic, with nine ancient stones, an enchanted forest, and the fate of the nation? I loved the unique twist on magic in this novel, the power and intelligence of the female characters, and the sense of love and loss that pervades the story.

Legend, on the other hand, could not be more different. The story begins in Los Angeles, in a future in which large chunks of every continent have been swallowed by floodwater, and thus the world map has been drastically redrawn. In the Republic of America, a tragedy strikes the family of child prodigy and star
soldier June Iparis. The government blames Day, a notorious teenage criminal. But when June and Day meet, they discover that the things they thought they knew about their country were only strands in an elaborate web of deception. Filled with action, mystery, violence, and smart, tough characters who somehow still manage to be vulnerable, this book is a strong, engaging start to a unique dystopian trilogy.

Prodigy, the sequel to Legend, follows the protagonists as they delve deeper into the mysteries of the war between the Republic and the Colonies of America, as they strive to save—and avenge—those they love. A little slower than Legend, particularly in the middle of the novel, Prodigy answers many of the questions raised by Legend, and adds many more questions of its own.

Lastly, there's The Maze Runner. I like the premise of the novel a lot: a boy with amnesia is dumped into the middle of a giant maze, where he joins a group of boys, also with amnesia, who spend their lives trying to find a way out. No one knows who sent them to the maze or why, until a new arrival shows up, and the pieces start to fall into place. The writing in this novel didn't click with me, but the story was just intriguing enough that I stuck with it until the end, and was left curious about the sequel.

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

House of Many Doors

As 2014 draws to a close, I'd like to write a little about something that I am inordinately proud of from this year: my husband, Ian, published his debut novel, House of Many Doors, in April. It's young adult fantasy starring a twelve-year-old British assistant antiques seller, Tony Lott, his elderly uncle, Martell, and his best friend, an ill-tempered teenage witch named Vanessa. Set in Britain, the story follows the main characters as they become entangled in a web of deception and dark magic that begins with a midnight auction of occult antiques, and quickly spirals into something much more mysterious and terrifying. At the center of the web lies the eponymous house of the book's title—just what is the House of Many Doors, and what does it have to do with the disappearance of Tony's father twelve years before?

I have been reading this story in its various forms for the past few years, and I felt such pride and excitement when I—at long last—read the final version at the beginning of this year. Seeing it all come together, first as an e-book and then as a paperback novel, was such an awesome experience for me, as I know it was for Ian. This book was preceded by many years of serious writing, interrupted by an MA in creative writing, and followed by several more years of writing, editing, and drafting. Though it's far from the first novel he has written, it's the first that he's published, which is a monumental event in the life of any author.

If you're interested in checking out the novel, you can find it in e-book and paperback form on Amazon websites worldwide, where you can also read a free sample.

You can also find an interview with Ian on the Meditations on Art website here.

For everyone who has already read the book and given feedback over the past year—thank you! We appreciate it more than you know.

Happy reading and happy New Year!

Monday, December 30, 2013

Living without topic sentences

In high school and college, I rocked at essays. I totally got that as much as an essay was about the content, it was equally about the organization: Each paragraph following its topic sentence, each topic sentence following the essay's thesis, each paraphrase or quotation neatly cited, and an orderly bibliography alphabetized on the final page. Throw in a "juxtaposition" here, a "paradigm" there, wrap it up with a neat little bow, and exchange it for a shiny "A" on your transcript. It was both easy and intoxicating.

Here's another thing about me: I like setting goals. A LOT. Which means I get really into making resolutions. So much so that I do it twice a year, at New Year's and on my birthday.

But here's what I've noticed the past few years—I've been treating my resolutions like topic sentences for my life. In an essay, if a sentence in a paragraph isn't about the topic sentence, you don't write it. Whatever strict abstract organizational skills I possess that make essay writing so easy for me (and they're skills that, unfortunately, don't transfer to being organized in real life—just ask my husband how many times I've misplaced my keys, sunglasses, and cell phone over the past year)—those skills also have been making me feel bad. I feel bad when I want to look at YouTube videos or read about otters in BBC Wildlife Magazine or try to learn to play a song on the guitar, because none of those things fit in with my goals to write more or run a certain number of miles or learn a foreign language within a twelve-month period. I feel guilty for watching Downton Abbey or exploring new music online, because I really ought to be following through with learning yoga. Or else I feel guilty for not drawing or knitting more because I happen to feel more like planting an herb garden, or spending time with my niece and nephew. What a mess!

I sat down yesterday to write down my New Year's resolutions for 2014. With each resolution—Run at least ten miles a week, Keep a daily journal, Put clothes away, Edit and illustrate Submatrain by March, etc.—I felt my dread grow. How was I going to balance all of these goals? I'm never going to be perfect, and there are only so many hours in a day. What about the days when I want to crack open a lemon seltzer water after work and read a few Emily Dickinson poems while lying on the couch, or catch up on some Crash Course videos, or try to learn Third Eye Blind's hit song from 1999, "Deep Inside of You," on guitar? The idea filled me with preemptive guilt. I would probably think about doing those things for a few seconds, then force myself to do something that was more "worthwhile" like jumping on the treadmill, because it fit in better with my goals—that is, it supported a topic sentence (i.e. "Jessie resolves to run ten miles per week throughout 2014") that in turn supported my thesis statement ("This year Jessie is going to improve herself in a number of ways, including increasing the prolificacy of her fiction writing, strengthening her body and mind, and further developing her organizational skills").

In short, I was stressing myself out for no real reason whatsoever.

And then, suddenly, I had an unnerving but undeniably exciting idea. What if I made no resolutions at all in 2014? What if I resolved not to resolve? I then mentally crossed out my list of thirteen bullet points, along with all of their associated sub-bullet points. Immediately I was filled with giddy relief.

In the end, though, resolutions are a tough habit to break. I wrote down two new goals, but only two:

1) Try hard to write or edit at least 3,000 words a week, but don't beat yourself up if some weeks you don't manage it. Everybody has bad days or busy weeks or the flu sometimes.

2) Do whatever makes you feel happy, without feeling guilty. 

For the first goal, I chose something that is manageable for me, a goal that's easy to meet and even exceed. I used to feel bad when I would hear about people who wrote whole novels in six weeks, or did double the word count for NaNoWriMo. I felt like if I could just focus more intensely or get it together and manage my time better, I could be one of those superhuman, scarily prolific writers. But, as I often tell the special needs kids I work with, everybody's different. I genuinely think that it's awesome and admirable that some people can write a whole book in a month. However, my brain doesn't work that way. I write at a slower pace. That doesn't mean I'm a lesser writer or that I don't care about my craft, it's just the way that I am. Sure, I might write slowly, but I'm writing. I've written two novels, a chapter book, a picture book, and dozens of short stories, and I've got no plans to stop any time soon.

With my second resolution, I hope to alleviate my anxiety about whether the things I choose to do are worthwhile or not. I want to let myself decide, on a daily basis, what I feel like doing. I'm not worried that I will stop exercising, because running makes me feel good and it keeps my anxiety in check. I'm not worried that I'll suddenly start eating junk, because I love fresh vegetables (as a vegetarian, I'd be out of luck if I didn't). I don't know why I didn't realize this years ago, but I trust myself to make choices that are good for my health and happiness.

In short, like a Disney heroine (a cool one like Mulan or Merida, not a lame foofy princess), I want to follow my heart. And I'm excited to see where that leads.

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Summer reading favorites

Big Chimp, my librarian husband, was skeptical when I took out five books from his library to read over the summer. As I already had more than a few books I planned to read this summer, he said, "I predict you'll read one, maybe two of those," pointing to my stack of library books. I'll show him! I thought. The books were Wonder by RJ Palacio, Delirium by Lauren Oliver, Half Brother by Kenneth Oppel, Clockwork Angel by Cassandra Clare, and The False Prince by Jennifer A Nielsen.

Well, it's the last week of summer vacation, and I've finished the first two of that list, and started a third. Not bad, considering the busy summer we've had—moving into a new apartment, a trip to Disneyland, a friend's wedding a five-hour drive away, and a three-week sojourn to Big Chimp's homeland, the United Kingdom.

Other books I've read this summer? Neil Gaiman's The Ocean at the End of the Lane and Khaled Hosseini's And the Mountains Echoed, both birthday presents from people who know me well. (I also received the most beautiful illustrated editions of one of my favorite books—Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë—*swoon*.)

This fall I want to start up the blog again, so I thought I would start with a post on my top three favorite summer reads from 2013:

#3: Delirium by Lauren Oliver

book cover of 


This novel is set in a dystopian alternate present, a world in which love has been medically classified as a disease. A surgical "cure" has been  developed, and cities of "the cured" are walled off with electric fences, which protect them from the Wilds beyond, which may or may not be infested with Invalids—those who choose to remain uncured.

The story begins with Lena, who has just finished high school and is counting down the days to the procedure that will rid her of all deep human emotions, foremost of which is amor deliria nervosa—the most dreaded and feared disease of love. Lena can't wait to be cured, certain that it will bring her peace and happiness, and alleviate the anxiety she carries over a dark family secret. However, the day of her evaluation doesn't go exactly as planned, leading Lena on a journey that will unravel the tangle of lies she's been told since the day she was born.

I'm tend to be a little bit skeptical when I start a YA dystopian novel. I mean, I love the genre, but I've read enough of these books now that I tend to wonder—will this book really be all that different, all that original, compared to all the other dystopian novels out there?

Delirium has many of the dystopian fall-backs: a world in which genuine human emotions are discouraged and individuality is tamped down (1984, Brave New World), one in which the ruling class perpetrates brutal violence, often toward young people (Ender's Game, Chaos Walking, The Hunger Games), and one in which an individual's life is planned by the powers that be (Matched, The Giver). As is popular in YA, it's narrated in the first person present tense.

In spite of all these elements (none of which are bad things, just common in the genre), Delirium feels special to me. The characters seem like whole people (I love Lena because she is so frightened and awkward and unconfident, and yet so stubborn and brave), and the writing is beautiful—some passages made me stop and backtrack and re-read because the language is so lovely. There is a great sense of place (it's set in Portland, Maine), lots of sensory detail, and a plot that fits together (in my opinion) in a satisfying and complete way—garnished with a smattering of creepy post-apocalyptic folklore and shot through with sinister government agendas.

#2: And the Mountains Echoed by Khaled Hosseini

book cover of 

And the Mountains Echoed

If you were presented with an opportunity to sell your child—knowing that she would be well cared for and have a better chance of survival than if she remained with you, and at the same time knowing that the money would help your remaining children to survive—would you do it? This is the conflict at the center of And the Mountains Echoed by Khaled Hosseini, author of The Kite Runner and A Thousand Splendid Suns.

I like this book for the same reasons I like the author's other novels—it contains an amazing sense of place and history. The focal point is Afghanistan, but the setting ranges from there to Greece to the United States, as side stories and subplots tangle and interconnect. The main thread is the story of Abdullah and his little sister, Pari, separated across time and space by one agonizing decision their father makes. However, the narrative frequently delves off into expansive subplots—a Greek plastic surgeon, a girl with a horrific injury, an unhappy housewife, a child disfigured by a vicious dog—that give you a sense of a broader story, one that expands ever outward from person to person, country to country, decade to decade. A beautiful, emotional, lovely story.

#1(Because, among other reasons, it made me cry on an airplane): Wonder by RJ Palacio

book cover of 


"I won't describe what I look like. Whatever you're thinking, it's probably worse" (page 3). These are the words of August, ten years old and about to start real school for the first time, in spite of his misgivings about the way the other kids will react to his severe facial abnormalities. Countless surgeries haven't done much to stop people from gasping when they see Auggie, but his parents have decided that he can't be home-schooled forever, so off to school he goes.

I don't want to give too much away, but Auggie's school year definitely has its ups and downs as he navigates the friendships, betrayals, triumphs and setbacks of life in the fifth grade. I smiled a lot and cried a little (I had to put the book down and take a break in case the stranger in the seat next to mine on the plane got alarmed by my emotional state), and I think it was the fact that the book reached me on such a deep level that made me love it.

The story switches point of view frequently between August, his sister Via, and the other characters who touch their lives—a style I've found annoying in other books I've read, but one that seems to work well for this story. No one character gives you the same perspective, and seeing events through different eyes is interesting—it's a reminder that everyone in the world sees things differently, and no one way of looking at something is the right way.

I hope, if you decide to read the book, that you love Auggie and his family as much as I do.


So those are my favorite reads of summer 2013! What are yours? Tell me in the comments.

Sunday, February 24, 2013

January Reads

Better late than never, here is what I read in January.

1) Days of Blood and Starlight by Laini Taylor:

Days of Blood & Starlight (Daughter of Smoke and Bone, #2)

While I didn't enjoy this sequel nearly as much as I did its predecessor, Daughter of Smoke and Bone, I did find myself irresistibly drawn back into the world of Karou and Akiva; the world of the chimaera and the seraphim. This novel is slower and darker than Daughter, and follows the separate lives of the now estranged protagonists—one a chimaera raised as a human, one an angel atoning for his sins. In parts the book's pace felt too slow to me, though perhaps this is intended to reflect the long, frustrating struggle the characters find themselves caught up in. The plot had some interesting twists, and left me eager to read the third and last book in the series (out in April, 2014, according to Laini Taylor's website). I remain really impressed with the skill of this author—her writing is beautiful!

2) NW by Zadie Smith:


I was excited months ahead of time to read Zadie Smith's newest novel, having enjoyed The Autograph Man, White Teeth, and especially On Beauty. And then a friend told me that it was written in a stream-of-consciousness style reminiscent of James Joyce's writing, and I got really disappointed (while I actually like James Joyce, I have a major prejudice against Stephen Dedalus, whom I think is possibly the most annoying character ever created). I couldn't have been more wrong about Zadie Smith's NW, though. I loved it! Such an awesome sense of place, such real characters, such satisfyingly interwoven plot lines. Whether the reader is a native Londoner or has never set eyes on the Thames, this book has so much to offer. In parts gritty, funny, and sad, it's an authentic look into the author's hometown of (northwest) London, UK.

...and that's it. I only read two books in January. It was one of those rare times when I actually found myself too busy to read as much as usual: my 21-year-old Toyota's engine blew up, necessitating a frantic search for a reasonably-priced used car (we bought a 2003 Hyundai, which we love); my in-laws visited from England, meaning two weeks worth of fun activities and much happy exhaustion; and my sister and I frantically managed to get some last-minute training sessions in for our half marathon, which we ran at the beginning of February. In fact, here's a photo of us after we crossed the finish line. Because I may look like a dork, but I trained for seven months!

So that's what's going on here at the book cafe, blog readers. What adventures are all of you up to lately?