Sunday, October 26, 2014

Falling For Snow Like Ashes

If anything could break me out of another blogging hiatus, it would be to celebrate this beautiful piece of magic that brightened my reading week: 
My awkward selfie attempt to show off the stunning front and back covers
 I blogged about getting to know the wonderful Sara and early drafts of her book Snow Like Ashes here, and now Meira’s story is finally out in the world. I might be just a little bit SO EXCITED.

Here's the official description

Sixteen years ago the Kingdom of Winter was conquered and its citizens enslaved, leaving them without magic or a monarch. Now, the Winterians’ only hope for freedom is the eight survivors who managed to escape, and who have been waiting for the opportunity to steal back Winter’s magic and rebuild the kingdom ever since.

Orphaned as an infant during Winter’s defeat, Meira has lived her whole life as a refugee, raised by the Winterians’ general, Sir. Training to be a warrior—and desperately in love with her best friend, and future king, Mather — she would do anything to help her kingdom rise to power again.

So when scouts discover the location of the ancient locket that can restore Winter’s magic, Meira decides to go after it herself. Finally, she’s scaling towers, fighting enemy soldiers, and serving her kingdom just as she’s always dreamed she would. But the mission doesn’t go as planned, and Meira soon finds herself thrust into a world of evil magic and dangerous politics – and ultimately comes to realize that her destiny is not, never has been, her own.

And it is so, so good guys… just as epic as its cover.

Meira is sarcastic, stubborn, driven, funny, and wicked good in a fight. I love this girl. She is fun to follow from the start, and then we get to watch her self-awareness grow and priorities shift as she realizes more about the world and her fate in it. Yes, there is a love triangle in this book – and we all know my general feelings on love triangles – but even I have to admit that Theron and Mather make some pretty intriguing and attractive corners. And Meira's struggle to prove herself and connect with her rescuer/mentor/reluctant father figure Sir is fascinating and heart-breaking and one of my favorite aspects of the book. It's just a really interesting and beautifully layered story. I first fell for this book because of the snappy action and snarky comebacks, but what really won me over was its emotional resonance, those difficult moments and perfect lines that just punch your heart and leave you breathless. 

Go read it!

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Books that Surprised Me

We’re a little more than halfway through 2014 (which seems crazy). I am nowhere near halfway through my Off the Shelf reading list (which should surprise no one), but at least I’m about where I want to be for total books read this year (50/100). 

Some of those 50 books have been excellent surprises… Books that weren’t originally in my plans, but that were recommended by friends, or called to me from the shelves, or came up in discussions at work, and somehow convinced me that I should set aside my skepticism and give them a try. I thought I'd share 5 recent (to me) reads that defied my expectations...

The over-dressed, star-crossed lovers who miraculously didn’t exasperate me

The Winner's Curse by Marie Rutkoski
Sara Raasch wins all the tiles for recommending this one to me, because there is no way I would have picked it up on my own based on that beautiful but misleadingly froofy cover. 
Star-crossed lovers are not my thing in general, but I am especially not impressed if your lovers are “star-crossed” because they come from slightly different social circles, or their parents disapprove, or they suck at communicating clearly, or they make stupid rash decisions, or one of them is pretending not to be interested for the other person’s best interests. If you want impediments to romance to be your source of tension, Go All Out, cross those stars to impossible lengths, and also give me some characters with energy and agency and edginess. The only books I’ve read in the past few years that have rocked this set-up to the hilt and swept me along with it are Daughter of Smoke and Bone (which happens to be one of my favorites of all time) and this, The Winner’s Curse

The unique narrator I’ve avoided for 6 years

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon
I was afraid of this book for a long time, despite hearing rave reviews from all corners. I've always had a hard time with the mental-illness/disability/difference-fiction genre: Flowers for Algernon, Rain Man, Forrest Gump, Being There... I could barely handle reading or watching them, even though (or because?) I was a psychology major reading articles on the topics just fine. Even when I started working with students on the autism spectrum, I still avoided The Curious Incident for another year, figuring that even though I would now understand the narrator better, I would probably be even more bothered by any misunderstandings or mistreatment he faced. 

But I finally forced myself to read it, and almost from the first page, “forced” was no longer accurate. I was blown away. It was fascinating and insightful and I still can't stop thinking about it. It was also hard or disturbing at times, and I know it won't appeal to everyone, but it is unequivocally worth a try.

The unique, unsettling merman

Teeth by Hannah Moskowitz
There was a time when YA seemed flooded with mermaids. They never became as ubiquitous as, say, vampires, but it was still hard to find a truly unique mermaid tale. This book definitely does not have that problem. It’s also rather unsettling and disturbing at times, but the atmosphere and the characters and their sharp dialogue absolutely hooked me. The story swept me up in this beautiful, horrible maelstrom and broke my heart against the dock.

(And yes, all of the above puns were intentional. *waves*)

The horror story that is something else entirely

Death Watch by Ari Berk
One of my students recommended this one (even though he ended up abandoning the series when it got too slow for his tastes – sometimes defying genre expectations works against you). Technically it is a story about a special sort of undertaker working to quiet the restless dead, but that sets you up to expect a certain kind of horror story, probably not one that is this poetic, atmospheric, and emotional . I could also call it a literary meditation on grief, small towns, and fractured families and be just as accurate. Or call it a retelling of Hamlet instead. Whatever it is, it's absolutely and strangely mesmerizing. 

The sequel that’s better than the original

Scarlet by Marissa Meyer
This one is a bit different than the rest, since I did expect to enjoy Scarlet after the excellent Cinder. I just didn’t think it would be even better than the original. Cinder is even more entertaining now that she has Thorne as her foil, who reminds me of a young Zaphod Beeblebrox, and the concurrent plot with Scarlet and her Wolf won me over from the first pulverized tomato. So many trilogies struggle in the middle, so it’s an immensely satisfying surprise to come across a Book 2 that raises the bar and the stakes. Bring on Cress!

What books have pleasantly surprised you lately?

Saturday, June 28, 2014

Finding My Way Back

It’s been a while. A somewhat difficult while. I can't call it depression – I’ve heard and read enough from those who do have depression (Allie Brosh, Libba Bray, Myra McEntire are incredible and everyone should read them) to know that they are battling a different, far more insidious beast. I can’t even say that 2014 has been a bad year so far, on the whole.  

But if I haven’t exactly been plagued by hopelessness and listlessness or plunged into psychological darkness, I’ve certainly found life rather overcast. Defining aspects of my life started to shift or slip back at the beginning of winter. Close friends were planning to move away, work wasn’t going as I’d hoped, my schedule stretched so that I hardly saw my husband, and my motivation to write faded away as I got more tired and the novel still refused to come together. Worst of all for me, several injuries cropped up (which a long string of medical professionals couldn’t seem to fix) and kept me from doing the athletic pursuits that usually make me feel accomplished and keep me sane when everything else is failing. I desperately needed to be part of a team, feel the rush of playing well and winning a game, or at least get outside and run out my frustrations, but instead I filled my calendar with appointments and limped around my house, grumbling. It was also literally overcast until a month or so ago – this is Oregon, after all, land of the clouds, where everyone gets at least a touch of S.A.D. sometimes. I felt myself slipping, fading. I had to conserve my dwindling energy and enthusiasm. So one of several consequences was that I drifted off the blogging/tweeting/online writing community grid. It’s not like I was doing much to move myself closer to the published part of that world, anyway. (See – all gray and grumpy and grumbly.)

The sun has returned and my schedule has improved somewhat, but the rest of those problems still stand. In fact, I started this post a few days ago but had to stop writing it because I started feeling too sorry for myself all over again. I am immensely lucky in most aspects of my life, I know this, it’s just sometimes hard in the face of minor but mounting difficulties to convince myself to be grateful  and flexible and resilient and to seize the freaking day already. I can feel the balance shifting though, and a touch more energy returning, so I’m deciding to be optimistic and ease myself back into writing the novel and resurrecting this abandoned blog. I can’t guarantee that I’ll be consistently inspired on either project, of course, but I’m not going to avoid them anymore. 

It’s time to find my way back.

Thursday, January 2, 2014

Reading and Writing Recap 2013

Whew. I feel like the start of 2014 rolled over me like a speeding freight train. But one that you don’t see coming, like some sort of sneaky ninja freight train. 
Okay, I am going to write the rest of this post later after coffee or the similes will only get worse. 

Writing performance was… decidedly mediocre. I never came to a screeching halt, so I’m glad I still got writing done every month, but I was definitely dragging myself along. I only subbed 9 short stories when I was aiming for 20, and none were accepted (yet, anyway). I did win NaNoWriMo, but I somehow still feel utterly lost with that monstrous mess-uscript.

My journaling plan went much better. Committing myself to only writing a few sentences a day worked really well, and I made it smoothly through the year. I rarely fell behind, and when I did it was a snap to catch up. I don't think I've ever consistently journaled for a year, so yay!

For 2014, I’m combining the two goals and keeping a writing journal inspired by Susan Dennard. I already keep a notebook with random ideas for the novel, but now I want to use one to also document more of my process and keep myself accountable. The rule is, I must write in it every day, even if it’s just “I didn’t write today because work was long and puppy was distracting and the latest episode of Project Runway was about to expire from my Hulu queue. I hereby deprive myself of leftover Christmas chocolate in penance.” Good old fashioned guilt motivation. 

My overall writing goal for the year is a simple one. Finish the *&%$ novel. Please oh please.

I’m also totally using the calendar method again. I got off to a good start and wrote 1000 words yesterday, but sadly my calendar hasn’t arrived in the mail yet. I WANT MY STICKER, DANG IT! Ahem.
2013 was a great reading year. I completed my 50 Off the Shelf Challenge, though it went down to the wire: I had to read 18 books in December to catch up (thank you work-cancelling snow storms, winter vacation, and long airplane flights!), and I *might* have even snuck off from our New Year’s Eve festivities for half an hour in order to finish the final book on my list before midnight. (Why yes, I *am* always the life of the party.) I ended up reading 112 books total for the year, exceeding my goal of 100. An absurd number of them were excellent, so picking my Top Ten was nearly impossible... and in the end I had to cheat a bit and group some by author:

1. Laini Taylor: Days of Blood and Starlight; Lips Touch Three Times
I named my dog Karou after reading the first book in the series, so obviously I had ridiculously high hopes for Days. It exceeded them. And knowing how picky and curmudgeonly I get about romantic stories, the fact that I admit to loving a book of kissing stories called Lips Touch is nothing short of a miracle.

2. Maggie Stiefvater: The Scorpio Races; The Raven Boys
I listened to The Scorpio Races on audiobook and it was stunning, literally: there were scenes that made me stop walking my dog and just stand there, overwhelmed. The Raven Boys showed the same talent with character development and unique fantastical elements... It's going to be a great series.

3. Holly Black: Doll Bones; Black Heart
Doll Bones is the kind of creepy-charming middle grade book that I would love to write. And man am I going to miss the Curse Workers series like crazy.

4. Kristin Cashore: Graceling; Fire; Bitterblue
This is the epic, expansive, unique, unapologetic fantasy series I’ve been waiting for. All three books are exquisite both on their own and as a collection.

5. John Gardner: Grendel
A little literary fiction gem. The prose is so incredibly stunning. I just wanted to savor every sentence, then go reread Beowulf, then reread this again...  

6. Bill Bryson: In a Sunburned Country
Bill Bryson in Australia and at his best. I always learn from and laugh embarrassingly loudly at his writing, but I think this might be my favorite of all of them. 

7. Derek Landy: Skulduggery Pleasant
All of my students seemed to be recommending this one, and they were right. It is absolute hilarious genius, especially when narrated by Rupert Degas. I am currently halfway through the second book of the series and loving it just as much. 

8. Allie Brosh: Hyperbole and a Half
I have loved Allie Brosh's crazy brilliant work for so long, and it's fantastic to have it in book form. Her honesty and humor are like nothing else.

9. John Elder Robison: Look Me in the Eye: My Life with Asperger’s
Such an entertaining and moving memoir that gives great insight into Asperger's but goes well beyond it. Robison has a fascinating life history and heaps of talent.

10. Christopher McDougall: Born to Run
I found this book interesting on all fronts: as a travel narrative, a memoir, a history, a suspense story, sports journalism, an evolutionary hypothesis, a running text, a revolution in athletics and lifestyle. You definitely don’t need any ultramarathon aspirations to learn something fascinating from this one.
And the Pleasant Surprise of the Year Award goes to…

Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows: The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society
This was that last book that I snuck off to finish. I actually planned to read it much earlier in the year since my mom had recommended it, but I just couldn’t get into it then. I almost swapped it out of my list altogether, figuring I'd have to drag myself through it, but thank goodness I gave it another shot. It was incredible, moving and charming with characters that you never want to leave. I mostly read the paperback version, but I also listened to a bit of the audiobook from the library website, and it was excellent as well. I break out into a smile whenever I think about this book. Good call, Mom :-).

In 2014, I again want to read at least 100 books total, 50 of those off of my shelves - the list will be under my Reading tab soon. (Isn't it embarassing that after doing three years of OTS, I again have enough unread books on my shelves to take part again? Yes, yes I think it is.)

How did your writing, reading, and living go in 2013, and what are your goals for this new year?