Sunday, October 31, 2010

Book Review: Not That Kind of Girl

Not That Kind of Girl (2010) by Siobhan Vivian

Inside Jacket: Life is about choices, and Natalie Sterling prides herself on making the right ones. She's avoided the jerky guys populating her prep school, always topped honor roll, and is poised to be the first female student council president in years. If only other girls were as sensible and strong. Like the pack of freshman yearning to be the football players' playthings. Or her best friend, whose crappy judgment nearly ruined her life. But being sensible and strong isn't easy. Not when Natalie nearly gets expelled anyway. Not when her advice hurts more than it helps. Not when a boy she once dismissed becomes the boy she can't stop thinking about. The line between good and bad has gone fuzzy, and crossing it could end in disaster...or become the best choice she'll ever make.

Review: So many other bloggers have highlighted the best parts of this book more eloquently than I can, so I'll keep it short. The best thing about this book is the way it explores the complexity of feminism and empowerment. I really like the concept for the novel and enjoyed it as a story, but I honestly wasn't that moved by it. I bought it expecting to really like it--a lot--but I ended up having a shoulder-shrug reaction to it, and that surprised me. I also don't care for the title or the cover--in fact, I avoided picking it up for a long time because of the cover. I find it to be generic and forgettable. I understand the title plays off the double standard/stereotype of who "that girl" is, but it's a title I find easy to pass over. That said, I would still recommend this book because I think it addresses important issues--using a main character with reasonable flaws and contradictions to explore those issues--that many readers are possibly facing themselves.

Conclusion: 3/5.

Book Review: Princess Academy

Princess Academy (2005) by Shannon Hale

Inside Jacket: High on the slopes of Mount Eskel, Miri's family has lived forever, pounding a meager living from the stone of the mountain itself. Miri dreams of working alongside the others in the quarry, but she has never been allowed to work there--perhaps, she thinks, because she is so small. Then word comes from the lowlands the king's priests have divined that the prince's bride-to-be--the next princess--will come from Mount Eskel. The prince himself will travel to the village to choose his bride, but first all eligible girls must attend a makeshift academy to prepare for royal lowlander life. At the school, Miri finds herself confronting both bitter competition among the girls and her own conflicted desires to be chosen. Yet when danger comes to the academy, it is Miri, named for a tiny mountain flower, who must find a way to save her classmates--and the chance for the future that each of them is eager to secure as her own.

Review: Shannon Hale has created a lushly detailed fairytale with Princess Academy. Her language flows like a true storyteller's and her imagery summons landscapes, people, and experiences as though she used a painter's brush.
Miri woke to the sleepy bleating of a goat. The world was as dark as eyes closed, but perhaps the goats could smell dawn seeping through the cracks in the house's stone walls. Though still half-asleep, she was aware of the late autumn chill hovering just outside her blanket, and she wanted to curl up tighter and sleep like a bear through frost and night and day. (p. 1)

What I particularly loved was the way everything is described in terms of what Miri herself would know. For example, later in the novel, Miri says that her legs feel as soft and weak as two half-stuffed straw beds. Throughout, Hale uses original and evocative images while still maintaining the simple, straightforward writing style of old fairytales.

The other girls at the academy didn't necessarily get a lot of page-time, but as I was reading I definitely felt swells of pride, empathy, and anger toward them, so Hale did well bringing a large cast of characters to life.

The plot felt interesting and important, the romance was well balanced and believable, and it was delightful to see Miri really come into her own throughout the course of the novel.

Conclusion: 4/5. Well-written with a dynamic protagonist. Hale created a very detailed culture/community for her characters (she included tales they told every year at celebrations! Quarrying songs! Traditions!) Her characters were well-rounded and interesting, leaving me invested in their fates. If I were to change anything, it would have been the title because as my sister pointed out, "Princess Academy" sounds like a Meg Cabot book (which is fine, Cabot is great) but it doesn't convey the right feeling for this book. In my humble opinion, at least.


NaNoWriMo: Tonight is the Night...

...when 2 become 1! When I woke up this morning, I realized that NaNoWriMo begins tonight at midnight (so, tomorrow) and the first thing that popped into my head was this Oldie-but-Goodie:

This song is particularly fitting because of the "tonight is the night" part and the other part, where they say "we can achieve it." It is not so fitting during the rest of the song because I am not planning on doing the nasty with my novel.



Thursday, October 28, 2010

Book Blogger Hop (10/29-11/1)

Book Blogger Hop

The Book Blogger Hop is hosted weekly by Crazy-for-Books. This week's question:

What is one bookish thing you would love to have, no matter the cost?

Like a lot of people, the first thing that came to mind was Belle's sliding bookshelf ladder (and the library to go with it). But I generally don't crave many book accessories (although I have been known to love me some bookmarks despite never actually using them).


Hey! Check THIS Out!

Hey! Check out my guest post over at the awesome book blog, Book Infinity. It's part of the 10 Days of Halloween celebration, and I talk about Very. Important. Things. Like why you should not wear meat dresses.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Book Review: Chalice

Chalice (2008) by Robin McKinley

Back Cover: Mirasol is only a beekeeper, but as a member of one of the old families, she can hear the silent murmur of the earthlines. The concerns of Master, Chalice, and Circle, who through the earthlines govern Willowlands, are not hers--until the current Master and Chalice suddenly die, leaving no heirs. The new Master is a priest of Fire, and may no longer be human enough to rule where his father and brother were Master before him. And then the Circle comes to Mirasol and tells her that she is the new Chalice, and that she must bind the land and its people with a Master whose touch can burn human flesh to the bone.

Review: I haven't felt this way about a fantasy story in a long time; Chalice is intricate, finely wrought, and draws the reader into Mirasol's world with an easiness not all stories have. One of the things I liked best was that McKinley doesn't take time away from the story to clue readers in on Mirasol's world--rather, you pick it up in bits and pieces as you go, which ultimately makes it feel more real.

McKinley writes with such expression and expertise that as Mirasol awaits the arrival of the new and strange Master with bated breath, so do readers. I liked Mirasol immensely, and the silent Fire Master with burning eyes and skin like coal was very compelling.

Conclusion: 5/5. I had a great time with this book. McKinley is a beautiful storyteller and draws her characters with masterful, nuanced strokes of the pen. Highly recommended for the balanced plot and understated but powerful romance.


Tuesday, October 26, 2010

NaNoWriMo: Prepping and Planning

I am such a lying liar! I said I was going to fly through National Novel Writing Month by the seat of my pants, and what did I do right after saying that?

You're right. I started planning.

There are different degrees of planning, and I am happily paddling around in the shallow end. Some tenacious individuals who are chomping at the bit cannonball into the deep end and cover their walls with color-coordinated Post-Its based on character and plot threads. Others use the Snowflake method (which, people, if I ever do hardcore planning, that is the method I will use. I've semi-used it before and it really helped me wrap my head around my plot and its accompanying holes).

Other bold people such as myself do no more than a little dabbling with characters, a little poking around with plot, and a little note-taking about pivotal scenes. Honestly, I find myself between a rock and a hard place when it comes to planning.

If I plan too much, I tend to kill the motivation and drive I once had for the New! Exciting! Idea! Part of this is because once it's written down, I have a hard time deviating from an outline at which point I stomp around a little complaining that I'm bored because I already know everything that's about to happen. A small part of my brain implodes and the document goes stale like an open package of Saltines. But I always end up liking what I wrote when I go back three months later. Absence makes the heart fonder and all. (Either that or I'm humiliated by it).

On the other hand, if I don't plan enough, the first snafu I hit sends me for a loop and I stomp around complaining loudly that I'm frustrated because I don't know what's happening next. The process looks something like this:

1. I get surprised by an idea. It doesn't happen often. (Having them, I mean. I am almost always surprised by them).

2. Oo-er, is that a pesky gap in logic already? *Eyeballs plot hole* I think...yes, I--I think my arm could fit through that.

3. Three hours later....

4. I accept defeat.

In the end, what usually ends up working best for me is sitting myself in front of a blank document or notebook, putting the same song on repeat, and staying that way for an hour. This is also how I study. I think very vaguely about beginnings and endings and arcs and characters until I have a sense of what I want the reader to walk away feeling. Then I make a couple notes about characters, important scenes, unimportant scenes, and plot. I like index cards for this, or a couple sheets of notebook paper. If I know how it begins and I know how it ends (and this I feel in my gut when I've got it right) then I'm usually good to go. This was just the long way around the barn of saying I take the middleground.

If you're doing NaNo, how do YOU prepare?
If you're not doing NaNo, do you have strategies for writing outside of November?


Saturday, October 23, 2010

Book Review: Gender Blender

Gender Blender (2006) by Blake Nelson

Inside Jacket:

Emma and Tom aren't friends anymore. It's middle school. It's war.

EMMA: Wants Jeff Matthews to notice her. Hates sexist boys. Wonders when shell get her period.

TOM: Must get on the baseball team. Can't stand the Grrlzillas. Wants to kiss Kelly A.

Then something freaky happens: Emma and Tom switch bodies. And until they can break the curse:

EMMA: Can't believe she has a...thingie. Hates mean girls. Finds out that Tom just got her period.

TOM: Must learn to put on a bra. Has to deal with Emma's weird family. Must avoid getting kissed by Jeff.

Review: This book is majorly cute. It's definitely for a slightly younger audience, and has a curiously 90s vibe (despite being from '06). Both Tom and Emma are adorable in their own right, and you can imagine the confusion and hi-jinks that ensue after they switch bodies. Emma is particularly consternated to learn that she will have to wiggle "it" when she goes to the bathroom, and Tom treats himself to a clumsy striptease in front of the bathroom mirror. Nelson does a great job keeping the plot fast and lighthearted, but he also works in the message that boys and girls are treated very differently, despite being very similar.

Conclusion: Fast and funny, easy to read, but predictable. 3/5.


Friday, October 22, 2010

Book Blogger Hop

Book Blogger Hop

I'm partaking in the Book Blogger Hop hosted by Crazy for Books, and you should too!

The question this week is:

Where is your favorite place to read? Curled up in the sofa, in bed, in the garden?

The fact is, as much as I like to imagine that I am the type of person who reads at a streetside cafe in Paris, I in fact get most of my reading done in bed. Although, I am not against a couch corner, lap blanket, and hot cup of tea. Also, lately, the bus stop has been really productive for me. And I wouldn't say no to this chair.

Where do you read?


Book Review: Gamer Girl

Gamer Girl (2008) by Mari Mancusi

Inside Jacket: Maddy's life: not so rockin'. Her parents split, she's stuck in a new, small town at a school full of Aberzombies and Haters, she has a crush on someone she really shouldn't like, and she's stuck with the nickname Freak Girl. Sometimes it's enough to retreat into her drawing--her manga is totally important to her--but when she gets Fields of Fantasy for her birthday, she knows she's found the one place she can be herself. In the game world, Maddy can transform from regular outcast high school student to Allora, a beautiful Elfin princess with magical powers to take down enemies with a snap of her fingers and a wave of her wand. As Allora, Maddy's virtual life is perfect, and she even finds a little romance. But a real gamer girl understands that real life comes first--Maddy can't escape from her IRL problems. She has to find ways to kick back at the Haters, rock her manga, and find the new, real-life friends she knows she deserves.

Review: This book brought me a lot of joy. I found Maddy to be fairly real and likable, and I felt for her in a lot of ways. (Although I'm not so sure about the way she equates Hot Topic with individuality and originality. But girlfriend gets a break). Maddy finds a lot of freedom and relief in Fields of Fantasy, and even meets a smokin' Elf warrior named Sir Leo when no one IRL* is paying positive attention to her. Anyway, Mancusi does a good job of projecting Maddy's delight with the game--not to mention her excitement at having met someone nice to play with--so that readers share her anticipation to log on and quest. I don't exactly consider myself a gamer girl, though I have certainly spent my fair share of eight-hour stints (and, um, four years) on World of Warcraft (which, let's be honest, is what Mancusi means when she says Fields of Fantasy). Even for people who don't game, I imagine they'd still get a lot of enjoyment out of Maddy's experiences. (And honestly, the gaming isn't that large a part of the story). Mancusi also responsibly makes sure to include conversations between Maddy and her parents wherein they remind her not to give out any personal information and talk about the dangers of the internet. (And Maddy listens to them, even when she desperately wants to tell Sir Leo more about herself). Also, it's adorable the way she is concerned about coming off as a n00b in-game but happily brags about her gamer status (after like an hour of playing) to people offline.

Gamer Girl has a good balance of life lessons, romance, and humor. Maddy has to struggle with a group of popular bullies at her new school, and one of the ways she copes after being humiliated is to go home and illustrate the scene with a new ending: one where she stands up for herself (and others) and is basically the best, most powerful version of herself. This is a really empowering move on her part, because later in the story--as you can guess--she is able to do it IRL.** Mancusi weaves the plot together seamlessly, spending just enough time on Maddy's struggle with her parents' split, the jerks at school, as well as her online crush on Sir Leo and her offline crush on a boy in the bully group.

Conclusion: 4/5. This book is probably meant for a slightly younger audience (12-15) but it's very readable. Ultimately it is a story about a girl who comes into her own, learns to be herself even when she stands alone, and makes a place for herself in her environment. Maddy is a delightful character who struggles with the complexities and contradictions in her life but comes out victorious.

*What? You thought I wouldn't freely use chatspeak given the chance?


Thursday, October 21, 2010

My Life in Books

I saw this meme over at The Flying Scribble, and thought it looked too fun to pass up. Finish each sentence with the title of a book you've read this year! If you do it, post the link in the comments!

In high school, I was: The Best of the Best (Ruben A. Gaztambide-Fernandez)
People might be surprised that I'm: Wondrous Strange (Lesley Livingston)
I will never be: Percy Jackson and the Olympians (Rick Riordan)
My fantasy job: Half-Moon Investigations (Eoin Colfer)
At the end of a long day, I need: Enthusiasm (Polly Shulman)
Wish I had: Summers at Castle Auburn (Sharon Shinn)
My family reunions are: Someday This Pain Will be Useful to You (Peter Cameron) but also The Book of Awesome (Neil Pasricha)
At a party you'd find me: Waiting for You (Susane Colasanti)
I've never been to: Austenland (Shannon Hale)
A happy day includes: Tales from Outer Suburbia (Shaun Tan)
Motto I live by: As You Wish (Jackson Pearce)
In my next life, I want to be: Catherine, Called Birdy (Karen Cushman)


Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Book Review: Wondrous Strange

Wondrous Strange (2009) Lesley Livingston

Inside Jacket: For seventeen-year-old actress Kelley Winslow, faeries are just something from childhood stories. Then she meets Sonny Flannery, whose steel-gray eyes mask an equally steely determination to protect her. Sonny guards the Samhain Gate, which connects the mortal realm with the Faerie's enchanted, dangerous Otherworld. Usually kept shut by order of icy King Auberon, the Gate stands open but once a year. This year, as the time approaches when the Samhain Gate will swing wide and nightmarish Fae will fight their way into an unsuspecting human world, something different is happening...something wondrous and strange. And Kelley's eyes are opening not just to the Faerie that surround her but to the heritage that awaits her. Now Kelley must navigate deadly Faerie treachery--and her growing feelings for Sonny--in this dazzling page-turner filled with luminous romance.

Review: Livingston writes with a quality that allows her to evoke an entire scene with a few deft word choices. For instance, the back cover:

She felt his arms tighten around her as they spiraled up, borne aloft on wings that were dark as the night, bright as a new star.

Throughout Wondrous Strange, Livingston demonstrates her easy familiarity with myths/legends/lore in an understated but efficient way. She doesn't waste time with explanations, but there is a certain depth to her references that I often feel is missing from other paranormal/fantasy books. Part of this is likely due to the fact that she specialized in Arthurian literature and is a member of a Shakespearean theatre troupe.

I have to admit, I was more drawn in by her turn of phrase than I was by the story itself. While I really liked elements of the plot (it's not set in high-school! For once!), I felt as though there were areas where she could have done more to make the story compelling. Certain devices felt all too easy (and sometimes haphazard).

As for the characters, both Kelley and Sonny fell a little flat. (Also, for some reason, I was able to get through half the book under the impression that Sonny had a short crop of blond hair. Imagine my surprise when I discovered it was actually long, dark, and silky). There's an interesting dynamic to the story because Kelley is the one who is mysteriously more than human while Sonny is not supernatural or fantastical (though he is talented). This is a deviation from the norm, because many recent YA books cast the male as the powerful, chiseled, enigmatic Other after whom the protagonist lusts. In fact, Sonny largely subverts the current brooding YA archetype by being openly dazzled by Kelley, unfailingly sweet, and making some pretty massive mistakes. Also, even though he's a guard for the Faery King, he's pleasantly average at what he does. I didn't find the romance between Kelley and Sonny particularly compelling, but granted, this is the first in a series of books. (Which raises another question: doesn't anyone publish oneshots anymore??) I would have liked to see more of the clever boucca, Bob, and Maddox, Sonny's wisecracking fellow guard.

Overall, the beginning was interesting and different, the middle was slow in some places, and the end built into a dramatic and rewarding climax. I am just talking about books here. Do not take this sentence out of context. xD

Conclusion: Wondrous Strange gets two ratings: 3/5 for plot, characters, enjoyment and 4/5 for the actual writing. Livingston has some serious chops when it comes to atmospheric, eerily beautiful descriptions.

Monday, October 11, 2010

NaNoWriMo 2010

November is National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo)! It's a worldwide event in which participants challenge themselves to become lean, mean writing machines and bust out a novel. The goal is to write 50,000 words in 30 days. (To give you an idea, 50,000 words is about the same length as Catcher in the Rye). It averages out to 1667 words per day, which is totally doable. There's a huge community of happy and helpful NaNo writers who all come out of the woodwork at the official site, and I would recommend it to anyone looking to challenge themselves and find fellow writers.

Last year, for Nano '09, I reached 25,000 words and still felt really pleased with myself. I wouldn't use the Nano method for everything I write, but I really enjoy using it to test out new ideas and get them down on paper. Last year I started plotting in September, but this year I'm going by the seat of my pants. We'll see how I fare. I intend to post updates about my progress here during November, and would love to hear from others doing Nano as well!


Friday, October 8, 2010

Book Review: Tales from Outer Suburbia

Tales from Outer Suburbia (2008) Shaun Tan

Back Jacket: You thought you knew suburbia. Then you meet an exchange student from another world, discover a secret room that lets you escape to a place of perfect beauty, find a neighborhood where brightly painted missiles decorate every yard, and wait for a blind reindeer who demands a very special offering....These are the odd, magical details of everyday suburban life that might forever go unnoticed, were they not finally brought to light by Shaun Tan, author and illustrator of award-winning New York Times bestseller The Arrival.

Review: This book is a work of art. I have always loved picture books, but it has been a long time since one captures my attention so completely that I am actually unaware of time passing. Tan's book is strange and moving. He writes with a masterful simplicity that perfectly complements his striking illustrations. There is a certain quiet quality to the book as it moves from one story to the next, each a moment--sometimes small, sometimes profound--in the lives of the story's inhabitants. I enjoyed all the stories, but my favorites included "Eric," "Distant Rain," and "No Other Country."

Conclusion: 5/5 Curious and wonderful, this book is extremely absorbing. Tan's writing and illustrations are thoughtful, humorous, and full of small but significant instances of humanity. I enjoyed it immensely at face-value, but I also have that vague sense Tan is writing with much greater depth and meaning than I am capable of comprehending. Highly recommended.