Friday, February 27, 2009

Book Review: Staying Fat for Sarah Byrnes

Title: Staying Fat for Sarah Byrnes
Author: Chris Crutcher
Genre: Young Adult, Literary Fiction
Rating: A+

Summary (from the Back Flap): "Sarah Byrnes and Eric have been friends for years. When they were children, his fat and her terrible scars made them both outcasts. Later, although swimming slimmed Eric, she stayed his closest friend.

"Now Sarah Byrnes--the smartest, toughest person Eric has ever known--sits silent in a hospital. Eric must uncover the terrible secret she's hiding, before its dark currents pull them both under."

Review: I think I could write a one-word review of this book (obviously I've exceeded that already, but I'm making a point here). The problem is that if I drop this one word on you, you'll be like, "What?!" It's a racy word, and I think it might be okay to use it because it's not like I go throwing the sauce around on this blog all the time--I prefer to save my racy talk for when I hang out with my sailor friends. Anyway, here's my one-word review:

FAN-FUCKING-TASTIC. Seriously. I know a lot of people say that using foul language is the hobgoblin of little minds (along with routine), and that if you can't say it more creatively than you're a loser, but the situation called for it. Read this one-word review, and tell me which is better: FANTASTIC. The middle part of the first review had an impact, didn't it?

Here's why this book is FAN-_ _ _ _ _ _ _-TASTIC:

1. The characters are amazing. Crutcher used to be a child therapist, and he's got this stuff nailed down tight. I loved it, it was gripping, moving, heart-wrenching, and beautifully drawn. Everybody--Eric, Sarah Byrnes, his parents, friends, foes, everyone--was fully developed.

2. The plot is hands-down dynamite. There's angst, there's sports, there's all kinds of lovey-dovey beauty. Strong friendships, lies, fears, everything you need for a good hard-boiled story.

3. The themes are tough to handle, but complex and thought-provoking. I work at a camp for abused and neglected kids every summer, and I don't think I'll ever be the same. This book is reach-down-into-your-chest-and-rip-your-heart-out writing. I actually gave my sister a summary of what the book was about, I only got through two sentences before she broke me off and said she couldn't handle any more, it was too much. I said, "You read books where the protagonist is a rape victim, but this is too much for you?" (This was in reference to some books by Charlaine Harris). My sister said crimes against adults, although awful, are nothing compared with crimes against children.

Tough to read, but totally worth it. I'm going to have to go out and get every last one of Crutcher's books. The guy is FAN-_ _ _ _ _ _ _-TASTIC.

Book Review: Younger

Title: Younger
Author: Pamela Redmond Satran
Genre: Commercial Fiction
Rating: C

Abbreviated Summary (from the Back Flap): "Alice has always looked young for her age, even with her graying hair and her dowdy New Jersey housewife style. Make that ex-housewife: Now that her husband's gone and her daughter is grown, Alice is in desperate need of a while new life. So she lets her friend Maggie transform her... on New Year's Eve. Soon, thanks to the wonders of hair dye and tight jeans, Alice looks really young... At midnight, she kisses a boy who was in diapers when she was in high school.

"The white lie that Alice tells Josh gets her thinking that if no one asks her age, she doesn't have to tell. So she applies for a job... and gets it. Meanwhile, Josh is falling head over heels for Alice, who's just way cooler than girls his age..."

Review: There was way more to that summary about her telling her lies and will she get caught? Obviously. You know the climax going in. The only thing you don't know is, Why would I care? I picked this book up as an impulse buy at the store as I was browsing, I was hungry and the cake caught my eye, and I skimmed to the part about when she meets Josh (I thought the 44 year/25 year relationship was far-fetched) and wanted to see how it was written. Not well, but Josh was a nice character, so I picked it up. Josh is what kept me reading. I found I skimmed a lot of the rest of it (Are those the worst words an author can hear?), I didn't care about her daughter, kind of liked her friend (although I knew the outcome of all her baby-wanting before it even happened).

It was really formulaic and Alice was fine, but the pitch was just so-so for me. Maybe I wasn't in the target demographic. Being 30, I'm too old for the stuff about partying younger people, and too young for the stuff about the older generation. Maybe other people might like it, it just wasn't for me. (Plus, the oft-repeated references to how women in their 40's are at their sexual peak seemed like over-compensating to me.)

There was an interview with the author at the back of the version I bought that I read part of, and she said she'd been kicking the idea for this book around in several different forms. One of which was, "I saw Alice as a rich shallow woman on the brink of killing herself who decides to spend her last hour of life reading Vogue--and therin discovers a miracle-working plastic surgeon whom she gets to transform her into someone who looks young." Sure, it's surreal, but it actually sounds more innovative than this story was.

I've read worse, but I've read better... that gets you a C.

Book Review: Bridge of Sighs

Title: Bridge of Sighs
Author: Richard Russo
Genre: Literary Fiction
Rating: A

Summary (from the Back Flap): "Louis Charles Lynch (also known as Lucy) is sixty years old and has lived in Thomaston, New York, his entire life. He and Sarah, his wife of forty yeas, are about to embark on a vacation to Italy. Lucy's oldest friend, once a rival for his wife's affection, leads a life in Venice far removed from Thomaston. Perhaps for this reason Lucy is writing the story of his town, his family, and his own life that makes up this rich and mesmerizing novel, interspersed with that of the native son who left so long ago and has never looked back."

Review: I loved this book. Let me say that again. I loved this book. This was the February book club selection, and 8 out of 9 of us liked or really loved the book... one lady said it "didn't have enough plot." She's not a big lover of character-driven novels. I am. If you are, you'll love this book too.

Russo was kind of a genius, his two leading male characters (he uses multiple narrators/POVs, and they both get a chance in the spotlight), both take strong arcs through the story, and I went right along for the ride. I liked both of them in the beginning--I thought Lucy was funny and Bobby was awesomely irreverant--not so much in the middle--Lucy was too needy and Bobby was too selfish and immature--and they were both undeniably redeeming in the end. It's exactly what you'd hope for in characters. Both of the strong female leads (Lucy's mother and then his wife) are strong throughout, very few times do you not really like them (and when you do it's because their actions are being interpreted by somebody else incorrectly), but they're shining in their entirety.

In regard to the writing, Russo's prose is dense, you'll feel like you've been reading for hours, but you've only gotten through 10 pages. He paints an incredibly vivid portrait of this town, you're there with them experiencing it all. He also uses symbolism incredibly well--I picked up an interplay between water (which doesn't always run clean) as an ironic twist on truth woven throughout the story. Additionally, painting and impressions and images are a strong motif about perspective.

I do have to admit that I went through a period of about a week while reading the section directly leading up to and during the climax and it was a really dark time--it affected the way I was looking at things, which is what authors hope their books do, the problem being that this was a dark and heavy section. It's bleak. Life took on a different hue for me during this time. I actually uttered the phrase, "What's the point of it all?" Can you believe that? Crazy, huh?

Anyway, I loved the book, rated it an A (the only drawback was that Russo switched to Sarah's POV for the principal climax, which seemed off-kilter, she hadn't been used too much as a narrator and really important stuff seemingly goes on with Lucy that we only hear about tangentially after the fact that should have been more directly addressed).

I'll repeat my earlier sentiment, if you like character-driven novels, pick this up. Russo's a genius.

This Looks So Fantastic!

Can you believe I just used an exclamation point in the title of this blog post? I know, right? That's how excited I am about this book, Voluntary Madness: My Year Lost and Found in the Loony Bin by Norah Vincent.

I read this article on and knew I had to put this on my wish list. Actually, I might move it to the top of my wish list.

Here's the snippet that got me to read the whole article (and induced my fervor to read the book):

"There are concerns... that psychiatrists in the real world of city hospital psych wards and small private practices spend far too much time writing prescriptions and far too little time listening to patients to help them work through issues that may be the root of their illnesses. Norah Vincent explores this controversy through firsthand personal experience: She becomes a patient herself, documenting what she saw in her new book...

"Vincent, the bestselling author of Self-Made Man (Penguin, 2006), in which she wrote about disguising herself as a man, decided to have herself voluntarily committed to three different institutions. (She declined to provide their real names to protect the privacy of doctors and patients she met there.) She first faked her way into a big city public hospital by pretending to have a recurrence of her previous depression. She then intentionally caused a relapse of her depression by going off her antidepressant, which led to her being admitted to a small private hospital. Finally, she tried a recovery facility replete with yoga classes, gym, and facials.

"Setting aside the ethical problems of faking mental illness (Vincent told her insurance company and offered to pay for the treatment) and the recklessness of causing your own depression relapse, the book is replete with insights into how varying treatment is for mental illness."

That's kind of crazy, right? (Not that I intended that pun.) I seriously think it would be really interesting to get a "behind-the-scenes" peek from a first-hand perspective of mental health. A lot of authors use poor mental health as plot devices and character "flaws" in fiction, and I'd like to compare/contrast with some (potentially biased) non-fiction.

Anybody else totally weirded out in the most awesome way ever by this book?

Friday Finds

I am launching into the world of Friday Finds... a weekly meme hosted by the blogger at Should be Reading to summarize which fantastic books flew onto your radar this week (with shout-outs to those fantastic referral sources).

My Friday Finds are...

So, those are mine. Show me yours. (Not like that, you sick-o, post your Friday Finds and link them up at "Should be Reading.") Post a comment and let me know if any of my Friday Finds will show up on your list next week.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

I Love a Challenge

Last year I became aware of the huge numbers of books that get banned or challenged from public libraries and schools. Now the Pelham Public Library (in the great northern neighbor, Ontario, Canada) is hosting their 2009 Banned Book Challenge. They have a seriously long list of banned/challenged books (I believe this is a Canadian list, which will differ from the one compiled by the American Library Association).

Banned Books Week in Canada runs in early March (later in the fall here in the States), but I've signed up to participate. I'd read a fair number of the books on the Pelham Library's list, but committed to read another three before the end of their contest. I chose The Watchmen, A Prayer for Owen Meaney, and The Kite Runner. Those are all already on my TBR bookshelf, just asking to be read (actually the first two asked to be read during last year's Modern Classics Challenge that I technically finished).

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

What's On Your Nightstand - February 2009

It's the end of the month, and you know what that means, right? Social Security checks next week! Yay! Wait, no, it means it's time for the monthly 5 Minutes for Books' What's on Your Nightstand? meme.

Here's what rocked and rolled its way onto my nightstand in the month of February:

To Be Read - The Astonishing Adventures of Fanboy and Goth Girl, Dedication, The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks, Empire Falls, In Your Room, Megan Meade's Guide to the McGowan Boys, and The Women

Wish List - The Geography of Bliss, Heloise & Abelard: A New Biography, Jane Austen Ruined my Life, A Mouth Like Yours, The Strangler, The Thirteenth Tale, and Through the Children's Gate: A Home in New York

Books I Finished/Reviewed - Knights of the Hill Country, Evolution, Me and Other Freaks of Nature, Girls for Breakfast, In the Break, Bridge of Sighs, and Younger (Reviews on the last two coming soon)

How's that for a month? I got 1 book off my "TBR" list (the other books I read/reviewed were impulse buys at the store or the library), and added another 6 books to the shelf. None of those books that I added to the shelf were "wish list" items, they were just impulse buys based on liking other works by the author, or being attracted to it in some other way.

Every month the TBR shelf and the wish list grow, but they never seem to get any smaller even though I consistently read 4 or more books a month. I wonder why...

The Final Tour Stop

Today is the last stop on the I Love to Write blog tour. We'll be featuring the "My Book Therapy" book, From the Inside... Out.

You might be thinking to yourself, "I'm not a writer, why does she keep posting these weird if you're a writer type blogs?"

Well, you're probably wrong.

You might be a writer if...
  • You know you've got a story inside that's just bursting to get out;
  • You love to tell stories to others to make them laugh, think, cry, whatever; or
  • You've ever read a book and thought, "I could do a better job than that."
I'm guessing by the mere virtue of you having a blog (which is an informal form of story-telling), that you've got some part of a writer somewhere inside of you.

That being said, if you think that you've got any bit of inkling inside of you, check out this book which may be the one tool that could help you get over the hump and get on your way. Count this as the one required reading you need to get to in 2009. You owe it to the writer who lives inside you that you've been starving for all these years.

If you'd like to win a copy of From the Inside... Out, click this link and leave a comment telling "My Book Therapy" what kind of novel you have inside of you that's just bursting to get out.

Here's a video that talks a little bit more about one of the authors of From the Inside... Out, and how she stopped starving her inner writer.

    Tuesday, February 24, 2009

    Three Month Hiatus

    No joke, the last time I posted a Teaser Tuesday post was November 25, 2008. Three months. That's way too long to be holding back on you guys. Here goes...

    From Into Thin Air: A Personal Account of the Mt. Everest Disaster by Jon Krakauer, I give you a very long quote (that he is quoting) that I couldn't possibly chop off. Please read this, keeping in mind that this is one guy's personal account of climbing Mount Everest (Eric Shipton in Upon That Mountain, 1952), which is what Into Thin Air is also about. Enjoy:
    "I doubt if anyone would claim to enjoy life at high altitudes--enjoy, that is, in the ordinary sense of the word. There is a certain grim satisfcation to be dervied from struggling upwards, however slowly; but the bulk of one's time is necessarily spent in the extreme squalor of a high camp, when even this solace is lacking. Smoking is impossible; eating tends to make one vomit; the necessity of reducing weight to a bare minimum forbids the importation of literature beyond that supplied by the labels on tins of food; sardine oil, condensed milk and treacle spill themselves all over the place; except for the briefest moments, during which one is not actually in a mood for aesthetic enjoyment, there is nothing to look at but the bleak confusion inside the tent and the scaly, bearded countenance of one's companion--fortunately the noise of the wind usually drowns out his stuffy breathing; worst of all is the feeling of complete helplessness and inability to deal with any emergency that might arise. I used to try to console myself with the thought that a year ago I would have been thrilled by the very idea of taking part in our present adventure, a prospect that had then seemed like an impossible dream; but altitude has the same effect on the mind as the body, one's intellect becomes dull and unresponsive, and my only desire was to finish the wretched job and to get down to a more reasonable clime" (p. 107).
    Makes you want to run right out and sign up for an expedition to climb Everest, eh? I know, it seems paradoxic, but there's something about the way Kraukauer writes the experiences, including the deaths, that makes you think that you can understand why people need to summit the highest peak in the world. Call it the modern day Tower of Babel, but it's pretty special. This book is 100% dynamite.

    Because I copied an insane amount of text, I'm going to cite Into Thin Air, lest I be sued for this non-commercial blog.

    Krakauer, Jon. (1999). Into Thin Air: A Personal Account of the Mount Everest Disaster. New York: Anchor Books.

    Are You a Genre Snob?

    This week's Tuesday Thingers question is:

    Do you have a specialized blog where you only review a certain genre or type of book? If so, what is your favorite thing about that type of book? If not, what is/are your favorite genre(s)? What makes that genre(s) a favorite?

    I do not limit this blog to a specific genre; however, I did a quick review of all the books I've reviewed on here in the past year and here's how they stack up (In order of prevalence):
    • Young Adult Fiction, All Genres (21)
    • Literary Fiction (13)
    • Genre Fiction (Science Fiction) (2)
    • Non-fiction, Literary Criticism/Critique/Theory (2)
    • Genre Fiction (Chick Lit), Christian (1)
    • Non-fiction, Memoir (1)
    So, it would seem that YA Fiction gets the most play on this blog, which makes sense because I can rip through those books generally in 1-2 days. Literary fiction is my true passion and they take longer to linger over, so you can see how the number of days/hours/minutes spent reading literary fiction is probably higher than any other category. Also, a cursory (and completely unscientific) look at the reviews shows that I rate the Literary Fiction books highest.

    There you have it. I'm somewhat of a genre snob. I definitely eschew too much science fiction, hardly any true romance or mystery (in terms of that being the genre... I don't mind a little mystery or romance in my reading, but not as the driving force of a plot). Actually, I found in my book club last night that I'm drawn to those books that don't seem to have a "plot," I love character-driven novels. Let somebody wax eloquent for 182 pages about why they think the way they do, and I'm in heaven.

    Have I Been Busy?

    So, you might think that the title of this post is my admission that I've been negligent in my blogs. In some respect you'd be right. In other respects you'd be so wrong that it's not even funny!

    I'm actually using that title because I'm posting another installment of the Inside... Out Blog Tour. Today's post is an article by one of the Book Therapy Therapists, Rachel Hauck, about writing in the midst of a busy life. Take it away, Rachel...

    "A therapist thought: Writing in the midst of a busy life" by Rachel Hauck

    Early on in my writing life, I had to give up the notion that writing time would come easy, be ideal and full of inspiration. When I signed my first book contract, I was working full time for a software company as a department manager. I’d recently become a worship leader at my church, adding that to my job as youth pastor’s wife. My husband and I also gathered with other area pastors to start a weekly multi-church prayer meeting and I’d become the Vice President of a national writers organization and was coordinating our second annual conference.

    Writing? Yeah, like when? Where? And I didn’t even have children to raise. I felt pushed, pulled, torn, frazzled and on the edge. I’d never written a book to be published before. I’d not coordinated a conference and my committee was “out there” across America. If I failed, I’d let so many people down, including myself.

    I lay in bed one night praying, trying to decide if I should just work up my courage and resign as Vice President and admit I couldn’t do it all. I didn’t need to be that kind of person. But as my final grasp for God’s grace, I whispered in the darkness, “Lord, you have a conference to coordinate, let me know what you need me to do.”

    Peace washed over me. I didn’t resign. The Lord sent me a co-coordinator. The conference was a success.

    And, I wrote my first book by June of that year and met my deadline.

    A busy life seems impossible to avoid these days. We have so many options and opportunities available to us. Here are a few things I’ve learned along the way.

    1. Make sure the jobs or opportunities you embrace are really from the Lord. Don’t say yes out of guilt or even selfish ambition. Know that you know all you’re doing is right and good. Sure I had a full plate that one year, but I knew God had loaded me up for a reason.

    2. Give it all back to Him. Ask for wisdom and grace, insight and help.

    3. Let go of any and all concept that you have to be perfect. You’ll fail and it’s okay to fail. There were quite a few bloopers at that second annual conference, but we got past them. God’s grace was greater.

    4. Get organized. Since I knew my book deadline, I wrote out my writing schedule on a calendar. I had a few extra vacation days so I scheduled them as mega-writing sessions. It’s not unholy, or ungodly to plan. Most of us fail in our sincerest desires because we live by the tyranny of the urgent. We don’t plan so our lives are governed by the moment. If we do plan, we allow ourselves to be knocked off course. Schedule writing time and STICK to it. If it’s one hour a week, then guard it with all your might.

    5. Be confident before God. Know that He has good works planned for you to walk in. He loves you. He wants you to succeed.
    In the midst of juggling my schedule, I worked hard to maintain my own intimate relationship with Jesus. It wasn’t always easy and I failed to reach my ultimate goal, but by having a goal, I found success. Otherwise, I might have drifted way away from the heart-to-heart relationship I wanted with Him.

    There were a few tools I used to help me stay on track with my relationship.

    1. I attended corporate prayer meetings.

    2. I was faithful to all worship services.

    3. I went early to youth church or main church to have prayer times.
    Look for ways to fortify your spiritual as well as natural life.

    1. Find a buddy to pray with or write with.

    2. Ask your family to “do it with you.” As parents we spend time driving our children to school, music or dance, sports events. Wouldn’t they love to help mom or dad meet their writing goal? Bring them into the adventure with you.

    3. Pray. Ask Jesus for grace. For help. If all else fails, use my prayer. “Lord, you have a book to write, let me know what I need to do.
    If you find you just can’t manage it all, set is aside and wait. Maybe your season of writing is not yet. But keep taking notes, keep praying, keep learning.

    God is faithful to keep us in His will. Even when we fail, He will not.So exhale. Relax. Have fun.

    Thursday, February 19, 2009

    Book-to-Movie Adaptations... Oh No!

    So, an author over on had some choice (four-letter) words about Hollywood's adaptation of literary fiction into movies. Check out this article, "Great Book, Bad Movie: How Hollywood Ruins Novels."

    I like a lot of the points he makes, and find that he hints at what my major beef with book-to-movie adaptations of the literary fiction variety is. Namely, that for me the draw of literary fiction is the intense inner dialogue of a character-driven novel where you crawl inside the characters' heads, which just isn't really possible in film. They're two different art forms and Hollywood should do what it does well that can't be done well in books, and vice versa.

    As I said in my review of the movie Atonement that got lambasted, much of what lacked for me was the pressure you felt when you inhabited Briony's world... especially when she was really young. Everything was so intense, so dissected, so multi-faceted and in the film it seemed rushed to get to the "plot," the "action," about the false imprisonment and the war stuff. It didn't even really feel like to me that there was as much build-up about the eventual reconciliation (especially in regard to her viewing of the Marshalls' wedding).

    But, that being said, there's a big debate raging over on the Slate boards about which movies have been good adaptations and which haven't. So click the link, slide on over, read the article, and get up in the mix. (By the by, this post will be re-posted on "What Was I Watching?" since it's a cross-over... don't bother with both if you follow them. You'll probably just be disappointed at how I adapt it for that blog.)

    Tuesday, February 17, 2009

    Ah, Tuesday Thingers... Where Have You Been?

    It has been quite some time since I've posted a response to the Tuesday Thingers Question of the Week, but I've decided to jump back in the pool. If nothing else, it'll break up the endless list of book reviews I've been posting on the blog. That being said, this week's question concerns books that get reviewed:

    "How do you get your books for reviewing? Do you track them somehow (excel, database, etc), or just put them in a tbr (To Be Read for anyone that doesn't know) pile?"

    I get my books from the bookstore most often, sometimes the library, but I'm really hard on books--carrying them around in my purse and writing my thoughts in them--so I try to help the economy out as much as possible. The books that get put in my TBR pile (all of which get some sort of write-up/review on the blog) come from all kinds of sources: recommendations from other bloggers, my monthly book club at the library, my page-a-day book lover's calendar, books by authors that I love, etc.

    Here's the process I use:
    1. When I receive a recommendation or become aware of a title I want to read, I write it down in a little notebook I carry with me. This allows me to have it with me when I'm at the bookstore or library.
    2. When at said bookstore or library, I'll pull out the trusty notebook and look around (rather than aimlessly walking around and looking for inspiration). Although, I do reserve the right to be serendipitiously inspired (as with my recent purchase of The Women by T.C. Boyle that was prominently displayed in B&N when I walked in and I loved Loving Frank by Nancy Horan, so the idea of another fictionalized account of Frank Lloyd Wright's philandering ways caught my eye to the point that I actually plunked down cold hard cash for the hardback version).
    3. When I bring the purchased books home they get shelved on the TBR bookshelves (I've got one bookshelf for YA books and another for everything else). They're put in the order of original publication date and I try to read chronologically. Although, again, another caveat, I reserve the right to take a book out of order if I really want to or if I need to get read earlier (i.e., if it was loaned or it's for a book club and I have to meet the meeting deadline or it's part of research for writing or something).

    That's it. Genius, huh? Also, you can track my TBR bookshelves (including all the jots and tittles that are still just hopes and dreams in my notebook) on my Goodreads profile.

    So now you tell me: Where do you get your books you review? How do you track? etc.?


    Remember those games you used to play where your friend started the story, and you finished it? Or the "choose your own adventure" books? Ever wanted to be a part of the story process, giving input on the character's decisions, learning how to write a book as you go? Me too!

    At My Book Therapy, they love to write, and they love to teach writers how to find their voice. So, in 2009 they're opening things up to you (and me and the rest of the world) to write a book together! We'll create characters, a plot, develop conflict, the black moment, the epiphany and finally... the happy ending. Then, week by week, you'll be a part of the creation process, voting on the next step of our hero's journey, watching the book take life, and learning the nuances of crafting a story. You'll Blog-a-Book with the My Book Therapy authors and get tools to help you write your own novel.

    Then, at the end of the year, we'll have a book we've all created, something that we'll publish! And, best of all, the proceeds will go to support IJM, an organization that fights human trafficking around the world.

    (Check out the site here... you want want to miss too much more, they've already started developing the story and picking out main characters.)

    Friday, February 13, 2009

    Inside/Out Blog Tour

    The lovely book "therapists" at My Book Therapy, a boutique that provides full-service assistance to aspiring writers, are doing a blog tour and they've landed right here on little old What Was I Reading? Over the course of the next couple of weeks I'll be bringing you articles and tid-bits as a teaser for their new book Writing from the Inside... Out: Discover, Create and Publish the Novel in You. There are tons of cool promotions going on, and here is the place to find out about them.

    To get us started, I thought I'd post an article from one of the therapists, Sarah Anne Sumpolec. I read a good deal of YA Literature (and don't have the handy excuse of being either a young adult and/or interacting with young adults on a regular basis), and the series I'm writing is YA literature. Therefore, I thought it would be interesting to get the opinion of Sumpolec, a published YA author, as to: Why YA?

    Sumpolec writes in her article, "Why I Love to Write YA":

    My first book idea grew out of my work with our church’s youth group. I tried going to Women’s Bible Studies and do all the grown up things, but I always felt called to care for the youth. So writing for them simply became a natural extension of what I already loved to do.

    Even now, I spend more than twelve hours a week hanging out with eighty kids and teens at our local Christian Youth Theater. I like being around them. I love to encourage them. And I want to do all I can to help them as they grow in Christ. My own teen years were tough (whose weren’t?) and I didn’t have anyone to talk to or turn to. I simply want to be available to these teens. You just never know when you might get the chance to offer a few life-giving words from God.

    So who I am as a person, and who I am as a writer are hopelessly intertwined. I’ve written five novels for teens and over and over, God has shown me how a simple story can affect the lives of teenagers. But they need more. I’ve lost track of how many letters I’ve gotten where a teen wrote, “I read all five of your books last week…” Teens are hungry for truth and stories that they can relate to. They need more great stuff to read that is written for them, by people who care about them.

    The YA market can be tough. But we can’t write because a certain market is booming. We must write out of our God-given passions and that’s what YA is for me – a passion. So yes, I realize that Amish books sell really well, but I’m staying in high school. It’s where I belong.
    That's a lot like why I wanted to write YA literature... I saw lots of teens snatching up book series that were okay, fine, whatever, but not the kind of stuff that was really teaching them about life (in my case, literature) in the fullest sense of the term. The real straw that broke my back was when Stephenie Meyer was asked a question about symbolism in her books and she responded that she was just telling stories. That got me to thinking, "Why do lots of teens like to read vampire novels or the Gossip Girl series, but they don't like Lord of the Flies?" I wanted to reinvent LotF for contemporary readers, in a contemporary format, with contemporary imagery, but still use the devices of symbolism and motif to teach to a larger theme (the same theme that William Golding was addressing with his original work). Granted, not that I'd say that my books are going to be taught in public high schools 60 years from now, but I want to see books that teach teens how to critically read.

    If you'd like more information about the services provided by the book therapists at My Book Therapy, visit If you want more information about their book tour (that'll be making three more stops on the blog), check out the tour website.

    Finally, if you want to look more into my idea of contemporary literature that "teaches," check out my website at and click the link for "Freshman Failures."

    Sunday, February 8, 2009

    Book Review: Knights of the Hill Country

    Title: Knights of the Hill Country
    Author: Tim Tharp
    Genre: YA Fiction
    Rating: A

    Abbreviated Summary (from "In a small Oklahoma town, one star linebacker must decide what kind of man he wants to be--both on and off the field. Welcome to Kennisaw--where Friday night high school football ranks right up there with God and country, and sometimes even comes in first. This year, the Kennisaw Knights are going for their fifth straight undefeated season, and if they succeed, they'll be more than the best high school team in the eastern Oklahoma hill country--they'll be legends... This unforgettable novel is the story of a boy whose choices will decide the kind of man he becomes, and raises powerful questions about sportsmanship, loyalty, and the deceptiveness of legends."

    Review: I read this story over the weekend, and I found it to be really good--very Friday Night Lights (and I LOVE Friday Night Lights). Hampton Green, the afore-mentioned star linebacker is a likeable character (if you can get around his bad grammar and southern dialect and affinity for idioms like "He doesn't give a day-old donut" and "Boy Howdy!")

    Also, the girls in Hampton's life (the not-so-cut-out-to-be-a-football-player's-girlfriend Sara, and the way-too-typical-football-player's-girlfriend Misty) are really well done. There's scene in which Sara and Hampton are riding with two of Hampton's friend and she puts herself out there, inviting him to do something with her family (because she eschews high school pecking orders), but his friend is blatantly rude. I felt super bad for her and felt her character really come out at this point. Plus, Misty should be a charicature, but she gets some redeeming play in the end of the book.

    You want to not like Hampton's best friend, Blaine, but you have to. (Or you at least have to feel pity for him.) Either way, all the characters are well-developed. Another benefit to this book was that the conflict, albeit on a high school, still felt genuine to me. I got it.

    The only drawback, what brought this from an A+ down to an A was the dialect. I understand the hill country of Oklahoma probably has a strong sense of language (use of "hisself" rather than "himself"), but it made for herky-jerky reading in my particular case. If that could have been dialed back just a touch, it would have been completely spot-on for me as a Midwestern reader. I think I'll be picking up some more of Tharp's books.

    Book Review: Evolution, Me, and Other Freaks of Nature

    Title: Evolution, Me & Others Freaks of Nature
    Author: Robin Brande
    Genre: YA Fiction
    Rating: D

    Summary (from "Your best friend hates you. The guy you liked hates you. Your entire group of friends hates you. All because you did the right thing. Welcome to life for Mena, whose year is starting off in the worst way possible. She's been kicked out of her church group and no one will talk to her—not even her own parents. No one except for Casey, her supersmart lab partner in science class, who's pretty funny for the most brilliant guy on earth. And when Ms. Shepherd begins the unit on evolution, school becomes more dramatic than Mena could ever imagine . . . and her own life is about to evolve in some amazing and unexpected ways."

    Review: The review from Publisher's Weekly up on says that Mena is "an immediately likeable narrator"... I guess "likeable" is a relative term. I didn't like Mena, too much of a wet fish, like this book. This book tried to strattle the line--be all things to all people. Unfortuantely, they missed the mark. I was never sure who the target audience was for this. Most people who would have believed in evolution prior to coming to this book would probably have been put off by all of the religious references (and been reaffirmed in their thinking that the majority of Christians are a bunch of ignorant, hypocritical zealots), and Christians would be put off by Brande's mixing of intelligent design and evolution. There are a lot of people out there who believe that there is some hybrid between evolution and intelligent design, but not all and this book was written to come across as if you weren't able to see the connection, then you were in the "ignorant, hypocritical zealot" category.

    I liked Casey, I liked his family, and I even kind of got were Mena's parents were coming from. However, I never liked Mena and I wasn't completely sold on Ms. Shepherd (probably because Brande was lazy and never made you really love Shepherd until way later in the book when Kayla talked about their relationship). Also, I find it kind of watery that Mena thought her parents wouldn't want her to date a boy (nevermind that the boy wasn't a Christian), just that she wasn't old enough. Also, how little did she think of her religious convictions (she makes some statement to the effect of dying before renouncing God), but she just seems to keep following whatever majority is most appealing to her at the time? Whatever.

    That's why I gave the book such a low rating. It didn't earn an F because it brought up an intersesting topic for discussion, but it's handling of the material was lazy and lacked credibility. (In my opinion, but I've been known to be wrong before.)

    Book Review: Girls for Breakfast

    Title: Girls for Breakfast
    Author: David Yoo
    Genre: YA Fiction (Humor)
    Rating: A

    Abbreviated Summary (from "Drumstick legs, cherry-colored lips, dumpling cheeks . . . everything about them he wants to eat up. But he’s dateless and has been since he discovered girls in the third grade, and he’s convinced himself that this is solely based on the fact that he’s the only Korean American teenager in Renfield—the fifth richest (and WASPiest) town in Connecticut. In Nick’s mind, he sticks out like a banana in a wheat field. And now it’s time for him to figure it out once and for all. Is it all in his head or are his suspicions that his heritage is keeping him from a triumphant boob fest true?"

    Review: This book was seriously, 100% laugh out loud funny. I have this habit of carrying my books around with me and reading them while I'm walking around on campus, to and from classes, but I couldn't do this with Girls for Breakfast because I was making a fool of myself laughing too hard. Here's an excerpt to give you a taste:
    "What confused me about involuntarily visualizing Miss Hamilton with no clothes on was that she wasn’t even pretty. Her nose was pointy and her frizzy hair always looked sweaty, but I couldn’t stop picturing her naked. I also couldn’t stop picturing Martha the bus driver naked every time I stepped on the bus. I was a perverted Superman... I glared at Miss Hamilton’s breasts and shook a fist at her bare butt as she faced the chalkboard. I knew in my heart I’d beat this disease."
    Seriously, this was funny. Plus, this comes after he's made up this whole new form of martial arts because his friends in WASP-y Connecticut think that because he's Asian he must be a kung fu master. Upon reading this book I realized that writing truly funny stuff is equally as challenging as writing dramatic stuff. Eliciting a visceral reaction of laughter is just as note-worthy as getting a reader to cry.

    I gave the book an A, couldn't quite pull off an A+ because the story line drags at parts, in my opinion (granted the jokes keep coming), but you know where Nick Park is going to end up, but it just takes him so long to get there. It was a fast and easy read (and his parents are hilarious). I recommend this book to people that can appreciate sophomoric humor.

    Thursday, February 5, 2009

    Books Coming Out Of My Ears

    I probably just need to stop reading emails and looking at my Page-a-Day Calendar because I'm getting way too many recommendations for great books. Like this one: Important Artifacts and Personal Property from the Collection of Lenore Dooland and Harold Morris, Including Books, Street Fashion, and Jewelry by Leanne Shapton. Check out what Very Short List wrote about it:

    "Important Artifacts . . . from the Collection of Lenore Doolan and Harold Morris may look like an everyday auction catalog. But the auction itself is a literary conceit: What this book-type object really does is show us the trajectory of a failed four-year relationship — by showing us the physical detritus that two (fictional) lovers leave in their wake.

    "Conceived and executed by the director of the New York Times Op-Ed page, Leanne Shapton, the story concerns Lenore Doolan (a food writer for the Times) and Hal Morris (a photographer). Doolan appears to have been a clever and adoring girlfriend, who showered the often-absent Morris with confetti-packed envelopes (LOT 1126) and lavender pajamas (LOT 1061). Morris, who had commitment issues and a drinking problem, expressed himself via mixtapes (LOTS 1276 and 1044). What finally drove them apart? Each of the 331 lots provides another piece of the puzzle. Yes, breaking up is hard to do, but reading about it has never been so pleasurable."
    Doesn't that sound like a fantastic premise? Looking at the "pieces of a relationship" that are left behind. Plus, judging the book based on the VSL summary, it sounds like I'll be in for good snarky reading with this one. Yeah!

    Wednesday, February 4, 2009

    Book Review: In the Break

    Title: In the Break
    Author: Jack Lopez
    Genre: YA Literary Fiction
    Rating: B+

    Abbreviated Summary (from This captivating novel by an author who is a surfer is about surfing, adolescence, friendship, and loyalty. The main character, Juan, is an intense young man making his way toward adulthood amidst all the struggles, angst, and joy of life. Surf lovers will take great delight in Juan's quest for "the" perfect wave, which leads him and his pals to La Isla de los Delfins, where they share the most amazing surf with hundreds of dolphins. Ordinarily he prefers to snatch sleep on the floor of the shower, pelted by the water, undisturbed by his family. But Juan, true and loyal to his best friend, Jamie, and Jamie's sister, flees on an extreme adventure that he describes as one parallel to something penned by Twain, "my mom's 4Runner our raft, the Pacific our Mississippi," where his bed is often the seat of the car or the ground itself.

    Review: I'm going to be honest, I picked this book up because Jack Lopez is a client of Nathan Bransford, a literary agent who runs this fantastic blog that I read every day. I wanted to get a flavor for what kinds of book he likes in the YA genre... what gets him to say "Yes," to a query and wanting to read more. I have to say I was surprised, I actually hated the beginning of the book, it totally dragged for me (and not just because it's about surfing... more about that later), but because I didn't find it to be very well written. The story line was essentially intriguing, but Lopez assumed we'd care about the conflict with Jamie and his stepdad, F. I didn't intrinsically care, which made for tough reading. I had to force myself to read the book early on, almost as an assignment to myself.

    Later in the book Lopez gets into the Jamie/F dynamic and it was really interesting, and I wished that that had been at the beginning to make me care about Jamie. Also, the Jamie/Juan dynamic is awesome (later in the book), fleshed out with stories about their shared childhood, and that should have been hinted at or brought out earlier (so I would have cared).

    In regard to the whole premise of using surfing as a plot device/motif, I have essentially zero knowledge of surfing, it's culture, etc., but Lopez did a really good job with that. He made me understand so I was in the tube with Juan, I was waiting in line for a set with him. I got it.

    The ending isn't at all what I wanted, but it was poignant and I literally had a lump in my throat while reading. None the less, Lopez gets a little heavy-handed with his descriptions and musings in the last 20 pages and I found myself skimming those parts to get at the real meat of what was happening and how Juan felt about it.

    My final critique is in regard to Lopez's actual word choice. He does this weird thing where he weaves together surfing lingo, cussing, laid back chatter, and then Prince George-era English. Seriously, he uses the word "for" as a replacement for "because" like he got paid on commission by the word "for." An example for you: "Lopez wrote awkward sentences, for he had a deep love of the word 'for.'" Weird. Just write "because." Seriously, every time he used it (which was a ton of instances) I felt like I was being stabbed, for it broke my heart that he ruined otherwise perfectly good prose.

    The book earned a B+ rating because the premise was good, the characters were strong, the ending was moving, but it wasn't executed as well as it could have been.

    Book Review: Spanking Shakespeare

    Title: Spanking Shakespeare
    Author: Jake Wizner
    Genre: YA Literary Fiction (Humor)
    Rating: B-

    Summary (from Shakespeare Shapiro has always hated his name. His parents bestowed it on him as some kind of sick joke when he was born, and his life has gone downhill from there, one embarrassing incident after another. Entering his senior year of high school, Shakespeare has never had a girlfriend, his younger brother is cooler than he is, and his best friend's favorite topic of conversation is his bowel movements. But Shakespeare will have the last laugh. He is chronicling every mortifying detail in his memoir, the writing project each senior at Shakespeare's high school must complete. And he is doing it brilliantly. And, just maybe, a prize-winning memoir will bring him respect, admiration, and a girlfriend . . . or at least a prom date.

    Review: I picked this book up because I have a real thing for (in terms of loving to) reading books with male protagonists who are written by guys. I bought this book on Saturday afternoon and read it cover to cover in about two hours.

    The characters are all funny, and I found myself laughing out loud at a couple of points (especially when Shakespeare gets stoned, not something that I generally love to read about, but he's so funny and Shakespeare decides against ever doing it again because of what happens during his high).

    My only real drawback in terms of Wizner's literary debut was the lack of contractions. I know it seems like a little thing, a weird thing, but Americans speak with contractions and to read stilted prose that doesn't utilize any contractions is weird. [Don't believe me? I'll rewrite that previous sentence sans contractions and you can see for yourself. Americans speak with contractions and to read stilted prose that does not utilize any contractions is weird. See, only one contraction, changing "does not" to "doesn't" makes it more readable.]

    You might say that's Wizner's editor's problem, but he should have caught that in pre-review. As he was reading aloud (because that's a smart way to do your own self-editing), he should have realized the text wasn't flowing the way a teenager would talk. (And this is kind of a shame because he does a really good job with language choice... making it teenager-esque without sounding like an adult trying to sound like a teenager.)

    The book rated a B- because of the stiff language (as referenced above) and the plot was a little bit too textbook. I knew exactly what was going to happen by page 75. (Granted, the fact that I kept reading it even though I knew where it was going should be a feather in Wizner's cap.)

    Book Review: The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay

    Title: The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay
    Author: Michael Chabon
    Genre: Literary Fiction
    Rating: A+

    Abbreviated Summary (from Back Flap): "Joe Kavalier, a young Jewish artist who has also been trained in the art of Houdini-esque escape, has just smuggled himself out of Nazi-invaded Prague and landed in New York City. His Brooklyn cousin Sammy Clay is looking for a partner to create heroes, stories, and art for the latest novelty to hit America-the comic book... With exhilerating style and grace, Michael Chabon tells an unforgettable story about American romance and possibility.

    Review: What can you say about this book? They don't just go giving out Pulitzer Prizes to bad books. This book is superbly fantastic. I loved all the characters (some a little more than others), but all in all they were all lovely.

    The only drawback was that (because I loved some characters more than others), I was itching to get to their perspective, but even that was easily swallowed because Chabon is pure genius.

    To illustrate, he writes a scene so roundly, so full of emotion that when Josef is running across the arctic ice and freezes because he fears the sound of the wind, fears that there are Nazis hunting him, you freeze and catch your breath. You fear that the sound of your finger sliding down the page is too loud and will alert the Nazis who are hunting you in Subway where you're eating and reading. It's that good. (Luckily, there aren't actually any Nazis hunting us in Subway restaurants).

    This review is painfully short because anything I write would be painfully insufficient to express the beauty of this novel. All I can say is: Drop whatever you're reading right now and pick this book up. Don't check it out from the library, you'll need your own copy that you can love and re-read because that's what the book does to you.

    Sunday, February 1, 2009

    Book Review: Loving Frank

    Title: Loving Frank
    Author: Nancy Horan
    Genre: Historical Fiction
    Rating: B

    Abbreviated Summary (from the back flap): "...Mamah Borthwick Cheney... struggles to justify her clandestine love affair with Frank Lloyd Wright. ...In 1903, Mamah and her husband, Edwin, had comissioned the renowned architecht to design a new home for them. During the construction of the house, a powerful attraction developed between Mamah and Frank, and in time the lovers, each married with children, embarked on a course that would shock Chicago society and forever change their lives."

    Review: This book was selected for my January book club at my local library--one of the faithful members had previously read the book and really liked it, so we all agreed to put it on the list. Going into the book I only knew that it was Nancy Horan's literary debut (in fiction) and that it was based on a true event (not unlike this other book club selection).

    So, armed with that tiny bit of information (and the summary from the back of the book), I start reading. Early on I underlined this wonderful bit of dialogue from Edwin Cheney (said to Mamah at their wedding reception), "'Take my love for granted,' he said, 'and I shall do the same for you.'" How sweet, right? I highlighted that portion and remember thinking that Edwin Cheney was such a wonderful man and wouldn't it be great to have that kind of love?

    The problem is that Edwin didn't have that kind of love... well, he did, Mamah didn't. She and Frank Lloyd Wright (we'll just call him FLW because I'm lazy and this post might get a little long) were selfish jerk-offs who left behind a total of nine children to run off to Europe in search of "true love." There is a whole large middle section of the book where the well-educated Mamah (a woman with a master's degree wasn't commonplace in that day) meets Ellen Key, a philospher and writer who is fighting for the Woman's movement in Europe to promote the ideals of her "free love" philosophy. Key, according to Horan, theorizes that any love which isn't all-consuming and real isn't actually love and cheapens the marriage institution. However, some time later Key and Borthwick Cheney run into an odds about how this free love works itself out in marriages with children--Key strongly holds to the importance of motherhood and actually is working to get stay-at-home moms compensation for their domestic work.

    Partway through the story I was getting a little wrapped up in how Edwin got the short end of the stick (according to Horan's somewhat fictionalized account he was unwaveringly faithful and patient), so I Googled him to see if he ever got re-married or anything. Check this out (I put that link so that those who don't want to be spoiled about what happens to the Cheney family, kids included, don't have to read it). Anyway, I read that, knew what was going to happen to Mamah and the kids, and still found myself weeping at one point in the novel.

    I didn't like Mamah or Frank, I found them to be insufferably selfish, but here are some of things I wrote in the book as I was reading:

    "At this point [page 345, after the climax alluded to in the above link] I have to stop, the sadness is immense. Regardless of the feelings one might have about how they got into this situation, the tragedy is startling. These were real people who were [spoiler censored]."
    The fact that kept hitting me as I read this, and was making judgements about whether I liked or disliked particular characters, was that these weren't just characters, they were real people. I wrote:

    "I'm tempted to liken Mamah Borthwick Cheney to Rose Mary Walls [from The Glass Castle], two historical women who elevate their own hapiness as paramount, espousing the ideal that self-actualized individuals will foster a utopian society. What I find interesting is that Mamah actually seems to be most actualized when helping others (with her children, translating books and personal letters). I need to remember that these are both real women whose lives are told in second-hand accounts and curb the judgementalism."
    Anyhoodle, enough of my 50-cent words and personal feelings about the characters... on to the writing. Horan did a fantastic job, especially considering this was her first novel, in taking the scant information available and spinning it into a fully-developed story with rich characters, making them more than charicatures (which can so easily be done with realitively well-known historical figures). The only real flaw I saw in her writing is that after the afore-mentioned climax she switched to the POV of FLW and the present tense (all had previously been told in third-person from the POV of Mamah in past tense). I ran into this present-tense writing in Pratical Magic, and I didn't like it then either. Technically, an author can do whatever he or she darned-well pleases with a book, but it's generally accepted that books are written in past tense, so to read in present-tense is jarring and you find yourself getting hung up on that. I think she did this because the tone of the book is 180-degrees different at this point, but the switch to FLW's POV and the change in what was going on would have been sufficient. It came across as gimmicky, and that's not the last taste you want to leave in readers' mouths.

    The other flaw I found in this book, and why it only earned a B rating, was that the message that Horan wanted to send with the book, based on some interviews I saw online and a print interview that was included in the back of the version I purchased, stated that one reason for wanting to write the book was to show that the status of women in society hasn't really changed that much in the 100 years since this affair happened. The problem I have is that when one reads about how Mamah and FLW abadoned their children, why should things have changed? Why should we be more accepting of that? Why should that be applauded by society?

    She wrote Mamah and FLW's realtionship as if they were experiencing true love, but I wrote at one point (as the relationship is becoming more mature),
    "Mamah says she left Edwin because of lack of true love, but the way she views FLW when the lustre wears off is oddly familiar (see p. 134). One cannot look to others as inspiration for growth (FLW) or vitality in life (Mamah). It would seem that Mamah knows the good she should do (as seen in her remorse regarding her children), but is either too weak or selfish to do so."
    If Nancy Horan wanted to create a treatise about how true love should be espoused, why not write a story that shows this actual true love? I believe that she wanted to write Mamah and FLW with their flaws, that their relationship wasn't always happy, but it just waters down her message. I think (and this is absolute and total speculation) that Horan wanted to tell a story, I think (based on her interviews) that her growing up in Oak Park, Illinois, and knowledge of FLW's life made him to be an interesting character, and she wanted to tell a tale about the role of women in society; unfortunately, she couldn't bring all three together. I think she should have scrapped Mamah and FLW (and just developed fictional characters) and told the story she wanted to tell; that, or drop the pretense about true love.

    That being said, it's a good book in terms of writing (save the first-person nonsense in the denoument), and I'll be interested to read Horan's next book with fictional characters--see if she can develop characters of her own from nothing.