Wednesday, January 7, 2015

The Book Review Club - Don't Call Me Ishmael

Don't Call Me Ishmael
Michael Gerard Bauer

If the cold, dreary, dark days of January have blanketed you, this is just the right read. Don't Call Me Ishmael is Bud, not Buddy hilarious and set in Australia, where, currently, it is summer! So pull up a chair and toast your toes on the warmth and humor of this story.

Basic plot: Ishmael Leseur, a Year Nine student (that's down under for ninth grader), suffers from ILS, Ishmael Leseur Syndrome, which is Ishmael's name for his particular brand of adolescent/early teeanage agony. It's made up of a "crawl in a hole" embarrassing story why he parents named him after one of literature's most renowned protagonists, a bully who teases him about said name, a girl whom he is crazy for but who doesn't know he exists, and a group of misfit friends who are constantly getting themselves into embarrassment squared messes.

I discovered this book in, of all things, German (although the author is from and story set in Australia, so no worries, you can easily get it in English). My husband comes from ye olde country and we've raised our daughters bi-lingually, which has meant a lot of audiobooks "auf Deutsch". I chose this title for its length. Shameful, I know, but it was six hours long instead of the meager two so many middle grade German audible books come in at. So there you have it, random parameters (barrage young ears with as much second language as possible) unearthed a humor goldmine.

I wish I could say I know how Bauer does it, but I don't, which is why I've gotten the other two books in this series to get behind his humor trick. He is spot on with adolescent funny. My daughters and I laugh out loud in the car on the way to school every morning. Me, maybe more. The agony of teenagerdom maybe hits a little too close to home for barrel laughs for them. Theirs is more the "somebody else is going through this?!?" ha-ha-whew.

So there you have it. Pick up a copy of Don't Call Me Ishmael and start 2015 off with a good laugh and an uproarious story. For more cheer in these bleak months, check out the reviews on Barrie Summy's website (and pray that groundhog doesn't see his shadow!)

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

The Book Review Club - Belzhar

Meg Wolitzer

In the spirit of the cold winter months' clamor for a good book to curl up with, I present Belzhar. I had the great pleasure of listening to Meg Wolitzer speak at BEA in May. She is an author of predominantly adult books who's tried her hand at YA and delivered a strong, new voice to enjoy.

Belzhar is the story of Jam who has basically given up on living after she loses her boyfriend. She stops functioning at school and becomes so depressed her parents and therapist send her to The Wooden Barn, a school for teens struggling with traumatic issues in Vermont. There, Jam is enrolled in a special English class that changes her life. Not only does she meet a new boy but also, at the same time, gets to communicate with the boy she's lost in a world unlike any other. Jam makes friends, rebuilds her life, but cannot move forward until she not only faces but relives the trauma that imploded her old life.

Woltizer's writing is strong, her characters both flawed and endearing, and her alternate reality within reality a great hook that entices the reader throughout the story.

There is an interesting trend, almost rule, within YA that the story is written in present tense. This is to make the reader feel closer to the events happening, and to mimic how very much teenagers are affected and live in the "now". It has made me wonder how exportable present tense storytelling is. I've used it in a picture book, just to try it out, to get a feel for the effect of tense. In a way, present tense makes even the past seem very present. It speeds up action and imbues what is happening with novelty, urgency and unpreditability. There's no telling how the story can end, especially if it is in first person POV. I just ran across a chapter of present tense in an adult novel, The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan (Man Booker Winner 2014). The story up until that moment had been told in simple past, then suddenly, present tense appears. It was a jarring, blast of air that pulled me out of the observer's position and into the narrative.  I straightened and listened more closely. This had to be important. What a difference a tense can make.

For more great books to balance out the hustle and bustle of the end of the year,  check out Barrie Summy's site. Happy reading and a wonderful new year!

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

The Book Review Club - Ancillary Justice

Ancillary Justice
Ann Leckie
science fiction

I am no longer a closet-case sci-fi fan. This is my third sci-fi review this year. I think it's time to face facts. I am a sci-fi junkie!

I looked forward to reading Ancillary Justice when I'd seen it won the Hugo and Nebula awards. I cut my sci-fi teeth on the likes of Ray Bradbury's The Martian Chronicles and Frank Herbert's Dune in between installments of Little House on the Prairie. That is the seventies in a nutshell. And I figured, if Leckie could beat Andy Weir's The Martian, which I love, in the awards category, I was about to fall in love again.

Let's just say Ancillary Justice and I got off to a rocky start. It was not love at first sight. In fact, the novel frustrated me  (incidentally, it was the same when I first met my husband).

Basic plot - a space ship decides to take revenge on the leader of the culture that made - and ultimately attempts to destroy - it (Ancillary Justice, not my marriage; it's still happily intact).

It's fascinating stuff. AI taken to a whole new level. However, the AI can't decipher female from male and so refers to everyone as "she". Sometimes, gender is specified, but then the ship reverts to calling said characters "she". For me, it made connecting with characters really hard. And that made me wonder, why does gender matters in story? Or rather, does gender matter in story? Should it matter? What does Leckie gain by making her story more or less gender neutral?

I haven't finished figuring all of this out, but I have come to the conclusion that for the story, by making everyone gender neutral, characters become sentient beings. That's it. They have flaws and quirks, but in remaining gender neutral, they never became much deeper than that. This may, in part, have to do with the boundaries of my hermeneutics. I live in a world in which, for the most part, the gender of any person I interact with, is clear. With that comes mounds of unspoken data.  Without that, I have to rethink my world. That is what Leckie forced me, as a reader, to do in her novel. I had to see it through a different lens, a new lens, one I haven't completely finished sanding down yet, and won't, without further interaction.

The absence of gender imploded my hermeneutic structure of interpretation. It made me feel uneasy. And it's kept me feeling uneasy. And thinking. In other words, it's genius.

For more great reads, visit Barrie Summy's website. She's got a bushelful!

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Maggot Moon
Sally Gardner

I used to say I was a closet case trekkie, but this is my second post about a story with a scifi bent in less than a year. I think I've trekked out of the a Dr. Who sort of way. But that's another story.

Maggot Moon, truth be told, is less science fiction than alternate reality (along the lines of Vaterland). Basic premise - England (or something very near it) has been taken over by an fascist authoritarian regime that wants to put a man on the moon to prove its prowess to the rest of the world. Snag - the moon is too radioactive. Any possible human visitors would fry in orbit. It's a minor technicality for the Motherland. One easily solved with good old-fashioned smoke, mirrors, and Egyptian brutality. However, they don't count on Standish Treadwell (oh, the symbolism in that name!) to stand in their way.

I enjoyed Gardner's mash of alternate reality, conspiracy theories that the United States' moon landing was a hoax, and flawed, painfully human main character. She does an excellent job of building foreboding, of making sure the reader knows this cannot end well without, however, knowing how the story will end. Writing genius.

The chapters were also amazingly short, reminiscent of Kevin Henke's Olive's Ocean. The effect was, for me, choppy. However, both author and main character are dyslexic, and that much white space can be a godsend to a struggling reader. So, my discomfort may actually be a struggling reader's greatest comfort.

The additional illustrations throughout the book of the rat and fly give visual reinforcement to the decadence inherent in the world in which Standish is caught.

The issue that's kept me mulling is Standish's character and his development. I like Standish. He's real. He has real problems. He doesn't seem to have any real personality flaws, however. Yes, Standish has all of these problems - parents have disappeared, dyslexia, different eye colors, outcast of society, grandfather who's been reeducated, evil, brutish teachers - but they aren't personality flaws per se. He struggles with them because the world around him sees them as issues that make him less of a person.  He is basically the good guy fascist systems destroy, not the conflicted protagonist whose personality shortcomings lead to destruction and, out of that, growth, such as Sara Louise in Paterson's Jacob I Have Loved. 

Ah, characters. They come in all shapes and sizes!

For a cornucopia of fall delights, check out Barrie Summy's website.  

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

The Book Review Club - Anna Was Here

Anna was Here
Jane Kutz
middle grade

I'm stretching ye olde reviewing skills again with my first review after the summer siesta of the Book Review Club. Fortunately, Jane Kurtz makes my work so much easier. Anna was Here was a fun, entertaining, timeless story. Dare I say, it's a meat and potatoes book cloaked in chocolate pudding. They don't get any better than that!

Plot synopsis: Anna, daughter of a minister and university professor, must move to Kansas when her father accepts a temporary post as pastor to an ailing church in a small town. Catch: the small town is filled with relatives and uneasy family history.

This story is as much about mending broken ties in a community and family as it is about the change and discomfort that comes from a big move and new start. What struck me is how evenly balanced this story is. All of the parts - character, plot, setting - work in harmony. None is louder than the others. They each take center stage for appropriate but not prolonged solos.

While there is a religious element to this story, Kurtz does an excellent job of, again, balancing. Religion doesn't take over. The story doesn't become about religion, or faith, or belief, or what one person believes in lieu of another. Rather, it remains another story element, nicely blended, fulfilling the role Kurtz sets out for it, which is, interestingly, both dividing and unifying. 

All of that got me to thinking about voice. I've heard the term described as so many different things, not the least of which is the tone of a piece, or an author's style. Anna was Here made me rethink those. After all, they already have their own iconic terminology. But voice is still missing its fundamental definition (at least for me, it was). So I came up with my own: voice is the result of a writer's blend of style, tone, character, setting, plot, and the various other parts of story. In other words, voice isn't any one thing. It's what is created when all of the parts are blended and create something greater than the sum of those parts = voice.

I'm pretty sure I haven't reinvented the definitional wheel on voice, but it finally makes sense to me. Thanks Jane Kurtz!

Other fall delights, are a finger's stretch away at Barrie Summy's blog. Happy reading!

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

The Book Review Club - We Were Liars

We Were Liars
E. Lockhart

I had the great pleasure of listening to a panel on which Emily Lockhart spoke at BEA. She is an adroit, strong, well-spoken writer. I was intrigued and decided to end my year of book reviews with one about her latest, We Were Liars.

Lockhart has a style all her own, somewhat reminiscent of Hemingway - parsimonious, yet emotionally sated. Style alone - doing a lot with so few word - is reason enough to read We Were Liars. Plus, there's that whole, it's a "damn fine story" aspect. Is one allowed to curse in book reviews? I wonder. Ah well. This is YA people. Cursing happens.

I very much like Penguin's recap of this book, so I am shamelessly stealing:

A beautiful and distinguished family.
A private island.
A brilliant, damaged girl; a passionate,
 political boy.
A group of four friends—the Liars—whose friendship turns destructive.
A revolution. An accident. A secret.
Lies upon lies.
True love.
The truth.

Again, parsimonious, almost free verse.

Lockhart builds in a nice, other worldly experience into the book that the book blurb doesn't reference, and of the four friends, three are cousins, but otherwise, the synopsis captures style and story very well.

I've only met one reader so far who didn't pick up on the other worldly experience early in the story. I'm not sure you're not supposed to pick up on it. In fact, I think you're supposed to sense it but not be sure, paralleling the experience of the main character. There are parallels to M. Night Shyamalan's visual work. 

My oldest has to read two novels for the summer for her Fall Sophomore class English. I've pressed this one on her. Think of all of those coming of age stories you had to read - Lord of the Flies, A Separate Peace, Catcher in the Rye - that's where this book belongs, only written in today's vernacular and thus readily accessible to today's youth without becoming weighty. This could also make a great beach read since it happens in summer, at least partly on a beach.

For other great summer treasures, Barrie Summy's website marks the spot for  reads galore. Have a great summer!


Monday, May 19, 2014

The Writing Process Blog Tour

The Spanish Inquisition has found me! Ack!

Okay, okay, it's not the Spanish Inquisition exactly. It's the Writing Process Blog Tour, but you see the parallels, right? Introverts kissing and telling all in an open forum. I shudder and wish for tea. 

The idea behind this whirlwind tour is that after one writer confesses her deepest darkest secrets about how she really does what she does, she tags two other writers and so on and so on, until there are no untagged writers left. Again, there are parallels.

I add my confession to the long list of venerable writers who go before me, starting with Annemarie O'Brien, fellow Vermont College of Fine Arts (VCFA) alum and author of the middle grade novel, Lara's Gift, who tagged me. You can read her deep dark writing secrets here.

Want more juicy tidbits? Just follow the link in Annemarie's post to Lisa Doan, to Kelly Jones all the way back to the first Divulger of the kidlit writing secrets. Who is it? Ah, you must follows the Confessors to find out. Or, jump forward to next week's pair. They're a wily duo of rose-snipping, pen-twirling swashbucklers if I've ever met one. See below for blurbs on each.

So, without further ado, thumbscrews please:

What am I currently working on? 
A couple of different things. I'm in the marketing stage for two picture books that release this year - Toby and Waggers - which takes up A LOT of time, but is fun because I get to talk to real people in real time! Heady stuff. 

I'm researching a project set during WW II that is loosely based around my grandfather's canoe trip down the Mississippi from Indiana to the Gulf of Mexico and into the World War II, working title H. I am revising a YA novel that is a retelling of Moses in a Blade Runneresque world, Skin Deep. And I'm writing two new picture books - Tour de Trike and The Four Tenners. I like to mix things up. It keeps me sane...or so I tell myself.

How does my work differ from others of its genre? 
Man, that's like asking me how my fingerprint is different from someone else's. Let's see. I don't like boxes. The idea of writing only one form or one type of story is Dante's special level of hell for me. I am the Potpourri Writer. Whatever the story is, that's what I'm following and working on. It's all about the story and improving my writing. And my writing gets better the more I cross-write. The brevity of picture books tightens my novel writing. Dialogue heavy film scripts improve my novel dialogue. Novel plots hone my skills for descriptive, scene setting. Poetry reminds me to value the weight, feel and sound of words together and alone.

Why do I write what I write?
I write what peeks my curiosity, worlds I want to live in, worlds I don't understand, subjects I want to learn more about. Writing gives me the chance to explore and understand our unbearable lightness of being and reimagine it.

How does my individual writing process work?
I'm on the rack now!  For me, writing is messy - process and logistics. I tend to write by the seat of my pants. I'm not a big outliner...unless I'm doing a film script. I'm not sure why. It could be that scripts are so dialogue heavy, I need the outline to know what my characters are going to say. I don't outline for picture books. Novels vary. I can go either way, but if I outline, it's more of hastily road map than a cartographer's masterpiece.

As for focus,  I don't ever work on just one project...mostly. Ironically, months into a novel ms, that's when picture book ideas crop up like night mushrooms. I usually take an afternoon or morning off to get them down. Sometimes that blossoms into a week. And then I go back to the novel. It's messy.

And finally, logistics - still messy.  I'm at my desk every day from 8:30 - 6:00, but there are varying unavoidable breaks in there to pick kids up from school or ferry them to after school activities. I get in at least 4 hours of solid writing a day - in between the breaks. I hope for inspiration. It meanders in some days. More often, I curse the writing gods and plow on.

Secret weapon - a secret drawer of chocolate AND gummy bears for those really rough days. FYI  - Gummy bears cannot type. You can, however, make really neat crime scenes with them without ever having to leave your desk. Not that I do...much.

Next week's Confessors:

Marsha Diane Arnold
Marsha has been called a "born storyteller" by the media. Already an award-winning author, 2013 was a banner year. She sold four picture books to Neal Porter Books, Kate O'Sullivan of Houghton Mifflin, and Tamarind, UK. Her Writing Wonderful Character-Driven Picture Books has helped many writers develop strong, spunky characters. She grew up in Kansas, walking barefoot and climbing trees, and still loves bare feet and trees.
For her kiss and tell answers to the questions above, click here.

R.A. Costello

R.A. Costello mostly writes fiction for and about LGBTQ teens who are figuring out who they want to be - and be with - while fighting against the jerks and bigots that stand in their way. He has an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts, and is hard at work on his debut YA novel, The Shelter Sea.
For his kiss and tell answers to the questions above, click here.