March 20, 2014

Catching Up With Some YA Hits

Certain young adult (which is to say, teen) books are often popular among, um, old adults such as myself, but I tend to only note that they sound interesting rather than actually getting around to reading them. Recently I decided to catch up on a few of the YA books that have been much talked about in the past couple of years:

→ The protagonist of FANGIRL by Rainbow Rowell writes fanfiction. Cath is really good at it, she's internet-famous for it, and it makes her happier than anything else -- particularly when anything else involves interacting with strangers, negotiating unfamiliar places, or encountering new situations. Unfortunately, Cath's twin sister has insisted that the two of them go off to college, and she's refused to be Cath's roommate, so Cath is in for a lot of terrifying newness.

I loved this novel. It's clever, emotional, funny, and populated by a wonderful cast of characters. I've long been fascinated by fanfiction, and I was impressed by how thoughtfully Cath's passion is used as an element of the story, as well as how both the fanfic and the (fictional) source material are presented throughout the book. The novel is about much more than writing fic, including family, romance, and mental health, and the various plotlines work well together. Even the parts of the story that cover standard YA territory are handled unconventionally. The plot kept me guessing, and I was never disappointed by the way the story played out.

I'm so glad this book lived up to the substantial amount of praise I'd heard before reading it. I'm eager to read everything else Rowell has written, which includes books aimed at adults as well as teens.

→ I'd heard the description of EVERY DAY by David Levithan and been intrigued numerous times before I was finally convinced to pick it up. I'm glad I was encouraged to read it, because it does a great job of delivering on the unusual premise: Every day, the main character wakes up inside the body of a different person. This has been A's life for sixteen years, since birth, but on the day the book starts, A falls in love. It seems impossible to pursue a relationship when A will be someone else tomorrow, and the day after, and the day after, so the story is all about the attempt to solve this problem.

I was impressed by how well the idea is explored and how the plot unfolds. The story doesn't get bogged down by the question of why this strange phenomenon is happening, but it answered most of my questions about the logistics and addressed many complications in a smart way. The writing is strong, A's voice is wonderful, and the story moves along quickly. Definitely recommended if you're similarly intrigued.

I previously read and enjoyed THE LOVER'S DICTIONARY, Levithan's story-in-dictionary-entries, which has adult characters.

THE FAULT IN OUR STARS by John Green is a love story about teens who meet at a cancer support group, so you kind of know what you're in for. It's a sad story in which tragic, unfair things happen. It's also a funny, sweet story about characters who are more than their cancer.

The book is narrated by Hazel, an excellent character whose sense of humor is the type I enjoy finding in both real and fictional people. Her cancer is terminal, and everyone has been expecting her to die for years, which is a strange way to go through adolescence. Augustus is a survivor who lost his leg to cancer but is now healthy. The two of them begin to fall for each other, but Hazel is reluctant to let Augustus get too close, because the situation will be tragic and unfair. And then it is.

I liked this book pretty well, but I think I would have been much more into it when I was a teen myself. I went through a phase of reading books about sick kids, and many of those were probably far less interesting and well-written than this story. I'll be curious to see THE FAULT IN OUR STARS movie this summer (based on the trailer, it looks like a faithful adaptation), and I'll be seeking out more of Green's books.

For even more YA recommendations, check out the recent Bookrageous episode on the topic. Any more suggestions of teen reads I definitely shouldn't miss?

Good Stuff Out There:

→ David Bezmozgis writes for the New Yorker Page-Turner about his problems working on a novel set in present-day Crimea: "Any writer whose aim is to write about the present cultural and political moment must contend not only with the usual creative obstacles but also with the insistent ticking of the clock."

March 18, 2014

Eel River

EEL RIVER by Shannon Page takes place in a northern California hippie community during the early 1970s. The author drew from her own childhood in choosing this setting, but the novel she created is a creepy, disturbing horror tale.

The story comes at us from the perspectives of the ten-year-old Princess, the Mom, and the Dad. The characters are never referred to by any names other than these, which suggests a fairy tale quality that is nicely subverted as events become both more earthy and more unearthly. Something evil is happening on the Land, and the Princess understands that this time it's not make-believe. Her parents are preoccupied with the practicalities of starting a community, and they'd just as soon leave their dreamy, independent daughter to her own devices.

The shifting points of view are used to great effect to build a huge amount of suspense and dread. I'm not normally a horror reader, and I appreciated that the scariness in this story was mostly of a subtler nature, mixed in with some well-placed humor. It's definitely a creepy book, but probably not terrifying to most, and I'd recommend it to others interested in giving horror a try.

I've known Shannon for years, and during that time, she's always been hard at work on one novel or another. EEL RIVER was released in December, marking her debut, but two more of her novels are making their way to publication later this year! I'm thrilled to see Shannon's years of writing and revising coming to fruition.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Christopher R Boltz compares worldbuilding in fiction to theatrical set design: "Whatever world the audience is about to engage with, designers need to let them know up front. If a production design begins realistically, then suddenly changes to extreme abstraction, we will jolt the audience out of play because we broke the rules we established at the start." (Thanks, Juliette Wade!)

March 13, 2014

FOGcon Reading Recap

It's no secret that I had a great time at FOGcon this year (as well as in 2013, 2012, and 2011), but Secrets were the theme of this year's convention. I attended a bunch of cool panels, many of them related to this theme, including discussions of secret fantasy worlds, books with lying or unreliable narration, and secrets in science. (The karaoke also seemed to be something of a secret this time, with fewer participants than usual, but it was still a highlight for me.)

In preparation for the con, I did a bunch of reading, so I'm going to round up my relevant book reviews here:

→ This year's honored ghost was James Tiptree, Jr., a perfect choice for the Secrets theme, because Tiptree was actually a woman named Alice Sheldon who hid her identity for years at the same time that she was garnering fame in the world of science fiction. I recently raved about one of her collections, WARM WORLDS AND OTHERWISE, and I once again encourage everyone to read these fascinating stories. During the con, I attended an excellent panel discussing Tiptree's life and work.

→ Seanan McGuire was one of the honored guests, and it was cool to experience her in person after frequently encountering her online presence. A few years ago, I read McGuire's Newsflesh trilogy, published under the name Mira Grant, and I had mixed feelings about it. The premise is a lot of fun, the world is well-developed, and the writing isn't very good. I found the books compelling enough that I read all three (though the last one was weaker than the first two), and I wouldn't steer anyone away as long as you set expectations accordingly.

→ The other honored guest was Tim Powers, who I wasn't familiar with before. He's known for writing secret histories, which imagine the fantastical explanations that hide behind history as we know it. I read one of these, THE ANUBIS GATES, and enjoyed some aspects of it, but not all:

Brendan Doyle is an expert on the English Romantic poets who gets the opportunity to travel back in time and meet one of his literary idols. It's supposed to be a brief temporal excursion, but Doyle gets stranded in 1810. As if being stuck in the wrong century, penniless, weren't bad enough, Doyle is pursued by several mysterious enemies who have magic on their side. He has to stay alive, figure out what's going on, and understand whether he can ever return to his own time or if he should get used to life in the 1800s.

There's a lot more to the plot than that: It's a pretty complex story with several different magical elements that tie together eventually but seem unrelated at the start. I liked the cleverness of how things connected, but I wasn't wild about how the story was told. The pacing was too slow, especially at the beginning, and the protagonist wasn't that compelling a character. Because of these problems, I didn't find much reason to care about certain of the plotlines until late in the book. With a different telling, this story could have made for a great novel, but instead it was only okay.

Aside from honored guest reading, I moderated a book club panel that involved a couple of great books I would recommend:

March 6, 2014

Forward March

Well, February's over, and I still haven't written a new novel or sold my last one. But it's such a short month, how can anyone get anything done?

I did manage to read quite a few books last month, and though I predicted I'd never again surpass my January reading record, I more or less tied it in February. On the novel planning front, I've transferred all my sticky notes to SuperNotecard and have been contemplating the plot. And in the agent search department, [redacted].

This weekend, I'm off to FOGcon, a local convention for fans of science fiction and fantasy literature. This will be my fourth time attending (and the fourth year the con has been held), and I can't wait. Many writers attend the con, as well as some people involved in publishing, so if I wrote in the genre, it could be a networking opportunity, but since my novel is mainstream, I'll be there primarily in my role as a reader, and I'm quite content with that situation. I'm looking forward to spending the weekend talking about stories with other people who think talking about stories is a great way to spend a weekend. To get an idea of some of the stuff we'll be discussing, check out the schedule of panels. And if you're in the area, come join us!

Good Stuff Out There:

→ In the New York Times Opinionator, Margaret Hawkins shares her Confessions of a Lifelong Eavesdropper: "I eavesdrop all the time. You could say it's my hobby, though I don't seek out opportunities. These slices of language come at me through the air, begging to be heard, like small, precious gifts I cannot refuse, mini vacations into other lives."

→ Gabe Habash at PWxyz has gathered the endings and explanations for 12 Books That End Mid-Sentence.