Sunday, October 31, 2010

Double Take, Swingin' Style

I love when a double take sneaks up on me. This week, I saw this book pop up on GoodReads:

Palms to the Ground by Amy Stolls (published in 2005). I love the white with the tire swing and the feet in the air. There is a carefree feeling in this cover.

And as soon as I saw it, I knew it had a twin, and I knew exactly who it was.

The Fortunes of Indigo Skye by Deb Caletti (2009). This one features the color block on the top 1/3 of the front cover that runs through all of the hard cover issues of Caletti's titles. It also features a little bit of a color saturation difference, making the green of the leaves stand out a little more.

I like both of them for different reasons, but I do have to say I think that the cover for Palms to the Ground doesn't really go with the title.

Do you prefer one over the other?

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Saturday, October 30, 2010

In My Mailbox (12)

Welcome to In My Mailbox, hosted by Kristi at The Story Siren. It's a weekly showcase of what I received for review, from the library, or bought.

Let me start with the fact this was an awesome week book wise. Also, it was really expensive. You'll see why in a second.

For Review:

Anna and the French Kiss by Stephanie Perkins: A sweet romance set abroad? Count me in.

The Hole in the Wall by Lisa Rowe Fraustino: Picked this one up off a table at KidLitCon. It looks dystopian or at least like it has some nice pits of desperation in it.

Fall for Anything by Courtney Summers: Do I need to explain my love for Courtney?

The Tension of Opposites by Kristina McBride: I got this one for my Cybils reading. A finished copy even!

The Beyonders: A World Without Heroes by Brandon Mull: This is a new series by the author of the Fablehaven series the kids at my work are CRAZY about. I also got a sweet tote bag along with this one!

From the Library:

Scrawl by Mark Shulman: Jackie said this was one I *needed* to read as part of the Cybils reading since it has a good male voice in it. I'm excited!


Drinking at the Movies and The Fart Party by Julia Wertz: After reading reviews of these two, I couldn't resist. Alea and I stopped at the comic book store next to the Open Book and these were my purchases.

And my biggest, most exciting purchase this week:

I preordered the nookcolor and will be joining the world of ereadership! For those of you who are appalled by the idea of ereaders or ebooks, please take a minute to read this fantastic post by Maggie Steifvater. The ereader is another reading option and is not a replacement. I was so excited I waited to buy one for this particular device: it's run on android and with its format, it has the potential to be a mini tablet. Sweet! It'll arrive in a few weeks.

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Books that didn't capture me

In the midst of my wild streak of Cybils reading, I've picked up more than one book that, unfortunately, I've stopped at the 75 page mark. Here's just a sample of some of the ones that didn't work for me and why -- and why they might just work for other readers.

The Julian Game by Adele Griffin: This book's premise is that two girls create a phony identity for themselves on Facebook in order to get payback on a cute boy who did them wrong. There is certainly appeal here in the contemporary setting, the use of technology, and the use of cliques and insider/outsider feelings therein. But as a reader, I felt distanced from the characters, never quite feeling that they were realistic enough. The slang didn't click for me either, unfortunately, and I needed to give it up. Fans of Johnny Tucker Must Die will eat this up, as will fans of other stories of revenge and redemption. I bet, too, that the language in this book will appeal to many readers, even though it didn't work for me -- that alone sets it apart from the crowd.

The Kid Table by Andrea Seigel: What initially was the huge appeal of this book for me was the fact it's a family story; there's going to be a little romance and a little bit about friendships, but the bulk of it centers on family dynamics and growing up in a huge family. This is precisely what became the downfall for me, though. There were too many characters with the same voice (or no voice) for me to keep up with. For many readers, though, this will be the appeal factor: it's relatable to those who grew up in large families. Pass this light hearted read to your fans of stories that aren't the norm for contemporary reads. It's different enough that it'll hold shelf life for quite a while, and many readers will think this is their story.

The Not-So-Great Depression by Amy Goldman Koss: Premise-wise, this book held so much promise for me. It's the story of what happens to a teen who's mother loses her job because of the economy (and her dad is in the same situation, but he's living back at home with his mom since her parents are divorced). However, the tone of this book was much too light hearted for me, as was the cover. I think this one had such possibility to be strong and powerful, but the execution didn't work for me as a reader. I didn't get the character development I anticipated, either. But, for fans of contemporary stories that do take a lighter approach or fans of books with a humorous tone, this is a great choice. The main character, in my mind, was a perfect rendering of a high school freshman: a little lost in her world but enjoying every minute of it in her naivety.

Jump by Elisa Carbone: P.K. is a runaway and her partner in crime, Critter, has just escaped from a mental institution. The two of them head west, away from their former shared town, in order to forge a new life based on climbing. This book sounded so great: it had athleticism in a different way and it would feature fresh characters. For me, though, I couldn't get to the whys of either character within the first 75 pages. This is a relatively short book, and I hadn't gained either sympathy or empathy for either character and I had yet to have any climbing experiences described. I was a little bummed, as I wanted the adrenaline and the excitement of climbing sooner. I think this is one that's a super easy sell to teens, though: the alternating points of view are distinct and very short, making this a fast paced read. Likewise, the rock climbing theme will resonate with many, and those who are more patient than me will likely be quite rewarded.

Have you read any of these and loved them? Share your thoughts in the comments! Sell 'em to me again.

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Friday, October 29, 2010

Guest Post: Horror Lit 101, Part the Fourth

Guest blogger Matthew Jackson continues his series of posts for the month of October on horror literature. Today's post is part four of four. Make sure you've read up on the entire series by reading the first installment here, the second installment here, and the third installment here.

Horror Lit 101, Part the Fourth: In which we attempt to crystal gaze.

Some say horror fiction is dead. It’s bleedin’ demised. It’s passed on. It is no more. It has ceased to be. It’s expired and gone to meet its Maker. It is a late genre. It’s a stiff. Bereft of life, it rests in peace. It’s run down the curtain and joined the choir invisible. It is an ex-genre.

These people are cynics, but I won’t hold that against them. If you read as much grim fiction as people like me have, you tend to lean toward grim opinions. But I’m not among this crowd. I don’t believe the genre is dead. It’s evolving, just like it always has.

It’s not what it used to be, of course. It would be easy to argue that horror is alive because vampires and werewolves and the like are alive. A quick browse of any bookstore will tell you that. But they don’t exist solely in horror anymore. They’re busy with other things. Seducing teenage girls (But not going all the way. That’s important.), seducing women, brooding, seducing more women, brooding some more, getting thrown into scenes of Victorian courtship and, most importantly, sparkling. 

I’m not judging, by the way. If paranormal romance is your bag, read your heart out, but don’t mistake it for horror. Horror can titillate and romance and erotica can horrify, but we’re talking about different things here. It would also be easy to argue that horror doesn’t exist on its own anymore. Sci-fi horror exists, and fantasy horror, and modern horror and mystery horror and so on and so on. But this to me is a misstatement as well, because these genres don’t encapsulate horror. The fact that horror is the only unifying part of these terms means that horror is the broader encapsulating genre, not the other way around.

So where is all of it going? Do we need to fear the loss of our beloved ghouls and ghosts? What is the future of horror? If we attempt to gaze into that psychic voice of trembling future visions, what will we see?

In attempt to answer these questions, we will have to comb the details. Rather than look at bodies of work, we must look at individual works by authors currently working in horror. To keep things brief and tidy, I’ll focus on five works (long and short) by five different writers working to some degree or other within the genre. I do not claim to be a soothsayer by any means, just someone who cares a great deal about these kinds of stories. Still, I shall attempt to delight you with feats of psychic talent. Dim the lights, please.

From Hell by Alan Moore

This is the oldest of the works on my list, published in volumes from 1991-1996, but it’s worth talking, not only because it represents a return to horror in the graphic novel form (Horror comics were big in the early part of the 20th century, but died off when the Comics Code Authority came to prominence.), but because it was written by one of the great writers of our time, Mr. Alan Moore (The Great Bearded Wizard of Comics). 

From Hell is a massive (more than 500 page) re-interpretation of the Jack the Ripper tale that employs holistic crime solving theories (To solve a crime you must solve the society in which it takes place. See Douglas Adams for more information.), psychogeography and other realms of the bizarre where Moore is king. In addition to all this complexity, it’s simply a terrifying portrait of a murderer. Never once are we in doubt of who the Ripper is, but the fact that we get to follow him around just makes it scarier. Moore’s story, like most of his other genre-bending masterpieces, raised the bar for both comics writers and horror writers. The new face of horror was going to be a more complex one, and Moore, along with Clive Barker, whom we discussed last week, was among the first writers to declare it so.

Coraline by Neil Gaiman

Scary stories are becoming more of an all-ages phenomenon than ever before, stretching even beyond that cutesy Roald Dahl kind of scary stuff. Apart from having a wonderful fairy tale feel, Coraline is just damn scary, from its atmospheric treatment of things going bump in the night, to its creation of an all too familiar monster in The Other Mother, the title character’s Mom in a parallel universe. Buttons for eyes, long, clawing fingers and a tendency to devour beetles are just a few of the more terrifying traits of this witchy creation, and the fact that the whole tale is grounded in the perspective of a young girl who’s just bored and tired of her own parents makes it all the more real. 

Gaiman himself has been pushing a “new tradition” in which we give each other scary books for Hallowe’en, something the blogosphere has dubbed “All Hallows Read.” This is the book I would recommend for anyone in your life, young or old, who could use a good fright.

“Abraham’s Boys” by Joe Hill

The son of Stephen King has proven himself quite the scary scribe in his own right, producing two acclaimed novels (Heart Shaped Box and Horns) and a collection of short stories, 20th Century Ghosts, which includes “Abraham’s Boys,” a tale of the sons of Abraham Van Helsing and their education in the art of executing vampires. 

All of Hill’s work is wonderful, but “Abraham’s Boys” is my favorite, because it seems to be the best indicator of the kind of badass horror story to end all horror stories he sets out to write. It ties in a legendary character from what some would call the greatest horror novel ever written, gives it a slightly more modern twist, and gives a fresh perspective to the vampire phenomenon by setting his story in the hearts and minds of children just learning about such terrors, even as their father is the world’s foremost expert. It’s an example of the ambition of modern horror. There are fewer writers attempting to pursue the genre in the classic sense, but the ones that are give it everything they’ve got.

The Passage by Justin Cronin

Like Stephen King’s The Stand and Robert McCammon’s Swan Song, The Passage is a book about the end of the world and how the remnants of humanity cope with what’s happened. While both King’s and McCammon’s stories use somewhat supernatural elements pitting man against man, Cronin’s pits humanity against a super and/or subhuman element, a horde of vampiric creatures known as “virals.” They were humans once, beginning as a few laboratory test subjects given injections of a virus that might have given them powerful healing ability. Instead they turned into monsters and took over the world, and now what’s left of the uninfected are just fighting to survive. 

This is the first book in a proposed trilogy on the battle to overcome the virals, so it’s not clear yet exactly where Cronin will wrap all of this up, but The Passage itself is certainly a novel of very modern fears. We’ve always worried that technology would be the death of us, and Cronin takes that one step further, creating a very literal metaphor for how man makes its own monsters. Horror of this kind is no longer about a foreign beast come to conquer us. It’s about how we devour ourselves.

“The Cult of the Nose” by Al Sarrantonio

You can find this story in the wonderful anthology titled simply Stories, edited by Neil Gaiman and Sarrantonio and featuring tales by both editors along with Joyce Carol Oates, Peter Straub, Michael Moorcock, Jodi Picoult, Diana Wynne-Jones, Jeffery Deaver and more. Some of the stories are scary, but all are wonderful. The one that affected me the most was Sarrantonio’s. It’s a simple tale of paranoia in which a man begins to see grinning, masked figures everywhere he looks, including historic paintings and photographs. It’s a story about the paranoia of always being watched, of always being closed in on by phantom shapes. In an age where privacy is ever-shrinking, it’s a tale that’s both highly contemporary and timeless, and it’s a deeply unsettling read.

So, with these random samplings at hand, we can conclude that…Well, this is embarrassing, but I don’t really seem to have a definite conclusion. Did I have that planned all along? Maybe. I’m a crafty little bugger. But perhaps it’s good we can’t arrive at a conclusion. It’s fortunate for readers that we can’t find a trend. There are too many trends in the realm of speculative fiction these days. Too many mash-ups, too many sparkly vampires and sensitive werewolves, too many perversions of things that used to be cool. It’s good that horror is still unpredictable. The field is not dead, but it has shrunk, shrunk to a band of writers who are doing it because they love it, because they’re really gifted. The future isn’t clear, but it is full of startling and wonderful possibilities. And for that, we can be thankful.

That being said, I’d like to say that it’s been a great pleasure to spend four weeks here at STACKED with all of you. I hope you enjoyed the experience as well, and I hope I can visit here again in the near future. In the meantime, please do participate in “All Hallows Read” should the spirits move you, and Happy Hallowe’en.

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Thursday, October 28, 2010

I Am the Messenger by Marcus Zuzak (audiobook)

Ed Kennedy is nineteen years old, one year too young for the cab driver job that fills up his directionless life. His life consists of being nagged by his mother and playing card games with his best friends, Marv (who drags Ed along to his rugby games and hoards money, yet drives a falling apart car), Ritchie (real name Dave Sanchez, but nicknamed after the tattoo of Jimi Hendrix on his arm that suspiciously resembles Richard Pryor), and Audrey (the blonde beauty and fellow cabdriver whom Ed is hopelessly in love with). Once content to drift through life, Ed's world is shaken up when he is stuck inside a bank during a robbery, surprising both himself and others when he thwarts the criminal, picking up the criminal's dropped gun and shattering the window of Marv's car, which luckily refuses to start for the fleeing criminal.

Suddenly lauded as a hero, Ed's face is splashed across the newspapers...And that's when the first ace shows up in his mailbox. Three addresses are scribbled on the playing card, and Ed soon discovers that he has been called upon for a mission. He is expected to make a difference in the lives of the people at these addresses, to get to know these individuals and find out how he can better them, whether in small or big ways. From the Ace of Diamonds through the Ace of Hearts, Ed travels throughout his run-down town, deciphering the code of the playing cards and finding out more about both himself and the people around him.

I Am the Messenger was absolutely astounding. While Zuzak's The Book Thief is one of my favorite books, I had somehow held off on reading this for a few years. I am incredibly glad that I chose to experience it in audiobook form, as the narrator, Marc Aden Gray, brought Ed to life perfectly. His voice was a perfect mixture of grave, familiar, concerned, determined, and caring.

The power of Zuzak's story lies not only in the character of Ed, who undergoes a complete transformation within these pages, as the messages lead him to finally care about both others and about the direction of his own life, but also in the supporting characters whose names and addresses appear on the Aces. There's Sophie, the beautiful blonde girl who runs like the wind, and whose innocence and determination inspire Ed forward. There's Milla, the elderly woman who still grieves her lost love Jimmy, sixty years after his WWII death. There's Father O'Reilly, whose only wish is to revive and renew his diminished congregation. And there's Marv, whose rapidly increasing bank account is hiding a deep secret.

While the middle two Ace's characters aren't quite as well-developed as the first and last Aces, Zuzak maintains a steady narrative momentum throughout I Am the Messenger, leading up to the final revelation of who is actually sending Ed these playing cards. While I was a bit disappointed with the ending (I actually preferred my guess), Zuzak's conclusion does make sense for the book, and sends a solid message home with the reader. Any book that sends home the message that "Maybe everyone can live beyond what they're capable of" without being preachy is accomplishing something huge.

This goes on my list of favorite reads of all time.

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Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Double Take: Running With the Dogs

I noticed this double take at the Texas Book Festival a couple weeks ago.  While perusing the tent of books for sale, I noticed Abraham Verghese's novel Cutting for Stone, pictured below:

I immediately recognized the image of the two individuals running with the dog from another book, Patrick Ness' The Knife of Never Letting Go:

Upon closer inspection, it's apparent that the image is not exactly the same - the position of the front runner is entirely different and the back runner slightly different.  But it's pretty darn close, aside from the color of the sky. The dog looks identical on each cover.

Who did it better?  I may be biased, considering my love for the Chaos Walking trilogy and my antipathy toward Verghese's sentiments about critical reviews, but I think The Knife of Never Letting Go makes better use of the image.  I love the font used on Ness' book, whereas the font on Verghese's is too plain and saps interest rather than adding it.  I also prefer the color scheme on the second book - it really highlights the running figures.

What do you think?

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Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Love Drugged by James Klise

It's rare a book surprises me with what it has to offer. There are a lot of good reads and a lot of interesting, insightful, exciting characters and stories. Don't get me wrong. But it's rare when a book hits on a topic that is so rich with something that just feels new, and it's not just about being new, it's about being important, too.

James Klise's debut Love Drugged may make my short list in 2010 for favorite read. The back of the book has a question as its copy: If you could change who you are, would you? Should you? That's the entire crux of this book.

Jamie Bates, a 15-year-old Chicago native, lives in the same condo as his grandparents do, as his mother and father can't keep a stable job (though to be fair, they're working at gift wrapping and shipping at the time). He just wants to get through high school and get on with his life. It's rough in the high school world, but he's been lucky: no one knows the biggest secret about him -- he's gay. No, no one knows the secret because he spends a lot of time with Celia Gomez, one of the most attractive girls in school. She has a total crush on him, and he might have one on her too. They might be dating too. It's not super clear to him, either.

When Jamie spends more time with Celia, he learns that her father is a druggist (by that, he creates pharmaceutical drugs to help with different physical ailments). And eventually, he learns that her father is working on an experimental drug to help cure gay people of their homosexual feelings and beliefs. It changes the brain chemistry -- or at least that's what the goal is. Despite not knowing the side effects, the dosage, or the consequences involved in such a drug, Jamie steals some in an attempt to keep fitting in and sliding by in school.

Love Drugged is a well-paced book and one that almost feels straight out of the headlines. Klise spoke at the Anderson's YA Conference I attended, and he was told by his editor that the story was funny. He wasn't so sure about that assessment, and I'm going to agree: I don't really think that this is a "funny" book. There are certainly funny moments, and I think many teens might get a humorous feeling out of some of the events that happen (not to mention Jamie's parents and the job situation therein), but this is a book with a lot of depth and a lot of issues with which to grapple.

What really stands out in this book is Jamie as a character. It's rare to read such a real character, but Jamie here is one. He has all of the feelings of insecurity and the despite to just "slide by" like a typical teenager, but it's also real that he's troubled with the knowledge he's gay. He doesn't dislike being gay, but he also doesn't want to be loud and proud about it. That idea scares him, as is seen in an episode where he finds out someone he's been talking with through a few gay chat rooms is another student in his school. Fear permeates. Likewise, Jamie's decision to take the drugs is less about the wanting to not be homosexual than it is about just wanting to get by without trouble. Jamie has fantasies and dreams and goals like all other teens, and I think Klise has a rare ability here to make a very real and relatable main character.

Dialog works well in this book, and I particularly found a lot of the character interactions worthy of consideration (and worthy of discussion). When Celia's dad talks frankly with Jamie about the purpose of the drug, I think there are a million discussion points worthy of being made. Celia's father is *not* against homosexuals; instead, he said he chooses to work on this project in order to help homosexuals fit in. In the back of my mind as a reader, I could buy that but I could also buy the thought swimming in Jamie's mind about the potential profit from such a "miraculous" product. Jamie, at the end, thinks back on this but is able to now consider the ethical issue of whether it's okay to change who he fundamentally is or not.

Is this the perfect book? Of course not. I found some of the characters to be more furniture like than fully fleshed and some were used merely as a way to move along a subplot. However, our three main characters -- Jamie, Celia, and Celia's father -- along with the engaging, sometimes enraging, situations make this work so well. I'm not a terribly interactive reader, but I found myself at times talking to Jamie as he did or thought through things. And boy, did this book feel refreshing and different after the string of dead parent stories I've read lately.

Love Drugged brings up some politically delicate issues but does so in a manner that allows teens to think for themselves and ones which homosexual teens will understand 150% because they live them every day. This is the kind of book we need to see more of. It's an empowering book, and one that will linger in the minds of readers for a long, long time.

If you're a librarian, please add this to your library. The cover will hook readers, but the content will keep their minds hooked.

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Monday, October 25, 2010

Kid Lit Con 2010

After a long car ride and a short few moments of panic at being lost in Minneapolis at 11:30 p.m., I was on my way to Kid Lit Con 2010 at the Open Book. And after a long night of little sleep, the next morning I got up bright and early and met Alea at 7:30 a.m. for a fantastically full and fun day of kid lit.

We got through registration quickly and made our way into the big meeting room, where the first session of the day was Maggie Steifvater's keynote. Before she spoke, we got to chatting with the folks sitting in front of us: Blythe Woolston (who wrote The Freak Observer which I've recently read) and Michele Corriel (who just released her first novel, Fairview Felines). This was just a taste of how many authors we'd run into or end up talking to without even knowing it!

Maggie was without doubt one of the best speakers I've ever heard. She was engaging and hilarious, and the bulk of her talk was about how important blogging is and the eight key things she's learned in the course of blogging. Those eight things were:
1. The world doesn't need another blog (and the caveat being that it doesn't stop her nor does it stop her from doing questionable things -- she offered up a signed ARC of Linger to a reader who could help her track down size 7 boots, and someone managed to find them and put them on hold under a pseudonym at a Nordstrom's across the country from Maggie, which blew her away).
2. Boring people offline are boring people online . . . and sometimes interesting people online are boring people online. You need to be interesting.
3. Blogging is a conversation -- it's essential to comment to others and respond to comments you receive.
4. People will learn your cat's name. Whatever you say in the blogosphere, people will remember.
5. People will make a connection with you. Nurture them.
6. People can find out everything about you. Maggie emphasized how important it is to be yourself on your blog but to also be extremely careful how much you share -- she said she mentions she has 2 children but never uses their name or their school because you never know when someone might be a creep about it.
7. Blog readers are real people. Treat them that way.
8. Blog writers should be blog readers. You need to read other blogs and engage in that conversation.

I thought her talk was perhaps the highlight of a very exciting day. She has an energy in her presentation that was infectious. After her talk, I tracked her down and got my copies of Shiver and Linger signed so I can give them away for the summer reading program at my work.

Alea and I decided we were going to hit all of the same sessions that day, and our first break out session was "Blog Platforms and Best Practices," by Ryan Bickett, the internet marketing manager for Lerner Publishing. The session focused on the different platforms and tools available for blogging. While it wasn't the most useful session for me personally, I did learn about some other kind of cool blogging tools I hadn't known about before, including Posterous. What's cool about that is that all of your posts can be emailed in; it looks like a bit of a more powerful Tumblr in terms of posting (though it doesn't have quite the array of design choices). Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the session was the discussion we had about Livejournal. I've been using Livejournal as a personal journaling tool since its inception in 1999, so it was interesting to hear everyone's take on it. The conclusion was sort of mutual - it's a "gated" community, and while that's useful for personal journaling or for the social networking aspects embedded in community pages, it's not as "professional" a blog tool as some of the others out there. Alea and I got a kick out of then pointing out all of the big names who use Livejournal for their blogs.

The second break out session was about blog touring, and it featured Swati Avasthi (who wrote Split which I really loved), Michele Corriel, Janet Fox (who wrote Faithful) and Jacqueline Houtman (who wrote The Invention of Edison Thomas, a middle grade sciencey fiction book recently selected as a Wisconsin Reads title). Each took a turn talking about something related to blog touring and what they've found works and doesn't work.

Michele spoke first about the importance of strong questions in author interviews -- she emphasized that after reading many questions from many bloggers, it's easy to see what stands out and what sort of seems not valuable. The best questions, in her opinion, are those that show the blogger has done a little research on their author and can lead into discussions of future projects or interesting aspects of their background. Weak questions, she said, are those that don't necessarily have "a greater purpose," such as those related to favorite movie quotes, favorite foods, or those that ask something like "did you always want to write."

Although her thoughts were valuable, Alea and I had a nice discussion of how we didn't necessarily agree with all of the negative questions. As an interviewer and as a person who reads interviews, I quite like knowing a little personal trivia with my "greater purpose" stuff.

THIS is what Kid Lit Con is all about, folks: it's these discussions.

Swati discussed her lengthy, 26 blog tour she set up herself. In it, she has written a guest post focused on some aspect of domestic violence (a key issue in her book) and for each comment those posts gets, she will donate $1 for a domestic violence organization, up to $250, when she will double her donation to $500. The crux of her talk was about how touring should have something valuable to it, especially on something that large, which keeps readers hooked and interested, as well as keeps the author motivated to do so much work.

Janet talked about how important it is for authors to be social, and she highlighted some of the authors she feels maintain strong social presences and at the same time, "brand" themselves. Some of her top picks include Sarah Dessen (who uses Livejournal to blog), M.T. Anderson (whose website doesn't seem to be working right now), and Julie Berry. Janet emphasized, though, that it's important to do it well and not just half it. People can see through it, and if you can't dedicate to something like they do, you can still be a valuable member of the YA Lit community. She says she's involved heavily in the Twitter #yalitchat and by participating, she always sees her following and blog hits go up.

Jacqueline's discussion was one of the most interesting (and enlightening) of the day for me as not just a blogger, but as a librarian. She talked about blogging outside the kidlitosphere, and for her book, which, while a fictional middle grade title, focuses on science, she sought out the science community. She looked into Lego communities and was able to get a nod in the Chemical and Engineering News blog (for those who don't know, that's a mega big scholarly journal). She did it by thinking creatively -- for her launch party, she made this lovely Periodic Table of Cupcakes. You can see all of the photos here (she also blogs at Livejournal, folks). Jacqueline also talked about how she categorizes her book, which is not a science fiction in the traditional sense, as it's not speculative but rather based on real science. She's dubbed it "sciency fiction," a term I really quite like. I'm going to borrow it.

The third breakout session we attended was called "MG Blogging in the YA Blogosphere." I won't go in depth, but basically, it was an opportunity for some middle grade authors to talk about middle grade books. A group of 30 have put together an incredible blog and web resource at From The Mixed Up Files Of . . . Middle Grade Bloggers. It sounds like an awesome resource for book lists, author interviews, and a monthly release calendar for all things middle grade. Get this: they had 1,032 hits on their first day.

After this session, we had a lunch which was generously sponsored by Harper Collins. . . and it was delicious. Alea and I were commenting on and on about how awesome our turkey on foccocia with pesto was the rest of the day. It was nice to spend an hour just chatting about the sessions and about blogging in general. Did I ever mention that when you hang out with bloggers, there is never awkward silence?

When lunch finished, we went to what was perhaps the most interesting -- and most heated (debatable) -- panel. It was an opportunity for three publishers to talk about their interactions with bloggers, and it featured Flux, Lerner, and Harper Collins. They talked about how they reach out to bloggers and how bloggers can reach out to them. All also discussed the criteria they look for when they choose who to send review materials out to. Some of those criteria include having your bio and email address prominently on your blog, talking with them through Twitter and their Facebook groups, statistics, comments, and quality of posts. This brought up some great questions from the audience, including the one on everyone's mind: what ARE "good" stats?

It was no surprise, in my mind, none of the publishers could give a real number. They said it's subjective. But, listening to some of the numbers they discussed were interesting; they seem to like unique hits, as well as followers, as well as comments. And that, my friends, is where fire flew. Audience members talked about how comments aren't necessarily meaningful because some bloggers have comment contests and all bloggers know that book reviews tend to have a lower number of comments than other posts that perhaps ask for reader input. Another issue brought up was that many who DO read blogs don't comment since they don't feel it's okay to do. The entire discussion was exciting and enlightening, and despite not coming away with a real answer, I did: the real answer is to always be nice, be polite, and be honest. That's on both the blogger end and on the publisher's end.

When that panel ended, Alea and I chose to skip the next break out sessions and head to the comic book next door, where both of us spent more money than planned. And when we came back, we decided to finally track down some people. We talked for a while with Liz of A Tea Cozy and then Melissa Wiley of Here in Bonny Glen. Melissa is the person who created the term "KidLitoSphere," and we happen to both be on the YA Cybils Panel together this year. It was nice to put a face with names!

The next session didn't quite capture my interest since I went to this program without my librarian cap on, and it focused on school and library media visits with authors. I'm sure some other bloggers will cover it better. The final session of the day, though, was about the KidLitoSphere and the Cybils awards. I knew little about how much the wonderful KidLit people did through their portal, so it was nice to hear about the history of this blogosphere and to see all of what their site has to offer (in short: check it out). There were some nice shout outs to other bloggers, too, including Michelle at GalleySmith. You can also jump onto their listserv at The discussion of Cybils history was also interesting, and to hear some final numbers about the number of nominations in the different categories was eyeopening. Since I am so focused on my panel duties, I've kind of blocked out the others. About 1000 titles were nominated this year total and nearly 200 people volunteered to be on a panel.

At the end of the session, it was announced that next year's KidLitCon would be in Seattle (and co-organized by the lovely Jackie!) and in 2012, it will be in New York City.

When this session ended, there was time for book signing and mingling, but Alea and I knew we wouldn't make it till 7:30 for dinner. I suggested hitting up a local bar and after she asked if I was being serious, we went. And we may or may not have gone crazy by ordering cheese curds, potato skins, AND tater tots to split. They were delicious, but we may have overdone it a little bit. Walking back to Open Book was a little painful and I won't even mention how little of dinner we ended up eating later on.

After our pit stop, we headed back to Open Book to listen to Kirstin Cronn-Mills (who wrote The Sky Always Hears Me and the Hills Don't Mind) and Marina Budhos (who wrote Tell Us We're Home). When we got there a little late, Steve Brezenoff (of The Absolute Value of -1) introduced himself to me and we sat in to hear Budhos read since we got there too late for Kirstin's reading. They had time for some questions and answers, where I learned one of the coolest facts of the day -- Budhos is married to Mark Aronson. I didn't have a clue! I've been aware of both of their works for some time, despite not having read them yet, and after listening to an awesome reading by Budhos and her passion for the non-fiction her and her husband are putting out soon about the history of sugar, I'm bumping both up my to-read list.

Then it was time to hit up the Town Hall Brewery for dinner, where we ate dinner with a librarian, a teacher, and with Rebecca Johnson, who wrote Journey Into the Deep. It was a lovely dinner and it was nice to have a pumpkin ale along with my meal, but considering how much Alea and I ate just a bit earlier, we didn't eat much of our dinner. And funny story: while eating, this woman comes up to Alea and asks if she's Alea of the Pop Culture Blog. It was Erin Downey, who wrote Kiss It; she wasn't even there for KidLitCon but was at the bar with some friends, and she sought out Alea to say hi. Cute!

Overall, KidLitCon was a fantastic and inspiring adventure, and it sparked not only my ideas for blogging but also brought up so much great discussion fodder. You can read the Twitter feed at the hash tag #kidlitcon, and you should definitely check out the round up of blog posts which will be posted soon on the KidLitCon website. I'm definitely going to go out to it next year in Seattle, as I think that the opportunities to listen to great panels and meet authors and other bloggers in a small venue is so great. This is nothing like BEA or ALA or even Anderson's day long program. The information I came away with will make me a stronger blogger and may even be incredibly helpful as I slog my way through this book I'm writing for nano (something I spent a few hours plotting out with the help of my husband on the car ride up to Minneapolis). It also was a great celebration of blogging and bloggers and the value that social media has really had on writers and authors. I think too many people ignore the value, and it's so nice to reaffirm what you're doing is good to do. Getting to spend the whole day with Alea, too, who I love as a blogger and Twitter friend, was a total blast; we are bad influences on one another!

And for those of you who recall my car incident after Anderson's will be delighted to know my husband sent me a bunch of frantic text messages during a session telling me my car stalled out while he was driving. Fortunately, it seemed like a fluke incident, as we did make it home all in one piece. Phew!

(The photo on the left of the back of many heads is courtesy of Steve Brezenoff who seeks your tagging skills for it right here -- you can see Alea and I: I'm in the yellow and she's next to me in purple).

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Sunday, October 24, 2010

Reminder: Audiosynced and giveaway winners

Don't forget! Audiosynced is hosted on November 1 here at STACKED. We'll have our audiobook review posted this week, and if you've posted something audiobook related in the last month, share your link with us here or on the round up November 1.

Congrats to our winners of this month's book giveaways, too! Joanna, random number 4, was our winner of Where the Truth Lies and Erin, random number 15, was our winner of Hush. Congrats to our winners, and keep your eyes peeled for another fun giveaway coming up in the next couple of weeks (hint: I have 2 hard cover books signed by an author and it will be international).

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Losing Faith by Denise Jaden

Brie's life changes the instant she gets the phone call from her father to hurry to the emergency room. Brie's at a party and is completely clueless as to what awaits her just a few miles away.

Her sister died.

The circumstances were suspicious, too.

Now Brie is on the path to figuring out what really caused her sister's death. Did she take her own life in a fit of passion or were some of Brie's new and mysterious friends the cause of her death?

Losing Faith was a quick paced read that blended everything there is to love about a contemporary novel with an element of mystery. This is the kind of book that, as a lover of contemporary, I would hand to those who aren't as jazzed about the genre; the mystery is the heart and the pulse of the story without making this book a mystery novel.

Brie is one of the more interesting characters I've read lately. She had a strong enough voice to lead me to care about her story and her determination to find the cause of Faith's death. To me, her voice felt authentically high school and her experiences rang true as well. One minute, she's deeply in love with a guy and ready to lose her virginity with him, and a couple of days later, he has sort of fallen out of her line of sight. The same thing happens with her "best friend."

A key element of this story is the idea of a religious cult: Faith had been a deeply devoted follower of god, and she had been heavily involved in her church. What didn't really work for me as a reader, though, was how this wasn't played up all that much until the end of the story. I wanted more of this element, ala Hush, and I wanted to know a little bit more about Brie's new friends, Tessa and Alis. The two of them were very shadowed while they were in the book, and both of them had a vault of knowledge associated with this cult. Tessa had a bit of a wickedly criminal mind I would have loved to get to know better.

That said, I thought that the unraveling of Faith's death was compelling and twisted enough to keep me reading and to leave me feeling satisfied at the end of the book. I thought Jaden walked a fine line with her messages of faith and following beliefs and I think she did some masterfully. The conclusion came together quite nicely and didn't try to push any message on the reader.

The grief in this book can, at times, be a bit overwhelming for readers; Jaden tempers this quite a bit through her development of Brie and Faith's mother. Following Faith's death, mom became withdrawn, distraught, and completely beside herself in life. Rather than let her flounder as a character, she continues to emerge, and at the end, Brie does something to really bring her mother back to life. What she does happens to be precisely what it was that made her fall into her depression in the first place. It was -- and I gag at typing the word, trust me -- heartwarming. Losing Faith is a story with a strong family structure, and I think that the depiction of a family that fluctuates with its highs and lows does readers a service in a book world full of dysfunctional families (ah but don't worry, there is a dysfunctional family here, too, it's just not central).

Hand this off to fans of Sarah Dessen for the relationship aspects, particularly when it comes to families. Those who loved Holly Cupala's Tell Me a Secret will want to run to this title, as there are many parallels in the story lines (and enough diversions to never feel like the same story). Fans of contemporary fiction will eat this title up, and the mystery will be a bonus.

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Saturday, October 23, 2010

In My Mailbox (11)

Welcome to another week of In My Mailbox, hosted by Kristi at The Story Siren. It's a chance to highlight the books received in the past week in the mail, from the library, or from the book store.

This week marked something pretty sad here in southern Wisconsin. My mailman, who I know, destroyed my mailbox. It is entirely cracked on the side and hanging on by dear life right now. How did he destroy it, you ask? Well, I figured it out when I noticed that the envelope I got from Simon and Schuster had a rip -- a huge rip -- on the opposite side to that which was broken on the mailbox. It was your classic shoving the envelope into the box too hard maneuver.

But in that envelope, I got...

Wither by Lauren DeStefano: This book is the first in a dystopian trilogy. While that in itself kind of excited me, what really got me interested in this was Lauren's blog and the fact this trilogy from a debut author snatched a supposed 7 figure signing deal. Sweeeeet!

The Search for Wondla by Tony DiTerlizzi: I got a finished copy of this one by surprise. It looks like a great middle grade fantasy, something I need to bulk up on a bit.

Clockwork Angel by Cassandra Clare: I had a review copy of this one from BEA, but during the summer, I had a comment contest on my library's facebook and our teen winner got to take it as a prize before I read it. My coworkers have been buzzing about this one, so I'm looking forward to it post-Cybils.

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CSN Giveaway Winner!

The winner of $65 to CSN Stores is the thirteenth entry, Betsy!  Congrats, Betsy!  I'll be in touch with you via email about how to redeem your prize.

Don't forget to enter our other giveaways located in the box on the right.

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Friday, October 22, 2010

Guest Post: Horror Lit 101, Part the Third

Guest blogger Matthew Jackson continues his series of posts for the month of October on horror literature. Today's post is part three of four. Make sure you've read up on the entire series by reading the first installment here and the second installment here.

Horror Lit 101, Part the Third: In which we contemplate America’s Boogeyman and other modern monsters.

The 20th century added four new, powerful delivery systems for horror stories: radio, the motion picture, the comic book and the television. As with every other genre, this resulted in a kind of cultural overload. Suddenly the number of influences for aspiring storytellers was through the roof, and for many of our finest authors of modern horror fiction, these new mediums were an abundant source of inspiration.

We’ve talked about the roots of great horror, and the most influential early writers in the genre. This week we’ll cover some of the biggest names in horror fiction in the 20th century. Again we’ll cover essential works in their respective canons, why they’re important, and what they contribute overall to the genre. We will begin, as you might have guessed, with the King…

Stephen King (1947-)

Love him or loathe him, it’s hard to overestimate the cultural impact Stephen King has had over the past 35 years or so. Since his first novel Carrie was published in 1974 King has sold over 500 million books, and a quick search of the Internet will tell you that more than 50 feature film adaptations have been produced to date of various stories and characters from his work. Fifty movies. From one guy. And that’s not counting all the television miniseries and episodes, comic books, short films and other things that bear his mark.
In the 1980s, during the height of his commercial success, pretty much everyone with eyes was reading a King novel at some point, and not much has changed since then. His name alone is enough to send a volume to the top of the bestseller lists, a feat particularly impressive for someone who has been largely “typed” as a horror writer since the mid 70s (a designation that is to some extent unfair, we must all admit). Short of singular instances of pop culture explosion like Harry Potter and Twilight, Stephen King is pretty much the most successful writer of popular fiction who’s ever lived.

King’s immense popular appeal has been a subject of debate for even the writer himself, but the consensus seems to be that he’s sold so many books because he’s found a way to tap into a set of universal fears. Poe wrote macabre but often farfetched horror scenarios, and Lovecraft wrote about the discovering of big scary monsters. Cool, but not exactly relatable.
King, on the other hand, even when he’s at the height of sensationalism, always ties his fiction back to something a little more universal. The Shining is on the surface a haunted house/hotel novel, but it’s really a book about how people are haunted, and how our own misdeeds can follow us and drive us mad. Pet Sematary is a fairly simple story of a forbidden resurrection, but more importantly it’s about a deeply tragic loss and how far over the edge we might go if we had a chance to bring someone back (King found this book so disturbing that he didn’t originally intend to publish it.).
These subtexts may seem simple if you’re not familiar with the individual works, but believe me when I tell you that King’s great talent is to wrap his characters in these concepts, to make it permeate the manuscript, but not so much that it’s the only thing the book’s about. You have to walk a fine line in horror fiction, especially when you’re trying to make it do more than just be icky, and there is no one better than King.

He’s gotten more thematically complex in his later years, as exhibited by books like Desperation and Lisey’s Story. He still has the same knack for generating terrifying conceptual work, but he’s also grown as a writer, and how often can we say that for producers of commercial fiction? Don’t believe the critics. Hail to the King.

Essential Reading: King’s best novel by far is The Stand, a massive apocalyptic book about how the world ends that was written in the midst of the 1970s energy crisis but still holds relevance today. Other brilliant things include his “ultimate horror” novel It, his fantastic short fiction collection Night Shift and his 7-part epic The Dark Tower (not always horror, but it definitely bears mentioning). As far as nonfiction, pick up his Danse Macabre if you want to learn more about the horror genre than little old me could ever tell you, and his On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft if you want to read the most useful and entertaining book about writing fiction that I’ve ever encountered.

Clive Barker (1952-)

We will continue with the man Stephen King once, in so many words, declared his successor. The quote “I have seen the future or horror and its name is Clive Barker,” attributed to King, was pasted on the front of Barker’s first books in the mid-1980s, and I’m sure it went a long way to selling a good deal more of them than Barker ever expected.

The only English writer I’ll mention in this post, Barker began his career as a playwright and theatrical producer before breaking into popular fiction with his enormously influential Books of Blood series beginning in 1984. Six volumes of these horror stories were published between 1984 and 1987, and they contain everything from serial killers to secret societies to werewolves to comically mischievous spirits. Barker earned a lot of critical and commercial attention for his use of graphic violence and sexuality in all of his stories, and was dubbed the new splatterpunk wunderkind.

To say these tales are important just because they’re courageously gross is a huge mistake. Barker ushered in a new way of thinking for horror fiction. While everyone around him was introducing monsters and then killing them, Barker was dreaming of perverse and often enlightening ways in which monsters could be embraced, a theme that runs through numerous Books of Blood tales like “The Life of Death,” “Dread” and even “Skins of the Fathers” (Is that a badass title, or isn’t it?). Barker’s stories were less about abolishing the alien and more about exploring how the alien is actually a part of us, and as an added bonus you get to read about buckets of blood. It’s not an overstatement to call his work a revolution in the horror world.

Essential Reading: Books of Blood are on top of the list, of course, but his first novel The Damnation Game is important for its new usage of Faustian archetypes, and his novella The Hellbound Heart (the basis for the classic film Hellraiser, which Barker directed) is a modernized horror fairy tale.

Richard Matheson (1926-)

Going backward a bit, we look at the author without whom there would probably be no Stephen King, or George A. Romero, or Anne Rice. Matheson was the king before King. His work launched subgenres, created new fears for the 20th Century and still has tremendous influence (as the success of the recent adaptation of his novel I Am Legend shows). Matheson wrote novels beyond the scope of past horror writers (with the exception of Lovecraft, of course).
I Am Legend is among the first apocalyptic horror novels, documenting the adventures of a man who believes he is the last human after everyone else has been taken over by a vampire-like virus. This story has been echoed over and over since, in films like Dawn of the Dead and novels like Stephen King’s Cell and Justin Cronin’s The Passage, which we’ll cover next week. Likewise his novel Hell House is in many ways the ultimate haunted house story. There’s nothing particularly insightful on a human level about Matheson’s work, but on the level of pure fun there’s no one better. He wrote the novels he knew horror fans wanted, and that’s why he’s great.

Essential Reading: I Am Legend and Hell House, of course, but also check out things like A Stir of Echoes and The Incredible Shrinking Man, not to mention his long list of short fiction.

Joyce Carol Oates (1938-)

Yes, that’s the Joyce Carol Oates: National Book Award winner, Pulitzer nominee, literary legend and widely considered one of the great writers of our time. I’m not kidding. She’s a horror writer. No, seriously.

Anyone familiar with Oates’ work, even the really populist sort of stuff like We Were the Mulvaneys, knows that it’s perforated with very dark undertones. Many of her novels – My Sister, My Love, Black Water and Beasts, to name three – aren’t strictly horror, but they deal with horrific things in a very real and unpolished sense, and in that way they often become terrifying. She’s also a ridiculously adept practitioner of the Gothic tale, which isn’t horror but certainly specializes in the ominous.

Oates, like Cormac McCarthy, is among those wonderful writers of “serious” fiction who are far more concerned with their stories than with other people’s perception of their stories, therefore she’s a writer who uncompromisingly believes in the tale she’s telling, whether it’s scary or not. The result is a diverse body of work that includes numerous things that are either almost horror or just flat out horror. The world of popular speculative fiction got a little jolt in 1996 when Oates won the Bram Stoker Award (pretty much the highest prize you can get for a horror novel) for her book Zombie, a serial killer story based in large part on the life of Jeffrey Dahmer.

Zombie is a first person narrative concerning a man who slowly gives over to his urges, drifting further and further away from a normal life as he begins taking young men back to his home and killing them, then making an attempt to turn them into his own private slaves by debilitating their brains (hence the title). It’s a horrifying idea made all the more horrifying by how deftly Oates gets into the head of this man, who goes nameless throughout the story. We always wonder how the guy next door becomes a killer, and countless pages of fiction have appeared trying to explain it. So far, only this one seems to come close.

Essential Reading: The aforementioned titles as well as her two anthologies of “Tales of the Grotesque,” Haunted and The Collector of Hearts.

Honorable Mentions (because I’ve rambled long enough.): Peter Straub’s Ghost Story, the entire body of work of Ramsey Campbell, William Peter Blatty’s The Exorcist, Dan Simmons’ The Terror and Carrion Comfort and of course the sublime and wonderful work of the great Harlan Ellison, including Deathbird Stories and the two legendary anthologies he edited: Dangerous Visions and Again, Dangerous Visions.

Once again, I could go on, but I’ve gone on quite long enough for one week. Hit up Google for a list of Bram Stoker Award winners and you’ll be off to the races with even more terrifying reads.

Tune in next week when we conclude this adventure with a look at contemporary horror…and a glimpse into the future.

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Thursday, October 21, 2010

National Book Awards--Our Reactions

With the announcements of this year's National Book Award finalists, we thought we'd offer up our thoughts on this year's picks, as well as what we were surprised didn't make the cut.

Though I have only read two (One Crazy Summer & Mockingbird) out of the five nominations for Young People's Literature, one thing that struck me was how the choices seemed to lean more toward Middle Grade than Young Adult Literature, which has seemed to dominate in years past. For example, the subject matters of Laini Taylor's Lips Touch (2009), Judy Blundell's What I Saw and How I Lied (2008) and even E. Lockhart's The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks (2008) are much more mature than those of both One Crazy Summer and Mockingbird, which both feature an 11 year old protagonist.

It also seems like a rather bleak field, subject-matter-wise this year, with Ship Breaker detailing the post-apocalyptic aftermath of a hurricane, Dark Life taking on forest fires, Lockdown taking place in a bleak juvenile detention facility, One Crazy Summer bringing three young girls to visit the mother who had abandoned them years ago, and Mockingbird showing a girl with Asperger's learning how to deal with her brother's death. While I know that most award-winning books are bleak, this seems to be an especially heavy crop this year.

Again, while I can only speak for two of the books, I do firmly believe that both deserve their nomination. I adored Mockingbird, which was poignant and beautifully written. The characterization of Caitlyn was incredible, along with her evolving relationship with her father. While I did enjoy One Crazy Summer, I don't think I loved it as much as many reviewers did. However, Williams-Garcia's story vividly portrayed what it is like to feel abandoned and painted a striking picture of being a child in the Black Panther movement.

I'm a little embarrassed to admit to having only read one of the finalists for the Young People's category this year, and that was Lock Down by Walter Dean Myers. I have had on my to-read list The Great House by Nicole Krauss, which is on the adult list this year.

I'm with Jen on thinking the field is quite bleak this year, but I'm not too surprised to see some of the titles on there, including Mockingbird and One Crazy Summer, both of which have generated quite a bit of buzz. I'm also surprised there's not an "out of left field" title in there like last year's Stitches; instead, they all seem pretty straightforward.

Perhaps what surprises me are some of the worthy titles not included this year, namely Jonathan Franzen's Freedom and titles like Steve Brezenoff's Absolute Value of -1. For me, Lockdown just wasn't a super strong novel, and given the buzz surrounding some of the other Young People's titles, I'm a little surprised it's up there (maybe it's the WDM name that does it).

I am perhaps most struck by the fact that there is not a single non-fiction title in the youth crop. Last year, two non-fiction titles were selected; this year, despite there being two big name non-fiction authors dropping new titles (Russell Freedman and Susan Bartoletti), neither them nor other non-fiction writers are getting any love.

I made it a goal last year to read all of the titles in this category, and I'm going to try to do it again this year (it helps that a few are Cybils nominees). I've got a feeling from reviews and buzz alone that Mockingbird might come out on top this year. We'll see what happens in a few weeks!

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Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Guest Post: Erin Blakemore on The Ugliness of the Heroines

Today's guest blogger is Erin M. Blakemore, author of The Heroine's Bookshelf, released on October 19th and now on shelves! As a huge fan of strong, plucky female characters (I count Anne Shirley as a kindred spirit), I can't wait to read this book, which delves into the stories and qualities behind classic heroines and their female creators. Erin learned to drool over Darcy and cry over Little Women in suburban San Diego, California. These days, her inner heroine loves roller derby (yes, she's a retired skater), running her own business (woman-powered, wonderfully independent), and hiking in her adopted hometown of Boulder, Colorado (seasons, sunshine, and plenty of laid-back fun).You can also find Erin at her blog.

The Ugliness of the Heroines

Let me be the first to break it to you: writing is ugly. I'm talking sitting in pajamas with holes in
them, popcorn shells all over your chest ugly. Bags under the eyes, woefully overdue haircut ugly. Unable to talk in coherent sentences ugly. I already knew this before I started writing The Heroine's Bookshelf, at once my defense of rereading and an exploration of the real and fictitious lives of my favorite literary figures. But I never expected to find my own ugly truth reflected in the lives of women I was prepared to revere.

Like any good heroine, I got way more than I bargained for when I began researching and writing the book. I guess I figured the experience would be pretty routine. I would, I fantasized, learn that my favorite writers were incredible, inspiring women whose stories informed those of their literary creations; discover cool facts to add to my arsenal; get an excuse to re-read stories I loved; then move on.

But a strange thing happens when you're writing about real people: they tend to fall off their pedestals. The women who brought us all tales of inspiration, light, and love were also cheating spouses, cranky and unrelentingly critical mothers, drug addicts, irritating drama queens, and hypochondriacs bent on making others suffer right along with them? (Take a look at my table of contents and assign these characteristics as you will!) Authors whose genius I felt was a given spent lifetimes putting down and hiding their own brilliant work (here's looking at you, Margaret Mitchell). And here I thought I was writing a book about heroines.

Yeah. Not so much. Turns out my own heroines had plenty of their own ugly. Like Louisa May Alcott during an un-heroic moment in 1860:

I feel very moral to-day, having done a big wash alone, baked, swept the house, picked the hops, got dinner, and written a chapter...It is dreadfully dull, and I work so that I may not “brood....” If I think of my woes I fall into a vortex of debts, dish pans, and despondency awful to see....All very aggravating to a young woman with one dollar, no bonnet, half a gown, and a discontented mind.

Or Charlotte Brontë, the discontented governess:

But, alack-a-day! there is such a thing as seeing all beautiful around you and not having a free moment or a free thought left to enjoy them in. The children are constantly with me, and more riotous, perverse, unmanageable cubs never grew.

Cue countless other complaints, bitter laments, ridiculous rivalries, and tales of all-too-human frailty. In fact, I learned that the women I'd been taught to adore could range from annoying to downright wicked.

Okay...bubble burst. So did I lament my lack of material for the book?

No way. Instead, I breathed a sigh of relief. See, somewhere inside I'd worried that my own favorite authors were too untouchable to really enjoy. After all, where's the fun in someone whose petticoats are unsoiled and unsullied by gossip, scandal, and lies? What's to love about heroines who don't have a trace of humanity?

If I'd learned that the women whose work I love so much were perfect to boot, I might have powered down my computer and put aside my pen for all time. For who can dare to create when perfection has already been attained?

Surprise! Like me, my literary heroines were not so heroic most of the time. My discovery came
just in time to help me meet my deadline, finish my book, and have a hell of a time writing it. Armed with my new knowledge, I pushed aside my uncut bangs for the fiftieth time, reached for another handful of popcorn, and got back to the business of meeting my heroines in all their ugly glory.

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Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Texas Book Festival 2010

This past weekend I traveled to Austin to attend the 15th annual Texas Book Festival, a two-day extravaganza in the capitol building and on the capitol lawns featuring a bevy of authors, illustrators, and readers. 

I can't remember a time when the book festival was not a part of my life.  I always enjoy visiting the capitol building - my favorite building in the state of Texas and one of the few state capitols that actually looks impressive.  It was a beautiful weekend to be out in the sun, walking around the green capitol grounds and just relishing being among a huge throng of readers.

There were a couple changes this year that I wasn't so wild about.  First, the House and Senate chambers are being renovated, so they were both closed and no events took place inside them (except the Senate chamber on Sunday for a few panels).  So instead of sitting at a desk and pretending to make Very Important Decisions, we were mostly in the capitol extension rooms downstairs.  That beautiful room off to the right is the House chamber, which I sadly did not get to see this year.  Unavoidable, but still disappointing.  

Second, for the first time in the history of the festival (at least that I can recall), security gates were installed at each entrance to the building.  Before this year, visitors could just walk right in with no pauses or lines, and no need to remove belts or watches or have their bags searched.  Not anymore.  That was probably the most disappointing part of the whole experience.  I've a feeling the gates are permanent, and I'd be lying if I said that fact didn't diminish my love of the capitol more than a little.

But enough with the disappointments.  Overall, it was a terrific two days.  Here are some highlights.  Warning: this is a long post.  I just can't help it.

Day One
Instead of battling the throngs of people packed into the Paramount to see Laura Bush, I elected to hear neuroscientist Simon LeVay talk about his book Gay, Straight, and the Reason Why: The Science of Sexual Orientation.  LeVay was an excellent speaker: he described his research and fielded questions handily, managing to communicate his points clearly and without talking over the audience's head (or talking down to the audience, either).  He's conducting some really important research that has massive social implications.

Then I headed to the Paramount to see the Literary Death Match, an event where four authors paired up for a "read-off" and the winners were voted on by a panel of judges including Holly Black.  It was full of really cheesy and really raunchy humor, so definitely up my alley, although the first reading I could have done without.  Bob Shea, author of the picture book Dinosaur vs. the Potty, was the last author to read and he brought the house down with a reading of the aforementioned book, as well as with his presentation of his "work in progress": Dinosaur vs. Writing Picture Books (I'm paraphrasing that - I can't remember the exact title).  A few choice match-ups from that book include Dinosaur vs. explaining to your father what you do for a living (Dinosaur wins!), Dinosaur vs. obsessively googling your name (Dinosaur wins!), and Dinosaur vs. selling out (Selling out wins!).  Hilarious and the best part of Day One.

The last panel of Saturday that I attended was Vintage/Anchor books presentation of "Writers on Reading."  I'll be honest and say I only went because they hand out tote bags of free books each year, but I really could have skipped it.  None of the books I happened to receive really interested me, and the authors on the panel - J. Courtney Sullivan and Abraham Verghese - were merely mediocre.  I was particularly put off by both authors' arguments that critical reviews of their books were unnecessary and if a reviewer couldn't write a positive review, the reviewer should send it to someone who would.  Here at STACKED, we believe that each book has an audience (even if it's a very small one), but we also believe in being honest.  Sullivan's and Verghese's line of thought didn't sit well with me.

Next up was a quick walk through the tents and then it was time to head home for a brief rest before seeing Alton Brown at Central Market.  My family and I were lucky enough to score a few of the limited seats inside the venue, so we were treated to a solid half-hour of Alton Brown being his awesome self as he answered audience questions.  Afterward, he signed copies of his new book Good Eats 2: The Middle Years.  He was just as funny, energetic, and personable as his tv show indicates.

Day Two
First up on Day Two was a fantasy panel entitled "Portal to Imagined Worlds" featuring Cinda Williams Chima, Carolyn Cohagan, Ingrid Law, and Brian Yansky.  They were uniformly interesting and just a great way to start the day.  Fantasy was what made me a reader in the first place, and it's still my greatest reading love.  I loved hearing about their path to being published and that not a single one of the four bothers to outline.  Every year at the Book Festival, I attend a panel that inspires me to write, and this one was it.

Next up was "English Language: Under the Hood" with Roy Peter Clark and Ben Yagoda.  I'm having trouble deciding what my favorite moment of this session was.  The first moment came when Yagoda shot down an audience member who stated that people nowadays (meaning young people, natch) neither read nor know how to use the English language properly.  His rebuttal was excellent and still makes me smile.  The second moment came when Clark launched into a few punny Tom Swifties, including "'I dropped my toothpaste,' he said, crestfallen."  I'm glad I snagged a copy of Clark's The Glamour of Grammar at TLA earlier this year.

The last event I attended was Tony DiTerlizzi, who introduced his new fully-illustrated (over 100 pages of color illustrations!) novel for middle graders The Search for WondLa.  He spoke about his influences (both literary and artistic) which include Alice in Wonderland, Peter and Wendy, and The Wizard of Oz.  The cover for the book in particular reminds me of W. W. Denslow's illustrations.  The Wizard of Oz has long been near and dear to my heart (I practically learned to read on Baum's books), and I was very impressed with both DiTerlizzi's presentation, which was funny and interesting, as well as with his art, which is expressive and beautiful.  The whole book is a work of art, and I was very pleased to purchase it and have him sign it for me (He's also a very nice man).  As I waited in line, I noticed several kids who just could not wait to start reading - their noses were in the book and didn't leave it, even when they were next in line to meet the author.  That's pretty awesome.

That's my Texas Book Festival experience in a nutshell!  I can't wait to go back again next year, where I might decide to skip the Vintage/Anchor books panel and where I'll cross my fingers that the House and Senate chambers will be open again (pretty likely) and the metal detectors will have disappeared (not likely, I'm afraid).

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