My favorite books this year were all by women

Kristen Bell sloth

It’s December, which means soon we’ll have a whole new year of books to look forward to. What’s your favorite book that you read in 2016?

Without a doubt, mine is …

Uprooted

Okay, Uprooted is from 2015, but … sigh. It’s so beautiful. And powerful. And enchanting. It’s the best fantasy literature that I’ve read since Le Guin’s Earthsea cycle (my favorite series). I don’t often encounter genuine page-turners, but this is one of them. GO READ IT PLEASE.

Also, yay for positive female friendships!

I also have to give a big shout-out to Liane Moriarty, who’s my new favorite author that I discovered this year (her books are secretly amazing), and Ava Jae, who’s my new favorite debut author (go read her too, please!).

I finished my Goodreads challenge this year. Did you?

A new young adult book that ‘navigates self-doubt, alienation, and resilience’

In Real Life

I’m proud to share the book trailer for my friend Lawrence Tabak’s (@LawrenceTabak) upcoming young adult book In Real Life. Publisher’s Weekly (Oct. 6 edition) said he “credibly navigates self-doubt, alienation, and resilience in his debut novel, which ends on a tantalizing open-ended note”:

In Real Life is about a 15-year-old named Seth Gordon, who has all the normal troubles of adolescence — girls, after-school jobs, grades — only he’s really, really good at video games. So good, in fact, that he travels to Korea to join an internationally famous pro gaming team. But the life of a star isn’t all that he imagined it to be.

It was my pleasure to read In Real Life this spring and to help Larry polish the book before its forthcoming release. Definitely give it a read this November!

You can read an interview with Larry and news outlet Technology Tell right here.

The Maze Runner: I have no idea what I’m in for

The Maze Runner movie

James Dashner’s The Maze Runner is, well, weird.

Basically, I have no idea whether the movie — which hits theaters this Friday — is going to be awesome or The Langoliers corny. Back when I was a kid, I thought that Stephen King film was the most frightening thing ever (I mean, come on, monsters that eat reality itself?!?!), but when I rewatched it as an adult, it was goofy as hell.

The monsters in The Maze Runner — an easy read of 300-some pages — remind me a lot of those bad CGI creatures. That is, I have no idea how they’re going to manage to look cool on the big screen when their descriptions in the book are so bizarre and … kind of stupid.

Let’s back up. The Maze Runner is sort of like The Langoliers meets The Lord of the Flies. A bunch of boys are thrown into a walled-in area they call the Glade — with no memories of who they were or how they got there — and forced to investigate a deadly, gigantic maze for a way out. The maze surrounds them on all sides, so while they have to form their own organized and civil society (they even have a council) just to survive, the braver few go out into the labyrinth during the day and try to learn its secrets.

The Langoliers movie
The Langoliers: Totally not scaring after the age of 12.

Not everyone gets along, though, and that’s made worse when the newest recruit, Thomas, arrives and weird things start happening. Including the appearance of a girl — the first ever in the Glade.

Cue awkward teenage sexual feelings and, erm, telepathy.

Yes, The Maze Runner is kind of a cheesy book, made weirder by the slang the boys throw around as their own primal island language. Words like “klunk” and “shank” and phrases like “good that” are totally normal conversation. They might as well be jumping from trees and sticking pig’s heads on stakes.

But the monsters are something else. Part slug, part death-metal-torture machine, the Grievers that patrol the maze are … totally ridiculous to imagine and maybe not as frightening to picture as Dashner thought. But then again, I’m not the target age group for this book.

I plan on seeing The Maze Runner in theaters later this month, mostly because I’m just damned curious — either it’s going to be the lamest young adult movie ever (maybe dumber than If I Stay seemed?) or it’s going to be somehow totally amazing, and Grievers will become the stuff of my nightmares. I mean, I dig mazes, so anything’s possible.

Can robotic slugs freak me out? Will I ever be able to take the words “shuck-face” and “Greenie” seriously? I have no idea.

Let’s find out.

Why I won’t be seeing the movie If I Stay

If I Stay

I want to talk about If I Stay, the young adult book by Gayle Forman. All 231 pages rest on one question: What would you do if you had to choose?

As in, if you found yourself looking down on your comatose body after surviving a terrible car crash that kills your parents and only brother, would you want to stick around for all the ensuing pain or hightail it out of there?

When I saw a commercial for If I Stay (out Aug. 22) and Chloë Grace Moretz’s (one of my favorite young actresses) character got all weepy saying, “He wrote me a song,” my heart didn’t flutter. I thought it looked dumb and badly acted:

Like, this scene looks boring:

But maybe the book is good, I thought. OK. Nope. Not any better.

If I Stay has the potential to be good, but it’s a hugely overrated book. While wandering the hospital all corporeal and watching her loved ones talk to her broken body, the character Mia debates whether she wants to stay (and live without her family) or let herself die. You figure the author isn’t going to write a book where the message is “life isn’t that worth living,” so you know she’ll probably choose to live — but the point is more to explore the decision and all its implications. After all, who really gets to choose? Probably doesn’t happen all that often.

So she does a lot of thinking, mostly about music and her boyfriend. Her parents were rockers in their day, and her boyfriend has his own band that’s gaining popularity, but she plays the cello. Lame — or at least she thinks so. Most of her recollections deal with her doubts, not about whether her boyfriend Adam loves her but why he loves her. She can’t believe someone so cool would care about someone as plain as her. She doesn’t feel like she even belongs in her own family.

Then Adam shows up at the hospital (back to real time now), and she’s a mess. Seeing him makes her want to live, and that complicates her decision to call it quits. Because romance.

If I Stay is a pretty easy read — and it ends so abruptly you’ll be disappointed (I didn’t realize the 100 pages at the end of my version was all authory, previewy stuff). I wanted Forman to dig deeper into the question of why someone would stay (and what it means not to), but she never did. She never ventured beyond the obvious or connected all the stuff Mia thought about — music, love, family belonging, friendship — back to her final decision in a way that felt like it actually meant something.

And what about the movie line where Moretz’s character cries and smiles and says, “He wrote me a song”? Yeah, that never even happens.

So I don’t know about you, but I’m chalking this one up as another overrated YA book and skipping the theaters.

Grade: D

The monsters inside us: a review of The Isle of Blood

“You may think I’m stupid, you may call me a madman and a fool, but at least I stand upright in a fallen world. At least I have yet, like you, to fall off the edge into the abyss.”

The Isle of BloodRick Yancey’s third Monstrumologist book, The Isle of Blood, is my favorite in the series so far. I expected ghastly creatures, vile dissections, and the sick thoughts of morbid men — as usual — but I wasn’t prepared for the frightening transformation of a small boy.

The Isle of Blood is, from start to finish, one of Yancey’s best. I found the previous book, The Curse of the Wendigo, a little slower paced as it focused more on character than action. This novel maintains the quality of Yancey’s signature descriptions, so gruesome and rich in detail, but also seamlessly combines internal character developments with nonstop, heart-pounding events.

I was a little disoriented because The Isle of Blood doesn’t begin where I thought it would, given the previous novel’s cliffhanger. But I quickly traded confusion for fascination as a mysterious “nest” of human flesh and matter arrived on Dr. Pellinore Warthrop’s doorstep, along with the desperate man delivering it. This nidus, as it’s called, curses all who so much as touch it or someone afflicted by it. It blinds them, turns their flesh to rot, and carves their souls hollow. They become hungry creatures, servants of a foul master.

Will Henry, the doctor’s young assistant, almost becomes one.

Warthrop himself is absent for a portion of the book. He trots off in search of the source of the nidus, the magnificum, the Faceless One, with an eager colleague who seems to know much more about the doctor and his secrets than he should. But The Isle of Blood is Will Henry’s tale — a look at what envy and loneliness can do to a boy so consumed by the obsessions of a man who is the closest thing to a father he’ll ever know, only the role of parent and child are reversed: Will Henry too often the parent, Warthrop the child. They’ve become so tied to each other that even a taste of a normal life cannot free Will Henry or save him from his descent into darkness, where he chases after Warthrop and becomes lost himself.

Once again, Yancey continues to deepen the strange and pained relationship between Warthrop and Will Henry — their obligations and responsibilities toward one another, and their guilt. Warthrop, so cold and unlikeable, becomes a warmer and more human character in this book while Will Henry, only a boy, finds monsters in himself that never existed there before. Yancey doesn’t shy away from them; sadly, neither does Will Henry, who, having never enjoyed such freedom, embraces their sinister power.

Yancey’s real accomplishment of story here is the way he dissects the truth and meaning of monsters: Are the ones we hunt in the world, the creatures that go bump in the night, more horrible than what man himself is capable of? What does that dark compulsion to find them, that life-long pursuit of them, do to the mind — to the fertile imagination and fragile psyche of a young boy? What monsters do we create in the search for monsters? When do the footsteps we follow become our own?

Grade: A

Be brave: a review of Divergent

Somewhere inside me is a merciful, forgiving person. Somewhere there is a girl who tries to understand what people are going through, who accepts that people do evil things and that desperation leads them to darker places than they ever imagined. …

But if I saw her, I wouldn’t recognize her.

DivergentI didn’t enjoy Divergent as much as I thought I would. I don’t even like the main character, Beatrice, all that much. But I do like how author Veronica Roth plays around with themes such as bravery, cowardice, and honesty.

Divergent splits its world into factions and forces everyone, at a young age, to choose which one they want to spend the rest of their lives a part of. That sometimes means joining a completely different group of people and never seeing your family again because you’re supposed to obey the mantra “faction before blood.” It sucks.

Beatrice grew up in Abnegation (which means “self-denial”), a faction that teaches selflessness above all else. But the problem with the factions, which were created to prevent war and violence by adhering to a set of ideals, is that if you commit yourself to the qualities that you think would guard against those things, you end up leading an extremist lifestyle. Most of us find it OK to be selfish sometimes, or dishonest, or reckless, or smart, but no one in Divergent gets that luxury.

That’s why people change factions — a chance at freedom, at identity. But those words don’t mean much when you’re simply trading one rigid way of life for another. It’s a flawed system that leads to a lot of political problems that boil over later in the book.

So Beatrice leaves her faction of total strictness and charity (people call the Abnegation “Stiffs”) and chooses its very opposite: the Dauntless. They’re everything the Abnegation are not supposed to be. But before initiation, even before you choose, you take a test that’s meant to guide you. Beatrice’s results, which are supposed to reveal the faction where she best belongs, are inconclusive. They are wrong. Divergent.

For most of the novel, Beatrice — or “Tris,” as she chooses to be called — has no idea what that means. She just tries her best to survive initiation, which with the Dauntless means jumping onto moving trains and onto rooftops, climbing to ridiculous heights, getting tattoos, showing skin, shooting guns, and fighting. It’s supposed to teach her to be brave, but not everyone has the same idea of what that is. She has to figure that out for herself, and that’s what I loved most about Divergent. The concept of bravery (or any of the other faction ideals) becomes confusing when you’re trying to define it — when you apply it to different situations the same way or try to live by its compass alone. A lot of what bravery means to Tris depends on how she connects to whatever she’s feeling. Brave one moments means a gun in her hand and the next, stepping away, being vulnerable.

That also makes her unlikable in a lot of ways. Tris can be completely selfless when she follows old habits or protects her friends, but inside, she can be petty. She can be angry. Selfish. And it’s hard to admire someone who listens to a fellow initiate sob during the night and ignores him because it disgusts her.

None of us is perfect, though, and maybe Tris’s character is just an honest one. Heroes don’t always have to be good. I’m not sure Tris is. She’s smart and moral, and she feels guilt or pain when others are wronged, but she’s not above committing cruel deeds herself.

Maybe that’s why Divergent gets more interesting later on because for the first half or so, the pace is kind of slow. I wasn’t even sure I cared about any of the characters. It took awhile for me to warm up to or feel convinced by them. And a lot of that had to do with betrayal, friendship, and romance — and most importantly, the thing that makes Tris an outcast from the world: not that she’s Dauntless but that she’s Divergent.

She’s stubborn and a little crazy. When others call her weak or small or a “Stiff,” she fights back. She tries harder. And as much as I don’t know that she’s the best model for anyone to look up to, I do think that’s worth something. We can be anything we want to be in a world where we’re supposed to think and act like everyone else. We can be Divergent; we can be nameless.

Grade: C

Why did I wait this long: a review of The Hunger Games

There’s a drowsy in-between period when I can hear the last few strains of her music although she’s lost in the leaves. When I fully awaken, I’m momentarily confused. I try to hold on to the peaceful feeling of the dream, but it quickly slips away, leaving me sadder and lonelier than ever.

The Hunger GamesWHY DID I WAIT SO LONG TO READ THIS BOOK?!

Ahem. That outburst accurately sums up my feelings about Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games, and I ought to leave it at that. But because this is a review, let me explain my enthusiasm.

The eponymous Hunger Games is a Battle Royale for children — a televised sporting tournament that throws the rich and the poor, the untrained and the athletic, together in an open arena where they must survive against the elements and each other in a fight to the death. It’s also the biggest reminder of the Capitol’s power and how much control it wields over the twelve districts of Panem.

The protagonist, Katniss Everdeen (yes, it’s a weird name, but there’s a reason for it), comes from an incredibly poor area called the Seam. Through memories and recollections that feel organic to the story (they’re woven in), Collins shows us how capable and battle-hardened the character is before she even enters the arena. Katniss watched her father die, cared for her innocent little sister when her mother’s mind and body succumbed to depression, and started hunting outside the district limits, beyond the fence  — a pursuit that’s forbidden but so essential to the simplest human survival in Panem. Hunger is their oppression.

Life is a little easier when Katniss meets with her hunting partner, Gale, but their relationship is strictly business and friendship. At least, it was. A trace of romance seeps into their talks in the woods just as the next annual Hunger Games are about to begin, and not Katniss or Gale but her little sister Prim is chosen, with a single odd against her. That’s when Katniss volunteers to take her place and her entire perspective on life changes — mainly, that she won’t have one for much longer.

That’s the most fascinating part about The Hunger Games to me: the meanings of words. Survival, romance, killing, mercy. At first, survival is making it through another day of gnawing hunger in the Seam, and then it’s outsmarting your enemies and the ravages of nature in the Games. It’s owing someone and living for them, or being owed.

Romance is thinking of love in terms of practicality — raising a child in a world where hunger is law — or putting on a show to give the citizens of Panem, the “audience,” the drama and excitement they crave, all to better ensure survival (popularity means sponsorship, which means more gifts during the Games). Murder (dare she use the word when the Capitol treats the Games as national celebrations) is the difference between killing an animal and killing a person, someone who could easily be a friend, and sometimes is. Or it’s ending a life when a quick death is preferable.

Collins plays with these dualities and more, and she does it in a way that’s natural and perfectly paced, that’s ever urgent and deeply affecting, with a protagonist who’s both likeable for her strength and moral values yet hopelessly graceless in times of social need. For once of such talent and intelligence, Katniss is clumsy with words, clueless near boys, and faithless about her own abilities. But these flaws only make her more impressive — more real. Every time I was on the verge of tears (which was pretty often), I held them back because I knew Katniss would do the same. She had to. Perceived weakness is death in the Games.

Some vulnerability is okay — that of love. Much of the Games veers toward Katniss’s fabricated romance with the boy tribute from her district, Peeta. To win the favor of the audience, they play the roles of star-crossed lovers, partners and teammates all while knowing one of their fates must be cut short, possibly by the other’s hand. There can only be one victor. Their relationship is always reminiscent of this pull and tug: enemies or friends, lovers or actors, Katniss is never quite sure. And at home, watching them onscreen, is Gale.

Our curiosity about what Gale, her loyal and trusted friend, must be thinking is never answered. That awkwardness is tangible with each kiss or smile Katniss and Peeta share, but at times, when the moment is right, it vanishes completely. They experience a whole lifetime in that arena, and that’s something Gale can never match. But he and the Seam promise normalcy, or close enough to it, and Peeta is everything but.

The second book, Catching Fire, should parse the truth from the fabrication, the genuine feelings from the ones born out of the instinct to survive. And I can’t wait to read it.

Grade: A

Let’s talk about sex (in books)

sex artI’m reading Hyperion by Dan Simmons, and so far I’ve encountered two sex scenes: one I liked and one I absolutely hated.

I’ll be talking about them in my review, but I’m curious. What makes a written sex scene good, and what about them turns you off?

Let me go first: “Yes, yes, yes” is a big “no, no, no”!

This article on The Millions lists a few other don’ts, including “beware of sensory descriptions which include food analogies” and “avoid spiritual-religious metaphors – ‘salvation’ (Chuck Palahniuk), ‘rapture’ (Ayn Rand),” and so on.

As for the dos? Choose the right words: “All the same rules apply to sexually-charged words as apply to words about gardening or kite flying or race car driving. You can make a sentence about planting tomatoes better by making sure that it has good rhythm and pacing and correct grammar. The same is true for a sentence about kissing.”

Does sex even belong in novels? Author Philip Pullman suggested that “books were likely to deal with sex in a more sensitive way than the Internet,” according to The Telegraph. And Malorie Blackman, the newly appointed children’s laureate, said that reading about sex is safer than “innuendo and porn,” which can be damaging to how youths learn about the activity.

For the adult crowd, authors sound off on who does sex well and why in this article on the Guardian. Howard Jacobson argues that “the best sex is the most implicit” — like in Jane Austen’s Persuasion: “There is no overt sexuality, no titillatory play with power and dependence … Wentworth’s hands have been on [Anne’s] body, and we never doubt that it’s her body that receives the shock of the contact as much as her mind.”

Photo credit: Flickriver

On the high wind: a review of The Curse of the Wendigo

“In the name of all that’s holy, tell me why God felt the need to make a hell. It seems so redundant.”

The Curse of the WendigoMonstrumology is the science of dissecting truth from superstition — or debunking myths altogether. In The Curse of the Wendigo, it specifically involves understanding and maintaining humanity in a world of monsters.

I really liked The Monstrumologist, Rick Yancey’s first book in the series, when I read it last year, and I’m ashamed it took me this long to pick up the sequel. It was, most assuredly, well worth the wait. I’m only saddened to learn that after the next book, The Isle of Blood, there’s just one more (The Final Descent releases in September). Of course, a fourth book almost didn’t happen at all.

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Our tragic flaws: a review of The Fault in Our Stars

The Fault in Our StarsCancer is a disease that most of us bumble through the world caring little about until we encounter it for the first time. I don’t mean in textbooks or television commercials but in a fellow human being. Once it affects someone you love, you see it everywhere, an unseen force that Won’t Stop Taking Lives.

I was lucky. My family’s experience with cancer, which has been quite personal, was tame compared to what it could have been, to what I know it can do and how quickly and unfairly it can kill. I’ve seen it reduce people to shells in a matter of months, robbing wives of husbands and sons of mothers. Not that something else, like a car accident, makes any sort of sense either, but cancer is a cruel sickness: what’s ruining a person’s life is life itself — cells that grow in a way they shouldn’t.

So first, The Fault in Our Stars is a coming-of-age novel. Secondly, it’s about cancer. And also love. Someone’s going to die, and you’re probably going to cry.

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