June 30, 2005

There's Only One Thing On Their Minds: 'It'

It's all about Id...

One of the ways I know for sure that I'll never become a book reviewer as a day job is that sometimes I approach a book with preconceived notions. Very preconceived notions, in this case. When I reviewed Melvin Burgess' Doing It, the title alone made me feel like I'd be locked in a boy's locker room with filthy socks, sweaty jerseys and the overpowering stench of too much Brut (And how much is too much? Any!). The word "It" leered out at me aggressively, bespeaking rampant hormonal surgings, an absence of emotional maturity, and all the threatening sexuality of the jerks from my high school days, and all the mean boys who didn't notice me. I was prepared, quite plainly, to despise this book.

And not merely because it was an explicitly sexualized story. No, we've had sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll in YA literature for a good while now, but the difference here is that it has primarily been in the service of teen aged girls, thus the sex has mostly been couched in terms of (agonizing) relationships. Calling sex 'It' seems to slash at the idea of relationships, cutting all softness away and leaving only the jutting knife of Id to drive the story. I was fairly sure that 'It' was going to be all Melvin Burgess' nocturnal emissions splattered in ink. And I wasn't far off. However, it turns out that this book is more than that. The meaning of choice and the idea that love in itself has intrinsic value took this book from being essentially a dirty joke to being a positive teen read.

If one can leave aside the male posturing and general low humor (which is eye-rollingly familiar locker room talk), one sees the picture of three boys and their female classmates who are emerging people - humans under construction. They, like all of us, struggle with insecurities, bewilderment and old rage; they plot their moves and they fantasize about their dreams. One boy believes that he is golden, and that nothing will ever happen to him; when his parents' relationship founders, he is nearly lost, pursuing gratification that he believes to be the answer to all that they have lost. Another of the three friends has all his dreams come true, and finds himself in a sexual fantasy turned nightmare. Fear and longing tangle humorously in the third storyline, as the third protagonist fears that he is dying of some kind of penile cancer. The boys struggle, for the most part silently, locked into their masculine roles, fearing and suffocating alone, but Burgess allows some surprising trust and connections between the boys. These bring out the humanity in these characters, even as he underscores the essential faults of some personality types.

This is not to say that there aren't clichés. There are far too many unsympathetic adults in this world; the parents are either remarkably selfish or remarkably ineffectual and absent. The female archetypes are arranged in new incarnations; there is the Frigid Girl, the Wild Nymphomaniac; the Grateful, Easy Fat Girl who is not only unfortunately jolly, but who doesn't mind doing all the work as well. This book, however, is less about the women in the relationships with our three stalwarts than the boys and their reactions to their environment. If Burgess leaves the women with fewer dimensions, he at least acknowledges that males can also find themselves in trouble, and that the word "no" should have the same power, if only it can be wielded.

This was a solid look at male sexuality from a British male point of view. Without judging the characters or their actions, Burgess somehow manages to avoid having his characters become hormone-drunken apes, and infuses them with a rough tenderness that makes the time of life that the book celebrates - amusing, horrible, tragic and exhilarating adolescence - and makes it breathe.

June 28, 2005

A Rebel in Dystopia

"My friend Hergal had killed himself again."

This bald statement begins a creative and somewhat bemusing trek into the mind of Tanith Lee. Already it's evident that the reader is in for an unusual ride.

I'm generally intrigued by science fiction and fantasy. The world of "what if" holds endless allure, and science fiction often challenges deeply ingrained assumption to reveal alternative states of thought, and hint at deeper meanings to the now. I read plenty of sci-fi, but rarely write it up, because it is often merely average, groaningly bad, or sadly clichéd, but I've found a notable exception. Simply one of the best books on the human condition I've come across in a long while is Tanith Lee's Biting the Sun. A compilation of two novels published in the mid '70's, (Drinking Sapphire Wine, and Don't Bite the Sun) Lee's Jang protagonist lives on the cheerfully hedonistic world of Four BEE.

Jang is the second stage of life in the domed cities of Bee, Baa and Boo - it is adolescence, and it's required. However, the world of Jang is a perfect world in which no danger is dangerous enough, no pleasure is off-limits, and no responsibilities exist - nor are there really penalties for 'wrong' behavior. The Jang are expected to make trouble. They live in a system divided by caste, confirmed by their own tosky slang, and hemmed in by the unwritten rule -- experience everything you desire! Just enjoy. The only rule, really, is that Jang are Jang, and should want for nothing more than the ultimate groshing Jang life.

Why play it safe if, when you choose to die, you can just get a new body and try again? Hergal suicides with boring regularity. Why sleep alone, when there are hundreds of people with perfect bodies with whom to sleep? Danor changes gender just to shake off a few of the people who want her. Need a new drug to get up, get you down, enthuse you about the latest fad? Ecstacy for everyone, or try the wine called Joyousness! The Jang have everything you need. As in any adolescence, there are nerds, and people who just insist on being awkward and out there, but you can always cut them out of your Circle. After all, they'll only cry for show. Jang life is to be enjoyed.

Oddly enough, what sounds like a perfect world isn't for a young Jang woman, who is the nameless protagonist. She's tried different bodies, different genders; marriages for a rorl, and had them annulled mid-vrek, or sometimes the same afternoon. Her increasingly frenetic quest for some kind of meaning takes her off-planet, within the maze of the adults in her society, and finally, to the brink of madness, as the insecurity, loneliness and meaningless of her life takes its toll. Starving for real experiences, she pits herself against the world that she knows, courting failure and disaster. And, when she essentially chooses to die for real, her life truly begins.

Lee's premise is not new; dystopian fiction has a long and stellar history, and her story has the lyrical tone at times of allegory. It could be argued that the Jang society parallels an inverted Biblical Eden, but Lee's triumphant conclusion hints at a salvation in the Godless universe found in the self rather than from an outside source. As the physical desert blooms, the nameless heroine outside of the strictures of Jang, Older Persons and the societies of the Bee, Boo and Baa (!) blooms as well.

A note on the slang: Many people are deterred by texts sprinkled with nonstandard words. Lee provides a glossary, but don't get hung up it - it's really beside the point! I hope you can enter into this book as much as I have. A gem probably most appreciated by older YA readers; I was glad to have discovered this intriguing book all these years later. Check it out, ooma.

June 26, 2005

Truth is Stranger Than Fiction

I know she's not a YA writer, but I felt a pang of sympathy on reading her story anyway, even though her books make me kind of roll my eyes... 'Tis a wicked risk to splash your real life onto the fiction page as an adult - so much better to stick to celebrating and reviling your teen aged peers when in all likelihood they're all too involved with their 2.5 kids and their careers to run up against your old crushes or your bitter little diatribes against their long vanished selves... This week, well known Bay Area writer Terry McMillan's number came up on the divorce court docket. Reported in this morning's Chronicle is the real end of How Stella Got Her Groove Back -- looks like the truth is...she didn't.

Meanwhile, her ex-husband is accusing her of being an "angry woman..." did he not see that bit in the movie version of
Waiting to Exhale when a cheating husband's car is set on fire!? Um, hello? Consider the source?

Hopefully another blockbuster will be aspirin for the ache; a new novel for McMillan is due out in July.

June 20, 2005

Games People Play

I'm going to go out on a limb, here, and say that Athenum Books for Young Readers is pushing Mariah Fredericks' novels as nouvelle chick lit. I've just finished with Head Games. It's the only novel I've ever read on role play gaming (okay, okay, it's about more than that, I know) that has a face on the cover with moist and glossy open lips. Supremely strange.

Tank-top ads and panting cover models notwithstanding, Fredericks' writing is poised and lucid. The pressure of gaming, the sublimely ridiculous squabbles, ploys and high school power plays come through vividly. Reality pales in comparison for narrator Judith Ellis, whose head is completely in the game. Why actually connect with people when you can hide? What happens if you do the wrong thing?

Judith knows plenty of people who are hiding: her mom, her ex-best friend, Leia, her neighbor Jonathan, and a classmate named Katie. Each of them hide from their own inability to deal with people's unexpectedness. Mom interferes with Judith's and Jonathan, closing avenues to friendship for "Judith's own good." Katie prefers to pretend rather than to deal with her life and her failings - and her loneliness. Leia's hiding is a betrayal just when Judith needs her the most. But Judith can't tell her she needs her, not yet. It's easier to put on an I-don't-care face, and go on. The consequences for doing the wrong thing almost don't bear consideration. It's easier, each character thinks, to not connect - back off, choose a new route, move away. At all costs, don't confront.

Connections, communication and misunderstandings are central themes to this story. When you live inside your head, you think, rethink, then overthink almost every move you make. You can become a coward, when it really matters. You can let things pass, blow by you, when you really should take a moment and make a stand. Can you come out of your brain, reject fantasyland and act, when it matters? How much power does it take to make a fantasy a reality? Fredericks gives Judith a strong 'inner mind' to discuss each of these ideas.

I have to say I got perverse enjoyment out of this book for a number of bad reasons, not the least of these is that the character obsessed over a single kiss for at least ten pages, and that Sim City's dark side - which is the fun you can have arranging, um, "accidents" for your Sims - is detailed in all its splendidly macabre glory. Hee hee! Also, I'm always attracted to the bad-boy-probably-set-something-on-fire-recently characters -- another fatal flaw of mine!

Perceptive, deliberate and thoughtful, Fredericks' second novel is just as good as her first. I'm looking forward to reading a lot more - and hopefully the marketing department will actually read the copy next time before deciding on the cover art. Hope springs eternal.

June 18, 2005

The Thing from Planet Fortis, Chapter the First

I feel terrible that TadMack has had to put my words on the blog for me, because I've been too busy to post anything for a while. I've really been wanting to, and I've been devouring books by the armload in my spare moments, piling them on the bookshelf next to the computer so I could post reviews. So now those reviews have finally started to materialize. Here are a few brief, rapid-fire, pre-digested blurbs that will maybe inspire you to get to your library or bookstore this summer. More to come soon.

A while ago, TadMack mentioned a book called The Greenstone Grail by Amanda Hemingway. I finally found it at Cody's in Berkeley and was pleased to find it one of the more absorbing and fascinating sci-fi/fantasy novels I'd read in a while. The protagonist is a young adult, but it's one of those pieces that appeals to a more broad age range. I found it in the sci-fi section, not the YA area, and definitely the darkness and danger are very real--a perfect counterpoint to the main character's coming-of-age. Nathan finds that not only does his world contain magic, but his family is intimately involved in it, and this magic links him to exotic places in other universes. Another book that I'm glad has a sequel on the way.

Quite some time ago, I read Jaclyn Moriarty's Feeling Sorry for Celia. This book from Australian writer Moriarty was written entirely in epistolary form--letters and notes between the main character, her mother, and her pen pal at another school. We learn about Elizabeth's best friend Celia and their increasingly complicated friendship, all through Elizabeth's letters to her new friend. It's about friendships changing and life going on, but it's also just a riot to read.

Moriarty's newer book, The Year of Secret Assignments, was just as hilarious and satisfying. A ridiculously conceived pen pal program between two high schools is related through the letters of some of the troublemaking, troubled, wisecracking, complicated students involved in the letter-writing. Three girls--best friends--write to three guys at their rival high school, and hilarity ensues. They send each other on ridiculous secret missions and get together for crazy hi-jinks, but all is not entirely well in happy-pen-pal-land. This book is so much fun, the characters' voices are very real and very smart, and I'm pretty sure I'm going to have to read it again before long.

Last but not least--on occasion I check out random books from the YA section of my library. I pick up these random books because there is some thoughtful librarian who will set out particular books in open spaces on the hardback shelf, as if they're new books on display, though they aren't always new. There are the occasional paperbacks placed with the cover facing out instead of the spine facing out, as if somebody is telling me, "this one's a good one--read this one." So sometimes I pick them up if they seem appealing. This week I picked up Mind Games by Jeanne Marie Grunwell, another novel told in semi-epistolary form. This one, however, takes the format of a group science fair project in which the students are experimenting with ESP. For a book chosen at random, I thought it was surprisingly good. The characters were engaging, the idea and format were interesting and original, multiple viewpoints were treated evenly, and the potentially heavy theme of mental super-ability versus mental disability was treated with sensitivity and even humor. Not bad at all. A quick and enjoyable read. The only major flaw I could see was that the characters sounded way too mature to be in seventh grade. Ninth grade I might believe, but twelve-year-olds? No. But this in no way stopped me from enjoying the book.

More reviews soon...

A Few Thoughts on Conferences

I've been thinking a bit about the merits of writing conferences lately. I have mixed feelings about them in general, and specifically as well in some cases--cases which I have decided to be tactful and not go into.

Anyway, I'm considering the idea of going to the summer SCBWI conference in Los Angeles. The price tag at any conference is always a major consideration, of course, and this usually forces me to really examine what I might be getting out of such an expenditure. At first glance, these things always look so awesome. The panels--I want to go to five at a time. The schmooze events--which famous writer will I make lifelong friends with? The keynote speeches--what writerly wisdom! What secrets of the trade!

Then I come back down to earth. Keynote speeches can be hit or miss. The panels, at third or fourth glance, don't seem quite as earth-shattering. And my schmoozing abilities are of middling quality at best, unless I decide to mildly embarrass myself with the help of alcohol.

The reality of the matter is, when it comes to writing conferences, I have to remember that I know some stuff already. I learned a lot of quality nuts-and-bolts craft points attending college for writing and art. I learned how to let others read and comment on my work, and to evaluate my own work more critically. And, of course, I learned how to network, do research, and toot my own horn on occasion. As part of a Web site marketing department, I was exposed to the importance of, well, marketing--icky as it may sometimes be.

Remembering all of this helps me immensely when it comes to A) choosing a conference in the first place, and B) figuring out which and how many panels to attend. When you think about attending a conference you have to figure out whether you're actually going to get something out of it for your money: by learning something totally new, by hearing the words of someone you really admire, or by experiencing a new and unexpected take on an old topic. These are definitely the deciding factors for me. That's why I ended up skipping a few smaller local seminars this year.

But in the end, I think I'll be going to at least part of the SCBWI summer thang. I'm eager to hear a few of the speakers--Carolyn Mackler and Christopher Paul Curtis, for two--and it'll be interesting to have the experience of a big writing conference, something I've never done before. I've been to E3, a big video game industry convention, but that was totally something else, plus it was work-related, plus there was some of that mildly embarrassing alcohol-related schmoozing I talked about. At SCBWI I hope to take advantage of the opportunity to meet and talk with more experienced professionals, and I plan to be choosy about what I attend.

Plus I'll save a few bucks by staying with my parents. (Now, if only I can channel the ensuing teenage flashbacks into writing fodder...)

June 14, 2005

Culture Wars


So sad. Truly.

Summer Reads: Just A Little Paperback

I may have to rethink the idea of "summer reads." Are summer reads trashy books you read at the beach because if you read them in company you'd have to glue on a fake cover? Are they always light on the intellectual side? For me, summer reads are simply books that fit into my straw beach tote along with my cell phone -- which just means paperbacks, mostly. (Which I guess used to mean trashy: pulp fiction, after all.) But I digress! -- Here's a couple of non-trashy beach reads in the YA section that are less pulp and a lot more staring-out-to-sea,-thinking fiction than some other summer reads:

You've probably already read it, but it's time to pull it out again: Ellen Wittlinger's wrenching
Hard Love, which won all sorts of awards for its soul searching truth and just all-round good writing. Depending on my mood, it either reminds me of my high school poetry writing self, or of my freshman year in college during which time I declared unfailing love to a guy who was - yes, duh, - gay. *Sigh* It more often reminds me of why ink is the most important bodily fluid we have -- it's all about opening the aorta to bleed out those "magic words."

Another choice slim volume is Lara M. Zeises'
Contents Under Pressure. This was a little predictable, but not oppressively so -- mostly it was a chaotic novel, in which Zeises depicts first kisses and the incipient delicious tensions of boy-girl relationships really, really well. I also like how she handled the sibling relationships in the book; the narrator idolizes her brother, and when he falls off the pedestal, the wrench is painfully realistic.

More tote bag fodder: E.L. Koningsburg's
Silent to the Bone and Gordon Korman's Jake, Reinvented. Koningsburg's Silent was about as scary a book as I've read in the past several months, and I'm not sure why Benicia had it in the JFic. section of the library when it is about an au pair gravely injuring a child and blaming it on the child's infatuated adolescent brother. There's a lot of ugliness implied in the story, and implied by the lying sack of an au pair, so much so that I almost felt like it was a book for adults. (And then I got a grip.) Granted, this isn't a book for middle grade kids, but it is a tremendous statement on the power of friendship, and on a person knowing their own boundaries and their motives for behavior. It's about mental health, and cool older sisters, too. The prose gets a bit one-sided (and not just because the narrator's best friend has elective mutism), but achieves a fair balance at the end. Disturbing, definitely only for older middle graders or teens, but worthwhile.

Jake was distressing on a couple of fronts. First, the level of self-deception involved with the title character was painful. His obsession was almost unbelievable -- but I suppose Korman was making the point that a mental giant applying that big brain to the problem of winning a girl would make him just as obsessive about the girl as he might be about, oh, physics. (Does that mean that Korman is making a statement about the lack of socialization of smart kids? Dunno.)

The second thing that distressed me touches on the YA genre as a whole. Now, I've read a lot of YA fiction about people changing, but Jake deals pretty punitively with the idea of a guy changing social circles. Jake ends up in jail, and kicked out of school, and his house blows up. I remember making this point in my YA novel class at Mills when I read a Judy Blume book in where a fat girl gets pregnant and only when she's thin and has given away the infant does her life straighten out and she gets to go to Smith. So, what's the story here? Is the nerd never allowed to get the girl? It's like the overarching theme of high school YA is that people are not allowed to change.

You know how we all used to complain about YA books in which if a girl has sex she automatically gets pregnant and/or dies? Or if a person was gay, they automatically had to be persecuted within an inch of their life and be chased out of town with burning tar and chicken feathers? Why is it that teen characters can't become popular without all the walls caving in on them? I'd have to do an exhaustive research on YA novels to bear this out with proof, but it seems like we're making a statement about popularity here -- like, either you're born with this indefinable "it," or you won't ever achieve it. I don't know.

Anyway, I was impressed with Korman's grasp of a serious topic; when we saw him at the SCBWI L.A. Conference last summer he was highly entertaining and on sort of this fast-forward thing; it was hard to take anything he said seriously, and he had everyone rolling in the aisles practically. However he seemed, he really knows his stuff when writing male characters involved in the intricacies of the high school 'high life:' parties, football, and more parties.

My writing is going pretty badly lately - (couldn't tell?) - but at least I'm putting in some good time catching up on some reading. Find something good for your own tote bag, and don't forget the sunblock.

June 13, 2005

Okay... so what book did Meg Cabot read?!

Her quote on the back cover says "Laugh out loud funny and way twisted!" Um, not exACTLY the viewpoint I got from The True Meaning of Cleavage by Mariah Fredericks. This book had its humorous moments, certainly, but the true meaning of the word 'cleavage' is not what the cover of the book implies -- that it's about a girl and her high school world, and her boobs. It's about cleavage -- as in being reft in twain. As in separation, and parting. It's about losing a friend.

(I wonder if Fredericks chose the title herself? Why don't I get ideas like that?)

This book has more than excellent characterizations going for it. It has a flawless tone. Fredericks captures the intensely flavored world of high school, where so much is going on -- and so much of it is completely pointless but held as if it's life or death -- that it boggles the mind. The unapologetically ordinary narrator, Jess, realizes that her friend Sari is moving faster and farther than she is in the high school cesspool, and while she is troubled, she is also very well aware of the realities of high school -- that it's filled with evil people and it's all just a freakin' game. Did I mention that Jess is a tad cynical?

It could be argued that the narrator was simply too cool and her best friend too -- self-destructive to be believable. I find myself cheering for Jess in those odd moments she realizes that she can just stop censuring and judging everyone and have fun. I might have added more embarrassing moments for Jess, but I can't detract from the truth of her characterization. She plays her cards close to her chest, is wary and sneering in her own silent way, and is just like hundreds of other high school students: if you can't join 'em, hate 'em. I do think it's positive that Fredericks introduces a foil to Jess' overly-avid cynicism.

A. Fortis, who suggested this book to the WritingYA crew, mentioned a tank top ad.

My copy had no ad (alas!), but I did feel like the writing was really skillful and this wasn't a waste of time. Check it out -- Meg Cabot be darned.

June 10, 2005

Does blogging count as writing?

I finally finished my first YA novel--did anyone hear the huge cry of relief emanating from New Jersey? :) I would like to go and edit it because lord knows it needs it, and then send it out, but between my new editor job, freelance writing, and general mayhem, very little writing is accomplished. So back to my initial thought: does blogging count as writing?

June 08, 2005

Summer Reads: Sorcery, Correspondence, and 19th century England

Bon jour!

I'm supposed to be reading books of short stories, in preparation for my potentially good idea to hoodwink a few friends into writing a book of YA short stories while we're at the
SCBWI L.A. Conference this summer. Of course, it being JUNE, it's also supposed to be almost summer, and it's raining. So, I'm to be excused for my lapse back into novels -- and definitely I'm to be excused because my novel finds this week have been such a kick!

One of the best things about the Harry Potter hysteria, in its heyday, anyway (which certainly isn't now -- enough with the disposable characters already, J.K.!), was that it made a lot of publishers go racing back to their slush piles and give a lot of good fantasy a second look.
Sorcery and Cecelia or The Enchanted Chocolate Pot: Being the Correspondence of Two Young Ladies of Quality Regarding Various Magical Scandals in London and the Country was one such novel. First published in 1988, this lengthily titled novel was reprinted in 2003 to much greater acclaim.

Think Jane Austen on pixie dust, and you've just about got the gist of this unique story. Amusing on so many levels, this book was the mastermind of two authors, Caroline Stevemer and Patricia C. Wrede, based on a game played in childhood. Apparently, during summer break, friends would write letters to each other based on assumed storylines, and become duchesses, movie stars, etc., and have 'adventures.' Caroline and Patricia set their adventure in 1817, and came up with a remarkable book.

This is a great mental frolic. There's danger - from nasty wizards and overbearing aunts. There's mistaken identities, curfew breaking, misunderstandings and midnight waltzes. Paced sedately, with descriptions of clothes and carriages, and laced with subtle jabs at English manners (so very Austen), this was really a surprising and enjoyable find. Better still, there's a sequel!

Though I have yet to read it, it is hoped that
The Grand Tour : Being a Revelation of Matters of High Confidentiality and Greatest Importance, Including Extracts from the Intimate Diary of a Noblewoman and the Sworn Testimony of a Lady of Quality is as funny and elegant as its predecessor.

Now, lie back with a cup o' tea, luv, and think of England.

June 06, 2005

Summer Reads: Dead Sisters and Plague mysteries

Enough said on the topic of me hating badly written ghost stories -- I have to admit that a couple have caught the eye of some of us skeptics. First, for the YA spooky beach bag is Dead Girls Don't Write Letters, by Gail Giles

Allowing for the fact that I hate gratuitously "spooky" novels, think most mysteries are anything but, roll my eyes at so-called "true crime" thrillers, and think most horror stories are fairly stupid, Giles' dead girls are - surprise - kind of interesting. And yes, there is more than one, you'll be intrigued to find out! But only one writes letters... I was able to stay the course in my reading, 1.) because this novel's really short [I don't think the plot could stand up to many more pages] and 2.) because this is more of a mystery more than an actual thriller.

So - if your sister, whom everyone had doted on, and who had been the center of the universe, had died... and then you got a letter from her saying that she'd been nowhere near the fire that supposedly killed her, how would you feel? How would you feel when it turned out that the girl who came to your house the day and hour that she said she would WASN'T YOUR SISTER? How would you feel if it seemed like your mother thought she was? Hmmm! This is all very...suspicious... I give this book a good solid B+. The ending was simply too confusing to give it a better grade than that, but for a mystery-within-a-mystery, it worked fairly consistently well.

A. Fortis reviewed middle grade historical novel,
The House on Hound Hill, and it seems like another good candidate for the beach bag. Says Fortis, According to the cover, this is the author's first book published in the U.S.; if this is indeed the case, then we've been missing out.

I randomly picked up this gem of a mystery/suspense novel while browsing in the YA section of the library, and I'm having this feeling that it's one I'll be checking out over and over if not caving in and buying. It's got everything I want from a thrilling read, and many of the characteristics I want in my own novel: a compelling, likeable, and normal main character; a creepy setting with secrets to hide; a historical component which impinges on the present through supernatural means; tight plotting that makes it impossible to put down; and just a hint of the gross-out factor.

In this novel, the main character moves with her mother and brother, post-divorce, to an old house in a very old area of London. She senses something strange about it from the beginning, but isn't able to put her finger on it. As she gradually encounters strange and ghostlike figures in her house and around the neighborhood, and gets to know its unsavory history during the last Great Plague in the 1600s, she finds out just why the area (and her house in particular) seem so creepy to her.

I wholeheartedly give this one an A.

Check 'em out!

Summer Reads: Of High School Cliques and Tank Tops

I've been doing a bit of housekeeping, and ran across this wee book review from A. Fortis on a book I've yet to read: The True Meaning of Cleavage by Mariah Fredericks. Into my beach bag it goes! A. Fortis says:

I picked up this book assuming it was going to be total trash. Sure, I was drawn in by the title, but after reading the comment on the front cover by Meg Cabot, author of The Princess Diaries (“Laugh out loud funny and way twisted!”), I assumed it was going to be at worst sappy and at best drearily generic. The back cover didn’t help—the blurb indicated your basic school novel: friendships changing upon entering high school, crushes, cliques, etc. Plus there was a “True Meaning of Cleavage” tank top offer. None of the signs pointed to a meaningful reading experience, but I thought, what the hey. Let’s see what’s considered a trendy teen read.

I was actually pleasantly surprised. It was not “way twisted,” whatever that means to Meg Cabot, but I enjoyed it. There wasn’t an overabundance of deep meaning, but there was much more going on than I expected. The characters were believable and quite well written, although I felt that the narrator, a pre-geeky girl named Jess who’s interested in sci-fi and art (a girl after my own heart!) was a little too wise for her age. Most of the time she seemed at least sixteen to me, with hardly any awkward ninth-grade moments; if she had them, she was somehow too self-aware about them to seem believably a freshman.

But the writing was surprisingly good. I didn’t expect that. The narrator was endearing and funny, and I winced along with her as her friend Sari has various misadventures and becomes susceptible to the high school clique atmosphere. It was a quick, easy, fun read—and I came out of it caring about the characters.


Stay tuned for more books suitable for porch swings and mint juleps.

June 05, 2005

When did you know you were a writer?

Reading the SF Chron this morning, I came across a crystalline description of the moment it comes together - the moment that you know that you want to be a writer; when the world is somewhat of a formless blur around you, and you find yourself groping inarticulately, but you know that if you could just get a grip, just find handholds somewhere, you can spin that sphere in the direction you need it to go.

This gem is from Alicia Parlette, and I urge you to read the entire piece because it's important and focused writing, and it will no doubt impress you like it did me, and make you briefly jealous and aware of a shapeless longing to push more deeply into your own undiscovered boundaries of your art. I hope to have my thoughts, much less my writing, someday distilled in this way -- but Parlette's depth and skill are so much more immediate than simply wanting to hone her craft. Parlette wields her metaphorical pen like a scalpel because she is 23, and has learned she has cancer.

When the doctor came in, I started focusing on the room. The mauve curtain. The computer in the corner. The crunchiness of my gown. He sat there calculating how rare my cancer was ("Let's see ... uh ... huh ... 1 percent of ... right ... and ... well ... 1 in 50 million, maybe?") and the limited options I had ("We usually don't use chemotherapy because it doesn't work, but you'll have to talk to someone else about that"), and I felt myself weaving in and out of panic. One second I felt like I was going to pass out; the next, I focused on his gray-blue tie. The details seemed increasingly important.

I was set up to see other doctors and with a plan to meet again, but no treatment. No concrete options. I noticed myself stepping back and thinking of it as a play, not my life. This was too horrific to be my life.

As I sat there, I could feel myself detach. And in that moment I thought, "What a great story this will make."
That's when I knew I was a writer. When things were more frightening than I could ever imagine and my tiny little existence was spinning and careening out of control, my first reaction was to think about recasting it as a drama, as a struggle, as a way to share my little existence that didn't seem so little anymore.

I am still in awe of the way life's puzzles fall into place. I think this is because, right now, God is giving me a bigger look at how the jigsaw is mapped out. Not much bigger, but big enough for me to see that even tragedies are linked with blessings, and that among my many blessings is the chance to write my story. Right at the time when my world is upended – and right at a time when I'm aching to be more creative, to find an outlet, to finally write – God practically drops this opportunity in my lap.

If I get through this, this story will help me remember the important moments along the way, the details, the dizzying emotions. And, in the worst of all circumstances, if I go through this life-changing ordeal and my body just wears out and I die, I will die a writer. The one thing I've always wanted to be.

Read the whole piece. You'll find that Parlette is young, maybe idealistic, but a beginning writer who looks steadily at her world, and who writes it true. Then go forth to your world and look at it with new eyes. You'll find your handholds. Give that world a whirl, and watch it spin.

June 01, 2005

Well, if we're going to talk the talk...

...I suppose it means we have to walk the walk. Translation: It's time again to try and submit -- AGAIN -- something for the Glimmer Train's short fiction contest. The deadline is the 31st... I've submitted so many stories to them in the last couple of years that I'm beginning to doubt that they actually read them! I suppose I haven't much else to lose but my sanity, and that's an arguable possession anyway. I really do love the magazine, I'm just not sure I can actually write a.) short/flash fiction b.) anything really readable for adults. You people with your Tin House contacts and actual adult street cred will have to show me the way. Meantime, I'm trying to make sense of a story I dreamed - something to do with outdoor showers, laundromats, the smell of Tide, and seagulls. Summer camp in my subconscious.