Friday, July 13, 2012

ArraSmith Pick: Speak

Another fantastic book that I didn't expect to enjoy this much. Speak is about a young girl who is raped at a party. However, Anderson creates a complex, realistic protagonist. Melinda has been victimized, and there is fallout, but there is also tremendous strength in the character, and an ability to see through the veneer of idyll that is supposed to be suburban high school. The experiences and observations of this character constitute one of the best descriptions I've read of what high school is like for young girls. 

There are no preachy over-simplified agendas about teen rape. Rather than focusing on societal flaws, or the court system,  Speak deals in a very real way with the internal experiences of one heroic girl. She's not an outcast, or promiscuous. The rape is clearly not her fault, and she doesn't even blame herself. And yet, she finds herself unable to speak about it, or explain what happened to family and friends.

We hear often in the news, about the self-esteem of girls in our culture today. Studies show that girls and boys are equally confident until they hit middle school, at which point the confidence of girls takes a nosedive. Anyone who works around teens can see this phenomenon in action. Anderson does a masterful job of conveying the pressure to blend in, the danger of drawing attention to oneself, the sense of judgement that follows girls through the hallways. We can tell girls not to care what others think and to be themselves all we want, but the fact of the matter is that this pressure is not in their heads. It is real. It is part of our culture, and Anderson's book reveals it in subtle yet gut-wrenching way.

Best of all, Melinda's strength and character win out in the end. She grows up and overcomes what has happened to her, leaving us with the hope of better things to come. Tragic events don't have to permanently derail an otherwise promising life. We can rise above any number of circumstances, and be changed for the better, our human spirit unquenched.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Loving This Creative Life

Now that I think of myself as a writer, I am making a continuing effort to figure out my writing process and how to make progress on my work. One fabulous inspiration I have found is a podcast by young adult author Sara Zarr, where she interviews other writers/creative types about the processes, challenges and benefits of having a creative job.

As a new writer who does not have friends in the business, it is always difficult to explain what it's like to write a novel. It seems like one should be able to sit down every day and write a certain (large!) number of words, and have a draft finished in pretty short order. I don't blame people for thinking this way--I think this way much of the time and wonder why it is taking me so long.

The answer is that writing is a creative process, one that is different for every writer; one that involves lots of thinking, lots of deleting, lots of starting over, and yes, even lots of stalling while playing with the paperclips on your desk, surfing the web, and watching movies on netflix. Time in which outside influences inspire our work, and time in which our subconscious is allowed to wrestle with the problems we are having. Writing is this weird combination of doing something by yourself that is very much in your own head, and needing to be inspired and grounded by an interaction with the world around us: the people, the ideas, the culture.

Writers need to talk to other writers to get feedback and encouragement. Then we need to block everyone out and focus on getting what is zooming around in our heads down on the page. The tricks and techniques people use to do this are fascinating to me as I am learning how to be a writer and finding my own creative process. How perfectionism can be the enemy of creativity. How owning your identity as a writer can increase your commitment to the work, and the results you produce. How small things like quality tools can affect your experience of the writing process, making it more fun.

As you can see, there are many great topics of interest. So expect to hear more about this podcast as it inspires me to post. I also really like Sara Zarr's books, so don't be surprised if they turn up here as well. 

If you are a creative person, check it out:

Monday, June 18, 2012

Arrasmith Pick: Stupid Fast

It seems that every time a recommend a book, I start by saying that I didn't expect to like this one. I think this is because books that make an impression on me (us?) often do so because there is something surprising and fresh about them--something that you didn't expect to be there at first glance. Stupid Fast looks like a sports book; one of those misfit-teen-suddenly-becomes-popular-through-the-glory-of-football stories. In fact, it is a fabulous portrayal of growing up, struggling with identity and forging relationships. And to have it so masterfully described from a teen boy's perspective is quite a treat. 

Felton Reinstein is one of the best characters I have read in a long time, in spite of the fact that he is a completely typical teenage boy. Toward the beginning of the book I cringed at his habits and cluelessly self-centered thought processes. As a mother, his treatment of his younger brother just made me want to slap him upside the head. But the point of the story is that he doesn't have a reliable mother figure, or any father figure at all. He's insecure, inconsiderate and selfish; yet he's not a bad kid. He's quite likeable. This is the genius of Herbach: creating characters that are realistic, flawed, and multidimentional, and at the same time making us love them.

Herbach manages to cover all the important relationships teens have. Felton goes through changes that distance him from old friends while bringing him into contact with new ones. Which friendships will he maintain? He experiences the wonder of having a first girlfriend. How will she fit in with his existing life? His relationships with his mother and his brother are both entering a new phase. Felton's mom is also flawed, but not a bad person. I loved that learning how to take care of his mom and his brother were part of Felton's coming-of-age process.

The true delight in this book is that Felton handles all these things in a realistically masculine way. The author does not draw attention to himself by descending into the all too common realm of the "sensitive, intellectual male." I don't mean to condemn that kind of teen character. I think that men who write YA have commonly been that type of kid, so they are writing about their own experiences. This is interesting and valid when it is done well. Having been a teenage girl, I would be unlikely to write this type of character (If I tried, I doubt I would be so successful!) Again, it's just refreshing to have this different type of character with a different type of problem.

Stupid Fast is a great summer read, and I'm happy to see that a sequel is on the way.

Monday, April 23, 2012

Why YA?

This seems to be an obligatory post for writers of young adult fiction, presumably because there is a question out there in the ether about why grown adults would write for teens. The fact that this question even exists baffles me, but I'm game to answer it anyway. For me, the short answer is: because I'm a cynic.

Lemme 'splain. I read voraciously as a young person--never more than during my teen years. I was a reader because I was imaginative, I lived a pretty ordinary, boring experience in a small town, I was brainy and liked to think about things, and I was hungry to learn about experiences different from my own. It was an escapist thing to do. An activity for someone with free time, but it was also a way to stimulate an inexperienced mind with information that might broaden and deepen my understanding of life.

In college I read mostly intellectual content for my classes, which was also developmentally important, and for the most part, interesting. I found that once I was out in the "real adult world" working, and getting married, and eventually having kids, that my interest in reading waned. A. I had less free time. B. I was stimulating my mind with real life experiences and channeling my imagination into other things. C. I didn't really enjoy "adult" books.

(Disclaimer: I am about to begin writing in generalizations. I understand that there are exceptions to everything I'm saying. There are wonderfully written engaging adult novels out there, as well as pandering waste-of-paper YA. I am merely describing why I generally prefer YA.)

Something happens when we cross into "adult" fiction. Suddenly the free-wheeling imagination is missing, replaced by things that are artificially exciting, like sexual deviance, violence, and traumatic situations. There's more concern about realism, and cleverness, less emphasis on fun and creativity. I find adult romances too amoral, adult horror and mysteries too violent, adult sci-fi too dry, adult dramas too contrived on one hand or too preachy on the other. I believe that this is why many adults I know don't read.

I'm much more likely to find what I am looking for in the YA section. And I don't mean to imply that YA is harmless fluff. It's clear from the controversy surrounding the genre and the number of banned books in the category that this is not the case. In fact, some of the most ground-breaking work is being done by YA authors. The genre and the buzz around it has been created because of what people like J. K. Rowling and Suzanne Collins have written--engaging, thought-provoking novels that appeal to all ages and markets. As a reader, and as a writer, that's the goal.

There's something about writing to a teen audience. It takes us back to a time when we interpreted the world through raw emotion, when we weren't limited in our thinking about the possibilities before us. It's a time in life when we are wrestling with the most basic questions about our identity and our human existence. They are the most compelling issues, and they continue to be interesting to adults because it takes a lifetime to unravel these mysteries. There's an awareness when writing for teens, more than for adults, that your story needs to be interesting, humorous, and accessible in order to get their attention. These are qualities that always improve a book, no matter the age bracket.

So why do I say I'm a cynic? Because youth is a magical time in our lives that is short-lived. We grow up and become too serious to have fun; too focused on the drudgery of daily life to consider why we live the way we do; more concerned with what is realistic than what is ideal; unclear about what is worth striving for and what isn't; too proud to read something that is written for teenagers, who we think of as rude, stupid, and irresponsible. I don't really like what human beings turn into when we become "adults." I'm not interested in writing for people with this world view, and I'm not interested in reading what they write.

I'm a cynic in the "adult world," but that's not really where I want to be. I want to hang out with the idealistic people, who still believe that they can change their lives, that they can have an affect on the world around them. I want to have conversations with the ones who understand which things are really important in life: good triumphing over evil, not allowing our behavior to be ruled by our circumstances, how we treat other people, the true purpose of life. There are people of all ages who feel this way, and they are the fans of YA fiction, whether they are 16, 40 or 92. Why YA? Cuz YA is all that.

Monday, March 12, 2012

ArraSmith Pick: The Hunger Games

It may seem unnecessary for me to recommend this trilogy. It certainly doesn't need my promotion help. With all the foofaraw about this series and the upcoming movie, I thought I'd put in my two cents. (Aside: had to look up the spelling for 'foofaraw.' I find it strange that I've never seen that word in print.)

I'm a huge admirer of Suzanne Collins' writing. She haz mad skillz! Her plots are ingeniously constructed and well-paced. The writing is tight, never distracting you from the experience of living in the novel. The Hunger Games is a thrilling action adventure, but it is in no way shallow and fluffy, as some adventure novels can be. The premise is brilliant, and that's something that can get you a long way toward a smash hit, but Collins also has something to say. She has quite a lot to say about the horror of war, increasingly voyeuristic media, and what happens when the ruling class is in control of the government, but distanced and disinterested in the lives of the common person (reminiscent of the 2012 elections, what?)

Collins has received some flak from fans about the ending of the trilogy, specifically in regard to the resolution of the romance that occurs in the book. I'll admit that I hoped for a more satisfying conclusion myself. On reflection, however, I have to come out in support of Collins. If you read this trilogy strictly as a war-time romance, you will be missing something important. I don't believe she intended the romance to be the primary plot/issue of the novel, and I admire her for sticking to her guns and focusing on her message: namely the issues mentioned above. She uses flawed but realistic characters to do it, and we can't help but be disappointed in them. Then again, that's the point, and their flawed realism is part of what makes the books so compelling.

I'll be rereading all three books this month, and going to see the movie. I'm looking forward to enjoying the thrill ride in both cases. I hope that many who are caught up in the movie buzz will read the series first. And I hope for the day when my own writing is as compelling as this.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

ArraSmith Pick: The Rules

Because I am very STRICT about following the RULES!

No no. I just thought it might be helpful to clarify a few things about the books I choose to post about.

1. Recommendations, not reviews.

First of all, I am not interested in being a book reviewer. There are MANY people on the internet, both professional and amateur, who do this. Some of them are really great and helpful. If you are looking for a critical dissection of a book, by all means, head on over to GoodReads or Kirkus, or wherever.

I believe in promoting books that I like. I am always looking for good recommendations from people I like, and I pass on my recommendations in the same spirit. So any book that I post about it one that I would recommend to others.

2. Only positive posts.

As a writer myself, I don't want to be in the business of criticizing other writers. One of the things I have really enjoyed about getting involved in the "writing community" is the fact that it's a very supportive place. There is room for all different types of books and authors in the market. I have found that, for the most part, writing types are very willing to encourage and support each other. I think that this is how it should be. Some of the best promotion we can have is for other writers to share their enjoyment of our work. If I read something I don't like, you won't hear about it here.

3. Short posts.

This is the internet. In my opinion, lengthy blog posts aren't appropriate. If I have to scroll down more than once or twice to read a book review, I'm outta there. Some of you may be thinking that my posts aren't all that short, and I can't deny that you might have a point. I will do my best to be succinct, however. I promise you, it could be MUCH WORSE. If you read many blogs, you know this to be true.

4. No synopsis.

In the interest of keeping things brief, I will not write synopses of the books on this blog. I always have a picture of the book and a link. If you want a summary of the book, you can click that link. My comments will strictly be about why I liked the book--specific reasons that it appealed to me personally. If you are at all similar to me, you might enjoy the same books.

5. YA emphasis.

You will no doubt notice that most of what I am reading right now is young adult literature (YA). This is because my work-in-progress is a YA novel, and I am quite purposefully acquainting myself with this genre. I think YA has a lot to offer, even for bonafide adults. But that's a topic for a future post.

What I hope to do is give you my impressions about things like style, content, voice, moral issues, and artistic expression. I hope you find this useful and enjoyable, and I hope these posts encourage you to pick up some great books.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

ArraSmith Pick: A Monster Calls

A Monster Calls: Inspired by an Idea from Siobhan Dowd

I admit: I am rather contrary. Often when there is a lot of buzz and hype around a book, I am resistant to liking it. But I also have to admit, that often, when I get over my snobbery and read the book, I find that there is a (surprise!) good reason for the hype. Such is the case with A MONSTER CALLS, a story about a boy whose mother is dying of cancer.

This book is a complete package. It has the interesting story of its genesis: It was idea for a book by Siobhan Dowd, but she died of cancer before she could finish it. Patrick Ness bravely picked up the project and did the story beautiful justice. It also has moving black and white ink drawings--all of the monster, not of the people. The art sets a sad and sinister mood and really adds to the experience of the story. The book itself has thick semi-glossy pages that give a very tactile experience--you can feel the weight of the story. Here is a great example of a reading experience that you absolutely couldn't get from an e-reader.

As for the writing, this is what I like to see in middle grade novels. It simultaneously has great simplicity and great depth. Often, by keeping the story short and age-appropriate for younger readers, middle grade books become shallow. I like the honesty of the range of emotions expressed by this boy. There is sadness, but there is also anger, relief, and guilt. It is an amazing description of his very personal experience of watching his mother die. The emotional wall between him and the people in his life who are trying to help him is palpable and poignant. He is alone in his experience--only the monster can break that barrier and help him come to terms with what is happening. 

So despite my dislike of "sad" books, and my resistance to "popular" books, it's still true that when a writer gets it right, the reading is so rewarding. And the physical book is so beautiful itself, that this is one you really need to buy for your bookshelf.