Monday, May 28, 2012

Book Review: Matched

by Ally Condie
Genre: Sci-Fi/Dystopian
Big Themes: Choice, Freedom, Government Control, Secrets, History, Poetry, Love Triangle

Summary: In a future world, the Society controls everything from how many calories you eat to who you marry.  Cassia trusts the system, until there is a mistake after her Matching ceremony, and a second boy's face flickers on her screen as a possible Match.

What I Liked:

The World-Building was really fascinating.  This dystopian novel did some interesting things that I hadn't seen before: the different colored tablets, the Matching system, the loss of handwriting as a skill.  Yet the author still incorporated many of the standards of dystopian fiction: the feeling of being watched constantly, the threat of government, the oppression of the masses, the protagonist's innocence being taken, and a curiosity with history and the past.  I thought the world Condie created was exceptionally well-done, and this was by far my favorite aspect of the book.

What I Didn't Like:

The Romance: It just didn't make me swoon.  There was one moment where Xander helped Cassia that was memorable and made me want there to be more between the two of them.  And maybe that was my problem, I didn't really fall for Ky at all.  Cassia fell for him hard.  But I didn't fall with her.  And I think if you're writing a romance between two characters, the reader should feel it too.

Pacing: The plot slows down significantly about halfway through the book.  The blurbs on the book's cover proclaim this as the "next Hunger Games."  Hmmm.  It's dystopian.  There's a love triangle.  But Hunger Games had action, quick pacing, and much higher stakes.  Matched does not compare in this way, and they are doing the book a disservice by comparing the two because readers will go in expecting a faster paced book and then be disappointed.

My Rating: Three stars, I liked it mostly for the excellent world-building.  I've already bought Crossed (Book 2) on my Kindle, and have started it.  So I did like it enough to do that.  And bonus points for the author because she's a former English teacher.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Gaithersburg Book Festival 2012

This year was the 3rd annual Gaithersburg Book Festival, and with perfect weather, there were crowds of people celebrating books.  This was my second year attending, and I was again impressed with how well-organized and professional the event was.  More people showed up this year, but you still had easy access to some really talented and amazing authors.

Below is a synopsis of each author I heard speak:

Meredith Goldstein
Author of the book, The Singles, and columnist for the Boston Globe, Goldstein was honest and funny as she spoke about the writing process for her book which is about five single people invited to a wedding.  Timed to come out during the wedding season, the book explores how five different people (3 men, two women) cope with going to a wedding alone.  Most of the authors I was familiar with were later in the day, so I stumbled upon Goldstein in the morning by chance.  I'm definitely happy I heard her speak, and will definitely be checking her book out.

John Corey Whaley
Winner of this year's Printz award for Where Things Come Back, Whaley was sarcastic and self-deprecating.  He joked about the sweat he was mopping off his forehead with a southern boy handkerchief, and spoke of how his first year teaching at his alma mater was a terrible experience where he learned things about his former teachers he never wanted to know.  On the topic of his book, Whaley shared how a news story and his small hometown in Louisiana inspired Where Things Come Back.  While his book doesn't sound like my typical read, I'm definitely intrigued.  I bought a copy of the book, had it autographed, and it's now sitting in my massive to-read pile.

Michael Buckley
I'd heard Michael Buckley (author of The Sisters Grimm and N.E.R.D.S.) speak before, and as he is a former stand-up comedian, I knew I wanted to hear him again.  The beginning of his speech, I was distracted by a rapidly melting ice cream cone dripping all down my arm (and trying not to get chocolate on my white skirt).  But the second half of his speech he spent answering questions for adoring little girl fans.  He had witty responses for all of them, but my favorite was:
Q: What made you want to write for children?
 A: J.K. Rowling's payday. 

Michelle Ray
Michelle Ray was by far my favorite author of the day.  She was a cheerful and engaging speaker.  I have not yet read her debut novel, Falling for Hamlet, but knew Ray would be one of my must see authors of the festival because Hamlet is tied with Romeo and Juliet for my favorite Shakespearean play and the idea of a YA modern retelling from Ophelia's point-of-view is AWESOME.  Ray spoke of her love of Shakespeare and how she strives to make Shakespeare not-so-scary.  (She wore an awesome Cafe Press shirt that said "Shakespeare Sucketh Not")  She showed us her writing notebook (which is very similar to my own crazy scribbles).  And when I got my book signed, she was so genuine and personable.  She is a teacher as well, and that makes her extra awesome because it gives me hope that the stress of teaching will not prevent me from achieving my own writing/publishing goals.  Can you tell I was impressed?  Her book is going near the top of my to-read pile (right after my mandatory grad school reading... or will I slip it in early for a break... we'll see!)

Other authors I heard:

  • Buzz Bissinger, author of Friday Night Lights and his new book Father's Day: A Journey into the Mind and Heart of My Extraordinary Son
  • Siobhan Fallon, author of You Know When the Men Are Gone which is a collection of short stories about the men, women, and families of the U.S. Army. 
  • Marvin and Deborah Kalb, authors of Haunting Legacy: Vietnam and the American Presidency from Ford to Obama  This father/daughter team spoke about the impact the Vietnam war on the American Presidency from elections to foreign policy.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Book Review: The Adoration of Jenna Fox

The Adoration of Jenna Fox
by Mary E. Pearson
Genre: Science Fiction
Big Themes: Medicine, Technology, Science, Parental Love, Humanity, Friendship, Loyalty, Identity
***Grad School Text***

Summary: Jenna Fox wakes from a coma after a car accident with no memory of who she is. Is she the same Jenna Fox as before? Who was Jenna Fox? Why does her grandmother treat her like a stranger?  Where are her friends? Why are her parents so worried and cautious?

What I Liked:
I went into this book knowing very little.  I knew it was classified as science fiction.  And I knew what I'd read on the book jacket.  And I knew people loved it.  I'm so glad that's all I knew because it was a joy of a discovery.  So I won't say much to spoil the book because if you haven't read it, you need to.

The characters are beautifully captured and real.  The science fiction elements are plausible and well woven.  The plot has excellent surprises and twists, but when you look back, all the hints and foreshadowing were carefully laid by the author.  Much like the cover, the book is a satisfying puzzle coming together.

This book would make an excellent book club selection (especially for a mother/daughter book club) and would foster great discussion.  I can't wait to discuss it in class this summer!

Disliked?  Probably nothing.

My Rating: Five big beautiful stars for Jenna Fox.  Read it.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Book Review: Insurgent

by Veronica Roth
Genre: Sci-Fi Dystopian
Big Themes: War, Death, Betrayal, Love, Identity, Guilt, Prejudice

Summary: Book two begins where Divergent left off.  The factions are at war and refugees are trying to find a safe haven.  Tris deals with guilt over deaths of family and friends, while also dealing with her new fame and hero status.

What I Liked:

Tris and Four: I adore both of them.  I adore them individually, and I adore them together.  Tris is going through an internal struggle in this book, and often pushes Four away (I can't call him Tobias... It. Doesn't.Work.)  Four keeps showing Tris that he stands by her and cares about her, and honestly, I don't know if I would have put up with some of the things Tris did.  Granted she just lost her parents and killed someone she didn't want to kill, but some decisions she made caused my brain to scream a little in frustration.  But the moments that Tris and Four had together, showed how well they work together and reinforced the relationship that was established in Divergent.

The Development of the Factions: We learn a lot more in this book about Amity, Erudite, and Candor.  I thought Roth did a great job of letting us see how each faction lives and each faction's role in the community.  I also liked how we met strong secondary characters from each faction with well-defined personalities that exemplified the mindset of each faction.  It was interesting how Roth was able to show how similar and singularly minded people of each faction are, and then Roth contrasts that nicely with how the Divergent stick out from these faction stereotypes and clearly break the mold.  The factionless were also an interesting addition and I assume they will play an even larger role in the third book.

What I Didn't Like:

Start of Book Confusion: I read Divergent, twice mind you, in December/January.  Barely four months ago.  I really didn't think I needed to reread the book or give myself a refresher, but MAN.  I was so confused for the first fifty pages because I did not remember secondary characters by first name.  Normally, I hate when authors do long recaps of previous books, but a few taglines to jog the memory on characters would have been helpful.  I had to keep going on Wikipedia.  I think part of my problem was we get very few physical descriptions of characters or any sort of distinctive voices for each character.  (For example, Hagrid has a clear physical description and distinctive voice, whereas Caleb... or Tori... or Marlene...)  Remembering secondary characters based on minor events and interactions is asking a lot of your reader in my opinion.

The Big End of Book Reveal (and the Lead Up): *Minor Spoiler Alert* Don't get me wrong, I still liked this book.  But if there was one thing that annoyed the pants off me it was this: for the majority of the book, we are being told there is some secret information, that no one can reveal (even though Marcus knows it) and this information is going to change everything.  We are told over and over and over about this super secret data.  It's super secret.  People have died for it.  No one will tell Tris.  It's a super secret.  So Marcus, the guy who knows this super secret, ends up making Tris risk her life to get the super secret he already knows.  And then they just end up broadcasting the whole darn thing to everyone.  And the secret... wasn't THAT big.  Here's my problem with authors having big twists/reveals at the end of their books: in order for there to be a big payoff, you have to have laid clues and done the proper foreshadowing.  When you carefully lay clues, and then they all fit together at the twist/reveal, then the reader has a huge WOW-AHA-WHOA moment where they think you're a genius author for how everything fits together.  (For and example of a genius reveal, think Brimstone and the teeth in Laini Taylor's Daughter of Smoke and Bone.) But if you just throw in a surprise, then the reader feels slightly cheated, like, "How was I supposed to guess that?  Where is this coming from?"  I don't feel like Roth laid the proper groundwork for her big surprise.  She simply said over and over there was a secret the whole book, without dropping hints as to what it would be about, and then revealed it in the last 50 pages to create a cliffhanger ending.  So, I'm not impressed.  And this is probably why it took me over a week to write a review and compose my thoughts.

My Rating: When I read Divergent, I said I thought I liked it more than Hunger Games.  I still like Tris better than Katniss.  I still like Four better than Peeta/Gale.  I still think the factions are intriguing.  But there were elements of this book that disappointed me.  I can't decide if this book is a 3 or 4 star...  Maybe somewhere in the middle.  I'm going to hold out on my verdict for the whole series until I read the final book, and then I'll decide where this series stands (and whether it really is better than Hunger Games...)

Monday, May 7, 2012

Meeting Kristin Cashore

Kristin Cashore has a special place in my heart.  I adore her books, but the reason she's extra special to me is because she indirectly led me to the graduate program I'm currently in (and love).

About 3-4 years ago I was applying to Masters programs.  I knew I wanted to write fiction and specifically for teens/YA.  I applied to a nearby, prestigious school's MFA program... and got in.  But they promptly told me I would have to write for adults, not children.

I was very discouraged and frustrated because I didn't see the difference in writing for adults versus writing for teens.  A good story is a good story.  Good characterization is good characterization.  Good pacing is good pacing.  Good writing is good writing.  I just wanted to study writing, to grow, to learn, to hone my craft.  However, I didn't want to be forced into writing for a particular audience.  And I certainly didn't want to take classes with a faculty that was so elitist and narrow-minded.  I didn't know what I was going to do because I had to take classes close to my job, and that limited the schools I could apply to.

Around this same time, I read Graceling.  I absolutely LOVED the book, and promptly went online to look up Kristin Cashore.  In her short bio, I read this:
During my stint in Boston, I got an M.A. at the Center for the Study of Children's Literature at Simmons College. (Thank you, Simmons, for the scholarship that made this possible!) Grad school almost killed me, but I felt a lot more alive than when I was almost being killed in college. The Simmons program is stupendous. It got me thinking and breathing YA books. It got me writing.
I immediately went to Simmons' website, began reading, and probably started glowing a little.  I requested more information about the program... but I did not end up going to Simmons.  Just two years into my teaching career, I was reluctant to leave when I had just received my tenure.  Simmons would have required that I move to Boston, and I wasn't ready to do that.  (Though some days I do wonder what my life would be like with a degree in hand by now as a Bostonian and without the stress the past three years of teaching has brought me.)

Someone at Simmons e-mailed me and suggested I check out Hollins University (because it was closer to where I live and also because their program could be completed over 3-5 summers).  And here I am now, 24 credits into my MFA in Children's Literature and I couldn't be happier with my choice.

So that's why I indirectly credit Kristin Cashore with leading me to my graduate degree.  I honestly don't know if I would have discovered that there were Masters programs in Children's Lit out there... had I not read her bio.

One thing I hate about book signings: you never have time to tell an author everything you want to say to them.  There's people behind you in line and you're being moved along.  But... if I was an author... I'd like to hear how I've impacted people.  Not just sign my name for an hour.

My solution to this problem: I wrote Kristin Cashore a card and handed it to her when I got my book signed.  Worked great.  My card looked like this:
And said this:

We must find time to stop and thank the people who make a difference in our lives. —Dan Zadra
Inside: Thanks for making a difference.
And I wrote her more-or-less the story I told you above.

Now, as to what Kristin spoke about at her talk/signing:

She read two excerpts from Bitterblue, which got me quite excited to read the book  :)

She then had lots of pictures of her manuscripts and stressed how difficult writing is and how failure is a huge part of the writing process.  She told us how Bitterblue is the most difficult book she's written.  She showed us pictures of handwritten pages with huge sections crossed out.  She showed us the 700 page first draft.  She showed us pictures of the piles of paper that would be the seven drafts Bitterblue went through.

Kristin then went on to answer questions from the audience.  She got all the typical questions:

  • Where do you get your names from?
  • Do you want Graceling to be a movie?
  • Would you want to have input in the movie production?
  • Who would you want cast in the movie?

You tend to hear a lot of the same questions at these things.  Probably the most interesting question was about the feminist influences in the books.  Kristin spoke a bit about how her strict upbringing and experiences with sexism probably influenced how feminist ideas have manifested themselves in her books.

She was very humble and so clearly LOVES WRITING.  I really enjoyed seeing her in person, and think she's a very cute and inspiring young author.

My final words to Kristin were:
"I love how you write about strong women.  And men who like strong women."