Thursday, October 31, 2013

Happy Halloween!!

To all of you who celebrate Halloween...

Have fun, don't scare the kids too badly, and gorge on a bunch of candy. :)


Thursday, October 24, 2013

Out of the Easy by Ruta Sepetys

It’s 1950, and as the French Quarter of New Orleans simmers with secrets, seventeen-year-old Josie Moraine is silently stirring a pot of her own. Known among locals as the daughter of a brothel prostitute, Josie wants more out of life than the Big Easy has to offer.
She devises a plan get out, but a mysterious death in the Quarter leaves Josie tangled in an investigation that will challenge her allegiance to her mother, her conscience, and Willie Woodley, the brusque madam on Conti Street. Josie is caught between the dream of an elite college and a clandestine underworld. New Orleans lures her in her quest for truth, dangling temptation at every turn, and escalating to the ultimate test.

I’ll admit, I was worried when I picked up this book. I read Sepetys’s first book, Between Shades of Gray, and loved it. I was so afraid that Out of the Easy wouldn’t live up to its predecessor, because sometimes the second book gets rushed out the door and isn’t as enjoyable as the first. I am happy to say that I was worried for no reason.

I loved this book. Sepetys has such a way with words, and her characters are more than interesting. They are real, and just happen to live on a sheet of paper. Josie is spunky and strong, but not over the top. She’s going through her life doing what she can to survive, but she won’t let circumstances drag her down a road where she doesn’t want to go. Even if it would be easier. At the same time, she isn’t superwoman. When her mother’s actions have consequences that land on Josie’s doorstep, she doesn’t snap her fingers and have it taken care of. Instead, she has a normal, human reaction and makes some mistakes. I loved this.

The romance was a little odd, and the thing with Patrick didn’t feel quite authentic. But it didn’t ruin my overall enjoyment of the story. Definitely recommended.

Monday, October 21, 2013

Mapping Your Main Character To Plot

I had an interesting discussion with a friend of mine the other day. She was telling me about a friend of hers who she hadn’t seen in about ten years, and how different this person was from who she’d remembered. The reason was the sheer number of things that had happened to her between now and then, and how much she had grown in the process.

Sound familiar? It should. This is the classic formula for a main character in a story. The character begins with one viewpoint, and then ends with something different. The amount of difference depends on the person, of course, and a dramatic difference isn’t needed. What we need is realistic growth, which happens gradually.

That brings up two questions:
1. How do we know, really know, whether our characters grow?
2. How can we make sure that growth happens realistically?

The answer to the first question is relatively straight-forward. We simply look at the character’s viewpoint at the beginning of the story and then compare it to her viewpoint at the end. If they’re different, then we know she has grown on some level. The harder question is to know whether her growth is realistic.

I’ve read many stories where the main character is going along and going along, and then, at the end, *pow*, she ‘gets’ it. I can appreciate that. I’ve had my own *pow* moments, as have others, I’m sure. And, to us, it seems like it has happened all-of-a-sudden-like. But, really, it hasn’t. There were many factors involved, and each one changed us a little bit before that epiphany moment. We’d even begun to act on that epiphany even before it became an epiphany, but we probably weren’t aware of it. These are the kinds of subtleties that need to be woven into the story to ensure realistic growth, even when epiphanies are involved.

So, how do we do this? It’s definitely not easy, and it’s a lot of work, but it is possible. The best way to see it is to map your character's reactions to the main plot points in the story. Is the result some kind of growth? And, if not, is that okay?

In most cases, you’ll want some growth. Even a miniscule amount. My favorite kind of story is where the main character takes baby steps of growth throughout the story, and then takes a single, normal-sized step of growth at the end. Those always seem most realistic to me, and I identify with them better. That said, if the story truly calls for no growth, then there shouldn’t be any.

Laying out the plot and mapping your character’s growth to it will allow you to see the character’s arc clearly, and then you can change it if it doesn’t fit the needs of the story. It’s a lot of work, but you will have a much deeper, more rounded story in the end.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Yaqui Delgado Wants to Kick Your Ass by Meg Medina

One morning before school, some girl tells Piddy Sanchez that Yaqui Delgado hates her and wants to kick her ass. Piddy doesn’t even know who Yaqui is, never mind what she’s done to piss her off. Word is that Yaqui thinks Piddy is stuck-up, shakes her stuff when she walks, and isn’t Latin enough with her white skin, good grades, and no accent. And Yaqui isn’t kidding around, so Piddy better watch her back. At first Piddy is more concerned with trying to find out more about the father she’s never met and how to balance honors courses with her weekend job at the neighborhood hair salon. But as the harassment escalates, avoiding Yaqui and her gang starts to take over Piddy’s life. Is there any way for Piddy to survive without closing herself off or running away?

I was offered an ARC of this book for review months ago, but I declined because of the subject matter. I wasn’t sure I could read the story objectively, and I was afraid it was going to be unrealistic. Having finally read it, I discovered I was right about one thing and wrong about the other: I *did* have a hard time reading it objectively, but that’s because the story is so very realistic. I was emotionally sucked in, and sympathized with Piddy in a visceral way.

Bullies don’t always have a reason for picking on someone. Piddy had never seen or spoken to Yaqui before another girl announces that Yaqui wants to kick her ass. We do find out that it has to do with Yaqui’s boyfriend in a roundabout way, but, really, Yaqui has simply decided that she doesn’t like Piddy, and therefore will make Piddy’s life miserable. This is done in a realistic way that doesn’t come close to over-the-top. Piddy’s fear and stress are palpable, so the bad choices she makes feel natural and sympathetic. The ending is also realistic, because it is nowhere near perfectly happy. It’s just the best situation that Piddy could find, given the circumstances.

I’ve read other stories that contain bullying, and most of them invoke eye-rolling or disbelief, but that’s not the case with this story. It’s very powerful, and will resonate with those who have experienced it first-hand. It will also give insight to those who haven’t experienced it, and help them understand what someone who is being bullied is going through.

For parents who might be concerned that this isn’t appropriate for teens, I disagree. This is something teens deal with all the time, and a book like this might help them. Instead of eliminating that source, I recommend reading it with them, and then discuss it. Perhaps let them lead the discussion to see what they have gotten from it. I wish I’d had access to a book like this when I was younger.


Monday, October 14, 2013

Thursday, October 10, 2013

The Testing by Joelle Charbonneau

Keep your friends close and your enemies closer. Isn’t that what they say? But how close is too close when they may be one in the same?
The Seven Stages War left much of the planet a charred wasteland. The future belongs to the next generation’s chosen few who must rebuild it. But to enter this elite group, candidates must first pass The Testing—their one chance at a college education and a rewarding career.
Cia Vale is honored to be chosen as a Testing candidate; eager to prove her worthiness as a University student and future leader of the United Commonwealth. But on the eve of her departure, her father’s advice hints at a darker side to her upcoming studies--trust no one.
But surely she can trust Tomas, her handsome childhood friend who offers an alliance? Tomas, who seems to care more about her with the passing of every grueling (and deadly) day of the Testing. To survive, Cia must choose: love without truth or life without trust.

This story is basically a cross between Hunger Games and Divergent, so, if you’ve read those, you’ll know exactly what to expect. The pacing is quick, the tension keeps you engaged, and the writing is good. But it’s not really any different from what else is already out there.

Cia is an okay character. She’s a good person and likable, and I feel I got to know her well. She did change and grow as the story progressed, and she became more and more likeable toward the end. I like her ingenuity and desire to help others, but I didn’t really feel her rage toward the end. Nor did I ever get a good sense of Tomas. Cia tells us that he’s a good person and that he always looks to help others, but we don’t get to see much of it. Granted, Cia and Tomas have a history before they were chosen for Testing, so this was probably done on purpose. But, to me, it still felt contrived.

Even knowing exactly what kind of book this was, and knowing how it was going to end, it still kept my interest. I was curious how it was going to end, and the action kept me reading. But there was one thing I could not get over: I did not buy into the basic premise, and that interfered with my enjoyment of the entire book. Which is a shame, because the writing is good and the action scenes are intense and thoroughly enjoyable. So, I’m not sure if I’m interested in reading the next book.

Some SPOILERS below:

To me, it seemed like the foundation is the story is that civilization is trying to rebuild and create habitable areas. Yet, the government rounds up their most promising minds and then throws them into situations where three quarters of them will be killed. If the governing body is established and civilization is on its feet, like in Hunger Games, *then* it makes more sense. But to kill your most promising when you’re still researching and rebuilding and trying to feed your own people is way too short-sighted for any halfway decent leader. Even if the leader is corrupt and only looking for a particular mindset, he would not squander a skilled mind. Instead, he would use it, at the very least, for personal gain. I could not get over this, and it colored everything as slightly contrived for me.

Monday, October 07, 2013

Getting Unstuck

I had an interesting conversation with my youngest son the other day. He’s in third grade now, and his reading class is starting to write very basic stories. This is something my son does all the time. He makes up the most elaborate stories as he’s playing with legos or stuffed animals or whatever. But, put a sheet of paper in front of him, and he freezes up. He actually believed that he couldn’t write a story.

I suspect many writers get this problem from time to time. It seems so easy to dream up possibilities, but then when we go to write them down, nothing happens. That doesn’t mean we can’t do it, it just means we need to get creative as to how to get the words flowing.

For my son, his teachers told him to draw a mini storyboard. He drew four pictures, each picture leading into the next, and was proud of what he had drawn. But he still didn’t think he could write the story. So, I told him to verbally tell me what was happening in the pictures. Immediately, he rattled off this elaborate scene, including dialog and actions that encompassed far more than what the pictures showed. When he was done, I told him that everything he’d said was his story. Just like that, his eyes widened as he made the connection between picture and story, and he began to write furiously. All he was supposed to write was a paragraph or two, but he ended up with a full page and a half.

If only writing came so easily all the time! It doesn’t, of course. And we can’t expect it to. But when we get stuck like this, there are some things we can do to get ourselves unstuck. The most common advice is to just write something anyway, because you can’t revise nothing. That’s true, but that’s also painful and demoralizing. You know you’re writing crap, and you feel like crap because you’re writing crap. So why put yourself through that if you can avoid it?

The first thing I suggest is to stop doing what you’re doing. Then, try a few different tactics and see if you can find something, anything, that will get those creative juices flowing again. Draw a picture, scribble some random sentences, doodle, make a list, write some dialog, write some backstory, or even walk away entirely. Sometimes you need distance from your work in order to see it clearly. If one thing isn’t working, try something else. Keep trying until you land on something that feels right, that gets the words flowing again, and stick with it.

There is a caveat, though. Of course there is, because this is writing, and writing is never exact. :) The caveat is that this process may not work on your next book, so you might end up going through this problem all over again. Not to worry, though, because, by then you’ll know what to do! When something isn’t working, stop! Keep trying different things until it starts working again.

Thursday, October 03, 2013

The Sweet Dead Life by Joy Preble

“I found out two things today. One, I think I’m dying. And two, my brother is a perv.”
So begins the diary of 14-year-old Jenna Samuels, who is having a very bad eighth-grade year. Her single mother spends all day in bed. Dad vanished when she was eight. Her 16-year-old brother, Casey, tries to hold together what’s left of the family by working two after-school jobs— difficult, as he’s stoned all the time. To make matters worse, Jenna is sick. When she collapses one day, Casey tries to race her to the hospital in their beat-up Prius and crashes instead.
Jenna wakes up in the ER to find Casey beside her. Beautified. Literally. The flab and zits? Gone. Before long, Jenna figures out that Casey didn’t survive the accident at all. He’s an “A-word.” (She can’t bring herself to utter the truth.) Soon they discover that Jenna isn’t just dying: she’s being poisoned. And Casey has been sent back to help solve the mystery that not only holds the key to her survival, but also to their mother’s mysterious depression and father’s disappearance.

This story started out great. The voice is lively and engaging, the relationship between Jenna and her brother is real and believable, and Jenna’s life feels like it belongs to a typical teen. At the same time, everything is clearly wrong. Jenna’s mom won’t get out of bed, and Casey has to work two jobs in order to pay the household bills. I was completely sucked in based on the summary above and the first chapter.

The pacing wasn’t quite what I was looking for, though. The summary gave away too much of the first half of the story, so I found myself impatient to get to the parts where I didn’t know what was going to happen next. To be fair, that’s not really the fault of the story, but of the person who wrote the summary. Unfortunately, it makes it seem like the story is slow.

I liked the characters a lot. Both Jenna and Casey feel like real kids trying to do the best they can, given their raging hormones and other unusual problems at home. They’re flawed, but that’s what made them so likeable.

There’s no actual romance, but there’s the promise of it in the future. The ending felt like a setup for the next book, though, as well as the role that Jenna’s love interest will play—I’m pretty sure there’s a plot twist hiding in there, and I wish it had been a little less obvious. :) That said, it didn’t diminish my enjoyment of the story, and this book could still be satisfactorily read as a stand-alone.

Overall, I found this fun and entertaining, and Jenna’s dialog is quite funny at times. If there is a next book, I’ll be reading it.