Review: The Coldest Girl in Coldtown by Holly Black

coldest girl in coldtownVampires in books are still alive and kicking and biting, even in the post-Twilight era, and we have Holly Black to thank for a unique spin on the old legend. Coldest Girl in Coldtown is the story of Tana, a teenager who awakes after an all-night party and notices that her friends are now corpses. All except her ex-boyfriend Aidan, who is alive but bitten, or, in the book’s terminology, Cold. Continue reading

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Does It Count As a Tearjerker if the Book Punches You Until You Cry?

multilightsA Boston Magazine article describes an MIT Media Lab project that aims to enhance the regular reading experience via a wearable vest.

Sounds super cool already, right? ūüėČ Continue reading

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My Love/Hate Relationship With Red-Haired Heroines

redhair3My childhood was filled with books; therefore, it was filled with pages upon pages of red-haired heroines. From Anne of Green Gables to Aerin of The Hero and The Crown to Alanna of Tamora Pierce’s books, I voraciously read books about women who were different from the crowd. These weren’t swooning ladies looking for a rescue. They were misunderstood and often fiery. Like their hair.

And how I longed for red hair. Red hair would mark me as different, yet lovely. A beautiful force to be reckoned with. Red haired protagonists are teased about their hair, but everyone knows they’re actually beautiful and special.

I wish life were more like that. Kids would only be teased for qualities that are actually assets, and everyone would have beautiful red hair.  Continue reading

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Wanted: Better Cliches to Describe the Kindle

kindle paperwhiteCracking open a book is a familiar phrase that describes reading a text for the first time, but cracking open a Kindle (or iPad) is an alarming turn of events that will surely turn a good day into a bad day filled with customer-service phone calls.

Advancements in technology are great, but what happens when advancements in descriptive cliches don’t keep pace?

OK, so you know I’m just having fun with doomsday rhetorical questions, but in all seriousness, I find myself searching for non-robotic ways to describe reading an e-book. Can’t crack it open, can’t dog-ear it, can’t turn pages, can’t describe the pages as well-worn. You can sort-of judge an e-book by its cover, even though you don’t see the cover other than when buying it. Continue reading

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Why I Didn’t Finish the Fifth Wave

5thwaveI was excited about the Fifth Wave. After all, before publication I was primed with marketing materials (first few chapters snagged at a conference), and I eagerly devoured them. I even had the classic, “I wish I had written this” yearning after reading those intro pages. All good signs.

And when I re-read those first chapters after publication, I felt even more confident I would blaze through this book and finish at 2AM, with a guilty, satisfied smile. The beginning of the book was paced decently, the protagonist, Cassie, was sassy and interesting, and the terrifying state of post-apocalyptic Earth fit with what would really happen if ultra-advanced aliens set their sights on our planet. (less E.T. and more Half-Life 2)

Alas.

Let me back up and give the synopsis. The Fifth Wave is about Cassie, one of the last survivors of the first four waves of mysterious alien attacks that have wiped out billions of humans. Humanity is teetering near extinction, but Cassie is determined to survive. She camps in the woods alone, kills, feels guilty, interacts with interesting family members, tries to figure out who is an enemy and who is a friend, etc. The story is told in first-person from her point of view, and I liked that approach. She’s also a book-lover and lugs around some favorite tomes–limited backpack space and alien apocalypse be damned.

The whole first third of the book is tinged with a gritty, desperate air of mass extinction and survival at all costs. Like The Walking Dead, but better.

[some spoilers below ]

The book goes downhill, fast, when the author (Rick Yancey), decides to jump POV to Cassie’s little brother, Sammy. Then he jumps to a mysterious stranger dude, Evan, who saves Cassie and starts a creepy, awkward relationship with her. Then another guy, Ben, who is important to Cassie and is part of the brainwashing military compound.

Basically, once Evan entered the picture and gave Cassie a weird bath, I was done. I just didn’t know I was done for a few more chapters. All the head-switching was difficult to follow, and all the characters but Cassie either annoyed me or creeped me out.

Plus, even though I didn’t read to the end, I could see the plot coming a mile away. Who is mysterious Evan? You’ll figure it out many moons before the author thinks you will. And that’s no fun.

At the very least, forbidden love should feel tingly and dangerous, not creepy and squirmy. So, I ended the book on my own terms. And I feel confident in saying Cassie wouldn’t have chosen this book to tote around in her apocalypse backpack either.

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Book Review: These Broken Stars by Amie Kaufman and Meagan Spooner

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After a spate of disappointing YA books, I ditched the genre for almost a year. Then I read this book.

Now, I don’t want to oversell it or anything. Let’s put it this way–These Broken Stars didn’t change my life, but it did keep me sitting in a bagel shop well past the socially acceptable time to sit in a bagel shop when your bagel is gone.

You may have heard that this book is “the Titanic in space.” That’s a fairly accurate tagline, IMO. The story starts when the aptly named¬†Icarus,¬†the galaxy’s foremost luxury cruiser, falls out of hyperspace and crashes onto an unknown, terraformed planet.¬†

Our two plucky survivors are Tarver (the Leonardo DiCaprio character with an earnest heart and empty pockets), and Lilac, the spoiled daughter of the richest man in the galaxy. The chapters alternate between Tarver and Lilac’s point of view.

Interestingly, the two authors (Amie Kaufman and Meagan Spooner) alternated chapters. Amie wrote the Tarver chapters and Meagan wrote the Lilac ones. To their credit, the chapters were written in the distinct voices of the characters, but the overall novel felt seamless.

Also on the positive side, the book moves along at a fast clip but, for the most part, doesn’t feel rushed. The setting of a terraformed planet is plenty intriguing, as are the mysterious, Lost-style happenings that plague the characters as they slog across the planet.

It’s not a perfect book though.¬†If you’re super annoyed by the archetype of the poor boy and the rich girl, be warned – yes, these characters fit the archetypes. If you have a low tolerance for bratty types, be warned that Lilac teeters on the edge of completely unlikeable for about a third of the book.¬†

Fortunately, Lilac learns her lessons and becomes way more likeable as the story progresses.

Unfortunately, the ending doesn’t fulfill the potential of the wonderful beginning. Let’s just say there was a strange plot twist that didn’t actually seem necessary and made for a confusing, rushed resolution. The plot twist would have been great if it’d been the main point of an entirely separate story or of a philosophy course, but it felt tacked-on and awkward in this one.

But to the book’s credit, I kept reading to the end, and the world and the characters lingered with me.¬†

Bottom line. You’ll probably like These Broken Stars if you liked Beth Revis’ Across the Universe and if you don’t mind the downsides I mentioned. And speaking of bottoms, the wooden chair in the bagel shop was¬†really hard¬†after two hours…

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Four Reasons I Changed From a Paper Pusher to an E-Book Evangelist

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As I sit here surrounded by mounds of hardcover books from the library, I’m profoundly grateful that I’m legally required to drop them into a slot in three weeks when I’m (hopefully) finished with them. (Or in three weeks and four days when I drive them there in a panic, realizing I’ve once again wracked up fines).

I realize this sounds strange, considering I drove to the library, wrote down the Dewey decimal numbers with a cute little pencil, perused the stacks, and lugged my finds home in a barely-making-it Target bag. But, these days I do everything I can to avoid paper books unless they’re returnable. Here’s why.

1. Books are heavy. My epiphany moment came during the middle of a very warm summer day, when I packed up the fifth cardboard box of books in preparation for a move. Books are sweet, innocuous things when they’re decorating a shelf, but they quickly become the enemy when you have to hoist them down three flights of stairs. I stared at my many boxes of books, most that I’d read only once, and vowed that this would be the last time I lugged around decorative objects that had served their purpose.

2. The Kindle is magically light. This reason is similar to #1, except my realization came as I tramped through an airport, hooking my thumbs under my straining backpack straps. I simply can’t choose one book to take on a trip. I must take at least five, and five in a Kindle weighs the same as one.

3. I am no longer tempted to read the ending of the book before the beginning. Okay, well, I’m still tempted, but the Kindle format discourages that type of peeking. I like having that extra prod to my self-discipline.

4. Instant gratification. Out of books and found a great one online? No problem. One click and the book is in my hot little hands. No long drive to the bookstore, hoping it’s in stock. No week-long vigil at the mailbox for the telltale cardboard box.

5. Jealousy. I watched friends and family receive e-readers one Christmas, and I wanted them for me.

So there you have it. I’m no longer a reluctant convert to the digital age of books, and my back thanks me for it. It only took me three years — how long did it take you?

 

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How To Come Up With Good Story Ideas

If there were a store that sold fresh, creative, one-of-a-kind story ideas, I have a feeling that writers would bash down the doors and clean out the inventory faster than a crowd of Black Friday shoppers.

I believe that good ideas are the currency of compelling writing. Too often, writers pour their hearts (and words) into has-been stories based on tired old ideas. Instructional books and critique partners can ratchet up the level of the prose, but there are few nuts-and-bolts techniques that guarantee the birth of a wonderful idea.

But creativity is essential. A good idea is like the engine of a gleaming new car. The paint and tail fins of your beauty might gleam, but without a unique concept revving up in the background and powering the prose, the story goes nowhere. Or, at least it doesn’t go to PublishedLand.

I can’t claim to be privy to any special technique (the champagne bottle awaiting my original idea is still on the shelf), but I’ve become more aware, lately, of why certain ideas are special. By examining creative ideas out there in the world, I hope to better discern whether my own ideas are worthy of my writing time, before I waste months figuring that out the hard way.

I’ve noticed that quite a few creative ideas combine seemingly disparate topics. The easiest example that comes to mind is the popular Jane Austen/zombie mash-up, aptly titled Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. Take one thing and twist it up with a totally unrelated thing, and you might just have a good idea.

The Hunger Games, a young adult dystopian series by Suzanne Collins, offer a less extreme version of this principle, in a thematic sense. The books are basically a mash-up of gladiator style fighting, reality TV, and revolution.

Short stories can also effectively pull a creative combo idea. Recently, I read the Hugo-nominated story Bridesicle, which concerns a cryogenically frozen young girl who finds herself awakened in the future. Sure, freezing someone and reviving them in the future has been done before, but the author delightfully combines that familiar concept with the idea of a dating service. So, you have a frozen young girl waking up in the future for a series of blind dates. If she’s chosen as a bride, she gets to be permanently revived. But if her suitor isn’t happy, she’s popped back into the freezer indefinitely. Bingo. Original idea.

There’s definitely more to creating ideas than random mash-ups, but I think it’s a good place to start in learning to recognize and understand creativity, and hopefully to nurture it too. I’ll share more thoughts on this later, but if you have a chance, definitely check out Bridesicle and appreciate a truly unique concept in action.

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Reasons why I’m reading a book series out of order (True Blood)

I have a confession to make. I’m reading the True Blood books by Charlaine Harris, and I’m doing it totally out of order. When I mention this to people, I get the impression that reading out of order is tantamount to that other sin of reading (which I’m also guilty of)–peeking ahead to read the ending.

I don’t read all series out of order. In fact, this is kind of a rare occurrence for me, but I have no regrets thus far. I watched True Blood seasons 1 and 2, so I figured I got the gist of the story from HBO, and no need to repeat it for the sake of saying I read the actual words.

In the library, I browsed through the True Blood paperbacks, reading the back of each book to see which one piqued my interest. I wasn’t totally committed to even trying the books, so I wanted to pick the most interesting one possible. My eyes lit up at the summary of Book #4, Dead to the World. It looked like Sookie and Eric would finally get it on this book! So I was sold. Or, er, borrowed.

Now, Book #4 wasn’t the best thing I ever read ever, but it was funny, entertaining, engaging, and I liked the characters and setting. Perfect for a summer beach book. It’s on to Book #3, Club Dead. From there, I’m not sure what to do. Go back and read Book#2 anyway, since I heard it’s somewhat different than the TV series? Or forge ahead through the series based on what interests me the most? I might go that route.

I’m not worried about the typical concerns of reading out of order, like not understanding the plot. It’s clear that most authors embed recaps, some better than others, for the forgetful or blatantly non-linear readers. I figure that this time, those annoying recaps telling me what happened in the previous book won’t be so annoying anymore (I’m looking at you, Harry Potter).

I highly recommend tackling a series out of order if the following inclinations apply to you.

1. It’s a sequel or continuation of a popular movie/TV show and you dread the thought of backtracking. Don’t worry about bucking the numbers! No one is making you read in a particular order! It’s your free time, so pick up the story where it starts for you.

2. You have a feeling you might like a series, but the beginning sounds boring (for whatever reason). Why not pick up the book that does sound interesting? If the author recap isn’t good, there’s always Wikipedia.

3. It’s a long long series, and you can’t picture reading all of it. But you can picture reading Book #5…

4. You’re at the library/bookstore with a flight/beach trip/boring evening looming, and they don’t have the next book in the series in stock!!! NOO! But they do have some other books in the same series. Hmm….

If you’re still feeling guilty, consider that sometimes authors even write their books out of order. When I was a teenager, I read both The Blue Sword and The Hero and the Crown by Robin McKinley, both EXCELLENT books. I read the Blue Sword first, and it happened to be published first too, in 1982. Later, I read the Hero and the Crown, the prequel to the Blue Sword, and was surprised to see it was published in 1985. (I didn’t read the books when they came out, so the dates were afterthoughts to me). There are times when authors write the story that moves them first, and I think it’s a good move for readers to follow their hearts too, even if it’s a zig-zaggy path.

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Study Says E-Books Take Longer to Read

CNN recently outlined an interesting study on the speed of reading e-books versus printed books. Sure, the study has a relatively small sample size of 24 and gives some disclaimers about differences in reading speed not being statistically significant, but the general idea strikes me as significant.

So here’s what the study says: compared to reading a conventional printed book, people using e-readers read at speeds between 6.2 and 10.5 percent slower on the iPad and Kindle.

I’m actually surprised that the iPad boasted the “faster” designation of 6.2 percent, as I expected the e-ink of the Kindle to put it ahead of the glowy iPad screen. However, the iPad seems to switch pages faster than the Kindle, and its page switch is less distracting, so maybe that’s the golden ticket.

Personally, I still can’t grapple with the idea of giving up printed books for their cooler, electronic brethren. I’ve only used the iPad and Kindle at the mall/friend’s houses, but I’ve had no urge to ditch print. Along with other reasons, I just think print is a richer, more immersive experience. Apparently it’s more efficient too.

Still, in the end, I’ll put my betting money on overall convenience winning out and e-books dominating the marketplace. No one really wants to lug heavy backpacks of textbooks or cart around hardcovers in their carry-on luggage, and the study reports that ratings for the overall experience of reading on devices versus print were extremely close. As for me–my personal, book-buying money will still go towards pulpy paper and dog-eared pages.

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