A Journey

Live. Laugh. Dance. And Write.
If you can do all those at once, you're doing just fine...

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Cosmic Reading Experiences

Have you ever had one of those times when you're reading a story, and, for whatever reason, you come to a point where something about the plot suddenly clicks, and you must put the book down for a moment, because that instance is so wonderful?

I just finished Cynthia Hand's debut Unearthly, and toward the end, right at a high point of tension, right when character Clara faces a big realization, I found myself staring at the same realization, the same plot point.

I don't know if it was a result of me being momentarily, minutely distracted by another thought, but when I reached that point in Clara's story, it struck me--much more than I expected it to. I didn't see it coming, at all, and neither did Clara.

What a lovely, beautiful surprise to uncover while reading a book! What does it mean? I have no idea. I can only hope that I affect my readers as much as that moment in Cynthia Hand's story affected me. Cynthia's writing is beautiful. It's haunting. It's real, and it's raw. It truly lives up to its name: Unearthly. Thank you, Cynthia, for an amazing reading experience, which is exactly what I look for when I pick up a book. If you haven't read this one, you should.

As The Body Finder's author Kimberly Derting said, it will steal your heart. But, the story will give your heart back to you, having truly made it more complete. It's just that perfect.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Book Review: "Other Words For Love" by Lorraine Zago Rosenthal

"These streets will make you feel brand new..." -Alicia Keys, Empire State of Mind

Part of what makes YA stories great isn't just the sprawling scope of what each young character must go through in order to triumph on his or her journey. For a lot of novels, our reading experience hinges on how those same successes and failures reflect our own. In a way, that reflection represents a sense of "home" for us.

In her debut novel, "Other Words For Love," Lorraine Zago Rosenthal crafts an excellent, richly-detailed "home" in which I was immediately able to settle and kick off my shoes to stay, following high schooler Ari "Ariadne" Mitchell through her life's challenges. In a word, Rosenthal's writing is incredibly elegant. Beautiful. Warm. Yes, that's three words. But, the ease with which I was able to find those words is a testament to her ability to hold me in Ari's complicated and fascinating world. From beginning to end, I was home.

Love, as that which exists in our lives but is difficult to describe, is equally challenging to talk about in writing. It is often a monumental task to craft "love" in a way that will make it tangible, valuable, to a reader. But, because she grounded love, in its many forms, in carefully chosen "homes" throughout her novel, I didn't have to travel far from the "home" of my own soul, my familiar sense of self, to find them. Neither did Ari.

Ari Mitchell feels out of place in her world, largely absent of love. But, ultimately it was not a tangible neighborhood, like the one where her Brooklyn apartment stood, or where her obligations lay, like her new school in Manhattan or the Parsons School of Design--or even her glitzy, tempting time with the gorgeous Blake for a few weekends in the Hamptons--which gave her a destination.

It was at these places where she truly found what she needed--new friendship, mistakes of lust, the peace derived from artistic expression, the pain of heartbreak, and an ultimate rebirth--to discover her version of love. There isn't one definition, nor are there only certain places in which love can be found. Everything Ari went through embodies love in one way or another. Some of those paths are difficult, some are wonderful, some useful, others not. But they are all important, they're all a part of where we end up. We live, in other words, for love.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Book Review: "The Lying Game" by Sara Shepard

(NOTE: Catch all the greatness of Sara Shepard's new novel [ and her other series, Pretty Little Liars ]on the silver screen, coming soon to ABC Family!)

Putting it simply, Sara Shepard's The Lying Game is one of the most well-crafted and eerie YA novels I've had the opportunity to read. It's wonderfully paced, has distinct, realistic (and creepy!) characters, and doesn't seem to rely on convention to move readers through its uniquely-framed plot.

It's exactly that, the story's point of view, which clamped onto my hand right at the beginning and refused to let go. Shepard's identical twin sister characters, Emma Paxton and Sutton Mercer, were the perfect vehicle by which to fling me into their parallel universes, much as they were both thrown into each others. (Hello, first kick-butt theme, you rock!) Sutton Mercer, killed somehow, must, for her own strange, post-death sanity (a fascinating idea worth much more time than a single review), know how it happened, because as she says throughout the novel, she has no idea. Twin sister Emma, searching for her own peace, finds herself (no pun intended) looking for Sutton, whom she has never met. As it is said twins go, each cannot live (literally, in this case) without the other.

The way Shepard molded and blended these two characters' thoughts together throughout the pages seemed a perfect technique to keep me riveted to the action--to want to figure out the truth, just as they did. The idea that Sutton could only see what Emma was seeing was a huge plus for the mysterious feelings I absolutely could not shake, right up until the very end. This was yet another tool of many which Shepard created, in my experience of the story, that made the story as masterful and deliciously-unnerving as it was.

As nearly all stories are journeys (in one fashion or another), The Lying Game was no exception. Thank goodness for that! My reading experience found Shepard's novel, in its softer undertones, to be special in that she creates three simultaneous journeys: Emma's, Sutton's, and finally mine, the reader. In constant flux, these three journeys are brought together, torn apart, then brought together again in a brilliant fashion I've not come across in other novels.

To that end, Sutton Mercer's journey is our first. She is (SPOILER ALERT!!) dead--the end of a journey most of us don't truly understand. Her journey is incomplete, not having been given the deeply-rooted desire in human nature--to know why, to be certain of the end of her story. As individuals, we must know, or at least be given a chance to figure it out. Characters, like us, can bear many things, but doubt is not something we take lightly. Shepard's characters are exactly the same.

Emma Paxton is on a journey herself, perhaps--strangely--to find exactly that. Shepard masterfully defines this idea through Sutton, who, remember, is Emma's twin sister, the (suspected) epitome of her own self. A authorial choice which would seem simple, and yet its impact on my reading experience was phenomenal. Sutton represents something far more tangible, familiar to Emma--a sense of herself she lost, or never had, because of her foster child life. She must get it back. Enter, Sutton Mercer.

From the opening sentence, both girls' lives collide, though Emma isn't ever conscious of Sutton's presence nearby (again, a fascinating idea!). Through their intricately woven journeys, each is able to find pieces of some kind of freedom in the ways that they must, in order to survive in the only way they can: together, as one.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Technology, Stories & The Mind: Who's Driving This Thing?

Technology's a funny thing, especially when people and their minds are thrown into the equation. Of course, without people, many things technological couldn't exist. That begs the question, then, how do people function when technology is so prevalent in our world?
As a writer, I interact with many technologies every day. I write on paper with a mechanical pencil. and I type and blog on a laptop. But, why those choices, and, perhaps, why in that order? Am I making those choices consciously, or are the technologies I'm using doing the choosing?
Let's look at the latter, as it is probably the more provocative of the two. Before you were able to read this piece as it stands now, on a computer screen, I wrote out these thoughts in a notebook. Could I have moved right to my laptop? Sure. So, why didn't I?
There are many writers who, like me, spend a substantial amount of time using paper and pencil. 'But,' you say, 'I haven't used paper and pencil since I was in grade school! If I have an idea, I just Tweet it or text it.'
Ah ha! Seriously, though. We've all done it. We use technology like our smart phones, PDAs, or Twitter and we're instantly connected to the rest of the world, clones of the 24-hour news world, bent on informing everyone of EVERYTHING, and expecting much the same in return for our troubles.
So we like to keep in touch with people. Big deal, right? Let's consider, though, how often we may (or may not) completely stop what we're doing and check one of our many mobile devices for a text, to look something up on the Web, or some other minute activity. Moments later we go back to our business and, uh oh, we've lost our mental momentum. Seems like technology owns us as much as we own it.
For a writer, the conscious choice of paper and pencil to begin our work represents more than just an aesthetic or tangible medium. Yes, it feels productive, but the payoff is that oftentimes it is productive. Think about it. Technology like the Internet, or even writing on a word processor has its limitations. The Internet is everywhere, yes. But, more often than not, in order to do anything constructive with it, we must be physically connected to it.
By becoming so, we are, in a way, bound by its rules. And we haven't even done anything yet. Twitter users are bound, in the thought process, by the program's 140-character limit on posts. Yes, it helps wordy people, like me, be precise. But what Twitter doesn't allow for that paper and pencil does, is a sense of freedom for the mind to move around. Paper and pencil, the most basic technology a writer has, doesn't often have to worry about space, or lack thereof. If it can be written on by graphite or ink, we'll scrawl all over it. But if we adhere to a limitation like that which exists on Twitter with a 140-character wall, we start limiting ourselves, censoring our thoughts. And we stop pursuing them, like the text we recieve while we're working on something else. For only a moment, the person on the other end of that text is somewhat valued in terms of whether or not we want to take the time to use our technology to reply. That's unfortunate.
What's worse? We may limit the characters in our stories in some of the same ways. In Thirteen Reasons Why by Jay Asher, the main character depended on the simple technology of a "Stop" button on a Walkman to almost stop the momentum of the moments of pain and truth he did not want to hear, nor face. What power he yielded! What control! It sounds like he was in charge of the situation and his feelings, doesn't it? But, was he? Couldn't he have stopped listening at any time? According to him, he could not.
In some ways, we suffer the same fate as our characters. We say we can do without our technologies, right? Sure, no problem. But, how often do we actually sit down and write a letter? Or, do we instead let the moment pass because we either don't have a computer to use, or we have too much to say to write an email, or too little to send a text. How often do we turn around our cars to get our cell phones at home where we left them? How many younger people actually talk at parties or other social events? They don't, they often text. Sometimes across the room. Technology wins.
In our stories we write, how many of the plots function without cool gadgets, or familiar things like social networking sites? Probably none. How many of those stories (or ones we read) have similar person-to-technology relationships like the ones I just posed? I know my stories do. My characters, especially my teens, are just as dependent on their connections to their gadgets as I am, and they're both positively and negatively influenced just the same. Can our characters only express their feelings publicly, through something like social networking? No, not only. But, that's the trend. Can we express our feelings other ways? Most likely. But, we often don't. It seems we have trouble expressing thoughts beyond what our technologies can say for us.
Sure, technology (and our relationships with it) make good, believable stories, which is what we're ultimately after. Technology isn't evil. It won't kill us. But, we have to take some time to think outside the boxes our computers and other gadgets come in, and let our minds find some real estate of their own.

Monday, March 7, 2011

"Thirteen Reasons Why" by Jay Asher: A Review

2007 marked the debut for a new, hopeful author from California, Jay Asher. It's not uncommon for any author to approach an idea in new and interesting ways, and Asher's first novel certainly was not born any differently. While at a museum, Asher followed along with a cassette-driven audiotour of the exhibits. Soon, coupled with personal experience and a tense moment on a dark, icy Wyoming road "perfect to inspire a suspense novel" (as Jay says in his unique and helpful Q&A section at the book's end), the two larger ideas led to Thirteen Reasons Why.

Clay Jensen can't forget the day, or, for that matter, the days leading up to it, that a dear friend and his only high school love, committed suicide. In part, Hannah Baker won't let him. She won't let any of the thirteen people (and only them) she claims led her to her final decision, forget. Now, the reasons are forever recorded on tape, chilling reminders from a voice--often angry, confused--that everyone thought belonged to a girl who was strong. But in her own words, the last hope for her side of each of the thirteen stories, she wasn't strong enough.

Asher's breakthrough novel isn't the first to tackle tough, emotional teenage issues like suicide. But, that doesn't keep Asher's message, and Hannah's, from being incredibly powerful. Teen suicide, or any suicide, is heartbreaking. What sets Asher's story apart from others, and into the New York Times Bestseller echelon, is his choice, virtually unplanned, of the novel's vehicle--the "bells and whistles," as Jay told me. After reading Jay's novel and speaking with him about it, I gave more thought to those tiny details.

Today's teens don't listen to cassette tapes, and most probably don't know what a Walkman is. But, the visual technology of the Play, Pause and Stop symbols is as common now as it was in the days of older audio formats. The set of images is printed on everything from CD players to cell phones.

Asher blends these everyday symbols beautifully with the deeper, more personal quandaries and fears of Clay Jensen as he listens to his tape, and everyone else's. As Hannah talks, at certain moments she creates such visceral reactions in Clay's mind that he actually has to press "Stop." As a reader reaching the same (or similar) gut-wrenching conclusion as Clay has, I too must take a break.

Hannah has, in a way, trapped me, Clay and the other twelve who will hear her side of each story by simply using three basic human flaws. They're bound to technology, as are we. They're also bound by two other, equally disturbing ideas. Like us, they have to hear how the story ends. And they must also know, without a doubt, if they play a part--particularly Clay Jensen, who spends a majority of the novel concerned with who belongs to the next tape--who Hannah blames for her death.

Through masterful, eerie suspense, a twist of a quest for both the characters and his audience, borrowing visual conventions that, literally, made me stop, pause, and want so badly to fast forward, and also calling upon deep-seated, primal feelings and fears many of us have about the unknown parts of our lives, Jay Asher's Thirteen Reasons Why is a wonderfully frightening and realistic book you can't afford to ignore.

2011: The Year I Actually Keep This Up

Okay. It's been a very long time since I tried to blog, and, well, it didn't work out.

But, NOW I have things to talk about! And I don't mean just me all the time. No, this time around I'm going to get much more involved, and post updates to my own creative work, as well as give shout-outs to new writers whenever I can, letting you know what I think of their newest work so that you can ultimately go out and get it for yourself, and perhaps disagree or agree with me. Either way, let's talk about it, because I'm a fan of writers, too! It's how we keep each other motivated while we tackle all this writing stuff.

I may also talk about a movie I've seen lately and what I thought about it, or perhaps I'll post links to a freelance piece I've done.

In any case, I'll always be a worthwhile read for you in your own time, but if I can't be for some reason, I'll guide you to one of my blogging friends who will be helpful and/or entertaining for you.

I hope you'll join me on this newer adventure, and I do sincerely hope we kind of get a little lost at times. Just trust me. Embrace the weird panic.