Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Meghan Review: These Things Happen by Richard Kramer

It's been a long time since a young adult novel has made me laugh as much or touched me quite as deeply as These Things Happen by Richard Kramer. Part of this book's charm comes from its unique set-up. Wesley, a fifteen-year-old, moves from his mother's and stepfather's house to spend a semester living with his father and his father's partner, George, in order to grow closer with his father. This kind of entangled, modern, nuclear family is exactly what I think needs to be explored more in literature, for both its humorous potential and its emotional value. It's important that young adult readers and adult readers alike see all different forms of family units in the books they read to increase acceptance and understanding for people whose lives may be a little different than their own.

Easily my favorite character in These Things Happen was flamboyant and hilarious George. Rather than falling prey to the tendency to stereotype gay men, Kramer works to emphasize George's individuality through his relationship with Wesley. For me, it was this relationship that was really the heart of the book. Kramer asks how we work to define relationships in our lives that aren't already defined for us---what is the role of the not-quite-stepfather partner in a young man's life?---while exploring how relationships that are already defined (father, mother) can fail us. George, who loves fine food and good theater, exposes Wesley to a whole world he hadn't seen before, and Wesley in turns offers George an unexpected chance to mentor someone younger.

The major turning point of this novel occurs after Wesley finds himself in the middle of a sudden act of violence. I can't say much more without going into spoilers, but this act of violence forces every character to reexamine themselves and their attitudes and assumptions. This situation forced me, as a reader, to challenge my own assumptions, and these thoughts stuck with me long after the book was over---which I think is the mark of a truly great book!

Because this book is told from various first-person perspective viewpoints, readers are given the chance to understand each character's thought process and motivations in a personal and powerful way. Every character has a unique voice, but all are surprisingly poetic. I found myself rooting for all the characters in different ways, and for the family as a whole throughout.

Recommended to: fans of Modern Family, Manhattan lovers, anyone who wants to understand mixed/LGBTQ families better, people looking for a heartfelt laugh on a winter's night

Release Date: November 7th 2012  Pages: 272  Format: Hardcover
SourceTLC Book Tours  Publisher: Unbridled Books  Buy It: Book Depository

This is a review by Meghan. You can find her here on Goodreads or on Twitter @meghanc303

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Author Interview with Caragh M. O'Brien (#2)

How would you describe Promised in ten words or less?

Let me first say thanks, Zoë, for having me by to answer a few questions. It was just about a year ago that you interviewed me for Prized, and it’s nice to be chatting with you again.

≤10 words about Promised: Gaia returns home to fight, suffer, love, and lead.

You recently released a short story, Ruled, that takes place between Prized and Promised, told in Leon's perspective, much like Tortured was between Birthmarked and Prized. What made you decide to tell some of the Birthmarked story in Leon's voice and how was it different from writing Gaia?

The stories posed a unique challenge. They were supposed to deliver something about the Birthmarked world without containing spoilers for the subsequent novels, and also I wanted them to matter. Setting the stories between the novels and jumping to Leon’s head made sense, especially since I’d heard from readers by then that Leon was a favorite character. Writing from his perspective was more difficult than writing from Gaia’s mainly because I didn’t know him as well, but also because he’s a very guarded, private character. It was interesting for me to play around with conveying how he felt when he rarely expressed it openly. I liked that. I especially liked in “Ruled” how he felt something, couldn’t express it, then Gaia figured him out anyway, and he knew she knew. Incomplete communication was an element of their relationship that I always found satisfying to explore.

Now that the final book in the Birthmarked Trilogy, Promised has been published, do you think the story is complete? Or can readers hold out hope that another Birthmarked short story may be published in the future?

The narrative truly ends with the last chapter of Promised, and I gave considerable thought to what conclusion would resonate best for the series. That said, I do find that certain characters keep knocking, as it were, and there are some poignant possibilities that tug at me especially. I don’t think I’d have enough to turn into a novel, though, and a short story would feel too flimsy. So that’s it. Thanks for asking, but the project is finished. We just have to imagine what comes next.

How was writing Promised easier or harder than the previous books in the trilogy?

Promised was easier in that I had so much more to work from already, and I’d been thinking about its problems in the back of my mind for a long time before I started writing, so I didn’t agonize as much over the first draft as I did with, say, Prized. It was harder in that I had essentially two casts of characters to combine, one from each of the preceding books, and it was difficult to let some favorite characters shift to the background. Worst of all was letting some truly awful things happen to characters I care about. That still bugs me.

Do you have any advice for aspiring authors?

Sure. Be sure you’re writing to fascinate yourself.

Are there any authors that have especially inspired you? This could be during your journey writing the Birthmarked Trilogy, or as a writer in general.

I’m inspired all the time, usually by whatever I’m reading at the moment. David Levithan’s Every Day sucked me in a few weeks ago and I’m still pondering it. I like books that take risks, like his does, and I like when it’s clear that the writer is having a ball writing. Kate Burak’s Emily’s Dress and Other Missing Things is also delightful and strange and intense. It feels very personal, somehow.

After having spent years immersed in the dystopian societies of Birthmarked, do you see yourself continuing in the genre in the future?

I enjoy writing about the future, which puts me squarely in sci fi, and I’m definitely sticking with YA.

The question I have to ask...now that the Birthmarked Trilogy is finished, can you share anything about what you have planned next?

I have not figured out a coherent way to talk about what I’m writing next, but I have started another futuristic, YA project, and I’m working with the same editor and team at Roaring Brook. I’m so happy to be on board there.

Thank you so much, Zoë, for having me by. I love that your questions are so thoughtfully focused on the books. You always make me think, and that makes me happy!

Caragh M. O'Brien is the author of the dystopia Birthmarked trilogy that includes  BIRTHMARKED and PRIZED and PROMISED. Born in St. Paul, Minnesota, Ms. O'Brien was educated at Williams College and earned her MA from Johns Hopkins University. She has resigned from teaching high school English in order to write full-time.

Thanks so much to Caragh for stopping by In The Next Room again! To learn more about her dystopia trilogy, stop by her website. To read the In The Next Review of Birthmarked click here, for Tortured click here, for Prized click here, and for Promised click here. To read last year's interview with Caragh, click here.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

It's Not Summer Without You by Jenny Han

Note: This review contains no spoilers of It's Not Summer Without You, but may contain spoilers of the first book in the series, The Summer I Turned Pretty, a review of which can be found here.

I really enjoyed the first book in this trilogy, even though the narrator, Belly, tended to get on my nerves Han's beautiful writing made it all worthwhile. So I was definitely planning to pick up the sequel, It's Not Summer Without You to find out how the drama between Belly and brothers Conrad and Jeremiah.
However, unlike The Summer I Turned Pretty, there is pretty much nothing appealing about Conrad in this book, which makes it frustrating to see Belly continue to be devoted to him for the reasons the reader can't quite comprehend. He may have been her first love, but he's a complete jerk this time round. My heart just broke for Jeremiah who was basically being strung along by Belly, in a way that made me think of Belly's boyfriend Cameron from the last book. Adding to this are the short chapters told from Jeremiah's viewpoint that just made me sympathize with him more. So it was a complicated emotion– even though I wanted Belly to choose him, I felt like he deserved better than her.

In It's Not Summer Without You, Susannah has died and Belly is actually spending the summer at home, but of course she can't stay away from Cousins for good. The feelings of summer that Han captured so perfectly in book one are back, her vivid descriptive moments and that sensation that is summer nights and kisses. When the book begins, Conrad has gone missing and Belly and Jeremiah head to track him down. And even though Belly annoys me at times, she definitely has started to grow up and it is clear that she is mourning Susannah deeply. By the end of the book I was really conflicted over Belly's decision, and especially the afterwords left my stomach in knots going into book 3, which was definitely not what I expected. But more on that in my next Summer review. 

Release Date: April 27th 2010  Pages: 288  Source: Borrowed  
Also By This Author: The Summer I Turned Pretty (Summer #1); Burn For Burn (Burn For Burn #1)
Publisher: Simon and Schuster  Buy It: Book Depository

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

My Life in Black and White by Natasha Friend

Sometimes a premise just catches my eye and I absolutely have to pick up the book; My Life in Black and White by Natasha Friend was one of those cases. It's about a very pretty girl, Lexi, who goes face-first through a windshield and has to learn to adapt to life afterwards. Combining that story with a sister element– Lexi's gorgeous while her older sister Ruthie is the quirky smart one– makes for an intriguing basis to an incredibly readable book.

Lexi is definitely not the kind of main character that a reader instantly connects with. She's had a really horrible experience, but that doesn't mean she's suddenly a profound person. She's still obsessed with herself in a way that makes her unlikable. In fact, she reminded me a bit of one of my favourite novels, Before I Fall by Lauren Oliver. Like the main character in that book, Lexi undergoes a transformation that is more than physical.

I also really enjoyed the relationship between Lexi and Ruthie. Honestly, while I couldn't relate to Lexi and her (formerly) perfect life, I could definitely relate to Ruthie and her quirky personality, but also the way that Lexi completely underestimated her and completely pigeon-holed her. It certainly didn't help my feelings towards Lexi. 

However, what Friend does really well is show Lexi's journey. It's undeniable that this is a life changing event, and having to pick up the pieces afterwards made for an interesting and exciting story. There was also an element of mystery to the story and wanting to know how Lexi ended up in the car accident, which I think contributed to how page-turning the story was. Although I'd never read anything by Natasha Friend before, I found her style very easy and enjoyable. There weren't any big surprises or shocking revelations in My Life in Black and White, but it was relaxing and fun to read and I'd definitely be willing to pick up a novel her in the future– and considering I have her 2010 novel, For Keeps, on my shelves, I think I probably will. 

Release Date: June 28th 2012  Pages: 294  Format: E-book 
Source: Borrowed Publisher: Penguin Buy It: Book Depository

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Giveaway: Evil Eye by Jeff Szpirglas

Today I have the opportunity to give away a copy of author Jeff Szpirglas' recently released middle grade novel. It sounds like a funny and gross story, and even though it's aimed at boys it's definitely one I'll be reading myself soon.

Here's a small summary:
Jake knew that a field trip to the cemetery would lead to bad things. Bad things like an angry class bully. Bad things like a mysterious tombstone. Bad things like a scratched eyeball. Most scratched eyeballs heal up in no time. They don't pop out of their sockets or float in the air or help you cheat on your math test. And they almost never go off in search of revenge. Now Jake's eyeball has a mind of its own, and it's up to Jake to find out what it's after and why. Whatever it is, it's something ancient. Something evil. 
Click here to read Jeff's guest post on the inspiration behind Evil Eye

This giveaway is for one paperback copy of Evil Eye and is open to the US and Canada. It ends December 2nd at midnight EST.

Enter here to win:
a Rafflecopter giveaway
Good luck and thanks for stopping by In The Next Room!  

Monday, November 19, 2012

Author Guest Post: Jeff Szpirglas

Evil Eye Origins

Evil Eye is the novel I’ve wanted to write since I was 12, and never thought would ever see the light of day. It’s about a boy whose eyeball becomes possessed, takes on the ability to pop out of its socket, and float off and do nasty things. Making it worse, our hero can see it all happen – both from the eye in his head, and the disembodied one up to no good. I admit the plot gets pretty weird after that.

The genesis of Evil Eye dates back to my university days, when I rabidly consumed as many movies as possible. We’re talking upwards of at least one movie a day, sometimes three. I was a sponge, soaking in everything from Jean Cocteau to Akira Kurosawa and beyond. But it was the films of David Cronenberg and Brian De Palma that I connected to in an almost visceral way. De Palma in particular developed a style that was often ridiculed because of the way he aped Hitchcock. Despite wearing his influences on his sleeve, De Palma’s horror films from this period (Sisters, Phantom of the Paradise, Dressed To Kill) have a gleeful mania, cutting sense of humor, and artful compositions.

Evil Eye is the movie in my head that little Jeff yearned to see, answering that age-old question: what if your eye could pop out of your head, levitate through the air, and stare back at you? I envisioned a De Palmaesque split screen sequence in which a hero fought his own disembodied eyeball with a tennis racket. Movie audiences would see both images at once, just like Jake, the story’s hero.

Back in school, some people were trying to write the next great American novel; but this sort of lurid schlock truly fed my soul. I’ve always gravitated towards movies and stories that married gutsy comedy with legitimate scares – movies like Re-Animator, Creepshow, and An American Werewolf In London. Both horror and comedy rely on timing and payoff to give their audiences something unexpected. Each genre has its bag of tricks and distinct rhythms. I admire storytellers who try to pull the rug from under their audiences, substituting shocks for laughs, and vice-versa. Horror movie plots are often cyclical, reminding us that evil recurs over and over again. But that doesn’t mean we can’t laugh at our fears and failures (mortal and all) along the way.

There’s a sub-genre of horror in which disembodied body parts come to life: The Hand, The Crawling Eye, They Saved Hitler’s Brain, Dr. Terror’s House Of Horrors – I’m not saying these are cinematic classics, but I wanted to take the genre to its ultimate limits, much in the same way that composer Jim Steinman wanted to take motorcycle crash songs to their apex in Bat out of Hell. Some of my favorite parts of Evil Eye involve our hero Jake on his bike, chasing his own runaway eye, trying to process both images in his brain and stay balanced on his bike.

The ultimate goal for Evil Eye? Scare kids hard, and scare them silly. I looked to R. L. Stine’s Goosebumps, and wanted to take that kind of E.C. Comics-style horror to the edge. I wanted to make the monsters real and scary, but still keep the laughs and fill the plot with weird twists and turns.

Chances are, if you’re into the sort of genre fiction in which vampiric adolescents stare lovingly into each other’s otherworldly eyes, you’ll hate my novel. But if you have a zeal for bodysnatching monsters who take over bits and pieces of their human hosts, graveyards hidden within graveyards, and blood-curdling schemes of global domination, then I think you’ll dig this book. Not that I’m biased.

Jeff Szpirglas has had a varied career. He's shoveled manure, worked in a steelyard (he hails from Hamilton, after all), and even frolicked in the offices at CTV Television and Chirp, chickaDEE, and OWL magazines, where he was the kids' page editor. His manure-shoveling days long behind him, Jeff currently teaches children by day and writes books/fights supervillains by night. Visit his Facebook to learn more about his writing.

Thanks so much to Jeff for stopping by In The Next Room! Evil Eye sounds like a charming and scary novel perfect for middle grade readers.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Shine by Lauren Myracle

Shine by Lauren Myracle is definitely one of the most powerful books I've read in 2012, if not ever, but somehow it's been waiting to be reviewed for nearly four months. I guess somewhere in there I started a PhD– but that's no excuse. This is an incredibly novel that deserves to be shared, and I'm happy I'm finally going to do that.

In Shine, sixteen-year-old Cat's former best friend Patrick is the victim of a horrible hate crime. As he's left fighting for his life, it seems the small town police in Black Creek aren't doing much to find the person responsible, because Patrick was gay.  Cat sets out to find his attacker herself, but she has her own trauma from years ago that still haunts her. Cat and Patrick's stories are intertwined in an incredibly dark novel about intolerance and secrets.

It is definitely the mystery of Shine that first pulled me in, I desperately wanted to know who Patrick's attacker(s) were. But I was kept reading by the power and strength of Myracle's writing. This is the first book I've read by her, but it definitely won't be the last. Myracle tackles real and serious issues with thoughtfulness and realism. Black Creek comes alive, and so do the people living there. They are complicated and damaged, and they don't always realize the consequences of their actions. But the reader does, and that's what makes it so painful to read.

Last year, Shine was accidentally nominated for a National Book Award, and then un-nominated (read Myracle's thoughts here). There was a lot of outrage at the time about how much Shine deserved to be on that list. Granted, I haven't read the other books on the list, but I absolutely believe Shine should have made the list. It's a novel with an important and powerful message, but instead of being preachy, it's truly about the characters. There are probably some minor faults, in particular a small romantic subplot that didn't feel necessary and often seemed awkward in the context of an otherwise profound story.

However, ultimately, Lauren Myracle has written a strong and beautiful novel that is dark and truthful with its characters and messages. Nearly four months after I read it, Shine stays with me, and I expect it will for a long time to come. Not only is this a book I highly recommend, I think it's an incredibly important addition to high school libraries and it certainly belongs on all their shelves. If you haven't picked it up, you are missing out.

Release Date: May 1st 2011  Pages: 350  Format: Hardcover 
Source: Publisher  Publisher: Abrams Buy It: Book Depository

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Meghan Review: The Round House by Louise Erdrich

In the hauntingly lyrical The Round House, Louise Erdrich weaves an intricate story about the social and legal ramifications when a horrific rape is perpetrated on a Native American reservation. Told through the eyes of thirteen year old narrator Joe, the son of the raped woman Geraldine, Erdrich explores the effects of the rape upon the young boy, his family, and the entire community of the reservation.

One of Erdrich’s greatest strengths is her superb ability to create believable and multi-layered characters with complex motivations. Joe astounded me with his realness; it felt like he was breathing right there on the page! Because he is the lens through which the reader explores this world, the strength of his voice (simultaneously innocent and knowledgeable) makes the novel stand strong. His love and loyalty for his mother Geraldine is mirrored in his close relationship with his father. After her rape, Geraldine spirals into an almost catatonic depression, and Joe and his father struggle to maintain the fabric of their family unit. The poignant love between father and son and their difficulties in running a household without Geraldine are illustrated in the details, such as the slowly blackening rotten casserole in the back of their fridge or their fragile efforts at dinner conversation. Joe’s hunger for justice and his search for clues that will lead him to his mother’s rapist are melded with a vivid description of reservation life. By giving the reader a vivid and gorgeous natural setting accompanied by great supporting characters, Erdrich emphasizes the complexities of the relationships on the reservation.

Though this is a fictional story, The Round House deals with real legal problems still surrounding tribal and state jurisdictions over Native American land. Each piece of land on the reservation has a different jurisdiction, so when a crime (especially something as complicated and emotionally charged as a rape) occurs, law officials aren’t sure how to try the crime locally, or if they are even able to do so if it falls under federal territory. Joe’s story is the story of so many children of Native American mothers who have suffered terrible abuse or assault, often at the hands of non-Native men. By making this problem specific and grounded it in the experience of one boy’s coming-of-age, Erdrich has created a novel that is socially powerful, emotionally moving, and a masterpiece of literature.

Recommended to: people who love a good bildungsroman (think To Kill a Mockingbird, but more gritty), anyone curious about legality/judicial issues on Native American land, fans of crime thrillers with unlikely detectives, lovers of familial epics focused around a young narrator (The Secret Life of Bees-esque)

Release Date: October 2nd 2012  Pages: 336  Format: ARC
Source: TLC Book Tours  Publisher: Harper Collins  Buy It: Book Depository

This is a review by Meghan. You can find her here on Goodreads or on Twitter @meghanc303

Monday, November 12, 2012

Author Guest Post: Tatjana Soli

The Second First Novel

Readers can be forgiven for believing that books are published easily, that authors take a grand view of the world around them, choose a subject — mix and bake — and two years later a beautiful new book appears. The reality, like life, is always much messier and more complicated.

I’d devoted a good six years off-and-on to writing my first novel, The Lotus Eaters, about a photojournalist in Vietnam. The book had been roundly rejected, and my agent told me none too gently (he’s of the tough-love school) that I needed to move on and write something new. I was in mourning. The first lines in The Forgetting Tree are Octavio’s, but to a much lesser extent my own feelings of loss at the time were mirrored in his.
But he also was in mourning for the missing boy. Did they not see?
What I did during this difficult period in my life is the same thing I do almost every day when home — take long walks in the regional park where I live. When I first moved to this area in Southern California, one could walk through orange, avocado, and eucalyptus groves and rarely run into another person. It was incredibly beautiful and peaceful except that over the years it began to change. A eucalyptus grove on top of a hill where we used to picnic is now a gated, luxury development where we can no longer walk. The flat, sandy bed where my puppy loved to run is now paved road. One of the most painful sights that I can remember was driving past bulldozers tearing out orange trees. This scene found its way into the book:
Each tree was an individual, with a personality, and this treatment seemed a desecration of nature. When the trees were dead… bulldozers came and tore their roots from the earth, piling them into big heap from where they were trucked away to be shredded for compost.
One of my favorite writers, J.M. Coetzee, writes, “To imagine the unimaginable” is the writer’s duty. Novels grow from complex root systems. I don’t know what the turning point was, but during those walks in the groves the story of the Baumsarg ranch, and the struggle of its owner, Claire, against the dark forces that confronted her began to form in my mind. Hers was a family torn apart by tragedy and time. The crown jewel, though, was Minna, who appeared to me like the Indian god Shiva, both creator and destroyer, concealer and revealer, ultimately unknowable. At this stage these were all simply pieces that would take months to put together into a story, but they captured my imagination.
The tree had not resurrected — rather, its life was simply hidden to the eye, beating deep in the soil, trembling within the roots hairs, in sap, wood, and bark.
So I wrote my “second” first novel not with the idea of an audience, or the idea of it being published, but because the story burned inside me, and the writing of it was the thing that fulfilled me as a writer. As I finished a first draft of this book about Claire and her search for redemption, I got the surprise call of my life that my first novel had sold. Was I ecstatic? Of course. But I had already proved to myself that even during the most fallow times, story could appear mysteriously. What made one a writer ultimately was the daily laying of those words on the page.

Tatjana Soli is a novelist and short story writer. Her bestselling debut novel, THE LOTUS EATERS, winner of the James Tait Black Prize, was a New York Times Notable Book, and finalist for the LA Times Book Award, among other honors. Visit her website, http://www.tatjanasoli.com/index.html to learn more about her two novels.

Thanks so much to Tatjana for stopping by In The Next Room again!  A review of her debut novel, The Lotus Eaters, can be found on In The Next Room here. Her guest post on Writing Near History can be found here. A review of her second novel, The Forgetting Tree, can be found on In The Next Room here.

Tuesday, November 06, 2012

Meghan Review: And Now We Shall Do Manly Things by Craig J. Heimbuch

And Now We Shall Do Manly Things by Craig J. Heimbuch is a funny, quirky, and often extremely touching memoir of one man’s attempt to “discover his manhood through the great (and not-so-great) American hunt.” Heimbuch, as both author and narrator, imbibes his story with hilarious childhood anecdotes and reflections on his youth in the Midwest. He excels at creating character in just a few sentences, and he makes every person—whether it is his dear old dad or the man selling coffee at the gas station—unique and believable.

One of Heimbuch’s largest strengths is this ability to poke fun at humanity, without ever actually demeaning the people involved. His writing is a commentary on the whole human race, the hunting tradition, and his own nature, which makes it so much more funny and relatable. One of my favorite parts of the memoir was when Heimbuch discussed his affinity for the situationally appropriate “gear,” and reflects on his ill-fated attempt to introduce nylon parachute pants as a fashion statement back in school.

Much like Bill Bryson in style, Heimbuch managed to keep me (an ignorant non-hunter through and through!) engaged throughout the memoir. Though appropriately peppered with hunting jargon and terms I still don’t quite know if I grasp, the memoir maintained its firm perspective of another ignorant inductee to the hunting world, which really helped me from getting lost. Heimbuch also excels at sweeping reflections of the nature all around him. My current home is the Midwest, so I was especially able to appreciate his characterization of the landscape and his attention to place and environment.

Recommended to: the hunting enthusiast, the lover/sibling/friend/parent of the hunting enthusiast, Bill Bryson fans, and anyone who used to imagine being Daniel Boone when they were kids.

Release Date: October 30th 2012  Pages: 336  Format: ARC
Source: TLC Book Tours  Publisher: Harper Collins  Buy It: Book Depository

This is a review by Meghan. You can find her here on Goodreads or on Twitter @meghanc303