Posts Tagged ‘books’

Deep Revision

Thursday, December 15th, 2016

tea_poptarts_revision

The year continues to challenge me, emotionally and physically and ideologically. I’ve learned a lot about open-mindedness, humility, empathy, strength, and endurance. And this is a writing blog and so I will talk about writing. Or the not writing.

I received feedback on Draft #2! And one of the few constants in the past couple months is the time I’ve spent compiling that feedback into a series of documents.

1) A scribbly hard copy: A compilation of everyone’s notes/typo corrections/stylistic changes onto a single paper manuscript.

2) The Hit List: A running list of Big Edits and changes that need to be made.

3) The Chapter-by-Chapter Revision Spreadsheet of Doom: An excel spreadsheet with chapter summaries and the Big Edits/nitty gritty edits that need to be made to each chapter, along with the new characters and ideas introduced.

I think I’ve spent enough time collating and collaborating and cogitating and I need to actually crack open the Scrivener project file and start implementing. Eep. *bites into another chocolate bar*

Most of the feedback has been both enthusiastic and helpful. Some of it is big questions that can be answered simply – the addition or deletion of a sentence that clarifies something, for example. Some of it is big questions that need big thinking. One of the problems I’ve struggled with from the beginning is my protagonist’s motivation in the opening chapters. One reader narrowed it down to the question: “Why today?” Why does she choose to follow a stranger on a wild adventure? What does that stranger offer that fills some lack in the protagonist’s life?  So I’ve been doing some deep thinking. I’m not sure I’m totally there yet on some of this. In a strange infinite-feebback-loop kind of way, I find I do my best writing while… I’m… writing? Meaning once I am hip deep in the story, I can think more clearly about how to implement the changes that I know need to be made and untangle it on the page rather than just in my head. Because the writing is never as glittery-sparkle-diamond as it is in a writer’s mind.

(Trust me, every writer has written a perfect book. It’s shelved upstairs.)

But life has been throwing up obstacles, as usual, both positive and negative. I haven’t written in months. I’ve thought, I’ve collated, I’ve packed books, I’ve unpacked books, and I’ve read an enormous amount (midnight nursing sessions + smartphone + downloaded library ebooks = more reading time than I’ve had in a year). Soon, now, I’ll need to put fingers to keyboard and write again. REVISE. Bring out the scalpel and the needle and cut and stitch this draft into something new.

But it feels close. Closer. Soon.

 

Ps. I’m teaching another event building workshop in March! Stay tuned for details.

Pps. What books have I been reading you ask?

Old favorites:
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep by Philip K. Dick
Enchanted Forest Chronicles by Patricia C. Wrede (Morwen4Eva)

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Enjoyable new finds:
Delicious!
 by Ruth Reichl
Lady Astronaut of Mars by Mary Robinette Kowal

Highly recommend:
Zoo City by Lauren Beukes
The Liminal People by Ayize Jama-Everett
The True Meaning of Smekday by Adam Rex
Terry Pratchett’s Tiffany Aching books

 

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Context or Where Do the Ducks Go in Winter?

Monday, August 22nd, 2016

Used under creative commons.

Every couple of months or so, my twittersphere (which consists mainly of writers, agents, editors, and other bibliophiles) explodes because someone has written a new opinion piece about how Young Adult Literature Is Dumb And Ruins Everything. The latest one is on a website for teachers and claims:

“Several generations of teenagers, especially boys, have been effectively prevented from ever becoming literate adults by a publishing industry that has decided young adult readers have an insatiable appetite for what amounts to nothing more than gossip fodder, the endless recycling of petty anxieties and celebrity confessions that choke the pages of magazines placed strategically at the supermarket checkout.”

This inflammatory sentence is unfair on a number of levels. Since when does reading make you illiterate, regardless of the content? Since when does the introduction of more female protagonists detract from the male-reading experience? And imagine for a minute telling a teenager, male or female or otherwise, that their anxieties are “petty.” I’ll let you sit with that for a minute.

The article’s author is angry. Angry at what he sees is the denigration of literature. Set aside for the moment that one kind of writing doesn’t “destroy” another kind of writing merely by existing. But this man is a teacher; beneath the rage is a nugget of  clear-sighted honesty. He wants to make sure his students are still  “engaging with the thoughts and ideas of intelligent men and women who have important things to say, things which may even make that adult life, still some years off, a richer and a happier experience.”

A commendable goal. A goal, I would say, of writers and teachers and parents everywhere. But this goal isn’t the sole property of adult literature. But how do we prevent students from being alienated by adults telling them how to feel?

catcher-in-the-rye-2

When I was in tenth or eleventh grade, we had a student teacher in my honors English class who was incredibly earnest so of course, being teenagers, we gave him no quarter. He had to scrape for our attention, withstand frequent mocking and eye-rolls. I’m not proud of it. We were reading Catcher in the Rye and I remember that his book was full of little post-it flags. A student asked “what is that all about?” and he looked at us bewildered. “What,” he asked, “Don’t all of you flag your books?”

We thought he was ridiculous because he spent so much time focused on Holden Caulfield taking off his hat and putting it back on again. He kept pushing us to ask ourselves what Caulfield meant when he asked where ducks go in winter. We read The Great Gatsby and spent an inordinate amount of time on Daisy’s white dress. We read The Grapes of Wrath and were told the turtle was very important. None of us tried very hard in our answers. Basically, we were a classroom full of adolescents. We were being told that a turtle represented hardships and that ducks symbolized rebirth and it all sounded like a lot of hokum.

The student teacher was an adult with good intentions, trying to expand our young minds. Trying to teach us serious literature. Salinger and Fitzgerald and Steinbeck are considered real literature (note: written by white men, a topic for another post). Catcher in the Rye should have worked – it’s about a teenager, right? It’s a classic. But for the most part, it fell flat. Why?

I didn’t like Catcher in the Rye. I didn’t get Caulfield or his devil-may-care attitude, his frank disregard for the people around him and the life that had been handed to him. I didn’t get why I was supposed to like this book. Talk of red hunting hats and ducks made it feel even more silly. My husband harbors a lot of bitterness against his own high school English class experience. “How do the teachers know anything about what the author ‘intended’?” How does the teacher know that Salinger meant the ducks to symbolize rebirth? What if a duck is just a duck? He couldn’t connect to the classics he was supposed to read and appreciate; don’t even get him started on A Prayer for Owen Meany or Native Son.

This is where YA literature becomes very very important.

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In one of the recent episodes of the podcast Writing Excuses (which, my fellow writers, you should definitely be listening to), our merry band of writers discuss writing across genres – meaning writing books for kids versus teens versus adults. Author Mary Robinette Kowal gets to the heart of it:

 “One of the primary differences between a child audience and an adult audience is an adult audience has context. A child audience – elementary school and above—they are still learning about the world and so frequently you have to explain things a little bit more. They can’t make the leaps because they don’t have the experience yet.”

This is the key that unlocks both the frustration with the teenage experience of adult classics and the importance of young adult literature. To a high school student, Holden Caulfield’s hunting hat is just that… a hat. Meant to keep his head warm. Who says it’s anything more than that? But as adult readers, especially teachers and writers, we know that a book is as full of symbols as it is words. That what makes a book a meaningful classic is it’s layers beyond literal meaning.

As adult readers we’ve learned (and continue to learn) how to parse those layers and how to connect our own experiences to that of the book’s characters. But for teen readers parsing a book for adults, they often have to be told to look out for symbolism. They are still learning the language that a writer uses to communicate with her reader. To appreciate adult literature at the level an English class requires they have to be handed the tools to interpret a context that’s in many cases alien to them. Those tools feel stupid because teens are smart: how often does a symbol have just one meaning? Who says the English teacher knows what the author was thinking? But they are told this is how literature functions because they don’t yet have the context to draw out that meaning for themselves for books written by and for adults. A context that experienced adult readers take for granted.

Young adult literature, on the other hand, taps into the teenage experience and the context of teens’ lives, their present emotional landscape. I’m sure an argument can be made that there are classic novels that transcend time by speaking to universal teenage-themes but those books weren’t written for teens; they speak to adults who were once teens, who have, presumably, already had to cope with the storms of adolescence. They are told from a perspective of having been, not being. Which is why the first-person present tense is so common in YA literature – it’s immediate. Not from the distance of “I should have known better” but the “I am living this right now.”

And I don’t know about you but as a teen, life felt a bit like a soap opera or a tabloid. Dating and crushes and breaking up and peer pressure and sex and kissing and fluctuating friendships and drama drama drama. Whether it was in the hallways or school or at summer camp or behind-the-scenes in the theater club, someone was always making out with someone they weren’t supposed to. And harder things too: depression, divorce, body image issues, racism, prejudice, poverty, drugs, suicide. For many students this time in their life is their first encounter with difficult lessons. So teenagers being drawn to stories that seem overly dramatic to adults? Makes sense to me.

NeilGaimanQuote_ChrisRiddell

Using literature written for teenagers as a bridge to literature written for adults seems like a no brainer. Sure, not every YA book is worth taking apart in a high school English classroom – neither is every adult book – but that doesn’t mean those stories are any less important in developing a reader’s sense of context. Whatever it takes to get someone reading – books about vampires or aliens or romance or graphic novels or comic books or whatever other currently maligned genre – is someone’s open door. I can’t tell you how many parents would come into the bookstore looking for the book that would open up their young “reluctant reader” to the world of reading. I always assured them: we just have to find the right story to be the key.

There is wonderful YA literature out there right now; stories that are nuanced and layered while still speaking to teen readers. Many school districts and teachers appreciate this and have wide and varied reading lists. I’m not saying eliminate classic books from the English curriculum. Novels written for adults are an important part of teen’s reading education too – they challenge, they shock, they introduce new ideas. But reading is a continuum. Allow students to explore themes relevant to them in books written for them. Show them the bones and symbols of storytelling within the context of their own stories. Then introduce them to Catcher in the Rye and ask: how about them ducks?

Image Sources:
• “Flying V Ducks Close” by David Spinks, used under creative commons
• Neil Gaiman quote from Chris Riddell’s Sketchbook

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Wild Summer Days

Tuesday, August 16th, 2016

lake

My summer has been a wild one and I’ve been having trouble getting my feet under me. It has literally involved a birth, a death, visiting family, unpredictable illnesses, and the slow climb back to health. Despite how much I enjoy the summer months and hot weather, I’ve spent most of my time indoors. I haven’t done much writing this summer (I hadn’t planned to) with the exception of a poem for my sister. I’ve managed to read half a dozen books, including Max Gladstone’s Two Serpent’s Rise and Angélica Gorodischer’s Kalpa Imperial: The Greatest Empire that Never Was (as translated by Ursula Le Guin). My garden is a wild place full of bolted lettuces, overgrown rhubarb, weeds, and herbs run rampant. My preschooler is the only one who’s been harvesting anything: handfuls of fresh mint and sage that she eats on the back steps. I have drunk gallons of iced tea and am not ashamed in the least.

I’m a new parent for the second time. There’s a fullness and an emptiness to the early days of parenting. The days are long and full of needs – hunger, discomfort, boredom, exhaustion – but it feels impossible to meet them all, for yourself or your child. There is so much to do coupled with vast swaths of time just… waiting: for the baby to wake up or fall asleep or finish eating. You need space and you need support. This time around I pressed down my misplaced pride and accepted as much help as possible with an open heart. I’m grateful for all the extra hands and frozen dinners and chances to nap. I’m grateful that the pieces of our life that have slowly been taken apart this summer are finally coming together again in a new shape.

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Now I look down the long lane of the autumn months and the spice of anticipation is mixed with the dread of not knowing how to get back into the rhythm of the work. I’ll be meeting with my beta readers at the beginning of September to get feedback on The Ghost Story project and then will tackle Draft 3. I’ll be teaching a workshop on author events at the Writer’s Loft in October. I want to reconnect with the world of books and writers. I want to write book reviews and blog posts. But after a summer that has fluctuated so wildly between overwhelming and tedious and with an autumn where I’ve committed to caring for my newborn along side my third draft, I feel as if I’m starting from scratch. How can I ensure we’re all getting enough sleep and sunshine and creative time?

It comes down to re-aligning expectations. Taking care of a baby while trying to edit a novel is going to change the way I need to structure my days, both as a writer and a parent. I won’t have the luxury of dawdling on social media or watching TV during naps – I’ll need to be working. If I want to have this project polished enough to submit to agents by the end of the spring, I’ll need to find the time to write — and if I can’t find the time, I’ll need to make it. And I’ll also need to forgive myself over and over again for missteps as I rediscover balance.

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100 word review:
All The Birds in the Sky

Thursday, May 26th, 2016

This is part of a series of 100 word book reviews

AlltheBirds

All the Birds in the Sky by Charlie Jane Anders
Published by Tor Books, January 2016
checked out of the library
Read in May 2016

Target audience: Young Adult, Adult

Outcasts Patricia and Laurence became unlikely childhood friends despite asking different questions – Is magic real? Can technology save the world? When they reconnect years later after a long estrangement, it looks like they’ve both found what they wanted… but the world has other plans. Quirky, intimate, modern, and compassionate, Birds blends magical realism and futurism to mirror the connections and conflicts between nature and technology. Anders does a remarkable job of making large problems personal and personal problems earth shattering. She never takes her storytelling too seriously but uses a deft hand to reveal character details without overburdening her writing.

Should I read it? Definitely. Highly recommended for fans of The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern, The Young Wizards series by Diane Duane, and The Magicians trilogy by Lev Grossman.

 

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Workshop, Readercon, Updates, oh my!

Thursday, July 16th, 2015

Allison PH flyer final

  1. What are you up to? First off, I want to let you all know that I am giving a presentation. on marketing books to bookstores. Yes! Me! Being knowledgable on a topic in front of a large group of people! It’s on July 22nd at The Writer’s Loft in Sherborn, MA. There will be snacks, a powerpoint, and yours truly. I know I’m looking forward to it and I hope you are too. Apologies if you feel bombarded about this through my social media but I know there are many things that vie for our attention these days.
  2. I haven’t used Powerpoint to make a presentation in over a decade. So this should be interesting.
  3. NicolaThis past weekend I attended my first ever fan convention in the form of Readercon. It was fascinating. I have things to say but that is another post entirely. In summary: books are wonderful. So is writing inclusive + informed narratives and Nicola Griffith (who is even more wonderful in person than on the page, if that’s possible).
  4. How’s the writing going? You may recall that I had given myself the arbitrary deadline of May 31st to be done with Draft #1 of The Ghost Story. Alas, while I am only 3,800 words away from my 100k word count goal, I am about seven chapters, or approximately 30 – 35k words away from the actual end of the book. I know this because last week I had a “hot coal” moment and outlined the last third of the book. This is fairly remarkable because I’ve considered myself what is known as a “pantser” or a writer who “flies by the seat of her pants” but it seems my pants have flown away and left me with some semblance of a plot so there you go. My new goal is to be done with draft one by the end of the summer.
  5. How does that feel? I’m okay with the continued work and with the first draft wrapping up at 135,000 words. There are chapters-worth of words I already know will be cut. My writing/logic process re: plotting (with or without pants): “How can I make xyz happen here? Oh well, it’d be so much easier if Character already knew about abc. OH OH OH, if I just re-write chapters 4 and 5 then chapter 14 will work!” No idea if this proper form or if it will come back to bite me in subsequent drafts, but it’s sort of working so damn it, someone hand me a chocolate bar.
  6. What’s taking you so long? Well, well, impatient aren’t we! I’ve been somewhat stymied in my fervent attempts to write because an old RSI (repetitive stress injury) in my wrist has flared up again making extended time at the keyboard incredibly frustrating and painful. There’s also been Family and Travel and whatnot so summertime has been a slow time for writing.
  7. What have you been reading? Kelly Link’s Get in Trouble; Jeff Vandermeer’s Southern Reach trilogy; Roxanne Gay’s Bad Feminist; Mary Roach’s Spook (which I am totally counting as research)
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Vacationing with Books

Tuesday, April 21st, 2015

I may not like packing for vacations – it always takes me forever and I always forget something critical like sunscreen or socks – but I do like carefully curating my Books To Read on Vacation selections. I have to assess how many free hours I will have to read; determine the proper balance of genres; evaluate which books are too heavy to travel; decide which books hit the right tone for my destination.

The last vacation I went on was to sunny Florida. I spent several wonderful days desperately trying to soak in as much warmth and Vitamin D to make up for the years and years I’ve been snow- and cold-bound this winter. And reading. In the sun. With a glass of iced tea. Slice of heaven.

The books I selected to bring were: The Chance You Won’t Return by Annie Cardi (realistic YA), A Visit from the Goon Squad (literary adult), The Stars My Destination by Alfred Bester (classic sci-fi), and Snuff by Terry Pratchett (satirical fantasy). You can see what I did there – a smorgasbord of stories, nothing too dark but works with some meat and interest. Alas, I didn’t get to Snuff this time around but I did get to read the other three.

This is part of a series of 100 Word Book Reviews.

chance you won't returnThe Chance You Won’t Return
by Annie Cardi
Published by Candlewick
received as a galley
Read in March 2015
Target Audience: Young Adult

Full-disclosure: Annie and I were actually suitemates/classmates at Young Writers Workshop at UVA in 2001 and only recently rediscovered each other. We’ve since met for coffee and conversation and she is a lovely (and highly entertaining) person. I assure you none of this has anything to do with my assessment of her book. But frankly, her book is as lovely as she is.

On the surface, Alex’s problems seem typical: drivers ed and a new love interest. Instead, she’s hiding the secret of her mother’s dissolution into an alternate identity: Amelia Earhart. The story is tightly written with carefully, emerging tension: we follow Alex as her fraught relationship with her mother twists into something both distancing and tender. I found it especially refreshing that the romance in the story was an added layer of conflict, but not the focus. Cardi writes with humor and a light touch, even when the topic is serious and destructive for the main character.

Should I read it? Yes. Annie Cardi has a way with characters that will draw you in. They are complex and interesting and most of all, heartfelt. I am looking forward to her next work!

9780307477477A Visit from the Goon Squad
by Jennifer Egan
Published by Knopf (Random House)
passed along from my mother
Read in March 2015
Target Audience: Adult

My mother described this book as “weird” with a wrinkle of her nose but it’s the kind of weird I love. Each chapter closely follows a different character’s story. Sometimes they seem barely connected, but ultimately they spiral and build on one another. The characters revolve around the double helix of music and time, examining the rise and fall of the music industry. Egan’s writing is dark and tongue-in-cheek, as are her characters. She paints them brilliantly in just a few strokes and makes you care, even as she eases you out of one life and into the next.

Should I read it? Definitely. It’s not for everyone, but there’s a reason it won the Pulitzer. I love books that break the novel form open to see what hatches. In this case, something beautiful and wonderous.

starsmydestinationThe Stars My Destination
by Alfred Bester
Published by Vintage (Random House)
purchased – Wellesley Free Library book sale
Read in April 2015
Target Audience: Adult

Alfred Bester is a classic science fiction author and this book had been on my to-read list for a long time. It’s the story of Gully Foyle, a brute of a man wronged by fate and turned viciously vengeful. It had strong tones of Philip K. Dick – psychics, telepathic teleportation, grand conspiracy, and elaborate and fanciful tech. The book explores the darkness of human nature, both physically and psychically. It wasn’t totally my cup of tea – aside from Gully, the characters felt flat and the ending “twist” felt muddy – but it was interesting to see the root of so many SF tropes

Should I read it? Meh. If you enjoy classic SF from the 1950’s or are rounding out your reading in science fiction canon, then reading Bester is a must, though I might go with The Demolished Man.

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How to Host a Book Swap

Monday, September 29th, 2014

Book Swap n. — an event wherein one invites guests to exchange books.book swap books ya

  1. Realize that your bookshelves, nightstand, floor beside your bed, tables, and kitchen counters are covered in books and that many of said books are ones you’ve owned for years but will probably never read.
  2. Realize you may still have a box of books from the last book swap you hosted FIVE YEARS AGO that you haven’t looked at since. Oops.
  3. Pick a date and invite all your book-loving friends. This may include: book club buddies, fellow readers, writers, publishing folks, etc.
  4. Begin the Great Book Purge by sorting all your books into ungainly piles and unruly categories such as Keep And Shelve In Bedroom or Sci-Fi with Realistic Twist or Books For Swapping But Only if [Insert Friend] Is Coming or Who The Hell Would Actually Read This?
  5. Carry books up and downstairs, shelving and re-shelving, reassuring your family that the chaos will make sense eventually.
  6. Refuse to put any cookbooks in the To Swap pile.
  7. Realize you may own as many teacups as you do books.
  8. Decide “There must be food!” and make it an optional potluck. Bake some apple bread. Put together these wraps. Make this pasta salad (but with parsley and tortellini. Or you know, however you like)
  9. Realize that “Book Swap” really means “Please come and take my books. TAKE THEM” because you have five bags of books to “swap.”
  10. Make all kinds of plans for fancy DIY book-themed decorations like these. If you’re actually crafty go ahead and accomplish some. If you’re like me, cut some hydrangeas from the front yard, put them in a mason jar, set them next to some tiny pumpkins and call it a “center piece.”
  11. The day of Book Swap has arrived! Have friends come over bearing books and food! Everyone eats a lot, talks a lot, and leaves with many books (but not enough). Only select a tiny stack to keep for yourself. WP_20140929_13_27_53_Pro
  12. Mostly forget to take pictures. Whoops.
  13. Donate and/or sell remaining books (of which there may be more than when you started).*

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*Many of the books I pulled from my shelves are actually galleys, also known as Advanced Reader Copies. These are pre-printings of books that publishers send out (or give out) to booksellers, book bloggers, book reviewers etc. to generate buzz around new titles before the book is released and have publicity ready for the launch of a book. What it also means is that they are “uncorrected proofs” and are not meant to be re-sold. These galleys/ARCs should be donated to hospitals, schools, detention centers, etc. I plan to donate actual books to my local library and to More Than Words. And I may save a few to sell to the used book room at Wellesley Books.

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100 word review:
This Side of Salvation

Thursday, September 11th, 2014

This is part of a series of 100 word book reviews.
sideofsalvation

This Side of Salvation by Jeri Smith-Ready
Published by Simon Pulse
received as a galley
Read in August 2014

Target Audience: Young Adult

What if you discovered your parents appeared to have been taken up in The Rapture (or in this case, The Rush), leaving you behind? So hinges Smith-Ready’s complex book for teens that tackles hefty themes (faith, love, grief) with a gentle touch. The dialogue is sharp and spot-on, balancing darker moments with wit and humor. The last quarter of the book slumped a bit for me, as if the author wasn’t sure what to do after the pieces of the mystery fall into place. Ultimately this story isn’t about religion, rebellion, or sacrifice; it’s about the resiliency of family.

Should I read it? Yes. I get the sense that Smith-Ready is just going to keep getting better. Don’t let the religion bit turn you off – it’s another dimension to the story, not the only one. I was pleasantly impressed by this book.

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100 word review:
The Girl Who Fell Beneath Fairyland…

Wednesday, September 10th, 2014

This is part of a series of 100 word book reviews.

GirlWhoFell

The Girl Who Fell Beneath Fairyland and Led the Revels There
by Catherynne M. Valente

Published by Feiwel & Friends/Macmillan
purchased at World Eye Bookshop in Greenfield, MA
Read in July 2014
Target audience: Middle grade, Young Adult, Young At Heart

Once again, a lush and intricate book for young readers. September is growing up and learning that hearts are fickle things. When she makes her way back to Fairyland, she finds herself drawn to Fairyland Below where her wayward shadow is making merry and wreaking havoc. The shadows embody the parts of people that they keep hidden, the “sometimes wicked and unkind parts, but often brave or wild or colorful parts, cunning or powerful or even marvelous, beautiful parts.” Valente’s language is spell-binding and there seems to be no limit to Fairyland nor her imagination.

Should I read it? Why yes, but this is a sequel so I would definitely go about reading The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making first, as you will get more out of it and then proceed straightaway to read The Girl who Soared Over Fairyland and Cut the Moon in Two. This series is perfect for young and old dreamers alike who are always peeking inside wardrobes and broom closets seeking grand adventures.

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A little plug for bookstores, inspired by this purchase: I want to remind readers that bookstores, like World Eye Bookshop, can special order most titles for you, as long as they are in print, just as well as an online retailer. That is, if it’s not something they have on the shelves at the moment (instant gratification!). Many stores also do shipping. Either way, it’s a nice way to support stores in your community (or in the community of someone you are gifting).

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100 word review:
A Constellation of Vital Phenomena

Thursday, September 4th, 2014

This is part of a series of 100 word book reviews

VitalPhenomena

A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra
Published by Hogarth (Random House)
Read in July 2014
purchased at the Friends of Wellesley Free Library book sale

War-scarred Chechnya becomes a character all it’s own in Marra’s novel as his story weaves through the country’s history and geography. Following several otherwise unremarkable characters, the lyrical story unfolds of an incompetent doctor-cum-portraitist trying to save the life of his neighbor’s young daughter. But it’s more than that. It’s the story of aborted futures; of family, both blood and built; of the grip of history, fear, and loyalty. Marra has a beautiful, delicate touch with language. The book is intense, but the author balances the tone nicely with touches of humor and yes, even small glimmers of hope.

Should I read it? Yes. It is unlike anything I have read recently and harkened back to a period when I read a rush of Booker-prize/nominated books. A Constellation of Vital Phenomena reminded me of those books with it’s character driven narrative, close integration of history, and eloquent language.

Trigger warning: This book contains visceral descriptions of torture and kidnapping (one chapter in particular).

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