Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Eight best books of 2013

My favorite books of 2013 highlight the diversity of my reading this past year. Not all of them are THE BEST BOOKS I EVER READ OMG! types, but all of them were wonderful, thought-provoking reads that I'd happily recommend. Actually, I already have. My students got a sneak peek at this list before they left for winter break.

In the order I read them, here's the best books of 2013:

1. The Rook by Daniel O'Malley (my review here)
2. The Broken Lands by Kate Milford (my review here)
3. The Penderwicks on Gardam Street and The Penderwicks at Pointe Mouette by Jeanne Birdsall (my very brief review here)
4. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot (my review here)
5. The Berlin Boxing Club by Robert Sharenow (Unfortunately, my only review comes from Twitter!):
6. Fat Kid Rules the World by K. L. Going (my review here)
7. The Earth, My Butt, and Other Big Round Things by Carolyn Mackler (my review here)
8. Orleans by Sherri L. Smith (my review here)

And because I love stats, that's...

1 Dystopian / Futuristic
3 Contemporary Realistic
1 Non-Fiction / Historical
2 Fantasy
2 Historical Fiction
2 Adult
3 Authors or main characters of color
2 Middle Grade
4 Young Adult

Click here to read the statistics on all of my 2013 reading.

And while there's a lot of diversity in this list, there's one thing most of these books have in common: incredible settings, from London (The Rook), to Brooklyn (The Broken Lands), to Berlin (The Berlin Boxing Club), to a futuristic New Orleans (Orleans).

I feel I should offer a quick note about The Penderwicks... I discovered these books two years ago, after a friend who didn't get on with them handed me the first one, and ever since I've been savoring them one by one. I kept avoiding reviewing them, or talking much about them, because on the surface they seem so simple. They remind me a lot of books I read as a child. But finally, upon reading Point Mouette, I couldn't keep quiet any longer. These books are AMAZING, so sweet, happy, and comforting, perfect for either a sick day or a summer day, or anytime really.

What are your best reads of 2013?

Oh, and I don't know when I'll be back on the blog, so Merry Christmas to those who celebrate and a very happy 2014!

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Reading Stats for 2013

Sorry for the lack of posting as of late. I haven't had much free time, and the bit I can garner, I try to use to work on my novel. But I couldn't miss my year end book blogging traditions!

For several years now, I've been keeping track of every book I read. I note the date I finished it, the title, the author, and a few other little details, like the type of book (audiobook, graphic novel, etc), whether I know the author, if the book was a DNF (did not finish) and why, if the author or main character is a person of color (PoC), and if and when I've read the book before. It's a lot of information, and I love being able to look back over a year and see what I read. But it really does only take me a minute to do, and gives me a chance to reflect on a reading experience.

When I started my new middle school Language Arts job, I discovered my students have been required to keep reading logs. I brought in my journal, so they could see that some adults keep track of reading, too. My 9th period asked if I could pass it around, and the kids poured over my books and codes. But I had to explain to them that I'd been reading a lot less since I started working full time. I've also been finishing far fewer books, and becoming even more impatient (who knew that was possible?!) in my limited time. But the good news is, throughout this year, and especially with the new job and numerous kid recommendations, I've been trying lots of different things: more adult fiction, more non-fiction, more bestsellers, more middle grade... one of my favorite books of the year is in a genre I hardly ever read: dystopian (well, sort of, it's got a near-future setting but it isn't a utopia gone bad. But still!).  

Anyway, enough talk! Here's my stats for 2013:

Total Books Attempted: 100 (yay for clean numbers!)
Total Books Read: 54
DNFs (Did Not Finish): 46
Some of my reasons for DNFs: "Bored, not scared, didn't care," "Read 1/2, slow plot, never engaged," "No bite," "Bored, no good characters," "No driving plot," "So cliche!" "Poor writing and long!" "Almost halfway, nice writing, but nothing happening."
Middle Grade: 38 (attempted)
Young Adult: 41 (attempted)
Adult: 18 (attempted)
Person of Color: 24 (attempted)

That's the most PoC books I've EVER read in a year! I'm just shy of 25%! I feel like I discovered a lot of good ones this year, too. See my diversity tag for all the PoC books I blogged about. Being back in the US, where there's more diversity in publishing, helped as well.

I also read a lot more Middle Grade books this year. Probably thanks in part to working on two middle grade novels this year, as well as working in a middle school. I'm also pleased with that number for adult books. Could I finally be growing up? Nah!

You can check out my previous stats here: 2010, 2011, 2012.  And next week I'll be sharing my eight favorite reads of 2013.

Thursday, November 28, 2013

Thankful

Sorry for the long hiatus. The return to teaching full time has been even more challenging than I anticipated. But also really fun (sometimes). Anyway, I wanted to stop by briefly because it's Thanksgiving, and after living abroad five years, and away from home even longer (wherever home even is), Thanksgiving has become kind of a big deal. And a good chance to remember all that I'm thankful for.

I'm thankful for company this Thanksgiving, new friends and old.

I'm thankful school is getting easier as I get to know all the kids' names, understand the district's expectations, and figure out I'm working with some really incredible, helpful, and dedicated people.

I'm also thankful for a four day weekend.

I'm thankful for a good book (Zilpha Keatley Snyder's The Egypt Game) to curl up with. I stumbled across it in my classroom library the other day, and remembered adoring it as a child. It's nearly as good on the re-read.

I'm thankful for Jake, the dog Phil and I adopted at the beginning of the month. He's been such a joy to come home to every day. And yes, that's him, strangely photogenic for this family!

I'm thankful for the amazingly astute and supportive writing group I've stumbled into in the Triangle area.

I'm also thankful for squeezing in a few minutes of writing time every week. I'm hoping to find a bit more in the coming weeks because I'm excited about where my currently project (Project Nameless?) is going.

And I'm thankful that Durham is beginning to feel a bit more like home.

What are you thankful for this season?

I hope and pray for all sorts of blessings in your lives, your writing, and your thanksgivings.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Letting go in life and writing

It should come as no surprise that I'm a bit of a control freak. And a little opinionated. Especially when it comes to kids and literature. So this past week, starting a new job as a middle school Language Arts teacher, has been full of ups and downs.

I've never encountered a curriculum, or even an educational philosophy, like the one at my new job. At first, I was purely bewildered. Then, as the week went on, I grew frustrated. I came home each evening railing about literature and kids and what's good for everyone involved. But when I finally hit Friday, I was feeling a bit more subdued. Maybe I don't know everything after all...

And while I haven't done any personal writing recently (don't worry, I'll get back to it! I just needed some time to fully devote to this job), I find myself thinking about how I might do this full-on control freak thing in my writing, too.

Lately, the words haven't been coming. I've worried I've lost interest in my new story, but anytime I re-read my notes, I'm as passionate as ever. I've worried I've plotted myself into a hole, but my brain is still bursting with ideas and work-arounds for every problem I encounter. Maybe I've been pushing myself too hard, worrying too much about conflict, character development, and perfection. What if, like with the job, I instead need to sit back, observe, and let my path become clearer rather than diving head-first into everything?

Easier said than done, of course, especially considering I spent the weekend on the coast, soaking up late-September sunshine and ocean breezes. Somehow I need to find a way to carry that beach mindset with me as the days grow shorter and darker.

I'll let you know how it goes.

Have you ever found letting go helped your writing? Your life?

*The picture is mine, one of my favorite "reflective" pictures from Santorini, Greece.*

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Life changes

Some of you are probably thinking, "Life changes?" But Anne, your life is all about changes! You just moved to North Carolina! And a year ago, from overseas to Massachusetts. True, but throughout all that, daily life has been pretty same-y. I've been writing a ton, as well as taking care of everything on the domestic front, and working or volunteering at schools a few days a week. I've had time to play in an orchestra, join reading groups, meet friends for coffee in the middle of the day, and occasionally travel around the world with my husband.

But last week I accepted a full-time Language Arts teaching position at a local middle school. I'm really looking forward to hanging out with kids full-time again, learning along with them, and passionately discussing books, writing, and words. Along with all the other things 13-year-olds find themselves getting up to. And I do think it was time for a change in my life, new challenges and hopefully successes. But obviously my daily life is about to undergo a giant shift.

I feel like I'm in a boat, watching the horizon change in front of my eyes, and madly trying to batten down the hatches, pull in the sails, and prepare for everything that's to come. But of course that's not possible. Rather, I should be enjoying the sea wind in my hair and settling down for a crazy ride.

I'm hoping to keep up with the blog, as well as the writing. But first I've got some maneuvering to do! Wish me luck!


*Picture belongs to me, taken on the deck of Bristol's S. S. Great Britain.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Diverse Reads: Orleans by Sherri L. Smith

Orleans has been on my radar since before it was published, right after I read and loved Sherri L. Smith's novel Flygirl. But I didn't exactly rush out and buy Orleans. As popular as the genre is, dystopian titles have never gotten me overly excited. They seem all doom and gloom, angst against a repressive government that's more of a strawman than a legitimate, believable threat.

In an absolutely chilling opening, Orleans turns all of that on its head.

It begins in 2004, with a lone trumpet player standing on top of the levee, watching a coming storm, daring it to do its worst. He won't leave New Orleans.

On the following page is a list, beginning with:

"August 29, 2005
Hurricane Katrina
Saffir-Simpson Category 3 at landfall
Casualties: 971; Survivors: 30,000"

 Then there's Hurricane Isaiah in 2014, followed by Lorenzo, Olga, Laura, and Paloma, each becoming worse and worse. The list ends with Hurricane Jesus in 2019:

"Category 6 at landfall,
based on new Saffir-Simpson Scale
Casualties: estimated 8,000;
Survivors: estimated below 10,000"

Next are government documents, describing the quarantine of the Gulf Coast as Delta Fever breaks out, then the "Declaration of Separation" as the United States becomes the Outer States.

Do I believe this is exactly what will happen to New Orleans? No. But having lived through those terrible days following Katrina, I can certainly imagine all sorts of grim possibilities. At this point, I was totally on board with Smith, whatever followed.

The next section of the novel (titled "After") begins with Fen, a teenage African American girl, part of a tribe of O Positives (or OPs). This is where the book slows down a bit, as Smith tries to catch her readers up on a society where due to Delta Fever, everything is based on blood, not race. I have to say, I read several paragraphs over again, trying to understand exactly what it meant to be an AB as opposed to an O-Neg. Thankfully, soon the story was careening through the Delta again, and in context everything started to make sense.

And what a crazy, fascinating world Smith has created, unlike anything I've read before. There's one computer in the whole city, working via foot pedal in the library, there's a church in an abandoned Super Saver, but most of the churches are places of sanctuary, hidden in treetops. There's thick jungles, swamps, tribes of Blood Hunters, The Rooftops, which is a grassy plain growing over city homes. Be light on your toes, though, because the ground isn't so stable, and underneath lurks deserted bedrooms and living rooms filled with mold and giant alligators.

And did I mention the non-stop action, and break-neck pace at which the story flies through these locations? Orleans received starred-reviews when it first came out, and I know The Booksmugglers reviewed it (Verdict: "Damn Near Perfection!") but otherwise I've heard so little about it. Why isn't everyone and their mother reading this book?!

I also loved Fen, who soon into the story has a newborn thrust upon her, when she's really not the mothering type. For the first several scrapes, Fen fantasizes about depositing the nuisance baby somewhere, either in relative safely, or in hopes of an easy death. But ultimately, she becomes desperate to get the child to the world outside Orleans, where the child can grow up safe from everything Fen knows and fears.

On the surface, race has nothing to do with this story. Race is dead, the scientists believe, because now everything depends on your tribe, which is determined by your blood type. But in order for her baby to have a chance, and maybe even the city as a whole, Fen bands together with a bumbling, white tourist / scientist from the Outer States. Ultimately, they'll be forced to trust each other with their lives.

I tried explaining this book (okay, gushing about this book) to a group of people, and found them looking at me like I was the most grim person on Earth. But it's that message of trusting in others different from ourselves, and a desperate hope that things can change (plus, of course, the crazy, fascinating world Smith has created) that meant I couldn't stop reading Orleans.

Now I'm out to snatch up every Smith title I can put my hands on...

How about you? Read anything amazing lately?

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Poking holes

I recently finished reading agent Donald Maass' writing how-to book, The Fire in Fiction. His challenging, even combative tone put me off at times, and worse, sometimes I truly couldn't figure out what he was trying to show in his numerous fiction excerpts. Perhaps I'm just not a devoted thriller reader (which made up the majority of his examples). But all that said, Maass' book has some excellent, thought-provoking exercises that still made it a worthwhile read.

And in Maass' chapter "Making the Impossible Real," I discovered one of my favorite exercises ever:

"List twenty reasons why in the real world this event would not occur. Who prevents it? Who stops it?"

Twenty reasons is a LOT of reasons. But when I gave the Doubting Thomas portion of my mind free reign, it was rather easy to question everything. Wouldn't the girl's parents call a lawyer? Wouldn't that boy be afraid the police would get involved? Surely this highly sophisticated businessman realizes his actions are illegal. Would he really push the situation that far?

My stories usually begin with a single scene, and I extrapolate from this scene who my characters are, how they got there, where they'll go from here. It's a difficult thing to step back and say, "Wait, would that scene even happen like that?"

It's downright upsetting, actually, stomach ache inducing. But of course, Maass' follow-up question invites the writer to figure out why the event, or some slightly different version of it, actually does happen. Rather than patching together explanations after the fact, I love that I'm starting my new story by poking holes in it, questioning everything, and making sure all my answers are believable (if not 100% plausible!).

It's a new frame of mind for me, but one I'm definitely packing front and center in my writer toolbox. 

Have you discovered any good writing how-to books or exercises lately?