Monthly Archives: October 2013

To Nano or not to Nano, that is the question…



November is almost here and you know what that means: National Novel Writing Month! I have participated in NaNoWriMo for the past few years, and managed to conjure up 50,000 words within the thirty-day deadline three times. I have accomplished this mainly by informing the kids they are on their own, neglecting all responsibilities not absolutely essential to the continued functioning of our household, and drinking approximately three times as much coffee as usual (i.e., a lot. Possibly too much.)

This year I am faced with an unprecedented dilemma. In the past I rarely had time to focus on writing, and cherished NaNoWriMo as a break from the routine, a way to carve out writing time otherwise unavailable to me. Since my youngest child started kindergarten, though, I’ve been writing almost every day. I have 200+ pages of a YA novel on my hard drive and I’ve been pushing hard to get it done before October 31. Partly just to GET IT DONE, but also because I would love to join in on the Nano fun starting November 1.

On the one hand, it might do me good to set my current manuscript aside and clear my head for a month. I could return to it with a critical eye and a relentless editorial scalpel. But there’s another part of me that feels like the clock is ticking relentlessly over my shoulder. I have a finished manuscript that I’d like to tinker with, maybe even try to self-publish. I have a second manuscript that needs a complete re-write. Both of these manuscripts started life as Nano novels. My current work-in-progress is the exception, a story I started on my own time and one that might turn into something someone somewhere would actually like to read–if and only if I finish it, edit it, etc.

So, to Nano or not to Nano? Should I spend that time pragmatically editing instead of starting from scratch on some idea I don’t even have yet? The truth is, I’d love to do that, because writing is so much easier than editing! I could write all day if I never had to look at it again!

For the next week, I’ll plug away at my work-in-progress and put all thoughts of cheating with other novels out of my head. I’m postponing any further decisions until midnight, October 31st. To be continued…


Category: Writing | Tags: , ,

Review: Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

AmericanahIn this extraordinary novel, Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie explores issues of race, class and identity by tracing the divergent paths of Ifemelu and Obinze. Ifemelu comes from a family of modest means; her attendance at the private school where she meets Obinze is the result of her father’s dreams for her future. Obinze has been raised by a single mother but never wanted for money; his dream is to go to America, the setting for the novels he reads and the movies he watches.

When Ifemelu has the chance to go to the United States to college, after completing three years at a Nigerian university constantly disrupted by strikes, she takes it at Obinze’s insistence. Only after she arrives to find her aunt, a doctor, working three jobs to make ends meet while she studies to pass her certification exams, does Ifemelu realize how hard it can be to survive and succeed in the land of dreams. She makes a terrible mistake in a moment of desperation, and ends up cutting off all contact with Obinze.

In the meantime, Obinze completes college but can’t obtain a visa to the United States, no matter how many times he applies. He ultimately attempts to overstay his visa in the United Kingdom, resulting in his ignominious return to his homeland and an unexpected change in his fortunes.

The author deftly weaves varying perspectives into the narrative while still allowing Ifumele and Obinze to exist and act as real, believable human beings with complex motivations. Ifumele, impulsive and sometimes prone to self-sabotage, speaks her mind without hesitation; her blog entries on race in America make for frank and fascinating reading. Obinze, calm and self-possessed, does things he’s not proud of in order to succeed in the word as it exists. He looks at the life he’s built and feels the weight of who he’s pretending to be, the distance between his daily existence and the dreams of his younger days.

Both Ifumele and Obinze interact with a wide array of vivid secondary characters, each offering a unique viewpoint. Some of the best moments of the book are at the dinner parties they attend separately, when, like the French hostess, I found myself smiling in amazement at the discussion taking place before my eyes. Because no one in polite society talks openly about these questions, it feels like eavesdropping to hear what even fictional characters have to say.

Ifumele isn’t perfect, and many attendees at a recent book group discussion found her unlikable. Yet I really enjoyed spending time in her head, watching her sort through the complex and confusing aspects of American identity, along for the ride as she returned to her homeland with the same critical eye she’d been applying to the US. Even when she was making startling mistakes or dumping a perfectly good guy for arbitrary reasons, Ifumele was never boring, and neither was this captivating book.

Genre: Lively, intelligent international fiction

Read it if: You would like to see the United States, the United Kingdom and Nigeria through a prism of varying perspectives while being thoroughly entertained, or you liked Chris Rock’s movie Good Hair.

Skip it if: You like your characters two-dimensional and your endings mess-free.

Movie-worthy: Could be great! I wanted a visual on many of the elements of the book (like the singer Obinze’s mom was supposed to look like) so I made this geeky Pinterest board: Still working on it!


Review: Heads in Beds by Jacob Tomsky

Heads in BedsOne of the most fascinating books I’ve ever read was Working by Studs Terkel, in which the author interviewed people from all walks of life about their jobs, how they had ended up doing whatever they were doing, and how it made them feel. In Heads in Beds, author and front desk aficionado Jacob Tomsky has created a memoir of his working life in the world of hospitality, a hilarious, profanity-laced and sometimes shocking glimpse behind the facade of luxury hotels.

Throughout the book, Tomsky offers tips to the hotel guest on how to get an upgrade, avoid being “walked” to another hotel due to overbooking, and generally get better service. While that is a brilliant hook, the book succeeds mainly because of its vivid depiction of the cast of characters he’s worked with over the years, from his fellow valets teaching a newbie to drive stick on a customer’s car, to the intensely loyal New York bellman who comes through for Tomsky when he hits a rough patch. The author has a knack for capturing personality and dialogue in his descriptions of coworkers, hotel guests and demanding roommates, and his comparisons of the working cultures of New Orleans and New York make for entertaining reading.

Tomsky majored in philosophy and sometimes seems genuinely surprised at the course his working life has taken, beginning with his stint as a valet parking attendant at a hotel in New Orleans. More than once over the years, the author takes his savings and makes an attempt to escape the hospitality industry’s gravitational field, only to be drawn back in by the money and the fact that he can instantly find work. His adaptability and the joy he takes in providing excellent customer service make it clear why he’s so good at what he does; his slight problem with authority makes it clear why he occasionally runs into trouble. Personally, I hope he writes a follow up book about anger management therapy sessions–he is too talented not to keep writing.

If nothing else, reading Heads in Beds will encourage you to show a little human kindness the next time you check in, and to tip a little more generously. Oh, and to sniff those hotel glasses–just in case there’s a hint of lemon Pledge.

Genre: Hilarious occupational memoir/hotel guest self-help book.

Read it if: You have ever stayed in a hotel, or plan to in the future.

Skip it if: You would prefer not to know what the valet parking attendant really does with your car.

Movie-worthy: Maybe not, but this would make a great HBO sit-com. Think Office Space meets The Love Boat (special guest star: Brian Wilson!)

Review: The 5th Wave by Rick Yancey

The 5th WaveIf aliens decided to invade Earth, would they come down in spaceships with lasers blasting? In Rick Yancey’s powerful end-of-the-world thriller, the invasion comes in waves, beginning with an EMP blast that wipes out a huge swath of human communications, transport and weaponry in one blow. Cassie, a teenage girl, has survived at great cost to her humanity. She yearns for the days when her biggest problem was trying to get a cute boy to notice her. She mourns the death of her parents, and the loss of her five-year-old brother Sam–who may still be alive.

Having previously read Yancey’s YA horror novel The Monstrumologist, I knew going in that The 5th Wave was unlikely to be all sunshine and rainbows. I had no idea. The fear, grief and loss of innocence described in The 5th Wave felt tragically, brutally real. Cassie, unable to trust anyone, faces situations where she must kill or be killed. Her strong survival instincts and excellent reflexes have saved her so far, but ultimately there has to be a reason to keep living. She makes the decision to go in search of her brother, even if it ultimately costs her own life.

Meanwhile, she is not the last human to have survived the 4th Wave, a terrible plague that has killed billions. Ben Parrish, her high school crush, is infected and struggling to survive in a refugee camp. Crippled by survivor’s guilt, Ben is also looking for a reason to keep going, and finds it in an armed resistance movement. The soldiers are children; watching as they train and arm for war is genuinely horrifying.

The tension and terror in this book are relentless. No one is safe, not even when they appear to have found a temporary haven from the war for the planet; no one is innocent, not if they’ve managed to survive. This gripping survival story refuses to pull any punches or downplay the effects of violence. As Yancey allows the reader to understand the true nature of the 5th Wave, it is impossible to look away.

Genre: YA science fiction survival thriller

Read it if: You like books that grab you right from the opening page and never let go; you think the TV show Revolution would be way better with aliens.

Skip it if: You think The Hunger Games was too violent; you have a five-year-old and don’t want to burst into tears (not that I’m admitting I did that!); you think love is the seventh wave.

Movie-worthy: As long as it’s not the people who made I Am Number Four. Yikes.


Review: Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell

FangirlI still remember reading an ARC of Rainbow Rowell’s first novel, Attachments, and falling head over heels in love (Lincoln!). Rowell has a true gift for creating characters you care about, despite their flaws, their mistakes, their wrong-headed decisions. You root for them to succeed, to work past the fears holding them back and find some happiness.

In Fangirl, Cath is many things: an identical twin, a freshman in college, a dutiful daughter to an unusually needy dad, and an anxious mess. She’s also the author of an epic work of fanfiction, Carry On, Simon, which she’s posting in real time, posts followed by thousands of fans eager for an ending. Cath’s working hard to finish it before Simon Snow’s creator, Gemma T. Leslie, publishes the eighth and final novel in her beloved series about a boy wizard and his vampire nemesis.

Cath and her twin sister, Wren, used to share everything, including their room and their committed Simon Snow fandom. Now Wren wants to live in separate dorms, with separate roommates and separate lives. Stung by her twin’s behavior, Cath seeks refuge where she always has: in the world of Simon Snow, familiar territory without the anxiety and potential pitfalls of real life. While Wren is getting trashed at frat parties, Cath is eating protein bars in her dorm room, typing away on her laptop.

Despite her best efforts, Cath can’t completely avoid human contact. Her roommate, Reagan, is an older student who has to live in the dorms because of her scholarship. She may not be particularly friendly or polite, but she can’t quite ignore the fact that Cath could use some help. And with Reagan comes Levi, who smiles more in a day than Cath does in a year.

Cath also spends quality time with Nick, her writing partner in a ficton course normally closed to freshman. Cath convinced the professor to let her enroll, but it’s unclear whether her years of experience writing fanfiction will help or hurt her when she attempts to satisfy her class requirements. Does she even have a voice of her own?

Fangirl beautifully portrays that first year of college, when the limitations of who you were in high school disappear, for better or worse, and you have to fend for yourself. Wren seeks independence in partying and wild friends, hoping to leave the past behind; Cath seeks solace in clinging to the known, avoiding risk and the potential for pain. As Cath says in another context, there must be a happy medium. As a reader, I never stopped rooting for her to find it.

Genre: Poignant yet funny coming-of-age novel

Read it if: You already know you love Rainbow Rowell; you spent your freshman year hiding in your dorm room; you spent your freshman year doing shots in a frat house; or you wonder why anyone would bother to write fanfiction.

Skip it if: You think a book about a teenage girl writing stuff sounds boring. (It’s not! It’s totally not!)

Movie-worthy: This would be an adorable movie, with lots of little fantasy episodes from the Carry On, Simon excerpts, and maybe a hilarious sequence making fun of Nick’s beautiful quirky girl with nicotine-stained fingers… I would see that movie.


Category: Reviews | Tags: , , ,

Review: MaddAddam by Margaret Atwood

Spoiler Alert! MaddAddam is the third book in the series that began with Oryx and Crake and continued with The Year of the Flood, and it would be more or less impossible to discuss it without revealing key plot points of both those novels. If you haven’t read them yet, stop reading now, go immediately to your bookstore/library/e-reader and read them first. Because they are brilliant examples of speculative fiction!

I normally don’t get so crazy with the exclamation points, but this book means a great deal more to me than your average new release. Oryx and Crake ranks among my favorite novels of all time. I loved that The Year of the Flood didn’t pick up where Oryx and Crake left off, with fever-addled Jimmy pointing a gun at what might be the last humans on Earth; instead, it went back to the start, to show the influence of an environmental survivalist group called God’s Gardeners, and how they were uniquely positioned to survive the engineered plague Crake ultimately set loose upon the world.

MaddAddam explores yet more connections between the characters introduced in the previous two novels, but also moves the story forward. Previously, Toby and Ren had set out in search of Amanda, who had been kidnapped and brutally used by two Painballers. When Jimmy wanders deliriously onto the scene, armed and hallucinating, the two strands of the first two novels connect and continue as one.

The remnants of God’s Gardeners and the MaddAddam underground network have formed a small community and, when the bioengineered beings designed and raised by Oryx and Crake follow Toby home, the humans begin to educate them, both intentionally and otherwise, in the ways of humankind. It turns out that Crake’s children have developed in ways their creator could not have predicted, and their interaction with the pre-plague humans will have unanticipated consequences for everyone.

Much of the action in this novel is related by one character telling a story to another. Toby takes over Jimmy’s role as storyteller to the Crakers, attempting to explain the mysteries of human emotions and actions in a mythical context her listeners can comprehend or at least accept. Zeb tells his life story to Toby at her request, partly so she can craft stories for her rapt audience, but mostly because she wants to know everything about him.

In the process, we learn how Zeb and Adam’s horrific childhood and their subsequent escape triggered the events that shaped Crake’s plan. Zeb knew Crake when he was just a very intelligent kid named Glenn, happy to beat him at chess and learn some of Zeb’s extensive hacking skills. Zeb also knew Pilar, long before she instructed Toby on the gifts of the garden.

Atwood skillfully weaves the many threads of these stories, while in the meantime Toby, Zeb and the others try to secure their small community against the Painballers still lurking somewhere beyond their fence line. And always there is the question: where is Adam? Did he survive the plague?

In many ways, Zeb’s relationship with Adam is not unlike Jimmy’s with Crake: both Zeb and Jimmy rely on direction from their leader and neither has a clear idea what the overall goal really is; both Adam and Crake are visionaries, one step ahead of everyone around them. And it is disturbing to realize that both Adam and Crake may have been in agreement that humanity, in its greed, blindness and wanton destruction, had to go in order to save the Earth. Crake may have made it happen, but perhaps Adam chose not to stand in his way.

MaddAddam provides a satisfying and hopeful conclusion to the story that began with Oryx and Crake. Hopeful, that is, for the remnant of humanity that remains and the new sentient beings that coexist with them.

Genre: Speculative fiction

Read it if: You read and loved Oryx and Crake and The Year of the Flood.

Skip it if: You haven’t read Oryx and Crake and The Year of the Flood. Go read those first!

Movie-worthy: I’m not sure cinema is ready for this one. Wagging blue penises, for one thing.