Saturday, December 31, 2011

Year in Review: Top Six Reads of 2011

This has not been the most stellar year for reading. Much has happened in this booklover's life: two moves, two deaths, packing and unpacking — and the revelation of a grand library in a new home.

I pretty much stopped paying attention to what I was reading, and I apologize to myself and to you, my Faithful Reader. I hope to do better by you this year.

Despite my best efforts, I did encounter a few really good books this year.  Here are some, in no particular order:
  • The Gift of Fear — Just because we can't articulate that which makes us fearful doesn't mean we should ignore those signs. Intuition is more important than all of the "common sense" in the world (though the latter should not be ignored, either). Just ask Gavin de Becker.
  • Dracula — This classic stands the test of time. Everyone takes away something interesting from this timeless tale.  Mine was the understanding that much of modern vampire lore began with Bram Stoker's novel.
  • 2030: The Real Story of What Happens to America — I never wrote a review because "OMG I LOVED THIS BOOK" doesn't quite articulate how this book eerily foresees a future being constructed in today's real world. Unsettling rather than hysterical, it still amused me. 
  • The Map of Time — I am a sucker for a good time-travel book, and this is one. It went places I didn't expect, and I loved every minute. You will, too.
  • Cutting for Stone — Gorgeous, sweeping, touching, stunning, moving... It's a must-read if you have eyeballs.
  • Little Princes — I can't remember the last time I really, really liked an author the way I liked Conor Grennan.  His authenticity and honesty was amazing, and I so enjoyed joining him on his "accidental" journey.

I didn't include Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children because I am not past the "I LOVELOVELOVED THIS BOOK" (note the annoying all-caps) and I want to wait until the sequel this year of A Discovery of Witches. (I know, what am I thinking?!)

So, what were some of your fave books this year?

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Review: Miss Peregine's Home for Peculiar Children

The cover captured my attention.

The title, Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, intrigued me. Above the title was girl in a dress reminiscent of the 1920s, wearing a tiara, possibly hovering above the dirt and stones under her feet.  Hovering? Pecuilar, indeed.

On the back of the novel were more intriguing photos of children: painted like clowns, in a bunny suit, a girl with a reflection of two girls.  Ransom Riggs had some explaining to do.

So, apparently, did Abe, Jacob’s grandfather. Jacob adored his grandfather and believed the stories behind the photos Abe showed him: a skinny boy lifting a boulder above his head, a girl holding a ball of fire, a suit of clothes standing upright without a child in it.  Abe told his grandson all about these children, who were in an orphanage with him when he was a child. Jacob believed him — until he grew old enough to wonder, and doubt.

That all changed when Jacob received a panicked call from his grandfather — a call that divided Jacob’s life into Before and After. Suddenly, that which seemed unreal and fantastic no longer was totally out of the realm of possibility, and Jacob had to find out whether he was losing his mind, or finding his true self.

Riggs creates a taut, brilliant story fraught with peril, wonder, shock, fright and tales too real to be true.  His characters are rich and complex, and they carry the story forward effortlessly. Peppered throughout the book are snapshots that describe that which sometimes defies description.  The book is awash in mystery and amazement: not everything is explained because some things defy explanation. However, some explanations in the book make perfect sense, and readers may find themselves looking at the world differently.

I enjoy books that successfully join images and language, and I can’t believe I waited so many months — and actually returned my library copy — before opening the covers of this book. Shame on me! I understand therewill be a sequel, and I will be among the first at the bookstore the day it is released.  I can’t wait.

Monday, December 12, 2011

NaNoWriMo: How About You?

November was a crazy month that included a lingering sinus infection, a major multi-day holiday, a friend's wedding, weird weather and my attempt at writing a novel.

Guess which one I liked the most? (No, you wise acres, not the sinus infection!)

National Novel Writing Month was an experience that reinforced what most productive writers understand: don't wait for "inspiration" — create it.  Every day, as I sit at the computer for work, I dredge up material for the assorted projects. Not everything that comes out of my brain and fingers is award-winning.  Some days are better than others. Some days I'm on fire and others I just show up and type materials that are "good enough." Some days the words are stellar and others it's just enough to get the job done.

The difference between a good day and a bad day: on a bad day, I don't even show up.  And that, my friends, is the definition of failure.

I'm not saying every bit of junk we produce needs to see the light of day.  In fact, I don't intend to show my "novel" to more than one or two souls.  However, I followed the objectives of the project established by NaNoWriMo and managed to succeed. I created a document totaling 50, 202 words between November 1-30.


Well, why not?

On November 1, I scratched my head and wondered exactly what in the world I was going to write — until I remembered: The Foreigner!  Well, I didn't remember it by name, but I remembered the play description. The play is about a shy man who pretends to not know English on a cruise full of English-speaking people.  What other situations can create opportunities for people to share information, confess, reveal or otherwise communicate?

I came up with one. It involved The Cowboy.

Not every word was stellar.  In fact, much of it probably was contrived, and possibly impossible to read.  The chapters that feature The Cowboy, however, were ingenious, if I dare say so myself.  There may be a story in there somewhere, or bits of one, or even a short story that can be edited and re-purposed.  Maybe. I won't make any promises.  I wrote many, many pages of words, and some of those words (beyond articles and conjunctions) may be of use at some point in the future. But really, I don't care. What I do care is that I know I can do something like that, possibly even better, in the future. All it takes is the precious commodity of time — which, for the story burning in me is a small price to pay.

Thanks, NaNoWriMo.  If I can pull it off again next year, maybe I'll even come up with a story and outline in October.

And the rest of you: what are you waiting for? You can wait until next November — or you can start now to warm up for the next one. I think I'll choose the latter.  Let me know which you choose.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Review: The Infernals

Spoiler alert: this is a review to a sequel to the novel The Gates.  By its very nature, it will reveal much of what happens in the first novel.  

If you don't want to know what happens in the first novel, stop reading now.

If you continue, don't get mad at me: it's your own fault. I warned you.

Read on, McDuff.

Samuel Johnson and Boswell are back — and so is Hell — in The Infernals, John Connolly's follow-up to The Gates.

When we last left Biddlecombe, Nurd had foiled the Great Malevolence's takeover of Earth, sucking Mrs. Abernathy back into Hell.  The super collider was shut off, Samuel and Boswell survived, Samuel's father's beloved Astin Martin didn't and all was right (enough) with the world.

Alas, if only it could continue like that — only adolescence and scientists really mess things up.

When we meet the crew again, Samuel is a teen with a crush on the prettiest girl in town. The only thing more unsettling than his teen hormones is that local puddles and mirrors are showing Samuel something that should be impossible: the face of Mrs. Abernathy staring back at him with a seething hatred.

She is really, really angry — and she has eternity to seethe. The Great Malevolence is displeased, others are rising up to take her spot as the favorite in Hell, and she wants another chance at proving her worth.  Even if the seam in her legs (not stockings) isn't straight, and her face literally is on crooked, she won't be foiled.  The scientists at the super collider will make sure of that (as only scientists can).

Throw in some unpleasant dwarves, a couple of conscientious constables, Dan Dan the Ice Cream man and the wide vista of Hell, and you have a suitable sequel to one of the funniest and most touching young adult horror novels on the shelves.

Connolly out-does himself. His footnotes are as funny as the rest of the book, like softly spoken asides of someone offering the wittiest and most astute commentary on — well, everything.  The characters are weird, sensible, surprising and delightful: c'mon, a demon who continues to wear the human form of Mrs. Abernathy, no matter how disheveled it/she gets? How fun is that?

Even more pleasurable, however, is Connolly's depiction of Nurd, a friend lost without his best buddy. I've had friends like that, and Connolly made me love and honor them even more as I recognized their qualities in Nurd, a demon forever changed by the love of a friend.  The author's description of true friendship and what it costs us is worth the price of admission alone, and Nurd deserves a place alongside other hero-friends such as Ron Weasley and Samwise Gamgee.

The landscape of Hell presented through the eyes of Connolly and his characters is frightening and intriguing. Now I want to read a little Dante, a little Milton, a little Revelations. Very little: I know I'd prefer Connolly's Hell to any other.  After all, only Connolly could put ice cream and chocolate sprinkles in Hell and make it make sense.

I recommend this book, a delight that is as funny as it is thought-provoking — and it doesn't disappoint.  You might want to read them in order, if only to remember and enjoy The Gates all over again.