Review: What My Girlfriend Doesn’t Know Saturday, Sep 11 2010 

What My Girlfriend Doesn't KnowWhat My Girlfriend Doesn’t Know by Sonya Sones
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Until two days ago, I had never heard of a novel written in verse. I picked this up to use in a sample unit plan for one of my English Education classes fully expecting to at least appreciate and hopefully like it. I was blown away by not only how well the story was told, but by the story as well. Amazed would not be too strong a word at all.

It didn’t hurt that I identified with Robin Murphy at all, of course. I graduated from high school in 1991. Up until recently, geeks were the social pariahs of my high school. My son has followed in my footsteps, but has a huge clique of friend. I didn’t have that until my senior year. Like Robin, I was mocked in school pretty much all my life. First I was gawky, then I was fat, then I lost the weight, but was just too much of a geek to fit in. Once I graduated and started college, I found myself in much the same situation of finally fitting in. Due to circumstances mostly under my control, I left college and only recently returned. That feeling of being among friends and peers is still very much a part of what I love about it.

Now that my credentials are in order, I must say that Sonya Sones picked up the feelings that I felt in high school with 100% accuracy. Even when I had a girlfriend, things never went right. I didn’t handle the mocking as well as he did, and the girls didn’t either in a couple of cases. I loved Robin’s reaction to temptation. It was very realistic and matched what I think most anyone might do in his situation.

I am a 38-year-old man (or, as Robin would say, 38 and 5/6) who likes getting emotionally invested in the books I read. I found myself alternately angry, cheering, smiling, and even crying (a lot) while reading this book. In fact, my greatest moment of rage and disappointment came when I reached the last page. I turned back and forth twice to make sure I hadn’t skipped a page. I didn’t want it to end.

Alas, all good reads must end, and this was a very good read.

View all my reviews

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Young Adult Lit Conference Attendance Thursday, Apr 1 2010 

I have not been to any conventions or conferences outside the Fantasy/Sci-Fi/Horror/Gaming arenas.  On Tuesday, March 30, I went to Kennesaw State University’s Annual Conference on Literature for Children and Young Adults.  It was an eye-opening day for me and money well-spent.  I didn’t get to meet any publishers or agents since this was a conference primarily for educators and education students, but I did get to meet some published authors.  Some of the authors I had heard of, but never read.  One was a writer whose first novel I had both read and loved.

Before I go into some of my impressions on this conference, I want to give serious props to Jay Asher.  I have previously met a handful of authors and my experiences have been a mixed bag.  Jim Butcher, author of the excellent Dresden Files series, is a wonderful person to meet.  I met him at Dragon*Con, so I didn’t really get to talk with him at length, but her was very engaging for the minute I had to speak with him.  He also took a pic with me.  Nice guy.

Jim Butcher and me - 2006    Jay Asher and me - 2010

I met another author at Dragon*Con two years later.  I won’t tell you her name since I don’t want to shame her personally.  She had just published her first book and there were not too many people in her line, maybe 5 tops at the time.  Her signing had just started and more well-known author had already established her line beforehand.  I was at the front of her line, having already read and loved her book.  I went to her table where she made a split second of eye contact and proceeded to engage in a full-blown conversation with one of her friends, who happened to be in line behind me, while she signed my book.  She handed it back to me and never, to my knowledge, attempted to make eye contact again.  Now, I don’t want an author to listen to my life’s story, but I kind of want a portion of their attention since I paid money for their book. waited in line (albeit a short one).  What I expect, and I don’t think this is too much, is some appreciation for the small part I played in their success as an author.

Jay Asher, who wrote the excellent Thirteen Reasons Why, was by far the most approachable author I have ever met.  In fact, all of the authors at this particular conference were of the highest caliber when it came to dealing with their fans.  I also met Lisa McMann, author of Wake, Fade, & Gone, and Helen Hemphill, author of Long Gone Daddy, Runaround, and The Adventurous Deeds of Deadwood Jones.  All three were among my favorite author meetings of all time.  They took time with us and, in addition to their excellent keynote addresses, hosted smaller breakout sessions.

Jay Asher  Lisa McMann

Helen Hemphill

My only problem with the conference as a whole was that it was only one day.  I would have loved a weekend conference.  There was an Early Grades conference the next day, but my focus is YA.  What this conference taught me is that there is a wide variety of YA novels out there that simply did not exist in my day.  I am in my late 30’s.  When I was a child, there were children’s books and there were adult books.  There was not real gap between Judy Blume and adult novels.  Any books that dealt with serious topics like death, rape, suicide, molestation, etc. were written for adults and practically hidden from high schoolers. 

Last year, I was introduced to Staying Fat For Sarah Byrnes by Chris Crutcher and was absolutely blown away.  It covered many of the same tropes that I knew from the teen novels of old: body image, bullying, first love, coming of age, friendship, and family dynamics.  What I didn’t expect to be covered in any YA novel were: suicide, abortion, teen pregnancy, religion, child abuse, physical abuse, mental illness, and attempted murder.  Maybe one or two of those topics at most, but Crutcher seemed to have felt a challenge to see how many serious topics he could logically fit into one novel.  The thing was, the book was good.  Not only did he plug all these things in, but he did so with such skill that they worked.  I was amazed.

Staying Fat for Sarah Byrnes

I was goobing out with a friend about that book when she asked me, “Yeah, that book is good, but have you read Thirteen Reasons Why?”  I confessed that I had never heard of it, so she gave me the spiel.  It is the story of Hannah Baker, a girl who commits suicide and records her thirteen reasons for doing so on a series of cassette tapes.  She sends the tapes out to the people who she feels helped her along her path so that they could listen and understand how their actions or inactions brought her to her decision.  I was skeptical that the book would glorify suicide, but Clay Jensen, the boy who receives the tapes in their journey from person to person, gives the book a solid grounding.  At any moment that you start to see things too closely from Hannah’s perspective, Clay interjects his own perspective.  Asher created one of the most disturbing and powerful tales I have every encountered.

I have written a few suspense, horror, and thriller stories in my time.  Until I met Jay and the other authors at the conference, it had never occurred to me that the stories I tell could easily be directed toward a YA audience.  Lisa McMann’s books are about a girl who falls into other people’s dreams against her will.  Helen Hemphill’s books are one-shot stories, though she said that she had been thinking about having a character from Long Gone Daddy run into a character from Runaround in a future novel.  I now own McMann’s Wake and Hemphill’s Long Gone Daddy and I plan on reading them as soon as life allows.  Hopefully that will occur sometime in the next week.

Thirteen Reasons Why  Wake Long Gone Daddy

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"You don’t know what goes on in anyone’s life but your own. And when you mess with one part of a person’s life, you’re not messing with just that part. Unfortunately, you can’t be that precise and selective. When you mess with one part of a person’s life, you’re messing with their entire life. Everything. . . affects everything."

~ Hannah Baker (from Thirteen Reasons Why by Jay Asher)

 

Now Playing: Kenny Loggins – I’m Alright (Theme from Caddyshack)

Impressions: Dean Koontz Monday, Jan 11 2010 

***If spoilers trouble you, skip this review***

Odd Thomas

Good God, I loved this book.  The premise was what hooked me.  That is typically the primary selling point for me.  If the concept is good, I will give the book a try.  Sometimes, the execution of said concept fails to deliver, but this book is not one of those debacles, though it skirts the edge of credulity due to Koontz’s proclivity toward spectacle.

In the book, we meet Odd Thomas.  He seems to be your above average fry cook, but in his off hours – and sometimes during his on hours, too – he sees dead people.  These people tend to want something from Odd, whether it be justice (i. e.: murder victims) or companionship (i. e.: a certain King of Rock & Roll).  Odd is whip-smart and self-deprecating as he narrates his story and, as is typical of Koontz, has a host of colorful side characters in his life.

The humor in this book reminded me very much of “The Dresden Files.”  I found myself going beyond enjoying the story and falling in love with the voice of Odd Thomas himself.  He has a way with words so much that I often found myself forgetting that this was a character written by Dean Koontz.  I thought of him as an entity unto himself, which is the highest compliment any writer can receive.

The plot itself is where I found the primary snarl, though it was a small one.  It’s as though Koontz sincerely wanted to write a story about this bizarre kid with the ability to see the dead, but figured it would never sell unless the story had that BANG, POW, and ZIP that Koontz fans have come to expect.  Thus, the simple murder investigation escalates into a hunt for a potential mass murderer and ends up ***SPOILER ALERT*** being a desperate search for a team of mass murderers intent on killing everyone at a mall.

I follow the KISS Principle when I read books.  In this case, the main character and his quest are so compelling that I gave the over-escalation a chance and was thrilled to have done so.  The story paid off in ways I could have never imagined, though not everyone lived happily ever after.  I think my love of certain characters was substantially boosted due to how they dealt with the aftermath of the story.

So, when I finished the first book, I immediately jumped to the next one in the series.

Forever Odd

If you have watched other Keanu Reeves movies, you will perhaps remember watching The Matrix for the first time.  Maybe you even found yourself thinking, “Wow!  Keanu is actually doing a good job in this flick.”  It was refreshing to see him actually acting and not falling into his typical Ted Theodore Logan antics.

Then came the scene where Morpheus jumped from one building to another with impossible ease.  We all waited with bated breath to see what Keanu would do.  Would he have that Keanu Moment and let Ted slip out?

Then he tilted his head and said it.

“Woah…”

Oh Keanu.  You had to let Ted out, if only for a moment.  So sad.

That was what “Forever Odd” felt like to me.

***Do I need to keep warning about spoilers?***

It started out simple enough, but quickly escalated into this farce about some sincerely screwed-up woman who desperately wanted to see a ghost.  She needs this so bad that she searched out Odd, kidnapped a close friend who was never mentioned in the first book, and held him captive to draw Odd out.  Oh, and this friend has brittle bone disease, so he can’t run.  Oh yeah, she also knows everything about Odd and can almost predict his every move with startling accuracy.

Still, it was a fun book.  I had to swallow the premise like a dose of bad medicine to get the healing goodness of Odd Thomas himself, but it was great to see Odd again.  It felt like that really good friend who you love hanging out with, but he keeps bringing his horrid girlfriend with him.  Then you have to put up with her to hang with your buddy.  But I digress.

Brother Odd

I thought that this would be the book to get the series back on track.  The setting and premise was simple enough: Odd feels the need to escape from life for a time and goes to St. Bartholomew’s Abbey for a little R&R.  While there, chaos ensues, proving that Odd can not run from his gift.  Sounds simple, right?

***Enter Spoilers***

You know that moment in Batman Forever where you finally knew that they were never going to take that particular Batman franchise seriously?  This was that revelation for the Odd Thomas series.  One of the monks is a former physicist who has created a computer model of the innermost fabric of reality.  He creates bone monsters and a Grim Reaper to attack Odd and the other monks, one of whom is a former mobster called Brother Knuckles.

Oh, and Elvis crosses over, which would be sweet, except that he is replaced by… Frank Sinatra.  BANG!  POW!  WOWZERS! Yeesh…

I started to read the next in the series, “Odd Hours.”  I read the Wikipedia article about it and decided that discretion was, indeed, the better part of valor.  I ran for it with my tail between my legs lest the proposed plot completely ruin the entire series in much the same way that “Batman & Robin” ruined my memories of the Batman franchise up until that point.

Oh, the humanity!

So here I am, the aspiring novelist casting aspersions on a well-known novelist.  Brilliant tactic, right?  Well, fear not, true believer.  Next up is my thoughts on “The Husband.”  Here’s a hint: I liked that book quite a bit.

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Writing is a socially acceptable form of schizophrenia.

~ E.L. Doctorow

 

Listening to: Weezer – Freak Me Out

Impressions: Dean Koontz Sunday, Jan 10 2010 

As you may have noticed, I have read a lot of Dean Koontz this last year.  I just discovered his books just this past year and found parts of his style appealing while other parts lost me.

***If spoilers trouble you, skip this review***

 

The Good Guy

The first of his books that I read was kind of the epitome of both sides of this equation.  I loved the repartee between the main protagonist, Tim Carrier, and the assassin’s target, Linda Paquette, who Tim has to save after inadvertently receiving the hit notice on her.  The contract killer, Krait, is both chilling and entertaining… the latter being true only if you are not on his hit list.  He has bizarre idiosyncrasies that make his scenes some of the best in the book.

That said, the thing that bothered me was how Koontz took one of the main draws of the book (i. e.: what would happen if Joe Schmo accidentally intercepted a killer’s hit contract and had the choice to help the victim) and chickened out at the last minute. 

***This is where the spoilers really kick in, by the way*** 

The story’s protagonist, who was supposedly an average Joe, ends up being a highly-trained Congressional Medal of Honor awarded military hero.  This fact is not revealed until near the end of the story.  It comes off as though Koontz get to the moment of truth and has no idea how a normal guy would be able to take down this expert psycho and says, “Oh wait.  I never really clarified the reason why he has been avoiding any discussion of his past.  Maaaaybe I could make him secretly uber!  That would solve all my problems right there.”

Except that it doesn’t.  It feels like a cop out.  As a reader, I feel like the promise of seeing someone just like me (only a little more buff and manly) take down a contract killer against improbable odds has been broken.  Like when my teacher told the class that any one of us could become President and then I grew up to understand how the system really works.

I was going to cover a few more, but I think this pretty much sums up my growing disillusionment with Dean Koontz.  He is an excellent storyteller who never seems to be happy with just telling a good story.  He wants to add a little zest and zing to his books.  The bad part for me is that I don’t want zest and zing.  I want the good story I was promised.  The added BAM and POW are unnecessary additions that end up taking the original promise of the story away.

I should add that I was sold on Dean Koontz because my friends told me he was a horror writer.  He is not.  Koontz writes thriller and suspense stories, which are not always my cup of tea.  In a recent episode of “Writing Excuses,” the guys explained the core difference between horror and suspense.  In a horror story, the protagonist’s competence must not be equal to the dangers they are facing.  They quoted Stephen King, “Horror is an unknown actress, perhaps the girl next door, cowering in a cabin with a knife in her hands we know she’ll never be able to use.”  That is completely appropriate. 

The protagonist in “The Good Guy” starts out looking like an average brick mason facing a skilled, competent psycho.  When it turns out that he is actually more than equal to the task, it pulls the rug out from under the reader’s expectations.  Now that I have read more of Koontz’s works, I understand that, if you like an equal meeting of forces, you will love his books.  I want the protagonist to be screwed on every front and have a very real possibility of failure.  I really am a cup’s-half-full kind of guy, I swear.

Next: Odd Thomas: The awesome book followed by the series that lost me.

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Although I’ve said a million times that I’m not a horror writer, I do like horror.

~ Dean Koontz

 

Listening to: Roy Orbison – Oh, Pretty Woman

What I Read Sunday, Jan 10 2010 

I was just reading a friend’s post about his history with reading and where he is today.  He is a fan of high fantasy and has been for almost as long as I have known him.  His was the original stereotypical starting point: The Hobbit.  I have still never read that book and, having tried it a few times, never plan on it.  I do like high fantasy, but it never really caught on with me. 

I read the Landover series and the Lord of the Rings.  I think that was what killed it for me, actually.  Tolkien is so long-winded and in absolute love with his world that I never had a chance to get to know the characters or care about their adventures.  Landover was more of a “Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court” type of story with the story being about this magical world with a modern man slapped in the middle of it.

With so little of that sort of fantasy out there when I was in middle and high school, I turned toward Stephen King.  His stories pitted modern man against magic in a very different manner.  Rather than invoking a sense of wonder, these stories showed how modern man is mostly powerless against these horrific forces.  Sometimes, if his heart remains pure, he or she can triumph… or not.  Regardless of whether the protagonist triumphs(Misery) or doesn’t (Pet Sematary), I still loved the stories.  By the way, these books are over a decade old as of this writing.  If you want to cry foul over spoilers, be my guest.

My reading changed in 2007 when I discovered Jim Butcher.  His series, The Dresden Files, set my mind aglow with both wonder and envy.  He was able to overlay our modern world with a realm of magic so well that I found myself muttering that old writer’s curse:

“I wish I’d thought of that.”

His characters are entertaining and engaging.  The dialog is sharp and witty, which makes the reading of his books entertaining as much for the interactions of the characters as for the story itself.  They read far too quickly for my tastes, no matter how long they are.  He releases one a year and it is just not enough.  I have found myself needing rehab from May-Mark of each year with my only respite being found in that week in April when I buy and read the next installment and then the following weeks when the high gradually wears down into post-Dresden depression.

Don’t get me wrong, I have read quite a few great books since last April’s Dresden release.  I think, in between updates on my writing and school, I will post my impressions of some of these stories.  Here is a mostly comprehensive list of my readings since April 2009:

Novels

Under the Dome by Stephen King

The Talisman Stephen King

Thirteen Reasons Why by Jay Asher

Staying Fat for Sarah Byrnes Chris Crutcher

A Field Guide to Burying Your Parents by Liza Palmer

Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Hurston

Playing for Keeps by Mur Lafferty

Anansi Boys by Neil Gaiman

Illusions by Richard Bach

The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane by Katherine Howe

Speaker for the Dead (Ender’s Saga, #2) by Orson Scott Card

Xenocide (Ender’s Saga, Book 3) by Orson Scott Card

Children of the Mind (Ender’s Saga, Book 4) by Orson Scott Card

Terminal by Brian Keene

City Of The Dead by Brian Keene

The Rising by Brian Keene

Odd Thomas by Dean Koontz

Brother Odd by Dean Koontz

Forever Odd by Dean Koontz

The Good Guy by Dean Koontz

The Darkest Evening of the Year by Dean Koontz

The Husband Koontz by Dean Koontz

Prodigal Son (Dean Koontz’s Frankenstein, Book 1) by Dean Koontz

The Tale of Despereaux: Being the Story of a Mouse, a Princess, Some Soup and a Spool of Thread by Kate DiCamillo

Guards! Guards! (Discworld, #8) by Terry Pratchett

Good Omens: The Nice and Accurate Prophecies of Agnes Nutter, Witch by Terry Pratchett

Haunted by Chuck Palahniuk

Touching Evil by Kay Hooper

Candles Burning by Tabitha King and Michael McDowell

The Magic of Recluce by L.E. Modesitt, Jr.

 

Short Stories

Primordial Chili by Thomas Gerencer

Why I Bring a Bag Lunch Now by Thomas Gerencer

Trailer Trash Savior by Thomas Gerencer

Demo Mode by by Thomas Gerencer

LT’s Theory of Pets by Stephen King

UR by Stephen King

Word Processor of the Gods by Stephen King

4th Wish by Ed Howdershelt

 

Nonfiction

The Know-It-All: One Man’s Humble Quest to Become the Smartest Person in the World by A.J. Jacobs

Emergency: This Book Will Save Your Life by Neil Strauss

Reallivepreacher.com by Gordon Atkinson

The Partly Cloudy Patriot by Sarah Vowell

The Audacity of Hope: Thoughts on Reclaiming the American Dream by Barack Obama

 

Poetry

Sailing Alone Around the Room: New and Selected Poems by Billy Collins

Nine Horses: Poems by Billy Collins

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“If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot … If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that.”

~ Stephen King

 

Listening to: Foo Fighters – Learn To Fly

The Digital Revolution Thursday, Jan 7 2010 

I recently bought a Kindle from Amazon, fearing that it would end up being one of those devices that would quickly lose its luster and end up lost in a stack of books and papers on my desk.  Since I opened the box, my Kindle has not left my side for a second.  I currently have over 170 books on my device, including free, purchased, already owned and self-written stories.  In addition, I have a small collection of music and an audiobook in my collection.

There are some books, primarily those that I plan on sharing out, that I will buy physical copies of.  All the books that I read from here on out, I will purchase for my Kindle.  I still love real books.  The feel and smell of them is among my most treasured sensations.  Still, it is easier on my back for me to carry my library in this small device rather than carry the books I am reading in a backpack like I usually do.  I tend to read three to five books at a time and the Kindle holds my place in each of them.

In other digital news, I am researching podcasting as a method for getting my first novel and some of my short stories published.  It worked for Scott Sigler and Mur Lafferty, it can work for me.  I have an author website, but it is very barebones.  I need to check out some authors who started out online and shamelessly mimic them. 

One of those mimicry ideas is posting stories on Podiobooks.com.  I have researched the equipment I would need and the basic setup starts at $125.  I have a friend who has a decent setup and am thinking of asking him if I can borrow it to record my episodes.  I am going to do some further editing before I get to that stage, though.

Many novelists across the span of novel-writing history have started as their works in a serialized format.  Sheherazade told her “One Thousand and One Nights” in a serialized format, but they were individual stories so they might actually be closer to an anthology, but that’s a bit pedantic.  Perhaps more appropriately, Charles Dickens’ and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s stories were primarily presented in a serialized format.  I have seen a movement back to that format and sincerely wish to jump on the bandwagon.  I’m not ashamed of riding in the wake of others so long as my endeavors end in success.

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“Running a close second [as a writing lesson] was the realization that stopping a piece of work just because it’s hard, either emotionally or imaginatively, is a bad idea. Sometimes you have to go on when you don’t feel like it, and sometimes you’re doing good work when it feels like all you’re managing is to shovel shit from a sitting position.”

~ Stephen King

 

Listening to: Primus – Tommy The Cat

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