December 26, 2011

Five Best Books of 2011

This year, I thought I'd challenge myself to slim down my "I loved this book so much" list to just five titles. These are the books that absolutely rocked me this year.

The Scorpio Races by Maggie Stiefvater
Genre: YA Urban Fantasy
Because: This book is beautifully written, incredibly atmospheric, filled with visceral landscapes and expertly-developed mood. Stiefvater makes the island of Thisby into a character that wraps itself around you like a cloak that you never want to take off. If you're going to try out a YA in 2012, try this one.


I'll Be There by Holly Goldberg Sloan
Genre: YA (I suppose, though only because it has some teenaged characters)
Because: This is an amazing book. So amazing that I don't even want to tell you what it's about: this is a story that's better appreciated without any foreknowledge. I fell in hard and fast love with this lovely, affecting, magical piece of fiction. If there was one book I could make everyone I know read, this would be it.


Dark Matter by Michelle Paver
Genre: Historical Mystery/Ghost Story
Because: This is one of the best ghost stories I've ever read: vivid, historically fascinating, well developed, and fantastically creepy. I had the pleasure of reading this book (with many lights on) first, then listening to the audiobook read by Jeremy Northam... and WOW is that the BEST audiobook I've ever had the pleasure of enjoying. I've listened to it three times: if that isn't a glowing endorsement, I don't know what is. Don't forget to keep your light on.


Warm Bodies by Isaac Marion
Genre: Dystopian/Urban Fantasy
Because: This book about a zombie with heart is at once funny, philosophical, moving and suspenseful.   This book managed to take two things I'm not wild about (zombies and futuristic, end-of-the-world stories) and make me a little bit wild about them. I just loaned this to one of my fantastic creative writing-class seniors, and now several of them are reading it. It's spreading (just like the zombie plague)!


Just My Type by Simon Garfield
Genre: Nonfiction
Because: This is the one book I loved this year that I haven't blogged about: it's a book all about FONTS! Now wait. Because you start shaking your head, hear me out a sec. This book is fantastically fascinating. It gives us what amounts to a character study of some of history's most important and game-changing fonts: where they came from, how they developed, and what quirky cast of artists and cultural heroes made them unique and significant. This book is a veritable treasure-trove of well-written tales to keep any word nerd entertained for days.

December 14, 2011

Best Music of 2011

Discovering great new music's a special experience: that moment when a song sinks into your bones, speaking to you and for you, and you realize that something good has just walked into your world. I listen to a lot of music through my iPod when I'm out running or writing. So, for me, truly good music enriches the soundtrack by which I perform my most important, most Kate-like activities. These are the albums that most profoundly enriched my life's soundtrack this year.

This holiday season I'm feeling incredibly thankful for these artists, and for Australia, the country that (in one way or another) brought these tunes into my orbit. Listen and enjoy!

Best Music of 2011

City and Colour - Little Hell

This soulful acoustic genius pairs beautiful lyrics with haunting melodies that will stay with you for days. Man do I love this guy. "The Grand Optimist" blew me totally away.
Cold War Kids - Mine Is Yours

Many a scene of my novel took shape to the tune of this band's sharp, unique sound. "Out of the Wilderness" has won a special place in my heart.
 Gotye - Making Mirrors

This soundtrack has upbeat songs that made me smile - and poignant ones that made me feel understood - at all the right moments.
 Radiohead - King of Limbs

Dear Radiohead,

I don't know that I could write without you. I know that my second book wouldn't be what it is without you. My love for you is endless.

Love Always,
Lisa Mitchell - Wonder

A truly spectacular lady singer/songwriter with a killer voice and one of the most unique albums I've ever heard. So many of my best and most profound Brisbane memories this year happened with this CD as a backdrop.
 Seeker Lover Keeper

What happens when you take three shockingly amazing solo artists and put them together in a room? This album happens. "Bridges Burned" was my personal anthem this year. Many an afternoon in the car was spent with me belting out those lyrics to the world through my windshield.
The Middle East - I Want That You Are Always Happy

Another group that came with me on many a sunset jog. So beautiful, so quiet, so haunting - "Blood" makes my skin tingle every time.

December 9, 2011

Book Spine Friday

I currently find myself teaching 8th, 11th and 12th graders, which is proving an interesting challenge and, sometimes, a genuine pleasure. Amidst the chaos of trying to squeeze thought out of 8th graders and singing Dickinson poems to the tune of Amazing Grace, I always look forward to my creative writing class. I'm on a mission to find ways to make my classes both inspirational and useful (suggestions gratefully accepted). To that end, I had my students make book spine poems today. They could only use the books I'd brought in and borrowed from the library, and it was interesting to see what kinds of things they came up with. I can't claim to have dreamed up this idea, but I loved it so much I made one of my own.

Happy Friday!

December 8, 2011

Book Review: The Hunger Games

So I finally read Suzanne Collin's The Hunger Games. I have a thing about not wanting to hop on massive reading trends, but it felt like it was time. People kept looking at me and saying, "You haven't read The Hunger Games yet? Really?" So I figured it was something I needed to check out. Especially with the movie coming out, which I'm hoping they haven't completely overdone.

I won't recap the story for you: check out the movie trailer and you'll have a good idea. I'm not hugely fond of the dystopian drama, but I definitely stayed up way, way too late to finish this very engaging read. The premise is fascinating and the world that Collins has created is one that's easy to get hooked by. I found myself actively rooting for the characters and wide-eyed at the horrible scenarios they find themselves in. The writing isn't mind-blowing; that isn't to say that it is bad (it's certainly not), or that it bothered me. That's to say that I've read several YAs this year that, writing-wise, blow this one out of the water. A lot of the dialogue felt stilted to me. But I love that Katniss, the main character, doesn't spend most of her time dreaming of boys (although look at the boys in the trailer... when I was 16, they would have been ALL I thought about). She is a kick-ass survivor, and I like that in my heroines.

This is an incredibly engaging series, no question. I am currently ripping through the sequel and can't wait to sit through the movie with ten billion tweens.

December 6, 2011

Book Review: The Unbecoming of Mara Dyer

The Unbecoming of Mara Dyer by Michelle Hodkin
Genre: YA mystery with a touch of paranormal

I swallowed this book whole while down in Charleston and then got to go and see Michelle Hodkin speak about how she ended up writing this, her first novel. She was working as a lawyer in New York and happened upon a woman who was suing the owners of an abandoned house after said house collapsed on, and almost killed, her daughter. Hodkin referred them to someone who might be able to help them and went about her business. A long time later, she found herself wondering what had happened to the pair, so she Googled them and couldn't find one scrap of information. She kept asking herself what could have happened to them; this book is her fictional answer to that question.

The book opens up telling the reader that the main character is probably a killer, then sends us back in time to when she woke up in the hospital with no memory of the house collapse that killed three of her friends. The family pick themselves up and move from New England to Miami, hoping to give Mara a fresh start. But from the moment Mara starts attending her fancy new school, her PTSD--and the extremely sexy, extremely aggravating boy who seems to pop up everywhere--continue to haunt her. Until she starts dreaming about the night of the accident and realizes that she might not just be a victim; she might also be a killer.

First of all, look at that cover... outSTANDING. It sets the perfect tone for this fast-paced, surprisingly funny mystery thriller. This is a deliciously creepy story. I love the way Hodkin uses the horrors of PTSD to explore a young girl's search for meaning in a world that, for her, just isn't making sense. Her narrative voice is one of the best things about this novel: fresh, acerbic, witty and well crafted. And then you've got Noah, whose British accent and wayward rebelliousness make him a character after my own heart. Hodkin makes their relationship crackle with a sexual tension so taut that it almost leaps off the page at you. I tried not to rip the pages as I followed Mara through some pretty bizarre circumstances, trying to figure out whether what she was seeing was real or imagined.

I will say that there were moments where the love story bordered on becoming too big a focus: I'm not a fan of the whole "he is so pretty and suave, how could be possibly like me?" scenario. But overall, the connection between Mara and Noah makes for a fun ride. Be prepared for a mother of a cliffhanger ending, though: good thing she's got the sequel coming out in 2012. I'll be pre-ordering that one!

If you're not sold on this book yet check out the book trailer, which is definitely the best I've ever seen:

December 4, 2011

Being Glad You're Alive

I recently celebrated a spate of birthdays, including my own. I'm not really one for getting worked up about how "old" I'm getting, as I think that there's something to celebrate about pretty much every age. But something about 28 made me itchy and forlorn. Maybe it's because I'm in the middle of a transition period, or something.

But then I remembered what I like to tell other people about birthdays: they should be one of the most important celebrations of the year because they are a celebration of your life. It's a day not about turkeys or relationships or past presidents, but a day about celebrating everything that you have been and everything that you are. When someone says "happy birthday!" aren't they also saying "I'm glad you're alive"? This past year has been one of my most tumultuous, but I've seen and done some amazing things amidst the chaos: I hiked in Tasmania, something I'd been wanting to do for ever and ever. I finished book #2. I worked hard at my writing and finally, finally, started feeling like I could call myself a writer. I taught university kids about grammar. I got to spend Thanksgiving with my family for the first time in five years. And now, because life is funny and strange, I find myself teaching creative writing to bright-eyed high school students who look at me like I actually might have something to teach them.

Birthdays give us a chance to reflect and be grateful for the fact that we're alive, which in itself is a small kind of miracle.

And an excuse to make some magnificent brownie treats. These are from Donna Hay, Australian Queen of Desserts. They were so good I made a second patch and gave them to friends and family, who ate them with eyes full of baffled awe. These are glorious treats - if you like chocolate and peanut butter, you should probably make these right this second.

(You can get the new Donna Hay Magazine app for the iPad: November's issue can be downloaded for free.)  
From Donna Hay Magazine, Nov/Dec Issue 2011

Peanut Butter Brownies
from Donna Hay Magazine

(if you don't have a scale, it's easy to find butter conversion charts online. Just Google it.)

v dark chocolate, chopped
v 40g butter
v  2 eggs
v 2/3 cup (150g) caster (superfine) sugar
v 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
v ¼ cup (35g) plain (all-purpose) flour, sifted
v ¼ teaspoon baking powder, sifted
peanut butter frosting (*)
v 1 cup (160g) icing (confectioner’s) sugar 
v 1 cup (280g) smooth peanut butter
v 80g butter
v 1 teaspoon vanilla extract and a pinch of cinnamon (because I put it in everything)
v cup (80ml) pouring cream

(* The second time I made these I cut the frosting recipe in half, because the first time I ended up with way more than I needed. Of course, because I can never stand to waste something so glorious, I used it all and ended up with sandwiches you could barely fit into your mouth and discovered that there IS such a thing as too much peanut butter frosting.)

Preheat oven to 180°C (350°F). Put 200g of the chocolate and the butter in a small saucepan over low heat and stir until melted and smooth. Set aside. Place the eggs, sugar and vanilla in the bowl of an electric mixer and whisk for 15 minutes or until pale and creamy (mine didn't take nearly that long). Stir through the flour, baking powder, chocolate mixture and remaining chocolate and allow to stand for 10 minutes. Spoon tablespoonfuls of the mixture, at a time, onto baking trays lined with non-stick baking paper. Bake for 8–10 minutes or until puffed and cracked (watch them carefully, they don't take long). Allow to cool completely on trays.

To make the peanut butter frosting, place the sugar, peanut butter, butter and vanilla in an electric mixer and beat for 6 minutes or until light and fluffy. Add the cream and beat for a further 2 minutes. Spread half the cookies with the peanut butter frosting and sandwich with the remaining cookies. Makes about 12.

November 23, 2011

Book Review: I'll Be There

This is the first year since 2006 that I've been in the States for Thanksgiving, and I find myself grateful for a lot of things. For my family, who believes I'm capable of greatness even on the days when I refuse to change out of pajamas. I'm thankful for the collection of close friends and confidants who have urged me to keep on writing stories. I'm thankful that I have a place to live, good food to eat, and an individual espresso maker.

And, this week, I'm thankful for I'll Be There by Holly Goldberg Sloan.

Genre: YA, I suppose (although I only think it falls under that umbrella because it has several young people in it)
In a nutshell: beautiful, gripping, thoughtful, and heart warming. 

First of all, look at this cover... I think it's the best one I've seen in years. If I could ask this cover out on a date, I'd think about it.

I don't often say I'm "thankful" to have discovered a particular book, but this one is very special. It is about two brothers who have nothing to cling to in life but each other until they move into a small town where a chance meeting changes the course of their lives. Sam, the oldest brother, goes into a church to hear some good music only to hear Emily singing terribly, so nervous that she latches onto his face in the back of the crowd to get through it. This is very much a story about connection: what happens when we reach out and touch each other's lives, even in seemingly small ways.

This is one of those rare reads that I am desperately trying to get everyone I know to read. It is so, so lovely and heartwarming despite its moments of terrible sadness. It made me cry, and it made me laugh loud enough to wake people. It made me so, so anxious to know what happens that I stayed up to some unacceptable hour to finish it. But I didn't want it to end, either. The relationship between the two brothers, Sam and Riddle, is touching and haunting. In fact every relationship in this book is pretty lovely to discover. The book has us skipping between all the character's thoughts, so we get to have access to pretty much every important perspective. The young voices are crafted so thoughtfully and so believably. And although there are things that made me angry and upset, I never found this story depressing. There is so much that is uplifting in it, and the sad moments only make those richer.

I know I haven't really told you what this book is about. I don't want to ruin it: you should get to experience it for yourself, and I highly recommend that you do. 

Being Awesome

Have you guys heard about the blog 1000 Awesome Things? If you haven't, you should: it'll be good for you. Check out this video. I hope it brings some shine to your day!

November 19, 2011

Book Review: The Scorpio Races

The Scorpio Races by Maggie Stiefvater
Genre: Young Adult urban fantasy

Those who know me understand how passionately I feel about Maggie Stiefvater's work, so I was excited to crack her newest book open. The story is set on the island of Thisby where every year magical, killer water horses climb out of the sea and roam the beaches in search of human flesh. My friend Tori likes to call them 'horse nymphs', but trust me when I say they're much more awe-inspiring than they sound. It's tradition that the locals try and tame these beasts and ride them in a deathly festival called the Scorpio Races. Puck decides to ride her own, non-magical horse in order to keep a roof over her family's heads. Sean races because it's in his blood: he's described as having 'one foot on land, one foot in the sea'. This story is about what happens when two people with a lot to lose choose to race--and fight for--each other in a world that's as beautiful as it is deadly.

If I could only use one word for this book it would have to be atmospheric. That's the thing I loved most about it: the island of Thisby is a character on its own, one that influences and affects each character profoundly and in different ways. The descriptions of setting are stunning, so visceral that you really do feel like you're there. It makes you want to be there, even if it does have demon horses. Stiefvater uses townsfolk and local lore in a way that makes Thisby jump off the page. I don't know how she does it--only that, as a writer, I wish I did.

The magical element is taut and unique. I was a huge horse girl when I was younger, so I loved reading the race descriptions and all the talk about bits and snaffles.

There are a lot of YA novels that go very, very heavy on the hunky, sexy love angle; I can really only take so many pages of heavy petting. But the love story here is beautifully crafted and totally understated, which made this story special for me. So much of what goes on between them happens in subtext as they quietly edge their way towards a relationship. I love that neither one of them had to give up who they were in order to be together. There was definitely sexy tension, and it was powerful without being anywhere near overpowering. This book is, above all, about connection, not just between two lovers but between family members, human and nature, man and beast.

The writing is, as always, beautiful, and the narrative voice is strong and sure. This is a unique and lovely book; if you're into YA, it isn't to be missed.

**Update 5/4/2014: I have now listened to the audiobook version of this novel an embarrassing number of times and recommend it very highly. If you're into being read to, it's a real gem.**

November 16, 2011

YALLFest 2011

I recently had the opportunity to hop down south and go to YALLFest: the first annual Young Adult book event held in Charleston, SC. I got to stay and hang out with my fabulous critique partner, Ryan Graudin, who posted a lovely recap of this amazing festival. I got to meet (and by meet, I mean skulk near) some of my favorite YA authors: Carrie Ryan, Michelle Hodkin, and many more. Alas, a certain literary crush of mine with lumberjack chic wasn't able to come to the festival, so I wasn't able to woo him as I'd planned. Next time?

I brought back a lot from my weekend in Charleston: new authors to read, books to rave about, and a healthy dose of writerly inspiration. Oh yeah - some pictures, too.

November 14, 2011

I DO Judge A Book By Its Cover.

I've got all sorts of things to blog about, but since I'm about to get on a plane and my eyeballs are burning, I'm going to go with this: book covers. I've got a thing about them. And by 'thing' read 'obsession and highly particular views'. A book's cover is what often makes or breaks whether or not I pick it up and buy it. I know that's a little silly--like voting for a politician because I'm partial to their ties--but I'm not going to lie. I do judge a book by its cover.

There are a lot of YA covers, I've noticed, that make me want to cringe. And as someone who would like to be published in this genre someday, this concerns me a little. I don't want a cover that looks like it was inspired by an article from Teen Beat. Like this one:

I mean... really? First off, this guy looks nothing like the book's main character. Why is it that book designers want to put pouting boys on YA covers? What is his face trying to tell us here--that he's high on prescription drugs? Because this here cover just looks silly. (The book, however, is quite nice.)

When I do find a cover I truly love, it's difficult for me not to take it home with me. Which is one of the reasons I just spent money I don't have on this:

This cover is a piece of art all by itself; that's what a good book cover should be. Just saying.

October 29, 2011

Music for Haunting

Have you guys discovered Spotify yet? Because I just did. And I'm a little bit in love with it.

I'm always looking for ways to share the music I'm writing to. Spotify is a great way to share music, collaborate on playlists, and discover new tunes. And it's free: FREE, I TELL YOU!

Check out the Halloween mix I've been rocking today. I have to admit that I didn't put most of it together; I stumbled across it while reading Gwenyth Paltrow's latest GOOP post. Now I'm off to carve some pumpkins and watch a little Hocus Pocus.

Happy Halloween!

October 26, 2011

Adventures in Website Creation

So I finally figured out how to make myself a little ole website. With the job hunt in full swing, I wanted something that gave prospective employers a taste for my voice, my past experience, and what I'm all about. And I wanted a place to share all my geeky editorial insights (although, let's be honest, I'll be doing that here, as well). It's still a work in progress (which is why the 'links' page takes you to an upset "there's nothing here!" message), but I'd love to hear your thoughts. Is it coherent/pretty/spelled correctly? Anything you'd change or add?

October 22, 2011

Just My Type

I just had the good fortune of being given an old IBM typewriter.

It weighs eight million pounds, takes up most of my desk, and makes noises akin to a jet engine warming up. But there's just something magical about typing this way: the emphatic clunk of every key, the care with which every word needs to be punched. It wasn't long ago that we were all using these, but there's something inescapably "antique" about the way those letters look pressed into the paper.

This giant dinosaur reminds me of my Grandma's old typewriter. She used to sit me down in front of it when I came over for the weekend, knowing it would keep me quietly entertained for long stretches. I wrote my first (and only) scary story on it. I loved how important every page felt as I rolled it out into my hands. Like it was something special simply because it was typed.

I will be writing all important correspondence (and ransom notes) on it from now on. 

October 14, 2011

Backstory (and why it matters)

I've just read my fabulous crit partner Ryan's post on the importance of backstory - I've thought about backstory so much this week that I'm hitching a ride on the back of her thought process.

If novel #2 (otherwise known as Torn) has taught me anything, it's that there are so many things you need to know about your characters in order to bring them to life. I'm not just talking looks, ticks, and speech patterns; I have to know about the whole span of their lives in order to understand their motivations. So much of their background hasn't made it to the surface of my story. But every piece of knowledge, evident or not, has helped me to stay true to my characters' voices. There's nothing quite as fun as discovering something new about your story just when you thought you had it all figured out.

Things I learned about my three main characters this week:

1. One likes foreign films, but he's a terrible reader.
2. One can't dance.
3. One has a violent aversion to socks.
4. The one thing they all have in common: life-changing experiences with dead bodies.

And then there are the backstories of my support characters - these are the ones who are giving me trouble. I'm finding it difficult to flesh them out without letting their voices take over the narrative. A teacher of mine, Kim Wilkins, once said this about supporting characters: you never want it to feel like they 'go back in a box when they're off the main stage. So how do you make sure minor characters aren't coming off as cardboard cutouts? Here are some of my findings:

- Every SC should have a defining role to play in the main characters' lives. What is their specific function and place? My character Dalton was pretty flat until I realized that he's my MC's secret keeper; he's the one she feels most comfortable sharing with.

- When SCs are becoming cliche, give them some interesting contradictions. They're phobic about germs but refuse to wear socks outside. Or whatever. Contradictions are what make people unique.

- Don't just give SCs traits; give them relationships with their traits.

- Spend time crafting the MCs' relationship with their SCs. It's often through the main characters' descriptions and feelings towards their supporting cast that readers really get to know them.  

October 1, 2011


I've decided to give MissAdventure a makeover - hello, pretty and mysterious! I figure it's time to narrow my focus, too.

This site will now focus primarily on my creative writing adventures. I'll be posting short stories, blurbs from my long-form work, and the occasional angsty post about living. And you'll still find a lot of the same stuff as before: book reviews, thoughts on editing, and interesting publishing news.

In the past I've wanted this site to serve as both professional portfolio and writing journal. But now that I'm taking my writing more seriously, I'd like to separate my online life into: Creative Writing Kate and Professional Editing Kate. These are both fairly Fabulous Females, but they need to give each other some space.

I'm in the process of building a website that will feature my editing work and portfolio; that's where you'll find a lot of Grammar Girl tips and other dressed-up publishing stuff. I'll let you know as soon as that goes live.

September 23, 2011

Book Review: Those Across The River

Those Across The River by Christopher Buehlman
Genre: Horror (with historical southern flavor)

I've never waited so anxiously for a debut novel to come out. I read about it earlier this year on Charlaine Harris' blog and fell in love with its title. It's got to be up there with The Sun Also Rises and The Sound and the Fury in the "best-sounding titles" awards: read it out loud. Are you in love with it yet? And then I saw the amazing cover and there was no going back for me.

It's about professor Frank Nichols, who leaves academia under a cloud of scandal after absconding with his co-worker's wife and moves down to an old family home in backwoods Georgia. He intends to write a book about his great-grandfather, a Civil War soldier and slave abuser whose ruined plantation stands somewhere in the woods. But Frank is haunted by memories of his time in the Great War. And the more he learns about what lies in the woods, the more he comes to realize that the town is as haunted as he is. Except the things in the woods have a score to settle, and it's Frank who is going to pay the price...

Let me start by saying that this book is geeeroSS in places. It's a horror novel, people: body parts do fly (and land with lots of squishy splats). But it is so well written and engrossing that I found myself not really minding the gross.

To say this book is atmospheric is putting it mildly. Buehlman invokes the sound and feel of the 20s with grace and believability and paints a funny and affecting portrait of the small southern town of Whitbrow. I love the playful affection in Frank's relationship with his young muse, Eudora, and how Buehlman uses the lighter elements to make the nasty bits all that much more affecting. This is a classic horror novel in the sense that its true creep-factor lies in what you can't see; Buehlman leaves just enough to the imagination to keep you up at night, in a good way.

The narrative voice is unique, lyrical, and haunting with a lot of surprisingly funny moments. It's one of the most original werewolf stories--or any story, really--I've read in a while in the way it is crafted. The fine craftsmanship is the thing I both loved and sometimes felt frustrated by.

Buehlman likes to do single-line paragraphs.
Which sometimes is haunting.
And sometimes lovely.
And sometimes breaks up the flow of the story.
Because it creates big pauses.
Like this.
And this.

This book is not warm and fuzzy. But if you like mystery, horror, history, and damn fine writing, you should most definitely give it a whirl.

September 18, 2011

America and Awesome Things

I've just moved back to America after a very, very long absence. I'm still getting used to being here... because the US of A is a little overwhelming. 

No offense, homeland; you know I love you. I'm just saying that living in Australia has illuminated some of your quirks. Why do we talk so loudly on the street? Why are we so obsessed with the weather, and what's with all the parking meters? It's not that these are bad things (although, dear Mother Country, there are moments when I want to punch you). I just don't feel like a part of the tapestry yet. It's a strange and discomfiting experience to find that 'home' doesn't feel like it did when you left it.

So I took myself for a walk through lovely Annapolis, Maryland and was reminded of a book my friend Lyndsey put me onto called The Book of Awesome. I haven't read it yet, but I'm subscribed to the website and enjoy the weekly emails immensely. The book originated from a blog chronicling 1,000 small, everyday things the writer thought were awesome. Things like running hugs; finding money in the pocket of pants you haven't worn in a while; finding your lost keys in the very first place you look. These emails always make me laugh because the writing is smart and funny, and because they remind me how many awesome things in life there are to celebrate. Here are some of mine from Annapolis. 

The hugely satisfying CRUNCH of shriveled fall leaves underfoot.

Going into a shop on a whim and finding exactly what you didn't know you were looking for. (A turn-of-the-century hessonite ring, in case you're wondering.) 
Rediscovering a place you used to know and having it feel like it's the first time.

A stranger stopping to tell you how beautiful your photo's going to be, just because they feel like it.

September 9, 2011

Book Review: Warm Bodies

Warm Bodies by Isaac Marion
Genre: let's call it Adult Literary Dystopian Love Story?

I'm planning a trip down to Charlston over my birthday weekend to finally meet my lovely critique partner and to go to YALLFest. The list of authors attending this YA-focused shindig is fairly spectacular and nerd-girl spasm inducing, but there were a few I didn't recognize. I was intrigued enough by Isaac Marion's premise (and, judging by his author photo, his ability to blend lumberjack chic with artistic flair) to go out and pick it right up. Be warned: gushing is about to ensue, because I fell a little hard for this book. And not (just) because of the lumberjack chic.

Warm Bodies is told from the perspective of R, who is a zombie... I know, I know. More zombies? Really? More guts and deadness? I don't usually go in for these things, and yet I keep giving you guts and deadness. Whatever. Just keep reading. He's living in a rapidly deteriorating world where human civilization is dying out and R is struggling to shake off his undead apathy. Like the rest of the zombies who live in the airport, R can barely form sentences or move with anything approaching grace, but inside he's alive with beautiful thoughts about being free. And then he meets Julie, the beautiful live wire whose boyfriend's brains he's just eaten, absorbing his memories and last living thoughts. Julie and R have some strange kind of bond that makes him want to care about living. Julie's passion starts to bring him to life - quite literally - and they set out to make something of the world they thought was lost.

There are a couple of things that made me fall in love with this novel. First, there was R himself. I wasn't sure I could love a zombie narrator. I mean, he eats people... not something I normally condone, although writing about shape shifters has kind of liberated my literary moral compass. There are a couple of gross-out moments that make you want to close one eye. But Marion's narrative voice makes you care. I loved R's well-crafted inner voice, filled with a thoughtfulness and a yearning that makes him easy to connect to. By the end of the novel you're fist-pumping for this guy, wanting what he wants, wanting to see him get a second chance at living.

For me, this book is magical realism at its best. It doesn't try to make sense of the nonsensical elements; it simply hands them to you as truth without making a big fuss about it in a way that reminds me of Gabriel Garcia Marquez's stuff. You've got a stark, dystopian world - scenarios that we've seen before - peppered with surreal memories and connections that rope you in. In absorbing Julie's boyfriend's brain R becomes inextricably linked with Perry; using shared memories and dreams, they find a way to connect with Julie and bring both men to life. Sound trippy? It is. This is one of the most original stories I've ever read, infused with wit and a subtle exploration of the power and beauty of language.

And then there's the writing, which is truly lovely. The rise and fall of it is pitch-perfect, with each passage blending into the next, melting on the tongue. This is one of those books that makes me despair  that I'll never be able to write so beautifully, but that does a good job in inspiring me to try.

I feel like R: I'm a little bit lost for words on this one. This zombie needs another cup of coffee.

September 8, 2011

Book Review: Forever (plus news!)

Forever, the last book in Maggie Stiefvater's Wolves of Mercy Falls series, had fairly giant shoes to fill in my life. I took it with me on a very tumultuous, round-the-world plane journey, one I knew was destined to be the worst of my life on many levels. I brought Forever with me because I figured it was the only thing that could actually bring some enjoyment to my journey, and it did that and more. For me, it was one of those reads that seems to speak for you, that reaches into you and illuminates dark places.

"When we kissed, it didn't matter that I had been a wolf hours ago, or that I would be a wolf again. It didn't matter that a thousand snares were laid for us as soon as we left this moment. All that mattered was this: our noses touching, the softness of his mouth, the ache inside me."

Forever is, among other things, a story about a boy and a girl trying to find a way to be together when everything around them seems to want to keep them apart. Grace has turned into a wolf and Sam, her boyfriend, is now firmly human and trying to figure out how to make her so. Stiefvater's writing is sometimes funny, sometimes haunting, and always beautiful. She has an amazing feel for using dialogue, and the gaps in conversations, to enhance the mood she's trying to evoke. The plot strikes a good balance between light and shade, doling out fist-pumping moments and achingly sad ones in fairly equal measure. I wish we could have spent more time with Cole and Isabel, whose strange bond was one I really enjoyed getting into, but I liked where Stiefvater left the series. If you haven't read it, I really think you should.

As an avid follower of Maggie's blog I don't think I've ever felt as close to a writer. She evokes a sense of fearlessness that has often inspired my own writing and the way I try to approach it. So I was fairly psyched to have the opportunity to co-interview Maggie with my friend Fiona for The Book Burglar, a blog Fiona writes for Boomerang Books. Check it out to see Maggie's answers to my many fan-girl questions, here.

August 25, 2011

Epic Road Trip: Tasmania

I've been travelling a lot lately - some fun, some not so fun. Let's talk about the fun stuff.

When I started researching my Masters thesis on the use of creative writing techniques in travel writing (for this read: excuse to read travel articles all day), I read something by Matthew Power about hiking the Overland Track in Tasmania. His story about the five-day hike, and the beauteous place that is this crazy island, made me fall in love with Tasmania instantly and permanently. Power talked about Lords of the Rings-style rainforest with dripping moss, moody skies, and jagged rocks. I found all that and so much more.

We decided to take our car over by ferry, which put us on the northern end of the island. For those of you unfamiliar with this part of the world, Tasmania is an Australian state located under the southeastern tip - it's on the same longitude as New Zealand, so we're talking lots of rain and semi-deciduous seasons as well as rainforests and nice beaches. Tasmania is known for its wilderness, but also for its produce and wines. So we decided to try and find some open wineries around Launceston - not ideal in winter. But we finally struck gold with Pipers Brook Winery, where we had some amazing whites and a pretty decent view.

We felt fancy, even though we were wearing raincoats.

And then we drove east to the Bay of Fires and camped out by the beach. This place was pure magic. The beaches are ringed with speckled boulders covered in bright red lichen, making them look like they've been stained with blood. As soon as we pulled up I was out of the car and taking these:

I don't actually know why the algae is red, but it lights up and glows when the sun falls on it. We set up camp in a bushy alcove and spent the night happily sitting by the fire eating sausages. There was a very brave wallaby who quite literally sat with us through dinner (and picked through our trash). They're notoriously shy, so this was a little weird. Especially when he sat creepily behind my chair and made scratchy noises, which I came him a talking to for. Not that he cared: he blinked at me and stayed where he was.

Then it was off into the historic center of the country for what we decided we needed: a little non-camping time. We stayed in the beautiful, tiny town of Ross in a heritage cottage:

It involved a log fire, a cute local tavern for dinners, and one of the oldest convict-built bridges in Tasmania. While the convict part's a little sad, the bridge itself is pretty impressive. At least Tasmania hasn't swept its colonial past under the underbrush like the rest of Australia, and I have to say I think it's better for it.

Then we wound through wilderness up into Cradle Mountain NP. We stayed at a pretty amazing Lodge were we got amazing massages, gourmet meals, and another log fire/king bed experience. But what we really went for was to hike through this:

This day of hiking was challenging, blissful, and the highlight of Tasmania for me. I couldn't believe I was finally standing on the Overland Track, the track I'd lusted after for so long. We even got to follow a wombat for a while, who was ambling down the boardwalk in front of us. The weather was kind to us, and as a result I had several of those moments of awe that you only get when surrounded by a natural setting so magnificent that you know you'll never be able to describe it. So I took lots of photos instead.

Tasmania is an amazing blend of good things: unspoiled wilderness, friendly people, sparkling coastline, good food and wine, and cosy country towns (to name a few).

It might be considered the end of the earth, but that only makes what you find there that much more outstanding.

August 17, 2011

Brisbane to Tas: the Epic Journey

I've been a terrible blogger. That's because I've been off adventuring in Tasmania and High Country Victoria for the past few weeks. We decided it would be fun and intrepid of us to drive from Brisbane down to Melbourne and take a ferry to Tasmania, camping all the way. And it was. It was a great opportunity to see the Australian landscape, but it involved an obscene amount of time in the car, which I wiled away by pointing Paul's iPhone at things (including one of the coolest wilderness events I've ever seen close up).

If this doesn't make you want to road trip with me, well... I just don't know about you.

July 13, 2011

Book Review(s): The Last Werewolf & Ship Breaker

I just got back from a tropical island, which means I just spent a lot of time reading. I mean, I did other stuff, too. I swam with giant turtles. I sailed in a very small series of circles. And I got a marginally nice tan. These books are also worth a mention.

The Last Werewolf
by Glen Duncan

This story is about a man who realizes he's the last werewolf left alive and he's feeling pretty apathetic about it. He's planning to end his life at the next full moon unless the men who hunt him find him first. But almost as soon as he decides that life is no longer worth living, a series of events--and a beautiful woman--change his mind. This is not your typical paranormal story. This is like nothing else I've ever read. The writing, for one, is completely unique and beautifully crafted. Duncan's sharp sense of humor and way with words is so astounding that I found myself rereading whole pages, nodding emphatically, smiling to myself like I'd just discovered a secret no one else knew about. I had nothing in common with his characters, but he found a way to make me feel connected to them on some fundamental level.
Plus, the story's just fascinating. Talk about characters with interesting baggage.

But there were moments when Duncan's voice was so clever (and so aware of the fact) it made my teeth hurt a little. There are moments when I wanted to pull this writer (or, really, this narrator) and say, "really? We get that your smart. Do you need to rub it in my eye with a stick?". This book has moments of pretentiousness, for sure. Which I hate to say, because I loved it enough that it was worth those moments of eye-rolling.

Verdict: A little violent and raw around the edges with beautiful writing and moments of clear, mesmerizing brilliance.

Ship Breaker
by Paolo Bacigalupi

This YA book is about a young boy in a dystopian world. Life is pretty brutal on the beaches off what used to be New Orleans where he lives breaking down ruined ships for their precious metals. He doesn't have much to look forward to. Until he and a friend find a beached cruise ship, and half dead rich girl, and the opportunity to change their lives forever.

This is a beautifully written book. You've got a fast-moving plot that never stops churning, and a set of characters that are rich and interesting to follow around. The world that Bacigalupi describes is not a pretty world, but he manages to fill the story with hope and friendship. Unlike a lot of other YA novels I've read lately, it doesn't rely on its more fantastical elements and a cloying love story to tell a gripping yarn. This is a book that boys won't roll their eyes reading and that girls will love just as much, I think.

The verdict: Unique, well crafted, and well worth a read.

June 28, 2011

How To Edit Your Novel With (Something Like) Objectivity

After a year-long hiatus, I'm finally in full editing mode for Spellbound (soon to be called... something else). I did another novel Incident Report and figured out that (cue cringe) more than three-fourths of the novel needs to be rewritten or tossed. Big things need to happen: a villain needs to be added and a protagonist needs to go. I'm shocked that there was ever a time when I couldn't see these things, but I couldn't. I took a year-long editing course in 2010 and still couldn't. I've been wondering what it is that's given me the objectivity I needed to see all of my novel's flaws.

A beloved teacher and writer once told me that editing one's own work requires two things above all others: the ability to be Detached and Methodical. In editing my own work (and working as a professional editor where being methodical was practically a religion), I think I've pinpointed the things that help writers to be these two important things:

1. Create some distance. Most parents wills tell you that it's difficult to be objective when it comes to their kids. For writers, its the same way. They struggle to take criticism and to dole any out because, well, their characters and plot line are perfect JUST THE WAY THEY ARE. But you have no way of knowing that until you can look at them with some objectivity. I find the best way to create objectivity is giving it time. I put Spellbound away--didn't look at it, barely thought about it--for almost a year. That's a really long time, but it's enabled me to step away from the story and view it as someone else would, with fresh eyes. You don't have to wait a year to feel this effect: even a few days can help.

2. Create some distance by making it look 'real'. Get your book printed out and bound. Making it look all shiny and professional performs some kind of magic trick, making it easier to see the work as someone elses. Seeing it as someone elses helps you to rip into it without so much angst. Lately, I've also discovered the lovely effects of putting your book onto your Kindle. All you have to do is email the document as an attachment to your Kindle account and put 'convert' in the subject line, and bam: the thing looks like any other book you've got on there. Reading through my drafts this way really helps me get some objectivity.

3. Create an editing checklist. I learned this once the hard way when editing travel guides. Editing--no matter what it is you're editing--is hard. It's overwhelming and hard. But in order to be efficient at it, you need to break it down into manageable steps. When I proofed travel guides, I wrote out checklists for myself. If I was in the proofing stage, they would look something like this:

- check that page numbers are present/correct
- proof photo captions
- Make sure that photos are placed correctly
- make sure that all map icons and headings are correct
- check that photo credits are present and correctly spelled... etc.

I'd go through spread by spread, making sure to tackle every element I needed to check as part of an individual step. When you look through a manuscript for everything that could be wrong all at once, it's impossible to catch it all. But when you break it up you miss fewer mistakes, and the ones that are there are clearer to you. Try a checklist out. It's MAGIC.

4. Start from the end. I always used to read my stuff front to back, over and over. The problem is that once you get to the end, your editing eyes (and editing brain) are all sorts of tired out. Sometimes reading from back to front helps bring back some objectivity and lets you see your work in a whole new light.

5. Ask for help. Get someone you trust to read your work. I've got critique partners who will give it to me straight up, without any fruity syrup or dollops of whip cream. Critique can be painful, but it can help you more than anything else can.

I'm fixing to rewrite/fix up a scene a day of Spellbound until I've got an all-new-and-improved second draft. Hopefully in about a month's time I'll have something to show for it.

June 26, 2011

Grammar Girl: Active vs. Passive voice

This semester, if I wanted to get my students looking itchy and just a little bit scared, all I had to do was mention passive voice. Most of them just didn't get it - even after I made up a little passive/active man dance (you try keeping undergrads's attention for 90 minutes... it tends to make you kind of crazy).

I got frustrated by how many of them STILL didn't get it come exam time--what about the dance?? But I, too, remember struggling with passive voice when I was their age. It's not always an easy one to spot, and an even wilier one to try and really understand. So here, my attempt to explain the difference between active and passive voice (and why you should care).

So what do I mean by 'voice', anyway? We're talking about a grammatical category that indicates the relationship between the subject (agent) of your sentence and your verb (action). If you've got an agent carrying out an action in your sentence, then you're using active voice. Verbs are our language's 'doing' words: when an agent in performing what you're describing in your verb, then you're using active voice. If the action of the sentence is happening TO your subject, then you've got passive voice.

Now, for my running man example (minus the dance): when I think of active voice, I think of a man out for a jog at 5AM. He's being ACTIVE - going out and actively carrying out an activity. In order for a sentence to use active voice, it has to do the same thing. Your agent (subject) has to be the one carrying out your verb. For example:

I (agent/subject) once created (action/verb) a fake wedding invitation marrying my brother to one of my friends. (true story - don't ask)

This is what the passive version of this sentence would look like with the subject of the sentence being acted upon.

A fake wedding invitation marrying my brother and one of my friends was created by me.

So we've got a difference in emphasis here. The active voice emphasizes the subject, and the passive voice emphasizes the object or receiver of the action. More examples:

Active: Hope bit her Dad in the leg.
Passive: Hope's Dad was bitten in the leg by Hope.

Active: Last night I dreamed about that hunky anesthesiologist from the show Offspring.
Passive: Last night the hunky doctor from the show Offpring was dreamed about by me.

So here's where my students' eyes start going fuzzy. Because, yes, these sentences are saying the same thing. But they are saying it in different ways, and that's why we care. The passive voice is more difficult fora reader to understand. It's wordier, more roundabout, and often puts space between the actor and action. Sometimes it puts the subject at the end of the sentence so that you don't know who is actually biting Dad's leg until just before the full stop, which can be really confusing. Sometimes the actor doesn't appear in the sentence at all. Passive voice makes for more garbled sentences and, 99% of the time, weaker prose. I mean look at the sentences above: which ones do you prefer? Which ones do you think are easier to read?

It's not that passive voice is always bad. Sometimes you don't want the emphasis to be put on the agent like, say, in a press release from a company that has spilled massive amounts of oil into the sea. They'll say something like "this oversight is regretted", instead of "we regret this oversight." They don't WANT their grammar to sharpen the obvious: that they've done something that people aren't going to be fans of. So it makes sense that they'd want to make themselves out as the object of the action rather than its agent: that's why you see passive voice in so many corporate and government documents. Sometimes the object is more important than the agent. This is the point in the lecture when I'd do my passive man dance, a creepy side-shuffle with jazz hands meant to symbolize someone who is side-stepping the action/blame.

When it comes to writing clearly, active voice is almost always the way you want to go. I've seen so many writers use passive voice without meaning to and then look distraught when they can't figure out how to make their sentence stronger. So when you're reading your work, ask yourself: is the subject of your sentence the one who is doing/has done/will do the action? If not, you're probably using passive voice. And you should probably revise for clarity.

An example from my work:

Passive: A step forward was taken, camera clutched between my hands.
Active: I took a step forward, camera clutched between my hands.

... better, right?