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.