Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Whips and Carrots

Another month over?  Another holiday gone?  Really?  As in, really really?   Wow, this time I was afraid I wasn't going to make it.  Thank god for catering.  And husbands who cook.

I spent the first part of Thanksgiving break flat on my back with the migraine from hell.  Two and a half days of skull-morphing agony, skulking in my bedroom, glaring at random piles of laundry as constant reminders of my slovenly ways.  And then there were the books.  So many lovely books, and I didn't dare read them.  Did I mention the army of angry gnomes who took up residence in my brain with tiny pickaxes and other gnomely instruments of torture?  And you can tell from my other post I was soooo looking forward to the holidays anyway.

Maybe it's just a regional thing, but both of the universities where I teach give us a whole week off for Thanksgiving break.  The kids still only get Wed.- Fri.  Usually it's heavenly, with lots of good homecooked food, looking forward to Christmas, visits from relatives... but Daniel's got his record label, and I have this book, so we're hobbitt-holing it a lot these holidays.  Code for "Um, not a good time.  Visit next year.  Oh, and do you know a good caterer?"

So I'm flat on my back.  It's day three.  My eleven year old son comes to me.  He sits down on the bed and asks me, very somberly, with these soulful brown eyes of his, "Mom?  How much writing did you get done today?"

Expose heart.  Insert stake.

I had a really complex reaction to that (not so) innocent question.  Guilt, of course.  Primary, intense, and immediate.  But also pride.  I mean, an eleven year old boy is actually paying attention to the fact that his mother is writing a book???? Enough to ask her how it's going????  How sweet.  How unexpected.  How wonderful.  I put it in my pocket to save for uphill days.

Because it was exactly what I needed to hear.  Headache and all, I dragged myself out to my office and wrote. And wrote and wrote.  So that's the whip part.  The carrot?  I will not let myself go see the new Harry Potter until I finish this book.  I'm close enough that it's bearable, but still have enough to do that it's killing me.  I want to see it really really bad.  But I won't.  Carrot, right?

Funny thing.  Max and Grace spent their post-Thanksgiving holidays with full social schedules.  Max's included a trip to see HP7 with friends.  Oh well.  I suppose he deserves a carrot for being such a convincing part of the whip.

Monday, November 22, 2010

We Are the Grown-Ups Now

I am so not in the holiday spirit this year.  In fact, I'm more than a little annoyed they exist at all, selfishly managing to intrude upon my hard-earned hobbitt hole time.  Thanksgiving looms on the horizon as nothing more than a grim reminder that I forgot to buy a turkey in time for it to thaw properly.  That means either buying a fresh one or paying someone else to cook one for me.  Or we could eat ham.

Why do I hear a Marie Antionette-like echo in the distance?

Perhaps it has to do with years of programming.  I am learning the delicate art of self-employment (in the arts, no less) coming from a family, and a world in general, that's ruthlessly corporate and thus runs on corporate time.  Now that D has launched his own LLC (in the arts, no less), we have double the creativity, double the strange hours, and double the stress.

Yes, stress.  Who knew that creativity and being able to set your own hours created a unique kind of stress?  Part of it is predictably financial; being self-employed means an erratic income stream.  That's no different from any number of professions, though.  But being able to set your own hours upsets some people very much.  If I pull three ten p.m. to eight a.m. shifts in a row because I have a deadline coming up, and crash during "normal" lunch hours, and someone like, oh, say, the FedEx guy comes by, it's shocking the kind of dirty look you'll get.  I mean, how dare I sleep from eight a.m. 'til noon?  Don't I know there's a recession? Nevermind that the hypothetical FedEx guy just woke me up during what my body is screaming at me is the middle of my night... my bright, sunny night when the television is infested wth cartoon characters and talk shows...

Come to think of it, I like vampire hours just fine.

But the holidays are like some vast global reminder that everyone must stop and celebrate the same approximate thing at the same approximate time every year.  Whether it's religous or secular or even plain 'ol material, the globe pauses to take a collective breath around this time of year.  Which is nice.  Sorta.  I usually like it.  Hobbitt hole time.  Fuzzy socks and pretty lights, family, good food, and presents.  And people are usually in a pretty good mood.

But this year, I have a deadline.  I forgot about the turkey.  I will have to remember, and often repeat, a life-saving mantra taught to me by a much wiser soul:

We are the grown-ups now.  We can change the rules.

If that means eating out for Thanksgiving, then so be it.  But more likely it will mean Thanksgiving ham and Publix pumpkin pie, with an early resolution to do better next year.      

Friday, November 19, 2010

Review: "Torn," by Amanda Hocking

I've been thinking about boundaries and edges a lot lately since picking up Amanda Hocking's newest release Torn, which she was kind enough to let me review early.  The title alone suggests such things:  Edges.  Boundaries.  Thresholds.  Wendy Everly and nearly everyone she cares about stands at one of these in Hocking's second installment of her acclaimed Trylle trilogy.  Friends, family, enemies, and Wendy herself remain caught in cross-currents of political and class struggles, navigating complex personal ties that alternately bind and strangle, all the while confronting the eternal question of self-definition.  Who is Wendy Everly?  Who does she want to be, and at what cost to herself, to Forening, to her family and friends?

These are not new dilemmas.  Readers face them, or some variant of them, every single day.  They are endemic to the human condition.  And yet Amanda Hocking makes them not only new, but magical, distilling them into one not-quite human character who is wildness made flesh, a woman-girl who runs barefoot and wild-haired through woods and palaces alike, her sometimes angry, sometimes shy steps dogged by the sound of the baubles she loves and the scent of ancient magic in her blood.  That, and the routine righteous rantings of an American teenager, for Wendy Everly is nothing if not doubly cursed.  Or blessed.  For therein lies one of Hocking's greatest gifts, and one she shares with her late great idol, filmmaker John Hughes: the ability to capture young adulthood as the threshold it is, that immortal breath between child and adult when all seems possible.

What is it about the age of seventeen that makes everything so raw, so intense, and so magical?  Hocking knows, and in Torn, as in all her books, she manages to pin it for a moment, if not capture it outright.

Even mere mortals sense it.  I know I do:  At seventeen, I lay the wrong way on an old sofa in a darkened theatre inches away from a boy I loved so fiercely I felt us pulse between us like a living thing, an abyss so powerful we dared not move or speak its name.  So we lay there together instead, our backs where our butts should be, and looked up at the distant dull metal ceiling and invented constellations, awed by this new power between us.  What was that thing, and why was it so powerful?  What is the nature of the thing that makes usually obedient young people sneak out bedroom windows or refuse, out right, to stop seeing "that awful boy," even if it means losing the cell phone until social security kicks in?  Hormones?  First love?  Lust?  Rebellion? Need?  Compelling explanations, and probably true, but I prefer Ms. Hocking's:

Magic.  In the threshold between child and adult, we all have a breath of magic in us.

For Wendy Everly, the Trylle changeling heroine of Amanda Hocking's latest novel Torn, there is actual magic involved as she begins to master both her stubborn temper and her gifts of persuasion, telekenesis, and a few nifty new ones that make their presence known for the first time.  But Wendy also must navigate the two most difficult experiences anyone, Trylle or not, ever has to face: love and family.  As Wendy matures (delightfully so, in fact), love and family only become more and more complicated.  Her own life choices are highly restricted by unfair rules and a racist class system she neither supports nor helped to create, and yet she finds herself expected to not only obey this system of laws, but to one day be its supreme enforcer.  If she doesn't, her world will be engulfed in a brutal war, killing many of the people she loves.

And I thought picking a college was hard.

Within her limited range of choices, Wendy makes good ones.  In this sequel to Switched, we watch as Wendy cobbles together some acceptance of her past and her dual heritage, both Trylle and human. Not ready to forgive and forget (nor should she be), Wendy nonetheless comes to understand Elora, if not love her, even as she remains unapologetically attached to her human family.  She carves out pockets of peace for herself in Forening: a patch of garden, a view of the sky.  She ventures beyond the palace to see how other Trylle live, where the societal cost of her people's parasitic existence becomes real for her in uncomfortably personal ways.  She goes where she shouldn't and speaks (er...yells?) when she should be silent.  We learn quite a lot more about Troll culture, including its history, the rival Vittras, and the ancient Tryllic language.

I've got to give Amanda Hocking props for her research here.  In my research on her research for the Trylle trilogy (if that made any sense), she at one point wrote about how the genesis for the series came from a line in a book about Scandanavian mythology, and the idea kind of caught fire from there.  I was intrigued; there is nothing new under the sun, after all, but never before have I encountered an engaging YA read about trolls.  In fact, I don't think I've ever read about trolls as anything other than rock-eating monsters.  I had to know more.

***Alert: Research blatherings ahead.  Romance resumes exactly one paragraph below***So when a group of characters in Torn encounter an ancient tome written entirely in Tryllic, the ancient tongue of these elegant, enlightened beings, I was stunned to see that Hocking had phonetically written it in Cyrillic letters, a variant of Old Church Slavonic, which would have been what the region's oldest myths were first recorded in.  Lose you?  Bore you to death?  Sorry.  It's just that she's obviously done some serious research here, chosen authenticity over fluff, and my pulse raced more than a little when Wendy got her hands on that lovely Cyrillic Tryllic. The research that goes into crafting a well-written book so often slips under the radar, and I didn't want to let this one slide.  Indie books are often criticized for basic grammatical/typographical errors, and yet here we have one that not only evades these most basic of indie writing pitfalls, but reaches beyond into the kind of deep world building that marks territory previously cordoned off only for "serious" writers. You don't get much more serious than Old Church Slavonic; the last book I read to tackle it was by Orson Scott Card, and even he didn't reproduce its actual alphabet.  It's one of the reasons I love her writing: it maintains the fresh, experimental voice of the indie writer with occassional forays into the realms of "serious literature," and yet manages to be, above all, entertaining.  Excellent, Ms. Hocking.  We need more like you.  So then.  Where were we?

Romance?  Let's talk Finn.

Yes, Finn.  He's back, with his fierce black eyes and overwhelming protective instincts.  He's still determined to protect Wendy's honor from the danger he poses to her as a lowly tracker.  (She's really gotta do something about that caste system.)  And although all the elements of a great romance with Finn are there, from sizzling jealousy to help-I-can't-breathe-'cause-you're-looking-at-me moments to daring Vittra rescues, Hocking introduces a maddening new element: competition.  See, Wendy's grown up a bit. She's coming to terms with this Princess thing. She's more self-confident and her hair has better manners.  She's making peace with her wardrobe.  She's taking less crap, and when she gives an order, it's usually obeyed.  And the boys are noticing.  All of them.  There are the ususal suspects, of course, from Switched, including Finn and, to an extent, Rhys, but we also meet a sexy new one.  He's hot (very- think motorcycles and leather jackets), he's edgy, and if your mama didn't warn you about him, she just hasn't met him yet.  He can offer Wendy the one thing no one else ever has, or maybe even can: complete and total freedom, from Forening, from the Vittra, from everything.

And then there's Tove.

Tove, you say?  WTF?  I know, I know.  But don't count him out.  Tove is instrumental in this second installment of the Trylle trilogy; because of his Trylle gifts, in many ways, he's the closest thing Wendy has to an equal. He makes an excellent teacher, pushing Wendy to the limits of her powers even as he reiterates, over and over, the need for change and his confidence in her abilty to bring it about. Hocking exercises a deft touch here. I mentally conflated "Tove" with "Toad" for a variety of reasons that should be obvious to Switched readers, but in Torn, suddenly I turned the page to find an altogether decent guy.  It's like that moment when your best guy pal for like, forever, whips off his shirt one hot summer afternoon when you've been mowing lawns or something equally grimy and you just sit there, quietly stunned, wondering when the hell the fairies stole your dorky friend away and replaced him with someone you would actually date.  Awkward, but also cool and sexy in a squirmy, embarrassing kind of way.  And an incredible feat of character building for any writer.  Bravo.

All in all, Torn offers up a thoroughly entertaining read with all the things we have come to expect from Amanda Hocking's writing: engaging characters with fresh voices; a well-crafted world; solid writing with professional editing and packaging; an energy and connection with her readers that is somewhat harder to define.  She continues to be, in my opinion, one of the very best indie writers in the industry: edgy, hard working, whimsical.  I'm very much looking forward to the third installment in her Trylle series, along with whatever other offerings she throws our way.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Review: "Glimmer" by Stacey Benefiel

** spoiler alert ** When I saw that "Glimmer" had been released, I rushed to download it on my Kindle. I have been eagerly awaiting this sequel, and I was excited that I might be one of the first to read and review it. I rushed through the reading part- just like its title, "Glimmer" shines with wit, the return of beloved characters, unexpected twists, humor, romance, imagination, and that aching mixture of sexual attraction and innocent love most of us only experience around the magical age of sixteen or so. But then, when I got to the actual reviewing part, I stalled out a little, because I realized I had something worth thinking about on my hands. Something new, I think. Not just a good story, but an emerging talent in a vibrant new genre. Let me come back to this point. First, the book:

Did I mention humor? Stacey Benefiel outdoes herself here. I laughed out loud more times than I can count. I recounted parts of the book for friends, who laughed along with me. Just a taste: Zellie, wondering just what the heck you do with your dream boy once you have him panting in your arms, thinks: "I guess if you make a guy talk like Yoda, you're not completely messing up." I almost choked to death when I read that, I laughed so hard. Since then it's kind of gotten stuck in my head at the most awkward moments: "Mmm. Kiss you I will. Love you, I do." My husband thinks I'm crazy. Really disturbing, I know, and it's all your fault, Stacey Wallace Benefiel!

Many of the things left hanging in "Glimpse" get addressed here: we discover a lot more about the mysterious Benjamin; about the Society of Retroacts and their Lookouts; Zellie and Avery's impending little brother; and how family ties, so badly shaken in "Glimpse," wind up merely stirred but settled in "Glimmer." I loved reading about the Pacific Northwest. Without giving too much away, I have to say that setting is more important in this sequel. I loved the way Benefiel writes small towns. If you live in one, or come from one, you will recognize the authenticity with which she writes. My two wishes for this series: I would like to see a more thorough exploration of gay characters, and perhaps a deeper understanding of how they operate as Retroacts and/or Seers. Also, even the best of them come off a bit creepy. I wonder if Lookouts ever get jealous of their sister's powers? It seems to me they have a lot of grunt work and little glory.

A warning: Benefiel writes realistically, and humorously, about teen sex. She handles it in a responsible, straight-forward manner, and the actual writing is incredibly tender, highlighting the strengths and vulnerabilities of both characters. The "sex question" has got to be one of the hardest things for a YA writer to navigate, just as it is for real-life teens. I think Benefiel's handling of it is magnificent; it irritates me when people freak out about things like this, but some of them do, so consider yourself warned. What is even more curious is Benefiel's blending of Zellie's religious upbringing with her powers as a Retroact and her burgeoning sexuality. Raised to be in church every Sunday and then some, Zellie must suddenly navigate both the supernatural and the sexual, and she's not finding her answers in her father's bible. I love the way Benefiel portrays church life as not just "holier-than-thou". It's also wacky and irreverent, and the place to pick up boys. "Glimmer" is, in part, the story of a young woman who must carefully pick through the values her parents have so carefully instilled in her to find the ones that will work for her bizarrely unconventional life. She makes mistakes, of course, but Benefiel has lain enough of a small-town, family- and moral-centered universe that we can watch Zellie stumble and still hope not to see her fall.

On the whole, I think "Glimmer" is a better book than "Glimpse." Perhaps my favorite thing about reading it was seeing the ways in which her writing had become more sophisticated. "Glimmer" is a tighter, more focused book with a more cohesive magical system. I look forward to learning more about her world of Retroacts, Seers, Lookouts, of finding out more about Zellie and Avery, of finding out what happens to Benjamin, and, in general, just losing myself in her world.