Five Offbeat Supernatural Reads

 

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  1. The Rest of Us Just Live Here, Patrick Ness – I’ve written about this book already, but I love it so much that I just had to mention it again.  It’s a clever take on the “chosen one” narrative, written from the point of view of Mikey, who is just a regular kid living in a town full of strange, supernatural drama.
  2. Carry On, Rainbow Rowell – Although the story of Baz and Simon started out as a Harry Potter-esque fanfic in Fangirl, it is its own unique blend of romance, battling monsters and mystery.  I love that it is set at a school for magic, but I also love that Simon Snow is a terrible wizard and Baz (his nemesis) has such a well-developed storyline as well.
  3. The Book of Lost Things, John Connolly – Angry and grieving his mother’s death, 12-year-old David seeks solace in books and finds himself becoming lost in a fictional world full of strange heroes and monsters.  While at first this might seem like a typical “door-to-other-realm” book, Connolly’s artful re-imagining of fairytales is a thoughtful study on grief told in a whimsical fashion.
  4. Dust City, Robert Paul Weston – I loved this book for the beautiful prose, but I was drawn in by the unique twist on the big bad wolf.  Told from the perspective of the Big Bad Wolf’s son, Henry Whelp, Dust City is a murder mystery set in a fairy tale world that is overrun with corruption, greed and a mind-bending drug that many of the creatures are addicted to: fairy dust.
  5. Nimona, Noelle Stevenson – When Nimona, a wild-hearted shapeshifter  teams up with the villainous Lord Baluster Blackheart to prove that the heroes at the Institution of Law Enforcement and Heroics aren’t so virtuous, all sorts of hilarious mayhem ensues.  I loved this graphic novel not only because it is told from the villains’ perspectives, but also because it does such a fantastic job of deconstructing the classic good versus evil narrative.

Shiver: A Review

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I’ve read a lot of paranormal romances, and the best ones are almost always self-aware of the genre that they are a part of, folding in intertextual links and subtle connections to earlier lore.  Shiver does this, among many other things, quite well.  It’s the story of Grace, a somewhat “different” teenage girl who falls in love with Sam, a werewolf and their struggle to be together against all odds.

A Self-Aware Narrative

One of my favourite scenes in the book happens when Sam meets Grace’s parents.  She builds the scene around a classic horror movie that Sam and Grace are watching on TV before her parents come home.  Apart from the quips about classic “monster” stories, she weaves in a neat, self-aware commentary on stories about werewolves.  Although Maggie Stiefvater doesn’t exactly explain the how and the why of werewolves, she offers up a lot of questions that fuel the plot in many exciting ways.

Mounting Tension, Among Other Things

There were a number of excellently paced scenes that built tension so well I couldn’t put the book down.  I think the most artful example might be later in the book when they are looking for Sam and the tension mounts through the dialogue, which is choppy and terse.  Although not much is said, it’s pretty clear that this is a frightening scene.

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Of course, there’s also a nice balance of humour, even when things get scary.  Isabel’s dialogue in so many places had me laughing, but here is one of my favourites:

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Poetic Prose

The prose in this book is elegant.  I found myself slowing down in a lot of scenes just to read and re-read sections that sounded so lovely I didn’t want them to end.  Sure, there was an exciting plot, but what kept me reading Shiver was the language.

Here is one of my favourite sentences:

“She waited to change, and I waited to change, and we both wanted what we couldn’t have” (343).

Another favourite happens earlier, when they visit a chocolate shop:

“Peppermint swirled into my nostrils, sharp as glass, then raspberry, almost too sweet, like too-ripe fruit.  Apple, crisp and pure. Nuts, buttery, warm, earthy, like Sam.  the subtle, mild scent of white chocolate” (280).

 

The Bottom Line

I’m glad I finally read this book.  After looking at its’ beautiful cover on my shelf for some time, as it turns out, this book is beautiful on the inside too.

Grade: A +

Why You Should Read for Comfort

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Comfort food usually invokes visions of radioactive orange mac and cheese and hot buttered toast.  (I know, it’s not healthy, but it’s delicious and warm and comforting).  Similarly, sometimes what I need is to curl up with an old favourite book that allows me to escape into a fictional world that I know well, giving my brain the comfort food it needs.

One of my favourite go-to series is Tamora Pierce’s Wild Magic quartet.  I can remember reading about Daine, the protagonist, and feeling like we were kindred spirits. Although I  lack Daine’s ability to talk with animals, I have always admired her plucky nature and her epic archery skills. Throughout the series, Daine learns to use her gift while traveling to remote locations and fighting epic battles.  It’s an awesome and inventive read if you’re looking for a unique twist on a coming of age story.

The Nostalgia Factor

What does nostalgia do for us anyway?  Through scents, music, food, and even our favourite stories we are reminded of our connection to other people.  It’s even been known to counteract depression and give our lives meaning.

In a TIME Magazine article, Alexandra Sifferlin writes that “comfort foods remind us of our social ties, which means they may help us feel less lonesome when we feel isolated.”

Similarly, escaping into a fictional world can create a sense of community, which makes us feel just a little less alone.  It’s possible that just like eating comfort food or listening to a song that reminds us of good times, a good comfort read can entirely change our moods.  At least, that’s the way it feels for me each time I crack the spine on one of Pierce’s books, or start reading the Harry Potter series for the millionth time.  (A recent article in Psychologies talks more about what sorts of books most people like when it comes to comfort reading, but I prefer a good old fantasy read where good always wins).

Here’s a thought: if comfort reading is so good for us, why do people see it as a “just for fun?”  And why is it that “fun” and “education” can’t mix? 

The Issue

One recent article suggests that reading too many comfort books actually hurts young readers’ development.  As an English teacher, this bugs me a whole lot.  Obviously I would like students to be totally in love with To Kill a Mockingbird and Shakespeare, BUT, I also love it when I see a student reading a book that they just enjoy. I like it even better if that student is having a rough day and the book they are reading makes them feel better.  The best part about young readers is that when they love a book, they want to read more like it.  And you know what?

READING IS GREAT FOR YOUR BRAIN! (Like broccoli? Maybe?)

Better than Broccoli!

If reading links us to a larger community and makes us draw connections about the world around us, the act of reading,even for pleasure, is helping readers to become more socially aware. Also, I could blah blah on for a while about building vocabulary and making inferences and stuff, but I won’t, because I’m not in the classroom now.

Read what you want to read, because unlike mac and cheese, reading of any kind is actually good for you.

What are your favourite comfort books? Do you think that comfort reading has value?

 

Gorgeous: A Review

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What It’s About

After the death of her mom, 18-year-old Becky Randle finds a mysterious phone number among her mom’s possessions.  It turns out that number belongs to world famous designer Tom Kelly, who says he can turn her into The Most Beautiful Woman in the World.  Like anyone who isn’t insane, Becky thinks he is joking.  That is, until the mysterious magic of Tom’s three couture dresses transforms Becky into the glamorous, thin and, oh yeah, gorgeous Rebecca Randle.  There’s just one catch: she has to fall in love and get married within one year.  If you’re looking for your next great read, here are a few reasons to pick up Gorgeous:

Cinderella Just Got Way Cooler

If you think that Paul Rudnik’s tale is just another Cinderella story, it’s not.  While Tom Kelly might be the coolest fairy god-father I’ve ever seen, there are no wicked step-mothers or step sisters.  Instead, Rudnik masterfully blends fairytale magic with the real world by creating a heroine in Becky who is both relatable and kick-ass.  When Becky becomes The Most Beautiful Woman in the World, she doesn’t lose her sense of self.  I.e. when her best friend Rocher (yes, it is pronounced like those chocolates) comes to help her out there isn’t any tension regarding who is more popular or pretty.

Hilarious Dialogue & Prose

Apart from a down-to-earth heroine, the dialogue and prose is well crafted. Not only do the characters all have their own way of speaking, but there are a ton of funny lines, like this one:

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Or this one:

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A Turbo-Speed Plot

The plot is so fast-paced it will keep you up at all hours just to find out what happens next.  Although the first few chapters feature Becky grieving her mother’s death, things start to happen fast when Becky calls Tom.  In a matter of pages, Becky is whisked away to feature in Vogue, star in a movie and woo a Prince all in a matter of 120 pages.  With plot twists happening at the end of nearly all the chapters, there was no way that I could put it down. No, seriously, I ended up staying awake until 3 AM just to finish this book.

The Final Verdict

When I realized what this book was about, I was worried that it was going to be one of those books where a plus-sized girl becomes skinny and popular.  Despite what the title might suggest, Gorgeous explores ideas surrounding inner beauty as well as family, love and heartbreak.  With magic, wit and some high-flying adventures, this is a fantastic, fast-paced read.

The Magic of Words

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I’ve been reading Emily Croy Barker’s “The Thinking Woman’s Guide to Real Magic” at the moment and something in the way that she describes her heroine’s pursuit of magical abilities got me thinking about honing my own craft: writing.  In
a lot of ways, hunched over my favourite novels time and again feels like learning from master wizards.

Like Barker’s protagonist, Nora, who spends days hunched over old magical textbooks and rejoices in her abilities to mend a broken pot, I feel like the process of crafting a good story is equally as slow, but just as rewarding as if any real magic has been produced.

The delight of creating a phrase that conveys just the right emotion feels like pure magic.  A scene that translates words into experience is alchemy.  Apart from allowing the critical part of the brain to take some control during edits, I like to think that there is some magic to learning just the right turn of phrase.

Here is a list of my current five favourite writing resource books, in case you are in need of inspiration on your quest for your own literary magic:

Writing Down the Bones, by Natalie Goldberg

Naming the Worldedited by Bret Anthony Johnston

Reading Like a Writerby Francine Prose

Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craftby Janet Burroway

The Trickster’s Hatby Nick Bantock

 

Happy writing!

What are some of your favourite writing books or resources?

 

Why I Sometimes Like Clichés.

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I was surfing the net instead of editing my latest writing project when I came across a long list of clichés not to include in submissions for a particular literary magazine. It was a pretty long list, including ideas like “twins separated at birth meet accidentally and fulfil a destiny,” “spunky female heroine who dresses as a boy” or “vampires as tragic romantic figures.”  I get it, I do.  Clichés…overdone.  I mean, hey, Stephanie Meyer kind of did vampires to death and the whole wizard/magical doorway thing has been told in a lot of stories.  Except…I still kind of like clichés.

Dude Looks Like a Lady

When I think about all of the stories that I liked as a kid, they all had some element of cliché in them.  One of my favourite series of all time is Tamora Pierce‘s Lioness and Wild Magic series which are all about the spunky heroines.  All of the Meg Cabot books have a heroine with something to say too.   In a way, I think Pierce’s books are/were groundbreaking, except that the idea of girls dressing like boys to achieve a goal isn’t exactly new. Shakespeare used it in The Merchant of Venice and it probably wasn’t even his idea first.

If these story ideas have been around this long, they must have some merit, right? What about music?  There are some songs that get redone over and over again simply because they have pleasing chord progressions.  (I.e. The Piano Guys’ version of “Let it Go” is a particularly spectacular example of a cover that rocks).  In a way, subverting a cliché is just the literary version of doing a mashup.  Since mashups are pretty popular out there, I have to ask:

What’s the big deal with clichés?

Wizards are the New Vamps

If you haven’t already read Lev Grossman’s The Magicians trilogy, it might just blow your mind.  I’m noticing a trend lately that stories that use familiar elements from childhood books like Narnia and Harry Potter are making a huge comeback.  On the one hand, you could argue that these authors are in a way telling the same story over again from a slightly different perspective.  In The Magicians, Quentin has a somewhat similar experience to Harry Potter in that he attends a wizard school.  SPOILER ALERT: he even visits a Narnia-like place.  For all intents and purposes, Quentin is a hero who goes through a magical doorway after learning some magic and has lots of adventures that involve magical beings.

Would you call Grossman’s story clichéd? (I’m sure some a-hole out there has said it).

But here’s the thing.  When done well, clichés can be powerful stuff.  Take Rainbow Rowell’s new book, Carry On.  Not only does it have a Hogwarts-esque wizarding boarding school, but there is also some vampire romance and a lot of mythical creatures.  Some might say there’s a whole lot of cliché fantasy elements in this book, but Rowell finds a way to make these popular ideas different and fresh.

I think what differentiates between literary awesomeness and boring cliches boils down to this: it’s how you use it that matters.

Is it possible for a cliché to come back into fashion, kind of like bell bottoms and that heinous acid wash denim has?

Everybody’s Doing It

There’s a theory floating around out there that there are only seven basic plots.  I’ve probably mentioned this before, but it’s something that I think about a lot.  As a writer, I’m always trying to write something different. Something unique.  Except, if there really are only seven basic plots, then one could argue that there are only a finite number of stories to be told.

Maybe we tell stories and keep on employing clichés they hold some sort of cultural meaning or value?  Maybe, we shouldn’t give vampires and wizards and spunky heroines so much trouble. After all, they’re just here to tell a good story.

Reading the Clean Eating Movement

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I like to think that eating healthy is a personal goal. It’s right up there with getting more sleep, making it to the gym and trying desperately not to eat that pan of brownies that is currently beckoning to me from the freezer.

Confession: I already ate half the pan of brownies.

It was while I was feeling insanely guilty about that half-pan of brownies that I started to think about the language of diets in North America.

Cleanliness is Next to Godliness

If we want our bodies to be “pure,” we do “a cleanse,” a sort of baptism for our innards. We want our lettuce to be natural, organic, and well, green. We shop at Whole Foods and avoid the Dirty Dozen.  It’s all very wholesome.  Sometimes, we even have to battle the sugar demon.

While I have wondered if throwing holy water on those brownies and shouting “The power of Christ compels you!” would make the sugar cravings stop, I’m not totally convinced.

In a lot of ways, it seems like the language of clean eating has invoked some religious connotations, whether its proprietors meant to or not. Our notions of healthy vs. not healthy have been wrapped up in a larger narrative of clean vs. dirty, as if eating that stupid banana (instead of the brownies) will absolve us of our dietary sins.

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The Food Narrative

In our attempts to ward off these diseases, the narrative of food has become steeped in religious imagery. From a linguistic point of view, clean eating bases its ideas on eating foods that make the body pure and clean.  The message implies that if you eat the cleanest food possible and make your body like a temple, you will save yourself from the hellfire of disease.

Okay, enough ranting for today.  I’m off to gnaw on a piece of celery.