Favorite Book Feature: The Reader by Traci Chee

Sometimes I read a book for the first time and it instantly makes its way to my favorites shelf. That happened this month with The Reader by Traci Chee. I usually don’t read fantasy, but I picked up this book because I had read that it was about a world without a written language, so I thought it would help inspire me with my WIP. I came into this book expecting to get a few new ideas on how a world would function without a written language, but I was instantly blown away by this amazing, thrilling, and diverse story about magic, pirates, and a book that contains everything that’s happened and everything that will be.

Sefia has been on the run every since her father was brutally murdered. She survived in the wild with her aunt Nin, but after Nin is kidnapped, Sefia is on her own with the mysterious object her parents had her protect: a book. Sefia teaches herself to read and sets out to rescue her aunt, and along the way she befriends a mute boy, is helped by pirates, and discovers a magic she didn’t know existed.

This book instantly became one of my favorites for several reasons. First of all, I love how diverse The Reader is. The story is populated by people of every age and color, and men and women are complete equals in the fantasy world of Kelanna. I like that Chee doesn’t draw much attention to it—that’s just the way things are in Kelanna. It’s refreshing to read a story in which this is the norm.

I also love this book because of one of its main themes, which is how stories give life meaning. Several of the characters struggle with the idea of not being remembered. Captain Reed in particular worries that his life won’t mean anything if people don’t remember the stories of all the adventures he’s been on. He even tattoos his body with images of everything he’s done. By addressing this theme, Chee highlights just how important stories are.

But the main reason I love this book is because it’s clear that the author loves words. Her love and respect of language infuses every word of The Reader. Chee writes with such authority, and had me laughing, crying, and devouring the pages. Words have magic in the story, and I love this analogy. Stories are powerful, and it is fascinating to see how that works out in a fantasy setting.

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Favorite Book Feature: Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson

There’s only a few months and a few Favorite Book Features left for the year. October’s featured book is one that was a great source of inspiration for my novel Somewhere Only We Know: Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson. Although most book lovers find it impossible to choose just one favorite book, if I had to, Speak would probably be the one.

Speak cover

 

Fourteen year old Melinda Sordino called the cops at the end-of-summer party, and as she starts her freshman year of high school no one will talk to her. Her old friends ignore her, and no one else comes near her except a self-centered new girl. But Melinda can’t get herself to talk about what happened the night of the party anyway. She tries so hard to forget it, even though it’s destroying her. Melinda spends the school year trying to draw trees for art class and make it through school without speaking. Because if she speaks, then she’ll have to speak the truth.

Speak is one of those books that stays with you for life. I wish I had heard of this amazing novel sooner, because Anderson is now one of my favorite authors. The best part of Speak is the book’s voice. It’s hard to define voice. Voice is the style something is written in, and when it is good it becomes a work of art. It’s something you know when you see it, and Speak has one of the strongest voices I’ve ever read. I think I like this book so much because I want to write like this. I want to create characters like Melinda who completely draw readers in to their stories. Melinda doesn’t speak much out loud, but in her head she is observant and witty. She has a story to tell, and readers get to hear it even if the people around her don’t.

I also love this book because of its connection to art. Melinda finds that she is able to use art to be able to express herself, even when she can’t find the words. I tried to do something like this in Somewhere Only We Know, but with writing. I love being creative and I make a lot of crafts, but I can’t draw. If I could I’m sure I would turn to art more, but instead I turn to words. And so the girls in my book turned to the written word to figure out other possibilities for their lives. In Speak, it is incredible to watch as Melinda attempts to draw trees and her teacher encourages her to dig deeper. I used a quote about this as the epigraph to my novel:

Speak Epigraph

I have a great respect for Anderson because she chose to write about such difficult topics like rape and depression. Most people don’t want to talk about it or acknowledge that they happen, and people like to censor books about those topics in order to “protect” children from them. In “A Comment About Censorship” which appears at the end of my copy of Speak, Anderson writes, “Censoring books that deal with difficult, adolescent issues does not protect anybody. Quite the opposite. It leaves kids in the dark and makes them vulnerable… Our children cannot afford to have the truth of the world withheld from them.” A writer friend of mine put it another way when she said we shouldn’t shelter our kids but insulate them.

Teens need books like Speak and Somewhere Only We Know because real teens are experiencing these issues. And I’m going to continue reading and writing books like these.

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Favorite Book Feature: The Selection by Kiera Cass

I’ve really enjoyed rereading and featuring one of my favorite books the last Friday of each month this year. You can find the full list of my favorites here. September’s Favorite Book Feature is one of my absolute favorites by one of my absolute favorite authors—The Selection by Kiera Cass.

My blog’s very first post was about the amazing Selection Series and how getting to speak to Cass was what gave me the kick I needed to write my debut novel, Somewhere Only We Know. I had so much fun rereading The Selection this month and am excited to tell you why it’s one of my favorite books.

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America Singer does not want to join the Selection. She doesn’t want to leave home and her secret love, Aspen, even though he is caste below her in their dystopian society and it would be difficult for them to be together. But she is chosen to participate in the competition to win the prince’s hand in marriage and must leave everything she knows behind. Then, when she arrives at the palace along with the 34 other girls in the competition and meets Prince Maxon, America realizes that the life she had always imagined for herself may not compare to the new possible future available to her.

The Selection is the first book in the original trilogy of the Selection series. The series follows America’s journey as she leaves her home province behind, moves to the capital of Angeles, and enters a competition to become the future princess. These books are filled with sparkling gowns, decadent food, mysterious rebels, and plenty of swoon. When I first picked up the book I heard it described as The Hunger Games meets The Bachelor, and that is so true.

Reading The Selection is like getting a hug from your best friend. America is one of the most endearing narrators I’ve ever read, and her story captivates me from the very first page. This is my fifth time returning to this book, and I love it more every time. If the combination of a dystopian society with all of the glamour of princes and princesses weren’t enough, the book’s main theme makes this story truly shine.

America had always believed that she would marry Aspen. She dreamed of being his wife even if it meant enduring life in a lower caste and giving up her beloved music. It was all going to be worth it for him. But then when the circumstances change and she finds herself in the palace, she realizes Prince Maxon isn’t who she thought he was. They even become good friends, and eventually America sees another possibility for her life—one in which she could be the princess.

I love this idea of possibilities. I love watching America discover that the world is open to her and that maybe what she thought were the right choices weren’t right at all. The Selection is an amazing book about this discovery.

I’m about to go read the rest of the series again. And you should read them too. You won’t be disappointed.

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Favorite Book Feature: Not a Drop to Drink by Mindy McGinnis

It’s the last Friday of the August, which means it’s time for another Favorite Book Feature! This year I’ve been featuring one of my favorite books on the last Friday of every month, telling you why it’s one of my favorites. You can find the full list of my favorite books here. August’s featured book is Not a Drop to Drink by Mindy McGinnis.

McGinnis’s debut novel is an eerie dystopia set in Ohio after a water shortage and contamination left many without water. Lynn was taught how to survive by her mother, and together they have protected their pond from every threat: drought, water contamination, coyotes, and people looking for a drink. Out of desperation, Lynn’s mother taught her to survive—how to shoot a rifle, purify water, hunt, and protect the house—but not much more than that. Not how to live.

But when her mother dies in an accident and when smoke on the horizon means a new threat, Lynn must reach out to others for the first time in her life. As she develops relationships with her neighbors and takes in a young girl who’s mother can’t care for her, Lynn slowly learns how to really live, not just survive in a dangerous world.

The main reason I love this book is because of the lean language McGinnis uses. The book has spare language, which reflects the barrenness of the environment. The book is easy to read, and does a beautiful job conveying all of the danger, emotions, and romance of the story.

I think McGinnis does a fantastic job creating her characters. Each of them is unique, from rough Mother and sensitive Stebbs to devastated Neva and hopeful Lucy. And I loved watching all of the relationships change and grow over the course of the book. My favorite of these relationships was that between Lynn and Lucy, whom Lynn takes in after her mother can’t care for her anymore. Lynn starts off treating Lucy the way her mother treated her—with a cold distance and a focus on survival. But Lucy’s youth brings so much life and hope to the house, and Lucy helps Lynn grow.

I also love this book because of how it’s a post-apocalyptic survival story. I’ve really been into reading survival stories like this lately, and Not a Drop to Drink does not disappoint. This book is definitely one of the more plausible dystopian stories out there, and it’s interesting to watch how someone survives in that world. It makes you really think about what you would do in the same situation. And I’m glad that Lynn moves beyond just surviving and learns how to really live.

I can’t wait to read the companion novel, In a Handful of Dust, set a decade after Not a Drop to Drink and told from now-teenage Lucy’s perspective.

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What I’m Reading: When My Sister Started Kissing by Helen Frost

I hate poetry for the most part. Hate seems like a strong word to use as a fellow writer myself, but I just don’t get it. I like writing to be clear, to tell me a story and paint a clear picture in my head. Reading poetry always just leaves me scratching my head and wondering what the heck the author was trying to say. While there are countless books that have affected me throughout my life, I can count the number of poems I actually like on one hand.

So I don’t know exactly why I picked up When My Sister Started Kissing by Helen Frost up at the library. Thanks to hating the hundreds of poems I had to read throughout high school and college, I’d never even thought about picking up a novel-in-verse before. But I’ve been trying to branch out a little bit of my genre when it comes to reading lately. And this book has a pretty cover and an interesting description. So I borrowed the book from my library and tore through it because of how much I liked it.

This book is a beautiful story about two sisters, Claire and Abigail, during the summer they are ten and thirteen. Claire’s family has been spending summers at their lake house her whole life. Claire’s mother died from a lightning strike on the lake when Claire was a baby, but the summers there have always been a special time she gets to spend with her sister and father. But this year everything is different. Her dad is about to have a baby with his new wife, Pam, and Abigail starts caring more about boys than Claire. Claire finds comfort in kayaking on the lake as she tries to figure out where she fits into this changing family.

Three points of view and four poetic forms make up this beautiful story about family. Claire’s poems make up most of the book, with the majority being rhyming quatrains. When she is kayaking on the lake, her poems take the shape of the kayak moving through the water and the last words of the lines are set in bold, creating a sentence that shows what’s truly going on in Claire’s mind. Abigail’s poems are free-verse and lightening-shaped, reflecting the lightning that killed their mother and left Abigail with a scar. The last point of view and form, and also my favorites, are the acrostic poems in the voice of the lake itself. Frost uses lines from some of her favorite poems as the armatures—or the first letter of each line that spells something out when read down the left side of the page—to represent the current of the lake.

This was my first experience reading a novel-in-verse, and I really enjoyed the beautiful language that Frost employs throughout the book. I think she makes her poems very accessible and easy to understand, yet they still have that beautiful language that seems unique to poetry. I love the different forms and points of view she uses. As I said, the lake’s poems were my favorites. I loved getting the chance to see into each sister’s head, but then getting to read the lake’s narrations of what was going on was fascinating. Claire and Abigail are very connected to the lake with everything that has happened there throughout their lives, so it was important for the lake to have a voice in this novel.

What I love most about this book though was that, at its heart, it was about growing up. Coming-of-age stories are my favorite, which is why I pretty much only read in the young adult genre. This story is about the changing relationship between sisters, the changing family dynamics of a new stepmom and half-brother, and simply about turning eleven. Claire’s story has a beautiful innocence to it, and I loved getting to watch her grow.

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Favorite Book Feature: Legend by Marie Lu

July’s Favorite Book Feature is the debut novel by Marie Lu, Legend. Lu has gone on to become a big author in the YA world, but I fell in love with her writing back with this first book. I picked it up because the cover looked awesome. The book description sounded so cool that I bought the book to read it, but I knew that it was going to be amazing before I even started it when I read Lu’s bio and saw that the story was inspired by Les Misérables, which as you know is my favorite story ever.

Legend takes place in what used to be the United State’s west coast, a nation called the Republic who is in an unending war with the neighboring Colonies. The book follows June, a military prodigy from a wealthy family, on her quest to hunt down her brother’s murderer. Day, the country’s most infamous and most wanted criminal is the prime suspect. Day comes from a poor, plague-ridden sector and is trying his hardest to protect his family as June tries to avenge her brother’s death. But then they learn the truth of what brought them together, and they discover what their country is willing to do to protect its secrets.

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I love that Legend has its roots in the story of Les Misérables. In Lu’s author bio on the book’s dust jacket she writes that she was inspired to write Legend after watching Les Misérables and wondering how it would translate into a modern story. With June and Day she creates a prodigious detective and famous criminal, much like their counterparts of Inspector Javert and Jean Valjean, and brings them into a modern story that’s thrilling and action-packed. Because I’m in love with Les Misérables, I loved getting to watch how this story played out in a dystopian world. Day does nothing more than try to save his family, like Valjean, and June is somewhat blinded by her need for revenge and justice, like Javert. But then Lu takes this story further than its inspiration and draws these two characters together in a beautiful way.

Legend is one of only a couple thriller/action books on my favorites shelf. Action stories, at least to me, tend to focus more on the action rather than the characters, and so I have trouble following along due to my lack of interest in the characters. Lu is an exception because she excels at making you care about the characters. June could have come across as cold and calculating with her being a genius who focuses on the details. But June’s first chapter opens with her breaking her school’s rules and being a little rebellious. We instantly get this peek into who her character really is. And June’s relationship with her brother, even in the flashbacks we get after he is murdered, bring such a great emotional element to the book. Day, even though we know he is a criminal, comes across as caring and kind. His crimes are small rebellions and he tries not to hurt anyone. This book is full of action, but because Lu gets you to care about the characters so deeply, it was really easy for me to follow along.

The Legend series is a set of three thrilling books. Lu draws you in to this dystopian world and doesn’t let you go. Legend is definitely one of my favorite books, and one that is hard to forget.

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Favorite Book Feature: Everlost by Neal Shusterman

June’s featured book is the first book I read by one of my favorite authors: Everlost by Neal Shusterman. I fell in love with Shusterman’s writing after reading this book, and the Skinjacker trilogy that Everlost is a part of and the Unwind Dystology are some of my favorite books ever. Reading Everlost again this month was an absolute pleasure, and I hope I have time soon to read the rest of the series as well.

In the book, Everlost is a place between life and death, an in-between world where children who don’t “get where they’re going” end up. It is a mysterious and dangerous world, full of lost souls and crossed-over objects, and if you stand in the same place to long you sink to the center of the earth. Everlost follows Nick and Allie, who don’t survive a car crash and end up in Everlost. They want to go home but forget more about their lives the longer they stay. They meet mother-like Mary Hightower, who guards hundreds of kids in the crossed-over Twin Towers in New York City, and Nick feels like he has found a comfortable home. But Allie isn’t satisfied and keeps looking for a way back home, eventually getting Nick caught up in her plans aboard the crossed-over ship captained by the McGill, a fearsome monster who crawled his way back to the earth’s surface after sinking to its center.

This book is probably the only paranormal story I like, and that’s because while the kids in Everlost are inbetween life and death, they’re not really ghosts. They’re Afterlights, so named because they have a glow about them. All of the details Shusterman includes—the sinking to the center of the earth, the fact that well-loved items cross over to Everlost when they’re destroyed, the mysterious and unidentifiable coins that everyone crosses over with, and the sometimes humorous fact that everyone crosses over in exactly what they died in (including a chocolate smear on Nick’s face, a wet Speedo, and several Halloween costumes)—make Everlost rich and exciting. And I’ve definitely never read anything quite like this before.

I think my favorite part of the book though is the omniscient point of view. This story could have been well done in Allie’s or Nick’s perspectives, or even both. But Shusterman made an excellent choice making this story omniscient. We get a peek into the heads of all the character’s this way, and this allows Shusterman to do my favorite quality of his writing: Shusterman uses the omniscient narrator to take you into the both the villains’ and side characters’ heads and beautifully characterize them in even as little as a paragraph. He puts the omniscient point of view to its best use by really getting deep into all of the characters (no matter how brief) to give the readers all of the different perspectives.

I’ve never tried writing in an omniscient point of view. It is a difficult POV to use because it usually puts a distance between the reader and the characters. However, Shusterman navigates around this and gives us an omniscient narrator who both makes you laugh and gives you great insight into each character.

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