Monday, December 30, 2013

2013 in Review

So, if you know me well, you know how much I love Goodreads. I'm not sure how I missed this in the past, but this is the first year I realized that Goodreads has a stats feature where I can review all the books I've read in the past year in neat and pretty bar graphs and organized charts. It really is quite fun to look back over all the books I've read this year and remember my favorites, and I thought it would be nice to do a summary review here.

According to Goodreads, I read 44 books in the year 2013. However, I can think of five books off hand that I didn't review on Goodreads, and I'm hoping there are a few more I can't remember off hand, because I'd like to think that I was a little closer to my book-a-week goal than that. Also, it's interesting for me to look back at the star ratings I gave books, because I think with the benefit of distance I'd change some of my ratings (for some reason, I only gave Sanderson's The Emperor's Soul three stars, but I remember it as being one of my favorites of the year, deserving at least 4 or 4.5). Anyway, in no particular order, here are some of my favorite reads from the year:

*I've linked to all my reviews, but as I only started this blog in May, and as I seem to have read many of my favorites before May, some don't have reviews to link to.

Favorite Favorites:

The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern. This is not a book for everyone, but reading it was such a beautiful, pleasurable experience for me. Some of the imagery will stay with me forever.

Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier. Another beautifully written book. The characters in this were just incredible. I still can't get over the fact that du Maurier was able to create such a vivid character who was dead before the book even began. Crazy good writing.

Favorite NonFiction

The God Who Weeps by Terryl and Fiona Givens. I'm currently rereading this one right now, and will probably try to reread this once a year if possible. There is just so much good stuff to think about.

Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea by Barabara Demick. I probably never would have picked this book up if my book club hadn't chosen it, but it was fascinating. Honestly, I couldn't stop talking about this book to everyone I met for about a month. I was that weird annoying person who was randomly obsessed with North Korea, but it was just because this book was so interesting. My husband loved it too, but we're both kind of nerds like that.

Favorite Fantasy

The Emperor's Soul by Brandon Sanderson. You guys know how much I love Sanderson, and this slim little novella is honestly one of my all time favorites of his. It's a tight, wonderful little story that kept me thinking about human nature for a long time afterward.

Favorite YA

The Scorpio Races by Maggie Stiefvater. Once again, tight story-telling, good characters, elegant writing, mixed with a little fun mythology.

Favorite Series

The Seven Realms Series by Cinda Williams Chima. I actually read this series last year over Christmas Break, but considering I didn't finish the last two books until January, it still counts for 2013, right? This was a fun fantasy YA series, perhaps with a lot of stereotypes, but very well done stereotypes. I really enjoyed it.

Lunar Chronicles by Marissa Meyer. This one was a surprise hit for me, but I will say that my most anticipated book of 2014 is that last book in this trilogy (which I believe will be called Cress).

This is by no means a comprehensive list of all my favorites from the year. These are just some highlights, books I remember fondly and would recommend. It's interesting to look back and reflect on my reading choices (I was quite heavy on the YA lit this year, but not many of them actually became favorites) and think about the books I want to read for 2014. But that's a post for the New Year.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

My Top 10 All Time Favorite Christmas Books

You want to know what's sad? I don't actually own any of these books.

But nearly all of these are the classic tales I grew up with as a child, and they are the ones I want my kids to grow up with. Luckily, my little boy is too young for most of these right now, so I still have some time to start collecting. But I've got to get to work.

1. The Gift of the Magi This is the classic story from O. Henry that is just beautiful and heart wrenching and I cry every time I read it.
2. The Night Before Christmas At one point in my life I had this whole poem memorized (thank you cheesy Christmas programs in elementary school). But I think it's better told with illustrations, and Jan Brett's have always been a favorite of mine.
3. The Littlest Angel When researching all of my favorite Christmas books, I was surprised when I didn't find this one on any lists I looked at. Do people not know about this book? Because the story of a little angel looking for the perfect gift for the Christ child is completely adorable. This is one of my favorite Christmas books from when I was a kid.
4. The Little Match Girl So, Hans Christian Anderson could be a bit depressing at times, and this story is no exception. Tears everywhere, but I suppose I prefer my Christmas stories to end with tears. Call me morbid.
5. The Tale of Three Trees Another favorite from my childhood. And the great thing about this one is it works for Easter too, and really, all year round. No need to keep this one locked away with the Christmas decorations.
6. The Christmas Miracle of Jonathan Toomey More tears.
7. How the Grinch Stole Christmas Okay, I know some people love the movie version (or the cartoon version) of this book, but for me this is definitely one of those cases where the book is better (I really don't care for the additional plot lines used to stretch out the movie). Keep my Dr. Seuss pure, please.
8. The Polar Express Another case where the book is much better than the movie. And while I don't particularly care about the "Believe in Santa!" message of this story, the illustrations are just so beautiful. And it's fun. So there.
9. The Nutcracker I took ballet lessons all during my growing-up years, and performed in my company's version of The Nutcracker every December. I'm kind of praying that some day I have a little girl who loves ballet as much as I do, because I will take her to see The Nutcracker every year. In the meantime, it would be nice to have a good illustrated version of this story on hand. And I'm talking about the original version by E.T.A. Hoffman. I know it's a little long (over a hundred pages), but originals are always best.
10. The Best Christmas Pageant Ever This one is also a little longer, and not a picture book. But it's such an adorable book for elementary aged children I couldn't help but put it on here. My mom used to read this book to us every year when we were younger, and it's hilarious and sweet and brings more tears. I'm excited for when I have kids old enough to read this book to.

I know a bunch of people who do advent activities with Christmas books (even wrapping up the books for their kids to unwrap), and I kind of like that idea, but I'd need to find 14 more books to add to this list (although, those last two could be spread out over a couple days). Maybe I should just find two more books and do the 12 days of Christmas. Any suggestions? What are your favorite Christmas books not on this list? (Especially ones about Christ. Just like my movie list, shockingly few of these stories are actually about Christ, which is sad. I would love to find a good Nativity story.)

Friday, December 13, 2013

Book Review: Ruby Red and Sapphire Blue

Ruby Red and Sapphire Blue by Kerstin Gier

Summary (Courtesy of Goodreads): Gwen’s life has been a rollercoaster since she discovered she was the Ruby, the final member of the secret time-traveling Circle of Twelve. In between searching through history for the other time-travelers and asking for a bit of their blood (gross!), she’s been trying to figure out what all the mysteries and prophecies surrounding the Circle really mean. At least Gwen has plenty of help. Her best friend Lesley follows every lead diligently on the Internet. James the ghost teaches Gwen how to fit in at an eighteenth century party. And Xemerius, the gargoyle demon who has been following Gwen since he caught her kissing Gideon in a church, offers advice on everything. Oh, yes. And of course there is Gideon, the Diamond. One minute he’s very warm indeed; the next he’s freezing cold. Gwen’s not sure what’s going on there, but she’s pretty much destined to find out.

Okay, so judging purely by the covers shown here, these are exactly the
kind of books I would normally skip over. Call me judgy, but I don't do pretty girl in pretty dress covers. It usually means less than stellar writing and lots of fluff. But there I was, drowning in my flu-induced woe-is-me pity party last month, and I just needed something light and fluffy to read after finishing Code Name Verity. Actually, listen to. I was scrolling through my library's available auidobook collection, and both of these books were available for immediate download. I'd heard several people rave about these books, and I wasn't in the mood for serious reading anyway, so it was perfect.

And here are my thoughts. The writing is not terrible. The main character's voice is actually quite fun. Come to think of it, most of the characters were pretty well developed (not sure about the love interest, I don't understand his motivations yet). And the premise (time travel mystery) is unique enough to be interesting. These books were short, action packed, and designed to keep you hanging in suspense. And even if there is a kind of sort of love triangle, it's not the main romantic tension (hallelujah). So these books are fun, clean, fluffy reads that I found very enjoyable. I will certainly be reading the third one just as soon as it becomes available at my library.

Final notes: Apparently these books were written in German first? Which I found confusing because, first, they were obviously translated very well, and second, the setting is London. Also, I understand the title Ruby Red, but I'm not sure about the other gem titles (maybe I wasn't reading carefully, but Sapphire Blue didn't make a lot of sense to me in the context of the story). My final complaint is that this story really wasn't meant to be a trilogy. These two books are very short, and honestly, it should have been released as one longer novel because it's all just one continuous story anyway. These two books did not really have separate plot curves with climaxes and resolutions. They just ended kind of abruptly right after an action scene, and I think it's stupid it had to be a trilogy. But whatever, sell more books that way, okay.

So, solid three star reads. I recommend to anyone looking for some fun easy reading.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

The Eight Best Christmas Movies of All Time

I am working on a post about my favorite Christmas books because as my son gets a little older, I want to build up our Christmas book collection and develop some sort of Christmas book countdown tradition. But, in thinking about my favorite Christmas stories, I've discovered that most of them are movies. We are movie watching people here, so I'm thinking we're going to have to start a Christmas movie tradition too and get a collection of our favorites that we pull out every year. There really are a lot of great Christmas movies out there (and a lot of terrible ones, maybe that can be a post for another day), but when I think of the movies I'm excited to show my children, these are at the top of my list.

It's a Wonderful Life

A given, am I right? This has got to be the single best Christmas movie of all time. This movie will always have a special place in my heart because of Christmas Eve two years ago. I was alone in a hospital room a day after giving birth to my first child. My baby was in the nursery, and my husband had left to take my family home, and this movie was on TV. My husband came back to find me bawling my eyes out during that ending scene, when everyone's bringing their money in and the bell rings, and you know Clarence got his wings. I was totally postpartum hormonal emotional, and that scene just got me. I haven't been able to watch this movie since without tearing up, and without thinking about the birth of my sweet baby. This one will definitely be a family tradition.

Meet Me in St. Louis

This movie is just classic. If you haven't seen it, rent it. Buy it even. It's just so good and cheesy and fantastic. Strictly speaking, it's not just a Christmas movie (only the end really has anything to do with Christmas), but this is where the song "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" comes from, so it totally counts. There are so many great songs in this movie, and some of the best child acting I've ever seen (the two little girls are ridiculously cute). Judy Garland actually isn't my favorite (no offense to anyone who likes her) but this family and this story are just adorable.

Joyeux Noel

Okay, so yes, it's a foreign film. And yes, you have to read a lot of subtitles. But don't let that deter you! This is just an incredible movie about possibly one of the most heart-warming moments in World War history, and the fact that it's based on a true story makes it that much more powerful. Even if you know the story of the Christmas truce, this movie is still worth seeing. This one just reaffirms your faith in humanity.

*Warning: This one is rated PG-13, so not entirely family friendly. But still so good.

A Christmas Carol (1984 version)

I know there are a million versions of this story on the big screen, but I've got to give a plug for the 1984 version. This is the one I grew up with, and it was so well done. If you haven't seen this version, look it up. Definitely a classic.

The Muppet Christmas Carol

That being said, younger kids will most likely appreciate this version of Dickens' classic tale more. And I've got to hand it to those Muppets, they really do a fabulous job with the story. This is probably the only Muppets movie that I like, and I really like it. It's hilarious, but also packs the emotional punch of the story. So good.

A Christmas Story

I stand in awe of this movie. Not only does it capture the perfect nostalgia of a classic 1950's Americana Christmas, the humor is so spot on perfectly hilarious it's almost unbelievable. Every scene is classic, every line is quotable, and this one really is a cultural icon. Who can ever forget the leg lamp? Who will ever see a BB gun again without thinking "You'll shoot your eye out"? It really is the perfect funny holiday movie.

A Charlie Brown Christmas

Do you know what I love about this movie? I love that it's actually about Christmas. I mean, it's actually about the birth of Christ. It's a message about rejecting the commercialism of the season and really focusing on Christ. What other movie on this list does that? Not one, I'm afraid to say, and that's why I want my kids to watch this one every year. It doesn't hurt that all the Peanuts characters are just awesome in general, and the music is fantastic. Love this little show so much.


Of all the movies on this list, this one is probably my least favorite. I'm just not sure it has the classic staying power of all the other movies here, but my husband loves this movie so much that it will have to be a part of any future family Christmas movie traditions. And I can appreciate that it is a hilarious movie. There are some fantastic quotable lines, and I'm sure my kids will love this one.

Now I realize there are some pretty popular Christmas movies that didn't make it on my list (Home Alone, Miracle on 34th Street, How the Grinch Stole Christmas, just to name a few) and that's not because I don't like them. These are just the ones I want to become part of our family tradition. My question is, am I missing any good ones? Any great Christmas movies out there that should be on this list? What are your favorites?

Friday, December 6, 2013

A Student Mom: The Big News

So, if you remember, I finished my application for grad school a little over two months ago. The deadline wasn't until November 1st, so I waited patiently to hear back.

And waited.

And waited some more.

I've never applied to grad school before, so I'm not sure what the usual turn around time is for a response, but the start date for this program is January 2014. As in, next month. So I was getting a little freaked out about how we were going to pull everything off if they waited much longer to make a decision. And I also kind of assumed that the longer it took, the less likely it was to be an acceptance. I imagined all sorts of scenarios with the acceptance committee where they sat around a table scoffing at my application saying things like, "What does this mom think she's doing? She's clearly completely out of touch with the academic world, that's the worst letter of intent I've ever read!" So I was quietly steeling myself for the disappointment of rejection, and actually getting excited about all of the free time I would suddenly have next year. So what if I got rejected from grad school? Now we didn't have to line up expensive child care and I could write another book. There were definite up sides.

But then, I got an email this week from one of the professors saying, "I would like to congratulate you on your acceptance..."

I was thrilled for about half a second before the panic started to set in. Because now it's real. Now we actually have to pay the tuition, and I actually have to register for classes, and figure out a schedule, and buy books, and find people to take care of my first born child (and deal with the emotional side of that), and mentally wrap my head around the fact that I'm going to be a student again. This is big and this is scary and this is not going to be easy.

But nothing worth doing in life ever is.

(Read the rest of the posts in this series here.)

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Book Review: Code Name Verity

Code Name Verity  by Elizabeth Wein

Excerpt (Courtesy of Goodreads): I have two weeks. You’ll shoot me at the end no matter what I do.

That’s what you do to enemy agents. It’s what we do to enemy agents. But I look at all the dark and twisted roads ahead and cooperation is the easy way out. Possibly the only way out for a girl caught red-handed doing dirty work like mine — and I will do anything, anything, to avoid SS-Hauptsturmf├╝hrer von Linden interrogating me again.

He has said that I can have as much paper as I need. All I have to do is cough up everything I can remember about the British War Effort. And I’m going to. But the story of how I came to be here starts with my friend Maddie. She is the pilot who flew me into France — an Allied Invasion of Two.

We are a sensational team.

So, there I was in the middle of November, dreadfully behind in my word count and swearing off reading any more books until I finished my own novel. Then I got the flu. And did absolutely nothing but lie on the couch for six whole days while my offspring watched more television in one week than in his entire previous life (when my husband saw that we were on episode 26 of The Magic School Bus, he asked if we had really watched 13 hours of TV that week. I didn't tell him about all the Curious George episodes we mixed in there). Anyway, sleep wasn't always an option because of all the nasty congestion/hacking cough issues, and so of course I had nothing else to do while my body desperately tried to recover than read. And this book happened to have been sitting on my nightstand since early October, so I thought it as good a time as any to check it out.

And, wow.

Yes, it's another WWII book. I am quite sick to death of WWII books (which is why this one sat on my night stand for so long), so for me to say this is a good book means it is a really good book. Now, it's no Book Thief (another book I judged because it is a WWII novel and then got proved oh so wrong), it doesn't have quite that kind of emotional punch to it, but I still cried at the end. This is a completely different kind of story told in a very unique way, and I really, really liked it.

This is one of those books I should not have read while attempting to write my own novel, because it just highlighted how completely inadequate I am at creating awesome characters (this book has awesome female characters) or framing a story in a unique and engaging way (the way this story is told is just so perfect). Basically, I stand in awe of Elizabeth Wein and her creative genius.

Unfortunately, I have to be rather vague about the specifics of the plot, because I don't want to give anything away. Really, this book is so much more fun if you go into not knowing anything, because in the first few pages you're like, "Is this really happening? Should I be cheering for this character, or hating her?" and then by the end, when you figure everything out, it's just all so awesome. So all I can really say is it's about a fictional female British spy and female airplane pilot in WWII, and it's kind of a thriller but also so much more than that.

So I know that's pretty vague, but just trust me on this one. It's worth your time. I mean, doesn't that excerpt up there just totally intrigue you?

So, briefly, what I can say is that I loved the characters. The two main female characters were both awesome. This was not necessarily a book with a feminist agenda or anything like that, but it nailed how to have awesome strong female leads with no real love interest (hints of one, but only tangentially). Both these girls were just real, and I loved them both. Especially Queenie. Except for her foul language, she's exactly the kind of person I envision myself as being, if I were ever to write myself into an awesome female lead action role.

A few warnings: there is some salty language, and there are some disturbing things described (Nazi torture, it's not pretty stuff), but I would still recommend this one to most high schoolers. Also, there are a lot of technical descriptions of planes and stuff. I can see how that might bore some people, but honestly, I thought it just gave the story a lot of credibility.

Monday, December 2, 2013

The November that Was

Holy cow, it's December now.

November was a lost month to me. These last few weeks slipped past me in a haze of influenza nastiness (seriously people, get your flu shots! I had to learn the hard way, but fortunately everyone else in my family got theirs), holiday travel craziness, and the all-consumingness that was writing a 50,000 word novel in a month. But, speaking of that project:

I did it! I wrote a 50,000+ word novel in one month. True, I didn't finish until 11:15 PM last Saturday after a long flight home from our Thanksgiving festivities, but I did it.

And I have never been so glad to be finished with a project.

In no particular order, here are my likely rather uninteresting reflections about writing a novel in a month:

-No one will ever read this book. It is terrible, and I freely admit that. There were times in the middle of writing this that I was so bored, and hated it so much that I just considered giving up.

-That being said, once it was finished I realized my novel had all sorts of potential. Like I mentioned last time, I'm a discovery writer, which means when I got to my final scene, I had this epiphany about how everything should fit together. The problem was, I should've been building toward that ending through the whole book, but I didn't know the ending until I wrote it. So, that was annoying. In order to get this novel into a readable form, it would take months and months of intensive editing. If writing a novel in the first place was a daunting project, the thought of editing it frightens me to my core.

-This story has all sorts of gaping holes and missing scenes. It wasn't until I was in the shower after submitting my 50,300 final words that I realized I'd forgotten to write the most important scene. You guys, my two main love interest characters NEVER KISS! I had been building up to this kiss scene through the whole book, and then when it got to that part, I just had so much conversation going that I forgot to have them kiss! How stupid and unromantic is that? Like I said, this thing would need some major editing to get into a readable format.

-On a related note, I am not good at action scenes, but I discovered that I love writing dialogue. Seriously, there were multiple times when I was like Hm, I need another 1,000 words before the next action scene, let's have them sit around and talk! And so I'd just start a random conversation and 2,000 words later, I had learned all these new and amazing things about my characters. So I like writing dialogue, but I'm not sure how well that lent itself to the story. Is it boring to read about people sitting around a camp fire talking? Because there is A LOT of that in my novel.

-My writing style is heavily influenced by whatever book I happen to be reading at the moment. I read four books during my whole writing project (reviews are coming, I promise) and with each new book I noticed my writing style would subtly shift to reflect the author I was reading. This really gave me pause, because I think the reason I even chose to write a YA fairy-tale retelling in the first place is because that is what I've been reading so much of lately. I write what I read, which gives me even more reason to be selective about my reading choices in the future. What goes in comes out. If I want to write a great novel, I'm going to need to read great novels.

-I have an entirely new respect for authors. Seriously, I feel bad for some of my past reviews, because my novel? One star if we're being generous. Really, I'm so much more impressed with authors who come up with these creative stories, and then figure out how to tell them in unique and engaging ways. And then actually get them published. I'm completely in awe of the people I know in real life who write books, because it takes a lot of work and creativity.

-I need a break from novel writing, but I absolutely intend to do this again in the future. Maybe not a whole novel in one month, and hopefully with a story and characters that I'm a little bit more invested in, but I will write another book. If this exercise taught me anything, it's that I am capable of writing novels (whether they're actually good is another question entirely).

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Can Mormons Write Great Literature?

Yes, yes, I'm supposed to be writing a novel right now, but I'm in a bit of a rut, so I've come back here to write a post and avoid writing my book. Plus, I read a couple of things this week related to writing in general that have really got me thinking and I kind of wanted to talk about them here.

I stumbled across this article from the New York Times called "Mormons Offer Cautionary Lesson About Sunny Outlook vs. Literary Greatness." Basically, the author talks about how any well-known or popular Mormon authors (Orson Scott Card, Stephanie Meyer, Shannon Hale) tend to gravitate toward genre fiction (fantasy, sci-fi) or young adult fiction because we, as a Mormon culture, feel more comfortable in these relatively happier, good beats evil genres than we do with the darker content of literary fiction. They gist is that Mormons are encouraged to always promote things that are "lovely, virtuous, of good report, and praise-worthy," and that basically rules us out from ever writing serious stuff like sex, violence, or the depressing messiness of the human condition, in any sort of realistic literary sense.

I know a few of my (Mormon) friends took issue with this argument, citing Mormon authors who aren't afraid to write about sex and violence and other generally taboo topics, but honestly, I agreed with the article. I've actually pondered about this phenomenon before, because it's very clear to me that Mormon authors only seem to find success and recognition in genre categories. I just can't think of a single note-worthy literary fiction Mormon author, at least not one that's still in good standing with the Church.

But I'm not sure I agree with the author's hints that it's the structure of the Mormon church itself that limits our authors. I'm just not sure that we have a bunch of repressed authors who would turn out to be Miltons and Shakespeares if the Church would just encourage us to write about the darker side of life. I honestly believe that Mormons don't write about the depressing subject matter of so much literary fiction because for most of us, that is not our reality. Maybe I shouldn't speak for other Mormon authors (and maybe I shouldn't be presumptuous enough to consider myself a Mormon author), but my reality is happy. Okay, not everything is perfect, there have been trials and hard times, but at the end of the day my reality consists of hope in a God that will make everything all right, and that brings me peace. I don't find myself drowning in the utter senselessness of human life and suffering. My life has meaning, my pain makes sense to me. There is a happy ending (or at least, the hope of a happy ending) to each and every one of my stories, and that simply does not fit with the modern sense of literary fiction.

This whole process of writing a novel has taught me this about myself as a writer. I think that I would love to write a literary fiction novel, but most of the literary fiction novels I've read in recent years have left me feeling sad, hopeless about life, and dark. And no, I'm not comfortable writing a book like that. I don't want to create something that is so antithetical to the way I actually feel and live. So I have started a novel that is a young adult fantasy. I'm more comfortable in this genre because even though there is magic, there is also a happy ending, and that is closer to my view of reality than more "realistic" literary fiction.

Really, I don't think this is a problem of the Church or religion, but rather one of the current state of literary fiction. It's a question, posed by a character in one of my favorite books (Crossing to Safety by Wallace Stegner):
Oh, come on, Charity said. Really. Art and literature have these fashions. Why don't you just ignore all that stuff so many modern writers concentrate on, and write something about a really decent, kind, good human being living a normal life in a normal community, interested in the things most ordinary people are interested in-- family, children, education-- good uplifting entertainment? (216).
What a question for the ages. Why don't writers write this kind of happy, normal stuff? Because only children and young adults will read it and find it to be of any worth. Because otherwise it is cast off as religious, sentimental fiction, not serious stuff. Because literary fiction must be full of sex and depression and meaningless tragedy.

I'm not saying that Mormon authors should ignore the real pain and suffering of life, pretend like it doesn't exist, and try not to represent it realistically. This would not be an accurate portrayal of life. A deep part of our doctrine is that there must be opposition in all things, and we recognize that there is suffering in this life and it is necessary. Our literature should reflect that. However, I don't think that we will see any great Mormon literary authors until the literary world accepts that while there is suffering, there is it's opposite as well. Some conflicts have resolutions, some people find peace in this life, and happiness is a legitimate reality. Happiness is a story worth being told, and I hope someday to read a great literary work that tells it.

Maybe I'll have to write it.

(P.S. I would love to know if you agree or disagree with any of my thoughts here. I'm willing to admit that my limited experience might not reflect the reality of the literary world, the Mormon literary community, or life in general.)

Friday, November 8, 2013

Novel Writing Update

I mentioned last week that my goal is to write a novel this month. I'm assuming that most of you are dying to know how I'm doing with this goal, so here I am to share my first week update.

You can see my NaNoWriMo word count widget above. For whatever reason, the NaNoWriMo official goal for every participant is 50,000 words. Apparently that is the suitable length of any legitimate novel (seems mighty arbitrary to me) but I guess it's a worthy enough goal, so that's what I'm shooting for. To write 50,000 words in one month, I should be averaging 1,667 words a day, which would mean by the end of today I should have written 13,336 words. As you can see, I'm a little behind. More like a lot behind.

But let's look at the positive. I've written over 8,000 words! This is the longest story I've ever written in my life to this point, and I'm pretty proud of those 8,000 words. And I'm pretty surprised at how much fun I'm having. Just the other day I caught myself thinking, "Huh, this story is getting interesting. I'm excited to find out what happens next." And then I had the crashing realization that wait, I have to COME UP with what happens next.

But anyway, this whole process is teaching me a lot about myself as a writer. It's been pretty interesting to learn this stuff, and maybe some of you are interested in my personal reflections, and maybe some of you are not, but I'm going to write them down here anyway.

1. When we heard Brandon Sanderson speak a few weeks ago, he said that there are two kinds of writers in the world: gardeners and architects. Gardeners discover the story as they go along, whereas architects have the entire story mapped out before they write a single word. Sanderson is an architect, and that is why his intricate stories are so well crafted. He knows where he's going before he begins. I have discovered that I am... a gardener. I spent the first four days of this month hemming and hawing over an outline, trying to decide just how I wanted to tell this story, and I got nowhere. I finally just decided to open up a stupid word document and start typing something. And, lo and behold, the words just keep coming. I still have no clear idea where this story is going, but I'm discovering it as I go. Kind of exciting.

2. I am completely uncreative and unoriginal. I already admitted before I began this project that I had no ideas for a novel, and so I just decided to do what Disney has done with so much success, and rip off the Brother's Grimm. Yep, I'm doing a fairy-tale retelling. Super original, I know, but at least now my novel has some chance of being half-way readable. Also, apparently I can only write in cliches. I mean, it's terrible. I have entire paragraphs where every single sentence includes a cliche. So yeah, queen of cliches here. It's bad.

3. So right now this story is set in some vague, unidentified European country (although it's looking more and more like France, the more I write) and the time period is some undetermined historical period of the past. This means that a lot of my descriptions are vague, and my dialogue is ridiculous. It's like I'm trying to channel my favorite historical authors (Austen, Dickens, Shakespeare), and the result is this completely pretentious, flowery, overly-wordy dialogue that is probably horrible to read, but I must say is so much fun to write. I just giggle over getting to use words like "fortnight." Honestly, this thing would never make it past an editor.

4. This whole process has been easier than I thought. Now, I might not be saying this next week when I hit a wall and find I have nowhere to go with my story (because, like I said, I really don't know where I'm going). But for right now, I'm completely surprised at how much I've been able to write during my son's naptimes. I can punch out a 1,000 words an hour, more if I'm actually focused. Part of the ease is the fact that I'm not worried about actually making it good. I'm not going back through and editing, I'm not stressing over whether some editor would actually publish this. I'm just writing to write, and it's been fun. Now, to actually meet the 50,000 word goal, I'm probably going to have to start neglecting things like housework and social engagements, and that might not be so much fun, for me or my family (my husband told me I wasn't allowed to write after dinner tonight, and I kind of got huffy about that, but I suppose it is Friday night, or something like that) but we'll see how it goes.

Okay, that's enough rambling for now. I'll be back next week with another riveting update about how my little novel is coming along.

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Book Review: The Scorpio Races

The Scorpio Races by Maggie Stiefvater

Summary (Courtesy of Goodreads): It happens at the start of every November: the Scorpio Races. Riders attempt to keep hold of their water horses long enough to make it to the finish line. Some riders live. Others die. At age nineteen, Sean Kendrick is the returning champion. He is a young man of few words, and if he has any fears, he keeps them buried deep, where no one else can see them. Puck Connolly is different. She never meant to ride in the Scorpio Races. But fate hasn’t given her much of a chance. So she enters the competition — the first girl ever to do so. She is in no way prepared for what is going to happen.

So, if any of you have actually been following this closely along, I reviewed Maggie Stiefvater's book The Raven Boys back in June. I'd heard a lot of good things about Stiefvater so I was pretty excited to read the book, but I must say I was largely disappointed in it. The Raven Boys just didn't impress me very much, and I was kind of ready to write Stiefvater off as not my thing. But then, the other week, when I was in need of a new audio book to listen to while mopping my floors (I just can't do housework unless I'm listening to a book), and this was the only half-way decent book in my library's online collection available for immediate download, I decided to give it a shot.

And now, I must take back all those dismissive things I said about Maggie Stiefvater, because even though I didn't like The Raven Boys, The Scorpio Races is a masterpiece. I mean, this was honestly one of the best YA novels I've read this year. I now see why all those people were heaping such praise on Stiefvater, because THIS book deserves all that praise. The characters were just unbelievably well crafted, the plot was tight and the story... well, it was one of the best written stories I've read in a long time. And this was actually the thing that bugged me the most about The Raven Boys. I felt like that book meandered and lost focus and the story just wasn't engaging for me, so it was amazing to see Stiefvater nail it so perfectly in this book. I loved the tight time frame (essentially two weeks leading up to the big race), the way tension built throughout the training period, the suspense of really not knowing who was going to win or which character you wanted to root for (I really was torn, I loved both Sean and Puck so much), the explosive climax of the race itself, and then the absolutely perfect resolution of everything (hallelujah for a good stand-alone novel!). Add to this recipe an incredible setting (fictional island of Thisby), some fantastic mythology come to life (killer water horses), a little romance, and just plain lovely writing, and you get a completely wonderful book.

Highly recommend this one to anybody who likes a good story.

Friday, November 1, 2013

Write a Novel in a Month

I think, like every other book obsessed child out there, I always wanted to be a writer. I was that nerdy girl who wrote twelve page stories when the teacher only asked for two, kept huge notebooks filled with stories and ideas and random twaddle, and seriously planned on writing THE next great American novel. But then, writing for a career struck me as a little unstable and unpractical, so I became an English teacher, and then life happened, and that whole dream of becoming an author kind of got shelved. I always thought, Someday, when that perfect idea hits me, and I have the time, and the stars are all aligned, I'll write that Great American Novel.

But you know how things go, and I doubt I'm ever going to have that perfect idea, or the time. I have a couple of friends who have written novels (reviewed one here) and I just kind of hold them in awe. Like, wow, real people can actually think up these ideas and write these whole books and get them published!? While they do other things like raise families and go to grad school and stuff? It just seems like such a daunting thing, writing that many words!

But really, I'm going to be pretty disappointed with myself if I get to the end of this life without ever even attempting to write a book. So sometimes, you've just got to buckle down and give your life goals a try, right?

I've been skimming through Gretchen Rubin's The Happiness Project recently (got it for my birthday, one of my favorite reads) and for one of her happiness goals she writes a novel in a month. I started thinking, You know, I should just do that. Just sit down and write a novel in a month, just to try. So I'm going to, this month, try to write a novel. It just so happens (pure coincidence, I promise), that this month is November (gah! November 1st today, can you believe it?) which happens to be National Novel Writing Month. I'd heard of NaNoWriMo before, but in all honesty I hadn't paid much attention to the movement until I realized that my novel writing month was going to coincide with theirs, so I thought, what the hey! I'll sign up for an account with them. Just making this goal a little more official is all.

So yep, starting today I'm going to spend this entire month working on a novel. Do I have a plot idea? Nope. Do I have characters? Not really. Do I even know what genre of novel I want to write? No (but I'm going to figure that all out by the end of today, I promise). My only plan is to just plunge in and start writing something. It's probably going to be spectacularly horrible, and no one will ever be allowed to read it ever. But it's just something I've got to do.

So, if things are quiet around the blog this month, it's probably because I'm trying to write a book. If things are a little more busy on the blog this month, it's probably because I'll be trying to avoid writing my book (nothing like a blog post to clear up the writer's block, right?). But here's to wishing myself luck!

Now excuse me. I've got a book to write.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Reading Goal #1

So, I wrote last week about how I'm feeling the need for a little more discipline in my reading selections, and I probably need a few goals to achieve this. However, I've been a little hesitant to come up with goals, mostly because (if all goes according to plan) I'll be starting a master's program in literature in two months, and any and all free reading time will most likely be consumed by assigned reading. So I'm a little bit torn, because maybe I should just soak up all the time I have right now for mindless chick lit.

But then yesterday, I stumbled across this lecture given by David McCullough a few years ago (actually, ten years ago, now that I look at the date) called "The Course of Human Events". And man, McCullough has passion for history. It just oozes out of him, and I found myself thinking, "I want to be like that!" I haven't read any of McCullough's books (secret shame of mine), but I've heard him speak before and I just have such great respect for this man. So listening to this lecture yesterday, inspiration hit, and I decided on my first reading goal, to accomplish before the end of 2013:

1. Read a historical biography

Great! There it is! My first reading goal of 2013. We'll see if I feel inspired to come up with any other goals, but in the mean time, any recommendations for good biographies? Obviously, I should just read a McCullough book, since I've been meaning to since forever, and since he's the inspiration for this goal. But still, I'm open to other suggestions if anyone has any favorites.

Monday, October 28, 2013

Book Review: The Secret Life of Bees

The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd

Summary (Courtesy of Goodreads): Set in South Carolina in 1964, The Secret Life of Bees tells the story of Lily Owens, whose life has been shaped around the blurred memory of the afternoon her mother was killed. When Lily's fierce-hearted black "stand-in mother," Rosaleen, insults three of the deepest racists in town, Lily decides to spring them both free. They escape to Tiburon, South Carolina--a town that holds the secret to her mother's past. Taken in by an eccentric trio of black beekeeping sisters, Lily is introduced to their mesmerizing world of bees and honey, and the Black Madonna. This is a remarkable novel about divine female power, a story women will share and pass on to their daughters for years to come.

So, I've mentioned before the virtual book club I belong to (seriously, there is NOTHING better than discussing books with intelligent people). For this round we read The Secret Life of Bees. I will confess that this was a re-read for me (well, in all honesty, a re-skim). I read this book years and years ago, but it's a powerful one. There are parts of this book I've never forgotten. It just stays with you.

Even though the 1960's segregated south is the backdrop for this story, and racial tensions play a big roll in the plot, I wouldn't say that racism is necessarily the main theme of this book. Mostly, this is a book about women, and the strength that women find when they come together and form a community. It's a really beautiful little world the women in the this book create, and it gave me a lot to think about because communities of women have been on my mind lately. I read an interesting article (no idea where, I can't track it down now for the life of me) about a woman who attended an all-girl boarding school. She wrote about how it was such a perfect place for her to develop a sense of self and identity, and to develop a voice outside of the competition between sexes. She wrote about how some of the feminist ideology of complete equality between the sexes has led us to a harmful place, and that women are actually benefited and can have more power and more voice when they are allowed to develop in communities of just women. These were very interesting ideas for me, and so I've been thinking a lot about the sphere of women, and the strength that comes when women form strong, supportive communities. Especially in this book, you can see what a wonderful thing it is for both Lily and Rosaleen to escape from the world of (abusive, racist) men and begin healing and flourishing with the help of the three calender sisters.

In today's world, I don't feel like female communities are as strong as they once were. I feel like people in general are much more isolated than they used to be, and I think this is destructive for society in general, and especially for women. I grew up with two sisters, a loving mother, and several very close friends that formed a wonderful community of female support for me, but I didn't appreciate the importance of having a support group of women in my life until I moved half way across the country with my husband and then had a baby. My mom was able to come for the first week, and there were lots of phone calls with my older sister, but I still felt like I faced a lot of motherhood very much alone. Thankfully I did have a secondary support group in my church congregation, because I don't know how I would have made it without the advice, meals, and hand-me-down baby clothes from those women. I wonder all the time about other women who aren't lucky enough to have such a community. How do they do it? Is this why women are so depressed these days?

So yes, I believe in the value of strong female communities. I believe that generations of grandmothers, mothers, daughters, and sisters are meant to be linked together to give support and raise future generations of strong women. I believe in women gathering together to talk, share ideas, and grow intellectually. That's one of the reasons I love my book club so much (strong, intelligent, female women talking about books, what an incredible community!). And I especially believe in the need for strong female support communities in motherhood. Yes, husbands need to be involved, but mothers need other mothers. Period. So this book just contributed a lot of great insight into everything I've been thinking about female communities recently. I really like the community presented in this book and the message that in order to be strong, women need other women.

There is so much other thought-provoking content in this book. My favorite is the character of May, and her empathy towards a world of pain. There is just so much to talk about there, but I'm afraid to give away plot spoilers about what happens to her in the end. There is also plenty to be said about southern culture in general, or the symbolism of the bees and the black Madonna (which tie back to female power), but I don't think I have time right now for a thorough discussion of all of that. What I will say is that this is a beautifully written story with wonderful characters and a lot of good things to think about.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Wednesday Library Day

Wednesday is quickly becoming my favorite day of the week. That's because it's library day!

So our new local library lacks some of the hundred year-old charm of our last stone-pillared local branch (gosh, that was such a beautiful building). But what it lacks in architectural history it makes up for in programs. Yay for story and craft time!

 As you can see, story time is pretty well attended here (the parking lot was completely full today, I had to squeeze into a not-quite-real spot by the garbage bins). They always do rhymes and three stories around a theme, and then break up for a craft time. Today the theme was bats.

I love this setup because it's perfect my son's attention span right now. I love giving him the chance to sit and listen to someone other than me read. I love learning new rhymes and songs (because apparently I've forgotten everything I knew as a child, and I'm struggling to come up with enough rhymes to appease my toddler's insatiable appetite for Mother Goose). And even though he's no where near old enough to do them on his own, I still love the craft time. It's been years since I've made funny little animals out of felt and glue and whatever, and my son would have zero exposure to this side of creativity otherwise.

After craft time, we wander down to the kids section, read a few books, and take a handful home with us to enjoy for the week. My Little Man has the routine down, and he loves getting to pick his own books off the shelf and carry them around.

So, I'm going to refrain from going off again about how much I love libraries (like I did in this post). But yeah. I love libraries. And I really love Wednesday Library Day.

Monday, October 21, 2013

Why I Don't Like John Green

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Okay, if you haven't heard about John Green, you probably don't read much contemporary YA fiction. Because John Green is huge these days. He has come out with a few wildly popular books over the past decade that have won all sorts of awards, most recent of which is the 2013 Teen Book of the Year: The Fault in our Stars (which, I believe, is being made into a movie).

He also happens to be a hugely controversial author because of the content in his books, and if you read the reviews people tend to either love him or hate him.

I read The Fault in our Stars some time last year, and I came away from it deeply conflicted. I mean, obviously the book had some staying power with me because here I am, still thinking about it over a year later, but I just couldn't bring myself to love it the way other people love this book. I decided to give Green another chance, so this past week I started listening to Looking for Alaska, which is his next most highly rated book. This book displayed more of Green's writing genius, but at the same time confirmed to me that I do not like John Green's books. I've been thinking and thinking and thinking about just why I don't like these two books. I've been reading reviews and lying in bed stewing over the question and trying to figure it out, but writing always helps me the most when I think these things out, so here I am to try and articulate just why I don't like John Green.

We'll start with the positive first. After all, I wouldn't be so conflicted if there weren't a lot of good things here.

Things I Like About John Green

-His characters. Green creates the most fantastic, funny, smart, and realistic teenage characters I have ever read. He is a genius at this. These characters pretty much breathe, they are so alive. I have to give Green credit for this.

-The substance. Yes, these are YA books, but Green is not afraid of attacking big life questions. Basically, he explores the meaning of existence through the eyes of these teenagers, and I have to admit it is refreshing to see a contemporary YA author get this deep. I wish there were more YA authors like this.

-The emotional punch without being sappy. I still have not figured out how Green can do this, but somehow he can write about teenage kids with cancer, or kids dying from drunk driving, and get me all incredibly weepy without crossing the line into sentimentality. It's just genius writing.

Things I Don't Like About John Green

-The mature content. Maybe I'm just a huge prude, but I would NEVER actually recommend a John Green book to a real teenager. The Fault in our Stars wasn't necessarily too shocking, but Looking for Alaska was simply awful in terms of language, drugs, and sex. Maybe it is realistic, maybe teens really talk and act this way, but please, no! My teenage years were far more innocent than this, and I hope they are far more innocent for my children. I think all of Green's issues and themes could be discussed without the language and sex.

-The agnosticism. I think, in the end, this is what actually tips the scale to disfavor for me. Maybe I could look past the mature content as just being "realistic," but what I struggle with the most is watching these smart, funny, brilliant characters face the hardest realities of this life without any sort of hope in God. It is downright depressing, and it makes me hurt all over to read. These poor kids face all of the pain and suffering this life has to offer, and they have nothing but their own grasping, flailing, limited understanding to help them through. I see what Green is trying to do, using world philosophies and the Humanities to try and scrape some semblance of meaning together in the face of all this suffering, but what Green offers is so woefully inadequate it hurts. It feels empty to me. Real or not, I just want to gather these children up and tell them there is a God who loves them, there is life after death, and real peace can be found in this life. But I suppose that is too much of a cop-out answer for Green.

And that is why I don't like John Green.

I admire him. I think he is a brilliant writer. And I appreciate what he is doing to push the genre of YA to a more substantial place. Of all the contemporary YA books I've read recently, Green's certainly have the most potential of being canonized as classics. I even appreciate his attempt to use the Humanities to help kids deal with real-life pain and suffering.

I just find it too depressing, too inadequate, a substitute for God.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Time for a Change

I'm a huge fan of pleasure reading. I enjoy pleasure reading as a chance to escape, get lost in an addicting story for a little bit, and just not have to think so hard. It's so much fun.

But lately, I've been feeling like my pleasure reading has taken over my "serious" reading, and I've become too busy, or too distracted, to read some of the "heavier" stuff on my too-read list.

Don't get me wrong, I think any reading, even YA chicklit, is a more valuable activity than say, watching mindless TV (which has also been taking up too much of my time lately...). But it must be acknowledged that some books are better than others, and since there is only so much precious time in this little life, I need to find balance.

I want to read more books that stretch my mind.

I want to read more books that teach me new facts.

I want to read more books that make me think.

I want to read more books that help me grow.

This is not to say I'm giving up my YA chicklit. Heavens no. I've just been thinking lately that it's time to mix things up, branch out, and be a bit more disciplined in my reading endeavors. I haven't come up with any specific goals or plans, but I think I will work on developing some. Nothing like a good goal to actually get some results. We'll see what happens.

In the mean time, any recommendations? What books make you think?

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Book Review: Zero Waste Home

Zero Waste Home by Bea Johnson

Summary (Courtesy of Goodreads): In Zero Waste Home, Bea Johnson shares the story of how she simplified her life by reducing her waste. Today, Bea, her husband, Scott, and their two young sons produce just one quart of garbage a year, and their overall quality of life has changed for the better: they now have more time together, they've cut their annual spending by a remarkable 40 percent, and they are healthier than they've ever been. 

Yay! It's the first nonfiction I've reviewed on here since... well, it's been a while. Which is strange, because nonfiction is actually one of my favorite genres. So this one! I'm pretty sure I first heard about this one from Janssen, and I'm pretty sure that my initial reaction was, That sounds like a bunch of hippie-dippie crap. But then I read about this book in a few other places, and it stuck around in the back of my mind through our whole process of cleaning up and moving (which is a huge trash-producing process, if you've ever been through it), and I just kept thinking, How? How in the world does that family live without producing any trash? So curiosity finally got the better of me and I checked the book out from the library.

So, I'll just say this first: Bea Johnson is extreme. I mean, if you're only producing one quart of trash a year and you're living in modern America, obviously you've got to be extreme. Johnson is super dedicated to her philosophy, and the lady is hardcore. And while that's all awesome for her, I am not that dedicated to this cause. I will never make my own make-up. I'm just not going there.

That being said, I really liked a lot of what Johnson had to say about simplifying life and rejecting our culture of extreme consumerism. For our entire marriage, my husband and I have been struggling students, and I feel like we've done a relatively good job of living within our means, which has meant necessary restrictions on how much we've participated in consumer culture. But now that we have a real job, I can see how our attitudes and patterns are changing (and we haven't even gotten the first paycheck yet!). Now I find myself thinking, "Why not? We can afford that," or "How nice we can finally buy (fill in the blank)." So reading this book now right now was great timing for me. It's made me stop and really analyze my attitude towards our new spending habits, because I do NOT want to fill up our house and our lives with stuff just because we can afford it. I want to be a lot more purposeful about the things we buy. Johnson has chosen to do this through the filter of not bringing anything in that will generate waste, and I think that's an interesting way to think about things. Like I said, I'm not as dedicated to reducing our trash output, but I see the value of thinking this way.

This book also changed my perspective on buying quality over quantity. I used to firmly be in the camp of buying the absolute cheapest possible product, whether it be food or clothes or toys. My husband once asked me where I would choose to shop once we had a real clothing budget and I told him that I would probably still shop at Target, because then I could just get MORE clothes. But Johnson has convinced me that there is merit in paying a little bit more for fewer quality products that will last longer. I don't know how much I feel this applies to clothes, since trends change from season to season (I probably will still always shop at Target, because, it's Target!) but I'm definitely starting to see the benefit of this philosophy for things like appliances, kitchen gadgets, electronics, my husband's wardrobe (he doesn't care about trends anyway), etc.

This book also provoked a very interesting discussion between me and my husband about what kind of house we want to live in some day. We've talked about our dream home before (most specifically, my dream library) and we talk about things like having a game room, a full guest suite, a huge beautiful kitchen, a formal dining room, an office, bedrooms for all the kids, walk-in closets, and all located on some sprawling piece of property out in the suburbs somewhere. But this book actually made me seriously rethink that dream. We are in a two-bedroom apartment right now, and we fit so perfectly. Obviously, as more kids come, we'll want more rooms and we'll upgrade to homeowner status some day, but do we really need the humongous house? And wouldn't it be nice to live closer to town to cut down on my husband's commute? And I can barely keep our little place clean now, how much more stressful would it be to keep a huge house clean? These are all things I hadn't really thought about before, but my husband and I had a great conversation about how maybe we're open to a different kind of living situation, maybe a town-home even (although, it's pretty tough to swallow the bang-for-your-buck comparison of a town-house to homes an hour or two outside the city...).

So what I'm saying is, after reading this book I'm probably not going to make drastic changes in the way we live to reduce our trash output, but I did love Johnson's philosophy about living simply. It's not that reducing trash isn't a value for me, it's just that hauling glass jars to the grocery store and fighting junk mail would complicate my life right now, not simplify it. But this book was definitely food for thought. I really want to be more reflective about how we participate in consumer culture, and I really do want to make some changes. I want to try composting and a few of the other helpful tips Johnson recommends. This book is brim full of tips and recipes and suggestions, I took a lot of notes of things I want to think about adopting.

So is this book hippie-dippie crap? Yes, it is absolutely hippie-dippie, but it's also very interesting and thought-provoking (or maybe I'm a bit more hippie than I thought?). I completely recommend this one to anybody interested in a different perspective on living simply.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Book Review: Two Sanderson YA Novels

After our little nerdy birthday date, I was definitely in the mood for reading some Sanderson this past week, so I got on that and read two: The Rithmatist and Steelheart. Before this I'd only read Sanderson's mainstream fantasy (is that an oxymoron?) stuff, but both of these were YA-- one a revisionist historical fiction and the other a dystopian. It was fun seeing Sanderson's signature style in these slightly different genres. Let's discuss!

The Rithmatist 

This one takes place in an early 20th Century steampunk America, only instead of being a unified continent as we know it today, this America is a collection of islands with a loose political connection. The islands are plagued by a deadly pest: the wild chalklings. Only Rithmatists, special individuals chosen by The Master himself to bring chalk drawings to life, can fight them back and keep humanity safe. The story follows Joel, the son of a chalk maker at Armedeus Academy, who is fascinated by Rithmatics but was not chosen by The Master to be one. When students at the school start mysteriously disappearing, Joel teams up with one of the Rithmatist professors to figure out what is going on. The surprising answer reveals a bigger threat than any of them had imagined.

I thoroughly enjoyed this one. I mean, the premise is a little weird (chalk drawings that come to life?) but Sanderson is nothing if not good at developing a believable magic system, and this totally worked. Sanderson had every element of his successful formula here: unique and intriguing world-building, quirky characters, page-turning suspense, and a surprising twist at the end that, try as I might, I can never anticipate. Honestly, it's knowing that twist is coming that keeps me hooked on Sanderson books. He is just so masterful at it. Anyway, it was a lot of fun to see this formula at work in a YA book (re: less time-commitment than his usual fare). It was great fun.

Side note: I listened to this one as an audio book, which I don't actually recommend. There are a lot of diagrams explaining the chalk drawings, and it's just so much easier to see them in the book than try to picture them from the descriptions. I didn't feel like it was a big enough issue to stop listening and get the real book, this is just a courtesy warning to anyone who wants to read this book in the future.


This book, Sanderson's most recent release, was the reason for the book signing we went to. At the signing, Sanderson said the inspiration for this novel came when someone cut him off in traffic one day and he thought, What if I just had the power to blow that guy off the road? Thus the idea came: ordinary humans who are suddenly gifted with superhuman powers. Instead of being the superheros that we read about in the comics, these Epics (as they're called) are corrupted by their absolute power and proceed to terrorize and dominate mankind, taking what they want, killing at will, and ruling with fear. This is the story of David, who as a young boy watched Steelheart, one of the strongest and most ruthless Epics, kill his father. David wants nothing more than to find the Reckoners, a small group of mortals who are fighting back, and convince them to take Steelheart on once and for all. And, he happens to know a secret that could change everything.

Okay, so this one was not my favorite. To me, it didn't seem quite as well-written or well executed as some of his other books. It felt a little sloppy, like he wrote it quickly and then didn't really take the time to polish it up much. It also felt darker and a little more violent, though that may just be the nature of the dystopian genre and not so much a fault of the book. I guess I like my violence to be a little more fantasy-based, and not so action-movie-ish.

That being said, it still contained most of the trademarks that I love about Sanderson. There were some very fun characters in this one. I loved that the main character, David, was a nerdy teenager who was super awkward around girls and came up with the worst metaphors (reminded me of my husband, who always cracks the lamest jokes). And once again, the twist caught me by surprise. I really thought I had this one figured out, but while I was close on some things the ending had some unexpected curveballs. I love that.

Anyway, I'd recommend The Rithmatist  before I'd recommend Steelheart, but they were both enjoyable reads. Also, be aware that that both these books have sequels (possibly series?) planned. While I think they both could be read as fairly satisfying stand-alones, there were questions left unanswered in both books. Usually I'm not a fan of YA series, but Sanderson has yet to disappoint me, and his sequels to date have all been fabulous, so I'm actually a little excited to read more of these worlds and see what new directions he takes.

Monday, October 7, 2013

A Student Mom: Taking the GRE

One of my biggest fears about this whole application process was studying for and taking the GRE (I'm not even sure what GRE stands for, but it's the general grad-school entrance exam that most non-professional programs require). When I was in undergrad, I had a bunch of friends who were preparing for grad school, and I vividly remember their GRE study sessions: reviewing arcane vocabulary words (did you see what I just did there?) with endless flashcards, desperately memorizing geometric equations, and most of all, stressing out because this test DETERMINED THE FUTURE! I knew I wasn't going to grad school at the time, so I felt grateful that stress wasn't mine.

If I had chosen to do an online or more generic program, maybe I never would have had to take the GRE. Because honestly, when I realized I would actually have to take this test to get into my program, I just about dropped the whole idea. I mean, I hadn't taken a standardized test in nearly ten years! Also, the math section! Guys, a ton of the math on this test is geometry. I took geometry in 8th grade. Do you know how many years ago that was? (More than I'm willing to say online). Thanks to AP credit, I didn't have to take a single math class my entire college career, so it had been a loooong time since I had to think about any of this stuff.

Needless to say, there was some anxiety on my part.

But, I plucked up my courage and pulled myself together and found myself some prep books and flash cards and set myself to studying.

One of the advantages to doing this whole application process now, as opposed to when I was still an undergraduate, is that I could allow myself to focus entirely on studying for the GRE instead of also worrying about classes and papers and grades. Of course, I was also heavily distracted by caring for a rambunctious toddler, so pick your poison, I guess. I just had to be very studious during nap-times. I could usually take and review at least one practice section per nap-time (Side tangent story: I remember at some point during this process hanging out with a bunch of other moms and listening to them talk about the various TV shows they watched during their kids' nap-times, and how they could usually fit two episodes in a day, more if they ignored their kids. I remember feeling self-righteous but also a little bit jealous because I used nap-times to review quadratic formulas and write practice essays. What I'm saying is that it takes some dedication, this whole going-back-to-grad-school thing. It's not an easy thing.)

My husband was very supportive and involved (maybe too involved) in my preparations. He kept giving me lectures about how I needed to take more full timed practice tests in one sitting. A full practice test takes around 3 hours and 45 minutes, and I'm sorry, but no stay-at-home-mom ever has that kind of chunk time, unless you are a mom with a world-champion napper (my kid naps for two hours tops) or you're able to focus between the hours of 10 PM and 2 AM. I did get a babysitter once so I could take a full practice test (a fellow student-mom who understood my conundrum), and my husband was around for one Saturday where I got a practice test in, so I took at least two full practice tests. My husband thought I needed more (after all, he took one full practice test every week for about four months before he took the LSAT, but he is also an overachiever), but in the end I felt like I had done enough to review and improve.

The test itself was also around four hours (more, if you count the time I had to travel to and from the testing site), so I had to schedule it carefully for a day my husband would be home the whole day. I forgot how intense this kind of testing can be, but it was intense and scary and then they threw a triple parabolic function at me (!) and there were moments I thought I was going to just fail the whole thing. But then my score flashed up at the end, and I realized I had pulled off not just a good enough score, but a pretty darn great score. I felt vindicated and oh, so relieved. There I was, out of school for three years with a brain fried by the all-consuming demands of a baby, yet I had pulled off a score that any student would be proud of. It was a pretty great moment for me.

So, for any other moms out there considering the GRE (or whatever grad-school entrance exam), here are my pieces of advice:

-Get the study aids. I went cover to cover on the Kaplan GRE prep book, plus used flashcards (not Kaplan, I don't remember which brand). I can't say if some are better than others, but anything is better than nothing.
-Give yourself time. I started studying last January, and took the test in May. I was super rusty at first, and it took me time to ease my brain back into working like this. I worked out a loose study schedule and stuck to it. That worked for me.
-Take as many practice tests as you can. There are free ones online (at least for the GRE), plus the ones that came with my study materials. It was good to use a variety, because I found some practice tests to be easier and some to be harder than the actual test turned out to be. And yes, try to take at least one or two practice tests in test conditions (timed, all in one sitting, no interruptions from little people demanding food and entertainment, etc.).
-Figure out a target score. I emailed the admissions people at my school so I knew a base score to work with. It helped to have a goal like that.
-Don't stress too much, and keep a balance. Once upon a time I was a perfectionist student who stressed over getting perfect grades and perfect scores. But I'm a mom now. My family comes first, always, before this dream of grad school. I tried to never let GRE prep get in the way of being a mom.

And to any other moms out there, good luck! It can be done!