novel

10 (Mostly YA) Books That Changed My Life.

If you’ve been following my blog for even a little while, then you know at least two things about me: I studied English at university and I am the kind of person who will happily lose sleep over characters and plot twists. You see, I’m a lit lover through and through. As such, I owe a lot of what I know and love to the lessens that I’ve learned from printed lines on bound pages, the stories that changed my life.

On that note, here’s to literary game-changers and the marvelous people who create them.

Thank you!

——

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone by J.K. Rowling

By the time I graduated from kindergarten in 2000, I was a voracious reader and everybody knew it. But, somehow, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, which I didn’t read until 2001, feels like the book that started it all for me. It was the book that made me delve into fantasy and science fiction, the book that gave me a fan community to become immersed in, and the book that taught me how to do life. But, more than anything else, this was the book that led to a series of books that transformed my generation and made us all believe in magic.

Each of Rowling’s characters taught me something about people and the lives we all must lead. In Hermione, I learned that intelligence, loyalty, bravery, feminism, and drive can take you far. In Severus, I learned that everyone can change, some causes are worth living and dying for, and a good person is not necessarily a nice person. In Dumbledore, I learned that pursuing the “greater good” sounds lovely in theory but, people will get hurt along the way (i.e. Ariana and Harry). And, in Harry, I learned that love can change everything.

The Bar Code Tattoo by Suzanne Weyn

I haven’t been able to shut up about The Bar Code Tattoo since I ordered it through a Scholastic sale in 2004 when I was 10 years old. I even read a bit from it in a YouTube video because it was “the first book I could get my hands on.” (I totally didn’t edit out the time it took me to find that book in particular…) I have quite literally been blabbing about this book for years—I even got a tweet back from the author after I mentioned the renewed relevance of the “big brother is watching you” plot line in modern-day America.

Ultimately, in the primary character, Kayla (hey, that’s 71% of my first name), I learned to seek the truth with determination and work to create the life I wish to lead. However, as my introduction to dystopian fiction, Weyn is also responsible for teaching me to be aware of the world I live in, to question how today’s decisions will affect tomorrow’s conditions, and to discover my own identity instead of letting my community define me.

Uglies by Scott Westerfeld

Uglies_book

Uglies is a story with many layers. Mostly obviously, there is snazzy technology à la science fiction and a dystopian world with Big Brother government, which is fascinating and terrifying all at once. Underneath all of that though, there is an ongoing discussion of the big problems that plague humans regardless of time and space: personal identity, individual freedom, and conceptions of beauty. You know how English teachers and professors always tell students to “unpack” or “bleed” the text? I could write a 20+ page paper “unpacking” this story. This tale never comes up empty.

Westerfeld said (through the character of David) that “what you do, the way you think, makes you beautiful,” and that statement resonates with me more every day of my life, particularly as I begin to bridge the gap between being a student and a professional. Whenever I question who I am or what I’m doing, I remember that I’m no different from Uglies and the characters within it—there is a whole world inside of me just waiting to be unpacked.

I Am the Cheese by Robert Cormier

I grew up with a mother who studied psychology. What this means is that I’ve spent my entire life listening to impromptu psych lectures, as well as having all of my choices and ideas psychoanalyzed. Don’t get me wrong, it’s certainly been interesting—as a child it was awe-inspiring because, well, my mother is undeniably a brilliant woman—but, I didn’t truly understand the concept of psychology until I read I Am the Cheese (and The Chocolate War immediately thereafter) around the beginning of middle school.

The psychological journey of Adam (aka Paul) led me to consider the core differences between people and how our experiences can define the past, present, and the future equally. In Cormier’s story (stories, really) I found perspective. As a result, in Adam’s pursuit of his father, I also became closer to my own mother, gaining a better understanding not just of why she would study psychology, but also why she considered her psychology-related knowledge and experiences to be eternally relevant.

Just Listen by Sarah Dessen

In only 383 pages of print, Dessen tackled familial relationships, eating disorders, sexual assault, anger management, high school dynamics, friendship, and so much more. Then, to make the story all the more important, Dessen showcased the metaphorical power of silence and the human inability to quiet the heart. The story doesn’t rely on a grand setting, a large character collection, or even sublime escapades; instead, the author just conveyed what it means to not think or judge, and instead “just listen” to what your heart is saying.

Music wasn’t precisely the point of this book yet, somehow, this book intrinsically altered my relationship with music. Music was just the tipping point of the lessons this book taught though. Through Annabel, I learned that secrets are heavy to hold, truths can be hard to share, and people are not necessarily the “characters” they portray to the rest of the world. Through Owen, I learned that music can be an escape or a channel, depending on which you need, and the truth should be shared, even if you have to “rephrase and redirect” to get your meaning across.

Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman

For most of my sophomore year of high school, I spent every spare second I had in the library or reading a novel in an empty classroom. I carried a veritable library of ARCs in my backpack and I talked publishing with my journalism teacher (who became my yearbook supervisor). In the midst of that odd situation, I discovered the then-newly-published novel Paper Towns by John Green. I loved that book like it bled and breathed, but mostly I loved the world it opened me up to in its fleeting references: Walt Whitman’s poetic skill and the utterly intoxicating “Song of Myself.”

Whitman spent 400 poems trying to define and describe life before ultimately coming to the conclusion that people are large and “contain multitudes.”  In the sage conclusions of a long-dead man and in that time of intense personal growth, Whitman’s words enabled me to be comfortable with being a bit “odd,” living life like a “dance” when the “fit” of change was “whirling me fast.” Not to mention, it was Whitman’s poetic encouragement to explore one’s self that led me to create a blog called “mylifeinverse” or “my life in verse,” despite the fact that I don’t generally write poetry.

The Confessions of St. Augustine by St. Augustine

In this single book, often touted as a building block of the Christian faith, St. Augustine managed to make absolutely everything in life—every experience, every thought, every desire—seem like a mortal sin. More than any other book I’ve ever read, Confessions pissed me off and made me wish for a time machine so that I could go back to ancient times and deliver a punch in the face to the author. It was simply infuriating to see an author turn life overall into something so thoroughly ugly in the name of defending religion and ethics.

Despite all of that, St. Augustine’s Confessions taught me about the manipulative power of religions (not that all religions are manipulative), the diversity of moral and ethical systems, the tedium of entirely introspective and self-deprecatory works, and the ability of authors to make readers feel like they’re being castigated. That being said, this is the only book I have ever thrown away—quite literally, it went into the trash bin—and I don’t even feel guilty about it.

Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain

Susan Cain rose to fame as a self-proclaimed “public introvert” who utilized her incredibly astute observations about her own nature to tell the world (in a TED talk) about the superpowers of introverts and bring about positive vibes regarding the more “quiet” portion of the population. Where the majority of self-help and introspective self-analytical literature characterize introversion as something one must compensate for by adopting the seemingly superior characteristics of extroverts, Cain successfully presented introverts and extroverts as separate but equal.

As a young woman just finishing up my undergraduate degree and an undeniable introvert, Quiet spoke to my experiences with and worries about existing in a predominantly extrovert-positive world. I wouldn’t be nearly as confident about the very real and very necessary role I can fill in a work environment—particularly in the extrovert-oriented career field I’m aiming for—if I had not read this book at precisely the time that I did.

Divergent by Veronica Roth

Just like The Bar Code Tattoo trilogy and Uglies trilogy, Divergent is the first novel in a dystopian trilogy with a badass female main character and slightly less important, but amusing and often game-changing, minor male characters. There are certainly strong feelings of girl power in Tris’ gradual and hard-fought transformation from the meek and compliant person others want her to be to the curious and brave person she truly is “on the inside.” And, well, what 21-year-old young woman doesn’t need a bit more girl power in her life?

Throughout my life I’ve always been told to “be myself” and “live for me” but, it wasn’t until I read Divergent that I began to understand that who you are can change, whether through sheer force of will or evolutionary circumstances, and you’re no less you for changing. Tris made me excited to transform from what I was as a child and a teenager, by upbringing or some sort of default, and become who I want to be. In that character I found the courage to make myself new while always remembering the past.

Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell

If someone wrote a story about my first year of university, it would read much like Cath’s tale of college confusion, without the lovely (yet delightfully and realistically flawed) boy, twin sister, and supportive roommate. In essence, my first year of university, during which I lived on campus for a semester, was a roller coaster of success and failure, topped with discomfort regarding my degree choice and a complete inability to engage with people my age. It wasn’t the most pleasant experience until I reevaluated the situation, charted a new course, and started (sort of) fresh…just like Cath.

Rainbow Rowell provided me with someone who was comfortingly familiar, who struggled and learned to carry on in the same ways that I did as a new university student. This darling author and her characters validated my love of fan culture and fanfiction, reassuring me that fanfiction is real fiction and there is a beautiful community filled with wonderful people who enjoy being fans just as much as I do. Even more importantly, Cath taught me that, in being my awkward and untraditional self, I’m not losing out on anything but instead finding my own, different adventures.

——

If you’re feeling talkative, comment below with the books (YA or otherwise) that have changed your life!

Althea & Oliver by Cristina Moracho: An ARC Book Review.

Boy meets girl. Girl meets boy. A strong friendship develops. Boy and girl are friends for more than a decade. Girl has feelings. Boy has a medical condition. Feelings and illness do not combine well. Bad things happen. All is well…sort of.

That is the essence of Cristina Moracho’s first novel, “Althea and Oliver,” which explores the ebb and flow of friendship as individuals develop, together and apart. Touted by Penguin Group as a coming of age story akin to Rainbow Rowell’s and Stephen Chbosky’s many noted works, Moracho’s “Althea and Oliver” is the novel equivalent of film that relies on a cast of high-profile actors at the expense of plot and theme. As characters alone, Althea and Oliver are powerhouses—their personalities are multi-dimensional and their internal diversity makes them relatable—however, as the motivating forces within this particular novel’s plot, these characters are weak. The plot in which Althea and Oliver exist is simply not strong enough to hold a reader’s attention, nor is it powerful enough to propel the characters.

Where Althea is the “broken girl” who supposedly brings trouble wherever she goes, Oliver is the “boy wonder” who supposedly brings light and peace. There is a certain symmetry in Althea and Oliver’s friendship, a yin and yang nature that can be found in their personalities and basic actions. This simple dynamic is upset when Oliver is struck by a mysterious and incredibly debilitating illness, thereby making Althea the less obviously “broken” individual and leaving Oliver unable to maintain his previous position. It would seem that one development, one change, has the power to alter or even destroy Althea’s and Oliver’s lives.

As his illness advances, Althea and Oliver struggle to maintain their friendship as they do not know how to operate outside the realm of their previous, symmetrical relationship. In the face of uncontrollable change, the characters experience a palpable longing for sameness and normalcy. Althea and Oliver’s friendship is then further tested by a confusing mix of fledgling romances, raging hormones, and differing social statuses. At that point, the storyline diverges from the catchings of youth and proceeds to address–albeit, shallowly and over-simplistically–a collection of moral dilemmas revolving around sex, alcohol, and familial obligations.

While it was admirable of Moracho to attempt to tackle multiple topics of import to young adult (and even adult) readers, I felt that the effort was ultimately unsuccessful because none of the topics were wholly or thoroughly addressed. A part of me wishes that I could have had a hand in editing this novel because there are dozens of great ideas, but those ideas are, for the most part, poorly executed and underdeveloped. In effect, the story still needs to be expanded to create a viable tie between the plot and the characters that are active within it because, in its present state, the characters are languishing in a dead-end plot.

Perhaps the most obvious scene wherein a good idea simply doesn’t manifest well is when Althea physically attacks another student at school. There is anger, there is desire for retribution, and there is trauma, yet Althea’s actions are attributed to her inability to maintain order and a weak moment wherein her “head exploded.” Following this event and the damage it does to her academic future, Althea simply wallows in her feelings, but no attention is given to precisely what those feelings are…until those feelings relate back to Oliver. By doing so, Moracho suggests that anything that happens apart from Oliver is less significant, thereby making the physical attack merely a plot “device” rather than actual plot.

Similarly, when Oliver goes to a party with Althea and some of her new friends, Oliver acts resentful of the new friends’ presence and even seems inherently antisocial. Juxtaposed with Oliver’s behavior prior to his illness, wherein he is described as being the social counter to Althea’s antisocial behavior, an examination of this difference could have proved interesting. In fact, if Oliver’s feelings and actions had been explored beyond the matter of their existence then Oliver’s maturity through his illness might have become apparent. In the scene’s current condition, Oliver simply seems to be an uncooperative youth who is jealous of his friend’s acceptance into a new crowd that does not automatically include him. Oliver’s feelings are thus reduced to mere plot devices.

Overall, I found “Althea and Oliver” to be a lackluster novel that, with a bit more plot development, could have been a bestseller. More specifically, the reading experience was not exciting or otherwise emotionally charged—I felt particularly disappointed by the “so that’s that and life goes on” ending. I award this novel two out of five stars solely because, despite placing her characters within a feeble plot, Moracho managed to create truly compelling characters/character sketches. Regardless of my criticism, I’m excited to see what else Cristina Moracho writes in the future and how her writing style further develops.

(Disclaimer: I received this book through Penguin Group’s First to Read in exchange for an honest review. The review I submitted to Penguin Group has been posted here, verbatim.) 

NaNoWriMo 2013: Ready, Set, Write!

2013-Participant-Facebook-Cover

For anyone who is unaware, today, November 1, marks the beginning of National Novel Writing Month when over 200,000 people will endeavor to write novels of 50,000 words or more in only 30 days. Then, to make it all a bit harder, no one is allowed to edit until December–of course, that’s really up to you and your self-control. It’s a nerve-wracking, coffee-fueled, hair-pulling, sleep-deprived, hand-aching experience that may or may not result in a couple (okay, at least a dozen) nervous breakdowns before it’s over, but it’s so worth it.

There’s a reason that people commit to this, that people throw themselves into a challenge that’s only obvious reward is evidence of written their own mind’s inner workings: they want to know what it feels like to have 50,000 words spill out. I mean, have you ever held 50,000 of your own words in your hands? I haven’t (yet) and I’m dying to, so I’m going all in with my fellow NaNo-ers (NaNo-ists? NaNo-ites? WriMos?). I’ve done this the past 5 years, but never hit 50,000 because life sort of ran away from me. So, this year I’m committed to exceeding 50,000 words by 11:59pm on November 30, 2013, and I’d really love for other people to do it too.

1374159_250945488363319_1461563457_n

I’m inviting anyone out there with words in their heart and characters in their head to come over to NaNoWriMo and get going. My username on the site is mylifeinverse and I’ll be rocking around the forums all month long. If you need some encouragement, just consider the fact that Rainbow Rowell’s Fangirl, Sara Gruen’s Water for Elephants, Erin Morgensten’s The Night Circus, and Hugh Howey’s Wool were all products of this challenge. Plus, the community of this whole situation is incredible: I cannot even tell you how many times everyone in the forums has helped me settle my plot bunnies and fill in plot holes…and maybe work out an abundance of “real life” problems too.

It may not seem possible right now. I mean, who in their right mind decides to write a novel in a month, right? But, guess what: it’s totally achievable and I’m going to be doing it right along with you. So, if even a single atom of you is interested, come join the fun and let your wild words out into the world. Don’t say “I can’t write” or “maybe I’ll write a novel one day,” just commit to it and do it. We can all be happy and sleep-deprived together. Cheers!

The Year of the Dragon: 2012

There are so many events that are meant to happen in this year: Supposedly, the world will end or come to some cataclysmic fall. The first generation of students to have only been educated in the 2000s will graduate from high school. The United States Presidential Election will take place. The 60th year of Queen Elizabeth II will be celebrated in each British land and the Summer Olympics will be held in London, England. This year, however, is no different from the last or the next. It is simply a year, and a leap year at that, with it’s measly one extra day. Yet, each year, people across the national lines will commit to new year resolutions, a practice that I personally commend, if and when the resolutions actually come to fruition. As I see it, what would be the point in resolutions that never became resolute? This being said, I myself have a few simple resolutions that I would like to make and set for all to see. You may peruse my resolutions below, but please feel free to post your own as well. Happy New Year, darlings, may it be a wonderful one for you in spite of the heavy topics that are sure to be addressed throughout 2012. Good luck in each of your own pursuits in this year of the dragon.

  1. Exercise more frequently and achieve the most physically fit state possible for me.
  2. Listen to others as well as to my own conscious.
  3. Finish the short novel that I have begun.
  4. Travel as far as possible and allow my senses to run rampant in each new place.
  5. Feel as often as I think, for too much of either is no good at all.
  6. Find family.
  7. Paint and draw until my ideas run out–art will never come to be if you never begin.
  8. Disappear to a new place and find what I do not even know I am looking for.
  9. To be like a dragon and achieve exactly what I want.

Falling Into Flight

Here’s an excerpt from the novel I am in the process of writing.
Please let me know what you think.
Thanks, darlings!
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
Adequate.
Just enough. As much as necessary. No more than needed and no less than demanded.
Adequate.
Growing up, teachers wrote perfunctory descriptive words inside each of my report cards. One would inscribe “Satisfactory work” and weeks would be spent afterward wondering of the difference between “satisfactory” and, the next level, “excellent.” Another would proclaim “Sufficient development, Emilia!” with an utterly unnecessary exclamation mark, acting as though sufficiency was quite good and truly expected. Yet another would describe “Acceptable participation,” yet what exactly was acceptable about simply being acceptable was lost in the teacher’s mechanical and unfeeling writing.
Adequate, you see, was never something that I wanted to be, for adequacy is a word that is neither insult nor compliment, neither barb nor patch. Adequacy is and has always been my enemy.
I am not a person that will tolerate being less or average. I am a seeker of the best and a purveyor of the excellence I find, and plain adequacy would not figure into the equation.
Adequacy is the villain that I am waging an unending battle against and excellence is the ambition.
This is not the typical tale of a problem overcome through love and dedication.
This is not a story of magical creation and naïve airs.
This is a journey and a flight.
This is a running away from adequacy and a search for excellence.
This is my departure from all that I once knew about being just enough and my entrance into being all that I can. This is my quest. Welcome.

New Years Eve!

So, every year you’re supposed to have a list of New Year’s resolutions. Here are some of mine:

1.) Exercise more.
2.) Read More.
3.) Finish my novel.
4.) Interview more authors.
5.) Build my website.
6.) Bring my grades up.
7.) Make some sense out of Spanish class.
8.) Volunteer.
9.) Apply for college scholarships.
10.) uhh…

and a few other things.

If you want to share yours, put them in the comments. Thanks.