Book review: Girl Parts

I picked up Cusick’s Girl Parts at a recent writer’s conference where he was faculty, and taking pitches. He was also assigned to my lunch table one day, and he’s a really nice guy. But none of those are the reasons I picked up his debut YA novel. I just thought it would be interesting. I looked around for him on the last day of the conference to get an autograph, but every time he was chatting with people, and I didn’t want to disturb them, so no autograph for me. I got started on the book about a week ago, and finished it in four days. It was amazing. Easily the best book I’ve read so far this year.

The premise: A very wealthy boy is diagnosed by a seedy school psychiatrist with disconnectivity issues to other people. The treatment is a high-tech girl robot custom made to suit his tastes, who’s supposed to teach him how to connect with other humans, and who gives him a shock if he gets too intimate too quickly. The problem is, they (boy and bot) think that eventually they’ll be able to get really intimate, and when it’s clear that won’t happen, their relationship falls apart. Enter a second boy, equally disconnected, but a complete opposite to the boy with the girl-bot. The rejected girl bot finds that maybe he is precisely what she needs even though she’s not programmed for him. Do both the boys get the help that they need from this high-tech tool? That’s the interesting part.

The nitty-gritty: The characters of David (the rich kid), Charlie (the poor, nice guy), and Rose (the girl-bot) are amazingly well drawn. They’re real. No doubt about it. This happened somewhere, and Cusick just sat around and recorded it all. It’s rare that I’ve read characters that are so well-evoked. Language, mannerisms, everything. As a reader, you’re invested in these characters. Then, the premise is unique and riveting. You have no idea where he’s going or what is going to happen next. No cliches here.

So, I suggest you pick up this book as soon as you can, and read it. It’s a fantastic story, and if you’re a writer, it’s a huge lesson in how to do everything right.

20 Master Plots

I have a deep and abiding love for my chosen profession. Whether or not the feeling’s mutual is still to be seen. This love has made me addicted to technical manuals. I have a shelf full of books about plotting, character sketching, and writing process (do it faster! better!) not to mention my many grammar books. (There’s a difference between “eat, shit, and die” (pessimistic) and “eat shit, and die” (a warning).) What I love about technical manuals is the promise that I’ll learn something new and be a better writer. Ronald B. Tobias’ 20 Master Plots and How to Build Them isn’t the first book about plotting I’ve bought, and it won’t be the last, but it’s a good one.

Tobias first explains that there are really only two kinds of plots, plots of the mind (character-driven) and plots of the body (action-driven), and that there are any number of ways they can be broken down. His chosen 20 is a little arbitrary. Given that, he goes into each one with examples from popular literature and movies that make his descriptions easy to follow. You can read the entire book through as I did, or simply go to the chapter that deals with the type of plot you’re working on. There’s even a handy checklist at the end of each chapter, and a downloadable pdf available from Writer’s Digest.

If you’re serious about writing, this is a good resource.

Books 20 & 21: CATCHING FIRE & MOCKINGJAY

I finished THE HUNGER GAMES trilogy this weekend, partly because the books were due back to the library on Monday and partly because I really couldn’t put them down. Suzanne Collins created a world that I couldn’t possibly have conceived of. And future dystopia isn’t new in literature, the world that she evoked with Panem and it’s brutal laws was something both shocking in its unfamiliarity yet still within the realm of reason. Why? Because as uncomfortable as that world is, dystopia seems always on the horizon when we look at current events in both politics and the environment.

At a recent @LitChat, people compared THE HUNGER GAMES series to Orson Scott Card’s ENDER’S GAME. The consensus was that they present a similarly violent future, but that GAMES was far more violent in its execution. Yes, the main character kills off several people. But the games are meant to be a violent reality show where children kill other children. I’m not sure what people were expecting to happen. One of the people who commented said that he wouldn’t allow his 12 year old to read that particular series, and I take exception to that. A kid can read any book they want to attempt in my house, only if I think it may be age-inappropriate, I will read it along with them and make sure that some elements are discussed. For example, my very sensitive 8 year old may not be ready for CHARLOTTE’S WEB, but if she wanted to read it, I’d read it with her, and we’d discuss what happens to Charlotte at the end.

But violence and what may be deemed inappropriate aside, what I most enjoyed about the series was the incredible writing. Thank the sweet heavens for good writing. It has really been lacking in my reading material of late. Collins has pulled off the impossible feat of making good writing into best-selling material. Sadly, I find most best-sellers so lacking in their prose, that I’m often pissed I wasted my time. What’s that Flannery O’Connor quote? “There’s many a bestseller that could have been prevented by a good teacher.” Which isn’t to say that Collins managed to sustain the level  of writing throughout the series. THE HUNGER GAMES starts out with a bang, and is impossible to put down. CATCHING FIRE was less riveting, though the frustration level for the reader at watching a further injustice probably is the thing that glues us to the page. But by the time we get to MOCKINGJAY, the plot has dropped so far below the original, that the book’s easy to put  down. The ending was particularly disappointing in light of the promise of Book 1’s opening. One of my friends described it as ending with a whimper. Main character, Katniss, so full of fire in the first two books, has petered out at the end, and merely drifts toward her happy ending.

Still, an excellent read, and I recommend it. The movie is also coming out, and the motion poster they’ve designed for the book is beyond awesome.

Fit to be read

When you’re an author, competing with thousands of other authors and books released every year, it’s hard to get traction. I know that all too well. So recently, I’ve agreed to help out some fellow authors by reviewing their books. And that sounds pretty great, right? The authors send me nice fresh books in the mail, I read them, and post a review when I’m done. Sounds great, until I start reading.

Now, I don’t mean to say that the books I’ve agreed to review have all been terrible. Where I get into trouble is that despite their relative good-ness, I’m still dissatisfied because a) they’re not in a genre I particularly like, or b) they’re written in a style that I don’t particularly like, or c) yes, they’re bad.

As a reviewer, it’s impossible to know at the start of a book if you’re going to like it or not, which makes me really feel for all of those poor folk who read through the slush pile for a living. I mean, damn. Although, they don’t feel obligated to finish those manuscripts do they? Hmm, maybe I don’t feel so badly for them after all. But as I say… you never know what you’re going to get. And what I’ve been getting of late, has been hit or miss. So this week, I’m taking time off reviewing other people’s books, and reading a sure thing: THE HUNGER GAMES. I have the entire series on my desk waiting. At least this week, I know I’ll be satisfied.

Book 13: IMMORTAL

(Man, I am soooo behind on reading!)

In Gene Doucette‘s debut novel, IMMORTAL, Adam, a thousands-years-old man stumbles through modern-day life, mostly in an alcohol fog and finds that suddenly there’s a price on his head. The cast of characters he has to deal with reads like something out of the bible, and mythology, and fairy tales combined, with demons, dragons, vampires, pixies and iffrits (what’s an iffrit? you’ll find out!) among Adam’s friends and foes. Pinning down the novel’s genre is nearly as difficult as identifying the inspiration for the fantastic cast. Part thriller, part mystery, part love story? (don’t kill me, Gene) and part sci-fi/fantasy (or speculative fiction if you will), IMMORTAL delivers on the elements of these genres coupled with a wise-cracking narrator, and historical flashbacks that for the first part of the book, I enjoyed much more than the modern-day drama that was unfolding in Adam’s life. Of course by the time the action gets going, I was too absorbed to notice much of Adam’s ancient lives.

I honestly didn’t know what to expect from this first-time author and twitter pal, but IMMORTAL turned out to be a fast, fun read that was like having my favorite dessert chased with my favorite alcoholic drink.

If I have bones to pick with the writing it would be that the fate of Adam’s love interest seemed a little too convenient, and not in keeping with his casual attitude, though it’s unclear by the end how their relationship would really turn out. And with the designers, I have to grouse about the cover, which I found out later is being altered, hopefully to better reflect the wit and scope of the book.

IMMORTAL is available for Nook and Kindle. And this week, Doucette is previewing a snippet of the sequel, HELLENIC IMMORTAL on his blog.

Enjoy.

Book 10: MOON OVER MANIFEST

I can’t believe it took me 2 weeks to finish this book. No reason. It’s an excellent read. And I would have posted yesterday except that it was my birthday and I was on the phone a lot, and since my son also shared his lovely germs with me, when I wasn’t on the phone, I was coughing, shivering, sucking back medicine and taking care of him. Today he’s better and I’m still down for the count, but it’s quieter, so… to the book!

At the beginning of MOON OVER MANIFEST, Abilene Tucker arrives via train to the town of Manifest looking to find out more about her father and why he sent her away. What she finds is a town that seems to have a lot of stories more than a few secrets and no information about her father. But by investigating old newspapers, and listening to the town diviner, Miss Sadie, she is able to piece together a tale involving two boys who helped change the town twenty years before. Was one of them her father? Clare Vanderpool is masterful about putting all the clues in plain sight, and saves pulling them all together for a sweet ending.

Good books in a bad economy

OK, these aren’t books about what to do with your money. It’s just that books are really the cheapest form of entertainment right now, and these days, I’m all about the cheap and the good. So here’s what I’ve been reading.

“On the Nature of Human Romantic Interaction” by Karl Iagnemma. This Physicist and novelist had his first publication at the age of 21 in Playboy magazine. I came across a story about him on NOVA and was intrigued. Being a Physicist and being a Novelist are both full-time careers and yet this guy seems to do both very well. In this book of short stories, all romantic situations are set in the academic world, all with vivid and often painful detail. These aren’t your normal protagonists, but they are identifiable all the same. I wasn’t able to get through the last story though. My patience for delving into the psyche of academics had worn thin by the end. But you might be able to, and I definitely recommend giving it a try, especially if you’re a guy.

“The Palace of Illusions” by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni. I had already read and loved “Sister of My Heart” her 1999 novel, but this one has now taken it’s place as my favorite book of all time. That place was previously held by Paulo Coelho’s “The Alchemist” so it’s high praise. This is the kind of book I would have liked to write. It also doesn’t hurt that it appeals to my Indian half. It follows a woman from birth to re-birth and deals with all the loves and the many, many mistakes she makes in-between. It was hard to get into the book for the first several pages, but was definitely worth the effort. I would happily read this many times over.

“The Third Angel” by Alice Hoffman. I loved “Aquamarine” and in fact, the novel that I’m working on now is inspired in part, by “Aquamarine” and its sequel, “Indigo.” (By the way, I didn’t care for the movie version of “Aquamarine.”) And I didn’t realize that Hoffman also wrote “Practical Magic” which is one of my favorite movies (Oh, shut it. Like you don’t like sappy girl movies?). But right now I’m in the middle of “The Third Angel” and I’m already sorry it’s going to end at some point. I can’t give it a full review, but it’s expertly written and the characters are so real, I can almost pick them out of a crowd.

Now get thee to a library and pick up some good entertainment, because who can afford anything else these days?