Monday, February 27, 2012

Book Review: How to Save a Life by Sara Zarr

How To Save a Life
Sara Zarr
Published: 2011
Young Adult Contemporary

Each chapter in How to Save a Life alternates between two first person accounts: Jill, who grieves the loss of her father by withdrawing from friends and her boyfriend, and Mandy, a pregnant teen who connects with Jill's mom on an adoption website - Jill's mother wants to move on from her loss by adopting Mandy's baby.

What Jill and her mother don't know about Mandy is although she's technically an adult at 18, Mandy dropped out of school and ran away from an abusive home situation. The website she and Jill's mom communicate through is for people wanting to handle their own adoptions outside usual channels. Jill warns her mother not to trust an adoption with no real paperwork and social worker, but her mother is convinced and invites Mandy to live with them for her last few weeks of pregnancy.

This might seem like a forced premise, but to the author's credit, each character's intentions are detailed so succinctly, I never doubted it. Jill's mother isn't a shrill, irrational woman; she's flawed, but her intentions are to honor her late husband by moving forward with adoption plans they'd already considered before he died. She's aware she could be "filling the void" and embraces this, thinking that helping a struggling teen like Mandy will force her to move on. Jill is rightly confused and angry at her mother. Isn't she enough? Why does her mother need another child? Jill continues to push away the people closest to her, and every day she loses more of the girl she used to be.

When Mandy moves in, there's tension between the girls from the start. Mandy is beautiful but simple-minded with no clear goals for after the baby is born. Jill is harsh and judgemental. Jill starts poking into Mandy's past to find out what she's really up to. Jill's mother is aware of how Mandy's presence affects Jill, and she wonders if she's doing the right thing by helping Mandy. It's clear she's feeling the pressure of navigating life without her pragmatic husband.

The characters' progressions are expertly written, and I appreciate that elements that could have turned cliche were fleshed out and explored in realistic ways. This is a definite recommended read if you like Young Adult Contemporary. I'm quite a fan of Sara Zarr after reading How to Save a Life, and have since then read her novel Sweethearts from a few years back.

Sidenote: Every time I picked up this book, the song by The Fray of the same name popped into my head. Every time!

Friday, February 24, 2012

The Oscars!

Do you watch the Academy Awards? I watch just about every year. This year I'm most looking forward to a Muppet win for the song, "Man or Muppet." If you haven't seen the new Muppets movie, that song is one of the highlights, with a great cameo twist mid-way through where puppet-Walter's human alter-ego displays in his reflection.

I'll be tweeting during the awards at @stephscottIL. Lots of sites do great commentary on twitter - @fuggirls from the Fug or Not website (snarky fashion), @ew Entertainment Weekly, etc.

Lastly, if you ever wished more superhero movies were nominated, you can vote in slackerheroes Superhero Oscars poll!

Thursday, February 23, 2012

TV Review: Project Runway All Stars

Project Runway is one of the few reality shows I've stuck with, and it's probably my favorite, closely followed by Top Chef and Survivor. If you haven't kept up with Project Runway All Stars, let me tell you a bit about what you're missing. And what you're not.

What's Good:

The Talent

The always-subtle Austin
As soon as the all star edition was announced, I imagined a stellar line-up of designers due for a second chance at winning and of course, drama. What I love about Project Runway drama is it's rooted in fierce talent. Everyone here is skilled - no question. I'm continually amazed by the creativity and drive of the contestants. Not only do the assignments require forward-thinking concepts, but the contestants have to actually sew them. No handing off work to a low wage seamstress; they do it all.

The cast for All Stars is delicious: a mix of runner-ups and mid-way cast-offs: Micheal the crier, bitchy retro-loving drama queens Mila and Kenley, southern diva Anthony, and Austin Scarlett. Austin Scarlett is man you cannot invent. He is too original and bizarre, although surprisingly charming when he wants to be. The designers are up to their old tricks: Mila's still trying to convince everyone she's more than colorblocking and mod (which I love), Kenley thinks all her designs are winners, Jerrel and Mondo both turn out solid designs but Jerrel is usually overshadowed, while Mondo gets the film editing treatment of a man wronged and seeking revenge (probably true, given how season 8 turned out). It's a good cast.

The Guest Judges

Moi? A guest judge?!
The best judges add to the challenges and enhance the runway critique. In the second episode, Miss Piggy is the celebrity judge. MISS PIGGY. This delighted my Muppet-loving self, but even better was an entire hour of hearing the designers discuss her like she was a real person. "I understand Miss Piggy," Austin says with complete seriousness. Michael explains how she's a fashion icon.

She is made of felt. She is a puppet. No one says this.

What's Not So Good

Different Host/Mentor/Regular Season Judges

a.k.a. NO TIM GUNN.
Tim Gunn is no where to be seen and his presence is missed. It's gotta be disappointing for the cast. No one else can attempt a 'gather round like Tim.

No Heidi, either. This doesn't bother me nearly as much as missing The Gunn, particularly because I haven't quite forgiven her poor judgement in pushing Gretchen as the season 8 winner over Mondo. Michael Kors is to blame for that too, and I questioned the integrity of the show after the judges showered praise on Gretchen's dowdy hippie fare. By the way, Kors is out for the All Stars edition, as well as Nina Garcia (I'm surprised this installment is still sponsored by Marie Claire). Instead, we get Isaac Mizrahi, who shows up most of the time, but when even he doesn't care enough, an array of random costume directors and "fashion mavens" fill in.

Shorter Running Time

The format is back to 1 hour rather than the 90 minutes PR has run since it moved from Bravo to Lifetime two seasons ago. After getting used to more time for interactions between contestants, more Tim Gunn consultations (not needed here), the hour format feels truncated.

I can't resist keeping up with my favorite contestants, but something is missing with this edition. The returning cast deserved the full Project Runway treatment: regular host, Gunn, the 90 minute format. Instead it feels... off the rack.

(Sorry, that was inexcusable)

Are you watching? What do you think?

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Book Review: Try Not to Breathe by Jennifer Hubbard

Try Not to Breathe
Jennifer Hubbard
Published: Jan 2012
YA Contemporary

Everyone knows about Ryan's attempted suicide, but no one wants to talk about it - until he meets Nikki, the younger sister of a neighbor kid. She wants Ryan to tell her what it was like to want to die because her father committed suicide when she was younger. The book effortlessly presents Ryan's loneliness in a way that's more sympathetic than hopeless. It's beautifully written, and gives light to what it's like to suffer depression and loss without forcing it with a heavy hand.

I interned for a suicide hotline and briefly taught suicide prevention education to high school and middle school students. As part of a contract, I would come in for 3-4 days in a health class. One of the activities we did for both sets of students was to write the name of a made-up person on the whiteboard, with a layer above him or her saying something like: bullied at school. Then another layer: grandmother dies. Next layer: parent lost job, can't afford new clothes. Next layer: gets in a fight. Next layer: diagnosed with depression, on meds. etc. Basically the layers build up over time until an incident occurs - and it may not be anything major - that sets the person off so much they try to kill themselves. The visual tool of seeing the layers gives context to how suicidal tendencies don't spring up out of nowhere.

Try Not to Breathe takes place post-attempt and is told in fragments of flashbacks to when Ryan was in a treatment center. His only friends are a few other teens from the center who live hours away. They all deal in their own way. As Ryan trusts Nikki more with his secrets, he finally makes the big reveal - what event caused him so much shame that he tried to end his life. And what's most surprising, is it doesn't sound shameful or all that disasterous. But given Ryan's history leading to that moment, it makes sense. This book is not an extreme version of suicide, but a very realistic one. And there's a lot of resolution without feeling like a moral is forced.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Happy President's Day

In observance of President's Day, I will not think about what a trainwreck this election season has already become.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Breathless Reads Tour: Why Author Bookstore Appearances are so Important

I attended the Breathless Reads Tour last night at my local favorite bookstore Anderson's, which featured 4 YA authors: Andrea Cremer (Nightshade trilogy), Marie Lu (Legend), Beth Revis (Across the Universe, A Million Suns) and Jessica Spotswood (Born Wicked).

Hearing that Beth Revis vented frustration by writing character death scenes based on troublesome former students, and how she'd rather write about blow-ups than kissing, well it made me want to buy her book right then and there. I'd already marked Across the Universe on my To-Read list (and had even attempted to download the mp3 audiobook from the library, although iTunes refused to recognize it) but putting a face with an author name is what sold me.

Same with Andrea Cremer. I started Nightshade sometime last year and it wasn't my thing. But she's hilarious and insightful as a person, and meeting her made me want to give her books a second try.

Marie Lu was even cooler than I'd imagined, and I loved hearing how she designed video game graphics before writing full time. No wonder the action in Legend is so cool; she probably has vision related to gaming, taking the fast pace, first person experience and translating it on the page.

Jessica Spotswood has an intriguing sounding debut with Born Wicked, and her tiny voice brimmed with personality as she spoke about it.

I'd only read one book by the featured authors and I left the event with plans to read books by all of them. That's valuable contact for the authors! At least 3, if not all 4, of these authors have a strong online presence: active websites with blogs, twitter etc. But those in-store appearances really make a difference. Some attenders drove hours to be there, which is pretty typical occurance at Anderson's events. I'm spoiled because I live close, but it's noteworthy that teens and their moms, or full-time working adults, are willing drive several hours on a weeknight to meet an author.

For those of you who will eventually promote a book be encouraged!

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Book Review: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot

Most of the book reviews I've posted here are young adult or at least fiction, so this is a special departure timely for Black History Month. My workplace hosted a book discussion of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, an important book that weaves cancer research history with the endearing struggle of a poor black family that had no idea of the widespread influence of their mother's cancer cells.

Henrietta Lacks died of cancer in the 1950s, leaving five children behind. Before she died, a doctor removed cancerous cells to study in a lab without her consent - a common practice until recently. Those cells spawned a revolution in research and led to developing the polio vaccine. Henrietta's cells did wonderful things for the world, but her health records were released and published in medical journals without consent from the family. Medical tech companies profiited from mass producing her cells to sell to labs for research; her family never saw a dime from it, because for 25 years they didn't know it was even happening.  Another twenty years of misinformation followed. Her family lived in poverty and ignorance about much of the science surrounding their mother until Rebecca Skloot started poking around to get the real story and put the pieces together.

The author spent over 10 years writing the book. She conducted extensive research to pull out facts the science textbooks and newspaper articles missed. It took years for her to gain the trust of the family, who had been lied to, ignored and abused by the medical community. The book honors the family while not sugar-coating the anger they felt, or the illiteracy that contributed to much of the misunderstandings about Henrietta. It does not make excuses for the doctors that behaved irresponsibly, but the information is simply presented for the reader to make his or her own judgement. Much of the ethical misjudgement existed in a time when there were no set guidelines for lab research, and no laws to protect patient rights. There was little oversight in the health industry in general.

I work in the health care field and found this a fascinating read on patient rights; to see it through the eyes of a suffering family changed the tone from a historical account to an issue that we still need action on today. All those privacy agreements you sign at the doctors office derived from HIPPA, which was only established 15 years ago. Before that there was literally no formal oversight to protect your health information. Framing patient consent and medical ethics in this very real story gives light to how necessary it is for healthcare regulation. The author handles the human interest side of this so expertly, it's almost like a novel woven into a non-fiction account of medical history.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Book Review: The Name of the Star by Maureen Johnson

The Name of the Star
Maureen Johnson
Published: 2011
YA Contemporary/Paranormal

“Keep calm and carry on.

Also, stay in and hide because the Ripper is coming.”

Can I tell you how much I love Maureen Johnson? This is one of those books I was immediately sucked into. It balances suspense and historical details, and includes the author's typically awesome characters with unexpectedly quirky backstories. 

Rory moves with her family to England to attend boarding school; her parents are nearby in another town as university professors (but to Englanders, two hours isn't nearby, it's halfway across the country!). Rory lands in London just as a rash of Jack the Ripper imposter murders occur. The Ripper, who was never identified, infamously murdered 6 women over the course of a few months in 1888. Naturally, Rory's school is on intermittent lockdown as the police and frenzied media follow up on each murder, which happen exactly according to the old Ripper legend. Meanwhile, Rory sees a strange man on the school campus immediately after one of the murders. She's seeing a lot of strange things, and she wonders if it's stress or something more.

It's the little details: snippets of background on Rory's kooky extended family back in Louisana foreshadow her strange experiences. Her friendship with her adorable roommate Jazza feels genuine, and neither of them make excuses for being smart and studying hard - they aren't boy crazy. There's an underworld of investigators looking into the Ripper murders for completely different reasons than the police - and I'll leave it at that to keep this spoiler-free!

The Name of the Star is the first book in The Shades of London trilogy. The ending has a great little twist and I'm looking forward to the next book.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

The Phantom Menace Drinking Game

Gentle Readers:

I have personally cultivated this list from the vast chasm of internetdom. For those of you suckers bold enough to fork over top theatre dollar to see the worst film in the Star Wars cannon (in3D!), this one's for you.

(Although it may be more appropriate to keep this game for home viewing)

1. Take a shot: Whenever Anakin's future is foreshadowed 
2. Take a shot: Whenever you see a hologram
3. Take 2 shots: When the Jedi Council is shown
 4. Chug: Whenever anyone says "I have a bad feeling about this"
 5. Take a shot: Whenever Jar Jar says "meesa"
 6. Chug: When a battle droids proves more efficient than a Stormtrooper
 7. Take a shot: Every time a battle droid says "Roger Roger"
 8. Take a shot: Whenever someone crashes during the Pod Race
 9. Take a shot: When Anakin is called "Ani"
10. Drink up some water when you see the credits. Take care of yourself before you get a hangover tomorrow. 

Friday, February 10, 2012

Critique Partner Blogfest

    Thanks to everyone for commenting! Now I have new blogs to follow and a few options for critiquing. Thank you to Apathy's Hero's blog for hosting.
    This post is for the critique partner match-up event hosted by the Apathy's Hero blog. The purpose is to help writers find critique partners and beta readers. I'll have my info up from Feb 10-13. If you're part of the blogfest and interested in working with me, just leave a comment and a way for me to contact you back.

Monday, February 6, 2012

Book Review: The Fault in our Stars by John Green

The Fault in our Stars
John Green
Published: January 2012
Young Adult Contemporary

“Sometimes, you read a book and it fills you with this weird evangelical zeal, and you become convinced that the shattered world will never be put back together unless and until all living humans read the book.” 

So that's a quote from Hazel, the 16-year-old stricken with cancer in The Fault in our Stars. Dramatic, but I imagine John Green's nerdfighter fanbase feels just as much zeal. It's hard to sum up a book that's inpsiring without becoming a cliche sappy sick-girl tale. Not to say the book won't make you cry, because it will. I dare you not to cry.
Hazel takes a (fictional) drug to maintain her thyroid cancer, but it won't cure it. Her life will expire early, she just doesn't know when. She's been homeschooled for all of high school, and shares a quiet life with her doting parents and a favorite book she obsesses over; it abruptly ends without resolving what happens to the characters. Hazel half-heartedly attends a cancer support group; she finds it necessary to do something but she's frequently frustrated by the jargon: battling cancer like a warrior, living best your best life, etc. Especially when a list of former members are read aloud in rememberance; it's a reminder of how many of them will die.

Now, if this sounds like a downer, let me tell you about Hazel's attitude. She's realistic about her fate, but she's tired of sick kid perks and "special looks." She drives herself to classes at the community college, visits with an old friend at the mall. She isn't asking for sympathy. She's strong in spirit, but what reduced me to tears - and I'm NOT a cryer at books - were the simple descriptions of Hazel toting her little oxygen cart, having to sit down because a walk across the food court gave her shortness of breath, and a hospital visit where she didn't want anyone to see her helpless. She's fighting, but it's humbling to see a character so full of pride be weighed down by a vicious disease.

Just when support group couldn't get more boring, enter: Augustus Waters. He's good looking in a popular jock sort of way, in remission, and has a prosthetic leg. He dangles an unlit cigarette from his mouth as a methaphor for being close to something that kills but choosing not to partake of it, which is precocious but is balanced by a love of a video game-based series of novels. He and Hazel's friendship is adorable, hilarious and leads to a beautiful and very touching love story.

As with all John Green books, the supporting characters round out the story. Augustus' friend who brings him to support group is half blind and the first to make a sight joke. The parent's roles aren't forgotten sidenotes. There are always comments about Green's books portraying overly-pretentious characters who don't talk like normal teenagers (although Hazel is brainy, she also religiously watches America's Next Top Model). I think The Fault in our Stars works with this concept best, because Hazel and Augustus aren't normal. They've been taken out of school and trapped in their small world of suffering. To be faced with your own mortality at such a young age will cause you to either retreat entirely, or move forward and examine that pain and uncertainty. Their journey is full of speculation, wry observation and some genuinely funny moments.

This is John Green's strongest book. It will probably make you cry, but I promise it will make you laugh as well, and hopefully give a better understanding of what it's like for a family to live with cancer. Is it possible to have a favorite book of the year and it's only February?

Friday, February 3, 2012

RWA Conference and Contest

Well, I did it. I submitted the first 25 pages of my novel to a contest - the Chicago North chapter of Romance Writer's of America's Fire and Ice contest.


The contest gave me a deadline to work toward. I sent my draft to a couple of writers who provided very helpful feedback. Then I revised, edited, tweaked, fretted and reworked until I felt it was at least acceptable. I must have read the contest rules and guidelines a hundred times to make sure I followed all directions and completed everything.

No matter what happens with it, even if it's nothing, I feel like I accomplished a goal. The first two chapters are stronger and work better to set up the rest of the story. Plus, I got great constructive feedback from my test readers. That was worth it!

I also just registered for their Spring Fling Writer's Conference in April (the contest winners will be announced at their ending dinner). I haven't attended a conference like this yet; what I went to last year focused more on authors promoting their books rather than writing workshops.

And I signed up to pitch to 3 agents. I have a lot of work to do before April! If I'm not ready by then, I'll just attend the event and cancel any appointment with book agents.

For those of you who write, do you submit to contests? Is it always this nerve wracking or just the first time? What conferences have you been to?