Monday, April 29, 2013

The Silver Linings Playbook | Book Review

The Silver Linings Playbook by Matthew Quick

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I saw this movie and loved it and knew I had to read the book. I started reading and was blown away by the quality of writing - not just the story, but the humor and drama and subject matter and every tiny ingredient involved in this delicious literary casserole. As a writer myself, there are so many things here to commend, and I try to note them all in my review. The movie and the book are different in a lot of ways. But I think the movie retained the spirit of the book. And so does the author. So I'm with him.

Writing Technique: ★★★★1/2 Quick is a brilliant writer. He turns a guy with crippling mental illness, violent tendencies, and a serious one-track mind into a heart-warming, charming, hilarious, and moving narrative. Let this be a study for all novelists in voice, because this guy nails it. He also unravels a compelling modern hero's journey with a very limited first person POV. This work is fantastic.

Plot/Story Development: ★★★★ As I said, this is a modern hero's journey. Pat is not your typical hero (see more in char dev). But his journey is truly admirable. He leaves a neural health institution with one goal in mind: be reunited with his wife Nikki. Every single action he takes is made with her in mind: working out obsessively, his attitude and actions toward others, his pursuit of a greater literary education, etc. He is trying to write his own story - his own movie. He is single-minded in his pursuit of a happy ending, a true silver lining. It doesn't go exactly as planned, which is to be expected. And here is where novelists should study Quick's work, because it is a model case study of want v. need. As The Rolling Stones said so eloquently: "You can't always get what you want. But if you try sometimes, well you might get what you need." (Now that song's stuck in your head. You're welcome.)

Character Development: ★★★★1/2 So what does Pat need? Well, he thinks he needs Nikki. But we all know he doesn't need Nikki. He needs to adjust to his new reality. To find embrace his new life and find a happy ending in it and not in the past. Pat's not your typical hero because he's psychologically ill. His treatment, his healing is a long internal process. And I love seeing where he's at on the last page. The closing line for me is beautiful.

Message/Theme: ★★★★★ I love the difficult issues this book tackles. And having read some author interviews, I admire him for writing something that reflects at least in part a personal struggle. SLP addresses depression, mental illness, grief, physical and emotional abuse, marriage, love, friendship, family, obsession, personal growth, and the true nature of happy endings.

Rating: R for language and sexuality

Audiobook Performance: ★★★★ Ray Porter is a great voice for Pat's somewhat deranged inner monologue. He also excels at all the men's voices - Philly, Indian, inner city black accents - he nails 'em all. But all the women sound exactly the same. It's difficult being a voice actor, I know, but it drew me out of the moment a few times. Especially when Jeanie and Tiffany talk back and forth, there was no change. So points lost.

Overall: ★★★★1/2 This is a great read. I don't think I could possibly recommend it more.
And yes, you should watch the movie too. Here, watch the trailer.

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Saturday, April 27, 2013

The Adoration of Jenna Fox | Book Review

The Adoration of Jenna Fox by Mary E. Pearson

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Honestly, I'm almost too bored to write this review. I don't have much to say about it - good or bad. So here we go.

The Adoration of Jenna Fox is a science-fiction, coming of age novel set in a not-so-distant future. Jenna has recently awakened from a long coma with no memory of who she is. As she strives to remember and move forward as Jenna Fox, she realizes the key to future opens a very locked door from her past.

Writing Technique: ★★★ Perfectly acceptable. There were a few moments poetry that were nice. But overall, the writing didn't grip me in any way.

Plot/Story Development: ★★★ Um, yeah, this plot unfolds. There are revelations and twists, etc. But I'm not gonna lie, I thought the twists were gonna be a lot bigger. I was prepared to be knocked off my feet (based on the positive review of one of my favorite authors), but sadly I wasn't even swayed by the light wind of this story. It was...fine. I'll admit, I take issue with the tiny baby of a love story here. If I'm to believe...what she says at the end that they spend the next 70 years together?!, I could use much more supporting evidence throughout. Weak sauce.

Character Development: ★★★1/2 Jenna Fox was never quite enough for me as a character, maybe even as a human. Much of her inner monologue is questioning if she is "enough." I'm not sure the author ever convinced me she was. But what she learns and how that shapes her actions, particularly at the end of the story are...interesting, kind of. Nearly all of the other characters, though, are sadly one dimensional. Even knowing their histories, they never became real people. Ethan, Dane, Alice, Mr. Bender, Lily, Claire, Dad -- they do things, they feel things, they have reasons for them; but they don't really change, and some of them don't really have a point. So...that's kind of a fail.

Message/Theme: ★★★★ Now the questions presented here are much more interesting to me. I wish I package was bigger and brighter. But what the hey, take what I can get. Ideas: What makes a person a person? What is the soul? Can it be lost? Can it be kept in a box? Does the government have the right to determine when the soul, when personhood, when humanity begins and ends? Where is line between POSSIBILITY and PERMISSIBILITY (ethics)? If science and medicine CAN do something, does that mean it SHOULD? What would you do for family? What would you want your family to do for you? There's more, but this is all that really mattered to me.

Rating: PG for language and thematic elements.

Audiobook Performance: ★★1/2 Jenna Lamia is unimpressive to me as a narrator. She straight up ruined [b:Shiver|6068551|Shiver (The Wolves of Mercy Falls, #1)|Maggie Stiefvater||6244926] by [a:Maggie Stiefvater|1330292|Maggie Stiefvater|] for me, a book I believe to be nearly flawless. So I'm not sure if my apathy toward this story is not entirely her fault. I can't say she did anything exactly wrong here. But it didn't do anything for me as a listener. Perhaps one day if I have oodles of time, I'll give this book another shot, this time with my eyes. TBR list is pretty long as it is.

Overall: ★★★ My opinion: This story had a lot of potential. I think with more development it could have been great. As it is, it's mediocre. Read it if you want. Don't if you want. It really didn't affect me one way or the other. At least it's short...

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The Perks of Being a Wallflower | Book Review

The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

It took me an eternity to read this book. I don't know why. It's easy to get through, but I guess I'm easily distracted. The movie (written, directed, and produced by the author) is incredible and I highly recommend it. It's not one of those things where you must read the book first or you must watch the movie first. They are perfect companion pieces.

And let me give a huge shout out to my best friend, Tiffany, who first told me about this novel and insisted I read it. You were right, love.

Writing Technique: ★★★★★ Perks is a unique reading experience. I believe Chbosky to be a genius writer for penning such a poignant coming of age epistolary tale from the limited POV of a shy but observant, damaged but learning, ignorant but exposed high school freshman. This author captures Charlie's voice perfectly. He offers a lot of philosophical commentary on life and growing up, culture and relationships. And he does it in a way that is equal parts subtle and... not subtle. It's an easy, simple read, light. But I consider that one of its virtues. A novel packed with so much drama could be dense or heavy-handed. I think Chbosky handles it well. Very well.

Plot/Story Development: ★★★★ The plot is not that complicated. Things happen, yes. But the meat of this story is Charlie's internal struggle. The notable events are in great part a conduit for his journey of self-discovery. So let's get to character development, shall we?

Character Development: ★★★★★ Charlie's story is a classic coming of age story. He's spent his life on the sidelines, watching but not doing. His English teacher's challenge to participate catapults him into a group of friends who are most definitely doers. His friendship with Sam and Patrick exposes him to a whole new way of life - loud, wild, fearless, and infinite. And ultimately, he learns the value and necessity of friendship; he deals with long buried wounds from his past; he hurts and he heals; he finds hope. And that's a great character arc.

Message/Theme: ★★★★ This is a book jam-packed with themes: observing v. participating in life, isolation v. integration, being who you are v. being who others want you to be, tolerance, acceptance, abuse (physical, emotional, and sexual), self-esteem, friendship, family, innocence, love, freedom, hope, beauty, etc. etc. etc. There is a strong undisguised sexual revolution message here - casual sex, homosexuality, and abortion are just a few topics presented and embraced over the course of the story. And while I don't agree with all of the more liberal messages Chbosky clearly advocates, I appreciate the sentiment.

Rating: R for language, sexuality, drug use, violence

Overall: ★★★★ This book has become a classic, and rightly so. It's quiet and reserved, quirky and spunky, simple and deep. And it's neck-deep in poetic introspection that will leave you feeling a little more whole, a bit more hopeful, and a lot more infinite.

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Tuesday, April 23, 2013

The Sea of Tranquility | Book Review

Even this cover is freaking gorgeous.

The Sea of Tranquility by Katja Millay

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Sigh. It's so hard to review a book you love.

I stumbled upon this book accidentally. And I will be forever grateful. I definitely had no idea what this book was about even after reading the description (my own misunderstanding.) But I got sucked in immediately, read it in one sitting, in one day. I might have cried a little. I might have laughed a lot. I might have wished and wished and wished that I had written something this good. I definitely give this my highest recommendation.

Writing Technique: ★★★★★ I love Millay's writing style. She is poetic, artful, profound, and hilarious. I highlighted so many passages, it's almost every page. As a writer, I enjoyed finding great examples of foreshadowing and payoff, pacing, tension, showing-not-telling... This is a knockout of a debut from Katja Millay. I can't wait to see what she offers next.

Plot/Story Development: ★★★★ Millay does a great job gradually revealing the backstories of Nastya and Josh. This story unfolds so beautifully and naturally. I found it very realistic and entirely engrossing. Nastya makes a lot of poor/questionable choices. Josh has a lot of real reactions. One of the most rewarding reads I've ever had. Also the ending is freaking wonderful.

Character Development: ★★★★ Nastya and Josh are two pretty broken people when they meet. As they get to know each other, they both are given a chance to move beyond the terrible pain of their past and try to find some kind of normal. But (spoiler alert? I don't think so, but you might be sensitive...) I love that they can't fix each other. Because in real life, broken people need to fix themselves (okay--in real life, everybody needs Jesus to fix them, in my opinion... but that's another story...). Josh can't heal Nastya. And Nastya can't heal Josh. But they learn they've got to do something just by being around each other. And that is a good character arc, if you ask me.

Message/Theme: ★★★★★ First and foremost, the dream of second chances. Pain/death/suffering/anger/hate/revenge v. healing/life/forgiveness/hope/love/friendship/family. Identity. Heaven. Home. Belonging.

Rating: R for language, sexual content and humor, and violence.

Overall: ★★★★★ I adored this book. I read it twice in five days because I wanted to revel in it again. The writing is beautiful. The characters are compelling and unforgettable. The story is moving and inspiring. I hope to write something this good one day.

Some Examples of Why I Love Millay's Writing:

"How come you call her honey and never use terms of endearment on me?" he fake whines.
"I do," Mrs. Leighton says, patting him on the cheek as she walks by. "Just last week I called you the bane of my existence."
"That's right," he says. "That was a good day."

I have a black belt in self-pity. I was an expert in the field. Still am. It's a skill you never forget.

I am an expert in all manners of therapy. The only thing I'm not an expert in is getting them to work. My parents had me in therapy before I even left the hospital, which is the recommended course of action when the devil finds your fifteen-year-old and the afterlife spits her back out. 

Nastya on group therapy:
So that's what it was like every week. I'd sit in a circle and a bunch of people who'd be through as much shit as I had would look at me like I snuck into the club without paying the cover. And I'd feel like screaming and telling them that I had paid it the same as everyone else in the room, I just didn't feel like waving around my receipt.

It was fine when being the Brighton Piano Girl defined my life. when I was making the right choices. When all of my choices were influenced by what my parents wanted me to choose. I let their current steer me, let it smooth and shape me like a stone pushed along the sand until I was perfect. And as soon as I was, I was ripped out of the water and thrown and smashed into a thousand pieces that I can't put back together. I don't know where they go. And there are so many missing that the ones that are left don't fit together anymore.
I think I'll stay in pieces. I can shift them, rearrange, depending on the day, depending on what I need to be. I can change on a whim and be so many different girls and none of them has to be me.

I chose the silence and everything that came along with it because I wasn't a good enough liar to speak.

I'm not sure how long we sit in Josh's truck, holding hands, surrounded by darkness and unspoken regrets. But it's long enough to know that there are no stories or secrets in the world worth holding onto more than his hand.

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Sunday, April 21, 2013

Easy | Book Review

Easy by Tammara Webber

My rating: 1 of 5 stars

Oh Goodreads, you failed me this time. As a writer, I feel bad for what I'm about to do. But as a reader, it seems necessary to tell the truth, no matter how painful. And I just can see my literary snob friend Zach (I mean that affectionately, Zach, if you're reading. Okay, go away now...) judging me and rolling his eyes as this pops up on his feed - like, look at the cover! What did you expect?! Well, I expected a low budget indie book with a poor marketing team but a precious literary gem inside because friends of mine gave it five stars.

Warning: this is the harshest review I've ever given. In summary, this book was TERRIBLE. File it under DANA READ THIS BOOK SO I DON'T HAVE TO.

Actually file it under: DON'T READ THIS BOOK, READ THE SEA OF TRANQUILITY INSTEAD. (I read The Sea of Tranquility by Katja Millay. It blew me away. I died a thousand beautiful deaths of love for that book and wanted to read something similar. Girl suffers attack. Boy has dark and twisty past involving lots of death. Boy and Girl heal themselves and each other. Laughter and pain and love love love. TSoT did this well. Easy should've been lit on fire before hitting a publisher's put it mildly.

Writing Technique: ★ None. Honestly, Webber is the worst writer I've ever read. (Including some horribly cheesy romantic Christian fiction.) Some of the most basic good writing techniques were completely absent. Things like show, don't tell. So many times I observed as Jacqueline strung all the pieces of the plot together for us, explaining easily what we should be figuring out. Don't believe me? (These are examples from two consecutive chapters near the end because they are the freshest in my mind, but I assure this is a consistent problem throughout.)

Pg. 287 My eyes stung. No wonder his father had shut down. From what Dr. Heller told me, Ray Maxfield was a logical, analytical person. His only emotional exception must have been his wife. 
You can't really know that, Jacqueline. You're telling me what to think, and I don't like it. 
Pg. 288 His grief was so tangible. I knew in that moment that he hadn't worked through it--not at all in the eight years it had been. His protective wall had become a fortress holding him hostage rather than giving sanctuary. he might never fully recover from the horror of what happened that night, but there had to be a point where it wouldn't consume him. 
Over-sharing much? Yeah some of those words are pretty, but this outright statement means less to me than if I'd put it together on my own based on a stronger narrative voice. 
Pg. 300 As I stroked his hair and held him tight, I knew this night had struck a chord at the heart of his pain. What tormented Lucas went further than the horror of that night eight years ago. What haunted him was guilt, however insanely misplaced.
I might forgive this straight telling if Jackie had put it in the context of her own revelation, "I realized this must have tortured Lucas blah blah blah." But that never happens. Jackie doesn't realize things, she just gives it to you.

In my opinion, this is just lazy writing. Show, don't tell is rule no. 1. And it wasn't the only problem with the book. Obvious characterization. Predictable plot in absolutely every way. It's completely unimaginative. I'm starting to feel romance as a genre - forgive me my generalization, I know there are always exceptions - is breeding ground for this kind of authorial laziness. (I know, I know...I sound mean, don't I? Sorry. But it PISSED.ME.OFF.)

Plot/Story Development: ★★ While the bare-boned skeleton of this story is okay, the meat and muscle of it are what really sucked. I can appreciate a simple if predictable plot if the details are handled well and the prose is good. Alas, you know I don't appreciate this book.

This story has a very traditional romantic plot arc. Brokenhearted damsel in distress is rescued from soulless villain (obviously out to steal the damsel's "virtue" - whatever remains of it) by hunky tortured badboy knight in shining armor. Damsel (Jacqueline -- and can I just say...I hate characters ((and real people!)) who are sticklers over others using their full name. Nicknames/shortened names are a sign of affection and intimacy. Get over yourself...) and Knight (Lucas -- also known by a host of other names throughout) are thusly thrown together by a host of circumstances beyond their control until flirty texts and emails devolve into a chest-heaving, eye-rolling surrender to their lusty passions.

[Plot dev spills into character dev now...]

Character Development: ★★★ Damsel gets all fem-powered and learns to defend herself (although Knight continues to swoop in at the last moment just to make sure all baddies are sufficiently man-squashed). Knight, sensitive stud that he is, has demons of the past and secrets of the present - to match those sexy tats and lip ring - which he learns to relieve and release through the power of their Most Epic Love-Lust. And together -- they find The True Meaning of Christmas! or whatever...

[We interrupt this scathing sarcasm for a moment of truth: Jacqueline is an idiot -- kind of. I feel bad for her. But she's slow and kind of annoying. I don't think this because of her actions, because she really didn't do anything wrong. It's not her fault she gets attacked/stalked. But based on her narrative, her "inner monologue" (both of which is a reflection of the author's lack of writing technique)...she's a moron. I'm glad she got all fem-powered in the end. But I hated being in her head. And Lucas had a lot of traits of real good guys I know...but in the end, he's just a caricature of the Romantic Hero...even with all his baggage. It's resolved too easily. It doesn't feel genuine. Hence...all the mockery.]

Message/Theme: ★★★ This book gets points for message (not very many, obviously, but some). Rape/assault is a very serious thing, and I appreciate the author trying to awaken her readers to its danger and inspire them to be proactive.

Theme: love heals all wounds. Love, lust, victimization, empowerment, healing, friendship, .... aaaaaaand not much else. There really isn't much going on here besides the whole "Don't get raped, but if you do, it's not your fault" vibe.

Rating: R. Very R. Possibly NC-17, but I'm not exactly sure what that would entail because I've never seen one. This book is basically erotica or really close (I'm not technically sure, because I don't read that genre - on purpose.) Also much swearing, some violence, and as always thematic elements.

[PS: My hatred of my book is not even about the graphic and profuse sexual content, although that's why I can't even say, "Yeah, try it out. maybe you'll like it." I think no one should read this book. Zero redeeming value. But my hatred of this book is based solely on the lazy, uninspired, dear-god-how-the-heck-did-you-even-get-this-published poor quality of writing.]

Overall: ★ If I've offended you with this review because you thought this book was some undiscovered masterpiece, all I have to say is - get out and read some other freaking books! Most of my reviews are not this mean, but I feel like I'm healing myself from this traumatic reading experience just by writing this, and hopefully I've spared someone else. Let me know if I spared you.

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Friday, April 19, 2013

Gone Girl | Book Review

Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Writing Technique: ★★★★ Gillian Flynn is either a genius writer or a certifiable sociopath. She wrote from the perspectives of Nick and Amy so convincingly and so differently, I was amazed. And terrified. I was genuinely disturbed by both of these people (but mostly...just the one. You know the one.) For that, I applaud Flynn. Dang good writing. Engrossing. Surprising. Ingenious.

Note on writing things that might be spoilery but might not: This is a FANTASTIC example of an unreliable narrator. Neither Nick nor Amy are exactly what they seem. And for much of the story, you really can't be sure you're getting the truth or the whole story. They are telling the story their way. Unreliable narrators are one of my favorite writing techniques. And this one takes the cake. Kudos!

Plot/Story Development: ★★★★ I loved the evolution of this story. I loved how information was seeped out gradually, and the reader has to pieces the puzzle together for a while. The ending is a killer, I think. So serious thrill and horror comes out as we learn what's really going on, and I liked feeling that chill of "What the heck is going to happen next?"

Character Development: ★★★ I don't think the characters actually change that much. Some, yes. But our understanding of them and their understanding of each other changes a lot. As characters, they are deep and complex and insane - literally - and fascinating to follow page to page. But they don't have a great character arc where you go - ah! lesson learned! Mostly you go - " matter how bad my life/marriage/younameit is, at least it's not and will never be this bad!"

Message/Theme: ★★★ Be careful who you marry. That's the great lesson here. Themes throughout include: love, hate, adultery, revenge, abuse, manipulation, psychological terror, the court of public opinion, psychosis, and other scary things... This isn't really the kind of book you read to teach you something or inspire you or show you a different perspective in life. It's something to read to freak yourself out, give yourself goosebumps, and walk away feeling better about your life.

Rating: R for a profundity of profanity, crude and graphic sexual language, and a major creep factor. Be warned - this book is heavy.

Audiobook Performance: ★★★★★ Julia Whelan and Kirby Heyborne are flawless voices for Amy and Nick. Their performances were spot on, lending humor and drama and fear and suspense. I loved hearing them tell this story. I highly recommend listening to this audiobook if you're interested in reading this book.

Overall: ★★★★ This was a fascinating read. I was hooked. I was creeped out. I was surprised. And ultimately I was quite satisfied with this thriller.

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Tuesday, April 9, 2013

That String Of Hope | On Writer's Block and Destiny

I'm struggling. I am in a deep dark black pit of writerly depression. It's not like regular depression. And also it is. It is like having a spider in my brain. I am deathly afraid of spiders. It is a crippling phobia of mine that grows worse with time. You'd think I'd become more rational about it as I get older. You'd think I'd get braver. But I don't. I hate spiders. And the more I think "I hate spiders," the more terrified of them I become. And this writerly depression is like living with a spider in my brain. My greatest fear, my crippling Achilles' heel, that which I nightmare about is a living, breathing presence in my mind every second, every day.

I am a writer.

I can't write.

These two things don't go together. It is like being broken, a thousand tiny pieces. And everything I need to function is right there on the kitchen floor, ready for reassembly. But I don't know how the pieces fit. I don't know what goes where. And even if I could put everything in its place, does something shattered ever truly function again? Can it? If you break something -- something tangible -- in real life, do you really fix it? Or do you sweep it up, throw it away, and go get a new one? Honestly, it's easier. Faster. Less agonizing. I have broken several phones and computers in my lifetime. I shattered an iPhone 5, much to my shame. These things aren't easily fixed. But they are easily replaced. Easily, yet expensively. Still...

But somehow this writerly thing in me, this need to breathe words onto a page, is not just part of me, a piece. It's like... me. It is the me part of me. I don't know how to dislodge it from the rest of me, because it is an essential bit. To replace to replace me... Can I replace me? Am I...expendable to myself?

I am a broken writer. Yes, I know I am many other things. I am a wife. I am a mother(-to-be). I am a daughter. I am a sister. I am a friend. I am a musician. I am a Christian above all. But I am still a writer...right? I wasn't storyboarding at 9 years old because it's what all the cool kids were doing. I was doing it because it was me and I was it and it was as natural as breathing. And as necessary.

And now...? Now I've lost it.

That string of hope.

In the tapestry of our great destinies, sometimes there is a string. One that is threaded through our souls, intricately and delicately laced among the fabric of our beings. It is tenuous. It is light. And when we find it, we cling with our whole selves to it because--ah! here we are! It is the seam that ties everything we are and were and want to be together. It is hope. And as it is woven and spun into the great canvas of time and space, we are unraveled, let loose to be what we were always meant to be. Free. Is this not what we were created for? Is this not what we have lost ourselves to in dreams and daydreams and visions and hope? Some kind of calling? Some kind of knowing?

And now at last I have released the string. Finger by finger, my hand has been pried away. I am holding empty air which carries nothing of my destiny inside. How can I abide that? How can I stomach it? I've seen the future--all of its resonant possibilities. The stars have burned and I have burned with them. And to succumb now to the cooling of the embers, to grasp the string of complacency, of desperation, to settle--is that not criminal? Is that not the most reprehensible choice in light of everything else? To have held truth in your hand and then let it be ripped away without a fight...

No. I will fight. I will not surrender to this darkness. I will not go gentle. I will not let my dreams rust into nightmares, corrode into terrors. I will not let the metaphysical spiders infest my mind. I will battle and war and scream and shout and cut and tear at the blackness until my fists are full again. That string of hope. That thread of destiny. It is mine. It will not unwind.

I am a writer.

I am a writer.

I am a writer.

I am a writer.

I am a writer.

I am a writer.

I am. I am. I am. I am. I know I am.

The darkness cannot have me.

So...what will you fight for?

Be prepared to fail as many times as it takes until you succeed.
--Ray Moore, my ever-wise husband