Books I Love: Valentine’s Day Edition

I did this last year, and later learned that a few people actually went and checked out the books I recommended. So, as part of my lifelong effort to spread the word about good books, here, in no particular order, are some of the highlights from my last 12 months of reading . . .

Devilish – Maureen Johnson

devilish

I’ve never disliked a book by Maureen Johnson, and most of them I’ve straight-up loved. Devilish happens to be the book I chose to throw on this list, but it really could have been any one of her novels. If you want to read a sharp, funny, modern-day take on the old sold-his-soul-to-the-devil story – one that takes place in an all-girls Catholic preparatory high school – then this book is for you.

But no matter what, read Maureen Johnson. You’ll probably get addicted, but you won’t regret it.

The Curiosities – Maggie Stiefvater, Tessa Gratton, and Brenna Yovanoff

the curiosities

The Curiosities is a collection of short stories from a team of three contemporary fantasy authors. The stories were culled from the authors’ joint blog – www.merryfates.com – where, for the past six years, they have been posting experimental, improvisational pieces of fiction and, subsequently, commenting on one another’s work.

Some of the selections outshine others, and a handful simply fall flat. But this, perhaps paradoxically, is one of the book’s strengths. These pieces are about as spontaneous as published fiction can get – they were written without the safety net of the delete key, and then immediately posted in a public space.

Essentially, the book lets you watch these three writers in the midst of their creative processes. You get to see their first attempt at a story, then you get to see a later version of themselves and two of their colleagues critique that attempt. The book offers a rare and exciting peek into the working minds and imaginations of three talented and exceptionally creative authors.

Locke & Key – Joe Hill and Gabriel Rodriguez

This isn’t a book, but a series of graphic novels. They were written by Joe Hill – the name should be familiar to any fan of horror fiction (or to readers of TIME, since the magazine put Hill’s NOS4A2 on its list of ten best books of 2013) – and brilliantly illustrated by Gabriel Rodriguez. The series is on this list because it contained some of the best writing and storytelling I’ve read this past year.

LK covers combined

Because of the story’s horror elements, Locke & Key will probably never find its way onto a YA reading list. But the series’ main characters (siblings Tyler, Kinsey, and Bode Locke) are all adolescents, and their struggles and experiences are reminiscent of all kids’ – except, of course, for the dimensional portals, the magical keys, and the bloodthirsty demons. But if you were so inclined, you could read these things as elaborate, symbolic metaphors. And like the very best fantasy stories, Locke & Key shines a bright, insightful light onto our everyday reality. I can’t think of a book that so thoughtfully and thoroughly explores family – the good of it, the bad, and the ugly, too.

Guys Read – Jon Scieszka (founder and series editor)

This is another series pick. Guys Read, founded in 2001 by Jon Scieszka (who wrote The Stinky Cheese Man and Other Fairly Stupid Tales, plus about a hundred other excellent books), is an organization with a mission to “help boys become self-motivated, lifelong readers.” Nerd that I am, I find this mission incredibly cool.

guys read covers combined

The Guys Read website (www.guysread.com) – which you should check out – is loaded with reading lists, author interviews, and various other resources for readers, writers, parents, and educators alike. Scieszka has also edited a handful of short story collections under the Guys Read banner, plus a book of personal essays and reflections from 80-something Guys Read-friendly authors. Every one of them is worth picking up.

Lexapros and Cons – Aaron Karo

lexapros and cons

Chuck Taylor, the narrator of Aaron Karo’s Lexapros and Cons, is a modern-day high school senior, and one of the best things about the guy is that he actually sounds like a modern-day high school senior. If a movie version of this book is ever made, it just might take the title of Most F-Bombs in a Film away from “The Wolf of Wall Street.”

But better than the off-the-charts cursing are the conversations Chuck has with his best friend, Steve. I can’t remember reading a book that so candidly depicted a friendship between two eighteen-year-old guys. (A fair amount of credit for this goes to Karo’s editor and publisher, who were both brave and smart enough not to tone down his writing.)

And then there’s the OCD. Because that’s what the book is really about – Chuck’s obsessions and compulsions and his often hilarious but always dead-serious struggle to keep them from getting in the way of his living the life he wants to live. This book is more than good. For about a dozen different reasons, I believe it to be an important one. It’s also one of the literally-laugh-out-loud funniest things I’ve read in a long time.

The Schwa Was Here – Neal Shusterman

schwa

By the time I was done reading the first page of The Schwa Was Here, I was lamenting the fact that there were a limited number of the things, the pages, left. A lot of this has to do with the narrator’s, “Antsy” Bonano’s, voice. It’s pitch-perfect Brooklynese, and sounds so much like an eighth-grade boy’s that at moments I wondered whether Neal Shusterman hadn’t cornered a kid, hit Record, and told him to start talking.

But that’s not giving the guy behind the book enough credit. Because this novel is impeccably crafted. The smoothness of the façade might distract you from it, but the story is perfectly plotted, each sentence calibrated to hit you in a certain way.

If I told you everything that The Schwa Was Here was about, you probably wouldn’t believe me. It involves a “functionally invisible” eighth-grader, lucrative social science experimentation, an ancient and curmudgeonly agoraphobic, a blind girl, the challenges inherent in walking 14 Afghan hounds at the same time, first love, friendship, crime, punishment, and that weird drifting you do right before high school when you’re trying to figure out where you fit in. And like I said – that’s not even everything.

The Schwa Was Here is hilarious, big-hearted, deep, and wise, and if I were made to pick just one book from the past year and call it my favorite, it’d probably be this one (though Wonder and Twerp, both mentioned below, would be strong contenders).

Whales on Stilts! – M. T. Anderson

whales on stilts

Like Maureen Johnson, any one of M. T. Anderson’s books could go on this list. He’s just that consistently great. This is especially incredible when you look at what Anderson’s writing. He crosses and blends boundaries and genres. He writes children’s picture books about music and musicians, Middle Grade adventure tales, and, when it comes to YA, he’s proven that he can do just about anything – the standard contemporary stuff, but also historical fiction, satirical sci-fi, and horror (and all of this with a thread of clever, often-dark humor running through it).

But the thing that sets M. T. Anderson apart from so many other writers for children and adolescents is his faith in his audience’s ability to comprehend “adult” concepts and situations. He never writes down to his readers. He knows that if a naturally curious kid comes across something foreign or confusing in a novel, they’re probably not going to toss the book across the room or burn it. No, they’ll most likely look into the confusing thing further. They’ll explore, learn, and grow. They might even feel grateful for the opportunity to do so. It might even make them want to go and read more books.

Whales on Stilts! is a great example of the type of writing described above. The book, in a sentence, is about a madman unleashing an army of “stilt-walking, laser-beaming, thoroughly angry whales upon the world!” Just in case that’s not enough to get you to go and read the thing, then I’ll also say it’s about friendship, courage, and the search for one’s own unique and important place – whether in a family, a group of friends, or a plan to keep a force of cetaceous killing-machines from destroying the planet.

Wonder – R. J. Palacio

wonder

If you’re a big reader – or if you hang out with any big readers – chances are you’ve heard of this book. If you frequent bookstores, you’ve most likely seen the thing prominently displayed atop the shelves. Tons of stuff has already been said about Wonder, so I won’t add much. I’ll just say that, after hearing the book hyped for months on end, I finally read it – and loved it even more than everyone said I would. It’s one of those books that makes you want to go and buy a copy for every person you care about.

Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency and The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul – Douglas Adams

dirk 1

Everybody knows Douglas Adams’s Hitchhikers Guide to the Universe series. But his less well-known series staring Dirk Gently, the one-man holistic detective agency, are equally excellent.

dirk 2

Within these pages, you’ll find Adams’s trademark blend of hilarity and gravity. One second you find yourself in the middle of a slapstick-filled scene worthy of the Three Stooges, and the next you’re suddenly contemplating the complexities of human nature and the mysteries of the universe. The only problem with these books: reading them might get you sad about the fact that Adams didn’t live long enough to write another dozen.

Twerp – Mark Goldblatt

Twerp

If Antsy Bonano lived in Queens during the 1960s instead of Brooklyn during the 2000s, he would’ve been friends with Julian Twerski, the narrator of Twerp. They’re brothers from different boroughs (and decades). The two boys are similarly big-hearted, and both regularly find themselves tangled up in hilarious, outlandish situations. Another thing the boys have in common – they can get deep. When you least expect it, Antsy and Julian will tug at your heartstrings or get you pondering what it means to be a human being, a “quintessence of dust.”

I’m comparing the two books because their narrative voices are so strong, and because both of these voices happen to come out of New York City (I don’t know, but there may be a connection there between strong-voiced people and the city of New York . . . ). But don’t get me wrong – Julian’s story is all his own, and just as worthy of a read as Antsy’s.

There aren’t any Afghan hounds or “functionally invisible” kids, but there is a cast of complicated, entertaining characters, and the intersecting of their lives makes for some truly wonderful storytelling. Egg-throwing, Shakespeare, a Guatemalan kid, God, the forty-yard dash, some fireworks, the “writing bug,” a pigeon, a love letter, a couch – and a whole lot more – all come together to make Julian realize some important things about the world and the sort of life he wants to lead within it.

. . .

There you have it – now go and get your hands on these books! If you do end up reading any of them, I’d love to hear your thoughts and feelings (positive, negative, and/or neutral). And recommendations for my own to-read list are, of course, always welcomed. They’re even encouraged. So leave a comment and let me know – what book did you read in the last 12 months that you’re still in love with on this Valentine’s Day?

Kick-Starting Your Creativity

The more time you spend writing, the more you learn about yourself as a writer. You discover what subjects and sorts of people you’re drawn to, and you figure out the style in which you want to write about them. But that’s the stuff that anyone who reads your work can figure out for themself.

There’s another side of writing – the behind-the-scenes stuff, the process – and it’s just as important for a writer to learn about this aspect of their craft (the where and when and how, you could say) as it is the other (the what and the why).

For instance, over the years I’ve found out what sorts of writing I’m best at first thing in the morning and what sorts I’m more prepared to tackle at the end of the day. I’ve discovered what kinds of background noise will distract me and what kinds won’t. I’ve learned where and when I should stop writing at the end of the night so that I can more smoothly pick up where I left off the next day.

Of course, these variables aren’t always in your control. Ideal conditions are rare. But the better I know what works for me, the more efficient I can be in the time and space that I have.

Maybe the most valuable thing I’ve picked up over the years are those handful of techniques that I know can kick-start my creativity. Sometimes I’ll be having trouble carrying along a scene, finding the right word to describe a character, or figuring out where to direct the reader’s attention. That’s when I’ll try one of these kick-starting tactics, and almost always, one or another of them will help me out:

1. Switch mediums.

If I’m typing when I run into a problem, I’ll often grab a pad and a pen and finish the paragraph, scene, or chapter longhand (and vice versa, moving from pad to computer). If even that isn’t helping, I’ll hang on to the pad and pen, but stop hammering away at the troublesome paragraph, scene, or chapter. Instead I’ll write in a more general way about the characters, the setting, or what I’m hoping to accomplish by writing about what they’re doing where they are.

Clarifying your purpose, giving yourself a straightforward and succinct mission statement of sorts, is often all you need in order to find your way onto the next sentence or the end of that scene.

2. Leave it alone.

It seems counterintuitive, and is often the last thing you want to do in the moment – but now and again the best thing to do when you’ve encountered some creative block is get up, walk away, and leave the thing alone. Usually, the problem will solve itself while you’re off doing something else. You’ll be cleaning the cat’s litter box, grocery shopping, or catching up on e-mails, and suddenly realize that this character can’t tell that character about the thing until a couple chapters later.

A few years ago, I had the pleasure of meeting the writer Martin Amis. When I wasn’t freaking out about the fact that I was sitting on a couch next to Martin Amis, I was able to have a conversation with him. While talking about the novel he was working on at the time, he mentioned that he, too, uses this hands-off technique to negotiate some of the tougher snags he runs into while writing. He said that he’s been at it so long that, when pushing away from his desk, he’s now able to size the problem up and accurately predict just how long he’ll need to stay away in order for the problem to work itself out – whether it’s a two-hour problem, a two-day problem, or a problem so knotty that it requires two weeks of diligent avoidance.

3. Draw.

I’ve always loved to draw, but it’s only recently that I realized drawing could help my writing. Not because I’m particularly good at it, mind you. But maybe because, in a way, drawing a picture combines the two previous approaches to dealing with a writing problem – I’m both switching to a different medium and taking a step back.

Recently, feeling a bit uninspired while revising a manuscript, I decided to do some quick, cartoony drawings of some of the characters I was writing about. I’m honestly not sure what inspired it. Maybe the urge to draw just happened to strike at the right time. But drawing my characters’ faces, tweaking their lines and trying again and again until I felt I’d gotten them precisely right – somehow this brought me closer to them. It opened them up to me in a way that all the thinking and rereading in the world never could have done.

Below I’ve posted a link to a few of the drawings I did. But “drawings” actually doesn’t feel quite right – I guess they’re more like “doodles.” They were begun spontaneously, and each one took somewhere between five and fifty seconds to complete. The doodles are the equivalent of the shorthand notes I might jot down to remind myself what I’m trying to accomplish in a scene.

Click here to see some doodles

Good luck to you on all of your creative endeavors, and if you’ve got any tips or tricks that work particularly well for you when you come up against a problem, feel free to reply here and share.