Friday, January 29, 2016

Why I Reread

When I was younger, I was rather shocked to discover that not everyone rereads books. *gasp* Before then I had always assumed that people, like me, reread as a matter of course. In my mind there really wasn’t much point in reading a book the first time if I wasn’t planning to read it again and again. 

I’ve been thinking about this a lot for the past few months as I’ve been taking the time to evaluate what I want my reading life to look like. There are so many books out there, it would be impossible to read them all—even once—before dying of old age. (Unless you’re Cait. Apparently she’s immortal now, and I would love to know how she worked that one out because it would totally solve the majority of my bookish problems.) All that to say, I understand those who would rather experience as many new stories as possible without spending valuable time on rereading. Not everyone is wired to think and process in the same way and, for some people, one encounter with any given novel is sufficient for them. 

So I’m not here to make the case for why you’re doing it wrong if you don’t reread. Your reading life is your personal territory, and I don’t want to infringe on it. But I would like to explain why I, personally, see great value in rereading. And who knows, you might even find some reasons that appeal to you and cause you to rethink your decision. Even if you never do reread, though, I promise I’ll still be your friend. 


Anyway, here goes: 

Rereading helps your memory. Now, this is by no means a scientific fact; I’m only speaking from personal experience here. But I’ve found that, when I go through long stretches where I only read new books, both my short term and long term memory suffer significantly. While I’m not known for having an elephant’s memory, I usually have good recall, so when I noticed this pattern I went on a rereading binge as an experiment of sorts. Sure enough, as I re-experienced familiar stories, old thoughts and recollections resurfaced and my memory banks became more accessible. (Yes, I realize I’m not a computer—no, I won’t stop talking like one.) Conclusion: It doesn’t hurt to return to familiar bookish stomping grounds every now and then before resuming your exploration of unchartered territories. 

Rereading helps rekindle your love of books. Sometimes I go through stretches where I just don’t feel like reading. I went through a few bouts of that last year, and I’ve been in one for the past week. Reading slumps happen. Often the trick to getting back into the swing of things, at least for me, is to return to familiar, nostalgic reading territory. It’s good to be reminded from time to time why I fell in love with reading in the first place. Another factor in this equation is that reading slumps can happen when you’ve read a load of new but not wonderful books. It can be hard to remember why you love reading when you spend your time consuming a seemingly never-ending plate of disappointment drizzled with lame sauce (yes, I did just say that—deal.) If that’s the case, it could be worthwhile to fall back on the books you know won’t ever let you down. After all, the books that stick with you stick with you for a reason, and they may get you back on track. 

Rereading helps you cement ideas and find new details. Especially if you’re a decently fast reader like me, you’re bound to miss some stuff. This is actually why I’ve slowed down my reading a little over the past few years. There have been times when I’ve found something new and surprising in a book I’d read five or six times before, and it’s one of the most exciting feelings ever. Suddenly an old story feels fresh again—deeper and more meaningful and so worth that second glance. Beyond that, time can change your perspective and give you new insights so it’s almost as if the stories you love are changing as you change and maturing as you mature. Granted, sometimes you’ll discover that a book you thought was deep and meaningful is really just a pile of cheap candy with sugar-coated-truth sprinkles on top, which can be a let down. But I, at least, would like to know that the books I love can stand up to my scrutiny. It makes the stuff that does stick with me even more valuable. 

Rereading can help you understand your emotions and your psyche better. I’ll admit, there was a dark period in my life where I hated MOCKINGJAY with a fiery passion. The first time I read it, I was about thirteen years old, and it left me feeling so rattled and disappointed I didn’t know how to process all the negative emotions running through my overheated little brain. I had loved THE HUNGER GAMES and CATCHING FIRE beyond human expression, and I was frustrated with the perceived turn the series had taken. So after that, every time I reread the first two books, I skipped the last one which is very out of character for me. If I’m going to reread the first and second books in a trilogy, I’m going to reread the entire thing—I just am. Eventually, I convinced myself to rip off the mental bandaid and re-experience MOCKINGJAY in hopes of figuring out what had bothered me so much. Wonder of wonders, I came away loving it because I was finally able to understand what nerve it had touched, and this time I could appreciate why I had related to Katniss and her struggles on such a deep level. In figuring out why it had bothered me, I was able to delve further into my own psyche. That’s just one example; my discussions of A SERIES OF UNFORTUNATE EVENTS are another example of what I’m talking about here. 

I could extol the virtues of rereading for a thousand more words or so, at which point probably all of you would have wandered off to buy coffee or “Down with Liz—Cait for World Ruler” tee-shirts. Fortunately Heather @ Sometimes I’m a Story has already written her own lovely post on the subject, so I’ll just drop that link here instead. You're welcome. 

To be perfectly honest, my reasons for writing this post are abominably selfish. As I mentioned before, yes, I reread 48 books last year, but I also read 70 new ones. And I felt myself more drawn/slightly obligated to those because I hadn’t read them yet. I also felt a smidge guilty every time I went back and reread something when there were still new bookish delicacies to be devoured. I don’t want to feel bad about rereading stories I love while new ones sit untouched on my shelves for a time. They will have their day, most likely. But this year I want to focus on fully enjoying everything I’m reading, new or not. Listing these reasons for rereading is just another exercise in convincing my brain it’s okay to take a nostalgia tour from time to time. Convincing you of my viewpoint would only be a lovely side effect. Either way I win. *evil laugh* 

Well, that’s it little coffee beans. What about you—do you reread? Why or why not? Is there anything else you feel I should have added to my list?

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Books that Shaped Me // Round Two

Two Mondays ago I began my nostalgia tour by listing seven books that impacted my younger self and sharing my reading/rereading goals for the year. This week I want to list a few more books that helped shape me. 

THE HUNGER GAMES blew my little eleven-year-old mind (at least, I think I was eleven when I read it). It was cozy and scary, deep and thoughtful, fresh and interesting. When I finally got a copy of my own for Christmas, I’m fairly certain I spent the majority of the next several months reading it over and over again. The idea of children and teenagers being forced to fight to the death for entertainment was so bizarre to me. Yet at the same time, it felt like something that might actually happen—like we had the potential to bring our society to that place one day if we weren’t careful (after all, Rome had popularized gladiator games). Of course, it wasn’t my first taste of the dystopian genre, but it was definitely the one that got me hooked for life, and I will defend it to my dying breath. (You can find my review here.)

THE ROOK is the second book in the Patrick Bowers Files, and I would not recommend giving this series to small children (unless those children answer to nicknames like Little Miss Morbid, in which case they’re probably fine). My sister got me a signed and personalized copy of THE ROOK when Steven James visited her university, and it’s one of the best Christmas presents I’ve ever received. The main detail that grabbed me was that the author allows his main character, Patrick Bowers, to struggle with belief in God and His goodness. In my previous experience with Christian novels, the subject of doubt/bitterness often gets treated like a taboo topic. Christian novelists seem willing to represent these sorts of negative views of God only if the character is made to see the error of his or her ways by the end of the story, even if that means a rather unbelievable change of heart in the climax. That line of thinking does not naturally lead to any sort of honest discussion, and it can make those with struggles feel shamed, marginalized, and misunderstood. That is why I so respect Steven James—instead of writing bad sermons, he writes honest novels. 

No matter how old I get, I will always be fond of this series. One of my best and oldest friends is not much of a reader, so when she bought a copy because the cover looked cool, and then fell in love with the story, I was excited to have something more to discuss with her. (I think I was thirteen at the time.) My sister and I really hit it off on this subject as well. To this day, we still throw random spy tests at each other, like, “Quick, how many grocery bags was that man back there carrying?” And the funny thing is that, at this point, we can usually answer the question correctly. 

This was the first book I remember reading that had a truly bittersweet ending. Up until that point, I had been a little naive in believing that nothing huge can go wrong in stories and that conflict can happen but, in the end, everything has to go back to the way it was. (I know, I was adorable.) Fortunately, THE TWO PRINCESSES OF BAMARRE showed me the beauty and symmetry of a different sort of ending than what I was accustomed to, and I appreciated that. 

Because I read this book (only once) a long while ago, I don’t remember much about the plot. All I know is that it made such an impression on me I tried to write stories set in stone quarries for at least a year afterwards. This one is very high on my reread list. 

THE HOUSE OF THE SCORPION was one of the most disturbing books I read when I was a small thing. Not only did it cover human exploitation and other fun stuff, it also dealt with the moral issue of doing something really bad for really good reasons. Before then, I’m not sure how much I’d been introduced to the concept of moral ambiguity. (I've not read the sequel, THE LORD OF OPIUM, so I need to tackle that one as well.) 

This series was another big eye-opener for me. Even though THE HUNGER GAMES was the story that got me officially hooked on dystopian literature, The Shadow Children Series was what primed me for it. It introduced me to the idea that things could go really wrong—that the people in charge could make rules that were beyond cruel and unreasonable. It also introduced me to the idea of fighting back against injustice. 

I just spent five Mondays discussing this series, so hopefully I already got my point across (you can find the posts here, here, here, here, and here). Boiled down, I loved these books because they treated me like my thoughts and emotions and opinions mattered. For once I felt as though someone understood me. 

Every time I think of ENDER’S GAME, my mind starts to explode all over again. Unlike most of the other books listed in this series of posts, I read this novel when I was closer to seventeen (I think), so I was able to process it more the first time. It showed me how wise and capable children can be—that young people can be so much deeper and more complex than we often realize. It also highlighted how sometimes we do stuff that feels meaningless and unimportant without realizing that we’re changing our world in the process. 

Through the eyes of a society that burns books, I learned to love books with an even greater passion. I learned to value them for what they were—more than just mindless entertainment. Alongside Montag, I learned that stories are ideas, ideas are powerful, and any society that fears ideas is something to be resisted. 

While the concept of aging backwards may be scientifically impossible, I wasn't all that concerned with scientific realism when I first got my grubby paws on this gem. And I was already interested in science (in the abstract) and science fiction at the time, so TURNABOUT just clinched it for me. TURNABOUT also helped fuel my interest in keeping journals because, even though I wasn't growing younger and losing my memories slowly but surely, I figured it was still a good idea to document my existence. (I have such fond memories of this book, I almost freaked out a teeny tiny bit when I momentarily thought I hadn't brought my copy with me to Virginia.) Aside from Lemony Snicket, I don't think any sole author influenced my childhood quite as much as Margaret Peterson Haddix did. 

Well, that’s it for today, little coffee beans. What are some of the books that shaped you? What are some of your all-time favorites? Do you plan to reread anything this year? 

Monday, January 25, 2016

ILLUMINAE // Hold Me, I'm in Love

Warning: As always, I try to stay relatively spoiler free. But it doesn’t hurt to proceed with caution. 

Rating: Five Stars—ajklsdflk (when words fail to describe how wonderful a book is)

Okay, okay, I think I’m in love. This book was AMAZING. And I don’t say that lightly. I know that, as far as book bloggers go, I am very easy to please and I probably give out way more five-star ratings than I should if I want people to take my judgment on bookish matters seriously. But I would give this book eleven stars if I could. 

In a nutshell, ILLUMINAE follows Kady and Ezra as they escape the destruction of an illegal mining colony by hitching a ride with the Alexander and her fleet. However, the company that attacked the mining colony, unwilling to let any witnesses survive, pursues the fleeing ships for months. Matters worsen when a strange illness breaks out on one of the ships and the malfunctioning Artificial Intelligence takes drastic measures to prevent its spread. 

But the story is much much more than that, so obviously I need to explain to you why I love this book so much I would pry it out of the hands of a crying baby if I had to (haha, ahem, just kidding—I would never be that mean to a baby…probably). 

AIDEN. I. Am. In. Love. With. AIDEN. Although he is a computer (AIDEN stands for Artificial Intelligence Defense Analytics Network), he is more than just an amalgamation of algorithms and code. Whether it is his programing or his damaged hardware, his thought processes transcend binary into poetry. There is something so tragic and pathetic about the way he falls for Kady. Actually, there’s something so tragic and pathetic about the way he processes the world in general. (And when I say pathetic, I’m speaking in terms of pathos rather than ridiculousness.) He may be one of the main antagonists, but he does not see himself as an aggressor. Always he tries to act in the best interests of the majority, and he constantly justifies and evaluates his decisions. His programing may be cold and sterile, supposedly devoid of human feeling, but there is still something so distinctly moving when he asks himself, “Am I not merciful?” 

His thoughts, both in wording and presentation, are works of art, and I daresay he is more human in the end than most of the humans on the Alexander. I think he is, hands down, one of my favorite characters of ever, and I will probably talk about him so much over the coming year that you will want to duct tape my mouth shut and throw me out the airlock before the end of it. Sorry, not sorry. 

Phobos. I actually felt a little misled here because one of the blurbs on the jacket mentioned zombies and I was like, “Ooh, yay, zombies.” Except they aren’t zombies, not really. Granted, the people effected by the virus behave a bit like the zombies in The Walking Dead in that they are attracted by sound. But Phobos victims are basically just uber psychotic people. Extremely terrifying, extremely violent, extremely psychotic people. And they are far scarier and far more dangerous than mere zombies. So I’m totally not disappointed. 

As Phobos progresses through their systems, they become increasingly unreasonable, paranoid, and violent. But they retain enough of their intelligence and enough of their humanity to make them far worse—more awful and more tragic. And if you've read the book, you’ll understand why I will always fight panic every time I hear someone say, “Don’t look at me.” There is probably something really deep and symbolic about the Phobos victims’ behavior, but I’m far too busy donning my hazmat suit and barricading myself in my closet to analyze this aspect of the book any further. 

Kady and Ezra. The story literally begins on the day Kady and Ezra break up. (Talk about poor timing.) And it’s fascinating to see where they go from there—how the tumultuous circumstances affect their strained relationship, and how the big, awful things around them help the two to see the small, awful things they have done to each other along the way. Normally I’m not a huge fan of romance, but when it comes to Kady and Ezra—yeah, I ship it. 

Also, Kady is a skilled hacker with more than her fair share of sass, and I want to be her when I grow up. 

Unique Format. As much as I was excited about the formatting of the novel, I was a little dubious for first the first two hundred pages or so. Maybe I was reading too quickly. Maybe it was that the narrative just felt a little different, like I was on the outside looking in. But I struggled to ground myself in the characters’ heads, and there were times I felt a little vague on the technicalities of the action, like maybe I had missed something important. (I sometimes feel this way when I’m reading books in French—I understand French, but it’s also not my mother tongue, so there’s a bit of a mental lag.) 

Despite my initial mild confusion, I did find myself getting more and more and MORE invested as the story progressed. Now, having finished the book, I can tell you I am entirely sold on this form of storytelling. It’s not something I would read all the time because I’m fairly certain most authors couldn’t pull it off. It’s also a style that doesn’t lend itself to every story idea out there. But in this case, I don’t think any other method would have fit ILLUMINAE quite so well—any other form of narration would have robbed the climax of its power. 

Woes and Whatnot. Nevertheless, I did have some qualms about ILLUMINAE. 

First of all, this book is censored. All the major swear words are blacked out as a part of the story. And I like what that says about the culture in ILLUMINAE, that awful things can happen and violence can be presented, but God forbid we cuss. On top of that, it’s also an excellent example of the way censorship backfires. Blacking out or not, there was never a moment where I was unclear what the intended swear word was. Blacking out the vulgar words only draws the eye and the mind to them, thus completely defeating the point. 

Or maybe that was the point. 

That being said, there was a good deal of swearing in ILLUMINAE, and while strong swearing doesn’t generally bother me enough to make me stop reading, it does make me a little more squeamish about recommending the book to just anyone and everyone. I would rather not sully the virgin minds of innocent younglings. ILLUMINAE also packs a significant amount of innuendo and general crassness. To be perfectly honest, I was planning to give this book a lower star rating for that very purpose because I think the story could have been told just as effectively with significantly less swearing and innuendo. When I give a book five stars, I see it as my giant stamp of approval—that I will shove this book in the face of anyone who listens. But I also want to be responsible about the books I shove into people’s faces. Which explains why I was initially hesitant. 

The Ending. "So, why did you give ILLUMINAE five stars if you're such a grandma about the language?" 

I’m glad you asked that question. 

I loved the ending. I loved the ending so much I almost cried because it was so beautiful. And I am not the type of person to get emotional over beauty, at all. I just don’t. But there are no words for how wonderful the ending was. I know that people often say something like, “This story took my breath away,” and they generally mean that as a figure of speech. So let me clarify. I literally had to keep reminding myself to breathe for the last two hundred pages or so. This book was so good I could have asphyxiated. It was perfect and intense and mind-boggling, and I haven’t felt so completely blown away by or invested in an ending since I read Ender’s Game. I cannot stress enough how well-written and unique ILLUMINAE is, how authentic it feels, how it carries such a big punch my poor little heart is still bruised. Both in formatting and in story, ILLUMINAE is a work of art. If I could, I would buy fifty million copies to line my walls as decoration. Obviously the sequel, GEMINA, cannot come out quickly enough. 

What about you, little coffee beans? Have you read ILLUMINAE? What are your thoughts? Have you ever read any books like it?

Friday, January 22, 2016

Your Blog is Your Blog

Around New Year’s, many fabulous bloggers ran surveys seeking feedback from their audience, and it’s possible that some of you wondered why I didn’t participate. (I flatter myself—obviously you’re hugely interested in all the minute details of my life.) 

I want to approach this subject carefully, because you are my friends, and the last thing I want to do is offend any of you lovelies. If you want to receive detailed feedback from your readers so you can adjust your blog and make it a better experience for everyone, by all means, do so. That is your prerogative, and I admire you for that. But I also have to admit that I am not hugely comfortable with the idea of conducting that sort of survey, analyzing the results, and tailoring my blog accordingly. 

It’s not that I don’t want to hear back from you people about what works and what doesn’t, and it’s not that I don’t want to work at bettering my blog. It’s just that, my blog is mine and I am going to say what I want to say, no matter what. As much as I might be tempted to alter it so it suits everyone’s fancy, I will never be able to succeed at that. I will never be able to make everyone happy. And it may or may not come as a surprise to you, but I’m not hugely interested in pleasing the majority (although I wouldn’t be upset if the majority were pleased with me). First and foremost, the act of blogging has to be something I can enjoy, something I can invest my energy in. It has to be something I’m proud of—something I want to do. And that’s the key. I don’t particularly enjoy feeling the need to please people because that’s a trap I tend to get caught in way too often. And if I can avoid that in this case, so much the better. 

Yes, I want my readers to like what I write. And I am open to making a few small changes here and there in order to make sure my blog is all that it can be. I will even make drastic changes, when and if I feel the need. I already spend a great deal of time brainstorming ways to reach a broader audience. But if only five people were interested in reading the sort of posts I derive great pleasure in writing, I would rather continue to enjoy blogging for a smaller audience than trade that spark of joy in order to cater to the desires of the many. If this attitude means I lose a few viewers along the way, oh well. It happens. 

For instance, I love writing book reviews. I know I only get about half as many page views on book reviews as I do on regular posts. If I were to conduct a survey asking you what posts you think I should get rid of, my money would be on book reviews. Except that, I’m sorry, but I don’t care. If you don’t like my book reviews, that’s perfectly fine. I will continue to post them, and you will continue to remain under no obligation to read them. Simple as that. My blog is my blog. It reflects my personality and my interests, and it would be incomplete if I left out my bookish analyses. 

That being said, I don’t turn a blind eye to my page view stats. If I see something that turns out to be especially popular, like my list of New Year’s resolutions for 2016, I will definitely take note and make sure to provide similar content in the future. I do want this to be an enjoyable place for you. And I know I might be coming across as a little cranky, so I do apologize if I’ve stumbled over anybody’s pinky toes. Believe me, I’m not angry. 

But I did want to talk about this because, in analyzing other blogger’s stats, I’ve noticed a trend. Some types of post just aren’t as popular, and often these are posts that I enjoy reading and the blogger enjoys posting. You know what I say? Every sort of post you have is going to garner it’s own audience, and by their very nature, some posts will have more limited viewership than others. Now, if you don’t like writing certain posts for a limited audience, that’s fine—by all means, do what it takes to keep from limiting your audience. I won’t stand in your way, and I won’t judge you for it. After all, I do know how discouraging it can get when certain posts you’ve spent time on and are proud of just don’t seem to pay off. Believe me, I get that. I’m a blogger too, and I’m human as well (despite evidence to the contrary). But I think, for me, if I got feedback telling me that no one likes book reviews, I would lose a great deal of joy in writing book reviews. I would begin to suffer from more stage fright than I already do. And I don’t want that to happen because book reviews are a part of who I am. So I would end up losing joy in a part of who I am. Do you see how that would be unfortunate for me? 

I know that I am capable of great mistakes, and it is quite possible that not actively seeking out my audience’s opinion is one of those mistakes. It all depends on what I’m going for. Am I looking to make business-minded decisions? Do I want to consider my writing more product than art? The answer is, not really. Yes, I would love to build my audience sky high, but I would love to do that my way. I have stuff to say, and I want to say it, even if there’s no one to listen. 

If you are able to process poll results and use that information to synthesize brilliant solutions that make your blog a better place, all without feeling the crush of public opinion, I applaud you. (I am also a bit jealous of you, and I would love to know your secrets.) But this is where I’m at right now, and I imagine that if I’m here, there must be others in the trenches with me. Perhaps not that many—perhaps dozens. If you’re here, I welcome you, and I understand you, and I just want to remind you all that, when it boils down to it, your blog is your blog. 

You are providing a product, yes, but you are allowed to tailer it to your own desires and specifications. No one can write your blog the way you can write your blog—you have the corner on your own personal market (haha, look at me, giving out business advice like I actually know what I’m talking about). Your have your own unique qualities and your own unique interests and your own unique way of processing the world around you. Not everyone is going to like your style and content, no matter how you try to make your words appealing to the masses at large—that much is guaranteed. But I am of the opinion that it is more worthwhile in the end to have an audience (however small) who follows you because they love the way you love to express yourself than it is to have an audience that sticks with you while you feel yourself draining a little bit day by day because you don’t feel it’s safe to say what you really want to say. In my opinion, that’s the fastest route to throwing in the towel. 

The boredom of the masses and the criticism of the masses can be equally paralyzing and equally dreadful. There’s no worse feeling than realizing that people don’t alway care what you think—that they aren’t always interested in what goes on in your head. My advice? Write your what’s in your head, regardless. After all, what is the point of having thoughts if you don’t speak your mind from time to time? 

Well, that’s it, my little coffee beans. What are your thoughts on surveys and  less popular posts? What is your strategy when it comes to blogging?

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Snazzy Snippets

At long last, I have decided to participate in Snazzy Snippets. In case you’re unfamiliar with Snazzy Snippets, it’s a bi-monthly link-up hosted by Alyssa @ The Devil Orders Takeout and Emily @ Loony Literate. Every two months, they post a set of writing prompts and then leave us to go hog wild. Or something like that. 

The guidelines for this edition are: 

A snippet from page 16
A snippet of 16 words or fewer
A snippet about something NEW
(Eg. A new year, a new school, introducing a new person/character/setting, a new revelation.) 

I’ve decided to do all three categories. (Also, you might be wondering why I often use initials in my snippets instead of full names. I apologize for any confusion, but I don’t like to share my made-up names online. Call it fear that people will think they’re stupid and laugh at me or fear that people will think they’re cool and steal them. Either way, my lips are sealed.) Also, in case you were wondering, all of these snippets come from my current work in progress, a YA fantasy. 

This first snippet could fit under the third category (since, for one character, it involves a revelation of new information), but since it’s from roughly page sixteen, I’m going to use it for the first category instead. So there: 

Ages pass before A reenters with a bowl of steaming water pressed tremblingly between her hands. Sitting, she crumbles the herbs and lets them slip through her long fingers into the basin. “You asked if you father is here now,” she says. “Come child, what is the meaning of this?” 

“He’s missing,” I answer flatly, afraid to explain further, afraid to mourn, afraid to break the wall inside me that has held back the tears until now. “Presumed dead.” My stomach sours, and I curse myself for my stupid hope. Of course he isn’t here. Of course. 

He’s nowhere. 

“Dead?” Her hands tip the bowl abruptly, and the water sloshes her dress, yet she doesn’t seem to notice. “How can this be?” Disbelief crowds its way into her voice. 

“They say he was murdered.” 


Here we are for category two, with a snippet of sixteen words: 

“You’re safe here,” he murmurs, “you know that right?” 

“I’m not sure I’ll ever be safe.” 

(I don’t know how much impact that has or how much sense it makes taken out of context, but whatever. We’re just going to go with it.) 

And finally we come to the third category. In this longish snippet, my main character is dealing with a lot of new stuff. She’s made a (tentative) new friend and a new enemy, entered a new living situation, and encountered a whole new set of problems. So I think I’ve covered my bases with this snippet: 

High noon sneaks up on us as we sit beside the dead stream, lulled by the rustling of the leaves and the chattering of squirrels. When a butterfly flutters past, I listen to the beating of its beautiful dragon wings, wondering if it understands how fragile it is. 

Finally Jude stands and offers me a hand. “We should go back. I don’t know about you, but I’m hungry.” Despite his inviting smile, I am tempted to pull away, to flee—to run and run until I have left all this behind. Instead I let him help me to my feet. 

Trouble is waiting for us in the clearing when we slip from the woods like thieves in the night. S. As she approaches, her eyes flash sparks at odds with the painted smile on her lips. Jude stiffens. 

“Where have you two been all morning?” she asks, her tone light and innocent, her fingers clenched into white-knuckled fists at her sides. 

“The forest,” Jude answers, squaring his shoulders. 

“I saw what happened earlier, N,” S turns to me. “I saw how you treated A, the way you ran off like a spoiled brat to throw your little tantrum. It was very childish of you. And they may not know what you’re doing, coming here and demanding everyone’s attention, but don’t think you have me fooled. I know who you are. And I know what you’ve done.” She smirks. 

“I have no clue what you’re talking about, but—” Jude begins. 

“Oh, don’t worry—she understands,” S cuts him off, unfazed by his anger. “Just be careful, N. Don’t hurt my friends like you hurt him.” Still smirking, she flounces off, her head held high, her posture oozing confidence. 

Why aren’t my lungs working?

“Well…I’m not sure what that was about,” Jude frowns, “but I apologize. I’ll speak with Mother; she’ll straighten this out.” 

“Oh no,” I blurt, forcing myself to make eye contact. “Please don’t.” If they speak with her—if she tells them…

“N,” he shakes his head, “S shouldn’t have treated you like that.”

“I’m not staying anyway,” I protest, “and I don’t want to cause more trouble than I already have.” I need to get out.

You won’t be the one causing trouble,” he assures me, scanning the clearing. 

“No,” I insist, more sharply this time because I see A now, gathering wild greens at the far edge of the forest. “I’d really rather you didn’t.” 

He purses his lips. “Are you sure?” 

“Yeah,” I say. “Just let it be.” Does she know? Does she really know about Titus? “I should leave.” 

“You keep saying that.” He plucks a twig from a nearby tree and studies it a moment before casting it aside. “But I don’t think you mean it.” 

“Oh?” I try for a neutral expression. 

“Let’s get something to eat.” He takes my elbow, and I can’t help but wonder why he’s avoiding the question. “I can show you around later. At least give this place a chance.” 

Afraid to do anything that might draw attention to myself, I relent and follow him to a well-stocked table. Baskets of bread and jars of cordial line the surface like ramparts, and I wonder how these people can afford to be this liberal. In my village we drag our wheat from the ground and beat our milk from the cows and protect our spoils from the rabble under lock and key. Every day is a hard-won victory over the earth. And every day is another opportunity to die. 

As we seat ourselves on the rickety, weather-beaten chairs, I scan the clearing for any sign of S, but she must have left already. And good riddance. When Jude offers me a cup of tea and a plate of rolls to share between us, I fake a smile and force myself to eat, even though my stomach turns at the very thought of food. 

No matter what, I can’t let him see—I can’t let him notice how shaken I am. S doesn’t know what I’ve done—how could she? Still, if there’s even the slightest chance… If they find out, I doubt they’d let me stay. I doubt they’d deal kindly with me. After all, I know what my villagers do to those who murder their own. It can’t be that different here. 

And, there you have it, my little coffee beans. I’m still in the middle of (hopefully) my last intense round of edits on this project, so I apologize for any rough patches in the snippets. (I’m afraid S might still have a slight case of Cackling Disney Villain Syndrome.) What about you? Have you participated in Snazzy Snippets before? If so, feel free to drop a link in the comments below so I can check out your post. 

Monday, January 18, 2016

Books that Shaped Me // Round One

I don’t reread books often enough. Out of the 118 books I read last year, only 48 were rereads. Now, before you start squinting at me like I’m crazy (which I am) or really bad at math (which I also am), let me just say that I realize 48, in comparison with 70, is not a pathetically small number. But it’s not a large enough number for me either. I love rereading books. In fact, I love rereading books even more than I love reading them the first time around. Each time I reread a story (unless it’s poorly written and not worth a second glance), it gains more meaning and more emotional significance because, for me at least, stories are like scrapbooks for thoughts. Scrapbooks aren’t worth much if you don’t revisit them from time to time and pore over the pages to reacquaint yourself with all the memories you’ve preserved there. 

So I have decided to go back and reread all the books that helped form me—the ones that shaped my childhood self, opened my mind, and taught me to love imagination. I think it’s valuable for me to come full circle. 

As I take this nostalgia tour of my life, I want to share at least a part of it with you. Which means, over the next few months or so, I’ll post more about other books that shaped me, and I’ll review some of them here. I will also try to review the rest of them on Goodreads  because I’ve made an impromptu resolution to post more reviews there. (My Goodreads account has been sadly neglected.) But, as I do this, I don’t want to take credit for the idea of a nostalgia tour. A while ago, Victoria at Stori Tori’s Blog wrote a lovely post on her top ten most influential books (which you should check out). And even further back, Veronica Roth did her own nostalgia tour which struck me as a brilliant idea (before you ask, yes, I love her blog, and I’ve probably read the whole thing five times). 

All that being said, I’ve set my Goodreads 2016 reading goal to 175 books. If I can do more, that’s wonderful, but I want to read at least 175. And, more importantly, I want at least 88 of those books to be rereads. I could talk forever about the value of rereading, but I plan to do a post on that subject soon, so right now I’ll just share with you seven of the books that impacted my younger self. Who knows, maybe some of these were important to you as well. 

Before I read the book, I watched the movie several times and fell in love with the feel of it. In fact, the only reason my younger self even touched the book (the edition my mom owns has a seriously ugly cover) was because I loved the movie so much. Although the movie and the book are different in terms of smaller plot points (as far as I remember—it was a long time ago), I still recall them both sharing the same tone—the same deep, inexplicable sense of unease. The best way I can describe the atmosphere is as a darker, more concentrated form of that spine-tingling coziness I feel when the rain is falling hard outside and the wind is shrieking around the corners of the house. (Here’s a link to Veronica’s lovely, but spoilery, review.)

This was another book that felt heavy with a deep sense of unease (although it’s a different sort of unease). It was the book that taught me not to take people and society at face value—it taught me to distrust the appearance of beauty and peace and perfection until I’ve seen beneath the surface. I don’t remember much of the actual events, beyond the major plot points, but I do remember Jonas’ conversation with his parents about love and how they only understand love through selfish terms. (Veronica discusses this same conversation in her review, so you should totally check that out.) In this story world, true love has become a foreign concept, which is terrifying to put it mildly. More than that, the sterility of the environment branded itself on my mind—the way these people are basically cattle, and the way they celebrate their bondage. In other words, this book is one of my top priority rereads. 

I reread and reviewed this one last year, so my memory is a lot fresher on the details (I still plan to read it again this year). It’s one of the few books that has kept me up past my self-appointed bed time. It is also one of the very few books that can lay claim to making me cry. The aspect of this story that grabbed me the most is the way it handles the question of what it means to be human (and the way villains can be genuinely nice and considerate but still do awful things). 

This book is one of my most beloved childhood stories. On some deep level, I felt that I really connected with Chiaroscuro and the way he has an ugly heart because it’s been broken and he’s had to stitch it back together (metaphorically speaking, of course). As a young thing, I also wanted to be like Despereaux—someone brave enough to break the mold and do noble, courageous things in the face of a society built on fear. 

I reviewed this one just recently, so I may or may not reread it this year. We’ll see. But this list would be missing an important element if I didn’t include it. After all, Hazel taught me a lot about good leadership skills. 

Growing up, I often fantasized about what it would be like if everyone else on earth were to disappear suddenly and leave the world to me, myself, and I. Aside from the danger of wild animals (if those were still around), this thought was very appealing to me, and it was especially fun to imagine ways to stay alive. (My plans involved eating all the perishables in the abandoned grocery stores and gas stations first, and then rationing the other stuff, like flour and canned goods. For shelter, I figured a grocery store would make the best living arrangement because I could build walls of cans and have plenty of room to store all the food I’d scavenged in my travels.) Z FOR ZACHARIAH was a way for me to appease that desire for solitude in a harmless way—to experience what it feels like to think you’re the last remaining person on earth. So many fond memories. 

I’m also very upset about the movie version that just came out because, from what I’ve seen in the synopsis, they kept approximately two of the major plot points, chucked everything else, introduced a new character and a love triangle, changed Ann’s relationship with Mr. Loomis, altered the ENTIRE point of the story, and just generally did their level best to ruin it. Like, I can’t even tell you how upset I am. As much as I would love to see one of my all-time favorite books played out on the big screen, I think it will be better for my blood pressure if I just skip this one and wait until someone honors the actual story. Although, come to think of it, it might be satisfying to watch the movie just so I can rant more effectively about it. *sulks*

You can read my review for this one here. LIFE AS WE KNEW IT appealed to me in the same way that Z FOR ZACHARIAH did. It has the same sort of idea—a worldwide catastrophe has culled the population (though potentially not as much, in this case), and survival is now a higher priority than entertainment and culture. (I have only read one of the sequels, and I only own LIFE AS WE KNEW IT, so I want to get my hands on the rest of the series this year, if I can.) This story also has somewhat symbolic significance to me in that I read it during my biggest library binge phase. At that time, I didn’t own all that many books, and I hadn’t read all that many either. Sure, I had had my school library before that, but this time I felt freer and wilder, like the world was opening up before me. I think that’s really when my love of reading turned from a little candle to an unfortunate but beautiful house fire. (Saying this, I realize I should probably, at some point, write a post explaining why I’m no longer quite so enamored of libraries.) 

Well, that’s it for today, little coffee beans. What are some of the books that shaped you? What are some of your all-time favorites? What are some books you plan to reread this year? If you’ve watched Z FOR ZACHARIAH, what is your opinion of it?

Friday, January 15, 2016

One Lovely Blogger Award (Round Two) and Dragon's Loyalty Award

The marvelous Victoria @ The Endless Oceans of my Mind nominated me for the One Lovely Blogger Award. (Thank you, Victoria!) I’ve actually done this one before but the cool thing about this award is that I get to share seven facts about myself, so I could maybe do it a bazillion times without it getting old. At least, not for me. 

On top of that, the esteemed Ashley @ [insert title here] nominated me for the Dragon’s Loyalty Award. (Thank you, Ashley!) Since both of these awards involve listing seven facts about myself, I’m just going to combine them and give you fourteen facts. You could challenge me on this, if you wanted, but Ashley’s award says I’m a dragon, so you might not want to get on my bad side in case I decide to eat you. Fair warning. Also, why wouldn’t you want to read fourteen facts about me? 

Fact one: In order to get stuff done, I need to be in a brightly lit area, especially if I’m reading or cleaning. If it’s a rainy, overcast day, I’m fine to work on the computer with the light a little lower than usual because it’s cozy and all. But otherwise, poorly lit rooms deeply bother me. Often the overhead light doesn’t cut it, and I need to supplement. 

Fact two: 50% of my current projected TBR pile for this year (at the very least) consists of books I want to reread. And a lot of those planned rereads will be stuff I read last year. As a part of my mental system, I’ve always found that I process everything better the second, third, (and so on) time around. Last year, I read a lot of new-to-me books, so I’m eager to experience those again this year and analyze them more thoroughly. 

Fact three: I will always love Star Wars, to the ends of the universe and back, but first and foremost, I will always be a Trekkie. In fact, when I got home from watching The Force Awakens, I sat down and watched an episode of Star Trek: Voyager

Fact four: By the time I finished editing my first complete novel, I had spent about eleven years working on various writing projects (I started way young). During that time, and in the year since, I have come up with so many story ideas that if I were to suddenly stop thinking of anything new, there’s a good chance I would still be set for the rest of my life. This is one of the main reasons why I write so quickly—I have to keep up somehow. I’d hate to let any of those ideas go to waste. 

Fact five: I have a minor obsession with trilogies. While I love stand-alone books, nothing grabs my interest quite like a trilogy, and as a testament to that great love, I just bought three trilogies I’ve never read and have no clue if I’ll love or not. I actually prefer the all-in approach over buying the first book to see if I like it before committing. Even if I’m not a huge fan, like with MATCHED and UNDER THE NEVER SKY, I will still eventually break and buy the whole trilogy, just because. My brain will bug me non-stop unit the day I do. Also, if a book is disappointing, I am more likely to forgive it and reread it if it is part of a trilogy. I honestly have no explanation for this—it just is. 

Fact six: I can’t write well if I’m not surrounded by books and coffee (preferably both). I can function without those, of course, but not with the same depth of comfort, concentration, and consistency. My stress levels immediately lower and my contentment levels immediately rise in the presence of books and coffee. So you could say that spending loads of money on books and coffee is justifiable, not just for energy and entertainment, but for medicinal purposes as well. After all, I have to maintain my sanity somehow. 

Fact seven: I enjoy swimming, and I was even a certified lifeguard for two summers, but I’m scared of the ocean and I can only swim in lakes if I don’t think about what might be underneath me. When I was younger, I also used to be afraid about going outside because I was certain an animal was going to jump out of the woods and get me. Actually, to this day, I’m still not a big fan of being outside alone—I’m just generally less of a wimp about it. But my fears are more reasonable now because, when I go for walks, I usually come across a small herd of deer that likes to hang around in the woods by the side of the road and stare at me as I pass by. Obviously they are plotting my demise. There is no other explanation. 

Fact eight: In school, I had a love/hate relationship with math. There were times when I would genuinely enjoy it (especially algebra), and I even wanted to take calculus at one point. But my biggest frustration was that I could happily spend a whole hour solving equations, only to find out that I had answered everything incorrectly. And then I would lose confidence and get a mental block and it would be all downhill from there for a while. After taking physics in high school, I had always planned to take advanced physics and astrophysics but I never had the time. I still might study those some day (when I was eight I watched a documentary or two or on quantum physics and string theory, because I could, and I think that’s why I love physics so much now). But I was very bad at the math part of physics. So that was fun. 

Fact nine: I pace like a caged animal testing its boundaries when I’m waiting for my coffee to heat up. And I tend to do it without even realizing it. (Also, thanks to Geico, this is what I think of when I’m using the microwave.)

Fact ten: I’m less fond of libraries now than I used to be. I’m a huge fan of the idea of libraries, don’t get me wrong, I just don’t like borrowing books and then having to return them. If I’m going to read something, I like to own it so I can enjoy the story knowing I’ll be able to reread it whenever I please. Also, sometimes library books have gross stuff on them, and they’re rarely in as good condition as my books, so they’re not as much fun to read. They don’t even smell as wonderful. But, this year I’ll try to do more with libraries because, let’s face it, I can’t buy all the books in the world so I have to make compromises sometimes. 

Fact eleven: I am a book dragon, and I hoard books. If you touch my treasures, I will breathe fire at you. Grr. I’m also super picky about how I shelve my darlings. It’s a strange, idiosyncratic system involving how much I love the authors, the stories, the colors of the books, and the genre, as well as size and smell. (I kid you not. I shelve my copy of BATTLE ROYALE differently than I otherwise would because it seems to be made of some sort of strong-smelling cedar, and strong smells give me migraines so I try to keep the cedar smell from spreading into my other books.) This means that when I buy new books, as fun as that is, I have to go through the trauma of reorganizing my ENTIRE book collection to make everything look just so. 

Fact twelve: My childhood nickname was Little Miss Morbid. In case you were wondering, it still applies. 

Fact thirteen: I have an obsession with heights. Where normal people look up celebrities to stalk their gorgeous faces, I just look them up to see how tall/short they are. Maybe this comes from being taller than most people I know, which means that when people comment on my appearance, (and they do, quite frequently), it’s usually about how tall I am. So I find it a little comforting to know that the average female celebrity height seems to be 5’7”, which is my height (actually, I’m technically 5’6” and three quarters, but my driver’s license says 5’7”, so we’ll just go with that). This is a clear indication that all I need to do to fit in height-wise is become famous, and that was already on my agenda. Isn’t it neat how that works out so perfectly? 

Fact fourteen: Rats are my favorite kind of animal. I used to keep pet rats, but they all died, and I’m not really allowed to have any in my apartment, so I’ll have to wait till I’m living somewhere else. *sad face* They make excellent pets because they are social, affectionate, and wicked intelligent. Imagine, personality-wise, a hybrid between a dog, a monkey, and a hyperactive pig, plus maybe a smidge of octopus—that’s pretty much what you’re getting into if you buy a pet rat. Hamsters would be my second favorite, and I would actually be allowed to keep one here if I wanted. Which I might, eventually. I love hamsters because they are anti-social, neurotic, and introverted—like me. Only, if I were locked in a cage with my fellow kind, I wouldn’t kill them (probably). Not so with the adult hamster. Other animals I want as pets include: mice, sugar gliders, hedgehogs, and skunks (I’m not even kidding on that last one). 

There you go, little coffee beans, fourteen wonderful facts about me that I’m sure you were dying to know. (I’m not going to tag anyone, because I’m lame like that, but you are welcome to tag yourself—just make sure to drop me the link in the comments so I can read your post.) What about you? Do you have any interesting obsessions? Any telling childhood nicknames? Do you reread books? What are some of your fears/phobias? Oh, and the most important question of all—Star Wars or Star Trek? (Just kidding, you’re free to love them equally.)

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Memento Mori

Confession time. I didn’t want to write this post, at all, and I told myself I never would because, to me, grief is a very deep and personal experience. As much as it would be wonderful if it weren’t so, it is almost impossible to find someone who can truly relate. And yes, I have talked about some hard stuff on this blog before, don’t get me wrong—but the Africa stuff happened years and years ago, and I have had much more time to process and come to terms with what happened. This, however, is a good deal newer.

Seven years ago, when I was way younger and way smaller, I fell in love. Sure, I was young, and I get that. So I understand if you’re already raising your eyebrows and assuming it was nothing because I was young—and because at that age, why would it be something? Are young people capable of real love? That seems to be a pretty common question. Can young people form lasting attachments? You are free to disagree with me as you choose, but from where I stand, I believe the answer is yes. 

From the very first time I met him, when he was introducing me to his pet cat, I knew that I wanted to marry him. (I’ll be honest, I was a hopeless romantic back then.) I never ever doubted that, for better or for worse, he was the one I wanted to spend the rest of my life with. He was wonderful, and for a while, he was my best friend. Honestly, I would have given up everything, even writing, if it meant that I could have him forever. And I’m not just saying that flippantly—these were conscious decisions that I mapped out in my mind, because I have always been one to prepare for the future. I adored him. Even when he hurt me. I made the choice, every single day, to love him despite his faults. To forgive him. To stay faithful to that little pipe dream in my mind. 

I don’t want you to think that I dated him, because I never did, and I honestly don’t know if he ever realized how much I cared for him. Despite my feelings for him, I never shared them—I never wanted to give anyone that sort of power over me, even someone I loved. So, I think to him I was just a friend, maybe not even a best friend. Maybe he had no clue. At this point, it doesn’t matter either way. 

Because three years ago yesterday, he died in a car accident. There had been some complications in our relationship a year before that, and at the time when he died, I was no longer allowed to speak to him. For reasons that I won’t explain to you, both for his sake and for mine, I had been faced with a difficult decision, and I made the only choice that I could in good conscience make, but it was also the choice that meant I would lose him. I made my choice, knowing the consequences, because I loved him, and if I had it all to do over again I would still make that same choice, even now, even knowing there would be no way to get closure. To this day, I don’t know if he was angry with me when he died, or if he understood why I did what I did. Or if he knew that I had forgiven him. 

I had always told myself that, when I turned eighteen, I would contact him and things would be okay and we would be happy. At least we could be friends. More than anything, I didn’t want to lose track of him, I didn’t want him to slip out of my life. But of course, by the time I turned eighteen, he was already long gone. So that New Year’s Eve I stayed up to ring in the new year and my birthday, and I cried because it fully hit me that the future I had always wanted, a future where he was alive and maybe, in my wildest dreams, in love with me, was never going to happen. And in that moment of realization the world became so impossibly empty and cold. What was the point of turning eighteen when the main reason for turning eighteen was gone? 

I have had many, many dark days in my life, and I have not met anyone else outside of family who has lost as much as I have. But I believe I can safely say that the darkest day I have ever lived was the day I attended his funeral. Because we had not spoken for a year before he died, I went to his funeral feeling that I did not have a place there, that as much as I cared about him, I did not belong there. Yes, it was an occasion for those who had loved him, for those who wanted to say goodbye. There were people who had legitimate claims on him, like his family, who had the right to grieve openly. But if I let myself cry as hard as I wanted to let myself cry, no one would understand why. And I didn’t want people looking at me to wonder because it wasn’t their business and because it didn’t matter anymore. It didn’t matter that I had loved him so completely that I felt like I had died—it didn’t matter that I had built all my hopes and dreams on him. He was dead. So I sat through the entire service and didn’t let myself shed a single tear. 

You may be wondering why I’m talking about this now, after all this time. The answer is, I’m not sure. I know that I still feel that same internal pressure to stay silent, like I did at his funeral—that same sense of something very nearly like shame when it comes to sharing what happened. And if I feel that way, I wouldn’t be surprised if others have felt the same as well. I realize that most of you never met him, and even more of you wouldn’t understand why I cared so much. That’s okay—I’m not looking for sympathy here. Sympathy won’t change what happened. But I have carried this weight for years and it’s heavy, and I guess I just wanted to set it down for once. I am sure that there are at least some of you out there carrying your own heavy burdens, and I just wanted to let you know that it’s okay—it’s okay to set them down from time to time, to open up and talk even though you’d rather swallow a bucket of live fire ants. Life is impossibly painful, and the trick is to not go it alone. 

The things is, awful things happen to us, and we never fully understand why. I could give you a handful of explanations for why God didn’t just step in and save his life. God could have done that, you know. And sometimes I wonder if I come up with those reasons because they are logical and I want logic and order, or because I actually believe them, or because I just don’t want to think that he died for nothing. 

I think it’s fairly undeniable that I would not be the writer I am today were he still alive. I would not be the person I am today, were he still alive. If I could give you a cross section of my life and show you all the parts of my existence like the rings on a tree, I’m certain I could point out to you the exact moment when I completely changed, when I went from a pretty shallow person to someone who can think more deeply (though not as deeply as I would like). And that moment took place after the initial shock of losing him faded and reality began to sink in, after I stopped waking up in the middle of the night and consoling myself with the possibility that this had all just been a vivid nightmare and that I would wake up in the morning and laugh at myself for taking a dream seriously. 

As much as I have been hurt—from losing my home, my possessions, and my friends in Africa (twice), to experiencing a bitter church split, to losing the boy I loved, and all the smaller hurts in-between—the terrible things I have experienced have served to shape the person I am today. And if someone offered me a chance to go back and live an easier life, I would say no. Because as much as it has cost to become the way I am, I would not trade myself for someone different. Before each round of suffering, I was a lesser person, and if tough love is what it takes to get me to where I need to be, then that’s what it takes. But God has never ever left me alone in my pain to carry it by myself, and he has never ever let me suffer without just cause. 

I know for some people, the idea of pain for gain can seem rather barbaric. Why would God hurt you when he could just make you better? Isn’t he powerful enough to do that? Why is it worth it? Believe me, I have struggled with that line of thought, and there are still times when I find my mind turning in that direction. So please don’t think I’m speaking from a place of deep wisdom and total emotional stability. But I have realized this—God does not need me to defend him. He is more than capable of defending himself. And if breaking a glow stick is the only way to get the glow stick to do its job and glow, then the glow stick need not demand an explanation for its pain. (If it were, you know, sentient and all.) It feels so unnatural when God breaks us, so cruel and so hard and so gratuitous. But if we could see from the other side, from the perspective of the person breaking the glow stick, would we ever, ever call that person cruel? Would we call that pain unnecessary? 

When I’m feeling especially down, I remember the title of a book my mom read to my sister and me when I was starting high school—A SEVERE MERCY by Sheldon Vanauken. I have long believed that this is the best way to sum up my life. God has been merciful toward me, a sinner, but it has been a severe mercy. It has been the mercy I needed, not the mercy I wanted. 

Well, my little coffee beans, I know that was a lot more serious than what I normally write, but I hope you enjoyed it anyway. If you don’t mind sharing, what are some areas in your life where you have been given a severe mercy?