“Eliza and Her Monsters”

Okay, so: I bought this book on a whim last week because it was a $1.99 Kindle “Deal of the Day.”

Then I promptly ignored it because the latest Sarah J. Maas book (“Tower of Dawn”) just came out and I had hundreds of pages to get through. It was an emotional roller coaster–as her books often are–so when I finished it, I wanted something light-hearted to follow it up with, not the book “The Hate U Give” which a friend just lent me.

That’s what sent me into “Eliza and Her Monsters” yesterday… and I finished the entire thing before midnight.

It was ***SO GOOD*** and I had NO idea what a treat I was in for! My intention for this blog was never to stay limited to book reviews, but that’s what I have time for right now, and I want to spread the wealth and make sure as many people get to experience Francesca Zappia’s story as possible.

My non-spoiler-y summary: Eliza Mirk is an anxiety-ridden high school senior who also happens to be the (anonymous) creator of the incredibly popular webcomic, “Monstrous Seas.” She meets a boy who is a huge fan, and they hit it off, and suddenly her life-is-only-good-online beliefs are forced to broaden to include him. Of course, drama hits, and there’s reasons for tears and gasping, but it’s a satisfying ending.

What I loved: the slow burn of the love story elements read like another recent YA novel I stumbled into and adored, “When Dimple Met Rishi.” Eliza battles the inner monsters of depression, anxiety, and “impostor syndrome,” which I imagine many other introverts and artists can relate to. Her high school mindset is believable, while still including quirkiness (without hitting John Green-levels of “okay, we get it, you’re super freaking quirky).  Her webcomic, “Monstrous Seas,” is an AMAZING creative fantasy and as soon as I finished the book, I googled it to see if it’s a real webcomic or story, and it looks like the author is working on making that happen!!! This is also her second novel, so I’ll have to backtrack and read her first.

What was meh: there are some coincidences that made me roll my eyes a bit, but I loved the rest of the story enough to suspend my disbelief.

Obviously, if you’ve read Rainbow Rowell’s “Fangirl” you might be suspicious that this is a copy. While there are parallels, Eliza is totally her own woman and, as much as I loved Fangirl & Cather, I think Eliza is a slightly stronger story. (But both are worth reading!! And then you can read “Carry On”! What are you waiting for? There are books to be bought!)

It was really refreshing to have a novel I was so excited about that I could race through it in one day. It’s been a long time since I’ve had that opportunity. I hope everyone else who picks it up finds as much joy and authenticity in it as I did.

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I hate vague endings.

This post will contain spoilers for Lois Lowry’s classic “The Giver” as well as the two novels I read most recently, Gin Phillip’s “Fierce Kingdom” and Neal Stephenson’s “Seveneves.” So if you don’t want any of those spoiled, get outta here…

 

Anyway, as per the title, I HATE VAGUE ENDINGS. I get their literary merit and the idea of leaving things up to the readers’ interpretation and all that CRAP. (haha). But I like answers! I like loose threads that get tied up! I like knowing when a character LIVES OR DIES!

My first experience with this, that I can remember at least, was with The Giver. Jonas saves the baby and sleds away from town, toward the sound of music, and… that’s it. Do they live? Do they make it to the next town where they can live a normal, color-filled life? Was it some weird metaphor for freezing to death and everything Jonas did was for nought???

After years of questions, Lowry ended up writing a follow-up book to confirm that they both lived. I don’t think it retroactively makes me more pleased with Giver’s ending, though. I would have preferred answers in the original text. Not even like a long denouement that showed the boys getting established in the town, just less ambiguity about whether it was life or death.

With Seveneves, the book takes place about 2/3 in the present and 1/3 in the future, with completely different characters. It was an abrupt shift that I struggled with, since I didn’t care about the new characters and wasn’t sure that any plot was happening. When they finally got a plot going again, rather than just “look at all this info dump about how we made the world work 5,000 years in the future,” but “see how there are all these groups that are going to have to interact to thrive and avoid war?” … it ended. Intro all these new groups and, the end. It didn’t make any sense! Were they going to be able to work it out? Was the Red group going to get what was coming to them?

(And that says nothing about how I was able to believe that the group in space survived and rebuilt their society after 5,000 years, yet I couldn’t suspend my disbelief for the idea that the group living in a cave or the group living below the sea would have made it through the earth’s years of burning…)

Then there’s Fierce Kingdom. The entire story takes place within a few hours: Joan is at the zoo with her 4-year-old son, Lincoln, when active shooters start killing all the people and animals in the zoo. She has to try to hide and save them both. It’s soooooo suspenseful and therefore very stressful. It was probably not the best choice for me to read it, considering how much anxiety I have about keeping baby Sam alive every day. But I knew in my heart they wouldn’t kill a 4-year-old, even though I know nothing about this author and she could have pulled a G.R.R. Martin “literally everyone dies mwahaha” on me.

And how does it end? (I warned you about spoilers, remember.) With the mom getting shot and YOU DON’T KNOW IF SHE LIVES OR DIES. I am choosing choosing choosing to believe she lives–she is found by an EMT and loaded onto a gurney. Her strange fadeout could be her losing consciousness due to blood loss as they take her to be FIXED in the hospital. But after a bit of Googling I see that many people interpret her fadeout as death, especially with the hints throughout the book of how she’d want her final moments to be (which matched up to how the final moments of the book were). UGH!!! I don’t LIKE IT!

(And once again, there are a bunch of other loose ends that get ignored with this ending. Did somebody save the baby in the trash can? Did all the shooters get taken down successfully? Were there other survivors? What was Paul doing the entire time once Joan’s phone was gone??)

So… yeah. Am I aware this entire post sounds whiney? Yep! But I’m speaking my truth, y’all. And the truth is, I like to know the author’s specific vision for their characters, rather than being left with major blanks to fill after turning the final page. I won’t be an author who hands out vague endings. When readers have committed so many hours to their investment in a book’s world and characters, they deserve a satisfactory payoff.

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*Harry Potter*

“Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone” turned 20 this year, “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows” turned 10, and yesterday was Harry Potter’s (and, of course, J.K. Rowling’s) birthday.

I know a lot of people are tired of hearing about it (or think it’s overrated or evil or childish or whatever, and refuse to read it–their loss!), but it is a really special series, especially for my generation. We got to grow up together! I bought the first book at a Scholastic Book Fair in elementary school; my sixth grade teacher read bits of it out loud after recess every day (and we all assumed her name was pronounced Her-me-own). The next books came out alongside all the movies, so in high school I got to go to midnight showings with my friends and whichever brave parent’s turn it was to drive us around that late. The final book came out while I was in college; I attended a midnight book release, complete with costumes and trivia and Hogwarts-themed snacks, and then stayed up all night reading. I felt I finished the fight against Voldemort alongside the trio: crying at each loss, rejoicing at each triumphant sacrifice, reaching that brilliant culmination of ten years of text. I was a few years younger than Harry when it started and a few years older than him when it ended. What an honor to go through the horrible years of adolescence side by side, haha.

There are layers upon layers of lessons to gain from the series, and as I reread it almost every summer, new insights illuminate on the page. All of the heroes have flaws, but all of them are brave and loving, too. They do what’s right even when it isn’t easy, even when it means being bullied or doubted (or targeted by crazy dark wizards). Harry is stubborn but never backs down from the battle and matures enough to walk the path he knows will fix his world–which, by the way, ends up being an incredibly Christian one, making it extra depressing how many churches condemned the books. Hermione is not ashamed of being smart, and doesn’t let others stifle her voice. Ron is aware of his family’s poverty but extends food and hospitality anyway, his heart big enough to share what he has and in the process multiply it. And that’s just the main trio… I could go on and on about others, like Lupin, Luna, Sirius, Snape, James, Dumbledore, Mr. and Mrs. Weasley, Neville, Dobby, even Dudley and good old Hagrid (my autocorrect just had a field day with that sentence) and how they illustrated trust, rebellion, nurturing, courage, loyalty, being unique and proud, and sticking up for those in need.

And Lily… she is so much more real to me now that I hold my own messy-haired son in my arms. Hell yeah she would have leapt in front of that baby! I’m not at all surprised that she absorbed every inch of the killing curse, blanketing Harry in a love so powerful that Voldemort could never get through.

I wasn’t going to reread the series this summer, but I couldn’t resist starting the first book on its 20th anniversary despite my exhaustion. I read through four chapters just to hear Hagrid say “Harry–yer a wizard.” I finished the final book last week and wept at all the deaths even though I knew they were coming.

I can’t wait to relive the series through my little future Ravenclaw’s eyes as we read them together, with the added bonus of the new Wizarding World at Universal Studios waiting for us afterwards. What an adventure! I can’t believe it started 20 years ago, and am so grateful that it will continue to stretch on.

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Goodbye, 28. 

Goodbye, 28. You were a good year. I spent 9 months of you pregnant (and therefore 9 months of you with no wine!). I only had to teach for about 7 months of you. And the last 3 months, spent birthing and raising Sam, have been some of my favorite months of my life–though also the hardest. I really really really miss sleep. Birthdays become kind of bittersweet as we age… it’s not solely a celebration of life, but also an awareness of life’s brevity. Did I accomplish enough this year? Did I grow at all as a person (and not just in my uterus)? Are there happier years to come? So many unknowns. Lots of hopes and regrets and dreams. I hope 29 is full of joy and achievements and peace. My grandpa says 29 is the last birthday I’ll want to acknowledge… hopefully that’s not true, haha. I want all my years of experience to build up something good, for me to be a woman who has lived life well. 
I still have 2 minutes until midnight, but there goes my newborn, wailing for food. He wakes up zero to sixty when he’s hungry. I will cuddle him close and pray over year 29. Maybe it will finally be the year I solidify my writing and chase down that elusive publishing goal…

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Writing

Success: Sam actually sleeps a few hours each day! haha. So I’m still exhausted, but finding some time to read and to write (and eat and nap and maybe even take a hot shower once in a while).

Blogs are one of the many things I’ve been trying to catch up on–both writing my own and reading some of my favorites. I love to read blogs written by authors, about their writing process, upcoming projects, and the quirky details of their lives. Neil Gaiman is always a good go-to, and I find Kristin Cashore and Jane Lindskold’s fascinating, too.

But Laini Taylor and Sarah J. Maas have been the most inspirational to me lately.

Laini Taylor has a blog post where she writes about her editing process: that she’s never been good at the fast, NaNoWriMo-style drafts and instead writes slowly, trying her best to get it right the first time.

Sarah J. Maas’ was not actually a blog post, I’m just remembering. My taking-care-of-a-newborn brain is always scattered. She recently gave a talk through Facebook Live at her alma mater, Hamilton College, and discussed how she needs to write every day, needs to always be working on a project, because writing is like a muscle that needs exercise. If one gets out of the habit, the muscle atrophies enough to make it that much harder to jump back into an effective rhythm.  And I will take any advice she gives, because she is one of the most prolific writers I can think of, with spectacular fantasy books!

All that to say: I think I need to back away from my NaNoWriMo-style writing for a bit and see what that does for this draft. Write slowly, write the scenes in chronological order, making it feel right before moving on, and making the commitment to write every day.

Furthermore, I think I need to stop thinking in terms of numbers, of giving myself high-pressure stakes. It can make the process too intimidating. I’m not in a period of life where I need any additional pressure or intimidation; I have to keep an infant alive, and attempt to get food and sleep myself once in a while, and keep my house relatively clean and running, and somehow face the impending return to work and all of the responsibilities that teaching high school English involves. Writing needs to be one of my bright spots, and that means being something fun to look forward to.

So my current goal revolves around just… writing. Plain and simple. If I write something every day, then I’ve succeeded. Sometimes that will mean working on my novel, but even on the days like yesterday when I only fit in 300 words, that’s fine. That counts. Some days that means working on a blog draft (this one blog has stretched over two days, so even though I didn’t have two posts in a day, I did some writing both days!) and that counts too. I don’t know yet if I’m going to count journaling in here… but for now, let’s say yes, if I find time to write in my handwritten journal, that was better than nothing.

As far as novel writing/editing, I currently have a thorough outline, and “progress” now means slowly but surely checking off each bullet point (which is a scene, basically) as it’s written. I’m not going to keep track of my word count throughout. Too often, I think I hit a mental roadblock of thinking that I need to get to about 80,000 words to be marketable, and sometimes start to write filler scenes or blab on and on about unimportant details just to fill up space. Not good–and all stuff an editor would probably say to cut anyway, ruining the point of the word count. So I’m sticking to the outline and trying to make sure it’s all action-oriented and moving the story forward (of course). At the end, we’ll see what the word count is like… if it’s suffered, well, at least the story will be tight. A beta reader can help me figure out where things ACTUALLY need to be fleshed out.

I don’t know how much this post makes sense to people who are outside of my head (that’s most of you. haha) but it can serve as a reminder and promise to myself of my current writing goals. I’m excited! Some of this motivation has been helped along by Gabriela Pereira’s “DIY MFA,” which I’ve been reading in the times I can steal during Sam’s naps that aren’t devoted to writing or eating. I just found out that she’s doing two talks (and workshops) in southern California this week, and I can make it to the Tuesday one! Will try to report back… :)

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Happy Easter

Easter season is usually when I re-read Christopher Moore’s “Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ’s Childhood Pal.” It’s totally irreverent, but only if you allow yourself to be easily offended. I instead find it a powerful reminder of Christ’s humanity: that a real person went through everything he went through. We can fall into the trap of assuming it was all easy for him, but no–he had a human body with all the emotional and physical pain that goes along with a human life.

But this year I didn’t need to return to “Lamb” for help remembering that. Now I have a son of my own, and the impact on my understanding of God’s relationship to Jesus and both of their relationship to us, to humanity, is intense. The depth of my love for Sam is indescribable; he’s only 7 weeks old but I would still do anything to protect him, even if that meant trading my life for his. Suffering would be painful but worth it if it meant saving him; the suffering of losing him would be worse than whatever else I had to endure instead. I can empathize more clearly now with the pain God felt while Jesus was crucified for us, as well as the deep compassion they had in order to go through all of that for the trade-off of opening salvation to us.

Those were my deep thoughts at 5:00 a.m. this morning while feeding my tiny son. Life has been hard lately, so the hopefulness of Easter is encouraging!

 

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Strange the Dreamer

Oh, Laini Taylor. Will you be my friend? I just want to hang out with you and your amazing brain.

(Seriously though.)

Laini Taylor is the author of a spectacular trilogy, starting with “Daughter of Smoke and Bone.” I think the covers are horrible and don’t at all reflect the deep nature of the stories. I’m sure there are potential readers out there who were off put by the appearance of the covers, which make it look like a fluffy, girly story. (It’s not.)

Anyway, it is a beautiful, epic trilogy and as soon as I heard she was writing another novel, I knew I’d be reading it the second it was available.

The problem is, I have a newborn, so getting my butt over to Barnes & Noble to purchase “Strange the Dreamer” was much more complicated than usual. I ended up bailing on that plan and ordering it off Amazon a few days after its release date. Then Sam wouldn’t sleep (as usual), so I had to put him in his wrap and walk around my house, carrying him, while I read the book. Worth it!

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“Strange the Dreamer” is kind of a weird title, and I imagine once again there are a few potential readers who would love the story itself who don’t give it a chance based on that name. “Strange” is the character, a librarian, who is labeled “dreamer” for all the time he spends reading, dreaming, escaping his lousy life by being inside the happy places in his mind instead. The grand adventure he ends up undertaking is where the magic of Laini Taylor’s writing really unfolds: she has a way of world-building that is completely immersive. Even though it’s clearly fantastic and impossible, she treats it so realistically that your mind can visualize and accept it all. Her characters, their flaws, their abilities to love, their hopes & dreams… all so beautiful! I was engrossed from page 1.

Minor detail though: it’s the first of a two-book series!!!! ARG I don’t believe it was advertised that way at all, so I had no idea until I turned to the final page and saw the evil words “to be continued”… total cliffhanger, even worse than how Leigh Bardugo ended “Six of Crows.”

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Still, I highly recommend the novel. It’s a joy to read, and very creative and original. How refreshing when we have films out like “Pirates of the Caribbean 5” and “Fast and Furious 8” out! Haha.

I currently have new novel reading on pause while I reread Sarah J. Maas’ “A Court of Thorns and Roses” and “A Court of Mist and Fury” in preparation for the final novel in the trilogy, “A Court of Wind and Ruin,” which comes out on May 2nd. I will probably just buy that one on Kindle, which makes it a tiny bit easier to read while carrying my baby around. The cover of “Strange the Dreamer” was too beautiful to pass up a hard copy, though–although I’m jealous of the UK cover, which is way prettier!! Reason #309 that I should live in England instead of California…

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