[ Book Review ] When Hunger is Holy

Thinner Than Thou by Kit Reed


If your body is a temple, it stands to reason that keeping fit is an act of holiness, right?

In the America of Thinner Than Thou, by Kit Reed, the attainment of the perfect body has supplanted religion. People “repent” for overeating at health clubs, an order of nuns works to convert both the anorexic and the obese to the lean-but-fit ideal, and fitness guru meets evangelical preacher in the character of Reverend Earl, a national celebrity/savior.

The story follows Annie (anorexic) and Kelly (morbidly obese), friends who fall under the care of the Dedicated Sisters, and Jeremy (chubby and, unforgivable, aging), a middle-aged man who’s spent his life savings to train under the guidance of Reverend Earl himself in the weight-loss paradise of Sylphania. Of course, all three soon find that nothing is what it seems. Forced feeding, starvation, and sinister agendas abound, and what they learn about Reverend Earl’s dark secret could endanger all of their lives. Continue reading

I Just Finished Book X: Now What?

So you’ve just finished The Hunger Games, or Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, or the very last of the Discworld novels. What’s next?

To the library, of course! Besides being an obvious (and free!) source of reading material, libraries have more resources than ever to help book lovers find the next great novel (or memoir, or graphic novel…)

In celebration of National Library Week, I turned to my own local library, the Woodlawn branch of the fantastic Baltimore County Public Library system (BCPL, for those in the know) and talked with Nancy Cadigan, one of the librarians on staff. Here are the top three ways to find that next book to rave about: Continue reading

[Small Chirp] Making an Impression: Beauty in The Hunger Games

First off, I cannot give Suzanne Collins enough kudos for creating Katniss Everdeen, the protagonist of the Hunger Games trilogy. It’s like the woman went to Mary Sue Academy and made a point of reversing everything. Katniss is strong, interesting, and flawed all over the place: she’s not particularly friendly or charming, resists being thrust into place as a political symbol, is uncomfortable with guys liking her, and (gasp) isn’t even particularly pretty. Just about the only thing going for her is she’s not clumsy, right?

I kid, I kid. Katniss is gutsy and devoted and actually takes the time to think about whether what she does is justified or justifiable, and I love her.

What I was curious about, though, was how the filmmakers would treat the issue of beauty–and lack of it–in their adaptation.The books make a special point of paying attention to appearance. The superficiality of the Capitol comes out through outlandish fashion and extravagant food, and the brutality of the Games is even creepier in light of it. And of course, as I mentioned, the fact that neither Katniss nor Peeta is gorgeous is incredibly refreshing in the piles of books about pretty girls and their attractive crushes.  I tend to be out of the loop on trailers and such, so the only image I had of Jennifer Lawrence and the other actors going in was a movie poster I saw that was all moody and cheekbone-y. Great, I thought. It’s going to be The Help all over again, where the costumers for Emma Stone read “uncontrollable frizz” and decide to go with “flawless corkscrew curls that I would kill to have.” Continue reading

Book Watching: How a great book became a worthy movie

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close is one of the five books I would want with me on a desert island (the others being The Little Prince, any anthology of Jeeves and Wooster stories by P.G. Wodehouse, the Bible, and the fat poetry anthology that lives by my bed). I first read the novel during the worst semester of my college years; my life was so stressful that I read five or ten pages at a time,  barely able to take the grief and pain in Jonathan Safran Foer’s writing. But it was so good that I could not give it up, even when it sent me to bed shaking.

The story, for those who don’t know, is about Oskar Schell, a precocious, possibly autistic nine-year-old boy whose father dies in the WTC on 9/11. His father had played scavenger hunt games with him, so when Oskar finds a key hidden in an envelope labeled “Black” with his father’s things, he takes it as a clue that the last and most important hunt is still waiting for him.

He takes off on a solo mission to ask everyone in New York with the last name “Black” if they know anything about the key. Interlaced with Oskar’s journey to find his father in the boroughs of New York is the story of his grandfather, a man who’s lost both his family and the ability to speak, and his grandmother, the sister of her husband’s true love.

Jonathan Safran Foer doesn’t flinch in the face of emotion, which I find wonderful in the Age of Irony, and he also does some typographical things that feel emotionally powerful, rather than gimmicky. So you can imagine the curdled blend of hope and preemptive disappointment I carried with me into the theater to see the movie adaptation. Continue reading

[Book Review] Steampunk!

Steampunk Girl by Zoe Stead

One of my reading resolutions this year was to branch out into unfamiliar territory, so I decided it was high time I checked out that steampunk thing all the kids are talking about these days. Steampunk, in case the only thing that comes to mind when you hear that term is clunky brass aviator goggles, is a subgenre of fantasy that celebrates unconventional inventors and their gadgets, and is usually set in the not-too-distant-past. Robots and flying machines are staples, and the most common setting is Victorian London, a flavor which permeates the story’s sense of fashion, art, and culture.

The name of the subgenre, for instance, comes from the idea that much of technology was still powered via steam. The result is something that straddles fantasy and science fiction. The machines aren’t powered by magic (except for sometimes, when they are), but the authors also don’t take time to break down into explanations of the circuitry and fiddly workings of their gadgets (except for sometimes, when they do).

Steampunk Floral Watch by Vasiliki Aranwen

Victorian London aside, it makes a lot of sense that our generation would turn to steampunk. We grew up with the Internet morphing from a nerdy project at tech-heavy colleges to something most of us can’t function without, and new releases in phones, music players, and computers make news.

Why shouldn’t writers treat technology with the same enthusiasm and wonder that we associate with magic?

Look at the recent resurgence of Dr. Who. A brilliant, charismatic outsider using a flying time travel machine and a few well-chosen gadgets to fight evil? Sounds like the definition of steampunk to me.

By using an anachronistic setting, steampunk heightens this sense of wonder, as well as tunes us in to a world many writers associate with genius (Sherlock Holmes and The Time Machine both date to the Victorian era, after all). In a world where the death of an inventor is mourned worldwide via the machines he created, it’s making less and less sense to turn to quasi-medieval settings for our fantasy literature.

So put down The Hobbit (at least until the refresher reread before the movie) and let’s get excited about automatons! Steampunk! An Anthology of Fantastically Rich and Strange Stories is a great place to start. The book both serves as a lively introduction to steampunk and a reminder that there is more to the genre than Queen Victoria and brass goggles. The editors note in their introduction, in fact, that they deliberately excluded Victorian London as a setting for the stories. The result is steampunk in the near future and ancient Rome, Ireland and the American South, and stories that range from tongue-in-cheek to adventurous to romantic to eerie.

An early favorite of mine was “Clockwork Fagin,” a playful retelling of Oliver Twist in which the orphaned boys hatch a plan to subdue their villainous master and live in style. “Some Fortunate Future Day,” a post-apocalyptic story of a girl living alone in an automated house who finds a wounded soldier in the backyard, reminds me a little of Ray Bradbury’s work. It’s short, tight, foreboding with a touch of sweetness mixed in at the same time.

Steampunk by Alexander Iglesias

It may not have Bradbury’s poetry in the writing, but I could see him writing something similar (and coming from me, this is high praise indeed!). The closing story, “The Oracle Machine,” takes the biggest leap of all back to ancient Rome, and mixes legend, history, and the eponymous invention into a story of fate and revenge.

Steampunk! accomplishes a lot in its 400-some pages: it will introduce and excite newcomers to the genre, while keeping plenty of new twists for established steampunk fans. I’m not saying every reader will enjoy every story—that’s not the point of an anthology—but you are bound to come away with a generous helping of what you like. And for those interested in trying different things this year, welcome to the steampunk genre!


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[ Book Review ] Dreams, Magic, and the Night Circus

Jessica’s Review: The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern

I was really excited to get my hands on The Night Circus, the new fantasy novel that started as a subplot in Erin Morgenstern’s NaNoWriMo novel. The month-long challenge to write 50,000 words in 30 days is dear to my heart, and I was thrilled at the chance to read a successfully published book that started in that community.

The plot also gave me high hopes for the book: two young magicians are locked in a mysterious bond that’s part game, part fight to the death, set in a dreamlike circus. When they fall in love, they must find a way to free themselves from the game, which holds not only their lives, but those of everyone in the circus, in a complex web.

I went in primed with thoughts of the Hunger Games trilogy, spiced with my favorite book, Something Wicked This Way Comes, which also features a mysterious circus that arrives at night.

While The Night Circus doesn’t climb quite so high as Bradbury’s masterpiece, Morgenstern’s circus is undeniably quite the spectacle. Morgenstern clearly takes great joy in world-building, and the Cirque des Reves (Circus of Dreams) features all manner of fanciful performances and sensory delights. In bridge passages, a second-person narrative invites the reader to wander through the maze of tents and take in a taste of what the circus has to offer. A contortionist, an Ice Garden, a Wishing Tree aflame with hundreds of candles, precocious acrobatic kittens, dazzling performers, and even experts in lighting and fragrance to give the circus the perfect ambiance make appearances.

It feels weird to say this, but after a certain point there’s too much beauty in Night Circus. Morgenstern indulges in pages of description. The costumes are inevitably elegant, the food is uniformly exquisite, the marvels in each tent are flawless, we are reminded several times of the air’s trademark scent of wood smoke and caramel.

It sounds wonderful, and dreamlike, which is the intent, but after a certain point I am jaded enough to have my doubts. Do the trained kittens never decide they’d rather pounce on a stray feather than perform? Do the statue performers really hold so still you can’t ever see them blink or breathe? Is there even a fallen piece of popcorn ground into the grass somewhere? Continue reading

[ Small Chirps ] Can you publish your NaNoWriMo novel?

National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo or NaNo, for short) is in full swing, and hundreds of thousands of aspiring writers worldwide are hitting Week 2 of their attempt to write 50,000 words in 30 days. This is my third year doing NaNo, and so far it’s going well: I’m over 2,000 words ahead, giving me a nice cushion in case I have an off day later in the month, and I’ve got a list of writing prompts to help ease me through the notorious second-week slump (for those new to NaNoWriMo, the second week is when the novelty of the story wears off, but the end is still nowhere in sight. It’s a dark time).

I do NaNoWriMo because I become a part of a great community, join a solid writing boot camp to kick productivity into high gear, and the pressure often results in my creative energy leaping off into directions far different from where it goes for most of the year. I do NaNo, in fact, primarily for the excitement of doing NaNo, but there’s always that voice that crops up, from a friend or family member, fellow writer or even that nagging voice in the back of my own mind.

What many of us really want to know at the end of the day is: Will this month of frenzied writing leave us with something we can publish?

Yes and no. Continue reading

Halloween Week: Scary Stories

Seeing my swashbuckling self now, you wouldn’t believe it, but I was a huge scaredy-pants when I was a fledgling. My friends read the Goosebumps series; I couldn’t read the summary on the backs without glancing nervously behind me, sure that something was creeping up on me. Most of the year, I stuck to stories free from ghosts, monsters, and unhappy endings.

Every October, though, when the librarians put out the Halloween displays, everything changed. I was drawn to the collections of scary stories–and always ended up checking one out. I could handle most of what I read, but there was invariably that one story that scared the daylights out of me, reducing me to a sweating, whimpering mess when it came time to climb the dark stairs to my room.

One year, it was the story of the Wendigo, a wind spirit that made people run until their feet caught fire. In it, a trail guide returned to camp swaddled in a blanket. When the others, angered by his silence, pulled the blanket away, all that was left underneath was a pile of ash.

One year, it was a story of a demon scarecrow that killed the farmers one by one and laid their skins on the roof to dry in the sun (I still say that story had no business in a book for kids).

My mother tried to discourage me sometimes. Several years of early-November nightmares were enough to convince her that the scary books should stay on the shelf.

“Are you sure about that one?” she’d say in the check-out line, staring at the skull on the cover. But I would not be denied. Continue reading

[ Small Chirp ] Do novels work in comic book form?

Graphic novels, these literary, comic-book-style stories, have become increasingly mainstream since the ’80s–enough that even a square like me has read Watchmen and the Sandman series. They are creative and thought-provoking and wonderful.

But that’s not what I’m here to talk about. There is a growing trend in the graphic novel world that I’m not sure what to make of: adapting pre-written novels into graphic novel format.

A few months ago, I was browsing Barnes & Noble and saw a graphic novel version of Neil Gaiman’s Coraline. Since Coraline looked a little older than her book self, I guessed it was produced as a way to bring the older Sandman crowd in to check out some of Neil’s other work. I finished it in a sitting and went on my way.

Not too long after that, my mother came home from the library with another graphic novel in her hand.

“I saw this and remembered you’d read it,” she said. “I don’t think you’ve seen this version, though.”

I had read the book, all right. Continue reading