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The inquiring minds over at YA Highway want to know, and I want to tell you:  the best book I read in February was…

Where Things Come Back

WHERE THINGS COME BACK by John Corey Whaley

Funny story: on Saturday night, I drank a leeeeetle too much wine, and therefore I woke up at 3am with a headache.  As I was waiting to fall back asleep, I started planning a blog post about Where Things Come Back by John Corey Whaley.  I mean, it was going to be epic, a review full of literary analysis and deep, critical thinking rather than just my usual “ooh this book was good blah blah blah” deal.

Of course, I’ve completely forgotten what I was going to say.

Lesson here, kids: Drink in moderation.

So, what should I say instead?  I’ll just list five reasons I enjoyed this book instead.

1. It was like revisiting my childhood. There’s a reason that my books are primarily based in Arkansas.  While I no longer live there, I did spend the entirety of my childhood and most of my early adulthood there.  The town names (indeed, even the character names as many of them were named after Arkansas towns) were so familiar that it was like a sort of homecoming.  It’s Central Arkansas, not my home of Northwest Arkansas, where book is set, but there was still so much familiarity for me.  For example, I grew up near the White River, which flows all over the state, and it’s an important location in the book.  There is a passing mention of someone who had died on the White River, and I know someone who died on the White River in almost the exact same way.  So yeah, this book reminded me of home.  I suppose if he had gotten everything wrong, this whole setting it in Arkansas thing would have pissed me off.  He didn’t.

2. As previously established, I am a giant nerd.  I remember a story on NPR about the Ivory-billed Woodpecker, believed to be extinct for decades but possibly sighted in 2004.  Confession time: I was in 4-H when I was little and did not one but TWO year-long projects on the birds of Arkansas.  So this story caught my interest.  And then Sufjan Stevens wrote a song about it.  I love Sufjan Stevens.  He’s twice appeared as #1 on my annual top ten albums list.  He’s on my List.  Seeing his Age of Adz tour helped me throw off a prolonged depression.  Anyway, between being an bird nerd and NPR geek and Sufjan devotee, I was already a nerd about this woodpecker.  And then I listened to the YALSA award ceremony in January, and this book won the freaking Printz Award.  As they were talking about the book, I was like… wait.  That all sounds very familiar!  Turns out that I wasn’t the only NPR-and-Sufjan-loving person with a literary bent.  So I immediately ordered Where Things Come Back.

3. Narrated by a guy!  Don’t get me wrong, I love female narrators, especially in YA books.  I’m still very much a teenager at heart, and I relate well to the young female point of view.  But I love, love, love a well-written guy narrator.  It’s like vacationing in another world.  It’s one reason I’ve started reading more male YA authors – to understand, finally, the psyche of the teenage boy.  Not like it’s a chore to read this book, or one of John Green’s, or anything by Markus Zusak (if he rewrote the phone book, I’d read it).  Those guys can WRITE.

4. Multiple converging storylines.  I won’t say much about this because I’d like you to read the book if you haven’t already.  But there’s so much going on in this book!  Whaley ties most of it together at the end, and he leaves the rest for you to decide for yourself.  That was one of my favorite things about this novel – the fact that some things are left hanging.  The reader is left to imagine how these things will turn out.  It’s clearly intentional, and in my mind, it works really well.  A lot of authors try this, and many are not as successful as Whaley is here.

5. He done wrote it good.  So, this is where I try to reconstruct my drunken musings while my grasp of the English language fails me.  It’s amazing how much more coherent you are at 3am with a splitting headache.  Anyway, there’s religion, mysticism, and mystery throughout this book, and it’s almost taken for granted.  Those things just exist in the world of Where Things Come Back.  It’s kind of like magical realism without the actual magic.  It’s a sense of things being larger than you – larger than these small-town characters and their town.  Also, it’s quite a literary book, with multiple forms of narration and devices and symbolism and themes and everything, while still remaining a fun and entertaining read.  Gah.  I’m not doing a very good job of conveying my thoughts.  So… yeah.  There’s a lot going on in this book, many layers, and I’m left thinking about it days after I finished it.

So, in summary, yay Arkansas, yay birds, yay Where Things Come Back!  John Corey Whaley, I am eagerly awaiting your next book.

What was your favorite February read?  Join YA Highway’s Road Trip Wednesday blog carnival and spread the YAngelism!

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It’s time for YA Highway’s Road Trip Wednesday! This week’s topic is:

What was the best book you read in January?

It will come as no shock to anyone who has had even remote contact with me during January that the best book I read last month was…

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The Fault in Our Stars by John Green

I was super excited for this book, like I used to get when the new Harry Potter would come out. Maybe more so. I preordered it back in June 2011 when John (ok, I can’t seem to call him Mr. Green or Green because come on, he’s John Green, everyone’s internet BFF) said he would sign all of the preorders. In the ensuing months, buzz about the book grew. Secretive buzz, because there was a gag order on spoilers, but buzz nonetheless. I watched as John struggled to sign all 150,000 copies by the deadline. He had to go to an occupational therapist from all the signing, y’all.

The more I became entrenched in nerdfighteria, the more anxious I was for this book to come out.

John announced he would also release a limited-edition audiobook of himself reading the novel. I ordered that.

John announced that he and his brother Hank would go on a promotional tour for the book and Hank’s music (the Tour de Nerdfighting). The closest date was in Austin. I bought a ticket.

By the time the book arrived, I was terrified that it wouldn’t live up to the hype. I should have known John wouldn’t let me down.

The Fault in Our Stars is a beautiful, funny, and heartbreaking story of two teenagers with cancer. They embark upon a wild, yet still entirely plausible, adventure together in search of the meaning behind a book they both love. I’m not going to say any more about the plot, just in case you haven’t read it.

My opinion of the book? John gave us two wonderful, nuanced characters with big lovable personalities, sharp wit, and plenty of flaws. He handles the day-to-day business of being sick with a deft hand (he’s had experience working with sick kids, and that definitely shows here). He really opened my eyes to what kids like Hazel and Augustus – and their families and friends – go through, living with cancer.

I loved this book.

I finished the book on a plane, on the way to a weekend trip to NYC. I thoroughly embarrassed myself with the gasping, snotty sobs. I had also brought along Maggie Stiefvater’s The Scorpio Races, since it is February’s book club book, but I couldn’t pick it up all weekend. I didn’t want to read anything ever again. That’s how good The Fault in Our Stars was.

I also kind of never wanted to write again. Because I will never write something this funny/sad/powerful/wonderful. That’s not me being all Insecure Writer. That’s just me telling the truth.

My friend Gabe and I spent hours making t-shirts for The Hectic Glow (a band discussed in the book) for ourselves and for John and Hank, because that’s how nerdy we are, and we wore the shirts to the Tour de Nerdfighting in Austin.

Here’s Gabe’s video about the t-shirts and event.

When talking about the book that night, John said some great and inspiring things about his process and intent with this work. How he must have written over a million words before coming up with the final version (after years of trying to write this story). How he tries to write teenagers like they think they sound, instead of how they actually sound. How he thinks that people underestimate teenagers, and how he’s fed up with it.

Amen.

No encounter with an idol is complete without my making a fool of myself, so here’s my fangirl moment from the tour. I’m paraphrasing of course:

(in the signing line, after waiting about three hours to get to John and Hank)

John: (looks at the sticky notes bearibg my name on the books I’d brought to be signed) Hi there, Mandy.
Me: (freaking out) Hi!
Gabe: Check out our cool t-shirts.
John: Hey, the Hectic Glow!
Me: (thrusting t-shirt in his face) Look! We made one for you!
John: Oh, this is nice! Thanks guys! You’ll probably see me wearing it in a video sometime. (goes back to signing) And not because all of my clothes are dirty. But yeah, they are all dirty. And it doesn’t look like we’ll get to wash them in Dallas.
Me: YOU CAN WASH THEM AT MY HOUSE! (immediately wants to die)
John: Oh no, I wouldn’t want to impose…
Me: (grabs books and runs away)

You guys. I offered to do John Green’s laundry. At my house.

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Yes, the title of this post is a Snoop Dogg/Flight of the Conchords mashup. That’s how awesome I am.

Aaaaaanyway, it’s time for YA Highway’s Road Trip Wednesday. This week’s topic:

If you couldn’t use your own name, what would your pseudonym or penname be?

It’s like these people are reading my mind! I’ve been pondering pen names for a long time now.

If/when I ever get published, do I use my real name? If yes, then which one? I’m legally an Amanda, but I go by Mandy. My last name is Aguilar (clearly Hispanic), but my maiden name is Spain (clearly… nothing?), and I’m white. What about my middle name – does it figure in anywhere?

So, if you do the math (note: not a mathematician), there are at least 12 possible names I could adopt simply by using my first and middle names plus my last name and maiden names.

So many decisions.

I mean, I could just use my Wu-Tang Clan name: Fearless Mastermind.

Or my pirate name: Fineglin’ Wally Bonny.

Or even my Hobbit name: Lila Boggy-Hillocks.

Of those three, I think the hobbit one is my favorite.

Wait, is there a romance novelist name generator??? *Googles*

Ah yes, here’s one. My name: Lavender Garden (I chose “sweet romance”).

Maybe I should stick with Mandy. Or maybe Mandy Boggy-Hillocks. Yeah, that’s the ticket.

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(but not much more)

One of my favorite Smiths quotes and so appropriate for this week’s Road Trip Wednesday! From YA Highway:

Where do you buy most of your books? No one is judging!

This issue has been weighing on me lately for several reasons. I want indie bookstores to survive. I want authors to get paid when I buy their books. And most of all, I want people to have access to books so that they can read.

Anyway, here’s my list, in order of most frequent purchases (I think, anyway).

1. Amazon. It’s easy, it’s fairly cheap, and I have a Kindle. It makes me feel kind of dirty shopping there, because I’d much rather buy from a brick-and-mortar shop, but as is well-documented, I am lazy.

2. Half Price Books. The flagship HPB on Northwest Highway is kind of a mothership to me. I probably buy the majority of my real (as opposed to ebooks) books here. This also makes me feel a little dirty, because I’m pretty sure authors don’t get paid when I buy their books used. However, HPB is based in Dallas, so at least I’m supporting the local economy (and my friend that works in their headquarters). They also have a vibrant community presence and do a lot of good for charity. And the more I think about it, the more I wonder if HPB might actually beat out Amazon for my number one spot. Moving on…

3. New and used book stores in cities I visit. I travel a lot, and I visit bookshops whenever possible. I always leave space in my carry-on for a heap of books. Some favorites include Powell’s in Portland, Oregon; Dickson Street Books in Fayetteville, Arkansas; Burke’s Books in Memphis; Brattle Book Shop in Boston, and Crescent City Books in New Orleans. Over Thanksgiving, I discovered Shakespeare and Company in Paris, which was a book-lover’s dream. And I will always have a warm spot in my heart for The Winding Stair in Dublin.

4. Various other secondhand places. Like thrift stores, garage sales, library sales, etc. In Dallas, I sometimes buy a Paperbacks Plus, especially when I used to live around the corner from them.

5. Other. Like Barnes and Noble and big box stores. I much preferred Borders to B&N, and I was very sad when it closed.

So, that’s the list. One day, my friend Diana and I will open our own bookstore/cafe/small performance space, and we will merrily go into bankruptcy.

Unless there’s a miracle and bookstores begin to thrive again.

I hope there is a miracle.

So… Bookstore recommendations, anyone?

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It’s time for another YA Highway Road Trip Wednesday.  I’m going to try to participate in them as much as possible from now on, because it gives me a good reason to update this poor, neglected blog.

This week’s topic:

What are your writing and publishing superpowers (drafting? beta-reading? writing queries? plotting? character creation? etc.) — and what’s your kryptonite?

Road Trip Song of the Week: “The Man Of Metropolis Steals Our Hearts” – Sufjan Stevens

Quick confession before we get started… and if you know me in real life, you know this already:  I’m not very self-confident.  As a writer, as a person, as a girl, as anything, really.  I’m just not programmed that way.  But, I’m going to force myself to talk positively here, because I am good at some things.

  • Dialogue  I can write dialogue like a champ.  For days.  It’s a little ridiculous.  I’m chalking it up to the fact that I was a theater major, and I’ve been involved in theater stuff for about half my life.  Plays are all about dialogue.  I mean, that’s almost all there is in a play script.  The only writing class I took while in college was playwriting, and we focused a lot on dialogue.  Often, when I’m working on a first draft (or zero draft, really), if I’m stuck, I’ll just write dialogue with minimal description.  I’ll come back later and fill in.
  • Grammar, spelling, punctuation, etc.  Hey, Vampire Weekend!  You know who gives a f**k about an Oxford comma?  This girl!  I’m pretty confident about the rules when I write, and I’m an ace line editor.  I can wield a semicolon with style and grace.  And while I always have a copy of The Elements of Style nearby, I also know when it’s okay to break the rules.  And I do break them.  See what I just did there?
  • Beta reading  I will give you honest feedback with constructive criticism.
  • Mushy scenes  I’m a sucker for romance, and I think I can write the sugary stuff pretty well.

Now, what am I not so good at?  Oh, there’s a litany of things:

  • Adverbs, and the overuse thereof  I didn’t even know this was a thing until it was pointed out in a Writer’s Garret class.  I should be banned from using “really” or “pretty” or, well, almost every other adverb.
  • Description  Remember how I said I can write dialogue?  Well, I’m not so hot at writing the rest of the damn words.
  • Conflict  Maybe it’s because I try to avoid it so much in real life.  I dunno.  I am just terrible at conflict.  I can’t seem to make stakes high enough.  I resolve it too quickly.  I run toward a happily-ever-after like my life depends on it.  Now, in my current NaNoWriMo project, I concentrated on making sure there is enough conflict in the plot.  Unfortunately, that makes it feel icky to write sometimes, because conflict makes me uncomfortable.  Can’t we just write novels where people fall in love and feel better about themselves???  Oh right, no one would read that.
  • Re-writing, editing, draft #4248, etc.  I find this very tedious, and I give up easily.  I’m just not a finisher (I’m no Bald John Green, folks).

So, that’s that.  One last thing about Road Trip Wednesday: I freaking love me some Sufjan Stevens.  The title of this post is from one of his songs (“The Predatory Wasp of the Palisades is Out to Get Us!).  He’s on my List (you know, the “it’s okay to cheat with these five celebrities” list).  I may have made a super silly Pinterest board with my current List-dwellers.

So, speaking of my NaNoWriMo novel, I’m up to 10,546 words.  That was great on Sunday, when I hit that word count and was a tiny bit ahead of the pace.  But I haven’t written anything since then.  I started a new job on Monday (again!  Let’s hope this one sticks!), and I’ve been a little exhausted the past couple of nights.  I’m going to get back in the saddle tonight and will write at least 2,000 words a day until I get back on pace.  And I may have skipped some of the conflict-y scenes to write a mushy scene, because, well, see above.

I’m having trouble getting into my main character’s head.  She’s different from me, and I’m not used to writing that.  Specifically, she’s kind of given up on love, and I never did, even when I was single for years (LITERALLY YEARS, people, in my 20s. Oh, and in my teens).  It’s been hard getting into that mindset.  I’ll crack her, though.  I have faith that I’ll be able to do it.

Some shout-outs to friends that are also writing NaNoWriMo novels:

  • Diana, who doesn’t have a website but has been writing with me online and commiserating over the phone
  • Kristen, who seriously needs to update her blog and come have a write-in at my house
  • Tiffany, who has been writing with me online and cheerleading on Facebook and Twitter
  • Brandy, also cheerleading on Facebook and Twitter, plus I think we’ve written together online this month… right?
  • Melissa, who is going to start her novel any day now…
  • And I’ll add in Jen, who is working on a different project but has been cheerleading and writing with me online.

It’s so good to know other writers.  All of the NaNoWriMo participants that I know are struggling right along with me, and I’m glad to know I’m in good company.  Keep going, ladies!  We can do this!

(By the way, I may think outrageously, but I don’t write in cursive when I’m writing books.  It’s laptop all the way for me.  How do you write?)

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Today, I’m participating in YA Highway’s Road Trip Wednesday, which is specifically geared toward WriMos this week (btw, I’m over 2,600 words already!).

What kind of writing coach do you need? When you have to coach friends, what kind of coach are you?

I need someone to make me sit down and write. Someone who won’t distract me, as I am so easily distractible. Someone who will tell me to keep writing even if I think it sucks.

What I don’t need, interestingly enough, is someone who thinks what I write is amazing. Rather than make me feel good, this somehow undermines my confidence. I’m just weird that way, I guess. I need a “It’s decent, good job getting those words on the paper, keep going and fix it later!”

For the record, I also don’t need someone to tell me my work is crap.

Luckily, I have writer friends that I write with online and in person that understand what I need.

So I guess that’s the kind of coach I try to be. Cheerleader in the “don’t give up, you can do it” kind of way. So, those of you who are struggling through NaNoWriMo, or working on ongoing projects, you can do it! (said in best Rob Schneider voice).

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