Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Review: Don't Stop Now by Julie Halpern

Julie Halpern totally won me over with Into the Wild Nerd Yonder, so even though Don't Stop Now didn't promise me nerdy D&D hijinks, I still needed to check it out. There may be no D&D, but I love road trips, so I thought this would be worth a shot - and I was totally right.

When Lillian's sorta-friend, Penny, leaves her a weird voice mail at 4:30 in the morning, Lil doesn't think much of it. "I did it?" What does that even mean? But then her parents started calling. And then the cops. Apparently Penny has been kidnapped?

Except Lil is pretty sure Penny faked it - she kind of mentioned that once. And Lil has a feeling she may have run away to Oregon. So she calls up her BFF (and major-crush) Josh, and the two set out on a road trip from Chicago to Portland with nothing but Josh's dad's credit card and the clothes on their backs. Along the way the dynamic duo stop at all the great tourist-attractions of fly-over country - the Badlands, Wall Drug, the Corn Palace, etc. And Lil keeps hoping that this trip, probably their last great adventure before she moves away for college and Josh starts pursuing his music career in earnest, will be the trip that makes Josh see her as more than just a girl friend.

In between the chapters of Lil and Josh's antics, we also get short, heartbreaking scenes from Penny's life over the last year or so. Glimpses of a family that uses her as nothing more than a baby sitter, and boyfriend that uses her as a doormat - and a punching bag. It's not hard to figure out why Lil might have decided to run away - but did she really fake that kidnapping?

This story is a road trip and story of friendship first and foremost - the long term friendship between Lil and Josh, as well as the lengths Lil will go to in order to help someone who didn't have a lot of options in the friend-department. The romantic angle was played just right. There's some angst here, because Lil has pretty much always loved Josh but he's never seen it, but that never overwhelms their friendship. Even when she's a little disappointed that they only literally slept together in a cozy motel bed, she still has fun with their zany road trip.

Even though for most of the story we only get small insights into Penny, I really liked her as a character, too. Who didn't have a friend/acquaintance that they knew just well enough to say "hi" to at parties and work on projects together if there was no one else in the class? And a lot of us have probably been in friendships like that where one person clearly read a lot more into it than the other did. The vignettes also painted a clear picture of why someone might stay with a boyfriend (or girlfriend) who clearly isn't right for them - who can be outright abusive. It's terrifying and played exactly right - Penny's story lends some gravitas to what would otherwise be a light romantic comedy.

Julie Halpern is two-for-two with me so far. Her characters are always dynamic, funny and honest. I can't wait to see what she comes out with next!

Monday, September 19, 2011

Nonfiction Monday: Super Mario by Jeff Ryan

I'm not really a big video gamer - I like to say that video games got too advanced for me around the era of the N64. Once they stopped doing side scrolling games? I was totally lost.

But my brother is a huge gamer, so despite hardly playing a game at all, I try to keep abreast of the latest gaming news, so after seeing this Slate interview with Jeff Ryan, I thought I'd give this book a try. My family was always a Nintendo family - my parents liked Nintendo's emphasis on family-friendly games - so I've always had an affinity for Super Mario.

Super Mario: How Nintendo Conquered America isn't a hard hitting expose. This is no tell-all memoir of tawdry details and sordid affairs. Ryan doesn't necessarily avoid some of the less-than-awesome things Nintendo has done, but he certainly prefers to emphasize the positives of the company.

And there's a lot of positives here. Did you know Nintendo was trying to get us all into online gaming way back in the NES (Nintendo Entertainment System) era? That the character of Mario was created in a company-wide contest (because the president of Nintendo didn't want to pull his "real" programmers away from other projects that were more-likely money makers. Mario, via Donkey Kong the arcade game, was a last-ditch effort to recoup losses in the US market)? That the NES Mario games were some of the first to be intentionally designed to make you want to replay them over and over to learn all their secrets?

While there's an extensive bibliography (according to the acknowledgements, there's even supposed to be "downloadable content" extra chapters at the website, but right now that appears to be only for those who preordered? Hm), this isn't a heavy academic tome with footnotes every two paragraphs. It's a serious look at a light-hearted topic, but isn't afraid to have fun, either. Video game puns abound, and the book design is whimsical - the book is divided in sections, further divided into chapters, so the chapter headings are given in familiar Mario-game parlance: 2-1, 4-8 and so on.

While the focus is definitely on Mario and Nintendo, this strikes me as a must-read for all gamers, because without Nintendo, Sony and Microsoft wouldn't be around as we know them. Nintendo was the front runner for so many years that they drove innovation in the industry. And while Nintendo has forfeited the graphics fight to the other two powerhouses, it's still driving innovation in the industry. Ryan calls the other two's attempts to get into motion-controlled gaming merely also-rans, and that Nintendo had considered those ideas first, but opted for a controller-based motion system because they felt using your whole body as a controller would require a player to basically re-learn controls for every game. If nothing else, Nintendo thinks their decisions through with painstaking detail.

This is an excellent adult non-fiction book that will appeal to anyone interested in video games. I highly enjoyed it.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Book Thoughts: Library visit + final #SpeakGeek post

First, the results of my weekly library trip:

Picked up this week:
Sweetly - Jackson Pearce
This Thing Called the Future - JL Powers
Dust and Decay - Jonathan Maberry

Still have from last week, haven't started:
The Floating Islands - Rachel Neumeier
Wrapped - Jennifer Bradbury

Finishing now:
Super Mario: How Nintendo Conquered America - Jeff Ryan (will be finished and reviewed for Nonfiction Monday this coming week! Really enjoying this book; it's absolutely fascinating, even to someone like me who isn't a hardcore gamer)
Don't Stop Now - Julie Halpern (all nerds need to check out Into the Wild Nerd Yonder for its awesome look at high school D&D and LARPing)

Read This Week:
She Loves You, She Loves You Not - Julie Anne Peters (Peters writes awesome lesbian angsty romance. Unfortunately, the rest of the book kind of falls apart, since 90% of the drama hinges on something that could be solved with one conversation)

Usually I end up reading more than one book in a week, but Super Mario is pretty big, and I haven't even finished it yet - I've got one more chapter to go, I think, and it's too big of a book to justify carrying on the subway for such a short amount left to read! Need to finish it this weekend though, so my husband can take it with him when he travels for work (boo).

I've been debating what to write for my final Speak Out with your Geek Out post, and finally decided just to go big:

I am an internet geek.

I know it sounds kind of vague, but seriously? I love the internet. Not blogging, not Twitter, not news sites, not chat rooms.

The Internet.

Getting the internet at home back in 1997 absolutely changed my life. We weren't cutting edge by then - I was  hardly the first of my friends with a computer, and I'd been on the internet in school for a few years at that point. But I had some advantages some of my friends didn't - namely, after a few months my parents started trusting me enough to let me go on the internet without supervision (for you young'ns - this was before Net Nanny software and all of that - supervision when I was 13 meant my mom literally sitting just over my shoulder, watching the AOL chatrooms I was in!).

I wasn't yearning to do anything too crazy at that point, but it did mean I had the freedom to interact with people my "real life" friends couldn't, because their parents were sure everyone on the internet was a pervert.

I met my first internet friends in an old chat room called Trekker Chat. It was a great way for young little me to get my feet wet in internet friendships, because my parents ended up joining the chatroom too. Even if we weren't on at the same time (impossible, since we only had one computer!), people knew that little Bellana's parents would be coming around later, so don't hassle the kid.

I also wasn't the only kid of an adult chatter in the room, and it was there that I first met someone other than myself and a few school friends who read the Animorphs books. And thus began my first forays into maintaining websites, writing fan fiction, and developing some of the best friendships I had in my life.

Through high school I had a sprawling online social life, one far more active than anything in school. I was friends with people of all ages, from a few years younger than me up through people as old as my parents. I would have long chats on ICQ with people all around the world. While other kids were sneaking out in the middle of the night to party, I was staying up until 4, 5 or 6 in the morning to put the finishing touches on my latest fan fic masterpiece.

I did have real-life relationships at this time too, just so you know. My two best friends in high school stood up for me at my did one of my best online friends from this time (a friend I never actually got to meet in person until after I'd asked her to be in the wedding! I sent her an e-mail and was like "Uh, I know this could be totally weird to you, so just know that if you say no I won't be offended or anything! But will you be one of my bridesmaids???"). I did theatre all through high school, and book club after school and in the summers. But in my first year of college, when I had to write a speech about a community I belonged to? I wrote about an Animorphs fan fic mailing list 1) to be sure I had an original speech subject and 2) to honor a group of people that were no less real to me, just because we only interacted via e-mails and instant messages.

During college my internet socializing backed off a little - thanks to those stupid things called "classes," but after college my internet usage, as well as TV watching!, picked right back up. Instead of focusing on Animorphs and fan fiction, however, I've moved into book blogging. Just like in my Star Trek and Animorph super-fan days, I've met bloggers in real life, and even attended conventions dedicated to my hobbies. For some reason these aren't looked at with fear and skepticism like they used to be - is it because I'm an adult now? Internet friendships are more recognized? I'm working online on something that's at least tangentially related to the career I'm pursuing? I don't know.

And alongside book blogging folks, I'm accumulating a whole new set of friends now that I've joined an MMO - City of Heroes. I've got a role playing supergroup that is pretty epic - both in terms of role play and the people that are in it. I've actually just set up Skype on my work computer, since that's the chat client of choice among my fellow superheroes, so we can keep in contact during the day.

I've also totally jumped on the Google + bandwagon - though I am the sort of internet geek that notes that it has some ridiculous shortcomings that are going to prevent it from reaching its full potential. Sigh.

The internet is so much more than a mere tool for me. It's a gateway to entertainment, information and communication. And perhaps most importantly, it facilitates a new way to find communities and build and maintain relationships all around the world.

So out of everything I geek out about, I'd really have to say the internet is what I'm most passionate about. Because without it, so many of my passions never would have had a chance to flourish.

For more Speak Out with your Geek Out posts, be sure to check the official site. Also, on this week's episode of A Couple of Geeks, I shared my geek love for YA lit!

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Book Thoughts: Anachronistic Historical Fiction

A few months back I wrote about the suspension of disbelief in fantasy and science fiction, and how it's not necessary to counter one fantastic element with everything else being hyper-real, especially when it comes to cultures that oppress minorities. I'm going to go be all complicated and look at when defying reality feels like it goes a little too far for me.

This Dark Endeavor: The Apprenticeship of Victor FrankensteinI started reading This Dark Endeavour: The Apprenticeship of Victor Frankenstein earlier this week, drawn in by the connection to Mary Shelley's original Frankenstein novel. While the writing is great, however, I think this is one of the few books I'm going to give up on before finishing?

Why? The characters are too darn nice.

In Victor's family, girls are educated just as well as boys. Interest in the arts is cultivated just as much as an interest in science. The rich family spends every Sunday cooking lavish meals for the serving staff!

Any one of these things I would have been okay with - heck, I'd probably be okay with all of them - if the characters weren't so damn smug about how enlightened they are. And, like SF dystopia XVI earlier this year, (so far) there's been no explanation of why this family is so magnanimous. Especially if you're a family with some sort of power, some tangible reason to keep the status quo, if you're going to break that status quo I wan't to know why.

Or? I don't want it to be acknowledged. If the Frankenstein's are wise beyond their years, that is awesome, but why not just show them being awesome? Why make them so aware of their awesomeness? If that awesomeness is integral to the plot somehow, then just show us them being awesome in contrast to evil horrible people who subjugate their women and/or servants and/or artists.

For me there's a difference between escapist literature (imagining a world that is better than the one we live in), and...I guess I would call this overeager literature. It emphasizes that the world MAY HAVE been bad, but look at these people who hold our modern values in this antiquated time!!!

Anachronism can be used well - slightly altering the order of events for better drama, bringing in an invention a few years early or a few years late, or setting aside some common bigotries in order to better get to the story you want to tell. But when anachronism is handled poorly, when that anachronism seems to become a plot point, or a point that overshadows the plot, I get turned off.

How important is historical accuracy to you in historical fiction? What do you think about characters holding 21st century values in settings that are decidedly not the 21st century?

Monday, September 12, 2011

Nonfiction Monday: Wheels of Change by Sue Macy AND #SpeakGeek Day 1!

My first Speak Out With Your Geek Out post ties into the Nonfiction Monday theme, so I figured I'd combine the two in the name of efficiency! First the review, then the #speakgeek post.

Wheels of Change: How Women Rode the Bicycle to Freedom (With a Few Flat Tires Along the Way)Before I had a car, my bicycle was my life. Since third grade I lived close enough to my schools that the district didn't provide a bus, so any time there wasn't snow on the ground, my bike got me to and from school. When a new branch of the library opened up in my neighborhood, my bike delivered me to air conditioned and full-of-books bliss on a daily basis. But despite the way the world opened up for me when my parents let me start biking off by myself, I never considered how the bicycle was once a political statement.

Sue Macy opens up this fascinating element of women's history in an inviting and easy to understand way. It's an excellent way to introduce teen readers to the history of women's rights, because the bicycle is such a universal experience, even in our modern lives. I imagine few people living today can even imagine what it would be like to not be allowed to ride a bicycle - either because it's considered unseemly for a young lady, or because her clothing was too constricting to allow for such physical activity.

Macy examines how the bicycle was truly revolutionary for women. They suddenly had a way to transport themselves without relying on anyone else. The popularity of bicycles first encouraged ingenuity in their design (side-saddle bikes, with both pedals on the same side!), and then encouraged greater acceptance for dress-reform - everything from split-skirts to abandoning corsets.

The only thing I was left wanting more of was more information about the evolution of bicycle design. The book never did answer why on earth early bicycles had those ridiculous giant front wheels.

The book design is engaging and fun - all of the pictures are presented in big circles, mimicking bicycle wheels.

Any book that calls attention to women's history is going to be a big plus for me, but one that does so in an engaging and unique way is even better!

Review copy provided by Media Masters Publicity.

Nonfiction Monday
This week's Nonfiction Monday is hosted by Wrapped in Foil. Be sure to stop by and check out the other great nonfiction titles highlighted this week!

Speak Out With Your Geek Out - Day 1: Nonfiction Books!
I'm hoping to have a post for Speak Out With Your Geek Out every day this week. I'll post any that are book related here, and will provide links on either Twitter or Google+ for ones that are non-book related. Tomorrow on my husband's and my podcast we'll also be highlighting the event - I'll probably do some book-talking in there, too!

Since I'm getting back into the swing of blogging with Nonfiction Monday, I figured I could start of this week of geeky celebration with a short ode to nonfiction books.

Before the Nonfiction Monday meme started, I certainly liked nonfiction books, but they weren't terribly high on my radar. When I was a kid, I was all over the fiction section - it took a pretty special subject to get me to wander into the  nonfiction section of the library. Nonfiction books were associated with research and school projects. I didn't get an excuse to read fiction for school very often, so my pleasure-reading time was reserved for fiction.

But now as an adult, I don't know what it is, but I've discovered that I absolutely love nonfiction books. If I wanted to sit back and psycho-analyze it, it probably has something to do with my relatively unstructured adult life. There's no more research papers, no more group projects, no more speeches that need to be written, so I'm not getting a constant nonfiction-fix elsewhere. But just because I don't have any assignments to turn in any more doesn't mean that I don't crave those days of fact-finding. So now any time I hear about the existence of a nonfiction book that sounds even remotely interesting, I search it out.

What nonfiction am I reading right now? Unfortunately it's all adult - there really does seem to be a gap in nonfiction for young adults. So much of it seems to be either way too young, or so dry it's clearly only intended for classroom use. I'm still plugging through a biography of Charlotte Perkins Gilman (author of the famous The Yellow Wallpaper, which just changed my life in high school), and I just started Super Mario, a history of Nintendo. On the waiting list at the library is the autobiography of nerd-hero Simon Pegg. 

Not only do I wish there was more nonfiction out there for young adults, but I wish more was coming out in more "adult" formats. Sometimes the oversized books filled with pictures are necessary - I liked the set up in Wheels of Change, after all, and I absolutely loved the design of Frozen Secrets. But the format doesn't lend itself well to taking the book along in a purse, or even a backpack where space is at a premium. I haven't done any research, but it sure feels to me like nonfiction could grab some more readers if it was in the more-familiar novel-size format. It'd look like a novel, and even look more like the adult nonfiction books I've been getting, but not necessarily as dry and bogged down with footnotes as adult nonfiction can be.

But all isn't dark for young adult nonfiction - in fact, I think it's getting better than ever, just like the young adult genre as a whole is! Since starting this blog, I've discovered nonfiction books that have sparked passions I didn't even know I had - Antarctica is now fascinating to me, and it's all because of some excellent nonfiction finds that I want to write a novel set during the US civil war.

Do you love nonfiction? What are you a geek about? Let me know if you make a post for Speak Out With Your Geek Out (whether it's book-related or not) - I'd love to see what else people are geeking out about this week!

Friday, September 9, 2011

Book Thoughts: Library trip, graphic novels, #speakgeek

I ended up taking the whole summer off from blogging, for all intents and purposes. Didn't really mean to, that's just kind of how it happened. Back in June...I don't even really remember what I was reading, but I was getting burned out because so much of it felt kind of repetitive and derivative that I didn't want to write about any of it because almost every post would have been "blah blah, this sucks, blah blah, copy-cat."

Yeah, I wasn't a happy camper!

I also joined Google Plus and have gotten really involved in a couple of "communities" on there - RPG players are huge on there, and then there was the big controversy over G+'s name policy (they require you to use your "common name"). I happen to be on there using my legal name, because I actually want to leave some digital footprints behind (the same reason I blog here under my legal name), but I totally understand why one would value a pseudonym (since I used a few for much longer than I've been using my RL name online).

For the past two weeks I've been posting my library hauls on G+, and I thought pasting in one of those would be a good way for me to get back into the blogging habit!

Picked up this week:
Don't Stop Now - Julie Halpern
She Loves You, She Loves You Not - Julie Anne Peters
The Floating Islands - Rachel Neumeier
Wrapped - Jennifer Bradbury
Super Mario: How Nintendo Conquered America - Jeff Ryan

Still have from last week, haven't started:
This Dark Endeavor

Still have from two weeks ago, haven't finished
Wild Unrest: Charlotte Perkins Gilman and the Making of "The Yellow Wallpaper"

Read This Week:
Dreams of Significant Girls - Cristina Garcia (really wanted to like, but it fell short)
Ultimate Iron Man graphic novel - Orson Scott Card
Will Super Villains be on the Final? - Naomi Novik (another graphic novel)

And the two graphic novel reads inspired the follow rant/book thoughts on graphic novels and me:

Conclusion this week: I can't do graphic novel series. Hate, hate, hate how essentially it's just a snippet of a story. Iron Man came closer to telling a full story than Super Villains, but it's still clearly just a hook to get you to come back again next month.

I hate novels that end on total cliffhanger endings. The books that best start a trilogy are the ones that finish one story, but leave one or two tantalizing hooks for the next one. Katniss survives the Arena - but there's still the danger of President Snow lurking back in her civilian life. Tally redeems herself for leading to the destruction of the Smoke - in part by promising the hook for the second book "Make Me Pretty." If you never go to book two in these trilogies, you still had an entire story. You probably want to know what happens next, but this particular story had a clear beginning, middle and end. Comic books and series like Will Super Villains be on the Final just don't have that completeness for me, so I end up feeling frustrated that there's so much missing, rather than enjoying what I did just read.

And finally, next week is going to be an awesome event that is going to result in you guys seeing a lot more of me: Speak Out With Your Geek Out. It's going to be a great week of geek-positivity. From 9/12 to 9/16, we're asking geeks of all stripes to blog/tweet/write/speak about what they're passionate about. This isn't just for "traditional" geeks - the Magic players, RPG nerds and video game obsessives - but for anyone who's truly passionate about...something. One of my topics here next week will definitely be about YA lit in general, and possibly a few posts about why I love specific genres. I also want to plug my call for audioclips to contribute to next week's edition of my podcast. If you want to rave about YA lit in general, a genre or specific title you totally geek out over, or really any topic at all in audio form, follow these instructions on how to be included in our special episode! And Twitter users, there is (of course) an official hashtag - #speakgeek.

Looking forward to getting back in the saddle next week - thanks for bearing with me everyone!
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