Thursday, February 26, 2015

Review of The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender by Leslye Walton

I like magical realism. I like a story about a girl (Ava) with wings who isn't an angel, a super hero, or a thing that has to be explained or forced to conform. I like a book-long metaphor that isn't explained. I like the nod to “A Very Old Man With Enormous Wings.”

But, I don’t think the reader needed the backstory at the front of the book. The great-aunt who turned into a bird when her love affair soured. The great-uncle, also killed with/by love, whose ghost followed the family. Wonderful characters and stories, but stories that could have been better woven into Ava’s story, rather than laid out in front of it.

(Incidentally, this criticism may be coming from my burnout on stories set in 1850-1910. I’m tired of trash-cluttered city streets lined by tenements and covered in horse-shit. It was the bad luck of this book to be the latest 19th century origin-story novel that I read.)

My only other criticism for this book is that I was aghast to find out “Ava Lavender” is a YA novel given the horrifying way Ava is violated at the end of the book, which is difficult to discuss without a spoiler. I think this criticism points more to the fact that my kids are very young, and I can’t imagine them reading something like this. This is the age of “Twilight” and “Hunger Games,” though, so perhaps I am the one out side of the norm. Kids, and YA readers especially, have been pampered for so long, when what they seem to crave is Grimm fairy tales, the grimmer the better.

Still. I like a story about a girl with wings and no explanation.

Friday, February 20, 2015

Review of The Serpent of Venice by Christopher Moore @TheAuthorGuy

The Serpent of VeniceThe Serpent of Venice by Christopher Moore
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I want to be Christopher Moore when I grow up.

Rather, I want to write the way he does. He is able to smash together my favorite characters from my favorite classic authors and twist them into a story so entertaining and funny and smutty that I still can't get my tongue out of my cheek.

Lear's Fool from Moore's previous book (called Fool) appears in Venice out of France as an emissary from his wife, Queen Cordelia. Then, Moore combines two other Shakespeare plays, a Poe short story, and twists in a little mystical history so that Marco Polo and a Chinese water dragon have a part to play. Oh, and a ghost. There's always a ghost. This is comparative literature at it most entertaining.

However, even if the reader isn't an overeducated literature teacher (like me), she can enjoy this book for its silly, smutty adventures, its bloody justice, its convoluted mystery, or its absolutely joyful, uninhibited use of language. Like the Fool, Moore has given himself license to say any- and every- thing and can get away with it because it is cloaked in the guise of humor.

View all my reviews

Friday, February 13, 2015

Review of Room by Emma Donoghue

Here's another review from my Goodreads. This time its about Room by Emma Donoghue.

How did Emma Donoghue do it? How did she write an entire novel from the first person POV of a five year old boy? Who'd never been outside? Because he was born to a woman who was locked in a garden shed for years by a man who kidnapped her? How did Ms. Donoghue do it and not write a book that was exhausting, heart-rending, and unreadable? I don't know, but I'll know something about writing when I figure it out. 

I think part of the magic of this book is that it is told by the child. His innocence and ignorance make the circumstances of the book bearable. We, the readers, aren't exposed to the mental anguish Jack's mother experiences because Jack is just telling us about the only world he has ever known. It's a world his mother has filled with magic and routine and love, a world in which she also manages to protect her child from his father, the man who kidnapped her when she was 19. Jack doesn't know that, of course. All he knows is that Dora the Explorer is his friend because she talks to him, and that green beans are his "enemy food." 

At five, Jack is beginning to ask the questions that will prevent his mother from maintaining the fiction of the room, the fiction that the world is 11' X 11', and that everything on TV is unreal. Five is the age when children go to Kindergarten, often the first time they leave their parents' care for the better part of the day. At five, Jack is exposed to the world in a much more dramatic way. 

I will figure out how you did this, Emma Donoghue.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Getting ready for CCCC 2015 in Tampa #4C15

It’s been years since I went to a big English teacher conference. I last went to CCCC (Conference of College Composition and Communication) back in 2003. Before that, I went in 1996 when I was a graduate student. I went as an observer only both times. This time, I’m presenting.  

Kate Ristau, my writing/editing partner in crime, threw our hat into the ring at the National Conference of Teachers of English (NCTE) CCCC conference last year, and damned if they didn’t accept our proposal. The proposal? Teaching grammar with humor. 

If you keep up with me at all, you’ll know that last year, Kate and I published a small book about commas called Commas: An Irreverent Primer. We took the errors that we most often saw in our student’s papers and wrote a book covering only those errors. The twist is that Kate is a folklorist and YA author, and I write books about dragons when I’m not writing novels set on alpaca farms. So, the grammar book about commas is populated with fairies, grammar dragons, and unicorns grumpy about the Oxford comma. 

Kate proposed a panel based in creative writing about teaching grammar with our weird of kind humor. Then Kate promptly quit teaching (I’m jealous/proud of her…that’s a different blog post). The upshot is that our proposal was accepted, but now I’m the one who gets to go, because I’m the one who can get a faculty grant to pay for it. 

In about a month, off I go to Tampa, Florida, to talk to teachers of English about teaching grammar to college students who don’t want to learn it. Yeah, I’m freaking out a little. It’s one thing to profess in front of a classroom of college students who know nothing about your topic; it’s another thing to tell a roomful of experts something new. 

I’ll talk about the comma book for sure, but I’m also going to do  show and tell about another project I’m working on: a Choose Your Own Adventure (CYOA) study guide based on the comma book. I’m having groups of students write an adventure based on their assigned chapter of the comma book based in a world that mimics the one in the Comma book…that is, lots of grumpy grammar dragons and the like. 

I could go into all the relevant narrative/exposition/learning jargon here, but I won’t; you can hear it at the conference or in the slides I’ll post later. I also hope to have a working “study guide” via Google Forms to share with the panel attendees. 

One restriction is that I only have 12-15 minutes to talk about all this. That’s about three slides, if I’m doing it right. That’s not a lot of time. It’s also an eternity. 

If you are at CCCC in Tampa this year, be sure to come to my presentation. It’s during the last session on Saturday (M.05), just before lunch, so bring an apple or a really crinkly bag of chips. If you have your grammar dragon already, bring it along and I’ll sign it if we can hold him down long enough. If not, I’ll sign a book for you.