Saturday, April 25, 2009

Books That Wow'd Me

Since the Nebula Awards are tonight (kinda like the Oscars for sci fi/fantasy authors), and due to Shorty's question yesterday about studying books, I thought I'd mention some books I've read in the last year or two that really wow'd me. Not only wow'd me as a reader, but as a writer, because they did things that were just spectacularly done.

This list is in no particular order, just how the files saved.

13 Reasons Why
By Jay Asher

What's it About: Clay gets a package in the mail containing a bunch of cassette tapes and a map. The tapes are from Hannah, a girl in his class who just committed suicide. There's a message on the first tapes that roughly says "There are thirteen reasons why I killed myself. If you got this package, you're one of them." Clay spends the rest of the book listening to the tapes, and following the map as Hannah asked, to find out why she died.

Why This Wow'd Me: Amazing premise aside, this book is structured beautifully. Half the story is told in Clay's first person, the other is Hannah's voice on the tapes, also first person (in italics if you can believe it), with comments and reflections from Clay as he listens.

In a less-skilled hand, this could have been a mess, but Asher weaves these two story lines together with perfection. The italics were never hard to read (I give kudos to a smart design team for picking a good font), and helped keep the two first-person narratives separate. But even without that, the voices for both these characters were so strong you wouldn't have mixed them up anyway.

And tension? Whew. This isn't a rock 'em sock 'em story, but once you start, you can't put it down. You feel just as desperate as Clay to know what happened, and more so to know why he's on that tape. Because he seems so nice, and how did this nice kid contribute to Hannah's suicide? You HAVE to know. A great study on how to create tension through information revelation.You get just enough to want to know more every single time.

Ironically, the next one on the list is also a 13:

The Thirteenth Tale
By Diane Setterfield

What it's About: Young Margaret, a biographer and bookworm, is asked to come write the biography of famous author Vida Winter. The catch? Vida has never told the same life story twice. But this time Vida wants to tell the terrible truth.

Why it Wow'd Me: I don't read literary fiction. Nothing against it personally, I just like more stuff to happen and literary tends to be on the slow side for me. I heard about The Thirteenth Tale on Nathan Bransford's blog and it just sounded cool, so I took a chance. This book is a must for any writer who wants to understand tension without action. Suspense without danger. How back story and history can be gripping. (I'll warn you though, it started a little slow for me. Bear with it until Margaret gets to Vida Winter's house. You can't stop after that point)

Like Asher, Setterfield has created a two-sided story. One takes place in the past as Vida tells the real story of her life. Even though the people are all dead and the events all over with, you still feel compelled to know what happened. Then later, Setterfield weaves key details that matter in the present, taking Vida's story to new heights. The present day story is Margret's, as she lives at the Winter estate and does some research of her own on Vida's past, just to make sure Vida is telling the truth this time. Again, details are woven in that link up to the past, and those details and Vida's details combine perfectly toward the end of the book.

Essentially, this is a book where nothing happens, yet it's suspenseful, gripping, and a delight to read. Quiet suspense. Subtle tension. And a great study on how to weave in hints and clues without being obvious, so the reader figures things out exactly when they'll have the most impact.

Life As We Knew It
By: Susan Beth Pfeffer

What it's About: A comet hits the moon, knocking it out of orbit and closer to Earth, with cataclysmic results. Miranda tells the story of her family's struggle to survive, and the fall of civilization, through her journals.

Why it Wow'd Me: Journal stories are tough to do because they often end up feeling told, since your are essentially telling the tale in journal format. But I never felt separated from the action here, and Pfeffer makes Miranda's days feel as immediate as if you were there as they happened.

Miranda also has a wonderful character arc is this tale, and it's a great study on how to take a not the most sympathetic gal and turn her into a character with more heart than she knows what to do with. I won't give away the ending, but Pfeffer creates a situation where Miranda might live or die and the reader is okay with either one. Yes, you heard me. Miranda's emotional growth is so beautifully done, that her actions are rewarding whether she lives or dies. How many authors could pull that off? Not many.

It's also a wonderful study of creating conflict that doesn't involve characters being pissed at each other. Emotions run high, but the conflict comes from love, not anger, and that makes it all the more gut wrenching. If you want to know how to put your characters in impossible situations that make the reader cringe because there is no right or wrong way out of it, this is the book to read.

Skin Hunger
By: Kathleen Duey

What it's About: This is another two-sided tale. Sadima is a girl living in a world where magic had faded and charlatans prey on the poor. She's has magical gifts, and she leaves her home to help a man trying to restore magic to the land. (There's so much more but it's hard to say without giving anything away). Hahp is a young boy sent away by his family to study magic in a place where not every student survives. In fact, only one in ten does.

Why it Wow'd Me: These two stores take place centuries apart, yet the stories are linked. Sadima's side is told in third person, while Hahp's is first person. At first, these stories read like separate stories and could even been in different books, but then suddenly the connections start appearing and you see how these tales are intertwined.

I'll confess I found Hahp's story more compelling in this first book, because the situation Duey puts him in is just terrible (in a wonderful author way). Like Pfeffer, Duey creates one cringe-worthy situation after another and your heart goes out to these boys. But what's she developing with Sadima makes me think the next book is going to flip, and Sadima will be the one I'm cringing over. It's the quieter plot, but it's building to a bigger punch I bet.

For anyone working on stories that cover centuries, or stories that follow their own paths for a while and then converge, this is a book to study. Duey gives each side enough alone time to develop the independent paths, then links them just as you start wondering why these two stories are in one book. She's not afraid to dole out the secrets in bites, and the intrigue is all the sweeter for that.

Spanking Shakespeare
By: Jake Wizner

What it's About: Shakespeare hates his name, especially since he's a writer trying to get a coveted award for his senior memoir in a special creative writing project. He's also trying very hard to get laid, or at least get a prom date.

Why it Wow'd Me: Wizner mixes the lewd humor with the raw emotion of Shakespeare, which keeps this being continually intelligent humor when it could have easily fallen into crassness. The voice is fantastic, and Shakespeare's home life is so messed up you feel for this kid and will forgive him for almost anything. Which lets him push things more than a less nuanced character could.

Like Pfeffer's and Asher's books, this is told is two forms, one being the first person account of his senior year, the other essays from his memoir about his life and family. These essay's are both hysterical and heartbreaking, giving you insight into Shakespeare that makes you realize this is one complex kid. It's a great study of how external actions might reveal one side, but internal ones reveal a very different side to a character. It's also a brilliant mix of humor and heartache that shows how you can discuss dark topics and still keep a light tone.

And then, there's Shakespeare, a character so brilliantly drawn you don't notice the skill in which he's written. There are levels to him that rise and fall as his emotions do, yet underneath the flippant is a deep guy with a good heart. He might have some superficial goals, but when adversity crosses his path, he doesn't shy away from it. A wonderful mix of flaws and virtues that shows what you can do with a character who isn't perfect.

I debated putting The Everafter on this list, but I just talked about that and didn't want to duplicate. But if you haven't read the post, check here for a great book to study on how to create a non-chronological plot line that both intrigues and compels you.


  1. Janice, thanks for the great book recommendations! I loved 13 Reasons Why and am excited to look into the rest of them! It's funny, I've read the book you talked about in response to my comment on your other post, Reading for Writers by Francine Prose. It's a great read and I really enjoyed hearing what you look for as well. Thanks!

  2. I've got SPANKING SHAKESPEARE on my shelf to be read right now. I'm glad you really liked it. I also love THIRTEEN REASONS WHY. I keep giving it to students of mine who are equally impressed. I'll have to add SKIN HUNGER to my reading list. Thanks!

  3. Anytime Shorty. Least I can do since you keep giving me great post ideas :)

    Amy, the sequel to SKIN HUNTER comes out in, um...this year, I think in a few months. I saw it and got all excited, but I don't remember the exact date.

  4. The sequel to Skin Hunger comes out on August 4th, 2009 - it's called Sacred Scars.

  5. Already on my wish list :) But thanks for the head's up! I can't wait to read it.