Review: The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern

The Night Circus UK

Everything in this book was a complete delight. Erin Morgenstern‘s writing was intensely visual and theatrical. The details were rich, overwhelmingly real yet represented something otherworldly and unattainable. I can’t say that I have ever read a book that made me feel quite like this. While I was always excited and happy to pick it up, I was never in a hurry, never turning the pages so fast they gave me paper cuts. Instead, I savored this book. I re-read paragraphs describing the different tents at the circus. The clockwork, the tarot cards, the dresses with magical color-changing silks. It was like floating in a river with a steady current. The water is the exact temperature of the air, so there is no barrier between the two. You just close your eyes and let go.

Even though there were many interesting, flamboyant and fantastical characters, it seemed to be a piece not about people, but about the magic and knowledge that was constantly flowing around those people. Because of the multiple points of view, the constant in the book was always the circus. It followed that, as the pages flipped by, the circus became a character unto itself. It wasn’t just a theatrical and sensory-filled backdrop to the drama, but it became drama itself. A thing will pull and desire and manipulation. It became a person.

At first, because of the constant switching between characters as well as the jumps between past and present, I didn’t feel as invested in the characters, but as the book went on, I began to see the web which the author was creating. The presence of the circus began tying together characters who had never met, or just barely. So, in the end, the book wasn’t so much about the character’s desires, but about how the circus influenced them and was influenced itself. This is a really cool thing to do in a book, and the author excels at creating the nuances of the circus, of making it unique, through careful details, expert plotting and luminous descriptions of everything from candlelight to rain to the color of someone’s eyes.

I’m glad I own it so I can read it again and again and again.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

In Defense of YA

By Meg Cook

I know a lot of people have been chiming in, on blogs and in comment sections, on the topic of young adult literature in reaction to this Slate article written by Ruth Graham. In the article, Graham argues that while young adult books might be good, they shouldn’t be read by adults.

Are we really still having this discussion?

One of the first comments that irked me was this:

Let’s set aside the transparently trashy stuff like Divergent and Twilight, which no one defends as serious literature. I’m talking about the genre the publishing industry calls ‘realistic fiction.

Okay. Let’s break this down. She is writing an article about YA, but only certain kinds of YA, only the “best” kinds of YA, which is somehow only realistic fiction. After this paragraph, I feel like the title of her piece cannot be true because she is only discussing one genre within YA. Not only that, she alludes to the idea that everything else is trashy, but only gives two (very popular and very well-known) series. It seems like she is reducing all of YA science fiction to one book (Divergent) and all of fantasy to another (Twilight). There is no room for the host of sub-genres that have erupted in the YA genre and it is implied that anything but realistic fiction in the YA world, isn’t worth anyone’s time, not even the young adults.

I, like a lot of other twenty-somethings I know, enjoy reading a spread of books in various genres and forms: young adult, science fiction, fantasy, literary, historical ficiton, mysteries, biography, memoir, non-fiction … the list goes on. I believe that exposing oneself to a variety of books

I also believe that whatever genre of book, as a writer, it’s important to be aware of tropes of your genre and identify which of those tropes you might want to challenge. A clear example of this is in fantasy where much of the post-Tolkien fantasy novels where heavily inspired by Middle Earth. When an author chooses to break that mold, she expands the horizons not only of that genre but novels and writing at large.

But this isn’t an issue that resides only in the world of genre fiction. As writers, we are influenced by what we read and what we believe makes for good writing. As a result, there is a lot of copy catting (some good, some not so good). Literary fiction can fall into similar traps. For every fantasy book I’ve read that is all about wizards and elves and unlikely heroes, there is a literary fiction book is about some divorced or unhappily married middle-aged dude screwing around with a younger girl and drinking boatloads of wine. It doesn’t mean writing about any of these characters is wrong, it simply means that all of literature, across the board, is imperfect. There are incredible YA books and there are YA books that aren’t so incredible. Same with literary fiction. Same with mysteries. Same with science fiction.

But I digress. The second comment in Graham’s article that gave me pause was this:

 Most importantly, these books consistently indulge in the kind of endings that teenagers want to see, but which adult readers ought to reject as far too simple. YA endings are uniformly satisfying, whether that satisfaction comes through weeping or cheering. These endings are emblematic of the fact that the emotional and moral ambiguity of adult fiction—of the real world—is nowhere in evidence in YA fiction. These endings are for readers who prefer things to be wrapped up neatly, our heroes married or dead or happily grasping hands, looking to the future. But wanting endings like this is no more ambitious than only wanting to read books with “likable” protagonists.

I had a lot of thoughts when I read this. The first one (and one that I’ve seen echoed around blogs and tumblr) was who cares? People prefer different types of books with different types of literature. I’ll read whatever the heck I want to! But more than that, just because a book has more closure than another doesn’t make it more “simplistic”. Stories need endings. They don’t all have to be happy, but I like knowing where my main character stands at the end of the book with maybe a little bit of the unknown creeping in. It’s a balancing act between the two.

I also feel like I’ve read multiple YA books with endings that did not wrap up neatly as well as adult fiction that did.

Overall, I believe there is room for growth in young adult fiction. But I also believe there has been incredible growth thus far. I read YA because good writing is happening there and because YA is doing things that I wasn’t finding other places.

More that those reasons, I believe that writing about teenagers is important, hard work. Articles like this, while seemingly directed towards adults reading teen books, is also putting down the YA books at large.

It becomes clear, as the article progresses, that Graham and I approach reading extremely differently. She mentions that while she looked certain books as a youth, she has no desire to got back and read any YA books as an adult.

But experience couldn’t be more differnt. From listening to Jim Dale’s narration of Harry Potter for seventeen times in a row to re-reading old favorites like Tamora Pierce, picking up books from my teen years has been incredibly valuable to me as an adult. Good books are timeless, and multiple reads will elicit new meanings and viewpoints I didn’t see as a kid. These books didn’t just shape who I was then, they have trickled into my life as an adult. Even the ones I haven’t dusted off since I was in high school or younger. They continue to influence me, and I continue to be fascinated by books written for children and young adults.

When stuff like this comes up, I think a lot about one a quote from one of my favorite authors: C.S. Lewis. He said:

A children’s story that can only be enjoyed by children is not a good children’s story in the slightest.

I love this quote because it acknowledges that children’s books, like all good literature, have something important to say. From picture books to adventure middle grade novels to plot heavy thrillers, books have messages. And these messages apply to anyone who wants to listen.

Posted in Meg Cook | Leave a comment

Review: Cinder by Marissa Meyer

Meyer - Cinder

I tore through the pages of Cinder by Marissa Meyer. And for good reason. Cinder follows the titular character, a cyborg living in a futuristic Asia put to work by her legal guardian and ignored by most everyone else. But once the Prince comes into her shop, she is thrust into the world of the royal court where she slowly learns more about the deadly plague, the Lunar Queen and her own mysterious past. This retelling of Cinderella leaves behind the docile Disney version you might have knocking around in your head and introduces a fascinating world with aspects both beautiful and terrible.

The more I read and think about the genre of science fiction, the more I am impressed by its ability to form questions about the world and human race through imagining the future. Fairytales strive for a similar goal. In my personal research for my own novel, I have been reading many fairytales, folktales as well as commentary on their meanings. Fairytales are a reflection of society and/or community in the form of simplified metaphor. Myth is a way to deal with reality. This, I believe, is why many fairytales and myths are very dark, gruesome and deal with themes of grief, death and transformation. These dark themes are central to our lives, but we may not always have an outlet to deal with them. Storytelling makes that a possibility.

Science fiction deals with darkness as well, especially when we get into themes of the apocalypse and dystopia. Cinder’s world, though physically and technologically changed from our own, deals with issues of human rights, disease and war. The fairytale Cinderella is one of personal transformation. Science fiction offers a transformation on a greater scale, the transformation of our society into something new yet oddly familiar. It’s a way for us as a society to deal with the darkness and potential future of our world.

These two genres together have the potential to create something extraordinarily timeless. And I think Marissa Meyer begins to tap into that lofty goal with Cinder.

The character Cinder, unlike the docile Disney version, is sharp, a master mechanic, a good friend despite being systematically mistreated by her legal guardian and extremely practical and level-headed. One of my favorite aspects of Cinder’s character is how she accepts her grunginess out of practicality and is honest about her her self-consciousness at both her grime and her cyborg parts. A lot of her thoughts center on how she is an outsider because of the way she appears to others and that concept is a central one, to both Cinderella and in real life.

The plot of Cinder flows smoothly from this first characterization. Without giving to much away, the book takes the basic plot of Cinderella and adds the desperation of a worldwide plague, the threat of interstellar war, systematic discrimination and political intrigue to the backdrop of what is traditionally a story about a girl who literally brushes dirt from her skirts to become a princess. All these things are tethered to Cinder, who, as a cyborg, is maligned by society and treated as an outcast in her own home. Meyer also draws interesting and unique comparisons to the original tale through an orange car, an android named Iko who takes the place of mice and birds and an ambitious scientist with questionable morals who becomes a stand-in for her fairy godmother.

Cinder is more then a fast-paced fairytale retelling. It quickly evolves into a young girl’s painful transformation from somebody who nobody cares about to a girl with power and danger on her heels. Through all of this, she doesn’t loose her pragmatic sense of self and her deep love for the small circle of people (and robots!) who she calls friends. She is one of those characters I never want to stop reading.

Posted in Meg Cook, Reviews | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Catching Fire Film Review


By Meg Cook

Okay, so I know this is ridiculously late, but I wanted to post it anyway. For those of you who haven’t read/watched Catching Fire, SPOILER ALERT! Stop reading this review and go read Catching Fire immediately!

I don’t usually write movie reviews. In fact, I think the only movie review I have ever written was on the first Hunger Games movie. Re-reading that review after watching Catching Fire for the first time this past November compelled me to write something on this second movie. I don’t know much about film, despite having gone to a major film school, but I love movies and I consider myself an amateur Hunger Games expert, so … here it goes:

I loved the first Hunger Games movie, but I think Catching Fire raised the stakes in both the acting, the direction and being incredibly faithful to the book. I am still sort of in shock on this last point. I felt both the spirit and the events are both very close to the original text.

Catching Fire opens with Katniss hunting, but her memories of the games, specifically of killing Marvel, keep leaking into her ordinary life. I love how our first image of Katniss is of her from the back. She is crouched and poised to shoot some sort of woodland prey. Even though we cannot see her face, we can feel the tension in her body, the worry and the leftover lurking feelings that the games have instilled in her. They actually flash to her shooting Marvel, and I think this was really well done — a great way to introduce the audience to the very dark emotional turmoil of Katniss’s mental state post-hunger games, which is also the tone of the entire movie. The only thing that changes? The stakes get higher and the dangerous twists and turns begin to consume Katniss’s life to an unavoidable and unbearable degree.

I love the new characters. I have to admit, I was unsure about Sam Claflin as Finnick, but man, he was spectacular. He swung between being to the self-possessed lover boy of the Capital to an intensely emotional young man in love effortlessly. I thought his performance was fantastic. Mags was exactly how I pictured her and their goodbye and all their interactions were beautiful to watch. My favorite new character, however, was the fierce, brutal and self-possessed Johanna, played by actress Jena Malone. One of the few lighthearted moments (okay, maybe the only lighthearted moment) of the entire film was the elevator scene where she strips down to the nude just to make Katniss uncomfortable. I laughed out loud. Everyone’s expressions in that scene were spot on.

I also deeply enjoyed Plutarch, played by the late Phillip Seymour Hoffman. He is a perfect Plutarch, not letting Katniss see his true motives and playing President Snow with a cool demeanor and confident moves. He is calculating, a white knight, but with an agenda that controls Katniss’s life. As a side note, I feel like Plutarch is one of the most interesting and complex characters in the books. Hoffman brought this complexity and ambiguity to the role. It is a sad thing to have lost him.

Lenny Kravitz, who I loved in the first movie, impressed me again in the second. Cinna is such a grounding character, to both Katniss and the reader/viewer, and I think Kravitz does a great job of this in both films. Knowing his final scene was coming, I started to preemptively cry. It was one of the most painful moments of the film, and they mastered the transition from the terror of Cinna being taken away to the bright, oppressive world of the arena where Katniss immediately enters survival mode.

And then there is Katniss herself, played by the incomparable Jennifer Lawrence. Lawrence brings such intensity to the role. I love watching her because I’m not sure I have ever seen such a true and successful portrayal of a beloved book character on the silver screen before. Quite simply, she nails it. She takes Katniss’s character to the next level, just as Suzanne Collins does in the book version. She is emotionally scarred, reaching for Peeta for comfort as she accepts her fate in the Quarter Quell. Her revelation at the end is heart wrenching to watch, especially when you know what’s coming next.

In terms of how the world looked, I thought the arena was great. It was very close to how I pictured it in the book, and it was exciting when Katniss put the pieces to together and realized it was a clock. I do feel like the revelation in the book was more exciting. However, that might be because I didn’t know what was coming.

I really only had one complaint. And I’m not sure if it’s a complaint or just confusion: In the book, Peeta’s announcement that Katniss is pregnant is a BIG DEAL. I figured it would take up more screen time in the movie. In the movie, this plot twist had a different effect that it did in the book. The pregnancy stunt, which gave me solid hope for their survival in the book, was portrayed as a sad, desperate attempt to try and help the already doomed situation of the Quarter Quell.

Overall, a complete and utter success of a film adaptation. It’s such a rare gift to have these movies as companions to the books. The tone was dark, the pacing was perfect, easing between fast and slow and then breath-holding suspense right up to the revelatory end. It’s a hard movie to watch, but worth the emotional turmoil for the stupendous acting performances, the perfectly imagined arena and the darkness of where Katniss’s life is leading her.

I await Mockingjay Part One with bated breath.

Posted in Meg Cook, Reviews | Tagged , , , , , , | 2 Comments

John Green, Gateway Author

By Meg Cook

Don’t get me wrong. I am one of John Green’s biggest fans. The one thing that almost everyone I talk to, when I mention YA, asks me: Have you read The Fault in Our Stars?

The answer, YES, of COURSE, I laughed and cried and shook my fist at the sky as I turned the pages. I got my book signed in a three hour long line and went to see John Green dance around on stage with the Mountain Goats. I have read the entire John Green library, down to Will Grayson Will Grayson and Let it Snow.

Suffice it to say, I am a fan.

But have YOU read Perks of Being A Wallflower? The Miseduacation of Cameron Post? Anything by Courtney Summers, Melina Machetta or Nova Ren Suma?

We need to spread the love. There are a lot of YA writers out there writing some fantastic realistic fiction, and it needs to be recognized. John Green is a wonderful writer. I nearly died when I met him on the TFIOS tour last year (really, I don’t think I breathed the entire time except to whisper my name). But I’ve noticed something funny in the Barnes & Noble YA section (which I stalk religiously everywhere I go): a whole selection of books like The Fault in Our Stars. I feel like this might be for the benefit of the adult drifting into the YA section who doesn’t want to go sniffing around all the fantasy series and books with bicycles and pink hearts on the covers.

I have no such reservations.

Then my friend read The Fault in Our Stars and asked me for recommendations like it. I realized that John Green’s popularity is good thing, making more readers more curious about YA and what it has to offer. I got a little carried away with the list. And then I thought, wow, these are some really good and really important books that adults and young adults should be reading. I should do something with this.

Here’s the result.

Realistic YA Fiction:

Miseducation of Cameron Post

The Miseducation of Cameron Post by Emily M. Danforth

Teenage girl living in the middle of nowhere Montana who realizes she likes girls the night of a horrible accident. Everyone should read this book.

Cameron Post is one of those protagonists that you feel like you could read about her entire life and never get bored and never want to do anything else. She is that captivating. But alas, all novels must end.

Jellicoe Rd

On the Jellicoe Road by Melina Marchetta

Winner of the Printz award. I read this book the summer I was in Montreal and decided to read all the Printz winners (an as of yet, uncompleted goal). But seriously, there are some killer titles on that list, and it’s a good thing to check out.

Marchetta is a kickass Australian YA author who writes incredible, flawed and strong female characters. I first read her when I was in high school; my Mom and I listened to the audiobook version of Looking for Alibrandi in the car during frequent hour long road trips to my Grandma’s house. I would recommend that book as well, but On the Jellicoe Road has a level of complexity that is truly mind-blowing. Boarding schools, mysterious pasts, romance with a bad boy all tied together with incredible prose.

Teenage girl (14-16) lying on bleacher

Cracked Up to Be by Courtney Summers

I talk all the time about how Courtney Summers is one of the most underrated contemporary YA authors around. I discovered her the summer I was in Montreal (she’s Canadian) (also, I should note, I had no job the summer I was in Montreal, and therefore read quite a lot of YA fiction as “research” for my own writing). I flew through Cracked Up to Be. I love unlikable characters (blog post forthcoming). Characters who are mean for a reason even if it’s the wrong reason. Characters with their guard up. About a girl who had it all (boyfriend, grades, popularity) and then gives it up for a mysterious reason I will not be revealing.

lola and the boy next door

Lola and the Boy Next Door by Stephanie Perkins

Light, YA romance with a strong emotional story. Very well-written. This writer is SO good at setting and writing emotionally charged scenes. It’s also just adorable. There is a bit of crossover from Anna and the French Kiss (Perkins’ first novel), but it’s stands alone as well. John Green actually recommend Anna and the French Kiss on his vlog.

The Sky Is Everywhere

The Sky is Everywhere by Jandy Nelson

Written by a poet, a story of a girl dealing with grief and her tangled relationships in the aftermath. The imagery in this book is lovely. You can tell by the title alone, which is what drew me to this book in the first place.

Not-so-realistic fiction

I love beautifully crafted novels with hints of the magical. These are some recommendations for folks who might have misgivings about fantasy and magic in their books.

Imaginary Girls

Imaginary Girls by Nova Rum Suma

I would categorize this a magical realism. Amazing, layered setting with compelling, selfish characters. Suma weaves a dream-like world in Imaginary Girls and an intense, but realistic relationship between two sisters abandoned by their alcoholic mother.

The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake

The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake by Aimee Bender

Aimee Bender is one of those writers who just rocks at everything she does. Her short stories are also incredible and, in my opinion, she is the contemporary master of magical realism. This is her second novel and is set in LA and is about a girl who can taste emotions. While not technically YA, the novel spans from childhood to middle adulthood, so it takes the shape of a long con coming of age story.

the scorpio races

The Scorpio Races by Maggie Stiefvater. Reads like a historical fiction. Wonderful headstrong characters. I listened to the audiobook and highly recommend it. I’ve also read her Shiver series, which was excellent, though paranormal romance isn’t for everybody. (And it’s not always for me either, but if you want to read something MUCH BETTER than Twilight, that’s where I would point you).

Folks who know me well know that I love YA fiction, and some of them, for the first time,  have actually been reading it. A lot of adults I know have been picking up TFIOS in particular as well as some series books like The Hunger Games. I cannot even begin to tell everyone how happy this makes me. But I think there is the risk that these books will be “set aside” from the rest of YA. They are literary, unusual and unique. They’ve captured the attention of the masses. They get bigger than YA and acquire adult covers.

I have heard a lot of people say: “I know it’s YA, but it’s really good, trust me.” This type of comment belittles a huge and varied library of literature. These phrases, quite simply, make me sad. There is so much to read in YA and middle grade. Adults shouldn’t feel like they have to justify reading it.

I liken it to when people say a novel like 1984 “transcended” science fiction. Not so fast, folks. Not only does science fiction get Orwell, YA gets TFIOS. When thinking about genre prejudices like this, I often think about one of my favorite quotes of all time, from the great writer Ray Bradbury:

“I have never listened to anyone who criticized my taste in space travel, sideshows or gorillas. When this occurs, I pack up my dinosaurs and leave the room.”

This quote is my mantra. Apart from the excellent image of Bradbury packing up his dinosaurs and departing some sort of literary soiree, it relays exactly how I feel when I meet people who think good writing has to be a certain genre or written by a certain type of person.

I attended a writing program a couple years back where I was workshopping part of my first YA novel (realistic fiction about a sixteen year old girl living in my hometown during the 1990s … current status: packed in a box). After the class, another writer from the workshop approached me and asked: “Why are you limiting yourself to writing YA? You’re so talented.”

Obviously, the person who said this saw it as a compliment to my writing, but to me, it was extremely upsetting. People, writers and readers, simply aren’t able to accept that good writing can happen all over the place. For kids, teenagers, young adults. Part of this is because the young adult genre has expanded exponentially over the last few years. However, with this growth, stereotypes are also sewn. People think Twilight and thrown-together vampire novels. No characterization. But you can’t take one novel, or even a string of novels, and call the whole genre bad.

So, in so many ways, I am thankful for the extreme popularity of TFIOS, personally and professionally. John Green certainly deserves it and the young adult genre certainly deserves to have such a wonderful book representing its writing and writers. But I believe we always run into problems when we let one book represent a whole spectrum of writing, subjects and authors.

Being  both a writer of YA and speculative fiction, I feel the press from both sides of the spectrum.

I think sometimes people are too afraid to give YA the credit it deserves, or are otherwise scared to brave the teen only stacks in Barnes & Noble. But I would advise curious folks to take those small steps towards the shelves, go up to the girl reading cross-legged on the floor, and see what she has to say. You might be surprised by what you find.

Posted in Meg Cook | 1 Comment

Putting the Fantastic in Realism

World building. It’s a term that is generally connected to epic fantasy, sci-fi and dystopian universes. When I say world building, I think about Tolkien slaving over Elvish dictionaries and George R.R. Martin constructing house sigils.

House-Targaryen-a-song-of-ice-and-fire-32439857-565-800Let’s just take a moment to appreciate the awesomeness of Game of Thrones … okay, great. Continue with the article.

But I believe that every writer, no matter how normal their setting is, goes through the process of world building. Creating a convincing world is a necessary part of every type of writing. It is the construct in which the action and your characters are housed. It is more than choosing a setting (I’ve never really liked the word setting – it reminds me of those plywood painted sets from middle school musical theatre).

I like to think of world building as creating the layers that surround your character. It is the awareness that there is a lot going on besides your character’s thoughts. There is a world.

In fantasy, this is thought of more concretely because a world must be constructed from the ground up. The creating is part of the fun, and a lot of times, the world itself is the first thing to emerge during the initial stages of writing. And when you are creating a fantasy world, there is a lot of layering, creating and oftentimes research to be done. In other words, the world building is a substantive concept. It’s like drawing up the blueprints of a house, making sure it’s architecturally sound, that the design is harmonious.

In literary writing, or writing that takes place in the here and now, it is easy o fall into a bit of a slump concerning the world of the book. One might think the world is already created simply because the novel takes place in the present time and in the real world. The trouble is that place and mood can be replaced with a thin setting and the writer focuses on the inner turmoil of the characters, their thoughts, the description of their appearance without ever zooming out to the bigger picture. There is a lot of world building, but it remains within a character’s mind.

Don’t get me wrong. I love me some good inner turmoil and, for the most part, I feel that my main character is what leads me through the story, not the place. But a writer doesn’t simply insert a character into the actual world. A world must be born.

During a panel I attended with Chuck Palahniuk, an audience member asked a question on setting and how Palahniuk goes about writing place. He replied (and I am paraphrasing) that he usually writes his scenes in places that don’t need a lot of description, places every reader can relate to. He used bathrooms as his prime example.


I love this technique and have since tried it out various times. It allows you to focus on action rather than get bogged down with description. A great writing exercise that can transplant you easily into an action-packed scene. But what gets me is how vivid and surreal most of Palahniuk’s writing turns out to be. Take Fight Club for instance (most folks have either read it or seen the movie). This book is set in the world we know and love: there are references to iKea, folks with normal jobs, etc. But the feel and flow of the world he creates is completely unique. The world of Fight Club is not my world, but one that is slightly different than the one I live in. It’s like a door to an alternate universe. Step on through and immerse yourself in the world that has been created for you.

And that’s a big reason why people read: to escape. It is pleasurable to place yourself something new, different. And that doesn’t necessarily mean that it needs to have dragons or spaceships, but it needs to feel both exceedingly familiar and new at the same time.

I think one of my greatest handicaps as a young writer was not putting enough fantasy in my realistic fiction. I would describe a room, but find nothing remarkable in it. I would use the same phrases over again to describe light seeping through curtains. Everything about the scenes I was writing felt mundane. To make a reader feel transported by a piece of literature, a writer first needs to be able to transport herself.

At a reading this past year, short story writer Anthony Doerr (who, in my humble opinion, is a master of putting the fantasy in realism) fielded a question about how he creates his the places in his stories. He has a knack for creating worlds that feel both exotic and vividly familiar. He gave one of the best pieces of advice I have ever heard for writers of any age: take notes.

Everyday, start with observing the details and atmosphere around you: your cat snoring at the end of your bed, the rustle of paper on your desk from an open window, the white noise of traffic or the river moving beneath your feet. We are surrounded by a huge amount of sensory details, and once you start practice the technique of reinventing those details on the page, it will come more naturally to you when you start building world out of thin or air.

We don’t need knights and swords and dragons to have fantasy. Writing is fantasy. Period. Hence the creative in creative writing. Our writing needs a sense of realism, of humanity, to be relatable. But what we often forget is that we need a touch of the fantastic to truly transport our readers.

Here is my recommended reading (writers who can add an element of fantasy to their work):


The Girl in the Flammable Skirt by Aimee Bender

The Shell Collector by Anthony Doerr

Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk

I am a huge fantasy fan as well. I would recommend these titles for phenomenal world building.


Sabriel by Garth Nix

Game of Thrones by George R.R. Martin

The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman

The Mists of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley

Posted in Meg Cook, Reviews | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Crowdsourcing Sexism: Wikipedia, Women, and The Tyranny of Categories


On Wednesday, my twitter feed lit up with links to this op-ed  in the New York Times in which author, Amanda Filipacchi discussed a troubling practice occurring on Wikipedia:

 It appeared that, gradually, over time, the volunteer editors who create the site had begun moving women, one by one, from the “American Novelists” category to the “American Women Novelists” subcategory.

This meant, of course, that as long as women novelists continued to be shuffled off to their subcategory, the “American Novelists” category was populated increasingly, primarily by men. When I read about this I waited to feel that familiar flash of rage, the one that so reliably flares up within me at each encounter with this sort of literary injustice. But it never came.

wikiblogpostBecause I’ve hit my wall- as a writer, a reader, and a bookseller, I’ve now seen so many different examples of this brand of sexism in so many different forms that I’ve ceased to be shocked or scandalized by it. All I can really do is recognize it, talk about it, say, “Yup, here it is again.”

That’s not to say I don’t want to change it- as a woman, a writer, and a feminist I would like nothing more than to see stories by and about women treated with the same gravity as those by our male counterparts. The fact that Wikipedia is crowdsourced tells us just how pervasive this attitude really is. The problem is not with people who judge literary prizes or put together “best-of” lists. Although it’s easy to spot the symptomatic imbalances in these places, the problem runs much deeper than that.

This is how we are educated, how we are socialized to see stories: the male experience is the default, the universal, while women’s stories are just that-women’s stories. We’re a special interest group, a subcategory. Is this really so shocking in light of the fact that many students are raised on a curriculum composed of (straight, white, cisgender) male authors and don’t encounter a wealth of writing by women unless they elect to take specialized classes in college?[1]

Yesterday, Filipacchi posted a follow-up to Wednesday’s 0p-ed. And while there have been changes made to Wikipedia’s American Authors category as a result of her piece, she has also experienced vandalism on her own Wikipedia page, assumedly by disgruntled Wikipedia editors who didn’t like what she had to say.[2]

Because of the focus of the op-ed, this discussion has centered around women. But of course, we all know that this is not only a women’s problem. This happens to women authors as well as authors of color, LGBT authors, and especially to authors at the intersections of these identities.

Categories have their benefits. Often, they can make it a lot easier for people in marginalized groups to find stories by and about others like them. But the problem, as evidenced by the Wikipedia situation is that the act of categorization is often also an act of removal- removal from the canon, from the public eye, from the hands of readers (although more often, these stories are never even afforded access to these places at all.) By shuffling authors off to subcategories, by implying again and again that their writing is not important or universal, we are sending a very powerful, very disturbing message about the value of their stories, the value of their experiences, the value of their voices.

And while it’s vital for readers, especially young people to have access to books about people like them with struggles they directly relate to, it can be just as important to read about people who face struggles they may never personally encounter. Reading can be the road into empathy, the first place where a young person realizes that even those who don’t look or act or live or love exactly like him still share the same basic units of humanity. That’s the true meaning of universality.

When we don’t give kids access to these stories, when we assume that they are relevant only to people in the author’s specific  “category” we’re cheating them and helping to maintain a culture where it’s accepted that the only truly important voices are those with the privilege of remaining uncategorized.

1YA author, Maureen Johnson wrote a great blog post on this subject.

2Again, this is sad but not surprising. The internet gets mad when women point out sexism in beloved institutions, as we recently saw with the violent backlash to Anita Sarkeesian’s project examining sexism in video games.

Posted in Meg Carroll | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Turn On and Be Not Alone: Rock Stars, Writers, and Men Named David

Bowie plaque unveiled

At 17, I was a sad scribbler of overwrought rhyming poetry, a talentless back row chorus girl in the annual spring musical, a closet nerd who compulsively taped reruns of The X-Files off the Scifi Channel. I was pretty sure I’d never know an epic alien-hunting love like Mulder and Scully’s, and I was most certainly going to fail physics for the year. Like so many teenagers, especially those who happen to be only children, and especially those who didn’t always feel safe or stable at home, the private world I  built in my room was what sustained and comforted me throughout my adolescence. That world was built with the soft glow of the TV, with stacks of books and journals strewn everywhere and anywhere except on a shelf, and of course, with music.

In middle school it was all about boy bands and badass divas (your N’Syncs, your JLos, your Mariahs) followed by a fervent and lengthy phase of nothing. but. show-tunes. I could probably still sing you the first 20 minutes of Les Miserables from memory- but don’t worry, I won’t. By the time junior year of high school rolled around, I’d diversified my tastes, partly thanks to my good friend and music guru, Mike.

Mike and I had known each other since elementary school, but it wasn’t until high school that we drifted into the same social circle and connected, often late at night via the internet, with dispatches from our own bedroom encampments sent out over livejournal or aol instant messenger, often around 1:30am when neither of us had even started the lab report due in homeroom the next day. That year, Mike starred as Horton in the drama club’s production of Suessical. He would go on to get a music degree and become (in my opinion) the hottest damn drag queen in all of Pennsylvania.

But at 17, Mike made amazing mix cds: indie rock, freak folk, neo-jazz- I found it all unfamiliar and grating at first, but the more I listened, the more these songs spoke to me and spun my head around, the more they became the anthems of my own private country.

Continue reading

Posted in Meg Carroll | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

The Madness Underneath by Maureen Johnson


Disclaimer 1: Maureen gave me (and everyone who preordered this book) free stickers. I’m not saying this swayed my review, but I am saying that I’ve never openly disliked anything that left me with a pocketful of stickers[1]

 Disclaimer 2: This review contains spoilers for The Name of the Star. I repeat, if you have not yet read book 1 in Maureen Johnson’s Shades of London series, turn back now. You have been warned.

At the beginning of The Madness Underneath, we find our Cheez Whiz-loving heroine, Rory Devereaux sitting across from a calm-faced Scottish therapist trying to run out the clock on her session without a) showing any real emotional vulnerability or b) betraying the fact that she occasionally has conversations with dead people. Because, as it turns out, when you move from the American South to a boarding school in London, develop the ability to see ghosts in an unfortunate dining hall accident, then get stalked and sliced up the middle by a deranged ghost who has spent the better part of the year terrorizing the city with copycat Jack the Ripper murders, therapy may just be the best place for you.

Rory is stuck with her parents in Bristol, far away from her friends at Wexford and unable  to contact The Shades, the group of secret ghost-fighting police who have become her friends and protectors. To further complicate matters, Rory’s near-fatal run-in with a murderous ghost at the end of book 1 has left her with the strange and perplexing power to destroy ghosts with a single touch.

I’ve read a few of Maureen Johnson’s books, and while I’ve enjoyed them all, The Shades of London series has inspired in me a sort of frightening evangelical zeal. These books are so. good. For me, what sets this series apart is the sharp, funny narrative voice. Rory is a heroine brave enough to face down killers yet so hilariously and believably flawed that we can’t help relating to her and rooting for her. Maureen Johnson does a masterful job of balancing comedy and suspense, and each chapter is shot through with funny tangents and diversions, the sort of zany, odd humor that rings very familiar if you follow her on twitter. Especially hilarious were the stories about Rory’s family and neighbors in Louisiana, a cast of characters who fill the second floors of their homes with refrigerators, who start religions out of their garage, who go caroling on Halloween “to fight the devil” and who sometimes dress as Spiderman, climb statues, and chuck bread at passersby.

While this book is about ghosts and boarding school, it is also a book about a young person trying to rebuild a sense of self and return to everyday life after a serious trauma. Maureen Johnson does a subtle, skillful job of portraying a post-trauma Rory. We certainly recognize her as the same character from Book 1, yet she has been changed by what happened to her. She is scarred in ways not even she understands yet. There are the physical changes- the jagged scar up her abdomen, her strange new power to destroy the dead- but we also find her emotionally altered, detached from the realities of school and staring down unscalable walls in each of her relationships.

On a slightly tangential note, I also appreciated that Maureen Johnson, perhaps as a counterpoint to the “deranged” ghosts enacting violence on the living, wrote Stephen as a strong, successful character who is very frank about his mental illness and treatment.

The last few chapters of this book clip along at a dizzying pace then crash to a halt in a truly shattering cliff hanger. I definitely look forward to the next two installments in this series. When can I start offering Maureen Johnson my possessions via twitter in exchange for an ARC of book 3? Soon, I hope.

Follow Maureen Johnson on twitter here for more about her books and an almost constant stream of general strangeness in 140 characters.

1 Just kidding. Sometimes I joke, but my journalistic integrity remains intact. That said, if you have any stickers and you’re looking for someone to take them off your hands, send them to:

Meg Carroll

Tiny Boston Apartment without Living Room

Neighborhood with Too Many Dive Bars, MA

Posted in Meg Carroll, Reviews | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Review of Graceling by Kristen Cashore

Image Having grown-up with the feisty girl-knight in Tamora Pierce’s Song of the Lioness series, I cannot get my fill of sword-wielding, arrow-shooting, karate-chopping girl heroines.

Kristin Cashore’s young adult fantasy novel Graceling delivers, with a determined heroine whose fierceness is both alluring and intimidating. Graceling’s heroine Katsa lives in a land of Seven Kingdoms competing for power. Cashore creates a stunning world, in which each of the Kingdoms breathes its own unique personality. One of the things readers will love about this book is discovering the climates and attitudes of all the different Kingdoms. Each one has distinct and remarkable features; there’s a vastly diverse backdrop of mountains, sea and forest. With Katsa’s journey (because there is, of course, an epic journey), we not only see her inner world develop as she learns and grows, but we are allowed to explore with her the Kingdoms that she is visiting for the first time.

One of the most fascinating concepts of Graceling is the Graces themselves. Not everyone in the Seven Kingdoms is Graced; children are either born normal or born with two different eye colors. The Graces, simply put, are natural abilities enhanced. They could be anything from fighting to swimming to baking. Some are seen as valuable while others are considered less useful. Children could go years before knowing what their Grace is. In Katsa’s case, she discovers her powers at the young age of eight when she accidently kills one of her step-cousins by hitting him in the face with a single blow.

Instead of being banished or killed, Katsa undergoes severe training allowing her to control her deadly combat skills. Unfortunately, her uncle, King Randa, forces her to be an assassin for Middluns, her home kingdom. In retaliation, Katsa forms a secret Council with her friends, a group that attempts to right the wrongs of the bickering kingdoms.

After disobeying King Randa’s orders, Katsa has a choice between banishment and death. She decides to go with her new friend Prince Po and try to uncover the mystery surrounding the peaceful but remote Kingdom of Monsea, separated by a tall mountain pass, where King Leck rules without war or fear.

Oh yeah, it’s also a love story.

Which is predicable in young adult fiction. But this love story has class.

Never before have I seen romance and kick-ass feminism so perfectly woven together with a thrilling suspenseful story set against a vibrant but violent world.

The romance is strong, beautiful and organic. It doesn’t matter that you see it coming from a mile off; Cashore writes it so well that it simply feels like puzzle pieces snapping together.

Of course, there is a twist. From the beginning of their relationship, Katsa’s stance on marriage and children is stern. In the society that she lives in, wives are considered property of their husbands. They are expected to bear children and entertain guests, two things Katsa knows, in her heart, she has no desire to do.

And this really does make for a braver romance. It’s a romance that girls and women of today can relate to much more than instant marriage and happiness. It gives the message that relationships don’t magically fall into place. They are spontaneous, exciting, anxiety-producing partnerships. And to be in love, to be happy, you don’t need to be married.

Young readers and fantasy lovers alike will relate to Katsa’s blunt and straightforward nature. The way she deals with being a strong, fighting girl in a sexist fantasy world is rational and logical. Cashore is able to take subject matter that is a huge concern for teenage girls and allow them to question it in a brand new setting.

All of this is woven so seamlessly within the story that it won’t bang you over the head. The adventure in the story keeps the characters strong. What I liked was that the story seemed predictable in the beginning, and while some plot points happened just the way I expected, others just kept on surprising me, keeping me biting my lip and chewing my fingernails until the very end. Always a good feeling.

I am currently reading the semi-sequel Bitterblue, the tale of Katsa’s princess friend trying to rule a broken kingdom.

You can check out Cashore’s website here.

Posted in Meg Cook, Reviews | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment