Life stuff continued (great news!)

Today I want to share some exciting news and then fire off some quickie book reviews. Here we go.

pikachu
I’m now working full-time as a community and social media manager for Classcraft, a really cool browser-based role-playing game that teachers and students play together. It’s not game-based learning (eg., Minecraft) but rather gamification, which is when you take game mechanics and principles and apply them to non-game settings (in this case, middle and high school). Students choose whether they want to be a mage, warrior, or healer, and teachers reward them for positive behavior and punish them for negative behavior. Kids also learn fun powers that help them work together as a team to win. So anything that’s happening in the game is corresponding directly with their performance and grades in class.

This all happened super fast. The team’s founder, Shawn Young, encouraged me to apply for the position after I interviewed him for an article (here’s the piece on Fast Co). I still work from home, make my own hours, and get all the other perks of being a freelancer, but it’s full-time and pays well enough that I was able to drop a lot of gigs. I’m still keeping some because I love writing about video games, but this is a nice change of pace for me, and I’m excited to see how it goes.

What do you think? If you have any tips for me or want to ask me questions about Classcraft — anything at all (maybe you know some teachers who might be interested?) — go right ahead. :)

And in other good news, I don’t have to relocate to Philadelphia as previously thought, so my boyfriend and our cats and I are pretty happy about that.

On to the book reviews! GO, GO, GO!

The Girl Who Would Be King by Kelly Thompson – Probably one of the better superhero novelizations (are there a lot of those?). Original property, so it’s not based on anything. It tells the origins of a superhero and a super villain who are connected through their mothers and a long line of superpowered women. It’s good, but a little cliche/predictable at times, so I wasn’t huge on this. Awesome ending, though.

Will You Please Be Quiet, Please? by Raymond Carver – These are all life stories about ordinary people. Great but depressing? That’s Carver. Perfect if you don’t feel like getting invested in any one story more than 15 pages long.

I RETURN — WHOOSH!

OK, I am still alive, no need to panic!

I realize I haven’t posted in like two months, and that’s pretty sucky of me. To be honest, I haven’t been in the biggest mood to blog, and I don’t think I need to be preachy about it. We all get tired of blogging sometimes, and I’ve been productive in other ways.

BUT I STILL LOVE YOU ALL. (To prove it, cute cat pics ahead!)

As you probably know, I’m a writer by day, so I work on lots of articles (both online and print — exciting!) all the time. You can always check up on the things I’m churning out here. And for fear of spoiling my progress with this, I’ve actually been chipping away at the old novel, which feels … so old by now.

Surprising no one, in my absence I’ve gotten behind on book reviews. By now, it’s so late that I probably have forgotten everything I wanted to say about them, so I may or may not do reviews. But the books I’ve read include two Raymond Carver short story collections and The Girl Who Would Be King. Maybe I’ll do a roundup or something. Would that be cool?

I’ve also been playing (and dammit, COMPLETING) lots of video games in my spare time, which is kind of my job, but I don’t always get to do it without writing involved. Things are going super well right now. Some good prospects are lining up. And I’m doing something really, really fun and secret (for now) with three other girls, and I CAN’T WAIT to see it published.

Life news: I may be moving to Philadelphia, which is kind of no fun. My boyfriend and I don’t want to leave Pittsburgh, but, alas — school stuff. I can go anywhere with my work, but we have two cats now* and everybody we know is here, so we’re keeping our fingers crossed that we can stay put.

Sammy and Merlin 1

This actually was a thing that happened.

Uh, other than that, I finished Breaking Bad, which makes me incredibly sad only because it’s the Best Show Ever Made, and Nothing Will Ever Be As Good Again (sighs).

I’m still on my quest to become the Ultimate Cooking Master, which this winter has involved making the hell out of some awesome chilis and soups and using my crock pot more and trying not to make everything with chicken, because god I eat a lot of chicken, and I should probably diversify.

I am stupidly busy this month, and that’s always my fault (more assignments = more money, yay!), but I will share a couple cool links:

There’s a new app that will let you read novels in under 90 minutes thanks to wearable technology. THE FUTURE IS NOW.

Don’t panic: You can play The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. It’s 30 years old and new again. GO!

So what’s going on in the book/writing world that I should know about? What adventures have you gotten into? Deets, please!

Sammy and Merlin 2

Sammy (left) and Merlin (right).

*Our newest kitty, Sammy, only has three feet. He was born that way, ALL RIGHT?!

Love bites and growls and howls at the moon: a review of Sharp Teeth

We are all china barely mended,
clumsily glued together
just waiting
for the hot water and lemon
to seep through our seams.

Sharp TeethI’ve never been the biggest fan of poetry. I think it’s beautiful, but I’m not a big reader of it, and I don’t write it. Sharp Teeth is that wonderful exception.

Written in free verse, Toby Barlow’s debut novel combines the mysteries, passion, and eloquence of poetry with the accessible storytelling of prose. The Wall Street Journal likened it to “Romeo and Juliet, werewolf-style,” which is partly accurate. The different lycanthrope packs of Los Angeles are like the familial houses that rule the city, the members brothers and sisters, bound by the magic in their blood and the secrets of their transformation. Between them are a pair of unlikely, star-crossed lovers: the dogcatcher and the wolf. Only he doesn’t know what she is, and that ignorance rubs against her bottled-up knowledge and heats the friction between them.

There’s tragedy, like with Romeo and Juliet, though not all is lost. The book is part modern crime drama. A cop named Peabody investigates a murder: the evidence a river of blood and the unmistakable trail of red paw prints that leads him into the heart of gang rivalries that are only human some of the time. An old pack, a wild pack, and a rebel pack. All three with different outlooks on life but one insatiable hunger to own the town, to devour it.

These werewolves don’t change by the cycle of the moon: “That’s as ancient and ignorant as any myth.” Rather:

The blood just quickens with a thought
a discipline develops
so that one can self-ignite
reshaping form, becoming something rather more canine
still conscious, a little hungrier.
It’s a raw muscular power,
a rich sexual energy
and the food tastes a whole lot better.

That’s Sharp Teeth in a nutshell. These people have reasons for turning wolf. They were recruited because of their strength and loneliness, the sense that the world had wronged them, abandoned them, and now is the time to rip its throat out. That desire turns to blood lust, as primal as the sexual drive that burns with it. Sex and love. Canine and human. Almost one and the same, and the beauty is how they flirt and intermingle, that violence and passion spilling out like guts on the page.

It’s a dog’s world. Barlow ponders the tameness of man’s best friend as much as he does the wolves those mutts might be as they wait and watch with knowing, human eyes. Blending in as regular dogs is how these packs stalk the town, how they get away with murder, how they infiltrate the enemy’s forces and convert and initiate or betray. They operate by animal rules and live by human needs for revenge and companionship and possession. Barlow weaves these two sides together with grace and sadness and a just a lick of happy-ever-after.

You’ll never look at your dog the same way again.

Grade: A

5 tips for reaching your reading goal in 2014

So you vowed to read 20, 30, 100 books this year. Awesome! Go you! But what if you didn’t meet your goal last year? How can you avoid falling short this time?*

books pileBe practical

If your goal last year was 50 books, don’t aim to read 60 this time. Tally how many you did read and set a reasonable goal. For example, if you read 30 out of the 50 you intended, push yourself to do 40. That’s still a challenge, but it’s much more practical and within reach.

Choose different lengths

Hey, there are no rules about how long a book has to be to qualify in a standard reading challenge. I saw someone on Goodreads who set the bar at 100 and read 99. Ninety-nine. Why on earth that person didn’t sneak in one more novella or graphic novel is beyond me.

Read whenever you can

Reading even a few pages at odd times during the day is better than not reading at all because you’re busy. Believe me: You can sneak in a few minutes here and there — at lunch, on the bus, while you’re making dinner, in the waiting room, whenever.

I like to squeeze in some reading before bed. Since bed is a “no work” zone, I can forget the stress of my responsibilities and obligations and focus on the book in my hands — and usually that means I get sucked in. What I plan as five minutes turns into an hour (or two).

I would also suggest putting down the remote and backing slowly away from the TV.

Stuck? Move on

Feel like you’ve been reading that one book forever? Do yourself a favor and let it go. It’s bogging you down and preventing you from reaching your goal for the week/month/year. And it’s not worth it. The more bored you get with the book, the more it becomes a chore to read and the more likely you are never to finish it at all. Don’t be stubborn. Drop it for something you will enjoy — at that point, probably anything else will strike you as a thousand times more interesting.

Mix it up

Avoid getting cemented in one genre. Vary what you read! If all you read is a hundred fantasy books in a row, there’s a good chance you’ll sigh over starting each one (unless you really, really love fantasy — and in that case, knock yourself out). But dabbling in different genres can make each book you read seem fresh, which is an important part of staying excited and motivated.

What are your tips for reading success in 2014?

*As a disclaimer, I didn’t make my goal last year, which is why I’m determined to change that. These tips have all been gleamed from the mistakes I’ve made, so they’re bound to be helpful to you, too.

In The Hunger Games, Peeta is Katniss’s ‘movie girlfriend’

Peeta Hunger GamesMy friend dug up an NPR article from back in November about how The Hunger Games movies are smart and valuable not just because Katniss’s character challenges the way we portray women in film but also because they ask us to rethink how we represent the opposite gender.

As a girl, Katniss is physically capable, so she doesn’t need rescuing as a damsel, and she’s not helpless. But she’s also emotionally insensitive and unavailable, which isn’t a feminine trait according to what Hollywood and society teach us.

Peeta works in a bakery while Katniss hunts and is the obviously more formidable player in the Games. She saves him with physical strength and prowess while he saves her through goodness and kindness and sacrifice. Their relationship is a reversal of gender roles:

She kisses him sometimes, but she keeps him on a need-to-know basis, and she decides what he needs to know.

He loves her as she is, while knowing he’ll never change her and parts of her will always be mysterious and out of reach.

And Katniss’s choice between Peeta and Gale, the NPR writer argues, is essentially a decision between a movie girlfriend and a movie boyfriend:

Gale works in the mines, not in a bakery. He’s a hunter. He grabs her and kisses her because he simply must. He’s taller. (Real talk: HE’S THOR’S BROTHER.)There’s more to the unusual gender dynamics in these stories, in other words — particularly, I think, in the films — than the idea of a girl who fights. There’s also a rather delightful mishing and mashing of the ideas of what’s expected from young men in movies where everybody is running around shooting and bleeding.

Of course, referring to these characters as “movie boyfriend” and “movie girlfriend” sort of misses the point because the argument is that gender can mean anything, not just what we as a society say it does. But these terms do their job in helping the message hit home, and the whole idea is something I didn’t quite realize this fully until now.

Be brave: a review of Divergent

Somewhere inside me is a merciful, forgiving person. Somewhere there is a girl who tries to understand what people are going through, who accepts that people do evil things and that desperation leads them to darker places than they ever imagined. …

But if I saw her, I wouldn’t recognize her.

DivergentI didn’t enjoy Divergent as much as I thought I would. I don’t even like the main character, Beatrice, all that much. But I do like how author Veronica Roth plays around with themes such as bravery, cowardice, and honesty.

Divergent splits its world into factions and forces everyone, at a young age, to choose which one they want to spend the rest of their lives a part of. That sometimes means joining a completely different group of people and never seeing your family again because you’re supposed to obey the mantra “faction before blood.” It sucks.

Beatrice grew up in Abnegation (which means “self-denial”), a faction that teaches selflessness above all else. But the problem with the factions, which were created to prevent war and violence by adhering to a set of ideals, is that if you commit yourself to the qualities that you think would guard against those things, you end up leading an extremist lifestyle. Most of us find it OK to be selfish sometimes, or dishonest, or reckless, or smart, but no one in Divergent gets that luxury.

That’s why people change factions — a chance at freedom, at identity. But those words don’t mean much when you’re simply trading one rigid way of life for another. It’s a flawed system that leads to a lot of political problems that boil over later in the book.

So Beatrice leaves her faction of total strictness and charity (people call the Abnegation “Stiffs”) and chooses its very opposite: the Dauntless. They’re everything the Abnegation are not supposed to be. But before initiation, even before you choose, you take a test that’s meant to guide you. Beatrice’s results, which are supposed to reveal the faction where she best belongs, are inconclusive. They are wrong. Divergent.

For most of the novel, Beatrice — or “Tris,” as she chooses to be called — has no idea what that means. She just tries her best to survive initiation, which with the Dauntless means jumping onto moving trains and onto rooftops, climbing to ridiculous heights, getting tattoos, showing skin, shooting guns, and fighting. It’s supposed to teach her to be brave, but not everyone has the same idea of what that is. She has to figure that out for herself, and that’s what I loved most about Divergent. The concept of bravery (or any of the other faction ideals) becomes confusing when you’re trying to define it — when you apply it to different situations the same way or try to live by its compass alone. A lot of what bravery means to Tris depends on how she connects to whatever she’s feeling. Brave one moments means a gun in her hand and the next, stepping away, being vulnerable.

That also makes her unlikable in a lot of ways. Tris can be completely selfless when she follows old habits or protects her friends, but inside, she can be petty. She can be angry. Selfish. And it’s hard to admire someone who listens to a fellow initiate sob during the night and ignores him because it disgusts her.

None of us is perfect, though, and maybe Tris’s character is just an honest one. Heroes don’t always have to be good. I’m not sure Tris is. She’s smart and moral, and she feels guilt or pain when others are wronged, but she’s not above committing cruel deeds herself.

Maybe that’s why Divergent gets more interesting later on because for the first half or so, the pace is kind of slow. I wasn’t even sure I cared about any of the characters. It took awhile for me to warm up to or feel convinced by them. And a lot of that had to do with betrayal, friendship, and romance — and most importantly, the thing that makes Tris an outcast from the world: not that she’s Dauntless but that she’s Divergent.

She’s stubborn and a little crazy. When others call her weak or small or a “Stiff,” she fights back. She tries harder. And as much as I don’t know that she’s the best model for anyone to look up to, I do think that’s worth something. We can be anything we want to be in a world where we’re supposed to think and act like everyone else. We can be Divergent; we can be nameless.

Grade: C

Why the new ‘Netflix for books’ is useless to me

tree readingMaybe you heard that Smashwords has partnered with Scribd to deliver a “Netflix for books” service. For $9 a month, you can read as much as you want.

That’s a good price — $9 easily covers one book or 40 — but to me, it’s a useless deal. Here’s why:

I just upgraded to a Kindle Paperwhite because I wanted to experience the comfort of reading on a brightly lit screen and the speed of near-instant flipping between pages, like I get on my iPad. But I also wanted to eliminate the glare of LCD and the distraction of apps, push-notifications, and the Internet.

As wonderful as Scribd sounds (it offers access to more than 40 million books — a giant library for digital reading), you can only use it on web-enabled devices like iOS and Android phones, tablets, and desktop computers. The Kindle Fire and Nook HD support Scribd, but the Paperwhite — or any other e-ink reader — does not.

That’s probably not Scribd’s fault. Amazon can control its content on its own e-readers, for examples, whereas other devices allow for third-party apps (including the Kindle Fire, which is only semi-closed and based on Android’s open platform). That could be a contributing reason.

Regardless, Scribd is still useless to me — for now, anyway. But I’m curious what effect its emergence could have on libraries across the country. As more people convert to e-readers and more of them seek digital books, how many will resort to a single, convenient source like Scribd, which, as long as you maintain an ongoing subscription, enforces no limits on the length of time you can read books (unlike library rentals)? I find that e-book loaning from local libraries can be both complicated and slow. I doubt Scribd would be nearly as grueling.

Does a “Netflix for books” interest you even if you have to read on LCD screens to get it? Do you think it could threaten local libraries?