Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Peas in the Pages: Neal Shusterman's Unwind

Unwind by Neal Shusterman

     This is one of those books that reached me via word of mouth, borrowed from a friend. If I'd seen it on the shelves of the chain-bookstores, the memory didn't stick. But there's no unsticking Unwind from your memory once you've read it. And here's why: To put it plainly... the premise is awesome
     The idea that a child can be unwound -- "retroactively aborted" so not "technically" ending life {the explanation of all that is quite something} -- at any time between the ages of thirteen and eighteen... It was fascinating and horrifying. {Not the only bit of fascinatingly horrifying concepts to crop up in this book, either... *the Clappers, she references with a shiver*}.
The three main characters, Connor, Risa and Lev, all have widely different journeys to take through this book, yet the cause for those journeys is the same: the Unwinding. The characters add greatly to the book's already rich depth. Their stories: as unique and individual as the characters themselves. The plot: weaving, twisting, and downright enthralling. The directions Shusterman takes you are unexpected and breath-caught-in-your-throat exciting. It is, in this voracious reader's opinion, a standout. One that sticks with you long after you've put it down. It's easily one of my favorite and oft-recommended {in the same breath as Hunger Games} books. 
     Next time you're perusing the bookshelves, take notice. Pick it up. Read the first chapter. I dare you to put it down and be able to forget it. 
     {But not actually. Read the whole thing. It's worth it. Besides, you won't be able to put it down}.

     Unwind by Neal Shusterman is a book that took me by surprise. It is a high stakes dystopic adventure that left me wanting to inform everyone I know that they have to read this book. Shusterman paints a picture of a post pro-life and pro-choice society where parents not only abandon unwanted children at birth, but they sign their rights away to children who are troubled or troublesome and tithe their tenth born children as a gesture of faith. Published in 2007, Unwind remains a fresh voice in the current over-crowded dystopic market. To say it is a favorite young adult book would be understating the point. It is one of my top five favorite books of any genre and of all time. 
     The protagonist Conner is an immediately empathetic character--a runaway set to be unwound by his own parents in this not-so-distant alternate future where, by law, parents may retroactively abort their children between the ages of thirteen and eighteen. Those contracted for unwinding will have their body parts and organs bought and/or distributed. Conner's strong narrative is intertwined with the voices of Risa and Lev, kids from very different circumstances than Conner's own. Risa doesn't exhibit the extraordinary skills required of the perfection-seeking adoptive parent pool at the orphanage. Lev was born to his family with the intent of being unwound as a tithe. Running from the authority, Conner's life intersects with Risa's and Lev's during a highway accident that propels the three of them on an thrilling, page-turning, and thought-provoking adventure. In a stroke of genius by Shusterman (and my favorite element of the book) thier stories are joined by an incredibly effective floating fourth point-of-view that represents the collective--informing, entertaining, allowing the reader to experience unwinding, and resonating far after the last page is turned. 
     I can't stay objective or rave enough about Unwind. And I'm over word count so I'll just say one last thing, read it.

      This will come as no surprise, and if it does then you don't know me very well, but I love to read. I'm not an elitist when it comes to books. I'm a card-toting omnivore. I'm willing to read anything that can grab and hold my attention for more than twenty pages. (Yes, I said twenty pages. If a story hasn't given me some kernel of "Wow, this could be really good" by then, I usually drop it for the next book in line. Sad, but true.) There are books I can remember reading from years ago with the same sort of fondness that one has for cupcakes. You know what I mean, the Warm Fuzzies, the "Oh, yeah. That was good. Wish I could find that again" kind of feeling. 
     But there are few books that stick with me for very long. Most fade over a few days or even months. Only a handful lingers like ghosts in an attic. Books such as Mary Shelley's FRANKENSTEIN, Oscar Wilde's THE PICTURE OF DORIAN GRAY, Elizabeth George Speare's THE WITCH OF BLACKBIRD POND, and most recently, Neal Shusterman's UNWIND.
I'm not going to give you a rundown of UNWIND's plot. That can easily be found on countless sites around the internet. No, I want to tell you why this book has earned a place on my Keeper shelf. (And, by the way, I own two copies of it--one in e-book form, which I read originally, and a hardcover edition for the actual Keeper shelf. Only a handful of books receive this multiple copy honor, but that's a different matter. Moving on...) 
     Aside from the great storytelling, masterful character arcs, and thought-provoking plot, UNWIND has something few books today can claim: resonance. A deep, rich, yet subtle element that draws the reader closer, lulls them with a siren's song, and while they're distracted, it worms its way into their brains and carves out a forever home. Resonance in fiction tears at your heart, makes you rethink your world, makes you identify with each character and every plot shift. Shusterman does that beautifully in UNWIND. 
     When I finished reading--no, devouring the story of Connor, Risa, and Lev, I felt as though I'd been with these teens every step of their journey. I identified with their isolation, their desperation, their desires, their triumphs and sacrifices. Whether I'd personally dealt with similar feelings was irrelevant. Shusterman made me feel theirs and their emotions became mine. 
     This is resonance. 
     This is the indefinable element that every author strives to capture, concentrate, and weave through their stories. 
     This is why I always recommend UNWIND to anyone who asks me "Have you read any good books lately?" Yes, I've read others since reading UNWIND, but none have made a forever home on my Keeper shelf.

     Next week, another joint pea effort. Game Pod: Destruction...er...I mean...Dissection. *grin* What does that mean? You'll have to return next week to see!

     Peas Out.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Guest Pod: Writer Blog - J. G. Walker

Honorary Pea J. G. Walker has the floor. 
Welcome him beloved imaginary readers... open thy arms with Pea Love!

     Being part of a writing group can be a harrowing experience. No matter how seasoned a writer you are, it’s already difficult to put your work out there, whether it’s with people you know or complete strangers, and knowing that you’re likely going to hear things you won’t like doesn’t make it any easier. 
     Sometimes, people can be downright brutal with others’ work. I’m not talking firm, constructive criticism here; you can get used to that, and frankly, as a writer, you need to. No, this is blood and guts, take no prisoners behavior. These folks say nasty, mean things. Whether it’s because they shouldn’t be awake past six p.m., they received one too many rejection slips from The New Yorker, or that they subsist on the tears of distraught critique victims, it’s hard to say. But it hurts. 
     In creative writing programs they call this phenomenon the “shark tank,” and it can make you want to hide your head in a bucket. It’s not quite as bad when it happens in “real world” writing groups, since you can leap from your chair and run for the hills, but it’s still tough. 
     However, despite everything I’ve just written, I will add that taking part in a writing group can also be the best experience of your writing life. It can help you gain new perspective on your work, see it through someone else’s eyes, and give you that most valuable gift of all: honest feedback from people who speak a similar language. Even a bad group can help you, but when you find people you can really relate to, who seem to know your writing as well as you do, then you have it made.
Alexis, Gary, Jeannie and Michelle's cup of coffee
     That was my experience with the Ninja Peas—Jeannie, Michelle, and Alexis. I discovered this was a group of people who not only knew their craft but actually enjoyed it. And when it came time to discuss work, I also found out that each of them came at critiquing from a slightly different angle. One might zero in on plot issues, for example, while another might point out issues with choreography, the physical space of the story. This is one of the best things that can happen, by the way, and if you’re lucky, you can add your own dimension to the mix.    
     We’d all been through writing programs, so that helped, but it also didn’t hurt that we shared eclectic reading and writing interests. Bring up a book or author and chances were good someone else—if not everyone—had read it. Capital L literature, science fiction, mysteries, fantasy, young adult…you get the idea. 
     Then I did something selfish and uncalled for by moving to Colorado. Sure, we still keep up through social media and e-mail, but it’s not the same. I don’t get to hang out with the Peas at Panera, laugh at the jokes, listen to writing conference stories, compare books, and overdose on Dr. Pepper. Well, I suppose I could still do that last one, but what would be the point? People would stare. 
     I predict that one day I’ll be the Pete Best of the Ninja Peas. Sure, they didn’t kick me out like the Beatles did Best. No, I left of my own accord. But I’ve no doubt I’ll one day pick up a newspaper and find out that those three have done something really awesome, like getting a sweet HBO miniseries deal for the novel they co-wrote. 
     Why did I leave? I’ll ask myself. 
     And I’ll tell people that I used to be a Ninja Pea. 
     But you know they won’t believe me. 
     Your own writing group experience can go any of a thousand directions, but there’s no way to find out other than jumping in. Sure, you can sit on the sidelines, watch other people get the critique, but until you actually ante up and put your baby on the table, you’ll never know. 
     And here’s the thing: if you don’t try, there’s no telling what you’ll miss. 
     From a practical standpoint, it will help your writing, which in turn improves your chances of publication. But if you’re one who writes first of all for the sheer joy of creating something new, and you run across a group of people who share that sentiment—or even just one person, for that matter—you can’t afford to let it go. 

J.G. Walker is a writer, editor, and writing coach who lives with his wife in Colorado Springs, Colorado. His fiction and nonfiction have been featured in such publications as Oracle Fine Arts Review, Lullwater Review, and Aoife’s Kiss. Walker is currently trying to create the impression that he is at work on his third novel, Visitation: A Novel of Death and Inconvenience. To find out more, check him out at www.courtstreetliterary.com or www.jgwalker.net 
Next week,  all three Peas will be In The Pages with their first book club book review.  You've been warned!

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Game Pod: Creation - Photo Flash Fiction

This week we have a writing game. From the photo below {thanks to the super-talented & gracious Marcus, aka @architectm on Instagram, for letting us borrow!} each Pea will write a 300 word story. 
{300, M. 300. Actually, for you: 250. That should keep you at 325}. **

    Darby stepped onto the brick road, taking one final look back. The stables beyond the fence were as she’d left them. The scent of horses, hay, and his cologne clung to her flannel shirt, both comforting and torturing. She quelled her tears. He didn’t deserve them. Nor would he care if she shed any.

    The world before her today held too much beauty. It wasn’t fair.

    She’d loved the idea of it--the world he’d built them. Now, with him gone, there was nothing left for her. He’d told her they’d grow old together--raise a family. Instead, he left her with his dream. When he walked away, she found she didn’t want any of it.

    Darby blinked him away in one angry flash. Yet something inside her searched for a reason to stay. It wouldn’t last. Nothing lasted.

    Looking down the hill from where she’d come, she found the view too idyllic. The verdant pasture held too much promise. Rusting gold, the trees were dressed in a beauty that was meant to fade. The scent of decay lingered and would only thicken in the crisp autumn air.

    Illusion stood outside the stable yard nipping at the tall grass--oblivious to all that had changed. For a brief moment Darby felt a pang of guilt. But she’d left everything in order. Illusion would learn to live without her.

    She thought about how she’d caught them. The smudge of lipstick on his collar; the smell of perfume she'd left in their bed. The lies. Darby had been blind. Finding her husband’s and sister’s intertwined naked bodies behind hay bales was simply too cliché.

    She turned, facing the road. No tears--not for them.

    Darby placed the gun barrel to her head and pulled the trigger a third time.

    {294 words, thank you very much!}

The Wall

    All he saw was gray.

    He strode along the path to the field and wondered what it must be like to live in a world of color. Would the sourness of the breeze blowing past the barn instead smell sweet? Would the grass yield to his step instead of crunch beneath his boots? Would the faint sunlight poking through the iron-like clouds burn?

    A lone horse stared at him with dull eyes. He climbed the fence surrounding the field. The clouds shifted and a tree’s shadow darkened his vision, making him shiver. He reached the Wall.

    Rough bricks scraped his fingers and palms as he climbed. His boots slipped and his knees shrieked their bloody misery. He pulled himself over the edge and dropped to the ground.

    Grass soundlessly fell beneath his step. Sweetness drifted on the wind. Sunshine burned his cheeks. He looked to the sky.

    All he saw was gray.

Leap of Faith

     I stare, transfixed by the vivid countryside. Every detail, palpable. The one place They haven't found -- haven't ruined. My escape.

     Ramshackle barns -- benign, welcoming -- peek over trees in autumn bloom. The scent of damp wood. The chill of the wind a promise of winter approaching. Yet the lush, vibrant grass somehow retains summer's warmth. It calls to me.

     I steady my feet on the worn brick ledge, ready to thrust myself into freedom.

     "Come," it whispers. "Sink your feet into my blades."

     I rock backward, my heart in  my throat, as the countryside jerks, sputters. The landscape tears away, revealing a world leached of softness and color, consumed by sticky warmth.

     The sky goes black. Gleaming metal replaces foliage. Soft edges sharpen, razor thin. Hard edges hum, lethal, electrified. The tang of metal, sweat, blood saturates the still, heavy air. If I step off now I'll meet with the bite of the blades -- skin giving way, warm blood gushing, tissue parting, bones splitting...

     I scream.

     The sound morphs into the twitter of a bird, fleeing the fields that are suddenly back in front of me. Everything is once again soft, bright...

     But not safe.

     They found a way in. My mind is Theirs now.

     I slump. How foolish I was to believe -- to hope of escaping the pain. It is a part of me. They made sure of that.

     They're good, letting me get this far, leaving me to teeter on the precipice while They dig ever further -- twisting memories, dredging pain, associating experiences, feelings, memory with something malignant. I'm weak. Malleable. Under Their control...

     Unless I jump.

     I won't survive. Wherever I am, it isn't here, inches from freedom. I see what They let me see. This ledge... it's no gentle drop. I'll freefall. Plunge to my death...

     But it would be freedom, even if painful in the end. The fall would be something, at least.

     With a grating scream of metal the world shifts again -- hot, sharp, dangerous.

     I push off.

     The air flexes. Time drags. I close my eyes and breathe in a life free of pain. Free of Them.

     I hit ground.

     I stumble, but land -- on my feet -- in a virescent field. The pain lingers, faintly. I drop to my knees and look to the peaceful sky, watching the storm clouds recede.
**{This is where I stick my foot in my mouth. Because I'm the only one who went over the allotted word count. 396. Luckily, we stayed under the group total, so thanks for picking up my slack, J & M!}

Having flashed readers with our fiction, one might then ask, what could possibly be in store for readers next week? Guest Pod with honorary pea Gary Walker! It has been assured that he will make words. Those words will undoubtedly be glorious. Until then. Peas out.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

What I read vs What I Write: Alexis's Take

What I Read vs. What I Write

I am about as random as it gets... in pretty much all aspects of my life. In high school I was a golfer, cheerleader, top-of-the-class art student, and the kid who slacked off at school by reading. Yes, reading. Half my peers were surprised when I'd show up dressed for whichever role I was playing that day, and inevitably... Every. Single. Time... someone would say, "I didn't know you were an {insert stereotype here}. I wouldn't have guessed that at all."

So, naturally, I'm also a random - aka varied - reader. My absolute favorite books include, but are NOT limited to {seriously. I can't even fit them all in one picture}: a science-fiction thriller, an 1800's romance classic, a children's fantasy series, a 1950's crime novel, a YA dystopian trilogy, a Shakespearean comedy, a children's science-fiction novel, a high-fantasy trilogy {it's not what you think it is}, a humorous middle-grade-reader mystery series, a psychological horror suspense, and a memoir I was convinced was non-fiction until the very last page.

And I like it that way.

That's the thing about me. I'm open to anything. I have a rule {usually for food, but I think it works for this, too}: I will try anything once. {And if I like it, I latch on like a terrapin}. If a story piques my interest, I'm going to take a chance on it. If M or J says, "This was great. You've gotta read it!" I will. Cover to cover without knowing more about it than what they've told me. It doesn't matter what section of the bookstore it comes from. I trust my friends. They know I won't hesitate to branch out and try something new. All I want is to be entertained by a compelling story. Sure, I have a comfort zone. I read a lot from it. But I take a lot of risks as a reader, too. And more often than not, I'm rewarded.

All I ask from what I read is this: a good story.
I want stories that make me feel something for the characters - whose actions evoke visceral reactions from me. I want to own the merchandise {i.e. time-turner necklace} so that I might for a moment feel as though I held a piece of the world I was lost in between the covers. I want stories that make me tear through the pages like my life hangs in the balance, only to leave me with a gaping hole of loss when I realize the story is over and the world is nothing but a memory... and real life rushes back around me, chaotic and unbalanced and, for a while, somehow lacking in depth or meaning.

Which brings me to why I write.

Nothing {aside from my husband, my family, my friends} has ever affected me so deeply as the written word. Authors - people I don't even know - constantly influencing me, inspiring me, forcing me to think or allowing me to escape... all writers who simply had a story they wanted to share. Authors - writers - are brave. I admire them. They bare their very imagination for the world to see - and voice an opinion about - their deepest thoughts and feelings {disguised as characters and places and plots}. But the greatest thing these authors have done is spread their love of the written word, feed the voracious appetite we have as readers, and create new readers who fell in love with a story and want that feeling again and again. That's what I want. I want to take the stories in my head and share them with the world. I'm willing to face criticism and the inevitable swings of depression and elation we must journey through in the writing process in order to do that. I want readers to be as affected by my stories as I was by the ones I've read. And maybe, just maybe, I'll be good influence enough to turn a few non-readers into bookworms, too.

But this is supposed to be about what I write, not why.

So here's the answer:
I write what I want to read. I write what influences me. I write places in the world I long to see, so that I can experience them before I find the money {and vacation time} to visit them for real. I have an unruly imagination. So I write what doesn't exist so it will come alive in the world I create {like dragonflies the way I pictured them as a child}. *see illustration*

And all of that falls into place best in YA.... where my somewhat innocent disposition can flourish in the same place where almost anything goes, and the only genre distinction is the age of the reader {though let's face it, even this is arbitrary, since more than half the adults I know are hardcore fans of books in YA}. This is where I belong, as a writer; in the section of the bookstore that most closely reflects me: Open to anything. Willing to take risks. And of course - completely, awesomely - random.


Next week, get ready for our first Game Pod {creation mode}: We'll each be writing a mini-story based on an image I've chosen, so you can get a taste of the creative side of our writer minds!

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

What I Read vs What I Write: Jeannie's Take

What Do I Write vs What Do I Read?

As the Resident Evil of the Ninja Pea Pod, I'm sure a lot of you picture my bookshelves crammed with books in the horror and dark fantasy genres. You would be correct. I do enjoy reading the likes of Jonathan Maberry, Brian Keene, Stephen King, Joe Hill, Deborah LeBlanc, and my person favorite, Edgar Allan Poe. There are others as well, but this post isn't about name-dropping. It's about why I write dark fiction and why I choose to read the books I do.

Now I've mentioned that I read books and authors similar to my own writing sensibilities. Yes, I write about dark subjects like murder. I make no secret of the fact that I'm a firm believer in torturing my characters. I've also been known to advocate shooting them when they become unruly, but that's beside the point here. Why do I write this stuff? Because it fascinates me. Why does it fascinate me? Because I'm a pacifist at heart and the thought of intentionally harming a living soul (human or animal) in real life sickens me. Writing about psychotic serial killers provides a safe environment for me to explore the mysteries behind truly heinous acts of violence and try to understand how someone could be capable of those acts.

And I don't limit myself to just the horror or dark fantasy genres. I also read thrillers, mysteries, suspense, steampunk, science fiction, young adult (Thanks to M and A for pushing me into that section of the bookstore), romance (Yes, you read that correctly), comedy, general/literary fiction, poetry, and nonfiction. Basically, if it has words, I'll read it. I even find dictionaries and thesauruses interesting. I don't discriminate with my reading. If it catches and holds my attention, then it's worth reading because I usually learn something in the process. Maybe it's something as broad as a concept or a story structure and maybe it's as mundane as a new word that sends me scrambling for a dictionary.

I just like to read. It keeps me occupied. I get in trouble when left to my own devices (just ask my husband about the recent pumpkin obsession that's taken over our kitchen). And if I don't write then I also get in trouble (see aforementioned pumpkin obsession). Reading or writing, I have an insatiable need to understand the world around me and that's why I'm here.

Now...if I can just figure out what to do with all this leftover pumpkin. While I do that, be sure to check out M's guest spot at the Court Street Literary Collective blog and prepare yourself for A's Pea Prompt post next week. I'm sure she'll giving a guided tour of the pod. Just watch out for the zombie peas hiding in the corner...

One more thing: The Ninja Peas have a theme song -- an awesome original jazz arrangement from a talented artist, C Tann Starr! Thanks, CT!!!!!