Readable Christmas Presents: The Best Books of 2011

For those of you stuck in that dangerous position of having more Christmas shopping to do, but no idea of what to get, the bookstore is a great one-stop shop to get something for everybody left on your list. I won’t mention which books I might have gotten for who (you can’t spoil the surprise and share Christmas secrets on the internet!) but I’ve coupled each title with a little snapshot of who the perfect gift recipient would be.

The Language of Flowers (by Vanessa Diffenbaugh)

Victoria has been shifted around the foster care system her entire life and, upon her eighteenth birthday, she ages out of the system and needs to learn how to take care of herself. The best part of this book is that she actually speaks in the language of flowers. In the Victorian era, suitors would send flowers with certain meanings, to give their beloved clues as to their feelings. Victoria has her own dictionary and makes a name for herself as a floral arranger, helping engaged couples design their perfect, meaningful bouquets. This is probably one of the best-written books I’ve read in a long time; I admire the beautiful prose, the characters, and the strong relationships that are woven throughout the plot. The author’s inspiration for the book is as interesting as the book itself; she’s actually started her own program called the Camellia Network to support kids as they transition from the foster system into adult life. NPR did a feature about the book here.

Perfect Reader: female, ages 15 and up. It’s marketed to an adult audience, but it’s a crossover and definitely appropriate for young adult readers too.

The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo and the rest of the Millennium series (by Steig Larson)

I think the movie trailer gives a good clue as to what the book is about.

Perfect Reader: male and female adults who love crime shows like Law and Order. There’s some graphic, definitely adult material so make sure you buy this for someone who won’t get offended by the contents. I’m almost done the third book and, personally, it seems like the first is going to win as my favorite because it was a mix between Cold Case and historical fiction.

The Help (by Kathryn Stockett)

Set in the 1960s, Skeeter is a writer trying to break into New York publishing, but is stuck living with her parents in a small Mississippi town with people and ideas she feels she’s outgrown. With the help of Aibileen, a friend of Skeeter’s own childhood nurse/nanny/maid, she interviews numerous black maids and compiles a book about all the dirty treatment and secrets the maids endure.

Perfect Reader: female, ages 13 and up. Bonus points if they like historical fiction. Warning: the book does use dialect in the dialogue, so if the gift-receiver has ranted and raved about hating that sort of writing style, steer away from this book (even though I think it is hardly noticeable and works really well).

My Name is Memory (by Ann Brashares)

This love story is epic. As Amazon explains it, “Daniel has spent centuries falling in love with the same girl.” Starting with the beginning of civilization, two souls destined to be together are constantly reborn into new bodies, in new centuries, in different countries, castes, and cultures. Let’s just say that the timing never works in their favor. For added frustration, Daniel remembers her, no matter how many time he reincarnates, but Sophia never remembers, and he has to work at making her fall in love with him all over again, each time. A little like 50 First Dates in theory, but much more like Romeo and Juliet in practice.

Perfect Reader: female, ages 12 and up who’s ready for a love story more beautiful and heart-breaking than Romeo and Juliet.

Thirteen Reasons Why (by Jay Asher)

It starts with Hannah’s suicide and her story unfolds on thirteen recorded audiotapes–her suicide note–to the thirteen people she blames for her fatal choice. She had tried to make friends and tried to ignore the rumors, the mean comments, and pranks, but she felt like she had exhausted every avenue and nobody else would or could help her. It’s a beautifully-told, heart-wrenching story that gives you a new perspective on what you say and how you treat other people. Check out the book’s website here.

Perfect Reader: male and female, ages 13 and up. This is a must read for all high school students, in my opinion, so they have the opportunity to consider bullying and it’s repercussions. The plot is centered around suicide, so avoid the book if it’s an emotionally-sensitive topic for the gift-receiver.

The Sherlockian by Graham Moore

Two plot lines are woven throughout the book: the contemporary one is trying to solve why a famous Sherlockian scholar has shown up murdered in his hotel room. The historical one is set in London and centers around Sir Conan Doyle (author of Sherlock Holmes) as he tries to shake off the famous character that he hates being overshadowed by while solving a serial murder case. Fabulously plotted and written, it had me intrigued and guessing until the end and eager to read all of the original Sherlock Holmes stories. The book even has it’s own official blog. Didn’t know a book could be so talented.

Perfect Reader: male or female, ages 16 and up. Perfect for anyone who’s read the Sherlock Holmes books, loves the Robert Downey Jr. movies, avidly watches House (if you didn’t know, House=Holmes, Wilson=Watson), or is considering membership in the Baker Street Irregulars.

The Eyre Affair and rest of the Thursday Next series (by Jasper Fforde)

My boyfriend introduced this series to me–he found the first book under his sister’s bed–and it’s about Thursday Next, who’s a literary detective (she protects books targeted for crimes) by day, and a book-hopping trainee with Miss Havisham (yes, that Miss Havisham) by night. She can travel in and out of fiction, sauntering through famous scenes as the books are being read and chatting with the characters after the reader’s eyes have left the page. It’s set in a speculative history 1980s version of England and there is an official government unit of time travelers, so history is always changing, and I hedge to say that it’s a bit like Harry Potter in that there is a constant crop of new, crazy, fascinating, nearly-magical inventions popping up every chapter. These are just fun, action-packed, clever, enjoyable reads.

Perfect Reader: male or female, ages 14 and up. Must be well read to get all the literary references and jokes; for example, the first book uses a cast of characters from Jane Eyre and Great Expectations, another pulls characters from Hamlet. Make sure the gift-receiver has read the book or else they will be unimpressed with the witty brilliancy of this series.

 

Dear Indie Bookstores: Stop Judging Books by their Covers

When you’re driving, sometimes you encounter some very important people–read, jerks–who break all the rules; they go fifty miles over the speed limit, weave around you in closely-packed traffic, and almost cause four car crashes before they speed out of sight. Some people get mad at these rude drivers and let out a stream of nasty, name-calling expletives. I, along with other optimists in the world, prefer to believe that they have a good reason: their wife is having a baby, perhaps, or maybe they’re rushing someone whose finger just got bitten off by a rabid wild monkey to the hospital.

Well, something similar is going on in the bookselling world right now. Readers are going to the physical, brick-and-mortar book stores, talking to friendly and well-read booksellers, getting book recommendations, perusing the shelves, reading through a few pages, and then writing down the ISBN number–or taking a picture of it on their smartphones–to purchase it much cheaper on Amazon.com. As it stands right now, whether indie or corporate (like Barnes and Noble), booksellers are pretty much united in a hate war against Amazon. Not that I can totally blame them, because Amazon is using some dirty tactics themselves. If you haven’t heard about it yet, Amazon has designed a Price Check app and they’re encouraging all consumers to go to a physical store on Saturday, December 10th, take a picture of the bar code, and compare it to Amazon’s listing price. (For further details on this, read the Wall Street Journal article.) Just for doing that, Amazon will take an additional five dollars off up to three purchased items. As one rightfully outraged bookseller puts it, Amazon’s app is essentially “spyware” using other people’s stores as their own “showroom.”

The result? Feeling that their businesses are threatened, bookstores are lashing out. Not just at Amazon, but at readers. Whatever you prefer to call them–whether “thrifty shoppers,” “smart shoppers,” or “unloyal customers”–these readers are now also labeled as the enemy; they’re given hostile glares in the store and are bombarded with pointedly unpleasant articles, shaming them for their activities.

I have to make a confession about myself before I continue: when exploring a bookstore, I often write down the title and author of new books I’m interested in and then leave a few hours later without making a single purchase.

Some of you are probably feeling the hair on your back raise in outrage (not that I’m accusing you of having a hairy back) and you’re already calling me all those things that you normally call those obnoxious, rude, jerky drivers that you encountered on the road today. For a moment, I ask you to suspend your anger and consider that I belong to the second party: those people who have a really good reason, if asked. Consider my reasoning first.

I currently live in the suburbs of Philadelphia and for as long as I’ve lived here–read, age five–there has never been an independent bookstore. When I lived in NYC this summer, there was one on practically every corner and I couldn’t resist purchasing something every time I walked into Three Lives or St. Mark’s Bookshop. However, home has only ever had the options of Borders and Barnes and Nobles (now reduced to only the latter). My annual total of book-buying purchases are split about 50/50 between Barnes and Noble and Amazon Kindle books.* Some extreme indie bookstore supporters might criticize me for not driving into the city for all my reading needs and frequenting an indie bookstore there. On occasion, I will, but frequently I won’t because:

  1. It takes forty minutes to get to the closest Philly indie bookstore
  2. Parking costs a minimum of twelve dollars
  3. I have such an appetite for books that I would never have the time to travel that far for books as often as I need them

And this ravenous bookworm appetite is what brings me to my next point: though I might live by Erasmus’s motto, “When I get a little money, I buy books. If any is left, I buy food and clothes” (in fact, I’ve completely deleted my clothing budget this year in favor of more reading material), but as I’ve dedicated myself to working within the book-loving publishing industry, I can’t quite afford to buy every single book I want to read. That leaves me with only one alternate choice.

Do you want the NYC Public Library to go out of business?

That’s right. You guessed it. I’m talking about the tried and true, free public library system.I love my library, but due to budget cuts, it’s under constant threat of closing. To keep afloat, the hours of operation have already been slashed and my favorite library has unfortunately been transformed into a “Popular Fiction library.” When I asked a librarian what this meant, exactly, she told me that they would add more couches, a coffee machine, and reduce the book collection to include primarily popular titles and authors (read: much beautiful literary fiction got booted and Stephen King now has a whole bookcase to himself. Hence, the source of my undying resentment towards him). All of this was to be done, she explained, so that the library was “more like a Barnes and Noble.”

So this is my dirty little secret: I go in bookstores and write down book titles. Then I go home and log on my computer. I put all of those titles on my goodreads to-read list. And then I go to the library and get free hard copy books, free audiobooks of the best and newest fiction for my 1.5-hour commute, and free kindle loans. I pay late fees often and gladly, because it’s less than buying the books and it supports my local library at the same time.

So, Dear Bookstores, hear my plea: I understand that you have to prepare for the worst. But sometimes, consider holding off on those expletives, give a reader a break, and believe that she’s writing down those book titles to support her local library.

*I love my Kindle and the ebook reading experience and am not ashamed of it. I also love Barnes and Noble and having their massive store nearby to browse. I think splitting my purchases between the two is pretty fair.

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Hunting for Undiscovered Publication Paths

As I mentioned earlier, I was slammed with a load of rejection letters this week.  This means that I need to start up the submission process again.  However, I’ve kind of run out of ideas of where to send my writing.  Does anybody have any recommendations for literary journals to submit fiction and creative non-fiction to?  Or a resource that lists submission-accepting publications?  How do you research and discover new literary journals?

On a side note, I did learn about a really neat new boutique publisher of long form non-fiction.  The Atavist only publishes Kindle singles (and the same stories on other e-reader platforms, like the Nook, and iPad).  If you like reading non-fiction stories and journalism that’s too long to fit in a magazine and too short to be a book, go read “My Mother’s Lover” or “Lifted” (my two personal favorites).  I’m a big fan of this seemingly new genre of writing.  They accept pitches, so if you are itching to write one consider querying them.  They seem to do a pretty fair payment price split (50/50, I believe).

My current short story submission status:

  1. Painted Bride Quarterly (date submitted: January 4th; what submitted: 1 fiction, 1 non-fiction)  Official Response Time:  unknown
  2. Cicada (date submitted: February 16th; what submitted: 2 poems)  Official Response Time: up to 4 months
  3. Zahir (date submitted:  April 25th; what submitted: 1 fiction)  Official Response Time: 1-2 months
  4. storySouth (date submitted: June 1st; what submitted: 1 fiction)  Official Response Time: 2-6 months
  5. Weave magazine (date submitted:  June 1st; what submitted: 1 non-fiction)  Official Response Time: 3 months

It’s been just over two months for my Zahir submission, so maybe I’ll be hearing back from this week.

Now, back to bed.  Good luck with your writing, submissions, and literary journal hunting.  And good luck to me on recovering.

Choices: Do New Writers Have to Submit to Online Literary Journals?

Like Chicken Little, a lot of people are running around shouting that the publishing world is going under.  This allegedly inevitable transformation to digital is going to delete jobs, while journals and magazines that don’t keep up and reformat for iPad will go extinct.  Literary journals are traditionally characterized as small and underfunded.  Basically, they’re doomed.

Personally, I didn’t worry about it until I got a rejection letter from a literary agent (Fall 2010) explaining that due to the combination of a poor economy and the “state of the industry,” they couldn’t consider any queries at the time.  I read it once.  Twice.  Followed it up with a minor panic attack.

However, once the panic attack resided, I realized that the reality and the future of publishing is more complex than the popular “the end is coming” opinion and we should explore all the angles of the discussion before having any more panic attacks.  Rolling Stone publisher Jann Wenner, for example, argues that it will be generations before print sales are bypassed by digital sales.  Even then, he promises that print magazines will always be available for those who want them.  Do you think Wenner’s opinion is defined by the fact that he is part of an older generation and, therefore, that he’s totally wrong in his belief?  I definitely agree with him that magazines are chained to reader demand.  If readers want it in print, the magazine better continue to provide it.  For example, magazines geared towards older, less iPad-happy demographics, such as Real Simple aren’t going to jump into the digital market anytime soon because the average 30-45-year-old doesn’t own an iPad.  They aren’t the appropriate market for digital magazines yet.  Do you think creative writers and literary journal subscribers will cling desperately to their paper reading materials in a similar way?  Or do you think all creative writers and readers will abandon the format in favor of e-readers?  Which do you prefer to read?

Then there’s the whole issue with trusting the publication.  As writers, how comfortable do you feel submitting your short stories to an online literary journal?  I admit I’m kind of traditional.  I trust ink on paper and associations with respectable MFA programs.  I’m rather proud and protective of my short stories.  The chances of someone copying, pasting, and plagiarizing my short story online gives me nightmares.  The existence of content farms don’t let me rest very easy, either.  It’s a difficult position to have, too, because many print literary journals are harder to get published in because submissions are so high.  As emerging writers, do we have to submit to newer, less established, online journals for a better chance at getting published?

What do you think?  Are you comfortable getting published in online literary journals?  Are there any in particular you trust?  How do you decide they’re trustworthy?

While you’re waiting, leave a comment!

The One Downfall to Being Published Electronically: You Can’t Sign a Kindle

Personally, I started out being rather iffy/stand-offish/old-fashioned about the whole e-book revolution.  Give me a physically bound book or give me death, I cried over-dramatically.  I was particularly fond of Meg Cabot’s continued complaint that ebooks are not bathtub friendly (not that paper books are really very compatible with getting wet either, but at least they don’t carry the threat of electrocution should they be dropped in the tub*).  But then my boyfriend’s parents gave me a beautiful beautiful kindle for Christmas and I realized how awesome it was.  One of the main benefits is that I do not have to drive to Barnes & Nobles the day a book came out in stores.  I can buy it in my own home, for less money!  (And by home I totally mean my bed.  In my pjs.)  Also, I could downgrade to a smaller purse because I didn’t need the space for three books at any given time anymore.

The moral of the story is that e-books are now formally a BIG DEAL and I’m really glad that I jumped on the bandwagon.  They’re such a big deal in publishing that, in mine and others opinions, they significantly change the entire view of self-publishing.  For a long time, the perception was that everything self-published was so personal and completely unedited that only immediate family members were going to buy it.  There are some exceptions, of course.  John Erickson, author of the Hank the Cowdog series, self-published and sold thousands of copies out of the back of his pickup at rodeos.  His books became so popular that a traditional publisher proposed a traditional book deal.  So if you’re struggling to self-promote right now, stay committed!  It might pay off big.

Obviously, though, self-publishing requires a huge time commitment to self-marketing.  However, with publication avenues like Kindle that offer a national audience, it’s becoming easier and self-published 99cent books are becoming best sellers.  Which choice is best for you?

There were lots of developments with magazine apps and the iPad this week, if you want to keep updated.  Also, if you have an iPad you might want to check out Nomad Editions.  How long before literary journals follow suit?

It might be awhile before that happens, but there’s definitely an increase in online literary publications.  If you’re hesitant about being published on the internet, something to consider is that, statistically, you have a better chance of getting published.  Think about it.  If a print issue only has 40-pages, they are bound to that space limitation.  But the internet can have endless amounts of pages.  Philadelphia Stories, for example, prints some stories on their website that they didn’t have room for in the print copy.  And Painted Bride Quarterly offers the unique opportunity to get published on their website through their monthly Sidecar.

On a separate note, for those of you going through the critique and editing process, you’re not alone.

*I actually have no idea whether or not e-books emit electricity when drowned.  They plug into wall outlets like a hairdryer, though, so I worry.