The Name of the Star

My first book of the year is definitely a must-read!

During the first early wee morning’s light of the New Year, I cuddled up in our big reading chair while the rest of the house slept and treated myself to a gorgeously funny and thrilling young adult book. Maureen Johnson’s The Name of the Star is a gothic ghost story set in modern day London, and is centered around a teenager from New Orleans named Rory and her newfound supernatural abilities while studying abroad.

I am new to Johnson’s work, and just by looking at her cover I thought we could have been friends in high school. I have a feeling she’s just as irreverent and caustic, on occasion, as I once was—and if she wasn’t, well, her characters can be! Their personalities drew me in so quickly that I didn’t even notice a teen element. Dialogue flowed naturally, and if it wasn’t humorous, it was still entertaining.

I won’t give away the story itself, but I will say the only thing I didn’t like about it was that the villain did the whole “monologue” thing to explain his point of view. I would have much rather had details be released through the story so we readers could figure it out, too—those kinds of thrillers are so much more fun, especially when it’s a tiny, trivial detail that makes you go, “Oh!” Even so, it was so well written, engaging, and purely fun to read that I really didn’t care that much.

There are romantic elements, drama between friendships—but not annoyingly so—and other teen lit elements you might expect to be present, but the gloomy mood of London during troubled times is also captured so well here, and I would read a book featuring Rory again just to hear her goofy one-liners and Southern logic.

It’s a very unique idea for a story with such a wonderfully twisted ending. It’s not terror-twisted—although there are a few moments in this book that will make your gut clench, no doubt, particularly one involving a camera—but rather inspired, and, dare I say, open for a sequel?

I would love to revisit these characters once again in the future. I wonder if Johnson has plans on revisiting them, too? If so, I’d buy the sequel immediately upon release. And in the meantime, I hear she has several other books just waiting for me to check out while I wait and wonder...

Catching Fire: Introducing Johanna and Plutarch!

When it comes to The Hunger Games Sequel casting, so far, so good…

Although I followed the original Hunger Games film news religiously, I haven’t been as up-to-date on the Catching Fire news. Sure, I’m excited—as long as my heroine isn’t watered down again in order to beef up her uninteresting and disappointing love interest—but there really hasn’t been all that much news in the feeds regarding these movies—that is, until now.

While we’re still waiting on who’s going to be playing Finnick, Mags, Beetee and more, we do have two characters announced and while they are not actors I had previously associated with (or wished for) these roles, I think most fans will be pleased with them.

Johanna Mason: The witty and bitingly snarky Johanna, who serves as a foe for Katniss originally, will be played by the talented Jena Malone. Yes, you probably remember her from the god-awful Sucker Punch, in which she herself was great; the movie itself simply stank as guy eye candy and not much else. However, Malone has been in lots of other movies—from Cold Mountain to Stepmom—and I think she’s demonstrated a pretty decent range. She also has a look that I’m okay with for Mason, though I had hoped for a more colorful role—if not Natalie Portman, whom I want in basically everything.

Plutarch Heavensbee: There’s a new game-maker in town, and he’s much more jovial and open to Katniss than the previous one. Who better to play a friend-foe with good intentions yet no soul than Phillip Seymour Hoffman? I am delighted with this casting choice. With the exception of Red Dragon (I liked Manhunter better, anyway), I have loved every role I’ve ever seen Hoffman in and think he will bring a depth to this character that no other actor possibly could. I also think he’ll be able to do justice to Collins’ writing, which is always integral to book fans.

Fans can also mark their calendars (as I’ve already done, naturally), as the release dates for the final films have all been released. I say final because not only will we have Catching Fire on November 22, 2013; if production stays on task, we’ll have TWO more movies as Mockingjay will be split into two films to be released on November 21, 2014 and November 20, 2015. Rumors about the split have been circulating for a while, but they have since been confirmed.

Many fans (myself included) have expressed that Catching Fire might be better served in two parts, since it’s almost like two books occurring in one—what do you think? And are you happy with the casting choices so far?

Sherman Alexie

Award-winning author of "The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven," among others
Sherman Alexie may be the most controversial author living in the Pacific Northwest. He has some good competition from Chuck Pahlaniuk for the title, but Pahlaniuk is controversial mainly for his writing's graphic content, and not for the things that he himself has said and done. (Even the radical politics of Fight Club are not really, when you get right down to it, all that radical.)
Alexie is an outspoken Native American who spends a lot of time thinking about and discussing the politics of the boundary between reservation life and the rest of America. This is the kind of thing you don't discuss in polite company in America, which is why it is so important to discuss it. The statistics about reservation life - suicide, rape, literacy, poverty - are frankly shameful. The history that created the reservation system, worse still.

I find myself thinking about these issues a lot, because I am a white non-tribal member who lives on tribal land (which is leased from the tribe). Let's just say, Columbus Day is not a big holiday in my neighborhood.
Alexie is also a basketball fan who vehemently (and ultimately unsuccessfully) tried to defend the city of Seattle against the corporate interests that wanted to pull the Sonics away. 
A little while back, Alexie went on a long (and it must be said, somewhat crotchety and ill-informed) rant about ebooks on the Colbert Report. He unfortunately conflated the Open Source movement with piracy, and kept using the word "they" in a particularly paranoid fashion. 
He has since backed off on some of his statements. His books have even been released as ebooks (at his publisher's insistence, he claims). But he remains staunchly firm on his position that ebooks shut out the poor, the demographic which most benefits from reading, and which is most likely not to if any barriers are put in place.
I am a big Kindle fan and advocate myself, but Alexie is right on this point. Ebooks can be had for free these days from many libraries and from online repositories of classics. But the readers still cost money, and what little kid can afford an extra $80 just for the privilege of reading?
We still have plenty of physical books in the world, but I appreciate Alexie's mandate to keep our feet to the irons, so to speak. In many ways Sherman Alexie acts as the voice of conscience. And if there is any better job  for an author, I can't think of it.

Third Place Books

As you might guess from their name, they take the concept of "community" seriously
Although Third Place has two locations, I am only familiar with their store in Lake Forest Park. And what a treasure it is! 
Third Place is one of the few book stores which shelves both new and used books together. Possibly the only such store in the Seattle area that I am aware of. (I don't count Half Price, which only stocks discounted new books.) Powell's in Portland is the only other store I know of with this practice, and of course we all love Powell's.

What is great about this practice is that you can choose which version of a book you want - full price, or used? You can compare the two editions, examine the condition, and decide if it's worth it to buy the new one, or save a few bucks and get the used one. And it also broadens the scope of the books that they stock, because it opens the floor up to a much wider source of books: the reading public.
Naturally, Third Place also buys used books. The used book market has really collapsed in the last few years. You used to be able to count on recouping some of your losses by re-selling the book used, but that is no longer the case. However, Third Place is one of the few places that still offers you a bonus if you choose store credit - 50% more than the cash value. It's definitely worth it!
My first experience with Third Place was attending an author reading many years ago. I was surprised when I turned up, expecting the usual crowding of chairs in an aisle, and found a proper stage with chairs spread out on the floor auditorium-style. Third Place has the space and the experience to do a reading right! If you ever have the chance to see an author reading there, I recommend it. 
Third Place is attached to a large open food court-ish area called the Commons. They offer free wifi, and tables that you can sit at for as long as you like without getting the stink-eye from employees. When I lived in Lake Forest Park, I spent countless hours at the Commons, reading and sketching and goofing off on my laptop (just like everyone else).
And finally, Third Place is one of the few independent bookstores that sells eBooks. They currently offer 12 popular eBooks at only $5.99 apiece! (They use Google eBooks, the EPUB format. If you have a Kindle, you can convert these to Kindle format using the Calibre.)

Douglas Coupland (Well, Not Technically)

Douglas Coupland is a Canadian artist and author who frequently sets his novels in Washington state. And his books aren't just set in Washington, they are also about Washington in an indefinable way that made me incredibly homesick when I re-read several of his books while spending a year on a contract job in Atlanta.
Coupland's home is Vancouver, which is a pretty good stand-in for the suburbs around Seattle, which is where a lot of his action is set. His second novel, Shampoo Planet, is set in the fictional town of Lancaster, WA. Lancaster is a ghost town, having been abandoned by its single largest employer, The Plants. It could be any of a number of towns in Washington, where industries from Boeing to the timber industry have slowly collapsed or moved elsewhere.

Reading it, I imagined it as Everett, since that's a town I have been familiar with since childhood. I was also put in mind of Aberdeen, a coastal town that collapsed with the timber industry. (Aberdeen's shopping mall is certainly empty enough to qualify.) Everett was prosperous in the 50s and 60s, but has been in slow decline ever since (although it got a bump in the late 90s as a bedroom community, as Seattle's rising home prices pushed people farther afield).
Where the town of Shampoo Planet is depressed (both economically and spiritually), the Redmond of Coupland's 1995 book Microserfs is a boom town. The book is set in the Eastside's hard-core computer programming geek culture and written in 1995, when Microsoft was at the peak of its game. It is peppered with descriptions of rolling swaths of green space (not parks; green space) and corporate lawns. And I seem to recall that the protagonists often eat at chain restaurants like Chilis, as you do in Redmond.
The book's description of all the geeks who live in a "geek house" was also right on. I have lived in several geek houses, myself. Everyone has more money than time or sense, so you end up with a lot of cables strung all over hell and gone, and huge drifts of take-out food containers obscuring the kitchen counters.
Microserfs is optimistic but overworked, while Shampoo Planet is broke and unemployed. These two sides of the Washington coin are depicted just so, and pretty much cover the two states of Washington. 
What is conspicuously missing from Coupland's books is Seattle itself. I always thought this was an interesting omission, given that Seattle casts such a long shadow over the towns where his books are set. It's a question I have always wanted to ask him, but until I have a chance (perhaps at some signing event) I can only speculate!

Next Chapter Bookstore, La Conner

La Conner is an adorable little tourist town in Skagit Valley, filled with more charm than you can shake a stick at. Every summer, our streets are flooded with tourists who come to see the tulips or Deception Pass, and stick around for a while in town to go window-shopping and browse the antiques stores and boutiques. Sadly for the tourists, those who only visit La Conner during the summer tourist season miss out on many of our town's charms.
At the far end of the street, directly across from Calico Cupboard to the west and Maple Hall to the south, lies Next Chapter, the town book store. Not many towns in Washington are lucky enough to have a book store, much less an independent book store, much less a town as small as ours (population 891). 
The main (street level) floor houses the coffee nook, bestsellers, and local books. Next Chapter's local section is impressive, featuring a wide range of both sorts of local books: those written by local authors, and those written about the local area. If you are a tourist in need of a guide book (which make great souvenirs, by the way!) or a local interested in learning more about the area, you can find it here. They also have a lot of independently published books by local artists, including not just authors but poets and artists as well.
Upstairs they have children's books and… I don't know what else, to tell you the truth. I only went up there once, when I desperately needed to buy a copy of The Hunger Games RIGHT NOW. (Miraculously, they had one left!)
Next Chapter was there for me when I had to have a copy of The Hunger Games. And they are there when you want to get out of the house on a rainy winter afternoon and have a pastry and a latte. Their coffee nook features big comfortable chairs and a fireplace, which creates an incredibly cozy atmosphere on a cold and blustery afternoon.
I'm proud to live in a town so small and yet still able to support an independent bookstore. I take out-of-town visitors there whenever possible, both to show off our town's book store and  because I know they will find an interesting book they want to read that they probably would not have encountered at a big chain store. And a cozy warm fireplace to sit and chat after shopping, to boot!

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Stephen King Writing Sequel to The Shining!

Can somebody please get me a paper bag, please? I think I’m going to hyperventilate. The Shining is only one of my top 20 favorite books of all time, and the idea of exploring Danny’s life as an adult after the harrowing childhood he had in the first book just—gah, I just gave myself shivers thinking about it.

But then again, you know how sequels can fail—and how they can grossly disappoint. I can think of dozens of sequels (okay, mostly films, but many books, too) that I wish simply had not existed (or I pretend to not exist, in order to maintain my perfect canon plots and relationships). And with the inklings of the book that King’s giving us, I have some mixed feelings about Dr. Sleep, the follow-up to his classic The Shining.

He recently read a passage from Dr. Sleep at George Mason University (click here if you want to hear it; I’m refusing to, as I want to taste the whole book on its own and I only do spoilers with movies!) and though the mere mention of the fact that he, in fact, has a passage to share gives me butterflies, I must admit that the plot bunnies running around this manuscript—which King is fully working on!—still give me pause. The novel is supposed to be about Danny using his gifts as a hospice worker, helping patients pass away without pain. I absolutely love this idea; having volunteered with a hospice and having known hospice workers when my grandmother was dying, I have a great respect for that line of work and I know it would be an incredible subject matter to dip into.

That said… The rest of the plot makes me scratch my brain. It involves psychic vampires. Yes, you read that correctly—psychic vampires, the kind that you would expect in a teen supernatural romance (and not one of those gripping, lesser-known ones that I love, either, but the kind of mass-appeal awfully-written ones that make teen girls believe that stalking is romantic) and not the kind of amazing ones you’d find in a typical King piece, like ‘Salem’s Lot or Nightmares and Dreamscapes. But hey, if someone can pull it off—and change something mildly annoying to something sinister and memorable—it’s Steve, right?

I will remain stoked about it until I read it, naturally, which hopefully be soon; has yet to list it for preorder, so no telling when it will be available. If you hear any news about the novel, feel free to share it.