Interview with J.C. Lillis, Author of We Won’t Feel a Thing!

by REBECCA, April 16, 2014

We Won't Feel a Thing J.C. Lillis

Friends, enemies, and those totally indifferent to me, hello! It is my total pleasure to welcome the delightful J.C. Lillis back to Crunchings & Munchings for an interview on the heels of her sophomore release, We Won’t Feel a Thingwhich I reviewed on Monday.

GIVEAWAY: J.C. is offering one lucky reader a free e-copy of We Won’t Feel a Thing. The form is at the end of the interview. Thanks for joining us, J.C.!

REBECCA: The idea of two best friends/beloveds deciding to use a self-help program to rid themselves of their love is so awesome! How did you come up with the idea?

J.C.: Thanks! Yeah, it was inspired by an offhand comment a friend of mine made to another friend who was having a difficult time. He told her that her life would be so much easier if she just learned to engineer her emotions. And he was a scientist, so of course we started joking about it: “oh, watch him actually start his own Emotional Engineering program.” The David Kerning character and his WAVES program started to evolve from there, and then David bumped into Rachel and Riley, and the story started to cook.

REBECCA: One of my favorite things about the book is that Rachel is a grammar and syntax nerd. Being one myself, I was delighted every time Rachel mentally deleted an apostrophe or corrected a malapropism. Are you a grammar enthusiast? Do you have a grammatical, syntactical, or linguistic pet peeve?

J.C.: I am, but I’m definitely not as obsessive about it as Rachel is. If I passed by a specials chalkboard advertising “chocolate croissant’s,” I’d probably be able to keep walking.

Oh geez, I have so many pet peeves. I share Rachel’s hatred of “impact” used as a verb; say something like “the economy impacted sales” and all I can think about are problematic wisdom teeth. All business lingo rubs me the wrong way. Just these smug, snappy idioms people whip out like a secret handshake, to feel important—herding cats and making it rain and drilling down to the granular level. And this is a pretty common peeve, but I am forever raging about “it’s” in place of “its.” It’s become such an epidemic that even autocorrect sticks the apostrophe in, like SLOW YOUR ROLL, AUTOCORRECT. Let’s consider context, shall we?

How To Repair a Mechanical Heart J.C. LillisREBECCA: Your first novel, How To Repair a Mechanical Heart, which I adored, found you creating a fandom. In We Won’t Feel a Thing, you create two different self-help programs. Can you talk a little bit about what appeals to you about creating these worlds-within-worlds?

J.C.: I love this question. I’m sitting here like “yeah . . . why DO I do that?” I think it’s because I’ve always struggled to feel like I belonged, and I’ve had very intense obsessions with things that sometimes aren’t appreciated by many others (in my fandoms, I’m forever the queen of unpopular ships). So the idea of a little society or system devoted to an obscure pursuit or interest has always been compelling to me. I’m also the kind of person who needs to feel in control of things, whether it’s my workload or my emotions or my body, so I’m drawn to characters who invent systems and strategies to impose order on the untamable.

 REBECCA: The love story in How To Repair a Mechanical Heart was between two boys. When I first saw the blurb for We Won’t Feel a Thing, I was a tad nervous because heterosexual love stories so often wind up reinforcing gender stereotypes. Not only did We Won’t Feel a Thing not do that, but Riley and Rachel’s genders also felt very fluid. I don’t mean to say that just because they weren’t stereotypical they were somehow unfixed; more that I was interested in the ways that it felt kind of like they could have been any combination of gender-identified people. What are your thoughts on this issue in general? Was gender something you were actively thinking about here?

don't gender me!

don’t gender me!

J.C.: You’re the second person who’s made that comment, and I love that you felt that way. Some of that was natural and kind of arose from the type of person I am. I’ve never felt especially feminine or masculine in the traditional sense. I remember I had this rag doll as a kid; it had no hair or clothing, it was just the outline of a person with friendly facial features stitched on. I loved this doll, and I remember feeling annoyed and unsettled when people would ask “Is that a boy or a girl?” I hated that I had to pick, because neither option really felt like the truth. To this day I’m always attracted to people who combine traits we’re conditioned to think of as “male” and “female,” and I think I live comfortably in that gray area, too.

So yeah, it was partly automatic, but I was also very conscious of the approach to gender in WWFaT. I think l’ll probably hear some of “oh, Riley’s the ‘girl’ in the relationship,” which—like you indicated in your review—is sort of reductive and stereotypical. I wasn’t really aiming for a straight-up gender-role reversal; I was more interested in depicting two young people whose personalities both color outside traditional gender lines. I mean, Rachel and Riley have been isolated in their private “kingdom” for a good bit of their lives, so I feel like they don’t even see those lines at all. That felt freeing to me as a writer. I think back to the very first fictional relationships that captivated me—like, Frog and Toad or Bert and Ernie. I don’t remember giving gender a thought; it was their specific personalities and their interactions that jumped out at me and made them special. I wanted to recapture that with the Rachel/Riley relationship. I’m glad it worked for you!

REBECCA: We Won’t Feel a Thing is your second novel, but if I remember correctly from your first interview with us, you had the idea for it a long time ago. What was it like to revisit an older idea? Was your writing experience different, having had a first novel under your belt?

J.C.: Yeah, these characters have been with me since like late 2003. (I’d written three other novels before that, all of which will mercifully never see the light of day.) I finished the first draft and then set it aside for a while—I was pregnant at the time and very anxious about motherhood, so I needed a break. I wrote about half of another book when my daughter was a baby, and then I got the idea for HTRaMH and decided to run with it.

That first version of WWFaT was wildly different. And at first, when I decided to go back and revise it, I was naively optimistic. I just thought oh, I’ve already put one book out there, so this’ll be easy. I’ll tighten the beginning, cut stuff here and there, tidy it up and get it out in six months. But then when I changed the beginning, everything started to change. I ended up keeping maybe 5% of the original text. In some ways it was even harder than starting from scratch, because it was this constant process of letting go of stuff I liked from version #1 that just didn’t fit or make sense anymore. Talk about killing your darlings. It was a darling bloodbath.

 REBECCA: You have a job and kids, right? How do you balance all that with writing? And what are the things that make you excited enough about a story that you want to make time for it?

J.C.: Oh man, it’s hard. It never stops being hard. I was just talking about that with a friend this weekend. A lot of times you feel like you’re doing everything, and none of it particularly well. Honestly, it’s just a “one day at a time” struggle . . . some days you manage to pull out a great idea at work and laugh with the kiddo at bedtime and write five good pages before you conk out, and other times the whole day’s just a wash. I think the key is learning to forgive yourself and be okay with the fact that your book might take longer than you hoped. Writer moms: It’s okay if you don’t write every day, or if you can’t write as fast as other people. You’ve got a lot going on. Years from now, you won’t look back and say “wow, I wish I’d gotten Book X out six months earlier.” You’ll only regret making yourself sick trying to work full time, be a mom, and still produce a book a year. Everyone works at a different pace, and that’s fine. Know what you can handle, and go easy on yourselves.

As far as staying passionate about a story—if you start with an idea and a character that make you vibrate with excitement, that’ll help carry you through the tough times in the Cave of Eternal Revision. If I get bored, sometimes I take whatever actors I’m crushing on at the moment and mentally cast them in my book, and that keeps it fresh and fun (and helps me hear the dialogue better, as a bonus).

REBECCA: Ha! I love that idea! Relatedly, I know a lot of our readers are also writers. You had great things to say about your experience with indie publishing in our last interview. Do you still feel as good about it? What advice do you have for someone writing books who may not want to go the traditional publishing path?

J.C.: I love being indie; I definitely think it was the right option for me and my weird little books. 🙂 You know, it has its pluses and minuses like everything else. Sometimes I feel a little frustrated by how difficult it is to spread the word about your stuff and attract new readers, especially when you have a shoestring marketing budget and another full-time job you’re committed to. I know there’s so much more I could be doing, and I always end up mad at myself: I should be tweeting/blogging more! I should’ve sent ARCs to more bloggers! If I just organized my time better, I’d have time for X and Y and Z . . .

But the reality is, none of us are superheroes. (At least I don’t think so. If you are, don’t tell; I might step on your cape.) I do what I can manage, and overall the whole indie adventure has been a tremendous experience. There’s nothing better than getting a tweet from a stranger who found and loved your book. I’ve managed to build up a nice readership little by little, and I love that I can still write back to every person who’s kind enough to reach out to me.

As far as advice: I’d say just put in the time to inform yourself about your publishing options, and if you decide to go indie, come on over to Twitter and join the writing community there. We’re a lot of fun, we’re generous with advice and support, and we’ve got your back. There’ll be tons of ups and downs as you figure out which choices are best for you and your book (because seriously, it’s different for everyone), but they’ll be much easier if you’re on the same roller coaster with your writer buddies.

REBECCA: Are you working on anything new (crosses fingers)?

AmadeusJ.C.: Oh yeah, I’m always working on something! Actually, I’m taking a short break right now—WWFaT took a lot out of me and I kind of just need a month to stare at a wall (and catch up on reading. And fangirl over Game of Thrones). But yes, I’ve got my next idea all cued up. It’s about female friendship, but it could possibly turn into romance, depending on where the characters lead me. It’s about the rivalry and deepening relationship between two ambitious pop-star hopefuls; I’ve been calling it Amadeus with young female singer-songwriters, though that’s probably too glib. The cool part is that Brandon and Abel from HTRaMH are going to be side characters. It’s set ten years after their Summer of Love, so you’ll see what’s happened with them in the interim and where their relationship stands now. I can’t wait to get started!

REBECCA: Aaaahhh! Amadeus is one of my favorite movies and I love anything to do with music! Um, oh my god, a Brandon and Abel sighting? I could not be more delighted! Thanks so much for joining us, J.C.!

J.C.: Thank you so much for having me on your blog! It’s always a pleasure to chat with you.

WIN AN E-COPY OF WE WON’T FEEL A THING!

All you need to do is fill out the handy form below and then (for fun!) leave us a comment telling us which better describes you (and why, if you are so inclined). Are you: 1. A fierce grammar nerd, or 2. A sensitive (and possibly anxious) artiste? Or, since binaries are bullshit, 3. An evil genius who will someday engineer an insidious self-help program? The giveaway will stay open for two weeks; I’ll announce the winner here on April 30th!

UPDATE: I have chosen the winner of an e-copy of We Won’t Feel A Thing by a highly scientific process (writing your names on pieces of paper, dumping them in my cat’s favorite cardboard box, and then letting her choose one with her paw) and the winner is MIGUEL!

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Interview With J.C. Lillis, Author of How to Repair a Mechanical Heart

by REBECCA, June 5, 2013

How To Repair A Mechanical Heart by J.C. Lillis

Friends, today I am so thrilled to bring you an interview with the wonderful and amazing J.C. Lillis, author of How to Repair a Mechanical Heart, which I reviewed on Monday. Many thanks to J.C. for being here! She has generously offered the chance for one lucky Crunchings & Munchings reader to win an e-copy of How to Repair a Mechanical Heart—the form is at the end of the interview. Welcome, J.C.!

REBECCA: How to Repair a Mechanical Heart is your debut novel (and damn, what a debut!). How did you find your way to this story and these characters? 

J.C.: Aw, thanks so much! I’d been trying to write a book about fandom for years and years, but I never really hit on the right concept or the right characters. The basic idea for HTRAMH was inspired by a fandom I was lurking in a few years back—I won’t name names ‘cause it would just be mortifying for all involved. 🙂 There was this big debate surrounding some real-person shipping; basically, some fans were writing slash and then tweeting it to the boys involved, and there was this growing sense of horror about the fourth wall crumbling and real lives being affected. And as a writer, I just started thinking about it from the boys’ perspective: how would it feel to read fanfic about yourself, if you were a young guy still trying to figure yourself out? What if you really did have feelings for this guy you were being shipped with, but were terrified to show it?

At first I thought I’d write about two teen TV stars with a huge fandom writing slash about them, but I felt like it would be funnier and more manageable to make the boys small-potatoes vloggers who attract an unlikely little cult following. I also thought it might be interesting if the guys themselves were anti-slash at first. Spoiler alert for people who haven’t read it yet, but that scene where they first stumble across the fan community and die of embarrassment when they see all the fic about them? That was the first scene I imagined, and then the characters and their situation just kind of filled themselves in from there.

REBECCA: HTRAMH is the most delightful expression of fandom, and it seems way too spot on to be written by anyone but a fan! Can you talk a little bit about your own relationship to fandom and geek culture? 

J.C.: One of my favorite topics! I’ve been fandom-hopping since I was a teenager. It’s been a huge, huge part of my life, for a bunch of reasons. I’ve used it as a form of escape and distraction, I’ve used it to try on different identities, I’ve used it to jumpstart my own story ideas and recharge my passion for writing. It’s funny, I always sort of figured I’d phase out the fangirling once I was officially a grownup, but I still do it! I’ve mellowed out a lot—fandom isn’t as angst-ridden for me anymore; now I just have fun with it.

Cersei LannisterI had to stretch a little writing Brandon and Abel, because they love the heroes of Castaway Planet and I usually obsess over the villains. Nothing makes me swoon like a good complicated baddie. Like, I’m a huge Game of Thrones fan and I adore Cersei Lannister. It’s a problem. At my day job I sit in this awesome Bermuda Triangle of geekdom where we all watch GoT and have sigils on our office doors, and my poor Stark and Targaryen friends have to listen to my weekly Why Cersei Doesn’t Suck apologetics.

REBECCA: HTRAMH has a lot to say about fan fiction and slash fiction, and also about real person fiction. How did these fan fictions inspire you? Do you know if there are any fan fictions about Brandon and Abel?

J.C.: Well, there’s bad fic in every fandom, and I did use some of that as inspiration for the terrible Cadsim slash Brandon and Abel are so up in arms about. But as a general rule, I love fanfic. Love it. I don’t understand writers who get all proprietary about their characters and put out these public statements denouncing fanfic. I mean, fanfic is the ultimate compliment—it means you created a world so compelling that people want to be a part of it themselves. They want to play with it, revise it, extend it—not just passively consume it. To me that’s just straight-up awesome.

Since the book came out, I’ve gotten some Brandon/Abel fanart, which pretty much made MY ENTIRE LIFE. And one reader is working on an alternate-universe Brandon/Abel steampunk fic.  She tweeted me about it and I had the stupidest, dorkiest grin on my face the whole rest of the day. So yeah—if anyone gets an idea for Brandon/Abel fic, they’re yours. Have at it!

REBECCA: In the novel, Brandon and Abel are huge fans of Castaway Planet—how fun was it for you to make up an entire show and its fandom?!

J.C.: SO MUCH FUN. Like, I want to make fanart for the TV-show-within-the-book. I don’t even want to know how geeky that makes me. My daughter’s going to dig up this interview in ten years and just facepalm.

I’ll tell you something funny that totally wasn’t funny at the time. The show was originally called Planet Fear, and then at the eleventh hour—like literally two days before the book’s release—I found out there was this sporting-goods chain called Planet Fear and my friend’s lawyer husband advised me to change it to be on the safe side. Which meant I also had to change the name of the fan convention and the ball, which were originally FearCon and the FearBall. I’d used those names for so long that the thought of changing them made my eyelid twitch. I sat in my room with a thesaurus, my Descriptionary, and my laptop for about five hours and rattled my brain until I came up with an alternate name I could live with. (I was delirious . . . I think at one point my husband actually heard me say “What about Planet Bob?”) And then after I picked names and did a search and replace for everything, I had to proofread the manuscript again, for like the five hundredth time, and I wanted to KILL THE BOOK with fire.

But yeah, other than that? A blast, making up all the actors and characters and fans. I still think about the people behind the forum names. I think I could write a whole book about lone detective. (Or hey_mamacita, because girl has issues.)

REBECCA: HTRAMH is freaking hilarious and also heartbreaking (my favorite combination!). How in the hell did you strike such an amazing balance? Do you think humor plays an important role in fandom? Do you think fandom plays an important part in learning about ourselves?

J.C.: First of all, thanks, ‘cause that’s a gigantic compliment. Yeah, the older I get, the easier it is to see the humor in fandom. When you’re wrapped up in it, it’s easy to take it too seriously—I’ve been guilty of that a few times. But if we can’t laugh at ourselves and the absurdity of ship wars and tinhatting and all that, then it stops being fun. Plus that’s just me; I don’t think I could write a story without humor, because that’s what pulls me along while I’m writing and keeps me interested in the characters. Nothing’s more boring to me than a book with zero sense of humor.

As for the second part of your question—yep, I do think fandom can play a huge part in helping people figure themselves out. Like, back when I was young and confused and destroying myself over some stupid non-relationship, getting into X-Files fandom snapped me out of self-pity and made me think of myself as this ass-kicking lone wolf. . .which was a silly self-dramatization, but it was just what I needed at the time. And I think you see stuff like that play out in HTRAMH, too, with the boys using Castaway Planet fandom as an escape and then as a way to expand their definitions of themselves (like when they go to the ball dressed as each other’s favorite characters). Fandom definitely plays a huge part in helping them sort out themselves and their relationship.

REBECCA: You have written such an amazing young adult novel; are you a YA reader? What are some of your favorite YA reads?

Weetzie Bat by Francesca Lia BlockJ.C.: Ooh, yeah, I love reading YA. The ones I still reach for over and over again are the ones I grew up with: Francesca Lia Block’s Weetzie Bat books, anything by M.E. Kerr, Ellen Wittlinger’s books like Hard Love and Razzle. I love reading books by other indie YA authors, too—I just reviewed One by Leigh Ann Kopans, which is a great read for anyone who loves superheroes.

When I’m deep into edits, I tend not to read as much YA. I’ll go for something totally different—I’ll pick up some nonfiction or some Iris Murdoch, or I’ll spend the night with my favorite Edward Gorey anthology.

REBECCA: Are you working on anything new right now? Might the world be so lucky?

J.C.: I am! I’m so excited about it. It’s another YA novel, and it’s something I originally wrote years before I started HTRAMH. It’s about a teenage boy and girl who are in forbidden-love with each other and miserable about it, so they sign up for this experimental self-help program to rid themselves of their unwanted feelings. It’s really different from HTRAMH, but at heart it’s another quirky comedy-romance, so hopefully people who enjoyed Brandon and Abel’s story will like this one, too.

I feel kinda bad because my original plan was to tidy it up and put it out by late spring/early summer, but the more I got into the manuscript, the more I wanted to change. I’m a way different writer now than I was in 2005. So it’s going to take a little longer than I hoped, but that’s the beauty of indie publishing. You set your own schedule, and if life intervenes or you want to put the book aside and walk away for a few days to clear your head and/or tear out your hair, you can totally do that.

REBECCA: Can you tell us a little bit about what your experience with self-publishing has been like? How did you choose to go that route, etc.

J.C.: Basically, I just really, really hate querying. I’m kidding. But not really.

Here’s what kept happening: I’d write a book, edit the hell out of it, send it out to a very small handful of agents, and then I’d get all wrapped up in a shiny new story and when I’d come lumbering home from my day job, THAT’S what I’d want to work on. The querying would get shoved on the back burner, and then I’d just quietly stop doing it.

I got a couple “almosts” from agents I queried, and I know some people would probably consider me a quitter for not persevering with that, but seriously: I LOVE being indie. I decided to go for it after my husband passed me this article on the new world of indie publishing and was like, hey, you should consider this. It’s been the perfect fit for my temperament and working style, and I haven’t regretted it for a second.

The best part is that the whole indie writing community is pretty damn amazing. Supportive, helpful, welcoming, hilarious. I love being a part of it, and I love that I get to decide everything—from what my cover will look like to what my next blog post will be about. I still have a lot to learn, but I’ve got a bunch of great “teachers” now in my fellow indies, and it’s a total pleasure to cheer them on and learn from their successes.

REBECCA: I have a theory that everyone has at least one hidden talent, no matter how random or seemingly useless. Will you tell us yours? 

J.C.: I can name all fifty states in alphabetical order in under twenty seconds. Also, I have never once ripped off a piece of packing tape without getting it stuck to itself. (Truly useless. Sorry.)

REBECCA: What is your favorite food or drink to make while writing? Snickerdoodles, like Abel, perhaps? (Bonus question: do you have a favorite snickerdoodle recipe? Ilove snickerdoodles.)

SnickerdoodlesJ.C.: Ha! I WISH I had time to bake snickerdoodles, but I’ve got a six-year-old and a day job, so I don’t have much free time. I try to funnel most of my spare minutes into writing. (And by “writing,” I mean “procrastinating on Twitter” and “dreaming up new blog entries about vintage pantyhose ads.” That counts, right?)

I do have a weakness for peanut butter and banana sandwiches. Not those crazy deep-fried fat bombs Elvis used to make—just peanut butter on wheat bread with sliced banana and a little cinnamon sugar on top. My go-to comfort food, especially at 11:30 at night when the words aren’t coming and I start getting unwelcome visits from the I SUCK fairy.

(Betty Crocker has a great snickerdoodle recipe if you’re so inclined.)

REBECCA: And, finally: cheese is very important to Tessa and me, so we’ve got to know: what is you favorite cheese? Tell us all about it!

J.C.: God, there isn’t a cheese I wouldn’t eat. My daughter HATES all cheese, which makes me suspect she’s a changeling. I think smoked gouda takes top honors. I don’t know, though. Ask me next week and my loyalties may have shifted to Camembert.

REBECCA: And there you have it, folks: smoked gouda, and please write some Brandon/Abel fan fiction! Thanks so much, J.C.!

J.C.: Thank you so much for having me on the blog!

WIN AN E-COPY OF HOW TO REPAIR A MECHANICAL HEART!

All you need to do is fill out the handy form below and leave us a comment on the blog telling us what you are the biggest fan of! TV show, band, book, movie; it doesn’t matter, just fill us in on what you geek out about! The giveaway will stay open for two weeks; I’ll announce the winner here on June 19th. UPDATE: Congrats to We Heart YA, the winners of a copy of How to Repair a Mechanical Heart!

Perfect Is As Perfect Does: Review and GIVEAWAY of Origin

A Review of Origin by Jessica Khoury and a GIVEAWAY!

Razorbill (Penguin) 2012

Origin Jessica Khoury

By REBECCA, September 24, 2012

characters

Pia: genetically engineered to be immortal, Pia is working to become a scientist so she can make more like her

Eio: boy from the nearby village, he teaches Pia that some things are more powerful than scientific logic

Uncle Paolo: Pia’s main teacher and mentor, he cares only about creating a race of immortals

Sylvia: Pia’s biological mother, she too sees Pia as a means to an end

Uncle Antonio: treats Pia like a real girl rather than just a science experiment.

Aunt Harriet: a new arrival to the jungle, she brings with her a boarding school girl’s knowledge of escape routes and lies

hook

Pia is genetically engineered to be immortal. The first successful one of her kind, she has grown up in Little Cambridge (Little Cam for short), a research facility in the middle of a jungle, where she is being groomed to join the team of scientists whose job it is to create a race of Pias. On her 17th birthday, a storm gives Pia the chance to enter the jungle beyond the walls of Little Cam for the first time. There, she meets Eio and begins a relationship with him and the other Ai’oans (the native tribe near whom Little Cam was settled). Little by little, Pia begins to doubt the total scientific detachment she has always been taught to value, and as she does, Little Cam begins to disgorge secrets that make Pia doubt that its single-minded devotion to science is as pure as she once believed. In the end, it may come down to a choice between being perfect and being human.

worldview

In Forever Young Adult’s review of Origin, Jenny suggests that this is a novel that will appeal more to some younger readers (teens, that is), and I absolutely agree, because Pia’s mindset is very sheltered. Pia knows nothing of the world outside Little Cam, not even which jungle she’s in (the Amazon). She isn’t taught history, politics, or the humanities. She can draw, but learned to do so to render specimens. She didn’t grow up with any other kids. She knows that nothing can hurt her and that she’ll never die. As such, she’s incredibly naive and non-analytical. Despite the author telling us that she is genius-level smart, we never see her intelligence in any way except her memory of chemical compounds and the Latin names for plants.

For all of these reasons, Pia is, for me, a totally unappealing character. I think she’s sympathetic, sure, and I imagine that many people will be able to identify with her frustrations about not having access to the secret of her own immortality, and her immediate attraction to Eio. But, while I’m sympathetic to the fact that Pia has been treated like a science experiment, it doesn’t make reading about her any more interesting. And, while I enjoyed learning about the secret backstory of Little Cam (because, of course, as well all know, every scientific facility that a main character thinks is squeaky clean is hiding a horrible, gruesome past), it was just one variation on a theme I’ve read many times before.

Just after finishing Origin, I was telling my sister about it, trying to explain why it had bored me. Because, don’t get me wrong: Origin is well-written, totally competently-plotted, and has a fair amount of world building. But it felt completely brittle to me—a novel engineered to be enjoyable by combining the right ingredients, just as Pia is engineered to be perfect. A strong effort in all the particulars that shattered at the slightest nudge. In particular, I was explaining to my sister that it’s the characters that really made it fall flat for me. Pia is brilliant and immortal. Brilliance and immortality are concepts that totally interest me. Yet, Pia’s immortality had no impact. Partly because she’s 17 and most 17-year-old characters don’t have to worry about mortal threats anyway; partly because she has never experienced what death is (except in lab animals) so it’s a merely quantitative characteristic for her; partly because until pretty late in the book she views immortality as a totally desirable trait; partly because everyone in Little Cam is brilliant, so it’s a meaningless distinction? Probably all of the above.

Ender's Game Orson Scott CardAnd unlike the genius of a character like Ender from Ender’s Game (who my sister cited as another character whose genius is often described as cold and detached), who is valued because of his ability to innovate, Pia is valued for her ability to execute. She’s been fast-tracked to single-mindedly dedicate her life to the scientific pursuits for which her mentors have trained her. In this way, Jessica Khoury sets up what will be a book-long battle for Pia, between, on one hand, perfection, detachment, and the noble work of creating her race, and, on the other hand, imperfection (humanness), love, and happiness. In short, that is (as Khoury sets it up), the battle between science and nature, the battle between scientist and “savage”, the battle between knowledge and intuition, and the battle between control and impulse.

Friends, say it with me now: binaries aren’t real. Therefore, they make boring tensions in books. So, while I think that this might be a great read for someone who hasn’t had much exposure to the idea that science and nature are connected rather than opposite, or that there are different kinds of knowledge, some of which come from study and some of which come from intuition or peer-wisdom, to those of us who’ve thought such thoughts before, Origin is pretty flat.

what was this book’s intentions? did it live up to them?

I feel confused about the book’s intentions because, as I mentioned, it struck me as kind of a paint-by-numbers book that took things the author or publisher knew would be appealing and applied them formulaically. If the intention here is purely to entertain, then I think many people will be entertained. The plot moves quickly and there is suspense. Oh, and there’s a jaguar that is Pia’s pet, so that’s fun to think about. There’s a romance . . . kind of. I think this is what the kids are calling “insta-love.” I was totally weirded out by Eio. For one thing, Pia has no exposure to the notion of beauty in humans, except that people tell her she’s perfect looking (in the context of being perfect in every other way, too, though). Yet, she still refers to Eio’s “abs”! I found this outrageous. Even if she had a biological reaction to the play of muscular strength under skin, I refuse to believe that she—scientist that she is—would shorten a scientific name for a muscle group and use it to describe something attractive. There, I said it. That’s been bugging me for days.

Scott Westerfeld Uglies SeriesBack to business: Eio is a nice guy. He certainly loves Pia (we don’t know why—being able to love immediately seems to be part of his “jungle-ness”), cares for children, is polite to his elders, and does brave and idiotic things, like risking his life to “save” a girl who cannot die. But . . . there’s just no other way to say it: Khoury has made Eio the stereotype of the noble savage, and made him “more attractive” than the other Ai’oans (with their “flat noses” and “slant[ed]” eyes) by giving him mixed parentage (113). Meh, I dunno, y’all. I just thought Origin had it wrong on all counts. It was squirmingly exoticizing when describing the Ai’oans and their charming native myths, and it was annoyingly anti-intellectual in the picture it painted of science. Don’t get me wrong: I’m as taken by a story of science pushed too far as the next person. It’s just that there are so many books that have done it well (Frankenstein, the Uglies Series) and Origin sets up false binaries and then depends on us buying into them to wring suspense from their demolition. And did I mention that the ending is mega-predictable?

So, this is Khoury’s first novel and it got the Penguin treatment (meaning, who knows if she was asked to commercialize certain elements, etc), so I’m curious to see what she does next. Overall, I think Origin is a very competent novel that will likely appeal to a wide audience. I just don’t happen to part of that audience. But, that doesn’t mean you won’t be! So:

GIVEAWAY!

Because I like you so much, I want to give one lucky reader my copy of Origin! There are four easy ways you can enter to win. Just remember to tell me how you entered in the comments or your entry can’t count! You can:

1. Follow us on Twitter (@we_eat_YA)

2. Follow Crunchings & Munchings via email (go to the right sidebar of the blog and enter your email where it says “follow blog via email”)

3. Follow us on Facebook

4. Link up to crunchingsandmunchings.wordpress.com somewhere on your blog

I’ll announce the winner here in one week!

procured from: I received an ARC from the publisher with no compensation on either side. Origin is available now.

That Voice Inside My Head: A Review of Skinny & A GIVEAWAY

A review of Skinny, by Donna Cooner

Point (Scholastic), 2012

Skinny Donna Cooner

By REBECCA, September 7, 2012

hook

15-year-old Ever can’t make a move without hearing the voice inside her head—Skinny, who she imagines looks like a “goth Tinker Bell” (3)—that tells Ever that because she weighs 300 pounds she is disgusting, ugly, and unlovable. Skinny’s voice tells her that her mother, now dead, is the only one who could ever love her, that her crush could never reciprocate, that her step-sister, Briella, hates her, and that her best friend, Rat, only stays with her out of pity. Skinny’s voice even drowns out Ever’s own voice, telling her she can’t audition for the school musical even though she loves to sing, because people would make fun of her. So, when she is approved for gastric bypass surgery, Ever embraces it. But afterward, when Ever begins to lose weight, and people who have always avoided her are suddenly everywhere, how can she tell who likes her for herself and who just wants to be part of some kind of reality-tv-transformation? And can she hold on to the people who have always been there for her, or will she lose them too?

worldview

Skinny‘s worldview begins and ends with the territory of Ever’s mind and Skinny’s voice. We see each scene through Ever’s very limited, self-conscious perspective and Skinny’s comments to Ever intrude on those scenes like they do in Ever’s mind. Despite her obvious intelligence and her scorn for superficiality, Ever’s worldview is almost entirely occupied by her appearance and the appearances of others. Skinny’s voice equates beauty and thinness with the right to exist unquestioned in the world, the right to be loved, and the right to follow your dreams.The question that dogs us in the first half of the book, then, is what will Ever feel like after she has lost weight post-gastric bypass? Will Skinny disappear on the flip side?

Skinny Donna CoonerI’ll come right out with it: I picked Donna Cooner’s book up at BEA (Book Expo America) where it was featured in the YA Editors’ Buzz Panel (are we still using the word buzz?—ridiculous; but I kind of like it) and was pretty unconvinced before I even started reading. I am always apprehensive to read YA books featuring a fat protagonist because so often they are fat-shaming, food-punishing Cinderella stories in which the fat character can only succeed (in life, in friendship, in looks, in love) by losing weight. At the same time, though . . . it’s a topic that feels personal to me and has the power to evoke a strong response when I’m reading—sometimes negative and sometimes positive. Further, editor Aimee Friedman mentioned that Cooner herself underwent gastric bypass surgery, so I thought perhaps she would bring a particular perspective to the issue.

But . . . it didn’t, really. Ever’s approval for surgery felt extremely sudden and, while she does consider the potential scary downsides of the surgery, her decision to have it seems more like a decision to chop off your hair and get a makeover rather than to undergo a life-altering procedure. Ever’s father clearly wants to be able to snap his fingers and have his daughter be a “normal” weight—out of love, sure, but it all felt a bit creepy to me, particularly because Ever is so young and, I would imagine, her body is still changing.

what was this book’s intention? did it live up to it?

The Phantom of the OperaBut the surgery isn’t so much the point of Skinny. Cooner’s intention, I think, was to show the ways that self-consciousness is free-floating and extends so far beyond merely our physicalities that a physical change isn’t enough to change the way we feel about ourselves and how we can relate to the world. In this, Skinny really succeeds: anyone who has felt crippled by self-consciousness will recognize Ever’s manic vacillation between feeling successful and feeling hopeless. The persistence of Skinny’s voice forces Ever to confront the fact that Skinny’s voice is her own thoughts aimed like missiles at all her softest, most sensitive spots.

My favorite thing about Skinny is Rat, Ever’s best friend. He’s a smart, nerdy, tech-kid who cares deeply for Ever (even when she’s totally mean to him) and appoints himself her personal coach when she is recovering from surgery and trying to exercise. He makes a chart of her weight, her exercise goals, and the inspirational show tune that Ever chooses to represent the week.

Wicked musicalAnd it’s here that Skinny pissed me off: Ever is obsessed with musicals and she measures her progress in freaking show tunes! You know what that means? (Well, besides that she has great taste.) It means that she has a personality. A unique personality + passionate tastes + a wacky best friend + a lot of smarts should mean that Ever is a complicated, interesting character. In reality, though, the fact that Skinny‘s worldview is limited to/filtered through Skinny’s voice means that Ever is only her body. Cooner clearly has a picture of Ever that goes beyond what we get, which, ultimately, can be summed up by a few stereotypes: Ever feels like the cliché of the angry fat girl who feels smarter than all the pretty people and hates everyone because she experiences humiliation in front of them, so she keeps them at a distance.

DreamgirlsThat isn’t to say that Skinny is all negative, though, certainly. In the end, we get a definite glimpse of the ways in which Ever might be able to give herself a more interesting kind of makeover—one where she revises her relationship with herself to see herself as someone with talents and qualities that deserve more attention than her exterior. And, although that move comes too late to truly enjoy it in this novel, it’s a gesture in the right direction and I was genuinely moved by it.

So, although it wasn’t really my bag, I think Skinny is a book that will be powerful and meaningful for a lot of readers who are struggling with similar issues of self-confidence and self-consciousness. And, therefore, I want to give you a copy!

GIVEAWAY

Skinny will be released October 1st, but I want to give one reader the Advanced Reading Copy that I got at BEA! Fill out the form below and your name will be entered into the Reaping for your district . . . um, I mean, that is, uh, entered into the drawing! Remember to leave your email address so I can contact you. I’ll announce the winner a week from today!

procured from: BEA, in ARC form, with no compensation on either side

Note, September 14: And the winner of our giveaway is Joli. Congrats, Joli, and thanks to everyone who entered!

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