Monday, December 31, 2012

Farewell to 2012

I can't believe another year is over.

2012 was a big year for me. It was the first year ever that I haven't once stepped foot on New Zealand soil. It was the first year I'd ever lived overseas. It was the first year that I rarely saw my parents in person. It was also the year I decided to really make a go of writing a book. It was the year I added countless skills to my resume from working in New York City. 

It really has been a year of growth. My relationship with my mister grew significantly, and my relationship with myself changed - in a good way. I began to view the world differently, and I began to really be thankful for all the small things in life.

I met so many new people this year and had more adventures than I'd ever had in my lifetime. It flew by so fast. A year ago I was preparing to see in 2012 by partying at Dallas BBQ in Times Square, NYC. We feasted, we danced and we watched the ball come down at midnight. I really can't believe that was a whole year ago.

Now I'm nearing the end of my time in America. I get to ring in 2013 almost 24 hours after my friends and family in New Zealand do, but I get to do it in the awesome Californian atmosphere.

Who knows what the year ahead will hold. Hopefully some very exciting developments. Top of my list is to crack through that WIP that's been sitting gathering dust for the past few months, get a kick-ass job, spend some good quality time with my family and just enjoy New Zealand. I've developed a new found appreciation for my home country after being away for so long!

What are you plans for 2013? How are you seeing in the New Year?

Whatever you do tonight make sure you have fun, celebrate good friends and life, but most importantly, stay safe!

Monday, December 24, 2012

Merry Christmas to all!

It's the most wonderful time of the year! At least that's what the song says!

Ever since I was a little I've loved Christmas time. As Christmas falls during summer in New Zealand, we would also be on our summer break so we would have November and January off to enjoy the season.

At the start of December I would put on the Disney Christmas Carols soundtrack that I have had since forever and my sister and I would decorate the tree. Dad would hang tinsel around the walls, the wreath would go on the door and the Christmas bears would sit under the tree. Slowly the base of the tree would fill with gifts and mum would start baking her delicious Christmas cake.

On Christmas eve my sister would sleep in my room and by 6am we were awake and excited about the day ahead. 'Santa' would have put a sign on the door to the lounge stating that we must not enter before 7am, so we would spend an hour absolutely bursting with excitement to open our presents.

The day would be a whirlwind. We'd open the gifts from Santa, our breakfast would consist of chocolate and by midday our extended family would have arrived. We'd have a big barbeque lunch, we'd play cricket or other similar sports in the sunshine and then we'd all open our presents from our extended families.

At night we'd sit outside, eating Christmas cake and watching the stars. We'd often watch the Christmas themed film on the TV or play with the goodies we'd received that day.

Last Christmas was our first time away from our families. As we're both very family oriented people, it was difficult, however we joined forces with 15 other Kiwi's in Manhattan and had a great time. I even made a Pavlova, a traditional New Zealand desert, which impressed all the other Kiwi's there - good score!

This Christmas it will just be the two of us. We will (hopefully) get our first ever white Christmas in Vancouver. We'll see the Christmas lights throughout the city, we'll bundle up in warm clothes like everyone in the Christmas movies always have to do and we'll find somewhere to have Christmas dinner. It will be hard and a little lonely without our families, but again, that's part of the big adventure. Plus, this year my family have surprised me with holding off their own Christmas until February when we're all together again and can celebrate the way we did once upon a time! Can't wait!

I hope you, wherever in the world you are, have an amazing Christmas or Hanukkah filled with family, friends and lots of laughter. Eat, drink and be merry!

Monday, December 17, 2012

I bawled the whole way through, and loved every minute

There are some books that stay with you long after you've read them. Of course, it'll depend on what kind of books you really love as to which ones stay with you, but I'm sure you can think of one or two that you've never quite managed to forget, or that you always say 'oh, I must read that book again'. I love stories that are true, honest, raw, and make you feel all sorts of emotions. 

The ones I'm thinking of are those that really make you think. They tug the heart strings, they make you laugh, they make you cry and you then want to go and recommend the book to everyone you know.

About a month ago I talked about non-fiction books that stick with you. Now I want to talk about fiction novels.

There's been a couple of these that I've read recently. One of which is Ape House, by Sara Gruen who wrote Water for Elephants. Water for Elephants is a great story, however I actually feel Ape House is slightly better. Maybe I'm a sucker for stories that include animals, or maybe it just really pulled me into the story, and wrapped me up in the world. I laughed and cried with the characters, I cheered them along and I got angry and the injustices. Once it finished I recommended it to my FH, to my parents and my friends. Many of them also tracked down the book and enjoyed it almost as much as I did!

Sometimes the story won't make a huge impression on you at the time, but later your mind keeps drifting back to the story. This happened with me when I read Still Alice. I think this story just resonated with me because so many people I know, or know of, including my grandmother suffer from Alzheimer's disease. This book is told from the perspective of Alice who begins to suffer from early onset Alzheimer's. It's really interesting seeing how her brain starts to fail on her, seeing how she thinks and how she begins to forget. It was also a little bit scary as the character of Alice had so much in common with my mother (profession, interests etc). While the book didn't particularly make me laugh or cry, it definitely stuck with me enough for my brain to continue drifting back to the book, six months after I read it.

Still Alice

The Kite Runner is one I'd love to read again, I've never forgotten the impact that book had on me. It was disturbing and heart wrenching and incredibly well written. As hard as it is to read, that is one novel I still recommend everyone to read.

The Kite Runner

The Lovely Bones is another I've read numerous times. It's heart breaking and upsetting and causes you to feel all sorts of emotions - happy, sad, angry, confused..... It's a brilliant book, and while the movie is great it doesn't compare to the book!

The Lovely Bones

I've talked before about The Tea Rose, that's another that I'm still raving about.... you can read my review of that here.
The Tea Rose

 And as cliche as it may be, My Sister's Keeper - a long time favourite with a twist that I never saw coming that completely broke my heart and left me crying for hours.

While well written fiction novels can have this affect that still makes you sad when you think of the story, they really can't compare to the non-fiction novels that have the same effect. Partly because you know the non-fiction novels are true, and that the person telling the story really went through, or witnessed, all this heartache and trauma. I planned talk about these books in this post, but some of these stories touched my heart so incredibly that I feel they deserve their own post.

So they're a few of mine.... what are the fiction books that have never left you?

Friday, December 14, 2012

Book Review: Silent Tears (Kay Bratt)


Silent Tears: A Journey of Hope in a Chinese Orphanage
Written by: Kay Bratt
Published by: Self-published
Date: July 3, 2008
Pages: 430

“An eye-opening account of life in China’s orphanages. Kay Bratt vividly details the conditions and realities faced by Chinese orphans in an easy-to-read manner that draws the reader in to the heart-wrenching moments she has experienced in her work to bring hope to these children.”—Dan Cruver, cofounder and director of Together for Adoption

When her family relocated to rural China in 2003, Kay Bratt was thrust into a new world, one where boys were considered more valuable than girls and poverty and the one-child policy had created an epidemic of abandoned infants. As a volunteer at a local orphanage, Bratt witnessed conditions that were unfathomable to a middle-class mother of two from South Carolina.
Based on Bratt’s diary of her four years working at the orphanage, Silent Tears offers a searing account of young lives rendered disposable. In the face of an implacable system, Bratt found ways to work within (and around) the rules to make a better future for the children, whom she came to love. Her story balances the sadness and struggles of life in the orphanage with moments of joy, optimism, faith, and victory. It is the story of hundreds of children—and one woman who never planned on becoming a hero but became one anyway.

Every now and then I like to mix up my reading list, which consists mostly of fiction, with a non-fiction book. I don't remember how I stumbled upon this one, but once I read the plot summary I decided I should add it to my list. It has since become one of my most recommended books of the year.

As it says in the plot above, Kay relocated to the harsh life of China with her family in 2003. While her husband went off to work, and their young daughter went off to school, Kay decided to volunteer at a local orphanage. It was like nothing you could ever imagine.

Now this book is not an easy read, especially as you are painfully aware that what you are reading is a true account of the conditions in China. It also made me want to head over to China and adopt all these children myself. It's heartbreaking and disturbing but also very uplifting to see Kay's determination to help these children.

I don't want to say too much about it so as to not spoil this book, but I will say that I feel this a very important book for us to read. It gives us insight into life in China. A life that is so very different than mine, and quite possibly yours.

The writing of the book isn't first class. It's not perfect, and the book is really a series of diary entries of her daily life which some may not enjoy, but she doesn't hold a lot back. She's very honest about her experiences, as painful as they may be and for me that over rode any questionable writing or lack of editing.

I'm going to give Silent Tears 5 stars. Simply because it touched me and really made me think about my own life, and how important it is to help others out who aren't as fortunate. I recommend this book to everyone.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Three pages isn't enough!

In the last year or so I've started actively reading the acknowledgements of a book. I didn't used to. I just wanted the story. However, seeing how important my friends and family are to my own process of writing a novel, I realise the acknowledgments are vital. 

In fact, sometimes it almost seems like the acknowledgements aren't enough. For example, one day I was speaking to my mother and she said something along the lines of "Oh I expect that to happen when you write your novel." I stopped dead and thought I must have misheard her, after all the Skype connection between New Zealand and New York is often pretty unreliable. It turned out that's exactly what she'd said. I was quite surprised and asked why she thought I would write a book. She said, you love reading, you've always loved writing and I wouldn't be surprised if that's what you do next.

She was right of course. Like mother's always know, she knew what my next step was before I did. In fact, I had always wanted to write a book, I just wasn't sure if I had it in me. Hearing my mother say that really gave me the confidence to step forward and begin. Even now as I write this, there are very few people I've told that I'm writing. I've told a few people I barely know which I seem to feel okay with, but in terms of who I speak to in my daily life I told my FH, my mum, my little sister, my older sister's husband, my roommate and one of my good friends who is the most avid reader and book critic I know.

Without my FH and my good friend, I would have been stuck before I even started. They're the ones I turn to if I can't make something flow, or find the right name for a character or a city, or if I can't quite figure out which direction my plot will head in, they're the ones I'll tell my ideas to to gauge reaction. The rest I simply told the plot to in order to see what they thought of the general idea. In fact, I only told my little sister because she was suspicious about the reason I was asking her for boys and girls names. She later told mum she was surprised at how much she liked my idea (pft, thanks little sis...!)

I'm no where near the publishing or even editing stage of my WIP, but it's nice to acknowledge the people who have stood by me and cheered me on from before day one! Sometimes, the acknowledgements just aren't enough.

Who are the people you want to shout out to, who have helped you with your writing or whatever it is you're passionate about?

Friday, December 7, 2012

Book Reviews: Divergent (Veronica Roth)

Written by: Veronica Roth
Published by: HarperCollins
Date: May 3, 2011
Pages: 496

In Beatrice Prior's dystopian Chicago, society is divided into five factions, each dedicated to the cultivation of a particular virtue—Candor (the honest), Abnegation (the selfless), Dauntless (the brave), Amity (the peaceful), and Erudite (the intelligent). On an appointed day of every year, all sixteen-year-olds must select the faction to which they will devote the rest of their lives. For Beatrice, the decision is between staying with her family and being who she really is—she can't have both. So she makes a choice that surprises everyone, including herself.

During the highly competitive initiation that follows, Beatrice renames herself Tris and struggles to determine who her friends really are—and where, exactly, a romance with a sometimes fascinating, sometimes infuriating boy fits into the life she's chosen. But Tris also has a secret, one she's kept hidden from everyone because she's been warned it can mean death. And as she discovers a growing conflict that threatens to unravel her seemingly perfect society, she also learns that her secret might help her save those she loves . . . or it might destroy her.

Debut author Veronica Roth bursts onto the literary scene with the first book in the Divergent series—dystopian thrillers filled with electrifying decisions, heartbreaking betrayals, stunning consequences, and unexpected romance.

At a loss for what to read next, I asked Amazon for some dystopian books. It pointed me in the direction of Divergent. I was late to the party. Insurgent (the sequel) had already been out for almost two months and the series had a dedicated fan following throughout the web. I decided to check it out and within a few hours I'd been pushed into a hermit-like state which didn't end until I had finished both novels.

The book is centered around sixteen year old Beatrice - or Tris, as she soon becomes known. After making one of the most important decisions in her life Tris finds her life thrown completely into turmoil as she navigates her way through her faction initiation, new friends, new enemies, and new romance. Then, of course, there rumblings of unrest and danger....

I really liked Tris. From the opening pages I felt in some ways I could relate to her. It soon becomes obvious she's a very complex character, very strong willed and feisty, yet also anxious and vulnerable. Her growth throughout the novel is awesome to watch and you're left wanting to be best friends with this crazy teen. Tris is backed up during the book by new friends Christine, Will and Al. While they may not all have the best intentions, they create a great dynamic within Tris' life. Tris becomes a reasonably strong protagonist – though the process of getting her to that point DID feel a little slow. But to be honest, I liked the fact she was weak, ‘stiff’ and undefined in the beginning; it allowed the audience to see her transformation.

Then there is Four. You couldn't possibly forget Four. He is the teacher of the new initiates of the faction Tris chooses. He puts them through their paces, watches over them, and does his best to intimidate them. He is oh so dreamy, oh so strong, dark and brooding, and yet behind the tough exterior you see there is a lot more to Four than you could possibly imagine - like his real name, why he is called Four, and where he originally came from. Four is brave, yet he has a strong moral compass so he is not needlessly reckless like some of the other instructors *cough ERIC cough*. He is not the type of character you will like from the moment you meet him. In fact, you might despise him just a little bit at the start. Give him a chance though, he's worth it.

I loved the world building of this novel. It really intrigued me and I wanted to know more about it. I wanted to go and experience this world and to understand how it got this way. I couldn't quite wrap my head around why (most) people managed to fit so neatly into only one faction of society in the first place, but I do like to take everything with an 'anything is possible approach'. This world is so different than our current society. We all hope to be honest, selfless, brave, peaceful and intelligent - but most of us aren't. At least not all the time. Can you imagine a world where you have to abide by one of those virtues every minute of your daily life? Your whole existence would be devoted to that one virtue. It's quite thought provoking, isn't it? That's why I love this world Veronica has created. It really makes you think about humanity and what we've become as a society.

The book does start off a little slow, but the pace soon takes off and you’re left feeling like you’re on a train that’s hurtling forward towards the finishing line. A few things that I didn't like about the book - I felt the true definition of ‘brave’ was hugely blurred (this was potentially intentional, but if it was that was unclear) and some of the characters felt extremely one dimensional to the point that you really didn’t care about them. I also didn't like how in one particular scene Tris talks about how she feels powerful when holding a gun. Wasn't a huge fan of that, but after reading the sequel it was possibly necessary.

In saying all this, I still found it to be a really great book and wasted no time in recommending it to all my friends. If you're not the type to pick a book to pieces and have the ability just to sit back and enjoy the story, I think it’s a really great read.

I should also mention the author, Veronica Roth, conceived the idea while she was still at College. She is 24 and already a bestselling author which is obviously a huge achievement. While the writer side of me is jealous that she’s totally and completely living my dream, I’m so happy for her and the success is completely deserved. The third book in the Divergent series comes out in Fall 2013, and I’m eagerly waiting its release!

So after all that I give Divergent 4.5 stars. It's not quite 5 stars but it's as close as you can get. It's one of my favourite books this year and I highly recommend it!


Monday, December 3, 2012

Are writers born or created?

I was over at a friend's place recently and out of the blue she questioned if good writing is something that is taught, is it something we pick up along the way or is something we're born with?

She put up quite a compelling argument which really got me thinking. People who can write, and write well, is this something they're specifically taught in English class? Or do they pick it up from their surroundings and the books they read? Or maybe, just maybe, they're born with it.

Just after I turned 21, I lectured for a while at a university. (I should point out I never once felt like I should be standing at the front of a classroom of lecture hall considering my students were generally only two years younger than me, or in some cases, quite a bit older than me.)

During my position at the university I had to mark hundreds of essays and exams. Okay, I wasn't teaching English or Creative Writing, but I was teaching papers that were in a similar field to English. Because of this you would think then that everyone who was in this particular degree should have been able to write. You know - paragraphs making sense, correct spelling and grammar and some coherency throughout the essays.

For some people, this was easy. Their essays were well presented and beautifully written, not only making sense but applying the research to their work in really creative and interesting ways. Those were the essays I loved marking. Those were the students who really took pride in their work and wanted to do well (even though I'm sure many of them had put in an overnighter before it was due just to meet the deadline.)

Other students, however, would 'drop the ball' on their second sentence of the first paragraph. Their topic sentence would be forgotten as soon as they'd finished it. For some, they would even lose track of what they were saying at the start of that very same sentence... so they'd carry off on a new tangent.

To be honest, I was really shocked. Every single one of those students would have studied English all through high school as a pre-req for getting into this degree in the first place. How could they have passed their exams, got into a course which had limited intake and still have no clue how to write a comprehensive essay?!

Anyway, let's look at the students who wrote me those glowing essays. As I mentioned, they were fantastic. However, I could still see a huge difference between the essays. There were those who knew the material and knew how to write, and then there were those who had learned how to write.

There is a difference here....

See those who knew the material and knew how to write wrote great essays. But they rarely used "big" words, their punctuation and grammar was all over the place and the formatting of their essays wasn't quite how it should be. Those who had been taught knew the rules. Their paragraphs were set out perfectly, their spelling, grammar and punctuation was correct, and the words they used not only looked great but sounded very intelligent.

I'm going to be honest here. When I started university, I was in the first category of those who could write. I studied very hard, I researched all the material I would need and I wrote the essays. I knew how to write, but I didn't particularly know any 'big words' and I wasn't always the best on grammar and punctuation. But I tried my best.

During my first year of university I took a few classes which helped me significantly improve. I took creative writing courses, essay formatting courses, and generic 'principles of writing' courses. My peers in these classes groaned - they weren't interested in learning the basics of the written word. Most of them were just taking the class to make up credit. Me, however, I loved it. In this class we had to write two short stories every week, in all different styles. We had to write practice essays and poems, film scripts and monologues. I was completely in my element.

The basic principles of writing I learned in those classes took me through the rest of my college years, through my undergrad and grad school classes, through my first jobs, through my magazine article publications and my resume cover letters to where I am now. I'm still not as good as I'd like to be. I'm still not the Queen of spelling and grammar. You won't read my blogs and find it particularly intellectually stimulating, and it's quite possible you may find something that doesn't make sense, or a sentence that is far too long. (Although don't confuse my British English for spelling errors!)

The reason I wanted to bring up this story is that I think there are two answers to my friend's initial question. People who write, and write well, are created both from nature and nurture. See, I believe in order to create a great work of fiction, you need to have the creativity, imagination, a way with words and a love of writing that, most likely, you are born with (or are encouraged in that direction as a child). Then you need to learn how to write, and write well, which is the nurture/taught side. This comes from being taught the correct spelling, grammar and techniques. Following that you need to combine both the skills you're born with and the ones you learn to put in an awful lot of hard work to create the best possible work of fiction.

I think if you only had hard work, OR creativity, OR the foundations for writing then it wouldn't work. You need all three, and if you're missing one then you need to be taught how to do that one in order to write the best pieces of work you possibly can.

But... that is just my opinion. I'm curious to know yours....