Thursday, April 23, 2015

Kiss, Kill, Vanish

Kiss Kill Vanish by Jessica MartinezJessica Martinez is a master at combining lyrical prose with tense, sometimes dark plots, and Kiss, Kill, Vanish is no exception. Valentina Cruz, a pampered, wealthy Miami girl, finds herself on the run from everything she knows after witnessing her boyfriend, Emilio, shoot and kill another man on her father's orders. Hiding (and freezing) in Montreal, Valentina tries to make sense of her life and figure out what to do next. Posing for paintings by a spoiled rich boy, Lucien, gives her enough money to live on, but not enough to buy her self-respect. But when the unthinkable happens, Valentine finds herself forced to confront her past with a most unlikely ally: Lucien's drug-abusing, cynical younger brother, Marcel.

Martinez does a wonderful job painting the characters: Lucian's thinly veiled insecurity, Marcel's contempt, Valentina's own struggle to understand herself and the life founded on drug money. And some of her word-paintings for setting are stunning and vivid. Some readers won't like the allusions to drug use and sex in the main characters, and the plot-line is admittedly dark (and sometimes violent). The ending wasn't entirely plausible to me, and I spent too much time wishing Valentine would just get over her ex-boyfriend, but there was so much to love about the book (the writing, Marcel--surprisingly enough!, and the vivid settings), that these didn't detract from my overall enjoyment too much.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Sky Jumpers: The Forbidden Flats

The Forbidden Flats (Sky Jumpers, #2) Peggy Eddleman does a terrific job of making her middle-grade world come alive in her Sky Jumpers books. In The Forbidden Flats, Hope and her friends are again called on to do what they do best: save their families and friends from danger by taking calculated risks. In this sequel to Sky Jumpers, after a massive earthquake upsets the chemical balance in White Rock, the deadly band of gas known as "bomb's breath" begins to lower. Calculations reveal that the gas will be low enough to make White Rock uninhabitable in a little over three weeks, unless someone can fetch a specific chemical from the Rocky Mountains several hundred miles distant.

Of course, Hope and her friends join up, and much of their adventure involves dealing with the various towns and groups that have sprung up along the plains. As always, Hope is intrepid (sometimes too intrepid), and the story moves along quickly. Since Hope's character was established in the first book, we didn't learn as much about her in this sequel, but Hope learns more about her birth mother and the family she came from as they travel through the town where her birth-mother was born.

But mostly, I was impressed by the fun science in the book. I'm not a chemist (that's my husband), but Eddleman's ideas about how a massive "green bomb" might have changed the chemical characteristics of rocks was fascinating--and, of course, Hope and her friends still get to do cool gravity-defying feats involving the Bomb's breath.

I read this one quickly--now to pass it off to my kids!

Sunday, April 19, 2015

An evening with Neil Gaiman

I haven't (yet) read a Neil Gaiman book I didn't like . . . though admittedly I haven't read all of his books yet. But I love the affectionate spoof on fairy tales in Stardust (and the murdered princes); I love lyricism and atmosphere of The Ocean at the End of the Lane, and American Gods was blow-me-away brilliant.

Ocean at the End of the Lane US Cover.jpg

So naturally, when I found out he'd be speaking not too far from me (three hours isn't far, right?), I bought tickets.

And dragged my husband (who's read Sandman and seen Stardust so he wasn't completely reluctant) with me. (I also ran into some of my wonderful writer friends, including three of my agent-sisters! So that was fun).

The event organizers asked Doug Fabrizio, of Utah's Radio West, to interview Gaiman for the evening. He asked some good questions, though honestly I'd have been happy to listen to Gaiman rhapsodize about the phone book. (I think the interview will be broadcast on Radio West shortly).

I tried to take notes because I have a lousy memory without visual stimuli--but naturally, since the theater was dark I can only read half of what I wrote.

Some things I loved:

Gaiman on Fiction

He asked, "Are fictions safe? Should they be?"

He became a writer around age twenty, after a childhood obsessed with books (and funny bookish fantasies, like slipping into an alternate reality where The Lord of the Rings hadn't been written, and his role would be to make it look like a manuscript and get it published in this alternate world so he could become known as the author of LOTR). The clincher, he said, was thinking that at the end of his life, he didn't want to think "I could have been a writer"--and not know if he was lying.

Confessing that if he wasn't a writer, he'd like to design religions.

Great art isn't forged in the crucible of suffering--you don't have to suffer to write. But if you are suffering, writing can help you transmute pain into something beautiful. (There were several poignant moments where it was clear Gaiman has been thinking about losing his sometimes writing collaborator, Terry Pratchett).

Good writers make you forget the craft for the magic.

Gaiman on life in general

Doug Fabrizio asked if Gaiman would talk about his new hobby of bee keeping. Gaiman answered, "Everyone should have a hobby that can kill them."

Asked, "What are you afraid of?" Gaiman confessed to the normal things (including having his eyeballs melt while riding on a train, because of course that's normal), and then added, "I'm not scared of monsters, but of people who are certain of their own rightness."

On the differences between England and America: "England has history; America has geography."

Gaiman on the genesis of his stories

One of my favorite parts of the night was hearing how some of his stories came to be. Coraline was started in the 90s when one of his daughters would come home from kindergarten and tell him these creepy stories about a girl with her name who would come home to her mother--who wasn't her mother--and who would then lock her in the basement with all the other dead girls and boys.

After discovering (not unnaturally) that the local bookstore didn't carry horror stories for five-year-olds, he started writing her a story. He abandoned it for several years before realizing his children would be grown before he finished it, if he didn't hurry.

Then, of course, he couldn't sell it to his agent. "It's too scary," she said, refusing to send it on to Harper Children's. He convinced her to read it to her own children (then ages 6 and 8). If they weren't scared, she would send it to Harper Children's. If they were scared . . . he'd pay for therapy.

It worked. The kids loved it, his agent sent it on, the editors loved it, it was published, made into a movie and even a Broadway play.

Sitting at the Broadway premier, Gaiman found himself sitting by one of his agent's daughters, then about fifteen. He said, "This happened because of you," and explained the story to her, concluding, "This happened because you weren't frightened."

"I was terrified," she said. "But I knew that if I showed it, my mom would stop reading and I'd never find out how it ended."

Gaiman concluded, "So Coraline exists because she lied."

I think it's impossible to capture the magic of that auditorium, listening to a master storyteller, in the bare words on a blog post.

But my mind is filled with words now and glimmers of stories, and that might be the very best part of all.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

The Storyspinner

I was able to meet Becky Wallace at a book launch she held for The Storyspinner at the King's English in Salt Lake City. She was wonderful and gracious and I loved hearing about her book. Luckily, the book it self is equally charming.

The Storyspinner (The Keepers' Chronicles, #1)This is the kind of YA fantasy I love: strong heroines, clever characters, a fun romance, and just the right amount of historical-esque details for a fantasy world.

Wallace uses six different POVs to tell the story of the Keepers who are charged with preserving a faltering magic that divides their kingdom from the southern dukedoms (and protects both sides, though the Southerners have come to believe that the Keepers are the stuff of legends). But when things start breaking through the barriers, a small group of keepers goes in search of a missing princess who can help heal the magic.

Meanwhile, Johanna is reeling from the death of her family and struggling to support her brothers while her grieving mother drinks away their livelihood. Her family were performers, respected tradesmen--but after her father's death they were sent away from their troop. When Johanna is invited to perform the storyspinning art her father taught her at a local duke's estate, she jumps at the chance--despite her mixed feelings about the duke's heir, Rafi. When dead girls start showing up all across the country, the same age and look as Johanna, it becomes clear that Johanna might be ensnared by a plot much bigger and much more dangerous than she could have imagined.

While some of the POV shifts were confusing at first (I didn't fully understand what the Keepers were doing), I quickly became attached to the characters, particularly Johanna, who is strong and spunky and smart. Wallace writes wonderful romantic scenes--full of sweetness and tension and that heart-pinging sense of longing.

And, this is probably just me and the coincidence of the heroine's name, but as I read I kept thinking of one of my favorite (and undoubtedly cheesy) childhood movies--Disney's Black Arrow (Lady Joanna! Beautiful Lady!).

Monday, April 13, 2015

Wee Free Men

The Wee Free Men (Discworld, #30) When news came of Terry Pratchett's passing, I realized I was woefully under-read in his works. Based on recommendations I saw in several different places, I snatched this one up from the library. It was delightful.

Apparently this is part of a much longer series (Discworld), but it's the first with Tiffany Aching, who at the story's start is an unusually poised 9-year-old who wants to become a witch. She's eminently qualified because she is able to use first and second thought (essentially to think about what she's thinking), though witches are unusual in a chalky world like Tiffany's. She's also an exceptional cheese-maker and reluctant caretaker of her toddler brother. But when a faerie queen from another real steals her brother, Tiffany has to go after her armed as best as she can with a bit of knowledge purchased from a visiting witch, and the wee free men (also known as "pictsies"), who are, frankly, hysterical.

I don't know that I loved the plot of this book as much as I loved the characters. I adored Tiffany. Though she's the same age as my oldest son, she felt a lot like a kindred spirit, like the kind of too-old kid that I was at that age. (Though I would not have been self-possessed enough to hammer a river monster in the face with a frying pan--or to stake my youngest brother as bait! Tempting though that would have been). And the wee free men were simply hilarious to read about.

 I can easily see why Pratchett is so well-loved if this is representative of the rest of his books. I suppose I'll have to read more and find out . . .

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

IWSG Wednesday: Enjoying the Ride

It's another first Wednesday, so time for another Insecure Writer's Support Group post! This month, I've been thinking about the importance of enjoying the writing journey.
IWSG Badge

In a lot of ways, I have a lot to be grateful about in my writing journey. In the last four months, I signed with an agent and sold my debut novel (The Blood Rose Rebellion, due out in 2016 from Knopf). I signed my contract last week!

These are milestones I worked a long time for, and I'm thrilled to have reached them.


Something funny happened around the time I signed my agent. I'd looked forward to that moment for so long, I think I had it in my head that I'd be happy as a writer when that happened--that I'd feel validated, that I'd stop worrying if my writing was good enough.

Guess what? That didn't happen. Sure, I rode a euphoric high--for about three days. Then, suddenly it was that elusive book deal that I needed to confirm my happiness and give me confidence.

But even that didn't prove entirely true. Selling a book opened up a whole new realm of worries. (How can I help market this thing? What if readers hate it? What if I don't sell out my advance?) I still struggle to sit down and write. I still write words and re-read them and think, "this is terrible. I'm a fraud." And I half-expect someone to come by and revoke my contract. 

The truth that I'm slowly discovering is this: you have to write because somehow the writing itself satisfies you. If you write for any other reason (to sell a book, to hit a best-seller list), it will never be enough, because there's always some elusive goal beyond the one you've just hit.

You have to believe in yourself (or at the least, believe in your close friends' and critique partners' assessment of yourself on days when your own belief flags), because there will always be external forces that both love and hate you. And no outside approval will make up for your own failure to believe in your gifts.

In the meantime, I'm still here--and still writing. 

Monday, March 30, 2015

Not in the Script

Not in the Script (If Only . . . #3) Amy Finnegan's debut, Not in the Script, is adorable--exactly the kind of YA contemporary romance that I like reading.

Emma Taylor is an actress who unexpectedly shot to success at age 12. Now, at eighteen, a seasoned veteran of Hollywood, she's just signed on to do a TV series--with none other than her long-time Hollywood crush, Brett. But she has a history of falling for guys who turn out to be jerks, so she's determined to avoid any romantic entanglements on set.

Jake Elliot is a reluctant model who took on high-paying gigs to pay for his mom's treatment after her stroke. He's new to acting, but willing to put in his time for the paycheck--and intrigued by Emma Taylor, who proves to be much deeper than he'd expect from your average Hollywood starlet. He also happens to be Emma's best friend's celebrity crush, a little detail that puts a definite cramp in his plans to get to know Emma better.

I thought the book was a fun insider look at a Hollywood set (Finnegan's brother has worked on several such sets, and Finnegan visited several while writing the book). But really, what Finnegan excels at is the slow-burning romance between Emma and Jake. The two are both so likeable--and human--that it's hard not to root for them, despite all the obstacles to their relationship. More than that, the book is clean--I wouldn't hesitate to hand it to any teen (or even pre-teen) that I know.

As a side-note: I met Amy at a recent writer's conference, and she is just as adorable in person as her characters. But as she shared the story about how Not in the Script came to be, I liked the story even more: this wasn't an overnight success. Amy worked on the story for several years before snagging an agent and interested editor.

I love it when authors *and* their characters get the happy endings they deserve!