Thursday, September 18, 2014

The Vigilante Poets of Selwyn Academy

 I've got mixed feelings after finishing Kate Hattemer's debut, The Vigilante Poets of Selwyn Academy. I loved the writing: I thought Hattemer was smart and clever and the English major in me admired the way she managed to weave in both Ezra Pound's Cantos and the rhetorical device of tricolon.

The Vigilante Poets of Selwyn AcademyI liked the characters too: they were messy and flawed and they made mistakes and used snap judgments. Ethan's ultimate realization that he'd been idealizing people because it was easier than dealing with them in their messy contradictions and depth rang true to me.

But I wasn't entirely happy with the plot. In the story, Ethan and his friends attend a private high school for the arts that has been overrun by a reality TV series. When their English teacher introduces them to long poems as a form of social protest, Ethan's charismatic friend Luke decides they  need to rebel--through poetry. (Note: I can't imagine very many places besides an art school where this would be considered cool, let alone rebellious). And for a while, it seems to work. Until Luke gets incorporated into the reality TV world and Ethan has to decide what it is that he really wants. The resolution to the whole reality show v. authentic art seemed far-fetched to me.

Aside from that, I think a lot of teens would like the fun relationships between friends, Ethan's hilarious triplet sisters, and the gerbil that's almost another character. Some readers have observed that the lack of romance (it never goes beyond the level of crush in any direction) makes the book seem young, but it seems true to life to me for a boy like Ethan who's still trying to figure out how to read romantic cues and doesn't know enough about himself to even know what he likes.

Monday, September 15, 2014

The Paper Magician

The Paper Magician (The Paper Magician Trilogy, #1) I thought Charlie Holmberg's debut novel, The Paper Magician, was quite charming. I'm a sucker for historical fantasy (I adore Patricia Wrede and Caroline Stevermer's Sorcery and Cecilia), and I was hoping this would be in the same vein. To my delight, it was.

When the story begins, Ceony Twill is less than thrilled to apprentice to a Paper Magician. In her world, once magicians have bonded to a material, they are bonded to it forever. She'd studied hard in school and hoped for something more impressive, like metal magic. But there aren't enough paper magicians, so paper it is.

But Magister Thane is nothing like what she expected--and Ceony discovers unexpected wonder in Paper Magic, where complicated folds of paper bring things to life. I thought Holmberg was particularly successful in setting up the magic here--I wanted to try paper magic myself!

When a dark secret from Thane's past shows up in the form of an Excisioner, whose dark magic uses the material of the human body, and rips Thane's heart from him, Ceony has to use her limited skills with paper magic to try and save him.

The magic system here was fun, and Ceony herself was delightful. I liked that she was smart, independent, and knew what she wanted out of life. I wasn't sure about the speed at which the romance here developed, but I could see why Ceony found Thane appealing and intriguing. And I loved that Ceony had such limited resources for saving Thane--it made the stakes that much higher. So often in fantasy the heroine has this incredible power, but Ceony didn't have any of that. She was just an ordinary magician who barely  had the training she needed to animate paper. It was refreshing.

I'll be interested to see where Holmberg takes the story in the sequel, The Glass Magician.

Friday, September 12, 2014

The Magicians

 I determined to read Lev's Grossman's The Magicians because it's been deemed such an important fantasy book and because a friend who I trust wrote a thoughtful and provocative review of the series (warning: there are a spoilers in the review).

The Magicians (The Magicians, #1)Intellectually, I liked the idea of exploring the fantasy portal as an emerging adult, rather than as a wonder-struck child. Lev Grossman basically crosses the portal (Narnia) and the enchantment of a magical school (Harry Potter) but throws in philosophical characters like Quentin (the main character) who seem innately immune to happiness. Over the course of the book, Quentin gets everything he wants: an aspiring stage magician, he finds himself admitted to a super-secret and exclusive school for magicians at Brakebills. But as he learns about the magic, even though he finds the magic fascinating, he never seems to find it quite as magical as the reader does. His friends (save Alice) are an unpleasant, narcissistic bunch. They're fascinating in small doses (much like a train wreck), but I found it difficult to press through an entire novel in their company.

For me, the intellectual angle of the book was it's main redeeming quality: I didn't enjoy the story itself and felt as if I had to force myself through much of the time. But I'm glad I read it. Some of the questions it raises about our expectations and what we think will make us happy are important questions. And I do, still, love the idea that maybe Narnia and those other fantastic worlds have a dark side that we don't always see--even the idea that maybe what most robs those worlds of enchantment is our own trespass there.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014


Dangerous After reading Shannon Hale's latest, Dangerous, I'm so impressed by her range of genres and her work ethic. She's written books for children, adults (love Austenland!), graphic novels, and now this, her debut YA science-fiction novel, in which Maisie Danger Brown (yes, "Danger" is her middle name), a fairly sheltered girl missing one arm, wins a spot at a top-notch science camp and soon finds herself in the midst of a world she never imagined, full of aliens, dangerous businessmen, and scientists of questionable ethics. (I don't want to say too much about the plot because I don't want to spoil it).

I was surprised to see how many reviewers didn't like this book: I enjoyed it. The plot was fast-paced, but it always felt under control. I loved Maisie, who was smart and funny and brave. I loved that she had a strong relationship with her parents, which seems to go against the norm in so much YA today. Yes, sometimes Maisie did feel a little young--but she *was* young. And she'd been kept home much of her life (but not for the reasons she thinks). I did think some of the characterization was a bit unrealistic--I have a PhD in English and even *I* don't know many people who quote poetry with the frequency some of the young scientists did. Don't get me wrong, I love the poetry (some of them are perfect for the book) and I think scientists are equally capable of appreciating poetry, but I found it hard to believe that these kids were all so versed in it. (See what I did there?)

But the book was full of Hale's signature wit and humor and the science she included felt real to me. I liked the big dilemmas Maisie faced and if the romance didn't always work for me, there were more than enough good things to make the story an enjoyable one.

Monday, September 8, 2014

Paper Valentine

Paper Valentine I admit it, I picked Brenna Yovanoff's Paper Valentine up for it's lovely cover, and the blurbs on the back induced me to read more. (And now that I know she's Maggie Stiefvater's critique partner, I'm even more swayed by the book).

I thought this was a lovely, creepy sort of romance. Hannah's life in quiet Ludlow has taken quite a turn: she's haunted by the ghost of her best friend Lilly, who starved herself to death six months ago. And then there's the incessant heat, and the strange disease that's killing local birds. To add to the uneasy ambience, someone has started killing girls in town and leaving paper valentines by their bodies--and only Hannah and Lilly seem to have noticed the connection. Hannah's otherworldly connection to Lilly seems to make her more receptive to other ghosts as well, and soon it seems that if Hannah doesn't stop the killer, she might be the next victim.

I thought the writing was spare and lovely, the characters interesting, and the pacing good. I really enjoyed the book, but it's probably not one I'd go back and re-read.

Friday, September 5, 2014

Online writing contests

I posted a little more about my experience in online writing contests--with a list of several regular contests--at Thinking Through our Fingers.

If you have a minute, I'd love for you to check it out!

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

IWSG: On Putting Yourself out there

The last month or so has been a real exercise in insecurity for me.

In the five weeks, I've entered five online contests, some with positive outcomes, some with virtual crickets. The waiting between entering and judging was grueling (though I'm told the waiting only gets worse the closer you get to publication).

Anyone who subbed for Pitch Wars (or who knows someone who subbed for Pitch Wars) gets this.

But the experience has overall been a positive one. I got feedback on my query and my opening pages, learning what worked and what didn't. I met other writers: including lots of very talented writers who remind me that I need to put everything I can into my writing in order to compete at that level. And who also remind me that the writing community is a pretty cool place to hang out.

Hitting send on that first submission is hard. I know submitting to agents is hard, but somehow putting things out in the open is even harder. (At least with agents, if I'm rejected, no one has to know besides me--this insecurity kept me out of the Write on Con forums. Maybe next year I'll be braver).

But I'm really glad that I put myself out there. I'm more confident in my story, knowing that other people loved it besides me and my critique group (who are wonderful, but they also like me . . . ). More importantly, I'm more confident in me. Because I did hard things and survived.

I kept writing (well, rewriting if I'm going to be scrupulously honest).

And I got lucky: I made it into Pitch Wars and get to spend the next 6 weeks polishing my MS until it's blindingly beautiful. (I hope!)

Then I'll get to put myself out there.