Monday, December 29, 2014

Brown Girl Dreaming

Brown Girl Dreaming I'm embarrassed to admit that Jacqueline Woodson's Brown Girl Dreaming wasn't on my radar until the National Book Awards--but having read it, I think it fully deserves the recognition and wish I'd heard about it earlier.

In lovely, accessible free verse, Woodson recounts a childhood in three places: Ohio, South Carolina, and New York. She paints a vivid, moving picture of each place and the friends and family that made up her life. The story is engaging on so many levels: Woodson's struggles with literacy (and school in general) and her passionate fascination with words. The emerging civil rights movement and how it affected her and her family. A glimpse into her life as a Jehovah's Witness, which complicates in interesting ways our cultural assumptions about what it means to grow up black in the South.

The book was a relatively quick read, but so compelling: I rooted for the young Jackie and I think her story is an important one, both for the personal relationships it explores and for what it adds to the national dialogues about Civil Rights era history.

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Night Broken

 Patricia Briggs' Mercy Thompson series is one of the few urban fantasy series I'm still reading--and this newest installment, Night Broken, is a terrific addition. So many series seem to get tired part way through: the plotline becomes familiar, the characters have begun recycling arcs, etc. But Briggs managed to make this one feel fresh, in part by introducing a familiar sort of conflict: the ex.

Night Broken (Mercy Thompson, #8)Adam's ex-wife Christy has managed to get herself into trouble--she's got a stalker who may have killed at least one other person, and so she comes fleeing home to the protection of Adam and his werewolves. She doesn't, however, tell them the most important bits: her stalker probably isn't human--and she wants Adam back. Christy is a first-class manipulator, and within minutes of returning she's got most of the pack eating out of her hands--and making it so that if Mercy protests, it's Mercy, not Christy, who looks bad. More interested in the pack harmony than her own ego, Mercy bites her tongue--and then does her damnedest to get rid of Christy's stalker.

Only, of course, the stalker is something out of legend, something that Mercy and the wolves may not be able to stop without still more supernatural aid. Coyote makes an appearance (things always get interesting when he shows up), along with an unexpected half-sibling of Mercy's. And while the primary plot around Christy's stalker is fascinating, disturbing, and dark, that wasn't my favorite part of the story. As always, it's about the characters. Although some readers don't like Mercy's tame reaction to Christy, I found her wrestle all the more compelling because she didn't stoop to Christy's level. And I loved seeing Mercy's world expanding in uncomfortable and unexpected ways, not only with the appearance of a new sibling, but with new dynamics unfolding in the pack.

I also love the setting, since many of my extended family live in Eastern Washington. At one point, Mercy travels to Connell, a tiny city most people have never heard of--but my mom went to high school there.
I didn't love the ending, which wrapped up a little too easily (I thought), but the dilemmas Mercy faces here are very real, as are the questions the book raises about the nature and requirements of family bonds.

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Blue Lily, Lily Blue

 I've been putting off reading Stiefvater's Blue Lily, Lily Blue until I had time to savor it (also, as a reward for meeting some personal deadlines). And it was lovely and satisfying in a lot of ways--but I don't think I can rave about it like some reviewers have.

Blue Lily, Lily Blue (The Raven Cycle, #3)In this third book of the Raven Cycle, Blue and the others are coming closer to finding (and waking) the sleepers, including the mystic King Glendower who has driven Gansey's obsessions for the last seven years. Blue's mother, Maura, has disappeared, and her disappearance may or may not be connected with the sleepers. The Gray Man's former employer, Colin Greenmantle, has shown up in town looking for the Greywaren with his wife Piper (a seriously unhinged, self-absorbed beauty). To be honest, while the plot does move forward, it also felt like it moved in some circles. Some threads get resolved here, new mysteries open up. But I don't read these books for the plot--I read for the characters and the complex world and Steifvater's exquisite writing.

What fascinates me the most about these books are the characters: I think I would read just about anything with them in them. I love that they are all fully realized, complex, complicated, and still developing. In this book, we get to see Blue stretch and change in good and painful ways, we see Adam become a little less prickly and more accepting, we see Ronan still wrestling with his nightmares and Gansey--well, Gansey is still Gansey, kingly and imperfect and trying so hard.

And this world Stiefvater has written is so vividly depicted it feels as though you've been there: I come out of her books feeling like I've woken from a particularly real dream. Though this book didn't have quite the same urgency for me as the others, I can't wait to see what Stiefvater does next: it will be lovely, heart-wrenching, and surprising, at the very least.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Fish Out of Water

Fish Out of WaterThere were a lot of things I enjoyed about Natalie Whipple's Fish Out of Water. (I was given an eARC in exchange for an honest review). Like her other books, this is clever and clearly written.

Mika's looking forward to her summer vacation, days spent working at the pet shop (which she actually enjoys), working with her parents on their marine research, and building elaborate sand sculptures with her friend Shreya.

But two things happen, almost on top of each other, that upend her plans. Her manager hires his nephew Dylan, a spoiled rich kid who's at odds with his parents, and training him is a real downer. Then she goes home to find a crazy old lady ranting hateful, racist things about her neighborhood and her family--only to discover the woman is her grandmother, who suffers from Alzheimer's. Between learning to care for her grandmother and coming to better understand Dylan, Mika finds her heart stretched in ways she didn't think possible.

I thought Whipple did a nice job with Mika: she's smart (I loved how much she knew about fish) and she's loyal. I thought the prickly interplay with her grandmother was spot on--I also had a grandmother who was hard for lots of people to deal with, so I know what it's like to love someone  you're not entirely sure you like. And I liked that Mika's friendships felt real: complicated and warm and sometimes unpredictable. I loved, too, the theme of second chances: that people could do hard, terrible things, but that wasn't the end of hope for them. The book seems to suggest that people can change--but more importantly, we can change how we approach people we struggle with.

There were some things I struggled with though: I never quite bought Dylan's change of heart--he did something fairly horrific before coming into Mika's life, and Mika is rightly horrified when she finds out. But then she finds herself falling for him without really making him account for what happened. There's also a subplot involving one of her friends getting kicked out by her parents--and while the subplot underscores the theme of dealing with racism/prejudice in our families, it also felt a little unnecessary. The book had plenty of complexity without introducing the subplot, I thought. Finally, Whipple did a little bit too good a job making Mika's grandmother hateful. I felt sorry for her and her Alzheimer's and the way she'd let prejudice destroy her life, but I never actually liked her, so it was hard for some of the scenes to have the same emotional resonance for me.

That said, I think it's worth reading: I think it's a thoughtful, clear-eyed look at the complexity of our relationships when we love (as we always do) imperfect people.

Monday, December 15, 2014

My True Love Gave to Me

My True Love Gave to Me: Twelve Holiday Stories I've been looking forward to getting my hands on My True Love Gave to Me, a collection of holiday-themed stories written by well-known YA authors edited by Stephanie Perkins--and overall found the book delightful. Not every story in it was for me--but that's the nice thing about a collection, for every story I didn't love, there was a story that I did. Rather than describe all twelve stories, I just want to highlight my favorites. (Also, a note on the cover: the couples ice skating are the couples from the stories--it was fun to try to match the story with the image).

"Midnight" by Rainbow Rowell
I've loved everything by Rowell that I've read so far, and this story was no exception. Told in alternating flashes of time on December 31st, the story follows Mags and Noel, best friends who meet one year on Christmas Eve and build a friendship that spans high school into college. But there's a problem: Mags is hopelessly in love with Noel, who always manages to find someone else to kiss when the clock strikes midnight. I loved the voice--but mostly I loved how Rowell managed to capture that perfect, aching tension of wanting someone who doesn't want you.

"The Lady and the Fox," by Kelly Link
One of the nice surprises in this collection is that not all the stories are straight up contemporary YA--some have very definite flashes of fantasy. This was one of the latter. Miranda has spent every holiday with her glitzy godmother, one of the infamous Honeywell. When she was eleven, she first spotted him: a young man in a an eighteenth-century embroidered coat standing alone in the garden while it snows. When the snow stops, the boy vanishes. She searches for him every year, but she doesn't always see him (he only appears when it snows). I loved the romance behind the mystery--who is he? why does he only appear when it snows?--and the sort of fairy tale ending Link conjures to the story.

"Krampuslauf," by Holly Black
In characteristic style, Black takes her "holiday" inspiration from the old story of the Krampus, a creature older than the devil, the son of a Norse god. But in Fairmont, the rich people use the krampuslauf as an excuse for to raise money for charity, sanitizing the whole idea behind the festival. The main character (I've been going back through and can't find her name--it's told in first person) and her friends dress up with appropriate horns and funky attire, and in a desperate attempt to wean her friend Penny off a toxic rich boyfriend (who has another, equally rich girlfriend), they invite them to a holiday party where the plan is for Penny to confront him. But when an unexpected guest shows up at the party, all expectations are off. The party itself was meh, in my opinion, but I loved how Black dug into the underside of holiday traditions and I loved the unexpected bits of folklore and magic.

"Welcome to Christmas, CA" by Kiersten White
This story was adorable and heart-warming--the only story in the collection to actually make me cry. Maria lives in the dead-end town of Christmas, barely a blip on the already depressing landscape between Barstow and Baker, CA. She's desperate to get out of town, away from her mother whose grown more distant, and the step-father who's trying to intrude on her life. But when a new cook gets hired at the diner her mom runs, things start to change. Ben has a gift with food that starts to tie the town together and wins Maria over despite herself. What I loved about this was that so many people weren't what you expect them to be. I loved the sense of community and the overall warmth of the story. Not the most romantic of the stories, but one of the best.

"The Girl Who Woke the Dreamer," by Laini Taylor
Nor surprising that I loved this one--it has Taylor's signature lovely prose and curious unworldly creatures. Neve is an orphan, one of many girls seemingly at the mercy of the town's strange tradition: in the days leading up to Christmas, local men leave small gifts for the girl they're courting. In most cases, the girls say yes, because they are poor and they haven't other options. But Neve is being courted by the fire-and-brimstone preacher who has already buried three wives, and Neve would rather starve than marry him. But when her desperation reaches out and wakes the Dreamer nestled beneath their town, unexpected things start happening.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

The Good, The Bad, and the Emus

The Good, the Bad, and the Emus (Meg Lanslow, #17) I think I enjoyed Meg's 17th adventure a little more than the previous one, though this still isn't quite up to par with some of the first books. What elevates this one is a new concern for complicated family relationships: Meg's grandfather has hired a PI to find Meg's grandmother (they lost touch while he was doing research in Ecuador). The PI succeeds--only to find that Meg's grandmother has been murdered a few months previously. He agrees to investigate further, and solicits Meg's help dealing with the reclusive cousin who lived with her grandmother.

At the same time, her grandfather decides to act on the feral emu problem in rural Virginia, rounding up a crew to capture the emus and move them to a wildlife sanctuary. While the effort is earnest, it serves as the ideal cover for Meg's exploration. But when someone attempts to poison her grandfather *and* the reclusive cousin, Annabelle, Meg begins to think that just maybe the two cases are somehow connected.

There was a lot I liked about this novel: Andrews' light touch with humor, interesting new characters (esp. Annabelle), and the new wrinkle in Meg's family life. I figured out both the major plot twist and the murderer, but that didn't necessarily diminish my enjoyment (I liked being right).

What I didn't love: I fell in love with Michael in the first two books when Meg did, and I feel like he's been relegated to a babysitter in the last couple of books since the birth of their twins. I realize that there wasn't a huge place for him in the story, but I miss their interactions. And the twins themselves--I can't figure out how they're so bright, and yet their diction isn't much better than my 2 year old's. It's not an egregious problem, but it does pull me out of the story a little every time it happens.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Illusions of Fate

Illusions of Fate I am a sucker for historical fantasy (not a surprise, since I write this stuff), and I've wanted to read this book since I heard of it. Kiersten White has been a little hit and miss for me, but luckily, this was more along the lines of her lovely In the Shadows. While it's not technically "historical," it's set in a world clearly reminiscent to ours, with Albion standing in for England. The heroine, Jessamin, is the daughter of an Albion by way of the colonies, come to Albion to study. (This particular angle of her world doesn't get fully developed, by the way).

But she quickly gets embroiled with the delightful Finn, drawn first to his sparkling hair, and later to his wit. He's being threatened by the enigmatic Lord Downpike, and soon Jessamin finds herself under attack as well, using her wits to save herself and the boy s he's rapidly coming to love.

I loved the world here--the world-building had a light touch, but I enjoyed it. And the bits of darkness in the story and the prose were lovely. I liked Jessamin's growing relationship with Finn. I felt like some of the magic wasn't completely explained and the story itself wrapped up quickly, but for a quick, engrossing, light read, this works perfectly.

Monday, December 8, 2014

Breaking Agent News (aka The Post I've Always Wanted to Write)

I think any writer who aspires to publish traditionally longs for that first validation on the road to publication: getting an agent.

I'm thrilled to announce that I've accepted an offer of representation from Josh Adams, of Adams Literary, a boutique agency that represents some terrific children's book authors (including my friend Katie Purdie, who just sold her debut fantasy trilogy.)

happy-dancing

For someone who has wanted to write books since elementary school, this is a terrific moment. My journey certainly hasn't been as long as some, but it's had it's share of detours. I wrote a lot of creative fiction in junior high and high school, some in college, but almost none as I went through grad school, got married, and had kids. A few years ago, talking with my sister (also a writer), I realized that if I wanted to publish a book someday, I had to start now. So I did. I wrote a middle grade novel that didn't go anywhere (stats: 50 queries, 4 partials, 9 fulls).

When I realized I didn't know how to fix whatever wasn't working with that book, I set it aside and started writing something for me: a mix of nineteenth-century history, magic, and Hungarian culture. When I brought it to my writer's group the first time, my critique partners asked, "Why haven't you been writing this all along?" I'd found a voice that worked for me.

It took about nine months to draft this (120K), and nine more months to polish it (including cutting it down to a more manageable 90K). I also need a shout out to some amazing critique partners who read the entire manuscript (some parts multiple times) and who talked me off the ledge more than once: Tasha Seegmiller, Elaine Vickers, Erin Shakespear, and Helen Boswell. Also my sister, Jenilyn Tolley for giving me feedback I didn't always want to hear. (I also had some incredible beta readers--too many to list here--but I hope they know how grateful I am for their feedback!)

During this time, I was lucky enough to get chosen for Pitch Wars, by the fabulous Virginia Boecker, whose own historical fantasy is coming out in the spring. She had a great eye for my manuscript, giving me suggestions to help clarify the world building, increase the pacing, and generally make the story better.

Apparently it worked. I had 12 requests from Pitch Wars, and an additional 3 ninja requests. I sent out those materials, and then sent out 5 requests from an earlier contest. I also, finally, submitted a full manuscript to Josh Adams, who had requested the manuscript after a query workshop I did with him in May, at LDStorymakers. I was impressed with his insights during the query workshop, and I loved watching him interact with two of his clients (Katie Purdie and Sara Larson) during a later workshop. I waited to send the MS until I was sure it was polished--I finally had the guts to do that after Pitch Wars.

And then, because I was worried that the Pitch Wars agents might all pass, I sent out a bunch of queries. Some of those turned into quick rejections, others into requests.

About ten days after Pitch Wars, an agent emailed me to say she wanted to talk to me about representation. For a variety of reasons, we didn't end up talking until almost a week later (that was a long week). We talked, she was great, and then I sent out email  nudges that I'd had an offer of representation.

Thus began two of the most stressful weeks of my life.



I didn't expect this at all. I thought having an offer would be this wonderful, transcendent thing--and it was, but it was also a rollercoaster of other emotions I hadn't expected. Anxiety: would I make a good decision? Would anyone else offer? (Note: the first agent was terrific. It was more the anxiety of not knowing what my options were that stressed me out. Decisions are hard for me: not knowing when I would have all the information I needed made things harder). Despair, as the rejections started rolling in, detailing the reasons agents were passing on my manuscript. (Maybe it wasn't as good as the offering agent thought?)

And then, after a second offer came in, more stress: how am I supposed to tell someone no? Because, see, that's the sucky side to multiple offers that most people don't talk about. These are terrific, hard-working people who have found something to love in your manuscript--and there's no way to make everyone happy.

I asked the original agent if I could have two weeks, since she called me the Friday before Thanksgiving. I had a brief flurry of activity that first weekend as agents requested more pages (or passed), and then almost nothing until after Thanksgiving. That last week, I had three different calls: two of them on the day I was supposed to decide!

Deciding which agent to go with was the hardest decision I've had to make in my life. As I said earlier, they were all good agents--I really think I could have had a good career with any of them. Ultimately, it came down to the agent I thought was the best fit for me personally (and, because I'm religious, to prayer).

And while I'm definitely hoping this book will sell, for now, I'm just happy that I can add, "represented by Josh Adams" to my social media bylines.

For anyone interested (I always am), here are my stats: 23 contest and conference requests, 30 queries sent, 4 partial requests, 32 full manuscript requests (including partials upgraded to full), 3 offers to revise and resubmit (one came prior to the offers, two during), and 5 official offers.

Monday, December 1, 2014

To All The Boys I've Loved Before

 I picked up Jenny Han's To All The Boys I've Loved Before a few weeks back at the library. I tried starting it and couldn't quite get into it. I decided to try one last time, and I'm so glad I did.

To All the Boys I've Loved Before (To All the Boys I've Loved Before, #1)Lara Jean is one of the Song girls, defined primarily by her place as the middle sister in a close family. But when her older sister goes off to college in Scotland, and someone accidentally mails all the unsent love letters she's written to boys (in an effort to get over them), Lara Jean's life starts to change. Already off balance by her sister leaving, Lara Jean is horrified to find that her sister's ex-boyfriend (and their next boyfriend) has received the letter detailing all the things she loves about him. To save face, she convinces her childhood friend Peter (another letter recipient) to pretend to be her boyfriend long enough to convince her sister's ex that she's over him. If it sounds complicated, it is, a little, but that's not really what the story was about.

Even if the title is dedicated to Lara Jean's loves, I think the story is much more a love-letter to sisters. I think Han perfectly captures the sister-dynamic: the way you can both love someone and be cruel to them at the same time, the way your sister can be the closest person in the world and also drive you insane. I loved that Lara Jean's family felt real, and that her father was present and involved and a little goofy.

Some reviewers have bagged on the book for being slow, or for Lara Jean's voice being too young. I don't expect a particularly fast pace in a character-driven novel, and I thought Han's voice here was lovely. Not all teenagers are particularly mature or edgy, and Lara Jean *was* immature (i.e., inexperienced) when it comes to boys. I don't think there's anything wrong with that--in fact, I think a diversity of YA experiences *should* be documented.

I would have liked more resolution in the ending, and I didn't always love Lara Jean's love interest, but I did love the book. Cute, sweet, and real.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Rebel Belle

Rebel Belle (Rebel Belle, #1) Rachel Hawkins does fun and lighthearted YA with a kick so well sometimes--the first book in Hex Hall was a delight from beginning to end. And a lot of that fun and delight comes through in Rebel Belle, just not quite as much.

For starters, there's the premise, which Hawkins herself described as Terminator meets Legally Blonde. Prom-queen hopeful Harper Price has everything together: her prom-queen nomination locked in, the perfect boyfriend, perfect grades. (Just don't ask her why she's so determined to hold it all together, or anything about her dead sister). But when a quick detour to the bathroom to reapply her lip gloss leads instead to a surprise liplock with the school janitor, who then dies in her arms, Harper's perfect life crumbles into chaos.

Suddenly, she's a Paladin, a super-powerful creature charged with protecting none other than her arch-nemesis, David Stark. Of course, this isn't part of Harper's plan, and it certainly doesn't make her boyfriend happy. So now she has to not only rock Cotillion, she has to save the world while she's at it.

As I mentioned, there was a lot to like here. Hawkins never lets her books get too dark, even when dealing with serious things (like the death of Harper's sister). And sometimes, when I just want to escape, I appreciate that. Harper and David had some great banter and good chemistry, and I thought it was to Hawkins' credit that she made me like David without making me hate Harper's current boyfriend. There were some fun twists in the story--but also some moments that didn't quite make sense to me.

Ultimately, a book I enjoyed reading, but not one that stayed with me long after the reading. But there's something about a heroine who can kill a bad guy with her stiletto . . .

Friday, November 21, 2014

Isla and the Happily Ever After

Isla and the Happily Ever After (Anna and the French Kiss, #3) Stephanie Perkins does the intensity of teen romance better than most authors I can think of. I loved Anna and the French Kiss and was looking forward to reading this one. And while Isla and the Happily Ever After wasn't my favorite of Perkins' three books, there were things I liked about it.

Perkins has a gift for transporting readers to new places: here, she revisits Paris, but also gorgeously conveys parts of Spain, and even New York. I found myself longing to revisit (and visit) some of the places after reading her descriptions.

And I liked Isla, though other reviewers haven't, because to me, feeling like a "blank slate" and not knowing what you want to do with your life feels true to being a teenager. Not everyone knows who they are or where they are going.

Where the novel failed me a little was in the romance.  Not that there aren't a lot of heated kisses (and more) here. Rather, I was a little disappointed to start with Isla already pining for Josh, because part of what I love about romances is seeing how the characters fall for each other. And it wasn't clear to me why she adored Josh--though it was clear that she did. While it was fun to watch her shock as Josh started to reciprocate, it wasn't quite the same. (And yes, I know this is personal preference and not the fault of the author!)

What really frustrated me, though, was that after establishing this intense romance, the characters sort of self-destructed. Their separation, though sad, seemed self-inflicted. And Isla's insecurities and the way she torpedoes her own relationship just didn't make sense to me. I hadn't seen any sign of those insecurities until suddenly they manifested, so it was hard for me to buy her motivations. I know that a romance has to have some kind of block or there's no point to writing about it, but the obstacles here were a little too much--especially given everything Isla and Josh *did* have going for them.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Liebster Award: 10 questions blog hop

Hayley Stone, an aspiring adult speculative writer whom I met through Pitch Wars, nominated me for a Liebster Award.




You've probably seen these going around--I'm flattered by the nomination, but I also thought it would be fun to play along.

Here are the questions:

1. What most inspired your current WIP?
My current WIP, a sequel to the novel I'm currently querying, is still in very fledgling stages. It's inspired mostly by a desire to continue exploring the world I created for the first book, which was inspired by my dual love of the Victorian era and Hungary, where I served as a missionary for the LDS church.

2. How do you best get "in the zone" for writing?
I don't really have a process. As a full-time mom who works part time, I write when I can. I "get in the zone" by sitting in front of the computer with an open word document. :) And sometimes I shut down twitter and facebook.

3. Do you have a certain time of day/place where you find you're most productive?
I honestly have no idea. I do most of my writing at night when the kids are in bed, but I have no idea if that's my most productive time.

 4. If you could sit down and pick the brain of one author, living or dead, who would it be? What would you ask them? I would love to sit down with Connie Willis, who writes some of the smartest and funniest stuff out there. I'd love to watch her in process--how does she layer so much into her story and still keep the plot moving forward?

 5. Your WIP has just become sentient. On a scale of 1-10, how much trouble are you in?
Probably a 1. We're talking a baby draft here--I doubt it could do much damage at this point!

6. If money was no issue, where would your ideal writing vacation take place? A hotel in a city somewhere--easy access to good food, art and culture when I need inspiration--and no kids.

7. How did you come up with the title for your current WIP?
The current title, THE KING OF CROWS, comes from a title bestowed on one of the characters who's transforming into a leader of supernatural creatures. And who, not so incidentally, can turn himself into a crow.

8. Who would you want to direct the movie adaptation of your WIP?
My husband would know this better than me! He's the movie trivia buff at our house. Maybe Cary Joji Fukunaga, who directed the latest version of Jane Eyre--someone who has a grasp of Victorian sensibility but also knows how to do creepy.

 9. What advice would you give to another writer?
Just keep writing. Love what you do--let the writing itself be the reward, because chances are nothing else about the process will be just what you imagine.

 10. Hypothetical: You have a time machine and a nefarious mind. You can travel back in time with one book and take credit for writing it. Which book would it be? Jane Austen's Persuasion--I so admire her novels, which are clever and smart and romantic, and really pretty revolutionary for their time in the way they put women's concerns front and center without diminishing their importance.
Tagging my CP Erin Shakespear, Kathryn Purdie, and a new writing friend, Mara Rutherford, who writes gorgeous fantasies with folkloric elements.

1. What most inspired your current WIP?
2. How do you best get "in the zone" for writing?
3. Do you have a certain time of day/place where you find you're most productive?
4. If you could sit down and pick the brain of one author, living or dead, who would it be? What would you ask them?
5. Your WIP has just become sentient. On a scale of 1-10, how much trouble are you in?
6. If money was no issue, where would your ideal writing vacation take place?
7. How did you come up with the title for your current WIP?
8. Who would you want to direct the movie adaptation of your WIP?
9. What advice would you give to another writer?
10. Hypothetical: You have a time machine and a nefarious mind. You can travel back in time with one book and take credit for writing it. Which book would it be?

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

A Brief History of Montmaray

 I first heard of Michelle Cooper's A Brief  History of Montmaray a few weeks ago, when it was compared to Dodie Smith's I Capture the Castle, which I adore. So of course I had to find this.

A Brief History of Montmaray (The Montmaray Journals, #1)And in some ways, there are a lot of parallels: both narrators are teenage girls, telling their story as journal entries; both live in a relatively reclusive world; and both live the paradoxical world of the impoverished nobility. Sophie is a princess, the niece of the King of Montmaray, a small fictional island somewhere between Spain and England. But she cleans the castle, cooks, and does laundry, as the populace of Montmaray is something less than ten people.

The narrator here is delightful: as a writer, it was interesting to see how the voice itself pulled me through the first half of the novel, which was quite slow. And for all that common writerly advice is that the main character has to want something and actively strive for it, Sophie's not that clearly drawn by her desires. Her role is primarily that of a passive narrator for much of the novel, though it's to her credit and the writer's credit that I still found her interesting and sympathetic.

Not much happens in the first part of the novel: Sophie pines over Simon, the housekeeper's son, who is living in London like her brother Toby, who's struggling with school. The king is mad, and Sophie tries to avoid him while curtailing the worst of her youngest sister's madcap behavior.

But then a pair of SS officers show up on the island ostensibly looking for clues to the Holy Grail, and the  novel takes a sudden, and fairly dark, turn into adventure--the pace picks up dramatically at that point.

For all that I loved the narrator, I missed some of the delightful first romance in I Capture the Castle. So overall, a novel that I enjoyed but didn't love.

Monday, November 10, 2014

Stronger than You Know

Stronger Than You Know Whenever I pick up a book by an author I know, I'm both excited and hesitant (excited because--look, I know her! And hesitant because if I don't like it, I never know what to say. Usually I don't say anything). Luckily, Jolene Perry's Stronger Than You Know was lovely--a perfect mix of drama and hope.

When the novel opens, Joy is struggling with just about everything: adjusting to her new school, a new life with her aunt and uncle and cousins, talking to anyone she's not related to. Sometimes just existing.

Because Joy has just escaped from a terrible, abusive environment with a mother who almost never let her leave their tiny trailer home, and who didn't protect Joy from her boyfriends in the most basic way a mother should.

What I loved about this book was how Perry managed to make Joy wounded and believable without drowning the book in darkness--it's easy to write dark. It's less easy to write hope that doesn't dissolve into schmaltz. I loved Joy--she was vulnerable, but there was an iron core to her. She'd gone through terrible things, but she wasn't willing to let those things define her. Watching Joy come out of the trauma of her past was one of the best parts of the novel.

I also loved that Joy was surrounded by good people. So often, it's easy to create drama in books by making everyone around the hero disagreeable. But Joy's aunt and uncle are warm and loving and wonderful. Justin was great, too, as the boy who sees something in Joy she doesn't yet see herself, but who's careful to only ask for what Joy is ready to give.

Overall, a powerful book about a survivor, one that made me smile as often (or more) than it made me cry.

Friday, November 7, 2014

The Geography of You and Me

 I adored Jennifer Smith's The Statistical Probability at First Sight. So maybe I can blame that book for not loving this book as much as I wanted to. I keep picking up her books hoping to reclaim that magic--and though this was sweet and quiet it didn't have quite the same zing between the characters, maybe because they spend so much of the novel apart.

The Geography of You and MeLucy and Owen live very different lives, despite living in the same apartment building in New York. Owen, the building caretaker's son, lives in a small basement apartment and is still reeling from the death of his mother and his recent move to NYC from small-town Pennsylvania. Lucy lives half-way up the building, with a view, and parents who are rarely around as they are too busy jet-setting around the world. But one fateful day (the infamous NYC blackout), they happen to both be on the elevator when the power goes out. Once they get rescued, they find themselves drawn to each other and spend the evening wandering the dark streets of the city, marveling at the stars, and then the night on the roof of their building talking.

But then life intervenes and they find themselves heading in opposite directions--Owen, out West, and Lucy to Scotland and then London. Still, they hold onto some of the magic from that night by sending each other postcards from their different destinations.

I don't mind quiet novels, and I genuinely liked both characters. But despite the romance of the different places they inhabit (London, Edinburgh, Paris, Rome, San Francisco, Lake Tahoe), there wasn't quite enough romance here--they spend a lot of time yearning for each other without really knowing much about each other. And while I thought the novel was beautifully written, sometimes their parallel chapters seemed too much like a gimmick and not enough like realistic development.

So--a good book, just not a great one.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

IWSG: Fear of Falling

This week, while most writers are busy with the madness that is NaNoWriMo, I'm going to be busy with a different kind of madness: querying.

Because I've been participating in Pitch Wars, I'm waiting to query until after the agent round (which is this week!). In some ways, this is a terrific place to be: I've got a story that I've polished and loved and gotten great feedback on--and I haven't yet been inundated with rejections (though there have been a few). I can still dream big.

IWSG Badge

It would be easy to stop at this point, to celebrate my  hard work and move on to the next story. But there's not really much value in that. If I'm serious about writing--and I am--then I have to move onward. That means putting my work out there and taking any feedback that might come in (hard as it will be to hear it) and keep trying to improve.

I won't lie, I'm not looking forward to the rejections. But every writer faces them. Agent Holly Root posted on twitter a week or so ago that she's never sold a book that hasn't been rejected at some point.

As a teacher, I know that my students don't improve as writers without critical feedback. And I've learned that as a writer I don't either. When I first got the five-pages of feedback from my Pitch Wars mentor (Virginia Boecker, who has an amazing looking book coming out in May), I was a little heart sick. I thought she'd picked my book because it was good, and yet there was so much I still needed to fix!

I let the feedback sit for a couple of days and when I came back to it I was astounded to find that she was right. I took her ideas, applied them to the novel, and while it may not be perfect yet, it is much, much better. I'm indebted to her for the time she took to give me feedback, even if it was initially hard to hear.

I'm hoping to take this attitude with me into querying and remember that rejections aren't (always) personal. Sometimes, they're just an opportunity to grow.

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

The Hollow Kingdom

The Hollow Kingdom (The Hollow Kingdom Trilogy, #1) My sister recommended this book to me--and I think  it was only by virtue of her recommendation that I kept reading initially. The fairy-tale nature of the story was originally a little hard to get into, particularly since the book starts with a prologue of characters who don't appear in the rest of the book (except as mentioned in passing). But I'm glad I kept reading, because the story--particularly the characters drew me in.

Kate and her sister Emily have recently been orphaned and have gone to stay with their great aunts on Hollow Hill, at an estate that belongs to Kate. But Kate soon realizes that they are in grave danger: their estate rests on a goblin kingdom, and the goblin king is determined to have her. Of course, Kate's outspoken insistence of danger only draws pitying looks from her aunts and her uncle, who are convinced that the goblins are a product of her overwrought nerves. When Kate's sister Emily disappears, however, Kate swallows her pride and repugnance and goes directly to the goblin king himself to help win Emily back--knowing, as she does, that she's dooming herself to a life below-ground as the goblin king's bride.

I really loved the characters here: Kate is feisty and smart, and Marek (the goblin king) is, well, oddly charming. He's ugly, but he's forthright. Lots of the reviews mention being disturbed by the whole Stockholm syndrome thing (that Kate would fall for her captor), but Marek never made any pretences to be other than what he was. And in his world, he had no choice: goblin women don't bear children well--the only way to ensure the continuance of his line and the protection of his kingdom was to steal a wife. So, while I was initially horrified for Kate, I did understand why he could put his people above her preferences. What made this book fascinating, though, was the way that Kate and Marek came to understand and love each other. (That, or maybe watching Labyrinth as a teenager had a bad influence on my taste in romance. I still find myself dreaming about David Bowie's goblin king!).

The pacing and structure of this book was a little odd: there are really two different stories, tenuously connected. Despite that, I enjoyed this book. The storytelling is charmingly old-fashioned--it reminds me more of books by Lloyd Alexander and the fantasy authors of my childhood than current fast-paced fantasy retellings.

Friday, October 31, 2014

Why I wrote my Pitch Wars book

I think I may have mentioned before that I've been part of the intense awesomeness that is Pitch Wars. If I haven't mentioned it a lot, well, it's because I've been too busy writing and revising my manuscript thanks to notes from my incredible mentor (seriously, she's so smart) Virginia Boecker. But now the furor is dying down and I have a little more time for thinking (a dangerous pastime, I know . . . ).

Several of the Pitch Wars mentees and alternates are participating in a blog hop about why we wrote our Pitch Wars manuscripts.

Let me back up about three years. I used to write--a lot (I wrote a 250,000 word beast of a novel in high school)--but somehow when I went to graduate school and got married, I stopped writing creatively. I decided to pick it up again when I realized that the novel I was going to write "someday" was never going to happen unless I started now. My sister talked me into signing up for the Writing and Illustrating for Young Readers conference in Sandy, UT. I'd waited so long there weren't many options left for classes, but I lucked into a class by the incomparable Claudia Mills. Since she was teaching middle grade, I started writing a middle grade novel. I finished it, queried it, but it wasn't quite working so I put it aside and started the novel that had been kicking around in my brain.

In my heart, I'm a closet Victorianist. I adore nineteenth-century novels and the nineteenth-century world in all its complexities (I'm under no illusions: despite Victorian prudery, nineteenth-century London had one of the highest per capita prostitution rates in the world). I guess I should clarify I don't love all of it: the sexism, racism, elitism are definitely troubling. But there's something about that world and its literature that I keep coming back to. I love Jane Austen, the Bronte sisters, George Eliot, Elizabeth Gaskell and almost any BBC mini-series built off their worlds.



But I also love a little magic in my world. So I started thinking about what Victorian society would look like with magic--and because I'm interested in people who have to navigate their worlds in unusual circumstances, I also started dreaming of a heroine who didn't quite belong to her world. What if, I wondered, she didn't have magic in a world that venerated it? How would she manage that. And so Anna Arden was born.

I wanted to do more than just play with Victorian London, however, because England has been visited so many times. I lived in Hungary for a year and a half in my early twenties and I'd fallen in love with the people and with their difficult language. In 1848, Hungary was one of many countries to witness a successful revolution (though their indendence lasted less than two years), and I reasoned that if I could get my heroine to Hungary, I could get the best of both worlds: she could be part of that mid-century excitement, but as a relative newcomer to Hungary, she could be experiencing this new world along with the reader. (This also let me throw in an allusion to the Georgette Heyer Regency novels I love: Anna's family is related to Princess Eszterhazy, who was one of the society patrons of Almacks in Regency London, and is, in fact, the reason Anna's Hungarian mother came to be in London in the first place).




When I brought the first few chapters to my critique group, their response was uniformly: Why haven't you been writing this all along? Something about the world and the voice is a much better fit to my writing style and temperament than the MG novel I'd been struggling with.

I won't say this novel has been easy to write. It's involved a lot of research, a lot of drafts, and a lot of learning of craft. But I have loved it.


I'm honored and humbled to be part of the talented writers in Pitch Wars. Be sure to check out the other authors participating in this blog hop. I've no doubt some of these stories will be making their way to a bookstore near you in the next couple of years.


Pitch Wars 2014 logo

Carleen Karanovic: HOPE ON A FEATHER
Heather Truett: RENASCENCE
Tracie Martin: WILD IS THE WIND
Susan Bickford: FRAMED
Rachel Sarah: RULES FOR RUNNING AWAY
Amanda Rawson Hill: GRIMM AND BEAR IT
Charlotte Gruber: CODE OF SILENCE
Kip Wilson: THE MOST DAZZLING GIRL IN BERLIN
Mary Ann Nicholson: CALAMITY
Nikki Roberti: THE TRUTH ABOUT TWO-SHOES
Anna Patel: EXODUS
K. A. Reynolds: LE CIRQUE DU LITERATI
Susan Crispell: WISHES TO NOWHERE
Ron Walters: THE GOLEM INITIATIVE
Ashley Poston: HEART OF IRON
Mara Rutherford: WINTERSOUL
Janet Walden-West: Damned If She Do
Kazul Wolf: SUMMER THUNDER 
S. D. Grimm: WITCHER  
Kelli Newby: THORNVAAL
Tara Sim: TIMEKEEPER
Elliah Terry: POCKET FULL OF POPPIES
Alessa Hinlo: THE HONEST THIEF
Rachel Horwitz: THE BOOTLEGGER’S BIBLE
Whitney Taylor: DEFINITIONS OF INDEFINABLE THINGS
Lyra Selene: REVERIE
Natalie Williamson: SET IN STONE
Robin Lemke: THE DANCE OF THE PALMS
Stephanie Herman: CLIFF WITH NO EDGE
Shannon Cooley: A FROG, A WHISTLE, AND A VIAL OF SAND
Ruth Anne Snow: THE GIRLS OF MARCH
Elizabeth Dimit: PHOEBE FRANZ'S GUIDE TO PASSPORTS, PAGEANTS, & PARENTAL DISASTERS
Gwen C. Katz: AMONG THE RED STARS
Jennifer Hawkins: FALSE START
Kelly DeVos: THE WHITE LEHUA
Gina Denny: SANDS OF IMMORTALITY
Natasha M. Heck: FOLLOW THE MOON
Esher Hogan - Walking After Midnight
D.A. Mages: THE MEMORY OF OBJECTS

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Painting Kisses

Painting Kisses I've loved everything I've read by Melanie Jacobson: her writing is clean, fun, refreshing and sweet. Painting Kisses is no exception. Lia Carswell has left behind a hot-shot life in New York as a premier artist (leaving behind her not-so-hot ex-husband) for a quieter life in Salt Lake City working in a diner and helping her sister raise her niece, Chloe. After her experience with her ex, she's less than interested in dating, particularly not anyone who's handsome and confident, like Aidan, the construction worker who flirts with her at the diner--he rings all the wrong bells after her previous experience with romance. She's actually more interested in Griff, her nice-but-quiet neighbor, who doesn't scare her--but who also doesn't spark quite the same emotional response.

After getting an unexpected commission from a former New York contact, Lia finds herself doing something she never thought she'd do again: paint. As she rediscovers the joy of creating, she finds herself opening in other ways as well, including to the unexpected joys of a new romance.

I thought this was quite well done. The characters are real--and, seeing them through Lia's eyes, we make some of the same misjudgments that she does. I liked, too, that this novel had some unexpected depth: it wasn't just about romance and kissing, but about Lia coming to terms with her past. As an amateur artist myself, I also resonated with Lia's deep satisfaction in creativity, and I thought Jacobson's descriptions of that process were nicely done. One of my favorite lines in the book compares Lia's sisters to paintings: a radiant Klimt when she's rested, a muted Modigliani when she's exhausted. That was enough to conjure a near-perfect impression for me.

My only real complaint is that the book is too short! I wanted just a little more resolution to the love story.

Monday, October 27, 2014

Untold

Untold (The Lynburn Legacy, #2) Sarah Rees Brennan is a master at moody atmosphere and tense relationships. Untold is the second of her Lynburn series. In the first book, Kami discovers that the voice she's always heard in her head is not, in fact, imaginary, but belongs to a very real boy. One of the long-lost Lynburns, in fact, the almost-noble family that used to rule her small town. When the Lynburns return, they set the whole village of Sorry-in-the-Vale on its ears, including Kami, who, still reeling from her discovery about Jared, finds that the family are actually sorcerers who ruled through blood sacrifice, and someone wants to reinstate their rule.

In this book (spoiler alert!), Kami and her friends are trying to figure out how to face the dark sorcerer who has split the Lynburn family and divided the town. Kami has severed her bond with Jared, and she thinks he hates her (though its clear to the reader that this is not, in fact, the case). In fact, not much happens for the middle half of the book other than Kami and Jared trying to figure out their relationship.

I didn't mind. I found the story compelling--though as I read through it with a writer's eye I noticed that, after some initial plot fireworks in the first two chapters, months pass before the final, high-stakes confrontation. There's lots of down time, but it doesn't feel like that because Rees is so good at relationship tension. I kept reading to find out what would happen between two characters I'd come to love, and then kept reading because their world imploded. The ending is wrenching and devastating and I'm almost afraid to read book three, after seeing Rees retweet (with, it must be noted, considerable glee), readers' devastated reactions.

Friday, October 24, 2014

Duck The Halls (Meg Langslow #16)

I think Donna Andrews is one of the funniest mystery writers writing today (RIP Elizabeth Peters!). Meg Langslow is a terrific character: smart, grounded, humorous.

Duck the Halls by Donna AndrewsOnly days before Christmas, perpetrators unknown leave a dozen or so skunks in one of the local churches, and Meg's organizational ability is called upon to rearrange all the church events while the building is fumigated. But as the pranks escalate to arson and someone dies, Meg's has to use all of her skills to solve the mystery before it ruins Christmas.

This particular installment wasn't one of my favorites. It had all the right elements: bizarre crimes, Meg's eccentric family, the quaint setting. I liked it--I'll no doubt read the next one (I mean, I've read all sixteen so far)--but it wasn't my favorite.

I'm trying to make a conscious attempt to study author techniques as I read, instead of blitzing through on a buzz of plot-fueled adrenaline. One thing I did admire was the way Andrews set up a personal as well as professional goal for Meg. Alongside the murder, Meg and her husband struggle to find quiet time to recreate the idyllic Christmas of Meg's childhood (and one both her mother and mother-in-law seem determined to ignore). The resolution of this particular goal was my favorite part of the whole book--it reminds me that readers need emotional payoffs (of the good kind) as well as just plot resolution.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Dreams of Gods and Monsters (also a bit of Pitch Wars)

So, yeah, I get that I haven't posted in almost two weeks.

Part of that is because I was savoring Laini Taylor's Dreams of Gods and Monsters, which took me longer to get through than most of the books I read.

Also, I've been buried up to my eye-balls in Pitch Wars revisions. The revision has been a pretty big overhaul--my MS has gone from 90,000 words back up to 96,000 and down to 87,000--but in between all that I've cut almost 28,000 words and written 25,000--in three weeks. But I'm pretty excited about the way things are shaping up. I think I've fixed some of the major pacing problems in the story.

Ahem.

On to the review.

I've been a fan of Laini Taylor since her Fairies of Dreamdark series. But I didn't love Daughter of Smoke and Bone as much as I've loved her two most recent books. That's rare in a trilogy, for the later books to wow me more than the original one.

Dreams of Gods & Monsters (Daughter of Smoke & Bone, #3)In this conclusion, Karou (a chimera) and Akiva (seraphim) struggle to reconcile their warring people, prevent Jael from acquiring nuclear weapons on earth, and put an end to his cruel rule (how's that for an awkwardly half-rhymed sentence?). As if that weren't enough, Taylor also introduces a new set of characters, PhD student Eliza who has (she thinks) put her family's crazy cultish history behind her, and a race of seraphim whose duty it is to protect Eretz from some unnamed threat.

As always, the stakes are high. And Taylor's prose is breath-taking. Heart-breaking.

I thought she did a terrific job of working together several very complex plotlines and keeping the pace moving forward. I was confused for a little while in the middle, but I was invested in the characters and kept reading anyway.

And if the end seemed a little drawn out and indulgent, well, Akiva and Karou earned it.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

IWSG Wednesday: Feeling blessed

IWSG Badge

As a writer, it's easy to get caught up in my craft--to daydream about the snapping dialogue I'm going to write, to feel intimidated by the massive plot revision I'm in the middle of, to wonder about my publishing prospects. I spent a lot of time with my mind spinning in the future.

It's easy to think: as soon as I reach *this* milestone, things will be better/easier/more worthwhile: once I finish this draft. Once I've finished revisions. Once I get my first partial request. But of course, each milestone only brings new ones in its place.

Last night, I had an epiphany. I was thinking about my children, what I want for them in life.

*I want them to life faithful lives.
*I want them to have work that interests them.
*I want them to have good friends, and family.

That's it. I mean, other things would be nice (health, sufficient wealth for travel and a few perks), but these are the essentials.

And then I realized: I already have all these things. By my own definition, my life is rich. And this writing work is some of the most fascinating work I've done. Hard, not always financially rewarding, but always intellectually rewarding.

So I've decided for now to focus on this: on enjoying what I currently have, and not what I think I want. There are a lot of things I can't control about my writing, starting with what happens to it once it leaves my  hand. I can't force readers to enjoy it; I can't force an agent to pick it up.

But I can write.

And I can enjoy the ride.

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

The Invention of Wings

The Invention of Wings I read quite a bit about the Grimke sisters in graduate school while studying nineteenth-century women's rhetoric (including both Sarah's treatise on the equality of the sexes and Angelina's letter to the Christian ministers of the South), so I was fascinated to find that Kidd had built her latest novel around their lives.

Although there were places where the pacing dragged a little for me, I thought Kidd did a nice job of presenting two distinct experiences with slavery: Sarah Grimke, who grew up benefiting from the practice but who resisted it (though she spends a long time trying to figure out how to shape that resistance), and Handful, one of her family's slaves. I liked that Handful never let slavery define her, and she did what she could to resist it (though her actual involvement with Denmark Vesey seemed a bit of a stretch--she also seemed to have an unusual amount of freedom to visit Charleston).

But I was more drawn to Sarah, mostly because I could relate to her struggle with knowing something is wrong but trying to figure out how to resist it. Sarah was a slow-blossoming character who didn't come into her own until her thirties--and I felt like that was a much more realistic approach than what I sometimes see, which is characters who immediately see injustice and know instinctively how to respond to it. I appreciated that Kidd focused her attention on the lesser-known of the two sisters, because I think Sarah has an equally interesting story (if not as flamboyant--if you haven't read Angelina's speech at Pennsylvania Hall, you should).

Friday, September 26, 2014

One Plus One

 A good friend of mine has been raving about Jojo Moyes' novels, so when I saw her newest at the library, I snagged it. And while women's fiction isn't always my first choice of genre, I did quite enjoy this one.

One Plus OneJess is a young single mother, struggling to raise her ten-year-old math whiz of a daughter, Tanzie, and her ex's son, Nick, a sweet-hearted but odd loner of a teenage boy. She works two jobs to make ends meet, and her life pretty much revolves around her children. But she can't seem to figure out how to protect Nick from the local bullies, and when Tanzie has the opportunity to go to a fantastic private school on a generous scholarship, she can't seem to find the money she needs to make that happen.

But then a freak opportunity presents itself: a math Olympiad with enough prize money to cover the remaining school fees. The only problem: the Olympiad is in Scotland, Jess can't afford train fees for the three of them (not to mention their enormous black dog, Norman), and her ex's old Rolls Royce barely runs, and Jess doesn't have insurance.

Enter "Geeky Ed," the man Jess has met only occasionally--as his cleaning lady. Deeply embroiled in his own woes (accused of insider trading when all he really wanted to do was uncomplicated his love life), Ed wants nothing to do with Jess and her crew. Yet somehow, he finds him taking all three of them--and the dog--to Scotland. And no one's life will be the same.

It took me a while to get into the story: there's a lot of POV shifting in the first little bit. And I still think Ed agreeing to drive them all the way to Scotland is a little far-fetched. Setting that aside, I did really enjoy this. The characters are engaging (particularly Jess), and Moyes does a great job getting inside all their heads. The last quarter of the book was unexpectedly wrenching.

Overall, a solid read.

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

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.

Again.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Blog Revival

So, a year or so ago several of my writer friends and I ran a group blog together at Thinking Through Our Fingers.

Then, life happened. For various reasons, we agreed to let the blog go. And then a funny thing happened: we kept getting hits. More than a year later, and we're still getting hundreds of page views every month.

So, we decided to revive the blog.

If you have time, stop by and say hi!

Friday, August 29, 2014

House of Ivy and Sorrow

House of Ivy & Sorrow Natalie Whipple's House of Ivy and Sorrow is a very different novel from her debut Transparent. From the opening chapter I was intrigued: Jo Hemlock lives with her nana in an unusual house in a town full of magic. Though Jo's life hasn't been perfect (her mom died ten years ago from a brutal magical curse), she feels safe.

Safe, that is, until signs that the person who cursed her mother may be finding ways to get past the spells her nana set on the town. Until a stranger shows up inside the town, looking for her. And a boy she's always liked finally starts to notice her.

The opening chapter is magical: dark and warm and whimsical. I love the relationship between Jo and her Nana. And the intrigue sets in right away, which is nice.

It does slow down a little in the middle--we get more of Jo's relationship and less of the danger--but it picks up considerably at the end. I enjoyed Whipple's snappy dialogue and the development of Jo's first boyfriend. While some readers seem to think the lightness detracts from the gothic tone, it worked for me. (But then, I'm a wimp who generally doesn't do really dark stuff anyway).

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Cruel Beauty

Cruel Beauty Rosamund Hodge's Cruel Beauty has been on my to-read list for sometime and I was thrilled to find it lived up to the hype. In this imaginative retelling of Beauty and the Beast, Nyx has been betrothed to the demon lord her whole life--and raised to kill him. Her family believes this will set her world (an alternate universe England with strong Roman overtones) free from the spell that confines them to their island beneath a parchment sky.

Nyx herself is willing, but bitter that she has been chosen over her sister because she is the expendable one. Not unnaturally, given the source material, she finds herself drawn to the demon lord in ways she did not expect. As she learns more about him and the spell-bound house he inhabits, she becomes more and more uncertain of her ability (or her desire) to follow through on the original plan.

There was so much I loved about this. The prose was gorgeous and smart. I loved all the well-placed allusions to Roman mythology. The book also reminded me of C. S. Lewis' Till We Have Faces, both for the rivalry between the sisters and the idea of deep sacrifices--I was thrilled to find in the author's note that this link was not accidental. And the allusions to T. S. Eliot's Four Quartets? Even better.

But I loved, loved, the romance. Nyx was strong and prickly, the demon lord dark and quixotic and with a biting sense of humor. Just the kind of match-up I adore.

The novel wasn't perfect: I still have some confusion as to how Nyx was so easily able to obtain the demon lord's keys and I didn't love the love-triangle aspect here, but the strengths far outweigh the weaknesses.

Monday, August 25, 2014

Things I Can't Forget


Things I Can't Forget Miranda Kenneally has made a name for herself writing contemporary young adult novels. Things I Can't Forget is a companion novel to Catching Jordan, an interesting look at a young woman (Jordan) who aspires to be a football player and who makes a cameo here.
 
What attracted me to this book was the premise: Kate has grown up in a tight religious community, but after a secret strains the relationship she has with her best friend, she's no longer sure about her place. A summer spent as a camp counselor at a Christian camp raises further questions for her, as she watches the other counselors (esp.) the dreamy Matt, practice Christianity in ways that are foreign to her.
 
As a religious woman myself, I love realistic depictions of religious teens. And I thought Kinneally (who grew up in a similar conservative community) did a fair job with Kate: she does come across as judgmental, but she's also a likeable character. I also liked that the inevitable "mind-opening" character arc did NOT come at the expense of Kate's faith.
 
I didn't love Kate's relationship with Matt, which escalated to pretty physical pretty quickly. I get that relationships do that, esp. for teens, but as Kate was raised to see chastity as an ideal aim, it seemed odd to me that it took her so long to ask herself what she really wanted from the relationship.
 
At any rate, it was an enjoyable read, just not a perfect one.

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Unspoken

Unspoken (The Lynburn Legacy, #1) I loved Brennan's Demon Lexicon, and I have been waiting for some time to get my hands on a copy of this particular book. It did not disappoint.

The premise was intriguing. Kami Glass has lived her whole life in a town under the shadow of the currently uninhabited great house. People speak of the Lynburns in tones of reverence or abhorrence, but no one is indifferent to them. But they've been gone for all of Kami's life. So when she hears they are about to return, the girl-reporter in her has to know what's going on. But what she finds is much more than expected.

To begin, all Kami's life she has talked to a voice in her head: Jared. She suspects she might be crazy, but Jared is familiar, comforting, and she's not about to give him up. Until the Lynburns return, and she finds that Jared is real--and he's one of them. Then, what was fascinating becomes terrifying. (In fact, I loved this part of the storyline, that Brennen did not romanticize how creepy and horrifying it might be to find that a *real* person has access to your mind and feelings. Particularly when that person is someone you might otherwise very much like). Not that she's ready to give up on Jared--her history with him runs too deep--but things are . . . complicated.

Not to mention, someone is doing dark magic in the village, leaving bloody animal carcasses in the forest. But when Jared starts seeing strange creatures in the wood and a girl turns up dead, Kami and her friends realize that it's up to them to figure out what's going on--and what the Lynburns have to do with it all.

Brennan has a knack for creating fascinating, flawed characters. I loved Kami--her outspokenness, her inquisitiveness, and even the fact that she wasn't conventionally pretty. (In fact, when Jared first meets her, he's not impressed).  And I loved Jared too. He was interesting, intense, prickly (in all the right ways) and outrageous. Kami's friends were fun and unpredictable too.

But more than the characters, I loved Brennen's writing, which was the perfect balance of dark, funny, and lush.

What I didn't love? The ending. I really disliked the ending and it's only (slightly) redeemed for me by the fact that there is a sequel . . .