June 20, 2016

TBR Monday! More Books On My List


Greetings, Book People of Earth! I kind of enjoyed doing that previous post on my TBR pile, so here's another one with a few more recent acquisitions. Comments, opinions, and ancillary recommendations are welcome!

Clockwise from Upper Left: Out on the Wire is a graphic novel recommended by friend, fellow author, and writing group colleague Sara Lewis Holmes. She mentioned it during our writing group meeting and it sounds right up my alley, since it's about various awesome public radio personalities AND it's a GN by an artist I really like.

The Vanishing Throne is the sequel to The Falconer, a faerie/steampunk/action fantasy which I reviewed here and which ended up being quite enjoyable. Stay tuned for an upcoming review soonish, and a guest post from author Elizabeth May on Tuesday next, thanks to Chronicle Books! I'm hoping she'll talk a bit about world-building, a topic that is much on my mind currently...

My mom lent me the first two books in a series called The Neapolitan Novels by Italian author Elena Ferrante, the first being My Brilliant Friend. Evidently it starts with the character's childhood and follows her as she grows up, which is always an interesting strategy. I liked it in the Anne of Green Gables books, the Little House books, and the Betsy-Tacy books, so I am certainly intrigued. Evidently these books are quite popular in Europe but not so well known here.

I got a copy of Once Was a Time for review some time ago and it languished on the pile, even though I very much like the sound of it. It's a middle grade read set in wartime 1940s England, so that is an immediate draw for me. Also, it involves time travel and a main character named Charlotte--possibly a nod to the cult classic Charlotte Sometimes? Anyway, I look forward to it.

Happy Reading!

June 14, 2016

Turning Pages Reads: GIRL IN THE SHADOWS, by GWENDA BOND

Welcome to another session of Turning Pages!

Full disclosure: Gwenda is a blog buddy, and she and AF share the same agent, so this is more of a "hey another Bond book!" advertisement than a terribly critical booktalk. AF reviewed the first book in this series, GIRL ON A WIRE.

Synopsis: Moira Mitchell is eighteen and dying to step into the spotlight of her famous father, The Mysterious Mitchell, Master Magician. Moira needs him to see that she's ready for an act of her own. After all, she's lived at the Casino with him since she was a little kid, and she knows the Vegas Strip, she knows the lights, and she's got the patter down. She's been performing on the street -- by herself -- for a little while now, doing card tricks and even escaping from a straitjacket. But, now she's ready for a stage and an assistant -- is that too much to ask? But apparently it is -- her Dad has always stood between her and her dreams, and even blows her off in front of Raleigh, his assistant. The discovery of a flashy Florida circus auditioning for their summer Midway show - an invitation that rightly belongs to Raleigh - gives Moira the impetus she's long sought. Inventing a summer program in upstate New York, she loads up her props and sets off across the country.

The minute Moira - newly named Moira Miracle - lands in Sarasota, she meets a gorgeous boy, totally blows her audition -- and worse, the person to whom the invitation she's stolen belongs - Raleigh - has arrived, and he got there before her! There's only one reason the panel of judges is giving her a chance -- and it's not because of her bad card tricks. Something strange is going on at the Cirque American, and it's not just the intensity of the feelings Moira has developed for the handsome Dez, contrary to her own Vegas-sharp brain telling her it knows a con when it sees one, or the strangely tidy break-ins and gossipy whispers about an old coin that has everyone talking. Moira's sleight-of-hand doesn't seem so slight anymore -- and she'll take all kinds of chances to get to the bottom of what is, and is not real.

Observations: I'd forgotten that I'd read the first book in this circus series, so had a good laugh when I found myself surprised at recognizing names. I looked back at my reading log, and said, "Ohhh! Duh." Though AF wrote the actual review, I knew these people, this place, and this circus already very well. This is not a true sequel, but a companion novel to Jules' story of finding the truth about her family's bitter rivalry, and a companion to Bond's little love letter to real-life 20's wirewalker Bird Millman.

Unlike Jules, Moira - privileged and fairly blind to it, living on the penthouse level of the Menagerie Hotel and Casino - hasn't got angry Flying Garcias to get past -- just one very professional, very wealthy father. Running away is easy, but getting her act to come out right is hard -- a couple of times, nearly fatally so. There is a wonderful dialogue, a more-than-passing summer romance - long lost discoveries, lies, betrayal - and a lot of spotlights, bows, and very narrow escapes. The author mirrors the homage paid to historical female circus performers in the first book by adding Moira's desire to perfect the trick of another real life performer, Adelaide Herrmann.

Conclusion: Moira is a risk-taker, and makes decisions fully deaf ear to the pleas of others to not do something, be careful or at times, to use plain common sense. At eighteen, Moira is an adult, however, and as her decisions lurch from bad to worse before they get better, readers will come to sense her strong desire for independence and saving herself. Moira learns, as everyone has to, from getting it wrong before getting it right.

Though I'm not at all a circus fan, and things like wire-walkers, clowns, and contortionists make me break out in hives, I find myself impressed every time I read a book in this series at how the author immerses me into the world. The smell of greasepaint, cotton candy, and dusty canvas is practically palpable. A much stubborner, riskier girl with even more to lose than Jules, Moira will be a good beach companion this summer.



I received my copy of this book courtesy of the publishing company. After July 5,you can find GIRL IN THE SHADOWS by the inimitable Gwenda Bond at an online e-tailer, or at a real life, independent bookstore near you!

June 13, 2016

New Books Haul

I was good. You'd be proud of me. I limited my book buying spree to merely THREE.

This was at the Mixed Remixed Festival, which took place over this past Friday and Saturday at the Japanese American National Museum in downtown L.A. (Read a great recap here.) I was a volunteer on Saturday, mostly working at the registration table, but I also got a chance to chat with folks and attend a fantastic reading by featured writers F. Douglas Brown (a poet), Willy Wilkinson (Lambda Award winner), Natashia Deon (who KILLED it with her reading from just-released Grace), Jamie Ford, and Sunil Yapa. It was a great opportunity to buy one of Jamie Ford's books, which I've been meaning to read for a while, and I was really blown away by all five speakers. I feel privileged to have gotten to chat with and/or congratulate all of them afterward. Lovely people one and all. And of course the wonderful Heidi Durrow, author of The Girl Who Fell from the Sky and director of the festival. We had some great phone chats over the past few months as I worked on laying out the program.

I had some kidlit-specific encounters, too! I got to say hi again to Katrina Goldsaito, author of the upcoming kids' book The Sound of Silence and fellow client at Andrea Brown. (I also had a great chat with her agent Jamie Weiss Chilton! All those Andrea Brown peeps are fantastic.) And I met Eleanor Glewwe, author of DIVERSE FANTASY MG title Sparkers, which I'm looking forward to reading. Last but not least, it was nice to talk again to Jamie Moore of Mixed Reader, who was the one who initially invited me to read at Mixed Remixed a few years back--she's a fellow Central Valley resident, so we resolved to try to meet up at some point.

There is something unique and magical about meeting other writers in a context that is not just related to one's writing, in an environment that is all about acceptance and celebration of all our mixed and mixed-up stories. In that context you know you have something immediately in common, that you have experiences in common and those experiences have inextricably informed your writing and formed you as a person.

It's always hard to put those things into words, though, and do it justice. If you want to know more, check out the Twitter hashtag!

June 09, 2016

Self-Belief, Grit, and Writing

In a recent article in The Atlantic entitled "Is Grit Overrated?", Jerry Useem examines recent research by University of Pennsylvania psychology professor Angela Duckworth on the topic of GRIT: a sort of hard-to-define special something that is one of the secret ingredients in the sauce of success and a rather persistent ingrained belief--one that can be somewhat damaging, as it turns out, when it comes to us writers. It wasn't a specific thrust of the article but what I found the most interesting was Useem's extrapolation of the problems with grit to some of the recognizable day-to-day tribulations of the writing life.

Duckworth "argues that grit—perseverance plus the exclusive pursuit of a single passion—is a severely underrated component of career success, and that grown-ups, too, need a better understanding of the nature and prevalence of setbacks." And yet there's this: "Ask Americans which they think is more important to success, effort or talent, and they pick effort two to one. Ask them which quality they’d desire most in a new employee, and they pick industriousness over intelligence five to one. But deep down, they hold the opposite view." In other words, we have this deeply ingrained idea that true genius is somehow inherent, inborn, and glamorous, rather than a product of many hours of hard work to overcome obstacles.

Here's the part of the article I found the most interesting, though:

Whatever its origins, the bias has practical implications. Certainly, it suggests that my deep terror of letting anyone see my half-written article drafts is not irrational but adaptive. It perpetuates a myth that I’m a natural—the words just flow out, folks, as fast as I can type!—and hides the far more mundane truth: that the words come out fitfully and woodenly, gradually succumbing to a state of readability only after many seemingly fruitless sessions. “If people knew how hard I had to work to gain my mastery, it would not seem so wonderful at all,” Michelangelo observed. Nietzsche concurred: “Wherever one can see the act of becoming one grows somewhat cool.”
Which suggests that Duckworth’s basic admonition, “Embrace challenge,” needs a qualifier: Do it in private. Grit may be essential. But it is not attractive.
It may not be attractive, but I'll tell you one thing: it's reassuring to those of us normal folks whose words do not flow out with constant ease and immediate perfection. And it's hopeful: it implies that, given enough work and time and effort, we, too, can improve and achieve a higher level of creative production.

What thinkest thou about GRIT? Chime in in the comments.

June 07, 2016

Turning Pages Reads: DARA PALMER'S MAJOR DRAMA by EMMA SHEVAH

Welcome to another session of Turning Pages!

Here's one of the infrequent middle grade novels we review here on this site; I chose it because the main character is a.) adopted and b.) Cambodian - just like my sister. She would have laughed a lot over this ten years ago.

Synopsis: Eleven year-old drama-queen Dara Palmer is convinced that Miss Snarling (actually, Snelling, but close enough) hates her, for serious. She never chooses Dara for any of the school play leads, and this time, when they're doing The Sound of Music - a weird old play based on a movie nobody's even heard of - Dara doesn't get a part at all. She has a sneaking suspicion it's because she's Cambodian - and clearly, Maria in the movie was Austrian. Except, there are kids of all shades in the play this year - all shades, from deep brown to lighter colors - so maybe it's just that Miss Snarling just... really ... hates Dara?

It certainly CANNOT be because Dara can't act.

Dara PRACTICES pulling faces in the mirror, just so she'll always have the right "Surprised!" "Grieved." "Horrified!" expressions. She's imaginative -- to the point of constantly daydreaming about her convertible, her Oscar, and her famously rich lifestyle in someday California. She's obsessive about her TV - yanking the remote away from her little sister and imitating voices and inflections, so hers will be just right. From the tops of her dark-haired head, to the spangles on her tutu, Dara is sure she'll be a star. She's just got to figure out a way to a.) grow up, b.) make it through school without dying, and c.) make it through home without killing her little sister, Georgia.

Dara's self-absorbed certainty of her own amazingness takes a hit in this brightly doodled, creative novel, which should appeal to the bouncier young readers of your acquaintance. In addition to all of the drama surrounding the school play, a friend and fellow Cambodian adoptee, Vanessa, decides to take the long trip back to Cambodia, to reconnect with where she's from. Dara is shaken by this -- isn't it enough for Vanessa to be English? Should they even be talking about their country? What if it upsets their English Moms? But Vanessa insists on exploring those deep-down-don't-talk-about-it feelings she feels -- which makes Dara realize that she not only has those feelings herself, but that those feelings are real, important, and won't go away. Dara realizes that, despite all of her trying and trying to BE an actress, be a star -- and be English, she is what she is - brown, Cambodian, and only a Palmer-by-adoption who maybe can't act. What she has to discover is if that's good enough... and if not, what she can do about it.

Observations: Dara is one of the frothier main characters I've read in awhile; totally in her own head and very happy not to actually interact with The Rest of the World. She learns and changes and grows, of course, but the beginning of the novel may be challenging for some readers who find "silly" unsympathetic. I found Dara's growth to be unexpectedly poignant, as she tries to understand why her sister Georgia is so unlikeable, by trying to put herself into Georgia's shoes and understand her. She fails - because her own shoes are so much cooler - but the real moment of growth is realizing that Georgia is inoffensive, and that Dara's her sister's worst problem.

There's a timely portion of the novel which will spark off some good conversations with readers. Dara is star-struck and dying to act. There's a great deal of talk in the media just now about the paucity of roles for Asian American actors, and when Dara suspects that it's her Cambodian-ness which stands in her way, she goes looking for representations of Asian actresses and actors to hang on her wall. She finds very few are in films she's ever seen, and the search is harder than it should be. What she chooses to do about this is typically Dara - but a great example of the need to be the change we seek.

Conclusion: Filled with onomatopoeic representations of the dramatic feelings any young actor feels, as well as squiggly doodles and interesting typography, the irrepressibly dramatic Dara will connect readers to her dramatic, empathetic, and thoughtful little world.

The author reads from her book - hilariously.



I received my copy of this book courtesy of the publisher. After July 5, you can find DARA PALMER'S MAJOR DRAMA by Emma Shevah at an online e-tailer, or at a real life, independent bookstore near you!

June 02, 2016

Toon Thursday: The Return of Psychobabble for Writers

That's right--last time's rerun was just a teaser for the real thing: a lovely new cartoon featuring everyone's favorite bummer topic, DYSTOPIAS. More precisely, the shiny happy people who write them. Any resemblance to existing writers, living or dead, is purely coincidental. No angry notes this time, thanks.


June 01, 2016

Turning Pages Reads: AND I DARKEN, by KIERSTEN WHITE

Welcome to another session of Turning Pages!

Readers who enjoy a sprawling fantasy epic will be glad to see another female-centric contender on the horizon. Though The Conqueror's Saga is a series, its first book stands alone with a finished arc including beginning, middle, and end, leaving the reader the choice to continue or consider the epic over and done. Like most political-kingdom-conquest fantasy books, there is the violence of war and personal violence, though violence against women is minimal.

Synopsis: Ladislav Dragwlya's name is even the feminized version of her father Vlad's, and Dragwlya means "daughter of the dragon." Everything about her is in his imprint, in his name, and he is the sun in her universe -- not because she has warm and loving feelings toward him, but because she has already learned what it is to be nothing, and only in his eyes, in the brief benediction of his smile, does she feel she has any worth.

It's clear what Vlad values - power - his own. Weakness and softness are reserved for things like women, who are worthless. Lada - who refuses to answer to any name but that - despises these things too, from babyhood, even though this means she despises her younger brother, who is beautiful, with big, round, innocent eyes, and no capacity of viciousness or suffering. Radu is a pawn, as surely as Lada is, in their father's kingdom, but he looks like it - and is bullied, tormented, and beaten because of it. Wallachia is for the strong, Lada gathers from this. No one expects a vicious backhand or a knife in the dark from a princess. Which suits our antihero Lada to the ground, because she is all those things: the knife in the dark, the headbutt that breaks the nose, the spit in the eye, the graceless, masculine princess. She is determined to be Someone, not a girl. Not useless. Not soft. Not used to solidify another's power. She endeavors to express this to Radu - bloodying him in her attempts - but he simply cannot learn to toughen up. At a loss, she reluctantly decides to protect him. After all, he is hers - and what she has, she keeps.

"If anyone is going to kill you, it will be me. Understand?"
Her brother nodded, snuggling into her shoulder. "Will you protect me?"
"Until the day I kill you."

Clearly, they have the dynamics of sibling relationships worked out.

While beautiful - and useless and terrified - Radu exudes privilege just by existing, Lada is all frustrated ambition, since being used is all that's left to the daughter of a price of Wallachia. Lada and Radu are traded to the Ottoman Empire to secure Wallachia's good behavior. The sultan and his advisors torment them, until the Sultan's son Mehmed, for whom the Sultan cares nothing in particular, takes them away to his home. Mehmed, like them, is just a tween -- weak - the son of a low-level concubine - but he is kept in comfort above anything Lada and Radu have ever experienced. He saved them, and Radu adores him unreservedly, longing with his whole heart for a real friend, someone who isn't prickly and apt to leave him bruised like his sister. Even Lada almost likes him, although she doesn't trust this soft spot where they have landed. She trains hard with the Janissaries serving Mehmed and tries to keep from realizing that she is hurtling toward womanhood at horrifying speed. There is nothing for girls in this world but to be married off as pawns -- and so Lada has determined to never marry, become a soldier, and return to her lands - somehow. Some way. Radu, meanwhile, has found solace in faith in the Ottoman Empire, and while his sister longs for the freedom of Wallachia, Radu believes that he is home.

Abruptly, the idyll ends and Mehmed is called into office. His other brothers and their heirs have mysteriously died. His father is retiring his sultanship, and Mehmed is suddenly in line to getting everything he's ever wanted... but he's still only twelve. Lada believes that if he simply acts, he can manipulate his father into coming back. Mehmed's mother believes she can manipulate events herself. Radu simply wants to love, and be loved, but political ambition -- his sister's burning quest to have some use other than being ornamental, and Mehmed's confused desire for both power and approval -- simply roll in and drown him in the tide. Before any final choices can be made, the Empire is out of their control, and the three must entrust their lives to each other. Betrayal, jealousy, lies, and mistakes stand between Lada and her dream of returning home, between Radu and his desire for love, and between Mehmed and his throne. In the end, only one of them truly receives what they've needed, and none of them quite get what they want -- but all of them are players on the board of empires.

Observations: The first half of this book I enjoyed more than the last, as Lada acted as a true antihero. She was hateful, vicious, angry, and completely unconflicted with it. Conflict came in the form of emotional attachment, and a very painfully messy love triangle. I'm always astounded when novels depict non-traditional girls as being tomboys so obviously not knowing anything about their own emotional state, feelings and desires. I was disappointed that the conflict was so cheap - this brilliant triumvirate fell apart over lust for a character whose characterization and motivations weren't strong enough for me to feel that the affection was organic. Despite the varying messages about a woman's power throughout the novel, it is only when Lada began to lie to herself that I despaired for the plot. However, things right themselves after not too many false starts. The twanging narrative tension will be someone's catnip, though not entirely to my taste.

This novel is violent, rife with soldiers, assassins and the like, and while the author is careful to keep the inherent violence of a militia against unescorted women to a minimum, there is some - be aware of this. The marketing compares this novel to the George R.R. Martin Game of Thrones series; I have neither read nor viewed that unfinished mass of epic-ness, so couldn't say, but I do know that there the level of political machinations are about on par with other novels about empire, so there's that.

Conclusion: At 498 pages, this is a thick, weekend doorstop of a novel to enjoy tucked up in bed. AND I DARKEN will suit readers in search of a "strong female character" down to the ground, and may perhaps change how we think of strength, and what we imagine we know of sacrifice.



I received my copy of this book courtesy of the publisher and am quoting from an advanced reader copy. After July 7, or June 28 in the UK, you can find AND I DARKEN by Kiersten White at an online e-tailer, or at a real life, independent bookstore near you!