December 30, 2005
Ursula K. LeGuin called this one "a good read for the dark hours."
How have I missed this guy? Scott Westerfeld has a whole lot of great YA fantasy series out there. Has anyone else run across him? I'm interested in him as an author because he was a former software engineering person, and I think the orderliness of a mind that can program is reflected in his complex universe... (By the by, this is the FIRST book to a trio of books, and the second one is already out, but the third one won't be out until later this year. Do yourself a favor. DON'T start the first without the second close to hand... the library/bookstores are all closed now, and I'm a bit peeved...)
...the universe of Bixby, Oklahoma. Doesn't seem like it would be much of a universe, actually. It's flat, for starters, with a few stoplights and the odd tree for vertical relief. No skyscrapers. Weird bogs and sinkholes and funny tasting water make for natural oddities as well as the little thirteen pointed stars on every building and every street in town. The sun seems too bright for some newcomers, and a few folks have been known to have really odd dreams - they blame it on the water. Bixby has bizarre curfew ordinances, too. But none of that makes Bixby really, say special. What makes Bixby special is the The Midnighters. The Secret Hour causes time to stop for everyone in Bixby, but them. Then the world belongs to just a few teens, who are too strange to fit in well to the sun-loving world of Bixby High, and who live for the nighttime, the time-stopped hour when they can be who they truly are, and use their strange Talents without fear. One plays with gravity, while another can see where magic has touched. A third plays with numbers on different planes, while the last is a psychic who hears thoughts and tastes emotions. There are other creatures in the dark, the Darklings, but they're just like wild animals, they don't hurt anyone.
Unfortunately, the new girl in town, Jessica Day? She's a midnighter. The darklings don't like her. The psychic might have tampered with the minds of the people around her, and dislikes her on principle. The seer wants to control her -- for her own good -- and the gravity defying acrobat thinks he's in love. And life is about to get very, very strange in Bixby.
A giant girl from an immense state: Lucy from Alaska
I adore this book because my life's goal is to move to Alaska and write novels in the backcountry. Seriously. I also adore this book about Alaska because this woman to our left is the author, and what I've always loved about writing is that any writer can embody any person for a time and tell their story. That rocks. This woman, Sherri L. Smith, rocks too. Hard. And her story rocks hardest of all, being named an ALA Best Book for 2003 and winning something like that in the Netherlands for 2005. Yay!
But enough with the errata. Lucy the Giant stands over six feet tall in her stocking feet and her problems seem sized to match. Start with being on a first-named basis with every liquor store owner and bartender in town. Start with everyone knowing you're Joe Otswego's girl who has to carry her father home every night, limp, stinking drunk, from one of Sitka's seedy little taverns. Start with being called The Giant by the peppy pale petites at school who used to be her friends, when she was more "normal" sized. Start with having her Native mother abandon her for who-knows-where when she was too little to understand why, and having a sodden father who rarely to never speaks to her, but has a wicked and fast right hook for all her pains at keeping the house clean and aired out and staying out of the way and not asking for anything, ever. Lucy's got problems, and they take a turn for the worse when the one little scrap of sunshine she has going for her, that has kept her happy for two weeks straight, is suddenly and unexpectedly snuffed out. She's burned her bridges and she can't go home. Lucy ends up, through a simple misunderstanding, in Kodiak, even further North, in a bar full of strangers, drinking tequila shots, in a desperate gamble to land herself a job on a crabbing boat.
Six foot something she may be, but Lucy's still only just a kid, only fifteen. She makes enemies, fast. She makes mistakes. She sees how narrow the margin runs between life and death, out there in the subzero and bitter cold and ice of the Bering Sea, and it's terrifying. But, if, at fifteen, you'd had the chance to skip the daily details of miserable adolescence, and head straight to adulthood, Do Not Pass Go, wouldn't you have taken it? And Lucy collects more than $200 for sure. But, there's no skipping any of the steps it takes to become an adult. Lucy's world hits the skids once more, but she finally learns the difference between running away and walking away. It's a big lesson for a young girl, but this book will leave you cheering; Lucy's gonna make it.
An awesome first novel, and I wish Ms. Smith the best, as her second novel comes out from Random House in 2006. Something else to look forward to in the New Year!
'Many' Pages Later...
These Are The Rules is a straightforward novel of a boy who's life is going, well, in circles. Badly. He'd promised himself he'd never spend another summer out at the boring lake cabin where he'd spent way too much time as a little kid, but here he is. Again. Last summer he'd also promised himself that he'd swim the lake -- all two miles across and who-knows-how-many fathoms deep. He hasn't done that, either. He is going to be a Senior next year, and he has the feeling that nothing in his life is going forward. But then, he notices a couple of things. One is his boss's niece. The other is the girl in the cabin next door. Neither one of them is like he remembers. Could maybe things like his perfectionistic, annoying father and even his own self not be quite as dire as they seem?
Boys books have their own sense of drama. It's not quite like the drama in a book dedicated to a feminine audience, but it's there in the tension and in subtler, smaller ways. I appreciated Rules because protagonist Colm has a genuine-ness that comes out of his voice -- he continually misjudges the world (and the girls) around him, and makes goofy missteps, but his constant inner dialogue help make him a comprehensible character. Each chapter concludes with a single sentence 'moral du jour' type declaration that is often dead wrong, quite right, or merely amusingly Colm-esque.
Walk Away Home, Many's most recent book, uses the same kind of internal dialogue in the form of soliloquys every chapter which are, unfortunately, too adult to be genuine. The comments are hardly the stream-of-consciousness ramblings of a 17-year-old boy who takes to the road -- on foot because of rampant car sickness -- every time trouble comes. The internal musings, whether they be on paper or sort of voiced in his head, stand alone in the text, and lack the self-consciousness of internal dialogue that would lead the writer/thinker to admit to some sense of hubris in the I Am A Serious Writer/Thinker style in which they come across. Though beautifully written, they add a confusing note to the novel.
The storyline is convoluted anyway. Nick is being sent to a military school for accidentally burning down his aunt's old house, which was vacant, and which is where he's hung out, wistfully, since she disappeared. He knows he's going, he just decides to skip orientation and go and see his aunt first. Nick had, we later find, a brother who died, and parents who never told him how hard a time that was for them. He seems to expect that it was easy for them, and that they resent him for surviving because they never seemed to crack. He also seems to imagine that his aunt won't mind if he looks her up again and expects to crash in her house like he's still five and running away from home, even if she is struggling to make ends meet and dealing with her own demons which include incessant chain smoking and living in basically a dump.
Nick is obviously immature, right? Then how come the storyline twists and thrusts him into the role of a Savior and Father? Yep, all this, without him having any personal epiphanies about his own parents, or with him experiencing any real personal discomfort or angst as a result of striding in to save someone. He rejects his parents, refuses to come home, runs away to Aunt Wanda, and leaves phone messages. He avoids his reality in order to submerge himself into someone else's problems, and that -- a problem in and of itself -- is never addressed.
The 'someone-else's-problem' is weighty as well. A snippy and wealthy troublemaker who, together with her stoner friends, steal the wishing well and pelt garbage at the little hippie neighborhood where he and his aunt live, is dealing with being molested and fearing for her younger sisters. Suddenly she is a sympathetic character (due entirely to her hotness, of course, the only reason why Nick doesn't turn her in when he discovers she's one of the people who routinely throws rotted fruit at his aunt's house) and Nick wades in to save her. Now, understand that this is solely a literary argument and not touching at all on my personal beliefs about karma or anything else crazy, but if this is a boy book intended for a predominantly male YAH audience, why, for once, can't the victim be... male? Especially since this was written by a male author... Why does drama always have to be female? Would it have diminished the hero to save a male friend from being molested? Or, because he could not also have dually played the part of the love interest (and there's ANOTHER issue I won't even touch), would that have completely firebombed the plot? I do believe it's time to stop victimizing women only on this topic already. Okay. Rant over.
I'd be interested in hearing anyone else's take on this topic, or either novel. Both deal with boys having difficult relationships with fathers, and finding out that their parent's personal issues have affected them more than they knew. I did appreciate that the character in Walk Away Home eventually came to the conclusion that it was his own selfishness and treating his parents' opinions as a foregone conclusion that had led to the difficulties he was in, but we really don't get a good glimpse at the process -- it's like suddenly he has a few bad moments when he's told his parents almost divorced when he was a five year old, and voila, he matures. It becomes clear that he assumed his parents; he had recreated them in an image he'd projected from his own mind.
I was disappointed also that Many didn't have the molested daughter turn her father in. It's not even discussed, ever, as an option -- not even when the Aunt finds out what's going on. I'm not sure what it does for humanity to have him move to another town with the daughter holding his collection of illegal underage internet porn over his head when he could be hurting someone else out there, but whatever.
You know, the more I talk about it, the more I don't want someone else to check out this book. Not on my account, anyway.
That's it for boy books, this week.
December 29, 2005
Year End Etc., Etc.
Every year one should refresh oneself on the basics of writing. Harold Underdown of The Purple Crayon fame is a nice man who published a guide on how to get out of the slush pile, the ubiquitous place where all unsolicited manuscripts first land. Writers would do themselves a favor to read it at least yearly, so as to avoid the mistakes we're all apt to make when we get too lazy/sloppy/comfortable with this writing life. Since he has written a fabulous Q&A book about children's publishing, you can mine the site for answers, and ask him something specific if you can't already find the answer there.
The Arne Nixon Center for the Study of Children's Literature, which houses a huge collection of children's works for study and research, is announcing a Spring event with illustrator Steven Kellog. Now, I know we're writers, but it's good to Know Your Illustrators, especially when writing for children. Check it out.
The beginning of the year is very slow sometimes for writers - publishing houses are just getting back online from their two week (plus!) vacations, and it may seem like nothing is going on. Never fear, something IS going on! Only it's going on with YOU, hopefully. Right now is when it's a time to get to work! The Writer Magazine has some little workouts for learning how to pace, and a last minute (VERY last minute!) contest from the San Francisco Writer's Conference Writing Contest. Too late for the contest this year, unless you've just got a children's novel handy, (deadline is the 31st!), but there's always next year, and the Conference in February. Meanwhile, work on that pacing!
Auld Lang Syne and all of that.
December 28, 2005
And now a report from the Publisher's Marketing Assoc.
The United States Postal Service Board of Governors has approved the Postal Rate Commission's recommended 5.4 percent increase for most postal rates, effective Jan. 8, 2006.
The Periodicals rate is among those that will increase, but the 5 percent Classroom publication discount will remain in place. That means that the Classroom Periodicals Rate will increase by roughly 5.4 percent. Media and Library rates will increase by an average of 12.7 percent, though Library Mail rates, as required by law, will be set at 5 percent below corresponding Media Mail rates.
As required by law, the Media Mail rate increase is expected to cover Postal Service costs. However, it could have a significant affect on companies that use that subclass to ship a significant percentage of their products. Several groups protested to the USPS Board of Governors with respect to the Postal Rate Commission's Media Mail decision.
What this means for writers, aside from having steeper price increases while sending things to potential publishers or agents, is higher cost of mailing books and those kind of Weekly Reader periodicals to schools that help to sell your books in the classroom. This is also going to impact the publishing agencies, and may trickle down into slightly increased book prices and/or less money being spent by marketing departments on sending out your books. Yes, happy New Year! Feel the love, writers! Y
Current Rates Listed First, Then New:
First-Class Letter (1 oz.) 37¢ 39¢
First-Class Letter (2 oz.) 60¢ 63¢
Postcard 23¢ 24¢
Priority Mail (1 lb.) $3.85 $4.05
Express Mail (1/2 lb) $13.65 $14.40
Express Mail (2 lb) $17.85 $18.80
Fee and Service Changes
Certified Mail $2.30 $2.40
Delivery Confirmation (Priority) 45¢ 50¢
Delivery Confirmation (First Class Parcels) 55¢ 60¢
Return Receipt (Original Signature) $1.75 $1.85
Return Receipt (Electronic) $1.30 $1.35
December 24, 2005
V's R Us
And why wouldn't I have picked up this book? The title! The V Club made me feel like I was going to do a lot of yawning. Though Kate Brian is known to be an able YA writer, the topic seemed horrendous. The trend for teens to join virginity clubs sort of both makes my skin crawl and my teeth ache. Why on earth should something so personal be something about which one makes so public a statement?! (But then, I also question why people put political bumper stickers, 'Baby on Board' signs and fish symbols on their cars... but I digress.)
Kate Brian has written a complex novel that is both entertaining and somewhat predictable. Anyone writing a book about teen virginity and/or virginity clubs is, even indirectly, making a statement. The plot device which brings up the topic - a scholarship only available to those who can show "purity of mind and body" - was believable, because there are people who make unpopular decisions about how to bequeath their estates every day. The fact that everyone was eager to apply for the scholarship, knowing that it was essentially for virgins was less believable, and brought up some minor plot issues. Perhaps in my Christian high school it would have been no big deal for everyone to know that people were applying for the scholarship, but the scholarship, and all who were applying seemed too well known for a public school. The prurient interest of an entire student body could surely not be held on one group for so long.
There are eventual epiphanies voiced by some of the more intelligent characters about the unfairness of someone deciding that, if one has lost one's virginity in high school, one's life is basically not going to be worth living later and so no college help should go to them, but it seems to me that those conclusions could have been reached more speedily. There was a lot of drama in the book but that at times reminded me of the unlikely machinations of a slapstick film, but mostly the drama was realistically rendered popular-girls angst, and, the friendships which bound the girls together seemed to be true. Add a good cover, and you've got a book worth reading at least once.
It HAD to be Read. Really.
Sara is just who she is - a poet, an enthusiastic, trusting, and friendly person who isn't as careful (paranoid) as she could be, and takes a chance on exchanging emails with someone who liked a posted poem. Rob, on the other hand, creates multiple life stories for himself, and basically offers Sara the chance to choose one and make of him what she will. As they grow closer, the information they exchange becomes more real, but Sara pulls back time and again with "a case of the shivers" as she learns some hard truths. Rob lives where? And he did what? When they're both grounded, their internet time is limited. Misunderstandings and misdirection create some character surprises but the happy ending is almost promised from the prologue (which is why I wish they hadn't done that). Funny and involving, the book lets the reader in on a private conversation. For a short in-the-line-at-the-mall-after-Christmas-sales book, check it out.
e Happy Chriskwanzukkah.
December 22, 2005
I would love this time of year a lot more if we all took, say, just a week before Christmas and said, "Okay: stores closed. Expectations: none. Let's all just read."
National Book Week! That's what it should REALLY be!
Best holiday gift I'm giving this year? Books on tape to the Littles. My tiny beef with many school systems is that they don't spend enough time on history. (WARNING: former teacher rant upcoming.) Even I find out stuff I never learned in school -- like the fact that the U.S. held Alaskans in interment camps during WWII -- and I think, Man, most kids are clueless even about history that's being made NOW! I got the great little book Baseball Saved Us, which was about a Japanese American boy who learned to love baseball in the middle of a desert. Good stuff.
Well, there's another line calling my name.
Happy Winter, however you're celebrating it.
December 19, 2005
"See my Who's Moving Where page for news from Cricket. Their offices are being moved from Peru, IL, to Chicago and several staffers are being let go as a result.
I will post updates on that page as I get them.
The Purple Crayon
Cricket is a great magazine and seems like a great market, now that they've expanded into several different magazines for different age groups. (I was going to send my YA short story to them if the contest was a bust!) So, anyone with an interest in submitting to, say, Cicada magazine, might want to stay abreast of this.
December 14, 2005
Because NPR rocks, as always
A great bunch of writers sat around the other day to talk about kids, fairy tales, and the place for children's fantasy fiction in the modern world. Guests included Neil Gaiman, with whose works I'm not yet familiar; Tamora Pierce, whose books were once singularly spectacular because they gave female characters a strong place in the action; and Christopher Paolini, the homeschooled wunderkind who, at fifteen published the first of his two award-winning dragon novels. If you missed it, take a listen to an intriguing conversation on NPR's Talk of the Nation.
Okay. I'm avoiding reading movie reviews of the Narnia film, but if you're not, NPR also did a quick review on last week's Morning Edition and there's some good, I understand. Hmph. I won't be convinced that easily.
Off to read the books!
December 12, 2005
Girls' Issues, Historic and Contemporary
Though I was a bit turned off by certain elements that struck me as anachronistic, the story did hold my interest. Nell's descent into anorexia and obsessive-compulsive behavior, her depression, were vividly written. I did question whether it was accurate to transport psychological problems which seem to me to be very much associated with modern-day life and media influence, into a historical time period. That's not to say that there weren't young women suffering similar disorders in 1899, and I certainly don't have the detailed knowledge of history to critique the issue properly. It just struck me as odd from time to time. But it was an interesting premise nonetheless, and the book was an ALA Best Book for Young Adults. If you like historical pieces, this might interest you.
If you're more into contemporary young women's stories, then I highly recommend Keeping the Moon by Sarah Dessen. After learning that a different book of hers was one of YALSA's Teens' Top Ten--and after enjoying one of her short stories in the anthology Sixteen--I decided to check out this stand-alone piece about outcast Colie, whose mother is a world-famous fitness guru.
Colie leaves to spend the summer in a tiny beach town with her eccentric aunt, hoping to escape her mother's exuberant fame and the rumors of skankitude that dog her at school. She doesn't expect much out of the summer, but she ends up working at a diner and meeting waitresses Morgan and Isabel, unlikely best friends who take her under their wing. Colie also meets Norman, a college art student who lives in her aunt's basement and is a cook at the diner. The well-drawn cast of characters challenges Colie's view of how the world works, as she discovers that everyone has their own obstacles in life to overcome and their own ways of overcoming them. She finds friendship, wisdom, and strength in unexpected places in this quiet, vivid, funny, and surprisingly deep story.
The Great Chronicles Book Club
The first time I encountered the Chronicles of Narnia, I was in the third grade, and our teacher, Mrs. Wallace, read a scant half hour of it to us, every day. The English-isms and the tricky storyline were slightly daunting when heard aloud, the magical surrealism a little scary, and a daily half-hour simply wasn't enough for me. I wanted to sit down and read it for myself. Maybe if I read it, I could get what all the fuss was about. (Fuss= some indignant parents against children hearing dark fairytales at our small private Christian school. You can assume they'd never read it, but maybe heard there were fauns. How I wish people would read first, object later, but... well, maybe I should stop with wishing "people would READ," but good luck with that...)
Narnia, that grand old city, is finding new life on film this season. WritingYA will be going where only a few in recent years have gone before -- back to the books! We're reading the Narnia series, and we want you to read too. Some of us will want to read them in the order they were written, others in the order of the story. I'm going to begin with The Magician's Nephew, and read chronologically, since that is the way the series was first introduced to me. As we read through the series, I challenge any of you who've seen the movie to tell me if the book is faithful. Does it fulfill the prerequisites of a 'classic' to you? What makes a classic?
Until I've re-read the novels (and probably not even after that), I'm not going to see the movie. I'm getting a little sick of children's movies that come from books which children hardly know exist - and then the storyline gets changed for maximum special effects, or chopped into mince, a la Potter... But that's perhaps a rant for another day.
When did you first encounter Lewis, the mysterious Wardrobe and the world beyond? Read with us! Post your book review, remembrances and errata on our sister site, and tell us what you think.
December 08, 2005
Talking To Yourself
Once that became apparent, I got drawn into this brief, fast-moving story. Like the narration, the plot--the backstory--the main character himself--are all a bit mysterious. Clues come in flashes; the story and the character's thoughts are both fragmented, as befits somebody suffering post-traumatic stress. I wasn't even sure what the story was until I finished. (This confusion was one of the major sticking points in the reviews I read on Amazon.) However, if you don't mind constant enigma, it's a decent read--a bit disturbing, a bit surreal. Though it doesn't explore things in quite the depth that I feel the story deserves, there are some surprisingly poignant moments here, and it has a hint of the thriller about it. Mysterious deaths in the town—what does Will know? What won't he let himself know? What does the rather obvious symbolism of his name have to do with all of this? Read it and find out.
Marketing -- because a good story needs wings
A few publishing houses put out guidelines to help their authors market their own books. Recent discussion of the industry on the NorCal SCBWI list-serv has disclosed the phrase 'no author involvement = no future.' Yikes! Many writers (myself included) have no idea how to market anything, so it's nice to get a leg up on where to start. All of us want our books to have some impact on the market, so here's how to make our publications last.
First, there's apparently a difference between marketing and publicity -- Marketing, as I finally comprehend it (and J, correct me if I'm wrong), operates within the parameters of paid media, and includes advertising and sales promotions, along with a broader focus on product placement, price, and promotion. Publicity is more about PR hustle, and it's usually associated with image building and management, unpaid media placement like doing readings and appearing at schools or your alma mater, making use of press releases, media kits, press conferences, and that kind of thing. Marketing scans the demographic and creates a need for your book, publicity gives people good feelings about their desire, and the people connected with the product.
For marketing purposes, publisher's agents suggest that writers not fall prey to the vanity gift -- that is, giving away copies of your books to friends and family. They're supposed to buy them. Instead, writers should use the copies their publishers give them to send to the local city library, local high school library, independent bookstores within fifty miles of their city, and make contacts there that allow them to get in the door and give talks, book signings, and get face to face contact with the people for whom they write.
There are some great books about marketing that can help spark some ideas on how to work this.
o The Savvy Author's Guide To Book Publicity, by Lisa Warren,Carrol & Graf Publishers
o The Complete Guide To Book Publicity, by Jodee Blanco,Allworth Press
o Publishing For Profit, by Thomas Wolf, Chicago Review Press
o 1001 Ways to Market Your Books, 5th Ed., by John Kremer,Open Horizons
o John Kremer's Website: http://www.bookmarket.com/tipsconfirm.html
o Publishers Marketing Association Website: http://www.pma-online.org/
o Selling Your Book: The No-Nonsense, Step-by-Step Guide, by John Vonhof, is on his website.
From John Kremer's Book Marketing Tip of the Week:
Amazon.com: Online Book Reviews
A new study done at the Center for Customer Insights at the Yale School of Management shows that online reviews do impact sales at Amazon.com and BN.com. The study's authors, Judith Chevalier and Dina Mayzlin, found that:
a. The addition of favorable reviews at one site increases book sales at that site relative to the other retailer.
b. Negative 1-star reviews carry more weight with consumers than do positive 5-star reviews.
c. The impact of a negative review is more powerful in decreasing book sales than a positive review is in increasing sales.
d. Multiple glowing reviews for a book may be perceived as hype generated by an author or publisher (their theory).
e. Reviews at Amazon.com are longer and more detailed in general than those at BN.com.
You can read the entire study HERE.
Happy writing people, and happy marketing.
December 05, 2005
OH MY GOSH, OH MY GOSH!! Good news!
[PS:If your stories, like mine, did NOT make it into the anthology, consider reworking them and maybe submitting to Cicada or some other YA magazine. There are plenty of options and places that are looking for good stories.]
In more good news, there's a great bunch of editors who are actively seeking to update their lists for middle-grade and YA writers. SmartWriters.com reported on a couple of folks looking for expand their lists. Ginger Clark, Anna Olswanger and Lauren Barnhardt have posted their addresses and what they're after specifically. Good luck to those of you making the hard decision about choice about agents.
An ecstatically happy Monday to you!
And congratulations again, girls!!!
December 02, 2005
From Novel Writing Month to Novel Reading Month...
There are lots of tidbits for your interest which I've culled from the SCBWI newsletter, and I'll list them here. Firstly, there are a couple of reading outreach programs--always so worthwhile and wonderful to hear about. Reach Out and Read is a nationwide pediatric literacy program that
"promotes early literacy by bringing new books and advice about the importance of reading aloud into the pediatric exam room. Doctors and nurses give new books to children at each well child visit from 6 months of age to 5 years, and accompany these books with developmentally appropriate advice to parents about reading aloud with their child."
Go to the site to find out how you can help them through donations, advocacy, or volunteering. Another program helping children read is called Book Nooks, and is local to New York's Pleasant Valley. But it's such a great idea. Says the article,
"The Traver Road Primary School Building Level Team has initiated the Book Nook project to encourage children to read while they wait at restaurants and other places around town. Businesses such as restaurants, a bank and a car dealership are now homes to the Book Nook's polished wood shelves — filled with all sorts of children's books."
This immediately brought back memories for me of going to the China Garden restaurant in Rancho Cucamonga with my parents and reading a children's book retelling a Chinese folk tale called Tikki Tikki Tembo (not to be confused with Rikki Tikki Tavi) again and again. So I can personally vouch for the fact that this is a good idea.
More tidbits soon!
November 30, 2005
The Agony & the Eclipse: Books About Grief Taking Over
"Please, sir," I said. "Can't we wait for Alaska?"
Looking for Alaska, by John Greene was the big buzz on 'edgy.' I don't know why. For some reason I equate "edgy" with sexual content, and this book really didn't have much. What it did, have, was an energetic, free-spirited, disturbed and brilliant character who lived and died like the proverbial 'candle in the wind.' Her friends at boarding school spend pages by turns grieving and raging over her abrupt, difficult, mysterious, blow-hot-blow-cold life. In the end, they all have to admit that they all were a little in love with her, and move on. A really nice aspect of this book is that it's mostly about boys coping with grief -- holding each other, weeping, being personally introspective, and surviving. Spots of funny, spots of sad. Beautifully written.
"She's gone. What else is there to say?"
Adele Griffin's characters are sisters; one dead, and one alive, who live side-by-side in a world seen through a murky window in Where I Want to Be. That seems typical of many of Griffin's books. Also typical of her books is a character who is deeply dependent on others, in this case a far-too-long-suffering boyfriend, to help them cope. Lyrically crafted with beautiful, subtle language the shade of smoke gray grief, the story uses flashbacks to make sure the reader isn't overwhelmed. It was a bittersweet relationship between the sisters, at best, and the ambivalence understandably makes moving on a lot harder.
"One moment, you're flying over snow with the person you love, and the next you're plunging into cold dark water toward the end of everything. Just like that."
Marsha Qualey has written a book about loss and self discovery -- and it looks to be a contender for next year's ALA Best Books award.
It begins with a break-up, and with character Hanna Martin feeling like she should feel more upset about losing a boyfriend, or something. Her friends are certainly making a big enough deal about it. One of them even bought her flowers! Sitting by a frozen Minneapolis lake, Hanna has a chance to consider the vagaries of dating, as she surprises a woman skier and her partner engaging in a snowy grope, and has gets an unwrapped condom thrown at her as a couple her own age whiz past on their snowmobile, headed across the lake. The ice on the lake is thin, the skiers have reported, and Hanna should really have go home. Should she have also warned the obnoxious snowmobiling teens? When the girl is found the next morning, frozen, and the boy and snowmobile are missing, Hanna begins a spiral into guilt that could be allowed to become annoying and obsessive, but isn't. From the first intense chapters of the book, Hanna finds first herself, and then other pieces of the story becoming more clear. There's more to everything than she realized - even to the reason why she was sitting by the frozen lake that night.
This is an engaging novel about grieving for lost moments, lost actions, lost relationships and friendships, and then having the courage to explore the truths about oneself and others with perseverance, without anger -- sometimes things are just what they are. The novel's close will bring a smile as well.
Check 'em out!
Clueless Characters: Why aren't these people THINKING!?
Maybe it's just hitting me wrong today, maybe, but I cannot bear to read one more cluess character YA novel. Yes, I know people make mistakes -- stupid mistakes, and yes I know that its rumored that they may make more of them in adolescence. (Though I doubt it- myriad and spectacular are the idiocies of alleged maturity.) Yes, I know that often people can't see what's right in front of them, and they enter into damaging behavior sort of blindly. BUT. If I, as reader, cannot tell WHY the character chooses to ignore the bright neon yellow signs warning DANGER: DROP OFF, then it's a pretty poor storyline contrivance that finds me longing to SLAP the clueless characters, and may leave readers truly annoyed. (Incidentally, my agent has a name for this -- 'the strained plausibility issue.' And yes, it was ascribed to a story of mine. It's definitely a problem when agents have names for it.)
I really liked the premise of Anna Fienberg's book, Borrowed Light. I, too, had a weird high school sorting theory that classified people as things like carnivorous and herbivore, or moons and stars. I could get behind the character believing that all of her choices were predetermined by her particular role as a moon - a borrower of light, and I could sense her deep alienation from the rest of the high school herd -- she was a junior astronomer, the other students were...distant planets. Been there. Get that.
What exasperated and annoyed me about the novel is that the character, otherwise cosmically hip and intelligent was "dating" a star, and she just sort of glossed over the fact that they were, oh, having sex, and oh, not using any prophylactic. And when she, oh, got sort of pregnant, it seemed all a huge surprise. I fairly itched to give her a clout 'round the ears. Her grandmother is an astrophysicist, and she can't figure out how babies are made? She has a telescope and can tell you all about Gallileo's theories and locate Ganymede, and she doesn't have a clue about sperm!? What a cop out to assume that because you're a borrower you lie back and just let the stars of the world run you into the ground! Fortunately, the novelist decides to allow the character to wake up, and her distraction and abstraction from reality is explored. The novel ends, if unevenly, reasonably happily, and the ALA thought it was good enough to put on their Best Books list, and she shoveled up other honors with the Australian writer types. So maybe it's just me...
But this book, Caught in the Act, by Peter Moore, made my head hurt. I know plenty of guys who've done dumb things for the sake of a girl, but this -- no. The series of incidents in this novel cause me to feel that its plausibility is officially strained. And that's a shame, too, because the title is excellent - especially because the main character is an actor at school, acts like the perfect son at home, and is generally all-round never being his true self, whomever that is.
But tell me: would you, or anyone you know be hot to hook up with a fellow student who threatens a teacher with a sexual harassment scandal unless he changes your chemistry grade? Would you think that person was normal?? Would you maybe be concerned about...oh, lawsuits, if you had no moral or ethical scruples about this? Would you maybe wonder what would happen to you someday if/when you pissed this person off?
Would you still speak to them after they manipulated them into getting a tattoo, and then paid the tattoo artist to ink a different word than you wanted -- their name?? No? I found that I wouldn't, either. Unless Moore is trying to make a statement about guys in theater, or high school sophomores in small towns in particular, it seems there's something lacking from this characterization. The character has parents who are mainlining him toward a medical degree. They're not artistic, they don't seem especially emotive or expressive. He's definitely the odd one out in his family, and so for him to hang on and hang out with someone who tends to be loud, keeps pushing him into bizarre situations, etc., seems... unbelievable.
I know. I know. Writers don't always write books about absolute never-can-happens, most of the time. Much of fiction has at least a tinge of fact. I've had scenes I've written rejected and have heard people tell me "no, it doesn't happen that way," and I've had to do my best to not bite their heads off because all I had written was exactly what had happened. So, in defense of the writer, I don't say this could not have happened. I just wish that the reader had been given a little more of an opening into the how and why of the character development.
The cranky rant, for today, is over.
Let's hope we don't have to go there again soon.
November 29, 2005
Three From Weetzie World Revisited
Shopaholic, by Judy Waite, tells of a British girl who doesn't fit into the spangled and glitzy landscape of the world around her. Her friends are growing into different people, and she can't keep up. Her mother is no longer working, and is entrenched in a debilitating depression because of the death of her younger sister. As Taylor becomes more and more invisible, she is desperately grateful for the attentions of an older, glamorous girl at school. Kat is flashy, and Taylor is enormously flattered by being singled out, but it seems as if Kat, too, is on the verge of depression. She doesn't have enough money to fund her faltering modeling career. Taylor longs to help Kat feel that her life is worth living, but the reader can see clearly that Kat is manipulating her. It is a wrench to discover just how much, but when Taylor begins to see her own value, the reader cheers.
Certainly not for the reasons that were hyped, or for the promotional travel tumbler (Um, Simon & Schuster marketing department? Maybe that was trying too hard? Just a thought...), I actually found that I loved the much ballyhooed novel,Gingerbread, by Rachel Cohn, very much, even though I took my time in picking it up. Heroine Cyd Charisse is very much a 'reformed-hellion,' but she never lets on that she's reformed too much. She sounds like a younger, goofier Weetzie, down to her love of collecting unique people (an elderly woman named Sugar Pie, for instance), except she has well-moneyed and more mentally-present parents.
Speaking of parents, Cyd's mother is about through with her trashing her curfews and running wild on the beach with her surfer boyfriend, Shrimp, and his brother. She's unhappy enough to ship Cyd off to her father -- the man she's longed for. After all, he once gave her a rag doll that she still keeps, and he gave her the best gingerbread she'd ever had. So what if he's her "little indiscretion," and she's got older sibs she's never even met? He'll want her, even if her mother doesn't.
It's a surprise to Cyd to find that the father she sought isn't such a big deal. Things are much more complicated on the East Coast than she could have believed. Cyd has to discover a more mature version of herself before she wrecks herself, and how she does it is what makes this book special.
It's rare that a book brings a scary moment in my adolescence back to me in living color, but that's what Kicks, by Janet Fitch, did for me. Laurie Greenspan thinks her friend Carla's parents are way cooler than her own -- her father had a head injury that has taken him from the scientist he once was to being little more than a TV watching zombie; her Russian mother is a workaholic, driven to allow her brother to succeed and holding the family together by sheer willpower. It's not that there isn't any love, it's just that there isn't any time for it. There's work to do.
Laurie would rather hang out with Carla, whose psychologist parents understand that sometimes people just have to do what they have to do. Nobody makes Carla do chores, or get a job. Nobody gives Carla any lip, either. Laurie has to stand by idly while Carla goes to all of the parties, and gets all of the boys. Then, Laurie watches her take off with the cutest guy ever, on his Harley, to ride up in the hills around Topanga Canyon, when he was talking to her first. Sometimes a girl's just got to do what she's got to do... and Laurie decides that she needs to start taking risks. Unfortunately, her risk involves real life - and Carla's near brush with death by drug overdose dissolves a friendship that has lasted since childhood.
This story has a somewhat sad ending, but not for the reasons you might think. It's not a cautionary tale as much as it's a story about realizing where you stand. It's an important read for teens who feel like they're doing things to keep up with others - it makes you think about who's calling the shots for them - and why.
It's important that writers continue to write books about risky behavior - eventually almost everyone gets involved with it. Here's hoping more of the novels are stories with heart like these.
November 23, 2005
You know, there are really no new stories. Pretty much every novel we read is just a spin off of an archetype. Sometimes, the plot shows through threadbare and worn, but mostly I'm surprised by how well the retreads work. Cameron Dokey's two novels The Storyteller's Daughter and the modern ghost story twist How NOT To Spend Your Senior Year are two retakes on a couple of very old stories. Both work, but for different reasons.
Storyteller is an older story than most. A retelling of Ali Baba's classic tale, the storyteller's daughter, Shahrazad, inherits her both her mother's blindness and her talent for spinning an enchanting yarn. This saves her life for days -- but then what? Dokey fills out the blanks in this story in a way that makes it both more logical and more palatable than the original fragments, and creates some poignantly sweet moments as well. Containing an intriguing blend of romance and history, this novel was a long, slow trip into another realm, what an enjoyable YA fantasy should be.
Senior Year has been retold, but not in a classical sense. It's a typical spy-life story: Girl frequently changes schools, without wondering why. Girl finally discovers that she and her parent are on the lam, for their own safety. Girl refuses to go underground one last time without telling the boy she loves that -- she loves him. Just one more time... Because of girl's bad judgment, chaos ensues and death and drama follow.
Yep, you've read this one; simply add Caroline Cooney and it becomes an epic tragedy. Dokey, however, decides on a bit of slapstick. The girl in question, one Jo O'Connor, decides to go back to tell the boy she was crushing on that she wasn't quite dead, not really. Except he decides he's seen a ghost. He tells the school counselors, and... then chaos ensues. It seems the ghost was more intriguing than the girl, and once there are 'Jo O'Connor Sightings' all over campus, it seems it's time for the intrepid troublemaker to rise from the grave -- one more time... a rather complicated tale, but without the Tragic Mistake Costs Girl Her Family's Life shadings, so it's actually pretty funny.
Both of these are quick reads, and lots of fun for a holiday weekend. And, since it's not only being obligingly holiday-esque, but it also looks like rain tomorrow, what better time?
A book that's not a quick read is How I Paid for College: A Novel of Sex, Theft, Friendship & Musical Theater by columnist Marc Acito. This novel was on my List because I thoughtit was nominated for a National Book Award. (Turns out that's another book I just picked up from the library, which I have yet to review.) This novel instead was on a list of "most popular fiction" or some such. Okay. The title sort of explains that. I don't know how many teens get past the title and actually read the densely narrated literary romp, but at least a whole bunch of them check it out from the library.
There's got to be some netherland between YA lit and ...whatever this is. This is set in the 80's, and there's a lot of ...mmm, self-revelation? Multi-syllabic words? Oh, and did I mention so much sexual activity that borders on becoming everyday? It's a definite coming-of-age/coming out story, but set in such a radically different time that it's almost another genre. It very much reminded me of something jennifer s. might write, or might enjoy (and I'd love to hear her take on it, at some point!). What I personally didn't enjoy about it was that there was so much sex that it was blasé. There was hardly any breathless newness to it, or the freshness which seems characteristic of the YA lit. genre. On the other hand, the novel got absurdly good reviews, from "endearing" to "goofy" to "rolicking." It was readable, but everyone was aggressively sexual, aggressively alternative, aggressively worldly and cool and Artsy, most of all. I guess it just ran right past me.
However, I'm pretty sure that, as opposed to standing in line for a $9.50 movie on Thanksgiving day, it's a good deal.
more reviews anon...
November 22, 2005
Congratulations LitCrawl and LitQuake!
Day of the Turkey
As for my own brush with glory, it's decidedly less glorious than I had hoped. I do have an agent. I do have a manuscript being shopped. I have had rejections. No more than the usual, but having them come through the filter of someone so sympathetic is almost -- seems -- no, is worse. Having someone tell me that 'this is the way the business goes' isn't helpful -- I want to hear where next we're sending it!
Some of the reasons for not liking my last piece were that:
a.) it featured far too much about a secondary character,
November 17, 2005
Belated Reviews, Part One
For instance, I just plain ate up a relatively recent Diana Wynne Jones novel, The Merlin Conspiracy. I have been a fan of her novels since junior high school, and recently rediscovered them after a long hiatus. The parallel worlds she creates in her fantasy books are so well realized, so like yet unlike our own world, and this latest example is no exception.
Arianrhod, or Roddy, and her dyslexic friend Grundo, are part of the magic-using group of courtiers' children in the King's Progress--the traveling royal caravan in their version of England, in a world called Blest. One day they find that the new appointee to the post of Merlin--the King's magician--may be in league with power-hungry baddies.
Unfortunately, everybody else in the King's Progress has been charmed with bespelled water, and none of them believe Roddy or Grundo. They have to strike out on their own to foil the conspiracy, and their adventures are, as usual, filled with wonder, danger, and humor. There's also a huge subplot - Roddy and Grundo have to be helped along the way by Nick Mallory, who joins them from our own familiar Earth--eventually. He encounters his own set of tribulations along the road, including being jailed for inadvertent vagrancy and assault in a hostile parallel universe.
The setting of Blest is just fabulous - cars and buses that run on some mysterious fuel that isn't gasoline but is equally foul-smelling, magical cell phones, and other incredible details make the world come alive. A really absorbing adventure if you enjoy fantasy! A-double-plus!
November 15, 2005
A Tiny Blob of Revision Insight
November 10, 2005
This compels me to point out that deadlines can be an amazing motivator. If I can churn out 50,000 words of rough draft in three weeks, well, what CAN'T I do? (Answer: move objects telekinetically, impel people to publish my writing, and plenty of other exciting things.)
November 09, 2005
The Library of Congress lists this one under 'smuggling, alcoholism, single parent families and poverty.' And more.
Long distance runner Chance Taylor and his alcoholic, Gulf-War Veteran father live, on their broken-down 30-foot sailboat, a bare half-step away from homelessness. Clarence's worries about his father's chronic joblessness lead to concerns about power and grocery bills, moorage fees for the boat slip, and an host of other concerns that average teens don't have to shoulder. Clarence can't afford the fees and the shoes to run for the high school, so he runs on his own, and one day he meets up with someone who makes him an offer he can't refuse. It's just picking up a few things.
Financial peace of mind seems too close to ignore. His Dad just can't pick himself up, and his Mom's never coming back. It's up to Clarence to be the hero of his own story this time. But what does it take to be a hero? Clarence's dad saw action in the Gulf War, and now he's just a broken down drunk. A high school thug shows up in a spiffy military uniform and is suddenly a respected member of the community. He is mourned as a hero when killed on duty in Iraq. Who is a hero? And what does heroism take? Deuker dispels simple assumptions in this thoughtful, timely, and relevant novel.
From the New Yorker to Children's Lit: Adam Gopnik
"He was 75 pages into writing an adult novel and realized "it was boring." Then one day he was in the American Library in Paris, in the room with what he calls stories of the marvelous and the supernatural -- "I hate to say children's literature because it sounds condescending" -- "and I thought, those are the kind of books I loved with all my heart and soul, rather than reading with my mind and taste. And as long as I was going to write a book, I wanted to write it from my favorite images and my deepest obsessions, and that was the kind of book where the magical and extraordinary suddenly enters into the life of an ordinary person."
The article gives a quick sketch of the book's premise; The King in the Window tells the tale of 11-year-old Oliver, an American boy in Paris with his family who gets drawn into a parallel universe by the revenants in the hotel mirrors who've stayed 'active' since the reign of Louis XIV. This middle grade novel sounds like an extraordinarily creative jaunt into the paranormal.
Admittedly, it's always great when an able, articulate general fiction writer crosses over to the kid's side of the world. However, Gopnik bewilders me a little when he tries to find an apt description of the other literature from the American Library in Paris that he read as he was working on this piece. Do the words 'children's literature' sound condescending to you? (Gopnik prefers to call it 'literature of the marvelous and the supernatural.') Whatever you call it, the heartfelt sentiment that 'these are the books that I love' rings true, and I hope we all follow the call to write what we love, no matter what anyone else says is marketable, acceptable or trendy.
November 07, 2005
First YA Novel Contest
I wish I could enter, but my book is about 100 pages longer than the specified maximum of 224 pages. Evidently I'm long-winded on the printed page, but not so much in person...
November 02, 2005
Snazzy Cover Art, Snappy Title: Marketing Earned Its Props This Time!
The storyline's not slouching, either. Written by Australian novelist James Moloney, who wrote the most recently YA-novel-trashed-by-TV book, A Bridge to Wiseman's Cove (which I haven't yet read), the plot revolves around Rosie Sinclair, whose Granddad is just a bit of a crook. When his crooked ways catch up to him, it's granddaughter Rosie whose entrusted with his classic black Mercedes. Rosie also is inadvertently entrusted with his elderly riders, and she begins to feel like she's got a black taxi as she ferries oldsters from the hospital to the grocery store.
I didn't relate personally to Rosie as a character -- she's not much for school (and her mother is a hairdresser and wears fake animal skin skirts). I've noticed that quite a few of the books I've read from Australian writers are about teens who aren't the most reliable students, and I actually think that's cool -- who says all of teen readers are good students, or even still bother to darken a classroom door?
Anyway, Rosie's life gets more complicated fast, because since her grandfather's gone for six months, she's discovered that someone thinks he's left a little business undone. Rosie needs help and advice -- fast. She's got both, since she's got a great best friend and she's mixed up with two guys, too -- one a good cutie, the other a bad hottie. Of course, the bad hottie is more interesting. Lots more interesting. I won't elaborate, but the ending will make you stand up and cheer. A fast, fun read with enough twists in the mystery storyline to keep me hooked. Check it out!
November 01, 2005
The best part for me was Moriarty having Elizabeth getting letters from her subconscious. That's the part that resonated the most with me, since I am forever having doubts, second thoughts and simple paranoia crop up in my brain as if it's my brain's job to tell me every little thing that could go wrong. The weird Greek chorus that serenades my conscious mind likely sings to others, and Moriarty captured the finest point of good YA literature -- that part that lets everyone know that their secret fears are shared. Thanks for suggesting this one, a.f., and I really hope Moriarty puts out something else soon.
It would be fun to figure out how to incorporate more letters in my writing. Here's hoping letter writing doesn't become an art that is completely lost!
Favorite Teen Reads
1. Girls In Pants: The Third Summer of the Sisterhood by Ann Brashares
2. The Truth about Forever by Sarah Dessen
3. Looking For Alaska by John Green
4. My Sister’s Keeper by Jodi Picoult
5. Drums, Girls and Dangerous Pie by Jordan Sonnenblick
6. Maximum Ride: The Angel Experiment by James Patterson
7. The Gangsta Rap by Benjamin Zephaniah
8. Teen Idol by Meg Cabot
9. The Garden by Elise Aidinoff
10. How I Paid for College: A Novel of Sex, Theft, Friendship & Musical Theater by Marc Acito
October 30, 2005
Endings that Leave You Wanting More
I'll start with the good. This weekend I finished reading Neil Gaiman's new novel, Anansi Boys, which is a loose sequel to American Gods. And yes, I wished it didn't have to end. Gaiman is excellent at creating these alternate realities that I wish I could inhabit for more than just the length of the book. I started reading his work when I was in high school, and have tried to keep up with his work as much as possible ever since. Though I'm no longer in the habit of buying individual comics very often, I've gotten just as much enjoyment out of Gaiman's novels as I used to from going to the comic store every month and buying the latest issue of Sandman.
Anansi Boys is a really absorbing yarn, but of a quieter sort than you get from American Gods or Neverwhere. Fat Charlie Nancy, a sort of hapless yet likeable character, was always exceedingly mortified by his father's ridiculous behavior. But when his father dies, Fat Charlie discovers that old Mr. Nancy was really the Afro-Caribbean spider/trickster god, Anansi, and that he has a brother who goes by the name of Spider. Spider, however, inherited all the god-like faculties, and poor Fat Charlie seems to have lived out his life in most mundane fashion after moving from Florida to England as a child. But all hell breaks loose when Spider moves into Charlie's London flat, invading Charlie's space and stealing his fiancee. In this novel, magic creeps in, and before you know it you're looking in corners for tricky little spiders to wink at, and singing to yourself at odd moments for no real reason. Read it and find out why!
Last week I also read Guitar Girl by Sarra Manning, which, incidentally, got half-a-star higher rating than Anansi Boys. I have to disagree with that. Although I eventually got into this book somewhere in the middle, I found the beginning rather slow and the characters not as fully developed as I would have liked; moreover, the ending seemed rushed and abrupt.
In Guitar Girl, 17-year-old Molly Montgomery and her friends decide to start a girl band, mainly out of boredom. But when the rather repellently rude Dean and his silent, stoner-ish friend T sort of force their way into the band, things quickly change. Dean has lofty goals of fame and fortune, and though he forces them to do useful things like practice regularly, he also constantly badmouths Molly and the songs she writes. The author makes him a truly hateful character--until suddenly the heat of their hatred for each other causes them to develop a powerful attraction, or something like that. Meanwhile, they're being pushed around by a cute yet sleazy agent, and various band members suffer the usual tribulations of early fame and the rock-and-roll lifestyle.
It was the train-wreck aspect of things that got me more interested, sad to say, in the middle. Plus, by then, the characters were a little more developed. But they didn't have as much individuality or roundedness as they could have, to make this story more real instead of just a rock fantasy. And the end was little more than a "where are they now" epilogue, and not enough to really push the irony of the VH1-special in a way that might have been truly funny. I enjoyed it, but I was left wanting a lot more.
New Online Goodies
Anyway, I heard on the SCBWI discussion board that there is a new, free weekly e-mail newsletter from Publishers Weekly on the topic of children's and YA books called Children's Bookshelf. It's not necessary to be a PW subscriber. The SCBWI post said "The newsletter carries industry news, features, author interviews, stories on books people are talking about, links to articles in the media about children's books, bestseller lists, and many other features. It's written for publishers, booksellers, librarians, teachers, authors, agents, and anyone interested in news about current children's books." The free subscription, as well as back issues, can be found here.
There is also a new website called Reading Zone, which "is dedicated to helping young people, parents & adults and teachers to find out about children’s books. Each area on the site provides information about new and classic titles with expert advice to help you find the best children’s books available." It was apparently the work of The Bookseller's Children's Editor Caroline Horn and is backed by Arts Council England. It's a very nice-looking site. Thanks to the SCBWI e-newsletter for this item.
October 27, 2005
Competitions and Contests
Can't hang with the novel? There's a new short story contest coming up from Writer's Digest. The deadline is coming up, so start now on getting your entry form and details squared away. Good luck!
The Milkweed Prize for Children's Literature,is a writing competition into which anyone who submits to Milkweed Editions is entered. Milkweed is in search of quality children's novels intended for readers in the 8-13 age group. This competition is part of Milkweed's children's book publishing program for middle-graders. Prize: Judging will be by Milkweed Editions, and the winner of the prize will receive a $5,000 cash advance on any royalties agreed upon in the contractual arrangement negotiated at the time of acceptance. Check out their The World As Home series -- very, VERY cool.
Now, here's a different kind of contest: Through the cool connectivity of the Web, you can submit a favorite book while recommending it to a another person via email and be entered to win a 15 book library of titles recommended by contributors from Bookmark Now a Bay Area book/blog/web buzz phenom.
As for my peoples doing the SmartWriters short story contest...good luck! Good luck! You've all got great stories!