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!
October 26, 2005
Blooming Tree Press
October 24, 2005
There Is Something To Be Said
October 23, 2005
Cooking Flops And Other Jinxes
Flavor of the Week, by Tucker Shaw, is probably a harmlessly predictable love triangle story. It's another retelling of Rostand's Cyrano de Bergerac, first told in 1897, and revamped for the newest century. This time, Cyril is in the starring role of the boy with the blemish. His blemish isn't his nose, however; it's his weight. He's a master chef already at the age of sixteen, auditioning to gain acceptance into a prestigious cooking academy, but right now his mind's not on his work. See, there's this girl...
Told like a cross between a sardonic romance novel and a cooking guide, FOTW is the Like Water for Chocolate for the YA set. There are recipes at the end of every chapter -- and they're amazing: rhubarb iced tea, kitchen-sink cookies, baked pumpkin seeds with cumin, M&M brownies... this book just might make cooking cool for everyone. (The fact that Cyril HATES Emeril "Bam!" Lagasse, yet watches him like a train wreck, makes me feel even happier.)
Of course, there's a downside: the Bergerac tale is one that's been done to death, and Shaw's story escapes from the greatness it could've achieved by a number of slips in the end, including dumbing down its women. Oh, grievous sin, my friend. It doesn't take ditzy female characters to make a boy book.
Cyril's mother is an ER nurse who works weird hours; her only lines are odd ones. She wanders through the script, apparently for charm, being fed by her son, and going to sleep. Somehow, despite the burgeoning weight issues and the fact that a health professional is in residence, the fat thing isn't touched on more than a 'isn't this a nuisance' issue. The recipes are high fat and high sugar, for the most part. Ouch.
Cyril's father is completely absent, though we're told he still resides in the house...the parental lack of presence is so unremarked upon that it is notable. The words "charged prop" come to mind - but nothing happens with the mother, or the father, and I almost wonder why they're there.
Roxanne/Rose goes from being just a pretty lab partner into a "crunchy granola" hippie chick, until she decides to 'seduce' someone. In the end, she simply falls into Cyril's arms, and the credits roll, and everything is happily ever after: he gets the girl, his best friend gets the OTHER girl, he gets a SECOND CHANCE at a cooking audition (Oh, since WHEN does the American Institute of Culinary Arts do that???). The shallow best friend is never anything more or less than he is written to be -- amazingly, thoughtlessly, blemish-less-ly perfect. No cartoon anvils drop on his head. Darn.
As I mentioned, I found the ending somewhat lacking. Shaw could've killed all of his characters off in the last scene and been more creative. And speaking of piles of dead characters, FOTW is suspiciously like a Shakespeare story, where there's a convenient twin of the right sex for the poor prince who's left without. Also lacking was the fact that there was a major problem with Cyrano -- that is, the lack of self-esteem it takes to continue to help someone win over a heart that you want for your own. Especially in a YA book, it's important to at least touch on a theme like that. The question of 'why do we do the things we do?' is the end all, at least to me, of YA.
So -- here's the book that started it all. Sincere thanks, Tucker Shaw.
Their Own Little Worlds
An agent I spoke with mentioned that there's hardly room in the already stuffed sci-fi/fantasy field for one story more, so I may be reading Jean Thesman's newest novel, The Singer with a bit of jaded eye! However, it is a lush and evocative fantasy, filled with detailed descriptions of a barren childhood and an evil mother, in the traditional fairytale style. There is a dark castle, knights, trolls, and the works.
Loosed basely on an Irish folktale called The Children of Lir, this tale is of Gwenore, daughter of the power-mad Queen Rhiannon, who hates her magic-touched daughter and wishes her dead, and a son in her place. Gwenore escapes, and lives her life in hiding, and her near escapes and constant dread of discovery make for high drama for some young readers, but may become somewhat tiresome for others. In the end, Gwenore's mousey ways are challenged when her mother threatens other innocents. Gwenore must rise into her strength to save herself and those dear to her.
While this is a complex and descriptive amplification of the traditional tale, it brings little new to the familiar story -- except the rarely glimpsed strong female fantasy character. Religious sisters carry the bulk of the power in these tales, not by their weight at court or in the ranks of men, but as healers and listeners, saviors of downtrodden women and those who endure and rise again. For this subtle and excellent characterization, I would recommend this as a great read for young girls.
"The longer I'm alive, the more I'm interested in how people learn from their mistakes, not in the fact that they make them."
These are the words of Madeline Gladstone, Quality Manager of Gladstone shoes, and a fabulous character in a book that encapsulates a world all its own. Joan Bauer's Best Foot Forward, a sequel to the unique Rules of the Road, focuses on the narrowly explored world of ...Shoe salesmanship. It's just not your average YA topic.
Jenna Boller is tall, an ace shoe saleswoman, and the daughter of an alcoholic. She's got big goals and a serious work ethic, and knows a few things. One, in corporate America, there's no time to mess around, and two, if you're not there to do a good job, to put your best foot forward, you're not going to be to in business for long.
Jenna turned a summer job at Gladstone Shoes into a job as the assistant to the Quality Manager by sheer hustle and hard work. Therefore, she's shocked when Madeleine Gladstone assigns her to mentor a shoplifter -- and gives him a job! Jenna's struggles to accept and work with attitudinal Tanner Cobb are further complicated by changes coming down from the corporate office. Quality is slipping, the customors are complaining, and something strange is going on at Gladstone, something even worse than their recent corporate merger.
As she's learned in Al-Anon, there's a time to forgive, and there's a time to let go -- and a time to put your best foot forward and keep moving on. Jenna is a great believer that life is either black or white. Forgiveness and acceptance are tough, and for the child of an alcoholic, learning to relax isn't second nature. Part of putting your best foot forward is learning to allow others to make their own choices and mistakes, and to do the best you can for yourself.
This is a great story, and though selling shoes and dealing with older people isn't going to make a great read for every teen, the memorable and resilient Jenna makes you want to cheer for her successes. This is a story, and a sequel, with heart.
October 17, 2005
Strangely Helpful Writing Tools
Should you be in need of a Chinese name you can always find it and other helpful hits on the Mandarin language on this nifty site.
Finally, I've found my fantasy writing greatly expanded by reading information posted on the Orb. ORB stands for the Online Reference Book for Medieval Studies. These are factual, scholarly and sometimes deeply involved and labyrinthine dissertations on medieval fact. Now, how cool is that?
And now, perhaps in response to my carping about how few book prizes there were for YA writers, Publishers Weekly has come up with The Quill Awards. In an attempt to "inspire an energy and focus around the importance of reading," and together with such partners as Parade Magazine, Borders, Barnes & Noble and The American Booksellers Association, this new award is trying for the populist vote in American literature from readers.
I guess we can expect this to be like voting for the queen and king of prom. Pardon my cynicism, but can we expect real literary merit from this prize? And by that, no, I don't mean the snobby "high art" concept that people sometimes think 'real litt'rechure' must have. I just wonder if at the scope for effort within the general population. What if there was no one who forced people to read difficult things, things that made them think and struggle to uncover new thoughts within themselves? Surely, some people would still strive and reach, but for the rest... Does this award really prove anything/change anything? Does it encourage literature by American Idol poll vote? Does anyone think talent-by-poll really proves anything except that someone can look good and get chosen or be audacious and get more attention? Doesn't 'Reader's Choice' mean that the readers will choose nothing other than stuff that is already popular, already what everyone else is doing?
Maybe I have an appalling lack of faith in the American public. Correct me if I'm wrong.
And now, the envelope please:
Winner, Book of the Year and Children's Chapter Book/Middle Grade - Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, by J.K. Rowling, Mary GrandPré (Illustrator), with Arthur Levine/Scholastic
Winner, Young Adult/Teen -Girls in Pants: The Third Summer of the Sisterhood, by Ann Brashares, with Delacorte Press
(for the record, the winner of the Children's Illustrated Book, and possibly the only possible surprise in the bunch was Runny Babbit: A Billy Sook, by Shel Silverstein with HarperCollins Children's Books, but, after all, they had a lot of celebrity board books from which to choose. Going with an actual writer like Silverstein must have been tough. Maybe it was made easier because they could choose to award him posthumously?)
All right, all right. No further snarky comments.
Oy, it's awards season, and I'm falling behind!! Has anyone yet read any of the finalists for the National Book Awards Young People's Literature Prizes? On the positive side, these books aren't what you would call popular favorites at all. They seem to be a really varied group, and there are a couple of new voices and others we've heard from before, but not with this depth. (Being a National Book Award finalist really means something, unlike other popular... okay, OKAY!)
The Penderwicks is writer Jane Birdsall's first novel. Go Jane! Adele Griffin who wrote The Other Shepards, a book we read at Mills for YA lit, is notable for her semi-creepy style and dealings with life and the shadows of death in Where I Want to Be.
Printz Award-winning Scotland resident Chris Lynch writes what I call "boy books;" intelligent, yet pretty scary with tough and often violent characters. His Inexcusable is a scary story of a date rape from the point of view... of the accused. Walter Dean Meyers' work also depicts the gritty urban texture and bleakness of boys, and often their life in gangs in Autobiography of My Dead Brother. And it's another funny and sweet Southern coming-of-age tale in Deborah Wiles' Each Little Bird That Sings.
It's always encouraging to write about more new books that I haven't even had time to hear about! We writers are still out there, still working, in spite of incredible odds. Well, brava for us. I'll be running these down as soon as I can. Pull out your comforter and snuggle down these brisk fall evenings with a good read.
October 16, 2005
Lit Crawl YA Venue a Success!
I felt lucky to be able to introduce the group of authors and give our blogs a little plug before and after the readings, and I enjoyed listening to the variety of different styles the authors brought to the reading. The only minor setback to the evening was that the author who we had intended to read first was late, so the order got shuffled around slightly. We started with Kathryn Reiss, who read passages from three of her works, including her newest, along with a little explanation of some of the ways a book can set a creepy tone.
After that was Katherine Sturtevant, who read from her period piece At the Sign of the Star, whose narrator is a young woman in 1600s London who works in her father's bookshop and publishing house and yearns for more than a typical woman's domestic life. After hearing what seemed like an all-too-brief passage, I'm now eager to go and read more. This was true of the other authors whose work I wasn't familiar with, such as the next reader, Gennifer Choldenko. She first took a few minutes to explain how her work as a docent on Alcatraz helped inspire her novel Al Capone Does My Shirts, and showed some pictures of the island at the time during which her novel takes place (including a fascinating image of the elaborate setup used to transport Al Capone to the prison--I had no idea that they were so concerned about security that they just drove his entire train onto the boat, to avoid any possible escape while getting him off the train!). Then she read the first brief chapter of her book, which is written from the point of view of a boy who lives on the island, where his father works in the prison. And, even for the families of workers on the island, guess who did the laundry?
The fourth reader was Michael Cadnum, who explained with dry humor the difficulties of writing about a character who is a Greek god before reading a passage from his latest release, Starfall--the story of Apollo and Phaeton. Joyce Maynard, the fifth and final reader, recently published The Cloud Chamber but read from her previous release The Usual Rules, which describes the profound change in the life of a young woman whose mother is working in the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. Afterward there was time for one question from the audience--all five authors spoke about a few of the writing-related challenges they faced as authors of young adult fiction.
Overall it was a great evening, and although I was a somewhat nervous emcee, it was a great experience and I really enjoyed myself. It also reminded me that going to readings, art exhibits, plays, etc. can really get the creative juices flowing. Having a chance to see a variety of authors was inspiring and I found myself coming up with a few ideas for new work before I even left the bookstore. If you didn't have a chance to drop by this year's Lit Crawl, definitely consider it for next year.
October 13, 2005
Ten nails down, one manuscript, to go.
As I said, it was a thrill. Or, rather, I was thrilled. That was before the first slew of emails and rampant postal abuse.
Now, I'm as big a publisher-whore as the next writer, so at first I was twittering at all the communication I was getting. He wrote to me at odd hours in the morning - 5 a.m. on a Sunday, midnight on a Friday night. He'd write that I didn't need to answer him, but he just had been thinking -- and he'd dash off a comment on my characters. Why did so-and-so need to say that to his mother? If her family was so wealthy, why did she have an after school job?
No need to answer, he'd say.
At first, I tried to answer all of the questions -- seriously. I pondered them all, and then I started worrying. Did he like my story, as it was, at all? Why did he contact me?
You know how you're supposed to send a SASE to publishers and agents during the query process? Since my person initially replied via email, the two envelopes I'd sent them I thought would be unused. Oh, no. Never one to waste trees, these envelopes have returned to me, full of my pages (out of order), filled with the scrawl of red pen. On every page.
For a finale? He sent, in one of my postage envelopes, a page of somebody else's story, to represent to me what a properly formatted page should be.
People don't waste their time on minutiae without a reason. This I promise myself faithfully, as I sit here with a stomach ache from pounding down two boxes of sugar-free Mentos and all the fingernails from both hands. He's got to be seriously planning to extend a contract to me. Or else I've got to find him and exterminate him in his sleep. I have never been so stressed out -- aside from PMS, I don't think I've ever been this ill-tempered for so extended a time in my life.
An hour ago, I finished the manuscript revisions. Tomorrow I'll print The Beast again, and wrap it lovingly in white paper, and mail it with reverent hands to the east coast. And yes, I'll add the requisite postage filled envelope so it can be returned. Again.
Cross your fingers.
October 10, 2005
Words Fail Me
I say "almost every creative person," because I read an unenthused review of this book on Amazon--one of very few negative reviews--that said: "This book is for people that are very afraid and very insecure. It will give you lots of reassurance and make you feel better about yourself. However, if you are not depressed and on the verge of quitting, then I think you may find this book to be very annoying." I have to say that a) I disagree, and b) Congratulations to you, Mr. Reviewer, for having never had a single doubt in your life! ;)
Another fun book for getting out of a creative block is Free Play by Stephen Nachmanovitch, which I'm currently reading for a painting class, but, like Art and Fear pertains to all creative endeavors. It's got a bit more of a mystical approach to artmaking and creativity, but really gets you thinking about ways to loosen up when you're stuck. It reminded me that play and fun are important elements of the creative process, and that when we as writers can let go of any doubts, fears, or even our own expectations about ourselves, then our creativity really lets loose.
October 06, 2005
New Voices in Short Stories
Putting that aside,I was pleased to go out and check out the Best New American Voices, which came out this month, and includes a story by a friend. It's not YA lit, but maybe someday one of us will get included in there. In the meantime, the party's at Seren's! You go girl!
October 05, 2005
From Space Down to Earth
So I went in a different direction and tried some realistic middle grade fiction. The House on the Gulf, by Margaret Peterson Haddix of Shadow Children fame, is a pretty darn good one-off about a twelve-year-old girl named Britt who begins to suspect her older brother of some shady doings after they move with their mother to a Florida beach town. Although the premise, to me, was a little predictable, I still enjoyed reading it, and Haddix is always a master of quick-reading suspense.
I also decided to try out Sons of Liberty by Adele Griffin, whose YA novel The Other Shepards I completely adored. This middle grade piece was very different, but frankly, the three books I've read by her have been quite different from one another with the exception of their pensive tone. Her narrators always seem, to one degree or another, to live in their thoughts, and show us the world through their eyes, to the point of being unreliable narrators at times. This is a tricky fence to walk when writing for younger readers, I think--you don't want the narrator to be difficult to relate to or unsympathetic, and you don't want readers to be confused by what the narrator says and what he or she does or sees--rather, you want them to notice an incongruity and let that build tension in the reader's mind.
Anyway, the narrator of Sons of Liberty isn't altogether sympathetic--but the reader can easily understand that his hardness, his head-in-the-sand, stubborn, unwillingness to change his worldview, is something that arose from his family life. Rochester--aka Rock--has to learn to change his focus from himself and his father, whom he both feared and idolized, to the happiness and safety of his friends and the rest of his family. It's a story about relationships with others and with oneself, and about some of the moments of understanding and loss that inevitably accompany growing up. It's very, very good. I didn't expect to like it as much as I did. It also ended at the perfect moment, and I always admire writers who can manage that.
And speaking of ending...