May 31, 2012

Toon Thursday: What Type of Writer Are You?

Brand new Toon Thursday, get it while it's hot! It may not be the early-morning edition, but surely you'll all settle for the evening edition, yes?

Happy Thursday!

May 30, 2012

O, Tor, How We Love Thee

Just say YES to $2.99 specials for the beginnings of three YA series with a touch of the fantastic - Cybils nominee Anna Dressed in Blood, by Kendare Blake, Personal Demons, by Lisa Desrochers, (a very nice person AF has lunched with in person), and Shadow Grail: Legacies, by the legendary Mercedes Lackey. This price is good for four weeks, if you can believe it, so save your lawn-mowing money, and think nice thoughts towards Tor! w00t!

May 29, 2012

Chatter in the Blogosphere

Kilsyth 36

There's a fair bit of hit or miss going to be on for the next two weeks as attempt to uproot from Scotland - not taproots, though; just couldn't manage - and resettle my possessions, if not my self, elsewhere. I'm hoping to develop a breezy and brief (Hah! Brief. Who am I kidding?) style so that I post frequently short bursts of things I've found intriguing.

With this in mind, I point backwards to the great conversation, "It's Complicated!" that went on LAST week at CBC Diversity blog. Featuring such well-known advocates for ethnic and cultural representation in YA lit as Debbie Reese, Cynthia Leitich Smith, and some surprising words from experienced editors and agents, this conversation struck up a number of respectful and intelligent exchanges in the comments. A rarity elsewhere, but "Status: Normal" in our community - which is more amazing and precious than maybe you understand, giving the level of vitriol in national discourse.

Add those introductory discussions to the wonder that is this week's panel discussion at SF Signal on writing race in science fiction and fantasy.. Hosted by Zack Jernigan and featuring David Anthony Durham, Aliette de Bodard, Adrian Tchaikovsky, and Ken Liu, we're getting all kinds of cultural and ethnically diverse opinions and perspectives. This promises to be full of really intelligent, thoughtful exchanges.

Meanwhile, Liz Burns is doing her thing with Kelly Jenson and having an unconventional blog tour. This means it's bloggers talking about blogging - best practices, ethics, why we do it, where we're going with it, what we want our relationships with the editorial/publishing world to be -- which has sprouted a number of really good points and some intelligent conversation. (No, we don't believe that blogs are free advertising - we write about the books we love, and if you want a guarantee of something? You pay for it. As you would anywhere else.)

All in all, some good chatter to chew over.

May 28, 2012

A Memorial Day Booklist

Maya Lin, Vietnam Veterans Memorial
Photo: Wikipedia (public domain image)
We don't really post a lot of book lists around here, per se, but since I don't have a review ready to put up today, I thought I'd celebrate Memorial Day in one of the best ways I can think of to honor those who have given their lives in military service. Whether or not you agree with any given war, whether or not you personally would ever serve in the military, has nothing to do with whether we appreciate the service of those who do make the choice to take such a role, or whether we respect and honor those who died in that role.

What I'm trying to say, I guess, is that whether your patriotism is rabid or mild, Memorial Day is more than just big department store sales or barbecues or even putting a flag outside your house. To me, remembering and reading the stories of those who served, those who died, is one of the best ways of continuing to honor them, and it's a direct way of connecting with history. And you don't need the excuse of a calendar holiday to do it.

On that note, here are some personal favorites along the theme of war and military service, some adult, some YA; some fiction, some non--please note that this is not a complete list, but simply a list of books  I've read and enjoyed.

Operation YES, Sara Lewis Holmes (MG fiction)
The Things They Carried, Tim O'Brien (adult fiction/memoir)
Pride of Baghdad, Brian K. Vaughan (graphic novel)
Bombers and Mash, Raynes Minns (nonfiction about British women's lives in WWII)
Sunrise Over Fallujah, Walter Dean Myers (YA fiction)
The Green Glass Sea, Ellen Klages (MG fiction)
Mare's War, Tanita Davis (YA fiction)
Flygirl, Sherri L. Smith (YA fiction)
Code Name Verity, Elizabeth Wein (YA fiction)
Slaughterhouse-Five, Kurt Vonnegut (adult fiction)

Feel free to leave a comment with any of your personal favorites that I might have missed and you think are worth a read. And, regardless of your plans for this particular day, go forth, read, and remember.

May 25, 2012

TURNING PAGES: Dust Girl, by Sarah Zettel

Short of my time with Grapes of Wrath in high school, and Karen Hesse's Out of the Dust, I have to admit that my grasp of Dust Bowl literature is not all that firm. I read way too much into it, and find myself wheezing and coughing at the idea of dust, dust, dust. And don't get me started on locusts or whatever. The Midwest in the 30's: it's very much my nightmare.

Enter Callie LeRoux of Slow Run, Kansas...

Reader Gut Reaction: I like the idea of a fairy series set in the Old West. Much of American fiction set in the thirties is concerned with the concrete - job losses, racial instability, post World War I angst and hills like white elephants or something. Fiction for teens and young adults set in that time tends to lean toward Rockefeller-esque excess, high-class hijinks and the like - a lot of raccoon coats, bobbed hair, and bored people at dances. And yet, there is certainly more to the era, and more to the history of Americans at the time. People were superstitious and believed in all manner of things, so fairies -- and the battles of the fae for the world - are perfectly reasonable. This novel is a strong beginning for what's going to be a really interesting trilogy.
Concerning Character: Callie is a determined person. Hedged about by her mother's rules of conduct and courtesy, even as they're among the last two people in Slow Run, Callie keeps her chin up. It gets a little tougher to pretend that all is well when the doctor leaves... he's the only one keeping Callie's body and soul together. The dust pneumonia, which causes her to have to sleep in a muslin mask, is going to kill her. And YET: her mother weeps for her, but will not budge from Slow Run. Not when her father might be back for her, any day. Not when she promised she'd stay ...

Callie is, deep down, justifiably angry -- and angrier still when her mother wants her to "call" him. She's had the ability to call him back, all this time, just by doing one simple thing? But, the simple thing turns out to be much, much more complex than Callie ever dreamed, and when she loses her mother, she knows she has to get out of Slow Run -- and find out what's really going on with her life. The adventure that follows is surprising, fresh, and engaging.

Recommended for Fans Of...: Novels in which girls find their strength and do things - two which come to mind are Holly Black's Tithe, Justine Larbalestier's Magic or Madness series and Melissa Marr's Wicked Lovely series - but neither of these are quite a match. This is a whole new idea.
Themes & Things: Themes are of self-reliance, decision-making, and there's a strong, strong theme of identity -- hiding who we are, vs. being out loud and proud with every part of it. Slow Run, Kansas in the early thirties isn't ready for all of Callie - but more important is that she learns to be ready for herself.
Cover Chatter: On one hand, thank you, cover people, for adding to my nightmares about dust. Now it has faces in it, ghostly ones. Great. Thank you so much. On the other hand, the cover model is meant to represent a biracial Callie - a fair enough job perhaps for face and eyes - we can never judge how a biracial person's mingled ethnicities show in their skin, but I cry foul, because the author described Callie's hair as black, coarse, and braided down to keep it straighter... yet, we get ripply, flowing, loose, and brown. Apparently having a YA female book cover sans the quarter face/torso and the flowing hair would set off some sort of time-space disruption... c'mon book people, it's a great story, please add some awesome with the cover!

You can find DUST GIRL by Sarah Zettel at an independent bookstore near you!

May 24, 2012

Don't Fear the (Prose) Reaper—Just Read This Book

I don't post many reviews of writing-related books, probably because there aren't many writing books I go out of my way to read cover-to-cover, but not long after I started reading Self-Editing for Fiction Writers: How to Edit Yourself into Print by experienced manuscript editors Dave King and Renni Browne, I knew I'd be finishing this one.

Now, we are ALL—admit it—just a bit scared of revision. And when we aren't scared, we're perplexed and confounded. Where to start, what to look for; it can seem like a staggering task and it can feel impossible to get the necessary distance from our writing. Yet we're told, as writers, that we need to learn to love revision, that all writing is re-writing. If you're particularly unlucky (like me, some days), you end up in this sad little limbo where you can't stand your shitty first draft and you have no idea how to fix it.

Enter this book. I have to say that I've been meaning to read this one for, literally, years. It was on my Amazon wish list, and I finally bought a copy for my Kindle, and now I'm wishing I'd just bought the durn thing when I first browsed for it. What this book is not: It is not a manual for plot. It's not a how-to for making your story a good story in the first place. It doesn't tell you where to get ideas or how to tell if your story has a stupid premise and should be consigned to the scrap heap. It's not a how-to-write book.

What it does do is address issues of STYLE, MECHANICS, and CLARITY that commonly afflict first-draft prose, whether you're a beginning writer or an old hand. Want a clear, no-nonsense explanation of show vs. tell? King and Browne provide one. Want to know when to summarize something in exposition and when to show it through character actions? This book has tips and exercises to help you out. Dialogue and internal monologue, voice and style, pacing and proportion—the authors make it very clear what to look for, and each chapter includes ample examples from workshops and from real-life published authors. Each chapter also ends with exercises for further practice and a checklist of questions to consider as you run through your own manuscript.

This book really ought to be required reading for any fiction writer who is serious about revision and making your writing the best it can be in terms of overall spit and polish. I don't think I've taken a single writing class that ever laid out these issues so clearly—and, of course, the more practice and attention is given to such matters in revision, the better (I hope) we will get at avoiding and/or pinpointing problems in the future. If you're trying to get an editor's or agent's attention, you'd do well to read this book, but even seasoned pros could use a reminder now and then. For me, it's a must read—and I'll be turning to it again and again, I'm sure, since I'm neurotic like that. WRITERS: GO READ IT!

You can find Self-Editing for Fiction Writers by Dave King and Renni Browne at an independent bookstore near you!

May 22, 2012


There's a whole lotta "yay!" going on, but it's been going on a little quietly.

In the last several days and weeks, there have been some books which have launched (Yay, Lissa Wiley, Liz Wein, and me), some -- okay, a shuttle launched (YAY! Dragon 9/Space X!), some birthdays (Yay, Farida, Jules, Liz, and Sarah), and some awards. First up, I need to give an official squee to Laura for BookSpeak winning in the Children's Literature category of the Minnesota Book Awards! Yaaay! How very satisfying of a win, and I thought the way her family collaborated to have a little celebration at home for whatever outcome was so very, very sweet. Now, THERE are some people who know how to celebrate!

The IPPY Awards were established in 1996 to honor some "unsung titles" put out by indie booksellers. And who won a 2012 IPPY Award National Category Multicultural Fiction - Children's Bronze? That'd be one Sarah Jamila Stevenson, co-blogger at this fine blogging establishment. YAAAAAAAAY!

Yes. At THIS BLOG, a person won a book award. And... *crickets* Would she have ever mentioned it? Ever? Who can say?

You might have heard NPR's "Morning Edition" yesterday whereon Nancy Pearl, Librarian Extraordinaire, listed some great "summer reads" she's recently enjoyed. First up on the list? Map of My Dead Pilots, by one Colleen Mondor, the well-known Kidlitosphere organizer from Chasing Ray.

Nancy Pearl. Colleen. Unspeakable squee.

Both A.F. and I have been sick, busy, and burdened (and could the freezing/rain just STOP already?), and there's a bit of that sick-busy thing going around, too, but in sort of a mid-week kicks like Jules does of a Sunday, we invite you to share some "Yay!" going on in your world, too.

And, because this phrase has been ringing in my ears lately, Don't forget to be awesome.

May 21, 2012

Monday Notes and Errata: CODE NAME VERITY Release and a Bonus Link

Last week was just a wee bit…CRAZED for us here at FW, with Tanita and I both plenty busy in the offline world, so we may have missed mentioning that Code Name Verity by our blog bud (and Tanita’s actual, real-life writer friend) Elizabeth Wein is available as of May 15th! Congratulations and hooray!

Now, Tanita has already written a most capable and in-depth review of Code Name Verity back when the UK version came out, so I’m only going to write up a quick one here, now that I’ve had the privilege of reading it via NetGalley.

I’ll preface my notes by saying that historical fiction is not for everyone. We’ve discussed this very topic in the recent past, in fact. Code Name Verity is the type of historical fiction that rewards those who want to not only read about the past but LIVE it in vivid and authentic detail. It is obviously incredibly well-researched, and though the level of detail may not be right for every reader, it left me with no doubts about the characters, their roles, and their presence within the story.

As the cover nicely implies, this is the story of a bond between two young women, an indelible one, one that outlives everything that one could ever think of to test it. Both women have roles in the British military during World War II, if very different ones: the one nicknamed Queenie is proudly Scottish but fluent in German, a skill which serves her well, while Maddie is Manchester-born, a pilot in the Air Transport Auxiliary. We ultimately are allowed into each character’s viewpoint, starting with (VERY MINOR SPOILERS) Queenie, who, we quickly find out, has fallen into the clutches of the SS in France and is frantically spilling her guts and her secrets on paper, writing for her very life, knowing she could be forever branded a traitor. Maddie’s side of the story is very different, the story of a daring pilot whose worst fears include being shot at and letting someone down. What shines through in both stories, though, is the friendship and love that grows between Maddie and Queenie, who make an unlikely but undeniably effective team both in the air and on the ground.

This story has tension and relief, secrets and lies, friendship and betrayal, but it constantly keeps the reader guessing as to which are which. I don’t want to give too much away, so I’ll leave it at that, but I will say that once I began asking questions about the story and characters in my own mind, I found this book very hard to put down until I found out the true answers. Is Queenie the traitor she seems to think she is? Is Maddie the coward she fears she might be? And will their friendship weather the test of war and its unthinkable horrors?

You can find Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein at an independent bookstore near you!

Here’s a bit of a bonus link for you: in Tanita’s post about Code Name Verity, she mentioned that the book passes the Bechdel Test. Well, the fabulous Ms. Alison Bechdel for whom the test is named has a recent interview posted on GraphicNovelReporter about her latest book, Are You My Mother?. All I can say is, I loved Fun Home and look forward to reading this one, too.

May 19, 2012

TURNING PAGES: The Girl in the Clockwork Collar, by Kady Cross

Last year I dabbled in steampunk and reviewed The Girl in the Steel Corset. Despite me not intending to go further with the series, I was once again suckered by the dress on the cover! As always, these books are a quick read, and perfect for chucking in a bag to take along on errands. The action is fairly constant, and the plot, especially if you've read the previous episodes, is light enough to keep readers who aren't looking for anything heavy engaged.

Reader Gut Reaction:Finley, Griffin, Emily and Sam - I love their names - are once again together, but this time they're leaving London, and heading for the States, to see what's become of their friend Jasper, who, at the close of the previous novel, was headed for trouble at a fast clip because of his previously light-fingered ways. The settings are again rich and detailed - there's a lot of old New York to love here, and the Brits are rubbernecking to the benefit of the reader, who gets to take in the lovely Waldorf-Astoria hotel, and all the fashions of the day. The author did good research work here!

The titular character - the girl in the clockwork collar - is Mei, a young Asian girl whom Jasper has loved since he met in San Fransisco. Unfortunately, though the narrator gives us an omniscient view into the main characters' heads, I was never able to get into Mei's - and couldn't care less about her. Further, Griffin's preoccupation with Finley's goodness is a bit trying - however, with the focus kept on the action, there's plenty the four brilliant friends get up to which will hold a readers' interest.

Concerning Character: The main character remains Finley, whose low station as compared to the shining Griffin still troubles her, even as she is crushing on him. She's part of the team, and does her job, but she struggles with thinking that Griffin doesn't think enough of her. Basically, she's doing stupid, stupid stuff... and why? Is it her scary, "terrible nature" coming through, or is she acting out merely to get a boy's attention? As Finley gets a grip, she turns her efforts toward Jasper's troubles, suspecting that all isn't as it appears. As events unfold, Finley is given a chance to see how far a person will go for what they want. And what, exactly, is it that she wants? Finley decides it's worth trying for, which gives readers a light, quick, happy ending.

Recommended for Fans Of...: Steampunk! edited by Kelly Link, The Infernal Devices Trilogy, by Cassandra Clare, Catherine Webb's Horatio Lyle series, and Gail Carriger's Parasol Protectorate books- if you prefer lots of action for your characters and light romance, you'll enjoy.

Cover Chatter: An Asian girl featured prominently on the cover of a YA novel, wearing her steampunkery: Good. An Asian girl as the titular character of a novel: Great. An Asian girl who kind of a sidekick, and the most conflicting character in the novel, one who readers will be scratching their heads over, why?

As I say this, I'm well aware that some of you may disagree, or feel I'm seeking an Issue where there is none - you have the right to your opinion, of course! While I am not seeking an "issue," I do find some problems inherent in the character of Mei.

As in the previous novel, there is a huge betrayal. I saw the betrayal coming from afar, and for me, because Mei was involved, it was problematic, and tied to a tradition in literature and film that involves the deceitful, inscrutable Asian. As the novel deals with class and station, Mei's class/station is touched on only lightly... and Asians, at the turn of the century, were as exoticized and objectified as they ever were. We come to understand that Mei's movements are constricted, but Asian Americans as a whole - within the States at that time - are never mentioned.

With the cover, I suspect that Harlequin is trying to score points, but I don't think they've earned them. I wish that the involvement of characters of color in the novel could have been more organic - surely there was more than one Asian and a bunch of Irish folks making of the racial and ethnic diversity? - but I might be asking an awful lot from a lightly-plotted and superficial action/romance/beach novel. ***END SPOILERY DISCUSSION

It's a pretty cover. That is all.

I received this novel from NetGalley as an ARC; my opinions are my own.

As of June 1, you can find THE GIRL IN THE CLOCKWORK COLLAR by Kady Cross at an independent bookstore near you!

May 18, 2012

To Aquafortis, And Authors Everywhere: Plow On.♥

Don't Despair!

"Having a fixed deadline is both a blessing and a curse. A blessing because even though it doesn’t feel good, forcing yourself to work even if just a little, is helpful. A curse because it requires so much effort to write even a couple of paragraphs and, when written, those two paragraphs are never kindly judged by that stern, overly-critical judge that always appears during depression."

Been there, done that, eh?

Some encouragement for you from Francisco X. Stork, via YARN - the Young Adult Review Network. Writing is sometimes a life marked by silent struggle - with the voices in your head, with the daily crud everyone has to deal with - but it can be done, and it can be done beautifully, as this author attests. "Depressed, Not Depression," has some wisdom to impart. Go. Read.

As the Scarlet Pimpernel signed all of his notes, COURAGE.❧

May 17, 2012

Toon Thursday: In Honor of Plowing Ahead...

We all need to feel like we're making progress as writers. We all need to feel like something is HAPPENING on the page, something worth plugging away at and having faith in. All too often, though, it's easy to get lost in the doldrums, stuck and berating oneself. (Or, as Hyperbole and a Half so aptly calls it, oppressing oneself with hatred.)

For instance, today, I'm trying not to berate myself for posting a rerun of Toon Thursday--a relatively pertinent rerun, but still...on a day when I'm already not feeling all that great (boo allergies! boo drama in other people's lives! boo boo!), instead of giving myself a break, my first instinct is to kowtow to my inner critic, letting her get under my skin. And, admittedly, I do have an idea for a new cartoon, but it's still lost in that forest of Post-It notes you see in the cartoon. (That is, I'm sorry to say, true to life.)

Sometimes I can use bribery to get myself going: If I put my butt in chair and work for an hour, I can take a coffee and book break. If I work for 30 minutes, I can have a piece of chocolate. Sometimes the inner critic actually DOES shame me into productivity. But sometimes, like today, I need to remember that we all need kindness, too. And so I'll make a cup of tea, and open a book, and let the work wait a few minutes. And I promise a new toon next time.

To all of you: don't forget to be kind to yourselves, too.

May 14, 2012

Monday Links and Musings: Be a Book Person!

Why am I a "book person"? Of course that goes beyond just being a reader, or a writer. What is it about books? One amazing thing about books, to me, is that they aren't just ink on paper, words and pictures sitting there statically. Books GIVE. They give entertainment, they give adventure, they give escape and amusement and reassurance and information and wisdom and beauty and everything that we as humans need to feed our souls. When we give a book, then, we're giving so much more than just an object. Think about that the next time you're wondering whether it's worthwhile to donate books. And then declare yourself a book person--Reading Is Fundamental is asking all of us book people to take the pledge, unite, and help get books into the hands of the kids who need them most. Book People Unite!

Rest in peace, Maurice Sendak, 1928-2012
One book that has given countless fantastical imaginings and wondrous dreams (and nightmares, for some) is Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak, who died on May 8 at the age of 83. Unconventional and curmudgeonly in the best possible way, his death is a huge loss to the world of children's literature, but while he lived, he gave us books that continue to give and give. He cared passionately about confronting the issue of children's poverty, and as Carol Rasco of RIF put it, "He really helped move children's literature from the warm lambs and fuzzy ducklings -- that was children's literature when I was growing up -- into something that was much more exciting and real." (In the HuffPo--read the article here. Read an NYT article here.)

There was a bit of a personal connection for me, at least an indirect one, in that a friend of ours' brother used to work for Mr. Sendak, and did the design and production for the Sendak exhibit in San Francisco's Sony Metreon. We got to hear some firsthand stories about Mr. Sendak, who seemed like quite a character. May he continue to live on in his books.

Want to be a more active book person? Can't wait for the Cybils? Alyssa at The Shady Glade (herself a longtime Cybils judge) is hosting the YA Bloggers' Book Battle 2012, and this year's theme is Retold Fairy Tales (pubbed in 2011, of course). We love us some good retold fairy tales around here, and if you feel the same, you might want to go nominate a book or even sign up as a judge. Judging is done bracket-style, which sounds like WAY too much fun, and if I weren't completely swamped I'd be all over it myself.

So, my message to you this week is, Go Forth and Be Book People! And, if you're so inclined to leave a comment, we'd love to hear about why YOU are a book person--but go tell the good folks at RIF first!!

May 10, 2012

Thursday Review: TRY NOT TO BREATHE by Jennifer R. Hubbard

In the interests of full disclosure, Try Not to Breathe author Jenn Hubbard is a writing pal and blog bud—we reviewed her first novel, The Secret Year, right here.

Reader Gut Reaction: This is another powerful book from Jenn Hubbard that brings a guy's perspective to what might ordinarily be termed an "issue novel" or problem novel—and, in my opinion, there still aren't quite enough novels that deal with serious issues of mental health from a guy's viewpoint, that encourage guys to look for help with their problems rather than stigmatizing mental health problems, letting them fester inside, and "manning up," as our culture seems to encourage young men to do more often than not. So I was glad to see this one. (Even if it did mean I had the R.E.M. song in my head for about a week straight.)

Concerning Character: In Try Not to Breathe, 16-year-old Ryan is living in the wake of a suicide attempt—his own. But, rather than focusing on the attempt itself and the events leading up to it, this is a story of the aftermath, of recovery from feelings of guilt and grief and unhappiness and confusion and the many ways they wear you down. And Ryan is a realistically complex character who has to stumble a few times on his way to the other side. His feelings of despair and desolation ring just as true as his flawed but sincere attempts to reassure his family and help Nicki in her desperation.

And, yes, this is also in many ways Nicki's story—the girl who manages to break down the solitary Ryan's defenses; although we only see her through Ryan's eyes, she is a fully developed character with a stubborn, contentious spirit that contrasts with Ryan's initial numbness. And she won't leave Ryan alone, no matter how much he tries not to encourage her. Her father's dead, and she thinks he understands something about death. She wants to understand, even if Ryan doesn't want to think about it, doesn't want to go through it all again, even if only in his memories. But he also finds protective feelings stirring, and so when Nicki starts on a possibly fruitless journey to figure out her father's death, he finally begins to engage again with the world around him, despite himself.

Recommended for Fans Of...: Stories about healing from mental or physical trauma, told from a guy's viewpoint, like Thaw by Monica Roe (reviewed here), First Day on Earth by Cecil Castellucci (reviewed here), and The Piper's Son by Melina Marchetta (reviewed here). I think this one would also appeal to Chris Crutcher fans, for its honest, authentic voice.

Themes & Things: As previously mentioned, this is a story about recovery from traumatic feelings and experiences, but it's also a novel of hope and healing, one that reminds us that sometimes the only way out of your troubles is to plow through. It's about the survivors of the world—even those whose survival was inadvertent—and the guilt of those left behind. Perhaps most powerfully, Ryan and Nicki's stories illustrate that life is a complex and confusing place where love and death, hope and grief, can be impossible to disentangle.

Authorial Asides: Jenn keeps an excellent and thoughtful blog about writing and other related topics over at writerjenn. You can also follow her on Twitter @JennRHubbard.

Review Copy Source: Library.

You can find Try Not to Breathe by Jennifer Hubbard at an independent bookstore near you!

May 08, 2012

An Intersection of Points: Fiction, Faith, and Public Discourse

I'm grateful to the people who comment at Wonderland; often we come up with some really, really good discussions in the comment thread.

In the past week, comments have been trickling back regarding the blog post responding to Brittany Melson's piece on YA CRUSH, about what she saw as the disappearance of YA novels which included serious discussions on faith. Several of us have decided that we don't feel that faith is missing, yet both bloggers and book-writers have suggested that at times there's an unspoken, We Don't Talk About This in effect, both stifling us as writers, and making readers uneasy. We determined that it came down to judgment and moralizing - no one wants fingers in their faces, and in this culture and society, once upon a time it was good manners to discuss neither religion or politics.

In one of those weird intersections of what I read and what I think, I came across an article in The Atlantic which pointed back to our discussion. An answer to the question of why people avoid speaking of, writing about and reading about deeper issues of faith, etc., in young adult fiction? Maybe because in life outside of books, a major struggle is going on to value deeper things, to keep them as a part of our lives, and to see their worth:

"Even if you agree that we need to grapple with big questions about the morality of markets, you might doubt that our public discourse is up to the task. It’s a legitimate worry. At a time when political argument consists mainly of shouting matches on cable television, partisan vitriol on talk radio, and ideological food fights on the floor of Congress, it’s hard to imagine a reasoned public debate about such controversial moral questions as the right way to value procreation, children, education, health, the environment, citizenship, and other goods. I believe such a debate is possible, but only if we are willing to broaden the terms of our public discourse and grapple more explicitly with competing notions of the good life.

In hopes of avoiding sectarian strife, we often insist that citizens leave their moral and spiritual convictions behind when they enter the public square. But the reluctance to admit arguments about the good life into politics has had an unanticipated consequence. It has helped prepare the way for market triumphalism, and for the continuing hold of market reasoning.

In its own way, market reasoning also empties public life of moral argument. Part of the appeal of markets is that they don’t pass judgment on the preferences they satisfy. They don’t ask whether some ways of valuing goods are higher, or worthier, than others. If someone is willing to pay for sex, or a kidney, and a consenting adult is willing to sell, the only question the economist asks is “How much?” Markets don’t wag fingers. They don’t discriminate between worthy preferences and unworthy ones. Each party to a deal decides for him- or herself what value to place on the things being exchanged.

This nonjudgmental stance toward values lies at the heart of market reasoning, and explains much of its appeal. But our reluctance to engage in moral and spiritual argument, together with our embrace of markets, has exacted a heavy price: it has drained public discourse of moral and civic energy, and contributed to the technocratic, managerial politics afflicting many societies today."

- The Atlantic Magazine online, What Isn't For Sale, by By Michael J. Sandel

I'm happy to say that public discourse on this blog, at least, is still quality stuff.

May 07, 2012

Monday Flashback Review: A TALE OF TIME CITY by Diana Wynne Jones

Recently, Tanita and I participated in the Diana Wynne Jones blog tour organized by the amazing Sharyn November. Looking back at our respective memories of the inimitable DWJ inspired us both to think about going back to re-read old favorites and discover new ones, and what better place to start, I thought, than the book which captivated me in the first place?

Reader Gut Reaction: My expectations for this one started pretty high. After all, this was the first DWJ book I'd ever read, at age 10 (approximately), and as such, it occupies a rather lofty pedestal in my mind and my memory. My nostalgia makes me afraid to re-read old favorites because I worry that they won't stand up to the test of time, but this action-packed tale of time travel DOES pass the test, and with flying colors. A Tale of Time City is not, however, the kind of time travel story that gets hung up on logistics or excruciating scientific detail. It's primarily a story of characters on a fantastical adventure, with just the right amount of detail to bring everything to life and sufficiently explain logistics without getting bogged down.

Time City is a place which exists outside of the conventional historical timeline, a place where the inhabitants—while human, just like you and me—have had the fortune to be born in the place which keeps the timeline running with a minimum of mishap. Not unlike Connie Willis's time researchers, the denizens of Time City may be placed in any time period as Observers, making sure nothing goes wrong or simply delving into research like anthropologists doing fieldwork. That's where our main characters come in...

Concerning Character: The main character—the one whose viewpoint we inhabit—is Vivian Smith, a girl who has been evacuated from London during the bombing of World War II and sent to live in the country with Cousin Marty. However, instead of meeting Cousin Marty at the train station, she ends up whisked away to a bizarre and wondrous place where delectable foods like butter-pies (and, trust me, after reading this you will WANT one) come right out of futuristic machines: Time City.

The ones who whisked her away—a boy around her age named Jonathan and a younger boy named Sam—are convinced she is their cousin, also named Vivian Smith, the daughter of Observers sent to live in WWII-era England. Vivian knows they've got the wrong girl, but she goes along with it for now...and Time City is an awfully wonderful place to have accidentally ended up, until, of course, all three of the kids discover that something is going terribly wrong with the whole of Time...

As always with DWJ, the main characters and the side characters are fully-rounded, sympathetic, multidimensional, and lively. People—even powerful, grown-up people—have faults and quirks, and never, never, never does the author underestimate the intelligence of her readers.

Recommended for Fans Of...: Connie Willis's time travel books, as well as Madeleine L'Engle's many classic novels that involve inhabitants of other times and aren't afraid to include elements of fantasy or mythology, either--A Wrinkle in Time, A Swiftly Tilting Planet, Many Waters, just to name a few. Charlotte Sometimes by Penelope Farmer (reviewed here), is another time-slip novel featuring similarly-aged characters.

Themes & Things: This is a novel that starts with a deception, and, appropriately, ends with a revelation—there are deceptions within deceptions, and people have their varying, individual reasons to perpetrate them. When is deception necessary, and when does it lead to lies spinning out of control? When is it right to own up to one's deceptions? When should deception lead to punishment or comeuppance, and when is it a bit more complicated than just black and white, right and wrong? DWJ's novels, to me, are all about the shades of gray, about the endless complexities of people's motivations and desires and emotions getting all muddled up and making them act, perhaps, in ways that they shouldn't.

Cover Chatter: This book is a recent re-release from Firebird, featuring a not-to-be-missed introduction from Ursula K. LeGuin and a brand-new, very nice cover—I love that sense of moving through time created by the silhouette of the girl with her suitcase, images of buildings and clocks swirling about. Very well done, and more appealing than the cover I remember from the late '80s, which I seem to recall was rather cartoony.

Review Copy Source: Publisher.

You can find A Tale of Time City by Diana Wynne Jones at an independent bookstore near you!

May 05, 2012

TURNING PAGES: Pricilla the Great: The Time Traveling Bullet, by Sybil Nelson

When I read The Enchanted Inkpot's piece on Sybil Nelson this past February, I was, to put it mildly, GOBSMACKED. Okay, it's not as if there aren't people of color writing comic book style novels - but my interest here piqued because the character of Priscilla is kind of Kim Possible meets X-Men - two of my favorite supernatural concepts. Plus, the original novel came from -- well, you'll need to read The Enchanted Inkpot's interview with her. But, seriously, the premise is kind of horrific-yet-amusing, which is as good as any reason to start writing a book.

The author herself intrigued me enough to pick up this book from NetGalley -- I don't advise that you start with the fifth book in this series, however! Still, I got enough of the quintessential awesomeness of Priscilla to be interested in reading the series from beginning to end.

Reader Gut Reaction:The premise of this is -- intense. What if you woke up and found out that you were twenty-five years into your future? And that there was a way for you to go back and fix some things - namely, that your parents died? The novel opens and -- bam! -- you're in. You're naked and lying dazed, and what are you going to do...?

Concerning Character: Priscilla Sumner is a seventh grader with special powers, together with her family, fighting the mob of evil genetically enhanced humans sicced on them by the Selliwood Institute. She's a recurring character in this series -- and cleverly, we get her details in the first few lines of the novel, as she tries to remember who she is and where she is. She reels off the names of her family, what they do, and where she fits. You know things about her instantly. Though bleeding and shot, she still gets up and gets moving. You know up front: this is not your everyday thirteen-year-old.

Her quirky likes and dislikes, her "difficult" personality, and her tenacity all come through clearly, and mean that she's definitely the one to dive back into time and save herself... if only she can figure out WHICH time - and avoid her robotic friend Marco, who, in the past? Is trying to kind of kill her...

Recommended for Fans Of...:These books are VERY original, but fans of DULL BOY, by Sarah Cross will really enjoy them, as will fans of Eoin Colfer's ARTEMIS FOWL series, and Jeff Kinney's WIMPY KID series. Cathrynne M. Valente's THE GIRL WHO CIRCUMNAVIGATED FAIRYLAND..., with its unusual and active protagonist, also brings some positive comparisons to mind. If you like middle-grade books with strong female characters who have adventures, you'll enjoy this.

Cover Chatter:The title font sells this for me - the boldly drawn, graffiti-tagging lettering style, the bright colors in Priscilla's hair and shirt, which are featured on each cover, and the overall in-your-faceness of the whole thing - that's so very Priscilla.

Authorial Asides: Time-traveling bullets are kinda real. They're called Airy Bullets, and the author heard about them in a lecture and got the story from there. How cool is it that she's an actual, day-to-day working mathematician and soon-to-be doctor of biostatistics, plus girl-geek writer? She's also written for adults and young adults under her pen name of Leslie DuBois.

As of May 1, you can find PRISCILLA THE GREAT: THE TIME-TRAVELING BULLET by Sybil Nelson at an independent bookstore near you, or on Amazon for Kindle readers.

May 04, 2012

May the Fourth...!

Saturday the fifth of May - it's not just for whackin' pinatas this year. It's also the first Saturday in May, which means it's Free Comic Book Day! Check the site for your nearest participating comic shop.

A perfect time to catch up on all the characters in The Avengers, no? You do realize the movie is a compilation of the last four superhero movies produced in the last year, all based on comic book characters...?

Meanwhile, today badly punning geeksters everywhere acknowledge - it's Star Wars Day! ... May the Fourth be with you!

Okay, okay, you can stop beating your head against the keyboard. I know the pun was bad... I can't take it back, though. Star Wars remains one of the deepest, most common roots of an 80's American childhood -- often parodied, re-interpretated, and re-watched. The latest incarnation of the epic series is just way, way too cute. From the ever-fabulous Chronicle Books comes DARTH VADER AND SON, by humorist, father, and cartoonist Jeffrey Brown. Now you can imagine the phrase, "Luke... I am your father," as the exasperated reminder from a parent about who's boss.

A perfect Father's Day gift for the long-suffering Sith Lord parent in your life?

More fun images from the book here.

May 03, 2012

Toon Thursday: Revenge of the Writer's Toolkit!

Yes, these are ALL THE CHOICES YOU GET. Ever. (SO glad that's not actually true...though you wouldn't necessarily know it from the books on the shelves...)

Apparently my goal is to make it so all you have to do in order to write a bestselling novel is spin a bunch of roulette wheels. You can thank me later.

May 01, 2012

Um, Hello, God? Is This Thing On?

An article which might have sneaked past you this weekend, Macmillan's Heroes and Heartbreakers blog added a new post to their section of YA Crush, titled, Are you there God? The Mysterious Disappearance of Religion in YA Fiction, by Brittany Melson.

Melson's piece intrigued me - it was only a few weeks ago that the National Library Week's Most Challenged list of 2011 was published, and as usual, Lauren Myracle topped the list with ttyl and the rest of that series. But, there was the usual resignation - the second reason Myracle's novel and other novels on the top ten list (including Phyllis Reynolds Naylor, and the ever-gorgeous Sherman Alexie) were banned -- for "religious viewpoint."

Really people? That's what you've got?

Isn't religion - the freedom from and the freedom of - one of the bedrock Five Freedoms? How can we seriously be considering depictions of religious life in fiction as objectionable? Thus, when I ran across a piece decrying The Mysterious Disappearance of Religion in YA Fiction, my ears perked up.

I, too, read Chaim Potok's The Chosen as a junior high student and connected in an equally unlikely way with the tale of two post-war Jews, one the son of a Zionist, the other the son of an Hasidic rabbi. The book was all about the big theological questions as applied to life and at that point, when I was trying to clarify my own religious values in and above what I had been taught, this was a thought-provoking addition to my inquiries, if also hugely - hugely - outside of my personal experience. The issue I have with Melson's including this book, however, as "one of only a handful of young adult novels that seriously addresses the religious life of teenagers" is that it was written in 1967 -- ! Much like her post title pulls from a novel published in 1970, this novel comes from a looong over era in YA lit.

Maybe it's all in what Melson means with the word "seriously" in that reference. With information as easily as a keystroke away, teens and young adults are not lacking definitions of religion, or religious life, with which they can address their own questions, but rather models of such a life. I'll get back to that modeling in a moment.

Like the "problem novels" of the same time period, where divorce or diversity or eating disorders were the hot-button issues identified via "worst-case scenario" set ups, novels depicting religion in the past put it on a pedestal to be analyzed, and then proceeded to pass judgement. Young adult fiction overall has moved away from that interaction with subject matter. Today's successful, mainstream novels lack a preachy, judgmental tone, and avoid coming up with conclusions FOR the readers. But, that doesn't mean there are no novels discussing faith seriously - what Rilke described in Letter to a Young Poet as "Living the questions…along some distant day into the answers…." There are all manner of novels living the questions to varying degrees - and they cover Christianity of all stripes, Judaism, the Muslim faith, and the agnostic stance. What they do NOT provide is an answer - it's the question that's important, please take note.

I am still a little bewildered that Melson didn't even mention Sara Zarr. (Once Was Lost, How to Save a Life.) As a writer of books which model Christian families living lives which include both faith and failures, her books strike a quietly, solidly realistic tone.

Okay, so Sara is always YA's go-to girl for novels which depict a religious experience without preaching or casting judgment. We LOVE us some Zarr. But, there are more people out there writing, and they're not writing from some time-warp in 1967. Consider Sheba Karim (Skunk Girl), Micol/David Ostow (So Punk Rock), or Melissa Walker (Small Town Sinner), or Preacher's Boy and others, by Katherine Paterson, or even Come Sunday, by Nikki Grimes -- those count. Or, for the delicious twist of fantasy, A.M. Jenkins (Repossessed), Rae Carson (Girl of Fire and Thorns) or go medieval with The Healers' Apprentice, by Melanie Dickerson. Science fiction choices are many, but include most recently Glow, by Amy Kathleen Ryan.

Randa Abdel-Fatta broke ground with Does My Head Look Big In This? And, there's Robin Brande (Evolution, Me, and Other Freaks of Nature), Matthue Roth (Never Mind the Goldbergs), Mitali Perkins (Sunita Sen), Dana Reinhardt (A Brief Chapter in My Impossible Life), Emily Wing Smith's heartfelt The Way He Lived, Margaret Peterson Haddix's Leaving Fishers, and Pete Hautman's Godless or Timothy Carter's Epoch. And those are just books read by me (and people in my blogging circle) whose titles I could think of offhand.

While I appreciate the timeliness of Melson's question, there is not some mysterious disappearance going on. Faith in young adult fiction has simply "suffered a sea change" from straightforward didacticism or explanations of dogma and theology to being more of a cultural background in which characters are rooted and grow.

Melson asks a few other questions in her piece which as a writer I'd like to address - "Is it possible that some parents, with their penchant for censorship, are influencing what types of books get written and published? In the end, the question becomes: do teens not want to read fiction with religion in it, do authors not want to write it, or are agents and editors afraid to represent and promote it?"

First, I'd like to offer up the idea that while writers are influenced by their environment and by their own upbringing, the parents of unknown teens are a highly unlikely shaping mechanisms to their stories. Most of us write with only the vaguest audience in mind; many of us write for our various past selves. We're not thinking of anyone's parents, nor do I believe that teens shy away from reading about faith -- unless it's telling them how to have it, what type they should have, or creating it as an Issue in a preachy, moralizing way. Adults don't even want to read that, much less teens who have thousands of other options for their entertainment. Second, I'd like to suggest that perhaps agents and editors, seeing the big-picture marketing-wise, may offer guidance to their authors, but they can hardly, as a group, be characterized as afraid to represent and promote fiction containing religious content. Caution in many ways is justified, as we live in an increasingly polarized society in terms of faith - there are those who really do feel that because of theirs, and their moral stance, that they have the truth of things, and know what's best for everyone in society. It's obviously not always easy to maneuver through the submerged tensions on the topic of faith in fiction, but writers who write best are both reflecting their worlds, and opening a window on the world to others.

And, of course, I'm here preaching to the choir, as it were.

Melson wrote a thought-provoking piece, reminded me of an old novel I'd forgotten I'd even read, and goosed me into thinking up other writers who, like myself, grew up with religion and reflect faith in their work. If you can think of other books and writers whose modeling of faith made a difference to you, join the discussion!

Wow. 'Tis the season for teensy rants. Check out Sarah Ockler's - she has a lot of good to say about the Mysterious Disappearance of Race in YA. Only, it's not so mysterious, actually.