Monday, January 28, 2013

LAUREL SNYDER



Interview with LAUREL SNYDER

Laurel Snyder is the author of many books for kids (and a few for adults). A Baltimore native, she now lives in Atlanta, where she's finishing up a companion to her most recent novel, BIGGER THAN A BREAD BOX. A picture book, THE LONGEST NIGHT, is due out in the spring. Visit her online at http://laurelsnyder.com/.

What are you reading right now?

When I'm working hard on a book (which I am right now), I try not to read anything in that genre - for fear I'll accidentally steal the voice. But I have to read or I'll LOSE MY MIND. So I'm on an adult fiction kick this month. I just finished BEAUTIFUL RUINS (which I loved) and am finally reading THE CORRECTIONS. But my kids are 5 and 7, so I also read a lot of picture books, graphic novels, and chapter books.  About twice a day I'm forced to "read" a Star Wars sticker book to someone.

What first sparked your interest in writing?

Just books! I'm a pretty stereotypical story, I think. I was a geeky little girl, obsessed with fairies (back when they were still spelled like that) and wishes and unicorns. I read everything I could get my hands on. Zilpha Keatly Snyder and Cynthia Voigt and Susan Cooper and Edward Eager and Roald Dahl and Betty McDonald and on and on. In about the third grade I started trying to scribble my own little books, and then bound them in wallpaper scraps and cardboard. Of course, they were all straight-up plagiarism, but I felt like I'd found a magic wand.

What do you love the most about writing? The least?

The best part is either the moment when you first have a BIG IDEA - before you realize it's not so great after all - and you jump up from whatever you're doing to scribble down something that will make very little sense later. Or it's the moment when, after much work, you read back over something you've written, and it feels like, "Wow, did I write that? I don't remember that! It's kind of... smart." The hard part is sitting down to write. Or scrapping massive numbers of pages when you realize you took a wrong turn.

Tell us a little about your writing process.

I have young kids, and am just starting to find a routine that works. In my dream world, I'd get the kids out the door at 7:30, sit down for coffee and email, then read for an hour before writing from 10-2, when it's time to shower and get the kids again.  The hour of reading is a new discovery for me, but it's genius. I asked Peter Brown, last summer, what he does when he can't get himself to write or draw, and he said something like, "Oh, I read! Because it almost counts as work." And it's exactly right. I can hardly feel bad about spending time reading, but it pulls me out of the digital world, and sets the bar for my prose (if I've chose the right book) high.

What are your passions?

People and talking and talking and people.  I'm a ridiculous extrovert, and nothing makes me happier than a fast conversation with smart people. Often I talk with my kids, but other grownups are nice too. I also like food and travel and music and good bourbon. But none of them are fun without people.  Books are the exception to that, because books are almost people. 

What inspires you?

Above all, the right words in the right order. I like language, sentence structure, unusual vocabulary.  Without that, the best idea in the world is bland. I like to eavesdrop, to listen to conversations, in search of funny sentences or compelling language.  I love the way kids speak.

I'm also inspired by trying to remember intense things from my own past, and music can help with this. The right song can kick off feelings that will turn into a story or poem. Bruce Springsteen or Leonard Cohen or Otis Redding on the right day can feed a  book in surprising ways.

Why middle reader?

Hmmm...well, I can't imagine writing an adult novel. They're too dense.  I came into all of this largely as a poet and there's just TOO MANY WORDS in those things.  

So I guess the bigger question is why not YA?  And the answer there is, I think, that YA wasn't YA when I was a kid. I can write middle grade rooted in my memories of how much I loved a book like DICEY’S SONG or THE EGYPT GAME or SEVEN DAY MAGIC. But while I like YA as an adult, I can't go back in time and experience it as a teen.  I don't have a magic tingle when I think about it. Also, I think most YA tends to be inward-looking, and I like to write about the world. I like to create characters who are sort of stumbling through an adventure. Third, I like magic, but I don't believe in evil or villains.  In YA, magic tends to get dark.

All that said, I might try my hand at it one day, if I can figure out the rules.  Every now and then I read a book that makes me want to try.

How was UP AND DOWN THE SCRATCHY MOUNTAINS born?

Slooooooooowly.  I had no clue what I was doing. I'd just finished up my poetry MFA at Iowa, and was working a desk job at a medical journal, still living in Iowa City. I'd been rereading all these old books I'd loved as a kid, and one night I started telling my husband (then boyfriend) a story. He said, "You should write that down!"  I did, and it only took about five drafts and fifty rejections and eight years for it to be published. Ha.

How was BIGGER THAN A BREAD BOX born?

The opposite. It happened very quickly.  I was riding in a car (to Iowa, again, from Atlanta, where we'd moved) for many hours, just staring out the window. And this idea popped into my head, about a kid who found a box that gave them anything. But then she began to wonder where the things were coming from. I wanted to know what a kid would do with that ethical problem. Very quickly that kid turned into my 12-year-old self (I'd never done that before, written my own memories), and the book slipped out with relative ease. (I mean, it was still hard, but not compared to SCRATCHY MOUNTAINS, or to the book I'm writing now). 

Do you have a favorite book among your own work? Any that were easier/more fun to write?

I have fun writing picture books. They feel like poems.  I like the process of tightening something short in revision. I like that I can just set them aside and try something else. A novel is such an investment, such a marathon.

That said, BIGGER THAN A BREAD BOX is my favorite book of the things I've written. It's very, very, very personal. I was able to do the voice for the audio book, and I cried while recording. It's probably as close as I'll ever get to memoir. 

Do you have any advice for aspiring authors?

I do. You have to get BORED. You have to shut out all the noise. You have to step away from the web, from your phone. If you don't let yourself experience a truly blank page, a real silence, you can't really distill your own thoughts, and come up with something that's all your own.

This is very, very hard for me to do, but I force myself. And I try and talk about it with kids a lot, because they can't even imagine a time when people weren't constantly connected. I say to them, "Go outside and stare at a tree trunk until you can't stand it. Then stand it. Stare some more. Eventually, your brain will step in to entertain you, and THEN you can write."

Is there anything else you would like to tell us about yourself?

I suppose I should plug my new picture book, THE LONGEST NIGHT.  I've been working on it, in different ways, for about 20 years. It began as a poem I wrote in college.  It retells the story of the ten plagues and the walk to the red sea, but everything is seen through the eyes of a little slave-girl. As a kid, I always wondered, listening to bible stories, what the kids were doing. This book is my own answer to that, I guess. 

Friday, January 25, 2013

THE SHATTERED GATES


Review of THE SHATTERED GATES by GINN HALE
(first in THE RIFTER series, based on a review copy)

I added Hale's THE RIFTER series to my lengthy to-read list after devouring her fantastic LORD OF THE WHITE HELL duology, but I put off reading the series since it's ebook-only and, while I make exceptions for my favorite authors, I vastly prefer print books. So I'm thrilled that the entire THE RIFTER series is now coming out as print books and that development shot the series to the top of my reading priorities!

The characters and voice both hooked me immediately. I'm of the opinion that great writing falls into two distinct categories: writing that either demands or disappears from your attention. Either you're fawning over the beautiful phrasing or you've forgotten about the writing completely because it flows so well. Hale's writing is the latter, which leaves the focus on the story and I have gushing things to say about the characters, the worldbuilding, and everything in between!

The story opens with the juxtaposition of two remarkably different lives. There's John, a fairly average guy with a fairly average life in our regular, recognizable world. Not that John's boring; that description just helps contrast him with Kyle, his odd, reclusive roommate. Through Kyle's viewpoint (including a grisly task in another world), we learn more about his bizarre, unexpected background and what he's really up to than John could ever guess.

It's not long before the story moves to Kyle's world and, goodness, can Hale ever build a world! She's considered everything from language to politics. The in-depth worldbuilding gives THE SHATTERED GATES a slower pace than Hale's LORD OF THE WHITE HELL duology, but this is also a much longer series and I anticipate quite a sweeping epic arching over future books. Every moment's still enjoyable, though, proving that the best writers don't need their characters constantly doing something crazy to hold your attention. Hale also does a brilliant job getting inside the mindset of someone actually experiencing such a jarring...change of scenery. Most "through-the-cabinet" other-world stories treat the journey as a playful romp into imagination, a safe place with the exit door clearly marked. You party with the magical beasts, defeat the villain if you have time to spare, and return home scar-free. Hale actually explores the trauma I fully believe anyone would feel if they were thrust into a drastically different world. As years pass, John still lives for one goal: returning home to the world he knows. He and his friends exhibit some almost PTSD symptoms as they struggle hiding their confusion with even simplistic elements of a culture that those around them take for granted. Even as they familiarize themselves more and more with this world, they think of said research as a means of finding a possible return, not a means of adapting to a new home.

The world also boasts a unique, logical, consistent, and convincing magic system. My favorite fantasy novels always push the boundaries. They don't just accept previously stated rules about how magic works or how certain creatures look or behave; they expand, explore, and challenge those existing concepts. The magic system in THE SHATTERED GATES certainly pulls on familiar notions, but still remains its own and, naturally, plays a prominent role in the world's culture and politics.

There's a confusing chunk in the story in which Kyle suffers some kind of amnesia. We, the readers, don't learn all that much about him before this development, so we can't exactly fill in the blanks. However, this would be a good time to trust the author. Hale's building towards something here and, once you have that essential piece of information, everything makes sense with a well-handled "Oh! Oh! Wow!" moment. As well as alternating character perspectives, there's some switching between time and place that leaves one wondering how the characters will get from Point A to Point B. I expect future books will gradually fill in those gaps. The second book comes out in print March 2013 and I already can't wait!

A minor side note: the novel jumps from Chapter 19 to 22. I'm convinced this is a merely a printing error and nothing's missing from the story, but just be forewarned not to freak out if your book skips over Chapter titles 20 and 21.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Monday, January 21, 2013

SHERWOOD SMITH

Interview with Sherwood Smith

I was born in 1951 and recently retired after twenty years of teaching. I have been married for over thirty years. We have two kids, three dogs, (two of them rescues) and a house full of books.

What are you reading right now?

Fiction or nonfiction? In nonfiction, I'm reading a great deal about sexual dimorphism, and also about the history of Eastern Europe especially in the last hundred years.

In fiction, I am reading the first Eye of the Maker novel by Tom Simon. I am also rereading the third Patrick O'Brian novel for a discussion group.

What first sparked your interest in writing?

It was actually drawing. Writing was so laborious. I was six years old, and I made books on folded paper towels. For years, I drew the stories out in comic book form, then tore them up and threw them away. But between the ages of eight and ten I began to get the urge to write them out instead. My dad was a stationery salesman, so I could get tablets. I realized when I was nine or ten that nobody was forcing me to write short stories, the way we had to do at school. I could write my stories as long as they needed to be. What a joy that was!

What do you love the most about writing? The least?

I love everything about writing. I guess the only thing I don't like is how many decades it took for me to understand that I was a visual writer, and to learn to rewrite. An ongoing process.

Tell us a little about your writing process.

Generally stories begin with an image, a situation. I ask myself how they got there, and if I see where it's going next I sit down and live it all through my fingers.

What are your passions?

Life! Love! Laughter! Beauty! Honor! Agency! Justice!

What inspires you?

The above.

Why fantasy?

Because it's cool, it's fun, I love the possibilities of magic and other worlds.

Why young adult?

That mostly arose out of habit. I started writing young, and many my stories seem to be about young people finding their place in the world.

How was A POSSE OF PRINCESSES born?

The first image was a disparate group of girls who are all princesses going off to rescue a prince. As I started writing about them, and how they got there, it seemed more fun to have them rescuing a princess who had kidnapped a prince — though nobody knew that at the time.

How was CROWN DUEL born?

I was sitting alone at my desk in Vienna, Austria. I was cold, and lonely, as I had not mastered the German language as well as I had thought. I felt ignorant in my shabby Los Angeles clothing in the middle of this sophisticated city. Then I got an image of a girl with her foot caught in a trap. Ugh. But it persisted, I sat down to write it out, and the next thing I knew I had a hundred pages. I put it away for a couple of years, took it out to reread it, and that the court duel half hit me.

Do you have any advice for aspiring authors?

Read a lot, especially outside of your favorite genre of fiction. Observe how real people act and react.

Friday, January 18, 2013

THE ART OF RACING IN THE RAIN

Review of THE ART OF RACING IN THE RAIN by GARTH STEIN

This one sat on my to-read bookshelf for years before I finally made time for it. I expected to like it, but I didn't expect to love it as much as I did. Everyone describes THE ART OF RACING IN THE RAIN as a story told from a dog's perspective, but that might be a little misleading. Yes, it is. Yes, that's the hook. But, no, that's not the story, only how the story's delivered, the unique point of view. The actual story follows a family torn apart by brain cancer.

We learn in the first chapter that our dog narrator, Enzo, has grown old and might be put down soon. It's either a testament to Stein's phenomenal skill that I already felt the potential loss of a character I met only pages ago...or proof that I'm a crazy dog person who will cry over fictional dog deaths without any context whatsoever. (Perhaps a combination of both?) From there, the story backtracks to tell the tale of Enzo's life as intertwined with the life of his family, until we come full circle to the old dog we met in the first chapter.

The title refers to Enzo's owner Danny's profession as a racecar driver. Stein has stuffed this book with insightful driving metaphors sprinkled into the rest of the narrative, which he divides into short chapters that make this book an easy, fast read. The story hits both the high and low moments and emotions in life, making it a tale both happy and sad, depending on your philosophical bent and what lingers with you most after you finish reading. The human characters aren't always likable, but that makes them even more real. Here's where the dog narrator really pays off, because no matter what's going on with the humans, Enzo remains a likable and sympathetic protagonist. One particular action on Danny's part so infuriated me that I might have stopped reading if he, rather than Enzo, had been the lead. However, after the tragedies and injustices started piling on, I admitted to myself that I doubt I could handle Danny's problems with half as much dignity and control as he does. Speaking of said injustices, I found myself significantly worked up by this fictional world, always a good sign that it's well-written. In fact, I occasionally forgot it wasn't a memoir! (The dog narrator served as a steady reminder.)

I’ve never been someone who memorizes exact lines from books. Even if, as I’m reading, I note many perceptive, exceptional phrases or sentences, I’m still not likely to recall that remarkable line years later. However, one sentence popped out at me in this book. “To live every day as if it had been stolen from death, that is how I would like to live” (160). It’s not a brand new concept, but it’s adeptly phrased and just one example of many powerful musings in this novel.

Last, I want to comment on Enzo as an anthropomorphized dog. I have a fair amount of experience with dogs, including raising Guide Dogs for the Blind and studying dog behavior, especially body language, so when it comes to reading, I'm always critical of talking and/or thinking dogs. THE ART OF RACING IN THE RAIN led me to the conclusion that I'm actually much less skeptical about what a fictional dog thinks as what the dog does. If the author gives their dog human-like mental capabilities, I'll go along with however this dog views the world. What bugs me is when they don't even act like a dog, when they do things a real dog would never do. I'm pleased to say Enzo didn’t stray into that territory. He's very smart and observant - he picks up English, among other knowledge, from listening to the humans around him and watching television documentaries - but he still acts like a dog. Of course, that makes it more pronounced the one time Enzo does demonstrate his understanding by physically intervening in Danny's decision.

The premise (dog narrator) might help sell this book, but it’s the writing and the characters that make it extraordinary.

Monday, January 14, 2013

Do You Need to Like the Protagonist to Like the Book?


Discussion Topic: Do You Need to Like the Protagonist to Like the Book?

How many of you readers out there have had the following conversation?

You: Did you like that book?
Friend: No, I hated the main character.

It's surprised me over the years to discover how many people cannot invest in a story with an unlikable protagonist, even if that's the author's intent. It pains me, to be honest! As a reader, I can think of so many brilliant books that don't rely on a lovable protagonist to hook readers. As a writer, I ensure all my characters have flaws of some kind, and do have a few lead characters who will doubtless rub someone or other the wrong way...yet I hope their shortcomings are essential to the story.

It brings to mind a conversation I had in an art gallery this summer. I visited New York and the Guggenheim. As I turned my attention to the very first piece I passed, a stranger came up to me, leaned over, and whispered, "Do you like it?" Before I could answer, she added in a very serious, skeptical tone, "Now be honest." What immediately popped into my mind was something I had heard someone else say at a conference: "the point of art isn't to like or dislike it." We often think in those terms, but they're simplistic. In terms of visual art, like and dislike often refer more to aesthetic. For written arts, we usually mean "liking" as a measurement of enjoyment. Except there's more to art than that. To the woman, I joked, "I wouldn't put it in my living room, but I'm glad it's here in the museum." If by like, she meant, "Is it pretty?," my answer would be no. However, other factors still appealed to me and made me think and I'm glad I saw it. Art isn't always about simple enjoyment, but sometimes about pushing ourselves out of comfort zones. Steering the focus back to literature, I can think of books that I didn't like - perhaps because the story's too scary for me, or there's a depressing ending, or vivid, gory scenes - but that doesn't mean I think it's a bad book. Rather that, when it comes to tastes and preferences, this book falls outside what speaks to me. Stephen King is a great example. His work, especially the strictly horror stuff, doesn't appeal to me, but I nevertheless consider him a fantastic writer. If we're talking straightforward enjoyment, I didn't like WINTERGIRLS by Laurie Halse Anderson. It's about a girl with an eating disorder...and it's depressing and discomforting. However, if we stretch our definition of "like" wider than enjoyment, I loved that book. It's thought-provoking and well-handled, in particular with how Anderson zeroes in on Lia's consuming obsession with a number on a scale and forcing that number lower, lower, lower.

Returning specifically to protagonists, though, no, I don't need to like the protagonist to like the book. What I need is to be invested in the story, and, while an endearing lead character can do the trick, there are other ways to catch my attention. Yes, unlikable protagonists can ruin a book for me, but whether or not I like the protagonist isn't equivalent to whether or not I like the book. So what's the difference between an unlikable main character who doesn't taint the entire story and one who makes you set that book down permanently? My answer is abstract and challenging to measure, but it often comes down to what I interpret as the author's intent. Obviously, I could be mistaken, but I usually get a sense for protagonists meant as satiric characters, or those that we're expected to resent or dislike a little while still investing in their struggles. The problem comes when I suspect the author's blind to her protagonist's faults and expects her readers to actually love this horrid character. Be they a Mary Sue ideal or utterly off-putting with too many faults to list, I need to feel like the author formed the protagonist this way for a reason.

Just like with real people, one can dislike certain traits in a character while still liking them overall, and I can think of plenty of books in which my problem with the protagonist didn't reflect poorly on my opinion of the book. In TRADE SECRETS by Yvonne Collins and Sandy Rideout, I found Kali a little shallow and hypocritical, but loooved the book and still cared what happened to her, still liked and rooted for her in fact. Brooklyn from Kate Carlise's Bibliophile Mysteries also comes off as somewhat superficial, often fixating on her appearance or checking out guys during murder investigations, but I don't resent that - it keeps the tone of a murder series light rather than melancholy or frightening. In SERAPHINA by Rachel Hartman, I struggled to connect with our heroine at first since Seraphina shows so little emotion, but that only made me connect more when the feelings start overwhelming her. That's a prime example of an author crafting a protagonist a certain way for a reason! I also love Eva Ibbotsons's young adult books such as MORNING LIGHT and COUNTESS BELOW STAIRS, but they certainly feature Mary Sue-ish female leads: very goodhearted, always trying to do the right thing, so sweet and unselfish that some readers simply can't stand them.

Then there are books in which I don't find much redeemable in the protagonist, but plenty in the book! I doubt there's a single character I loved in Anne Bishop's THE PILLARS OF THE WORLD (though I found more than one to adore in the later books in that trilogy). Despite so many irritating characters, I adored how they played against each other as the complex, dramatic story unrolls. SEPULCHRE by Kate Mosse, or at least the historical half of the story, stars two rather annoying characters who proved interesting character studies. In Scott Westerfeld's UGLIES series, I can't stand Tally, the lead, as I rant about in my reviews. However, I love Shay, her best friend and consider her the true heroine of the series.

For many books, liking the protagonist isn't the point. Both SCORED by Lauren McLaughlin and FEED by M.T. Anderson strike me as satirical stories. Imari of SCORED and Titus of FEED are flawed protagonists representative of the values in these fictional futures. By today's measures, much of what they think and do seems wrong, but by presenting Imari and Titus as average teenagers in a different world, the authors show us how values have shifted. Then there's historical fiction, which isn't about making a historical figure entirely likable, but rather recreating a particular period and/or person and imagining unknown motivations for known history. The historical backdrop of THE AMERICAN HEIRESS by Daisy Goodwin, for one example, is as much a character as our spoiled lead Cora Cash. Similarly, DRAGON CHAMPION by E.E. Knight and other fiction starring animals is more about exploring animal behavior and unique perspectives.

Of course, I have read books in which the protagonist did turn my opinion against the book. I'm avoiding specific examples here, because, as I've mentioned before, I prefer to praise the books I love rather than bash books I don't like. So rather than listing titles, I'll talk in more general terms about what kind of protagonists can lower my opinion of the overall book. I talked about Imari from SCORED and Titus from FEED as two examples of satiric characters who can be selfish but their individual flaws reflect back on how society has changed. Even if I disagreed with or disliked Imari and Titus every now and then, I always loved the books. However, I see plenty of other similarly selfish characters to whom I cannot relate, because there's no greater depth. The character is self-absorbed, the author doesn't seem to know it, the character doesn't grow or mature over the course of the novel, and there's no bigger message/moral/story other than the selfish protagonist's often shallow individual concerns. In young adult literature specifically, I've also been turned off by a couple of books in which the teenage protagonist doesn't feel like a real person but like an insulting stereotype of what the author thinks teenagers are like. Additionally, I struggle with stories in which there's a significant gap between what I versus the protagonist find romantic. Unless overtly satiric and well-handled, I resent books in which the main character's attracted to behavior that strikes me as abusive or obsessive rather than romantic. In terms of really personal preferences, I do have two things that can throw me off perhaps disproportionately: cruelty to animals, especially dogs, and infidelity. I'm as crazy about dogs as I am books and passionate about preventing their mistreatment. Usually, animal abusers in fiction are bad guys. However, there are many cases in which a sympathetic character will hit a dog once and it's okay because they were going through a tough time and it was once and everyone knows it's okay to hit once, especially if you've had a bad day. For dogs and people alike, I fiercely believe once is abuse, too. So even these otherwise likable characters who lash out (JUST ONCE!) at their dog when they're at rock bottom become forever irredeemable in my mind. As for infidelity, I'm referring to cheating while in a committed relationship, be it a marriage or not. This is a convoluted, emotionally charged issue, and I don't want to wander away from literature and into philosophy. Of course, it depends on how the content's handled, but I've read a few books in which a female protagonist either cheats on her boyfriend or is the other woman and we're supposed to feel bad for her (rather than the one being cheated on), since she feels so guilty. After all, she just can't fight her attraction. While some skilled writers appeal more strongly to my empathy than others and paint compassionate portraits of how someone might reach this point, I'm immediately repelled by the simplistic characters who, bottom line, put themselves before everyone else and I'm never drawn in by the claim "I couldn't help myself.” (My frustration with that mentality is a big part of why I don't like vampire fiction, but that's another topic!)

Your turn. Do you need to like the protagonist to like the book? Why or why not? Can you think of books you loved even though you didn't like the main character? Books you hated because the main character is so awful? Characters you still liked despite a few traits/actions you didn't?

Friday, January 11, 2013

SAPPHIRE BLUE


Review of SAPPHIRE BLUE by KERSTIN GIER
(second in the RUBY RED trilogy, review based on an advance reading copy, translated by ANTHEA BELL)

While I enjoyed SAPPHIRE BLUE and definitely intend to read the third and final book in this trilogy, I do think this installment suffers a little from middle book syndrome. I liked RUBY RED and I have high hopes that EMERALD GREEN will impress me, but SAPPHIRE BLUE feels a little like the bridge you must cross to reach your destination. It might very well be a pretty bridge, but it's still more a bridge rather than a location worth visiting in its own right.

In my review of RUBY RED, I didn't yet mention that I found the pace of the romance rushed. Why? Because Gwen and Gideon actually only kiss at the very end of the first book and I didn't want to spoil anything! Even then, on the last page, I didn't feel ready for that development and the kiss felt too soon. Of course, both books - and I assume the third - take place over just a couple of days each. On the upside, this structure helps with the strong voice since we're so embedded in Gwen's perspective. On the downside, I feel the romance really suffers in the short time frame. I wasn't ready for the kiss at the end of RUBY RED and I also found myself frustrated with all the talk of love in SAPPHIRE BLUE given that the characters haven't even known each other a full week. For that matter, Gideon's mostly just rude to Gwen and her eagerness for any attention from him (usually in the form of making out) irritated me. Granted, it's a very real dynamic, but I wished the story weren't quite so fixated on that element.

As my review implies so far, not much else develops in SAPPHIRE BLUE beside the romance. We have more peaks of potential bad guys with added hints and warnings of doom to come, but I have the feeling that the really good stuff, including more character development, will be in the forthcoming third and final book, EMERALD GREEN.

Monday, January 7, 2013

GARTH STEIN

 
Interview with Garth Stein

Born in Los Angeles and raised in Seattle, Garth's ancestry is diverse: his mother, a native of Alaska, is of Tlingit Indian and Irish descent; his father, a Brooklyn native, is the child of Jewish emigrants from Austria. After spending his childhood in Seattle and then living in New York City for 18 years, Garth returned to Seattle, where he currently lives with his wife, three sons, and their dog, Comet.

What are you reading right now?

Mostly I read for endorsements these days. I'm about to start Bill Dietrich's new book, THE BARBED CROWN, which will be out in May 2013, and I'm looking forward to it as I love his writing. The last book I read for pleasure was Jon Ronson's THE PSYCHOPATH TEST, which I really liked, with a few reservations.

What first sparked your interest in writing?

I suppose it was my mother. She used to write children's stories, so when I was growing up, I would always see her at her typewriter. I've always written stories, so this is sort of a chicken-and-egg question, but I did do a decade-long detour into documentary filmmaking when I was younger. The medium may change, but storytelling is storytelling.  

What do you love the most about writing? The least?

There's something to love about writing? I thought it was some kind of terrible punishment inflicted upon those of us who are otherwise unemployable. Seriously, writing can be very difficult--long hours alone; pages, chapters, entire books thrown away because they just aren't good enough. But I supposed when you get that feeling--you know, of being in the zone and everything is right - that makes it all worth it.

Tell us a little about your writing process.

I write in the afternoons and evenings mostly. Part of my method is fatigue, I think. Fighting through the fatigue. Because when the body begins to shut down, so does the conscious mind, and that's when un-, sub- or supernatural forces take over and, in all probability, creation begins (that's a Tom Stoppard reference, if you didn't catch it). I do a lot of plot work before I delve into a novel, but I'm always willing to change my story outline to suit the story. I think good stories and characters are discovered, not invented, so the work is really a collaboration between some psychic source or place of creation, and a writer. Therefore, as writers, we have an obligation to be true to our stories and characters and not contrive for them to act contrary to their natures.

What are your passions?

Gee, I don't know. Is this one of those FIFTY SHADES OF GREY questions? I think handcuffs are clunky and can damage furniture; I'm more a fan of soft restraints.....Oh, wait. You mean, like, literary passions? I love a well-constructed, transformative story. These don't come along very often, but when they do, they can change the way one sees things. And that can be very profound, indeed.  

What inspires you?

See above. (The part about the transformative nature of literature, not the part about the handcuffs.)

Do you have any advice for aspiring authors?

Yes, actually. Take acting classes. Actors are really good with motivation and intention. You should be, too. If you are true to your characters, they will not betray you. And most of all, know your characters so well that when one comes knocking on your door decades down the line, you can show him your novel and he will read it and say, "You've taught me something about myself - why I am who I am, and why I've done what I've done." Because that's why we write fiction, isn't it? Not just to tell a story, but to make sense of a story....  

Friday, January 4, 2013

Favorite Books Reads in 2012


Favorite Books Read in 2012:

For those who have been following my blog throughout the year, the books on this list won’t come as a surprise. I write long reviews, though, so below you can find much shorter descriptions of my favorite books from 2012. All the books I reviewed or authors I interviewed are linked to the original post.

Note that these are books I read in 2012, not necessarily books published in 2012. Also, some have forthcoming reviews scheduled to go up in 2013.

1.     SHADOW AND BONE by LEIGH BARDUGO

Alina lives in a war-torn country struggling to distribute weapons and resources despite what they call the fold - a large swath of monster-ridden darkness - cutting though their land. When Alina’s dormant magical power reveals itself, she’s whisked away from her humble life working alongside her best friend/crush into the beautiful but treacherous world of the court.

2.     HEIR TO THE SHADOWS, QUEEN OF THE DARKNESS, THE INVISIBLE RING, DREAMS MADE FLESH, TANGLED WEBS, THE SHADOW QUEEN, and SHALADOR’S LADY by ANNE BISHOP

Bishop’s one of my top tier favorite authors and her BLACK JEWELS series is what first won my adoration. Complex worldbuilding, a fascinating magic system, well-handled high drama, a huge cast of lovable characters as well as despicable villains, laugh aloud moments, and satisfying resolutions with an underlying sense of justice - there’s so much to love.

3.     THE PILLARS OF THE WORLD, SHADOWS AND LIGHT, and THE HOUSE OF GAIAN by ANNE BISHOP

The first book in the TIR ALAINN trilogy follows the mortal witch Ari, who could help rescue the fading Fae world if only they weren’t too arrogant to recognize a mere human’s worth. The cast balloons out in later books as unexpected alliances form in an effort to prevent the genocide of all witches. 

4.     WHITE CAT by HOLLY BLACK

In Cassel’s alternate world, everyone wears gloves, because curse workers (those with magic) must touch you in order to place their curse. Cassel confesses to the reader right near the beginning that he recently murdered his best friend, but, of course, there’s more to that story. The book leads us through a maze of curses, betrayals, twists, and turns and then halts with a killer last line.

5.     UNSPOKEN by SARAH REES BRENNAN

Brennan can ricochet between hilarious and dramatic with admirable control. Our quirky and lovable protagonist Kami has communicated with a voice in her head for as long as she can remember. She never obsessed over the inexplicable, either, but when explanations do come, they aren’t cheery.

6.     GRACELING and FIRE by KRISTIN CASHORE

Though only very, very loosely connected, these books are part of the same series and both easily make my all-times favorites list. Through hyperbole, Cashore deconstructs fantasy tropes: GRACELING examines the “tough woman” through Katsa’s magical talent for killing and FIRE analyzes that annoying Mary Sue protagonist through the title’s namesake, an unusual woman whom everyone desperately wants to possess, serve, or kill…within seconds of meeting her.

7.     THE BLACK SHEEP by YVONNE COLLINS and SANDY RIDEOUT

Frustrated with her order and rule-obsessed parents, Kendra writes away to a household-swapping reality television show, never expecting she’ll actually be selected. Through an entertaining premise, Collins and Rideout portray timeless themes about fitting in.

8.     GIRL V. BOY by YVONNE COLLINS and SANDY RIDEOUT

When Luisa’s high school principal pits the boys against the girls for a school fundraiser, Luisa’s selected to write an anonymous column representing the girls side while a boy will cover the guys. As the competition spirals out of control, Luisa notices clues that her dreamy new boyfriend might be her sexist, rival columnist.


The second book in the LOVE, INC. trilogy follows Kali this time around and is packed with layered, interwoven story lines. To name a few: avid dater Kali tries for a serious, long-term relationship, Zahra finds her loyalty torn between friends and her new boyfriend (Kali’s brother), and someone’s luring away Love, Inc. clients.


The last two books in THE UNICORN CHRONICLES blew me away. Coville creates a backstory to the entire world of Luster that I never could have predicted and interweaves many complex and compelling plot threads into a masterpiece of a series.

11.  FEVER by LAUREN DESTEFANO

After escaping at the end of WITHER, Rhine’s forced to acknowledge that the real world isn’t the paradise she idealized. Gabriel, well, withers outside of the mansion while Rhine remains determined that freedom is worth infinite hardships.

12.  IN A GLASS GRIMMLY by ADAM GIDWITZ

Gidwitz uses a similar formula for his second book to tell a completely new tale. This one follows Jack and Jill as they wend through fractured fairy tales, fables, and folklore towards a heartfelt, original moral.

13.  TWENTIES GIRL by SOPHIE KINSELLA

Lara finds herself haunted by the ghost of her recently deceased great aunt. I didn’t expect a speculative fiction element from chick lit master Kinsella, but she both pulls it off and reminds me why she’s my favorite in the genre.


It’s hard to summarize a story with so many brilliant elements, but in a word: unique. From the less commonly used mythological creature - the griffin - to a Japanese influence, STORMDANCER’s really something special.


If you haven’t heard of the Bloggess, click here to read her post on perspective, marital disputes, and a giant metal chicken. If you laugh, you must buy this book. Hilarious but honest, it’s a great read.


The sci-fi premise here may not be all that unique, but Lo still brings her story to life by focusing on characters over plot. After a bizarre string of unlikely events, Reese and her debate partner/crush David awake in an odd “hospital” that has them sign confidentiality agreements about their treatment before allowing them to return home.

17.  ASH and HUNTRESS by MALINDA LO

My friend described ASH to me as a lesbian twist on Cinderella, but that doesn’t do the story justice; Lo has re-worked much more than who the heroine chooses at the end - from a creepier fairy godmother figure to a more believable and tragic lead character. Prequel HUNTRESS plays with beloved speculative fiction themes regarding fate versus choice.


Imani’s near-future world cut right to my pet peeves about our education system. Frustrated by the inability of GPAs and other academic scores to predict real future potential, tech geniuses create new technology that can analyze everything about a person and score their potential. Teenagers sacrifice any other sense of self-worth as they learn to define themselves only by this score.

19.  CINDERELLA ATE MY DAUGHTER by PEGGY ORENSTEIN

In a feminist examination of girly culture and how we raise daughters, Orenstein dissects princesses, toys, movies, body image, beauty pageants, clothes, etc. Though more analytical than problem-solving, the essays are a fantastic starting point for an open discussion about gender.


With brilliant sensory detail and realism, Papademtriou vividly brings her characters and world to life.  Much more suspense than fantasy focused, both books in this duology sneak through unsettling and bizarre events towards abrupt, climatic showdowns.

21.  VALKYRIE RISING by INGRID PAULSON

Paulson proves there’s still plenty more to explore in the “strong woman” subset of fantasy. All her life, Ellie has been protected by guys - primarily her brother and his best friend - but now males are the victims and Ellie might be the only one who can save them.


I complimented LOST VOICES last year on being a unique take on mermaids. If anything, WAKING STORMS raises the bar higher with a thoroughly unpredictable and emotionally-impacting plot as well as a wealth of interpretations and discussions interlaced through a layered world, magic system, cast, and plot.


In a dreamy and surreal story, Simner pulls from Icelandic mythology. Haley attempts to find her mother (who disappeared when she was a child) despite her father’s warnings. Without any hint of a preachy tone, the story poses beautifully handled questions about love.

24.  A POSSE OF PRINCESSES by SHERWOOD SMITH

While I found the primary storyline rather predictable, there’s a huge cast of well-rounded character and many intersecting plot threads with understated story developments that caught me off guard and stuck with me long past finishing the book. The protagonist Rhis feels like a person - not a character - but it’s Taniva who stole the show for me.

25.  UP AND DOWN THE SCRATCHY MOUNTAINS by LAUREL SNYDER

While Snyder’s book is a little younger than I usually read, she proved that target age becomes irrelevant in a great story. With a fun and playful tone, our tale follows young Lucy as she takes off in search of her mother as well as a grand adventure.

26.  TOUCH OF POWER by MARIA V. SNYDER

If you’ve read any of Snyder’s other books, her story’s can seem a bit formulaic, but it should be specified that it’s a formula that works! This is one of those books I didn’t even want to put down to eat or sleep and the magic system has a marvelous balance of power and sacrifice.

27.  RENEGADE by J.A. SOUDERS

It might be tempting to dismiss this book too soon when the first chapter opens with Evelyn’s saccharine inner monologue and repeated chants of: My life is pretty much perfect. Then paradise dissolves into chaotic, horrific violence and Chapter 2 opens with a disturbing sense of déjà vu and only one thing is clear: things aren’t what they seem.

28.  THE ART OF RACING IN THE RAIN by GARTH STEIN

I put off reading this book for far too long! It sat in my towering to-read pile long before it became a bestseller, but I’m rather cynical of buzz and became increasingly convinced that it couldn’t live up to everyone’s raving. It did! It did!

29.  DAYS OF BLOOD AND STARLIGHT by LAINI TAYLOR

I adored DAUGHTER OF SMOKE AND BONE and while this second installment in the trilogy is definitely a little bit too dark and grim for my tastes, I can’t deny it’s an amazing book. Taylor doesn’t shy away from presenting hard (try excruciating) choices for her characters and at this point I can’t possibly imagine a happy ending for the series.