Friday, August 30, 2013

NANCY CANYON

Interview with Nancy Canyon

Ms. Canyon began writing and painting as a child. In 1997, she studied with Natalie Goldberg in Taos, New Mexico. She holds a Certificate in Fiction Writing from University of Washington and an MFA in Creative Writing from Pacific Lutheran University. She is a member of Allied Arts of Whatcom County and RWA. She has completed three novels, CELIA’S HEAVEN, STEALING TIME, and WHISPERING, IDAHO. Ms. Canyon lives in Bellingham, Washington with her Tuxedo Cat, Sid.

What are you reading right now?

I’ve had a resurgence of reading my astrology books, because I’m an astrologer. I’ve been reading about Dark Moon Lilith, a gravitational point that keeps the moon in the orbit. I’m also reading a book called LONGING FOR DARKNESS: TARA AND THE BLACK MADONNA by China Galland. It’s about this woman who goes on an adventure looking for the tara and it starts with her in Nepal climbing this mountain and she falls and breaks her leg. I like the adventure and the search for something, especially for meaning in life. In all my books that’s what I’m doing - searching for meaning.

What first sparked your interest in writing?

When I was a kid, I would go to the library, which was just down the block from where I lived and I would just fill my basket with mysteries. And I liked getting out of the kids section into the adult section and smuggling books home so my mom didn’t know I was reading more adult material.

I also started two novels in grade school and they were both mysteries. One was THE MYSTERY OF THE TIN BOX, but I never got much farther than the opening.

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

I like it when things just happen that are unexpected. Suddenly I have a story unraveling so that I’m surprised, too.

I don’t like the length of things going on and on with editing and the feeling like this will never ever be finished.

Tell us a little about your writing process.

I write with other people and I - we - use start lines. I write with a syntax so I vary the types of sentences I’m writing from short to run-on. I know what my topic is, but I don’t know what’s going to come out. It’s pretty stream-of-consciousness. Writing with other people is good, because I can connect with their minds as well as my own mind and I can learn from them. I don’t outline anything either.

What are your passions?

Writing definitely! Painting is one. I like meeting with other people in the studio and doing art together. I like getting out and hiking and camping. I really like shamanism and journeying. I love photography, too. That’s another thing I’ve been doing since I was a kid.

What inspires you?

I think nature is my main inspiration. And dreams. I wrote a poem this morning from a dream I had last night and I think the dream was inspired by the full moon.

Why speculative fiction?

Because there’s that magic involved that is like the journey or the dream. Things happen that are surreal or out of the ordinary and I really like that. It’s fun for me.

As both a writer and reader, do you prefer either science fiction or fantasy over the other?

I’ve read more fantasy than science fiction. Science fiction seems harder and fantasy softer. Fantasy is more fairy tale-ish. Science fiction feels closer to reality in some ways.

How was “Ghost Rocks” born?

In my writing practice, Tony the shaman came about and then he went on this vision quest up to the ghost rocks. I had actually been working with a shaman who had been taking people on vision quests to the mountain. He was an interesting man and I was learning a lot from him about the Native American medicine wheel and the animal totems. I really desire to go on a vision quest myself, but it felt far too frightening to go out there by myself without food for three days. I really aspire to it and I still aspire to it, but I think I might probably die! I guess that whole story came out of the aspiration. The closest I come to doing a vision quest is when I go camping and it really does scare the bejesus out of me, but I still do it. I don’t go without food, though.

The text says “Ghosts Rocks” is an excerpt from the novel STEALING TIME. Was it challenging adapting a portion of a larger work for a shorter format?

Yes, it was slightly challenging. It became more standalone and also a much tighter story than the rest of the book was at the time. It became a standout part of that book, to make it work as a piece in itself. Then I had to rewrite the rest of the book to bring it up to that level!

Do you have any advice for aspiring authors?

The main thing that I like to encourage people to do - because I teach writing - is to let themselves be free and let the story go will it will go and don’t try to control it. When authors say this story came alive and wrote itself, that’s truly a gift. The story becomes a gift to the writer. I think it’s better writing that way and it’s more fun that way!

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

I sometimes think maybe I will meet Tony or another one of my characters in real life.

I really love adventures. I think writing about people having adventures makes me feel like I’m having that adventure.

Thursday, August 29, 2013

Random Acts of Reading - Summer Favorites


I’m a guest blogger for Random House’s blog - Random Acts of Reading. Click here to check out this month’s post about what we read over the summer. (Though if you read everything on this blog, my favorites probably won’t come as a big surprise!)

Monday, August 26, 2013

A COUNTESS BELOW STAIRS


Review of A COUNTESS BELOW STAIRS by EVA IBBOTSON

This sweet, funny, adorable book first introduced me to Eva Ibbotson, who writes both young adult historical romances like A COUNTESS BELOW STAIRS and playful fantasy novels for a slightly younger audience.

A COUNTESS BELOW STAIRS tests our habit of assigning genres and categories. It's historical fiction, no doubt, but it's also young adult and romance. The young adult part has shifted over time. (A COUNTESS BELOW STAIRS originally classified as adult fiction until the publisher repackaged all Ibbotson’s historical novels.) Personally, I would call these books New Adult, but that term’s still in its infancy. As for romance, I mean that classification less in the steamy, bodice-ripper context and more in a tender, heartwarming, happily-ever-after sense.

While I always enjoy Ibbotson's work, I also recognize where her YA historical romances will bother someone with different tastes. The distanced, formal writing style puts me in mind of Jane Austen and numbers among the elements that will click with certain readers and not others. Ibbotson also narrates the story with a wide-sweeping viewpoint and a bountiful cast. I love stories with a plethora of characters (because I find that approach more realistic) but others may not.

However, the primary reason some people dislike Ibbotson's historical work has nothing to do with the writing and everything to do with the protagonists. There's no denying that her leads in these books are the epitome of the Mary Sue trope. Anna, our “countess below stairs,” always does the right thing. Everyone loves her, or if they detest her that’s a sure sign that person’s a “bad guy.” For the most part, this doesn't bother me, mostly because I find enough other redeeming factors. For starters, Anna is a genuinely nice, kind-hearted woman who sticks to her morals and looks out for those around her. Of course, many readers understandably like to see more moments of weakness, notable flaws, or selfish decisions in protagonists than you’ll find with Anna. The only thing that did irk me is how the story reinforces the attitude that naivety is the highest form of purity (and that purity is the quintessential feminine aspiration). And for all that I say Anna’s seeming perfection didn’t bother me, I did snort aloud at all the ado about her awe-inspiring curtsies.

Her curtsies, though, exemplify another redeeming positive: humor. Because even when I groaned at Anna’s absurd level of perfection, I always did so with a smile. There’s an understated, teasing humor that…well, tickles me. For example, the fact that Anna thinks she’s outsmarting everyone by pretending to be a servant, but they all know better. I laughed aloud when Anna, in an attempt to comfort a wronged little girl, lets slip something about all her family’s houses. Ollie, the little girl in question, catches this plural and asks, “Did you have a lot of houses?” To which Anna’s employer responds, “In Russia all the housemaids have a lot of houses, Ollie.” I also adored the snobby dog that refuses to enter the servants’ quarters.  

A COUNTESS BELOW STAIRS won’t be for everyone, too light and wholesome for some appetites, but it’s a fun fluff read with real historical depth (and a darker subtext about prejudice, though the novel never brings that to the forefront), lovable - if simplistic - characters, and a sweet, satisfying comedic voice knitting together numerous storylines.

Friday, August 23, 2013

GORGEOUS


Review of GORGEOUS by PAUL RUDNICK
(review based on an advance reading copy)

GORGEOUS has an intriguing, mysterious premise: after the death of her morbidly obese mother, Becky receives a strange phone call and finds herself whisked away by a peculiar and unnaturally stunning stranger who claims he can make her the most beautiful woman in the world by designing three dresses. This might not need saying, but you need to be able to suspend your skepticism to enjoy this story! Rudnick crafts believable characters but far from believable actions and twists. Becky often goes along with each crazy development without much fuss clearly to keep the book moving at a rapid pace. GORGEROUS also defies easy categorization, because the novel is far more character- than premise-focused. We never learn if it’s magic or science or God or the aliens or fill-in-the-blank that explains the how behind the strange happenings. Becky’s reaction to these mystical events ranks far above any explanation.  

I loved the voice from the first page, though it won’t be for everyone. There’s a lot of swearing (In fact, I want to show this book to everyone who asks if swearing is allowed in young adult literature.) and sometimes the humor’s crude and crass. Disclaimer aside, if forced to label this book I’d go with satiric absurdity, (And if that’s not an official genre, it should be.) which shines through in the tone right from the very start. GORGEOUS made me laugh more times than I can count and, above any other strengths, that’s what made it stand out for me.

I’m the stating the obvious here, but this book - titled GORGEOUS and in which the protagonist strikes a deal to become the most beautiful woman in the world - fixates on beauty. The novel does an incredible job of tackling such a complex topic. One line in particular caught my attention: “Mirrors are more dangerous than guns or cars or crystal meth, because they’re cheap, readily available and everyone’s addicted.”

I can see the distanced viewpoint off-putting some readers. Close focused, “real time” scenes are surprisingly few and far between and instead Rudnick often summarizes hours, days, or months in a chapter or even paragraph. This approach only bothered me when I wanted to experience what’s really a subtle, slow change of mindset for Becky rather than be informed in a few paragraphs how she’s seeing everything differently.

While I still rate this book high overall, my opinion went downhill a little around the ending. When the story starts collecting itself for some kind of meaningful conclusion, the attempt falls flat. The ending trips into some of the same happily-ever-after traps the book challenges and the why and how behind the supernatural only become more mysterious and confusing, not less. I also expected a far more impacting revelation about Becky’s mother. In short, the story feels natural at the absurd but sometimes forced at the real.

My criticisms about the end aside, GORGEOUS had my full attention and rewarded me with plenty of laughter, some innovative insight, and a worthwhile discussion that will continue in the reader’s mind and in real world conversations long after they’ve finished this book.

Monday, August 19, 2013

KRISTOPHER JANSMA

 
Interview with KRISTOPHER JANSMA

Kristopher grew up in Lincroft, New Jersey. He received his B.A. in The Writing Seminars from Johns Hopkins University and an M.F.A. in Fiction from Columbia University. Kristopher Jansma's debut novel, THE UNCHANGEABLE SPOTS OF LEOPARDS, was published by Viking/Penguin in March of 2013.

What are you reading right now?
At the moment I'm reading a science book called HIDDEN REALITIES by Brian Greene, a physicist who teaches at Columbia and who is a guest I like on WNYC's Radiolab podcast. The book is all about string theory and multiple universes and hidden dimensions that scientists believe exist far beyond our ability to ever detect them. It's partly research for a new project I'm working on, but also just something I love to think about. There's a weird overlap, I've noticed, between physicists and writers...I know several writers who once thought they'd go into physics. Both fields involve asking a lot of big questions about the nature of the universe. Fortunately only one requires a working knowledge of Calculus.

What first sparked your interest in writing? 

Well, like the little boy in the Author's Note of my book, I wanted to be a writer since I was very young. Like him, I wanted to be a writer even before I knew that was a thing you could do. When I was in 3rd or 4th grade I would write down all the imaginary adventures I'd had with my friends during recess each day, mostly just so we'd be able to remember them. Then in 7th grade I had an English teacher, Mrs. Inglis, who saw how much I liked to read and how much I liked to write our little vocabulary essays, and she was the first person to point out to me that there were real people whose job it was to write books. I had always thought that books just existed, or that they'd been written long before I'd been born. I didn't really put it together that you could still write new ones.

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

The best thing about writing is when you look back at a full page and remember when it was blank only an hour ago. The worst thing about writing is when someone comes along and tells you to cut half of this genius stuff you think you wrote, even though they're usually right.

Tell us a little about your writing process.

It changes all the time, depending on what else is going on in my life. When I was writing LEOPARDS I was teaching six or seven classes a semester and working at night at a tutoring desk. I had to get my writing time in there any free second that I had. But that was exhilarating. I thought about my book all the time, even when I wasn't working. Now my teaching schedule is a bit more manageable, thankfully, but I'm taking care of my newborn son several days a week, so that presents a whole new set of scheduling challenges.

What are your passions?

Outside of writing? I love cooking...I love good theater - I used to be the President of my college theater group, The Barnstormers. I get pretty passionate about certain television shows. I think novelists are supposed to be kind of anti-TV. When I was coming up in the MFA world it was pretty common that my friends would not even own TVs, sort of as a stance against a supposedly lazier form of entertainment I guess? Meanwhile I think I learned more from binge watching The Sopranos and The Wire than I did from half the books I read during those same years.

What inspires you?

It's hard to predict! I've gotten flashes sometimes from paintings, songs, news headlines, even words in the dictionary. Most often I'm inspired by people. Some little behavioral tic or expression. Even just the way someone says something, sometimes, can launch my mind off into storytelling mode. 

How was THE UNCHANGEABLE SPOTS OF LEOPARDS born?
In 2009 I started an online writing project called 40 Stories. I was fed up with trying to write a novel and failing over and over, so I thought I would clear the cobwebs by writing a series of stories...a new one almost every week, and posting them online. It was a lot of fun and it did indeed get me into a whole new groove. Then suddenly I wrote the 13th story, which I called "The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards" and it was so exciting that I knew I'd accidentally struck on something with a lot of potential. So then over the course of that year I wrote 7 or 8 more stories that used similar characters and themes, and as time went on, I realized I had a novel on my hands.

Was it fun and/or challenging writing about writing?

It was a big challenge, but one I'd always been curious to try. The problem is that most readers aren't as interested in how the book gets made as a writer is. You don't go to a bakery to hear all about how cake gets made; you just want to eat some cake. So what I realized is that you have to let them eat cake (if I can get away with that!) and the cake needs to be so good that they just have to ask the chef how it's made. I love postmodern books that are full of metafictional stuff, but lots of readers are turned off by it. Too self-involved and too often the story and characters are lost to the ideas. I wanted to write a book that would bring the joys of postmodernism to readers who still enjoy the satisfactions of modernism. On that note, I'd love to just add that post-this and pre-that are just awful and misleading terms when it comes to literature. The two most postmodern books I ever read were DON QUIXOTE and TRISTAM SHANDY and they were written hundreds of years before there was a modernism for them to be post- of.

Did you enjoy writing such an unreliable narrator?

Absolutely! Unreliable narrators are the wickedest kind of fun you can have in writing. You're constantly walking this very fine tightrope with the reader: the trick is that they can lie as much as you want, so long as they're absolutely earnest about it. To me, that's the very heart of great fiction.

Do you have any advice for aspiring authors?

The two most powerful words for anyone aspiring to do anything are "we'll see.” It takes a long, long time to get good enough. So all along the way you're going to face disappointment and rejection. People are going to tell you that what you're trying to do cannot be done - by you for sure, and sometimes by anyone. People told me I couldn't write a book about writers. "We'll see," I said. Quietly, to myself, a lot.

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

Just that even though my narrator is a terrific liar, you should know that I'm a terrible one in real life. That's what made him so much fun to write...and it's also why you can trust everything I'm saying to you here.

Friday, August 16, 2013

THE CROWN OF EMBERS


Review of THE CROWN OF EMBERS by RAE CARSON
(second in the FIRE AND THORNS trilogy, review based on an advance reading copy)

If you haven’t read THE GIRL OF FIRE AND THORNS, the first in this trilogy, don’t read this review as it contains some major spoilers about the first book.

As with book one, my favorite aspect of THE CROWN OF EMBERS has to be its unpredictability. Carson resists formulas, except in the most skeletal sense. I also continued loving the relationship between Elisa and the little prince Rosario, especially now that they’ve both lost important people and must turn to each other for comfort. 

From the first chapter, Elisa’s self-esteem takes a few steps backwards. It’s hardly unrealistic with all the royal responsibility crushing down on her, but it can be frustrating when a character accomplishes something at the end of one book and then that accomplishment is somewhat rescinded at the start of the next one. I only hope she maintains the confidence she discovers by the end of THE CROWN OF EMBERS in the third and final book.

To be fair on Elisa, though, everyone seems to have ridiculously high expectations! When you know what she managed to do at the end of book one, you think, “Shouldn’t that be enough???” Except now everyone expects yet another miracle. I certainly wouldn’t want to trade places with her.

The only thing I struggled with so far in this trilogy is the romance plot threads. Here comes the big spoiler from book one: it left me baffled and unsatisfied when Carson killed off both Elisa’s love interests in THE GIRL OF FIRE AND THORNS. I would have much preferred to see those complex relationships develop and see her make a choice rather than let fate decide for her. Also, the only element I found predictable has to do with romance: in book one I called who Elisa would eventually fall for in book two, which 1. Made those first two romances feel more like filler while the author builds this particular relationship and 2. Left me impatient as I waited for characters to admit feelings that felt obvious to me.

After the high-stakes ending of THE CROWN OF EMBERS, I can’t wait to start the final book and discover what tricks Elisa still has up her sleeve.

Monday, August 12, 2013

NICOLE KIMBERLING

 
Interview with NICOLE KIMERBLING

Nicole Kimberling lives in Bellingham, Washington with her partner, Dawn Kimberling, two bad cats, and approximately 100,000 bees. Her novel, TURNSKIN, won the Lambda Literary Award for Science Fiction, Fantasy & Horror. She is the editor for Blind Eye Books.

What are you reading right now?

At the moment I’m re-reading GLINDA OF OZ by L. Frank Baum. I’ve always been a huge fan of the Oz books.

What first sparked your interest in writing?

I first started writing fiction in an attempt to impress the girl who is now my wife. (Those stories were really bad, but they did the trick.)

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

I love the deliberateness and editability of text. I’m not a good extemporaneous speaker—I tend to think faster than my mouth can move—but the written word gives me time to communicate what I really mean instead of just saying the words I can manage to spit out before my brain goes on to the next topic.
 
Perversely, what I love least about writing is that it takes so damn long.

Tell us a little about your writing process.

My creative process involves a lot of time spent not writing. I’m a firm believer in roaming around town brainstorming and muttering to oneself—especially in the generative stage. Once I’ve got an idea that I think I can run with, I jot down the beginning. After that, I write the very last pages.

Once I’ve got those two tacked down I go back and try to figure out how to connect those two points in a meaningful and cogent fashion. 
 
What are your passions?

I’ve never really thought of myself as the sort of person who has passions, but I guess I must. I spend much money and brainpower on food and cooking. I adore manga.
And I love cats—I love every kind of cat. (Seriously.)

What inspires you?

Without question—travel. I get so much material from going to new places and seeing the enormous diversity of people and ways of life in the world.

Why fantasy?

I think it has to do with spending my childhood years on a farm Nebraska. There’s not a lot of entertainment available—or at least there wasn’t in the seventies—and so in order to not die of boredom I had to make up stuff to amuse myself. And when you’re a little kid there’s no reason that a propane tank can’t transform into a giant white panther that you ride through the prehistoric jungles a la Land of the Lost.

I suppose I just never outgrew that propensity for make-believe.

How was TURNSKIN born?

I started writing TURNSKIN at the Clarion Workshop. All I was trying to do was evoke an emotional tone—the na├»ve and yearning feeling of being a young person who lives on a farm in the middle of nowhere, but who dreams of going someplace else. (As you can see there is an element of autobiography to that one.) The other participants in the workshop seemed to respond to it well so I kept going. Eventually I had a novel. It took a long time though. About two years from start to finish.

How was “Cherries Worth Getting” born?

Out of necessity. It’s the first story of the shared-world anthology IRREGULARS, but actually the last story to be written. When the four of us (Josh Lanyon, Astrid Amara, Ginn Hale, and me) decided to work together, we knew that we wanted our stories to be strongly linked to one another but none of us wanted to curtail the others’ creative freedom, so Lanyon, Amara, and Hale wrote their stories more or less at the same time, knowing only the basic premise and the order in which they would appear in print. Afterward, they negotiated the details via our wonderful continuity editor, Jemma EveryHope-Roser.

As the primary editor of the anthology, I realized that one of the simplest ways to link all the stories together was just to wait until everyone else was finished and then engineer my contribution to deliberately incorporate and introduce elements from the other authors, which would give a greater sense of cohesion.

As for my own protagonist, Agent Keith Curry, I have long wanted to write a chef character. I’ve worked in restaurants for twenty-odd years now, so I had a lot of unique grist for the mill. I particularly wanted to tap into the current Fear of Food that seems pervasive in our West Coast culture today. Agent Curry was one of the easiest and most enjoyable characters that I’ve ever written. I like him a lot.

Do you have any advice for aspiring authors?

Everyone says, “learn your craft” and I’m not going to be the exception to that rule. But what I suggest is that writing commercial fiction is not one activity, but many different skills used in concert.

Learning to make coherent, interesting sentences is critical, but understanding the elements of dramatic storytelling is just as important.

Getting feedback from readers is absolutely key, because writing is a form of communication and without input from readers you don’t know what parts of the message are reaching the audience and what parts aren’t.

Armed with feedback, take a look at your writing, try to identify the strongest and weakest points, and then focus on bringing the weaker aspects of your project up to the level of the strongest. Try not to monkey around with what’s working too much. Just make an effort to bring the whole product into balance. Consistency is more valuable than you might realize.

There are many wonderful and effective workshops for speculative fiction writers these days. Apart from the Clarions, there is Odyssey, as well as the workshops hosted by the Gunn Center for the Study of Science Fiction at the University of Kansas. I cannot stress strongly enough the value of these workshops—not only for honing your skills but for providing a venue to connect with the like-minded writers who will be your primary source of assistance and support for the duration your writing career.

The greatest myth about writing is that successful commercial authors somehow make it all on their own. This is simply not true. Sure, talent is important—it’s the price of admission. Talent allows you to enter the field of play. It buys you a chance to prove yourself. But it is your ability to meaningfully connect other writers (and editors and agents and critics and booksellers and * gasp * readers) that will determine your trajectory thereafter.

This is especially true in the age of self-publishing and marketing via social media, but that’s a whole different topic.

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

One of my greatest secrets that I will now publicly reveal for the first time is: I don’t like ice cream. I’ll eat it to be social, but I always feel guilty about it afterward. So many people love the stuff and there I am forcing my portion down like medicine. I wish there were some way I could donate my lifetime allotment of ice cream to the needy, impoverished sundae lovers of the world. But the technology that would enable instantaneous Tooty Fruity teleportation has not been invented yet, alas.

Friday, August 9, 2013

TWO BOYS KISSING


Review of TWO BOYS KISSING by DAVID LEVITHAN
(review based on an advance reading copy)

When I really like an author, I don’t even read the back of their newest book; I see their name and I start reading. I knew I would love a book by David Levithan, but I still underestimated how much.

The style threw me a little first. The story isn’t told in chapters, but in short snippets bouncing around between a handful of characters. Everything’s narrated by a plural first person voice observing all these goings-ons. However, it didn’t take long before I accepted the rhythm and then came to admire this approach. It’s not clear who the narrator is at first, but a suspicion becomes increasingly confirmed. It’s a wonderful way to tell this story and I particularly relished the omniscient viewpoint. The narrator gives us the power to see everything. After an awkward date, we see both people on either side of the door even though only one is a main character. When we learn about an atrocity strangers committed, the narrator tells us: “Two of them are haunted by what they did. Three of them are not.”  

Before starting this book, I felt amused by title and cover, simply for the lack of subtly. However, as I started reading it became clear that’s exactly the point. While the book follows numerous boys, Craig and Harry become the focal point of the story. They want to break the world record for longest kiss. So the title’s not only a concise summary of this quilted novel’s centerpiece, but also captures Craig and Harry’s mindset behind their decision.

I had a little trepidation before starting this story that took me a while to pinpoint and I realized the cover and title played a role there as well. Sometimes I read books that lean on the subject matter. I want to read amazing stories with amazing characters. Taking the Holocaust as only one example, I have read a few Holocaust novels that I found…well, less than great. But people rave about them. In fact, I rarely don’t hear people rave about a Holocaust novel. Which makes me wonder if it’s the brilliance of the book or the emotional intensity of the subject matter. I finally realized that my hesitation regarding TWO BOYS KISSING had to do with a worry that the novel would lean on any emotional association with the struggles of gay boys and men rather than on a great story and wonderful characters. In retrospect, that concern was entirely groundless since David Levithan has never disappointed me.

In fact, TWO BOYS KISSING is an incredible story simply for the phenomenal characters. I wasn’t reading about A Gay Teenage Boy. I was reading about Craig and Harry and Tariq and Avery and Ryan and Cooper and, well, there are a lot of characters, but the point is that I came to care deeply about all of them. Craig and Harry’s kiss seemed more like a story hook at first, but soon had me at the edge of my seat with the same combination of pride and anxiety that all their friends and family felt.

Levithan’s also a master of short but sweet. I finished TWO BOYS KISSING and couldn’t help turning the book over in my hand, marveling that something so slim had me so entirely invested.

The book’s chockfull of wisdom and insight condensed into simple sentences. When reading, I occasionally come across a quote that I like so much I mark the page for later reference when I’m writing my review. Of course, this is rare, because I’m simply not much of a quote person. I can adore a book, but not have a single specific quote that lingers in my mind. Usually, when I do mark a book, it’s once: one quote. With TWO BOYS KISSING, I realized I was stuffing the book with so many post-its that I couldn’t list every quote that spoke to me, because it’s nearing on plagiarism by reprinting the whole book! Here’s merely one example, though: “Doubt is an acceptable risk for happiness.”

I know there’s no book in existence that everyone loves, so when I step back and examine all these quotes through fresh eyes, I can see that someone with different tastes might find them overly sentimental, but speaking for myself I loved them. I loved this book so much that I had to hold myself back in this review from using such gushing adjectives that people will suspect me of hyperbole or that I’ll raise their expectations so high that the book can’t compete. Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to go read everything else David Levithan has ever written.

Monday, August 5, 2013

THE COLDEST GIRL IN COLDTOWN



Review of THE COLDEST GIRL IN COLDTOWN by HOLLY BLACK
(review based on an advance reading copy)

First, some background about my tastes and why I chose this book. Well, I chose this book because Holly Black wrote it. I loved her CURSE WORKERS trilogy enough that she’s made my list of authors whose books I snatch up and start reading without even glancing at the back to see what it’s about. So, yes, I started this book without having a clue about the premise and realized with a start during the first chapter, “Oh! This is a vampire book.” I hate vampire books. The very concept behind vampires bothers me: that they have no self-control and simply can’t help their evil tendencies. It also makes me cringe when the male vampire apologizes for biting the human girl when she didn’t want to be bit and she says, “It’s okay. You couldn’t help yourself.” with the subtext being that it’s her fault for existing: for being there to be bit. (I doubt I need to state the parallels that jump out at me.) A few times when I admit this vampire prejudice, someone insists I must read [insert title of vampire book], because “it’s an exception to the rule.” In every case, it has not been - at least for me - and I’m frustrated at having read a book all evidence suggested I wouldn’t like in place of one I might have actually enjoyed. Back to THE COLDEST GIRL IN COLDTOWN, I might have tossed this novel aside the moment I realized it was a vampire book, but the story had already hooked me - with both a brilliant protagonist whom I loved after the first few pages and by describing the vampires less like the romanticized, tormented souls of modern novels and more like the monsters originally intended by Stoker and earlier portrayals.

Now a brief tangent about the title. Whenever I read this book in public, someone or other would interrupt me to comment, “THE COLDEST GIRL IN COLDTOWN? What a God awful title!” I admit that I had an initial mildly negative reaction to that title as well before I saw the name Holly Black and snatched it up anyway, promptly forgetting the title completely. Marketing-wise, though, I doubt THE COLDEST GIRL IN COLDTOWN is as a bad choice as people think, because every time a stranger criticized the title I would then proceed to tell them how much I was loving the book.

Regarding said monsters, be forewarned that this is a gory book. The carnage in the very first chapter gives readers their chance to turn back. I don’t think it’s giving away too much to describe the first chapter since reading the back tells you all this. (But if you do like to go into a book knowing next to nothing, as I sometimes do, skip this paragraph.) Tana wakes up in a bathtub the morning after a party. She realizes she passed out there, behind the drawn shower curtain, in an effort to avoid her ex Aidan and his new girlfriend. When Tana emerges from the bathroom, however, she discovers a horrifying massacre with only herself and two other survivors, one being her ex-boyfriend and the other as likely an enemy as an ally.

While I’m not one for gratuitous violence, I did appreciate the vivid description of bloodshed in this book. I suppose that’s a great part of what frustrates me about many vampire books: when the author/narrator tells you that vampires are horrifying monsters rather than showing you and also when “monsters” are idealized as sexy more than scary. I even marked a quote in THE COLDEST GIRL that acknowledges this trend with some disturbing insight: “People liked pretty things. People even liked pretty things that wanted to kill and eat them.” Black hits an impressive balance in her portrayal of vampires. In this world, most of the time vampires kill the humans they bite. In fact, for centuries vampires existed in much smaller, secret communities, carefully monitoring their ranks and kills. If a vampire bites someone but doesn’t drain them, that person becomes infected. If they don’t drink blood through their infection period (up to 88 days), they will remain human. If they do drink blood, they will turn into a vampire. Of course, refraining isn’t so easy as one may imagine, since infected humans will do just about anything for blood. That’s where the impressive balance comes - between compassionately showing vampires as individuals who were once humans and as terrifying monsters with their own instincts. An infected person could be your friend, your lover, or - as in Tana’s past - your own mother, but they aren’t themselves. They might act like themselves at times, but as often as not it’s a trick, a manipulation meant to earn your trust enough so that you will come closer, close enough to bite, close enough to kill.

Another big reason I liked THE COLDEST GIRL despite my vampire bias is the humor. This book made me laugh more times than I can count. And yet it’s far more than a vampire parody that earns points only by mocking other works. Sincerity interweaves among the jokes and jabs, elevating this book into a story that tugged at my emotions as much as tickled my funny bone.

Vampire fiction also often loses my interest for the overdramatized romance, most often between a vampire and a human. I’m pleased to say that any romance in THE COLDEST GIRL develops satisfyingly slowly. In fact, romance lurks far from center stage, though a certain amount of romantic tension adds more layers to the story. There’s the implicit possibility of some reunion between Aidan and Tana, though that’s providing Aidan doesn’t kill her while infected or if he turns and they certainly had a complicated relationship before all this, anyway. There’s also some underlying attraction between Tana and the vampire she helps early on, though nothing like the overt love-at-first-sight played up in some vampire books. (Their first meeting involves Tana keeping firm hold on a tire iron in case he gets any ideas about attacking her.)

I found all the characters and relationships in this book wonderfully rich and complex. Tana and Aidan’s dynamic in particular struck me as very realistic but not one that I’ve seen in fiction before. Definitely not cookie cutter.

Focusing on Tana, though, do I ever love her. Sometimes you read a book in which everyone in this fictional world finds the protagonist so special, but you’re thinking, “WHY?” With Tana, I entirely understand why she’s so special. She has an incredible will to live. That may sound like nothing, but many life or death situations come down to whether you keep fighting or you give in to despair and give up. (And luck. I’m not dismissing luck.) Tana finds herself in numerous horrifying situations in this book (Sidenote: THE COLDEST GIRL did strike me as what I’ll call “Light Horror.”) and in many instances it occurred to me that a different person would give up. Death seems so inevitable at some of these pivotal moments that another person might either passively accept their fate or take their own life to prevent a more gruesome alternative. Even at moments when I started writing her off as a goner, Tana keeps fighting, sometimes skillfully and sometimes with an incredible fortitude that compensates for lack of skill. Some of these battles are physical, a vampire lunging at her, for example. Some are intellectual, when Tana sees a way out of a situation that I didn’t consider. And some are emotional: If a few people might give up during one near death experience, even more would do so at the second in under an hour, the third and fourth and fifth in under a day. While there are more intense danger peaks, Tana finds herself in what can only be called a perpetual near death experience, a psychologically draining phenomenon to say the least.

After finishing the book, I couldn’t quite tell if it’s a series or not. My guess is no. There’s no mention anywhere about future books and the ending has sufficient closure for a standalone. However, there are still enough loose-ish ends that I wouldn’t be surprised to see sequels popping up later. To be honest, my refusal to accept the finality of the ending mostly proves that I loved THE COLDEST GIRL IN COLDTOWN so much I didn’t want it to end at all.

Friday, August 2, 2013

My first publication!


I’m officially a published author! My first short story, “Medusa Complex,” came out in Leading Edge magazine. 

You can click here if you want to buy a copy.

MINA SAMUELS


Interview with MINA SAMUELS

Mina Samuels is a full-time writer, editor, and performance artist, and in a previous incarnation, a litigation lawyer and human rights advocate. In addition to her own writing, her current editorial work may include, at any particular time, a diverse range of ghostwriting or editing projects from motivational to biography and memoir to business strategy, sports, and human rights.Mina's most recent book, RUN LIKE A GIRL, for which she appeared on The Today Show, came out in March 2011.

What are you reading right now?

I'm reading Colum McCann's TRANSATLANTIC. I haven't quite gotten into yet, but have high hopes. I just finished Kevin Barry's CITY OF BOHANE, which I loved, and before that Elena Ferrante's, MY BRILLIANT FRIEND, which was also wonderful. As you can tell, I love fiction!  

What first sparked your interest in writing?

I loved writing as a child, but then moved away from it for a long time. My father has a picture of me when I was about 6 years old, sitting on the front steps of our house selling "my volumes,” as I called my writing projects.

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

I love the feeling of re-reading something I read and being surprised by it.  Least pleasurable is the aftermath of writing - that is, engaging with the publishing industry, which has nothing to do with the creativity of the words.

Tell us a little about your writing process.

I am much sketchier with my writing discipline than I am with my workouts! In general, I try to write in the morning and set a specific goal. But I am, sadly, all too easily diverted into "practical" projects, or really anything to avoid the writing at times. But I have learned that writing on the hard-to-write days is where some of the best writing actually happens, when I feel squeezed dry, but force myself to sit down and do it. The creative process is not a sit-around-waiting-for-inspiration activity. Just as anything else, it requires spending a lot of time committed to the work, even when the work feels fruitless.

What are your passions?

So many!...reading and writing, movies, being outdoors and active, chocolate...to name a few.

What inspires you?

The strangest things.  I never know in advance what is going to hit that inspiration spot. Sometimes it's the smallest, most mundane thing (I literally wrote a whole one-act play that sprang from looking at the warning stickers on scaffolding), and other times it's seeing someone else's astonishing creativity. Nature, of course, is incredibly important, but more by way of being a place of calm and reflection, as opposed to the "aha, that's what I want to write about..." Nature is where I go to find the inspiration for problem solving, as opposed to sourcing a new creative project.

How was RUN LIKE A GIRL born?

I was brainstorming non-fiction book ideas with a friend and she kept saying, "But what do you love?" And I woke up the next morning to go for my run, and I thought, "This! I love this - running and how it makes me feel. That's what I should write about."

Why did you decide to write specifically about women running rather than running and athletics in general?

I believe that the impact of sports on girls and women is different (at least for now - the future may hold a different world). I think that women need safe places where they can explore their ambition and their aggressiveness, and sports is an incredibly apt microcosm in which to test those aspects of ourselves, and learn how to bring them out into the world in other parts of our lives.

Did it take a lot of brainstorming to come up with so much to say on this topic or did you find that you already had plenty you wanted to say just waiting to be said?

There was plenty waiting to be said. There was, of course, a lot of brainstorming around finding the right topic areas into which to gather the myriad observations I made through all the 100 plus women I interviewed.

Along those same lines, do you feel you have more to say? Could you fill another book about women and athletics? (I’ll read it!)

There is certainly more that could be said. Each of the topics could be dived into more deeply. I didn't deal with the dark side of many of the issues. For example, the line between sports enhancing our lives and sports becoming an escape from our lives, a way of not actually dealing with things. I also think there is a whole world of interesting material around the international opportunities relating to women and sports. In the book, HALF THE SKY, the authors deal with the plight of women around the world - health issues, education issues, and sexual exploitation, but they totally miss the incredible value that introducing sports into girls' lives could have on solving these problems. There's a lot of talk in women's rights and women's empowerment about creating "safe spaces.” I think the first safe space we create is the one inside our own bodies and sports is a way of reclaiming our sovereignty over our own bodies. If we're engaged in a serious sport, we are far less likely to think that our only alternative is the sex trade. We are more likely to value our education and take care of our health. And so on. I think that's a rich vein that could be mined for another book.

Do you have any advice for aspiring authors?

Oh my goodness - I feel uncomfortable with advice; it can be so individual. I think the biggest thing is to keep going. As with athletics, writing is rain or shine, emotionally and psychologically. Write when it feels good and you're inspired. And write when it feels crappy and you think you suck!

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

There is so much to explore and try and do. I've been on a venture into playwriting and even the performance side in a couple of one-act, one-woman pieces I've written. It's incredibly scary and challenging and every other day I think I should just give up. I don't know where it's going and whether I'll get "there" - wherever "there" is! But it's quite something to realize that I'm still exploring the possibilities and don't know for sure where I'll be with those possibilities in 5 years.