Book Review: The Humming Room, by Ellen Potter

March 28, 2012 at 9:17 pm (Book Reviews) (, , , , )

Roo Fanshaw knows about hiding. She finds the small places, the forgotten places, and listens to the sounds of the earth. After her parents’ deaths, she’s sent to Cough Rock to live with an uncle she’s never met, or even heard of. At first sight it’s nothing to inspire- a former children’s sanitorium, Cough Rock is a cold, forbidding place full of secrets. Like the humming Roo hears through the halls. Like the uncle who vanishes for long periods of time. Like the river boy who isn’t tied to anything. But there are other kinds of secrets too, secrets that might be able to reach a lost little girl and give her something she’s never known before: a home.

I’ll admit, this is a book I first noticed for its cover. It’s beautiful and intriguing and it successfully made me want to know more. I read the description and thought: huh, this sounds a lot like The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett. Then I read about it in the system at work and went okay, that would be why.

And it’s gorgeous.

This hovers somewhere between retelling and homage, taking all the best parts of the source material and adding things new and beautiful and just a little bit mysterious. It steps away from the foundation and becomes something wholly its own.

Roo is an amazing character. Mary Lennox eventually becomes a sympathetic figure, but Roo is someone we root for right from the beginning, as she hides under a porch and listens to the earth as police tramp through the house above her. It’s hard not to feel sorry for her- her life has seriously sucked- but we also admire her strength and her resilience. Even when she’s determined not to care, when she’s trying to be as cold and unaffected as she can possibly be, she has this deep love for living, growing things. She doesn’t take any nonsense from anyone, but slowly, carefully, she opens herself up to the many possibilities her new life has to offer.

This is a story that combines the original elements of a hidden away cousin, a dying garden, and a half-wild boy with the beautiful superstitions of a river people. Violet, a native of nearby Donkey Island, combines a no-nonsense good humor with the mysticism of old beliefs. I’ve never been to the St. Lawrence but after reading this book I feel like I have. It comes alive in the pages, in the many moods of the river, in the patterns of the terns and the mink, even in the neighbor mentality we see in bits and pieces. We see Roo and Jack (the half-wild river boy) and their connection with living things, see Roo’s deep yearning for the living things before she even knows how to name it as such.

This isn’t a story about a garden- it’s a story about a life and lives, about growth and hope and change. Every page is a treasure, a well-written gem that wraps around you and lingers like the deepening song of the earth.

Read this book for yourself, and if you have children- in your home or in your classroom- read it with them. This is not one to be missed.

The Humming Room, by Ellen Potter.

Until next time~
Cheers!

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Book-to-Movie Adaptation: The Hunger Games

March 25, 2012 at 11:00 am (General) (, , , )

*If you haven’t seen the movie yet, you may or may not want to read this post. It may spoil some of the full impact of the film, and hence your enjoyment.

Every time I get news that a book I love is going to be made into a movie, I get this solid knot of mixed feelings that sits in my gut like a boulder. I simulataneously love and hate getting updates on the process.

There’s delight. Yay, this book I love is being made into a movie!

There’s anticipation. Yay, this book I love is being made into a movie!

There’s dread. Oh crap, this book I LOVE is being made into a movie.

There’s fear. Oh crap, this book I LOVE is being made into a movie.

It’s not that I don’t think books can be made into movies successfully; I think most can. But as a reader, as a writer, as a person with a background in theatre and screenwriting, I also understand that there’s a very delicate and elusive balance that very few adaptations manage to achieve.

If a book is being adapted for the screen, it’s generally because it had a broad enough audience to make a movie financially feasible. Generally. But that means the movie also needs to be based on a broad appeal. We want to stay true to the story, but sometimes maintaining that broad appeal means sacrificing or changing certain things. It’s also true that moving the story from a print medium to a visual medium requires changes. There will never be such a thing as a 100% faithful translation from book to screen. There can’t be. We can come close, but it’s never going to be absolute.

There’s also a point where creative control changes hands. The author created the book, and that book has inspired someone to make something of it. Movies are pretty much visual fanfic.

Yes, I said it. Movies are visual fanfiction.

Because in most cases, the author’s control ends where the movie rights are sold. If I bought the movie rights to, say, Robin LaFevers’ Grave Mercy and then staged the production as a 70s disco piece with aliens and a dog sidekick….well, there’s really nothing that can be done about it. The author can complain, they can tell people not to go see the movie, but that’s it. The director’s vision- their interpretation- is what comes onto the screen. That also has to be combined with the cinematographer’s vision, with the casting director’s vision, with the various designers’ visions, and with the actor’s interpretation and performance of their roles.

There have been some adaptations where I seriously wanted to knock on the gates of Heaven and demand my two hours back they were so bad. As adaptations AND as movies, they just plain sucked.

There have been some adaptations where I really loved the movie- as long as I pretended it had never been a book first. The movie for The Lightning Thief was like that. I really enjoyed the movie. In some respects, I understood why they some of the changes they did. Like…aging the characters up to keep it from being labeled a kiddie movie so it could enjoy a wider audience. Makes sense. And they weren’t sure if they were going to be able to push forward with the series, so they changed some pretty significant things in order to cut out the series arc stuff. Like Kronos. Moving from St. Louis to Memphis was a head-scratcher but whatever. Then were things that irritated me a bit more. So long as I separated the movie completely from the source book, I could enjoy it.

There have actually been some where I felt the changes made for a better movie than the book could provide on its own. It’s rare, but it happens, usually in books where allegory is strong and the words are more important than the events.

So going into Hunger Games, I was a big ball of stress, trying to remind myself that anticipation was a bad idea because if I got too worked up that it was going to be awesome I would be really frickin’ pissed if it sucked. Well, let’s be honest, I’d be pissed if it sucked no matter what.

This was, hands down, the single BEST book-to-movie adaptation I’ve ever seen.

It was always going to be a difficult task to take us from the narrow focus of being inside Katniss’ head to a broader visual appeal. We can’t spend a movie sitting inside someone’s skull. That opens up a lot of opportunity, as well as temptation. If you make some deviations, isn’t it so easy to make others?

But the divergences here were amazing, pitch perfect and carefully chosen. They open us up to the astounding background of the Games, giving us a look into a control room and the careful deliberation that goes into creating reality TV. We don’t lose anything for that. Take any scene with Donald Sutherland as President Snow and it’s enough to send shivers down your spine it’s so effin’ creepy. Those scenes just ooze malevolence. And we get to see some of what Katniss can only imagine: Haymitch schmoozing the sponsors, the manipulations of the games.

In half of the most emotionally hard-hitting scene of the movie? District 11.

And we get to see Katniss.

That might sound strange, given that we spend three books in Katniss’ head, but we don’t see her. Not really. We see how Katniss sees Katniss. Here, though the focus is still clearly our girl from District 12, we see her a bit more clearly. It isn’t just that she sees herself differently than others see her. It’s also that we get to see events happen, get to see her react to them, without having to filter through the narration.

In real life, when we have that many hard-hitting emotions smacking us at once, most of us become somewhat incoherent. A necessary conceit of first person storytelling is that no matter how overwhelmed the narrator becomes, he or she still has to continue telling the story. They can be overwhelmed, but they can’t lose themselves in that gut reaction. In the movie, we get to see Katniss reacting without the filter of her narration. We get to see her take care of Prim without her voice telling us all the effort (and touch of bitterness) that goes into it. We get to see how her awkwardness in the interview with Caesar becomes charming and winsome.

And Jennifer Lawrence is amazing. Everything her character is feeling shows on her face, so even when Katniss is lost in her head, we’re not left staring at a blank void. We all root for Katniss, but Lawrence makes her come alive with an uncommon poise even in the midst of a break down. We see her stoicism, we see her penchant for survival, her determination, but we also see her compassion. And, something we rarely see in the books, we see her sense of humor. Coming out of Katniss’ head is liberating and expansive, but Lawrence brings us back in with every small action and reaction.

The casting of this movie was flawless (or nearly flawless- there are a few small quibbles I could make) even when we diehard fans couldn’t quite see it. Lenny Kravitz was a brilliantly understated Cinna, and I loved the design choices when it came to him. In all the glitz and glitter of the Capitol, all the crazy fashions and colors, he stands out for being in plain clothing with just the small hoops in his ears and a bit of gold eyeliner. Just at a glance, before he opens his mouth, before the story progresses, we see the man we’ll get to know across the books. Josh Hutcherson as Peeta is charming- a little awkward, well-intentioned, and besotted with a girl he knows doesn’t notice him. While reading the book I never paid much attention to Seneca Crane, but here he becomes a captivating character (and I love love LOVE the beard). Gale is a bit bland but there’s not much of him here, so I’m willing to reserve judgment for a second film.

And the design was brilliant. Beyond brilliant. There are no accidents in the design, no coincidences or things that just happened to work well. The life we see in the districts is like something out of the Great Depression. It isn’t just the clothing and the hairstyles, it’s also the choices of colors, of structure. The Capitol is a cacophony of needlessly imposing buildings with a riot of color and fabric on the residents. The minute you see Effie Trinket toddle out onto the platform in District 12, you know you’re watching two very different worlds. the Capitol is bright and luxurious, and more than once, kookily ugly. The people are the same. The residents of the Capitol are laughing and smiling, perfectly at ease with not a care in the world other than the inanities of fashion and style. The residents of District 12 are worn and scared, accustomed to scrabbling for every small thing. It’s even in the details, right down to the last curlicue in Seneca Crane’s beard (seriously, it’s a MAGNIFICENT beard).

This is one of the very few movies where walking out of the theatre, I immediately wanted to turn back and watch it again. When it comes out on DVD, I will be watching it again and again, and notice more details each time that blow me away. And I hope to God they progress with the other two movies, and take the same painstaking care as they did with this, because the results will be spectacular.

Have YOU seen the movie yet? Share your thoughts below!

Until next time~
Cheers~

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Book Review: Out of Sight, Out of Time, by Ally Carter

March 21, 2012 at 9:44 am (Book Reviews) (, , , , )

Cammie leaves a report at school and leaves the Gallagher Academy for Exceptional Young Women to keep those she loves safe. She wakes up in an Alpine convent with short black hair, injuries, and a hole in her memory extending four months. No matter how hard she tries she can’t remember what happened during her summer vacation, and not everyone is convinced she should try, but the reasons she left are still true. Cammie and everyone she loves are in severe danger, and somewhere in those lost memories is the true reason why. Provided she can stay alive long enough to reclaim them.

Every now and then you stumble across one of those books that’s extremely hard to talk about because almost everything you say could be a spoiler. This is definitely one of those books. So, bear with me; there’s going to be a lot of dancing in this one.

This book is brilliant. Utterly, not-so-simply, fantastically brilliant. It goes all over the place chronologically speaking as Cammie tries to put together the fragments of her summer, but it doesn’t necessarily go in order. It’s not that this happened, then this happened. It’s that she was at this place, so why? What was she hoping to learn or achieve? Sometimes more frighteningly, what did she learn or achieve? Layered through everything is Cammie’s panic at simply not knowing. Even when she can respect her mother’s warning that the memories might be too terrible for her to hold, there’s something terrifying about simply not knowing, especially as she continues to show skills she shouldn’t know. Like a loose tooth you can’t help but play with, Cammie can’t leave those missing months alone.

Cammie has a hard time adjusting, but so do her friends. They’ve been worried sick for four months, and now that she’s back, it’s hard not to be a little resentful. It strains a few things, glosses over a few others, to make things more difficult at a time when Cammie really needs all the help and support she can get. Their reactions are perfect. Hard, but perfect, as is the gradual resolution towards an even state.

And of course there’s Zach. Zach in a towel, as a matter of fact. Well, there’s Zach in regular clothing too, but the timing of the towel is hysterical. In some ways, though perhaps this is horrible to say, Zach is Cammie’s guide to how things can get worse. Her dad is missing and presumed dead? Let’s talk about his mom. Oh no, her mom forgot their Sunday dinner? His only real parent figure came off the wrong end of a bomb at the beginning of summer. No matter how bad things get for Cammie, she has only to look at Zach to know that things could still be worse. But for Zach, in a lot of ways, Cammie is his guide to how things can get better. Even when the bad things happen, he sees the support from her friends and family, the teammwork that goes into looking for a solution, and knows that things will improve. They may not be perfect, but they’ll improve. And they’re both grateful for what the other is. Even when things are strained between them, they’re a pair.

And here’s where the dancing goes crazy because there’s so much I love, right down to the details, and I can’t talk about it without spoiling things. But it’s there. The way everything pieces together, the way things continue to layer through from previous books, the way characters continually surprise us. Even when things are new and astonishing, they’re based on things we’ve already seen, things that make sense as soon we get this new shred of information. And we don’t get all the information- even when there are questions that badly need answers, there’s the blatant acknowledgment that we live in a world where we don’t always get answers. Doesn’t mean we stop looking, but we may never find them. And there is SO MUCH to look forward to in GG6.

This book was so absorbing, so entirely immersive, that when I was reading it on break at work, one of the other girls had to poke me and tell me the microwave was done with my meal. By the time I get a break at work I’m generally starving, as I was that day, and the microwave being done is like the start of the races. Didn’t even notice it. I actually had to set the alarm on my phone to make sure I wouldn’t be late clocking back in. Any book that sucks me in that completely is amazing.

If you’ve read the other four books in the series, race out and buy/borrow this boook NOW. If you haven’t read the other four books in the series?

What are you waiting for?! Go do it!

Until next time~
Cheers!

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A Summer Reading Plea

March 18, 2012 at 9:40 am (General) (, , )

I know, I know, no one who has anything to do with Summer Reading wants to hear about it before most of the schools have even had Spring Break, but those lists are coming out soon, and whether you’re a teacher, a parent, or a student, I have something very important to ask you.

As soon as you make/get those lists, PLEASE let your bookstores know!

I’m going to assume that most bookstores are like mine in that we try desperately to get those lists before school gets out, and we try to get all the lists. It’s not because we’re trying to ruin kids’ summers with reminders of the homework they have to do. If we can get all of the lists, and if we can get them early, we can order the books in and have them sitting on a pretty Summer Reading shelf.

Know what that means?

It means no desperately ordering it from three different bookstores three days before classes start trying to get books.

It means no running around to three different bookstores trying to find all the books on the list before you go on vacation.

And, something we see more than you’d think: it means that if the teacher has assigned an out of print or print on demand book, he or she can be notified before school lets out, when there’s still a chance of either changing the assignment or making other arrangements.

When we have those lists, we make multiple copies so we can have them behind our registers with all the summer reading books- so even if you forget the list at home or have lost it, we can look up exactly which books your child needs (or that you need, if you’re the student). When we have those lists, we can replenish our supply regularly. Does it mean we won’t ever run out? No, because it does take time for the books to arrive from the warehouse and we might sell out in the meantime, but it does mean you shouldn’t ever have to wait more than a couple of days.

When we get those lists, we also go through to check for ebook availability and pricing, and we keeps track of those.

I know it’s only the middle of March, but most of those lists are going to start making their way into the world in six weeks. You don’t even have to make a trip to the bookstore to let us know. You can call us and read off the list. You can email it to us. You can fax it to us. You can stick it in an envelope and mail it to us.

Because here’s the selfish part: it isn’t just that this makes it awfully convenient for everyone running around trying to find the books. It makes life a LOT easier on the booksellers. When we have those books, we get yelled at a lot less.

And yes, people actually yell at booksellers for being sold out of a book. Crazy, right?

If we’re able to notify a teacher that an assigned book is out of print and that teacher passes that along to the students and parents, we don’t get the people accusing us of being lazy when we say that the title is out of print. Yes, there are teachers who assign out of print books, sometimes by accident and sometimes on purpose. It happens. I can tell you how to look for the book at that point, but I can’t actually get it for you.

Every year we send out emails and faxes to every single school in our district. With all the individual teachers and classes, that should amount to several hundred lists. We generally get back a little over a dozen. Through personal contacts- i.e. friends or neighbors that have children in school- we usually manage to get another five or ten. Granted, there’s some degree of overlap across high schools, for instance, but there are a lot of unique assignments as well.

So do yourselves, and your favorite local booksellers, a HUGE favor and take a minute or two to send them the lists when you make or get them. We’ll get the books in, find any problems with acquiring them, and everyone gets to be a little happier over the summer.

Until next time~
Cheers!

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Book Review: Masque of the Red Death, by Bethany Griffin

March 14, 2012 at 6:17 pm (Book Reviews, Giveaway) (, , , , , )

Araby Worth just wants to forget.
Forget her dead twin brother and all the things he’ll never do, forget the plague that devestates the city, forget the pain and the misery and all the things that used to be true. For the rich of the city, the answer is the Debauchery Club and others like it, where drugs and drink and dubious pleasures can be had merely for the asking, and for a few precious moments she can simply forget.
But there are some who don’t want her to forget. There’s Will, the doorman at the club, drawn to glittery girls with unnaturally colored hair, who wants to show Araby the good that’s worth living for. And there’s Elliot, the prince’s nephew, who looks to her- the daughter of the scientist who’s made the only significant advances against the plague- for help in staging a revolution. In a city where life is fragile and fleeting, where contamination can help at any point, wracked between the murderous impulses of a crazy prince and the rioting forces of a rogue reverend, Araby has to decide for herself if there are things worth dying for.
And the harder choice- are there things worth living for?

If the title sounds familiar, it’s because it draws its inspiration from Edgar Allan Poe’s story of the same name. And if I may say, rather does it justice.

It’s a captivating world of extremes. The city and country are never named, there are never any dates given, so it could be anywhere that has a deep harbor and swamp. We get a definite Victorian sense- the basic level of technology, the clothing, some of the remnant attitudes- but it lends flavor rather than nailing us down into a specific mindset. It gives us a city entirely isolated from everything else, nearly floating in time and space and becoming something entirely defined by the plague. In a world where death is imminent, there’s still a huge divide between the rich and the poor. The poor are more susceptible to the disease from hunger and privation, from more constant exposure. The rich are locked away in clean towers, and if the foods aren’t the imported luxuries they were before, they have more than enough. The rich have easy access to the masks developed by Dr. Worth; though not foolproof, the porcelain half-masks significantly reduce the risk of exposure. Where the poor struggle to earn another day, another week, another meal for their children, the rich go play in the clubs where decadence and decay coexist.

It is an incredibly tribute to the skill of the writing that we have so much interest in characters that are generally unsympathetic. For a great deal of the book, Araby is simply adrift. All she wants is oblivion, so she goes along with what she’s told, goes places she doesn’t have a particular interest in going, because as far as she’s concerned her life ended the day her twin brother Finn died. She made a vow that she wouldn’t do anything he wouldn’t get to do, but every day she’s still alive breaks that. She’s cold, inside and out, and the prickly return of warmth is genuinely painful. Despite that, she has a deep goodness to her as well. Even when she tries not to care, even when she can be callous about a starving child’s potential to survive, she does care. She doesn’t think there’s much of a difference she can make, but what small things she can, she does. Small things, like trying to get a mask for a child who otherwise wouldn’t be able to afford one. Handing out apples, sending a care package of food.

Her course over the story is captivating, as she slowly emerges from a cage she’s constructed for herself. It’s a terrifying prospect, and she comes into a world where nothing is certain and she doesn’t have any idea who to trust. There’s a core of strength that always had the potential to be there but this is the first time she’s had to rely on it- the first time she’s had to decide to use it.

Elliot, nephew to insane Prince Prospero and older brother to Araby’s best friend April, is a destructive force of nature, even as he’s a large part of the impetus that forces Araby to grow. He’s damaged, perhaps even broken, vacillating between extremes of personality that make it difficult to trust him. He can be ruthless, even admits he shouldn’t be trusted, but there’s something painfully vulnerable about him that’s…endearing is the wrong word, but I think compelling would be apt. He’s dangerous to everyone and everything around him, reckless and intense and not nearly steady enough to place faith in him as the leader of a revolution. That he’s ultimately well-intentioned isn’t exaggerating the truth- that he’s capable of carrying out these intentions without dragging everyone to hell is more in question.

For all that Will is a better person, he’s just as dangerous in his own way. Where Elliot forces Araby to act, Will forces her to feel, and with the ice that coated her heart after her brother’s death, that may be more painful. He’s guardian to two younger siblings- easily my favorite characters of the book- and has the sense and maturity to acknowledge that the allure of glittery girls is too often without substance. His hope that Araby might prove to be more is part of what pushes her to become more. He’s earnest and open- except when he isn’t. For all that he’s willing to speak of, there’s more that he doesn’t mention. His openness is deceptive, but his warmth isn’t.

The politics of the city are both murky and restless. Prince Prospero rules from a castle three hours from the plague-ridden city, but there’s little doubt that his word is both law and death. There’s also no doubt that he is absolutely insane. Araby’s family plays a delicate dance in serving the prince but keeping a safe distance from him, a manuever far more involved than Araby’s ever realized. Prospero makes it a point to control all the scientists of the city, and thus control in some measure access to preventative measures. But there’s another power rising in the city, more sinister than Elliot’s attempts at revolution. Reverend Malcontent appeals to the frightened masses, the panic stretching into terror as more and more come to feel that science has failed them. Religion has been a lost art long enough that Malcontent proposes his own, and he has a large share of followers that are more than willing to shed blood to bring about their vision of grace.

This is an amazing book, moody and dark and atmospheric, full of choice and life in a world of death and despair, and it’s one you don’t want to miss. Release was moved up to 24 April 2012, so put it on your calendars!

And in the meantime, I’ve got an ARC up for grabs. All you have to do is answer this question in the comments: what classic book or story would you love to see in a YA retelling? For example, I’d love to see a retelling of Hans Christian Anderson’s original The Little Mermaid, complete with tragic ending.Added 3.23.12- ARC will also be accompanied by fun swag from Bethany Griffin! In light of this, entries will be extended through 3 April 2012.

Until next time~
Cheers!

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Crux Points and Scary Decisions

March 11, 2012 at 11:58 am (Writing) (, )

On her blog, Nova Ren Suma has been running a series of guest points about authors’ Turning Points, and as so many of her series do, it got me to thinking. What would I call my Turning Point as a writer?

I was a little surprised to find that it involved saying goodbye to a long-held dream.

I fell into theatre when I was in sixth grade. Shy, quiet little Dot was befriended on the school bus by an eighth grader named Faith, and one day she invited me to a before-school meeting in the drama teacher’s portable. It was the Junior Thespian group at the middle school.

And they scared me to death.

They were loud and boisterous and noisy, most of them had no sense of personal bubble, and they simply pulled me into their midst as if they expected me to be one of them. Before I had any idea what was going on, I was cast in an ensemble piece and preparing for State. After that, I was a goner. I fell in love with theatre the way I’d only ever fallen in love with books before. There was something magical about taking words on a page and somehow wrapping them around you like an extra layer of costume, something terrifying and thrilling about stepping out onto a stage and becoming someone else entirely. I could step out of myself, and for someone as shy and self-conscious as I was, that was like a gift.

The next two years I was an officer and competed in more events, worked on the shows in school, brought more of my friends into it, and then came high school where theatre became an even bigger part of my life. I did my first community shows. I competed every year. I was an official officer for two years and an unofficial officer for another year. I did every show, every variety show, volunteered with my old middle school group as a sort of mentor/coach. I learned that theatre has a dark side- for every amazing thing that can happen, there are two and three bad or horrible things that can walk hand in hand with the wonder. I learned that people can be cruel and ambitious, that people can be driven beyond the point of basic human courtesy. I learned that something as emotionally overwhelming as theatre can also be emotionally shattering.

But that didn’t stop me from pursuing it in college. I wanted it. I wanted the banks of lights and the orchestra and that hushed moment where you step out on stage and take a breath and the entire audience holds their’s until suddenly there’s a sound- a note or a word- and everything changes. What I really wanted, but had no idea how to pursue, was animation voiceovers, for movies and video games and the like.

College made me face some hard truths about what I wanted, and harder truths about what I had the potential to achieve. I faced blackballing by professors, severe discrimination against mutts like myself (mutts enjoy both technical and performance theatre- most theatre students are snobs and only pursue one of them). Finally, as my senior year was drawing to a close, I had to make a very scary choice.

Do I keep pursuing theatre?

And after months of agonizing, my decision was no. Not professionally.

I was good, but not good enough to make it on pure talent. I wasn’t pretty enough to make it on pure looks. And I wasn’t driven enough- not cutthroat or ruthless enough- to make it on pure will. I wanted it, but not enough to give up who I was.

I came to theatre in sixth grade, but I’d always been writing. Since I knew how to shape the letters I was putting them down, and even before that I was telling the stories. Part of the reason I fell so thoroughly into theatre was because it was familiar. I’d been acting out my stories and characters for years- this was just playing through someone else’s. And I wrote in theatre as well, winning a few prizes in competition and seeing scenes get performed in the school variety shows.

Writing informed a lot of my views of theatre, just as theatre came to inform how I looked at my writing. What I took away from my years in drama is beyond value or description when it comes to the skills I gained as a writer.

And it was in that senior year, as I agonized over that decision and what I was genuinely capable of, that I finished my first polished novel. I’d written a few novels before, in the end of high school and first year of college, even submitted one of them to a publisher, but this was the first one where I seriously sat down and focused on the craft. It was for my honors thesis, and when I turned it in to my thesis advisor, he took me out for a beer at the tavern on the satellite campus and told me baldly that if I didn’t pursue publishing, I was insane.

Four years in college and he was the first professor to tell me I should pursue something.

The strangest part of that? I never had a class with him. I approached him to be my thesis advisor on the advice of one of the honors college advisors. Before that meeting I’d never met him, never even heard of him. He didn’t know me, didn’t know anything about me; the only thing he had to judge me on was the work I did, the way I met my deadlines, and the finished product. And after six months of working with him through email, I’d come to hear more about him from some of his students, and he didn’t give compliments effusively. He never told a student to pursue something if he didn’t think that student had genuine potential.

And as I turned that over in my head, I realized that writing and publishing had always been part of the dream, they just hadn’t been the part I’d focused on. There was never a point in my life where I didn’t imagine myself writing- I just thought it would be during breaks in rehearsals, gaps between shows.

That summer, I was two thousand miles from home and couldn’t get a job. Between putting out applications all over Colorado Springs and praying that I’d get calls off of them, I did a lot of reading. Some writing, but mostly reading. I re-read favorite books to determine why I loved them so much. I pulled off books that I can’t stand but for some reason keep re-reading and tried to figure out what was so compelling about them that I could disappear in them despite my dislike for them. I read new authors, tried new genres, started reading non-fiction for fun. I critically read what I’d written before, noting what worked and what didn’t, places I needed to improve and overall skills I needed to acquire.

And that fall, when I moved back home after five months of unemployment, I got a job at a bookstore within a month and started a new story. It was unlike anything I’d ever written before.

It was Young Adult.

Looking back, I think my voice had always been within YA, but I hadn’t ever thought of it as a separate category. It seems so logical now but as a separate set of shelves in the bookstores, it’s not that old. Everything I’d written before, my voice didn’t match my story and my characters. I was trying to write things I loved, but I wasn’t writing them well, because they weren’t mine.

That fall, I stopped trying to rely on writing a few words here and there and went to the patterns I’d established for my thesis. I found a few fast food places that didn’t mind students (or student like people) camping out for hours at a time. On days off or days where I didn’t have to be at work until four or five, I woke up and went out with my notebooks and my iPod, and I wrote. Without distractions, without excuses, I wrote. And as I became a regular fixture in the booths, the employees started asking me about my progress, and they’d twit me if I hadn’t been productive, tease me about my excuses or reasons. So I did my best to make sure I didn’t have those non-productive days.

I finished that novel.

I polished it to the extent that I knew how.

I researched publishing and agents, how to query. I spent hours at a time on Agent Query and buried in Writer’s Market. I wrote a query letter and sent it off, and while I waited (very impatiently) for responses, I wrote the second book in the trilogy. I got responses- from that first batch, all rejections- and rewrote my query letter. I sent off again to new agents. I got a couple of bites this time, and when those second-step rejections came in, I used them to rewrite my query letter again. I sent off to a new list. I finished the second novel, polished it, set it aside, started on the third. I got more bites, even some requests for fulls, and from those rejections I rewrote my query letter again. I sent out. I finished the third book in the trilogy. I got bites, sent out fulls, got rejections. I rewrote the query letter again, sent it out. Started a completely new project.

When I finished that new project, I knew immediately that I had a much stronger book on my hands. I stopped querying the first one and focused on polishing this one. I sent it off to a very nice woman who took time from her own deadlines to read it through and give detailed notes, which made it even stronger. I wrote a query letter. Then I sat down and scratched through most of it and wrote another seven before I found one I liked better. I sent off. And I started working on a new project. This time, I started getting bites off the first round of queries. They still became rejections, but I’d written a better query letter. I was still researching agents constantly. I was following blogs, following on Twitter, soaking up every bit of advice I could find and filtering through to find what was applicable to me.

I finished that project, set it aside because it needed to never be seen by publishing professionals, and started a new one as I continued sending out batches of queries. This new project terrified me. It was hard- harder than anything I’d ever tried before- and it consumed my thoughts. I fell asleep with words and images floating through my mind and woke up several times through the nights to scratch out thoughts on the notebook next to my bed, then tried to decipher them in the morning. I wrote them down, but what I neglected to do was turn on a light or even put on my glasses. I worked on that book whenever I could, even when I was home amidst the welter of distractions that keep me from working there on a regular basis. When I finished it, I couldn’t even look at it- the words were too much in my mind, too close to let me see what I was actually working with. So I sent off another round of queries on that fourth novel.

And after another round of bites and rejections came in, I was able to go back and look at that sixth one, the one that scared and consumed me, and start editing. Start polishing and tweaking and finding the places that needed to be much smoother. And when I’d polished as much as I could, I re-read the fourth project. Then I re-read the sixth project. I still loved the fourth one, the one I’d been querying for months. I still thought it was a strong story, with strong characters. But the sixth one was stronger. Unlike anything I’d ever written, yes, but stronger. So I set the fourth one aside, with the promise that I would come back to it when I could, and started writing letters for the sixth one. I spent over a month writing letters before I found one I thought would work. And I sent out the first batch.

And started researching a new project.

I got more bites. I got some feedback on the rejections that seemed very promising. I kept working on researching the new project. I got more bites, more rejections, send out more queries.

Just over a month ago, I signed with an agent. We’ve done a round of revisions. Three days ago, I started writing the Shiny New Project.

And I would never have come to this point if I hadn’t made the decision to making writing, rather than theatre, my focus. If I hadn’t made that scary, difficult decision to set one dream to rest, I would never have seen this older, more dearly held dream come as far as it has, with the potential to go beyond what I’ve dared to imagine.

That was my turning point.

It was a hard decision. It was a painful decision. But even then, it felt like the right decision. Now, looking back, I know it was also a good one.

Until next time~
Cheers~

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Book Review: Grave Mercy, by Robin LaFevers + Giveaway

March 7, 2012 at 5:21 pm (Book Reviews, Giveaway) (, , , , )

The world is changing. Religion and politics shape the fate of entire nations, as new religions crowd out or subsume old ones and kingdoms are devoured by others. Into this world, Ismae’s father sells her into marriage with a brute-handed villager who nearly kills her when he sees the red scar on her back that marks her as being sired by Death Himself. Rescued by an herbwife and the village priest, she’s spirited off to the convent of St. Mortain, where the sisters follow the old ways and the old gods, serving as Death’s handmaidens to ply His will and His justice. Trained in the myriad arts of the assassin, Ismae revels in a life unfettered by the dictates of a man.
Then she receives an assignment that thrusts her into the royal court of Brittany, a nation struggling to retain its sovereignty with a twelve-year old duchess against a grasping French regent and the ever-shifting alliances of Europe. Unable to trust anyone, uncertain how to interpret Mortain’s intentions, Ismae struggles to keep her footing in a den of treason, where not just her body but her heart is in danger every moment.

You guys, this book absolutely blew me away. In setting, in characters, in the things you carry away from it, this is an astounding book.

Even before the first page, you know this book stands out. The rich detail in the costuming, the mottled sky like a painted background, the castle behind her, all immediately inform you of the historical nature of this book. But in her hand? A crossbow. She’s holding a frickin’ crossbow. Even the title is provocative-Grave Mercy. But is it referring to mercy of a solemn nature, or the mercy of death? It’s not a question we ever get an answer to, but it’s a debate that runs through nearly every discovery in the story.

This book takes place in a very interesting part of history. Brittany was still a sovereign state but struggling to remain that way after their loss in the Franco-Breton war and the death of Duke Francis. Twelve-year-old Anne needs a strong marriage to protect her sovereignty but there’s no simple solution- her official fiancee, a prince of England, disappeared from his tower prison (yes, one of those princes). A treaty signed by her father requires the consent of the Crown of France to any marriage she might make, and Madame la Grande (Anne, Regent of France for Charles) is not inclined to give permission to an alliance that will strengthen Brittany against the French Crown. It’s also a time of great religious change- the Grand Inquisition is about to start and the papacy was making a great effort to strengthen its hold on the religious heart of the people and nations it touched. In nations like Brittany and Navarre, the old religions faded slowly and reluctantly, often adapting in appearance to avoid closer scrutiny by inquisitors of the church. All of that is actual historical fact.

It’s also a large part of the story. This book is brilliantly researched and the history comes alive within the pages. It isn’t he did/she did; it’s high stakes and it’s personal, every step of the way. The characters are rounded and dynamic, many layered, and defined by the roles into which they’ve been born.

In a sense, this could be called a feminist story. There are a number of female characters, each reacting to a sense of societal helplessness in different ways. Some, like the sisters of the convent of St. Mortain, escape from the world of men to make their own decisions. Some, like Duchess Anne, struggle to balance their duties of rank with a society that expects men to rule. Some seek to play men, some to merely endure them, and still others try to please them. No matter which path they choose, the women are still defined by the men. However, they’re not on a crusade to change that, not on a grand quest to liberate women from the bonds of an uneven societal and personal relationship. These women are too busy trying to simply survive.

Ismae is an amazing character, rich in strength but aware of her own weaknesses and slowly awakened to the dual nature of vulnerability. She doesn’t hate men like Sybella, nor she does have any particular love of them. She’s intelligent and resourceful, with generous faults, and a sincere belief in what she does. That her Crisis of Faith is in the service of an older god doesn’t change the basic fabric of the decisions she has to make. She has a genuine love her for tasks and abilities, not because she glories in the act of death but because it’s something she can do, a talent and a set of dearly bought and finely honed abilities. She’s appealing as a character, someone with whom we can easily sympathize. The fact that we sympathize with an assassin simply makes it an example of stellar writing.

And then there’s Duval: Gavriel Duval, bastard half-brother to the duchess and her sworn protector, stands at the heart of the dangers in the Breton court. It’s Ismae’s job to learn the exact nature of his position there. He’s a complicated man, a riot of emotions and seemingly conficting actions, with a web of information that frequently skirts the gray areas of moral inquiry. He plays things close to the chest, parceling out only what information he must, trusting minimally, but trusting effusively in those very few who’ve earned that. He’s a man consumed by what he does, but we spend most of the book uncertain about what, precisely, he’s doing.

The details in this book are gorgeous. Whether it’s the depths of the political intrigue or the different poisons or even the (completely realistic!) ways in which one might hide a variety of weapons in clothing, it’s the details that really make this book. That it’s woven so seamlessly through real history and characters is just…just…gorgeous. Unutterably, instrinsically, mind-blowingly gorgeous.

Grave Mercy, by Robin LaFevers, out in stores 3 April 2012. DO NOT MISS THIS BOOK.

In fact, want to win my ARC? Easy-peasy, US only, open through Tuesday, 20 March, all you have to do is answer a question below: if you could read an historical fiction about any person or set of events, what would it be?

Until next time~
Cheers

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Young Adult as Your Apology

March 4, 2012 at 11:17 am (General, Writing) (, , )

When someone finds out you’re a writer, one of the first questions they usually ask is “What do you write?” (you know, if they’re not too busy telling you all about this great idea for a book they had). If you say Teen or Young Adult, a curious thing happens; for most, they either look politely baffled or just a little pitying. In these cases, at best you’ll get a “Oh…that’s nice”. Then there are the other times.

“Oh, well I’m sure you’ll write a real book someday.”

“Oh, that’ll be great practice for when you’re a real writer!”

“Have you ever thought about writing for adults?”

As if there is nothing valid about the whole host of children’s and young adult literature available. Kids and Teen authors are just people who never got the nerve or the talent to write acceptable books.

Shenanigans!

I’m calling shenanigans.

Most- most– of the people who hold with that belief have never read a YA book. If they have, it’s probably either Twilight or Maximum Ride. They don’t have a genuine exposure to the vast array of amazing books that are out there so they make sweeping judgments off of a very few titles and think they’re somehow justified in that.

I defy anyone to read Laini Taylor’s The Daughter of Smoke and Bone and not be blown away by the gorgeous writing.

Or Maggie Stiefvater’s The Scorpio Races and not care, deeply and passionately, about these characters.

Give me the gritty police procedural fantasy of Tamora Pierce’s Terrier or the high-class art thieves of Ally Carter’s Heist Society, or the constantly shifting layers upon layers of Megan Whalen Turner’s Thief series.

Young Adult takes every bit as much talent and work and drive as anything sitting on the genre shelves, and what’s more, it doesn’t matter how far-fetched or fantastically set the story, it consistently and persistently tackles real issues for teens. Issues about love and friendship, about acceptance and belonging and loyalty and family, about hard decisions and impossible choices, about easy ways out that are so hard to come back from, about coming to know yourself and the world you live in.

John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars is a Young Adult title. It’s immersive and overwhelming and real and quite possibly the hardest-hitting thing I’ve ever read. It is, in all ways, staggering genius. But- how many professional reviews tell their readers that “it’s not really a teen book”. Shenanigans! It is a teen book. It was written for them, it was produced for them, it’s sold for them. Is it accesible with a wide age appeal? HELL YES. This is a book that should be read by anyone mature enough to handle their heart being broken, and maybe even a few that aren’t. I thoroughly encourage adults to read it, and I think they’ll be as blown away by it as all of the teens who’ve sobbed and laughed over the pages. But it IS a teen book.

And that shouldn’t be an apology.

I write YA. It’s where my stories and my characters and my voice lives. I will not apologize for that, and I refuse to think less of my stories or the amazing books on the shelves simply because anything for children is expected to be childish.

In a wonderful interview with Stephen Colbert, Maurice Sendak said “I don’t write children’s books. I write books, and someone says they’re for children”.

Paraphrasing one of my favorite statements about our craft, Madeleine L’Engle said (something along the lines of) “Write the story you want to tell, and if it’s too complicated for adults, tell it to children”.

Children are willing to face difficult things, they’re willing to come to books with complete openness and honesty and come away carrying the story and the characters with them long after the last page.

Harry Potter is a children’s book series. Percy Jackson is a children’s book series. Hunger Games is a teen’s book series. They are amazing children’s books- not amazing for children’s books.

Don’t ever apologize for what you write.

*end rant*

Until next time~
Cheers~

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