Thursday, January 22, 2015

Throwback Thursday: 15 years old, Among Others

I started off the year 2015 with my nose in a book. Yup, that's what I was doing at 12:01 January 1st, and most of the rest of January 1st, too, gobbling up a wonderful book, Among Others by Jo Walton (2012 winner of the Hugo and Nebula awards). The main character in Among Others was 15 and attended an English boarding school that was decidedly NOT a Hogwarts kind of school: the most unmagical of schools, in fact... but Mori brought her magic with her. This book is a great example of the fascinating magical realism genre. It's also a got a main character with a disability, (#weNeedDiverseBooks) and that disability and the cane it required played a fascinating part in the story.

Despite attending a regular public American high school, not an English boarding school, and not needing a cane to walk, I still really identified with Mori... more than most mc's in young adult books. Here's why....

I had a split personality in high school (I still do, somewhat). Personality #1: a girl who painted her nails a new color (almost) every day; spent (many) afternoons browsing through clothing stores at the mall, or leafing through L.L. Bean and J. Crew clothing catalogs; highlighted her hair with peroxide;  and ran on the track and cross country teams and got really competitive about it.
15 year old me with bleached hair
Personality #2: a girl who, when she skipped classes or lunch, could be found in the school library reading or searching for new books to read. And who when wasn't reading, was often sketching characters in the margins of her history notes, or staring off into space daydreaming about the fantasy and science fiction worlds she'd just read. Ages 13 through 15 was when I devoured books like Dune, the Earthsea books and the Lord of the Rings (and many others, but those were the ones that stuck with me most memorably) and these  books, especially Lord of the Rings, play their own fascinating role in Mori's story.

So freaking cool how the books play a role, almost become characters themselves, in this story!

Among Others
Since Mori's personality wasn't split like mine (and she was partially crippled, having to walk with a cane, so she couldn't get involved in as much as I could)... she devoured books at a stunning pace, especially after discovering interlibrary loans:
“Interlibrary loans are a wonder of the world and a glory of civilization.”   
“Libraries really are wonderful. They're better than bookshops, even. I mean bookshops make a profit on selling you books, but libraries just sit there lending you books quietly out of the goodness of their hearts.”  
“I'll belong to libraries wherever I go. Maybe eventually I'll belong to libraries on other planets.” 
Among Others is a book about family, friends, fairies, boarding school, and books. The fairies fit in that sequence in a very straight-forward way; Mori has grown up always seeing (and sometimes in even playing with) fairies in the valleys and abandoned coal works of her native Wales. This is the first story I've read set, at least in part, in Wales. What a fascinating country! I googled maps and sometimes Welsh history while I was reading.

Mori refuses to live with her mad witch mother any more. Yes, her mother really is a witch, and a pretty evil one, too, by Mori's account - her mother is at least partly responsible for her daughter's death, Mori's twin. Mori lives in a children's home for a while until her father is located. Then her father sends her to an all girl boarding school in England, where she is far removed from the fairies and magic she grew up with, and can't relate to anyone at the school (one of the references to the title... living "among others" - though the others might refer to the fairies, too).

In her loneliness, Mori finds solace in books, but longs to find a few like minded souls (a "karass" - a reference to a group of like minded souls from Kurt Vonnegut's book, Cat's Cradle). Eventually she even tries working a magic spell to help her find a karass - and succeeds - but her use of magic has the unwanted effect of attracting her mother's attention.

The karass that Mori finds wasn't quite what one might expect - but it was perfect! - here's a hint: one of the kindred spirits in her karass makes this comment:
“Bibliotropic," Hugh said. "Like sunflowers are heliotropic, they naturally turn towards the sun. We naturally turn towards the bookshop.” 
Another member of her karass is Wim (a British nickname for William - LOVE IT!!!)  Wim is judged by others and is surprised that Mori doesn't judge him... it's clear her open-mindedness is related to all the literature she's drenched in. She also has a plethora of insightful comments and observations about life, often framed as questions, which I really liked.
Does it mean that it doesn't matter if it's magic or not, anything you do has power and consequences and affects other people?”
On waiting for God’s plan to unfold:
If I were omnipotent  and  omniscient  I  think  I  could  have  come up  with a better [plan]. Lightning bolts never go out of fashion.
A word on the fairies: they appear on a spectrum from little ugly gnome-like things to tall, beautiful LOTR elvish creatures. They don't play a large role, but they show up just often enough to add a fascinating dimension to the story, and a climax that ties in gloriously with the very beginning of the story.

And a word on the magic, which was unique and subtle and amusing:
At home I walked through a haze of belongings that knew, at least vaguely, who they belonged to. Grampar’s chair resented anyone else sitting on it as much as he did himself....My mother’s shoes positively vibrated with consciousness. Our toys looked out for us. There was a potato knife in the kitchen that Gramma couldn’t use. It was an ordinary enough brown-handled thing, but she’d cut herself with it once, and ever after it wanted more of her blood. If I rummaged through the kitchen drawer, I could feel it brooding. After she died, that faded. Then there were the coffee spoons, rarely used, tiny, a wedding present. They were made of silver, and they knew themselves superior to everything else and special. None of these things did anything. The coffee spoons didn’t stir the coffee without being held or anything. They didn’t have conversations with the sugar tongs about who was the most cherished. I suppose what they really did was physiological. They confirmed the past, they connected everything, they were threads in a tapestry.
(Also loved the reference to how the Christmas ornaments were full of magic, but Mori wasn't sure if the three aunties realized it, but she was fairly sure they knew about the magic in their earrings, and that getting Mori to pierce her ears and wear their earrings would... oops, that's a spoiler, sort of).

In addition to friends and fairies and a very subtle magic, this book is also about family: Mori getting to know her newly discovered father and grandfather (Sam!) and three new "aunties" (who are love-to-hate characters almost picked out of some yet-as-undiscovered Jane Austen book),

There's also her beloved Welsh Grampar (her other grandfather) and Auntie Teg... and memories of her twin sister and the epic battle they fought against their witch mother to keep her from using her magic to control the fairies.

All the characters in this story felt like real people (they probably were real people) and so vivid that I remember all their names very distinctly, even 3 weeks after finishing the story. Most of the lovable characters are book worms (but not all of them, like Auntie Teg and her fairy-seeing cat). I was especially delighted that the librarians become Mori's friends.

Friends, family, fairies... I still need to mention the boarding school and, I'm not yet done mentioning the books. I sincerely hope that English boarding schools these days put doors in bathroom and shower stalls; in the 1970's  doors and privacy were not permitted. Also, who knew that boarding schools were so loud?? No wonder why Mori spent most of her time in the library. I had a sudden terrible thought while reading this story: the fact that these kids had to suffer through high school cafeterias not just for lunch but for breakfast and dinner, too. Oh the poor dear souls!

However, the real life boarding school did have one similarity to Hogwarts: a magical train. Well, sort of magical:
I love the train. Sitting here I feel connected to the last time I sat here, and the train to London too. It is in-between, suspended; and in rapid motion towards and away from, it is also poised between. There's a magic in that, not a magic you can work, a magic that's just there, giving a little colour and exhilaration to everything.
And while I'm at it, I simply must mention the mountains, and Mori's love of maps:
I love the mountains. I love the kind of horizon they make, even in winter. When we went down again, towards Merthyr first and then over the shoulder of the mountain to Aberdare, where Aun­tie Teg walked, once, when she was still in school, it felt like nestling back down in a big quilt. 
I bought a map of Europe, with Germany huge and no Czechoslovakia. I think it must be from the war, or right before...I couldn't resist it…I don't know what I'm going to do with it. But maps are brill.
But oh the books in this story, oh the books! Truly this story was written as an ode to books and bookworms. I especially loved the blend of reality, fantasy and science fiction:
I wonder if there will be fairies in space? It's a more possible thought in Clarke's universe than Heinlein's somehow, even though Clarke's en­gineering seems just as substantial. I wonder if it's because he's British? Never mind space, do they even have fairies in America?
(Note to self: revisit a couple Arthur C. Clarke books) (and try some Delany books. And Zelazny).

Every reference to the Lord of the Rings just made my heart sing, and the ending is where books and magic intersected in a breathtaking and stand-up-and-cheer way. A few of my favorite LOTR references:
I am reading The Lord of the Rings. I suddenly wanted to. I almost know it by heart, but I can still sink right into it. I know no other book that is so much like going on a journey. When I put it down to this, I feel as if I am also waiting with Pippin for the echoes of that stone down the well.
The thing about Tolkien, about The Lord of the Rings, is that it's perfect. It's this whole world, this whole process of immersion, this journey. It's not, I'm pretty sure, actually true, but that makes it more amazing, that someone could make it all up. Reading it changes everything. 
Oaks hang onto their leaves all winter, like mallorns, so it's easy to find them. 
Finished  LOTR, with the usual sad pang of reaching  the end and there being no more of it.
LOTR certainly changed my world, though it's hard to say exactly how. It made my life deeper, somehow... and also broader.

I'd love to hear in the comments if there was a book from your early teen days that changed a little bit of your world too, or the way you saw the world...

Monday, January 12, 2015

#WeNeedDiverseBooks: Polynesian! (Illusions of Fate)

Here's why I loved Illusions of Fate by Kiersten White and had to post about it IMMEDIATELY even though I finished it like, less than hour ago. 

1) That cover. THAT COVER!!! a Polynesian main character! The actual cover looks a tad white-washed, but here's the non-cropped version provided by the author on her Tumblr

2) yes, it really is historical fantasy (my favorite genre!) A purist might argue it's set in a mirror of Victorian/Imperialist England, but I'm running with it. 

2) magical shadows and magical books that can turn into birds. Sir Bird!

3) magical doorways (a la Howl's Moving Castle) (in fact it was the "Howl's Moving Castle meets Mr Darcy" blurb that caught my eye with this book... well, that and the cover. And Laini Taylor's whole-hearted endorsement didn't hurt either). 

4) delightfully witty old fashioned ink letters, complete with ink blots

5) oh, and some of the letters are ALSO magical (those written by whom I cannot spoiler-name)

6) Jane Austen-worthy observations on English (I mean Alben) nature: 
An Alben smile is rarely and expression of joy. More often it is a way to deflect true emotion.

7) magical miniature suns (yeah, there's a lot of fun magic in this book)

8) excellent recrafting of real empire/colonial issues: 
His words strike straight through me. I would have said the same thing just weeks ago. I would have dismissed an entire country of people just because of their birth, the same way I have always felt dismissed.

9) magically-colored music

10) magic hair-color-turning wars (reminded me of the fairy wars over the color of Aurora's dress in Sleeping Beauty)

11) Fifteen different words for love, but one of them forgotten until the end

12) Collarbones (you never realized how interesting they were till now)

13) Using math to mess with dreams

14) Eleanor's gossip

15) the gift of an umbrella on a rainy day from a kind stranger in a park

16) Lord Finley Ackerley and his cane, and how he loved Jessamin even though she insisted on doing the opposite of everything he ever suggested

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Insecure writer: trying not to break the chain

Last year for the January post for Insecure Writers I posted about how I don't do writing resolutions... or life resolutions... or any sort of resolutions, because by March or April I'm all resolutioned out. And then the insecurity kicks in. I've failed with them way too many times. (except my reading resolutions... because those are so easy; when life gets hard, I escape to books. When life is good, I escape to books).  
The first Wednesday of the month
 is time for Insecure Writers Support Group,
hosted by Alex Cavanaugh and his
excellent team. 
 But I do love monthly goals. So my writing goals this month are to try some writing motivational techniques. A writer friend told me about this simple technique: for each day you accomplish your writing goal, add a paper clip to your paper clip chain. If you miss a day, you have to start a new chain all over. I forgot to start this on January 1st, but I did start on the 3rd and I have a teeny little paperclip chain going now. Last night I didn't have any time to write till 9:15pm when I got the kids to bed, and I was so tired, I just wanted to stretch out with a good book; writing meant putting my brain back to work again. But that would mean starting the chain again, after only two days! So I got 45 minutes of writing in.

I'm actively looking for other writers to share short term goals with and keep each other motivated, by email or twitter or any method. Even if you're just popping by for the first time, don't be shy! I'd love to connect with you. A good way to battle writing insecurity is to be part of a motivational team. 

Ending this post now so I can go get my writing done early today, Here are a few of my favorite writing pins from last month for inspiration. 

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Reading resolutions and most anticipated debuts in 2015

I'm combining this week's and last week's Top Ten Tuesday theme (hosted by the Broke and Bookish blog): my 2015 reading resolutions and my most anticipated 2015 debuts. 

Here's what made me prick my ears about these 2015 debuts: moon colonies, death
-trap riddled libraries, time travel, jinns, a mirror reflection with a mind of its own, Golden Age Hollywood, travel to Pakistan, Emily Dickinson's poetry, deadly competition at a ballet school, and a fantasy world similar to ancient Rome!

Dove Arising
The D'Evil Diaries
Becoming Jinn
The Edge of Forever
Dead to Me
Written in the Stars
When Reason Breaks
Tiny Pretty Things
An Ember in the Ashes

Now, my reading resolutions for 2015, along with how I did last year...

1. Read at least 52 books in 2015, one book a week (same as last year).   This is my fifth year setting this goal, and I've always succeeded with this one easily (actually, I usually over-succeed: in 2014 I read 59 books and re-read 6 more). If I let myself read as much as I wanted, I never get anything else done! So this is actually a resolution NOT to go overboard with reading.

2. Read at least 2 classics, same as last year. This is my hardest category! Last year I read The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and started Uncle Tom's Cabin... and I'm still working on it. It's good, but I keep getting distracted  by shorter, easier reads. But this year I plan to finish it and read two more: I'm thinking of the Grapes of Wrath and... maybe some Plato?

3. Read at least 12 debuts (first books by new previously unpublished authors).  Same as last year; I read exactly 12 though there are still a couple more 2014 debuts I want to get to. My favorite 2014 debut was Alienated by Melissa Landers and I can't WAIT for the sequel, Invaded, and by the way did you know there's a short out there right now you can read, Until Midnight

4. Read at least 5 science fiction classics and 2 more recent Nebula or Hugo winners. Last year my goal was two classics and I was amazed by The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula LeGuin, not so keen on Ringworld. I only got to one recent Hugo winner, Among Others, but oh my goodness that book! It was like an ode to science fiction and fantasy, and I have dozens of classics I want to read now, starting with The Gates of Ivrel, which garnered the distinction of being in the last sentence of Among Others.

5. Read at least three Printz honors or YALSA awards. Slight change from last year, which was 2 Printz books. I read Midwinterblood (did not like it) and a Printz honor, The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks, AMAZING!!! So far I haven't been crazy about Printz winners - they are jsut a little to odd for me, but I have loved all the Printz honors I've read, and YALSA winners, like How to Save a Life by Sara Zara. 

6. Read at least five Newberry winners or honors (the most prestigious award for middle grade kidlit). My goal was 3 last year, and I actually read 5, because they are so easy to read and so delicious - not disappointed with a single one! My favorite were The One and Only Ivan and The Graveyard Book

7. Read at least 10 books that feature a diverse main character . I read 12 last year, and The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-time Indian was my absolute favorite of all my 2014 reads. I was impressed by the variety of stories about diverse characters, including some with disabilities, like She Is Not Invisible and Dangerous.

8. One thing I plan to do this year is read more historicals, both in the YA and adult categories.

Summary: I read mostly young adult books: 33 total (11 contemporary, 7 science fiction, 6 fantasy, 5 paranormal, 3 historical fantasy, 2 historical). I read 13 middle grade books (6 contemporary, 5 historical, 1 paranormal), 6 adult books (4 science fiction, 1 historical, 1 literary), 5 non-fiction and 2 new adult books. I didn't finish four books after reading half way through (as compared to many books that I only sampled the first one or two chapters). Two of these because my interest really lagged, the other two went a direction I was uncomfortable with. I expect the YA/MG/adult ratio to stay similar since in 2013 it was also very similar: 34 YA, 8 MG, 6 non-fiction, 5 adult.

Got any reading goals this year?

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Favorite books of 2014

One of my favorite ways to sum up my year - sharing my favorite books from 2014. I clocked in at 58 books read this year, plus five re-reads. Here's the top 13 (I could not limit myself to just 10!) Almost all of my favorite books were a variation on my favorite theme: a character having to confront a different "world" and learning something about themselves in the process. Almost all of my favorite books were written in 3rd person, except for a couple that were written in first 1st person, dual point of view, and only one in 1st person, one point of view: Absolutely True Diary of a Part-time Indian. My next post will be a breakdown of genre and type and how I did on my reading goals for 2014.

The Graveyard Book
Dreams of Gods & Monsters
Sailing Between the Stars: Musings on the Mysteries of Faith
The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks
The Left Hand of Darkness
Ruin and Rising
Writing 21st Century Fiction: High Impact Techniques for Exceptional Storytelling
The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian
The Winner's Curse
How to Save a Life

1) Absolutely True Diary of a Part-time Indian, by Sherman Alexie
This is in my ALL TIME favorites list. Absolutely funny, sad, true, hopeful, heart-lifting. I read a lot of books with diverse characters this year and this one will make keep reading more and more and more. 14 year old Junior, leaving the Rez school (but not the Rez itself) to broaden his horizons, is in my heart forever. My favorite quote:

I realized that, sure, I was a Spokane Indian. I belonged to that tribe. But I also belonged to the tribe of American immigrants. And the tribe of basketball players. And to the tribe of bookworms. And the tribe of cartoonists.

2) The Left Hand of Darkness, by Ursula Le Guin.
1969. After falling in love with Le Guin's Earthsea series in high school, and being deeply influenced in them, I never got around to reading more of her books. So thankful I finally picked up another book of hers in my goal to read more classic SF. This book is many things, but above all, it is a beautiful story of a friendship between two people (Genly and Therem) from entirely different worlds, who struggle to understand each other: and succeed, though at great costs. The world-building is absolutely phenomenal.  My favorite quote:

To learn which questions are unanswerable, and not to answer them: this skill is most needful in times of stress and darkness.

3) Dreams of Gods and Monsters, by Laini Taylor
2014. This series is, for me, the closest I have ever come to the magic of Middle Earth. It's very different of course. Instead of the noble Westernesse otherwordliness that makes the Lord of the Rings so magical, this series' magic is more raw, passionate, and dark, but also laugh-out-loud funny at times. And oh, sooooo romantic. Karou and Akiva's story makes Aragorn and Arwen's story pale in comparison. My favorite quote (but oh there were SOOOO many!!!)

It was the first time either of them had ever held another's hand, and for them alone, the immensity of what unfolded that night was overshadowed by the perfect wonderment of fingers intertwined - as though this was what hands had always been for, and not for holding weapons at all.

4) Alienated, by Melissa Landers
2014 (debut). An alien exchange student - BEST PREMISE EVER. This book also has some laugh-out-loud moments, and some deadly serious ones. The second half of this book, about where Aelyx (the alien) starts thinkin of Cara (the human) as Elire - the whole tone of the book shifted from "interesting and fun" into something far more serious and heart-wrenching. The love story is also riveting, too. My favorite quote:

How can we understand what we’ve never experienced and adapt without making mistakes?

5) The Winner's Curse, by Marie Rutkoski
2014. complicated, thoughtful story about slavery, set in a fantasy world with close parallels to ancient history. This story packs a powerful punch with a role reversal that I can't even hint at, and a forbidden love story (Kestrel, Arin) that tore at my heart.  My favorite quote (so hard to pick! so many good ones!)

Isn’t that what stories do, make real things fake, and fake things real?

6) Fangirl, by Rainbow Rowell
2013. This is an interesting case; I loved this book when I read early in 2014, but I didn't expect to be one that kept popping back into my mind throughout the year, along with serious temptations to re-read it! But here it is nearly 10 month later and I keep smiling when I think about this book and planning to buy a copy for myself for Christmas so I can re-read it whenever the mood hits me. I love it because it's about a girl, Cath, who's a writer, like me, even though I'm not into writing fan fiction like she is, I could still totally get her. All the other characters in this book are amazing, too (Levi, Reagan, Wren, the dad). My favorite quote:

“Just... isn't giving up allowed sometimes? Isn't it okay to say, ‘This really hurts, so I’m going to stop trying’?”
“It sets a dangerous precedent.”
“For avoiding pain?”
“For avoiding life.”

7) The Disrpetuable History of Frankie Landau-Banks, by E. Lockhart
2008.I loved the way this story is told, with an omniscient narrator with her own distinct voice. I loved Frankie, how she thought about everything before she said anything, how she'd consider all sorts of possibilities and consequences in a matter of seconds and then (almost always) come up with a response that keeps people guessing about her. I loved how she out-smarted the boys and their exclusive secret society (though I kinda ended up liking Alpha), and the price she was willing to pay to show herself a respectable equal, not just a pretty ornament. This is serious girl-power book. Ra!  My favorite quotes:
It is better to be alone, she figures, than to be with someone who can't see who you are.
She will not be what people tell her to be.
8) The Graveyard Book, by Neil Gaiman
2008. Just a warning: the first chapter starts out ruthless, but the story quickly turns improbably sweet: the only survivor of a murdered family, the baby, toddles his way to the graveyard and  how strange and whimsical and charming that is, a baby toddling its way into a graveyard, to be rescued and adopted by a bunch of graveyard ghosts? And what a loveable bunch of ghosts! Loved Silas and Liza and Caius... all of them. My favorite quote:

"Are they happier?"
"Mostly, no. It’s like the people who believe they’ll be happy if they go and live somewhere else, but who learn it doesn’t work that way. Where ever you go, you take yourself with you."

9) How to Save a Life, by Sara Zarr
2011. Beautiful dual point-of-view story from two very different girls: Jill, who had everything (a beautiful home, loving family and boyfriend) and Mandy, a pregnant teen, who has never had anything or anyone to love her. They're forced to live together in a very bizarre but compelling circumstance. A deeply thoughtful and beautiful story.

“The kind of life I want is to be a person who would get a personal note every day.”

10) Ruin and Rising, by Leigh Bardugo
2014. I've got mixed feelings about this end to the Grisha trilogy, because at first I didn't like it much. But something about that ending, as much as it bothered me, also kept drawing me back. I've re-read the last 100 pages several times now. I'm still not sure exactly why, but there you go; perhaps there's something about myself I don't understand yet, but it understands the controversial ending of this grand fantasy and how the tangle of Alina, Mal, Nikolai and the Darkling plays out. My favorite quote:

They had an ordinary life, full of ordinary things - if love can ever be called that.

11) Salvage, by Alexandra Duncan
2014.  I have mixed feelings about this one, too, mostly because I despised, absolutely HATED the first 8 chapters where Ava simply accepts her handmaiden, repressed status (she can't even read!) on her family's spaceship. But then she's forced to run for her life, and Perpetue rescues her, and Miyole teaches her to read, and Rushil teaches her to trust. A deeply satisfying and rich story. My favorite quote:

All this suffering.” Perpetue looks deep and unblinking at me. “It doesn't make us saints, fi. It only makes us human. You understand? .... There's a balance....there's what you're forced to do, there's what you choose, and everything else – most things – are a mix. At best, you'll spend your life trying not to get hurt, but trying not to do the hurting, either. You won't always come through....

12) Sailing Between the Stars, by Steven James.
2006. Subtitled "Musing on the mysteries of faith" this is a non-fiction that reminded me very much of C.S. Lewis' writings (my absolute favorite writer). I haven't had a chance to put together my favorite quotes from this book yet, but the summary does it beautiful justice:

The foundation of Christian belief is paradox: death is the beginning of life, foolishness is the pathway to wisdom, the meek conquer the strong. Everywhere we look we see mysteries piled upon mysteries, and for all our efforts to fit God into a box that makes sense, Christianity is not founded on common sense. 

13) Writing 21st Century Fiction, by Donald Maass
2012. Subtitled "High impact techniques for exceptional storytelling." I didn't think this could be as good as his last book, The Fire in Fiction, but it is EVEN better. There are no easy formulas in this book; in fact, that's really the point: there is no easy short cut to great fiction. A great book demands everything of you. I put together a list of no less than SIXTY things I need to fix/incorporate into my story based on this book, half of which I am still at loss as to how to implement, but I'm convinced, no matter how long it takes, how much it challenges me, it will be worthwhile.  Favorite quote:

For me, where genre ends and literature begins doesn’t matter. What matters is whether a given novel hits me with high impact. If it does, it probably is fulfilling the purpose of fiction. It has drawn me into a story world, held me captive, taken me on a journey with characters like none I’ve ever met, revealed truths I’ve somehow always known and insights that rock my brain. It’s filled me with awe, which is to say it’s made me see the familiar in a wholly new way and made the unfamiliar a foundational part of me. It both entertains and matters. It both captures our age and becomes timelessly great. 

What are your favorite books read this year, the ones with the greatest impact?

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Peace in my heart

This Christmas season I've been struggling with my Christmas spirit, for various reasons, the most important one being the loss of a dear family member earlier this year. This will be our first Christmas without her. It also turned out because of job commitments that it's the first year that we aren't able to visit our extended family for either Thanksgiving, Christmas or New Years, so I'm feeling a bit sad and isolated. 

But while this year isn't standing out as one of the especially "fun" Christmases, I've just been reminded (via this wonderful Christmas song by Casting Crowns... see the lyrics below)  that one of the even more important parts of Christmas than "fun and giving" is that Christmas is about the hope for "peace on Earth."

Mary and Joseph probably felt very isolated, once upon time this time of year, too. It's very likely that they couldn't find "room at the inn" because they were late arriving; more likely no one wanted them because of the scandal surrounding Mary's pre-marriage pregnancy. There were no decorations, there was no family gathering and games and a fancy dinner and presents to open (the wise men probaly didn't arrive with their gifts that first night).

But there was a baby born, and a star shining in the sky, and angels proclaiming the great news of hope for peace on Earth.

These lyrics put that peace in my heart for this Christmas. Peace and blessings to you, too, whoever reads this!

I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day, lyrics adapted by Casting Crowns:

I heard the bells on Christmas day
Their old familiar carols play
And mild and sweet their songs repeat
Of peace on earth good will to men

And the bells are ringing (Peace on Earth)
Like a choir they're singing (Peace on Earth)
In my heart I hear them
Peace on earth, good will to men

And in despair I bowed my head
There is no peace on earth I said
For hate is strong and mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good will to men

But the bells are ringing (Peace on Earth)
Like a choir singing (Peace on Earth)
Does anybody hear them?
Peace on earth, good will to men

Then rang the bells more loud and deep
God is not dead, nor doth He sleep (Peace on Earth, peace on Earth)
The wrong shall fail, the right prevail
With peace on earth, good will to men

Then ringing singing on its way

The world revolved from night to day
A voice, a chime, a chant sublime
Of peace on earth, good will to men

And the bells they're ringing (Peace on Earth)
Like a choir they're singing (Peace on Earth)
And with our hearts we'll hear them
Peace on earth, good will to men

Do you hear the bells they're ringing? (Peace on Earth)
The life the angels singing (Peace on Earth)
Open up your heart and hear them (Peace on Earth)
Peace on earth, good will to men

Peace on earth, Peace on earth
Peace on earth, Good will to men

Friday, December 19, 2014

Deja Vu blogfest

Here's where we get to re-post our favorite blog offering from earlier in the year and share it with a bunch of other bloggers. Thanks to D.L. Hammons and Nicole Zoltack for hosting! Here's more details and the sign-up 

Here's my Insecure Writers Support Group for June (with an update following) and links to my top 5 favorite other posts this year: 

I have queries out - sitting in the limbo of several agents' inboxes or "for later" folders, so of course I am wildly insecure.  I'm so insecure that I'm afraid if I start writing about it here, all my emotions will splatter across this screen like rotten fruit.

To try to keep my current emotions under check, I'm attempting have fun with this whole query letter thing.  

The query writing process (especially the pitch part of the query, the part that's supposed to read like the jacket copy of a book) is quite the adventure. The first time I tried it, four years ago, I dreaded it. I wrote some drivel, did some research, had an epiphany. I had long philosophical discussions with myself about what my novel was really about... what the heart of it was.

 I ended up shelving that novel (I definitely plan to return to it, but it needed more time to marinate). 

Then I moved on to another novel. The query pitch seemed to write itself. I was so proud of myself! I'm getting the hang of this thing! 

I submitted my lovely query to an online contest, and an agent ripped it to sheds. Direct quote: "Playing coy with agents on this point isn't going to incite most to want to read further."

Cue sobbing.

After I got over being crushed, I admitted the agent was probably dead on right, and I put on my studious glasses and looked at a bunch more query examples (WriteOnCon forums and the Pitch Wars and Writer's Voice events at Brenda Drake's website are a great source). 

I came up with a fresh query that was straightforward and not coy and had the requisite three C's (character, conflict, choice) and put it up for critique at Matt Rush's wonderful blog, the Quintessentially Questionable Query Experiment. I got some positive feedback. It seemed I was on the right track, just needed some tweaking and a little more voice. 

So I tweaked and added a phrase with a little more voice, and sent that query off for reals (not just a contest). 

And got form rejections.  This time I didn't sob, because I kind of had a gut feeling that despite my tweaking and attempt at voice, I still hadn't nailed it. When I read my own query, it kind of made me feel like this: 

Instead of like this:

So, went back to searching for more query examples and dissecting the ones I really loved. The queries I really love are ones with characters that grab you with some specific details and voice. (of course, queries, like novels, are also very subjective: some will love it, some won't. You hope for a majority in your favor). 
hhhhhmmm, which one shall I use?
My current version of the query is now rich on character, but maybe too long. It will probably evolve into yet another version, but I feel happy enough about it (for now) to send it out again. 

What I'm still really unsure about is the personalization to the agent part. The part that goes something like "I read in a recent interview you are looking for a YA romance layered with big stakes" or "I loved so-and-so book that you represented." I wish all agents were like Janet Reid, the Query Shark, who thinks that the personalization is a waste of time, just get to the story, please. 

Sigh... just another thing to be insecure about.

I won't even start on the sample pages that come after the query....
"I just don't know about that..."
But ultimately I guess my determination outweighs my insecurity, because I keep trying, I keep writing, I keep putting things out there and taking the feedback and fixing and trying again.

Because I LOVE writing, I love learning, I love the whole long messy process. Even if Miranda, my favorite character from the Devil Wears Prada, would probably say this about me: 

Update:  so, that query that I felt was "getting close" in June? Got entirely revamped again in September, after I got some WONDERFUL query help from my Pitchwars mentor, Veronica Bartles. We went back and forth over probably a dozen variations; then she wrote her version of a query for my book, which I LOVED.  (I've heard of this before, where getting someone else to write your query has really been successful). Because Veronica wasn't so close to my story, she was able to strip the pitch down to its essential elements. I was too close to the story, and still cluttering my query up with too much plot. I ended up using her query, changing only two lines to personalize it.... and since then have gotten a few more requests.

But... yup. I'm still insecure about it. About the query, and the sample pages, the synopsis, the whole story. That lurking question is always in the back of my mind: is it good enough?

But on nights like this... cozy by my fire, with a Christmas tree, my kids, a good book to read and to inspire me with new writing ideas... it's all good. 

But on nights like this... it's all good
Some of my other favorite posts this year:

Diverse also means disabled: a collection of great books with diverse characters

Unconventional, complicated female heros: a collection of great books featuring girls who kick butt, but in unconventional ways

Top ten girl friendships:  a collection of great books where the main focus is friendship, not romance

Ten crazy ways to fall in love: my Valentine's Day post, with a collection of recent books with some great romance

Top ten reasons why I love being a reader and a blogger

Thanks for letting me share (again!) 

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Class of 2014 YA books: popularity contest

The Class of 2014: YA Superlative Blogfest will run Monday, December 15th – Thursday, December 18th and will highlight favorite YA books published in 2014Join us in celebrating great books of 2014 - sign up at any of the hosts' blogs: Jessica LoveTracey NeithercottAlison Miller or Katy Upperman

Today is my favorite part of this blogfest, the character popularity contest!

Villain I Love to Hate

Stitching SnowOkay, this was a tough one this year. The Darkling from Ruin and Rising was my favorite villain, but I couldn't hate him (though I could hate some of the terrible things he did). But most of the books I read didn't have a hateful villain that really stood out, except the king and evil stepmom queen in Stitching Snow, R.C. Lewis. This is "a retelling of Snow White in space, where Snow is a cage-fighting tech-head with daddy issues" and oh man is her daddy twisted.   

Most Likely to Become a Rock Star
The Unbound (The Archived, #2)Wesley, from The Unbound, by Victoria Schwab. There's just something about this guy, both bright and dark at the same time, full of quips but also seriousness (see my review for more Wesley love). I'm thrilled that there will be a free short, Leave the Window Open, coming in 2015 from Wesley's POV.

Favorite Parental Figure
SalvagePerpetue, from Salvage, by Alexandra Duncan. She saves Ava when Ava is running away from her repressors; she flies her own space ship, carries a knife and a wicked knife scar on her face, lives in a floating city in the Pacific, and she's tough and smart but kind. 

Favorite Parental Figure (runner up)
Audrey's mom: she's President of the United States! from When Audrey Met Alice, by Rebecca Behrens.

Gates of Thread and Stone (Gates of Thread and Stone #1)Favorite Sibling Figure (my own category)
Reev, Kai's adopted brother in Gates of Thread and Stone, by Lori M. Lee. The ties between Kai and Reev run deep and strong through out the story, and explode at the ending into something breath taking and heart breaking.

Most Likely to Start a Riot
A Creature of MoonlightMarni in Creature of Moonlight by Rebecca Hahn. This girl doesn't care what anyone thinks of her and she can resist some serious male attention and charm. Marni learns the price to pay to escape expectations, the price to resist manipulation, the price to having a mind of your own, and the price of vengeance. And she's willing to pay those prices. She'd be willing to start a riot, this girl. 

Biggest Flirt
Prince Nikolai, Ruin and Rising by Leigh Bardugo. He adds so much charm to this dark conclusion to the series... though he also adds quite a bit more than charm, too, though I can't drop any more hints without spoilers. Also, I can't resist sharing this lovely image of three aspects of the story, from Leigh Bardugo's Tumblr. 

Alienated (Alienated, #1)
Biggest Anti-Flirt (or, the cold, withdrawn type who has a hidden heart of gold) 
Aelyx, from Alienated, by Melissa Landers. Here's some of the reasons why I love Aelyx:  that thing with the pulse rate (I'm re-reading it, right now). And the part where he was chanting the periodic table... (I have a whole new appreciation for chemistry now). Oh, and he has his own get-away-space shuttle parked out back. 

DangerousCoolest Nerd
Maisie, from Dangerous, by Shannon Hale: I loved how she wants to be astronaut even though she's born with a disability (a missing hand); and here's a little excerpt that pretty much sums up her incredibly nerdiness that I loved, DEEPLY LOVED: "Luther and I had discovered a Japanese website that appeared to promote teeth whitening. It had a message board no one ever used, because honestly, who sits around discussing white teeth? So we colonized it.  MAIZ: Greetings, friend of Wookies everywhere. How's the weather?"

Fashion King and/or Queen
When Audrey Met AliceAlice, the daughter of Teddy Roosevelt, whose fictional diary plays a big role in When Audrey Met Alice, by Rebecca Behrens. This girl is really more headstrong than fashionable, but she just seem to fit this category. Teddy's famous quote about her: "I can either run the country or I can attend to Alice, but I cannot possibly do both."

Artistic soul (my own category)
Color Song (Passion Blue, #2)Guilia in Color Song, by Victoria Strauss (YA historical): Guilia flees a convent and disguises herself as a boy so she can apprentice to a famous painter in medieval Venice. This definitely a character (and a book) for anyone with an artist's soul that demands everything from you. 

Character I’d Most Want For a BFF
Alienated (Alienated, #1)Cara, in Alienated, by Melissa Landers. I loved Cara's courage (and at the same time I ached for her) as she doggedly sticks by Aelyx when anti-alien sentiment continues to rise at their school, in the town, and even globally. This girl has a big heart, and I just love to see how she cracks open Aelyx's well-bred coldness. 

Character I’d Most Want For a BFF (runner up)
She Is Not InvisibleLaureth in She is Not Invisible by Marcus Sedgwick. She's incredibly determined and resourceful and smart AND she's blind. “I am scared, almost all the time. But I never tell anyone. I can’t afford to. I have to go on pretending I’m this confident person, because if I don’t, if I’m quiet, I become invisible. People treat me as if I’m not there.”  LOVED HER. 

Like No OtherCharacter I Wish I’d Dated in High School
Jaxon in Like No Other, by Una LaMarche.  Because he's black, and he reminded me of a crush I was never brave enough to act on in high school; he's smart and funny (see my review for a sample of being in Jaxon's head) and he'll do crazy things for the girl he loves. 

Most Likely to Become President
Maisie, in Dangerous, by Shannon Hale. See Coolest Nerd, above for more about Maisie.

Quirkiest Character (and Class Clown)
Dreams of Gods & Monsters (Daughter of Smoke & Bone, #3)Zuzana, Dreams of Gods and Monsters, by Laini Taylor.  Described by her BFF Karou as a tiny terror. Stormhunter rider. Puppet-maker. Lover of cakes and pastries. Writer of unique personal ads. Willing to become a samurai for her BFF and follow her everywhere. 

Bonus; Fangirl, by Rainbow Rowell, was published in 2013, but I didn't read it until 2014, but it would have totally made my character lists last year.  Cath, Levi, Reagan, Simon and Baz probably all would have made my list!

Who was your favorite character from 2014?