Thursday, March 27, 2014

Why do presidents always have daughters?

Never thought about this till recently, but it seems like American Presidents (at least recently) tend to have daughters. Obama: two daughters. George W. Bush: two daughters. Bill Clinton: one daughter. Then there were four presidents with sons and daughters, back to Nixon with two daughters and Lyndon Johnson with two daughters, as well. Just random trivia that I discovered while reading When Audrey Met Alice, a charming book about a fictional 13 year old daughter of a future Madame President (more random trivia: a female President's husband is called the First Gentleman).

This book was so much fun. All the ins and outs and quirks of the White House; all the embarrassing situations that Audrey gets herself into that get national publicity of course; her nickname (Audi)... and the fictional diary of Alice Roosevelt that Audrey discovers hidden in the White House, written in 1902-1903 when Alice was also adjusting to living in the White House and adjusting to the public spotlight. Alice Roosevelt was a hoot!

Her father, Teddy Roosevelt, says of her "I can either run the country or I can control Alice, but I can't possibly do both."

It's a bit presumptuous to write a fictional diary of a real person, attributing made-up thoughts and words and personality and perspective of events (did Alice really say "I've found the secret to eternal youth, and it's arrested development"? Did she really carry a pet snake around in her purse?) But I cannot resist contemporary storylines mixed with historical ones, and Alice's voice felt so spot-on for a high society turn of the century tomboy. And her story complimented Audrey's story to a T.
As a child, I begged him [her father, Teddy Roosevelt], "let me loose in  your library." Now I begged him to let me loose in the world. 
I can totally believe that Alice carried a copy of the Constitution around in her purse, too.

I loved all the history and ambience of Roosevelt's era (it made me crave more! wish Teddy had shown up more), and I loved every occasion the fictional female president was mentioned (not enough). There's one scene with Audrey, Quentin and the President that cracked me up. Quentin is Audrey's crush, and the complications of trying to have a boyfriend with Secret Service agents lurking about was touched upon - I wished there'd been more of that, actually. And more of Quentin, who won me over with his musical inclinations and using a Sharpie to write 'Here comes Treble' on the edge of his shoe... adorkable.

I think I love this kind of book (contemporary/historical mix) even more than traditional historical fiction (without a contemporary blend). But the advantage of traditional historical is you get totally immersed in another time. Which kind of historical do you like best?

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Life is beautiful and hard

Cancer has been haunting my family for a couple years now. My mother-in-law. I'm sitting here wracking my writerly brain for a better title. She is worthy of so much more than "mother-in-law". Right now I am thinking of her as my "hero-mom."

She's receiving hospice care now. 

Since I am struggling with words, I am going to resort to pictures. Art and photography and music are balm when my words fail me. Right now I cannot even find the right music, but I have collected art and photos over the past few years that right now seem to fit. 

This one is pure expression of joy. Love it! and it seems to fit, as my hero-mom's name is Joy. 

And finally I find some words, from an old poem:

True love is a durable fire, in the mind ever burning
Never sick, never old, never dead,
From itself never turning. 

-Sir Walter Raleigh

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Top Ten girl friendships

Last week I found this great post on girl friendships in young adult books, by Jessica Spotswood, author of the Cahill Chronicles (which has now been added to my TBR list).

 I'll just jump into her great summary first, then share a list of books (sadly, too short of list) that feature strong girl friendships.
It strikes me, though, that the most common girl friendships in YA are sort of token friendships - the best girl friends who recede into the background once the heroine meets the right guy. This is one of my literary pet peeves, possibly because it rings so true to my own high school experience. I was the single girl amidst lots of couples, with girl friends who only made time for me when they needed relationship advice or consolation after breakups. It made me realize early on how often we idealize romantic relationships and focus on them to the exclusion of all else, and it gave me an early feminist horror for making a boy the be-all and end-all of one's life. I know firsthand that that dynamic is super realistic - but I don't think it's emotionally healthy or ideal, and too often it seems to go unquestioned within the text. If most other girls are either rivals or placeholders until our heroines meet the boys of their dreams - what is that saying? 
Jessica's observations about token friendships rang so true to me. When I scanned my virtual shelves, I wished I could have found more YA books that featured a strong female main character who had more than a token girl friendship. A girl friendship that actually meant something to the plot or a secondary girl that was also given her own character arc.  I found EVEN LESS strong friendships in the adult realm (though granted I don't read much outside of YA/MG these days).

I was so lucky, so incredibly blessed, to have a real honest to goodness BFF in high school. Our relationship had its ups and downs, to be sure (someday I'm going to write a story about us), but she was never a token friend, a frenemy, or a filler friend for in-between boyfriend moments. She was the real thing (and she still is, despite 2000 miles between us).

I don't think many girls keep friends like this after their tween years, or maybe it's just not reflected in literature because the boy relationships take the spotlight. I want to see more complex, plot-related friendships in stories. More like these:

1. Code Name Verity, by Elizabeth Wein. An amazing, complicated friendship set in WWII in England and France. Queenie and Maddie are amazing girls. One flies planes in the war (true story! Loved to discover more about the little known female WWII pilots) and one was a spy (again, I had never heard of female spies in WWII before). Their friendship is just as dramatic as their individual roles.

2. Parallel, by Lauren Miller. Abby and Caitlin are the real core of this story, even though there are two well written love-interest storylines here, too. The two BFFs have a major falling out with plot implications and developments.

3. Grave Mercy, by Robin LaFevers. This book is set in the 1500's at a convent (a very unusual, scary sort of convent), and establishes the friendship, loyalties and tensions between three girls at the convent. The friendship aspect fades out as the story progresses (my only complaint) and isn't resurrected as much as I hoped in the sequel, but it definitely gave me a taste of what I crave.

4. Like Mandarin, by Kirsten Hubbard. This one is a really complicated girl friendship: one girl is older and world-wise and the other is young and naive and a bit star struck when the older girl singles her out for a friend. There's some bad influence going on here, but that's not the main gist of this story. Its an honest look at two very different girls with very different issues who learn from each other.

5. The Latte Rebellion, by Sarah Jamila Stevenson. The friendship of Asha and Carey reminded me a lot of me and my high school friend, and while this particular friendship faded as the priorities of the girls changed, it was for different reasons than the cliche intrusion of a boy. The excellent part of this book too is that the change in the relationship is pivotal to Asha instead of just being a "given".

6. Fangirl, by Rainbow Rowell.  Not nearly as strong an example as the other books listed above, but I was pleasantly surprised; what I first thought would be a token conflict between Cath and her college roommate Reagan turned into an unlikely friendship that tied into the plot.

7. Shiver, by Maggie Stiefvater. Another not-quite-strong enough example, but Isabel is a case of a token girl character (and an unlikeable snotty one at that) who surprised me by developing into a very strong and vital counterpoint to Grace's character... a "reluctant ally because I have to be" role that eventually develops into a real friendship.

8. Vampire Academy, Richelle Mead. The interesting bond and friendship between Rose and Lissa was the highlight of this book to me. Jessica Spotswood sums it up well: "here are elements of jealousy, of negotiating boundaries (especially since she has a psychic bond with Lissa), of figuring out how to define herself away from the friendship"

9. Daughter of Smoke and Bone, Laini Taylor.  Many supporting cast girls in YA books are great characters, vibrant and memorable, but they just don't get to play into the plot enough. Zuzana is exactly one of these, a character who should have had a larger role alongside Karou. But she's still definitely more than a token friend and her role is not insignificant in the sequel. Curious to see how much of a role she gets in the third book coming out soon.

10. I haven't read this one yet, but I want to: The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants, by Anne Brashares; I think it's a good candidate for the strong girl friendship category.

I'm also going to mention these books, even though they didn't have strong enough girl friendships for me to remember, their settings would have been a perfect springboard for interesting girl friendship dynamics. Nightshade, by Andrea Cremer, explores werewolf pack dynamics, and had potential to develop interesting friendship dynamics between pack members. A Great and Terrible Beauty by Gemma Doyle is about a clique of girls at a Victorian boarding school with gothic flavor. So much potential but the story just didn't clique with me, no pun intended.

At first, in middle grade stories, all I could think of was girl-boy friendships such as Hermione/Harry/Ron and Percy/Annabeth/Grover, but thank you to Laura Marcella for reminding me of Anne and Diana in Anne of Green Gables.

In the non-kidlit world, my two favorite friendship books are The Help (the unlikely friendships in the 1960's of two black maids, Minnie and Aibileen with two very different white women, Skeeter and Celia), and Talk Before Sleep, an absolutely beautiful, heart-wrenching portrait of the friendships of women, one of whom is dying of cancer.

 And yes it's a movie, but how can I not mention Thelma and Louise?

What's your favorite girl friendship book? I seriously want to add to my list.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

In which an old dream is rekindled

Over the past year I've been having SO MUCH FUN re-reading some of my favorite childhood books to my daughters:  the Chronicles of Narnia, Bambi and Bambi's Children, My Side of the Mountain, The Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E Frankweiler, and A Wrinkle in Time. We just finished Bambi's Children and I was debating what to offer them next: maybe Anne of Green Gables?

Then it occurred to me, hey, why not read them my book? Back in 2009 I finished writing a middle grade story about unicorns.

Ahhh, unicorns.

Alas, after finishing it, I found out it was way too long to be acceptable to agents and publishers - it was 130,000 words!!! At that point I realized I had to break it down into two, maybe even three books, which meant a major restructuring. I got overwhelmed at the thought, and switched to a new writing project, and then another new one after that, and I just never got back to middle grade story, even though it was my first love.

But now it's occurred to me that my oldest daughter is 12 years old, and she's getting close to the point where she'll be switching from reading middle grade to young adult. Right now she still loves animal stories and will read anything with horses or dogs in it (or unicorns). But I know her tastes will probably change... my stepdaughter was 13 when she read Twilight and she craved purely young adult after that point.

So right now seemed like a good time to see if my girls would be interested in Refuge (logline: In order to save the last remaining refuge of the unicorns, Selty needs help from her worst enemy: a human girl), before the oldest one has moved beyond middle grade and talking animals.

But would they actually like it? And how would I manage the problem of a 130,000 word, ridiculously long book? Well, I started re-reading it, and the five years of writing experience I've had since writing this book showed me immediately how to trim this monstrosity down. Back then I rambled through a story; a lot my scenes were extraneous, not really furthering the plot, just meandering here and there. Since then I've learned how to keep scenes focused on furthering the story. As I was re-reading,  I got excited thinking about how I could tighten it up and make it so much better - but I was also excited by how good it already was (well, to me at least!). I immediately fell in love with it again, and decided to try reading the first couple chapters to my girls to see how they'd react to it.

Absolutely terrifying. Reading this book to my family took all my nerve. I know some writers who have their family read everything they write, even their SFDs (first drafts, you insert the S word if you like) (Anne Lamott's Bird by Bird fans will understand), but I'm not like that. I only want to share the good stuff with them, the certifiably, beta-reader-proofed good stuff. I wasn't sure about this old draft from 5 years ago. But as I started reading, my girls laughed - in all the right places where they were supposed to laugh. They didn't wiggle around and tease the cat and build blanket forts like they do sometimes when a book isn't fully engaging them. And when I finished the 2nd chapter and said "that's all I have, for now," they said, "awwww! We want more!"

And I said, "Really? did you really like it?"

"Oh yes!" Four pairs of shining eyes. "We really liked it. Especially the unicorn parts." (My girls are unicorn and Pegasus crazy, just like I was, and maybe still am. We are different in lots of ways, but if you put pretty shiny horns or wings on a horse, our eyes all light up.)

Well, maybe it was a fluke. I read them chapters 3 and 4 the next night.

Same reaction. "You want me to keep reading this one?" I asked them.

"Yes!" (4x)

I'm not sure if they'll let me get it edited and tightened up first... but I'm already elbow deep in edits and I guess my official next writing project is not young adult, like I expected, but back to middle grade.

Amazing how an eager audience will motivate you!

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

It's all about gratitude

The first Wednesday of the month
 is time for Insecure Writers
hos Support Group, hosted
by Alex Cavanaugh and his
excellent team. 
Click here for a list
of all the participants and to join in.
This post hits two different events with one of those magical coincidental (or maybe not so coincidental?) moments of perfect timing: the Insecure Writer's Support Group and the It's All About Gratitude Blog Hop.

What better way to deal with insecurities than to gently wrap them up in gratitude? I have been keeping a "1000 gifts lists" on my personal blog for nearly four years now, and I just reached 800 things to be grateful for on my list. I've also noticed how in those four years my perspective on life has really changed.

I'm still insecure and worried about a lot of things. But purposefully seeking out things to be grateful for has provided a mysterious and wonderful strength to face the hard things in life.

hosted by Sheri Larsen

Insecurity:  I worry that being an introverted writer means I can't connect to most people

Gratitude:  I'm thankful for being introverted. I may not be the life of the party, but I know my friends and family value me for being a good listener, for being empathetic and sensitive to what others are going through

Insecurity: I worry that the time I spend writing could be better spent elsewhere

Gratitude: I'm thankful for the joy writing brings me. The joy of a new idea, and the joy of revisiting old writing and seeing new potential there.

Insecurity: I worry there will be so many rejections they will crush my lifelong dream.

Gratitude:  I'm grateful for the rejections that also contain a note about the things they liked in my writing, or a hint about what didn't work that I can learn from.

Insecurity: I'm not consistent enough. I don't write everyday. I'm too on-again, off-again.

Gratitude: I'm thankful I always come back to writing, and that I can balance my life with other important things.

Right now this week I'm grateful for a critique partner who read the latest version of my manuscript Star Tripped and said "This is ready to submit!" and other complimentary things. I love how she described my characters just the way I wanted them to be.

I'm also grateful for another, unexpected compliment from an acquaintance that I have a "gift for teaching kids" - as a homeschooling mom and a Sunday School teacher, that compliment was a great gift and encouragement.

I'm grateful my daughter's broken arm is healing nicely and I'm grateful that even though the car I wrecked last week isn't fixed yet, no one was hurt in the accident and meanwhile I have another vehicle to drive.

What are you grateful for this week?

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

My middle name is Danger

"My middle name is Danger," is something Maisie Danger Brown doesn't like to tell people, because it's such a misnomer for her. Because she's homeschooled, she's slightly disabled (born without one hand), she loves poetry, and she's a wanna-be astronaut nerd. All of those things absolutely endeared her to me. 

Dangerous, by Shannon Hale, releases today and I've been eager to share the details about this interesting departure from Shannon Hale's usual famous books, like The Goose Girl and Princess Academy (middle grade audience, set in traditional fantasy settings). This book is young adult science fiction, blended with X-men-like superhero stuff.  The blurb for this book is almost useless, all it mentions is "falling in love with a boy at space camp" - leaving out what I found most interesting of all:  that Maisie's determined to become an astronaut, despite being only one-handed.  

In a nutshell: Dangerous is a dashing blend of science fiction (SPACE!!!), young adult angst, poetry, and superhero antics. What I loved: SPACE!!!!!! and GREAT dialogue and some very cool ideas. 

What I didn't like so much: too much action crammed into one book, resulting in a breakneck pace that I couldn't keep up with at times. But I'm glad I stuck with it, because I really liked how the end turned out. You know how you're not supposed to take the movie Back to the Future that seriously? That's sort of how you should take this book, just sit back and enjoy the craziness and try not to connect all the dots too closely. 

I also tend to judge a book by how much stuff I highlight in it: funny tidbits, thoughtful tidbits, nerdy cool ideas or expressions. And I highlighted A LOT in this book. So that tends to make me happily overlook its flaws.

First line (not counting the prologue):

Every superhero has an origin story. Mine began with a box of cereal.

I just loved the first chapter. We get Maisie's great voice, her Paraguayan mother, her multi-lingual background, ("Gaucala," I said. The Spanish word for gross sounded so perfectly gross), her scientific lecturing and punning father, we find out she's missing a hand (a heroine - a superhero- with a disability!), why she wants to be an astronaut, we find out what a space elevator is (note to self: must read Asminov's Fountains of Paradise for more science fiction space elevator geek happiness), we get to meet homeschool friend Luther, who I LOVE, and the beginning of the Maisie's character arc. (She has this belief that in order to succeed she must turn off all her emotions and become "Maisie robot." Which of course she completely fails at.) 

Here's a little excerpt where you get a feel for Maisie's mix of sharp wit and naivety:

Wilder looked at me leisurely before opening my folder. "Astrophysics in 2-C. That sounds like a party in a jar."

It did. If a party in a jar was a good thing. Would setting a party inside a glass container make it more amusing? Or was he being sarcastic?

"And you have Navigation in 4-F," I said, though he didn't ask.

"I can't just follow you to astrophysics? Sit in the back, pass you notes, sketch your profile on my desk?"

I was sure he was kidding. Almost sure. I should have done some homeschool projects on Teenage Social life or Boys in General.

Wilder did not follow me to astrophysics. I looked around a few times, just to be sure.

I was not a fan of Wilder. There was a very mild love triangle going on in this story, and I was definitely on Luther's side. Wilder didn't have much character and what he did have (the smooth talking) is something I've never liked or trusted: but he wasn't meant to be a trustworthy character. 

Another untrustworthy character I did like though was Bonnie Howell, eccentric billionaire, space developer, genius, and astronaut boot camp director. Here's her opening speech to the kids at boot camp:

"Your teenage brain is a work in progress. If you want big, beefy brains as adults, you must learn to organize your thoughts, control your impulses, and explore abstract concepts while you're still a teenager. Challenge ourselves, for pity's sake! By adulthood, any neglected areas in your brain will shut down. So sit back and stick to what you know, and you'll be condemned to flimsy, pathetic little pinatas, frozen in form with no hope of establishing the connections you ignored as teenagers. Okay?"

And she left the stage.

If Luther had been there, I would have whispered to him, "I give her an A for Brain Trivia, B for Bounciness, and D for Closure."

One of the things I loved about this book was how it combined all sorts of nerdy science stuff with dashes of poetry.  
"Poets seems to know things that scientists don't. And vice versa. Maybe they balance each other out somehow."

And this: 

"Poetry kind of reminds me of looking at things through a microscope." 
I didn't know what I was saying - I just started to talk. "I got a microscope when I turned six. You know, physicist mom, biologist dad. I examined things I thought I knew - a strand of my hair, a feather, and onion peel. Seeing them up close, they changed. I started to guess how, you know, things are more complicated than they seem, but that they have patterns, and the patterns are beautiful. Space has all those patterns and intricacies and mysteries, but not tiny under a microscope. So big, so expansive, when I think about it, I feel like the solid parts of me are dissolving and I'm out there in the blackness and light..."
...I wish I could explain better. NASA's next urgent mission should be to send good poets into space so they can describe what it's really like.

"'Stars, hide your fires,'" Jacques said, not looking down at Earth but out. "'Let not light see my black and deep desires.'"

He was quoting Macbeth, I was pretty sure. At least I wasn't the only apt-to-quote nerd aboard.

At first it's really not clear why  5 of the kids from the astronaut camp get picked to go up the space elevator into space and are given alien artifacts that produce superhero like powers in them... it feels a little fishy at first, but at the end it's all explained (I think it should have been explained sooner), and the ending is really pretty neat.  Meanwhile, there's a lot of chase scenes, a lot of trying to figure out who the real enemy is, and there's also a lot of violence, several deaths and a dismemberment (yikes... just thought y'all should know).  

There's also a "I'm not sure if I should love him or kill him" kind of romance going on, and there's a scene where Wilder tries to tempt Maisie into bed with him and she's VERY tempted but she turns him down. YES! SMART GIRL! 

Definitely a book for anyone who loves space, science nerdiness, superheros, lots of action, and a touch of poetry. 

I received a digital copy of Dangerous from Net Galley in exchange for my honest review. 

Oh, and see you tomorrow for Insecure Writer's Support Group!
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