Tabs and Follow Me

January 17, 2019

I read Emergency Contact

This week's novel is Emergency Contact, Contemporary YA by Mary H.K. Choi.

Penny starts college at UT Austin, eager to get away from her over-excited mom.  Sam is a baker at a coffee house, who is not handling his girlfriend dumping him, and is especially not handling it when she announces that she's pregnant.  When he has a panic attack on the street, Penny--an expert on panic attacks--helps him home.  She demands text updates about how he's doing, and calls herself his emergency contact.  They start a friendship via text that they both desperately need.

I read this one because it's set in Austin.  Not only do I love to see things that acknowledge Austin, but I'm writing a novel set in Austin and I like to see how other people do it.  I was pleased with the way it captured parts of the city.  Aside from name dropping sometimes, there are paragraphs that work to give a sense of the setting.  They're generally short and scattered chapters apart, and what I found interesting was that instead of relying on description, they dealt more with how the characters felt.

"That fateful morning she'd told him she wanted to go to the breakfast taco spot before work.  The not-that-good spot on Manor that charged extra for pico de gallo."

I don't know exactly which place they're talking about, but at the same time I do.  Choi gets it.  Some facts are wrong, showing the author's age and the part of town in which she grew up, but it was more accurate than not.

This brings me to the main aspect of the book that stood out for me.  The characters describe people they meet and places they go and food they eat in unflattering terms.  They're vivid and stick with you.  And at the same time, they tell so much about the POV characters who are describing them.  These characters find the worst in things, and you can tell that from the way they describe their tortilla chips.

January 10, 2019

I Read Wild Beauty

Several weeks ago, I read Wild Beauty, YA fantasy by Anna-Marie McLemore.

For generations, the Nomeolvides girls (5 girls in each generation) have tended the garden of La Pradera with their magical abilities to grow flowers.  The Nomeolvides are cursed to never leave La Pradera and to have everyone they love vanish.  When all five girls realize they're in love with the same girl, they know that their love will kill her, and they offer sacrifices of beloved objects to La Pradera, praying for her safety.  In return, La Pradera returns a mysterious boy to them from the dirt, a boy with no memory of where he came from.

McLemore's writing is so rich, dark dark chocolate, that I had to read slow to take it all in and read only in small bites.  She works marvelous metaphors, that make you stop and appreciate them.

I've heard it explained that the difference between "literary" fiction and "mainstream" fiction is that mainstream fiction focuses on story so the methods of telling that story become invisible and you can forget that you're reading, while literary fiction wants you to notice what it's doing.  Literary fiction presents its structures and uses of language and says, "Look at this and marvel!"  So I think it's interesting that this book has easily accessible characters and plot, which would clip right along like any other YA novel if the language wasn't presented the way it is.  It's a really good way to have literary YA.

January 7, 2019

New Year!

It's a new year, which is a time for reflection and making goals.  I thought I'd share some of my reflections and goals with you.

  • I did not meet my Goodreads goal this year.  I've decided that this is because my goal is too high.  Reading a book a week makes it hard to read longer books.  It also makes it hard when I'm bouncing off a book or getting stuck on one.  Sometimes I feel as if I have to finish it and it's painful.  Sometimes it feels as though if I'm not going to finish it on time for a weekly blog post, what's the point?  So I'm changing my goals this year to reading 30 books, and writing a blog post every week.  I can write about about what I've learned or what I'm thinking about.
  • Season 4 is written except for some tweaking.  I plan to record next week or the week after, and start putting episodes up by the end of January.  Season 4 is a little different.  I wanted to tell three longer stories, so I had each of them as four episodes, then I rotated through: story A for epsides1, story B for episode 2, story C for episode 3, and story D for episode 4.  This was a bad idea, because listeners would have to wait 3 weeks for each story to continue.  Also, at the beginning, there wasn't enough evidence that the story would come back, so the episodes just felt unfinished and lacking.  So I rearranged, and season 4 will only have three episodes.  Each episode will be about four times as long as usual, but still, the season will probably feel short.
  • Season 5 will go back to basics with monsters of the week.  That might be the last season.  I have other stories in me, and I don't want to write short stories about monsters forever.  For instance, I have an idea for a series about time travel, but that's so different from what's already out there that I couldn't call it Season 6.
  • My Firebird novel is finally looking readable after this last edit, and after the current edit, it's looking like it'll be a good book.  I'm hoping to have this edit done by the end of the month, then I need to write the end and some some additional sections that turned up lacking when I started editing.  The writing will be next month, and I hope to have it ready for first readers by the end of February.
  • I also want to apply for a scholarship to a writing conference, which is due mid January.  Last year, I answered "Why I want to attend the conference" with an essay about how I was a time traveler and me attending the conference might save humanity.  Unfortunately, but not unexpectedly, I didn't win.  This year, I'm planning something equally silly, and I'll share it with you when I hear the results.  I'm hoping it'll become a tradition: I send a weird story in hopes they let me go to a conference for free, or at least someone finds it entertaining.

November 29, 2018

I read The Cursed Queen



This week's novel is The Cursed Queen, the sequel to The Imposter Queen by Sarah Fine.

Ansa was raised in a vicious warrior tribe that values bloody raids and make kill marks on their arms to show their status.  But when they launch a huge invasion fleet, the witch queen who rules where they were about to invade single-highhandedly destroys everybody.  The witch queen also curses Ansa (one of three warriors who survive) to have fire and ice magic that threatens to destroy her tribe when she takes it back to them.  Ansa has to keep her curse a secret or be stoned by her tribe as a witch, but with their warriors dead and their old chieftain replaced by his daughter, who everyone thinks is too soft-hearted, a splinter tribe tries to take over and Ansa is sucked into a political game that tests her loyalties.

This book has a different narrator than the first book, an it's set in a different part of the world.  The two books are also taking place simultaneously, and it's interesting to see how the two stories intersect.  Having read the first one, we know a fair bit more than Ansa--namely that she's not cursed, but rather she's inherited the magic.  But it works well, and I never felt like Ansa was stupid for not figuring out what I knew because I'd already read the first book.

In general, I liked how Ansa was portrayed.  She was born in the country from the first book, but kidnapped by the raiders and made a member of their tribe, and she has spent her life desperately trying to fit in.  So when she tries repeatedly to reject the magic, I understood why she was doing it.  Then her new chieftain is talking about changing their ways to survive (farming?!  not killing old, unarmed people?!) and the chieftain who wants to take over their tribe is talking about tradition and being glorious in victory, and I understand why it's so hard for Ansa to pick a side.  It never felt like she was flip-flopping for the sake of keeping the plot going until she can make a decision and show her loyalty at the climax, but instead it felt like a character flaw rising out of her desire to belong and be accepted and never be weak enough to have her family murdered in front of her again.

And, like the first book, I like how this one is about identity.  Is Ansa part of her adoptive culture or the culture she was born into but doesn't remember?  Can her tribe change their ways without abandoning who they are?  These are questions that so many people wrestle with, just turned up to eleven and with pseudo-Vikings.

***

Next week: Wild Beauty, YA Fantasy by Anna-Marie McLemore

November 22, 2018

I read To All the Boys I've Loved Before

 This week's novel is To All the Boys I've Loved Before, by Jenny Han.

When Laura Jean gets crushes on unattainable guys, she writes love letters, spilling out all of her feelings as a way of saying goodbye, and then she stores them away in a hat box.  She never means for anyone to read them or for them to ever get sent, but that's exactly what happens.  This is more than just regular embarrassing, because one of the letters is to Josh, Laura Jean's sister's long time boyfriend, who she dumped right before going to college and right before the letters got sent.  In order for hi to not get any ideas, Laura Jean arranges to have a fake relationship with Peter, who also received one of her letters and who just broke up with his manipulative boyfriend and wants to make it clear he's moved on.

I found a lot to like about this book.

Laura Jean is allowed to be unapologetically feminine.  She loves to braid her hair and wear cute clothes and bake cupcakes and scrap book and write notes using fancy pens on special stationary.  She does a lot of dreamy-eyed daydreaming.  She's not embarrassed about it, the narration isn't poking fun at her for it or implying she's any less of an interesting person.  She's not given extra interests that are traditionally coded masculine to make her seem "tougher" or "stronger," while at the same time, it's never implied that she's weak.  The fact that I find this so refreshing, makes me a little uncomfortable.  Why don't we see this more?

Oh, wait.  I know why.

I also found the sister's relationships fascinating.  They were good sister relationships, where they squabble and stick up for each other, where they're loyal, but their fights are bitter.  That was well done.  But what I really liked was how directly their backstory affected their characters and their relationships to each other.  Their mother died when they were young, and Margot, the oldest, clearly stepped up to take over the job of mothering.  She keeps track of the family's scheduling, she plans and cooks meals, she makes baked goods for school bake sales.  So when she leaves for college, the family is a bit of a mess for a while, forgetting about the youngest sister's field trip and such.  Meanwhile, Margot is calling home and reminding them to do things they already have on the calendar and telling Laura Jean that junior year is the most important year and she needs to join some extracurriculars and apply for internships.

Laura Jean, on the other hand, has a strand of fear in her that you can trace back to her mother's death.  She's too panicky to drive the car.  She also has trouble getting close to people, and would rather sigh while pining after boys from afar than really get to know them.  She'd rather fake-date Peter because then it's not real, and therefore not scary.

And meanwhile, the youngest sister, who is much younger, and was three when their mother died, has way less baggage than the other two, and really wants a dog.

It's really well done, and I started quietly taking notes.

The last thing I want to talk about are the scene changes.  The chapters are all very short, some only a handful of pages.  And there aren't many scenes where significant events happen all at once.  Laura Jean and Peter will be in the library studying and hell put his head in her lap and she'll shove him off, and she'll feel the flutters, but then the scene will change and she'll be in a class and someone will say something rude.  It's not quite a montage, because everything is in scene, and you'll stay in that scene for a full page or two.  But the scenes will shift without anything resolving, without Laura Jean having a breakthrough or a definite start or stop to a problem.  Furthermore, when they come back together in a different time and place, it's as if friendships get resettled back into their base state.  Laura Jean and Peter will snip at each other and she'll be angry that he's not over his ex, but then in the next scene, they'll be ready to drink each other's sodas.  The way I'm describing it, it sounds like actions don't have lasting consequences, but I saw it as an accurate portrayal of what it's like to have a friendship at school.  You can't have a full conversation in the middle of class.   You snip at each other and then you go to Waffle House, because if given a few class periods, you'll get over it or they'll get over it, and even if you're both kinda still mad, it's not going to keep you from Waffle House.

***

Next Week: The Cursed Queen, a sequel to The Imposter Queen, by Sarah Fine.

November 15, 2018

I read Muse of Nightmares

 This week, I read Muse of Nightmares, the sequel to Strange the Dreamer, by Lani Taylor.

I can't talk about this one without spoiling the first one.  If you haven't read Strange the Dreamer, you should go read that instead of this blog post.

Lazlo and Minya are at an impasse, where she wants to use him to wreck vengence on all Weep, using her control over Sarai as a threat, and he wants to protect Weep and is pretty sure Minya won't kill her only bargaining chip.  They all realize how very damaged Minya is, both by the trauma of living through the carnage and by the weight her gift places on her, and Sarai sets out to charge her heart and mind.

The first big chunk of this book is very dismal.  There's just nothing anyone can do and no good solution.  They spend a lot of time replying how awful the situation is.  It made for a rough read.  I kept getting distracted, because the first chapter of each section is about a completely different group of people: a pair of sisters who dream of being chosen by the blue gods because their dormant amazing gifts are so amazing.  They dream of being taken away from their harsh ice village with their horrible step-mother and their horrible jobs butchering walrus-like creatures.  It was gripping and I had room to root for them.  The A-plot was such a downer that I started flipping ahead and just reading the B plot chapters.

I did like how all the pieces fall into place at the end, all the different story lines coming together.  A bunch of secondary characters get developed over the course of the book, so when they use their skills at the end in ways that help the main story, it feels earned, even though a lot of the resolution could have easily felt like a cop out.

I still love Strange the Dreamer, but this sequel was not as striking.

***

Next week: To All the Boys I've Loved Before, YA contemporary romance by Jenny Han

November 8, 2018

I read Charmed Life

This week's novel is Charmed Life by Diana Wynne Jones.  This was on a recommendation list for books about magic schools, and Howl's Moving Castle, another of Jones' books is one of my favorites, so I thought I should check this out.

Cat's older sister Gwendolen is a talented witch, so when their parents die and they're eventually whisked off to live with Chrestomanci, the rich and talented wizard, she thinks she'll finally get the attention, respect, and power she deserves.  Cat is just homesick.  But when Chrestomanci refuses to let Gwendolyn use magic, and she sets out on a series of daily magical pranks to get attention, things get even more difficult for Cat, who's put in the middle of trying to appease his sister and trying to fit into his new home.

I really liked the first half or so of this book, because Gwendolen's siege against Chrestomanci, trying to get a rise out of him, felt real to the kind of crap a kid would pull who has just lost her parents, and then been displaced from her home.  It felt like she just needed some attention, even if that attention was punishment.  If she gets in trouble, at least the adults in charge are noticing her.

I also liked how Cat is the devoted underachiever, and that he loves his sister even if she's being a pill.  I liked how his life was structured so that "Gwendolyn is going to do great things, and I'm not" is a fact that's never questioned or resented.  That felt real too.  It also felt real that he struggles so hard with standing up to her, and that he wished she'd calm down so he could make friends with the other kids at Chrestomanci's castle.  He just wanted to play in the tree house, but his sister needs him to help her make giant spider monsters so she can disrupt Chrestomanci's dinner party.

So I'm pretty disappointed that the ending ruins all of that.  I was expecting Gwendolen to have a sobbing breakdown where she admits she only wants love and misses her parents and is trying so hard to be the great witch everyone back home expects from her and it's difficult do deal with the realization that she was a big fish in a little pond.  I was expecting Cat to realize he had his own power, and to move out from under Gwendolyn's shadow, and for Gwendolen to realize that she'd been overbearing.  That would have been a more emotionally satisfying book for me.

That is not what happens.  In fact, what happens has to be summed up at the end in true Jones style with Chrestomanci explaining everything while everyone has tea.

I did like the hints at the mystery that are strung along through the book.  They were enough for the reader to know there were things afoot, but not enough for me to piece it all together myself.  It was also reasonable that Cat, after hearing these clues, wouldn't have his interest piqued by them and investigate them to their conclusion. Jones does this all very well.

As a warning, this was written in the seventies, and there are a couple moments of weird racism just dropped in for no reason.  All the instances are so brief that if the lines were cut, the story wouldn't lose anything but racism, but it was the seventies, so no editor cared.  It's really more jarring than anything else.

Next week: The Muse of Nightmares, the sequel to Strange the Dreamer, by Lani Taylor.