The Compulsive Reader

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Belzhar by Meg Wolitzer

Jam has had a rough year. Reeling from the loss of her boyfriend, Reeve, her parents send her to a boarding school in Vermont for emotionally vulnerable teenagers. There, she's inexplicably placed in a special topics in English class. Her roommate is insanely jealous, but Jam is indifferent--what's so special about reading nothing by Sylvia Plath all semester long?

But Jam and her classmates soon discover that it's not the author they study that makes the class so special, but their teacher Mrs. Quenell and the journals she passes out at the beginning of the semester. When Jam writes in her journal, she is transported to a place where she and Reeve are together and happy. Each student experiences something different with their journals, but they form a bond based on the impossibility of their experiences. They call their journal place Belzhar, after Sylvia Plath's Bell Jar and meet weekly to discuss what they see when they go there. Their friendship is only shadowed by one looming question--what happens when the journals are full?

Belzhar is a deeply compelling novel with a fascinating premise. I loved Jam's intelligent voice from the first page. She's completely aware of why she is being sent to Vermont, but she's deeply hurt by Reeve's absence and she can't seem to get past her pain. She's apathetic and a little naive at first, just putting herself through the motions. Mrs. Quenell's class presents Jam with a little mystery to entice her out of her own memories and thoughts: Who is Mrs. Q? What's so important about her classes? Why is she retiring at the end of the year? And where did she get the journals she hands out every semester? Eventually her questions lead her to her classmates.

The friendship between the members of the small English class is lovely and odd. Mrs. Quenell asks them to look after each other, and they come together slowly, tentatively. They form fast bonds, but they're also lopsided and imperfect friendships. Jam's friendship (and eventual romance) with Griffin is a lovely thing to watch, although it does seem to push aside her potential to deepen her friendships with her other classmates. All of the students learn the dangers of dwelling in the past, and they're forced to face their losses head-on until they come to a painful decision: move forward, or stay in the past. The revelation of Jam's entire story is surprising and inevitable, but her truth is overshadowed by the larger drama of her classmate's reaction to her own truth. The magical realism elements beautifully illustrate the painful reality of how we must deal with loss and life, and give the story much higher stakes. Belzhar is a little strange, very thoughtful, and emotionally hefty.

Book borrowed from the library.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Stealing From Reality: A Guest Post from Trina St. Jean

Trina St. Jean is the author of Blank, a novel about a girl who wakes up from a coma to find that all of her memories have disappeared. She's here today to talk about stealing from reality to write fiction!

First, about Blank:

All Jessica knows is what she’s been told: she’s fifteen, and thanks to a run-in with a bison bull she is stuck with a brain injury. The rest of her life is a blank her brain no longer fills in. The doctors send her to home to piece together her shattered life, but no matter how hard she tries, she can’t be the old Jessie everyone misses so much. When a new friend comes along with an alternative to staying in her old life, Jessica must face the reality of what it means to truly leave her past behind.

And here's Trina!
Psst. Come a little closer. 
Im a YA author with a secret. Some of the ideas in my debut novel Blank" are not completely original. I am a a thief. Or maybe pickpocket is a better word. 
No need to call in the legal team, Orca Book Publishers. I dont mean that I plagiarized or that I have someone chained in the basement writing novels for me. What I mean is that the details in the novel that add up to the big picture of plot, description, character and setting are scraps and snippets that I borrowed from different periods of my life to create the fictional world of my main character, Jessica. Some of the borrowing was subconscious; some of it was outright intentional. I believe that any writer, if they answered the question where do you get your ideas?, would make this same confession. 
Now that Ive gotten that off my chest, its time to come completely clean. Here is a list of some of the things I have pilfered: 
 1.     Names. I am terrible at coming up with names for characters. Every name I find in online lists seems too cutesy, too dull, or way too out there. So I steal from people Ive known. In "Blank", Jessicas last name is my mothers maiden name, Grenier. The rebellious friend she makes in the hospital, Tarin, is the letters of my name mixed up. The neuropsychologist Jessica sees for therapy, Dr. K., is named after a friend Tamara that I havent talked to in at least a decade.  She looks like her, too. (Hello, Tamara, howve you been? Surprise!
2.     Places. The town Jessica lives in is Winding Creek. I grew up in Wandering River. (I guess I could work on my subtlety.) Winding Creek is, however, a bit different from Wandering River: it has a high school, for example. It would have been much too inconvenient for my characters to drive an hour to another town for high school like people in Wandering River do, after all. Now that I think of it, I really should have taken the opportunity to jazz things up for the Wandering Riveran's who still live there. Like giving them a roller derby rink or something. 
3.     Meaningful objects and symbols. Jessica has a collection of mini-frog statues. One of my best friends, Shellie, has such a collection, one shes been gathering since childhood. I was always in awe of it, since I have never been able to maintain a decent collection of anything but dust bunnies. So I borrowed it for Jessica. So sorry, Shellie, that Jessica loses her temper, and well, a few frogs are injured. Some items Jessica studies to understand her pre-amnesia self, however, are my real-life childhood treasures, like a peacock feather and a brooch of my name made from twisted wire. 
4.     Experiences. One of my most creative friends growing up was Kim. One weekend in high school, she came up with the idea of tying kitchen knives to the ends of broomsticks to go spearfishing. (Yes, we have to create our own kind of crazy fun in the country.) Jessica has the same scheme in my novel. During the revision process, one reader questioned whether you could make spears that way. I had to laugh and admit, oh yes, that I knew you could, because I had done it. I cant remember frying up any delicious trout afterwards, mind you. Like Jessica, I have also been to parties in gravel pits and watched events where trucks with huge tires race through giant pits of mud. Like I said, in the country 
5.     Danger and Conflict. I have never been charged by a bison bull, thank goodness. But I can imagine how dangerous it would be, because my parents had 100 head of bison on their ranch about a decade ago. Believe it or not, this was a hobby they took up in retirement. These beasts amazed me. They are so strong and powerful looking, and if you can somehow get close enough to see their eyes, theres a genuine intelligence there. Whenever I visited home, my dad would take me on the tractor to drive into the pen and feed the bison hay bales. They snorted and pawed at the ground all around the tractor, giving me chills. They are not easily domesticated and cant be trusted. The alpha male, a bull named Mufasa, was a sight to behold. So when I began writing "Blank" in an urban Montreal apartment, as far-removed from my parents prairie home as possible, and I needed to put my main character in danger, guess who came trotting into my mind? Mufasa, waiting to cause trouble. I hated having to send poor Jessica off to deal with him, but you gotta do what you gotta do.
I could go on and on, adding to my list of crimes. Some of them, I dont even realize Ive committed. A friend of mine, for example, sent me an email while she was reading an earlier draft of "Blank" - Ha ha! she wrote. The sex-ed teacher is named after me. Too funny! I actually had to go back and check if she was right. Of course she was.
 Of course, there are many, many parts of Blank" that I created from scratch (like all writers do). I cant even pretend to know what its like to experience a brain injury or memory loss, for example, like Jessica does in my novel. Writers write to explore topics we are curious about just as readers read to delve into unknown territory. Its a journey were lucky to take together. 
 There you have it. I feel better now that the truth is out in the open: we writers have sticky fingers. Or minds, I should say. On behalf of all authors, thank you in advance for the things you say and do, names you give your children, your creative parties and events, and treasures and interesting pets. Keep the great material coming!
About Trina:

Trina St. Jean grew up in a small town in northern Alberta, Canada, but left in pursuit of degrees in psychology and education. During a decade out east, she picked up a husband with a cute accent and an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Vermont College. She now lives in Calgary, where she teaches ESL and tries to stay out of trouble with her husband and two daughters. Blank is her first novel. You can pay Trina a visit at http://www.trinastjean.com or like Author Trina St. Jean on Facebook.
 Blank is out now!

Sunday, April 12, 2015

The Messy, Messy World of Dragon Politics: Shadow Scale by Rachel Hartman

Seraphina by Rachel Hartman was one of those wonderfully charming, wholly fascinating fantasy novels that caught my eye at work one day and would not leave me alone. This happens occasionally--I see a book in the flesh (in the pages?) and even though I've already talked myself into waiting until it comes out in paperback, or the library gets, or at least waiting until pay day, that's it. It must come home with me. Seraphina was that kind of book.

So I've been waiting and waiting and waiting for the follow-up (because the ending was so maddeningly, wonderfully wide open) for almost three years, and finally, it came. Shadow Scale. Finally.

Shadow Scale picks up only a few weeks after Seraphina left off. The dragon civil war has left the human populations in the Southlands feeling very uneasy, and Glisselda and Lucian fear that Goredd could suffer heavy collateral damage. They send Seraphina and Abdo south to find the rest of the halflings, using Seraphim's mental connection to locate them. Seraphina quickly discovers that her old enemy Jannoula has terrifying mental powers of her own, and she's using them to force each of the halflings to her will. Seraphina finds herself unable to fight Jannoula on her own, she she must turn to the rebel dragons and her own troubled past to discover the truth about her own nature and how to defeat Jannoula.

Shadow Scale does all of the things that a great fantasy sequel should do: expand the world on multiple levels, add depth to the protagonists, and make use of the many interesting, diverse supporting characters. Although the very beginning is a tad slow, as soon as Seraphina and Abdo have set off on their journey, the story moves quickly. Hartman takes readers to all of the three countries she only mentions in the first book--Ninys, Samsam, and Porphyry--and introduces all of the members of Seraphim's mental garden. There are plenty of twists and turns to keep the plot tilting and re-arranging, and the multitude of characters hold their own surprises and secrets.

The trajectory of the plot allows Hartman to really dig deep into the geography, history, politics, and theology of the various nations that made up the Southlands. She uses little details to make the cultures and cities come to life, and follows up on informations she first introduced in Seraphina. She layers new information and details about the history of both humans and dragons into the narrative, pointing to a surprising revelation about the history of humankind and the existence of the halflings.

There are no easy answers for Seraphina, and she runs up against obstacles at nearly every point in the story. Hartman isn't afraid to hurt her characters, but Seraphina doesn't give up easily. She learns that there are no answers to the challenges she faces, and that unless history is to (disastrously) repeat itself, it's up to her to find new solutions and connections between the human and dragon worlds.

Shadow Scale is diverse and compelling, and Hartman's writing is elegant and witty. Seraphina's delightfully charming voice holds steady throughout her trials, although by the end she has changed: she recognizes her own value despite her mistakes and makes great sacrifices for her people.

So now my only question is: Will there be a book three? I think yes. I have too many important questions about Seraphina's world for this to be the end, although I'm willing to give her a brief rest before her next adventure. After the events of Shadow Scale, she's earned it.

ARC provided by publisher.

Thursday, April 9, 2015

Of Witches, Heartbreak, and Magical Showdowns: The Sisters' Fates by Jessica Spotswood

The Sisters' Fate is the conclusion to the Cahill Witch Chronicles (read about book one and book two). When we last left Cate, she was pretty devastated. Maura erased Finn's memory so he has no recollection of Cate, and the death of her godmother still weighs heavily on her conscience. To make matters worse, Cate is exposed as a witch and forced to go into hiding, making it even harder for her to protect Tess and keep Maura from executing a morally questionable plan to take over the Brotherhood. As the tension escalates, Cate begins to wonder if there is any hope of preventing the prophecy from running its course.

What I love about this book is that Spotswood explores the nuances of sexism and power through the sisters' different approaches at combatting the Brotherhood, and nothing is black and white in this world. Spotswood reveals the dangers of obtaining power at all costs through Maura's misguided attempts and Cate's struggle to balance the urgency of needing to save innocent people with her own ethics. This makes for some terrific tension and high stakes, and keeps the story moving quickly to a tumultuous ending.

Spotswood is magnificent at plot twists and turns that are surprising and inevitable, not contrived. Cate's character development shines through her reactions to these twists, and as secrets come to light and character motivations are revealed, the story takes interesting, heartbreaking turns. Spotswood is not afraid to hurt her characters, and while many readers will likely be screaming "NOOO!" at some plot points, they are what make this third installment an emotionally resonant story.

The ending is equal parts tragic and hopeful, and wholly deserved. The Sisters' Fate rounds out an unique, exciting, emotionally turbulent, and romantic trilogy that is worth reading and re-reading.

ARC provided by publisher.

Monday, April 6, 2015

This Song Will Save Your Life Blog Tour

Almost two years ago I read a book with a really awesome title that just stuck with me--the characters, the story, the setting were all incredibly memorable. This Song Will Save Your Life by Leila Sales is out this month in paperback, so if you haven't read it, get a copy now! To celebrate the paperback release, I have Leila here to talk about one of the songs on the This Song Will Save Your Life playlist!

“Like a Friend,” by Pulp  
Pulp is one of my all-time favorite bands. A few years ago one of my best friends Kendra and I flew out to London for a long weekend to see them perform at Hyde Park. (Also we wanted to go to London, so this trip wasn’t JUST for Pulp. But Pulp was a big part of it.) Another time my I went on a music cruise to Jamaica because Pulp was headlining. Clearly, I take Pulp very seriously. 
“Like a Friend” is not my favorite Pulp song, but it is the one that has done the most to save my life. The protagonist of the song is a guy who is supposed to be hanging out with his ex as “friends,” but he doesn’t feel all that friendly to her, because he still harbors a lot of anger and sadness over their breakup. I think we’ve all been there at some point—I certainly have—and this song expresses the experience so beautifully. 
The line in it that I really love is: “I’ve done this before, and I will do it again.” It’s such a succinct way of putting heartbreak in perspective. It says that everyone goes through hard stuff, including you. And they make it through to the other side, and YOU have made it through to the other side, and you know you can be that strong now because you know you’ve been that strong in the past. As I said, there’s a lot of anger and sadness in this song, but there’s also the confidence of knowing that you DO know how to make it through the bad times. I find that really helpful.
What are some songs that have saved your life? Share them on social media with the hashtag #SongsThatSavedMe!

I'm also giving away two awesome things: A These Songs Will Save Your Life mix CD, and an ARC of Leila's next book, Tonight the Streets Are Ours! Two chances to win, so fill out the form below!

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Sisters at Odds: Star Cursed by Jessica Spotwood

Star Cursed is the sequel to Born Wicked, which I reviewed here. More witches, magic, and kick-ass females!

This book skips ahead ever so slightly from where Born Wicked ended, but only by a couple of weeks. Cate is living with the consequences of her actions from the previous book, and that means joining the Sisterhood, who, SURPRISE, aren't actually a religious order but a group of secret witches! You'd think that this development would be a happy one, but Cate is miserable. She's lied to Finn, left her sisters, and is now living in bustling New London where the Brotherhood is making life miserable for women. She's also being pulled in two very different directions by the secret witches--one side wants to declare war on the Brotherhood and use mind magic to gain power, the other side is up for taking a more diplomatic approach. Oh, and Maura still hates Cate's guts. Sisters.

When new laws put her sisters in danger and bring them into the Sisterhood, Cate is forced to make some tough decisions. She's still against the use of mind magic to gain control of government, but she can't stand by when innocent women are being imprisoned in madhouses and abused. But knowing who to trust, and trying to protect her sisters turns out to be far more complicated than she expected, and now her actions might have even more devastating consequences to her heart and her family.

Jessica Spotswood has a special talent for ratcheting up tension and stakes. In Star Cursed, we meet a whole new set of characters to fall in love with and root for, but that also means heightened danger. Now, it's not simply enough for Cate to protect herself and her sisters, but she is spurred into action and must work to free incarcerated girls--not to further a cause, but because it's the right thing to do. Morality certainly plays a large role in this installment, and the question of motivation, fighting for equal rights, and revenge plague Cate, Maura, Tess, and the Sisterhood.

Star Cursed isn't without its swoony scenes, even though Cate was forced to give up her opportunity to marry Finn. The two have some serious issues to work out, and their relationship is made even more dangerous now that the truth is out but they've each joined their respective orders. As their relationship heats up, so does the danger.

This book also sees characters changing in unexpected ways. Some changes will be delightful, and others not so much. True colors are shown, friends turn into enemies, enemies turn into allies, and Cate must confront the fact that her past actions, while well-intended, perhaps were not always right. This character growth is extremely gratifying, if not painful to watch. Cate can't undo the past, and she's helpless to stop the consequences.

If you thought the ending of Born Wicked was cruel, then the ending to this book is downright sadistic. Spotswood doesn't spare her characters, every victory comes with a price, and you will need to have book three on hand right away!

Book purchased at my indie.

Monday, March 23, 2015

Meet Linda Camacho, MFA: Literary Ninja and Agent

I first met Linda Camacho two years ago, when I started at Vermont College of Fine Arts. She's supremely knowledgable about all things kid lit and publishing, fun to talk to, and she has excellent reading tastes. It's no surprise to me that she's recently become a literary agent, and I'm delighted for her and all of the writers and editors who will work with her. Linda was kind enough to stop by the blog to answer a few questions about what she loves and what she's excited about in the kid lit world!

TCR: Can you tell us a little bit about you background and how you settled into agenting?

Linda: I’ve been in publishing ten years now. After I graduated Cornell, I worked at Penguin on the adult side and left to pursue other things. I flirted with the idea of law school, but I missed publishing, so it wasn't very long before I decided to return to it. Only, the job market had just begun its plummet, so I couldn't actually get a job. That led to a series of internships in various departments at Dorchester, Simon & Schuster, Random House, and Writers House literary agency. Thankfully, Random House eventually took pity and hired me! I've been in children’s marketing for the last five years, during which time I discovered a passion for kid lit as well—so much so, that I got my MFA in children’s writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts.

Initially, I wanted to be an editor, but my time at Writers House turned me on to the idea of agenting. Honestly, I never really understood what agents actually did until I was given the chance to see it for myself. Editors have more stability in a corporate job (which is pretty awesome), but an agent isn’t tied to an imprint the way an editor is. The freedom to acquire anything I want and to foster talent from the ground up is just exhilarating.

TCR: What were your three favorite books as a kid/teen?

Linda: Interestingly, my three favorite books as a kid were series, so I was a nut for Sweet Valley High, Fear Street, and Anne of Green Gables. Random, but did I love them!

TCR: Oh, Anne of Green Gables! That one is a favorite on this blog as well. What have you read recently that you loved?

Linda: A couple months back, I read We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson, and wondered why it had taken me so long to get to her. It was so deliciously creepy and well-written. I just loved Merricat, unreliable narrator extraordinaire (I have a thing for those kinds of narrators). I would love to find a middle grade or YA like that, seriously.

TCR: What are you excited about representing?

Linda: I tend to skew older—middle grade through adult fiction. I love literary fiction with commercial appeal, like The Book Thief, When You Reach Me, or I’ll Give You the Sun.

I especially adore genre fiction (romance, horror, fantasy, sci-fi) like Anna and the French Kiss, A Monster Calls, The Coldest Girl in Coldtown, and The Girl of Fire and Thorns. I can’t get enough of fairy tale retellings, either (Cinder, for instance). And if the manuscript has diverse characters, send them my way!

TCR: What are your non-bookish loves and hobbies?

Linda: I'm very much a homebody by nature, seeing as how I binge watch TV shows like Parks & Rec, Orange is the New Black, and The Walking Dead. When I'm not huddled in my tiny Manhattan apartment, I do some travelling, which is always a treat. Last year, I went to China and the year before that I visited Scotland and Ireland. Now I have my eye on a trip to Germany/Austria/Switzerland. Oh, and I love sweets, especially chocolate. A good friend of mine who also loves chocolate gave it up while she wrote her first novel draft. We made a no-chocolate pact and I failed almost right out the gate (sorry, Heidi!).

TCR: What are you excited about in the YA/kidlit world right now?

Linda: I love how much it's exploded in the last decade! I wondered a few years ago if the bubble were about to burst, but the market just continued to swell each year. And I see it growing more still. The beauty of kid lit is that there's so much crossover that adults are reading it, too. Also, I'm very excited about the diversity talks that are transpiring right now. It isn't a new conversation, but it used to be more in the background. Now it's up front and center, and people are really starting to get more involved. As a Latina, I'd like to see more diversity across the board, from the writers to the publishers to the booksellers and beyond. Changes are happening slowly, and I remain optimistic about the future.

TCR: What do you think are important considerations when deciding on an agent?

Linda: I urge writers to consider these two things:

• Experience: There are different levels of agents, from the super ones who represent the bestsellers all the way to the newer agents who are building their lists (like me). It really does depend on what the writer is looking for, but I'd say that in terms of experience, that he/she should look for someone who didn't come out of the woodwork and has no actual publishing experience. There are agents who started out as assistants and worked their way up, and there are those who transitioned from a publishing house (or have some sort of publishing background, like as a former librarian or bookseller). A writer would do well to query someone like any one of those I mentioned, particularly if they're at an established agency. Even if an agent is newer, if the agent is at an established agency, they have contacts and most of all, support from that agency. They're not alone, so don't be scared off if the agent is new and has only a few sales. If they have sales, though, ideally they're with a recognizable house. The more experienced an agent is, the more critical you should be. For instance, if an agent has been in the biz for ten years and hasn't sold much of anything, you should ask about that. Keep in mind that Publisher's Marketplace deals are self-reported, so just because an agent doesn't have many listed doesn't mean he doesn't have them. Just be sure to ask when you speak to the agent in question.

• Connection: All things being equal, a writer should trust their gut. Let's say you have a bunch of agents who offer for you (yay!), and among them you have varying levels of agents (all with established agencies, of course--or super agents who might have gone off and started their own), really think about with whom you connected the most. First, ask yourself if the agent shares the same excitement and vision for the book. Did they make suggestions that indicated they just don't get your work? It doesn't mean you have to agree with all their feedback, but if you notice that most of the feedback is taking your story in a direction you don't want it to go, that's a red flag. It doesn't mean that person is not a good agent. It just means he might not a good agent for you. Also, a question you should ask yourself is what kind of working relationship you desire with an agent. Do you want a close one or a strictly business one (not so close, but not necessarily cold, I mean)? Once you know what you want, you can go with your gut and determine who the right fit might be.

TCR: If you could give one piece of advice to someone who is about to start querying, what would it be?

Linda: I know querying is NO fun. I sympathize, really. Yet, the one piece of advice is to personalize your query (no mass emails to "Dear Agent"). And follow submission guidelines! It shows professionalism, and we like that. Really. So I guess that was two pieces of advice.

Thanks so much, Linda!

If you want to learn more about querying Linda, check out the Prospect Agency website!

Sunday, March 22, 2015

On Words, Intent, and Rage

A few years ago, when my younger brother was a junior in high school, two boys took his notebook during study hall and wrote the n word on it, then left the notebook out in plain sight for my brother to find. By the time my brother re-claimed his notebook and saw that word scrawled across the pages of his notebook, study hall had come to an end and the school day was almost over with.

It was probably a good thing, too.

Because that word, written on that notebook, filled my brother with so much rage he could barely contain it. He could barely contain it for the rest of the school day until our father picked him up from school and that rage exploded. That night, everyone in my house raged through hurt and disbelief, then we all calmed down a tiny bit and the next day the incident was reported to the school administration.

I am white. My brother is dark-skinned. I have had certain privileges because of my skin color, many of which I never bothered to notice before that day. One of those privileges, I think, was an inherent sense of justice when it comes to this type of intolerance. I naively believed that when this incident was reported, the people responsible for writing such a hurtful word would be held accountable for their actions.

The next day, the principal of the school called my parents. He wanted to let them know that yes, the school did know who was responsible for writing the n word on my brother's notebook. Yes, the school did talk to those two white boys. But, the principal determined, the action--writing the n word on the notebook belonging to a dark-skinned boy--wasn't intended to be inflammatory. The boys were making a joke. A bad one, but see, they didn't mean to be racist. My brother just took it to be racist, and well, that's unfortunate. But let's all move on.

The boys got off with a warning.

The n word was still scrawled in blue pen across my brother's notebook.

That night, I was filled with so much rage I broke things. That doesn't even begin to measure up to my brother's rage, or my parents' rage and desperation as they tried to talk to the school, other parents, administrators. Eventually, the issue was dropped. We buried our all-consuming rage to try to move forward, because it became clear that no one really cared about our anger, about the hurt that had been caused by that one word. All that mattered was sparing those two white boys and the white male principal from having to deal with them.

When people say things like, "I don't believe that words can be kind or unkind, they are vessels filled with the intent of the speaker," I start to feel the same rage that held me in its grip for weeks after my brother's notebook was defiled with a racial slur. I want to break something again. I want that person to know what it's like to be discriminated against, to be told his feelings of being discriminated against are invalid, and then to have to face his discriminators again and again and again, every day until he graduates from high school, knowing that almost every authority is on the side of those discriminators.

Intent means nothing then.

Maybe it's because I'm a woman, maybe it's how I was raised, maybe it's the eternal optimist in me that believes that we can all be better, but I always want to give others the benefit of the doubt. Rage isn't going to combat ignorance. I believe in the capacity for change, and what's more, I want to believe people when they say they are working on change.

But intent and change aren't the same thing. Change means you don't use those words, you admit your ignorance, you admit your privilege, and you work on having empathy for others. Your learn what you can and you accept feedback without getting defensive and blocking those who kindly point out your discrimination.

And if you can't do that, then don't be surprised when people get angry.

There's no easy answer to discrimination of any kind, but my hope for anyone who is reading this is simply: Acknowledge the power of words. Know that your voice is important, your feelings are valid, and your worth is immeasurable. Be brave enough to call out discrimination when you see it in yourselves and in others. Above all, be kind.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Alternate History, Magic, and Bad Ass Females: Born Wicked by Jessica Spotswood

Born Wicked by Jessica Spotswood is a book that suffers from not one, but two unfortunate covers and a very vague-sounding summary, so I didn't pick it up earlier because frankly, I like shiny book covers and a sound notion of what I'm getting myself into. But a friend insisted Born Wicked was great, so I started reading and at about page two it clicked that it was alternate history with witches and I was SO on board. And luckily for me, since I was so late to the game, I got to read all three books in a row!

Cate Cahill is the oldest of three girls, and a witch. When her mother was alive, being a witch was easier. Cate didn't worry so much about her younger sisters Maura and Tess and the religiously fanatical Brotherhood trying them all for witchcraft. But the girls are growing up and change is inevitable; Cate must declare her intention to marry or enter a convent, and her sisters need a governess--a stranger who might easily discover their secret. Cate is all too happy to suppress her powers if it means keeping her sisters safe, but Maura disagrees. Maura is a little too confident and reckless, and Cate's caution and constant limits causes a rift in the sisters' relationship. And if an old prophecy is to be believed, this rift indicates that the Cahill sisters are capable of either sparking an enlightened era...or regressing society back to the Dark Ages.

Let's talk premise. I love, love, love it. Alternate history, witchcraft, and STAKES. So much is at stake in these books--the relationship between the three sisters, their lives, their entire way of living! Spotswood sets this up so, so well. She begins with the sisters' lives in their small town, and slowly expands the story to include other local girls who are oppressed by the Brotherhood, a resistance, family secrets, the effects of the prophecy, and she throws in a surprisingly swoony love interest in the form of gardener Finn Belastra to keep things hot.

The world building is skillfully done. The ruling religious order was eery and very realistic. Sexism is maddeningly strong in the Cahill sisters' lives, but the women, witches or not, are certainly not passive. The nuances of how women rebel against this sexism were fascinating, and drew me in completely. I loved the cultural diversity that Spotswood envisions in her alternate world; racial and ethnic diversity is strong, and acknowledged. Other countries are much more progressive than religious New England, and you can sense the desire for this society to grow and evolve even under all of the Brotherhood oppression.

This book moves briskly, with a few inevitable (but delightful!) twists that poke fun at traditional Chosen Ones tropes. The sisters disagree and grow alarmingly more estranged, leading them to make life-changing decisions in order to preserve their secrets. The momentum of the plot takes the reader right up to the cliffhanger ending, so be warned--you'll want Star Cursed on hand the moment you finish!

Book purchased at my indie.

Monday, March 16, 2015

Blue Birds: Caroline Starr Rose on Research and Historical Fiction

Carolin Starr Rose is the author of May B., and her newest book is Blue Birds. Blue Birds is a novel in verse about two girls, one English and one Roanoke. When the English arrival on Roanoke, tensions between the two groups of people force the girls to make an impossible choice.

Caroline is here on the blog to talk about her research process for Blue Birds!
Blue Birds is a book I started researching before I realized it. In 2008 I was teaching fifth grade, and wed just gotten to the passage in our social studies book about the Lost Colony of Roanoke: 117 missing people, the word CROATOAN the only clue left behind. The same shivery fascination that Id felt as a girl, it was there all over again. 
 Coincidentally, our Scholastic book order had two Roanoke books available at this same time. I bought them and tore through them, telling my students everything I was learning. It was two years later that I finally started researching in earnest with my own book in mind. 
 Im not an author who is brimming with ideas. I approach historical fiction with an interest in an era or an event and trust that through my reading some sort of story will bubble up to the surface. I always start my work by reading childrens non-fiction. These books give a great overview of an era while Im in my exploratory phase. Oftentimes they include bibliographies that point me toward scholarly works and first-hand accounts, where I can dig deeper. 
 I use the Internet somewhat (the Fort Raleigh National Historic Site was a great resource while working on Blue Birds, as was the Coastal Carolina Indian Center), but I really prefer buying books and marking them up. I also keep a notebook for each project. Its full of questions, notes, quotes, ideas, maps, and early character sketches. 
 One challenge I faced in my research is the fact both the Croatoan and Roanoke tribes no longer exist. I could only find one substantial book on the Croatoan and Roanoke, The Head in Edward Nugents Hand: Roanoke's Forgotten Indians, which I read several times. I was fortunate enough to find two key readers: the Coordinator of Tribal Youth Programs and Cultural Enrichment for the Lumbee tribe (the Lumbee are believed to have descended from the Croatoan) as well as a North Carolina museum director of Aboriginal Studies. 
 Historical fiction will always hold inaccuracies that range from insufficient research on the authors part to newly discovered bits and pieces that make old ideas obsolete. I worked very, very hard to learn all I could about this moment in history and the people involved, but I dont know everything. I hope, though, that I have captured what those few summer weeks in 1587 must have felt like for those who lived them. I hope Ive challenged readers to think about the things that separate us and the things that bind us together. And I hope Ive sparked interest in the worlds greatest place to mine a story: the past.

Thanks, Caroline! Blue Birds is out now!