The Compulsive Reader

Friday, September 16, 2016

Writing Under the (Childhood) Influence by Bruce Hale

 Today we have Bruce Hale on the blog! He is the author of multiple books for kids, most recently The Curse of the Were-Hyena!

During author visits around the globe, I’ve given all kinds of answers to the author’s most-asked question, “Where do you get your ideas?” I’ve said it’s a mystery (true), that they come from paying attention and asking questions (also true), and that they’re manufactured for me by a gnome called Guido who lives in my backyard (I’ll let you guess about that one).

However, it would be just as true to say that often my story ideas have their roots in my childhood. A reluctant reader at first, I was nevertheless a big fan of monster movies and comic books. Then, on a tragic day my family still calls The Day the TV Broke, my parents began reading aloud to us. The Tarzan stories of Edgar Rice Burroughs were what turned me into a reader, and I find that his influence still lingers.

For instance, about eight years ago, I wrote a hybrid graphic novel series called Underwhere about these kids who discovered a world beneath us. Not until after it had been published did I recognize echoes of Burroughs’ Pellucidar books in my wacky tales.

Flash back to little kid time: After we finally got a new TV, I used to love watching old Humphrey Bogart movies with my dad. The rat-a-tat dialog and tough-guy attitudes enthralled me, and the plots intrigued me. Years later, this influence came out in my Chet Gecko mysteries, which borrowed heavily from film noir. In fact, that hardboiled voice came so easily, I had to make a conscious effort to move away from it for other books.

But though I’d once been a huge fan of monster movies— particularly the Universal Pictures classics like Frankenstein, The Mummy and The Wolf-Man—I’d never tackled a horror story before. Until now. The Curse of the Were-Hyena draws directly from that childhood love. Just like my boyhood friend Billy and I, the book’s two heroes love comic books and are obsessed with monsters. In fact, even the series title, The Monstertown Mysteries, comes from a book I wrote in second grade, The Two Brothers at Monstertown.

I felt a certain comfort and familiarity writing about a subject and characters so close to home. That’s one of the joys of returning to a childhood influence. And yet there was a freshness to the process as well. Unlike me, the book’s narrator is Latino; and unlike those Universal movies, the monster is a made-up one: a were-hyena. Something old, something new.

As I grow more aware of my early influences, I feel freer to stray from them, to play with them, to mix them up with other notions. That’s what the creative process is about, after all. But I know they’ll always be there, informing my writing and providing a wellspring of ideas. In case, you know, Guido the gnome ever gets tired of churning it out.

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Pasadena by Sherri L. Smith + Giveaway

Jude is on the other side of the country when she receives the worst possible news: Her best friend Maggie Cho has drowned in her swimming pool. She rushes home to Pasadena, and tries to unravel the tangled web of Maggie's last days. Maggie was Jude's best friend, but Maggie had lots of friends who confided their secrets in her, met her in secret, kept her secrets...and had motivation to kill her. The deeper Jude digs, the more convinced she becomes that Maggie didn't just drown--she was murdered.

This contemporary novel evokes the eponymous setting through languorous descriptive passages. The slow-burning mystery with relentless questions keeps readers hooked as Jude slowly pulls back the layers of Maggie's lives and uncovers her secrets. The tone of the novel is reminiscent of classic noir stories, but her investigation techniques don't have the same panache as the other famous teen noir sleuth, Veronica Mars. Nevertheless, the twist of the mystery about what actually happened to Maggie more than makes up for the novel's unhurried pace, forcing Jude to finally come face to face with her own buried, ugly past. For a setting-rich YA mystery that explores twisted friendships rather than the criminal element, Pasadena is the perfect choice.

Thanks to the generosity of Penguin Group, I'm giving away a copy of Pasadena to a blog reader! Just fill out this form!

Monday, September 5, 2016

Happy 100th Birthday, Roald Dahl!

Well, 2016 is quite the hallmark year for children's writers. In April, Beverly Cleary turned 100 years old, and next week, on the 13th, would be Roald Dahl's 100th birthday. I don't know about you all, but when I found out that two legendary authors whose books were touchstones in my childhood were also born in the same year--it was a bit a surprise. Their lives and careers were both very different, I sort of imagined them as living in totally different times.

Most of us know and love Dahl's most popular books--Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Matilda, The BFG--but Dahl taught me a very important lesson when I was a young reader: if you like a book, go look up that author in the library because you might be surprised by an extensive backlist. It's safe to say that Roald Dahl's books were the first I ever binge-read. It was awesome, because all of his books are delightfully weird, but also because it then allowed me to be a young, smug reader who went around saying stuff like, "Oh, you like Dahl because you read the BFG? Well, have you read Danny the Champion of the World? Because that's where that story comes from!" I know, I know. I was terrible.

But Danny the Champion of the World sticks in my mind for some reason. I think it was perhaps because most of my peers tore through Dahl's books but I was the only one who read Danny. Maybe it's because the first few chapters contain the origin story of the BFG (it's a bedtime tale told to Danny by his father), and I was so charmed by the connection between books. Maybe it's because the plot is so odd. I recently re-read it for the first time since I was a smug little reader, and the entire time I couldn't help but marvel at the plot, which I think would be a hard sell in today's market. It's about Danny, who lives a charmingly humble life with his dad in a gypsy wagon at a filling station. Danny's dad is the best in the world--kind and humble and entertaining, and provides everything for Danny. They're poor, but happy. Then when Danny is nine, he learns his dad's deep, dark secret--he's an illegal poacher! He loaves to poach pheasant from the rich man's woods, and soon he starts taking Danny with him even though there is a legitimate chance that both Dad and Danny would be shot on sight. But the rich man is understandably awful, so it's okay. Danny comes up with the most excellent plan ever to poach all of the pheasants from this man that everyone hates, making him the champion of the world, and learns a lot about his community in the process.

Basically, the book is about breaking all of the rules and finding out that the adults are not only complicit, but encouraging of this. No wonder I loved this book as a kid.

But this new understanding of my childhood love of Danny made me think of a troubling trend I've encountered at work recently, where I'll suggest a children's book to a parent looking for reading material for their kid, and after explaining the premise, I'll get a variation of, "No, not that one. My kid is energetic/mischievous/has a history of getting into trouble, and I'm afraid that that book will give them ideas."

To which I always want to say, "Well, isn't that the point?"

Unpacking this issue would talk another post, but I think stories like Danny the Champion of the World--ridiculous, over the top stories about illegal poaching--are fine. I don't think any child is going to turn into a criminal after reading this book. I think kids are going to read it, and be inspired by Danny's bravery (even when he's scared) and delighted to find that he has so many adult supporters. I think this book will entertain and inspire and spark curiosity. Luckily, I don't need to hand-sell this book to any parent, because Dahl's name sells itself. And Danny isn't the only rule-breaker in Dahl's canon. I'm glad that these preposterous, delightful, mischievous stories are still finding their way to kids. It gives me hope--that kids will turn into readers, that they'll go to the library and look up the rest of Dahl's books, and that they'll keep on discovering stories about crazy, rule-breaking kids.

Thanks for the great books, Roald Dahl, and happy 100th birthday!

Enter to win a full set of Roald Dahl's kids' books from Puffin!

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Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Illuminae, An Ember in the Ashes, and Other Books I Finally Read

There was once a time in my life when I was so on top of reading all the new releases right away, and that time lasted for about six months, and now I just live under piles and piles of books and sometimes read something the week it comes out and feel very proud of myself. Mostly, I note new books and add them to my list and only get around to them when my friends yell at me. That's how I ended up finally reading these books.

So, Illuminae is a giant book but it's a cool epistolary novel in the form of a massive dossier, so it reads super quickly. It's centered on Kady and Ezra, teens living on an illegal mining colony on a distant planet. The story begins with them breaking up, and then their planet is attacked by a rival corporation! Because that's how awful break up days are. In the madness of the evacuation and rescue, they get separated from each other and find themselves on different ships in the same small convoy headed for a distant space station, pursued by their attackers! When the AI on the battle ship Kady is on starts to go wonky, they realize that the battle isn't over--biological warfare, dangerously personal ulterior motives, and a possibly mutinous AI may kill them before they are rescued.

Basically, Battlestar Galactica with Reavers!

So, I really loved it. Kady and Ezra are sort of adorable in their post break-up funk, the stakes are incredibly high, and the AI is almost as fascinating/delightful/terrifying as Talis from The Scorpion Rules (another awesome sci-fi book that I read because my friend threw it at me, and I am SO GLAD I did). The identity of the person assembling the dossier is another really great mystery, and the narrative voice is very sardonic and fun. The story has a terrific inevitable twist, and a twist I didn't see coming. The find words of the story got my pulse pounding: Now run. I can't wait for the release of the sequel, Gemina, in October, which I am totally going to read right away and not six months from now.

An Ember in the Ashes has been recommended to me approximately ten million times by five million different customers, and I finally caved and read it because I was worried they'd stop liking me and maybe go elsewhere for their books. I'll be the first to admit that Roman Empire-inspired fantasy doesn't exactly get my pulse pounding, but I am super glad I caved to peer pressure! It's a dual POV, with Elias, a Mask (think elite warrior) and Laia, a Scholar slave who's actually a spy. They're both living at an elite academy where nefarious dealings are underfoot for power, and though it takes some time for their stories to intersect, they eventually do in a very exciting way. The rotating perspectives were really seamless, and the wordlbuilding was beautiful. Every time I thought that the stakes couldn't get any higher, they did. Plus, the story was full of really fantastic, really complicated characters. I have A Torch Against the Night on order already and I can't even imagine how things can get worse for these characters, but I'm sure Tahir will torture them (and her readers) appropriately!

I also read The Girl from Everywhere by Heidi Heilig because one day my friend asked if we could start a book club wherein we read the same book and discuss it over snacks, and although I am never one to turn down a good snack plate over book talk, I realized this suggestion for what it really was: a request for me to finally read this book so she could openly discuss spoilers. So I obliged. I love the cover, the tagline, the title, and the premise--a girl who lives aboard a time-traveling ship must try and stop her father from going back to the moment her mother died because doing so might unravel her own existence. This was an interesting book, very trippy and tangled in time. It might have been because I was coming off of two very action-packed speculative novels, but this one didn't keep me as riveted at Illuminae and Ember, but I liked all of the plot elements and the historical Hawaiian setting was so, so good! And I shall be very curious to see what the premise of book two, as well!

Maybe I can keep this trend going and finally read Six of Crows! I am an eternal optimist where my TBR stack is concerned.

Thursday, August 11, 2016

Well, this is embarrassing.

I don't think I've ever gone almost two months without posting since I first started this blog nearly ten (10!!!) years ago. Chalk it up to very busy, very exciting things happening over on my end. First, I finished draft #6 of my YA in progress--the book I've been working on for about two years! It's been a long road, but I'm feeling great about it.

Second, I went back to Vermont! I was the grad assistant at my lovely alma mater, Vermont College of Fine Arts. Residencies are always inspiring and overwhelming, and full of laughter and learning and late nights singing Hamilton songs and so. much. book. talk. I was so grateful for the chance to go back and see all my wonderful friends, make some brand new friends, and see the Themepunks graduate.

Third, I've been pretty focused on pulling together the next print issue of Hunger Mountain, the VCFA journal of the arts. It's the only literary journal that accepts children's and YA lit for publication, and our deadline is September 15th! So if you or someone you know would like to submit, get on that! We want to read your work!

Finally, I've been pretty focused on starting the next book and gaining some momentum on that. After spending so much time with one project and a very specific cast of characters, the changeover is a little jarring but I'm getting more and more into it every day!

I'm hoping to start posting again a bit more frequently, but in the meantime here are some great books I've read recently:

Shadowshaper by Daniel Jose Older

Daniel is one of the newest faculty members at VCFA, so I was super excited to read this urban fantasy novel about Sierra, a shadowshaper who has the ability to infuse her artwork with the spirits of the dead, and must learn how to control her ability to prevent a dark presence from taking over in her Brooklyn neighborhood. It was exciting and smart, and I highly recommend it.

Lumberjanes Vol. 4: Out of Time

I've talked about how much I adore the Lumberjanes before, so I'll just say that this volume delighted me because it furthers the mystery of the Lumberjanes organization, answering some questions that only give us...more questions. We get to see a little bit of the camp's history, and we discover something startling about the girls' experience there. Plus, there are Frozen jokes.

Paper Girls, Vol. 1

I didn't quite know what to expect with this new series, but salty twelve year old paper delivery girls solving a crazy alien invasion mystery with time travel completely blew me away. If you're a fan of the show Stranger Things, pick this one up! Trust me!

The Raven Cycle by Maggie Stiefvater

Maggie Stiefvater was the visiting writer at this summer's VCFA residency, so I had to finish the Raven Cycle! I re-read the first two books, and then got into the third and fourth for the first time. It's quite a rollercoaster ride experience reading all four in order. I really enjoyed immersing myself into that world and I think I was able to enjoy the connectivity of her writing a little bit better when I was reading them back to back rather as the books came out.

Plus, Maggie was awesome! Here's a photo of all of the grad assistants with her!

The Last Star by Rick Yancey

Finally got to the end of this trilogy! It was an intense read, and while it did have a plot, I felt like the characters' desires got a bit muddied in the middle of this. There was lots of angst and feelings and explosions. The ending was fairly surprising, but in a good way? I'm glad I pushed through to the end, and I'm curious to hear what others think!

On the adult side of things, I read Out by Kirino Natsuo and I can safely say it was the most disturbing mystery I've ever read! But the writing was so great, and I loved the setting (Japan), so I'll definitely be looking for more of her books. I also read one of the Jane Eyre retellings on my to-read list, Re Jane by Patricia Park. In this novel, Jane is a Korean American orphan working at her uncle's grocery store after college when she takes a nannying job. It follows the Jane Eyre story pretty well, with some interesting divergences--first, the "crazy wife in the attic" is very present from the first day that Jane takes the nanny job, and second, it's not a romance. I found it to be a fascinating story about identity and multi-culturism in the early 2000's.

Of course, I still have articles going up on Book Riot on a more frequent basis, so definitely check over there for great bookish content! Today I have two posts up: where to start with the books of Melina Marchetta, aka one of my favorite authors ever, and how to make your bullet journals more bookish! You can see everything I've written for Book Riot here!

Friday, June 17, 2016

Rocks Fall, Everyone Dies by Lindsay Ribar

Aspen Quick is born into a strange family, with very strange and very important powers. They have the ability to reach--into objects, into people--and take things. Memories, thoughts, emotions, even physical characteristics. They use this ability as a part of an old ritual to keep the cliff overlooking their small New England town from tumbling down and crushing everything. But Aspen uses his ability outside of this ritual, and he's never given it a second thought...until the summer after his cousin's mysterious death, when he meets Leah, who is a little too curious about his family's strange legacy.

Aspen is a surprising, not-exactly-reliable, and privileged narrator. He makes terrible decisions, but his confidence is engaging, and the flashbacks that Ribar sprinkles in among the present-day drama add depth and complexity to his character. The premise of this story and Aspen's family history is fascinating and fresh, especially as the consequences to their actions become more apparent and nuanced as the story progresses. Aspen starts out confident in his abilities and what he thinks he knows about his family, proud of what he can do and secretly hurting over is mother's abandonment. But as he gets to know Leah, who inexplicably knows about his abilities and his family's legacies, he begins to question what he thought was true about his family. This development is drawn out realistically, a result of Leah's new information and Aspen's own poor decisions pushing him closer to the truth. The somewhat serious story is balanced out by terrific sarcastic humor and banter between Aspen and his friends, and great flashbacks. Like its excellent title, this novel may appear flippant at first, but it's a lot darker, a lot more complicated than it seems.

ARC provided by publisher.

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

On Book Riot: Mysteries for Fans of Tana French

One of my favorite non-kidlit authors is Tana French. I adore her dark and atmospheric mysteries, and I am super excited for the sixth book in her Dublin Murder Squad series, The Trespasser. On Book Riot, I wrote an article with four mystery recommendations for people who love Tana French, just to tide you over until The Trespasser releases!

Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Giveaway: Return to the Isle of the Lost

Hey, Descendants fans! Thanks to the awesome generosity of Disney Hyperion, I'm giving away a copy of Isle of the Lost and the sequel, Return to the Isle of the Lost, both by Melissa de la Cruz! Return to the Isle of the Lost is the latest book in the Descendants series, and it is out now!

About Return to the Isle of the Lost:
Mal’s an expert at intimidating her enemies, but she’s broken the habit since leaving her villainous roots behind. So when she and her friends Evie, Carlos, and Jay all receive threatening messages demanding they return home, Mal can’t believe it. Sure, she’s King Ben’s girlfriend now, and she’s usually nice to her classmates, but she still didn’t think anyone would be silly enough to try to push her around.

The thing is, it kind of worked. Especially since she and her friends have a sneaking suspicion that their villainous parents are behind the messages. And when Evie looks into her Magic Mirror, what she sees only confirms their fears. Maleficent’s just a tiny lizard after her run-in with Mal at Ben’s Coronation, but she’s the worst villain in the land for a reason. Could she have found a way to escape? Whatever’s going on, Mal, Evie, Carlos, and Jay know they have to sneak back to the Isle and get to the bottom of it.

Without its infamous leader, the island’s even worse than when they left it, but the comforts of home—even a home as gloomy as the Isle of the Lost—can be hard to resist for recently reformed villains. Will the kids be able to beat the evil bubbling at the Isle’s wicked core, or will the plot to destroy Auradon succeed?

To enter, fill out the form below!

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Exit, Pursued by a Bear by E.K. Johnston

Hermione Winters is at the top of her game: she's cheerleading co-captain with her best friend Polly, and they're about to have the best-ever cheer camp before launching their final season. Their team has been cursed for the past few years with losing a member, and Hermione is determined to break that curse through hard work and teamwork. But her carefully-constructed plans are derailed one night at camp, when something is slipped into her drink. She wakes up the next morning in the hospital, unable to remember the sexual assault that occurred after everything went black. In the weeks that follow, Hermione deals with the aftermath of the assault, resisting the stigma of being a victim while at the same time attempting to make peace with the fact that she may never know what happened that night.

Exit, Pursued by a Bear is a bold re-imaging of A Winter's Tale that takes an unflinching look at the aftermath of an assault and how Hermione forges ahead. The nature of the subject matter is emotional, enraging, heartbreaking, usually within the space of a page, but I have a fierce admiration for Johnston in that Hermione's story never once felt exploitative, and that it didn't gratuitously linger in the awfulness of what Hermione experienced. Hermione is tough and determined, but she doesn't muscle her way through this experience on her own. She has an incredible support system in her parents, her coach, her best friend Polly, and some of her cheerleading teammates. This network and how Hermione assembles her team of people to help get her through this--and her acknowledgement of her vulnerabilities and need for help is what makes her truly strong.

As much as this book is about the aftermath of a life-changing assault, it's also not. It's about growing up, being on the brink of something new and unseeable and scary and exciting, and it's about making decisions about an uncertain future. It's about learning learning to value your established relationships even as you grow into new ones. This is what makes Exit, Pursued by a Bear stand out to me--the simple fact that it's about positive healing and a support system makes it unusual and remarkable to me. On one hand, I feel a tiny bit sad that this idea is so revolutionary to me, but mostly I am just so grateful that Johnston has given us a book that will help influence and change the narrative about healing from sexual assault. Hermione's story is not everyone's story, and her journey isn't easy or magical, or even solved simply, but it shows readers another positive way towards healing. It reaffirms that that sexual assault isn't the beginning or ending of a person. That's a story that will always be important.

And, okay, switching gears here--how amazing is that cover? if you're going to have a cheerleader on your book cover, it better be that cheerleader. Such a kick-ass cover. It's perfect for this story.

Book purchased via indie Brilliant Books!

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Wild Swans by Jessica Spotswood

Jessica Spotswood is the author of the Cahill Witch trilogy, which I read and loved about two years ago. (The books are Born Wicked, Star Cursed, and Sisters' Fate!) She's also the editor of the fantastic A Tyranny of Petticoats anthology. Wild Swans is a little different from these previous books, but no less enjoyable!

Ivy Milbourn has always felt the weight of her family's legacy. Milbourn women are extraordinary: Her great-grandmother was a famous poet, her grandmother a talented painter, and her mother was a beautiful singer--right before she abandoned Ivy with her granddad. Ivy's spent most of her life looking for her great talent, and she's finally managed to secure a summer free of art lessons and college classes. She plans to swim and hang out with friends, just have fun. Then her mother shows up for the first time in years--with two more daughters Ivy didn't even know existed, complicating Ivy's previously held ideas about the Milbourn legacy.

I'm going to admit upfront that I am a sucker for the estranged parent/surprise sibling trope. Perhaps it's because I spent so many hours imagining that I had a long-lost sibling as a kid (weird, I know--but hey, I was an only child for a long time, and I watched a LOT of Parent Trap). The drama of the story appealed to me immediately, and Spotswood takes it up another notch (and genuinely surprised me) when Ivy discovers that her mom has told her little sisters that Ivy is their aunt, not their sister. Crazy, right? The family dynamics are so fraught and interesting at the same time and Spotswood does a really great job exploring the nuances of the tiny dramas alongside the big ones.

Ivy's intense family dynamics and the expectations placed on her are balanced with a pretty swoon-worthy romance with her granddad's literature student, Connor. Connor is pretty much perfect, but his presence creates some interesting tension in Ivy's life. Her long-time friend Alex is hurt when Ivy starts dating him, and Ivy works to keep her relationship with Connor secret from her family--her mother is looking to exploit and evidence of Ivy being reckless, and Connor is Grandad's student. Add this romantic drama to how Ivy navigates her relationships with her two best friends, each with issues and family problems of their own, and there's more than enough interesting threads to fill the novel while Ivy grapples with her own feelings of inadequacy as a Milbourn girl. The plot is pretty tame compared to the plots of Spotswood's earlier books, but this standalone is just as emotionally hefty and breathlessly romantic.

Book purchased from my indie!