The Compulsive Reader: March 2015

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!

Monday, March 9, 2015

Adventure Awaits: Interview with Lisa Doan, Plus a Giveaway!

Lisa Doan is the author of The Berenson Schemes, a series of books about cautious Jack and his adventurous and slightly reckless parents who travel the world looking for the newest get-rich-quick opportunities. In Jack the Castaway, Jack finds himself shipwrecked in the Caribbean. In Jack and the Wild Life, Jack is stranded in Kenya, surrounded by wild animals.

The newest installment, Jack at the Helm, finds Jack lost in Nepal. He must raft down a dangerous river to be reunited with his parents--a river with rocks, rapids, and crocodiles. (That last one would be enough to do me in!)

To celebrate the release, Lisa Doan is here on the blog to talk about some of her own travels!

TCR: What are your top three favorite places on the planet?

LD: Kenya is number one—I’ve traveled south through the Masai Mara and over the border to Tanzania, west and over the border to Uganda and Zaire to see mountain gorillas, east to the coast and the island of Lamu and north, hitchhiking on a post office truck to Lake Turkana. Nairobi is a great base station to travel in any direction, depending on what you want to do.

Nepal—If I ever hit the lottery, I will buy a little apartment in Kathmandu. I love the nightlife, I love the people, I love the smell of the city, which I can’t really explain or define but it has a particular smell. I once spent two months there—my trip was unexpectedly extended by government elections and I couldn’t get an air ticket out—it was a really, really fun two months.

The back roads from Pennsylvania to Vermont. Each year, I travel up to Vermont to attend the Vermont College of Fine Arts Alumni Residency. I hop in my car with a big cooler and head into the wild. These back roads are small and twisty and up and down mountains and I rarely see another car. (I saw a bear last year.) I have a friend who lives on a lake in Connecticut at about the half-way mark, so I make it a two day trip going both directions—driving through the wilderness by day and drinking wine by the lake at night.

TCR: Is there a place you've always wanted to travel to, but haven't been yet?

LD: Bhutan—It’s fascinating that they have developed a Gross National Happiness (GNH) Index. And, while measuring happiness has proved to be devilishly difficult, proposed plans and policies for the country are held up against the GNH and must show that they do not negatively impact everybody’s happiness. In the United States, we are given the right to pursue happiness, though there is no mention of actually getting it. How wonderful that the government of Bhutan has not chosen to confine their interests to the Gross National Product. I’m sure Bhutan has its own set of problems, every country does, but the GNH sounds like something we should be doing! I want to go there and see how it’s working.

TCR: What's the best piece of travel advice you've ever received?

LD: I was on a flight from Cameroon to Kenya that slid off the runway in Burundi. The flight attendants disappeared and we were left to evacuate ourselves. As it was a stopover and most of us didn’t have Visas, we were held at the airport for hours. Finally, a representative from Cameroon Air turned up and told us the following:

1. All of us seasoned travelers were to understand that birds flew into the engine. Which happens all the time to us seasoned travelers.

2. The only problem with the plane was the flat tires and new tires were being sent from Tanzania.

3. We would be taken to a hotel and should be prepared to get a phone call at any time in the night that the tires were changed and we were ready to continue our journey.

A business man sitting next to me said, “If the phone rings in the middle of the night, don’t answer it.” This sounded like solid advice to me, so I didn’t. I flew out the next day on another plane. I never did hear if the plane with the flat tires made it to Nairobi.

Thanks, Lisa!

Want to read The Berenson Schemes? One lucky winner will receive books 1-3! Enter below!

Catch Lisa at her next blog tour stop tomorrow at BooksUnboundBlog.com