Pivoting and Staying Busy

If you know me at all, you’ll know I keep myself pretty busy. It keeps me from getting depressed. But I’ve taken on a crazy amount lately, so I didn’t finish reading a book this week and don’t have a review.

I’ve decided to branch out into picture books. I want to write and illustrate biographies of women in STEM fields, though I might do some fiction, too. But since I’m new to them, I have a long way to go. I’ve been reading lots but decided to join some online communities related to picture books to learn more rapidly. I did Storystorm, which is a month-long challenge to come up with an idea per day (technically just the first 30 days) in January. I also joined the 12x12 Challenge, where you try to write at least one picture book manuscript each month. This is focused on the writing part, not the illustrating.  But there’s another online school called Storyteller Academy that focuses on picture books, both writing and illustrating if you want. I signed up for that, too. For this there are actual courses and you take whichever ones you want. I signed up for several for this term: Drawing, Illustrating, Character Design, and Writing Picture Book Manuscripts. I also started taking a weekly class in watercolor painting (finally; I’ve been wanting to do this for a while). Add this to my BFA program, where I’m doing 18 credit hours this semester, the weekly data science class related to work that I’m taking, a really good playwriting class I’m taking, that I have to send ten pages of the in-progress Sadie Speaks rewrite to my book coach every week, that I’m also working on a romance and meeting my critique partner weekly, the two monthly critique group meetings, and the fact that I’ve got a full-time job, and it all adds up to me being crazy busy. But I love it. So.

Two of the classes I’m taking for the BFA are perspective and topics in color, and I’m loving both of them. The perspective class is great—I’ve always been decent at perspective, but I am learning more about measuring, which speaks to the math-minded person I am. And the topics in color class is also fascinating. We’re studying color mostly via acrylic painting, and there’s something very satisfying about mixing paint. I’m learning a lot, even though I still don’t think acrylics will be my medium of choice. As much fun as the process is, the end result doesn’t please me the way watercolor does (though I know you can water down acrylics and use them like watercolors, but I’m still thinking I’m leaning toward watercolor proper).

I’m going to share an abstract painting I did for my topics in color class. We had to take a photograph and make an abstract version of it. I used this photograph of a sunset in Oklahoma City on New Year’s Day 2020:

Oklahoma City sunset

And this is the painting, which I like even though it’s not exactly fine art:

Abstract OKC sunset

I’ll also share a drawing I did for my perspective class, which has lots of problems but is still kind of cool:

Perspective drawing of railroad station

Review: Vampires Never Get Old: Tales with a Fresh Bite edited by Zoraida Córdova and Natalie C. Parker

Vampires Never Get Old book coverI’ve read a decent amount of vampire literature in my day, and I enjoy it. So I was looking forward to reading this collection of vampire stories. The editors really made an effort to incite a range of stories, with many diverse experiences represented. Some of the underrepresented characters include a girl who uses a wheelchair, a transgender boy, some gay kids, and several Black people. 

The first story is “Seven Nights for Dying” by Tessa Gratton. This gritty story features a bisexual artist protagonist who has to make a difficult decision.

The next is “The Boys from Blood River” by Rebecca Roanhorse, a creepy one with vampires that are summoned. 

Julie Murphy’s lighthearted “Senior Year Sucks” stars a chubby cheerleader who’s also a slayer. What happens she meets a local girl vampire who also happens to be very cute?

“The Boy and the Bell” by Heidi Heilig is about a transgender grave-robber who rescues an interesting boy who’d been buried alive.

“A Guidebook for the Newly Sired Desi Vampire” by Samira Ahmed is a snarky take on vampires in India, exploring social media and the problems of colonization. 

Kayla Whaley’s “In Kind” asks serious questions about living as a disabled teen. 

“Vampires Never Say Die” by Zoraida Córdova and Natalie C. Parker is another one that touches on social media, and how anonymous it can be. 

“Bestiary” by Laura Ruby is an odd story about a down-on-her-luck zoo worker who can understand animals, set in a slightly dystopian world. 

“Mirrors, Windows, & Selfies” by Mark Oshiro deals with a teen vampire sheltered from the world by his parents. He also uses social media to try to interact with he world, which turns out to be his escape. 

Dhonielle Clayton’s “The House of Black Sapphires” is a rich tale about a family of vampires set in historic New Orleans.

“First Kill” by Victoria “V. E.” Schwab has a vampire slightly obsessed with a slayer.

These stories run the gamut in terms of style, setting, and themes. In some cases, the main characters are vampires, and sometimes not, but the vampires in the story are always complex and interesting. In some cases, the ethics of underage vampires comes up, too, and there are even references to classic vampire literature. 

Overall, this is another enjoyable YA take on the age-old myth of the vampire, a must for fans of the genre. 

2021 Reading Challenges and Last Year’s Recap

I’ve decided to do several reading challenges each year and part of that is announcing to the world that I’m doing them, as well as reporting on the success of the prior year’s.

First, the Recap of 2020

Last year I signed up for three: Goodreads, King County Library System’s 10 to Try, and BookRiot’s Read Harder Challenge. I succeeded in completing the first two (though I had to fudge a little on the Goodreads one), but I did not make on on the Read Harder one. 

On Goodreads, you set your own goal of a number of books to read. Last year my goal was 110, which I met partially by reading about 20 picture books.

For the KCLS 10 to Try challenge, I read the following:

  • Retelling of a fairytale or myth - Geekerella by Ashley Poston
  • Teaches you a new skill - TED Talks by Chris Anderson
  • About a journey - The Obelisk Gate by N. K. Jemisin
  • With a friend - Ninth House by Leigh Bardugo
  • About a person you’d like to meet - Harriet Tubman: The Road to Freedom by Catherine Clinton (I’m aware she’s dead)
  • About nature - Chaos: Making a New Science by James Gleick
  • About music or a musician - Total F*cking Godhead; The Biography of Chris Cornell by Corbin Reiff
  • About current events - The Poisoned City: Flint's Water and the American Urban Tragedy by Anna Clark
  • Recommended by KCLS staff - On Writing by Stephen King
  • By an author whose gender is different from yours - Fables: The Dark Ages (Vol. 12) by Bill Willingham

For the Read Harder Challenge (which is a lot harder than the others) I managed to complete only 17 books of the 24 on the list:

  • A YA nonfiction book - The 57 Bus: A True Story of Two Teenagers and the Crime That Changed Their Lives by Dashka Slater
  • A retelling of a classic of the canon, fairytale, or myth by an author of color - Pride by Ibi Zoboi
  • A mystery where the victim(s) is not a woman - Fake ID by Lamar Giles
  • A graphic memoir - Marbles: Mania, Depression, Michelangelo, and Me by Ellen Forney
  • A book about a natural disaster - Wave by Sonali Deraniyagala
  • A play by an author of color and/or queer author - How I Learned to Drive by Paula Vogel
  • An audiobook of poetry - SHOUT by Laurie Halse Anderson
  • The LAST book in a series - The Stone Sky by N. K. Jemisin
  • A debut novel by a queer author - Texts from Jane Eyre by Daniel Mallory Ortberg
  • A memoir by someone from a religious tradition (or lack of religious tradition) that is not your own - Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection of My Hasidic Roots by Deborah Feldman
  • A romance starring a single parent - Wrong to Need You by Alisha Rai
  • A sci-fi/fantasy novella (under 120 pages) - “Story of Your Life” by Ted Chiang
  • A picture book with a human main character from a marginalized community - The Big Bed by Bunmi Laditan and Tom Knight
  • A middle grade book that doesn’t take place in the U.S. or the UK - The Night Diary by Veera Hiranandani
  • A book with a main character or protagonist with a disability (fiction or non) - Get a Life, Chloe Brown by Talia Hibbert
  • A book in any genre by a Native, First Nations, or Indigenous author - #NotYourPrincess: Voices of Native American Women edited by Lisa Charleyboy and Mary Beth Leatherdale
  • A book that takes place in a rural setting - Like Water for Chocolate by Laura Esquivel

These were the seven categories I failed in:

  • A historical fiction novel not set in WWII 
  • A food book about a cuisine you’ve never tried before
  • A book about climate change 
  • A doorstopper (over 500 pages) published after 1950, written by a woman
  • A book by or about a refugee 
  • A horror book published by an indie press 
  • An edition of a literary magazine (digital or physical) 

Now, The 2021 Plan

For Goodreads, I’m going to account for the fact that I know I’m going to be reading a lot of picture books this year but have otherwise slowed down, so I upped it only to 120.

For the KCLS 10 to Try, here is the list and my planned book:

  • Makes you laugh - Enter Title Here by Rahul Kanakia
  • Non-human characters - Watership Down by Richard Adams
  • About the future - The Weight of the Stars by K. Ancrum
  • Epistolary novel (Written in letters, emails, etc.) - Dear Rachel Maddow: A Novel by Adrienne Kisner
  • By a Black author - Children of Virtue and Vengeance by Tomi Adeyemi
  • Published this year - TBD (I’m sure I’ll manage something…)
  • About pop culture - The Summer I Became a Nerd by Leah Rae Miller
  • Re-read an old favorite - The Boyfriend List by E. Lockhart
  • Set where you were born - Out of the Easy by Ruta Sepetys
  • Recommended by staff - You Should See Me in A Crown by Leah Johnson

For all of these I managed to choose YA books, which helps me make sure I can get them done, since I have limited time and an obligation to my blogs…

For the Read Harder Challenge, here are the 24 categories and my planned books:

  1. Read a book you’ve been intimidated to read - Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel 
  2. Read a nonfiction book about anti-racism - White Fragility: Why It's So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism by Robin DiAngelo
  3. Read a non-European novel in translation - The Disaster Tourist: A Novel by Yun Ko-eun and Lizzie Buehler
  4. Read an LGBTQ+ history book - Queer: A Graphic History by Dr. Meg-John Barker and Julia Scheele
  5. Read a genre novel by an Indigenous, First Nations, or Native American author - Elatsoe by Darcie Little Badger and Rovina Cai
  6. Read a fanfic - A Wattpad story based on Rainbow Rowell’s book Fangirl (https://www.wattpad.com/story/61458965-coffee-kisses-a-cather-and-levi-fanfic)
  7. Read a fat-positive romance - Take a Hint, Dani Brown: A Novel by Talia Hibbert
  8. Read a romance by a trans or nonbinary author - Felix Ever After by Kacen Callender
  9. Read a middle grade mystery - From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler by E.L. Konigsburg
  10. Read an SFF anthology edited by a person of color - Vampires Never Get Old: Tales with Fresh Bite edited by Zoraida Cordova and Natalie C. Parker
  11. Read a food memoir by an author of color - Stealing Buddha’s Dinner by Bich Minh Nguyen
  12. Read a work of investigative nonfiction by an author of color - Sway: Unravelling Unconscious Bias by Pragya Agarwal
  13. Read a book with a cover you don’t like - Gabi, A Girl in Pieces by Isabel Quintero
  14. Read a realistic YA book not set in the U.S., UK, or Canada - Words in Deep Blue by Cath Crowley
  15. Read a memoir by a Latinx author - Children of the Land: A Memoir by Marcelo Hernandez Castillo
  16. Read an own voices book about disability - Unbroken: 13 Stories Starring Disabled Teens edited by Mariene Nijkamp
  17. Read an own voices YA book with a Black main character that isn’t about Black pain - Deathless Divide by Justina Ireland
  18. Read a book by/about a non-Western world leader - Cleopatra: A Life by Stacy Schiff 
  19. Read a historical fiction with a POC or LGBTQ+ protagonist - The Gentleman's Guide to Vice and Virtue by Mackenzi Lee
  20. Read a book of nature poems - The Radiant Lives of Animals by Linda Hogan
  21. Read a children’s book that centers a disabled character but not their disability - Emmanuel’s Dream by Laurie Ann Thompson and Sean Qualls
  22. Read a book set in the Midwest - The Lake Effect by Erin McCahan
  23. Read a book that demystifies a common mental illness - Turtles All the Way Down by John Green
  24. Read a book featuring a beloved pet where the pet doesn’t die - Vicarious by Paula Stokes

I managed to make 12 of them YA, plus one middle grade and one picture book. I feel much more confident about finishing this year’s than I did last year. Now I'm off to my indie book store to start buying them!

Review: Words in Deep Blue by Cath Crowley

Words in Deep Blue book coverThis moving book by Australian author Cath Crowley is really something. It explores grief and love in a deep way, bordering on philosophical but without straying from the novel that it is. 

Rachel had a huge crush on Henry in Year 9 and she bared her soul the night before she moved away, only to get crickets in return. She was humiliated and never really forgave him for choosing Amy over her, despite their long best-friendship. Now she’s back in town after failing Year 12 after her brother drowned. She doesn’t care about Henry anymore. She’s still numb. 

Henry has been hung up on Amy forever and doesn’t see how she strings him along and uses him. She breaks up with him early on in the book and the only thing he wants is to have her back. 

Rachel’s aunt arranges for her to work in Henry’s family’s bookstore, which she’s unhappy about, and she takes it out on Henry by being quite the grump. He finally calls her out on it and begins to break down her defenses just a little bit. 

Any reader will love the setting of the bookstore, which features heavily in the plot. Henry’s divorced parents are arguing over what to do about the shop, which would pull in a lot of money if they sell. Much of the novel’s ideas are expressed through discussions and character thoughts on books, some obscure, some not so obscure. The bookshop also has an unusual section called the Letter Library, where people are allowed to write in the books and encouraged to leave letters between the pages for others to find. Rachel’s job is actually to catalog that part of the shop. 

Rachel and Henry are both wonderful, fully-developed characters. The secondary characters are great, as well. I loved George, Henry’s sister. And George’s love interest is really nice yet still believable. Even Henry’s parents and Rachel’s aunt and mom are complex despite not really being super important to the story. Where things wind up at the end isn’t really a shock, but you’re never quite sure how it’s going to go. 

This book is definitely worth checking out, especially if you love the meta experience of reading about books, or just want a good emotional journey. 

2020 Books in Review

Here’s my annual review of my year’s reviews, where I look at my favorite five books of the year. 

The first favorite book I’ll mention is Sadie by Courtney Summers, which I reviewed in February. This is a very dark book with an ending I didn’t really see coming. It’s also got an interesting format: two different timelines with two different points of view. 

We Are Okay is another book by Nina LaCour. I pretty much love whatever she does, but this slim book about friendship took me on quite the emotional ride. Here’s my July review. 

Although I am a fan of Pride and Prejudice, I’m not always a fan of fresh takes on it. But I reviewed Pride by Ibi Zoboi in September and really enjoyed it. It’s a really fresh take, featuring two Black teens in modern-day Brooklyn. 

The 57 Bus by Dashka Slater is a nonfiction book I reviewed in October. This one is also about a Black teen, as well as a nonbinary teen and the unfortunate interaction they have (and then the aftermath). It provides some interesting perspective on justice. It’s really good and has stayed with me. 

The last book I’ll mention I reviewed in November: Cinderella is Dead by Kalynn Bayron. This one is a reboot of Cinderella (obviously), but it is one of the most original books I’ve read in a while and I really enjoyed it. It’s about a Black lesbian girl living in this oppressive post-Cinderella world. It deals with some deep subjects but manages to stay entertaining. 

There you have it: my top five for 2020, dumpster fire year. At least there were books.

Review: Hearts Unbroken by Cynthia Leitich Smith

Hearts Broken book coverThis is a rare book, featuring a Native American girl dealing with some interesting problems. The fact that her family is Native is important for a lot of reasons, including the plot and her identity. Lou is Muscogee (Creek), which was kind of cool for me because the Creek Nation extends from the southern edge of Tulsa a ways south, and the one time I went to a casino, it was the Creek Nation one that’s less than two miles from parent’ house. Not that I’m saying that casinos=Indian culture by any means, but I always find it fun to see something that is somewhat familiar to me in books I read, which rarely happens because I don’t generally live in cool places. 

Anyways, Lou. It’s the beginning of the school year and she’s a senior while her brother Hughie is a freshman. Her dad is a dentist and her mom is studying to be a lawyer, so she’s solidly middle class. They recently moved to a suburb of Kansas City (I think, could be a different city) from Texas. The book technically opens late the morning after her junior prom. Soon after she manages to rouse her very hungover boyfriend, Cam, they go to have breakfast with his family, where his mom makes some racist remarks against Cam’s brother’s Native girlfriend and then Cam himself makes some stupid generalizations about Indians, as well. Lou’s pissed and breaks up with him. The reader unquestionably cheers her on for this.  

The actual plot gets going once she starts school in the fall. The theater director casts several students of color, including Hughie, in the school’s production of The Wizard of Oz. This triggers the formation of of a group called Parents Against Revisionist Theater, led by the wife of the pastor at the biggest local church. While this gets started, so does Lou’s role as a reporter for the school paper and her friendship with Joey, the other reporter. There’s a little bit of healthy competition, as well as some sparks, between them. Of course, things proceed from there, with a lot of things happening. One of the things I liked about the book was how honest it was about the number and kind of microaggressions Indians have to deal with. People assuming, generalizing, saying overtly racist things (whether they mean them that way or not), etc. Then there were the ones that weren’t exactly “micro,” too. 

My one complaint about the novel is that her relationships with her boyfriends were not developed enough for my taste. I especially didn’t see what she saw in the first, Cam, who didn’t seem to have a single redeeming quality. Joey was more appealing, but we still never learned what she really liked about him. So they both felt like plot devices. Otherwise, I thought the characters were interesting, if a little underdeveloped. Despite these feelings, I overall quite enjoyed the book. The story was good and it brought up some really interesting history I didn’t know about. One example: that the author of The Wizard of Oz passionately advocated for the genocide of all Native Americans. Which, you know, wow. 

So I’d recommend this to anyone interested in a different perspective you don’t get much in YA (or literature in general, really). It’s a satisfying read. 

Review: Radio Silence by Alice Oseman

Radio Silence book coverThis is a hefty book for a contemporary, coming in at over 420 pages, but I enjoyed every bit of it.

Frances is a superstar student at her school in England. She is head girl, which is apparently a thing. She knows the head boy, Daniel, pretty well, and ultimately that sort of puts her in contact with Aled Last, who she accidentally finds out is the creator of her favorite podcast, a story show called Universe City. By chance, he had asked her—before she knew—to be the official artist of the show after admiring her fan art. Soon they start collaborating and Frances finds herself in heaven—she’s working on her favorite thing and now has the first real friend (someone she can be herself with) she’s ever had. Everything’s great. Living the dream.

But what happens if everybody finds out who the creator of the show is? She’s not telling because he doesn’t want anyone to know, but what’s she supposed to do if someone asks her? She’s a terrible liar.

I don’t want to say too much more because a lot happens in the book and it’s interesting and frequently surprising. But it’s about true friendship, finding yourself as you’re finishing up school, and figuring out what you really want to do with your life, even if you think you already know. It also ranks high on the diversity scale. Frances is mixed race (her father is Ethiopian, but he’s not around, and her mom is white). Daniel is Korean. Aled’s white, but none of them is heterosexual. And it all works. I just really felt like this book paints an accurate portrait of an aspect of British teen culture—specifically the university-bound high-achievers.

Overall, I’d recommend this to fans of contemporary, especially if you like settings outside the US. And if you’re at all into story podcasts like Welcome to Night Vale (apparently this was the inspiration for Universe City), you will eat this up.

No Real Update Update

So I am in a major reading slump. It’s taking me forever to read anything. Thus there was no review last week, and none this week. Instead there’s a boring post about nothing. Despite all that, I did go to picture book school—my friend lent me her entire picture book collection in an attempt to get me to love them as much as she does. I’ve read about 20 of them so far. I enjoyed some of them, but I’m not in love yet.

I did submit all my final work for my MFA last week, so I am completely done with that with the exception of my final residency and my graduation reading, which is January 10th.

Other than that, I’ve been busy with NaNo and my art classes. I did finish NaNo—I got to over 50,000 words, although I’m still finishing up the draft. I finally figured out some of the things I was stuck on, so I need to go back and redraft, but I feel good about the story. For art school, I created the following drawing (it’s big—18” x 24”):

Drawing of my house

Also, for your amusement, I had an assignment where I was supposed to take some identical objects and modify each of them in three different ways. This was what I started with:

Bottles

I had trouble with the last one and eventually came up with this monstrosity:

Weird doll

(The bottle became a skirt, in case you were wondering.) Here they all are together:

Weird plastic bottle assignment

I’d Love a Review

As I’ve mentioned, I’m on a quest for reviews for Finding Frances. I want to run a promotion on Book Bub, and the rumor is you need at least twenty reviews to have a chance. This past Tuesday, I ran a promotion on the book that resulted in at least some sales, so that’s cool (my rating on Amazon went from 1,702,055 on November 4 to 27,553 on November 10). Obviously that’s nowhere near great success, but it’s nice to not be in the millions for a few days. Maybe someone who bought it will review it… I can hope. I’m also still in the middle of a review tour where I’m supposed to get eleven more reviews. I did get my first review that was lower than four stars, so that was interesting. I’m not upset—it still counts toward my total reviews and I still have a fairly good average rating.

I did decide to do NaNoWriMo for sure this year, and I’m barreling ahead with it, way ahead on word count because I’m working off an existing draft that has some usable parts (i.e., I’m cheating). I’m rewriting one of my romances.

At the end of October, I revised the first five chapters of Ugly and wrote a new chapter that comes between chapters one and two. I’m hoping these changes will be enough to make the editors and agents like it (though I have the rest of the chapters yet to do—that will happen after I finish my NaNo draft).

I also got my feedback back from Lou on the revised Sadie Speaks (the first 20 pages, anyway). He was mostly positive but had some tips I can use. I have just one more submission for him, and one for my research class, and I’m totally done with the MFA. My thesis was accepted by the library for binding earlier this week, so I’m officially done with that.

Review: The Night Diary by Veera Hiranandani

The Night Diary book coverI don’t often review middle grade here (I don’t often read middle grade, either), but I’m making an exception for this book because it was so good. It also felt more borderline lower-YA to me.

It’s 1947 right before the British were to leave India and Nisha and her twin brother Amil live with their Hindu father and his mother in far northwest India. Their Muslim mother died in childbirth. But when the leaders decide that the best solution is to split the country into two, Pakistan and India, they find themselves in the wrong place for their father’s religion. Their father is a doctor so they live in a nice house, but eventually he decides that it’s more dangerous to stay and they leave on foot, heading toward the border.

For those who don’t know, Indian Partition was a horrible, bloody, and shameful time in South Asian history. In the Punjab regions of both Pakistan and India, Hindus, Muslims, and Sikhs were all killing each other over nothing, really. They killed each other because others had killed their families. Muslims would stop the trains heading south from Pakistan and massacre people, and Hindus would stop the trains heading north into Pakistan and massacre people. People of the “wrong” religion who stayed put in either East or West Punjab were also killed.

Nisha was given a diary and started writing letters every night to her mother about her day in them. So we see her account of everything leading up to their departure, and what they go through trying to make it to new India. She’s a wise and observant girl, shy with strangers and desperate to know more about her mother. It’s impossible not to like her, or her brother, who struggles in school but is a talented artist (as was their mother).

This is a really moving book that teaches about a significant point in history without being preachy. Nisha asks important questions that will make readers think. I highly recommend this for fans of middle grade in general, but I also think it will appeal to those who like historical fiction in general.

Review: Cinderella Is Dead by Kalynn Bayron

Cinderella is Dead book coverThe premise of this novel is amazing. This is the magical kingdom where Cinderella found her Prince Charming, 200 years later—except everything is not all unicorns and rainbows. The current king has maintained the tradition of every sixteen-year-old girl going to the annual ball to get “selected” by the men from the kingdom. If they don’t get picked, they have to go back the next year and then the next, and if they don’t get selected by then, they’re “forfeit.” It isn’t clear to people what that means, exactly, but it’s not good. And the girls are supposed to go all out for the ball—actually, they’re supposed to be visited by the fairy godmother, if they’re "lucky" enough. But in reality, parents spend loads of money they don’t really have on dresses and everything so their daughters can be competitive at the ball. So that’s the basic setup—with a sexist medieval Western European-flavor. But there is a lot more going on than the characters know about.

The ball is coming up soon for sixteen-year-old Sophia, but she not only isn’t interested in being picked by some creepy guy who doesn’t care what she wants, she isn’t even interested in boys at all. Instead, she wants to marry her best friend Erin, something that just isn’t done. When Sophia and Erin do go to the ball, things go haywire and Sophia ends up fleeing, finding herself at Cinderella’s mausoleum, where she meets a new girl named Constance. Constance is descended from one of the “evil” stepsisters—who weren’t evil at all, as it turns out. Things have been twisted in the official, kingdom-sanctioned version of Cinderella’s tale. Sophia and Constance decide to overthrow the king and undertake a journey to find the fairy godmother in the White Wood.

From there, they learn a lot about Cinderella and the real story, suffer some notable betrayals, and find themselves challenged to the max. I’m not going to claim that the book is perfect—there are some questionable plot moments, but overall the story works and was so original that I could forgive small problems. Sophia’s a strong, single-minded-in-a-good-way girl, and Constance turns out to be a great character, too.

A lot of fans of fantasy and fairy tale retellings should enjoy this one. Be prepared to be surprised.

Style

Not a lot has changed in the past few weeks. I got my thesis back from the second reader, so now I’m ready to finalize it and send it in. I finished my class about narrative distance and got some feedback from the teacher, so now I feel ready to tackle fixing Ugly. I’m pretty sure I’m going to try to do NaNoWriMo this year, after waffling about it for a while. I may not succeed—may, in fact, give up part way—but I’m going to start it and see how it goes. I’m going to be busy because I’m also taking two art classes. Being me, I decided to go for it, and I enrolled in a BFA program in Illustration. Crazy, I know. But I'll learn stuff.

I’ve still been working through a pen and ink techniques book, copying from the artist’s drawings. I’m getting better and learning some techniques, and developing my own style (slowly). I’ve included a few pictures below.

Drawing of trees on a hill

Drawing of small sailboat

Drawing of castle stairs

Review: The 57 Bus by Dashka Slater

The 57 Bus book coverThis time I’m reviewing a nonfiction book, something I don’t do very often. But I devoured this one. It tells the story of an attack on an agender teen by a Black teen on a bus in Oakland, California, and the aftermath. But it delves into the lives of both teens as well as the justice system and provides a really objective view of all the issues surrounding the attack.

The book starts with Sasha, the agender teen (this is the term they use for the majority of the book, rather than nonbinary), talking about their background, friends, school, and so on. Sasha was eighteen and a senior in a progressive private school. I really got a sense for who this person was from the section.

Then the book covers Richard, the Black sixteen-year-old. He’d had a tough time, losing friends to murder and getting robbed at gunpoint by someone he thought was a friend. He’d spent some time in a group home after getting in trouble for fighting (this whole thing seemed pretty sketchy to me—I’m pretty sure a white kid in that situation wouldn’t have ended up in a group home). But he was back at school and apparently trying to do well enough to graduate, something that would have made him stand out a little with his peers.

The next section of the book deals with the attack itself. Sasha was asleep on the bus when Richard started messing with a lighter, flicking it on just under the hem of Sasha’s skirt. He was goofing around, not appreciating what would really happen. He thought it would light and fizzle out, but instead the whole thing caught on fire (as anyone with a fully-developed brain would probably realize, or at least realize as a possibility). A stranger on the bus helped put the fire out but Sasha’s legs had serious burns, including spots that were third-degree (which means it burned all the way through the skin and into the fat, in case you didn’t know what that was). We learn a little about the ordeal Sasha had to go through to recover, but the book doesn’t dwell on it.

The next section covers what happened to Richard, basically. Because originally they charged him as an adult with a hate crime, but many people wanted him charged as a minor—including Sasha and their parents. The book explores the problem of charging kids as adults—because how do you know when a teen has done something stupid that they regret and that will keep them from ever doing something like it again, and when they are fundamentally bad? We know enough about brain science that we know the former is a real possibility.

This is a really interesting book that explores two completely separate issues: gender nonconformity and an imperfect justice system (especially as it relates to race). It’s incredibly well-written, keeping you turning the pages to see what happens next, just like a novel would. I highly recommend it to anyone.

Review: Fake ID by Lamar Giles

Fake ID book coverI don’t remember how I found out about this book, which originally came out in 2014, but I’m glad I did. As I’m starting to explore suspense in YA more, this is a perfect thing for me to read. I saw it compared to a Harlan Coben book, and having just read my first Coben book, I can say the comparison is apt.

Nick Pearson isn’t really Nick Pearson. His real name is Tony Bordeaux, and he’s in the Witness Protection Program with his parents because his father worked as a bookkeeper for a mobster. Nick/Tony’s father is quite the piece of work—he’s gotten them kicked out of previous placements because he keeps dabbling in the criminal world. Now they’ve just moved to Stepton, Virginia.

Nick is befriended by a newspaper nerd named Eli Cruz who gets Nick interested in a conspiracy or something called Whispertown. And then Eli is discovered dead in the journalism room—with slit wrists, an apparent suicide. But his sister Reya doesn’t believe it, and eventually neither does Nick. So they start investigating to try to figure out what is going on, which will hopefully reveal who killed Eli. But what’s actually going on is really complicated, and things get more and more dangerous. It doesn’t help that Reya’s ex-boyfriend is out to get Nick, and not afraid to use violence to get his revenge.

Nick is a complex character who is definitely affected by his time in WitSec, as they call it, and his relationship with his parents is interesting. I also enjoyed his relationship with Reya, which was complicated, as well. The plot is solid and there are some twists I didn’t see coming. The ending is interesting, as well.

This is a fairly gritty book, especially for YA, and I think it would appeal to a lot of readers, particularly boys. But I recommend it to anyone who likes suspense/thrillers, as it will make for a satisfying read.

Writing and Education

I recently joined Sisters in Crime, a mystery/suspense/etc. writers’ group, just in time to attend there SinC Into Great Writing: Creating Authentic Characters webinar. I was excited about it because Lou Berney, the author I’m working with this semester for my suspense class in my MFA, was featured. But K. Tempest Bradford was also presenting about writing the other. I’ve heard of her but never seen her teach, which is a shame because she’s a great presenter. If you’re a writer wanting to learning about diverse representation and writing characters different from you, I highly recommend looking for her workshops. She’s very organized, clear, and deeply knowledgeable. She’s also a funny (not excessively so, but she kept it light despite the serious nature of the topic). She also talked about sensitivity readers. Apparently the going minimum is about $250/300, which isn’t bad to me. The next part of the webinar was a conversation about character with Walter Mosley and Lou Berney, which was also interesting. It really was just a conversation for the most part, with the moderator asking a few questions to get things going.

In MFA news, I sent my thesis to the second reader, which means there are no more changes to make. I also turned in the synopsis of rewritten Sadie Speaks to Lou last week and I’m looking forward to getting his feedback on it. If he doesn’t have recommendations for major changes, I’ll be able to submit two samples from the beginning of the book, which I’m hoping is two chapters each. Otherwise, I’ll have to revise the synopsis for the first submission. I just have one more submission to make in my research elective (though I do have half a book to read for it). So I’m really close to being done here.

Outside of that, I just started an online class called How Stories Get Told: Voice and Narrative Distance which I’m hoping is going to help me fix the narrative distance problem Ugly has. Because I think that’s the problem. We’re so buried in her head we can’t see the rest of the world.

I’m still internally debating doing NaNoWriMo this year. This is the month I need to do the planning if I want to make it work. I would be rewriting a romance of mine. I’m also trying to figure out if I’m going to cheat if I do decide to go for it. I already have some of the novel written (actually the whole thing, but only some of that is usable), so I could count the parts I pull in toward my word count. Normally, I’m a purist about it—I only start brand new projects and would never cheat. But it is 2020. So.

One issue is that I want to work on Ugly, too, so it will be hard to do both, which means I may not get to Ugly until December, when I told the agents I could get it to them by the end of the year. I’m also still actively working on the Now Would Be Good stories. I’m running it through my book coach 2500 words a week, with many weeks to go. On top of that, I’m taking another writing class on short stories that starts on October 13, so I’ll be trying to produce work for that. On top of that, I’m studying calculus to prepare for starting the statistics master’s again next fall. So really, if I were sensible, I would not do NaNo. But this is me, so who knows what I’ll decide.

An update on the expensive cat problem: my MacBook Air display died again, and this time they replaced it and two internal cables. So there really was something wrong with it that wasn’t from Maddox biting it. But I still installed a Maddox bite deterrent system:

Maddox Bite Deterrent System - cardboard taped to the corners of the screen

So far it’s working reasonably well. I’ve caught him biting the cardboard several times, but he hasn’t gotten past it yet.