Review: Vincent and Theo: The Van Gogh Brothers by Deborah Heiligman

Vincent and Theo book coverI’ve recently become aware that there is actually a decent amount of YA nonfiction out there, as I’m working on one myself, although mine is more technical than narrative. One of the authors I found is Deborah Heiligman, who wrote Charles and Emma about Charles Darwin and his wife, which was a finalist for the National Book Award. I bought that book, but the first one I decided to read was her one about Vincent van Gogh. 

Vincent and Theo is a great exploration of Vincent’s rise as an artist, and all his stumbling along the way, as well his relationship with his steadfast brother Theo, who literally and figuratively supported Vincent pretty much all his adult life. This is basically a birth-death portrait of both of them, and it starts off describing their rather commonplace, middle-class childhood in The Netherlands. Their father was a pastor and they had several sisters and everything seemed pretty normal and positive in those days. Vincent and Theo were close despite a four-year age gap, even pledging to always be there for each other in their late teens. Their uncle worked in the art industry as an art dealer, and it was expected that both Vincent and Theo would go into that field. Vincent had no intentions of becoming an artist in the early days. 

So Vincent did come of age and start working as an art dealer. But it didn’t take long before some of his more difficult personality traits emerged and although they tried moving him to London, it really didn’t work out. This period was really the point at which his mental health challenges started to emerge. Vincent floundered around for a while and became intensely religious for a period of time, trying to make a career out of evangelism. But this ultimately didn’t work out, either, and he floundered some more before finally deciding to become a draftsman. He threw himself into this with unrivaled intensity, drawing and painting in watercolor (which he actually still called drawing) to train himself to render things accurately. Eventually he started working in oils, and became a full-fledged painter. Theo literally supported him through all of this, sending him money for rent, food, and art supplies, sometimes sending paint directly. 

Although he had no responsibilities except to his own development as an artist, Vincent didn’t do that well. He tended to not eat or generally take very good care of himself, something he did his entire adulthood. He got romantically involved with a prostitute who had first one child and then another (not Vincent’s) and they moved in with Vincent. Poor Theo was then responsible for two adults and two children, and the woman’s mother was somehow involved in all of this. It just sounded messy to me. During all this, Theo is encouraging Vincent but still saying he’s not skilled enough, so he’s developing, developing, developing. Eventually Vincent and the woman split up, Vincent moved around a bit, and then he finally started having the beginnings of success. He became part of the European art scene after Theo managed to sell some of his pieces. From this point on, Vincent was a real artist, but he also truly struggled with his mental health and he still wasn't pulling in much actual money. He and the artist Gaugin lived together and encouraged and challenged each other, drinking together a lot, as well. 

Although the author never says it, it sounds to me like he had classic bipolar disorder, the variant with full psychosis (bipolar I). And his habits of not eating and not taking care of himself—and also drinking excessively—are some of the worst possible things bipolar sufferers can do. I’m not sure why, but the drinking in particular makes it immensely harder to regulate feelings, which is the downfall of a sufferer. Things can spiral up or down, neither of which is a good thing. And of course this one in the days before Lithium. Untreated bipolar disorder is a nightmare. 

Everyone knows of the incident with Vincent cutting off his own ear. We sometimes trivialize that—it even seems kind of funny. Heiligman doesn’t go into detail about it, either, but think about it—he took a razor and cut through the skin and then all that cartilage. And anyone who’s ever cut their ear accidentally knows how painful just some dinky little cut is. This would have taken Vincent real time. It just makes me ill thinking about it. He also delivered the ear to a prostitute at one of the brothels he frequented, something he later felt really guilty about. He did eventually recover from this incident, but after trying to keep painting and having some more ups and downs, his struggles continued and eventually he shot himself somewhere in his torso from what I gather. He survived initially but was still mortally wounded, but it allowed Theo to reach him and spend time with him before he died. 

I’ve talked mostly about Vincent here, because although the book itself spends as much time on Theo and his own tribulations (he didn’t have an easy time of things, either, although he doesn’t seem to have had any significant mental health challenges), the whole reason for the book is because of how important Vincent became in the art world. And that never would have come to be without Theo’s support. Interestingly, their mother had some of Vincent’s paintings but didn’t keep them safe, and they didn’t survive. Nobody in his family saw his successes except Theo, forever viewing him in terms of his earlier failures. Theo, on the other hand, was 100% committed to sharing Vincent’s work with the world. Sadly, he barely outlived Vincent. Both Vincent and Theo contracted STIs from all their cavorting at the local brothels. Theo’s syphilis killed him, cruelly sending him into madness beforehand. But his wife, Jo, took over being Vincent’s advocate, and it is because of her dedication—a direct result of Theo’s dedication—that so much of Vincent’s work has survived. Theo and Jo’s son, who they named Vincent and who was still a baby when his uncle and father died, didn’t go into art, but he did help found the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam. 

Normally I don’t talk as much about an entire book when I review it, but I just found this story fascinating and full of things I didn’t know. But one of the things that makes the book stand out is how personal it feels. Obviously Heiligman doesn’t know with certainty how each of the brothers truly felt, but they sent heartfelt letters back and forth sometimes almost daily, and she worked off of those. Some purists may prefer to just read the translated letters directly, but I liked (and trusted) Heiligman’s interpretation. If you are wanting to understand more about who Vincent and the most important person in his life really were, and what they were like, this is a great book for that. It may technically be YA, but it will appeal to anyone interested in the brothers’ story. 

February Ad Results

I planned to do a review this week, but I can’t seem to break out of this reading slump. I’m reading a book I really like, a YA biography of Vincent van Gogh and his brother Theo, but I didn’t finish it in time to review it this week. 

So instead, I’ll just give an update on my advertising efforts for Finding Frances that I focused on in February. I ran a Bargain Booksy ad on February 16th and I did sell a few books on that day. I started a Facebook ad campaign on the 25th and I have gotten some sales out of that, enough to move up in the top 100 of two of my categories. This is cool because it means anyone searching that category could feasibly see it on the first page of the results. 

Finding Frances category ranks

I also ran two Kirkus ads, one in their magazine on February 15th. I haven’t seen anything from that, but if I am lucky, that’s more likely to be paperbacks, I suspect, and there’s a major delay in reporting those so I won’t know for a while. The other ad I ran with them was on their website and started February 14th and ran for two weeks, and that one probably was a bit of a bust because I didn’t see any clear sales on Kindle books except on the Bargain Booksy day and right after the Facebook ad started. I also ran 10 separate targeted ads on BookBub for the book. It was so strange—I had a terrible click through rate, and my two Amazon ads that actually advertised the sale price never got a single click, even after being shown to nearly 1000 people each. I think BookBub does offer help with creating effective ads, but my guess is it’s not free. Anyway, I hope I get some more reviews out of all this advertising. 

I’m still working on prepping my new releases. I finally got both Always the New Girl and Ugly sent off to Kirkus for their reviews today, and I should have them back by May 2. This meant I pushed Always the New Girl’s release to May 10. Ugly is still June 7. The Always the New Girl cover is almost finalized. It looks really good. I’m actually planning to release all but the Kindle version through Ingram Spark instead of going to each distributor directly (except I will do Amazon Kindle myself). I also plan to put both of them on BookSprout, which is a site you can put ARCs (and older books) on to get reviews. I’m also probably going to do a review tour with Goddess Fish, which I did for Finding Frances, when I got 7 good reviews. I plan to submit both books to BookBub as New Release features. I doubt I’ll get that, but it’s free to try, so why not. I guess I’m going to do everything in my power to get some momentum at the beginning. I don’t have high expectations, but I figure I should give it the old college try. Rah.

Twitter Drama and Advertising

It’s kind of funny that my last post, 3 weeks ago, was all about social media and my plan to be all involved, because literally the next day Twitter locked my account without cause. I had posted a link to a Medium article I published that day that talked about a racist Zoom-bombing experience I had that was awful, and how I didn’t think that the way the presenters handled it (pretending it hadn’t happened after kicking him out of the meeting) was right. I talked about how  upsetting it was even for me (a lot) and how I wasn’t even a target. By ignoring it, the presenters kind of gave tacit approval of what had happened, or at least they didn’t convey how wrong it was. So that was my article. Not very salacious. Two hours after I linked to it, Twitter locked my account, claiming I had broken one of their rules. The email said I had broken “the following rule,” which was a blank line, so I had no idea what rule they thought I’d broken. But I read their rules, and I hadn’t broken any of them. I assumed that their automation picked up on the word “bombing” and flagged it automatically. So I filed an appeal (which was linked to from the original email), expecting a person to look at my tweet and realize it was the opposite of rule-breaking. However, a few hours later, I got an email stating that they had determined that a violation had happened, so they would not overturn their decision. Then they again tried to tell me which rule I’d broken, but again left it blank. How anyone could look at my tweet linking to basically an anti-racist article and call it a problem is beyond me. Maybe they haven’t heard of Zoom-bombing? Because I looked on Twitter before posting that tag, and it’s been used many times, sometimes by people bragging about doing it. And I’m a problem? It boggles the mind. I filed another report with customer service a couple days later, and after a week I still hadn’t heard back. When I go into Twitter there’s a screen with a message about my account being locked and a link to cancel the appeal and delete the email, which seemed the only way forward at this point since my appeal was denied and they weren’t responding to my followup. So I decided, what the hell, I’ll just delete it and repost without using the word “bombing” anywhere. I went in to do this, and in order to delete the tweet, you have to check this box admitting you did something wrong. I was like, I didn’t! So I didn’t click the box and went in and filed another ticket with customer support. It’s now been almost two weeks and I haven’t heard back. They indicate that you should hear a response within a few days but sometimes it takes longer. It’s infuriating to me that they won’t even tell me which rule I supposedly broke. How do they think that’s acceptable? 

Anyway, apparently I am no longer going to be on Twitter, because I refuse to admit to wrongdoing after doing nothing wrong. But I really sort of need that account for promoting my writing and having a social media presence, so this is really frustrating and unfair. And they’re denying me that for no reason at all. I’m so pissed.  

Other than that drama, the past week has been filled with an intense campaign of Finding Frances promotion and advertising. It’s been on sale for 99 cents (Kindle only) since February 4th, through the 24th. I started an ad campaign on BookBub on the 5th, but that actually didn’t go anywhere. BookBub emailed me to tell me to try something else because I was getting no clicks. Then early this past week, an ad went live in the Kirkus Reviews magazine that came out Tuesday, and I have an ad running on Kirk’s website for last and the coming week. Then on Thursday, I also ran a BargainBooksy ad, which did result in some sales. I don’t know how many yet, but it brought me up to a rank of about 65,000 in the Kindle store (normally I’m down around 1,600,000) and I got in the top 100 of one of my categories for a little while, which is great. But these are small wins, and my BookBub ads (I redid them and am now running 10 separate focused ads) are totally flopping. I really don’t know what to do with this book. I think I may just have to admit defeat after this month if I don’t see significant sales. This is a tough business. 

I am still in the process of preparing to publish Always the New Girl and the prequel, as well as Ugly. I’ve pulled all the Always the New Girl stories off Vella and they’ll be officially gone after 60 days. The Ugly Vella is still publishing, three episodes per week, so I figure I’ll let it finish (mid-March) and then pull it from Vella, too. I haven’t had a single read on that one, not even one free episode. But I almost have the covers for Always the New Girl and the prequel finalized with my cover designer. Once she finishes those, she’ll work on the one for Ugly. I’m figuring out my pre-publishing activities at this point. I’m still trying to decide if I’m going to go wide (publish everywhere) or focus on Amazon for a bit. I’m leaning toward wide. Always the New Girl will be available in ebook and paper and the prequel in ebook only. As soon as the cover is finalized, I’m submitting Always the New Girl to Kirkus for a review (I prepaid). Then I’ll release it (and the prequel) April 26th. I’m going to put some ARCs up on BookSprout to see if I can get some reviews soon after release. Once the Ugly cover is finalized, I’ll also submit that to Kirkus for a review. The release date for that is June 7th, and I’ll do BookSprout ARCs for it, too. I’m also looking into BookFunnel, which allows you to do promotions with other writers. I’m thinking I may do a FreeBooksy for both of the novels soon after release to see if I can get some traction. Not that I expect it to work, but I figure I should try. 

So even though it is all depressing and seems pointless, I’m moving forward. Maybe I’ll eventually catch a break some time. 

Review: Out of the Easy by Ruta Sepetys

Out of the Easy book coverJosie is one of those amazing characters who, like a handful of incredible people I’ve known in real life, wants more out of her life than what she’s been dealt as the daughter of a brothel narcissistic prostitute—and she’s willing to work for it. It’s the 1950s in New Orleans and life is hard for a lot of people. But Josie’s observant and smart (both academically and street-smart), and she has a great deal of self-respect. It’s virtually impossible not to like her and root for her. 

Josie’s mother couldn’t care any less about her, but fortunately there are some people around her who do care about her in their own ways. The woman who runs the brothel knows she’s smart and frequently helps her, and some of the other prostitutes appreciate her and treat her well. But the people that treat her best are Charlie, an older bookshop owner, and Charlie’s son Patrick, who’s only a little older than Josie. She sometimes spend the night in the loft of the shop to be somewhere other than the brothel. 

But Josie’s got a million things going against her. It doesn’t matter to most people who she really is, but only where she comes from. When she and Patrick manage to befriend a rich college girl who doesn’t know Josie’s past, Josie starts dreaming of going to Smith College. But her regular, everyday life is throwing obstacles up right and left, with things falling apart. But Josie is unflinching and resourceful, and although you have no idea how she could possibly make this all work, you have no doubt she’ll figure out a way. 

I read this book in the middle of my 2021 reading slump and still devoured it in three days—even though I’m not a big historical fiction reader. I loved this book, and really, despite the fact that Josie (fictionally) lived seventy years ago, she’s as strong a female character as in any modern YA story. 

Review: Legendborn (The Legendborn Cycle #1) by Tracy Deonn

Legendborn book coverBree Matthews is a girl with a plan that will help her deal with her mother’s recent death. It also is academically sound and will help her in other ways, even though it will also unexpectedly lead to her getting involved in ancient lore she never knew was real. 

Bree and her best friend Alice begin a residential high school for high-achievers at a major university in North Carolina at the very beginning of the book, but things go awry on their first night when they accidentally witness some magic at an outside party they aren’t supposed to be at. By Chapter 3, they’re in a police car and in trouble with their program. Although Alice doesn’t remember it or know what happened, Bree does remember, even though she’s not supposed to, and she also isn’t supposed to know about the existence of a group called Legendborn.

“His mouth spilling words into the night like a cold wind until they swept away my intention to stay and replaced it with his command that I leave.”

Thus begins this urban fantasy full of excellent Arthurian mythology, which made me happy (I’ve always been a big fan of the Arthur legends for some reason and even took an Arthurian literature class in college). Deonn uses a lot of the existing mythology while not being afraid to shake some of it up. For one thing, Bree is Black, so she already doesn’t fit the very white world of the legendary (Celtic) Briton Arthur, who is purported to have lived in the middle of the first millennium and fought the Saxons off. So now, Bree has a lot more going on that trying to do well in her tough classes and deal with the casual racism all around her. She has to learn about the Legendborn and how she’s involved, and also some rather interesting stuff about her mother. Bree also finds out that some pretty bad stuff is going on with the world, and she has a role in fixing it but isn’t entirely sure she wants to.

The mythology in the book is really interesting, complex, and unique, and any fan of Arthurian lore will enjoy it, as will fans of urban fantasy in general.

Social Media Frenzy

Frenzy probably isn’t the right word, but I have decided to really commit to being more active on social media, because apparently that is the best way to get attention on your books (nothing else has worked, for sure). And apparently TikTok is the most important one for authors, because BookTok is a big thing and authors swear it brings them readers. So I’ve opened an account there, too. But there’s that old rule of making sure to not only do marketing. You’ve got to have real non-promo content, too. This is not easy for me as I never think anything I do is interesting, unless I’m making it up.

So I have a plan. I’m going to get back to doing those staged book quotes I’ve done on Instagram for a while. But I’m also going to post that content on Twitter, as well as links to my reviews posted here. And I’ll post the Medium essays I’ve started writing on Twitter, as well. Occasionally I’ll post pictures of my books and links to them, including the Vella stories while they’re up. For TikTok, I’ve started making these really dumb videos of me holding different books, with a quote from the book appearing over my head. And I’ll be posting content to Medium once a week, too. With the exception of Medium, I use all these accounts for everything I do, not just writing YA or art or whatever. And there will still be cats. I have this schedule I’m planning to follow: Twitter M/Th/Sa, Instagram Tu/F/Su, TikTok W/Sa, and Medium M only. I’m going to continue posting my reviews to the website here and adding those to my Pinterest boards. 

Anyway, if you are interested in following me on any of these platforms, here they are (and don’t ask me about the TikTok user name … grr):

I do also have a Facebook page you can follow if you feel like it: https://www.facebook.com/Kelly-Vincent-Young-Adult-Author-106808441724806. I don’t do much with it right now, but I needed it to run ads on Facebook, so it’s there now. Feel free to follow.

Review: The Summer I Became a Nerd by Leah Rae Miller

The Summer I Became a Nerd book coverMaddie has several things she’s passionate about, but none of them are the things she’s “supposed” to care about. She’s a cheerleader dating one of the school’s finest catches—the quarterback—and everyone has forgotten a disastrous incident in junior high, where she outed herself as a nerdy and very enthusiastic comic book fan and was laughed off the costume contest stage. The only thing she could think to do was pretend it never happened, and never, ever mention comics in front of anybody ever again.

This is fine except for the fact that she still loves comics, especially one she’s been following for years. After her safe, at-home acquisition of the final issue of her favorite one falls through, she’s desperate enough to head out to the local comic shop—in disguise, of course. But even this doesn’t work, as the shop is sold out of the last issue. Somehow she talks the high school kid—Logan—working the register to loan her his copy of it. She’s hoping he doesn’t recognize her. 

Turns out, Logan knew exactly who she was. And much to Maddie’s surprise, the two become friends, bonding over comics, and she feels the pull of the life—and the pop culture—that she genuinely loves. It distracts her from the friends and pop star she’s supposed to love. She doesn’t really know how to handle it all, afraid her world will come crashing down if she’s not careful. But treating your new friend like a dirty secret doesn’t go well, so she’s got some thinking to do. 

The book celebrates nerd culture and while the resolution didn’t read entirely believable to me (I’m just not convinced cheerleaders and LARPers can actually mix), it was still an entertaining light romance.

Review: Enter Title Here by Rahul Kanakia

Enter Title Here book coverRahul Kanakia’s pathologically competitive and high-achieving teenager Reshma Kapoor may cause less bloodshed than a favorite literary psyche authors love to explore—the serial killer—but she’s a fresher voice and even more deliciously warped. Early on, Reshma ponders her social life, concluding that “Alexandra is probably the closest thing I have to a friend. Which isn’t that close, because she’s not actually my friend at all: she just sells me Adderall sometimes.” This is exactly who Reshma is. She’s laser-focused on maintaining a perfect GPA in order to be valedictorian so she can get into Stanford. She will stop at nothing to make that happen, and if drugs give her the edge she needs, so be it. It is a joy to watch her, waiting for the train wreck. 

On the opening page, we see an email to Reshma from a literary agent impressed with Reshma’s “brassy and articulate” voice in an article she wrote for The Huffington Post. The agent offers to read a novel if Reshma happens to have one. Reshma has never given fiction the time of day, but she seizes this opportunity to stand out from other Stanford applicants and claims she has a nearly-complete novel in progress. This is a tiny little fib, but she thinks two months is plenty of time to write one. Reshma’s literary pursuits don’t change her valedictorian goal, so we are still taken through the world of high school high achievers, which is complex and rife with emotional turmoil and questionable ethics. Although Reshma isn’t the exact stereotype of such a student, she is an extreme that anyone who’s been part of that world can believe. Kanakia makes her shenanigans fun to watch. 

You don’t have to like Reshma or people like her to enjoy this book. In fact, you may find yourself rooting against her, which I feel is fine. It’s still worth picking up. 

2022 Reading Challenges and Last Year’s Recap

Every year I report on my reading challenges and set the plan for coming year. I didn’t do that well this year. I have been in a reading slump for much of the year. 

First, the Recap of 2021

I signed up for the same three challenges I did in 2020, the Goodreads, the King County Library’s 10 to Try, and BookRiot’s Read Harder Challenge. 

For Goodreads, I set it to 110 for 2021. I technically did finish this, but only because I counted picture books, which take 10 minutes to read (often less), so they really don’t count. I checked against my spreadsheet where I track my reading, and I actually did do better than I thought: I read 87 non-picture book books. So I didn’t hit the 110, but I seriously thought it would be way lower than that. I didn’t finish either of the other two challenges, though I made decent 

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

  • Makes you laugh - Enter Title Here by Rahul Kanakia
  • 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
  • Set where you were born - Out of the Easy by Ruta Sepetys
  • Published this year - Indestructible Object by Mary McCoy
  • Re-read an old favorite - The Boyfriend List by E. Lockhart
  • About pop culture - The Summer I Became a Nerd by Leah Rae Miller

But failed on the following:

  • Recommended by staff - You Should See Me in A Crown by Leah Johnson
  • Non-human characters - Watership Down by Richard Adams
  • By a Black author - Children of Virtue and Vengeance by Tomi Adeyemi

I’m disappointed in myself. If I had tried, I could have done it, especially the two YA ones. I read many other books instead. 

For the Read Harder Challenge (which is a lot harder than the others) I managed to complete only 8 books of the 24 on the list (pitiful!):

  • Read a non-European novel in translation - The Disaster Tourist: A Novel by Yun Ko-eun and Lizzie Buehler
  • Read a genre novel by an Indigenous, First Nations, or Native American author - Elatsoe by Darcie Little Badger and Rovina Cai
  • Read a middle grade mystery - From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler by E.L. Konigsburg
  • 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
  • Read a realistic YA book not set in the U.S., UK, or Canada - Words in Deep Blue by Cath Crowley
  • Read a children’s book that centers a disabled character but not their disability - Emmanuel’s Dream by Laurie Ann Thompson and Sean Qualls
  • Read a food memoir by an author of color - Stealing Buddha’s Dinner by Bich Minh Nguyen
  • Read a book by/about a non-Western world leader - Cleopatra: A Life by Stacy Schiff 

I failed on the following:

  • Read a book you’ve been intimidated to read - Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel 
  • Read a nonfiction book about anti-racism - White Fragility: Why It's So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism by Robin DiAngelo
  • Read an LGBTQ+ history book - Queer: A Graphic History by Dr. Meg-John Barker and Julia Scheele
  • 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)
  • Read a fat-positive romance - Take a Hint, Dani Brown: A Novel by Talia Hibbert
  • Read a romance by a trans or nonbinary author - Felix Ever After by Kacen Callender
  • Read a work of investigative nonfiction by an author of color - Sway: Unravelling Unconscious Bias by Pragya Agarwal
  • Read a book with a cover you don’t like - Gabi, A Girl in Pieces by Isabel Quintero
  • Read a memoir by a Latinx author - Children of the Land: A Memoir by Marcelo Hernandez Castillo
  • Read an own voices book about disability - Unbroken: 13 Stories Starring Disabled Teens edited by Mariene Nijkamp
  • Read an own voices YA book with a Black main character that isn’t about Black pain - Deathless Divide by Justina Ireland
  • Read a historical fiction with a POC or LGBTQ+ protagonist - The Gentleman's Guide to Vice and Virtue by Mackenzi Lee
  • Read a book of nature poems - The Radiant Lives of Animals by Linda Hogan
  • Read a book set in the Midwest - The Lake Effect by Erin McCahan
  • Read a book that demystifies a common mental illness - Turtles All the Way Down by John Green
  • Read a book featuring a beloved pet where the pet doesn’t die - Vicarious by Paula Stokes

I did start one of them (Take a Hint, Dani Brown: A Novel by Talia Hibbert) but I just haven’t been able to read much romance this year for some reason. I liked what I read so far, but it’s on my nightstand. I haven’t been reading too much at night. 

Now, the Plan for 2022

Okay, I’m going to go easy on myself. I’m going to scale things back and skip the Read Harder one this year. So Goodreads and KCLS 10 to Try is all I’m going to do. 

This year I’m going to count picture books and set a goal of 200 total books on Goodreads.That’s basically 100 picture books and 100 others, at least in my head. 

For KCLS 10 to Try, here are the categories and my intended books: 

  • The cover is your favorite color - The Love and Lies of Rukhsana Ali by Sabina Khan
  • Set somewhere you've wanted to visit - Spindle and Dagger by J. Anderson Coats
  • The main character is over 50 - Gray Hair Don't Care by Karen Booth
  • By an Asian or Asian American author - Anna K by Jenny Lee
  • About a library or set in a library - Suggested Reading by Dave Connis
  • Set in another century - Deathless Divide by Justina Ireland
  • A one-word title - Monster by Walter Dean Myers
  • Recommended by a friend - Parable of the Sower by Octavia Butler
  • Has won an award - Vincent and Theo: The Van Gogh Brothers by Deborah Heiligman
  • Recommended by staff - Fuzz: When Nature Breaks the Law by Mary Roach

December 2021 Update

It has been a while since I’ve posted. I’m still not reading a ton, which is part of the reason there aren’t reviews being posted. But I’ve got a few things going on now. Thursday, I got news of a Kirkus Review of Finding Frances that was actually really good—I didn't realize it at first, but it is actually a starred review. You can find it here. I was pretty happy to see it. I still don’t know how to get people to read the book, but at least I can be comfortable that when they do, it’s not crap. 

I mentioned a couple months ago that I would be publishing Ugly on Kindle Vella. I did that, and you can find it here. The first 12 episodes are released now, and new episodes release every MWF. It will wrap up in March. It’s 807 tokens in total. I’d love it if you’d read it, thumbs-up any episodes you read, and fave it. I’m going to be getting a new cover image for it soon (more on that below). For Ugly, I added author notes on each episode because apparently readers like that. I am planning to go back and add them to all the Always the New Girl episodes soon.

I am already planning to publish Ugly next year in eBook and print, and also Always the New Girl as an eBook/print book plus an eBook prequel. So I got in touch with the cover artist who did my romance cover (which I loved), and she’s working on the three covers for me. These will be for the real book, but I’m going to license the image(s) she uses on the covers so I can reuse them without text on the Vella stories. So I’ll be redoing all those images soon. 

In other news, I am working on an exciting new project. It’s a book proposal for a YA nonfiction book on what I do for my day job. I’m pretty stoked about this because there actually isn’t a book for teens about it, and it’s recently been called the “sexiest job” all over the media. There are a lot of books for adults about it, but these make assumptions about the reader that wouldn’t work well for teenagers. I think I have a really good chance of getting this published, so I’m working away at the proposal and sample chapters. 

If I am lucky and this works out the way I want—as long I’m smart about it and choose well—I would have someone who would also look at my fiction. I’m going to also try to find someone who does picture books in addition to YA fiction and nonfiction. I may not be able to manage that, but I’m going to try. 

We will see how things go. It’s hard to imagine the future at this point. 

The only other thing I have going on soon is a pretty cool trip to Egypt (as long as omicron doesn’t ruin it).

Moving Forward, I Guess

So things are not going great. I’m pretty sure I posted earlier about my plan to give myself a real chance of getting an agent and getting published by a large press. My book coach told me that while she thinks my writing is good, it’s not quite at the publishing industry standards of quality. She said I was close, but just needed a little more to get my work all the way. Current wisdom says that agents won’t take on a project unless it’s publication-ready. No more do they take someone on and develop them. Or so it’s said. But I’ve heard plenty of stories about people being taken on by agents who then work with them on several revisions of their manuscript(s), so I don’t really believe it. Still, it does seem that I'm not going to be one of the lucky exceptions. I’ve done everything I possibly can to improve my craft to the point where my work is publication-ready, and I’m still falling short. Whatever the situation really is, I am not good enough to get an agent. 

So my book coach felt like with the right editor, who could make a deep dive into UGLY, maybe I could get it all the way to publication-ready. The trick was that this needs to be exactly the right editor. Someone who really knows the industry as it stands now, and would therefore know what I need to change to make it pass muster. She suggested one developmental editor, only to find out they weren’t taking on new work. I also got another recommendation from a Printz Honor author who is really good friends with a really good friend of mine, but she also wasn’t taking on new work. Then my book coach came up with another name she also felt confident would be able to help me with my specific needs. 

I sent the manuscript off in the first week of May. At first she was really helpful—she even looked at a query I had to send by the end of the month because of an opportunity I had to submit to Delacorte that month. I understood that it would take her about six weeks, which would mean that I’d have the manuscript back by the end of June. At that point, I followed up and got an answer that made it sound like I’d have it in less than two weeks, because she was just finishing up the second read and would then only have to transfer her comments to the document and write the edit letter. Two weeks passed and I followed up, and that is really where the nightmare began for me. Fast forward to October now, and I have had promise after promise that it would be delivered, and still don’t have it. The reason I let it go on this long is because she was having some really big and awful family and medical stuff going on. I don’t think she was lying. Though I’m not sure when it all started. But I would follow up about every two weeks, and every time I’d hear promises of an imminent delivery. At one point when I hadn’t heard back, I asked my book coach to follow up (they know each other), and then I heard back from the editor with more promises. She also claimed she loved the book and did have suggestions, but really believed in the book. Every time she was very credible, and I’ve become convinced that this was one of those things for her where you just get stuck on something, and can’t do it no matter how hard you try. But she still kept promising. By early September she was promising to refund me the first payment I’d made and still get me the feedback (earlier she had told me she wouldn’t be charging me the second half of the charge). I told her I didn’t want a refund, just the manuscript. I talked to a couple other writing friends who said I should just give up on the feedback and cut her loose. So I emailed a couple Saturdays ago telling her that if she couldn’t get it back to me by the following Sunday (last week), I just wanted a refund. As that date approached, an idea started forming in my head. Sunday came and went, and the next day, I got another email promising to get me the manuscript in what sounded like the same day. Didn’t happen. So Tuesday I finally officially gave up. I emailed her telling her I didn’t care about the feedback anymore and just wanted a refund. 

This whole thing has been hard for me because it has always been my dream to be agented and published by a major publisher. I have worked like crazy to get there. UGLY is my best work, and it still has collected over 100 agent rejections (adding to the mountain of rejections for Finding Frances, over 200). It just seems delusional to keep believing that me getting an agent is really possible. So telling the editor I don’t want the feedback anymore is giving up on a major dream I’ve been working toward for almost ten years.  

The editor did respond, saying she would be refunding me in a few days. She also said some nice things about the book and my writing—I know she did read the book—but I just think it’s not a good time to try to get an agent. It’s not going to happen. She again said she’s going to send me feedback. I believe that she will, but not necessarily this weekend like she promised. 

So, I have decided to publish UGLY on Kindle Vella, even though the Always the New Girl stories have completely bombed there. But supposedly your stories have a better chance of getting discovered if you are actively publishing episodes, so I will be publishing maybe two episodes a week. I have no idea how long it will take to get through the whole book, because I’ve got to break the manuscript down into episodes first. I am going to go the Vella route because I think if I publish it as a standard novel, I will never find readers. Most of the promotion things I know how to do target adult readers. And we all know that adult women do read YA, but this particular story is really going to appeal to teens more than adults. And supposedly Vella has teen readers. So that’s what I’m going to try. I do not anticipate success this time, either. I’m just not top-tier. But I have been wrong before, so maybe I’ll get lucky this time. If it doesn’t work out, when I finish publishing all the episodes on there, I can pull it off and publish it as a novel. So I was planning to send the manuscript as it is—and has been for over a year—to a line editor. She’d be able to get it back to me by the second week of November, and I’ll be able to make the necessary changes and split it into episodes hopefully by mid-November. But I’m thinking it might make more sense to wait until January to publish it, which means I have to time to see if the developmental editor really does send feedback, and attempt to incorporate it. Either way, between now and then, I need to get a really good book description written, a cover image ready, and figure out seven good tags to use. 

So I guess I’m forging ahead.

Stuck

This past week I tried my first advertising on Facebook and Instagram. I made an ad for “Now Would Be Good,” the first story in Always the New Girl as posted on Kindle Vella. I can’t say it’s working at all. People are clicking on it, but not a single episode from the series has been read this week. I have no idea how to get the message out. This writing thing is so hard. But I do think I’m going to go ahead and make an ad for Finding Frances. I suspect that one reason I’m not getting reads on “Now Would Be Good” is because people aren’t familiar with Kindle Vella.

I’m still waiting on the Ugly edits from the freelance editor, who’s having some (pretty awful) personal issues and can’t seem to finish the last step in getting it back to me. I’m just in limbo without it, though. I don’t want to start anything new. I want to wrap that up and start sending it out to agents again.

If it still fails to get me an agent, I don’t really know what I’ll do. Maybe I’ll just self-publish, even though I already know nobody would buy it. I just don’t seem to have the marketing chops to make it happen. But after that, I’m not sure if I’d start working on Sadie Speaks again. As much as I love YA, it doesn’t seem to feel the same about me. I do think I’m going to work on some of my romance projects and get those out there (self-published) to see if I can do any better in that genre (which is much more self-publishing-friendly). So most likely I will continue my break from YA for a bit.

On the other hand, if I do manage to land an agent, I will probably refocus and get back to Sadie Speaks. Or I might dive into the sequel to Ugly, for which I have the premise and main characters already worked out.

Anyway, time will tell.

Review: Elatsoe by Darcie Little Badger

Elatsoe book coverI lucked into finding this book to fulfill the “genre novel by an Indigenous, First Nations, or Native American author” category for the Read Harder challenge (which I am so not going to finish—my reading has slowed so much this year). It definitely fits that bill, as an urban fantasy grounded in Apache and other native cultures. The characters exist in an unusual world where certain aspects of the supernatural are recognized and handled in different ways, but otherwise it is just like modern America, microaggressions and all. 

The somewhat light supernatural element is established early on, as the story opens with a plastic skull with googly eyes in the eye sockets, which scares the crap out of Ellie’s ghost dog, Kirby. We learn pretty quick that she’s the one who raised him from the dead, because she can do that. At the end of the first chapter, we learn that Ellie’s favorite cousin has been in a serious accident and probably won’t survive, and her mom forbids her from raising him if he does die. 

That night, Trevor comes to Ellie in a dream and begs her to avenge his murder, even though everyone will think it was an accident. Soon afterward, Ellie and her dad follow her mom to Texas, where they are helping Trevor’s family. Ellie begins trying to figure out what happened to Trevor and how he could have been murdered. In the process, she uncovers the centuries-old secret of the town of Willowbee and its rather “special” inhabitants. She enlists the assistance of an old friend of hers, Jay, who helps from afar and then in person, and also brings along several other useful people (including a vampire). 

I don’t want to give too much away, but let’s just say that the world-building is great, as it gives you just enough info to know what’s going on without overwhelming you with details. And Ellie’s raise-the-dead gift isn’t as simple as you might think, leading to several interesting situations. The native aspects of the tale are woven in tightly and couldn’t be removed without totally changing the story. There is some mythology (I guess that’s what you call it) and old family lore (Ellie feels a big connection to her quietly heroic sixth great grandmother, whose name she bears), but there’s also some of the day-to-day crap that indigenous and other people of color have to deal with from a lot of white people, who are still the majority of the cast in this book. There’s enough of this last stuff to make it realistic, but not so much that it distracts from the fact that this is a book meant to entertain. So I’d highly recommend this if you’re looking for an urban fantasy that’s fresh and interesting. 

Review: Indestructible Object by Mary McCoy

Indestructible Object book coverThis is my third McCoy book, and one thing I think is cool is that they’ve all been fairly different from each other. Though this one and I, Claudia do share some similarities, in that both protagonists are recording their experiences (I, Claudia in an epistolary fashion, and Indestructible Object as within-the-story podcasts). 

This book opens with Lee and her boyfriend, Vincent, breaking up on the last episode of their own podcast (“Artists in Love”) not long after graduating high school. The conversation in the podcast is interspersed with Lee’s narration and reflection. They live in Memphis and Vincent is moving to Washington D.C. for an internship and then to start college at Howard, and Lee isn’t going with him. It’s a bit of a system shock to Lee, who’d been thinking things were going to continue as they had been for two years, only to discover that everything is changing. 

She tries to carry on with other aspects of her life, especially her job as a sound technician for music and poetry readings at a coffee shop, until that falls apart, as well. And all the while she is also watching her parents’ marriage dissolve. Her parents have an eclectic set of friends dating back to their college days, and two of them and their sort-of-adopted son, Max, who Lee has grown up with, come for a visit. 

Lee explores her own love life while ostensibly hoping to get back together with Vincent and soon she, Max, and a new friend embark on a project: a podcast again exploring love but focusing on her parents’ relationship this time. Because Lee has stumbled across a few things that have shaken her understanding of her parents and their history. 

Lee is a great but quite flawed character. She doesn’t know what she wants and is having trouble identifying that, though not for lack of trying. But it turns out that investigating other people’s relationships is not a bad way to shed light on your own—and your feelings about love. The book takes Lee on a satisfying journey of understanding what exactly she wants and why that matters. If you like that sort of thing, you’ll like this book.

First Book Event and a Contest Milestone

Yesterday was my first book event, at Best of Books in Edmond, Oklahoma. It was with four other authors of three other books. They put me at a table with another YA author, Talitha DeVilliers, and we had a nice chat about YA and writing. The staff was all really nice, too, although we didn’t interact much. I even broke the double digits in sold copies of Finding Frances (I had very low expectations) and I was able to leave three signed copies on consignment. I handed out a few bookmarks that also had Always the New Girl information on there. I also got to see a friend I hadn’t seen since she visited me when I lived in Scotland, I think in 2002.

Here’s a photo my mom took of all of us:

Author Event
Best of Books in Edmond, OK

Also, in other good news, I submitted Always the New Girl (stories 1-6, not the prequel) to the BookLife Prize contest (the one Ugly semi-finaled in in 2019) and got the score back a few days ago—a perfect 10 out of 10. This should mean I should make it to the quarterfinal round, at least, which is awesome. It’s just nice that somebody in the industry thinks it’s good. The listing can be seen here. It includes the score and review, which was really glowing.