April 2024 Update

Writing

So much for posting monthly—I totally forgot last month, and here I am coming in under the wire for April. I’ll try to do better.

Ugliest is almost finalized. I’m just waiting on the cover (with my designer) and I need to finalize a resources section for the back of the book. And of course I have to see if I can get anyone to blurb the book. I’m a terrible networker, so this is unlikely to happen.

My publicity campaign officially got started a couple weeks ago, and we’re in the planning and setup stage. I did submit Ugly and Uglier for some more reviews to get more quotes for the book listings and maybe some quotes for the cover, and then also some visibility so people recognize them when they keep seeing them over and over. I’m in the process of preparing book plates and some more swag, with a little bit of original drawing on these mini sketchbooks.

Reading

So you all might remember that I said I’d do three reading challenges this year. The first is the Reader Harder Challenge and the second is the Goodreads one. The third one was as yet undetermined when I posted in January, because it was going to be whatever the King County Library System put together.

My Read Harder Challenge is going well. It’s got 24 categories on it and I’ve already read 10, with 3 in progress right now.

On Goodreads, I’m exactly on track to hit my 120 (though to be fair, I did recently get caught up by reading a stack of graphic novels/manga).

Finally, the KCLS challenge did come out, and it’s basically to contribute to a million minutes spent reading by all participants. FYI, I’ve spent 48 hours and 40 minutes reading so far since I started tracking on March 12. That’s actually quite a bit in just a month and a half—I’m rather surprised. But we, as in the KCLS reading community, are going to smash that goal in October or November if people keep reading the same rate, especially if new people join. They’ve already recorded 442,736 minutes.

2024 Reading Challenges: A Plan

I’m going to get back to doing reading challenges again, so I thought I’d share my plan with you. I’m going to do three this year: Goodreads (total books read) and Book Riot’s Read Harder Challenge (24 books in specific topics). In the past, I’ve done King County Library’s 10 to Try, or 10 books meeting specific criteria, but they don’t have it up yet and may be revamping their challenges, so I’ll do whatever they put up. I’ve actually already made progress on the Reader Harder and Goodreads challenges, so I’m off to a good start.

Goodreads

For Goodreads, I set it to 120 for 2024, basically allowing for reading 20 picture books and still reading 100 non-picture book books.

Read Harder

For the Read Harder Challenge, here are the 24 categories and the books I plan to read (as of now):

  1. Read a cozy fantasy book - The Cat Who Saved Books: A Novel by Sosuke Natsukawa & Louise Heal Kawai - Legends & Lattes is the book that brought cozy fantasy into pop cultural awareness, and I was going to pick that until I saw a book about cats and books on a list (I mean, duh)
  2. Read a YA book by a trans author - X by Davey Davis - I had this on the shelf next to me, a dystopian story by a nonbinary author
  3. Read a middle grade horror novel - Ophie's Ghosts by Justina Ireland - the author of the YA Dread Nation series (so good) has this MG, so I thought I’d try it
  4. Read a history book by a BIPOC author - Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents by Isabel Wilkerson - this sounds freakin’ fascinating so I picked it even though it’s over 500 pages
  5. Read a sci-fi novella - All Systems Red: The Murderbot Diaries by Martha Wells - a friend recommended this series to me a while ago, so I’m finally going to try to read it
  6. Read a middle grade book with an LGBTQIA main character - The Deep & Dark Blue by Niki Smith - the same friend also recommended this, so here I go …
  7. Read an indie published collection of poetry by a BIPOC or queer author - okay, I’m going to admit this will be the last thing I will read, and only if it is literally the only thing left to complete the challenge, because I don’t like poetry, and I finding reading it anxiety-inducing - if the lines are longer, like closer to page width, it makes me less anxious, so hopefully I can find that
  8. Read a book in translation from a country you’ve never visited - probably Chronicle of a Death Foretold by Gabriel García Márquez & Gregory Rabassa (Translator) - I loved A Hundred Years of Solitude in high school, so I’ll try another of his (I feel like I might have read something else a long time ago, but I don’t remember)
  9. Read a book recommended by a librarian - "You Just Need to Lose Weight": And 19 Other Myths About Fat People by Aubrey Gordon - a topic of interest to me
  10. Read a historical fiction book by an Indigenous author - Maud's Line by Margaret Verble - this is set in 1928 Oklahoma (interestingly on the Cherokee reservation, which is near Osage land—I think adjacent—of Killers of the Flower Moon fame, and in a similar time period)
  11. Read a picture book published in the last five years - I’m not going to commit to one, as I’ll just read what I feel like at the time
  12. Read a genre book (SFF, horror, mystery, romance) by a disabled author - The Art of Saving the World by Corinne Duyvis - a YA sci-fi that sounds cool
  13. Read a comic that has been banned - This One Summer by Mariko Tamaki & Jillian Tamaki - a YA graphic novel that sounds cool
  14. Read a book by an author with an upcoming event (virtual or in person) and then attend the event - I’ll see what’s coming up
  15. Read a YA nonfiction book - Code Name Badass by Heather Demetrios - a YA history of Virginia Hall, an American woman who worked for the British with the French Resistance in WW II (I already read an adult history about her, but it was a great story so I’ll try this one)
  16. Read a book based solely on the title - Charming as a Verb by Ben Philippe - a YA about an overly charming boy and the girl he can’t charm (I like her already)
  17. Read a book about media literacy - Algorithms of Oppression: How Search Engines Reinforce Racism by Safiya Umoja Noble - I conveniently already had this and it’s one of my high-interest areas, data science ethics, so yeah
  18. Read a book about drag or queer artistry - No Straight Lines: Four Decades of Queer Comics by Justin Hall (Editor) - new to me, but looks interesting
  19. Read a romance with neurodivergent characters - Act Your Age, Eve Brown by Talia Hibbert - I loved the first two books in this series and already have this one, so it will be great to finish it off
  20. Read a book about books (fiction or nonfiction) - The Book by Amaranth Borsuk - this is one of those little books in the Essential Knowledge series from MIT Press about very specific things (I’ve read some others and conveniently had this one the shelf next to me)
  21. Read a book that went under the radar in 2023 - still need to find one for this
  22. Read a manga or manhwa - Cat Massage Therapy, Vol. 1 by Haru Hisakawa - I’d already started this this week, so I’ll finish it and count it
  23. Read a “howdunit” or “whydunit” mystery - Clark and Division by Naomi Hirahara - a thriller set in post-WW II America with survivors of the Japanese detention camps in the west
  24. Pick a challenge from any of the previous years’ challenges to repeat - A challenge from 2021: Read a nonfiction book about anti-racism - White Fragility: Why It's So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism by Robin DiAngelo

Summary

So that’s the plan so far. I’ll add a KCLS one when it comes out. And I’m feeling good about this year, and I’m already off to a strong start with four books already finished and (of course) several in progress.

My Writing Year, 2023 Edition

I had a decent year with my writing, wining some awards and releasing the second book in The Art of Being Ugly Series.

Awards

I found out in January that Ugly was an SCBWI Honor Book for the older readers category, which basically is second place. The SPARK Award is for self-published books, but SCBWI is an international organization that a good number of people who write or illustrate for children, from board books through YA, belong to, so the contest is competitive.

In June, I learned that Always the New Girl won first place in the YA category of the National Excellence in Story Telling (NEST) Contest. It was also a finalist in two other contests, the Next Generation Indie Book Award and Book Excellence Award.

Binding Off also finaled in the Next Generation Indie Book Award contest.

Ugly book cover
Binding Off book cover
Always the New Girl book cover

Release and Good Review

I released Uglier, book two in The Art of Being Ugly series, on August 1 and received a starred review from Kirkus Reviews soon afterward.

Uglier book cover

And Finally, Some Special Things for Readers

I should also mention that Ugly and Uglier are both on sale for 99 cents through the end of December.

Also, Uglier is part of a giveaway of 20 YA books where you can win all of them and also a Kindle simply for signing up for author newsletters. It’s open to enter through the end of January, and you can enter here.

Uglier also will be available for free for a few days at the very end of January.

Review: Quiver by Julia Watts

Quiver book coverLibby and Zo form a connection over the fence as new neighbors in rural Tennessee, but they couldn’t be more different from each other. Libby’s from a fundamentalist Christian family with its patriarchal tyrant, her “caring” father who punishes her because he “loves” her. Zo’s family is the polar opposite because her parents actually do care about their kids. Zo is gender-fluid and her (I feel like she uses she/her in the book, though it’s possible I’m projecting) parents are very liberal, especially her father, who recommends she stay away from Libby because of her family. He says it’s only going to lead to trouble. Zo chooses to keep the friendship.

Libby is so in the dark about almost everything, including Zo’s gender fluidity and sexuality. But she still likes Zo, even if she isn’t sure why. Zo doesn’t seem like a bad person, and Libby can’t see how she could be based on what she knows. Zo has a much better read on Libby and is patient with her, limiting what she shares to avoid conflict, but without being inauthentic. I liked their friendship, and I obsessively wondered how things would play out once Libby learned the truth.

Libby’s world is as restrictive as you’d expect, where her father is basically a dictator who only cares about his wife’s uterus and views himself as the protector of those of his daughters, saving them for their rightful owners, some random equally tyrannical self-absorbed narcissistic “Godly men.”

Why don’t I tell you how I really feel about her father.

Anyway, Zo’s family sends an olive branch for the sake of their kids (Zo has a younger brother who befriends one of Libby’s brothers early on, too). Zo’s father tries to be tolerant, but all Libby’s does is get angry when things—including the way Zo’s family simply exists—aren’t like he thinks they should be.

What makes this story great is seeing Libby being open to ideas that are not ones her father has allowed her access to. She has started seeing cracks in the supposed perfection of her family’s world. When things come to a head with Libby’s pregnant mom suffering a health emergency that Libby has to deal with, she finally sees through her father when he makes it clear what he cares about (hint: it rhymes with tooterus). Finally there is a path out.

I really did like this book even though all the religious crap drove me crazy. But it was so clear that Libby was only about 80% brainwashed so there was something in there that was salvageable, and it was really cool to see that small part emerge victorious. The fundies know their system actually sucks for everyone except the tyrants themselves, which is why the men are so controlling and make sure their kids and wives are never exposed to the many obviously better ideas and ways of existing.

August 2023 Update

I can’t believe it’s already almost September. But since it is, I’d thought I’d give an update on what’s been going on writing-wise, because there is stuff.

Good News

I got some good news a couple weeks ago—Uglier got a starred review from Kirkus Reviews. It’s such a nice review, and you can see it here. I’m pretty proud of this book and although it’s slow going right now, Ugliest is coming along.

A List

There’s a somewhat new book site that’s kind of an alternative to Goodreads called Shepherd, which also works with authors more closely than Goodreads. They have lots of book-related content and invite authors to create lists on a theme where they recommend a handful of books. You can also browse books based on various filters and see what authors have said when they’ve recommended a book. It’s actually a pretty cool site and it’s growing. I created a list called “The best books that remind us that nonbinary people are human, too.”

Podcasts

A few weeks back, I was on the podcast Beyond the Pen with Maccabee Griffin. He was really nice to talk to and also very understanding when I missed the first recording we had scheduled because I got the time zone wrong (something I rarely do, fortunately). He rescheduled and we talked. You can find the podcast here.

I was also on another podcast called The Bookshelf Odyssey with Art a few months ago, which can be found here. Art is also nice and it was a good conversation.

These were both fun to do, even though it should have been a little intimidating, but talking about my books is not too difficult.

Also, also, I should mention that both these podcasts are really interesting if you like digging into writers’ thoughts about their books, themselves, the world around them, and on an on. So definitely check out their other episodes.

A Final Thought

I should hopefully be able to get back to posting reviews here like I used to, since I’m reading more now. We’ll see if it happens, but I hope so.

Review: I Must Betray You by Ruth Sepetys

Even though historically are not my primary jam, Rita Sepetys has become one of my favorite authors because she does such an incredible job. I’m also amazed at how she can paint such accurate worlds in completely disparate locations, cultures, and times. I Must Betray You is set in 1989 in Romania right before and during the revolution that ousted they terrible leader. It is so good. If you are interested in my thoughts on her other books, check out my reviews of Salt to the Sea and Out of the Easy.

A Quick Note on Reading

Reading this was actually an interesting experience. From the first page, I felt such a distinct sense of unease and dread, because I know things weren’t going to well for the protagonist. For several days, I could only cope with reading 10-20 pages before I had to put it down. But I had a flight for a business trip and I read a decent amount on the plane. Then I met with my colleagues, and finished the book in one fell swoop after I got back to my hotel room. Yes, I stayed up later than I should, but I couldn’t stop.

Setup

Cristian is seventeen and wants to be a writer, but that’s a dangerous path in communist Romania. He also speaks decent English, which he studies in school. He’s close with his grandfather, who tries to quietly defy the regime, stressing out both of Cristian’s parents. The secret police (the Securitate) have terrorized the entire populace by creating a huge network of informers, regular people who report back to them all sorts of details about their fellow citizens’ lives. Everyone hates informers, even people who are informers, because the Securitate blackmails, tricks, and otherwise forces people into becoming working for them. But not doing what they say is incredibly dangerous.

An Assignment

It’s a perpetual nightmare, even though the country’s dictator has conned the rest of the world into thinking things are just fine in Romania. Early on in the story, Cristian gets roped into becoming an informer, assigned to target an American diplomat by befriending the man’s teenage son. Fortunately, Cristian has nerves of steel and a deep-seated sense of what’s right and wrong. A lot of his fellow Romanians are beat down and have no will to fight, something that they deem fruitless. But youth and idealism have a strong position in revolution, and I loved watching Cristian fight back the best he could—and risk everything in a clever act that would get the message out about how bad things are in Romania—and help power a revolution.

A Small Personal Connection

The book particularly resonated with me because this was all happening in my lifetime, and I had no freaking clue. The Berlin Wall came down on my birthday in 1989. It was ninth grade and I was taking German, so that should have made it more meaningful to me, but I was too self-absorbed to know that people’s lives all over the world sucked in much worse ways than mine. Much later, I lived in Czechia and that made me despise communism, as it appeared to me that those its communist regime killed the soul of the country. I can't imagine it being different elsewhere. So seeing a horrible communist dictator ousted was especially satisfying.

But you don’t have to have even a tangential connection to Romania or communism to love this book. I cannot recommend it enough.

Review: An Emotion of Great Delight by Tahereh Mafi

Book cover for An Emotion of Great DelightSetup

I was excited to read this book, because I so loved Mafi's other YA contemporary, A Very Large Expanse of Sea (also the last book I reviewed in 2022). Expanse was about a teen Muslim girl who chooses to wear a hijab, a couple years after 9-11. This book also has that same setup, but the problems the girls are dealing with are very different, although both touch on similar themes relating to bullying, family, friendship, love, defining who you are, and finding your place in the world you happen to exist in.

Family and Friends

So Emotion did not disappoint. Shadi’s parents are immigrants from Iran. We’re never told exactly where they live, but it seems to be middle America, whatever that might mean—nowhere really big or really small. Shadi’s dealing with a lot of trouble at home—her brother has recently died and her father is sick and probably dying—but her other major problem is the disintegration of her oldest friendship with another Iranian-American girl named Zahra.

It’s not clear what happened with Zahra, but we do learn over time that it was ugly and seemingly not Shadi’s fault (like legitimately not her fault, not like she won’t accept responsibility). And a secondary consequence of that friendship ending is that it also ended a friendship with Ali, Zahra’s brother, which we understand was also important to Shadi.

Getting By

Shadi is really torn up about her brother’s death, even though it takes a while for us to learn what happened to him. She’s also angry at her father about something and really wishes he would just die already. Her mom is a mess and her sister is obnoxious as ever.

Everybody keeps forgetting about her and she’s stuck walking to and from school and other places she has to go, even if they’re far away and it’s pouring buckets. She’s so busy trying to stay under the radar and not cause waves around her that she doesn’t pay much attention to what she herself needs and wants.

Final Thoughts

Shadi grows over the course of the book and figures out how to stand up for herself, even though it’s in a quiet and non-disruptive way. By the end she is doing what she wants, and reading it made me happy. The novel isn’t plot-heavy by any means, but it’s a beautiful portrait of a Muslim teen girl—who has all sorts of expectations dumped on her—trying to make her way in a tough world.

Review: This Poison Heart by Kalynn Bayron

This Poison Heart book coverI read this book so fast. Some of you know how I’ve been in a terrible reading slump for over two years and how it’s generally taking me weeks to finish a single book (though I am always reading several at once, but it’s still slowed way down, to what feels like a crawl). So when I say I read this book fast, I mean 7 days, which is a near record for me lately. This was definitely a “couldn’t put it down” book several nights.

Set Up

I am officially a fan of Bayron since I’ve read and really loved both this and her first, Cinderella is Dead (see the review here). Both of them have twists that surprised me (I did catch on to some of the smaller twists, but not the big one). This Poison Heart starts off fairly low-key, with the main character, Briseis, having an odd innate magical ability to “do stuff” with plants. She doesn’t understand it at all, but plants sort of perk up around her and she can bring a plant back from the dead. She’s adopted and her moms are both as baffled as she is, but they’re very protective of her and worry about her strange gift and what it means for her.

Some Major Secrets

Early on, she inherits an old house on some land with large gardens and she and her moms go there with a plan to stay for the summer and figure things out long term while they’re there. At first this is fairly mundane, too, but Briseis meets some people and soon things get weird. There’s a lot more to the house and gardens—especially the gardens—than they originally thought. There are some secrets the town knows and it takes a while for Briseis to figure things out. It turns out there’s some danger lurking in the town, but Briseis doesn’t understand it. It takes some work and digging through hidden paperwork and figuring out what a slew of keys can open before things become clear. The stakes get really high at the end and something rather shocking happens, which sets up the sequel.

Regarding the sequel, I was going to Barnes and Noble today so I figured I’d just buy it in person, but they didn’t have it or any of Bayron’s books, which totally offended me on her behalf. Also, it meant I had to order it or read it on my Kindle. Ugh.

Get It!

Anyway, about the book—go read it, pronto. I’m not really an urban fantasy reader, but I loved it and recommend it without reservation.

April 2023 Update

I’ve been really busy and struggling to keep up with everything, so it’s been a while since I posted. But everything’s moving along nicely right now.

Uglier will be released August 1st. I have lined up several beta readers for it, and it’s out for round one right now. I’ll be sending out round two in early May, hopefully with changes based on feedback from some of the round one readers. I’m getting this to my editor in mid-June. I’ve got the cover ready, and I’m including it at the bottom of the post. I’m also planning to do some art to include in the book, which is a little intimidating because in the book, Nic is a very skilled artist, and I’m … not (yet). So hopefully mine will be good enough to include.

I’m also happy to report that I am in the planning stages of Ugliest, and I’ve mapped out the first half of the book already, in the last week or so. I can promise this one will be exciting and it deals with some real world problems and I think you will like it.

Here’s the Uglier cover:

Uglier book cover

Review: Cracked Up to Be by Courtney Summers

I read Summers’ book Sadie a while back and loved it, even though the character was a little difficult. I still totally sympathized with her. But that wasn’t the first difficult character Summers has worked with, as Cracked Up to Be features an even more troubled one, who isn’t as easy to like.

Setup

Cracked Up to Be book coverWhen the book opens, we meet Parker, who’s not doing well and has to see the guidance counselor, which she is not happy about. (Who ever is happy about seeing a high school guidance counselor, actually?) But Parker’s a mess—she’s at a private school and her uniform as grungy and she’s got the wrong shoes, and she failed to brush her hair. Blah blah.

Parker used to be perfect—she was the cheerleading captain, made perfect grades, and was generally difficult to be around because of her high standards and overachieving nature. But the old Parker would not have a mustard stain on her skirt.

A Thing Happened

We know that Parker has been a mess for a while. She may even be doing better at this point than she was. She seems to not be drunk all the time now, for instance. But she is still on a self-destructive path. She’s rude to everyone, especially the people she was close to Before. Because that’s the thing—something really bad happened, and she knows it’s her fault. Everyone knows that Parker’s friend Jessie went missing after a party, but nobody except Parker knows that it’s her fault, and she’s not telling anyone.

Moving On—Or Not

The book focuses on Parker’s journey—is she going to manage to graduate despite her missing class and homework? Is she going to forgive herself for whatever she did? And will they figure out what really happened to Jessie? The reader obviously wants to know what really happened, how it could be Parker’s fault. Because as an outside observer, you can guess that it probably isn’t really her fault. In the end we do finally learn what she did, and while it’s easy to understand why she thinks it’s her fault, she isn’t the one who caused Jessie to disappear.

Conclusion

The book is a reflection on regret, guilt, and responsibility, with a distinctly feminist bent because it reminds us why girls and women have to look out for each other and how distinctly messed up that is. Parker was perfect but she did one thing that wasn’t perfect, and look what happened. It shouldn’t take constant vigilance for girls to stay safe.

Review: Felix Ever After by Kacen Callender

This book has gotten a fair amount of hype because it addresses some timely issues, and Callender actually won the National Book Award for another book they wrote in 2020. I am happy to be able to report that Felix Ever After absolutely lived up to the hype in my view.

Felix

Felix Ever After book title

Felix Love is a Black trans boy who feels a little lost and like an outsider amongst his group of friends, where he mostly considered his best friend Ezra the most important person in his life, and views the rest of their friend group as just people who happen to be around. In addition to feeling like an outsider, Felix laments the fact that he’s never been in love.

Freedom

Felix and his friends have what is to me an insane amount of freedom for high school students. First, they live in New York City so they struggle less with lack of acceptance of their differences than kids in a lot of places do. But Ezra has his own apartment, and Felix often stays there, only going home to the apartment he shares with his dad every few days. And Ezra may randomly decide to have a party at 11pm on a school night, and other kids all show up. This wasn’t happening in my life as a seventeen-year-old.

A Personal Attack

Felix may be struggling a little socially, but his bigger problem is that someone tried to humiliate him by posting a bunch of old photos of him before his transition in the school’s gallery space, and also deadnamed him in the display. And presumably this same person is the one who’s harassing him on Instagram, accusing him of not being a real boy and not mattering at all.

He’s fixated on figuring out who made the display, which leads him into an odd online relationship (not really a relationship) where he’s exchanging message with a boy at the school he thought was an enemy and now sees is more complex than that. Felix starts wondering if he could love this boy. But the crazy part is that this boy has no idea who Felix is, so it’s weird and when he finds out, it’s not a good thing at all.

Who’s an Artist?

One important aspect of Felix’s life is that he’s a talented and skilled artist—the high school they all attend is a competitive art school—but it’s almost like he hasn’t fully embraced his identity as an artist, an idea that is never directly addressed but I thought was interesting. You often see a lot of artists at the beginning of their journey afraid to call themselves an “artist,” or just not thinking of themselves as “real artists” (writers do this, too). But with a little bit of encouragement, Felix really comes into his own with a series of self-portraits.

Gender Can Be Hard to Pin Down

The last major thing going on in this book has to do with his gender identity. It’s worth mentioning that Felix is far enough into his transition that he’s had top surgery and gets a weekly testosterone shot. So it is really interesting when he suddenly finds himself questioning his gender again. His understanding of gender was still a little simplistic in the beginning, sort of implicitly assuming the traditional binary, and he discovers that there are many more ways to be than he originally knew. He does figure out how he identifies near the end of the book and for the first time in his life, he’s 100% certain he’s got it right.

Summary

The way I’ve outlined that major storylines in the book probably makes it sound a bit choppy, but they all weave together seamlessly in the book. And everything comes to a happy resolution (which is still completely believable) at the end. It’s clear that Felix is in a much better headspace, social space, and romantic space by the end of the book, and it’s both interesting and enjoyable to watch him come into his own.

Review: Open Mic: Riffs on Life Between Cultures in Ten Voices edited by Metal Perkins

Open Mic book coverThis slim volume of short stories/short memoirs by a variety of ethnically diverse authors is pretty entertaining. Most of the stories are by immigrants or children of immigrants (who have come to the US), with at least one is by a Black American (possibly more—I’m not certain). The goal of the book was to tell stories of people who exist in more than one culture, like so many people do, but with humor. I’ll say it definitely succeeds and I really enjoyed it, even though it wasn’t quite to the level of ROFL (I say that mostly so you don't have unreasonable expectations).

I have read and enjoyed books by a couple of the authors, Varian Johnson and Mitali Perkins, and I’ve heard of several of the others. So I’ll talk about their stories first, and then move on to the others.

“Three-Pointer”

Perkins’ story is (I’m assuming a true story) about a girl growing up as the youngest of three daughters of Indian immigrants living in a very white neighborhood. Perkins tells some funny (but also annoying) anecdotes like having to decline an offer from some hardcore Trekkies to play the brown girl in their reenactment of Star Trek episodes. But mostly she talks about liking boys along with her older sisters, and about her first secret date with a boy she’d had a crush on for a long time. Trying to learn about boys and all the relevant info in a deeply conservative household leads to a lot of funny beliefs and clarifications from her sisters.

“Like Me”

Johnson’s story is apparently fiction, about a Black boy at a very white, very small boarding school. Two new girls start at the school, and because they are Black twins, everyone expects the boy to immediately befriend them, but he hangs back. When his friends first talk about them with his friends, there’s an awkward conversation where they try to describe them without mentioning race and then make assumptions about how they’d be good at volleyball. Eventually they befriend each other, but the story isn’t really about that. It’s more about skirting two worlds. There were a couple of particularly funny parts in the story. The first is when the character is considering approaching the twins:

I mean, I could speak to them, but what am I supposed to say? Hello, my Negro friends. Welcome to Hobbs Academy, which is whiter than rice and eggshells and vanilla-flavored milk.

It cracked me up because it so highlights the absurdity of the expectation that everyone in a particular minority grouping would want to be friends. Except, also, it isn’t totally absurd that they'd want to at least know each other. Which is it’s a two-worlds thing, I suppose. The next one is more of a conceptual thing that’s funny, but Johnson totally captures how white Americans' “diversity” is “interesting” (and absurd) while non-white people’s ethnicity is generally considered more fundamental and consequential. He’s thinking about his friends:

Technically Rebecca is “one-eighth German, three-eighths Sephardic-Jewish, and one-half Irish.” And Evan has enough Muskogee blood running through him to be a member of the Creek Nation. Still, I didn’t see anyone looking at them when we talked about the Holocaust or the Trail of Tears last year in World History. But let anyone mention Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. or Will Smith or even the slightly black-looking dude who trims Principal Greer’s prized rosebushes, and suddenly I’m the center of attention.

It got bad during Black History Month.

I own February at Hobbs.

“Becoming Henry Lee”

The first story in the collection is this one by David Woo. It's about an eighth-grade boy with Chinese immigrant parents trying to convince everyone he’s white and being frustrated that all the stereotypical assumptions about him—being good at math and martial arts—were completely wrong. He deals with a lot of crap through eighth grade and into high school (much of which is presented as funny, but still disheartening) until he finally stops trying to be white and trying to be super-Asian, and just stumbling into something totally new that he discovers he loves. Now he has a way to define himself by something he chooses to do, not some happenstance of genetics.

“Why I Won’t Be Watching the Last Airbender Movie"

The next piece is also by an Asian-American author, Gene Yuen Lang. It’s a comic describing his frustration with the casting of the Last Airbender movie. The film was based on a cartoon that celebrated Asian-ness in a fictional Asian-inspired world (he says it showed “a deep respect for and knowledge of Asian cultures”), but all the major characters in the movie were filled by white actors. Lang publishes a call to boycott the movie, especially during release week, and ends up getting another great comics job out of it, all because he braved public scrutiny to stand up for something he believed in.

“Talent Show”

This one is by Cherry Cheva and is about a couple kids auditioning for a high school talent show. She’s stereotypically Asian—petite, cute, relatively quiet at first—but she’s there to do stand-up comedy. And it’s the white guy in the room holding the violin. They have an only-awkward-at-first conversation joking about stereotypes, and by the end they’re friends, even if their auditions don’t go as planned.

“Voilà!”

Debbie Rigaud's story is more sweet than funny, but I still liked it. It’s about a high school girl taking her beloved Haitian great aunt to the doctor. Some classmates doing volunteer work bring a couple of patients in and at first the girl is embarrassed, but eventually her obnoxious but well-meaning classmate suggests she could volunteer as a translator for some of the patients, and she sees clearly that her differentness doesn’t have to only be a burden.

“Confessions of a Black Geek”

This one by Olugbemisola Rhuday-Perkovich is about a group of confident, high-achieving (academically) Black high schoolers in the 80s. They assumed they were regarded as equals of their similarly high-achieving white peers. But a cartoon showing Black kids speaking “Ebonics” published in the school paper caused an uproar and it turned into a mess where they ended up getting called “reverse racists.” And this sort of opened the floodgates for all the microaggressions (and more overt stuff) they’d happily ignored for years.

And then comes the main character’s meeting with the guidance counselor, who tells her her intended schools are a “reach,” despite her academic and extracurricular record (which would have been more than sufficient for white students for this particular counselor). And then when she did get accepted to all these reach schools, everyone attributed it to affirmative action. She knew she’d earned it, but it was still heartbreaking to find out what so many people really think when they don't get what they want.

“Under Berlin” and "Lexicon"

The next piece is “Under Berlin” by G. Neri, and I’m going to admit that I didn’t read it because it was a long poem, and I simply cannot do poetry. For the same reason, I also skipped the last piece, “Lexicon” by Naomi Shihab Nye. I feel kind of bad about this, but trying to read poetry literally makes me feel anxious and/or agitated. I have no idea why.

“Brotherly Love”

The last story is by Francisco X. Stork and it’s about a boy growing up with a very traditional father from Mexico (I assumed? Definitely Spanish-speaking) and an older brother and sister. Their father was always going on about how “real men” behave and the main character engineers an opportunity to speak to his sister when no one else is around, because he’s worried that his brother is doing all these things that make him seem like he isn’t a real man. It’s a funny and ultimately sweet conversation when the character comes to realize what his sister has known all along—that it’s the main character who isn’t the “real man” and his brother has just been looking out for him.

Conclusion

So this was quite a long review for a book that is only 129 pages, but I wanted to talk about each story. Together, they add up to a nice exploration of living in two different worlds, culturally, linguistically, or however. The characters range in ages (eighth grade to graduating seniors), but this feels more lower-YA to me, as it stays fairly light in tone, even when dealing with troubling things.

Review: I Wish You All the Best by Mason Deaver

I Wish You All the Best book coverThis is one of the first books about a nonbinary teenager I’ve read. I’m definitely on the lookout for more books like this, too. But this one was good, even though it was heartbreaking to watch the character struggle so much with coming out.

Crisis

Ben comes out to their parents as nonbinary at the very beginning of the book. They knew their parents were conservative, but they still thought it would be okay. They were wrong. Ben’s dad kicked them out immediately after they told them, and they ended up at a Walgreens in their socks.

A Way Out

Fortunately, they had a single lifeline—the phone number for the older sister who abandoned them. She’d hidden it in the bathroom but Ben found it and stored it for all those years, using it when they finally really needed it.

Ben moves in with their sister, who is supportive and well-intentioned (if not perfect) along with her husband. They get Ben enrolled at a high school in Raleigh.

A Fresh Start

Ben’s not comfortable being openly nonbinary, so they still use he/him pronouns at school. But they manage to befriend a boy and his friends (more accurately, the boy, Nathan, goes out of his way to befriend Ben despite them being kind of a jerk). This friendship develops slowly because Ben has major trust issues and doesn’t open up to Nathan until late in the book.

Another aspect of the book I really enjoyed was Ben’s art. They’re always sketching and clearly have a lot of skill, but they’re intimidated by painting. But their new art teacher takes them under her wing and encourages them to try acrylic. Ben takes right to it, producing a lovely painting of Nathan. A school art show provides a focal point for a lot of conflict.

Wrapping Up

I really feel like this book captures the internal struggle people questioning their gender identity go through. It’s not easy and it’s not about other people, like other people often think. Despite the seriousness of the topic, the book still ends on a very positive note. It also successfully shows one way that world can be navigated.

Review: Saint Anything by Sarah Dessen

I’ve been reading more adult novels lately, but while I was out walking, I listened to a YA book by one of my favorite authors, Sarah Dessen. This was Saint Anything.

Setup

Saint Anything book coverThe premise of Saint Anything is that Sydney, a well-behaved teenager who lives in the shadow of her gregarious brother with his oversized personality, has her life upended when that very brother gets himself thrown into prison. Her parents, especially her mom, fixate on supporting the brother and making his prison stay as cushy as possible. But Sydney is torn up by the event that landed her brother in jail—a teen boy riding home on his bike late one night getting hit by Sydney’s drunk-driving brother. The teen survives, but he’s going to be in a wheelchair for the rest of his life. Sydney’s mom doesn’t seem to care at all about the kid, even going so far as to blame him for being out so late at his age.

A Fresh Start

At the beginning of the book, Sydney has transferred from the private school she and her brother have always gone to to the public high school, so she can have a fresh start where people don’t know everything about her. She’s pretty shy, so she’s lucky when she stumbles into a friendship with a girl—and then her family—at a pizza shop. This friendship is eye-opening for Sydney because Layla, Layla’s brother Mac, and the rest of their family are very open, in direct contrast to Sydney’s own buttoned-up family. Layla and Mac also come with some other friends. Soon Layla in particular is helping Sydney deal with her stress over her brother, and she’s getting closer to Mac.

Being Seen

Sydney is increasingly frustrated with her mom, who is so focused on her brother that she seems to forget Sydney is alive. There’s also a total creep who was her brother’s best friend and is beloved by their parents, especially her mom, so he’s constantly around. He’s gross and Sydney knows it but nobody else is paying attention to her.

Eventually, Sydney’s mom notices Sydney, at the worst possible moment, and her entire life is thrown into upheaval. Her parents blame Layla and co for being bad influences, and Sydney has to figure out how to fight for herself, friendship, and love.

I pretty much like everything Dessen writes, and this one was no different. Check it out.

An In-Person Event: Shoreline Holiday Market

Last weekend I attended my first book event as part of the Author Event Network, the Shoreline Holiday Market held on the ground floor of the Shoreline City Hall parking garage. The most notable thing was how cold it was basically outside without even the sun to warm us up. It reached the low forties by noon, but didn’t go much higher. I got there about 9 and didn’t leave until after 5, so I appreciated the decent coat I have and the portable propane heater I bought the day before. I actually didn’t appreciate the heater until the propane canister ran out, and then I realized it actually had been helping quite a bit, as it got noticeably colder.

Table Setup

There were six of us there, selling different kinds of books. We each had about 3 feet of table space, and I tried to make the most of it. I feel like my display was pretty good, honestly. Here’s what it looked like:

Shoreline Holiday Market 2022 table display

I’ve definitely got the blues and greens going on, with a splash of purple. Assuming I get the rights back on Finding Frances I’ll have to do a cover with those colors, too.

Before the Storm

I took a couple shots of the full event setup a little before it started, so you can see the scale:

Shoreline Holiday Market 2022

Nobody’s there yet—the quiet before the storm. The event was actually pretty well-attended and our table for a lot of traffic. Here’s my view from my chair:

Shoreline Holiday Market 2022 table back

Selling and Lessons

In the above picture, you can see a sample of the crowd. A lot of the authors did really well, selling upwards of 20 books. I did not do so well, but I learned a lot while I was there. One thing is I’m going to have to come up with better hooks for all of my book descriptions. It’s true that I am able to talk about my books more coherently than I could at the beginning of my author journey. I don’t ramble about plot details or anything, but there’s not much of a hard hook to it. So I’m going to work on that before going to additional events.

I also learned that you don’t want the end spot if you can help it. I saw many people stroll past my table only to stop at the next one when they finally noticed books (and not backtracking to mine). Only a few people took candy without looking at my stuff, but I learned that Starburst are not the best candy to bring when it’s freezing—they were hard as rocks.

Future Thoughts

It looks like none of the 2023 events are until summer, so the Starburst won’t be a problem and I’ve got time prepare some hookier pitches. I was originally hoping to have Uglier out by next summer, but I don’t think that is going to happen because I’ve reprioritized my nonfiction project at least until I can get the proposal done. But who knows; I might get a burst of productivity.

Thank You, Mr. Heater Friend

You were appreciated.

Shoreline Holiday Market 2022 heater