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.

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.

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.

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.

Book Review: Salt to the Sea by Ruta Sepetys

Salt to the Sea book coverSetup

I’ve been on a bit of a historical kick in my YA. This one has been on my shelf a while so I picked it up because I loved Out of the Easy by the same author.

This book is set during World War II in East Prussia, a little pocket area between Lithuania and Poland on the Baltic Sea. It’s got four viewpoint characters, all young people—teenagers or maybe a couple in their very early 20’s. There are some other characters in the book who are older, but it doesn’t detract from the sense that this is a story about young people. 

The premise is that there is a group of people walking to a port city to try to board a ship and get out of East Prussia, which is being torn apart by the war, pinched between the Russians and the Germans. It’s definitely a ragtag group, but from a story perspective, it’s a great mix of characters.  

Point of View Characters

Joana is a young, trained nurse; Emilia is a deeply traumatized fifteen-year-old; Florian is on a somewhat noble journey to try to make up for some Nazi evil he inadvertently aided; and Alfred is spineless German soldier with a personality disorder.

The book cycles rapidly through the different characters with very short chapters, usually not more than 2-4 pages. I actually had a little bit of trouble getting into it because I don’t usually read multiple-viewpoint novels, and I found the switching jarring. But I got used to it because I really liked three of the viewpoint characters and I wanted to learn more about them. The fourth viewpoint character is supposed to be despicable, and he absolutely was. However, once I’d gotten used to it, the multiple POVs was cool because you got to see how the characters viewed each other versus what was really going through the others’ heads. 

Inevitable Tragedy

So I think anybody reading this story is probably going to guess the basic outcome. I didn’t recognize the name of the ship they were trying to get to, and after reading the author’s note, I wonder how the name isn’t more known, given the almost incomprehensible scale of the tragedy. 

Conclusion

This is a truly sad story, as any war story must be, but it does such an incredible job capturing what war is like for regular people. You can’t read this and not appreciate how much general suffering there is during war when it’s your homeland that is occupied or serving as the battlefield. Sepetys is a master of the historical novel in my view, based only on the two I’ve read. She skillfully conveys the harsh historical realities her characters are facing and still finds ways to show bravery and the power of the human spirit. I can’t wait to read her others. 

 

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Review: The Paper Girl of Paris by Jordyn Taylor

The Paper Girl of Paris book coverI haven’t been a big reader of historical fiction, even though when I do read it, I usually enjoy it. But I recently read another one I really liked, so I picked up a couple when I went to Barnes and Noble recently. 

One was The Paper Girl of Paris, which I devoured in only two days, which is unheard of for me in the last year and a half. My reading slump has had me taking two plus weeks to finish a book for a long time. Not only did I finish this book in two days, but it never even made it upstairs to my bed, where I do most of my reading. Instead, I read it between doing other things at my desk in front of my computers. 

The Setup

So you can infer that I loved it. It’s actually a dual timeline story, where we switch back and forth between modern-day Paris with Alice and WW II-era Paris with Adalyn, Alice’s great aunt she never knew existed. The setup is pretty simple: Alice’s beloved grandmother has died and left her family’s Paris apartment to her. Alice’s mom, whose mom is the grandma in question, suffers from depression and has been distraught since her mom died and she found out about the apartment, which she had no idea existed. 

The Apartment and the Discovery

Alice goes with her parents to check out the apartment. They are all confused about everything, but Alice is more curious and discovers a diary belonging to Adalyn, who she learns was her grandma’s sister. It’s of course strange that the grandma never told anyone about her family, but it’s also clear nobody really thought about it before. 

Alice takes the diary and starts reading it, loving the information about her grandma that Adalyn shares, because it’s clear they were really close and loved each other. Which makes it even stranger that Alice’s grandma never mentioned her. But she gets a clue on going back to the apartment, when she finds a picture of Adalyn cavorting with Germans during the occupation, so she’s horrified, because from the diary, it sounds like both she and Chloe were passionately opposed to the Germans and their many atrocities. So Alice doesn’t understand how she could change her mind. 

Exploration

So we see Alice starting to explore the diary, which she has to painstakingly type into Google Translate. In the process of spending time away from her parents, she befriends a local boy named Paul who helps her research things. Interspersed with these chapters are full chapters from Adalyn’s point of view. This is the part of the book I loved. 

I’m going to admit that as soon as Alice found the photo of Adalyn with Nazis, I knew what it actually meant, even though it takes Alice a good part of the book to figure it out (the advantage of having more life experience). But Adalyn is one of the people I love reading about—the people who actually did the right thing during the war. 

So even though I knew that little twist (I think most readers would figure it out pretty early, but I’m not entirely sure), there were still some surprises that I enjoyed. One has to do with a museum where Alice ends up being able to give some clarity on a photo the museum had but knew very little about. 

Summary

Obviously I totally recommend this book. If you aren’t a big historical fiction reader, this one might be more palatable since half of it takes place today. But Adalyn’s story is what made the book for me, even though I liked Alice and her story just fine. 

 

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Review: Angel of Greenwood by Randi Pink

Angel of Greenwood book coverAs soon as I knew this book existed, I bought it. It’s set amidst the Tulsa Race Massacre. I have a special interest in that event because I grew up in Tulsa and knew nothing about it until about five years ago. It blows my mind that this is something that was “forgotten.” It makes me so mad, but it fits right in with all the Republicans who are insisting that the unsavory parts of our history shouldn’t be taught in school because it might make some little white kids feel guilty. A little guilt never hurt anyone, and it would make it easier for them to understand their privilege. I think this is actually quite important. 

The Setup

But anyway, on to the story itself. It’s actually a rather unlikely love story between Angel and Isaiah, the town’s angel and a rough-around-the-edges boy. Isaiah in particular is secretly passionate about poetry, philosophy, and Black rights. He’s a big follower of W.E.B Du Bois and so he hates Du Bois’ nemesis, Booker T. Washington. Their school is named after Washington, and Angel is a fan of his and thinks Du Bois is too much. 

A Bit of Philosophy

So I had of course heard about both of these men, but I knew very little. But when Isaiah and Angel get thrown together for a unusual summer job arranged by their English teacher, they talk about the two philosophies on improving the rights of Black people. From their discussions, it was clear that Du Bois was more aggressive while Washington advocated for quieter change. I sort of imagined it as analogous to the differences between Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr. 

But I happened to stumble across an article about Washington in The Atlantic and learned a little more about him—his main belief was that individual industry would bring Black people into the country’s economy, and they’d then become valued by everyone. Basically, hard work was critical, but it wasn’t just working hard—it was also working smart. He founded the Tuskegee Institute and ensured that a lot of Black men were trained in trades that would help them join the economy like he wanted. So I thought it was interesting and a little subtle, even though it’s kind of clear to me that that approach is never going to be enough. 

However, the economy perspective not working reminds me of migrant laborers who make it possible for us to have inexpensive fruit, all because they’re being exploited and working for criminally low pay. Also, there are a lot of other people from Latin America that make up a good portion in the back of the house in restaurants across the country, some legal, some not. Their value in our economy (keeping prices low and keeping restaurants open) does not outweigh the hatred that so many people have for them for not being white. 

The Story

Anyway, back to the book. Angel and Isaiah fall in love while riding around in a three-wheeled bike with a sidecar and a bin to store books so they can share books with people in the Greenwood community. This was all in the days leading up to the attacks, which started a little after midnight June 1st, 1921. Each of them plays an important role in helping their neighbors. Despite the bravery and efforts of real people like Angel and Isaiah, it’s known that a several hundred people were killed that night. 

Although everything in the story obviously leads up to the attacks, that night doesn’t dominate it. It really is a story about young people who are living in a rather idyllic place but who are aware that they are privileged to be there, and also know that nothing in life is guaranteed. 

Summary

The book does what historical fiction does best—it shows that the people who lived through significant events were real people who the reader can empathize with. You will root for both Angel and Isaiah not just to end up together, or even just to survive, but to actually to show the greatness within each of them. And the book delivers on that. 

As a totally not important side note, I also absolutely love the cover. It’s dramatic and somehow captures both the violence of that night but also the peacefulness the character Angel embodies. 

 

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Meet Fea!

New Book Release

I’ve just released another book this past Wednesday: Fea, the Spanish translation of Ugly. Here’s the cover:

Fea book cover

Obviously it’s just the Ugly cover with the carving swapped out and the tagline at the bottom translated (and way longer than the English version). 

The book is available pretty much everywhere, like my others (Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Apple, Google Play, and Kobo, and you can order it at your local indie shop). See my landing page for links to all the places you can buy it and the book page here for more details.

Translation Experiment

This translation thing is kind of an experiment. Several writers I know do get translations of their books and they actually seem reasonably well with no marketing. (Nobody knows how to market in a foreign language they don’t speak.) One writer said people just find them. I think this makes sense because the problem of discoverability that I’ve been dealing with is partially a result of the explosion in self-publishing—which while not exclusively in English books, is predominantly English work. Other languages aren’t overloaded with so many books to choose from.

So the chance of coming up in a search that someone is making on Amazon or wherever is simply much higher. I decided to start with Ugly because of the timeliness of the subject matter. Although it’s probably much more of a current event in the U.S., I am sure that some of the other progressive places in Latin America (plus Spain) have people questioning their gender identities and exploring those ideas. I suspect there aren’t very many such books out there, so I’m curious to see what happens. 

Finding a Spanish Translator

Finding a translator was interesting. First, I needed a literary translator, not someone used to doing marketing copy. When I started searching for translators, most do business work and the first literary ones were so expensive—like in the range of $7000 for my 90,000 word (about 400 page) book. I could not justify that kind of expense. After some more searching, I decided to try Upwork. I put together a project and a max budget and got a lot of bids right at my max budget, naturally. But then I got one from a translator living in Bolivia that was hugely lower than my max.

Too Good to Be True

At first I thought a couple things: this was probably too good to be true, and if it is legit it might not even be ethical. I thought about the ethical aspect and decided that because cost of living is much lower in Bolivia, it makes sense that she doesn’t need as much money to make the project worth her time, which is obviously different for people living in the U.S. or other expensive countries. She set her rate. So I think it’s okay. 

Too Good to Be True?

But I still wondered if it was too good to be true. So I asked her to translate the first few chapters, slightly less than 10% of the book, and I’d pay her 10% of the fee and then have a couple people look at it to make sure it’s a good translation of the book in terms of accuracy and tone. My friend Gwen was willing to read it. And in a stroke of luck for me, my house cleaner had once seen some of my books lying around and asked if I was a writer. It turns out that her son is a writer too, and by chance he also is transgender, which made my book an even better fit. She asked him if he’d be willing to read the sample, and he agreed. So that was great. 

It's All Good

Both of them said it was a good translation. They noted that it was a little more formal in Spanish, but that that was probably just the nature of the language, which makes sense to me. Like there’s a point where someone calls Nic a “lesbo” and that was simply translated as “lesbiana,” which is the same as “lesbian” would be translated. This formality is also a result of the fact that she translated into what is called Neutral Latin American Spanish, so we avoided country-specific words (which of course also means there’s less slang, because so much of slang is country-specific, in any language). But anyway, she ended up doing the whole book and now it’s out in the world. 

What About Italian?

Another possibility is Italian. Supposedly that market is desperate for more books. I have a good Italian friend from my grad school days who works as an English to Italian translator, so I asked her if she’d be interested in translating my book. She doesn’t do literary translation, but has a friend who does. So we’re going back and forth about that. Her rate is much higher (it’s actually in line with what my original budget was for the Upwork project), but this is obviously to be expected because Italy’s much more expensive than Bolivia. But it’s still a decent rate that is be worth trying. I’ve told her I can’t do it now but if she’s still willing to do it in January, I’d be able to do it then. This isn’t finalized, but I’m guessing it will go ahead, so I’m really curious to see how this goes. 

Uglier

And during all of this, I’m working on the sequel to Ugly, which is tentatively called Uglier. If the translations do well, I’ll need to get Uglier done, as well. So I’m really curious how all this is going to go.