Have Book, Will Read #26

It’s summer! Which conjures up images of beach reads, books by poolside, or lazy afternoons lost in words under a leafy tree with blue sky above. Right now, it’s — checks out of window — yup! Pouring down. AGAIN. But hey, cozying up to a sleeping dog on the sofa works just as well. So, what have I been reading since my last Have Book, Will Read? Here are some of my favorites…

Recent Reads: Found family, forced team ups…

I absolutely adored The House in the Cerulean Sea by TJ Klune. This book deserves every inch of the praise it received. Klune immerses us in the tale of forty-year-old Linus Baker, a case worker for the Department in Charge of Magical Youth, who is whisked from his grey, bureaucratic, city existence to the sweeping ocean vistas of the Marsyas Island Orphanage, where life is anything but dull. The inhabitants are extraordinary, even for Linus’ line of work, and the most amazing of them all is perhaps the island’s master and protector, Arthur Parnassus.

This is a book about falling in love: with found family, with each other, with oneself. It’s a book about discovering that there is more to life than simply settling for safety, and that some things are worth fighting for. Beautifully written and captivating, it was also lovely to have an older protagonist and to be reminded that aging should not mean giving up on the right to happiness and joy.

I can never resist a bit of urban fantasy, and I tore through Paul Cornell’s Shadow Police series which starts with London Falling. When an investigation that brings together officers Quill, Ross, Costain, and Sefton encounters the supernatural, the four find themselves the unwilling recipients of magic that confers the Sight — the ability to see that which is hidden beneath London’s surface. A new team emerges: the only ones who can police the shadow world around them.

This series is a gritty, brutal take on the genre, and Cornell’s style takes some getting used to, as he has a tendency to hop from one character’s point of view to another’s, sometimes within the same scene. But I found it a fast and riveting read, and it’s also a little different from most urban fantasy. Usually, main characters are either already ‘in the know’, such as with Benedict Jacka’s Alex Verus or Seanan McGuire’s Price family, or else they have someone who guides them through this new world of the supernatural they have discovered, as with Ben Aaronovitch’s Peter Grant. In Cornell’s series, the four main characters stumble accidentally upon magic, and proceed to fumble their way along almost entirely on their own — a different take on the usual set up that I enjoyed immensely.

I first came across Charlie Jane Anders at WorldCon in Dublin, where I heard her read from her award-winning novel The City in the Middle of the Night and loved her writing style. So when I found out she had a YA novel in the works, I put in a preorder for Victories Greater Than Death, the first in her trilogy. Victories brings us Tina Mains, who has grown up an average teenager. Except, she’s anything but average. The clone of a famed alien war hero, she’s known all her life that at some point the beacon hidden inside her will activate and she will be swept away from Earth to join the battle in space. But when that finally happens, Tina finds out that fulfilling her destiny may be more complicated than she ever imagined.

Anders has a down-to-earth and chatty style of writing, where dialogue and character are at the forefront of everything. Much as I love an action-led tale, it’s nice sometimes to switch gears and dive into something like this, and to get lost inside a character’s thoughts and emotions. Found family is everything in this book, as are themes of acceptance, diversity, and respect for one another. I thoroughly enjoyed it, and look forward to the upcoming sequel, Dreams Bigger Than Heartbreak.

Where to start with The Last Sun by KD Edwards? There’s just so much I loved about this book! Rune Saint John is the last of the fallen Sun Court, one of the great Atlantean Houses that now live on New Atlantis, formerly known as the island of Nantucket in the USA. Rune and his companion and bodyguard Brand are hired to search for the missing son of Lady Justice, ruler of the Crusader Throne. But while investigating, Brand and Rune uncover more than the missing man — they find a legendary creature that may be connected to the massacre of Rune’s family.

Why did I like The Last Sun so much? First and foremost, the characters. Rune and Brand are fantastic, and their relationship is just perfect. Other characters that join them — Rune’s ward, Max, and Addam, the man they’re hired to find — are just as wonderful, and the overall dynamic is great. The magic and world felt fresh and interesting, and I really liked the concept of the Arcana with its Courts based on Tarot cards. Edwards’ voice is just right for this, and the story moves along quickly and is surprisingly light, considering Rune’s completely horrible backstory. But Rune never feels like a victim; he takes charge of his life and refuses to let the past define him. Also, you have to respect an author that unabashedly takes one of fanfic’s great topes (there was only one bed!) and 100% makes it work, with a great big wink at the reader to let them know they’re in on the joke.

I usually try to keep my reading round-up to speculative fiction, but I need to make an exception for the excellent debut crime novel Knife Edge by Kerry Buchanan, and its sequel, Small Bones. I’m familiar with some of Buchanan’s fantasy work, which is very good indeed, so when I found out she was moving into the crime genre I knew I had to check it out.

Knife Edge introduces us to Northern Irish police detectives Asha Harvey and Aaron Birch in this chilling tale of a serial killer and the victim he allows to escape so he can play with her in a terrifying cat and mouse game. In Small Bones, we dive deeper into Asha as a character as she investigates a cold case that no one knew was a murder. Both books are a nail-biting read; I made the mistake of picking up the second in the evening and just had to finish it in one go! One thing I enjoyed is the pattern that Buchanan establishes, where the main point of view is shared by Asha and whichever character is connected to the case in that particular book (escaped victim Nic in the first, and Sue in the second, who accidentally digs up a child’s skeleton while gardening). If you’re a crime fiction fan, these are definitely worth reading.

Now Reading: Too late to say sorry?

It’s been a while since I’ve dipped into middle grade, and I’m thoroughly enjoying The Ship of Stolen Words by Fran Wilde. Sam Culver has one solution for tight situations: the word sorry, his go-to for anything and everything. But on the last day of fifth grade, his favorite word disappears. He soon connects the loss of his ability to apologize to a mysterious portal at the back of the local Little Free Library, and before long he’s caught up in an adventure to help save Tolver, the young goblin who stole his words.

This has been a great read so far (I’m in the middle of it right now), with a nice balance of fun, action, and deeper motifs. And although the theme of the book brings a message — don’t cheapen your words; only say sorry if you really mean it! — at no time does it feel preachy or moralistic.

To Read: Sequels and seconds.

Next up is Mister Impossible, the sequel in Maggie Stiefvater’s Dreamer Trilogy. I liked the first book, Call Down the Hawk, a lot; it’s a good ‘growing up’ of the Raven Cycle series that felt like a natural and necessary progression for Ronan, Adam, and co. Book 2 landed in our mailbox a while back, but I had other novels on my reading pile to get through first. However, my daughter, who shares my passion for Stiefvater’s work, is not-so-patiently waiting for me to get to this so we can discuss, so it’s time to catch up on Ronan Lynch’s journey into the depths of his magic.

Another Book 2, although this one is not a sequel, is the sophomore release by Casey McQuiston, One Last Stop. McQuiston established her name as a rising rom-com star with the delicious Red, White & Royal Blue back in 2019, and now she brings her talents to this time-travel romance set in the New York subway. I’m looking forward to it!

Note: You can find all editions of Have Book, Will Read on my review page, here.

A Good Start

A good opening will tempt the reader to step into your world

Story beginnings are tough! We all want to write that amazing opening sentence; that perfect attention-grabbing first paragraph. After all, the first few words may be our only chance to convince readers to push that door wide and step into our worlds. The truth is, however, that there is no right way to open a novel. There’s no magical recipe, no slick formula. There’s the right way for YOU and for YOUR STORY.

There are many things you can use your story opening to do. For instance, you can:

  • Introduce the main character (or the antagonist!)
  • Establish the genre and/or target audience
  • Set the tone, or vibe (dark, light, funny, fast-paced…)
  • Introduce the setting
  • Give the reader a taste of backstory
  • Present a ‘flash-forward’ or ‘teaser-trailer’ of what is to come.

You won’t be able to fit all of that into your opening, of course, so you should begin by deciding what is most important to you in that ever-present quest to hook the reader. A fun middle grade novel might open with the main character making a jokey comment, so that right from the start readers know what the tone of the book will be. A fantasy writer might choose to prioritize setting; a space opera might jump straight into a battle scene.

Here are some examples:

Tom Pollock, The City’s Son (Skyscraper Throne trilogy)

I’m hunting. The sun sits low over Battersea, its rays streaking the brickwork like warpaint as I pad through the railway tunnels. My prey can’t be far ahead now: there’s a bitter, burnt stench in the air, and every few yards I find another charred bundle that used to be a rat.

This opening paragraph manages to do an impressive number of things at once. It sets the tone (action/adventure, probably a little dark); it gives us a brief teaser of the character, even though we haven’t been properly introduced yet; it tells us the setting (urban and ‘real world’, or at least a version of the real world); and it hints at genre (urban fantasy, in this case). It’s also a great hook — don’t you want to find out who this is and what they’re hunting inside a railway tunnel?

V.E. Schwab, A Darker Shade of Magic (Shades of Magic trilogy)

Kell wore a very peculiar coat. 

It had neither one side, which would be conventional, nor two, which would be unexpected, but several, which was, of course, impossible.

I love this opening! It’s also very different from the previous example. Instead of a taste of the story, we’re given a quirky image to consider. Who is Kell? (Character introduction.) Why does he have this strange coat? (Hook.) It also hints at genre; with a magical coat in scene, it’s clear that this book falls under the fantasy umbrella.

Naomi Hughes, Afterimage

Ten minutes before the explosion, I’m trying to work up the courage to go through a parking lot gate.

At first glance, this opening is just bare bones. If you look a little closer, though, you’ll see how hard that single sentence works. It has a great hook, for starters. We get a two-for-one dramatic event: one large, external, and still incoming (the explosion), and one small, intimate, and immediate (the narrator’s internal debate), creating an interesting juxtaposition of tensions. It tells us we’re in the real world, possibly an urban setting. It also hints at possible mental health issues, like anxiety or panic disorder, which is an additional hook that immediately makes us want to know more about the protagonist. 

Patricia MacLachlan, My Father’s Words

My father, Declan O’Brien, beloved shrink to many people, sings as he makes omelets for our breakfast.

Here’s an example from a middle grade author. It’s a quiet and unassuming opening, but I think it works very well to establish several things: that the protagonist is most likely a child; that we are in the real world; that life is good, and gentle, and everything is as it should be; that the father is central to the story. This opening sets crucial groundwork for the reader, since soon after this opening, the main character’s father dies in a car crash. The rest of the book is about learning to live with a void. I added this example, because it’s vastly different from the previous opening, yet for this style of book, it’s perfect.

Now go back to your own writing, and try these exercises:

1. Look through some of your favorite books and see what choices the authors made at the start. How do those choices compare with the ones you made in your work?

2. Play around with your own opening, rewriting it in a variety of ways so that each time the focus is on different elements — maybe setting instead of character, or backstory instead of immediate action. Let yourself try out the different possibilities. 

3. Pass your opening paragraph around to a few friends or family who know nothing about the story and ask them what they got from it. (We did this as a writer’s group activity a while back; we each read our openings without any explanation and then the group tried to guess as much as possible about the story. It was a lot of fun, and useful, too!)

Above all, remember: there is no right way to open a novel. Every story needs a beginning, but what’s right for someone else’s story may not be right for yours.

NESCBWI 2021 Part I: pre-conference planning

Working on last minute details!

Back in 2019, fresh from the excitement of the New England regional conference for the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators, I said YES to a very important commitment: to step in as co-director and help plan and run the spring conference for 2020 and 2021.

Little did we know back then that the world was about to be hit by the COVID pandemic, with all its devastating ramifications.

It takes time to plan an in-person conference with as many moving parts as ours — from workshops to critique sessions to sit-down meals for almost 700 attendees. By the time 2020 arrived, we had most of it done. Registration opened amid growing concerns about global health, but we shrugged off the whispers — we’d be fine, right? This wasn’t going to impact New England.

And then, in March, everything began to shut down. We all watched in horror as the death toll worldwide began to rise. This was big; so much bigger than our concerns over a weekend event. By April, it was clear that COVID was everywhere, and that the pandemic wasn’t going to end anytime soon. Even if state mandates hadn’t done the job for us, there was no way we would have put our members at risk. There was nothing we could do except cancel the conference. A few people mentioned moving online, but it was far too late by then to shift a huge event to a virtual platform. We honored the agent/editor critiques that had been booked by holding an online critique day but postponed the rest of the planned activities.

After a hasty phone meeting, my co-director Casey and I agreed to stay on an extra year. To run the 2020 conference in 2021. Because back then, we still thought COVID would be solved by the end of the year, maybe even by summer.

We all know what happened to the rest of 2020. Infection rates dipped, then rose. New strains emerged; studies and data brought terrible insight on the aftereffects of coronavirus. Death numbers worldwide kept climbing. The race for a vaccine was on, and masking up became a permanent and no longer temporary measure. By October, it was clear that there was no way we could plan an in-person event for 2021, due to the amount of time it takes and the uncertainties ahead. We made the call and emailed our membership and our faculty: 2021 was going virtual.

So, how to plan an online conference? How to turn our Virtual Voyage: Finding Joy in the Journey into a spark of light at a dark and difficult time?

First of all, we polled the faculty of our canceled 2020 event to find out who was interested in doing a virtual version of their workshop. We had already decided we would do a streamlined event — there was no way we could attempt the almost 70 workshops we usually do at the in-person conference. There would be no critique sessions; the New England SCBWI already holds 4 virtual agent/editor critique days throughout the year, so there was no reason to add to this. And we would have to cut a lot of the side events that have become tradition, like illustrator challenges and the pitch practice party. We knew what we DID want: to provide a weekend of craft and inspiration, something that would help boost creativity during a time when a lot of writers and illustrators are finding it hard to produce work.

We were delighted to hear back from 21 of our faculty, who came up with alternate versions of their workshops for us. We decided to add ask-a-mentor sessions in place of the agent/editor critiques, and we tossed in an Open Screen to substitute our traditional Open Mic night. We kept the two planned keynote sessions with Padma Venkatraman and Mike Curato, but changed the Friday night opening event to a Conversations with Two Legends, with Jane Yolen and Nikki Grimes, to be moderated by Heidi Stemple. And we came up with the idea of keeping a dedicated Zoom meeting open throughout to double as reception desk for issues and a social space, with themed breakout rooms for drop-in mingling.

By the time mid-April 2021 rolled around, we were set. We had our platforms prepared, thanks to Assistant Regional Advisor and tech goddess Christy Yaros. We had our programming in order, thanks to my co-director Casey Robinson. We had our Zoom hosting and moderating volunteers lined up and waiting (that one was my job!). And we had our Regional Advisor Kristine Asselin to do all the number crunching and behind-the-scenes bureaucratic wizardry. We were ready to make Finding Joy in the Journey a virtual reality.

<See also Part II: virtual goes live>

Have Book, Will Read #23

It’s been way too long since my last reading roundup; at the time we were just heading into winter here in the Northeast. Now, thankfully, the cold weather has given way to a glorious New England spring. Our garden is a riot of wild violets and dandelions, and the sound of birds, chipmunks, and other backyard beasties forms the perfect soundtrack for a bit of reading. Here are some of the books that made it off my to-read list lately…

Recent Reads: Magic in the air!

I’d had my eye on Leigh Bardugo’s Ninth House for a while, and managed to check it out from my town library just before lockdown kicked in. (Lucky me!) This was a departure for Bardugo, stepping away from both YA and her meticulously constructed Grishaverse. The world of Ninth House is, however, just as detailed and beautifully constructed as her fantasy universe, and this richly immersive tale is a dark feast for the senses.

Set in Yale University, in New Haven, just an hour away from my house, Ninth House dips into a hidden world of secret societies, creating an entire magical network of scholars and alumni who operate among the regular students, faculty, and the ordinary citizens of New Haven. The story winds back and forth in time, bringing us morally ambiguous magical ceremonies, sacrifice, and murder, casting shadows that hint at a much bigger tale yet to unfold. 

Imaginary Numbers is the latest installment in Seanan McGuire’s InCryptid series, and the first told by Sarah Zellaby. McGuire’s InCryptid takes a different approach to most urban fantasy series, changing point of view every couple of books. We’ve heard from all three of the Price siblings so far — Verity, Alex, and Antimony — and now it’s time for their cousin Sarah.

Sarah is a cuckoo; a telepathic humanoid creature that evolved from a wasp-like ancestor. Cuckoos may look like humans, but are in fact inhuman predators. In addition, Sarah shares the telling of the tale with her sort-of cousin Artie, who is part incubus, making for an interesting departure from the very human Price narration. This was a gripping story, and a nice addition to the series despite (noooo!) ending on a cliffhanger. And as a bonus (or a balm for the cliffhanger-wounded), readers also get a road trip novella that takes place between the previous book and this one.

Molly Ostertag’s Witch Boy graphic novel series is popular among the teens and preteens who frequent my local library, where I work. Earlier this year, I decided to see what the fuss was about. I tore through all three books in a day and have to agree with the multiple check-outs the series has received in our town. This is a really solid middle grade/lower YA collection.

The Witch Boy, and the sequels The Hidden Witch and The Midwinter Witch, tell the tale of Aster, whose family is part of a magical society where boys become shapeshifters and girls become witches. But Aster has no affinity with shapeshifting; he’d rather be a witch instead, even if it means challenging the status quo. Known for her webcomic Strong Female Protagonist, Ostertag has dealt beautifully with themes of identity and gender roles in The Witch Boy, which has a diverse cast of characters and a great plot.

Now Reading: To the stars and beyond.

I’ve just started the second book in Brandon Sanderson’s Skyward YA series. The first book, Skyward, was a fast-paced delight, with a nice balance between dark and light and a great twisty ending. Skyward tells the tale of Spensa, who lives on a besieged world that humans crash-landed upon three generations back, and dreams of becoming a pilot and redeeming her father’s ruined legacy. The sequel, Starsight, promises to be just as wonderful, as Spensa leads upward and onward her people to reclaim the stars.

To Read: Werewolves and superpowers.

I’ve had Dana Cameron’s Fangborn series on my to-read list for a while, and this feels like the perfect moment to dip into an urban fantasy book or three. The first in the series about werewolf archeologist Zoe Miller is Seven Kinds of Hell, and it’s all loaded up on my Kindle and ready to go.

Ikenga , Nnedi Okorafor’s first middle grade novel, comes out in August, but I have an ARC sitting on my bookshelf just begging for some attention. I thoroughly enjoyed her Akata series, and am looking forward to this one. Magically gifted superpowers against a backdrop of vengeance? Yes, please.

Con Round-Up Part I: SCBWI NYC

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On February 6th, I headed down to New York City for the 21st SCBWI Winter Conference — one of two national events organized by the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators. It had been a while since I’d been to the national conference — since 2014 to be precise — and I was looking forward to seeing the changes.

I arrived early, as the New England team (including myself and my regional conference co-director Casey Robinson) had a meeting on Friday morning. Business attended to, I escaped for a couple of hours to meet a friend from Brazil for a visit to the Met. Oh, important detail: my friend is a tour guide, so I had an amazing personalized glimpse at the museum’s permanent collection. If you’ve never been to the Met before, I thoroughly recommend this ‘taster’ version, where you get to sample a little from several different rooms and wings. After a post-museum lunch, it was time to head back to the hotel and relax with friends before getting ready for the Golden Kite Awards at night.

Watching the awards ceremony on Friday evening was definitely one of my personal highlights (and not just because of the strawberries and champagne reception!). Besides opening words from Kwame Alexander, who reminded us that “in the end, we answer for the children, to the children”, and James Patterson, who urged the gatekeepers in the room not to get in the way of kids reading for pleasure, we heard moving acceptance speeches from the award recipients, challenging us all to strive for more in our own work. Find a full list of the Golden Kite awards at: https://www.scbwi.org/announcing-the-golden-kite-and-sid-fleischman-winners/

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NESCBWI team members with the wonderful Debbie Ridpath Ohi (photo credit goes to Debbie)

Saturday began with a great keynote by author Kate Messner, centering on wonder and curiosity, and setting the tone nicely for the conference. This was followed by two workshop intensives that took place throughout the day. My first was on writing genre fiction, with Tor editor Melissa Frain. We talked through the challenges of worldbuilding and the subsequent perils of info-dumping, and then she walked us through an interesting first pages exercise.

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Kate Messner’s ‘Curiosity License’

I was particularly inspired by my afternoon intensive with agent Chelsea Eberly, who talked us through identifying our author brand. She broke this down into a number of key aspects, among which were to root our work in authenticity (what makes you YOU?) and to identify and focus on our strengths (where do you shine?).

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Workshop notes…

The day’s programming concluded with a heartwarming keynote address by Jerry Pinkney, who talked us through his journey as an artist, starting from his earliest place of inspiration: his father’s basement workshop. Later, the evening centered around the traditional networking dinner, with regional tables set up so attendees could meet and mingle with others from their area, if they so desired. I lingered a while afterwards, chatting to friends (old and new!), but soon called it a night.

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Part of our fantastic NESCBWI regional team! (photo credit Kristine Asselin)

Sunday brought my last intensive session, with Harper Collins editor Tiara Kittrell. Tiara talked us through the key elements of a variety of genres, and shared tips on how to successfully blur the lines between them to create fresh ways to tell stories. I had to leave straight after, and was sorry to miss what I’ve heard was a wonderful final keynote with author Derrick Barnes, but I still carried home a head and notebook full of new ideas and inspiration to fuel my writing work. All in all, it was a fantastic, exhausting, amazing weekend, and I’m glad I decided to return to the New York conference after such a long break!

Have Book, Will Read #22

It’s freezing in Connecticut, and perfect book-and-blanket weather! Although I must confess that I’ve slowed down on the reading in November — I’m using NaNoWriMo to give my novel rewrite a boost, so have eased off on other people’s words to focus on my own. I have, however, managed to make a nice dent in my to-read list over the past few months, so here are a few favorites from that particular pile…

Recent Reads: A bit of this, a bit of that…

I’ve had Peter McLean’s Priest of Bones languishing on my Kindle for a while, and I’m so glad that I finally got around to it. This is a really good read in the grand old ‘Grimdark Fantasy’ tradition, with a fun cast of characters and some very nice worldbuilding. It follows soldier and field priest Tomas Piety as he heads home from war to reclaim the crime empire he left behind, and soon turns into a game of strategy and intrigue when national politics stick grubby paws into Piety’s business. I absolutely recommend it for fans of this style of fantasy.

My daughter’s been telling me for months that I should have a look at Leigh Bardugo’s The Language of Thorns, and guess what? She was right. You don’t need to have read Bardugo’s Six of Crows duology or her Shadow and Bone trilogy for this, though a working knowledge of her Grishaverse is helpful. However, I’d recommend at least Six of Crows, which is a fabulous heist story in the style of Scott Lynch’s Locke Lamora books. Thorns itself is a collection of folktales, some original and others clear retellings of known stories, written in a variety of styles that match the different nations in Bardugo’s expanded world. Lyrical and also surprisingly funny at times, this is a thoroughly enjoyable read.

When I heard that Disney’s upcoming Hawkeye TV show was going to be loosely based on the Matt Fraction Hawkeye comics, I decided to take a look. I’m not much of a graphic novel person, but the little I saw online intrigued me, and I was lucky enough that my local library had the first volumes in one neat omnibus edition. Honestly, this is so good! I’ve always liked Barton’s character in the Avengers movies, but this took things to a new level. Great characterization, and I can’t wait to see how they handle Clint and Kate’s interactions on-screen. Also, I need to read the rest of the series now, especially the one in ASL, which I hear is fabulous.

Both my daughter and I are fans of Seanan McGuire’s InCryptid novels, and the latest in the series, That Ain’t Witchcraft, certainly lives up to the very high bar set by the previous books. We’re once again in Antimony Price’s point of view, as she investigates a little ghost trouble in New England and ends up taking on the Crossroads itself. Annie and Sam are adorable as usual, and the whole ensemble cast is perfect. My only complaint? Now I need a family reunion novella with the entire dysfunctional Price crew united and under one roof, significant others and all… If you like urban fantasy and haven’t yet tried InCryptid, please do! I love these books — they take every one of my boxes, tick them neatly, and hand them back gift-wrapped and beribboned.

Now Reading: “We use it to light things from far away,” I said. “You know,” Tom said, “things you have to light from far away probably shouldn’t be lit at all.” – The Blackthorn Key.

I picked up The Blackthorn Key by Kevin Sands a while back, and am now on the third book, The Assassin’s Curse. This middle grade historical adventure series is absolutely fantastic! The books center around an apothecary’s apprentice, Christopher Rowe, and his friends, and are set against the backdrop of 1660s England complete with threats of the plague and of political conspiracies galore. The series is fun, well-written, and full of code-breaking, apothecary secrets, and twisty plots. It’s written for kids, but honestly, there’s plenty in them that will appeal to adults, too. Good stuff.

To Read: Old friends, new beginnings.

The Hazel Wood by Melissa Albert was one of my favorite books of 2018! Now I have the ARC for the sequel in hand, and can’t wait to get started. The Night Country releases on January 7th 2020, and returns us to the magic and darkness of Albert’s Hinterland. If you haven’t read the first book yet, give this wonderful blend of fantasy and magical realism a try.

Call Down the Hawk by Maggie Stiefvater just landed in our mailbox in all its big hardcover glory, signed bookplate and all. Can you tell that we’re fans in this house? This is the long-awaited sequel to the Raven Cycle series, and focuses on Ronan Lynch, my absolute favorite of all Stiefvater’s Raven Boys. To get in gear for this brand new release, both my daughter and I reread the four original Raven Cycle books; now we’re all fired up and ready for more Ronan and Adam, and to meet all the new characters that Stiefvater has promised us for this series.

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Crossing the Streams: reaching across writing communities

Anyone who has watched Ghostbusters will remember that, although ‘crossing the streams’ was supposed to be a Terrible Thing, ultimately it vanquished the Big Bad and saved the day. Likewise, for writers, learning to cross-network between different writing communities can enrich our lives and take our work to a whole new level.

In 2012, I joined my first writing community, the SFFChronicles.com — an online science fiction and fantasy forum with an active writer’s section. At the time, I had just made the decision to get back into writing and was working on my first novel, a middle grade fantasy. While researching children’s fiction resources I found the SCBWI (Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators), but back then I lived in Brazil, and we had no regional chapters I could look into.

A year later, following my husband’s job relocation, I moved to Connecticut. As soon as I arrived, I joined the SCBWI. Six months later, I went to my first SCBWI conference in New York. I was making connections, online and in person, and my writing world was growing. At the same time, I continued to be an active participant in the sci fi and fantasy community. Both were equally important in teaching me about how publishing works, and in honing my writing skills.

From the kid lit community I learned how to craft middle grade and YA; the SF/F world taught me about genre fiction. The first was invaluable in helping me understand traditional publishing; the second showed me how to navigate anthology submission calls and other short story markets. The SCBWI brought me my wonderful local critique partners; the SF/F community gave me my first beta readers, and eventually a second online critique group. The SCBWI encouraged me to volunteer at conferences and events, and to get involved at a local level, organizing meet and greets for my area. SF/F brought participation opportunities for convention panels, my first public reading, and an opening to write interviews for a genre website. Both groups have nurtured me and cheered for my successes along the way, and expanded both my horizons and my circle of friends. I couldn’t keep moving forward without both of these communities at my side.

When I go to SCBWI events I’m always intrigued by how few members seem to even consider reaching beyond the kid lit community for connection and knowledge. The SCBWI is a wonderful place to call home, but there are many other thriving organizations out there to be explored. The Romance Writers of America is a busy and inclusive example, with many small local chapters throughout the USA. The Mystery Writers of America is another great society with active chapters in different regions. And those are only two among many. Broadening our worlds and cross-networking between communities can be a wonderful way to gain further insight in our work and widen that support web that is so crucial in the difficult world of publishing.

Whatever you chosen ‘home’ community, consider stepping outside and looking for others to connect with. Have a look around, both online and in your local area, and see what you can find. Take a chance on adding a whole new side to your network by joining additional writing organizations — either official ones, like those mentioned above, or unofficial ones such as the forum I’ve been on since 2012. Getting involved with a new community may be scary at first, but by casting that net a little wider and crossing those streams, you may find your creativity shines bigger, and brighter, and bolder than ever.

There’s a whole wide world outside that window…

Dark, Darker, Darkest

I don’t do dark. I don’t do scary, or heart-wrenching. My writing is fun and happy, and full of sunshine. Until it really, really isn’t.

The first thing I ever wrote was a light-hearted middle grade novel about a group of friends in small-town Brazil trying to stop a rampaging gang of ghosts. There was a bike chase, and meetings at the local ice cream parlor. Not a sliver of a shadow in sight, right? But now, looking back, I see there was an underlying theme of the price of magic, and of good magic gone very wrong.

Another middle grade novel had themes of PTSD and abandonment. My first foray into YA was about genetic experimentation on teenagers and forced seclusion from society. Are we beginning to sense a thread of darkness in all of this? But I still had this illusion that I was writing upbeat happy stories, probably because the dark bits were interspersed with enough action to mask them, at least to my own eyes. 

(Although the torture scene in my first published book—which got a special mention from Fantasy-Faction—should have clued me in…)

I got into short stories. These tended to be a lot darker right off the bat. Probably because I felt these were somewhat separated from my usual stuff, and gave me more room to play. Published stories include an alien willing to kill to remain on Earth, a trio of cut-throat teen mercenaries on a desperate mission, and murder by flesh-eating fungus. Nice and cheerful!

But there’s a beauty to the shadows, to the gray tones and the storm clouds. We can only appreciate the light when the story has contrast. And for that, it often needs to go down dark paths.

At the moment, I’m working on something brand new. It’s my darkest novel yet, with some pretty tough subthemes. At first, I wondered who the heck the person commandeering my brain was, to be coming up with this stuff. Then I took a good hard look at my earlier writing, and realized the shadows have been there all along, from the very beginning.

In a way, this came as a relief. It’s good to know my work has actually had some consistency from the start. Until I began this latest project, I was worried that there was a huge disconnect between my short pieces and my longer stories. This new thing of mine not only seems to pull all the different sides of me together, but it also made me take a good hard look at my past work, too. And maybe embrace the dark. 

There’s a beauty to the gray tones and storm clouds…

Ten Books

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Yes, I know there are only eight books in this photo!

A writer friend tagged me on Facebook the other day for something that’s been doing the rounds called ’10 books in 10 days’. I thought I’d write it up as a blog post instead… Cue LOTS of angsting to choose just ten out of the many books that I’ve fallen in love with over the years! Anyway, here are my picks, in no order whatsoever. Not all of them are science fiction or fantasy, even though I have a long-lasting love of speculative fiction. But all of them were read over and over and have been a big part of my life.

What ten books have left their mark on you? I’d love to hear about them in the comments.

The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis. Aka, the one that started it all. I blame my love of fantasy (and portal novels) on Lucy and her siblings. This actually isn’t my favorite book in the series; that’s a two-way tie between The Horse and His Boy and The Silver Chair. But it was the first one I ever picked up, and the first one that Lewis wrote. Why do I love it? A classic portal fantasy tale, with just enough ‘real world’ to anchor it.

Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen. I love pretty much all of Austen’s books, but the misadventures of Lizzy Bennet will always have a special place in my heart. I discovered Pride and Prejudice in my teens and have reread it countless times over the years. Why do I love it? Lizzy is one of my favorite female characters ever!

I, Robot by Isaac Asimov. This was another pearl from my parents’ small but thorough library. This collection of short fiction contains the story where Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics first appeared and serves as a great introduction to his work. Why do I love it?Stories that make you think, in bite-sized short format.

The Lightning Thief by Rick Riordan. Riordan was three books into his Percy Jackson & the Olympians series when I stumbled upon The Lightning Thief in the wake of the less-than-stellar movie adaptation. Since then, I’ve been a huge fan, and have read everything that followed. Why do I love it? Riordan’s fun storytelling style and excellent use of first person point of view.

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams. My dad handed me a copy when I was a teenager — I read the first page three times and then laughed like a loon and promptly devoured the rest of the book. Why do I love it? The Guide taught me that fiction doesn’t have to take itself seriously all the time.

The Thirteen Problems by Agatha Christie. My mother had a huge collection of Christie’s work, and I reread them all several times each. Miss Marple was my favorite out of her sleuths, and this collection of short stories about the amateur detective marks her earliest appearance. Why do I love it? Christie shines in her short stories, and these are excellent.

The Demon King by Cinda Williams Chima. I discovered Chima’s work three or four years ago and her Seven Realms series promptly became a favorite. It has everything an epic fantasy fan could wish for: magic, adventure, heroics, and a really great plot. Why do I love it? The perfect teen characters and a swoon-worthy romance! 

The Danger by Dick Francis. One of my biggest regrets is leaving my Dick Francis collection behind when we moved to the USA. I absolutely love his horse racing thrillers — the pacing is perfect, and the plots exciting and just intricate enough to entertain without too much effort. This particular book is one of my faves. Why do I love it? Francis wrote relatively ordinary characters that went above and beyond to solve mysteries and crimes. I think what I love best is this relatability.

Storm Front by Jim Butcher. Although this is absolutely NOT my favorite of Butcher’s Dresden Files novels, it is the first, and served as my introduction to a little something called Urban Fantasy, a subgenre I hadn’t come across before. Why do I love it? I love the snarky pop-culture-riddled dialogue.

The Way of Kings by Brandon Sanderson. The Stormlight Archive is my new Lord of the Rings. The books have all the elements I loved in Tolkien’s classic, with the addition of great female characters, something LOTR sorely lacks. Why do I love it? Impeccable worldbuilding and truly wonderful character arcs.

 

Have Book, Will Read #19

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May was a mad rush of manuscript revisions, other work, and life being, well, life. The laundry doesn’t do itself just because you’re busy rewriting Chapter 11, though what a neat trick that would be… But in the middle of all that busy, I still managed time to read. Here are a few of my favorites from the past few weeks.

Recent Reads: Tricks and Trips.

I FINALLY READ CROOKED KINGDOM! I’ve been promising myself for a while now that I’d read the sequel to Leigh Bardugo’s Six of Crows, and I actually got around to it this time. Worth the wait!

As Kaz and company strive to right the wrongs committed against them they get sucked down into a deepening spiral of subterfuge, trickery, and intrigue. Beautifully written, the story is well-paced and has enough twists and turns to keep readers on their toes the entire time. And the romances are lovely!

I’ve been wanting to read Holly Black’s work for a while now, and I started out easy with the Magisterium series she’s co-writing with Cassandra Clare. Although I found the books in my library’s teen room, they’re really middle grade, and I think I read the first four in under a week.

The Iron Trial, The Copper Gauntlet, The Bronze Key, and The Silver Mask bring a neat little twist to the ‘teen discovers they have magic and goes to magic school’ formula. I’m not going to say much because #spoilers, but I certainly wasn’t expecting the direction the tale took from the end of Book 1, and this was a refreshing departure from the theme. This is a great series, and I’m looking forward to the conclusion in The Golden Tower, out September 2018.

There’s nothing better than a new InCryptid book, so when I realized that the most recent title in Seanan McGuire’s series, Tricks for Free, was out, I rushed to buy it. We get more of Antimony’s point of view in this one, and plenty more Sam, which made me a very happy person as Sam is adorable.

I absolutely love this series. It’s fun, fast-paced, and light-hearted while tackling some pretty big issues, and McGuire’s world is full of amazing cryptids and characters that keep you invested from page one. If you like urban fantasy and haven’t yet discovered these books, give the first one a try. You won’t regret it, I promise you!

Kelly Robson’s The Human Stain recently won the Nebula award for best novelette, and as I’ve been meaning to read this for a while, this was the perfect moment. The story takes us to a remote castle in Germany, following a British expat who is hired to care for her friend’s nephew.

This gothic horror tale is perfect for a shivery afternoon read (or a nighttime one, if you dare!). Robson’s elegant prose contrasts nicely with the growing darkness of the story, which has an ending that will definitely leave you off-kilter for a good while.

Now Reading: A ghostly conspiracy…

I just started an ARC for Afterimage by Naomi Hughes, out in September 2018. I’m not very far in, but I love the concept and am excited to read on. The story begins with an explosion that leaves the only survivor racing to find out who is behind it all. And the only person she can turn to is a transparent boy who she’s not sure is a ghost or a hallucination.

To Read: Stormy waters, suspense, and insurgence.

Thanks to the Penguin Children’s Fall preview I attended last month, I have a lovely big pile of middle grade and YA ARCs to read. I’m thinking of starting with Seafire, by Natalie C. Parker, the story of an all-female pirate crew. The book has been described as Wonder Woman meets Mad Max: Fury Road, so yes, please!

Another one from the ARC pile that I’m looking forward to getting into The Sacrifice Box, a horror novel by Martin Stewart set in the 1980s, and that sounds like a cross between Stephen King and Stranger Things.

On my to-read list is Myke Cole’s The Armored Saint, which came out in February but I haven’t had a chance to read yet. This is Cole’s first fantasy series, a little bit of a departure from his Shadow Ops world. I love Myke’s writing style, so this is definitely one I can’t miss out on.

I have a LOT of other things on my to-read list, but luckily summer is just ahead. The downside to school vacation is that I’m not sure how much writing I’ll get done. The upside, of course, is books, books, books. What’s on your summer reading list?