Tuesday, April 28, 2015
When I was given my agent edits a few weeks ago, I was also given a gentle nudge to read Seraphina. It's represented by the same team I signed with last month. I took on the assignment, trying to glean what I could about how it was constructed and what made it work. The only downside was that it was so good I kept getting transported and forgot to study.
On the surface it seems like kind of a strange thing for me to be studying right now. I write speculative historical fiction (and not, like, medieval stuff, like 1800s stuff). Seraphina is pretty solidly fantasy. On the surface, my work doesn't resemble this book at all. No common world or plot points or character traits. Seraphina is told in a first person girl voice; my main character is a guy.
So I was hesitant to take it on while I have so many other assignments. I mean, this book is long. Like, late era Harry Potter long (see Seraphina pictured below, with the sequel Shadow Scale and other big huge books shown for scale).
But I'd had this book recommended to me before. The entire front cover is a list of awards it won. So I accepted my mission and read the book, and the thing that makes it so special - that I want to incorporate into my own work - is that it's a beautiful, flowing experience. There's a compelling story, a series of mysteries that build upon each other, and a sweet almost courtly romance. But the thing that really stands out is that I was never tempted to skim or hurry through any sentence/paragraph/page in order to get to some big payoff faster. There are big payoffs - multiple big payoffs scattered throughout. But the journey through the book never makes you feel like you need to hurry, which is a really, really cool quality. When I was in school and had to read a lot in a hurry, I remember only reading dialog and feeling like that would be enough to give me the basic idea, and once in awhile I catch myself slipping back into that nasty habit. I don't often think about that "no rush" quality when it's not there; I can't think of many other books that made me feel that way (though I do remember saying something similar about Bitterblue years ago).
Grantland's Hollywood Prospectus, once used the terms "slow food" versus "fast food" to describe similar TV shows (for example, they described the TV show The Honorable Woman as the slow-food version of Homeland). Seraphina is a slow-food book, where you sit down at a table with real silverware and cloth napkins and they bring you appetizers, soup/salad, a main course, and dessert.
Monday, April 13, 2015
WHERE THE STAIRCASE ENDS by Stacy Stokes
(releases April 14, 2015)
Parts of this story read like a straight contemporary young adult story. The ups and downs of best-friendship between young women. Of being there for each other, and of occasionally succumbing to temptation and stabbing each other in the back because nobody's perfect. Of lashing out and pleading for love when someone feels completely unlovable. Of struggling with self-preservation versus loving unconditionally.
In some ways, this reads like a modernized version of It's a Wonderful Life, or maybe a more speculative twist on stories like If I Stay, in which the main character gets to review her life from another perspective. She scales a seemingly endless staircase, and along the way she relives scenes of her life, seeing what she got right and what she could have done better. She can't walk backward or even turn around to look behind. All she can do is climb up the stairs and face the facts of her various broken relationships along the way. This is a really beautiful book in which some heartbreaking things happen. There are dark moments, but it's infused with hope and love and second chances, so rich with emotion. It's manages to be contemporary and otherworldly at the same time.
NOBODY'S GODDESS by Amy McNulty
(releases April 21, 2015)
If you were in on the Darkling from Shadow and Bone by Leigh Bardugo, then this might be the book for you.
There are a lot of cool elements about this fantasy world. The men are under a curse where they fall in love at first sight and must earn love in return or risk complete and total death (like, die, vanish, and no one except the woman he loved remembers he ever existed). It's by far the most clever and high stakes use of "insta-love" I've ever read (this book is just full of unicorn elements; it features a perfectly utilized prologue, too). Our main character is an unloved teenage girl, an old maid in her society. They assume whoever is destined to love her must not have been born yet or something. She's the object of pity and ridicule. The only boy she loves has fallen in love with someone else. He has to earn the other girl's love for the sake of his own survival. And our heroine is forced to watch it all happen, powerless to stop it.
But there is a lord in the castle overlooking the village that never mingles with his people. Our heroine goes to him to beg a favor and I bet you can guess what happens. What follows is a lovely battle of wills in which the lord tries to earn our heroine's heart while resisting her influence over him. It's hard to know whether he's a hero or a villain; all we know for sure is that he has to earn her love in order to survive, and she has the power to erase him from existence if he fails.
Congratulations to Stacy Stokes and Amy McNulty. It's been an honor and a privilege to be a part of these projects!
FRASIER was one of my favorite shows during my formative years (it ran from 1993-2004). It was so tightly written that some of the funniest scenes had no dialog at all. It was like watching a stage show. And it had a romance subplot that spanned SEVEN YEARS and actually paid off. I pulled it up on NetFix a few months ago for a casual rewatch starting at the beginning and was kind of shocked and dismayed by what I saw.
Niles, one of my favorite characters of all time, struck me as really unlikable.
I didn't remember it that way at all. He was rude, dismissive, judgmental, the worst sort of one-percenter consumed by first world problems (he may have pioneered the term). In the pilot episode we meet Niles mid-rant about his gardener having the nerve to suggest building a zen garden on his estate. Then we watch him refuse to take in his police officer father who's been shot and is in need of live-in medical care. He won't hug his family members ("You remember what mom said: a handshake is as good as a hug"). And as the cherry on top, we get to watch him, a married man, stare at the live-in help's ass and sniff her hair. Niles was creepy stalker guy, and I was a little mad at my young self for being so fond of him.
What was I thinking? I used to LOVE this guy, but now as an adult I was SO DISAPPOINTED in him. In the last episode of the first season, Frasier asks Niles point blank if he wanted to have an affair with Daphne, their father's live-in therapist. Without hesitation smarmy Niles says, "Yes. Can I do that?" (Frasier says no; Niles moans about getting his hopes up.)
Well, despite feeling like my youth was crumbling around me, NetFlix kept playing (as it does). The seasons progressed, and my writer brain noticed something kind of cool. As it turns out Niles has a much, much more interesting character arc than does the title character.
Slimy Season One Niles is all in for having an extra-marital affair with Daphne. He even attempts to kiss her (something I didn't remember). Frasier jumps in attempting to "save" them both from making a terrible mistake, and Daphne stands up for Niles, using her outrage voice to say he's not the sort of man who'd ever do something like that. Her kindness toward him starts to shift his attitude toward her, from an ass to stare at to someone he considers good and pure, someone he'd rather protect than take advantage of. He falls in actual love with her.
In the seasons that follow Niles slowly loses everything. He's humbled. His wife manipulates him, cheats on him, humiliates him (and, in a brilliant bit of film making she never appears on screen). He loses his money, his home, his place in society - everything that made up Season One Niles's identity. Integrity becomes everything for him, the one thing he can control. At times you can even drink every time he says "Integrity" and call it a game. Even once he's separated, then divorced, he holds back from Daphne out of a sense of honor (maybe more for her sake than for his). As the seasons progress even further, the theme of Niles's relationship with Daphne blurs the line between honor and cowardice. Which is holding him back? His motives shift while his goal remains relatively the same.
Season Seven Niles is broken down. He's learned to be more compassionate, more kind, though still flawed (and as always, it's the flaws that make a character lovable). He's worthy of Daphne. He's earned her love, giving viewers a satisfying moment in a very, very, very long romance arc.
AND THEN the show still ran four more seasons without their relationship getting stale (things went off the rails a bit in Season Eight, but nobody's perfect).
But enough of me talking about a TV show that's been in reruns for more than ten years. The point is, rewatching this show reminded me of what makes a great character. Lots of flaws. Lots of suffering leading to opportunities for that character to discovering his/her humanity and then grow into someone better. The writers of FRASIER were very, very, VERY mean to Niles as a character. They gave the actor enough material to get nominated for ELEVEN consecutive Emmys and five Golden Globes. It takes a lot to make a jerk lovable.
Wednesday, April 1, 2015
Would I be willing to read it and give some feedback?
At that time the sender of that email, Emery Lord, and I were in similar situations. We were both 20-something Midwesterners with similar backgrounds. We'd both just finished writing our first complete manuscripts and were trying to figure out what to do next. We didn't really know many other writers. Even though I'd never critiqued anything before, a mutual writer friend introduced us. We agreed to exchange pages and give whatever feedback we could. Four years later, Emery and I both have literary agents, I have an awesome job as an editor, and she has two gorgeous books out in the world with a third on its way. Best of all, she's become one of my best friends.
THE START OF ME AND YOU, which released yesterday. It's a smart, lovely book full of heart and humor and people who care about each other. I love this book for many, many reasons, not the least of which is that it was the start of our friendship, but it was also the start of our professional writing endeavors. Independently we learned how to finish a manuscript. Together we learned how to query, how to edit, how to do it again and again and again. Together we learned how to try new things and see things differently. The more I look back at the last four years, the more I realize that the themes contained in this young adult book - themes of reinvention, of trying new things, of seeing things differently - are timeless. These are lessons we learn and forget and relearn again, and I love that this book reminds me of that.
Joseph-Beth Books (and every time I visit Cincinnati I'm reminded that it's one of America's secret gems).
David Arnold, Kate Hattemer, and Courtney Stevens in an hour long panel discussion followed by lots and lots of book signing. David Arnold, in a stroke of genius, brought a copy of his book for the readers to sign for him, sort of like a year book. Emery brought boxes of donuts to share with the crowd.
Jasmine Warga tried to blend in with the audience but ended up signing a few of her books too.
Every writer I know has at one point or another considered shelving a completed project. Maybe it doesn't appear to fit the market, or agents are only responding with form rejections. Maybe it's been shopped to editors and no one bought it. The last line from that very first email I received from Emery back in 2011: "I guess I need to know whether or not this thing has a shot or if I should let it be and move on." We finally have the answer, and I couldn't be prouder of my friend and everything she's accomplished.
Thursday, March 12, 2015
I picked up this book because my friend Julie Hammerle called it a "thrillery thriller." It's a book about messed up grownups. Grownups struggling with grownup problems like alcoholism and divorce and unemployment. But beyond all of that, it's a "wife gone missing" thriller along a similar line as GONE GIRL, but with what many might consider a more satisfying ending.
The story is written from multiple first-person female perspectives: Rachel, recently divorced train rider; Anna, mistress turned wife with trust issues; and Megan, the one who goes missing. I can't remember reading a book written in three first person voices before, so right away it has an added level of difficulty. The structure is compelling, divided by narrators as well as "morning" and "evening" (as though mimicking both legs of a commute). Each day, when her train stops at the signal, Rachel looks longingly over a back fence into the lives of a seemingly perfect couple. The trouble starts when she sees the perfect wife, Megan, with another man... and then a few hours later sees a report on the news that Megan has gone missing. Rachel feels compelled to tell the authorities what she saw, but the more we learn about Rachel, the more we wonder whether or not she's actually a reliable witness. It's not my favorite sort of book, but it is the sort of thing I enjoy in small doses.
On the other hand, JACKABY is like if Sherlock and Doctor Who had a baby. This, in fact, is exactly my favorite sort of book. I could not have been more delighted. There's an eccentric detective that can see paranormal activity that no one else can see. There's a young female English assistant (and a second assistant, who happens to be a duck). And MONSTERS. The main difference is setting: 1890s America, instead of modern day England. The pacing and energy and tone are all perfect for someone like me, who adores the Cumberbatchy/Tennant-ness of BBC TV. It was a quick, easy, fun read that left me feeling generally happy. There's a second book coming out in September called BEASTLY BONES, which will get a priority spot on my to-read stack.
DOLL BONES by Holly Black
This was a different read for me, in that it features younger characters (age 12) and several cool illustrations, kind of like the earlier Harry Potter books, but with creepier (think Tim Burton) undertones. A trio of friends, two girls and a boy, play-act stories with dolls and action figures and end up going on a real-life quest (I'm not sure I can say more without getting spoilery, but they do at one point sail and sink a boat). This book touches on gender roles in play and toys, on relationships between fathers and sons, on how friendships shift as kids grow older - so many lovely bits of substance in the midst of an adventure story with just a touch of magic.THE RAVEN BOYS by Maggie Stiefvater
This was one of those times Emery Lord dropped a book recommendation bomb and then watched me lose my mind (one of her favorite hobbies). This book has everything (said in Stefon voice), but what really made it for me was the exquisite character building (and there are a LOT of characters). It was like Maggie Stiefvater built these people with tiny Lego bricks, one phrase at a time, until they were each big and beautiful and real and I just wanted to BE with them. She wrote deep friendship dynamics, and I felt the give-and-take of their personal goals versus their loyalties to each other.
Enough vague praise - to be a little more specific, this is a story of (mostly) rich private school boys colliding with the everyday people of their adopted hometown (including some quirky psychics). There's Adam, the kid from the wrong side of the tracks trying to make something of himself despite discouragement at home. There's Ronan, the sharp around the edges trust fund kid who acts like he doesn't care about anyone yet takes care to feed his rescued bird every two hours. And quiet, reclusive Noah, who at first kind of brought to my mind the guy from the movie The Great Outdoors who'd been struck by lightning multiple times and as a result was just a little squeamish about everything. Richard Gansey III is the glue that holds everyone together (he kind of reminded me of Hale from the HEIST SOCIETY books, but with many, many more Alpha tendencies). He's heart of gold meets foot-in-mouth. To quote the book (when viewed from Adam's perspective): "...Adam could forgive that shallow, glossy version of Gansey he'd first met. Because of his money and his good family name, because of his handsome smile and his easy laugh, because he liked people and (despite his fears to the contrary) they liked him back, Gansey could've had any and all of the friends that he wanted. Instead he had chosen the three of them, three guys who should've, for three different reasons, been friendless."
When I read that snippet, I fell in love with this book. It has paranormal elements. It has magic. It flirts with romance, when a local girl (who thinks of Gansey as "President Cell Phone") starts hanging around the boys, helping them with their quest, which has something of a modern day Arthurian feel to it. There are three total books in this series, and I'm thrilled; I'm not ready to give these people up just yet.
And one more thing. A lot of books have plot twists. Some are better executed than others. Some get a little too cute. Some act like they're getting away with something. THIS book manages to execute a dramatic plot twist while actually stating that twist plainly. In blunt language. At the very beginning. This book never lies to you, never withholds any information, gives you everything you need to know right up front... and twists you just the same. Really, really impressive stuff.Upcoming Want to Reads: I still need to read ANOMALY by Tonya Kuper, must make it a priority; THE CONSPIRACY OF US by Maggie Hall, TRUST ME I'M LYING by Mary Elizabeth Summer, THE SHADOW CABINET by Maureen Johnson, THE INFINITE by Lori M. Lee, and I finally picked up THE RED QUEEN by Victoria Aveyard.
Tuesday, February 10, 2015
It's been a pretty diverse month over here at the Robison Reading Nook. We've got a superhero story, some introspective women's fiction, historical Biblical fiction, and a rom-com. Something for everyone!
ILLUSIVE (Emily Lloyd-Jones) is a young adult sci-fi/comic-bookish story that gives an alternate take on the current vaccination controversy (kidding, kidding, but kind of not kidding).
"Once upon a time, there was a pandemic. It was a new strain of meningococcal disease. Named Meningococcas Krinotas - or simply the MK plague - it embodied the worst traits of both viral and bacterial meningitis. Because it was a virus, anticiotics had no effect, and the current viral vaccines were ineffective. The result was a disease that, when diagnosed, was always followed by a funeral."
So a doctor developed a vaccine, and that vaccine gave a small percentage of the population special "immunities" - like telepathy, perfect recall, increased intuition, levitation, and the ability to create illusions. And once the doctor saw what his vaccine could do, he destroyed it so prevent more "immunities" from manifesting. Those who have immunities (or, what I could call "super powers") are hunted down and recruited by the government and criminals in equal measure. ILLUSIVE bounces back and forth between an criminal and a fed.
This was a really fun book with a delightful and diverse cast of characters, plenty of action and solid platonic (refreshing) relationships. It also had one of the great character names I've ever come across: Kit Copperfield, a kindhearted criminal who kind of reminded me of Fagin from Oliver Twist, if Fagan had boatloads of money and fine taste in art.
(Note: The second book in the series, DECEPTIVE releases in July 2015)
FAR FROM HERE (Nikki Baart) was introduced to me as "Women's Fiction/Book Club Fiction" - a genre I'm not overly familiar with, but when I met Nikki it was obvious that she was a lady who has interesting things to say. She's a preacher's wife. She and her husband are founding members of a non-profit that works with orphans in Liberia. She writes fiction from a Christian perspective, but her multiple books don't appear in the faith-based section of the bookstore.
FAR FROM HERE is the story of a woman whose husband goes missing in the Alaskan wilderness, and what follows is a thought provoking series of events that raise questions without "right" answers (which is probably what makes it "book club fiction" - good discussion questions). How can others support someone in this sort of traumatic situation? (For example, the main character is annoyed by people bringing her endless casserole dish dinners that she has no appetite to eat, but is deeply touched by a neighbor who offers to mow her lawn). What is she willing to sacrifice to search for her husband (she is terrified of flying, but the only way to search is by air in tiny, tiny planes - identical to the one her husband was flying when he went missing). And, how does she balance holding out hope while still moving forward and functioning in her everyday life. Nikki's video is a great introduction to this book, to see if it might be for you.
FOOL ME TWICE (Mandy Hubbard) a young adult rom-com about a group of eighteen-year-olds in the summer between high school and college. They have killer summer jobs living and working on a luxury ranch, entertaining guests with rodeos, riding lessons, spa treatments, etc. There is an amazing girl-best-friends relationship. There's a prank war. And LOTS of horses! There's an elaborate plot to exact revenge on the boy who broke the narrator's heart the previous summer. I'm afraid to say too much because I don't want to give away any of the jokes. Funny is so hard to do. I appreciate it so much when it's done well.
FOOL ME TWICE is grounded in reality, but there is almost a playful/magical element to it where the rules of the real world don't quite apply (Confession: I have ~20% left; there may be another shoe yet to drop, but I didn't want to wait to recommend it). Oh, and since the story takes place in the state of Washington, I got a chuckle out of multiple Seattle Seahawks jokes. "Wilson Russell... NO, Russell Wilson." This is a fun, cheerful read. Especially if you're buried under 15+ inches of snow, like I currently am. It was the perfect dose of summer.
ISCARIOT (Tosca Lee) is historical Biblical fiction told in the first person narrative of Judas Iscariot. I was blown away by this book. Biblical fiction is something I'm typically a little wary of. I feel like it's important to recognize the line between entertainment and doctrine, between "I'm reading this for fun" and "I'm reading this to enrich my spiritual life." I'm not really in to the big Hollywood blockbusters of Bible stories. I didn't really dig The Red Tent (braces for onslaught because everyone else loves that book). I'd decided that Biblical fiction just wasn't really my thing until I met Tosca (who, by the way, might be the Most Interesting Woman in the World).
But I was so interested in the idea of a first person account from Judas's perspective that I dug in and in the end I felt both entertained and enriched. It's beautifully written and thoroughly researched. There's such care and tenderness in this story, spanning Judas's entire life, making it essentially a fictional autobiography. I highly, highly recommend this book - and I might suggest starting with the author's note at the end, where Tosca explains how this books came to be (and try this short, beautiful video; Tosca is good at videos). She's written three works of Biblical fiction - Judas, HAVAH (the story of Eve), and THE LEGEND OF SHEBA (the Queen of Sheba and King Solomon - check out her video for it here! Seriously, watch it). I CANNOT wait to read the others and can't recommend Tosca's work highly enough.
Upcoming Want to Reads: ANOMALY by Tonya Kuper, THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN by Paula Hawkins, DOLL BONES by Holly Black, THE CONSPIRACY OF US by Maggie Hall, TRUST ME I'M LYING by Mary Elizabeth Summer, THE SHADOW CABINET by Maureen Johnson
Thursday, January 15, 2015
I often feel like I'm racing to keep up with all of the new book releases, to keep up with the conversation around those "most anticipated" titles and those released by people I'm now connected to in one way or another. As a result, I often neglect to go back to gems I might have missed. But this is one (written all the way back in 2012!) I made a point of placing in my reading queue after I read its companion novel, ACROSS A STAR-SWEPT SEA, last winter. Every time I saw this cover I got that little heart palpitation. "Soon, dear Peterfreund. I just have to do this one thing first." And finally I did get to it. Please indulge me in reprinting the 2am Twitter explosion upon finishing FOR DARKNESS SHOWS THE STARS, for I feel it more properly captures my emotions than I can do now in the caffeinated light of day.
I love Diana Peterfreund so much it hurts. Just...here, Diana. Have my heart and lungs and ribs & do what you will with them.— Bethany Robison (@BethanyRobison) January 15, 2015
*discovers prequel novella for ACROSS A STAR-SWEPT SEA* You win, Peterfreund. I'm happy I'm broken *dissolves into gleeful madness*— Bethany Robison (@BethanyRobison) January 15, 2015
And what's lovely about Peterfreund's "Stars" duo is that we go into it already knowing the endings. They are (in my opinion) perfectly executed science fiction re-imaginings of beloved classic stories. ACROSS A STAR-SWEPT SEA, when I first fell in love with Peterfreund, is sci-fi Scarlet Pimpernel. FOR DARKNESS SHOWS THE STARS is PERSUASION, a Jane Austen-style sci-fi novel of manners.
I've spent a lot of time studying refreshes or re-imaginings of classic stories (See Part 1, Part 2, Part 3), and there does seem to be an unwritten set of rules for the most satisfying ones. For example, I've spent enough time studying various versions of The Scarlet Pimpernel to possibly draft a bad PhD dissertation. As a fan, I know that certain touchstones are expected, or else don't bother pretending something is a Scarlet Pimpernel inspired story. There must be a masked hero. There must be some element of espionage and rescuing of imprisoned people, etc.
Peterfreund's version of PERSUASION hits all the proper Jane Austen touchstones. I never realized how much I'd underrated Jane Austen's world building until I saw it transplanted into a new setting. It's futuristic sci-fi without being spaceshipy. They're on an indebted estate. There's a technologically induced class system that must be adhered to. There's careful politicking and relationship rumors. One thing I particularly enjoyed was the addition of a Grandfather character; his last name is Boatwright and he's throughout referred to as "The Boatwright" and that struck me as so perfectly English literature-y. The Boatwright was forced to move in to his son-in-law's guest rooms. The Boatwright was not pleased with the quality of his dinner. Love it.
The basic plot of PERSUASION: Rich young girl falls in love with poor boy, professes love, then breaks it off. Boy strikes out on his own, makes mega-cash, then comes back (at least a little bitter) with his old attachment kept semi-secret. Sexual tension ensues.
FOR DARKNESS SHOWS THE STARS hits so many lovely touchstones, and Peterfreund treats them lovingly. You know she reveres the story she's paying tribute to and treasures those key elements. We get to see a series of letters between "Anne" and "Wentworth" (who has been cleverly renamed "Wentforth") watching the evolution of their relationship prior to the breakup and him striking out on his own, up to and including THE letter at the end (which Peterfreund calls out as critical to her Austen fandom in her lovely acknowledgements). Peterfreund makes you feel the desperate financial and physical circumstances of the estate, and you feel the lenghts that "Anne" goes to, trying to keep everything together. "Wentforth" still joins the fleet, but he's an explorer, not a soldier. There is still a young lady who takes a tragic fall and is injured, though I'd argue that Peterfreund's explanation for WHY she falls might actually make more sense?
As for the sci-fi elements: it's not dystopian, but it is set in a distant future, in which a large population of humans have had their abilities "reduced" after years of scientific enhancements corrupting their DNA. Only those who refused the enhancements for generations (the "Luddites") are still mentally and physically intact, and as such have risen to the level of aristocracy, charged with caring for the "reduced" who live and work on their estates. So what we have here is a futuristic society that congratulates themselves for not advancing technologically. Peterfreund actually apologizes (tongue in cheek) in her acknowledgements for not including much tech in her sci-fi; ACROSS THE STAR-SWEPT SEA, the second book, is more techy.
While reading these two books, I often felt like they were written specifically for me. Both touched on so many things I love. Really satisfying, to the point that I'd happily take the time to reread both of them, and dig into the companion prequel novellas. As far as I can tell, Peterfreund isn't working on any other classic re-imaginings, but I really, really wish she would. With two homeruns, she's now among my very favorite and most trusted writers, and I hope she gets a lot of attention for her work.