Monday, October 25, 2010

Manifest by Artist Arthur and Tutored by Allison Whittenberg

So the way Around the World ARC tours works, you read a book blurb, and if it sounds interesting, you ask to be put on the list, and some time in the future you receive it in the mail. You have a week to read it and send it on, and then another week to review it.

I'm so late with these two. I received three books in one week, and while it was no problem reading them, I really liked "Girl Parts" and it was hard to muster enough enthusiam to review these. So this post is not a strict review, more my thoughts on great vs. okay books.

Coincidentally, both "Tutored" and "Manifest" are by African-American authors, a group that is under-represented, shall we say, in bookstores. I don't select books based on race, in fact some of my favorite books are by people of African descent. Errrr, does that sound cliche?

Well, it's true, so there.

Alan Patton, for instance. "Cry The Beloved Country" is an amazing-
What's that? He's white? Seriously?

*Checks wiki* Holy crap. So he is. Still, he was born in Africa...

All joking aside, Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man changed me. As a high school student, I fell in love with the writing, with the struggle to be seen. I still love that book.

Maya Angelou was and is a huge inspiration to me, many of her books broadened my vision of the world. I identified with her characters and felt that she understood people- of all colors- so deeply.

I haven't read much lighter fare from African-American authors. Perhaps there's some kind of reverse discrimination going on behind closed doors in my head, like I expected them to be more than they were, but both these books disappointed me.

I'll give my summary of both books, and then explain what felt off to me. I add, they were decent books. For someone else they might be awesome books, but for me, the connection was shaky.

"Manifest" is about a girl named Krystal who sees dead people. She moves from The City to a small town, and gets sucked into solving the mystery of a young man's death by his hawt ghost. She has no interest in the cute living boy that likes her, since she's got a HUGE chip on her shoulder. But Ricky's ghost claims that he was murdered when he discovered who killed his girlfriend, and soon Krystal begins to wonder if the same person isn't after her.

"Tutored" is about a young woman, Wendy, whose father escaped the inner-city and is determined that his daughter not fall back in. Wendy is tired of being the "only chip in the cookie" and starts volunteering at a community center. She tutors a young man, Hakiam, who has just moved to Philly and is trying to get a fresh start. But with little family support and no education, Hakiam sees little choice but to steal if he wants to eat. As Hakiam and Wendy get to know each other, they find they have more in common than they could have imagined.

Both of these books had some good moments, and I didn't feel it was a total waste to read them. But they weren't amazing. I didn't believe that a good girl like Wendy would get involved with Hakiam. The leap from reluctant study sessions to boyfriend/girlfriend was too great. And when Wendy takes Hakiam to a "white" party, and everyone is drunk and stoned, that was presented as a positive (Hakiam says "White people are all right" or something close to that.), while the same situation in the ghetto was presented as a huge negative(although the situation was different since Hakiam's cousin had a small baby present). Still, to find common ground in drugs is not my idea of a bridge between cultures.

In "Tutored",I never quite believed that Krystal was as angry as she was presented. It just wasn't backed up in her history. Like, what teenage girl isn't going to be a little flattered when a cute guy keeps stopping by her locker to talk to her? Yeah. I can't think of any either.

I also felt that both of these authors accepted violence as part of life in a way that I am not comfortable with. Hakiam has several scenes where he is tempted to steal someone's purse, and when he and Wendy talk about that, her reasons for not stealing fall flat. How about "it's wrong?" To the best of my memory, she only says it's inconvenient to the other person. It's a whole lot more than that. Likewise, in Manifest, Ricky ran with a rough crowd, and his girlfriend was involved in "sexting" someone else. He had the attitude that it's her decision and unrelated to him. That did not work for me. I didn't buy his attitude.

The magic of Ralph Ellison was that he made us live through another's eyes, and I never got anywhere close
to that with these books. They were okay.
Glutton for Punishment?

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Seeing Like a Rat, starring Nightshade City by Hilary Wagner

I gave Nightshade City by Hilary Wagner to my now-ten-year-old for his birthday, but of course I had to preview it first. He said "I love it. this is, like, the best book ever!" I say Hilary has created engaging, distinct, and memorable characters, but more impressive is her abiltity to turn readers into rats.

Really, she did. I was a rat for several hours. She describes the beautiful Clover in such a way that I believe that Clover's not just a rodent, she's a female to envy and admire. Hilary somehow skipped over all the little nudges that often occur, where the author has to keep reminding the reader that the animals are animals, not people in fur with whiskers and tails glued on.
She was quite lovely, with smooth cocoa skin, and light fur, buff in color and downy soft, much more suited for a snow hair than for a rat. She had a short, rounded nose and a sculpted refined muzzle. Eyes the color of citrine offered up varied hues of yellowy briliance, round and open. Despite her beauty, she had an approachable sweetness, modest and shy.
Shall I give you Killdeer, snarly High Minister?
Lazily picking a scrap of roast hen off his distended stomach, Killdeer idly flicked the oily meat across his den. The mammoth rat slumped down further in his silver-chalice throne, only his limbs, potbelly, and snoutvisible to an onlooker...His legs draped over his silver throne like mounds of heavy velvet, leaving his immense feet hanging over the side like two dead gray rabbits. 
The dead rabbits line really jumped out at me, in a good way. He's like a furry Henry the Eighth.

Nightshade City follows two orphaned brothers, Vincent and Victor, who escape from the Catacombs and forced service in the Kill Army. They stumble into the rebel stronghold and find a group ready to fight for the freedom their father died trying to restore.

Another orphan, Clover, has caught Killdeer's eye and has no chance of escape with the Kill Army guarding her. Their paths will cross as the rebels seek to pull down the power-hungry Killdeer and his creepy second-in-command, Billycan. Nightshade City, once just a dream of the earlier generation, waits to be born.

This was a great book, well worth the purchase. Isaac was rereading some of his favorite parts at breakfast this morning and almost made us late to school. However, parents may want to preview this book. I don't suggest it to younger elementary, as Billycan and the Kill Army are quite vicious, pulling out tongues for torture, and there are some mentions of females being chosen to mate with Killdeer. Not graphic, but you might check it out first. I really liked the overall message of the book, actually.

Hilary is one of the friendliest writers I've met, so you might want to stop by and say hello to her. Because let me tell you, it was cool to tell Isaac "I know the author of this book." He was impressed ;)

Has anyone else been turned into a rat? What got you?
Glutton for Punishment?

Friday, October 15, 2010


I went to book club recently, and I told myself in the car not to bring up writing or my book. But I made a comment about the ancient Egyptian worldview, which I've been learning about for Book the Second, which led my friend to bring bringing up my new book.

This dear friend RAVED again about my writing and my ideas and how so very clever and imaginative I am, and on and on. I blushed and got through my elevator pitches.

                                   It was just like this.

I don't want to be like one of those people that are always asking people for praise or constant affirmation. Most of the time I can just keep plugging away, nobody knows what I'm working on. I mean, how many times can someone ask "How's the book coming?" and you answere, "Oh, I'm just trying to tighten things up, still editing," before it gets boring?

But man, it feels so good to have someone get excited about my book. It feels so good after rejections and the ever-present fears of what may never be. I've missed a lot of baby showers and Pampered Chef parties to write this thing, but to this friend, it was worth it. It spoke to her.

This friend is a naturally exuberant person, and I feel narcissistic when I'm around her. But it feels good. Yay for positive people.

I can do better than that. A-hem.


Who are your cheerleaders and how have they helped you? Can you tell them I want to be friends, too?
Glutton for Punishment?

Friday, October 8, 2010

Girl Parts

What is it about girls and cyborgery? I've picked up several of these books recently, the latest being "Girl Parts" by John M. Cusick, but I've also read the "Specials" by Scott Westerfeld, "The Adoration of Jenna Fox" by Mary Pearson and "Skinned" by Robin Wasserman. Apparently in this age of texting and Facebook and smart phones, there're a lot of questions about how this affects us as human beings. In typical science fiction watchtower syndrome, there are warnings about the dangers of the ultra-linked world that has already arrived in some ways. Lots of folks have reviewed the latter three, so here's my review of "Girl Parts."

Gorgeous cover, right?

"Girl Parts" is about a Companion bot named Rose, who is designed to help David Sun overcome dissociative disorder, kind of like how teens have might to carry around a fake baby for health class. But Rose is an AI girlfriend, programmed to require certain kinds of interactions before she'll allow physical contact. And it seems to be working. David spends less time with his video games, and is eager to meet Rose's requirements so that things can progress to sex. Unfortunately...well, it is a YA book. When Rose's program to please David can't be completed, she has to find her own reason for existing.

The most interesting thing about this book was what it says about real relationships, and how sometimes people can get into patterns of thinking that are very robotic. Boy spends time with girl, thus girl is obligated to do XYZ. Rose's thoughts in some places were very poignant to me, but I don't want to spoil it for you. So, I'll just say that this book was worth reading, especially if you enjoyed any of the other books above.

If you're looking for a book for your teenager, I would highly recommend you preview it first. David is very concerned with losing his virginity, and while I imagine that his motivations are fairly realistic, it's a bit detailed for my taste in some places. But, I think the consequences of his actions are worthy of a good discussion. His choices are not glamorized, and the overall message is a good one.

Girl Parts came out in Aug. of this year, and I received this ARC (better late than never!) on loan from Around The World Blogs, which you can find in my side bar. Thanks!
Glutton for Punishment?

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Plumping Up Dialogue

In celebration of multiple signs from the universe that I need to tighten up my pacing and set some better hooks at end of my chapters, I'm studying. Today I'm sharing what I've gathered about convincing dialogue.

My favorite dialogue movies are very revealing about what I value: wit. "Oh Brother, Where Art Thou?," and "Clue," "Real Genius," and "Napoleon Dynamite". TV shows would be "Seinfeld", of course, "The Simpsons", "Burn Notice," and "Castle."

It's a wonder my characters ever have anything serious to say.

As with all writing, the first rule is to revise. As far as I know all good dialogue must be revised no less than twenty times. Maybe that number varies, but good dialogue doesn't just happen. It takes a lot of work.

Here're my current dialogue guidelines. Please add anything in the comments that has helped you.
  1. Don't have the characters say anything they both know. "Look, he's dead." That kind of thing. Never say "As you know, Jim, my pet zebra escaped last week..." Have you tried to use this in real conversation? People get annoyed really fast. It's kind of fun.
  2. Don't go on and on. Or even just on. It might be one of your character's quirks to be longwinded, but be aware that the reader will likely skim! "But Tom Clancy still got published!" you protest. I know. He did, so did Ayn Rand and tons of other writers. I skim those books. A lot.
  3. Use dialogue to reveal character. Sure, sometimes dialogue will be necessary to move the plot, but that's not its main purpose. Dialogue is for the reader to get to know the characters. The beats and action are to move the plot.
  4. Have characters at odds with each other as much as possible. Not necessarily fighting, but they can't want exactly the same thing. Otherwise, what are they talking for? They could be doing whatever it is that they are in perfect agreement upon. Thus...
  5. A major purpose of communication is to persuade people to do what we want. 
  6. Other purposes of communication are information sharing. I'd suggest keeping this type of dialogue to a minimum in a novel. It's great for real life, though.
  7. Another purpose is establishing levels of intimacy. Word choice and levels of playfulness are mutaully agreed upon in the art of conversation, and that can be fun to read, especially when the characters are uncertain about the other person's goals or they have conflicting expectations. Think every romance novel ever written. It doesn't have to be romantic intimacy, though. All relationships have a level of intimacy.
  8. Listen, listen, listen, but don't write the way people talk. You want to distill normal conversation into a more compact, clever, and conflicted version of real life. I might talk to a friend for an hour in real life, but if it takes more than fifteen seconds to read that dialogue, we'd better have saved the planet! 
  9. Never have your character trying to accomplish the exact same thing with a second line. Have their goals change with the conversation, in reaction to the other person's responses. People usually escalate when they're blocked. Or they try another angle. Or get it. Don't let them bore the reader. The reader wants to see what they'll try next, not what they just tried. "Story" by Robert McKee has a great chapter on this. It's a screenwriting book, but well worth reading.
That's what I've got. I'm also reviewing my copy of "Longman's Guide to Intermediate and Advanced Fiction Writing", and it's very good, also. (Both of these books I previewed at the library before buying, so I don't recommend them lightly.)

What dialogue moves you? Where do you go when you want to be amazed by dialogue? Books can have some good dialogue, too! lol "The Queen's Thief" series by Megan Whalen Turner has very clever dialogue. And Kathryn Magendie has great regional dialogue, especially if you want to look at a Southern twist. She goes way beyond throwing a ya'll in. Her blog is lots of fun, so check her out. When I first met her online, I commented on how much I enjoyed her dialogue, and she said that it had not been easy and seemed delighted. So, there's hope for all of us. Work hard, revise and rerevise, and you can have sharp, believeable dialogue that brings your characters to life.

I hope you enjoy the links; I'm trying to be less lazy in my blogging.
Finally, here's one of my favorite moments from Clue. Enjoy!

I have to go back to making Play-Doh snakes and eating salty blue spaghetti with the kiddoes now. Happy Writing!
Glutton for Punishment?