Book Review: THE LADY AND THE FROG

The Lady and the Frog is a charming tale that riffs off the fairy tale “The Princess and the Frog,” but it’s not a retelling—from the opening scene, it diverges rapidly into a story about magic, curses, and love. I was especially taken with Henry, one of the heroes (one of the strengths of the story is its multiple points of view). He’s honest and forthright, painfully moral in the sense that you really feel how committed he is to maintaining the honor of the woman he loves, and just very sweet. His brother Jack is more lively, and it’s his sense of humor and fun that keeps the book from being moralistic. Evelyn, Henry’s love, is intelligent and has a strong personality, and is a good match for Henry, balancing his more prudish impulses and taking an active role in fighting their enemy. It says something about the strength of their relationship that I never felt impatient with Henry’s belief that even kissing Evelyn would be somehow improper.

Even Cassandra, the “villain,” has a sympathetic side. I liked that despite this, she never got a pass on the evil things she did in pursuit of her (laudable) goal. Her defeat ultimately is a defeat of the real bad guys, the ones who put her in a position to do evil. With Henry, Evelyn, and Jack having to work together to achieve this victory, it made for a satisfying ending.

Though this is a fantasy world not our own, it’s Edwardian-influenced rather than Victorian, which made it refreshingly different. Palmer’s sense of place is strong, and fits well with the story she chose to tell. The plot has some interesting twists and draws on different folklores, weaving them together creatively and bringing the story to an intriguing conclusion. I enjoyed this book very much.

You can buy the book here.

Monday morning reading

bookstackMonday. I don’t actually dread Mondays. They’re like resetting the switch for the week, getting a fresh start. I like to start Monday with a new book, though this week it’s actually an old book called Ripley Under Water. I found the book The Talented Mr. Ripley in New Orleans and gradually became addicted to the rest of the series. Tom Ripley is not your typical sociopath–he’s a murderer, knows what he’s done is wrong, but resolves not to let those deaths destroy him. And since most of the people he kills are objectionable or even evil, it’s hard not to have sympathy for him. Highsmith’s writing is spare and economical where it needs to be and full of detail where that’s necessary. This is the last book in the series, and I’ll be sad to let it go.

thegodtouchedmanebookcover-1This Monday also marks the beginning of a week of sales for me. The God-Touched Man, sequel to The Smoke-Scented Girl, comes out on Tuesday. It features Piercy Faranter, man about town and secret agent, whose assignment to chaperone a foreign princess turns into a quest to solve a mystery with roots a thousand years deep. Piercy was a fun character to write, and I hope readers will enjoy reading about him.

thesmokescentedgirl smallIn celebration of this release, I’m putting The Smoke-Scented Girl on sale for $0.99 all week. It’s not necessary to read it before The God-Touched Man, but if you haven’t, this is a great opportunity to pick it up for cheap. In The Smoke-Scented Girl, Piercy’s friend Evon is a magician tasked to solve the mystery of spontaneously occurring fires hotter than anyone can make. What he finds is a girl named Kerensa, a thousand-year-old curse, and the legend of four semi-mythical heroes, all of which may be the key to stopping a power-hungry warlord bent on conquering the world.

And the fun doesn’t stop there! Thursday and Friday only, Burning Bright goes on sale for $0.99 on Amazon. You can now also preorder the sequel to Burning Bright, titled Wondering Sight, which is about Burning Bright front coverSophia, the Extraordinary Seer who discovered how the pirates were tracking the Navy ships. Robbed of her professional reputation by the Viscount Lord Endicott, Sophia sets out to prove his criminal activities and redeem herself–but in her quest to destroy him, she finds herself becoming increasingly like him. Wondering Sight will be released on January 19, 2017.

So, it’s Monday. What are you reading today?

Tackle Your TBR Read-a-Thon update

So far, I’ve made little progress on my stack of books, but I’ve loved what I’ve read:

Welcome to Vietnam, Zack Emerson

Hill 568, Zack Emerson

and a draft of a good friend’s new novel, Desert Rains.

Total books read since 9/14: 3

Total pages read: 640

The first two are part of a wonderful YA series about the Vietnam War that, honestly, I’m surprised Scholastic was willing to publish–it’s as gritty and profane as you’d expect a war story for adults to be. I’m loving it.

Comfort Reading

It’s time to Tackle Your TBR Pile! http://www.wishfulendings.com/2015/09/tackle-your-tbr-read-thon-its-kick-off.html

I admit it—my TBR pile is enormous. I buy a lot of books I fully intend to read sometime, honestly, or at the very least loan out to people, or keep on hand in case someone needs a book for a school assignment. So why do I so often, when I’m in need of something to read, return to old favorites instead of making a dent in the teetering pile?

Some days, when I’m tired or feeling a little low, reading is the perfect activity. But it’s those days when I’m least capable of tackling something new—when I really need an old favorite that’s worn grooves in my brain over the years. Sometimes it’s books I loved as a teen: Heir of Sea and Fire by Patricia McKillip, The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco, Anne of Green Gables by L.M. Montgomery, The Perilous Gard by Elizabeth Marie Pope. Sometimes it’s more recent favorites, like Shades of Grey by Jasper Fforde (sequel coming out next year!), Crown Duel by Sherwood Smith, The Yiddish Policemen’s Union by Michael Chabon, Sylvester by Georgette Heyer. I can slip into those worlds easily, knowing what to expect and matching the book to my mood. Comforting, and restful.

But there’s more to it than that. I may be reaching for these old friends for comfort, but I’m not the same person I was when I read a book the first time, or even the fifth or the twentieth time. Every time, I see something new, and in that sense even an old favorite is a brand new book. Sometimes that backfires: I’ve gone back to a book only to discover I’ve changed enough that I no longer love it, and that’s a horrible feeling. But mostly I find my comfort reads don’t change much over the years, and I’m grateful for it.

So here’s my challenge: what are your comfort reads? What stories do you come back to even though you’ve got fresh, new, potentially wonderful books at your fingertips? Leave your comments below from now until September 23, and one random commenter will receive their choice of one of my books—Emissary, The Smoke-Scented Girl, or Servant of the Crown. I look forward to seeing your titles—and would love it if some of them are the same as mine.

a Rafflecopter giveaway

Young adult fiction doesn’t equal safe

A few months ago I published my second book, THE SMOKE-SCENTED GIRL, and immediately noticed something interesting: a number of reviewers seemed to think it was a young adult book. It was a little disconcerting. I wrote it as an adult novel, with adults who have adult concerns–I suppose it could be called New Adult, since the characters are all in their early 20s, but I tend to think of New Adult as applying to contemporary fiction.

So I stepped back and looked at the book from what I hoped was an impartial eye, and found some traits I think might make THE SMOKE-SCENTED GIRL look like YA fiction:

  • There’s no sex or swearing. (I’m pretty sure about the latter. I tend to forget unless I’ve used really strong swears.)
  • The prose is simple.
  • The plot isn’t terribly complicated.
  • Adult readers, based on the response, are comfortable giving it to their teenage children to read.

And this is where it does get complicated. I spent years reviewing and critiquing young adult fiction (a subject for another blog post) and YA fantasy has always been one of my favorite reads. So I’m the last person to be embarrassed about reading, or writing, YA fiction. On the other hand, because I’ve spent so many years in this genre, I also have a good idea of what’s being published in it and what sort of books qualify for the category. My book really, truly doesn’t. YA fiction is not actually defined as “books teens read.” Teens read, and have always read, adult books. They’re assigned adult books in their high school English classes. And I’m not sure anyone’s willing to call A TALE OF TWO CITIES a YA book. I’ll address the difference between “YA books” and “adult books teens happen to read” later.

But it’s that fourth bullet point I want to look at more closely now. One of the things I’ve noticed over the years is that many parents who want their children to read, who want to encourage them to read, are lost when it comes to choosing books for their kids. With good reason. They can’t afford to read everything they give their kids. And a lot of these parents are concerned about the content of their kids’ books. So they go looking for ways to pick from among the hundreds of thousands of choices, and one of those ways is to look for the “young adult” tag, however it appears–books in the YA section of the bookstore or library, frequently. Their belief is that YA titles must be acceptable because they aren’t adult novels, with the swearing and sex and violence they contain.

But many parents don’t realize one important fact: YA does not mean “safe.”

The key distinguishing feature between a young adult novel and an adult novel a teen chooses to read is simply that YA books describe the experience of being a teenager. And that experience is not always pretty. Teens these days live in a world of violence, in which profanity is common (visit your local high school if you don’t believe that) and sexual experiences are becoming the norm. Divorce, abuse, rape, mental illness–all serious subjects that many teens deal with on a personal basis. Kids can’t be spared knowing about these things even if they manage to stay aloof from them. And kids need ways to process these experiences. That’s one of the things books do–give us ways to understand the things life throws at us.

Here are a few of the YA books I’ve had to defend to very surprised parents:

THE MONSTRUMOLOGIST, Rick Yancey: Though this is a horror/fantasy novel, and the protagonist Will Henry’s experiences are in no way realistic, dealing as they do with cannibalistic monsters and rotting corpses, Will Henry’s growth as a character comes from discovering who he is when he’s thrown into an adult world that makes no allowances for childhood or innocence.

SAVING FRANCESCA, Melina Marchetta: Harsh swearing and casual references to sex, a no-no for a lot of parents, but this also deals with the serious issue of mental illness and how it can tear a family apart. Francesca’s problems extend well beyond her mother’s mental illness, but this is also about friendship and what it means to no longer be alone.

FIRE AND HEMLOCK, Diana Wynne Jones: Incredibly complicated plot and a semi-appropriate relationship between a teenage girl and an adult man, this is still one of the great works of YA fantasy almost 30 years after its publication. This one isn’t challenged so much for content as for the idea that it’s too hard for a teenager. I’m pretty sure that should be up to the teenager.

THE HUNGER GAMES, Suzanne Collins: No one argues with me that this is YA fiction; the argument I tend to get is that it shouldn’t be read by teens because of extreme violence and “disturbing” images (not that I know what this means). Again, this is a story about fighting an unfair world, and what teen can’t relate to that?

DEERSKIN, Robin McKinley: The rape and incest are the more disturbing for not being described in detail, but I’ve had parents complain because they were familiar with McKinley’s other books and didn’t expect to find this kind of content in a retelling of a fairy tale. Never mind that most fairy tales, in their original versions, are dark and disturbing and terrifying.

I’m opposed to censorship. I’m not opposed to parents trying to make good decisions about their children’s reading. I’m not at all offended by parents thinking THE SMOKE-SCENTED GIRL is a YA book–I’ve given it to my own kids. But choosing a book solely because it’s marketed as young adult and thinking it’s therefore “safe” isn’t the way to achieve that.

What about you? What YA books would you defend as appropriate for teenaged readers despite their content?

 

My Library Adventures

bookstackI used to work at the public library. When I told people this, they generally reacted with great enthusiasm, especially the readers, since I think there’s a tiny part of every reader’s soul that’s a librarian—“That would be so great, being surrounded by all those books!” When I explained that my job involved taking carts of books out, putting them back on the shelves, then returning for more carts, they became less enthusiastic. That part of my job was hard and sometimes unpleasant; there’s the problem of making room on the shelves that are already packed full, the problem of never having time to actually read the books you were putting away, the problem of constant sore feet and lower back pain. Having great co-workers was essential, because the job itself was often tedious.

As for the myth of the quiet, peaceful library, come around just before story time and see how quiet forty children are when they’re racing around the shelves while their parents ignore them. This happened ALL THE TIME. I saw moms with their heads bent down over their cell phones while their children were sobbing nearby, unattended. The only thing worse was the parents who told their kids to put books back after they’d yanked them off the shelves. As if three-year-olds remember where they got things or know the alphabet. (Fine. Some kids that age know the alphabet. I did. They still have no idea of shelving conventions.) Every one of the shelvers developed a cringe reaction to those words because the least pleasant job of all was going through the shelves looking for books that were out of place.

The real joy of working in a library is not having access to all those books, though that’s a bonus too. It’s seeing the sheer variety of human beings who come through its doors. No one is turned away. Even the grimy, unwashed man we all knew used the library as a shelter didn’t get worse treatment than being gently told he couldn’t sleep in the chairs. I saw people who came solely to use the Internet and others who bought piles of books from the book sale shelves and people who checked out fifty DVDs at a time as well as those who came for books.

And I got to know them. The young man with mental disabilities who came every Wednesday and checked out exactly five DVDs, then had us circle the date on the library calendar handout that they’d be due. The women who always came for story time on the same day and time with kids we knew were too young to appreciate it, just so they could spend time with other moms. The man in the wheelchair who couldn’t reach the floor outlet, who had the biggest power adapter for his computer I’d ever seen. The three boys who used the computers to play Minecraft together, two of whom tormented the third to tears and made me wish I was there as a mom rather than a library worker. The seventy-year-old man who hit on me as I showed him how to use the computer catalog. (That’s funny in hindsight, but at the time was just seriously awkward.)

But there’s one man I’m never going to forget. This encounter happened when I was putting away books in the middle grade section, which was near one bank of computers. I could clearly hear, but not see, a man having a conversation on his phone. (NOTE: Don’t have loud conversations on your phone in the library! Everyone can hear you! There’s a point at which it’s no longer eavesdropping and more a matter of pretending not to be interested in someone’s prostate problem.) He was talking to a potential employer and sounded enthusiastic and articulate. It became clear over the course of the conversation that this man really needed this job and was willing to put forth whatever effort was necessary to get it. Finally, he thanked the employer and hung up, but remained at the computer chair. I was really curious at this point to see who this guy was, so I hurried to finish my cart and then wheeled it out around the shelves so I’d pass him.

This is where I got a real shock. I’d built up this picture of a young man, not dressed up (the job was some kind of physical labor) but not a slob. And he pretty much matched that description. But he was also covered in tattoos. Both arms, down his neck into his shirt, and up into his scalp and under his hair. Intricate, colorful, beautiful tattoos. He looked like the cover of Ray Bradbury’s The Illustrated Man. And I immediately felt ashamed of myself for being startled and for having that instant’s reaction that someone who looked like him could sound like the stupid picture I’d built up in my head. My second reaction was Is that employer going to think what I did when he sees him? Is he going to forget about the enthusiastic, genuine guy he spoke to? Because I couldn’t imagine I would be the only one who’d have that reaction. And it made me a little sick to think he might lose out on something important because of that.

I’m not sure there’s a moral to that story, except that it taught me to be a little more careful about what I assumed, and because I wished I could have found out what happened with the job. I saw him again about a month later, at the same computer. This time he was there with his wife. We talked for a bit about children, and they both said how nice it was to have some time away from their young kids. They had a babysitter for about an hour and they spent it at the library. For all libraries these days are shifting focus toward their media collections and free Internet access, the public library never stops being a haven, even for non-readers. I think that’s wonderful. (Except for being hit on by the seventy-year-old man. I am never taking my wedding ring off again.)

2014 in Review

bookstackThis has been a good year for reading. I didn’t read as many books as I usually do, but the quality of the ones I read made up for it. I used to do this whole elaborate year-end wrap-up–best books, worst books, new series, etc.–but over the years that’s sort of shrunk into “what did I love this year?” So here are five books I really loved from last year, some of them new releases, others books I missed when they were first released. (I put them in order by author’s last name, not being able to choose a favorite.)

Touchstone, Andrea K. Höst: This is a really simple story–the diary of a girl lost in a strange world, one day at a time–but the characterization and the cleverness of the setup make it shine. I think I read the whole trilogy in seven days. I still think Medair is my favorite of her books, but I’d have trouble setting the two against each other.

Greenglass House, Kate Milford: Beautifully written, beautifully conceived, rooted solidly in concepts of family and belonging, I was captivated by it from the beginning. I loved the characters, who were just quirky enough without being ridiculous, and the family relationship was great. It’s also got the best made-up role-playing game system I have ever seen in fiction.

A Stranger to Command, Sherwood Smith: This has been out for a while, and I have to confess that I didn’t read it when it first came out in print because I didn’t like the cover. I am full of shame. I have an epic love affair going on with Crown Duel, and anything to do with Vidanric is going to be a winner as far as I’m concerned, but this was an amazing story all by itself, full of intrigue and relationships. I would love to see another book about what happens between this one and Crown Duel.

The Golem and the Jinni, Helene Wecker: Again, I am full of shame for not having read this sooner. It’s just beautiful and clever, with interesting characters and a complex plot that reads so smoothly it isn’t until you’re finished and trying to explain it to someone else that you realize the depth of the plotting. I’m not saying I want a sequel–I think a sequel would be a bad idea, in fact–but the ending made me feel as if more was possible for the characters, like they’d go on living and doing things even though the story was done. Very enjoyable.

The Martian, Andy Weir–This one really grabbed me. I love hard science, I love survival stories, and this book had both of those cranked up to eleven. I’m not going to choose favorites, but this was definitely the one that got my blood pumping. I am totally looking forward to what Weir comes up with next.

I’m looking forward to a new year of reading!