Sam's Book Bag: Of Metal and Wishes, by Sarah Fine

There are whispers of a ghost in the slaughterhouse where sixteen-year-old Wen assists her father in his medical clinic—a ghost who grants wishes to those who need them most. When one of the Noor, men hired as cheap factory labor, humiliates Wen, she makes an impulsive wish of her own, and the Ghost grants it. Brutally.

Guilt-ridden, Wen befriends the Noor, including their outspoken leader, a young man named Melik. At the same time, she is lured by the mystery of the Ghost and learns he has been watching her … for a very long time.

As deadly accidents fuel tensions within the factory, Wen must confront her growing feelings for Melik, who is enraged at the sadistic factory bosses and the prejudice faced by his people at the hand of Wen’s, and her need to appease the Ghost, who is determined to protect her against any threat—real or imagined. She must decide whom she can trust, because as her heart is torn, the factory is exploding around her … and she might go down with it.

I started this book with some trepidation, because it had received mixed reviews. To my delight, however Of Metal and Wishes did not disappoint. From the first pages I was hooked by both the strong (at times, raw) voice, as well as the beautiful writing. Sixteen-year-old Wen once lived a comfortable life with her mother in a home on a hill, where her mother taught her beautiful embroidery skills and hoped for Wen to be accepted into society as a respected lady. 

All that changes when Wen's mother dies and Wen must move with her father into the factory beside the town, where he works as a doctor. Wen world completely changes as she goes from being a society hopeful to her father's assistant. "Instead of embroidering silk, I embroider skin." (p. 2) Cue the chills. 

This book is a retelling of the Phantom of the Opera, but with a unique enough set of characters and setting that the story stands as a unique work of its own. The Opera house is exchanged for a slaughterhouse. Wen, instead of an up and coming opera singer with a promising career ahead of her, put back together the men broken by the machines and cruel underbosses of the company. Our Phantom, or the Ghost named Bo, is a young man who once worked among the noise of the factory and was nearly destroyed by the machines. Melik, in place of Raoul, is a member of the despised Noor race, who comes with his friends to the factory in hopes of securing a living for themselves and their families back home. 

Some of those who have already reviewed this book knock the story for its depictions of rape culture. And indeed, this culture is prominent in Wen's society. Women's virginity is prized and they are expected to behave modestly and keep themselves from compromising situations with men. (Note, that as is also part of rape culture, men are not expected to honor these same boundaries, and women are held at fault when any men chooses to cross the line.) Because of these depictions, some reviewers rate the novel poorly. Here are my thoughts on the matter: Is rape culture an ugly way to live? Is it responsible for irreparable harm in society? Does it put the blame on the wrong group of people? Does it favor those who would claim power in the wrong way? YES. Is rape culture a very real part of our lives? Unfortunately ... YES! This is a real aspect of our world and our lives, and many readers of this novel will have had very strong encounters of their own with this culture. When authors produce stories, they are called to represent all facets of society, not just those that are the most honorable. They are called to represent real experiences of people--not just those we would most like to promote. Note that this novel does not promote rape culture, as seen when Melik describes to Wen his country, where women are seen as equals, where they are respected, where they are allowed to choose their companions and demonstrate their affect in public without scorn. (Add to this, that all the characters in the book who abuse women are the villains of the story.) Apply a little critical thinking, please. The presence of terrible circumstances in the book does not merit a rejection of the novel. 

Rant aside, there were some weak points in the plot. Initially, I was confused when Melik rejects Wen, rather abruptly, for wishing ill upon the young man who had assaulted and shamed her in public. Those circumstances were not unknown to Melik (in fact, he'd been the one who'd put an end to the attack), so I couldn't understand why suddenly he questioned her helping the same man who had humiliated her. His questions are explained a few chapters later, but until then I was left scratching my head over the scene. And further on in the story, when Wen see Melik leaving from one of the pink-light salons (i.e. brothel) and became offended at the idea that he'd hire a prostitute ... well, this felt to me like a very overdone trope. Of course he hadn't been with a prostitute, I knew instantly that was the case and could see that this was a scene inserted to add drama and conflict. I was grateful to see later, however, a good explanation that justified his presence at a such place. Overall, I was impressed with the way this story weaves together many small elements to build its very climatic ending. 

In the end, this was a book I absolutely enjoyed reading, and I look forward to the sequel this fall.

Sam's Book Bag: Jackaby, by William Ritter

“Miss Rook, I am not an occultist,” Jackaby said. “I have a gift that allows me to see truth where others see the illusion--and there are many illusions. All the world’s a stage, as they say, and I seem to have the only seat in the house with a view behind the curtain.”

Newly arrived in New Fiddleham, New England, 1892, and in need of a job, Abigail Rook meets R. F. Jackaby, an investigator of the unexplained with a keen eye for the extraordinary--including the ability to see supernatural beings. Abigail has a gift for noticing ordinary but important details, which makes her perfect for the position of Jackaby’s assistant. On her first day, Abigail finds herself in the midst of a thrilling case: A serial killer is on the loose. The police are convinced it’s an ordinary villain, but Jackaby is certain it’s a nonhuman creature, whose existence the police--with the exception of a handsome young detective named Charlie Cane--deny.

Doctor Who meets Sherlock in William Ritter’s debut novel, which features a detective of the paranormal as seen through the eyes of his adventurous and intelligent assistant in a tale brimming with cheeky humor and a dose of the macabre.

I picked up this book because it was described as Sherlock meets Dr. Who, and goodness knows I've been craving more Sherlock. As I'd hoped, the results of this blend are delightful. (On a side note, this is probably one of the more accurate comparisons I've seen applied to a book, and also one of the best mash-up premises.) 

This book was a quick and utterly fun read. In Jackaby's character, we are basically receiving a cousin of Sherlock: someone who is brilliantly intelligent and witty, weaker on social interaction, and often a speaker of outlandish statements. He was fun to follow, because I wasn't sure where he'd lead me next, or what words would come flying from his lips. 

I felt Abigail could have used a more character development; she did come off as a stereotypical, sassy and independent-minded young woman who will chew out anyone who tells her to get a husband. Some readers have complained that Abigail crushed on a different man instead of Jackaby, but in my opinion, that would have been cliche and expected. I also enjoyed the way mythology was woven into the heart of the story. I though the way it was incorporated into the mystery, especially the modern applications of it, was original and interesting. 

Highly recommend this book to anyone who is looking for a fun and wild read, and especially for fans of Who and Sherlock.

My Rating: Four stars. Give this a try!

Sam's Book Bag: The Knife of Never Letting Go, by Patrick Ness

Prentisstown isn't like other towns. Everyone can hear everyone else's thoughts in an overwhelming, never-ending stream of Noise. Just a month away from the birthday that will make him a man, Todd and his dog, Manchee -- whose thoughts Todd can hear too, whether he wants to or not -- stumble upon an area of complete silence. They find that in a town where privacy is impossible, something terrible has been hidden -- a secret so awful that Todd and Manchee must run for their lives.
But how do you escape when your pursuers can hear your every thought?

This book was a very strange read for me. It was a well-crafted story, but nothing like what I had expected. Granted, I went into the book knowing almost nothing about it, but having heard its title over and over again, I wanted to give it a try. Set in another world entirely, Todd Hewett is about to reach his thirteenth birthday and become a man of Prentisstown. In this dystopian-esque setting, there are no women in the community, and all the men can hear one another's thoughts. When Todd discovers an area of completely silence in the woods surrounding the town, all the men of the village immediately know what he's come upon, and the resulting conflict forces Todd to flee. As he runs, he comes across the source of the silence--a girl, who can hear every one of his thoughts, while everything in her head remains a mystery to Todd.

This book is not for the faint of heart. I will start with that. It is sometimes marked as children's literature, and the age of the characters (thirteen and fourteen), would suggest this is a middle-grade story. But this is not a kid's book (hence my marking it as YA). The amount of language, the very graphic violence, the suggestive thoughts of some of the men ... this is not a book I'd put in the hands of an eight-year-old. Heck, sometimes I struggled with some of the descriptions, because I didn't want those gory images rolling about my mind. That said, this book is such a gripping story and kept me reading even when I didn't want to, because absolutely every nightmare was coming true for these characters, and I wasn't sure how much more pain I could take.

My biggest pet peeve with the book, I think was the extreme cliffhanger ending. Be warned, this book literally ends mid-scene, right when the trouble is at is absolute peak. (A common pattern in this story ... just when you think things cannot possibly become worse, they do.) I was especially frustrated by this ending because this book is so long (long enough, that I felt some of the scenes could have been cut without affecting the story arc. Todd and Viola visit a lot of people in their escape to the safe haven city). But seriously, after reading a 479 page story and suffering so much with these characters, I wanted to see some resolution for their troubles. Don't expect it in this one.

As of now, I don't have plans to read the sequels, knowing that I would probably be in for another cliffhanger ending with the second book, and even more extreme violence. I don't consider myself especially squeamish ... but this story pushed me to the very limits of my comfort zone. If you like a no-holds-barred story from an author who isn't afraid to make his characters suffer and suffer hard, this book might be just the one for you.

My Rating: Four stars for execution, albeit I recommend with strong reservations

Sam's Book Bag: Faking Normal, by Courtney Stevens

Alexi Littrell hasn't told anyone what happened to her over the summer. Ashamed and embarrassed, she hides in her closet and compulsively scratches the back of her neck, trying to make the outside hurt more than the inside does.

When Bodee Lennox, the quiet and awkward boy next door, comes to live with the Littrells, Alexi discovers an unlikely friend in "the Kool-Aid Kid," who has secrets of his own. As they lean on each other for support, Alexi gives him the strength to deal with his past, and Bodee helps her find the courage to finally face the truth.

I learned about this book at the SCBWI MidSouth conference I attended back in September. Initially, I was a little unsure about it, since the title sounded angsty. But I found a copy at the library last week and dove in, and I'm glad I did. This story was a compelling read. (Quite literally. I stayed up past midnight every night, reading it.) 

Bodee was my favorite part, by far. He is pure gold, someone utterly sincere and caring, especially toward Alexi. And you wouldn't expect these traits from him, as someone who grew up in an abusive home. He had to sleep in a tent in the woods at night to be safe from his father. Just before this story begins, he witnessed his father murdering his mother. He could be a very cynical and vengeful person. But he isn't. I loved watching how he warmed up to Lexi as she reached out to him, and I loved seeing how these two ultimately became exactly what the other needed, offering strength and encouragement to help the other. Their interactions always felt genuine. I also appreciated that we were able to see them grow into friends, and then move toward a relationship, based on their mutual respect and need for one another. No insta-love here, folks. And the two are more compelling for it. 

The book was not without some weaknesses. I did become frustrated with Alexi and her inability to say "no" to guys when their kissing and other romantic attentions were not wanted. I prefer my heroines to be stronger, not doormats. But, this inaction was redeemed, at least, when Alexi called herself out on these behaviors. Ultimately, they become her central struggle of the book: Why can't, why won't she say no? In the end, we are able to see a girl who confronts her fears and at last stands up for herself. And I enjoyed seeing her grow in to this person. She is truly a changed person by the book's close.

Another peeve: When Alexi is realizing her inability to say no, she presumes there must be some traumatic incident from her childhood that is to blame. This move felt cliched, and the memory she does initially dregs up feels ... anticlimactic. Alexi is upset by the memory of encountering a friend in the restroom, the boy's restroom, at the public pool. They are both naked. They are both three years old. Seriously, hardly a malicious encounter. I wanted to shake Alexi when she kept dwelling on this: "I have seen Ray naked." Really? You were three years old! It was an accident. Get over it. I was grateful that, in the end, this is not the memory she was looking for. 

But a few minor weakness aside, this was an excellent story, and I highly recommend. Looking forward to reading The Blue-Haired Boy, Bodee's own novella. 

My rating: Four Stars (Very Good. Highly recommend.)

Query Letter Writing: There are No Rules (But Some Good Advice)

Although my book is nowhere near ready to send out to agents, I plan to write a query letter very soon. Based on my experiences last fall, putting together a query letter seems to be an excellent way to revise a book's large-scale issues. Do I have my themes lined up? Does my plot move forward with enough clarity that it can be summarized in a few sentences? Are my characters interesting enough to snare attention? Are the stakes high enough to be meaningful to anyone besides me?

No wonder after writing a few drafts of query letters last fall, I found a number of element in my story that needed rewriting.

Now the kicker: Last fall, I spent hours and hours researching online how to write query letters. I researched query letters in the indispensable Guide to Literary Agents. I studied Query Shark and other blogs with letters that had secured for their writers agents and, ultimately, publication.

No Rules! Complete literary anarchy! Oh, what to do?
And I learned something frustrating: There is absolutely no science to writing query letters. Just as there is no science to writing the books we have devoted ourselves to.

In my research, I found so many opinions on what goes into a query letter--as well as the order. There were absolute Musts. There were absolute Must Nots.

And yet something different worked for everybody--even those whose query letters led to publication. Especially those whose query letters led to publication. Some put their mini-synopsis first. Some put their author bio and credentials first. Some address the agent directly, mentioning a time they'd crossed paths, or specific reason why that agent was suited to representing the work. Others did not have any direct address to the agent at all. Some even committed Must Nots, such as pitching another book in the same letter. Or writing the letter in the voice of a character. Or mentioning that this was a first novel.

And yet the letters still somehow worked for those writers--and their new agent partners.

This field's blessing--and curse--is its objectivity. Getting published depends on more than simply writing the "correct" query letter. If there was a checklist of absolutes, everyone (well, most everyone) would be published. It's not even just about writing the query letter well. There's more to be said about matching your book--and your query--to the right agent, than I think most of us realize or want to admit.

But there is some help out there!

For me, the most solid piece of advice that I have received regarding query writing has been to write your book summary as it would appear on the back cover. Describe your book in a way that would keep it in a potential reader's hands, instead of being placed back on the shelf. (The upside of this advice is that there are so many examples to look at. Think about your favorite books: What intrigued you about them so much, that you brought them home with you?)

The other tip that has stuck with me comes courtesy of agent Jill Corcoran, when she caught me on the fly at a conference (when I was just 8 pages into writing my book): What is your story about?

If you can't answer that in one sentence, you have some more work to do.

Here's to all of us and our desperate need to tell stories--a need that keeps us writing late and chases us out of bed early.

Writing Tips: Start on the Day that's Different

In Lin Oliver's list of writing tips, number three comes from Susan Patron: Start on the Day that's Different.

What throws your characters' worlds out of whack? What pushes them out of their comfort zones, makes them ask questions about their world, their lives--even themselves? What makes them take action . . . and what stirs even more conflict into their increasingly troubled world?

Bilbo's story in The Hobbit begins when Gandalf unceremonious recruits him for an adventure--something Bilbo was not particularly seeking or hoping for. (This, of course, after a baker's dozen of dwarves crash his home, eat all his food, and admit that he may not return from his adventure, but they will arrange for his funeral appropriately, if necessary.)

Seraphina's story, in the eponymous book by Rachel Hartman, begins the day she defies her father's order to never play a musical instrument in public--and thus reveal her musical talents to their society. (Furthermore, she playing at a funeral, for a prince who was mysteriously and violently killed on a hunting trip.)

Verity, in Elizabeth Wein's novel Code Name Verity, begins her story the day she agrees to trade radio code, along with her story, to her Gestapo interrogators, in exchange for having her clothes back, as well as a chance to write.

Begin on the day that is different. What drives your character to make a choice and select a path to follow? What changes become so compelling, that your readers have no choice themselves but to follow your character and see what happens next?

Writing Tips: Follow Your Weirdness

Way back at the beginning of the summer, I said I would blog about each one of Lin Oliver's fifteen (really seventeen) writing tips that she shared at the SCBWI Wild, Wild Midwest conference. This is still the plan.

Tip #2 hails from Bruce Coville: "Follow Your Weirdness." Whatever it is, find it your niche, your personal insights, viewpoints, and creative threads, and follow them wherever they may lead you.

This newest book I'm working on takes a definite dive into some different territory. Last December, I got the notion: What if my dragon wasn't really a dragon? What if he was a nature spirit in disguise? And what if he wasn't alone?

So I set to work researching elemental spirits and pairing mythological creatures with them (including many off-the-beaten path creatures).

Realizing that my interest in anime and manga was influencing this world I was designing, I embraced that foundation, and also researched Japanese mythology and the very nature-based Shinto religion in my story. My intention here wasn't to cut and paste Shinto traditions into the cultural world of my book, but rather to learn more about the mindsets of people who live in such a world, as well as the perspectives they would have and the kinds of questions and concerns they would carry.
Some of my favorite animes & mangas include Mushishi
and Natsume's Book of Friends (Natsume Yuujinchou)

But mostly, it was just tremendously fun to consider a world that was so different from what I know in my life.

Back at the SCWBI Midwest conference, I was enthusiastically explaining my book's world to another attendee. After my description, she looked at me and said, "Now, do you believe in this nature world, or is this just a story to you?"

"Ehhhh?" I wanted to respond (in the vein of some manga characters I know).

I believe in this world as much as any author does in order to bring his/her book to life. If there is no passion demonstrated for that story world--whether it is a real-life setting, historical, or fantasy--then the story is nothing more than a bunch of ink smeared on a page. Do I literally believe that these nature spirits walk around the world and that I can see them from my apartment window? No. (Though I wish I could.)

As it turned out, this woman was taking alarm at what seemed to be my embracing of Eastern religion over Western. (At which I though: Hey, if I do, be respectful. And props to me, either way, if I was describing my book's world with enough detail and enthusiasm that it came off as my "real belief.")

So . . . my story is off the beaten path. So . . . the society I depict is different enough that it may cause some parents alarm for young readers. (It seems that most books worth reading have caused ire for parents for one reason or another.)

I embrace my weirdness as I write this story that can re-energize me at the end of the most draining days. Embrace your weirdness, too, and we'll all have a bit more to learn from each other every time we read.
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