Category Archives: publishing

The Monday Book: UNWIND by Neal Shusterman

So yeah, most readers have a secret fondness for at least one area of YA fiction. Mine is dystopians and fantasy. And frankly, as far as I can tell, these days all YA fantasy IS dystopian.

I picked up UNWIND by Neal Shusterman to shelve it, from a box that came in for trade. And got intrigued with the premise on the back cover, about the last American war (The Heartland War) being fought over reproductive rights. And how now life begins at conception but from 13-18 a child can  be “unwound,” body parts farmed out for all sorts of operations for all sorts of reasons. It’s a boon to the economy and really a good deal for everyone except the Unwound Kids.

And it all goes from there. The book follows three kids, one whose parents give up on him, one a ward of the state, and one a tithe, from a family who has ten kids. Shusterman actually begins the four sections of this novel with quotes from ebay, denying someone the right to sell his soul (because if it doesn’t exist it’s fraud, and if it does exist it’s body parts, which they don’t allow), another about Ukranian orphans being organ harvested in 2003 (mass grave found outside the orphanage and shut down after outrage) and a third about Einstein and consciousness.

Shusterman’s book is intended to be more terrifying than gross. It goes for the jugular. And of course it has parts that just don’t hold up, but one really needs to enter this dystopia with a little willing suspension of disbelief, or what’s the point? And once you have, it’s a lot like reading Sheri Tepper. The exquisite sarcasm crafted so carefully in the words of those who escape Unwinding, reflecting back the odd slogans about bodies and rights, is funny. Dark, but funny.

It’s a creepy book, but well-plotted, with solid characters that don’t just serve as straw men. You know the people in this novel, which makes it all the more disturbing how some of them meet their end.

Two thumbs up (both still attached, thanks) for UNWIND.

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To See Ourselves…

Jack and I have done a lot of festival receptions over the years. Usually attendees are divided into two groups: those who are just so super-excited to be there, and those who are not.

The fun part comes when you have these two types meshed into one person, working the room but pretending to be bored with the whole thing. As we did awhile back, watching two female authors at a reception duke it out for “Queen of the Room.”

They were wearing similar dresses, for a start—which is never a good start. But things were unequal, because the California blond had on high heels, and sunglasses atop her head holding back her hair, Classic Hollywood style.

Since we were in North Carolina, the look was somewhat different from the rest of the room, but it worked for her. Still, the piece de resistance was her watch, a double strand of pearls in its band, diamonds shimmering from the face. She turned it to catch the light as she spoke to everyone who came near the wine table (which she’d strategically claimed as the location of her court on arrival) flopping an insouciant hand to accent a point tossed off as she dominated her conversation clutch.

The clutch consisted of a male sponsor, a female fan, and the second would-be-queen—who was working hard to wrest the conversation from California Girl because she had been the first to position herself at the wine table, and CG had cleverly turned her by speaking as she poured herself a glass, claiming the coveted conversational dominance spot. But Queen II was older, and therefore able to rely more on wit and treachery than spiked heels. As the fan asked CG a question, face turned adoringly upward (everyone has to look up to someone wearing 8-inch heels) Q2 took a step forward and broke the circle. Suddenly FanGirl was looking at Q2 who blithely gave a smiling answer to the question as she wedged back into the wine table hot spot, forcing FanGirl back a few inches.

The male sponsor, sensing a chance to close in, moved across to stand on the other side of CG and she had to turn her head to answer him. Two new conversations formed, but CG was visibly sore about this. As FanGirl continued to enjoy her conversation with Q2 and Mr. Sponsor moved in for the kill, CG, who didn’t seem to know anyone else in the room, flashed a bright smile at a cute guy in a polo shirt, who’d stopped to score some cantaloupe from the table.

Fruit forgotten, he turned and began speaking to CG. Q2, observing, opened her profile with one deft grapevine step, and voila, FanGirl, CG, Polo Cutey, and Q2 were now in a line of conversation that excluded Mr. Sponsor. The dueling queens each turned half profile to Cutey, and FanGirl wandered off as Cutey—who may or may not have known anything about the fiction these women had written—did his best to hang on for the ride. Which was short, for the two queens, perhaps tired of the dance of passive aggression, now began to speak to one another. In honeyed tones. With fluttering eyelashes and much pressing of hands to bosoms. I’m sure their lips read “bless your heart” at one point—which didn’t really work for CG, but hey, who’s to judge? Cutey, his task completed, buzzed away like a drone driven from the hive after mating season.

Now lest you think this vignette harsh, remember, I’m an ethnographer who people watches for fun.  The whole evening felt like watching a television show in which I also played a role. Someone watching me would have seen a woman with frizzy hair in too-casual clothes cheerfully standing in the corner sipping a glass (ok, two) of the (very excellent) red wine provided for the occasion, soaking it all in. The ambiance, not the wine.

The room was crowded with authors making pitches, marketers who came up to talk to me because I own a bookstore, sponsors floating like butterflies among the guests, pouring wine and inquiring whether we were having a good time. The queen-women were just doing their jobs as authors, and if a bit of competition entered the body language, it’s only to be expected. They were oblivious to all else in the crowded room, and pretty much the rest of the authors were working too hard to notice them. I don’t know who they were. But Burns was right: it would be a true gift to see ourselves as others see us.

A toast to authors and receptions everywhere please. *raises glass*

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Filed under Big Stone Gap, Downton Abbey, humor, Life reflections, Little Bookstore of Big Stone Gap, publishing, reading, Uncategorized, Wendy Welch, writing

Little is the Real Big

Jack is in Scotland for his sister’s funeral (and thank you all for the many kind thoughts and well wishes you have sent). In place of his guest blog, let me offer a commencement speech forwarded by my editor at St. Martin’s Press, the amazing and astute Nichole.

We like ideas that mirror our own, of course, and Nichole and I share a belief that little has always been the real big. The best stories are the little ones we share with each other that bind us together; the stories that happen to us individually may seem small, but they make up the big picture of human existence. Or something like that. I don’t want to put words in her mouth, but thanks Nichole for sharing this speech. It’s lovely, affirming, inspiring, and a tiny indictment all at the same time.

Little is the real big. Go for it, ye writers, storytellers, and poets all!

FULL TRANSCRIPT: Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Commencement Speech at UPenn

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The Monday Book: THE COMFORT OF LIES by Randy Susan Myers

This book was in a “Free books” bin at Asheville Public Library. I’d liked her earlier book The Murderer’s Daughters so snagged it. This one is bigger in its character list and plot maneuvers, but like her others, character drives plot. Which is cool.

The two couples and the birth mom/floater in this book are really well drawn. You know them. And you can kind of guess what they’re going to do, but reading how they do it goes from heartbreaking to yelling at the pages “NO DON’T” to laughing because it’s just so funny, what they say as they screw up their own lives.

Dark comedy, or the comedy of human errors, maybe. The premise is that married man Nathan has an affair with Tia, then goes back to his wife. Tia adopts out the resultant daughter, but Nathan’s wife finds out when she opens a letter addressed to her husband. And then finds the adoptive parents, and it just goes kablooey from there. This is a finely chiseled portrait of marriages falling apart and people making choices based on very real issues, some of them rather like watching a train wreck in slow motion.

If you like the genre of fiction Brits call “aga saga,” literate portraits of families and people teetering at the edge of crisis, you’ll love The Comfort of Lies.

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The Monday Book: MURDER ON ROSEMARY STREET by Mary Fulk Larson

murderonrosemarystreetauthorsThe authors (there are three of them) sent me this book with a request that I review it for the Monday Book. The writing team is based in Virginia, and I’m always happy to bat for the home team.

There are not a lot of surprises in this whodunit that is more charm than thrills. Think Mitford meets Guidepost Mystery series. Nothing R-rated, lots of fun stereotypes (the library committee members all talk too much, etc.) and some really cute zinger lines between friends. (“Did you just file those elbows?” says one after her friend nudges her to be quiet.)

Two of the three authors are librarians, so the library was a natural setting for this debut in their series on the small town of Custer’s Mill. The poisoning (via a cuppa tea) of the town’s wealthy matriarch sets the book’s plot in motion, after development threatens to take the historic library and she finds some dark secrets pertaining thereto.

It’s not an unusual plot, and sometimes the wording is heavy. Much of its chuckle factor rests on the apt (if you can’t say ha, say ouch) depictions of everyday small town life. If you liked Mitford and enjoy character-filled books, you’re going to love Custer’s Mill. The authors certainly hope you do; some of the characters in this book are set up to take their own mysteries forward in future series. Which I look forward to.

Two small-town  thumbs up for Murder on Rosemary Street. And if you’re interested in the real town inspiring these fictitious mysteries, visit the authors’ website.

 

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The Monday Book: ASTRAY by Emma Donoghue

Astray is a collection of short stories themed around old newspaper clippings. In each, someone is adrift, out of sync with life, expecting one thing but getting another. They are really powerful stories in some cases.

The opener is about an elephant keeper whose charge is sold off to America, and his running conversation with his charge. It’s adorable. Less adorable but quite hard-hitting is the woman traveling with two small children, expecting to meet her husband in America, having been lucky enough to get passage out of famine Ireland.

Then there’s the Revolutionary War story, “The Hunt,” which covers a side of troop behavior that doesn’t make it into patriotic celebrations. Many of these stories have that undercurrent theme, the “alternate reality” feeling that makes them good fiction. So when you find out each is based on actual events, with just some ideas and feelings and motivations colored in between the lines sketched in by history, it’s a powerful thing. This is history with a small h, and therefore more accurate.

And of course it’s no small feat to pack an equal wallop of caring about a fully developed character in less than 10,000 words. Donoghue’s words are each carrying their own weight. She’s one of those rare gestalt writers, whose sum exceeds the parts. She makes you feel as though you know someone well, even though you’ve read two sentences about her.

An enthusiastic shout out for this book; you don’t have to be interested in history to enjoy the many dramas unfolding in this compact volume’s pages. Big things come in little packages.

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The Monday Book: THE BOOK OF SPECULATION by Erika Swindler

bookThis book came into the bookstore, and its cover attracted me. (Yes, I know about that saying you can’t judge a book by its cover; it’s a lie. People go to special marketing schools just so you can.)

I’m not the biggest fan of surprise endings – let’s start with the ending, shall we – but this one had a great twist. I’m also not a big fan of time-hopping books, but this one moved between the eighteenth and twenty-first century with some smooth maneuvers.

I am a big fan of well-developed characters, which this book has in spades. Even the minor players get major development.

The basic plot is some families have been hanging around each other for a few centuries, working the carnival circuit, and some of them keep dying the same way. It all comes down to a very old curse, some very new secrets revealed, and a cast of quirky misfits.

I’d call this something between a mystery and a family saga. It’s too gentle for a thriller (Gott sei dank) and too mysterious for general fiction. Now might be a good time to say, if you’re afraid of water, you won’t like this book. I’m a certified lifeguard, and parts of it made me queasy. (Also, let me just say now, don’t try any of that stuff at the lake.)

The writing doesn’t get in the way of the story; this is character-driven well-plotted book that would be enjoyable anywhere, except the beach. Trust me; don’t read it at the beach. Your bathtub is safe.

Two hands up, waving not drowning.

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