January 09, 2017

Monday Review: FALLING OVER SIDEWAYS by Jordan Sonnenblick

So yeah, my goal here is to not let my normal urge to be terrifyingly exhaustive or my inexplicable desire to adhere to established organizational habits keep me from posting a book review. Therefore this is a quicker one, but it doesn't mean I liked the book less or anything of that nature. It JUST MEANS that I'm busily working on a) a novel rewrite that is kicking my butt, and b) Cybils Round 2 judging (I'm reading several excellent graphic novels that I'll post about after the winners are announced).

Summary: I read one of Jordan Sonnenblick's novels quite some time ago (long enough ago that I'm not 100% sure which one it was, but I think it was Drums, Girls, and Dangerous Pie) and really remember loving the sense of humor--and also hating the font in which it was typeset. Anyway, I've been meaning to pick up another one ever since, and Falling Over Sideways showed up in my 3M Cloud Library app, so I took the opportunity to read it.

Fortunately, the font is less of an issue when you're e-reading, but aside from issues that only graphic design nerds care about, I enjoyed this story as well. Again, the author brings an unexpected and poignant sense of humor to really serious family health issues--in this case, 8th grader Claire's father suffers a sudden stroke, and she is the only one at home to witness it and call in the emergency. As if the huge changes at home weren't enough, school is also providing one aggravation after another, mainly in the form of the annoying, not-quite-but-pretty-much-almost-a-bully Ryder, who competes with her in everything, including jazz band.

Observations: The two things I really enjoyed about this book: 1. The portrayal of the parents and Claire's family in general--they are sympathetic, funny, and very real. 2. The portrayal of the kids who bug Claire at school rang true for me. These aren't necessarily out-and-out bullies, but those kids who are just really, REALLY annoying and get on your last nerve. There's a lot of exploration of WHY those types of kids behave the way they do; the reader's able to have sympathy for them, too, and learn to love them and to realize that middle school kids behave like jackasses for all kinds of reasons.

Conclusion: This was a quick read and an interesting portrayal of serious family trauma that is nevertheless not too heavy for younger middle grade readers.

I received my copy of this book courtesy of my library's ebook collection. You can find FALLING OVER SIDEWAYS by Jordan Sonnenblick at an online e-tailer, or at a real life, independent bookstore near you!

January 05, 2017

Why I Write: Finding Joy in the New Year

The following was also cross-posted on my personal blog, Aquafortis.

We've been talking about writing goals in our WritingYA critique group this month, and I've been thinking a lot about that over the past few weeks. One of the ideas I keep coming back to is reconnecting with what brings me joy in writing.

It's a tough question, and one I find particularly difficult to consider during times when ongoing anxiety and depression issues rear their ugly Cerberus-like heads and distract me from seeing an answer. In part, I think I keep obsessing over this particular question BECAUSE it has been so hard to answer. The easy, pat response is, of course, that the writing itself, the act of crafting words and bringing stories to life is a joy in itself. That's what everyone wants to hear, right?

There's more to it. It isn't solely about the joy of putting words to page. That particular joy is something I've felt ever since I was a child, but here's an admission: it was not sufficient to tip me over the edge into wanting to make writing my life's work.

If you know me IRL or have been reading my blog and other social media for a while, you'll know that I was focused on a visual art career from about middle school onward. If anything has ever been a calling for me, that felt like it. I liked writing, but art owned my soul.

It turns out that maybe woo-woo soul searching questions—am I still an artist? Is writing my new calling? Can they both be my calling?—are sly distractions from the question of what brings me joy in writing. And once I've been distracted by those questions, I end up sliding down a rabbit hole of uncertainty, anxiety, and fear.

But, as I started really focusing on the idea of what brings me joy in writing, it was much more concrete and real-world than I expected. I looked back on what caused me to make that initial decision to try writing freelance articles on the side for my then-employer, which is what led me to take that first writing class through the UCLA Extension Writers' Program. What was it that made me so happy, so elated, so motivated to write those arguably quite ridiculous pieces of writing?

Besides the fact that I got to visit weird websites and make jokes about them, got to humorously explicate pithy quotations, and got paid a teeny bonus for doing so, this was my first experience of the sense of connection that writing for a public audience can create. Not just a SENSE of connection: an actual connection, because people would email me with suggestions; they'd send me comments. I was basically blogging before there were blogging platforms, because this was 1999-ish. I was lucky to have an insta-audience (albeit a small one) because I took over someone else's columns on an already-established site, and it was an incredible feeling to get those responses to what I wrote—sometimes from the very websites I was writing about. (And I learned a lot about the fine line between jokes and gratuitous hurtfulness, because I was a very sarcastic twentysomething.)

This is interesting, because I have mixed feelings about the IDEA of connection—my social anxiety and introversion comes into play more and more the harder I think about it. I start thinking about all the blogging and writing I've done that does NOT make me feel like I've managed to connect. And the stakes feel higher, too, because I've accepted the decision to make writing a major part of my career, not just something I'm doing on the side.

So then I get lost in the thought-hole of "I'm doing this for my job, so I can't afford to think about FUN anymore." The very idea of joy seems irrelevant. This is the mire I get caught in, over and over.
Where that train of thought has gone off the rails, I believe, is that I've created a false dichotomy between work ENJOYMENT and work EFFECTIVENESS. The truth is that I'm NOT as effective a writer when I am not in touch with my reasons for doing it. When I'm distracted by extraneous worries that fool me into thinking they are the real problem.

And so that brings me back to what my intrinsic rewards are, and besides satisfaction in a piece I enjoyed writing and worked hard on, and laughing at my own jokes, I keep coming back to writing as an act of connection. Some corollary truths here: When I am more fully engaged in a piece, I think it is ultimately more effective in making me feel connected. I am engaged in this because I feel like I am talking to YOU, right now. The writing itself makes me feel connected, if I engage in it fully.

That feeling has little to do with any comments or responses the writing might generate later, but I wonder: is there a sense of disengagement in some of the posts I write that actually somehow discourages connection and leads to fewer comments? By disengagement, I don't mean a lack of honesty or an unwillingness to spill my guts (though I am definitely guilty of the latter; I'm not a person who is forward with my opinions)—rather, I wonder if I'm inadvertently creating a feeling of distance. In my magazine writing course, in graduate school, I was repeatedly pegged as sounding too academic, and I wonder if that plays into it.

So I have been thinking of ways to connect, to engage. Different ways to approach my writing on a more day-to-day level.

I'm still thinking. More on that later…

January 02, 2017

New Year's Action: Writers Resist!

I am terribly proud to be one small part of an amazing group of 30 local writers that is participating in Writers Resist: Modesto on Sunday, January 15, 2017. From the official press release:
"The flagship Writers Resist event, founded by poet Erin Bilieu and co-sponsored by PEN America, will feature famous literary figures braving January weather on the steps of the Public Library in New York City to read historic and contemporary writings on the ideals of democracy and free expression. Additional Writers Resist events, are being held in Boston, Los Angeles, Oakland, Austin, Portland, Omaha, Seattle, London, Zurich, Hong Kong, and many more cities.

Locally, the City of Modesto’s poet laureate, Stella Beratlis—along with writer Shanyn Vitti Avila and poet Elizabeth Sousa—is organizing Writers Resist: Modesto in response to concern during the recent Presidential campaign over public cynicism, disdain for truthfulness, and the unleashing of hatred and bigotry. Beratlis, a longtime member of the League of Women Voters of Stanislaus County, wanted to present an event which might galvanize Modesto audiences to become active in the civic life of the community, support nonprofits that address social justice issues, and network with like-minded people while having fun."

For more info, click to embiggen the flyer in the image at right, and to see if there's a Writers Resist event in your area, visit their main website.

With alarming racist events occurring even at our local community college campus, where my husband and I teach, I think it's incredibly important to stand up for a peaceful, thoughtful, diverse, and just society that operates on ideals of civility and values truth over small-mindedness. I come from a family that includes recent immigrants, Muslims, atheists, Latinos, South Asians, Caucasians; people of various faiths and ethnic origins who are brought together by love and care for one another--something that I hope is still possible on a nationwide level. I hope for a society where we recognize and value the diversity of our friends and neighbors, not one where I'm literally frightened that some of my family members might be targeted for reasons of faith, ethnicity, or national origin. Participating in Writers Resist is, for me, a critical part of standing up for my ideals in a way that promotes positivity and action.

And that's my two cents on it.

January 01, 2017

Cybils Sunday

Happy Cybils Sunday!

There are a lot of amazing finalists announced at the Cybils site, but I'm a little bummed at just how many of them we didn't have a chance to review here at Wonderland before the lists were finalized. While we didn't miss all of them, from the speculative fiction list we reviewed, I got LABYRINTH LOST, and THE KEEPER OF THE MIST. From the YA fiction list, we reviewed THIS IS WHERE IT ENDS.

On the up side, we did review tons of books on the original nominations list. There were some hotly contested titles right up until the last minute, eliminated only because some have to be... so, start your year right with exploring some of the myriad titles you might have missed.

Happy Cybils Reading!

December 29, 2016

Thursday Review: HIGHLY ILLOGICAL BEHAVIOR by John Corey Whaley

Synopsis: It might not be easy to picture a story that takes heavy stuff—mental illness, coming out—and weaves them into an often-hilarious, totally recognizable story of friendship and love. Highly Illogical Behavior (which takes place in, of all conceivable locations, UPLAND, which is very close to where I lived as a child) uses the alternating viewpoints of Solomon Reed—who is agoraphobic and hasn't left his house in three years, ever since one fateful day in eighth grade—and Lisa Praytor, who seems to be his polar opposite in just about every single way. Lisa is extroverted, ambitious, and she just happens to want to get into the second-best psychology program in the country.

Through happenstance, Sol's situation falls across Lisa's radar, and she gets a possibly brilliant, audacious, and definitely ethically questionable idea: she will make Sol her project. She'll fix his agoraphobia. And then she'll write about it in her application essay, thus demonstrating her prodigious psychological talents. Unsurprisingly, neither her best friend Janis nor her boyfriend Clark think this is such a good plan, but that doesn't stop Lisa.

Of course, as she gets to know Sol, and over time becomes his friend, things get a lot more complicated than she anticipated. This is, after all, someone's LIFE, someone's mental well-being. And because she, too, has grown to care very much about Sol, her straight-out USING him to pad her college application becomes even more painful to witness, more and more thorny and entangled and questionable. And yet it's undeniable: Sol is changing. Does the end justify the means? Is their friendship a true one? And can the reader finish this story without wanting to SLAP Lisa across the face just one time? (I would guess, no.)

Observations: This book does so much to show that panic and anxiety disorders, including agoraphobia, are not what defines a person or their character. It's a critical point that those of us who suffer from this type of mental issue will recognize: the need to truly understand and accept that you are not your illness. Getting that message across to those readers who may be just starting to realize they have a real issue? And setting them on the path to understanding and accepting themselves? It could be lifesaving.

The message comes across so clearly in part, I think, because of how recognizable these characters are—it's easy to see and KNOW the ambitious, obsessively college-bound, driven Lisa Praytor. Sol is just as familiar, especially to anyone who has ever experienced social anxiety on any level, but also as a human being with desires and hopes and interests of his own. The characters are all rounded and complex, and it's refreshing to see that Sol—the one with the mental issues—is the one with the MOST functional and loving family. His parents and his grandmother support him and love him unconditionally, and they aren't relegated to bit parts, either.

It drives home the point that mental illness is not a decision that you can simply will yourself out of; that sufferers should not face blame for their condition; and that there is a biological component, meaning that you can have a good life and a happy family but still suffer from a mental illness—Sol's home life and family circumstances are not at fault for his situation.

Conclusion: Though a few aspects of the story stretched credibility—mostly, it seemed, to keep with the book's sense of humor and overall madcap kind of tone—I ended up loving these annoying, sweet, and ultimately very real characters.

I received my copy of this book courtesy of my library's ebook collection. You can find HIGHLY ILLOGICAL BEHAVIOR by John Corey Whaley at an online e-tailer, or at a real life, independent bookstore near you!

December 22, 2016

Winter Greetings

Here in the North Central region of California, the winter is scarcely wild (though it is a bit frosty and rainy) and we are all wearing sweaters and coats and boots and scarves as though freezing to death. (Pause for laughter from everyone east of the Rockies and north of...California.)

I therefore can't provide you with any snowy scenes of my house or other picturesque seasonal tableaux (note: my spell checker demanded the French spelling). However, I do have this adorable picture of a penguin that I took just over a year ago when we were in Australia. Granted, he (or she) is not in the snow or looking particularly wintry (this was at St. Kilda Pier, Melbourne in November) but there you go. It is a Little Penguin, aka a Fairy Penguin. How cute is that? IT IS SO CUTE. You're welcome. Merry Christmas.

Or Happy Hanukkah, or Joyous Festivus, or even if you celebrate no holidays, you still have to live with positive vibes and this penguin.

Also, don't forget-- on a more kidlit-oriented note, Cybils shortlists come out on January 1st, and Multicultural Children's Book Day is later in the month on January 27th!

December 20, 2016

Cybils Speculative Reader: THE DELPHI EFFECT by RYSA WALKER

Welcome to the 2016 Cybils Speculative Reader!

As a first run reader for the Cybils, I'll be briefly introducing you to the books on the list, giving you a mostly unbiased look at some of the plot.


Time travel! Ghosts! Plotting adults! Secret facilities! Teens Who Save The Day! All your favorite adventure catnip rolled up into one book, kitties! This novel, the first in a trilogy, jumpstarts, and doesn't quit.

Synopsis: Anna has only a year left in the foster care system, and her bestie and heartbrother, Deo, has three. Anna was left in a mall, clutching an Orange Julius cup with her name and a warning pinned to her dress when she was just a toddler, and Deo's got scars from injuries sustained before he could walk. They've been both bounced around so many times that they're pretty determined to first, stay where they are, and second, stay together, as the chosen-family they are. It's hard for Anna, though, since she sometimes - okay, frequently - speaks to ghosts. On one hand, they're responsible for the extra help in getting through high school and into junior college well before other kids her age. On the other hand, her "hitchers" occasionally are unfriendly or angry, and once one tried to hijack her body to finish the unfinished business which has tied them to the earth. After months of a stubborn hitcher named Molly badgering her to contact Molly's grandpa, Anna's desperate to get rid of her. She was murdered - and her grandfather doesn't believe in things paranormal. Anna's been following him, begging to be heard - and he's been talking -- and that talk has attracted trouble just a bit too close. He's been shot - and someone is shooting at Anna, too. And it seems that the people who've come to "help" may not all be as helpful as she thought. Someone is leaking information to the police - and maybe someone else. Anna's not safe anywhere -- and it turns out that neither is her passenger ghost. Using her own resources, Anna flees -- and then Deo disappears...

Suddenly, all the mysteries in the world don't matter. Anna's family is on the line, and she will do anything to get him back - make any promise, take any chance, break any rule.

Observations: Each year there are several horror novels nominated. This year there were three significant ones with the blood-spattered covers. One was... just gross, the other a bit over the top. One made me roll my eyes. This novel wasn't one of the horror picks but this to me comes closest to the true definition of the word. Hitchhikers in your head is probably number one on the list of Things People With Mental Health Challenges Fear, so shudder, with a side of yikes. Walker writes utterly engaging, utterly believable characters. The minute you open the door to this story, you're in -- the dialogue is perfectly reasonable, the strained patience with which Anna has to deal with a disbelieving public, the weird quirks of the world in which she lives are all beautifully believable. Her characterizations just work.

This review, in an attempt to avoid spoilers, spends a lot of time on inconsequentials, but these, in part, are the things which make this a really vivid and engaging story. And it is an entire story - it does end, although, you know there's much more to come. Which is going to be serious adventure catnip for someone!

For those who want to know, there is mutual attraction in this novel,

Conclusion: Book One in the Chronos Files trilogy, we've got a bit more of this world and these characters to explore before it's over. Look for more in 2017, I think. If you love a fast-paced novel about kids who are best-friends-turned family, with a little nascent romance thrown in for fun... have I got a book for you.

I received my copy of this book courtesy of the publisher. You can find THE DELPHI EFFECT by Rysa Walker at an online e-tailer, or at a real life, independent bookstore near you!