About Me

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A 40-ish publisher (editor, project manager, etc.), husband, and father of an even number of offspring, I grew up, or failed to, reading fantasy and sci-fi. I still enjoy reading, and now am trying to write. My favorite books include YA fantasy, manga, biography, and advice to authors. I'm also a former history major/grad student/high school teacher and assessment writer. Now I work for a school supplement publisher, specializing in high-low chapter books. I spend a lot of my time controlling reading levels. At night, I cut loose and use long words. W00t!

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Amy Kathleen Ryan, Glow (Sky Chasers, vol. 1)

Glow is one of the reasons I love my job, and it has very little to do with it.

I get promotional emails from Publisher's Weekly, in order to keep current with teen literature, in a niche of which I publish. My niche is small and isolated, and I need PW to help me take a look around at what the age-mates of our intended readers - struggling, teenage readers who need exciting, accessible literature to help them become successful, habitual readers - are devouring. I want to know that makes them excited to read more, and what they wish they could read because of peer pressure and inherent interest.

One of the recent ones offered an advance reading copy of Glow, the third novel my Amy Kathleen Ryan. I read the first chapter or two, free online, with great interest. It coincided so closely with the setting and tone of first-time novelist Beth Revis' Across the Universe, which I read, and reviewed here, earlier this year.

Whereas ATU gripped my viscera at the beginning and subsided a bit into a simmering intergenerational confrontation and murder investigation aboard an interstellar space ship carrying humans from a battered Earth to a new home for their descendants, Glow built up from the hopes of appealing main characters into a thrilling intertribal confrontation and coming-of-age story aboard two interstellar space ships carrying humans....oh, you get the idea.

First, I am fascinated at the never-rains-but-it-pours aspect of this. I wasn't aware of any novels with such scenarios in the past decade, when I got swept up into Potter-mania, a bit late in life and in the timeline of Potter-mania. Now, with apparent suddenness, there are two.

Second, I loved the building tension of Glow. Similar to Suzanne Collins' Hunger Games, Glow starts by introducing deeply likeable teen characters, one male and one female, in an exotic setting that feels natural and whole, and then tears them apart. But whereas Hunger Games maintains Katniss Everdeen at the center of the narrative, Glow like ATU shifts the narrative  between the two main characters. In ATU, the main characters are less positively appealing. We feel sorry for them in many ways, but we never saw them at their best. We never had the chance to get to like them, to look forward to meeting them again.

In Glow, protagonists Waverly and Kieran seem like people I would have liked when I was their age. Their reactions to events evoke sympathy, emotional investment, because they are founded on a previous identification, a founding emotional investment. Even the dangerous and damaged  supporting characters look like people I got caught up with, cared about, and suffered with or because of when I was that age.

This means that when the climactic conflict occurs, so much of the reader's emotional investment is riding on it that it feels real. I felt my pulse quicken (just as advertised on the ARC back cover with the trite but applicable phrase "pulse-pounding"), even though the actual physical aspects of the confrontation were smaller than the conflicts at the opening of the second act of the novel.

After reading and enjoying Across the Universe, I was thrilled to read something in the same genre and in a very closely related setting, but when the book ended, I was caught off-guard. My wife figured this out first. "It must be part of a series," she said. (She's right, it's called Sky Chasers: http://us.macmillan.com/author/amykathleenryan.) However, it felt unfinished to me.

The Potter novels all (but one) end with the denouement of Harry returning to Privet Drive. The first two Hunger Games novels end with the tension ratcheting up in a new area. Glow ends differently, as if fifty pages had been left off the end. The conflict at the beginning isn't resolved. The new conflict is intriguing, and will probably draw me to reading the sequel. But I'm confused about the title's significance, the series name's significance, and the abruptness of the first novel's ending.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

"Optipressing" - Mark Morford looks at our insides, and finds we lack guts

In "How to Eat a Dead Terrorist," SF Chronicle columnist Mark Morford finds both solace and menace in our current military commitments.

Our military's frequent involvement in Abbotabad-like operations, to the tune of hundreds each year, is a stain on our moral character. The balance of drawdowns in Iraq and Afghanistan is itself balanced in the Know-Nothing/Bomb-Everything eschatological rhetoric of the top Republican presidential contenders and media darlings.

They revel in bombing first and never asking questions.

Morford restrains himself from tut-tutting about how we should learn more about the world in order to chart a saner course through it. He seems to doubt we'll ever get there, not as long as our leadership (and budgets) prioritize extreme violence as an everyday means to an end.

To a country with a trillion dollar off-the-books defense budget, every task seems like a Global War on Terror.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

The Magicians, by Lev Grossman

It was hard to put the book down, but some of Lev Grossman's writing in The Magicians bothered me.

This post has SPOILERS

First, there was the problem of Quentin Coldwater, the protagonist. He developed from a sympathetic nebbish into the kind of imminent sociopath who, after he snaps and murders a dozen people, the neighbors describe on TV as "quiet, I dunno, always kept to himself, and stuff."

He does this because he has just lived his dream, and still feels empty. Quentin comments on this himself, long before the full extent of the failure of his dreams is known. I wanted to feel bad for Quentin, but he kept reacting peevishly to events, which is, I take it, the author's intention. However, it made for an unlikeable protagonist, a non-hero (because he actually tries to be the good guy, only he doesn't really care about it, so he's not an anti-hero, and not a hero). 

Second, and this is my chance to be peevish, there were all the typos and discontinuities. I know, it's not cricket for someone in publishing to go on about this, and in truth, my company's much shorter books often end up with similar, shall we say, features. It may have bothered me as much out of a desire to avoid the busman's holiday (marking up a novel I'm reading for fun) as out of any real critique of the author or, more deservedly, the editor. I wonder if the sequel (don't think I'm not ordering it later tonight from Pegasus Books) will be any different in that regard.

Third, what really bothers me is the feeling I've been successfully played. A large part of the plot concerns another set of fantasy novels, collectively known as the Fillory Books (after the fantasy land in which they partly take place), by an author named Plover. Now, it all sounds totally plausible, and there's even a bit of story about the (plain as the almost Aquiline nose on my face) interactions of Plover with CS Lewis, whose Narnia series closely parallels the Fillory books in so many ways.

There's a Christopher Plover website, wikipedia entries on Fillory...it's just so fishy. 

Then it struck me. I - the fantasy book reader, the former devotee of Plover's contemporaries Lewis and Tolkien and also of McAffrey, and admirer of LeGuin and Aldiss and Atwood and Mieville and Rowling - had never heard of Plover, or Fillory. I practically lived in Middle-Earth (in middle school, of course), and dreamed the craggy mountains of Pern, and goggled at the scale and detail of Helliconia, and returned in awe after two decades' absence to the subtle chills of Gethen, but never had I heard of Fillory.

I think that's weird. I think there was never any Plover, no Fillory Books, no Chadwick children in literature.

Maybe I'll try to order The World in the Walls and see what arrives. Maybe I'll be the first to fall for it, and get a handwritten taunting from Grossman. Or maybe I'll get a dated fantasy novel too much like Narnia for me to enjoy (one of the kids enters through a grandfather clock!).

Fourth, the ending doesn't seem to fit the beginning. Maybe I'm not understanding it right. It feels like not the ending at all, which suggests that Grossman means for The Magicians and its sequel to be read as one book in two sets of covers. It's a small point, but I've read repeatedly that a novel ends with the question its readers are led to ask at the beginning. To me, this doesn't. I hope Quentin Coldwater snaps out of his funk and finds happiness. The thing is, the way his life has been going, his only hope may be a sharp blow to the head with a 2x4.

Penguin releases the hardback of the sequel, The Magician King, tomorrow.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Excuses, excuses... and manga (Toradora vol. 2)

Most of what I'm reading is the middle of things, so the past tense of my blog name more or less rules out reporting on it. I did also commit the folly of buying a book last night and starting it before going to sleep. It's Scene and Structure, by Jack M. Bickham. I never heard of him before last night, but I found the contents immediately informative. It's from 1993, part of a series called Elements of Fiction Writing. If you're like me, you've seen the shreds of various such series drifting about used book stores. I don't like to buy them, but I do anyway, when I feel they answer my questions. I have been struggling lately with just the sort of problems Bickham addresses, and reading only two chapters got me working on a new angle on my book.

I'm still reading (and close to finishing) the very entertaining and disappointing fantasy novel the Magicians, by Lev Grossman. It's not the novel that disappoints - it's the main character. I decided that I really don't like Quentin, and I hope he gets his ass kicked a bit more. Actually, based on what's happened in the book so far, I think the last 50 pages of the book will be very painful for him, and for me, because as much as I dislike him, I identify with him.

Work is keeping me busy as well. We just acquired another publisher in our niche, and are reviewing all of its materials in detail. We need to work all of the series - both existing stock and revisions - into our catalog and into our development calendar. In the end, I think we'll be working them into our philosophy as well. They pose a number of challenges, about reading level, about interest, about trends, and about the value inherent in the act of reading (as opposed to the content one reads). Much promise to fulfill, and much work to do.

I meant to review the hi-freakin-larious manga Toradora (story by Takemiya Yuyuko, art by Zekkyo), having just finished the second volume. The tone has changed since the first volume. There's plenty of silliness, thank goodness, but a serious consequence of the two main characters' actions in vol. 1 has arisen. The action has been replaced a little by dialogue, reflecting the change from character establishment in vol. 1 (much based on physical characteristics) to relationship building in vol. 2, which requires talking.

The setup is unoriginal for manga. There are several current or recent series with all or most of these elements. A student who looks different from the norm is treated as if his or her personality matches appearance. In this case, Takasu Ryuuji has "angry eyes," and everyone thinks he looks like a yakuza. (It doesn't help that his late father was yakuza). Ryuuji is actually a very nice guy. He lives with his inept and childlike mother (this is a theme in manga: get rid of the parents), doing the cooking and cleaning for the household, even hassling her about taking off her makeup before going to bed at night, and heating up the food he leaves for her instead of eating it cold. However, when he walks to school, people spread rumors about violent exploits and a terrible temper. It's so unfair! (another manga theme).

On the first day of school (exactly 78% of manga start then), Ryuuji runs afoul of Aisaka Taiga, a petite girl with an even more violent reputation, which she partly deserves. (Whatever her nickname is in Japanese, in the Macmillan translation, it's "Palmtop Tiger." Silly, and fitting.) However, the two soon discover they are neighbors, and that few other people will talk with them, so they develop a weird friendship that provides most of the humor from vol. 1.

The humor is raised a notch by the fact that each of them has one friend. Taiga's is the girl Ryuuji desperately loves, and can't form words around, and Ryuuji's is the boy Taiga even more desperately loves (himself a manga theme: the competent nerd). The two of them, in turn, are good friends and co-captains (another manga theme: weak plot movers) of the softball team, requiring them to bail on almost all occasions in which the four of them might socialize. This leaves Taiga and Ryuuji even more dependent on each other.

Macmillan's subdivision Seven Seas Manga picked this up, and did a nice job with the tankoubon (usually a 6-8 chapter volume) releases. The covers are appropriately shiny and keep the original design (a plus for manga fans who rely on translations), and the printing is crisp and well laid out. Many manga and comics are printed over the gutter or trimmed too far out on one side of the sheet, cutting off text and pictures. Macmillan are pros, and the difference in quality makes this a lot more fun to read. The series itself has no redeeming social value, shows pictures of teenage girls in impossibly short skirts, and makes fun of people for how they look. What's not to like?