Thursday, February 28, 2013

More Diverse Reads 2013

I know it's the last day of February, but I just picked up another haul of diverse reads from the library. I can't wait to dive in!

VESSEL by Sarah Beth Durst

Liyana has trained her entire life to be the vessel of a goddess. She will dance and summon her tribe's deity, who will inhabit Liyana's body and use magic to bring rain to the desert. But when the dance ends, Liyana is still there. Her tribe is furious--and sure that it is Liyana's fault. Abandoned by her tribe, Liyana expects to die in the desert. Until a boy walks out of the dust in search of her.

Korbyn is a god inside his vessel, and a trickster god at that. He tells Liyana that five other gods are missing, and they set off across the desert in search of the other vessels. The desert tribes cannot survive without the magic of their gods. But the journey is dangerous, even with a god’s help. And not everyone is willing to believe the trickster god’s tale.

The closer she grows to Korbyn, the less Liyana wants to disappear to make way for her goddess. But she has no choice--she must die for her tribe to live. Unless a trickster god can help her to trick fate--or a human girl can muster some magic of her own.

DUST GIRL by Sarah Zettel

Callie LeRoux lives in Slow Run, Kansas, helping her mother run their small hotel and trying not to think about the father she’s never met. Lately all of her energy is spent battling the constant storms plaguing the Dust Bowl and their effects on her health. Callie is left alone when her mother goes missing in a dust storm. Her only hope comes from a mysterious man offering a few clues about her destiny and the path she must take to find her parents in “the golden hills of the west”: California.

Along the way she meets Jack, a young hobo boy who is happy to keep her company—there are dangerous, desperate people at every turn. And there’s also an otherworldly threat to Callie. Warring fae factions, attached to the creative communities of American society, are very much aware of the role this half-mortal, half-fae teenage girl plays in their fate.

PINNED Sharon G. Flake

Autumn and Adonis have nothing in common and everything in common. Autumn is outgoing and has lots of friends. Adonis is shy and not so eager to connect with people. But even with their differences, the two have one thing in common--they're each dealing with a handicap. For Autumn, who has a learning disability, reading is a painful struggle that makes it hard to focus in class. But as her school’s most aggressive team wrestler, Autumn can take down any problem. Adonis is confined to a wheelchair. He has no legs. He can't walk or dance. But he’s a strong reader who loves books. Even so, Adonis has a secret he knows someone like Autumn can heal.

In time, Autumn and Adonis are forced to see that our greatest weaknesses can turn into the assets that forever change us and those we love.


In the slums of Accra, Ghana’s fast-moving, cosmopolitan capital, teenagers are turning up dead. Inspector Darko Dawson has seen many crimes, but this latest string of murders—in which all the young victims bear a chilling signature—is the most unsettling of his career. Are these heinous acts a form of ritual killing or the work of a lone, cold-blooded monster? With time running out, Dawson embarks on a harrowing journey through the city’s underbelly and confronts the brutal world of the urban poor, where street children are forced to fight for their very survival—and a cunning killer seems just out of reach.


When Cameron Post's parents die suddenly in a car crash, her shocking first thought is relief. Relief they'll never know that, hours earlier, she had been kissing a girl.

But that relief doesn't last, and Cam is soon forced to move in with her conservative aunt Ruth and her well-intentioned but hopelessly old-fashioned grandmother. She knows that from this point on, her life will forever be different. Survival in Miles City, Montana, means blending in and leaving well enough alone (as her grandmother might say), and Cam becomes an expert at both.

Then Coley Taylor moves to town. Beautiful, pickup-driving Coley is a perfect cowgirl with the perfect boyfriend to match. She and Cam forge an unexpected and intense friendship--one that seems to leave room for something more to emerge. But just as that starts to seem like a real possibility, ultrareligious Aunt Ruth takes drastic action to "fix" her niece, bringing Cam face-to-face with the cost of denying her true self--even if she's not exactly sure who that is.

Some gorgeous covers in this lot, too! What books have you snatched up recently?

Thanks to Goodreads for all the images and summaries!

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

A Friday Harbor Retreat

This was supposed to be a bragging post... except it didn't work out that way.

In mid-January, I traveled with my husband to Friday Harbor, a town on the island of San Juan, off the coast of Washington State, right on the edge of the Canadian border. Originally I hadn't intended to go. Phil would be doing research there (Friday Harbor Laboratories is part of the University of Washington), and two weeks on the ocean in January by myself didn't sound overly appealing. But Phil's work colleagues repeatedly told me how beautiful Friday Harbor is. And about that time, I realized I'd be neck-deep in Project Fun revisions. As a friend reminded me, it was a win-win situation. If the weather was good, I'd get to enjoy some beautiful hikes and scenic drives. And if the weather was bad, I'd get lots of writing done. And I've always wanted to go on a writing retreat, to get away from everything except my thoughts, and to have unlimited time to put pen to paper.

The first few days were indeed magic.

Friday Harbor (taken from Friday Harbor Labs):

The view from our back porch:

I got tons of writing done, including several new scenes. I was offered a space in the Friday Harbor Labs' library (pictured below), with a view over the ocean and a desk to call my own.

And because it was January on a touristy island, I hardly saw a soul. I went on long, meandering walks, spotted vultures and eagles.

Oh, and the deer! I've never seen anything like it. They were totally unafraid of humans. I could stand feet away, and they wouldn't even look up. It was like someone had turned me into Snow White when I wasn't paying attention!

Friday Harbor is definitely beautiful, and teeming with wildlife (in the summer you can see orcas off the coast!). But I think what I loved most about it was the weird juxtaposition between natural paradise and science labs. Add to that the fact that I hardly saw anyone, even at the labs, and it became a little creepy. In a good, writing inspiration way!

But after five days or so of being on my lonesome and working my butt off, I was exhausted.  Who knew a writing retreat could be so tiring?! Unfortunately, around that same time, Phil realized he needed a lot more time to accomplish his research, so there were a lot of stressed days and late nights. Maybe I would've enjoyed my retreat more if I hadn't had to cook dinner every night. Or better yet, if there had been other writers to share dinner, along with stories and a bottle of wine. Or if I had given myself more time to play, and to develop new stories, rather than forcing myself to finish Project Fun. But maybe retreats just aren't for me.

Of course, the rain for several days straight probably didn't help.

I'm not really complaining. At the end of the two weeks, I had accomplished more than I ever imagined was possible, and I was nearly done revising Project Fun. And I did have some incredible opportunities. The other scientists there were wonderfully supportive--I think they loved the idea of someone doing something creative and not-science. And I should say, we did have a few dinners together, so I wasn't ALWAYS on my lonesome! One of the scientists took me on a tour of the lab's electron microscope, and we studied dead flies from the windowsill: every single sticky hair on their legs, and each bead of their eyes. Totally gross, but totally fascinating, too, especially with someone who could explain it all. Another scientist is a pilot, and offered to take me on a spin around the island. I'm one of those lucky people who actually loves flying (at least, the being up in the air part, not the security or lines or stress part). And I've never been in such a small plane! It was shockingly smooth, and a beautifully clear day. We saw all the bits of the island I had hiked, Mount Baker in the distance, the sun illuminating the clouds. And bald eagles! Two buzzed us, flying right over the plane, like they wanted to make sure we saw them in all their glory.

And no, I don't have any pictures of that because my husband was busy taking pictures of shrimp appendages in a wave tank. Not that I'm bitter or anything. No, really. I imagine nothing could top incredible images I've stored away in my mind.

So it was a good trip. But I was so ready to come home.

Now I just need to decide, when he goes back, if I'll come along a second time...

I should add, for any of you drooling over these pictures of Friday Harbor, they have an actual writing retreat there, called the Whiteley Center. While you pay for room and board (though the cafeteria would be open if you didn't come in the complete off-season!), you're given space to work, and the rooms are gorgeously appointed, with long wood desks, fireplaces, art, and the best views on campus. And you can bring friends, so a whole critique group could go. Now THAT sounds more like my style!

Have you ever been on a writing retreat? What was your experience?

*All pictures taken by me, except the first, which was taken by Phil.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Diverse Reads: Flygirl by Sherri L. Smith

As I showed Tuesday, I've been a roll lately with great reads. If only I didn't have anything else to do but read!

FLYGIRL by Sherri L. Smith

This novel took me completely by surprise. It started out fairly ordinary: Ida Mae would give anything to be a pilot like her dead father, but she's only a poor maid and black in Jim Crow South. Except the more I read, the more I got sucked in. Like when Ida Mae forges a pilot's license and tricks the air force recruiter. Or when she borrows her employer's shawl and hat for her WASP interview, but forgets to change before she gets home. And her little brother calls out, "There's a white lady coming up the walk!" Smith did an incredible job of raising the stakes. I don't think I've ever read a novel about an African American passing as white, and certainly never thought about how frightening it would be. I was gritting my teeth as Ida Mae danced with her white teacher; not because he was older, or in a position of authority over her, but because the very act was illegal. The book was full of tension-filled details like this that brought the story to life. And lots of questions, too. What should we give up to chase a dream? Our family? Our own identity? Ida believes she's joined the army to help her brother, who's serving in the Philippines. But what responsibility does a person have in war for a country that doesn't treat her as an equal?

I also loved that the book hardly mentioned romance, but rather friendship, and women supporting each other to reach their goals. Such an affirming, yet thought-provoking read. It would make a great book to read in schools. There were a few places where I felt let down by the plot, where problems weren't resolved, or explored in enough depth. But overall, I loved FLYGIRL.

Any other Sherri L. Smith fans out there? What books of hers should I read next?

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Diverse Reads 2013: Reviews

I've had an amazing streak of good reads lately. Here are some mini-reviews, in the order I read them:

THE BROKEN LANDS by Kate Milford
Did you know that Brooklyn's name may have been derived from the Dutch word for fractured, or broken lands? If you're as enamored with that historical fact as I am, and all the potent symbolism behind it, then you must read BROKEN LANDS.

This is my second Milford book, and while it started slowly, I knew I needed to keep with it, and pay close attention as she set all the pieces in play for her historical fantasy: a young male card shark in Coney Island, his father who died while helping build the Brooklyn Bridge, an itinerant black man who can play any song on his guitar, a hotel lobby full of Civil War veterans with haunted eyes, a trafficked Chinese girl with a gift for fireworks, an immortal man made out of sand, etc. Then I sat back and watched this magical world come to life, exquisite in detail, deep in meaning, and absolutely thrilling.

I read this book before I intended to start my February reading, but was pleasantly surprised to discover a story rich with diversity. While the Chinese girl Jin isn't the main character, her story of trafficking, foot-binding, and apprenticeship with someone who finally allows her to learn and appreciate her culture and religion deeply moved me. It was well-researched and sympathetic, and seemed the perfect way to start this month of reading.


This is a book that breaks all the rules--which is fitting since it's about rules, expectations, and being an outsider. There were only a few dramatic scenes. Most of the book was "told," not "shown." The middle could've easily lost 100 pages. The narrator, Ari, was laconic and didn't understand himself, which is completely realistic for a 15 year-old boy, but can be a frustrating reading experience. Yet, this novel also had me madly turning pages, made me cry, and was surprisingly sexy. And the more I think about it, the cleverer it becomes. Sometimes real life doesn't fit into the neat confines of plot, and dramatic scenes, and witty, verbose narrators. But I do enjoy the reading experience more when it does.

Not exactly highly recommended, but definitely recommended. And it's been beloved by so many others, your mileage may vary!

This book was given to me for Christmas by a science writer friend / relative. I'm not usually a huge fan of non-fiction (easily bored, I guess), but I was riveted and finished it within two days. My friend had promised a person didn't have to know science to understand it, and she was right. But I think what I found most fascinating within the book was the intersection of worlds, between people who do understand science and those who don't, between city people and rural people, white and black, rich and poor. HENRIETTA presents an ethical quandary (is it right to use people's cells without permission or compensation?), but then kept pulling the rug out from under me as I tried to answer it: what if the people don't have health insurance? What if they don't understand what cells are? What if the revelation of this cell "donation" leads to health problems and mental illness? What if these cells make billions of dollars and change the world? I found myself choked up when an Austrian graduate student, after decades of silence from the scientific community, simply and non-judgmentally answered all the Lacks' family's questions about cells, explained that their mother wasn't immortal, or hidden away somewhere in London, or half-plant, half-human. For two days straight while reading, I talked to anyone who would listen about this book, about what was right, what was wrong, whether scientific advances justified the means. Highly recommended, though I wish I had had a class or a book club to discuss it with!

And if that hasn't convinced you to read it, check out this awesome trailer about the book, the science behind it, and the writing life, too.

More reviews to come on Thursday!

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Defining diversity

Throughout the month of February, I'm going to be tackling diverse reads. Of course, to do so, I felt like I needed to consider the question that rears its head every time I think about diversity: what counts?

When I finished the mystery 1222 by Norwegian author Anne Holt, I noted the title and author in my reading journal, then paused. Usually when I read a diverse book, I'll mark it with "POC" for Person of Color. Except, while 1222 was obviously a diverse read for me, set in a foreign country, starring a lesbian in a wheelchair, there were no non-white people. On the surface, this is an issue of my notation not being robust enough--I suppose I should use "DIV" for diversity instead. But I struggle with my notation all the time, and it's not just about which word I use. Do foreign countries count as diversity? All foreign countries? Even ones I visited or lived in? What about foreign characters? Or what if the main character is white, but her best friend is African American? Or Polish? Or poor? What if the author is Chinese but the book is about a white girl? Do I count characters with physical disabilities? What about mental disabilities or learning disabilities? Or different sexual orientations?

Obviously there isn't a simple definition for diversity. And, as a white, protestant, middle class, straight, female, American, etc., my definition of diversity is going to be different from someone else's definition.

Which is why, back in February 2010, when I read Melvin Burgess' seminal work about heroin addiction, Junk, I counted it towards my diverse reading. As I said then:

"White author, white characters, even takes place in my current home of Bristol... [but] Upon reading JUNK, I quickly realized I wasn't cheating at all. I'm a little ashamed to admit how goody-goody I am. I've never smoked, inhaled or shot-up anything. Really. Alcohol gives me headaches. And I was one of those kids who got good grades, had nice friends, mostly did what I was supposed to do... I think I'm more rebellious as an adult than I ever was as a kid. So I don't think I'm stretching at all when I say that reading JUNK was definitely an encounter with a world different from my own."

My full review is here.

But I'm uncomfortable with simply defining diversity as anything that's unfamiliar to me. Surely diversity shouldn't be all about me. As a reader, and even more so as a writer, I keep coming back to a book review I read last fall (by The Booksmugglers, my absolute favorite reviewers!):

"That said, at the end of the day, it is so freaking encouraging and inspiring to read a book featuring such a female-positive story with such a bunch of diverse characters that I almost wish I didn’t have to say the obvious: the heroine of this story is still the white, middle class, cisgender character and everybody else – as awesome as they are – are still secondary characters in her drama. Mind you, this does not make the book any less lovely or [main character]’s experience any less important – it is just an observation about the overwhelming amount of stories featuring just that type of protagonist that are available to us."

We have to write about what we know, what's true to us. And bravo for this author including diversity, and perhaps venturing out of her comfort zone. But does it really change anything?

Of course, part of the reason for this February reading challenge is to expand my own horizons. But another part of the challenge is to support, learn about, and celebrate authors, books, and people who might not get as much attention or traction because of their class, race, disabilities, etc.

So in conclusion... I still don't have a definition for diversity. And I still don't know if I can count Beth Kephart's Small Damages, this beautiful book I've been eyeing lately, and considering because it's set in Spain. But I'm definitely counting Kate Milford's The Broken Lands for its portrayal of a trafficked Chinese girl learning about her culture, because even though she's not the main character, and the author is white, I learned a ton, and to my eyes everything about it was done sensitively.

And perhaps that's the answer. Some books I might read and not tell you about and not count. Others I will. Some portrayals of race or class might be inaccurate, or even offensive. Some I will know personally are accurate. And there will be shades of gray and I will get things wrong, but perhaps all of that is what this challenge is about too. And I'm looking forward to it.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Diverse Reads 2013

For the past few years, I've devoted the month of February to "Anne Reads Books By & About People Different From Her." While the title still perfectly expresses my goals, I've become sick of of typing it, so this year we're just going for "Diverse Reads." 

It all started back in February of 2010, when I wrote this:

"Supposedly people don't like to read books about people other than themselves. Never mind that this assumes people of color don't read. It also assumes we read to find ourselves. While this is certainly true at times, I also read to escape myself. I read to travel, I read to experience, I read to learn.

"I also hate people telling me what I do and don't read.

"Yet yet yet... I read the other day that 13% of children's books published each year in the US contain diversity. I keep track of every book I read. So I went back through my list and counted. Last year I read almost one hundred books. Of those hundred books, five were written by a person of color."

Since then, I've discovered numerous beloved books, and a rich diversity of authors, both in February and throughout the year. I love using this month to escape the confines of my tottering to-read pile, and to read authors I've never read and books I've never heard of. And I love sharing my discoveries with you.

So without further ado, here's some of my planned reads for the month:

Aristotle & Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Sáenz: "Aristotle is an angry teen with a brother in prison. Dante is a know-it-all who has an unusual way of looking at the world. When the two meet at the swimming pool, they seem to have nothing in common. But as the loners start spending time together, they discover that they share a special friendship—the kind that changes lives and lasts a lifetime. And it is through this friendship that Ari and Dante will learn the most important truths about themselves and the kind of people they want to be." Stonewall Book Award (2013), Printz Honor (2013), YALSA Best Fiction for Young Adults (Top Ten) (2013), Pura Belpre Author Award (2013)

Did you see all those awards? Wowzers! How could it not be the top of my list? I actually finished this one last week, and I'll share my review asap.

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot: "Her name was Henrietta Lacks, but scientists know her as HeLa. She was a poor Southern tobacco farmer who worked the same land as her slave ancestors, yet her cells—taken without her knowledge—became one of the most important tools in medicine. The first “immortal” human cells grown in culture, they are still alive today, though she has been dead for more than sixty years. If you could pile all HeLa cells ever grown onto a scale, they’d weigh more than 50 million metric tons—as much as a hundred Empire State Buildings. HeLa cells were vital for developing the polio vaccine; uncovered secrets of cancer, viruses, and the atom bomb’s effects; helped lead to important advances like in vitro fertilization, cloning, and gene mapping; and have been bought and sold by the billions.
Yet Henrietta Lacks remains virtually unknown, buried in an unmarked grave."

I'm tearing through this one at the moment, and again, will hopefully share my thoughts next week!

The Knife and the Butterfly by Ashley Hope Pérez: "After a marijuana-addled brawl with a rival gang, 16-year-old Azael wakes up to find himself surrounded by a familiar set of concrete walls and a locked door. Juvie again, he thinks. But he can't really remember what happened or how he got picked up. And this lock-up seems more than a little different from the one he knew before. For one, no one comes to visit or even calls. Stranger still are the hours he's forced to spend observing another inmatea white girl his own agethrough a one-way mirror. And then there's his file, which has a heavily redacted newspaper account of the brawl. Between observation sessions, Azael occupies himself with recalling his extremely difficult upbringing as one of three children of illegal Salvadoran immigrants and as a member of the MS-13 gang."

I read (and loved) Pérez's What Can't Wait last year, so am really looking forward to this one!

Flying the Dragon by Natalie Dias Lorenzi: "American-born Skye knows very little of her Japanese heritage. Her father taught her to speak the language, but when their estranged Japanese family, including Skye's grandfather, suddenly move to the United States, Skye must be prepared to give up her All-Star soccer dreams to take Japanese lessons and to help her cousin, Hiroshi adapt to a new school. Hiroshi, likewise, must give up his home and his hopes of winning the rokkaku kite-fighting championship with Grandfather. Faced with language barriers, culture clashes and cousin rivalry, Skye and Hiroshi have a rocky start. But a greater shared loss brings them together. They learn to communicate, not only through language, but through a common heritage and sense of family honor. At the rokkaku contest at the annual Washington Cherry Blossom Festival, Hiroshi and Skye must work as a team in order to compete with the best."

The Freedom Maze by Delia Sherman: "In 1960, thirteen-year-old Sophie slips through a maze into 19th century Louisiana and finds nothing is as she expected." Mythopoeic Fantasy Award for Children's Literature (2012), Andre Norton Award Nominee for Young Adult Science Fiction and Fantasy (2011)

This is another title that's gotten a lot of praise, but I've never been able to get around to reading it (and that cover...gah!). But it's currently on-hold at the library, so I'm looking forward to reporting back!

Flygirl by Sherri L. Smith: "Ida Mae Jones dreams of flight. Her daddy was a pilot and being black didn't stop him from fulfilling his dreams. But her daddy's gone now, and being a woman, and being black, are two strikes against her."

This was on my list last year, but I never got to it. The description still sounds amazing, though, so it's also waiting for me at the library!

The Summer Prince by Alaya Dawn Johnson: A heart-stopping story of love, death, technology, and art set amid the tropics of a futuristic Brazil.

This one was recommended by Karen at Musings of a Novelista. It's not out until March, but I can't WAIT to dive in! And look at that cover!

Bless Me, Ultima by Rudolfo Anaya: "Antonio Marez is six years old when Ultima enters his life. She is a curandera, one who heals with herbs and magic. 'We cannot let her live her last days in loneliness,' says Antonio's mother. 'It is not the way of our people,' agrees his father. And so Ultima comes to live with Antonio's family in New Mexico. Soon Tony will journey to the threshold of manhood. Always, Ultima watches over him. She graces him with the courage to face childhood bigotry, diabolical possession, the moral collapse of his brother, and too many violent deaths. Under her wise guidance, Tony will probe the family ties that bind him, and he will find in himself the magical secrets of the pagan past—a mythic legacy equally as palpable as the Catholicism of Latin America in which he has been schooled. At each turn in his life there is Ultima who will nurture the birth of his soul."

Has anyone ever read this? It's been on the periphery of my brain since high school, and over the years I've continued to hear rumblings about it. Apparently it's a canonical text among Latino / Hispanic communities. Really curious to see what it's all about.

That's it for me at the moment, though I've got a few other ideas and authors to check out. And I'd love to hear your recommendations for diverse reads! 

On Thursday I'll ponder some of my complicated thoughts about what counts as a "diverse read", and next week I'll hopefully start posting some reviews. And at some point, I promise I'll share where I was these past few weeks, along with some gorgeous pictures. Stay tuned!

*Thanks to Goodreads for all the images and summaries*