Sunday, August 30, 2015

Book Review: Silver In The Blood by Jessica Day George

Here's the blurb from Goodreads:
Society girls from New York City circa 1890, Dacia and Lou never desired to know more about their lineage, instead preferring to gossip about the mysterious Romanian family that they barely knew. But upon turning seventeen, the girls must return to their homeland to meet their relatives, find proper husbands, and—most terrifyingly—learn the deep family secrets of The Claw, The Wing, and The Smoke. The Florescus, after all, are shape-shifters, and it is time for Dacia and Lou to fulfill the prophecy that demands their acceptance of this fate... or fight against this cruel inheritance with all their might.

With a gorgeous Romanian setting, stunning Parisian gowns, and dark brooding young men, readers will be swept up by this epic adventure of two girls in a battle for their lives.

So, George is a Utah author, but she's mostly written MG stuff.  When The King's English bookstore advertised she was doing a signing for this book, I really wanted to go.  But then I read some Amazon reviews, and thinking back to the last three local authors I've supported at TKE wherein it turned out the books were pretty crappy, I decided not to chance it.
This was a bad move because Silver in the Blood is pretty dang good.

Reviewers who influenced me wrongly said things like, "the author choose a way of writing that slowed the book and made it drag " and "This drag and repetition was especially noticeable because the narrative rotated between formats: letters, journal entries, telegraphs, newspaper notices and traditional story structure."

When I finally got the book from our school library and opened it to page one, I felt like shouting at these imbecile reviewers.  The idiots had completely missed the point: Jessica Day George, in writing a book about a Romanian family who has the hereditary role of serving the Dracula family, has set up the book like Dracula.  Duh.
It doesn't "drag."  The dual points of view are not repetitive.
What these uneducated reviewers missed is that Dacia and Lou echo Lucy and Mina in Stoker's original.  They are confused and kept in the dark by those who wish them to be in powerless positions. The reader is meant to know more than the girls do; it's called "dramatic irony."  (Even Shakespeare used it; don't assume George is the one who doesn't know what's going on here.)  Silver in the Blood is set up with multiple points of view and partly in epistle form because it alludes to Dracula.  If the reader is too stupid to realize this, it is not the author's fault.   It is not the author's fault if the reader is too under-educated to understand dramatic irony, multiple points of view, and literary allusions.  (Note: do not even try to argue that the book is YA and that kids aren't exposed to these things, for all three are standard in the junior high curriculum.)
This whole thing reminds me of a quote I once saw in a Readers' Digest (decades ago), "It requires wisdom to understand wisdom; the music is nothing if the audience is deaf."

That being said, I will also state that the book is not five-stars, in my opinion.  There were grammatical errors and modernisms in the dialogue that would simply not have occurred among the British upper crust in the 1890s.  And there is one whole scene where Dacia, the stronger of the two protagonists, does not defend herself when she is quite capable of doing so and it is in her personality to do so.  The whole purpose of her not defending herself appears to be because it allows the plot to move forward, but it's completely out of character for her.  That I did not like much.
However, it is still an excellent book and well worth the read.
I enjoyed much of the detail about Romania that the author includes.  It feels a bit strained, however, and it's clear that she's writing from recent research and not from long-term knowledge.  (For example, her description of Romanian folk dress is accurate to a point, but she seems unaware of the more elaborate variations on the costume for the girls and she neglects to describe the men's folk dress in any detail.  Since I've done Romanian folk dance for decades, met many Romanians at festivals when they were in costume, and own two Romanian dresses from this region, I can pick out these details.  Nevertheless, I like the fact that she at least did some research.)
The feminism of so many of the male characters in the book is anachronistic, but I liked it.  This book gets a thumbs up from me on showing girls thinking for themselves and solving problems.
Overall, I'd give it 4 stars.  It's appropriate for about age 13 and up.
(The book feels like it needs a sequel, but I read on Goodreads that George hopes only to write a "companion novel.")

Update: 5:30 PM.
The author sent me this tweet:

Thx! Though I have to point out: They don't talk like British upper crust because they aren't. They're American new(ish) money.

Point taken, and I should have recalled they were American (I read the book a week ago.).  But I still think the upper crust would have used correct grammar.
Nevertheless, I urge readers to judge for themselves.

Sunday, August 23, 2015

Writing Update! Good News!

I'm in a great mood right now.  I just finished the first draft of the sequel to The (Dis)Appearance of Nerissa MacKay!  Yes, yes, it's very rough and all, but writing the first draft is the hardest part, so I can now start the revision process, which is more fun.
I also took a bunch of snaps today with which to make possible covers for this new sequel.
Earlier I announced a title for this novella, but I'm changing it slightly.  The new title is..... *insert drum roll*  Nerissa MacKay and the Secrets of the Seventeen Scrolls.  This title works a good deal better with the plot.  Plus, I like the alliteration.  (What can I say?  I'm an English teacher.)
Now that I've finished the rough draft of Scrolls, I plan to read through (Dis)Appearance and Scrolls back-to-back, working out any little kinks in the former and doing a first big revision to the latter.
After that, I'll be ready to publish (Dis)Appearance!  This should be in September or October at the very latest.
My remaining news is that an idea for the third book in the series plopped into my head a couple of days ago.  I have no clue for a title yet, but the 3rd novella should involve the return of Grandma Maggie, a trip to the Shakespeare Festival, and possibly a kidnapped actor.  Or maybe mysteriously changing props.  Or a crazed audience member who believes he's time-traveled.  (Yeah, I thought of that just now.  But I kind of like it.  What do you think?)  Hmmm... *goes off to grab notebook*
*Five minutes later*
Seriously, I just paused there and sketched out the skeletal outline of that time-traveler plot.  Boom!  And I actually thought of it while blogging.  Weird.
Let's try out some titles:
Nerissa MacKay and the Time-Traveler.
Nerissa MacKay and the Time-Traveling Scandal.
Nerissa MacKay Has The Time Of Her Life.

Uh... none of those are thrilling me.  Suggestions?

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

And So It Begins Again....

In approximately one hour I will greet my first class of the new school year.
Deep breath.

Monday, August 17, 2015

Book Review: Uprooted by Naomi Novik

Before I read this book, I read a review in which the reviewer claimed that this book "feels like it's always been with us."
After reading this book I know why; it's Tolkien-based.
Don't get me wrong; it's a very good book.  But I am left with the distinct impression that the author's process went something like this:
Why did Old Man Willow encase the hobbits in the first place?  Why would a tree do that?
What if Tom Bombadil were a sexy, taciturn wizard instead of an immortal hillbilly in yellow boots?
What is Goldberry's story?  And what if she were the daughter of the Old Forest instead of the River's Daughter?
And what if more women in Tolkien besides Eowyn had active roles instead of passive ones?  What if Tolkien weren't so into benevolent patriarchy anyway?
What is the history of The Old Forest?

Answer these questions, throw in Baba Jaga so it doesn't sound all Tolkien, put in some Polish names, and you've got Uprooted.

Although it's not particularly original, it's well done.  It's rather like discovering that pieces from one puzzle can form a different picture if you put them together in a new way.
The characterization is superb, the pacing is good, and the plot works decently (although predictably).
I am most pleased with how good a book this is for girls.  The protagonist (who has a long and unpronounceable name -- why would an author do that?) is a terrific role model for girls.  She's truly a  "strong female character," but not in physical strength.  She matures a great deal in the book.  And better yet, about half of the strong, important characters are women (both for good and for bad!).  I loved this.
Her friendship with Kasia works well, and the book is not JUST about romance with the sexy wizard.

One caution: there is one attempted rape scene, one almost sex scene, and one sex scene.  These are not gratuitous, but are integral to the plot.  However, this book might not be appropriate for very sensitive or young kids.  (I probably wouldn't give it to anyone younger than 12, but that's just my opinion.)  It's also not appropriate for overly-sensitive parents.

But overall, this is a very good book, and I definitely recommend it.

Thursday, August 13, 2015

And There Was MUCH Rejoicing

So, yesterday was our annual Faculty Meeting Of Doom -- the one that lasts ALL FREAKIN' DAY.
But, during the part where we watched a video message (an HOUR-LONG video message) from our superintendent, a miracle occurred: he announced we were cutting our amount of standardized testing in half.
No longer will our district be two and a half times ahead of every other district in the state with regard to how much testing we do.  Nope.  Now we will be normal.
Granted, this is still way more testing than we need, but we are pleased.
To put this in perspective, in the OLD days, we used to spend about three days every May giving kids one standardized test that covered all the core subjects.  That was it.
Then, during the last five years or so, they forced more and more tests on us, so that by last year, each kid had to take pre- and post-tests for each subject each quarter of the year, plus the year-end test, plus the extra English tests (SRI and the DWA).  This means that the average 8th grader with 8 classes was taking -- wait for it... -- up to 69 standardized tests per year (8 tests per subject for 8 periods plus the extras.)  That was clearly insane.
Now an 8th grader can expect to take some 37 standardized tests per year -- which is still clearly insane, but not to the same extent.
Throughout the district, there was much rejoicing...

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Readers' Opinions Requested

I haven't been blogging much because I've been working on the two Nerissa novellas.  The (Dis)Appearance of Nerissa MacKay is awaiting what I hope will be the final edit.  Soon I will be asking you to volunteer for a cover reveal. :)  And I really, really wanted to get the first draft (the hardest part) of Nerissa MacKay and the Mystery of the Seventeen Scrolls finished before school began.  Well, that didn't happen, as school starts tomorrow, and I'm about 2/3 the way finished.  Maybe I can get the draft done before Labor Day.
Anyway, I'm stuck, and I'm hoping some blog readers will give me an idea or two.
So, if you had stolen an automaton (life-size), where would you hide it?  Oh, you're a locksmith, so you might have all kinds of keys to get into places.
Seriously, where?
I'd love to have your ideas.  Don't worry if you're not a writer; just tell me the first thing that comes to your mind.

Sunday, August 2, 2015

Books I Didn't Bother To Finish This Week

I really wanted to have finished 100 books for 2015 by the end of July, but I didn't quite make it.  (I'm at 96 right now.)  One reason is that I've spent so much time in July editing The (Dis)Appearance of Nerissa MacKay (almost ready to publish!  Squeal!) and pounding out the first draft (my least favorite part of writing) of its sequel, Nerissa MacKay and the Mystery of the Seventeen Scrolls.
The other reason is that I had bad luck on my book choices from the library.  Here are the books I wasted time with before chucking aside this week:

I Am Princess X by Cherie Priest.
I should have known better.  I threw aside her Boneshaker in disgust a couple of years ago when she tried to write for YA but focused all her attention on the mother in the story.  This is truly bad form.  I don't understand why her books are so popular when she has no clue who her audience is.  Of course, she's probably writing for adults who read YA and not for actual kids, but I still loathe it when authors say they've got a certain audience and then write for another.
X has the same problem from a different angle.  In this one, Priest talks to the reader as if s/he is a 9-year-old.  It's condescending.  I could not stand it after a couple of chapters.
This one's going back to the library unfinished.

The Princess Spy by Melanie Dickerson.
This one sounded really good, but it's so cliche that it's boring.  Also, the protagonist is exactly that sort of silly airhead that makes a terrific foil for a likable female protagonist but who makes a lousy protagonist.  I do not like dumb protagonists; I cannot relate to them and I have no patience with them.  This protagonist is a sweet, charming, stupid girl.  After 92 pages of this and a predictable plot, I gave up.

Passenger to Frankfurt by Agatha Christie.
Remember what I just said about hating stupid protagonists?  Well, this book is infinitely worse than Princess Spy.  This protagonist gives his passport and travel documents to a pretty girl who claims to be in danger.
Nope.  I do not waste my time with protagonists that dumb.
When I grabbed the book, I thought it would be a detective solving a mystery about an exceptionally dumb person, but no, the main character is the idiot.
I'm not wasting my time.

Saturday, August 1, 2015

Message To YA Writers: Schools Have Changed In The Last 20 Years.

I've written about this before: YA writers need to know what kids are like and what schools are like -- NOW, in the post-2000 world.  But the problem has not gone away.  YA authors who went to school in the 1990s seem to think that nothing has changed.  Hello, people!!  Schools are not stuck in a time warp!
When I went to school, we had mimeographed worksheets, filmstrips, and honest-to-gosh FILMS -- with projectors!  If you 90s-kids-turned-authors read about that in a YA book now, you'd freak out.  You'd call me old and out-of-date.
Then why do I keep finding stuff like this in your books?

Evil Librarian by Michelle Knudson is not a bad book.  (It's way too much like Maureen Johnson's Devilish to be truly original, but it's funny in its own right.)  But Knudson clearly hasn't been in a school since the turn of the century.
How do I know?  Well, her characters sluff (skip class) repeatedly -- and the parents never know.
Perhaps there are still small, rural schools that have teachers take roll by hand, but for at least 15 years (longer in some cases), most schools have used a computerized attendance program of some sort.  This means that parents can know within minutes (on their phones, iPads, or other computers) whether or not their kid showed up to class.  And just in case that's not enough, most schools have automated phone calling that notifies parents at the end of the day if their kid missed one or more classes.  Unless you have a clever student doing some hacking, there's no way a parent could go for weeks not knowing that the child has unexcused absences.  What was possible in 1995 is not possible in 2015.

Then there's Cherie Priest in I Am Princess X.  Her time warp crime?  She has her protagonist taking a standardized test on a bubble sheet.
No.  Just no.
Again, this might be a possibility in a small town.  But this is happening in Seattle.  You know, a student of mine last year had just moved from Seattle.  Oddly enough, he'd seen computers before.  Isn't that amazing?  Yup, Cherie, Seattle schools have computers in them.
Yes, folks, in the 1990s, we gave kids standardized tests on bubble sheets and scan-tron sheets.  These have now gone the way of filmstrips and cassette tapes.  Most of my students have never seen a bubble sheet in their lives.
Standardized tests are given in computer labs or on classroom sets of chromebooks or laptops or with clickers.  Our school still has a scan-tron grader gathering dust in a corner of the teacher workroom --- just in case there's an emergency and some teacher has to use it for something.  However, it might not even work anymore, and it's only a matter of time before it gets scrapped.

Writers, just because you once went to school does not mean you can write about it without doing some research.  Most YA has at least some of its action in a school.  Isn't it time you got up-to-date on what actually might be happening in one?
We don't have chalkboards anymore, you know.