Tuesday, August 14, 2018

WISHTREE and THE LAST (ENDLING) by Katherine Applegate

I first became a fan of Katherine Applegate when I was a Youth Services Selector and a colleague recommended The One and Only Ivan. For those unfamiliar, it is a poignant story told from the point of view of a gorilla who was in captivity for 27 years. Ivan was also real (as in an actual gorilla), but Katherine Applegate, in his narrative, made him even more so.

I've been a fan of hers ever since. I first met her at the launch for WISHTREE, another story which involves a subtle yet unique perspective. At the event, I told her how I'd been reading The One and Only Ivan with one of my high school students (a reluctant reader). I managed to get it signed for her:

Here's some more information about WISHTREE:

Red is an oak tree who is many rings old. Red is the neighborhood "wishtree"—people write their wishes on pieces of cloth and tie them to Red's branches. Along with her crow friend Bongo and other animals who seek refuge in Red's hollows, this "wishtree" watches over the neighborhood.

You might say Red has seen it all. Until a new family moves in. Not everyone is welcoming, and Red's experiences as a wishtree are more important than ever.

Katherine Applegate also has a new Middle Grade series, the first of which debuted in May:

Byx is the youngest member of her dairne pack. Believed to possess remarkable abilities, her mythical doglike species has been hunted to near extinction in the war-torn kingdom of Nedarra.

After her pack is hunted down and killed, Byx fears she may be the last of her species. The Endling. So Byx sets out to find safe haven, and to see if the legends of other hidden dairnes are true.

Along the way, she meets new allies—both animals and humans alike—who each have their own motivations for joining her quest. And although they begin as strangers, they become their own kind of family—one that will ultimately uncover a secret that may threaten every creature in their world.

When did you know that you wanted to be a writer, and what books influenced you growing up?

I always tell kids I became a writer in 4th grade, when I wrote my first story. It was about a pig named Alice. (Even then, I was writing about animals!) After all, you don’t have to be published to be a writer. You just have to tell a good story.

But I took a LONG time to even think about trying to get published. I was in my late thirties before it began to seem like a possibility. I started out as a ghostwriter for packaged series like SWEET VALLEY TWINS and slowly gained confidence after many, many books.

I was quite a reluctant reader when I was young, a fact that seems to both surprise and encourage students. It wasn’t until I found my “best friend” book — the book that seemed to have been written just for me — that I began to see what all the fuss was about. (That book was CHARLOTTE’S WEB. And it’s still my favorite book.)

Charlotte's Web is one of my favorites too. Your book WISHTREE is a beautiful, nuanced story about a neighborhood tree and how it touches the lives of the people around it. Was there anything that surprised you about Red's story as you wrote it?

Thanks for your kind words. WISHTREE was truly a labor of love. I wrote it during the throes of the election, frustrated by all the vitriol and the “othering” of entire groups of people.

I started WISHTREE assuming that Red would be the main focus of the story, but soon realized that a whole community—raccoons, opossums, owls, skunks, a wily crow, and a kind young man — had to be part of the solution. And of course, that echoes the theme of the tale: that we are stronger when we work together as “welcomers.”

Such a wonderful, necessary theme. Published in 2012, THE ONE AND ONLY IVAN is still finding its way into the hearts and minds of readers. What is it about Ivan and his story that you think resonates most with people?

I think the fact that the novel was inspired by a true story intrigues young readers.  And the character himself is easy for them to relate to: they worry about Ivan’s vulnerability and appreciate his efforts to help a friend.

I love writing for middle grade students because they care about fairness and kindness. They’re becoming aware of the world around them, beginning to define what it means to be a good citizen and loyal friend.

Indeed. What are some of your current projects?

In May I published the first novel in a new middle grade trilogy, ENDLING. It’s about one of the last members of a doglike species and her search for more of her own kind. I’m working on the rewrites for Book #2, and have outlined Book #3.

This spring I also published SOMETIMES YOU FLY, a picture book illustrated by the inimitable Jennifer Black Reinhardt. It’s about trying and failing and learning and growing, which makes it perfect, I think, for graduations and birthdays and milestones.

I’m also at work on a new middle grade single title, but it’s too soon to talk about it!

BookPassage ~ Amazon ~ Barnes & Noble ~ Indiebound

BookPassage ~ Amazon ~ Barnes & Noble ~ Indiebound

BookPassage ~ Amazon ~ Barnes & Noble ~ Indiebound

Wednesday, August 8, 2018

P.S. I MISS YOU by Jen Petro-Roy

I met Jen Petro-Roy at this year's Bay Area Book Festival, and P.S. I MISS YOU is a beautiful Middle Grade story about the importance of finding your authentic self.

Eleven-year-old Evie is heartbroken when her strict Catholic parents send her pregnant sister away to stay with a distant great-aunt. All Evie wants is for her older sister to come back. But when her parents forbid her to even speak to Cilla, she starts sending letters. Evie writes letters about her family, torn apart and hurting. She writes about her life, empty without Cilla. And she writes about the new girl in school, June, who becomes her friend, and then maybe more than a friend.

As she becomes better friends with June, Evie begins to question her sexual orientation. She can only imagine what might happen if her parents found out who she really is. She could really use some advice from Cilla. But Cilla isn't writing back.

According to the "About" page on your website, you've worked as a children's librarian and as a teacher. In what ways, if any, did these careers contribute to your life as an author?

The one thing I have found throughout my careers is that I can't escape from books! I definitely believe that all of the work I've done is connected to and builds upon the others. I loved working as a children's and teen librarian--getting to order and recommend books, plan programs, and interact with patrons was so wonderful. It was also great because I could spend time with the age group I was writing about to get a sense of how my readers really act "in the wild."

What great experience! I love how P.S. I MISS YOU confronts the damage a strict upbringing can do to someone's sense of identity. What do you hope readers gain from Evie's story?

One of the things I try to get across in all of my books is that it is okay to be who you are. When those around you, whether parents or friends or family members or even "society", determine that you should act in a certain way or be someone other than you truly are, it can truly affect your life and self-esteem. In P.S. I Miss You, Evie's parents aren't evil, but they do cling tightly to beliefs and standards that ultimately prove harmful to both them and their daughters. Through Evie's journey, she realizes that she doesn't have to act and believe the way others do to be happy, and I so hope that my readers know that the same goes for them. The world may be a certain way, but you can be who you are.

Definitely a way to show readers that they can be authentic, not only within themselves, but in their everyday lives. In your upcoming books, GOOD ENOUGH, and YOU ARE GOOD ENOUGH, you explore issues related to body image and self-esteem. What do you think is most important for young people to know about these issues?

Body image concerns and eating disorders aren't just for girls. Even though Good Enough does feature a female protagonist, it's so important for readers to know that disordered eating can affect anyone--regardless of gender, age, sexuality, skin color, or socioeconomic background. It's hard to feel okay with who you are and what you look like in this appearance and accomplishment-based society, but recovery is possible. You can get through your struggles and learn to accept--even love--your body. You are worth it and you are wonderful.

So true--and helpful to remember. What are some of your current projects?

Advanced copies of Good Enough and You are Enough are starting to make their way out into the world (both will be released on February 19, 2019), and I'm hard at work on my next middle grade, which involves friend drama, swimming, and a girl struggling with an anxiety disorder.

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Tuesday, August 7, 2018

Release Feature: HERETICS ANONYMOUS by Katie Henry

I recently featured Katie Henry's HERETICS ANONYMOUS, and I'm happy to announce that it released into the world today:

Michael is an atheist. So as he walks through the doors at St. Clare’s—a strict Catholic school—sporting a plaid tie, things can’t get much worse. His dad has just made the family move again, and Michael needs a friend. When a girl challenges their teacher in class, Michael thinks he might have found one, and a fellow nonbeliever at that. Only this girl, Lucy, is not just Catholic . . . she wants to be a priest.

But Lucy introduces Michael to other St. Clare’s outcasts, and he officially joins Heretics Anonymous, where he can be an atheist, Lucy can be an outspoken feminist, Avi can be Jewish and gay, Max can wear whatever he wants, and Eden can practice paganism. After an incident in theology class, Michael encourages the Heretics to go from secret society to rebels intent on exposing the school’s hypocrisies. When Michael takes one mission too far—putting the other Heretics at risk—he must decide whether to fight for his own freedom, or rely on faith, whatever that means, in God, his friends, or himself.

Buy: BookPassage Amazon.com ~ Barnes & Noble ~ IndieBound

This post can also be viewed here.

Wednesday, August 1, 2018

THE TRAITOR'S GAME and RESISTANCE by Jennifer A. Nielsen

I've been lucky to feature Jennifer A. Nielsen here, and here. While I love her Middle Grade books, her new YA series, starting with THE TRAITOR'S GAME, gives readers a equally thrilling setting with two intriguing protagonists. She also has another historical fiction book coming out at the end of August, called RESISTANCE.

Nothing is as it seems in the kingdom of Antora. Kestra Dallisor has spent three years in exile in the Lava Fields, but that won't stop her from being drawn back into her father's palace politics. He's the right hand man of the cruel king, Lord Endrick, which makes Kestra a valuable bargaining chip. A group of rebels knows this all too well - and they snatch Kestra from her carriage as she reluctantly travels home.The kidnappers want her to retrieve the lost Olden Blade, the only object that can destroy the immortal king, but Kestra is not the obedient captive they expected. Simon, one of her kidnappers, will have his hands full as Kestra tries to foil their plot, by force, cunning, or any means necessary. As motives shift and secrets emerge, both will have to decide what - and who - it is they're fighting for.

Chaya Lindner is a teenager living in Nazi-occupied Poland. Simply being Jewish places her in danger of being killed or sent to the camps. After her little sister is taken away, her younger brother disappears, and her parents all but give up hope, Chaya is determined to make a difference. Using forged papers and her fair features, Chaya becomes a courier and travels between the Jewish ghettos of Poland, smuggling food, papers, and even people.

Soon Chaya joins a resistance cell that runs raids on the Nazis' supplies. But after a mission goes terribly wrong, Chaya's network shatters. She is alone and unsure of where to go, until Esther, a member of her cell, finds her and delivers a message that chills Chaya to her core, and sends her on a journey toward an even larger uprising in the works -- in the Warsaw Ghetto.

Though the Jewish resistance never had much of a chance against the Nazis, they were determined to save as many lives as possible, and to live -- or die -- with honor.

In our last interview, you said, "We all have families, and while some might struggle more than others, we tend to want the best for everyone in our family circle." In what ways have family struggles made it into the stories you write, and what, if anything, do you hope readers glean from them?

Family seems to play a role in everything I write because I think it’s such a universal connector. In THE TRAITOR’S GAME, the central character, Kestra Dallisor, has one of the hardest family situations I’ve created, one in which some family members might not want the best for her. In my forthcoming RESISTANCE, a holocaust-era historical, Chaya Lindner has what I consider to be the most tragic of family circumstances, Even so, these two young women are both deeply affected and motivated by their desires for love within the family bonds.

Completely understandable. THE TRAITOR'S GAME is one of your first forays into young adult books--at least on the published side of things. How did you know this story was YA instead of middle grade, and was there anything that surprised you as you wrote it?

I knew that THE TRAITOR’S GAME would have to be young adult because the relationship between Kestra and Simon (one of the rebels in her land) was going to be so intense - and it only continues to intensify as the series progresses. Certainly there is a romantic element to that intensity, but there is also their individual roles and goals within the story which are not always compatible.

There are always surprises with each book I write - my characters will always have secrets that I discover along the way, but I didn’t realize how stubborn Simon is as a character - it makes him very challenging to write because he gets an idea and fiercely holds on to it, regardless of outside opinions. Sometimes that’s a good thing because it keeps him focused, but sometimes it creates enormous problems for him too. I also discovered a few surprises along the way about Kestra. She has an inner strength I deeply admire, one which propels her to do something beyond her reach simply because she trusts herself to figure it out along the way.

What she does in the first chapter certainly proves that! Speaking of which, you write some of the best beginnings I've ever read. What, in your opinion, are the necessary parts of an effective story beginning?

Thank you! I generally begin my stories mid-action, and usually with the character in a bind. This creates immediate tension and shows the character in motion. So when we first meet Kestra in THE TRAITOR’S GAME, she is quietly returning home after two years in exile. No one should know where she is and yet the road is blocked by members of the rebellion. Beginning with the first chapter, the reader understands that someone must have betrayed Kestra, they get to see how Kestra responds to the danger, and they are thrust very quickly into the main conflict of the story.

Which I love. If you could tell your younger writer self one thing, what would it be and why?

I was always a writer, but it took me a long time to understand that becoming an author was an option for me. I had such high respect for those who created the books I loved that it never occurred to me they might be real people living real lives who simply made the choice to pursue this career. I would tell my younger self to write for more than a hobby, to take every class available, and to read my favorite novels like they were textbooks on how to write. I would tell my younger self that amazing things are ahead, if only I will just believe it’s possible, and then sit down and write.

Wednesday, July 25, 2018

ASH PRINCESS by Laura Sebastian

I first saw Laura Sebastian on a panel at the Bay Area Book Festival, and once I saw the cover for ASH PRINCESS, and heard her talk about the premise, I had to feature it:

Theodosia was six when her country was invaded and her mother, the Fire Queen, was murdered before her eyes. On that day, the Kaiser took Theodosia's family, her land, and her name. Theo was crowned Ash Princess--a title of shame to bear in her new life as a prisoner.

For ten years Theo has been a captive in her own palace. She's endured the relentless abuse and ridicule of the Kaiser and his court. She is powerless, surviving in her new world only by burying the girl she was deep inside.

Then, one night, the Kaiser forces her to do the unthinkable. With blood on her hands and all hope of reclaiming her throne lost, she realizes that surviving is no longer enough. But she does have a weapon: her mind is sharper than any sword.

And power isn't always won on the battlefield.

For ten years, the Ash Princess has seen her land pillaged and her people enslaved. That all ends here.

According to your website bio, you initially moved to New York City with the idea of settling elsewhere. What inspired you to stay, and what do you love most about the city? 

 Growing up in a small town in the south, the idea of living in New York City was terrifying to me—it was the polar opposite of everything I knew. At the same time, it also had an allure because it was so different. I thought I would stay for a year to see what it was like and get it out of my system, then end up somewhere in between the two extremes. But somehow, NYC just became home to me. The high-energy bustle that I thought would overwhelm me became exactly the environment I function best in.

High energy environments are the best! ASH PRINCESS has one of the best prologues I've ever read. How did you know this story needed a prologue, and in what ways, if any, did the story's beginning shape itself over time?

I think prologues get a bad rep because a lot of times they just aren’t necessary. They provide too much backstory, usually featuring characters the reader doesn’t know or care about. It was important to me that if I was going to have a prologue, I had to keep it short and impactful, to introduce readers to the brutality of the world they were entering and put them in Theo’s head from the first page, showing exactly what had built her.

It's beautifully crafted, and it's no surprise that ASH PRINCESS also became a NYT Bestseller. Where were you when you heard the news, and what was your initial reaction?

 I was out in LA, on the tail end of some events, relaxing and visiting friends. Some other NYC friends happened to be around too (Kidlit Wondertwins Jeffrey and Jeremy West), so we were hanging out, grabbing coffee. I was honestly not expecting it so when my editor called I was totally shellshocked. After that, it’s a blur of celebratory phone calls and champagne!

Sounds perfect! What are some of your current projects?

 I’m finishing up the ASH PRINCESS series! The sequel, LADY SMOKE, is out on April 2nd, and the last book will be out about a year after that. I’m also horrible at sitting still so I’ve got a handful of other projects in the works that I can’t talk too much about yet, but hopefully I’ll get to share some more details soon.

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This post can also be viewed here. 

Wednesday, July 18, 2018


I found the cover of HERETICS ANONYMOUS on Twitter. This is an excellent book with an amazing premise, releasing on August 7:

Michael is an atheist. So as he walks through the doors at St. Clare’s—a strict Catholic school—sporting a plaid tie, things can’t get much worse. His dad has just made the family move again, and Michael needs a friend. When a girl challenges their teacher in class, Michael thinks he might have found one, and a fellow nonbeliever at that. Only this girl, Lucy, is not just Catholic . . . she wants to be a priest.

But Lucy introduces Michael to other St. Clare’s outcasts, and he officially joins Heretics Anonymous, where he can be an atheist, Lucy can be an outspoken feminist, Avi can be Jewish and gay, Max can wear whatever he wants, and Eden can practice paganism. After an incident in theology class, Michael encourages the Heretics to go from secret society to rebels intent on exposing the school’s hypocrisies. When Michael takes one mission too far—putting the other Heretics at risk—he must decide whether to fight for his own freedom, or rely on faith, whatever that means, in God, his friends, or himself.

Though you spent your teen years in Northern California, you decided to stay on the east coast after college. What do you love most about where you currently live?

I've lived on the island of Manhattan for the last ten years, with a brief stint in Dublin, Ireland halfway through. I had just turned eighteen when I moved here, so this has been my home for my entire adult life. What I love most about New York City is the sheer breadth of opportunities in such a small geographic area. And not just the big things, like Broadway and the Met, but wonderful hole-in-the-wall restaurants and book readings in tiny bookstore basements. You have access to just about anything you could possibly want. Except personal space. And good avocados.

As a Californian, I'm not sure how I would deal with the avocado situation. And personal space is definitely necessary! HERETICS ANONYMOUS offers a humorous take on unlikely rebels. How did you know this needed to be a lighthearted story?

I've always written comedies. It started out as a tactical move, when I was writing plays. When you're sitting in a dark theater, the only cues you have about whether an audience is enjoying themselves is laughter or audible sobbing. I went with laughter, and that's the tone I'm most comfortable with now. Also, stories about religion tend to be very heavy. That makes sense, of course--faith (and lack of faith) is deeply meaningful to people, and it's easy to hurt someone's feelings. But I wanted to write a story where faith was funny, but no one was being made fun of. I hope I succeeded.

I'm always glad for a humorous tone--especially in what I read. You also write plays. How is this different from writing novels, and what do you like most about each medium?

I love how many people are involved in the creation of a play. And of course, many people are involved in the creation of a book, too, but theater has an extra focus on creative collaboration. There are so many times while writing a book where I come to a setting description or a detail about someone's clothes, and I think, "Oh, whatever, the set designer or costumer will deal with that." But oh wait, no, they won't, because this is fiction and all those things are my job now. The very first drafts of my books are about 90% characters talking to each other, 8% interior monologue, and 2% description. It's a struggle.

In plays, everything about your characters has to be expressed through dialogue. If you need the audience to know something, it has to be spoken out loud or conveyed through subtext. One important thing I learned while getting my playwriting degree is that no one ever tells the whole truth, not even fictional people. I love writing dialogue and I love figuring out how to tell the audience what they need to know, even if the character doesn't know it. But something I love about fiction is that you're expected to give your protagonist an internal monologue. You can show what's happening in someone's head and dig deep into their thought process. It adds a layer of depth to a character you might not get in theater, simply because that's how the medium works.

I love that! What are some of your current projects?

My second YA book (another contemporary stand-alone) is releasing from HarperCollins in Summer 2019. I can't say much about it yet, but I can tell you I've been working on it like there's tomorrow.

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Tuesday, July 17, 2018

Release Feature: HULLMETAL GIRLS by Emily Skrutskie

Back in May, I featured Emily Skrutskie, and she talked about HULLMETAL GIRLS, which just released today into the world!

Aisha Un-Haad would do anything for her family. When her brother contracts a plague, she knows her janitor's salary isn't enough to fund his treatment. So she volunteers to become a Scela, a mechanically enhanced soldier sworn to protect and serve the governing body of the Fleet, the collective of starships they call home. If Aisha can survive the harrowing modifications and earn an elite place in the Scela ranks, she may be able to save her brother.

Key Tanaka awakens in a Scela body with only hazy memories of her life before. She knows she's from the privileged end of the Fleet, but she has no recollection of why she chose to give up a life of luxury to become a hulking cyborg soldier. If she can make it through the training, she might have a shot at recovering her missing past.

In a unit of new recruits vying for top placement, Aisha's and Key's paths collide, and the two must learn to work together--a tall order for girls from opposite ends of the Fleet. But a rebellion is stirring, pitting those who yearn for independence from the Fleet against a government struggling to maintain unity.

With violence brewing and dark secrets surfacing, Aisha and Key find themselves questioning their loyalties. They will have to put aside their differences, though, if they want to keep humanity from tearing itself apart.

Buy: BookPassage ~ Amazon.com ~ Barnes & Noble ~ IndieBound

Wednesday, July 11, 2018

CITY OF LIES by Sam Hawke

I first got acquainted with Sam Hawke through Janet Reid's blog on publishing, often referred to as "the reef." And when I first heard the premise for Sam's book, CITY OF LIES, I knew a feature was in order:

I was seven years old the first time my uncle poisoned me... 

Outwardly, Jovan is the lifelong friend of the Chancellor’s charming, irresponsible Heir. Quiet. Forgettable. In secret, he's a master of poisons and chemicals, trained to protect the Chancellor’s family from treachery. When the Chancellor succumbs to an unknown poison and an army lays siege to the city, Jovan and his sister Kalina must protect the Heir and save their city-state.

But treachery lurks in every corner, and the ancient spirits of the land are rising...and angry.

According to your bio, you have a deep fear and distrust of ducks. What is the worst duck encounter you've had?

Oh boy. This hatred and distrust runs deep. As a teenager I used to house/dogsit for a school friend’s parents in the holidays. One year they built a massive duck enclosure in their garden too. I’d had chickens most of my life, mostly little silkies, so I wasn’t bothered and assumed it would be a similar experience. Boy. Boy was I wrong.

Chickens are affectionate little things. They come running when they hear you, they’ll sit on your lap for stroking. Ducks ... ducks are not your friends. Those things are little feathered psychopaths. And when I say little I actually mean ‘substantially bigger than you previously realised’ and by ‘feathered’ I mean ‘except for the one they’ve torn all the feathers off and pecked into a bleeding husk of a bird’. And look maybe they just walked into the shelter at dusk when my friend’s Mum clapped at them like she claimed, but they sure as hell didn’t do it for me. Their house was basically a box in the middle of the back third of the enclosure, with sharp scratchy bushes behind and on either side of it but - critically - a big enough gap both ways that ducks could easily divert from the ramp at the last second and dart left or right to run around behind instead of going in. There was no way to block off those exits, as I learned only too well while chasing aggressive belligerent feathered demons around in the increasing dark, getting scratched and filthy and filthy, swearing and crying with frustration. Even with three people (eventually I admitted defeat and begged help from my family) it was a complex and stressful military campaign to get them in every night. I looked after those ducks for many years but I never stopped hating them.

I don't blame you! Not sure I can look at ducks in the same way either. And speaking of prickly things, in CITY OF LIES, you dabble with different kinds of poisons. What about this was the most fun to write? 

Early on in my world building I decided I wanted it to play in a proper secondary world, with only minor crossovers in plant/animal life with things we would recognise. Which meant not relying on existing poisons but largely making up my own based on the flora, fauna, climate, and sociological history of the region. Possibly I’ve always had a weird interest in ‘things in nature that can kill you’ so I really enjoyed doing it. When I was about eight we got this Readers Digest book called ‘Australia’s Dangerous Creatures’ and I was weirdly, inexplicably obsessed with it, read it cover to cover hundreds of times, so my subconscious is full of deadly plants and venomous and poisonous animals that probably heavily influenced my world building!

That sounds scarier than ducks, even! You still blog on a somewhat regular basis on samhawkewrites.com. What do you think the future of blogs might be, and what do you enjoy most about maintaining your blog? 

Blogs are dead, I’m told? Honestly, I don’t know. I still like reading them, but I have a lot less time than I used to. There are some blogs I think are an invaluable resource for emerging writers - for example, I read Janet Reid’s blog at jetreidliterary.blogspot.com and Chuck Wendig’s terribleminds.com religiously. But I guess more broadly people are communicating in different ways now.

My blogging has never been what you’d call regular, partly for time reasons and partly self consciousness - I still find it hard to feel confident that my rambling thoughts about something are worth an entire blog post.

Not sure I agree with you--I'll bet you have a lot of great things to say. What are some of your current projects?

I’m working hard trying to get the sequel to City of Lies done. Then there will be at least a few months of editing, and I’m hoping to squeeze in an in-world story for an anthology but that’s dependent on me coming up with a workable idea (I tend to think in novel length!). After that, we’ll have to see how City of Lies does and whether there’s any appetite for the Poison Wars novels to continue!

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This post can also be viewed here.

Wednesday, July 4, 2018

Happy Fourth of July!

Happy Fourth of July, everyone!

Photo courtesy of mentalfloss.com
Stay tuned next week for an interview with Sam Hawke, author of CITY OF LIES!

Outwardly, Jovan is the lifelong friend of the Chancellor’s charming, irresponsible Heir. Quiet. Forgettable. In secret, he's a master of poisons and chemicals, trained to protect the Chancellor’s family from treachery. When the Chancellor succumbs to an unknown poison and an army lays siege to the city, Jovan and his sister Kalina must protect the Heir and save their city-state.

But treachery lurks in every corner, and the ancient spirits of the land are rising...and angry.

Buy: Bookpassage ~ Amazon ~ Barnes & Noble ~ Indiebound

Monday, July 2, 2018

Release Feature and Review: CINDERELLA BOY by Kristina Meister

I was lucky enough to snag an ARC of CINDERELLA BOY, and I'm so glad I did. This book releases today; it's a sweet love story that pulled me in from the first page:

Sixteen-year-old Declan is the perfect son . . . except for one tiny issue. When his sister Delia comes home to find him trying on her clothes, he fears her judgment, but she only fears his fashion choices. One quick makeover later, Declan is transformed into Delia’s mysterious cousin Layla and dragged to the party of the year, hosted by Carter, the most popular boy in school.

When Carter meets Layla, he fumbles to charm her. He adores her sense of humor and her poise. But when she vanishes in the middle of the night, he’s left confused and determined to solve the mystery of who she is.

As their school year begins, their high school embraces a policy of intolerance, and both Declan and Carter know they must stand up. Carter is tired of being a coward and wants to prove he can be a knight in shining armor. Declan is sick of being bullied and wants desperately to be himself. If they team up, it could be a fairy-tale ending, or a very unhappy ever after.


Declan lives for trying on his sister's clothes--until she catches him at it one day. Delia doesn't judge him--if anything she offers the kind of support most would wish in a sister--including introducing Declan to his crush, Carter, as the ever-mysterious "Layla." Carter, meanwhile, finds something in Layla he hasn't found with other girls--an intellect that can match his, and someone willing to see the side of himself that he hides from his other, more popular, friends. Declan, however, gets a conscience about his deceit, and starts to care enough for Carter to let him go. But Carter has some ideas of his own--ones that Declan can't even dream of--especially when Carter fights for something worth believing in. Where Kristina Meister really stands out as an author is with her distinctive voice--separate enough from her characters for them to be autonomous, but consistent enough throughout to keep readers engaged. The characters, in and of themselves, are very deep thinkers, and their conversations are fascinating. Even better, the budding romance is deftly supported with a really meaty plot--with battles against intolerance that teens are still currently fighting. Overall, this book has a beautiful message about self-confidence, and the importance of being yourself, and readers who struggle with self-esteem--even the adults among us--can find ways to gain comfort in their own skin within these pages. This book is definitely a must for high schoolers who are trying to find themselves amid the pressures from parents and community--and for those of us who need ways to bring our own unique individuality to the world.

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Wednesday, June 27, 2018

WE'LL FLY AWAY by Bryan Bliss

I first met Bryan Bliss at the Glen Workshop in 2012, and featured him here and here. His newest book, WE'LL FLY AWAY, debuted on May 8:

Uniquely told through letters from death row and third-person narrative, Bryan Bliss’s hard-hitting third novel expertly unravels the string of events that landed a teenager in jail. Luke feels like he’s been looking after Toby his entire life. He patches Toby up when Toby’s father, a drunk and a petty criminal, beats on him, he gives him a place to stay, and he diffuses the situation at school when wise-cracking Toby inevitably gets into fights. Someday, Luke and Toby will leave this small town, riding the tails of Luke’s wrestling scholarship, and never look back.

But during their senior year, they begin to drift apart. Luke is dealing with his unreliable mother and her new boyfriend. And Toby unwittingly begins to get drawn into his father’s world, and falls for an older woman. All their long-held dreams seem to be unraveling. Tense and emotional, this heartbreaking novel explores family, abuse, sex, love, friendship, and the lengths a person will go to protect the people they love.

You've published three books so far. In what ways do you balance drafting and editing different projects?

Honestly, I’m never working on two books at the same time. I’m fairly monogamous when it comes to writing books. I spend so much time thinking about the characters and the story that it takes up all of the time I have for writing and editing. In the past, whenever I’ve tried to circumvent this slightly annoying process, I come away with half-baked ideas that don’t keep me interested. But the good part is: once I’m all-in on an idea, I know it can be a book.

Sounds like a good approach. In our last interview, when talking about WE'LL FLY AWAY, you said, "It's a book I've been wanting to write for five years, but it never felt like the right time. I just couldn't put any words down on it. But I knew I was going to write it, so it kind of lived in the back of my head like a trapped bird." How did you know it was the right time for this book?

It’s kind of the same answer as the first question! I have a number of ideas that continue to float around in my head, waiting for the moment where everything comes together, and it becomes the idea I’m going to write next. Weirdly, this happens with small details. For We’ll Fly Away, it was realizing that Luke was a wrestler. It was them finding the plane in the first paragraph of the story. Those little moments where I catch a glimpse of who the characters are is supremely important to my writing. Once I know what’s important to them, everything else starts to fall into place rather quickly. Thankfully, it’s already happened with my next book. But I’ll probably keep exactly what that means to myself for a little longer.

I hope we can find out more about that soon! If you could tell your younger writer self one thing, what would it be and why?

Start earlier. While I believe it’s never too late to start writing, I wish somebody would’ve taken me aside and said, “Pursue this. You’re good at it.” Now, if I could magically go back in time I’d probably give myself a few pieces of advice as well. Like, read more. Work harder. And don’t let anyone tell you you’re stupid or that you don’t deserve this. And then I’d look around, make sure whatever genie that had sent me back wasn’t watching, and I’d say, “You’re going to make it. Have fun.”

I wish someone had done that for me too. The tagline on the cover of WE'LL FLY AWAY says, "None of us are ever finished." What significance does this quote have for you?

To say, “none of us are ever finished” is to make a radical statement that, in my mind, is inherently theological. It’s the idea that, no matter what, we have opportunity after opportunity for second chances. We can salvage the pieces of our lives that have been broken. When it comes to the death penalty and the writing of We’ll Fly Away, this was the linchpin that pulled everything together. I wanted readers to see Luke – as well as the actual women and men on death row – as actual human beings who are capable of transformation and growth. People who may have done monstrous things, but don’t have to live the rest of their lives as monsters. Bryan Stevenson, author of Just Mercy, put it best: “Each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done.”

Buy: BookpassageAmazon.com ~ Barnes & Noble ~  IndieBound

Buy: BookpassageAmazon.com ~ Barnes & Noble ~  IndieBound

Buy: BookpassageAmazon.com ~ Barnes & Noble ~  IndieBound

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Monday, June 25, 2018


Back in May, I got to feature Alex White, and we discussed his forthcoming novel, A BIG SHIP AT THE EDGE OF THE UNIVERSE. I'm excited to report that this book is now out in the world:

Boots Elsworth was a famous treasure hunter in another life, but now she’s washed up. She makes her meager living faking salvage legends and selling them to the highest bidder, but this time she might have stumbled on something real–the story of the Harrow, a famous warship, capable of untold destruction.

Nilah Brio is the top driver in the Pan Galactic Racing Federation and the darling of the racing world–until she witnesses the murder of a fellow racer. Framed for the murder and on the hunt to clear her name, Nilah only has one lead: the killer also hunts a woman named Boots.

On the wrong side of the law, the two women board a smuggler’s ship that will take them on a quest for fame, for riches, and for justice.

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Wednesday, June 20, 2018


I first met Aminah Mae Safi at this year's YALLWEST conference--where, unsurprisingly, she ran out of Advanced Reader Copies of her debut, NOT THE GIRLS YOU'RE LOOKING FOR. The book just came out, and I can't wait to buy it:

Lulu Saad doesn't need your advice, thank you very much. She's got her three best friends and nothing can stop her from conquering the known world. Sure, for half a minute she thought she’d nearly drowned a cute guy at a party, but he was totally faking it. And fine, yes, she caused a scene during Ramadan. It's all under control. Ish.

Except maybe this time she’s done a little more damage than she realizes. And if Lulu can't find her way out of this mess soon, she'll have to do more than repair friendships, family alliances, and wet clothing. She'll have to go looking for herself.

You're agented by Lauren MacLeod at the The Strothman Agency. What was your query process like, and how did you know Lauren was the right agent for you?

I queried this book a couple of times, but I went through re-writes each time I queried. The time when I found Lauren, I did #DVpit. It was amazing to be able to pitch this book in a space that was so supportive and so excited for a main character like Lulu. She’s mixed race and she’s Muslim and pitching during #DVpit made me feel like there was a whole community of readers and writers that were ready for her.

The rest of the query process was pretty standard. I queried the agents that showed interest from the pitch event. I had a request from Lauren for a partial, and then a couple months later for a full and then an offer. I think she’d been traveling in the summer. Lauren and I just jived on the phone, which was amazing. She saw the core of my book and wanted to preserve that Not the Girls You’re Looking For is ultimately about friendship.

My piece of advice when you do get to the point where you talk to an agent is this— ask them what they want to change. Because you’ll likely do a round of revisions with your agent. Lauren and I were on the same page with what we wanted to change and what we wanted to preserve. She was also excited about upcoming projects I had in mind.

Excellent advice! On your website, you've said that NOT THE GIRLS YOU'RE LOOKING for is your "ode to mean girls, messy friendships, and bad decisions." What do you hope readers take away from Lulu's story?

That they don’t have to be perfect to take up space in this world, to take up space in the pages of stories. And also, that we can all push past our worst days and our worst selves and grow into better people.

Indeed we can. You also have an art background. What do you love most about art, and in what ways does it let you stretch your creativity? 

Art history has been a love of mine for as long as I can remember, even before I actually knew what it was. So much of art history was, for me, taking the visual arts and connecting them to the time and place and people who made them. Art is at the heart of culture, of politics, of religion, and even of science. Art is about the stories we tell and why we tell stories is what keeps me going back to all kinds of art— watching movies, listening to music, visiting the paintings hanging in museums, as well as writing my own books.

When I get blocked, I often go to the museum. I think there’s something about looking at art that helps me get out of my head and keeps me from stagnating in my own storytelling problems. Nine times out of ten, that’s what works.

Wonderful. What are some of your current projects?

I’m currently working on an enemies to lovers rom com set in LA as two girls work together to make a film and try very hard not to fall in love. I started it when I was up in the Bay Area and homesick for LA— so it’s my love letter to the city, to my favorite places, and my more complicated relationship to films in general. It will be out June 2019, so look out for more info on my Instagram (@aminahmae) or my website (www.aminahmae.com) soon!

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Wednesday, June 13, 2018

RABBIT & ROBOT by Andrew Smith

Once I saw the cover for Andrew Smith's new book, RABBIT & ROBOT, I knew another feature was in order. This book breaks all the right rules, and Andrew had some interesting new things to share as well.

Cager has been transported to the Tennessee, a giant lunar-cruise ship orbiting the moon that his dad owns, by Billy and Rowan to help him shake his Woz addiction. Meanwhile, Earth, in the midst of thirty simultaneous wars, burns to ash beneath them. And as the robots on board become increasingly insane and cannibalistic, and the Earth becomes a toxic wasteland, the boys have to wonder if they’ll be stranded alone in space forever.

In our last interview, you said, "I don't think there has been anything that has educated or impacted me more than traveling and meeting people from unfamiliar places." What has been one of your most favorite unfamiliar places to travel to, and why?

It's impossible for me to pick a "most favorite" because everywhere I've been has been unique in ways that set it apart from anywhere else. I like the experience of newness. That said, last summer I took my son to Europe and during part of our trip we stayed with my friends Els and Guy at their home in Geraardsbergen, which I had never been to before and I thought it was lovely. They took us to the city of Ghent, another place I'd never been, and I thought it was one of the most spectacularly beautiful little cities I've ever seen. There are these candy sellers in Ghent who set up carts about five feet away from each other, and they make the same product, candy noses, so they compete with each other. And they hate each other, and have even gotten into fistfights before over whose candy noses are better. It's quite an interesting and bizarre story. Here's a picture of one of the guys with his candy noses:

I can't imagine anything better than rival candy nose vendors! And speaking of petty arguments, I like how RABBIT AND ROBOT explores the consequences and chaos of human destruction. What do you think matters most about what makes us human, and what hopes, if any, do you have for the human race? 

The fact that you like an exploration of chaos and human destruction is quite telling, Karen. But then again, so do I, so... um...

There is a point in the novel where the narrator, a kid named Cager Messer who is obsessed with all the things he's never had the opportunity to do, says, "I figured it out: love and hope are what make us what we are. I couldn't see this before we came to the Tennessee. So the Tennessee saved us, and doomed us, too, all at the same time."

So there you have it in a nutshell: love and hope are the things that essentially define us as human beings, and then there's the whole doom and chaos and destruction thing going on as well.

Do I have any hopes for the human race? That's a tough one to answer since it's in our nature to hope, to visualize an outcome that puts us in a better place. I suppose if everyone on the planet reads Rabbit & Robot, and then as a result decides to stop doing all the shitty things we're doing to the planet, to each other, to kids, to economic systems, to ourselves, then just maybe. But I'm not the first writer who's imagined the possibility of a grim future given the path we're on. Just take a look at some Orwell, Huxley, or Vonnegut, whose novel Player Piano is chillingly becoming our reality. There's a good academic paper in there somewhere.

And because Rabbit & Robot makes a rather dark prediction about where capitalism is taking us, here's a picture of my son standing in front of a meeting hall for socialists in Ghent.

A dark prediction--but a beautiful building. The cover of RABBIT AND ROBOT was designed by Mike Perry. What do you like most about the cover, and in what ways do you feel it honors the story?

Coincidentally, I just sent Mike an email yesterday about that cover. I think I've been so fortunate and blessed when it comes to cover art, across all my eleven novels and their reiterations in paperback and foreign editions. But the cover for Rabbit & Robot is probably my favorite one so far. The style of the art--its wild colors and jittery, frenetic appearance--really captures the sound palette of the story. 

When I first saw Mike's design, I spent hours looking at it, hunting for all the little story elements he was able to incorporate. It is a fantastic, unforgettable, and beautiful piece of art. And I'm one of those readers who likes to keep looking back at the cover of what I'm reading to see how well it fits with the content. I'm highly satisfied when that connection is there, and I'm kind of appalled when a publisher just gets it wrong. I even had business cards made from the cover art. Here's a picture of some of them (admit it, you want one): 

I completely want one! If you could tell your younger writer self one thing, what would it be and why?

This is a tough one.

I always loved writing, and for as long as I can remember I always wanted to be a writer. But "being a writer" to me just meant someone who writes stuff--NOT someone who gets PAID to write stuff. I never thought about it as a job, because jobs were always so unsatisfying to me. I was a serial quitter at all jobs. Even after I got out of college and actually did get paid to write for newspapers and radio stations, I was unsatisfied, mostly because I resented being told what to do. So I'd quit and drift, quit and drift, repeat and repeat.

It was the right thing to do.

And I kept writing; always writing. I was being a writer without being A WRITER.

Later on in life, when I was dared by a dear friend to submit something for publication, I submitted something that directly got published--my first novel, which wasn't nearly my first. I had been writing novels since I was in high school (they were terrible, but I wasn't focused on BEING a writer, I was only focused on writing). And to be perfectly honest, I didn't really WANT my stuff to be published, because I didn't really want anyone to read the stuff I'd been writing for all those drifting decades. And I especially didn't want it to be yet another "job". I just took the dare because it was a dare, kind of like when I ate grasshoppers.

Here's a picture of me when I was seventeen years old. I was in Austria here, taking one of many semesters off from being an undergrad (and yes, I was writing stuff then; mostly terrible poetry and angry song lyrics):

So, yesterday, I got this, from an amazingly talented writer, and one of my favorite musicians ever, Courtney Barnett:

I love it. And I love what she said to me, because it's exactly what I would say to my younger writer self: to keep on keeping on. To me, it means this: Don't lose sight of the fact that the purest kind of writing you can do, what will give you the greatest sense of satisfaction, is the writing that you do for yourself. It's why I have found myself receding at times, so I can try to get back into that solitary internal space where nothing else matters.

Buy: BookPassage ~ Amazon.com Barnes & Noble ~  IndieBound

Buy: BookPassage ~ Amazon.com Barnes & Noble ~  IndieBound

Buy: BookPassage ~ Amazon.com Barnes & Noble ~  IndieBound

Buy: BookPassage ~ Amazon.com Barnes & Noble

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