Slow Going

At this point in my life, I know better than to bother with New Years resolutions. I’m perfectly aware that I should make an effort to be healthier, but also that I don’t really have the time or energy to focus on it. That’s a personal failing, and also a problem for Future Nicole. Future Nicole is not much a fan of Past Nicole, but Present Nicole just has to live with that.

It’s been slow going on a few fronts. Last year I had my first literary nonfiction published in a journal, which was a huge source of pride for me – it even won a prize! One of my few goals for 2018 is to get another piece published. I have plans to resubmit some writing I submitted last year that wasn’t accepted by any publications, which I’ve since revised. I’m also trying to rework a couple Alexandria Archives stories and hoping I get a bite on those. And I’d like to be able to produce some new pieces with the intention of submitting them to particular publications, only that’s been kind of dragging. Actually, it’s more like dead in the water. I can’t seem to get past titling a Google Doc. It’s really frustrating, considering that I can bang out an episode script or short story for the Archives in maybe a couple days. And that novel I keep meaning to finish? Yeah, that’s not going anywhere either. I feel like my writing has changed since we started the podcast. Not that it’s a bad thing, but it’s affected how I go about the process in general. I’ve always been a fan of genre lit, and it’s a little hard to move past that. I wish it was taken a little more seriously by publications. But I also know I need to achieve balance as a writer, and that’s totally on me. Learning to flex my skills can only help me grow.

Speaking of podcasting, remember that podcast that The Spork Review and I were working on? The one that was supposed to launch in November? That didn’t happen. To be fair, I should’ve known better – Skye and I were both pretty busy with the holidays. In addition to family commitments I’ve been working two jobs, and Skye has a lot of professional responsibilities that eat a lot of her time. We also had a slew of technical errors, ranging from malfunctioning mics to editing snafus. But at long last, we’ve got an episode recorded! With the help of the incomparable Uri Sacharow of the Alexandria Archives we got some editing done and are in the purchase of acquiring hosting, cover art, and some theme music. After that, we’ll be submitting to iTunes and Stitcher for approval. Then, at long last, Youth Services 099 will be an actual thing that people can listen to! Of course we’ll have some kinks to iron out, but I’m looking forward to watching the show develop and hopefully gain some momentum. We’re already active on Instagram and Twitter and with luck we’ll be able to keep up with things. I’m crossing my fingers that this is a successful venture.

As for the Archives, I feel like we’ve kind of plateaued as a show. It’s not a bad thing – our download numbers are good, and we’ve managed to get a decent following on social media. We knew going into this that we were unlikely to achieve the success of some bigger shows, and we were okay with that. Our primary goal was to highlight some awesome horror shorts, and I feel like we’ve definitely done that. Recently I had a chat with the guys about where to take the show from here, and we see it evolving somewhat before it draws to a close. When we first started, we didn’t know where exactly we were going to take things…we just figured we’d let them unfold for a while and figure it out from there. Now, we have a concrete endgame in mind. It’s a little scary, but overall I’m satisfied with what we’ve done here. Mostly I’m happy that it’s not going to be the end for us. I like working with Uri and Aaron too much to have it stop with the Archives. We’ve got a couple projects in mind after things wrap up and I’m looking forward to them already. Here’s hoping you are, too!

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Book Review – My Brigadista Year, Katherine Paterson

Before I get this review underway, I should probably state upfront that it was hard to give My Brigadista Year an impartial assessment. My parents, as I’ve mentioned before, are Cuban immigrants – and while they’ve lived in the US for most of their lives now, my friends have jokingly referred to Miami as Cuba: The Sequel. The Cuban refugee community thrived, sure, but it never forgot what it lost. Families were separated, sometimes for good. Homes were lost, life savings and precious heirlooms surrendered, careers rendered null and void. My grandmother, a university educated physics teacher, would have to find work in a canning factory to get by. But I guess that wasn’t so bad – my friend Monica’s grandfather was executed by firing squad. At least my grandparents made it through alive.

My Brigadista Year is the story of Lora, a young teen who signs up to teach campesinos to read and write as part of Fidel Castro’s literacy program. Lora is an idealistic 14 year old whose passion for teaching shines through. As uncomfortable as the subject matter made me, Lora won me over – I had to admire her dedication and tenacity. Paterson does a great job of depicting the ups and downs of Lora’s experience, from her joy as her students learn to write their own names to the fear of retaliation from insurgents camped out in the mountains. That said, the text occasionally felt a little stilted – while the book is marketed as middle grade, I thought it could easily be read by younger children. Not a bad thing, just not what I was expecting.

It’s no Bridge to Terabithia, but I think Paterson accomplished what she set out to do – capture the excitement of a new day both for Lora and for Cuba as a nation. It would’ve been nice if Paterson had done a better job of depicting the negative aspects of the Castro regime instead of waxing poetic on the positive. At one point, military men capture and execute insurgents near the town in which Lora is teaching. This is sort of glanced over, and Lora doesn’t think about it for very long. Perhaps, I thought, Paterson was somehow unaware of Castro’s dictatorial tendencies. Only in the Author’s Note, she makes it clear that she was. While she notes that the book isn’t intended to act as a “full or balanced account” of the early days of Castro’s regime, she acknowledges that he strengthened his hold over Cuba by jailing and executing dissidents. Freedom of speech? Not a thing, so much. My father at the age of 13 was nearly arrested for requesting a banned book at a bookstore. My father at the age of 13 was kind of a smartass. This was the incident that prompted my grandparents to make the move to the US, where my father would eventually meet my mother. It’s probably one of the great ironies of my life that I might not exist if it weren’t for a banned book.

Overall, I have to say that I was a bit disappointed with My Brigadista Year. I’d like to think that I went into it with an open mind, and there were aspects of the book that I honestly enjoyed – seeing Lora’s students’ happiness at being able to read and write was really magical. But at the end of the day, what they were being taught to read and write was Communist propaganda. And that’s kind of difficult to look past. I rated this book 2/5 stars, an “It’s Okay” by Goodreads standards, which I think was a fitting assessment.

Book Review – I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter, Erika L. Sanchez

There’s a special place in my heart for stories about kids raised by immigrant parents. My parents were pretty young when they reached the U.S., and at this point they’ve lived most of their lives in the States. I grew up very much immersed in the Cuban-American community in South Florida, but all things considered, I was lucky. My parents bore the brunt of the culture shock. They were much more lax with me than their parents were with them. I don’t forget to be grateful for that, because I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter is a worst-case scenario story for me.

The protagonist Julia is described as kind of a rebel, a troublemaker, decidedly Not Perfect. But it was hard for me to see her as anything but a typical teen. Maybe a tad mouthy, but otherwise pretty ordinary. All she wants is to spend time with her friends, go to college, become a writer…basically everything I wanted, at her age. But where my mother grudgingly dropped me off for movie dates at the Dolphin Mall, Julia’s parents are overwhelmingly old-fashioned. That’s kind of a weird way to describe it, because I had schoolmates whose parents were a lot like Julia’s. Is it “old-fashioned” if it’s still not really atypical? My parents never really concerned themselves with what I was reading or watching, but Cindy’s parents threw out all her Marilyn Manson CDs and demanded to know why she was into such Satanic stuff. Alex’s parents never let her go to sleepovers, and threatened to remove the door to her bedroom when they caught her on the phone with a boy. My own grandfather didn’t understand why my mother would even think of going away for university when there was a perfectly good community college campus just 30 minutes away from their house. The “old” attitudes aren’t so old, for some people.

There were moments while reading I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter when I felt like I was being smothered. Julia’s feelings of being overwhelmed and denied of her agency were painfully well presented. I mean, seriously painfully. Julia’s parents basically run her over with their beliefs again and again. There were elements of her upbringing that mirrored my own, though considerably more severe – the misogyny, the anti-intellectualism. Julia’s parents don’t expect her to be anything more than a secretary, and seem personally offended by the notion that she might want something else. Her needs and desires are like a slap in the face to them. The death of Julia’s older sister Olga serves to exacerbate things as her parents desperately try to shape Julia into something more like Olga. But Olga, Julia gradually discovers, wasn’t quite the Perfect Mexican Daughter her parents believed she was.

Even as Julia slowly gains some agency, every step comes with sacrifice. Sacrifice of sanity, of her image of her sister, of her belief in her family’s power to protect her. The story is strong, but it’s the emotion and Julia’s development as a character that stands out, for me. This is another one that I’m not sure I could make it through again – it was just too frustrating. I couldn’t help wondering how I might have turned out if it had been my grandparents rather than my parents who had raised me. My relationship with my mother has never been (and will never be) strong, but she never questioned my desire to write. And without spoiling too much, Julia’s fight for agency mostly works out, in the end. Which is just as well, because anything but a happy ending for her would’ve been crushing along the lines of They Both Die at the End…and I seriously can’t handle another one of those.

If you aren’t frustrated to the point of rage by generational conflict in literature, you’ll probably enjoy I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter. I’m looking forward to seeing what Sanchez writes next!

Book Review – Moxie, Jennifer Mathieu

I’ve had the good luck lately to come across a few “one-seat” reads, something I hadn’t experienced in years. Moxie was one of these, and I’m so glad I finally got around to picking it up. I’d actually checked it out weeks ago, and it had been languishing on my desk at work since. After slogging through That Inevitable Victorian Thing (which dragged on to a relatively satisfying ending, I guess) I was ready for something different. I hadn’t planned to start Moxie, even then. But I left the Rick Riordan book I’d meant to read next at home, and well, Moxie was just sitting right there, wasn’t it? So I cracked it open before my desk shift and gave it a go.

Bad librarian confession: sometimes, I read on the front desk. Usually this isn’t an issue. I can be aware of what’s going around me even while I’m reading, I tell myself. But that wasn’t really the case with Moxie. It was such a strong, engrossing read that I found myself pretty much dead to the world in the couple hours it took me to race through it.

There have been some pretty great feminist reads recently, like The Female of the Species, another book I blew through not too long ago. But Moxie definitely stands out. If I could make one complaint about the book, it’s that its feminism is just too ideal, too perfect. It lacks the faults that modern day feminism has in the form of diversity and inclusion. In Mathieu’s novel, it’s perfectly intersectional. White girls, girls of color, straight girls, queer girls, good girls, bad girls, all of them rally under the banner of Moxie. Trans representation was the only thing lacking, but perhaps understandably so given the book’s small-town Texas setting.

Mathieu’s protagonist Viv is fantastic. She’s a believable teenage girl who mostly prefers to fly under the radar, but is much like any other kid. She has her friends, goes to football games, crushes on guys, so on and so forth. She’s motivated to start the titular zine by the gross sexism in her school and hometown, and in part by a shoebox full of reminders of her mother’s rebellious days. She’s not looking to change the world – she’s just frustrated and angry, a feeling most women are probably well familiar with. Who hasn’t been subjected to bullshit dress codes, been told that “boys will be boys” when something shitty happens? I can remember being in high school and helping a classmate staple her skirt’s hemline back up after admins tore it out for being “too short” when really, she was just damn tall. Sometimes it’s easy to overlook these little microaggressions. Sometimes you need to do something about it.

There’s no stone left unturned. Even the issue of well-meaning male allies is addressed in a satisfying manner. I was a little worried about what to expect from the ending – unfortunately, even movements that start with the best intentions unravel thanks to bullshit red tape and the workings of the machine. Without spoiling too much, I can say that Moxie wrapped up on a positive note. It even made me cry a little. Luckily there weren’t any small children around to be alarmed.

If you’re ready to be angry and excited and thrilled all in short succession, I definitely recommend Moxie. If you’re looking for something to give a girl for the holidays, I recommend Moxie. If you’re looking for something to give a boy for the holidays, I recommend Moxie. Moxie for everyone, all day, every day! You won’t regret it.

BookFest Fever

…or flu, anyway.

I’m back from my visit to Louisiana for the Louisiana Book Festival, and sick as a dog. Initially I thought I’d partied too hard at the author party, but by Monday morning my sinuses were in full riot. I can’t talk without sounding like I’m choking on something, which made ordering my beloved Chestnut Praline Latte a bit of an endeavor. But hey, the CPL is back! Yay?

I set out from San Antonio on Friday morning, with Marie Lu’s Warcross powering my drive. I was able to finish it on my way back to Texas, and rated it a 4/5. It was definitely a great listen, but I wasn’t expecting it to end with something of a cliffhanger! Sequel soon, please?

It rained on Friday night, but Saturday was a beautiful day for the festival. It was bright and breezy. That said, I spent most of it in the Barnes and Noble bookseller tent doing some serious damage to my bank account, or attending sessions inside the State Library. I got to meet some really cool authors, and I left town with a stack of autographed goodies.

I spent Sunday with my former housemate, who gave me still more books for my early Christmas present, and hit up some of my favorite Baton Rouge haunts.

A fun Halloween evening would’ve been the icing on the cake…but sadly, I spent mine sick in bed. I’m back at work today and trying to chug along, with my box of tissues close by. There’s not much I hate more than being sick. I do think I’m on the mend, and I’m hoping I’ll be over this by the Texas Book Festival this weekend. I intend to see still more awesome authors, pick up more signed books, and earn a few alarmed emails from my bank. In the meantime, I plan to start making a dent in my nightmarish TBR list and chug some cold medicine. Wish me luck, folks.

Up and Coming

Two posts in one day? No way!

I’m dusting off this blog because I’ve got a lot going on these days, most of it very exciting.

On October 28th I’ll be a panelist on podcasting at the Louisiana State Book Festival from 3-3:45 PM. I’ll also be hosting the Urban Legend trivia at 10:30 AM! Louisiana will always have a very special place in my heart – it’s where I spent some of the most important years of my life, and some of my best friends still live there. As a former Louisiana State Library employee, I’m so honored to be back at Book Fest as a guest!

I’ll be attending the Texas Book Festival November 4th-5th. I won’t be hosting any panels, just attending as a lowly plebe, but I’m insanely excited to get to see some great authors! I’m hoping to get a few books signed and crossing my fingers I don’t pass out from the sheer awesomeness.

I’m also excited to announce that I’ve got a new podcasting project on the horizon! While I’ll still be voicing Morning Wood on The Alexandria Archives, I’ll also be hosting a podcast on youth services in the library with the amazing Skye of The Spork Review. I’m so, so excited about getting this show off the ground. We’ll be discussing programs and services for kids and teens at the library, as well as featuring the occasional author interview! The show won’t premiere until mid or late November, but we’ve already gotten the ball rolling and will be announcing the title soon. If librarianship floats your boat, keep an eye on this blog for more information!

Book Review – They Both Die at the End, Adam Silvera

There are books that make you laugh.

There are books that make you cry.

Then there are  books that throw you into an existential angst, leaving you gripped by a great and terrible fear of your own mortality.

Or maybe that only happens to paranoid shut-ins like me, I’m not sure. In any case, it’s been a long time since I’ve been as moved by a book as I was by They Both Die at the End. Silvera introduces us to two young men (boys, really), Mateo and Rufus, who have both learned through the service called DeathCast that their next 24 hours will be their last. First thought: whose terrible idea was this, and why isn’t there a way to opt out? But never mind that. The boys meet through an app called Last Friend, both of them facing their ends alone for different reasons.

The story that follows is, quite simply, beautiful. The boys live their final day taking risks they’ve never taken before, though Mateo adamantly refuses to risk hopping on Rufus’s bike. Along the way we meet a cast of characters, doomed and not, who the boys encounter throughout the day. Each has their own approach to death that forces you to think about things in ways you might not have before. What does it mean to face your own end? How has your life affected those around you? Do you live this day like any other, or do you paint the town red?

Knowing that both Mateo and Rufus will die at the end (it’s in the title, after all) doesn’t affect the suspense at all. How will it happen? When will it happen? Will it come as a surprise, or will they have time to compose themselves and face it down? Will they go together, or separately? When the time comes it manages to pack a punch, leaving you screaming “SWEET CINNAMON ROLL, NO!” Or maybe, again, that was just me.

I cried like a baby. Not just at The End, either. There were so many profound moments scattered throughout the novel. There was so much love, and all kinds of love, all of it beautiful in its own way. Silvera crafted something really amazing here.

In all likelihood, I’ll look at They Both Die at the End the same way I looked at the film Pan’s Labyrinth – it was an enchanting, wild ride, but dear god don’t make me do it again. I made the mistake of reading the final pages of the book first thing in the morning and spent the rest of the day terrified by the myriad ways I could accidentally kill myself. Get into a car accident? Choke on a cookie? Trip over my cat and bust my head open? Said cat would probably eat me before they found me, too. He’s ungrateful like that.

So unless you’re a paranoid shut-in like me, please, please check out They Both Die at the End. I promise, you won’t regret it!

Book Review – The Raven Cycle, Maggie Stiefvater

This is not a review about a book, but rather a series of books – The Raven Boys, The Dream Thieves, Blue Lily Lily Blue, and The Raven King. It might seem like biting off more than I can chew, reviewing four books in one go, but it’s hard to look at each of them individually rather than as a singular, well-executed narrative.

In short, I loved these books. LOVED them. But let’s start from the beginning.

I have kind of a weird relationship with YA. I read quite a lot of it, but I often find it lacking. Writing teenagers is hard. It’s so easy for them to come off as whiny, or childish, or far too precocious for their age. The last YA series I felt I really enjoyed was probably the Infernal Devices trilogy, and it’s been quite a while since then. But after repeated references to the Raven Cycle by a favorite YouTuber, I decided to give it a shot. So, I checked out the first book from the library. I liked it well enough. Then I checked out the second book. Then I checked out the third AND fourth books, because it was the weekend and I had no intention of stirring from my house until I was through with them.

Where do I even begin? The story follows Blue Sargent, the non-psychic daughter of a talented psychic mother, as she falls in with a crowd of “raven boys” – students at the prestigious Aglionby Academy in Henrietta, Virginia. Gansey, the enigmatic de facto leader of the pack, guides the others on his hunt for the Welsh King Glendower, who he believes is alive and sleeping. The promise of a magical favor dangles over their heads. It was hard not to fall in love with Stiefvater’s characters – no-nonsense Blue, ambitious trailer park-raised Adam, street racer Ronan, occasionally charming Gansey, and Noah, who loves glitter. They’re not perfect, but their depth and character development makes them easy to relate to. Hell, even the side characters were fantastic – Mr. Gray, who first makes his appearance in The Dream Thieves, quickly became a personal favorite.

The kids are aided on their search by psychics and stuffy English academics, and hindered by murderous Latin teachers and yuppy collectors of curiosities. Their relationships evolve, and each grows in their own unique way. The ending left a little to be desired – without spoiling anything, let’s just say this is one of those stories where it turns out the quest was more important than the final destination – but it didn’t do anything to detract from the wild ride on the way there.

Honestly, if I didn’t have such a backlog of books waiting to be read, I’d probably have turned right back around and read the whole series over again. But alas – another day, another book to review. I’ll definitely be coming back to these in the future!

 

Book Review – I Am Providence, Nick Mamatas

Every so often, I come across a book I go into expecting to enjoy only to be sorely disappointed. I Am Providence should have hit all the sweet spots. Female writer at a Lovecraft conference? Murder mystery? I love those things! I’m going to love this book!

Only I didn’t love I Am Providence. In fact, I didn’t even like it.

The protagonist, Colleen, puts on her Mystery Solving boots when her conference roommate Panossian is brutally murdered. Now, again, I’m a fan of murder mysteries. Give me some Charlaine Harris and P.D. James any day. Only, Colleen’s meddling comes across as just that – meddling. She has no real reason to think the police can’t solve this one on their own, or to continue digging when all she’s doing is clearly antagonizing everyone around her. She constantly gets it wrong and gets herself into more trouble. In short, she seems to flub everything she tries her hand at. Which I suppose is realistic, when it comes down to it – these things are better left to law enforcement, right?

Even the touches of Con Culture we’re exposed to come across as ham-handed. Yes, sexism and misogyny are rampant at these kinds of things. Any girl who’s spent time in the Nerd World can tell you that. But Colleen’s opponents come across as cardboard figures, lacking any real menace or conviction. The in-fighting seems petty and ridiculous, more childish than necessary. It was hard to take any of it seriously.

It doesn’t help  that the murder victim was so thoroughly unlikable, it’s hard to care that he’s dead. I must say that the one real Lovecraftian twist was the narration from the corpse’s point of view. There’s a sort of intrinsic horror to be found in the notion of being trapped in one’s rotting body after death. As Panossian’s consciousness observes the aftermath of his murder with a sort of detached bewilderment, we get a look at the conference attendees and the investigation as it unfolds. Turns out, there isn’t a single likable character in the bunch. Everyone’s a creep or an asshole. And with Colleen so hard to like as a protagonist, there’s not really anyone to root for.

The ending fell flat for me. I suppose Mamatas left it somewhat open-ended to add to the unsettling atmosphere, but all it got from me was a “WTF?” The twist (if you can call it that) was a sore letdown, and the whole thing just felt a bit ridiculous.

I rated I Am Providence 2/5 stars. I felt like it had so much potential. Mamatas’s writing was solid, and if he’d taken time to develop the concept further it could have been a much stronger story. But the whole thing read almost like sub-par fanfic about the Lovecraftian community. What a waste!

Think on your feet

Part of my job is coming up with display ideas for highlighting the library’s collection of picture books. Pinterest is a huge help with this, and before my first day I had a few ideas in mind. One of them turned out like this:

I put this display together three months ago with the vague hope that we’d have some rain come September.

Then, Hurricane Harvey happened.

So joking about the rain when folks have literally been rained out of their homes would obviously be in poor taste. Scratch that idea. Luckily I had a backup board I’d put together with no real plan for displaying it in mind. I put my display up this morning and it looks a little like this:

Cute, relevant, and not horribly insensitive. I can use the other display next year, perhaps, when things have died down. These are the kinds of things that you have to be prepared for as a librarian, whether you’re showing off picture books or planning services for refugee populations. Our goal is always to meet the needs and expectations of our community. I think my current job is doing a pretty well at teaching me that. While it’s had its ups and downs, I’ve learned a lot in the past 4 months. Here’s to learning more.