Tuesday, March 31, 2009

The Debs - Barrie Summy's The Book Review Club

Welcome to Barrie Summy's The Book Review Club, April edition. This month, I want to talk about THE DEBS by Susan McBride.

Technically, Susan McBride isn't a new author. Actually, she's the author of the successful Debutante Dropout mysteries (which I enjoyed). But THE DEBS is her first Young Adult novel, so it's a change of direction and I was interested to see how it turned out. McBride is also launching a new "women's fiction" series next year called The Cougar Club, about 40-something women dating younger men. I'm anxiously awaiting that one, too, because McBride is a (barely) 40-something woman married to a (slightly) younger man . . . who just happens to be a guy with whom I went to college and played hockey.

I have met Susan. We're BFFs, so I can use her first name like that. (Not really. I've met her, like, twice. But she's really really nice and has this way of making you feel like you really ARE her friend, even if you just met her in a crowded public place.) So I want her to succeed. But I wasn't sure what to expect from The Debs . . .

And I was even less sure when I started reading. The brand names were dropping so thick and fast, I couldn't find the story. Oh, wait, there it is. Holy cow, what's up with this girl?! She's our first main POV character and she's blowing off her friends to go have sex with a guy who all her friends know is a complete jerk who treats her terribly. Niiiice.

I had a hard time relating to the extreme wealth and privilege of the characters. All of the characters, especially with the current world economic situation. And I had a hard time relating to their big dramas and problems, too. I really wasn't connecting to the story.

Or so I thought. And then I realized that I'd finished the book in one sitting. And I was looking around for the next one, LOVE, LIES AND TEXAS DIPS, which I know doesn't come out until June. For the next several days, I kept drifting back to the characters in my mind and thinking about their situations, their challenges, their goals.

The girls had become real to me, and the guys had too. I have a theory about what's really going on with Avery, but I'm still trying to figure out Dillon's story. Even The Debs themselves grew on me. And I have hopes that college will help them figure out their priorities . . . especially Mac (the brain) and Ginger (the environmentalist) who I found most sympathetic.

Though I also found myself caring about Laura (the one who ditched her friends for a guy). And even "The Queen of Mean, Jo Lynn [who] is so easy to hate" (according to one review). I thought Jo Lynn was going to be a textbook Mean Girl, but she isn't. She's mean, yes, but she's sympathetic, too. And it's not like Laura, Mac, and Ginger are perfectly nice. They call Jo Lynn and her friends The Bimbo Squad.

I think my favorite thing about THE DEBS was how real the characters seemed. The boys' behavior was completely mysterious and confusing to the girls, and not easily deciphered by readers, either. The girls themselves were a mixture of child and woman, sometimes seeming so young and sometimes seeming far too old. In short, they were teenagers.

They were all older and more sophisticated than I was at that age, for sure. But given their lifestyles, I found that completely realistic. I saw those kids from afar, when I was in high school. They didn't go to my school, necessarily, and we didn't often attend the same parties, but occasionally we'd cross paths at a golf tournament. Even public schools can have golf teams.

Shortly after finishing THE DEBS I read Orson Scott Card's new direct sequel to ENDER'S GAME, ENDER IN EXILE. After reading that, I was even more impressed with Susan McBride's grasp of teenage life.

McBride's teenagers aren't stupid. They're intelligent and passionate. But they're not all philosophers, either. They're not exactly the same as they were at 6 and will be at 60. They're kids. They have different interests and priorities than they had last year or they'll have next year. They make dumb choices and lack foresight. They care passionately about things. They're . . . interesting.

It depresses me that this is what t(w)eenage girls want to read, though. Brand-name dropping novels about ultra-rich, snobby, classist kids casually having sex, drinking, doing drugs, and being otherwise unpleasant.

It seems that this is what girls (and women) want to read, though, and McBride serves it up nicely. But she slips a little bit of perspective into the story throughout. She creates the world in which the characters live, and she doesn't ridicule it, but she neither does she condone it or its excesses.

Well done, deftly handled. Thanks for the fun read!

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Submission Guidelines

From a magazine's (current!) instructions to writers:

Do not use the italic, large-size, or boldface characters some computers are capable of generating.


Indeed!

(I had a deadline tonight, plus I cooked for hours this evening at Time for Dinner, after a day of keeping up with my two girls plus a spare that I'm borrowing for a couple of days this week. I had forgotten how much work infancy is. Parenting seems so easy when others are doing the work . . . Anyway, I hope to be more brain-fresh tomorrow.)

Monday, March 16, 2009

Writing Goal

A couple of months ago, I emailed back and forth with one of the organizers of Love Is Murder about pitching to agents at the conference.

"Don't forget to pitch to editors, too," she said. "After all, the goal is to be published, however that comes about."

In the end, I decided against pitching to the editors who were at that meeting, just because I didn't feel like any of them were the right fit for this project at this time. (From their own words about what they're looking for, I believe they'd agree.) But I've been thinking about what the conference organizer said ever since.

"After all, the goal is to be published, however that comes about."

I've decided that I do not agree. That's not the primary goal, not for me.

I'm not just dying to see my name on a spine, my search result on Amazon. (As it turns out, there are 3 search results for me at Amazon.com, though none of a novel with me as the author, of course.) I'm not that anxious to have my book out there, to be able to tell people that I'm a published novelist.

I want to produce the best work that I possibly can, and that means working with talented, dedicated people who "get" me, who love my work, and who want to help make my writing better.

I also want to build a career out of this.

Those are my goals. It's not "just" to be published.

1) Write the best story I can write.

2) Build a career out of it.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Book Club and Toy Party

I'm in two writers' critique groups and two book clubs. One of the writing groups comprises published writers, the other is for folks at the beginning of their writing careers. Similarly one of my book clubs reads typical book club literary fiction (Love in the Time of Cholera, The Book Thief, that sort of thing, usually published within the past year). The other book club is a little more diverse in terms of geography, age, lifestyle (e.g. kids or no kids, partnered or not), and reading material. Over the past year we've read plays, classics, and genre fiction, but nothing published within the past 12 months.

My first book club, the book club book club, the one comprising mostly married suburban white women between ages 32-33 with young children, the one where we read A Fine Balance and The Life of Pi, met this week.

We discussed Just Do It: How One Couple Turned Off The TV and Turned On Their Sex Lives for 101 Days (No Excuses!) by Douglas Brown. Frankly, my expectations couldn't have been any lower. I read all the Amazon.com 1 star reviews. I scorned the idea publicly.

And then I caved and picked up a copy from the library, Ada comfortably settled on my hip. I scored a young librarian, probably somewhere around my own age, but I was in Mommy-running-errands mode and it hadn't even really occurred to me to be too embarrassed about my choice, at least until she carefully and obviously put the book face down on the counter and slid it across to me with . . . was that actually a wink?! "Book club selection," I found myself mumbling inexplicably. "Meeting tomorrow. Probably won't even read the thing."

I was uncomfortable. Who knew?! I started reading and taking notes about what I didn't like. Within a couple of hours, I'd already laughed aloud three times and put down my pen. There were parts that might have been better, parts that I didn't feel entirely comfortable with or had trouble believing. But over all . . . I really enjoyed the book! Which is not to say that Paul and I are going to attempt such a marathon ourselves. Craziness! But I would like for him to read it. There's good relationship stuff in there, in addition to humor and, um, suggestions and stuff.

To go along with the book discussion, my book club had an adult toy party. The engagement was billed as being, "sort of like a Pampered Chef party, but for sex toys." I knew what to expect, but somehow opening my friend's front door and seeing a large collection of colorful . . . toys . . . spread out on the coffee table was still somewhat jarring. No foreplay, just - pow! - vibrating pink silicone right there in view.

Weirdest of all - it was really fun. And the discussion afterward was so great. There are things that - believe it or not - even girlfriends don't often discuss seriously. At least not in my experience. And we talked honestly about some pretty significant but frequently ignored things.

And then I came home. Have I mentioned this week's homework assignment for our marriage enrichment Sunday School class? We're in the midst of a chapter called "God’s Plan for Sexual Intimacy." Pretend that your relationship with your partner is very new. And pretend that you're someone who would not have sex on the first date. Each day this week, set a limit for yourself. To stay in the mood, it might be helpful to remember all those bases we talked about incessantly in high school. Determine in advance how far you're willing to let things go each day; touch and cuddle with your partner . . . but don't go all the way! At the end of the week, at your discretion, you might choose to recreate a "wedding night" type of scenario.

Yeah. The timing of this book club selection and Sunday School homework assignment was a little . . . unfortunate. If Paul and I were newly dating high school kids, we might be considered just a little bit slutty.

So, how about you? If it were NOT assigned to you by your pastor, would you make a commitment to have sex with your partner every single day - no excuses - for a week? A month? 101 looooong days? When fighting, when sick, when traveling, when children won't sleep?

And have you ever been to one of those sex toy parties?

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Lifelines and Warning Signs

Barrie Summy's The Book Review Club (March)



I met CJ Lyons at Love Is Murder last month and immediately knew that I wanted to buy her book. She was on a panel with James Strauss, novelist and senior writer for House, M.D. (one of my favorite television shows): House VS Holmes: C.J. Lyons and Jim Strauss spar and chat about these two loveable, drug-addicted misanthropes. Someone asked a question about Lisa Cuddy, which sparked an interesting discussion about the portrayal of women in medical fiction.

We all agreed that Lisa Edelstein's character wears absolutely ridiculous clothes, and her character is not always perfectly . . . believable. "If you want a realistic portrayal of female doctors," Strauss said, "Read CJ's book."

Like a good, self-promoting new author, Lyons took this opportunity to hold up her first novel and introduce it: a behind-the-scenes medical drama set in a major trauma center in Pittsburgh, focusing on the intersecting lives and friendships between an attending physician (Lydia), a resident (Gina), a charge nurse (Nora), and a medical student (Amanda). The mystery in Lifelines, which published last spring, involves gay rights activists and neo-Nazi skinheads. She was also promoting her second novel, a sequel to Lifelines. The mystery in Warning Signs, which just published last month, is much more medical . . . and personal for one of the major characters (looking at you, Amanda!).

I was immediately hooked. I bought Warning Signs the next day (CJ was offering a buy the second book, get the first free deal, which I could not refuse) and started reading right away. I read straight through both books, though not without a hiccup here and there.

First was the cover. When I saw it up close I nearly backed away. "Realistic portrayal of women in medicine," I reminded myself. "Written by an award-winning author and real ER doc."

I picked up the book despite its cover, and wasn't disappointed once I got past the art. I like the layout and design just fine; it's the models that drive me crazy. They look like models. I totally don't buy any of those women as doctors. I sure don't think the very young-looking brunette in the white coat looks like Lydia Fiore, ER attending and former street kid. Maybe the red head could be a nurse, and the blonde a med student. But I sure don't buy the tall African American woman as a tough, assertive, bulimic third year emergency medicine resident. The four women look like . . . models. Young models with professional hair and make-up.

The second hiccup happened on P. 4: Trey Garrison . . . glanced up, revealing a pair of vivid hazel eyes that locked onto Lydia's gaze.

"Ack!" I thought. "I've been tricked into reading a romance novel." I didn't love that style of writing, which happened occasionally through both books, but I was caught by the pace, the mystery, and the lives of the four women. Indeed, Lyons is a member of Romance Writers of America in addition to a few mystery writers' organizations, and describes the series as "Thrillers with Heart." Upon reflection, I feel like the novels fall slightly more on the side of "romantic suspense" than "medical thriller," though there's a lot going on in the stories and only one romance arc completes with each novel. Actually, I keep going back and forth on how I'd categorize this one.

My third hiccup came in Warning Signs, when I decided that the characters were a little too flawed. Lydia's past is . . . intense. Which would be fine, but each of the other main characters is equally damaged. And I really don't like Gina. I'm sure that I'm supposed to, and it looks like Book 3 will be her book, so here's hoping that I start to find her just a touch more sympathetic.

My fourth hiccup came as Nora repeatedly missed the obvious signs of what's going on with her boyfriend. I have strongly suspected that Louis has a particular sleep disorder since early in book one, and I really hope that I'm wrong. I don't like to figure things out too much faster than the main characters, when we're given the same data. It also drives me crazy that Amanda keeps refusing to tell people that there's something physically wrong with her. Again: I know; other characters don't; it's uncomfortable for me. Especially when there's an easy and obvious solution: tell someone!

I really enjoyed reading Lifelines and Warning Signs, and am eagerly awaiting the third installment. But I still don't like the covers.

Mostly, I'm very interested to see where CJ Lyons goes next. There's something very fresh and honest about her, no artifice. I think she's an exciting new author to watch.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Not Writing (Enough), Not Sleeping (Enough) Either

Last week was a busy week.

This week is a busy week.

I try very hard to protect my two dedicated mornings a week for writing, but it's not going very well. It seems like there's always something oh-so-important that crops up to cut into both my morning and my evening writing times, slowing - but not stalling - progress.

How does this keep happening?

In the meantime . . .

I finished "knitting" my third hat. The first two were a little smaller than I wanted them to be (one in circumference, the other in length) and the third was much longer than I intended. Perhaps I'll have to start - gasp - counting rows or something. In the meantime, I'm all set for the next time a friend has a baby with a very small head. I intend to try arm warmers next; wish me luck.

I'm reading Brandon Sanderson right now, instead of the TWO books that I haven't read for my TWO book clubs that are meeting this week. (Sorry, book club pals.)

I read an interview with the refreshingly humble and apparently very hard-working Sanderson in which he said that he suspects he'll go down in history as a footnote on Robert Jordan's bio, as the guy who wrote the last book in the Wheel of Time series.

When I first read that, it made me a little sad for Sanderson. Here's a young guy, just starting out in his career, and he catches a big break. But there's a catch. The "big break" is too big; it pigeon-holes and typecasts Sanderson. His own work will never have a chance to be evaluated on its own merit; he'll never have a chance to build his own fan base; he'll always just be that guy who finished A Memory of Light.

The more I read him, though, the less concerned about that I am. Sanderson's writing style is distinct from Jordan's. He's also hard-working, dedicated, and prolific. He keeps publishing his own work while he's working on the Jordan novel, and he has a unique voice. His world building is fabulous. (Oddly, I have a hard time really connecting with and caring about his characters, but the setting and conflict are interesting enough that I'm willing to keep reading to find out what happens. I do, however, find that I put the book down more often than I expected to. I'll sit down with a cup of coffee and the novel, expecting to read a chapter while the children nap, and suddenly find myself in another room, checking my email, wondering what happened.)

But I probably wouldn't have picked up a Sanderson novel if I weren't a Wheel of Time fan trying to find out about the guy who's finishing the series. And now I've bought three of his novels and visited his website several times. I'm a fan of Sanderson's work through his connection to Jordan, and I doubt I'm the only one. I think he'll do very well for himself.

And now I need to go get a little beauty rest; early tomorrow morning Ellie and I are going to make our small-screen debut in a video about families with kids entering Kindergarten next year. I'm off to sleep in curlers.