Sunday, April 1, 2018

A Robin Hood Retelling about Friendship and Family: Every Shiny Thing by Cordelia Jensen and Laurie Morrison

Every Shiny Thing by Cordelia Jensen and Laurie Morrison | Goodreads

Publisher: Abrams/Amulet Books
Release: April 17, 2018
Source: Author
ISBN: 9781683352495
In this beautifully constructed middle-grade novel, told half in prose and half in verse, Lauren prides herself on being a good sister, and Sierra is used to taking care of her mom. When Lauren’s parents send her brother to a therapeutic boarding school for teens on the autism spectrum and Sierra moves to a foster home in Lauren’s wealthy neighborhood, both girls are lost until they find a deep bond with each other. But when Lauren recruits Sierra to help with a Robin Hood scheme to raise money for autistic kids who don’t have her family’s resources, Sierra has a lot to lose if the plan goes wrong. Lauren must learn that having good intentions isn’t all that matters when you battle injustice, and Sierra needs to realize that sometimes, the person you need to take care of is yourself.
What a beautifully-written, deeply-developed, heartfelt story. Every Shiny Thing is a sparkling, emotional novel that’s sometimes bright and bubbly, sometimes hard-hitting and heartrending—and it’s a joy to read. 

When I started reading Every Shiny Thing, I first fell in love with the impeccably-written dual-POV narrative, which spotlights two equally fascinating voices. First, we have Lauren, a girl from an affluent Philadelphia neighborhood who misses her brother after he leaves for a boarding school for autistic kids. And second, we have Sierra, a girl from a low-income part of town who moves to a foster home next door to Lauren’s house after her mother is arrested. Sierra’s side of the story is told in Cordelia Jensen’s signature free verse, which (as I’ve discussed at length before) stunningly plays with scenery, space, and sound. With lines like “if you ride a roller coaster long enough it starts to feel like a carousel,” Sierra’s sections use poetry in a way that’s artistic yet accessible—a perfect combination, especially for a middle grade novel. And Jensen’s verse is complemented perfectly by Laurie Morrison’s lovely prose, which transforms Lauren into an empathetic character and adds a rich, engaging texture to the story.

This half-verse, half-prose storytelling balance helps to keep the story’s two perspectives distinct, but it’s not the only aspect of the writing that does. Sierra and Lauren each have a marked personality with unforgettable traits—and their unique perspectives will have readers laughing, crying, cringing, and cheering, all within the span of a few pages. Whether you’re wishing you could support Sierra as she learns to look out for herself or reeling with secondhand dread as you watch Lauren’s well-intentioned Robin Hood scheme turn into an all-out obsession with stealing, you’ll be wholly invested in the lives of each vivid narrator.

I also appreciated the fact that Every Shiny Thing sends some hard-hitting, important messages about family and friendships, the extent to which we can do good in the world, and more—but is never heavy-handed in doing so. This novel treats pre-teens like the smart and perceptive (yet not infallible) people that they are, allowing its characters to learn and grow organically. As a result, the story is insightful yet not instructive, a perfect balance for a middle grade story that tackles tough subjects.

All in all, Every Shiny Thing reminded me why I love both middle grade fiction and dual-POV novels. I adored both narrators, both writing styles, and the work of both writers (and I can’t wait read more from both of them—hopefully in the form of another co-authored novel). I highly recommend this book to fans of middle grade contemporary stories that deal with difficult issues in a way that’s bright, colorful, and ultimately hopeful.  

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

NYC History, Poetry and Photography, and Families in YA: A Conversation with Cordelia Jensen | The Way the Light Bends Blog Tour

Good morning, lovely readers! I'm thrilled to be participating today in the blog tour for Cordelia Jensen's The Way the Light Bends (which I reviewed back in January). I had the privilege of speaking with her about her upcoming novel, and I hope our conversation gets you excited to pick up the book (because, trust me, you want to). But before we get started, here's a bit more about the book!

the book

The Way the Light Bends by Cordelia Jensen | Goodreads

Publisher: Philomel Books
Release: March 27, 2018
Source: Author
ISBN: 9780399547447
Virtual twins Linc and Holly were once extremely close. But while artistic, creative Linc is her parents' daughter biologically, it's smart, popular Holly, adopted from Ghana as a baby, who exemplifies the family's high-achieving model of academic success.

Linc is desperate to pursue photography, to find a place of belonging, and for her family to accept her for who she is, despite her surgeon mother's constant disapproval and her growing distance from Holly. So when she comes up with a plan to use her photography interests and skills to do better in school--via a project based on Seneca Village, a long-gone village in the space that now holds Central Park, where all inhabitants, regardless of race, lived together harmoniously--Linc is excited and determined to prove that her differences are assets, that she has what it takes to make her mother proud. But when a long-buried family secret comes to light, Linc must decide whether her mother's love is worth obtaining.

the interview

Forever Literary: Hi, Cordelia! Thanks so much for stopping by to talk about your fabulous book, The Way the Light Bends. I want to start out by talking about the setting, since that's such a strong element of your writing. Both of your novels are set in New York City, and both have such a strong sense of place. What is it that draws you to NYC as a setting?

Cordelia Jensen: I grew up in New York City but left at 18 and never went back to live there as an adult. So, the city itself still holds a lot of the emotional intensity I felt as a teenager. I always felt over-stimulated and never really at home in NYC—a bit too sensitive for the place itself—so I think I still write about it to work through some of those feelings. It was really fun to write so much about Central Park for The Way the Light Bends as I spent so much time there growing up. It was fascinating to learn so much more about the history of the place.

Speaking of Central Park, I loved that The Way the Light Bends spotlights a lesser-known piece of the city’s history—the story of Seneca Village in present-day Central Park. What drew you to this village and made you want to incorporate it into your second novel?

I actually had never heard of Seneca Village before I listened to a story about it on NPR. As I listened, I immediately had this vision of two disconnected sisters who used to be close. I then spent a lot of time researching this time period, including going on a Seneca Village tour led by the Central Park Conservatory. And, even more significantly, interviewing Dr. Diana Wall who was one of the professors who led the archaeological dig to find artifacts from Seneca Village. You can read more about her amazing work here. Dr. Wall also read The Way the Light Bends to make sure I had my facts straight!

That's all so fascinating. Do you have any other fun facts/little-known stories/cool Wikipedia pages about NYC you can share with us? (I’m such a fan of offbeat history facts.)

I have three that could be settings for a horror/ghost story:
1. Hog Island used to exist south of Rockaway Beach but was completely swallowed by the Hurricane of 1893. It was the only island ever to be totally eaten by a hurricane.
2. Since 1869, NYC has buried its unclaimed bodies on Hart Island. It is not open to the public, and houses millions of bodies.
3. There used to be an 18th Street stop on the 4/5/6 subway line. The stop is no longer used but you can still see it from 6 local train.

I definitely just spent a solid 20 minutes falling down the Google rabbit hole (and I linked the Wikipedia pages so others can do the same.) But back to The Way the Light Bends! Both of your books are also in verse—was this a conscious choice, or did you always know your stories wanted to be told in verse? And how does your decision to write in this style impact your storytelling and editing process?

Skyscraping was always in verse because it began with poems I had written about my father circa 1994-98 when I was at Kenyon College studying creative writing, specifically poetry. When I went back to school many years later to earn my MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts, my teacher Coe Booth read five of these poems and suggested I try a novel in verse. At first, it was a straight memoir, but then as I went on I decided to fictionalize it. I had never seen the current form of verse novels popular in YA, and it really felt like a perfect match for my writing style. I love the mood of poetry, but I really love character development and story too. I felt so lucky to find a form that felt so naturally suited to me and to Mira, who was undergoing such an emotional time.

The Way the Light Bends took many forms. The very first time I tried to write it (before my editor even saw it) I tried it in prose, but I couldn't quite capture the loneliness I wanted Linc to feel in that form. My agent (the supportive and whip smart) Sara Crowe agreed it should be in verse. After Liza acquired the book, I tried to write Holly’s voice and go between form poetry for her and free verse for Linc and this didn’t quite work either. In the end, Liza and I agreed that free verse was the best choice for Linc’s wild imagination and that the story was more Linc’s than Holly’s. I loved pushing the form to reflect her rich inner world.

In April, I have a debut Middle Grade release I co-authored with my friend Laurie Morrison. This is called Every Shiny Thing (Amulet/Abrams) and my character’s voice is also in verse whereas her character is written in prose. This helped delineate the voices but the verse again matched this character’s painful emotional journey.

I do think verse is a great choice for any character who feels trapped in a liminal space, as the verse novel is also an in-between art form—not all poetry, not all story. It’s a hybrid.

While reading, I was fascinated by the way the verse storytelling style intersects with Linc’s love of photography. For example, I loved that in novels in verse, words can be arranged in a way that almost creates a picture, adding additional meaning almost in the way a photograph might. Is it just me, or did you also enjoy working with the intersections between verse and photography? If so, in what ways did you notice your storytelling style and your protagonist’s passion playing off each other? 

I am so glad you brought this up! I absolutely tried to do this. Verse novels have also always felt like snapshots to me, so it was easy to think of a character who is a photographer seeing her own life in poems… that are also pictures. Like in Skyscraping with astronomy, I studied all the photography terms and then tried to weave them into poetry and see if I could create a poem that was about terms like aperture or dynamic tension. Furthermore, I thought about almost every word to see if I could make the space around it or its placement emphasize the visual nature of that word or expand the meaning of the word. I think Linc’s character and passion actually changed my writing as I wrote the story because I began to think of white space not just in terms of poetry but in terms of photography. The whole idea that Linc comes up with for her photography project grew organically from what I was trying to do with the book itself—stitching the past into the present.

I'm so glad it's not just me who appreciated the interactions between poetry and photography! (This is really such a clever intersection.) On another note,The Way the Light Bends features such a strong storyline about an intense, somewhat-fractured family. Do you think more novels for teens should feature storylines regarding family? And what would you like to see more of in terms of representation of families in YA? 

As a teen reader, I definitely loved to read about intense family situations, probably because I was living through my own. Because adolescence is a time where you are supposed to be defining yourself, which often becomes defining yourself in contrast to your family, this basic human conflict is rich for storytelling. I also love to think about how this conflict gets played out in a peer group.  I had so many deep and intense friendships and relationships in adolescence as well, and I think a lot about the intensity of those feelings as I write.

So much of the teen story is a family story. It seems like diverse, non-traditional families are being seen more and more, so this is only a good thing. I think a teen being able to see a reflection of her kind of family in a book is a really helpful, rewarding thing. Even a healing thing.

Speaking of family, I know your previous book, Skyscraping, drew from your own experiences and family. Did you have a similar personal connection to the characters/storyline of The Way the Light Bends? If so, how did that impact your writing process? If not, how did the process of writing a slightly less-personal story differ from the process of writing your more-personal debut novel? 

The exact family setup is not something I experienced firsthand. However, I do know what it is like to have a critical parent who negatively impacts your feelings of self-worth.  I do know what it is like to have a sister, and how close you can be at some points and distant at others. I certainly did (and still do) struggle with low self-esteem, and I was raised in a high-achieving environment that didn’t always feel like a great match for my level of sensitivity. But, a lot of the story is from my imagination and from the initial inspiration of Seneca Village.

This story was easier to write in some ways and harder in others. There is a freedom in telling a story that comes completely from your imagination but then, at times, it is overwhelming to think of how many ways to go with the story. Sadly, there was never a different ending for Skyscraping, if that makes any sense, so I always knew emotionally how the characters would end up. In The Way the Light Bends, I knew Linc would go from feeling isolated to feeling some sense of hope and belonging, but there were so many paths I could take to get there. In the end, I let her passion do the leading.

A beautiful comparison of two beautiful, bittersweet books. ♥️ Thanks again for stopping by, and before you go, let's do a quick lighting round:

Describe The Way the Light Bends in five words:
Artistic Linc pictures new life.

What’s the last YA book you read and really loved?
Well, it actually just won the Printz! Nina LaCour’s We Are Okay.

Tell us a fun fact about The Way the Light Bends:
When I first had the idea, it was a ghost story. (Maybe that is why I was thinking of all those haunting NYC facts?) Also, Silas was originally named Cam but it was too close to camera!

How do you go about picking your characters’ names? 
I love, love, love choosing names! It might be one of my favorite parts of writing. In Skyscraping, originally the character’s names were much closer to my family’s names. So, the main character was Lia (I am Cordelia) and the sister was Jewel (my sister is Julia). But Liza Kaplan (my brilliant editor) suggested I change the names so I could allow the characters more freedom to be who they needed to be for that story (since it was no longer a memoir). As soon as I switched Lia to Miranda/Mira I suddenly could find her anger as it felt like a tougher name! And then the “Winter” section of Skyscraping was born anew.

The names Linc and Holly came to me very quickly, I liked the sound together. I named them after the Lincoln and Holland tunnels. Sometimes I just put in names I really like, like Ellery, Chloe, Silas.
Mostly, names come quickly to me. But if I am stuck on a name, especially for a secondary character, I usually Google the top 100 names of the year the character was born. And then I go from there.

Name some authors who inspire you/your work:
I love Celeste Ng. Jandy Nelson, e.e. cummings, Sharon Olds, William Faulkner, Pat Conroy, Karen Foxlee. I am a big fan of word play and lyricism and of the family saga.

If you had a pseudonym, what would it be? 
Theodora Buxley

get the book

Hudson Booksellers | IndieBound | Powell's | Target

check out the other stops

3/19 – Arctic Books – Author Guest Post
3/20 – Forever Literary – Interview
3/21 – Hello Jenny reviews – Interview
3/22 – AEB Book Reviews – Review
3/23 – Book reporter – Review

3/26 – Stacked – Author Guest Post
3/27 – Blossoms & Bullets – Interview
3/28 – Booknerd Chelcie – Review
3/29 – Smada’s Book Smack – Playlist

Have you read Cordelia Jensen's work? Are you as big a fan as I am? Let me know in the comments. 

Thursday, February 22, 2018

Fifteen YA Books Set in the Recent Past

I adore historical fiction: any time period, any geographic location, any subject matter. One of my favorite sub-genres, however, is recent historical fiction, which I loosely define as any story set in the 1970s or later. Here are some of my favorites, and some that are on my TBR. (Click on the images to be taken to the book's Goodreads page.)

This sweeping story spotlights a Bengali Indian-British-American family that grapples with issues like cultural and national identity over the course of three generations. It's incisively insightful, and it will make you fall in love with each of its characters. (And anyone who knows my tastes knows I love multigenerational stories.)

Four wildly different lives intersect in this quiet, character-driven tale about finding and choosing your family. The story truly capitalizes on its Alaskan setting, creating a powerful sense of place.

This sweeping, atmospheric story about a dangerous love triangle is sure to draw readers into its summer setting.

Fifteen-year-old Vinnie's life is kind of falling apart; his girlfriend moved to California without saying goodbye, his parents are divorcing, and his mom is moving him away from his home in Queens. What follows is a story of phone calls, angst, and girl-next-door romance.

This A Separate Peace-esque novel is a quietly beautiful triumph. The storytelling style is disjointed, stream-of-conscious, and overall strange, and the historical setting adds the perfect touch to a stunning story about friendship and coming of age.

This book's setting is based on the Kowloon Walled City, a lawless city of crime and debauchery that stood in China from the mid-1900s to 1994, when demolition was officially completed. This story, then, is just as thrilling as you'd expect.

Based on the author's own experiences, this novel follows a girl who is sent to a less-than-supportive psychiatric hospital in the 1980s to seek treatment for her eating disorder.

When Laura, an American university student studying abroad in the Soviet Union, falls for a local boy named Alexei, she realizes they must keep their relationship a secret for their own protection. Complete with emotionally-charged world-building, this story about a fraught romance and a nation shrouded in secrecy will have you hooked.

A historic heat wave is scorching Fielding Bliss's small town the summer he makes friends with the devil. As temperatures and tensions rise, strange accidents begin to occur—and no one quite knows why.

This heartrending story about a gay girl growing up in small-town Montana is equal parts languidly character-driven and thrillingly page-turning. It's one of my all-time favorites. (P.S. It was also recently turned into a movie that won the grand jury prize at Sundance Film Festival! Apparently it hasn't been picked up for distribution yet, but it had better be soon.)

The "DIY, mix tape, and zine culture of the mid-1990s" sets the backdrop for this quirky friendship-to-romance tale.

This stunning tearjerker-in-verse set during the height of the NYC AIDS crisis tells a deeply-felt story of family, secrets, and growing up. It's perfect for fans of Tell the Wolves I'm Home.

Set 23 years ago, before the buzz of technology and social media set the beat of society, this story provides the perfect quiet, introspective setting for a quiet, introspective story about recovering from a tragedy and expressing yourself through poetry.

Set during the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, this story follows two teenagers dealing with loss and displacement.

If you're looking for a story set in the extremely recent past, this brilliant novel is for you. It centers around the Boston Marathon Bombing, spotlighting the reactions and private lives of teenagers across the country. From a Delaware teen with Superior Autobiographical Memory to an Idaho teen who's caught up in a risky "Plan" coordinated by an internet mastermind, each section of this book is enthralling.

What are your favorite YA books set in the recent past? I'm always looking for recommendations!

Wednesday, January 31, 2018

January 2018 in Review

A monthly wrap-up post? For the first time in—what—a year? Why yes, I'm trying to get my life together in 2018, and hopefully I'll be taking all of you along for the ride. January has certainly been A Month, so let's dive right in.

from my reading list

The Smell of Other People's Houses by Bonnie-Sue Hitchcock | Goodreads
This was the first (and by far the best) book I read in January. Told in four masterfully interwoven narratives, this story set in 1970 Alaska has a quiet, bittersweet beauty; an unforgettable cast including vivid secondary characters; and such a strong sense of place. It's going to be on my best-of-the-year list in December for sure. My full review just went up, and you can read it here

from my tbr

 806 by Cynthia Weil | Goodreads
This story of three siblings—one who throws blenders and plays guitar, one who's allergic to everything and is into magic, and one who is a varsity swimmer with a group of female fans—on an epic cross-country road trip to find their biological father sounds like the kind of quirky contemporary that's absolutely made for me. As they travel, they evade police, try their luck on the slots, and meet a life-changing pig, all to track down their father, Donor 806.

from my life 

  • I started the second semester of my sophomore year of university! The semester is already off to a stressful start; I'm enrolled in a program called I-Core (short for integrative core), which is something of a rite of passage (and supposedly the hardest semester) in the business program at my school. Essentially, you take four introductory classes—supply chain, marketing, finance, and a leadership/management course) with the same people, all while completing a massive semester-long group project wherein you propose and analyze a new product or service for an actual Indianapolis-based company. It's already intense and we've barely even gotten started, but I can tell I'm going to learn so much.

  • I started my internship at the Indianapolis Public Library Foundation! I get to work primarily with the Indiana Authors Award, an annual award program that recognizes writers with ties to my state, and I also get to help with fundraising and other tasks. As a business student, I can't wait to learn more about nonprofits, especially one so close to my heart. (I love the Indianapolis Public Library system so, so much.)

  • I applied to study abroad in fall 2018! If all goes well, I'll hopefully be spending next semester in London, which has been a dream of mine for probably at least ten years. Stay tuned for updates because they will definitely be coming. 
How was your January? What did you read, and what are you up to? Let me know in the comments! And to my fellow students, good luck with the new semester!

Tuesday, January 23, 2018

A Stunning Story with a Strong Sense of Place: The Smell of Other People's Houses by Bonnie-Sue Hitchcock

The Smell of Other People's Houses by Bonnie-Sue Hitchcock | Goodreads

Publisher: Wendy Lamb Books
Release: February 23, 2016
Source: Library
ISBN: 9780553497786
Alaska, 1970: Growing up here isn’t like growing up anywhere else.

Ruth has a secret that she can’t hide forever. Dora wonders if she can ever truly escape where she comes from, even when good luck suddenly comes her way. Alyce is trying to reconcile her desire to dance with the life she’s always known on her family’s fishing boat. Hank and his brothers decide it’s safer to run away than to stay home—until one of them ends up in terrible danger.

Four very different lives are about to become entangled. This is a book about people who try to save each other—and how sometimes, when they least expect it, they succeed.
Wow. Where do I even begin with this atmospheric, deeply felt, masterfully woven powerhouse of a story? The Smell of Other People’s Houses is the epitome of everything I love about literary YA, and it’s one of those books that reminds me why I love reading.

Starting on the first page, this novel had me entirely enchanted by its vivid, tangible setting. From a short prologue set in 1959, when Alaska became a state, to the rest of the novel, which spotlights Fairbanks and Southeast Alaska in 1970, The Smell of Other People’s Houses creates one of the most immersive, breathtaking backdrops I’ve ever read. I love novels with a strong sense of place, novels that practically seem to build a real-life location around each reader, and this novel does just that. Drawing from her family’s four generations’ worth of life in Alaska, Bonnie-Sue Hitchcock paints a masterful picture of the climate, culture, history, politics, and more of her state, creating an atmospheric story perfect for a snowy day.

Equally well-developed is each character’s story and the coincidental connections between each. At the beginning of the novel, we have four seemingly-separate narrators: Ruth, whose pregnancy throws her life through a loop; Dora, who longs to trade her abusive and neglectful family for another; Alyse, who wants to follow her dreams without disappointing her family; and Hank, a stowaway on a fishing boat who just wants to get away. However, as their tales progress, their lives intersect in surprising, never-contrived chance encounters. By the end of the novel, The Smell of Other People’s Houses has become an exquisite tapestry of stories, one that was quietly woven while you were too enthralled by each individual character arc to notice.

The four main characters aren’t the only ones who are spotlighted, though. The Smell of Other People’s Houses also features several key background characters with distinct personalities. These secondary characters not only aid in the chance meetings of the four protagonists, but they also receive stories, aspirations, and histories all their own, helping to create an unforgettable ensemble.

Best of all, The Smell of Other People’s Houses accomplishes its incredible world-building and character arcs using only 223 pages of sparse-yet-powerful storytelling. Not a single word is wasted, and Hitchcock often conveys complex feelings and sprawling scenes using only a few carefully-selected phrases. I can’t recommend this novel enough for fans of books that capture intense emotions and character development in a compact storyline—like Nina LaCour’s We Are Okay.

The Smell of Other People’s Houses was the first book I read in 2018, but I already know it’s almost definitely going to be on my best-of-the-year list in December. It’s quiet yet emotionally riveting, and it encapsulates beautiful themes of finding and choosing your family—deliberately and through chance. At times it will make you feel, as Ruth says, that your heart is all beat out, but it will bring you back to life with bittersweet happiness and hope. Especially if you like character-driven stories and novels that shine a spotlight on an uncommon setting, I cannot recommend this book enough.