Friday, February 28, 2014

Cephalopod Coffeehouse Review: Wave

Welcome to the Cephalopod Coffeehouse review, a cozy gathering of book lovers. Each month we gather to share our reviews of the best book we read in the last month. It's also a blog-hop, so thanks for hopping by!

"I am in the unthinkable situation most
people can't bear to contemplate."
I read two really excellent books this month, so I'm sharing one here and one (A Constellation of Vital Phenomena, by Anthony Marra) on my personal blog, Words Incorporated.

Wave is a grief memoir, a genre exemplified by Joan DidionIsabel Allende, and CS Lewis. I dunno—I think Sonali Deraniyagala might trump them all. Not that this is a competition anyone wants to win. She lost her entire family (two sons, a husband, and both parents) in 2004's horrific tsunami. Hundreds of thousands of people died that day, but here, we are focusing on this family, this particular loss. It is a stunning book.

The story crashes in on you immediately, locating you with the family the morning of the devastation, just as the sea was coming in but before anyone realized what was wrong. I read this first chapter in one gasping go, my heart pounding, unable to look away or think about anything else till it was done. You don't really want to diminish such an experience by calling it a "hook," but by god, I was hooked. From there, the pace slows a bit as the author walks you through the aftermath, but it never really lets up. Strangely, I didn't want to put it down for a second.

I would say "I can't imagine what it must be like to lose your entire family," but that's what this book does. Makes you imagine it. I also have a husband, two kids, and two parents, without any of whom I'd be unmoored, but ... the kids! To lose your babies in an instant like that. Grief isn't something you can recount easily, it doesn't fit in the frame. It's like those blue whales she observes from the boat ... too big to fathom. You can only get bits at a time. If ever you needed a reminder to be grateful for what you've got, for every mundane second of what you've got, Sonali will remind you.

There's a little gift buried in this memoir that doesn't get mentioned in reviews: the glimpse at a life that is both so similar to and so very different from my own. Sonali is Sri Lankan, upper middle class, and married an Englishman. She raised her family biculturally, across continents. That alone was interesting to me. The physical descriptions of Sri Lanka—the sea, the jungle, routine hoards of cranky elephants—were colorful and fascinating. I felt like I was getting a cultural education right along with the Job-like horror story. It almost seems in poor taste to mention it, like you're not supposed to notice how interesting her family is. Or was. 

Steve, Vik, and Malli
And that's part of what makes this book work: you get caught up in how interesting they are. Malli in his tutu, Vik's fascination with eagles, Steve cooking dinner. She fleshes them out slowly; you get to know them after they are firmly established as dead, and it becomes ever-more difficult to believe they could possible BE dead. How could such real people be dead? They had futures, each of them, and you find yourself rooting for them impossibly, hoping somehow it'll all turn out all right in the end.

I was struck by the "army of friends and family" who kept Sonali from killing herself that first year. In the US, our ties to our nuclear family are often strong, but our ties to our extended family and community can be remarkably weak, relative to other cultures. I don't think I have "an army" of people who could watch over me 24/7 for months on end. In my culture, if I were in that position, I'd be committed to an institution. That's what we do. In George Packer's The Unwinding, which I reviewed here last month, I noticed how alone Americans are, relatively speaking; the only person who could rely on extended family to help her out during financial crisis was an Indian immigrant.

Sonali Deraniyagala
Some reviewers have complained that the book is too sad to be borne. I didn't feel that way: I struggled much more with Leaving the Sea, a book of short stories I finished right before I started this one. I don't know how that fiction could be bleaker than this reality, but there is an intimation right from the start that Sonali is going to be OK somehow. Maybe simply because she is there, writing this memoir—she couldn't do that if she wasn't a little bit OK. Some people survive but never do come back to life after tragedies; they remain shells for the rest of their days. This writer (and how is she not a professional writer? Her writing is amazing) seems like she has a shot at being all right. That resilience is what makes the book bearable.

Note: Much of this review is shared from my review over at Goodreads. Feel free to join me there.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Interview with Author Delilah Dawson (and Book Giveaway!)

Here at the The Writing Sisterhood we're always happy to welcome other writers and share their successes with our wonderful readers. Prolific author Delilah Dawson has just released her latest novel, Wicked After Midnight and has agreed to answer some questions about her work and her publishing experience. The best part is that Delilah is giving away 3 copies of her e-novella THE DAMSEL AND THE DAGGERMAN! All you have to do is leave a comment below, fill out the quick form and you'll automatically enter the giveway. The contest ends on Saturday, March 1. Good luck everybody! UPDATE: Winners have been chosen. Please scroll down to see if you're one of our winners!

Hi Delilah, welcome to The Writing Sisterhood!

Thanks so much for having me!

Q: Please tell us about your new book. What is it about?

A: Wicked After Midnight is the final book in the Blud trilogy and can be summed up as steampunk vampire Moulin Rouge. The series takes place in a fantasy world where most of the animals and many of the people drink blood, where pets are clockworks and fashion is dominated by thick corsets, high collars, and gloves. Demi Ward is a blood drinker and circus contortionist from our world who sets out to become a star in the cabarets of Paris. It's a dark, twisty, glittery, sexy adventure.

Q: Could you share what your publication process has been like?

A: I didn't grow up knowing I wanted to be a writer—I assumed that writers were called to their destiny, like doctors or nuns. Then, in 2009, when my second child was almost a year old, I was living on three hours of sleep a night and basically broke my poor brain. All the signals that told me I couldn't write a book disappeared, and I knocked out my first draft in a couple of months. After exhaustive online research and edits, I queried that book, a quirky women's fiction, receiving over 50 rejections and some kind agently feedback that the writing was solid but the story was fatally flawed. I scrapped that book and wrote a middle grade. After over 30 rejections, I received offers of representation from two amazing agents. It was a difficult and painful decision, but I chose the one who handled lots of different genres, since I knew my next book was fantasy for adult audiences. My agent didn't sell the middle grade, but we worked on the fantasy, turned it into a romance, and sold it to Pocket at auction in a three-book deal. That book was Wicked as They Come. Since then, I've sold three e-novellas, a Big Six anthology story, a commissioned comics e-novella, three YA books, and several short stories and comics. I love being an author and finally feel like I'm doing what I was meant to do. More books are always in the works!

Q: Everything supernatural/fantastic seems to be more popular than ever. Why do you think that is? 

A: What I want most in a book is an escape. I don't want to think about mortgages and cancer and PTA dues. I want to be transported away from my worries and straight to a magical place full of possibility and adventure. I like the fast pace and creative worldbuilding of fantasy, and supernatural elements tap into the accepted cultural shorthand to make strange creatures seem familiar. Almost all of my books are built on fantasy, so I hope the trend continues.

Q: Could you explain what exactly is “steampunk”?

A: Steampunk has as many definitions as it does admirers. Some people describe it as Victorian science fiction or like the Wild Wild West movie but... good. Even if people can't describe it, they usually know it when they see it: corsets, top hats, and technology based on gears. The steampunk in my books arose naturally from the worldbuilding. Since all the prey animals, including horses, are vicious predators, the people must travel using trains, dirigibles, submarines, and horseless carriages and keep clockwork animals as pets. The best steampunk, in my opinion, go deeper than just the aesthetics of the Victorian world with cogs glued on and helps to inform the society, mores, fashion, and everyday life throughout the story.

Q: YA has recently become a crossover genre, with more and more adults reading it. That's put pressure on YA authors to write for two distinct audiences in one book. Do you feel that pressure?

A: Yes, but I don't see it as a negative. I like the immediacy, feelings, and excitement of YA books, along with a bit of snark and humor. And I like writing romance with themes of feminism, independence, and falling for men who balance passion with intelligence. Therefore, getting your YA peanut butter in my Romance chocolate is not a bad thing—it's a great thing. I did need some coaching regarding YA dialog, as my brain is definitely stuck in the 90s crossed with now. But I think people who like the Blud series will find the same dark whimsy and adventure with a touch of horror when they read my YA books.

Q: What inspires your stories?

A: Every story is different. Wicked as They Come was inspired by Buffy the Vampire Slayer and the album Like Vines by the Hush Sound. Wicked as She Wants was inspired by a reimagining of Princess Anastasia as the most dangerous woman around. Wicked After Midnight was inspired by my love for Baz Luhrman's Moulin Rouge. And Servants of the Storm, my August YA debut, was inspired by a combination of a trip to Savannah, a girl's picture from a fashion magazine, a viewing of The Tempest, and an afternoon in the basement during a tornado. My agent says I'm like a gun, that if you point me in a direction and shoot, I'll find a target.

Q: If you had to define your work in one word, what would it be?


Q: Who are your three favorite authors?

A: They used to be strangers whose books I like, but now that lots of my friends are authors, this question is far more challenging! If you're looking very simply at the books I wait for all year and read in a big rush the second they're out, it would be Cassandra Clare, Tiffany Reisz, and Diana Gabaldon. If you want a list of the authors who are my favorite people, we're going to need a bigger boat. ;)

Q: What advice would you give writers trying to get published? Did you ever feel like giving up?

A: My best advice is just a reminder that it's not over until you stop writing. Writing is not like a video game where you get a certain number of guys before GAME OVER, where you have to run a specific course. There are infinite paths, infinite ways to write, infinite times you can query a new book, and tons of ways to level up your skill set. I'm sure I had moments, right after form rejections from “dream agents” or rejections on full manuscripts, when I felt wronged and furious and done, but nothing keeps me going like hope. I would get a rejection and immediately send out a new arrow, knowing that one day, I would hit the target. And, yeah, I still have doubts and down days and times during writing when I feel like an untalented phony who will never succeed. But I keep going anyway, and the great days far, far outnumber the bad.

Q: Do you have plans for your next novel yet? 

A: Good gravy, yes! Servants of the Storm debuts in August, and I can't wait to unleash it on the world. I'm working on two first drafts, one a dark and twisty women's fiction and the other a YA Weird West adventure. I have a geeky YA contemporary marinating before its first revision, and we're in talks to shape the sequel of my 2015 YA. And I have an anthology story due in March. I've never been so busy, and I've never been so happy.

Thanks Delilah!

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Sunday, February 16, 2014

The Resurrection of V.C. Andrews

A few weeks ago, I had the following conversation with my mother over the phone:

Mom: I have to go soon. We're going to watch Flowers in the Attic on Lifetime.
Me: Flowers in the Attic? Are you serious? Do you know anything about those books?
Mom: Well, I know your sister used to read them when she was in high school. (Which is true. My oldest sister went through a big horror stage at one time.)
Me: So, you know V.C. Andrews wrote the series. Do you have any idea what the story's about?
Mom: Abuse.
Me: Among other things.
Mom: What's that supposed to mean?
Me: Let's just say there's a relationship that develops between the older siblings.
Mom: Oh. Hey, it's on I gotta go.

The disturbing Dollanganger clan hanging out in the attic.

Who would've thought that all these years later a story like Flowers in the Attic would cut short my telephone conversation with my mother. To say I was stunned is putting it mildly. My mother never showed a shred of interest in books like that when I was growing up.

But, this conversation got the wheels in my head turning. Like many of you out there, I've read a V.C. Andrews book or two. Okay, maybe only two now that I think about it. I was never much of a fan of hers. By the time I was in high school, her work was no longer popular among the kids in my class. For those of you unacquainted with her novels, Andrews' work had a flair for Gothic horror and strange family saga, usually mixing a forbidden, or should I say taboo, love into the mix. She was, in my opinion at least, one of the few writers back in the late seventies and eighties writing genre fiction for what is now considered the YA market. Her stories had those creepy, forbidden elements that are now found everywhere in YA literature.

V.C. Andrews with her
first novel
For whatever reason, I decided to take a crazy trip down memory lane. I visited the local library and perused the V.C. Andrews titles on the shelves. What I discovered was something as eerie and shocking as some of the story elements found in one of her books:  Although she died in 1986 from breast cancer, new novels by her are still being published today.

At first, I was thoroughly confused, because I was almost sure she had died quite a while back. On a whim, I pulled a book off the shelf and flipped to the copyright page. This is what it said:
"Following the death of Virginia Andrews, the Andrews family worked with a carefully selected writer to organize and complete Virginia Andrews' stories and to create additional novels, of which this is one, inspired by her storytelling genius."
I was a bit gobsmacked after reading this. My first thought was, "What a ripoff!" Books are still being published under her name, but she's not even the author? My second thought was, "Why would any author want to publish under some other author's name?" The answer to that is probably a financial one, but that's just my opinion. I ended up checking the book out, because I wanted to see the style of this "other author" and how it supposedly translates to Andrews' style.

The book I chose, Delia's Crossing, is from a Mexican girl's point of view. We follow her from Mexico, after a horrific accident has claimed the lives of her parents, to California where she winds up being the household maid for her screechy, evil aunt. What I found is that although the ghost-writer, (how apropos for an Andrews novel) Andrew Neiderman, uses the same themes as Andrews did (i.e. rape, evil family members, questionable cousins, deep dark secrets, etc.) the story feels repetitive and really brings nothing new to the table. Delia's Crossing is a fast, easy read, but about halfway through, I was tired of the shrill aunt, the shrill cousin, and the almost paint-by-numbers approach to the plot. Maybe I need to be fifteen again to enjoy the salacious content.

For whatever reason, after I put the book aside, I couldn't shake the V.C. Andrews cult. That's kind of what it is really. Why do we cling the the way this author wrote to the point that we'd read a book that lures the reader in under false pretexts (i.e. Andrews' name)? Whatever it is, her estate found a lucrative foothold. Why would her estate continue to publish books that aren't even by her, but bearing her name, all these years after her death? Because just like the IRS figured out, her name alone is a valuable commercial asset. She is a business, plain and simple, plying the audience with inauthentic versions of the actual product, just like Walmart or McDonald's.

And this is what I find so disappointing about what's happened with V.C. Andrews' writing. As a writer, my story ideas come from my head alone. I don't care how many notes or half-written books I leave behind when I die, I have no intention of having posthumous stuff published unless it was already on its way out the door to the publishers. I don't want my work to be stripped to its bare bones, passed onto another writer to write as he/she wishes. I want my craft to be just that -- my craft. I have no idea what V.C. Andrews' wishes were concerning her work, but if this was not what she had in mind, then I find it very disappointing. Margaret Mitchell expressed how there would never be a sequel to Gone With the Wind, and look what happened there. J.D. Salinger, as odd as he was, viewed his work in the same light. His will states that none of his work is to be published until fifty years after his death.

So, here are my questions to you:  Are you a fan (or have you been in the past) of V.C. Andrews' books? Have you read the ones written by her ghost-writer? Do they stand up to Andrews' original works? Do you know of any authors whose work has received the same posthumous treatment?

Sunday, February 9, 2014

Futureland: Dystopian vs. Post-Apocalyptic

I love our local bookstore. It's got cushy couches and informed sales staff and is designed to appeal to young adults and is about to open (squee!) a coffee nook. I also like how it's organized: a section for classics, a section for mainstream modern fiction, a tiny mystery section, no thriller section, and lots of speculative fiction. Fantasy is broken down into subcategories: swords-and-elves, urban witches, sparkly vampires, etc. One entire wall is dedicated to our terrible future: it's labeled "Futureland" and contains everything from 1984 to World War Z. 

No dictator, no dystopia
Based on the selections I've poked through on those shelves, let me tell you: the future sucks. It's either a nuclear wasteland, an overpopulated seething hothouse, or a giant prison camp run by a fey-yet-bloodthirsty madman. But it's unlikely to be all of those things at once. Dystopia and post-apocalyptic fiction are too often used interchangeably when they are not the same thing. They are both "futureland," as my bookstore so cleverly recognized, but with different visions of how things might look.

Dystopian fiction is usually about life under a repressive government. A utopia is an ideal society; a dystopia is not merely the opposite, but what happens when a government thinks it's got the answer to a perfect world and can only get there if it controls everyone and everything. Dystopias in real life (like the Soviet Union, like Taliban-controlled areas, like North Korea) are the result of rulers who try to bring utopias into fruition. In fiction, sometimes the higher aims of the repressive government are clear, sometimes it's not spelled out, but there's tyranny and the protagonist is trying to escape it. Dystopia is about social and political structures. The theme is revolution. Current examples: The Hunger Games, Divergent, Matched, On Such a Full Sea. Classic examples: Logan's Run, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, Alas Babylon, Brave New World.


Post-apocalyptic fiction is about life after catastrophe. Humanity has been decimated. Nuclear war is a popular antecedent, as is a superflu. Celestial events (moons wandering out of orbit, suns dying) are also useful for the end times. Unlike dystopian fiction, post-apocalyptic novels are typically more individualistic. There aren't many people left, so the survivors are trying to scrabble along through a blasted landscape. The antagonist is usually nature, not a government; when there are bad guys, they are usually feral humans, not dictators. The theme is survival. Current examples: The Road, The Age of Miracles, the Dog Stars, the MaddAddam trilogy, World War Z, The Passage, The 5th Wave, the Wool trilogy. Classic examples: War of the Worlds, The Stand, A Canticle for Liebowitz, I am Legend, and (if we include films) Planet of the Apes, Soylent Green, and Mad Max.

Dystopian: too much government
Post-apocalyptic: not enough government
There's some overlap. Many dystopian stories arise from the ashes of a catastrophic event: take the Hunger Games, with its vague references to a nuclear disaster. Divergent also seems to be set in a post-disaster world. On the other end, you've got the Wool trilogy, which leans toward post-apocalyptic but has elements of dystopian. The movie Elysium, which I confess I haven't seen yet, seems like it straddles this territory as well. It's not a dichotomy, then: a story can be both. However, most novels/films lean one way or another, and are mislabeled because people just think "crappy future" rather than revolution vs. survival.

I suspect both genres remain popular because they are so unfortunately relevant. As the western US descends into ever-worse drought, with horrific wildfires blasting our landscape every spring and summer, the end times don't seem so far-fetched. Our climate is changing, an apocalypse that seems to creep up on us like a slow deadly tide. And dystopian: as I read Adam Johnson's near-perfect novel The Orphan Master's Son, about life in North Korea, I couldn't help but think that our dystopian novels describe reality for too many people. Read I Am Malala, A Thousand Splendid Suns, Half the Sky, A Long Way Goneand Sold, and you realize that dystopian societies really exist, right now, in this world.

Both story forms serve as a warning. We are showing you these lives, so that you may take another path. Is it a surprise young people, who are tasked with cleaning up all the messes their forebears have created, are so drawn to this bleak futureland?

All those moments will be lost in time ...