The Race for the Roses

I’m not much for holidays and birthdays can kick it, but the first Saturday in May? That’s a day to celebrate.

I grew up in Saratoga Springs, a small city in upstate New York famous for it’s “Health, History and Horses.” Just outside of town lies Saratoga Battlefield, where the turning point of the American Revolution was fought. Throughout town there are natural springs with water famed for its restorative properties (if you can get over the rotten egg smell) that once brought celebrities, socialites and presidents to town. But Saratoga’s proudest reputation is as the Graveyard of Champions. Our racecourse, which first opened a month after the Battle of Gettysburg, is known for producing some of the most shocking upsets in racing history. This is where a horse fittingly named Upset beat the great Man o’ War, where Secretariat fell to Onion, and the latest Triple Crown Winner American Pharoah was defeated by Keen Ice. Like I said: health, history AND HORSES.

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My sweet Saratoga home

All of this is to say that I am very excited for Saturday’s Kentucky Derby when 20 spoiled three-year-olds will sprint a mile and a quarter vying for a blanket of roses, a spot in the record books, and a cool 1.425 million dollars. If you want to catch Derby fever, it’s not too late! We have plenty of great books to help you dive into the proud, storied, and often shady world of racing.

I can’t possibly start this list with anyone other than Dick Francis. Before becoming a prolific and celebrated mystery writer, Francis was a champion Steeplechase jockey in Britain. He even had the distinction of riding the Queen Mother’s horses for several years. After retiring, he brought his deep love and extensive knowledge of the sport to his writing, crafting clever mysteries with plots orbiting the world of racing. What truly sets Francis’ novels apart is his devotion to research. Whether his protagonist is a meteorologist, a lawyer, a veterinarian or a photographer, Francis clearly did his homework and I’ve always learned new and interesting facts from these fast-paced thrillers.

33a80220-c935-0132-4594-0ebc4eccb42fYou can’t really go wrong with any of Francis’ novels, but I’d suggest starting with his first. Dead Cert follows Alan York, a young jockey who witnesses the death of a fellow rider in a mid-race fall. York believes that this death was no accident, and he is determined to bring his friend’s killers to justice, no matter the cost. This cagey mystery in not only a wonderful introduction to Francis’ writing, it also features one of my all-time favorite chase scenes.

But enough with the Brits, you say, the Kentucky Derby is an American race! Fair enough. There are plenty of racing stories about desperation, cruelty and corruption at the racetrack. Jaimy Gordon’s National Book Award Winner, Lord of Misrule, is proof of that. Gordon brings you into the world of Indian Mound Downs, a run-down racetrack in 1970’s West Virginia. This novel follows a cast of hard-luck characters as they strive for their small slice of racing glory, be it through hard work, wisdom, deception, or methods far more sinister.

For even darker fare you can head to Kentucky, the heart of the American racing industry. The scope of C.E. Morgan’s The Sport of Kings makes it difficult to summarize. This work spans the latter half of the 20th Century telling the story of a cruel and wealthy horseman determined to make racing history, his willful daughter, and a groom who helps tend to their horses. The picture Morgan paints is often ugly and does not flinch from confronting the lingering legacy of racism and bigotry in both the world of racing and America at large. This is a gut punch of a novel and goes far beyond the world of horses, but it’s also a fascinating look inside racing’s troubled world.

Scorpio-paperback-websiteIf you want your racing stories with a supernatural flare, try Maggie Stiefvater’s The Scorpio Races. On a small island surrounded by cruel stormy seas, lives revolve around a yearly race. But these races use no ordinary horses. Instead the jockeys ride on water horses, wild and unpredictable creatures that are herded from the sea and ridden by only the bravest, most reckless young men on the island. That is until Puck enters the race. Puck is the first female rider to ever enter the race, and many would love to see her fail. This is not an option for Puck, however; her family’s house and land depend on the outcome of the race. If this pressure is not enough for a young orphan trying to support her siblings, Puck must also fight to ignore her growing feelings for the race’s returning champion, a quiet young man with his own haunted past.

exterminator_cover_0Finally, I’ve got something for the history buffs. If you ask a casual racing fan about the winner of the 1918 Kentucky Derby, Exterminator, you are likely to get a blank stare. I’ll admit, I had never heard of him before reading Eliza McGraw’s Here Comes Exterminator!: The Long Shot Horse, the Great War, and the Making of an American Hero. Exterminator was a fascinating horse, a long-shot turned hero who raced an astounding 99 times in his career. McGraw expertly weaves Exterminator’s story into a larger saga that captures a snapshot of the United States in the years surrounding World War I, a traumatic time filled in equal measures with ebullient glamour and puritanical temperance.

Hopefully you are now feeling some small sliver of my excitement for Saturday’s race. And if you want to know who I like to win, you’ll have to find me in the Library.

America Undone

It’s the end of the world as we know it and I feel….a little itchy and anxious to be honest.

It is possible that I enjoyed myself an inappropriate amount while reading Omar El Akkad’s American War. The title probably betrays this fact, but this is not exactly a delightful romp. Set in the late 21st Century during the second Civil War, this novel 32283423presents an upsetting and eerily plausible portrayal of our near future. Ostensibly this war is fought over a national ban on fossil fuels, but the roots of the conflict creep far deeper into the national psyche, playing on centuries old resentments and cultural differences (but good news – “proud, pacifist Cascadia” is far from the front lines).

American War follows the life of a young woman named Sarat, born into a chaotic South devastated by flooding, famine, war, and the worst elements of humanity. Sarat spends her formative years in a refugee camp, witnessing both the fanatical partisanship of the Southern rebels and the cruel indifference of the Northern war machine. As Sarat grows older, she finds herself drawn into the war that has defined her existence, becoming an agent of death that will help shape history and bring about grave and devastating consequences.

So, yeah, I realize that doesn’t sound terribly cheery, but El Akkad’s deft narrative style sucked me deep into this novel. By mixing Sarat’s story with government dispatches, oral reports, written records and other “source material,” American War had the feel of an upsetting historical account. At the same time I found myself without context, unsure of how events would unfold and where bias existed in the presentation, but still burdened by the full knowledge of these events terrible impact.

Station_Eleven_CoverPerhaps I have a morbid streak as I have always enjoyed dark and disastrous accounts of imagined futures. For me, the immediate comparison for American War is Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven. Like American War, Station Eleven presents our future in stark and frightening terms – it follows a travelling Shakespearean troupe in the years after a viral pandemic devastates humanity, leaving only scattered pockets of survivors in its wake. It also shares American War’s storytelling technique, incorporating various source materials from before, during, and after the height of the catastrophe.

World_War_Z_book_coverI feel compelled to also mention World War Z, by Max Brooks. Please don’t judge this book because of the movie based on it. Designed to be read as an oral history, each section is narrated by a different survivor of a zombie apocalypse, describing responses and containment attempts by different groups across the globe. With this narrative Brooks crafts a book that is as much a consideration of international relations as it is a zombie novel. Rather than a work of horror, this is a novel of logistics and strategy in the face of terrible catastrophe. If you enjoy audiobooks, this title makes a particularly great listen as many talented and diverse voices were cast to portray the book’s narrators.

unwindNow, I’m a Youth Services Librarian and I just talked about three ADULT novels, so I have to plug some YA. The Unwind series by Neal Shusterman takes place after a second American civil war fought over reproductive rights. When partisan militias fight to a stalemate, a compromise is reached. Though abortion is outlawed, unwanted children between ages 13 and 18 can be “unwound,” a process through which they are physically dismantled and recycled for transplants. The justification for this macabre policy is that every part of the unwound teenagers is reused, and therefore the body lives on. I realize that this premise sounds as absurd as it is disgusting, but Shusterman is a masterful writer and takes the time to illustrate how this policy slowly developed at the hands of well-meaning policy makers. By the end of the series it feels a little too plausible for my comfort.

ashfallpb_hiresMike Mullin’s Ashfall also does a superb job portraying societal collapse. Ashfall follows a teen after the (very real) supervolcano under Yellowstone National Park erupts. Spoiler alert: things don’t go well unless you’re a fan of sunless days, endless winter, famine, and roving gangs of cannibals. Despite a whole lot of death and destruction, this is an enjoyable and ultimately hopeful series. Scientists confidently assert that this supervolcano won’t erupt anytime soon. Probably.

136471._SX1280_QL80_TTD_Finally, before I leave to ponder our impending ruin, I just want to mention one graphic novel. Y the Last Man by Brian K. Vaughan and Pia Guerra follows a twenty something slacker named Yorick and his pet monkey after a mysterious virus leaves them the only two living males of any species. Chaos quickly ensues and it is awesome.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this short walk from “great book” to “WE’RE ALL DOOMED.” If you need me, I’ll be taking deep breaths and either hiding under a desk or stockpiling canned goods.

The Book Jumper

Bibliophile: bib·lio·phile \ˈbi-blē-ə-ˌfī(-ə)l\: noun :a person who collects or has a great love of books. SEE ALSO: Carol.

Now that you know my soul, you’ll understand that I initially picked up The Book Jumper by Mechthild Gläser because I was captivated by the gorgeous cover. A teenage girl appears to pop out of the pages of an open book, where she finds a knight made out of story pages. There are swirls of magic, and bright stars pop in contrast against the blue background.

It’s gorgeous. And the story is even more so.

Amy Lennox and her mom have been living in Germany until they abruptly pack what they can and leave for the Scottish island of Stormsay. They’re going to stay with Amy’s maternal grandmother, Lady Mairead, who insists that Amy read while she stays with her at Lennox House. But it’s not just any sort of reading. Amy was born a book jumper and requires training to fulfill her potential–and she’s literally years behind other book jumpers her age.

Book jumpers can jump into the stories inside books and interact with the world contained within. Her training requires that she not interfere with the story, but her curiosity gets the better of her and soon she’s befriending characters and seeing the story from a different angle. However, it’s not all fun and games, as Amy soon learns that someone has been stealing from the books, essential pieces of important stories that will crumble unless everything is returned. To make matters worse, it seems as though Amy may be in danger herself.

Can she trust her fellow students? Has her grandmother gone batty? Or is someone else sneaking into the literary worlds they are sworn to protect at all costs?

I was absolutely delighted with the magic in this world. The training to hone Amy’s book jumper skills is detailed and consistent. I really love when an author can build a magic system that doesn’t contradict itself–that totally takes me out of the story. Between trying to solve the mystery of the literary thefts and wondering if Amy was going to hook up with fellow book jumper Will, I was skipping sleep in favor of turning the pages until there were no more left to turn.

If that wasn’t compelling enough, I started looking at the books around my house and imagining what it would be like to be thrust into the worlds contained inside the bindings. Danger, romance, magic, and adventure would await around every corner. And the same is true for those who read The Book Jumper.

Anyone who considers themselves a bibliophile is going to want to curl up with The Book Jumper. But you might want to keep a paperweight on your copy of Dracula.  You know. Just in case vampires can jump out of books now.

Book and an Album: Identity and Otherness

If you want to excite a Librarian, tell them that a book award is being announced. Seriously, try it. We love these prize/honor lists because we get to see incredible authors and illustrators get the recognition they deserve, but also because it is a surefire way to find remarkable books to read and share with others. I discovered Watched by Marina Budhos when it was named an honor book for the Asian/Pacific American Award for Literature. A short plot summary was enough to convince me I had to read this book.

Naeem is a young man caught between expectations and desires. As a first generation Bangladeshi immigrant, he is aware of the sacrifices that his parents make for him, and feels the pressure to succeed. As a Muslim, he knows that he is expected to be respectful and pious even while he questions his faith. And finally, as an older brother he knows that he is a role model to a young boy who reveres him.

Watched-CoverYet Naeem has his own ideas. He goes to school in Queens and his experiences are far different from his parents and other elders. And because Naeem is a teenager, his brain is hardwired to make some rash decisions (really – it’s science). After making a string of poor choices, it isn’t too surprising when Naeem finds himself in an interrogation room facing accusations and likely arrest by the NYPD. Instead, the police offer Naeem an alternative – watch his neighborhood and its mosques, report on “suspicious” activity, and make some decent money in the process.

Naeem desperately agrees to this offer and things start off fairly well. Naeem feels like a hero. He believes that by watching his neighborhood he can keep trouble makers from ruining the reputation of the hard-working majority of his community. It doesn’t hurt that he is also earning enough money to help his parents make ends meet. But as the pressure to produce actionable intelligence increases, and the police turn their focus to people close to Naeem, he faces difficult choices about his identity, his community and his sense of right and wrong.

While Watched deals with heavily politicized topics, the book has few outright heroes or villains. Watched works largely in the gray, giving complex motives to characters whether they are exploitative police officers, terror suspects, misunderstanding parents or troubled teenagers. The ideas in this novel are as nuanced as the characters and Budhos uses Naeem’s trials to explore difficult questions. Among the most significant concepts in Watched is that of the “good immigrant,” a nebulous phrase that can serve as a disservice to both those it includes and excludes. Watched is a compelling story that left me unsettled, challenged my assumptions, and rewarded my time.

a0908914594_16Need an album to pair with Watched? Try the Swet Shop Boys’ debut album, Cashmere. Swet Shop Boys are the rappers Heems and Riz MC, better known as the actor Riz Ahmed. Together, they make music that is both pointedly political and raucously hilarious, with gorgeous production that leans heavily on South Asian samples. Heems and Riz MC trade rhymes exploring identity, race, inequality and otherness with dexterity, refusing to shy away from controversy and pushing the comfort boundaries of the listener. Given that Heems first broke out as part of the group Das Racist, with the song Combination Pizza Hut and Taco Bell, it should come as no surprise that this album has plenty of lighter moments and more than a few explicit references. Make no mistake; this is an album that provokes. Several of the songs tell stories from perspectives that may offend. Yet these are also stories that feel real and urgent, presenting perspectives that are underrepresented in both popular music and hip-hop.

Groundhog Day, Teenage Style

When I was young, I would hear my mother and her friends recounting their high school days. And not in a ‘remember the good old days of high school’ kind of way. Anybody who says high school was the best four years of their lives is obviously drug addled and should not be trusted. But the one thing I would hear over and over was “If I could go back knowing what I know now…..”

A few years after high school I would start saying the same thing. 22 years after graduating high school, I still have nightmares that I’m back in school but I’m 39. I can’t remember my locker combination, I haven’t done any homework for three months, and I’m starting to get that ‘I’m not going to graduate’ panic. Then I realize “I’m 39 years old. I don’t need my algebra book. These people can’t tell me when or if I’m going to graduate.” And then I wake up relieved and go to work where it’s a different kind of high school experience, but this time I get paid for it.

I love YA books and I don’t really know how to explain it. If anything, I’d rather have credit card debt than be 17 again. But there are times while reading a young adult novel that I’ll think: If I had to do it all over again, go back knowing what I know now, I could really incite a riot. I’d tell that smug AP English teacher who didn’t think I was a good writer to shove it. I’d tell the misogynistic vice principal that he wasn’t General Patton. I’d tell that one girl….well, I’d tell her everything she needed to know.

In Lauren Oliver’s Before I Fall Samantha Kingston gets a do-over but not in a good way.

Samantha is a part of the most popular girls clique in high school. She’s gorgeous, has a beautiful boyfriend, and is in the prime of her life. Samantha used to be a nerd who loved to ride horses (which I don’t really understand how that makes her a nerd but whatever) but then focused on becoming popular. Her group of friends aren’t the nicest people but they’re her best friends and she would do anything for them. On Friday, February 12th, Samantha and her gang go to a house party and Samantha plans to go all the way with her boyfriend for the first time. Do people still say ‘all the way?’ Losing your virginity sounds kind of like you set it down on a shelf at Target and then walked away only to go try and find it an hour later.

Anyway, everyone is at this party and they are so drunk my own liver was starting to ache. Samantha and her friends have been drinking for hours and they decide it’s time to motor. The four of them get into a car (I know. How stupid can they be? They’ve been drinking and they get behind the wheel.) It’s icy out, they’re all feeling pretty good, the radio’s blasting and then they get into a car crash. Samantha, sitting in the passenger seat, is supposed to die.

She wakes up the next morning thinking the entire thing was a nightmare. Until the day starts playing out exactly as it did the day before, people say the same things they said before, and her classes are exactly the same as the day before. Samantha’s feeling really off but decides to go with it. She goes to the same party that night and everything happens again. She wakes up the next morning to the same day. She’s officially freaked out.

And this keeps happening.

Until she figures out she needs to start making changes. She starts off with little things and they don’t make a difference. And then she realizes she’s going to have to go big and make changes that will affect everyone.

What starts off as a seemingly regular YA book turns out to be a look inside (and you guys know how much I hate delving inside and inspecting my feelings too much) to see what we’d do not only to save others but also the sacrifices we thought we’d never have to face.

The Female of the Species

This is how I kill someone.

I learn his habits, I know his schedule. It is not difficult. His life consists of quick stops at the dollar store for the bare minimum of things required to keep his ragged cycle going, his hat pulled down over his eyes so as not to be recognized.

But he is. It’s a small town.

What can I say? I’m a sucker for opening lines. The above quote, which opens Mindy McGinnis’s The Female of the Species, is narrated by Alex Craft, a teenager in a small Ohio town hit hard by recession and harder by opioid addiction. The soon-to-be-victim that Alex is stalking is the man who abducted, raped and killed her older sister three years prior. Due to a lack of evidence, police cannot make charges stick. Thus, the killer walks free until Alex takes ferocious justice into her own hands.

femalespeciesAmazingly, in a small town with no secrets, Alex gets away with murder. People are satisfied that a vigilante “made things right,” and the killer’s death evolves from recent crime to urban legend. But for Alex, this act of savage violence bears its own costs. Though she feels no guilt, she remains overcome with rage and views herself as deeply damaged. To protect others and herself, Alex withdraws, keeping to herself whenever possible. However, during her senior year of high school two classmates threaten her seclusion. Peekay, the local preacher’s daughter and Jack, the closest thing the town has to a golden child, are both drawn to Alex and determined to bring her into their lives. As Alex begins to care for Peekay and Jack, she feels a fierce need to protect them, bringing her anger back to the surface with explosive and violent effects.

At times, The Female of the Species is deeply upsetting. McGinnis does not shy away from uncomfortable subjects including addiction, sexual assault, rape culture, and the unequal expectations society places on young men and women. McGinnis gives her characters the voice to skewer hypocrisy with devastating precision, as when Alex observes: “But boys will be boys, our favorite phrase that excuses so many things, while the only thing we have for the opposite gender is women, said with disdain and punctuated with an eye roll.”

The Female of the Species rewards readers willing to grapple with these difficult issues by masterfully blending genres. McGinnis seamlessly maintains the intensity of a psychological thriller while incorporating elements of a contemporary coming of age story and flirting with classical tragedy. As the story unfolds, told from the alternating perspectives of Alex, Peekay and Jack, Alex is revealed to be an incredibly complex young woman whose intensity, ferocity and loyalty are equally mesmerizing and terrifying.

Bookstagram, Publishing, and the Castrati: We Chat with YA Author Jennifer Bardsley

Readers, I have a special treat for you today! As the library ramps up in preparation for her March 4th (2pm!) visit to the downtown library as part of the Everett Reads! community reading series, I caught up with local YA author and Everett Herald columnist Jennifer Bardsley to talk about everything bookish! For a primer on her incredibly addicting Blank Slate series, check out my review of book 1, Genesis Girl.

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First, tell me about you! What’s your background, and how did you get into writing?

In 2007 I was a stay-at-home mom who wrote a blog called Teachingmybabytoread.com as a way to keep my skills as a former elementary school teacher fresh. I loved blogging since it was a way to connect with people all over the world. I also enjoyed reading my local newspaper, The Edmonds Beacon, but noticed that none of the columnists represented the “mom demographic.” My limited success as a blogger gave me the idea to pitch The Edmonds Beacon with a column idea about what it was like to be a modern mom. I wrote up five sample columns and an introductory email, pitched them my concept and waited. And waited. And waited. They never emailed me back. Crushed, I filed those columns away in a drawer.

A month or two later, I saw a copy of The Weekly Herald and decided to brave it. I gathered up my courage to submit my idea to them instead. That’s how my column “I Brake for Moms” was born. After four months in The Weekly Herald, “I Brake for Moms” moved to The Everett Daily Herald where it has been for almost five years.

In the middle of all that column writing, I also wrote fiction. In 2013 my manuscript landed me my agent, Liza Fleissig of the Liza Royce Agency, and in 2014 Genesis Girl sold to Georgia McBride of Month9Books in a two-book deal.

genesis girl jennifer bardsleyHow did you get the idea for Blanca, a character who has never used the internet nor had her image ever posted online?

Prepare to be grossed out. I based the concept of Blanca and her Vestal Brethren on the castrati from opera’s shady past. In the seventeen and eighteen hundreds, some young boys in Italy were castrated in the hopes that they would become famous opera stars who could sing the highest notes. They were sent away to special schools where they lived and breathed music. Most of the castrati did not become famous. They were sent home in disgrace, scarred for life. But the castrati who succeeded were superstars. 

Yikes!  Even aside from that, the whole Blank Slate world is so eerie! I can see this becoming a distant reality.

I know, right? From computers to car phones, to cell phones, to smartphones; it’s only a matter of time before there is a technology advancement that is user-friendly in a way we can’t yet imagine. Maybe it will be like finger chips, maybe not, but it will be cool.

What books or authors would you recommend for readers like me who enjoyed reading Genesis Girl and Damaged Goods?

A classic SciFi book that I love is The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood. There’s a new television show based on it coming to Hulu that I’m excited about too. A SciFi series I enjoyed that came out recently is Survival Colony 9 by Joshua David Bellin. It’s cli-fi, meaning climate change meets science fiction.

damaged goods jennifer bardsleyI’ve always wondered about something. Is it more difficult to write the first book in a series or the second?

Damaged Goods was way easier to write than Genesis Girl because I had already done the hard work developing the characters. I wrote out an outline, turned on my computer, and banged the book out in four months. Then I spent the next year revising it.

What sort of advice would you offer a writer aspiring to make the leap to becoming a published author?

If you are writing fiction and you want to be traditionally published, you need to write the entire book first before you query agents to represent you. Agents then take the book on submission to publishing houses. If a house buys your book, it takes two to three years for your manuscript to be published.

However, with nonfiction it’s entirely different. You write a thirty to fifty-page outline and marketing plan for your proposal, and send that directly to publishers.

The quick way to bypass all of those steps is to self-publish. There are lots of indie authors who earn a ton of money because agility helps them capture hungry markets. Instead of guessing what topic will be popular with readers in three years, indie authors can write and publish books that are hot at that moment.

Bookstagramming is a big part of your presence online, one that I really enjoy following. How do you get your ideas for your beautiful layouts?

I love your account too! Instagram is a great way to meet new friends.

I keep a box of random knickknacks in my library that made it easy to style photos. Winter is tricky, but once the weather warms up I cut foliage from my garden to use in photos. My friend Jenn Eagan of @jennegan26 gave me good advice. “On bookstagram, more is more. If you think there are enough objects in your photo, add a few more just in case.”

Do you have different approaches for writing your column and your novels? Or does the process tend to be about the same?

Having a newspaper column has taught me a lot about discipline because I have a due date every week. I keep a notebook in my purse to jot down ideas if I get inspired, but generally I have a topic rattling around in my mind for a few weeks before I write it out on paper. Then a few days later, I revise it.

With fiction, I spend months and even years coming up with a concept first, before I start writing a book. The traditional publishing market is so competitive, that unless you have a killer idea, it feels like you are doomed.

I’m so curious about your writing environment! Do you have a dedicated office or workspace?

I used to have a dedicated writing space in our home library, but then my poodle Merlin took over that room and now it smells like dog. Luckily it’s the only room in the house that smells poodly, but it’s no longer my preferred place to write. These days I am much more likely to type on the computer in the niche next to our kitchen.

Do you have any other upcoming projects? You know I’m eagerly anticipating more Blank Slate novels!

Damaged Goods has a conclusive end, with just enough wiggle room to write a third book if my publisher is interested. It all depends on how this second book does. Stress!

author event march 4 jennifer bardsley

 

What can our readers expect when you come to the library on March 4th?

I have a game prepared that involves dice, fake money, information about the path to publication, and some inside secrets about what it’s like to be an author. I’ll follow up with questions from the audience.

Thank you so much, Jennifer, for taking the time to chat with me! I can’t wait for your visit March 4th at the main library!

Jennifer: Thank you so much for having me!