Recommended Read: Seraphina by Rachel Hartman

I’ve become tired of dragons in fiction. Most of the time, they’re pretty similar. They’re loyal companions, a la Anne McCaffrey’s Pern dragons. They’re lofty ones who see humans are being to use and tolerate, a la Tintaglia from Robin Hobb’s books. Or they’re savage beasts that can lay waste to the land and must be vanquished. Seraphina’s initial premise therefore appealed to me—dragons that could take human form out of a vague fascination with petty human lives. Dragons in Hartman’s world are like the Vulcans of science fiction—emotion is dangerous, and the dangerous of all emotions is love. Goredd was once at war with the dragons, but they now have an unsteady treaty and a tentative peace that could easily turn into an all-out war.

Seraphina is a half-human, half-dragon offspring of one such forbidden relationship. She looks human aside from the band of scales about her waist and on her forearms, which she keeps covered at all times. She’s a court musician, incredibly talented and passionate about music. She has a strained relationship with her father, a wealthy man who feels guilty at the death of his wife, and has a mentor in her draconic uncle Orma.

A member of the royal family is murdered, possibly by a dragon. Seraphina becomes caught up in the politics of Goredd, working with the bastard Prince Lucien and dancing a political dance with royalty and searching for a rouge dragon—who happens to be related to her by blood. At the same time, she learns that the strange people in her head that she’s protected herself from might actually be real and have something in common with her. And at all times, she must try to keep her secret safe, for fear that she will be shunned by humans and dragons alike.

Seraphina is one of my favourite fantasy books in recent years. Its prose is lush, its worldbuilding superb. Seraphina is a sympathetic character, and every character is richly fleshed out. While the book started a little slow for me as the world is introduced and layered, by halfway through I was smitten enough that I stayed up until 3.30 in the morning to finish, even though I had work the next day. This is a book I’ll re-read several times, and will buy the sequel the day it comes out. Very much recommended to people who like rich, secondary world fantasy with dragons that are different from the norm.


Back to High School: a talk at Hayward High


Yesterday, while walking around my old high school, I felt both closer and further away from the teen I used to be.

Hayward High in many ways looked the same. I remembered where all the halls were. I remembered where my locker had been. Little memories of walking between classes, of chatting with people at lunch by a certain classroom kept coming to me as I waited for my friend and now-teacher to find me. But it was different as well. The school was no longer mustard-yellow, but grey. There were bars across the front of the school, making it look like a prison.

I spoke to two AP English 12 classes yesterday, in 3rd and 6th period. I was really nervous beforehand and as the students trickled in. In some ways, I went back to my high school self at that moment – will they like me? Will they find me interesting? Will they think I’m cool?

But when I looked out at their faces, they all looked interested (well, aside from the one boy who fell asleep…). And so, awkwardly at first, I told the first class about myself. I graduated from Hayward High in 2006 before going to college up the hill at Cal State East Bay, but now I live in Scotland, so I was both local yet not.

After I told them about the book, the classroom asked me questions. They’d been asked to come up with two questions for homework, so it was like a pop quiz. But after the first few questions I actually really liked it, so that when there was a lull I wanted more questions! It was so good to hear what teens wanted to know about my book–they asked about the setting and the characters. They also got a bit off topic and kept asking me about my husband because they thought our love story was cute (because it is). I even got a room full of “awws.” They also asked a lot about the publishing world, and I told them the process and warned them against the mistakes I had made. Someone asked about writer’s block, I got the question about inspiration, or what themes and philosophies I had integrated into my work.

One girl asked me about the language tone I used as Pantomime is set in a pseudo-Victorian society. Another asked if I used “big words,” and I said that I did, I supposed. I didn’t dumb down my language at all because, as I said, “teens aren’t stupid,” to which everyone applauded. Because they’re not. These teens were so bright, so interested, and so with it. It was so inspiring. I told them that they are my target demographic. While of course I’m pleased as punch if adults read it too, my book is for them. And they really seemed to like that.

I gave them a reading from Pantomime, and in the second class a few of them put their heads down like it was storytime, but their eyes were still open. It was a totally different atmosphere to when I did a reading for adults at the launch. I was totally relaxed by that point. No knee shaking this time.

After the first talk, a group of students came up and asked to have a photo taken with me and they gave me hugs. And after the last period Briana, who asked lots of amazing questions and was so sweet, asked me for an autograph. My first autograph!

I was so nervous about answering the questions that it took me until today to realise I missed a really good opportunity to ask them questions. What sort of stuff did they like to read? Where did they find out about books? Do any of them have e-readers? The next school visit I plan to prepare some questions of my own.

I walked out of the campus the way I had countless times in high school and then met my dad. And I felt really exhilarated and privileged that these students had asked me questions and now knew about my book. And it reminded me so much about why I love teens and writing for teens. Hurray for YA!

The Fervent Love of Books

A few days ago, I was organising my book shelf, and I came across my husband’s old, battered copy of Assassin’s Apprentice by Robin Hobb.

The cover was gone and the back cover held on by the barest thread. The spine was broken in countless places. The pages were yellowed and well-thumbed. And on the page that was now the cover, he has signed his name proudly and written a brief commentary about how much he enjoyed the book.

I held this fragile book in my hands and a smile spread over my face. Right next to it was a newer copy of Assassin’s Apprentice that still had its cover, but we will never get rid of this battered volume. It has so much history. It’s a snapshot from the past, to a teenage boy that loved a book so much he had to scrawl a commentary on it in black ink. And when I was a teenage bookworm, I was the same. Inside the front covers, I used to proudly write “If found, please return to Laura Richardson” and included my phone number or email address. If it was a favourite book, I underlined “please” several times.  I’d give it a swirly, John Hancock-like signature to drive home that this was my book.

I think a lot of young kids who liked to read did and continue to do this. Books are prized possessions but not especially well-treated unless they’re library books (and sometimes not even then). They enjoy reading them in public so people could see what they are reading, and if others ask them about it, they are delighted. With the carelessness of teens, they’ll read and dog-dear pages, break spines, crush them in their backpacks as they navigate school hallways. They are constant companions.

And if teens get that love of books, if they love a book so much they’ll mark them as theirs, then that’s something that will follow them into adulthood. That’s a love that I don’t think can die. And that’s why YA is so exciting, and so important. I loved reading when I was younger than 13, but 13-15 was when I really latched onto the fact that books and reading were a part of my identity and I developed a sense of what I liked to read. A lot of my beliefs and philosophies came from the fiction and non-fiction I read during those years and shaped who I am now, as an adult. Who would we all be, if we hadn’t read these books as teens? Would we be different adults?

I put the battered book back on the shelf, gently, and continued organising all of our other books that we proudly mark as ours.

Author Interview: Brian Katcher – Almost Perfect

A few weeks ago, I stumbled upon Almost Perfect by Brian Katcher. The premise appealed to me and I downloaded it to my Kindle. Less than a day later, I had finished, moved by the bittersweet story of Sage and Logan. I kept thinking about the book, wondering how these characters navigated their lives as adults. After stumbling upon Brian’s website, he seemed really nice and I decided to approach him through Goodreads and ask him to be my guinea pig for my first interview. Turns out he was nice, for he agreed.

Brief summary of Almost Perfect: Logan is a jock in small-town Missouri. His girlfriend of three years cheated on him, and he’s in a prime stage of angst. And then a new girl, Sage, comes to town. He’s immediately attracted to her and tries to get to know her. She’s flirts and pushes him away by turns, leaving the poor boy baffled. She finally tells him her secret: she’s trans. Logan reacts terribly (very badly) and pushes her away. He realizes how bigoted he’s being and reaches out to her again in apology. But it isn’t quite that easy.

Bio: Brian Katcher was born in St. Louis, Missouri, in 1975. He attended the University of Missouri, Columbia, before dropping out of society and bumming around Mexico for three years. He’s worked as a fry cook, a market researcher, a welding machine operator, a telemarketer (only lasted one day), and a furniture mover. He lived on an Israeli military base one summer, and once smuggled food into Cuba. When he’s not writing, he works as a school librarian. He lives in central Missouri with his wife and daughter.  He still hasn’t paid the parking ticket he got in West Virginia in 1997.

LL: Hello, Brian. Thank you for taking the time for this interview.

BK: Thanks again for interviewing me.

LL: Every writer’s path to authordom is different. How long did it take you to finish your first novel, Playing with Matches, and what was the path to publication like?

BK: Well, there I was in Puebla, Mexico (2001). My girlfriend had just informed me she was moving to Germany. My parents had just divorced. I was a broke, broken-hearted gringo. I thought ‘Either I have to start drinking hard, or I need to write a book.’ Shortly after I realized I could do both.

Playing With Matches started out as something to fill the time. But after keeping with it for a few months, I realized I was actually enjoying writing a great deal. About three years later, in Tel Aviv, I finished it. I think I was more surprised than anyone.

Not knowing what else to do, I went out and got a copy of Writers’ Market and sent my MS off to every agent and editor in the US, Canada and the UK who published YA fiction. I still have the sheaf of rejection letters. I was about to shelve the project and move on to other things when I got a notice for a contest for YA authors, sponsored by Random House. I shrank my font size so I’d fall under the maximum word limit and sent it off. I didn’t hear from them so long I assumed I’d lost and no one told me. However, one day I received an e-mail from a New York editor. I was right, I didn’t win. But she asked me to rewrite the book, based on some vague suggestions she had. I promised myself I would dedicate all my energy into the rewrite and to think of nothing else until I was done.

A few days later, my wife tells me she’s pregnant. Nine month deadline.

Well, it took a couple of rewrites, but about two years after I became a father, I became a published author.

LL: Pueblo and Tel Aviv! Even though your two books so far are set in American high schools, do you feel your travelling has influenced your work?

BK: Well, Mark Twain said something to the effect that travel is fatal to prejudices. It’s a big world at there, and I cherish the years I spent traveling. Every person you meet is a potential character, and it’s nice to get out of your comfort zone.

LL: Moving along to the book that prompted me to interview you, Almost Perfect is told from the POV of Logan, a Midwestern high school jock with a rocky home-life and a sense of humour, who meets a girl with a secret. What there something specific that sparked the idea for this novel?

BK: I did not set out to write an issues book or an LGBT book. I just wanted to tell a boy meets girl story that hadn’t been done a thousand times. Eventually I hit on the idea of a heterosexual, conservative guy falling for a girl who wasn’t born a girl. As I researched this topic, I realized how many people think of transwomen as perverts and weirdos. Instead of making Logan an open minded, accepting guy, I made him someone who thought transwomen were perverts and weirdos…until he falls in love with one.

LL: I liked Logan, despite his moments of acting like a jerk. He is, in some ways, an Everyman for Midwestern American boys–he’s grown up never really thinking much about sexuality and gender until he’s confronted with it and doesn’t know how to react. I often found myself wondering how Sage was reacting to events and wanting to get inside her head. Did you ever consider writing certain chapters from her POV?

BK: Funny you should mention that. In my original draft, I ended most chapters with an excerpt from Sage’s diary, giving hints to what she was going through. However, I wanted the readers to fall in love with Sage before they realized she was transgender, so I had to make a lot of  the entries vague. Eventually, my editor had me drop that idea.

LL: I’m glad I asked that question!  What has the reaction to Almost Perfect been like?

BK: Surprising. Ten years ago, there were very few books about LGBT youth, and when Almost Perfect was released, I was not expecting much of a reaction. I was absolutely shocked to learn that the ALA had honored it with the Stonewall Award for Children’s and YA Books. This is a prestigious award, and I was especially thrilled for two reasons: I’m a librarian myself, and more importantly, they decided to give this LGBT award to a heterosexual guy.

The award really helped me gain a lot of readers. When writing this book I was terrified that I would hear form transgender people who’d tell me that I had no idea what I was talking about. I’m happy to say that this has not yet happened. I’ve received dozens of e-mails from transpeople who enjoyed the book, many of whom have said Sage’s experience mirrored their own.

Of course, this is a sensitive subject. Some readers (hi, Mello!) felt that the book was too much of a bummer and that if a transgender teen read Almost Perfect they’d take away the message that they would always be in danger and no one would ever love them. I really, truly hope this is not the case. I wanted Logan and Sage to live happily ever after, but I think that would have been a weaker book. Life, unfortunately, is not always pretty. I opted for realism.

Other readers have stated that a heterosexual guy has no business writing about such issues, and LGBT novels should be written by those who have experienced these things personally. Well, by definition a novelist is someone who writes about things that they’ve never experienced, fiction is all about inventing characters. Otherwise, I could only write about phenomenally handsome librarians from Missouri. Creating Sage was a challenge, but she’s my favorite character, and I’m proud of her.

I kind of expected more of a backlash from the anti-gay crowd, but I’ve received exactly one hate letter from someone (apparently in my hometown), accusing me of ‘pedaling filth in the schools’. I didn’t respond, but I was tempted to accuse him of using a fake name…I really doubt baseball great Don Mattingly wrote that letter.

LL: You have a rare example of how to respond well to a negative review on Goodreads that sparked a civil, thoughtful discussion in the comments. There’s been a bit of a flurry lately in the YA community with authors reacting poorly to negative reviews. What are your thoughts on being an author in the age of social networking, where you can see exactly what people are saying about your books, both positive and negative?  

BK: Well, it’s not just in the YA community; many authors have been guilty of this. When you write something, and pour your heart and soul into a work, and when you fight and struggle to have something published and can finally say with pride: I worked for this. I earned this; this is good…it can kind of take the wind out of your sails when some reviewer says your book sucked. In a way, your book is like your child, and you sure wouldn’t let someone talk smack about your own kid, would you?

In the age of social media, nothing is private. You can read nasty things about your book, and by extension, yourself, that the reviewer never intended for you to see. And what should you do when you read something like that?

Zilch. Nothing. Nada. Sure, it’s tempting to want to jump in, to say ‘Hey there, let me explain.’ But you should just let it go. You’ll only make yourself look obsessive and thin-skinned. It’s hard when someone accuses you of say, exploiting transgender issues for money, but you know the truth.

Of course, there are exceptions. If someone says something in error, you might politely correct them (Sorry, but I never dated Kim Kardashian). And sometimes, if review is especially well-written, it’s fun to leave a positive comment. Most of the time, your best bet is just take a deep breath, anonymously give the comment a thumbs down, and move on with your life.

LL:  I’ve not (yet) read your other novel, Playing with Matches, and your short work in the collection Awake. You’ve also sold a third book, Mysterious Ways. Care to pimp yourself and tell us a bit more about them?

BK: You’re breaking my heart here. My publisher decided to drop Mysterious Ways, I’m still not sure why. It was to be the story of Katrina, a young, aspiring artist with emotionally abusive parents. She meets a boy, Jonah, who claims that the internet does not report the news, it creates it, as people will believe whatever they read online. He proves this by planting news stories and starting rumors that affect public policy. Too late, Katrina realizes he has a score to settle with people he believes have wronged him, and will stop at nothing to get his revenge. Hopefully, I’ll find a home for this book someday.

Playing With Matches, is about Leon, a nerdish high school boy who befriends Melody, a girl whose face was badly scarred in a childhood accident. When their friendship starts to become something more, Leon must decide if he can overlook Melody’s appearance, especially now that Amy, his long time crush, is showing an interest in him.

Awake is a compilation of stories dealing with LGBT issues. 100% of the profits go to the Trevor Project, a suicide hotline for gay teens. My contribution, ‘Pervert,’ is about a junior high kid, born a boy, but who identifies as female. It’s about how he finds the courage to tell his sister and parents.

LL: Oh, no! I should have done my research better. That’s a terrible shame. I hope you find a home for it soon as well. Are there any other projects you’re working on in the meantime?

BK: Please don’t worry about it, I endlessly promoted Mysterious Ways, and then really didn’t say anything when it was canceled. That’s life, I guess.

I’m currently rewriting Everyone Dies in the End, a Romantic Comedy. It’s about a career-minded high school journalism school who uncovers a rash of murders in the 1930s. Too late does he realize that that organization that killed the men during the depression is still around and does NOT appreciate him digging up the past.

LL: Last question! When not tapping away furiously on a keyboard and infecting  children with a love of reading, what else do you do?

BK: Well, I love spending time with my family and we travel when we can. Before I became a father I did a lot of community theater. And of course, there’s my ‘real’ job as an elementary school librarian, which I truly love.


A huge thank you to Brian Katcher for taking the time for this interview.