Change of Habit

Brave New World (Aldous Huxley) is a classic science-fiction novel that has been made into a film more than once. Also, a future adaptation is planned as a scripted series for the SyFy Channel, which I look forward to watching one day. I love sci-fi movies and TV shows but don’t read much in the genre. That might be because often the plot and science seem to predominate over characterization in sci-fi stories, at least in those few that I’ve read, including Stranger in a Strange Land (Robert Heinlein) and Black Moon (Kenneth Calhoun), just to name a couple. Of course there are exceptions such as Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series and Suzanne Collins’s Hunger Games series, which are both rich in character as well as plot.

Brave New World impressed me because it has an interesting plot plus some solid characters with depth. Though written in the 1930s, it is relevant to today’s reader because of its theme of government vs. individualism. Just a couple of weeks ago I read another sci-fi title, Parable of the Sower (Octavia Butler). Again, this is a novel with strong characters and a story relevant to our current day. It tells of a world that has crumbled under the effects of global warming.

Given that my recent sci-fi reads have been satisfying, I might reconsider my opinion of the genre and sample more in the future.

YA?

I enjoy a good YA novel now and then. These books are usually easy reading with fast-paced stories. But I was somewhat surprised with Out of Darkness, a YA novel by Ashley Hope Perez. The writing is sophisticated, the pace–at least initially-is slow, and the story is tragic, dealing with serious issues of racism and child abuse. It seems to me the only feature that qualifies it as a young adult story is the age of the protagonist. She is a teenager, and so is her love interest. Based on this book, I have to assume that young adult readers are more sophisticated than during my teen years. Look at Suzanne Collins’s popular series, The Hunger Games, with its dark, dystopian setting. YA books are often read by adults as well. In the past couple of years I have read Echo, by Pam Munoz Ryan, It’s Not About the Accent by Barbara Caridad Ferrer, Survive the Night by Danielle Vega, and Honey Blonde Chica by Michele Serros. Most of these books deal with heavy topics (for example, Japanese internment during WWII, date rape). Out of Darkness is a shockingly stark look at racism during a particular period of US history. Does that mean it’s too harsh for a young adult reader? Not in my opinion. Indeed, it is an eye opener.

Characters

Author Nevada Barr’s Anna Pigeon is one of my favorite fictional characters; but after reading Boar Island, her latest, I’ve come to realize that perhaps Anna is fading into the background in these books. Maybe Barr has explored the character as much as she could, and now a happy Anna is simply not the compelling heroine she once was. Anna has resolved her issues with alcohol and overcome the severe depression she suffered after her young husband’s death. A happy character doesn’t necessarily make such an interesting read.

I love character-driven fiction. I recently got to thinking about fictional characters I’ve met this year that made stories so much better because of their individual quirkiness, temperament, or sense of pathos. Following is a list of such characters, in no particular order.

Lauren Oya Olamina (Parable of the Sower by Octavia Butler): A young woman who through her strength of character leads a group of survivors in dystopian California to seek a better life.

Mike and Frankie Flannery (Echo by Pam Munoz Ryan): Two orphans who suffer such hardships that Mike can no longer bring himself to hope. Yet Frankie’s sweetness and optimism remain intact.

Juniper Song (the star of Steph Cha’s mysteries): A young private eye who is older than her years. Similar to early Anna Pigeon, she struggles with loss and alcohol.

Ana FaNelli (Luckiest Girl Alive by Jessica Knoll): Ani’s air of sophisticated snobbishness masks a painful past.

Frey and McGray (private detectives in Oscar Muriel’s mystery series): These guys make a funny, entertaining pair, a bromance. Frey comes off as too prissy for the kind of work he does, but paired with the wild and crazy Scot, McGray, the team works.

Shirley (Shirley by Susan Scarf Merrell) Though she’s in a novel, Shirley is not fictional. The character is the fascinating real-life writer, Shirley Jackson. Merrell brings her back to life with stark realism.

Antonia (My Antonia by Willa Cather): A woman who epitomizes the immigrant experience, yet she is no stereotype.

 

I Love Libraries

Tuesday night I had a wonderful experience presenting and signing my books at the East Los Angeles Library, where I worked as a librarian for ten years. Of course it was rewarding to sell and sign copies of my book; but even more rewarding was the opportunity to speak about my passion for libraries. My second book, Silence, Please, is partly set in a library, where the three main characters work. The primary reason I selected such a setting was to present an accurate picture of how libraries and librarians work. The characters are not stereotypes, and the work situations they encounter are based in reality.

However, rather than focus my talk on the book, I stressed the importance of libraries in our society, and how they depend on local politics and the support of the community for their successful operation. I also told the story of how I learned to read in the library where my siblings would take me after school when I was in the first grade. Back then, I was having a tough time keeping up with the other kids in class because their reading skills were already in place. Having skipped kindergarten, I barely knew my ABCs. My siblings read to me in the children’s department of the library, and that’s where I learned to read. I love libraries for introducing me to the books I love.

Now . . . about books . . . The past week I read Michael Nava’s City of Palaces, which is a historical novel set in Mexico City. I love the exquisite language the author employs to describe the city and lives of the people in pre-revolutionary Mexico. I respect writers of historical fiction for the research they must do to bring an era to life for their readers. Nava also raises interesting points about race and racial conflict in the Mexico of that period. I highly recommend his book to anyone seeking to learn more about Mexico’s history. It is the first of a planned series of four volumes.

This & That

It’s been an interesting week. I was invited to speak to a local women’s group that concentrates on raising funds to provide scholarships for students. I spoke about my transition from librarian to novelist, and what inspired the writing of my two novels. The group was very receptive and made me feel welcome. It was quite a rewarding experience for a speaker and writer. As a side benefit, I sold several books and even depleted my supply of the first novel. Even better, I believe I succeeded in conveying my passion for reading and the importance of libraries.

Another positive experience this week came from the book I’m reading.  A month ago I attended, for the first time, a meeting of a local writers’ group. I decided to become a member of the group after listening to the featured speaker, author Laurie Stevens, who talked about creating plot, conducting research, and publishing. Her presentation was excellent. I purchased her novel The Dark Before Dawn, and started reading it this week. It is set in Los Angeles, I was pleasantly surprised to discover, especially given that I wrote about LA novels in my last blog. I’m enjoying the descriptions of freeway traffic, the Malibu Hills, Pepperdine University, and other locales. It also includes two nonstereotypical Latino characters, another pleasant surprise. Stevens was a self-published author who drew the attention of a publisher who now represents her. Hers is an inspiring story for those self-published authors who perhaps dream of someday hitting it big. Indeed, it would be great!

LA Books

The Gifted Gabaldon Sisters, by Lorraine Lopez, is a novel, set in LA, about four sisters . Despite the lack of a compelling plot, I enjoyed this story because of its realistic depiction of a Mexican-American family, the laugh-out-loud humor, and the setting. Aside from novels by Michael Connelly, it occurs to me that though I like reading books set in my favorite city and area (LA County), I more often seem to come across those that take place in New York. Why is that? I’m not talking about “The Hollywood Novel.” Hollywood is almost a different world, one I know little about, having spent little time there. I prefer LA novels, like Connelly’s, that put me in a particular street or neighborhood, where I can almost see and smell my surroundings. Lopez does that, especially with her description of City Terrace.

I searched my memory banks to come up with other LA titles I’ve read but could remember only a few: White Oleander, by Janet Fitch, Paint It Black,  also by Janet Fitch, Black Dahlia, by James Ellroy, and The Zoot Suit Murders, by Thomas Sanchez.

Do authors find New York City a more intriguing setting for their stories? Or have I simply missed some good LA titles?

Book Club Choices

The members of our book club rotate the responsibility for selecting titles. This gives us a broad range of reading material, including non-fiction and fiction. Our most recent choice was one I didn’t enjoy much, though I recognized its merits, and our group had a good exchange of views. With this in mind, I gave thought to why certain books stimulate discussions. Certainly the work has to be more than an entertaining story. It doesn’t have to be controversial, but it should touch on themes or subjects that spark dialogue.

Following is a list of titles, in no particular order, I have read in the past couple of years that would make excellent book club selections:

The Collective by Don Lee. A well-written novel about Korean-Americans that raises issues of racial identity.

Being Mortal by Atui Gawande. A difficult read for those of us who would rather not think about death (which is probably most of us) but a strong reminder that we should. This one we read in  our book club. An excellent discussion followed.

A House of My Own by Sandra Cisneros. An autobiography. Not only is Cisneros an accomplished wordsmith, she is opinionated about politics, family relations, and women’s issues.

Me Before You by Jojo Moyes. A novel about euthanasia.

Mexican Enough by Stephanie Elizondo Griest. Non-fiction. There is a lot here about immigration, economics, and culture, to spur conversation.

My Antonia by Willa Cather. A classic novel that deals with the subject of immigrants, timely for today’s readers.

The Man of My Dreams by Curtis Sittenfeld. She is a good novelist. Though this is not her best work (that is American Wife, in my opinion), it is a good study of a neurotic, immature young woman. Readers will either like or dislike this story, but they will want to talk about it.

The Luckiest Girl Alive by Jessica Knoll. On the surface this novel might seem like chick-lit, but it is so much more.

Make Your Home Among Strangers by Jennine Capo Crucet. One of my favorite 2015 reads. It’s about the challenges of coming-of-age as a bicultural woman.

Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes. It’s a hefty book, but there’s a reason it is a classic. There are many themes here, including truth and justice and keeping one’s dreams alive.

Of course, if one is a book club leader and charged with selecting the material, it’s wise to be aware of your members’ preferences. It might be best not to choose controversial material (e.g. euthanasia) if the group seems to favor lighter fare.