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My Saturday at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books

My Saturday at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books

LA Festival of Books group

The Los Angeles Times Festival of Books was held over two days this past weekend, Saturday, April 30th and Sunday, May 1st. Although I was disappointed that the romance genre was not represented at the festival, I made plans to attend some interesting events and panels on Saturday, April 30th, along with my husband, my crit partner and friend Bettie Sharpe, Bettie’s husband, and Bettie’s mom.

LA Festival of Books tents

Saturday was a hot and sunny day with high temperatures in the upper eighties. My husband and I arrived at the USC campus and wended our way past booksellers’ stalls in search of the YA stage, where the first panel was held. While my husband trekked back to the car to return the portable chairs we’d brought and didn’t need, I sat down to wait for Bettie, her husband, and her mom to arrive and to watch the first panel.

Brave New Worlds: Writing the Unreal

That panel was titled “Brave New Worlds: Writing the Unreal” and it was moderated by Aaron Hartzler. The panelists were Andrew Smith, author of The Marbury Lens, Ally Condie, author of Matched, and Laura McNeal and Tom McNeal, co-authors of The Decoding of Lana Morris.

I had expected this panel to be among the most interesting I would attend but as it turned out, it was the least. The authors began by reading excerpts from their books, then answered questions from the moderator, and finally took questions from the audience.

In answer to a question on which came first, the story or the world, Condie said that she began with the story and then thought about what kind of world would best fit that story. This process, however, requires a lot of revision because she has to go back and change aspects of the world as it changes with the story. Laura McNeal said that since her book was set in the real world, albeit with a supernatural element, she and her husband don’t need to do as much worldbuilding.

All four authors said that they tried to weave the concerns of teenagers, such as in Condie’s case, teens’ need for control over their own circumstances, into their books. Condie’s memories of her teenage years were vivid, and she drew on them in writing her books.

In reply to a question about what research they did for their books, Andrew Smith said that he talked to physicists about what is and isn’t theoretically possible. Condie said the game theory she used in her books required a lot of conversations with her husband, an economist, and that she had to ask him to explain game theory in layman’s terms. She also looks up a lot of facts. Laura McNeal, whose book is about a girl placed in foster care with developmentally disabled kids, volunteered at a center for developmentally disabled adults.

Answering a question about which age group he targets in his writing, Smith said that he wrote books about teens without aiming for any specific age group reader. The others agreed with him.

Laura McNeal said she learned a lot about writing from the graduate writing program she attended in answer to a question about advice they would give to writers who aspire to be published. Smith’s answer to the same question was succinct: “Don’t suck.”

I was disappointed in these authors’ replies to a question about which authors they enjoy and would recommend, because none of them recommended other YA authors. Instead some of the names mentioned included Richard Ford, Saul Bellow, Alice McDermott, William Trevor, Cormac McCarthy, and J.D. Salinger (Franny and Zooey in particular). Agatha Christie, mentioned by Condie, was the only author of genre fiction whose name I caught.

Young Adult: Worlds Beyond Imagination

World Beyond Imagination

Having met up with our friends in the middle of the panel, we headed past the USC rose gardens and through streets crowded with festival goers to the next panel we had tickets for, “Young Adult: Worlds Beyond Imagination.”

Thankfully, this panel was held indoors, in an air conditioned space, but that wasn’t the only reason that it was a huge improvement over the previous one. Moderator and librarian Cindy Dobrez asked thoughtful questions and the panelists, authors Jonathan Stroud (The Bartimaeus series, most recently The Ring of Solomon), Megan Whalen Turner (The Thief series, most recently A Conspiracy of Kings), and Rick Yancey (The Monstrumologist series, most recently The Curse of the Wendigo) gave equally intelligent, frequently humorous answers.

The panel began with the moderator’s announcement that Megan Whalen Turner had just been awarded the Los Angeles Book Prize in the Young Adult category for A Conspiracy of Kings. Then Dobrez directed her first question at the panelists, which was on the subject of world building.

Megan Whalen Turner said that as a big fan of Tolkien who had read too many Tolkien clones, it was important to her not to emulate Tolkien in her YA fantasy series. She wanted a landscape that was equally familiar yet very different from the one Tolkien used as a backdrop for these books. It wasn’t until she visited Greece that she realized she had hit upon that landscape.

Rick Yancey talked about his love for history and for the nineteenth century and how this love fed his Monstrumologist series, which are Young Adult horror novels set in late nineteenth century New York that draw on nineteenth century books like Dracula and Dickens’ novels.

Jonathan Stroud lives in London (the moderator quipped that he had skipped out on the royal wedding to be with us), where the first three books in his series about Baritmaeus the genie are set. The latest book, though, is a prequel set in the Jerusalem of King Solomon’s times. Stroud said he had done a lot of research on ancient Jerusalem but then had to stop because too much research can interfere with his vision for the story.

The panel talked about humor and how important it was to have comic relief in books that sometimes got dark and scary. It was evident that they had read each other’s books as well as other YA authors. Yancey said he writes both for his adult self and for the teen reader he used to be. Turner said she likes to reread and deliberately tries to construct books that can be enjoyed in more than one reading, and that she writes for all ages. Stroud and Turner talked about their admiration for the late YA author Diana Wynne Jones (best known for Howl’s Moving Castle) and in Turner’s case, how Jones’ encouragement of her writing meant the world to her.

Fans of the Megan Whalen Turner series might be interested to hear that Turner said that she was more interested in the stories of reluctant leaders than of rulers who enjoy wielding power, and that for that reason, it was unlikely that she would ever make the queens of Eddis and Attolia main characters in her novels. Conflicted characters like Eugenides and Sophos, who are thrust into their leadership roles without desiring to be kings, are more interesting to her.

Turner also said that she chose the POV of her books by first envisioning the story she wanted to tell in each of all the possible POVs and then selecting the POV which would allow her to tell that story as completely as possible. After writing The Thief in first person, she switched to third person with The Queen of Attolia because she knew that her main character would be suffering in that book, and a suffering first person narrator might come across as a whiner.

Jonathan Stroud talked about how in writing the first book in his series about Bartimaeus the djinni, he realized that he had to switch back and forth between the third person story about his main character, a boy who releases the djinni and commands him, and the humorous first person voice of the djinni. He started out with the first person voice of Baritmaeus, but realized it needed to be alternated with the third person narrative.

Rick Yancey told a hilarious story about how when he was finishing up one of his Monstrumologist novels he missed his deadline and had to stay up late to finish writing the book. He went around his house late at night checking the windows and doors because he scared himself during the writing process.

The subject of series also came up and Jonathan Stroud said that he has to be very interested in a character in order to write more than one book about that character. The character has to be engaging enough to support the series, because if the author is bored, there is no way that readers will care.

Although my initial interest in the panel was due to Megan Whalen Turner’s presence, I left it interested in Stroud and Yancey’s books as well. All three authors were articulate, funny, and unabashed in their appreciation of YA books. What’s more, Turner said that she likes to write about love.

Publishing in the 21st Century

Publishing in the 21st Century

After a break for lunch we joined the standby line for a panel called “Publishing in the 21st Century.” Luckily there were enough seats left to enable us to escape the blazing sun and enter the blessedly cool, air-conditioned auditorium where this panel was held. The panel was being filmed for “Book TV” on CSPAN-2, and those of you who have cable may be able to catch in on television.

The moderator of the panel was Sara Nelson, formerly editor-in-chief of Publishers Weekly and now book editor for O magazine. The panelists included Robert Weil (executive editor at W.W. Norton and Company), Johnny Temple (founder of Akashic Books, a Brooklyn based independent publisher which publishes urban literary fiction and political nonfiction), Kim Robinson (whose background included archiving work), and Cary Goldstein (publisher and editor-in-chief of Twelve Books).

The growth of ebook reading was one of the big topics on this panel. Sara Nelson began by admitting that at a similar panel last year and at other earlier events, she and other industry insiders made predictions that turned out to be totally inaccurate. For example, the Barnes and Noble Nook was expected to tank, but instead it has become a hit. It was thought that reference books would be the big sellers in the ebook market, but not fiction, and that turned out to be completely wrong.

Robert Weil, who was answered with applause when he said he still had a lot of love for the book as a physical object, stated that Nelson was right and that in the same period that they had seen 20% growth in genre fiction ebooks, there had been only 1% or 2% of growth in what he termed “serious books” (He used The Hemingses of Monticello as an example of the latter). For this reason, he said that he felt that print books would not entirely go away.

Kim Robinson said that paper archives better than anything else we have at the moment and that it is risky to archive library collections only electronically.

Johnny Temple said that ebooks have advantages including being more environmental (after we left the panel, we discussed whether or not this latter statement was actually accurate), and (wisely IMO) that “Book publishing needs the ebook – we need to be relevant.” He also said that the biggest challenge of the electronic reading era was ebook piracy, but then contradicted himself when he added that although his company’s books had been pirated, sales of their books hadn’t suffered as a result.

Cary Goldstein said that they were seeing 30% and sometimes even 50% of sales in ebooks, but what they didn’t know yet was whether the sales that were now going to ebooks were from former readers of trade books or former readers of hardcover books.

Moderator Sara Nelson said that if she loves a book she wants it in print. It sounded like she felt that the reading experience was superior with print books, but she commented that ebooks were less expensive and for those books she didn’t love, or for people who had made the transition to owning an ebook reader, the lower price made ebooks preferable.

Robert Weil said he was worried for brick and mortar bookstores. Someone (I forget who) said that bookstores were important to the reading community as places to browse and find books. Sara Nelson said “I know in New York the bigger the bookstore, the faster it’s closing.”

Then the topic of social media was raised. Robert Weil said it was a challenge for authors and that since bookstores are ordering fewer copies the challenge is “how to get the word out.” Sara Nelson asked if social media really worked and Cary Goldstein replied that it depends on the writer. He said that “voices of authority” in traditional media that readers trust are still needed.

Johnny Temple then made what I thought was one of the better comments of the discussion when he said that “There has to be something creative and there has to be something organic” to the author’s social media presence for it to work. Cary Goldstein talked about Sebastian Junger’s website and how it has an amazing community of soldiers who talk about their personal experiences in the war.

Kim Robinson indicated that she believes it is still a good idea for authors to reach out to people who care about the subject matter of their books through in-person speaking engagements.

At this point our group had to duck out of the panel in order to make it to the next event on our schedule. As we walked to the Dan Savage venue we talked about the way the discussion at the “Publishing in the 21st Century” panel had struck us as short-sighted and out of touch with a portion of the reading public.

Dan Savage in Conversation with Douglas Sadnowick: It Gets Better

Dan Savage, It Gets Better
As it turned out, we had saved the best for last, and the best was Dan Savage’s conversation with Doug Sadnowick. Sadnowick, founder and director of the country’s first LGBT Specialization in Clinical Psychology at Antioch University, interviewed Dan Savage about the It Gets Better Project.

While we were waiting, “It Gets Better” buttons were handed out and we pinned them on. At my request, Bettie snapped a picture of hers which she pinned to her hat.

Dan Savage, It Gets Better

Doug Sandowick cracked us up when he began by saying “I spoke with Dan on the phone yesterday and he said that for this one hour, I could be the top in our relationship.” But things quickly got serious when Sadnowick asked Dan Savage how he got the idea to start the It Gets Better Project.

Savage replied by saying that the idea came to him after he read about a fifteen year old boy who had been bullied and committed suicide. It turned out that there had been five suicides at his school, three by LGBTQ kids, and that “so-called Christian parents” had opposed the anti-bullying program that school officials wanted to institute on the basis that it would infringe on their religious freedom. “And that pissed me the fuck off.”

Billy Lucas was bullied after death on his facebook page; his bullies went there to celebrate his death. On Dan Savage’s site, a commenter left a comment addressed to Billy Lucas, which said, “I wish I could have known you, Billy Lucas. If I’d known you, I could have told you that things get better.”

Savage talked about how he’d always wanted to talk to and mentor gay teens but couldn’t get permission, and when he saw the comment, “It struck me that in the era of You Tube, I was waiting for permission that I no longer needed.”

The ultimate accomplishment of It Gets Better is that it’s saved lives, but the penultimate accomplishment, Savage said, is that it broke the old deal society had with LGBTQ people, that “You’re ours to torture until you’re eighteen” and that if gay adults reached out to gay youth they would be accused of pedophilia. It Gets Better allowed them to reach out and make a difference.

He said he himself was bullied in middle school but was also able to fly under the radar a little bit because, as David Sedaris said in his contribution to the book It Gets Better: Coming Out, Overcoming Bullying, and Creating a Life Worth Living, in those days “there was no such thing as gay kids.”

Dan Savage also said that twenty years of the religious right gay hate campaign have made it really hard for gay kids to go to schools in areas where a lot of people are intolerant. Whatever is being preached in pulpits by anti-gay bigots, he said, “touches me not at all – it doesn’t pry one dick out of my hand.” Instead, it is gay kids who are the ones who are badly hurt.

He said that he likes to tell gay kids that “You are on your hero’s journey. It’s painful and unfair but it’s going to forge your character and you are going to discover who you are.” Gay pride, he added, is about having the strength to be who you are and to tell the truth about who you are to the people you love, even though it’s hard.

He also spoke about the controversy over the sex positive aspect of some of the You Tube videos. Dan and his husband, Terry Miller, got emails from people who wanted them to edit out the story of their exchange when they first met, when Dan said “You have a pretty mouth,” and Terry replied with “The better to eat you with.” Some people felt that that reference to oral sex should be edited out of the video but Dan said they will not edit it out because it is part of the gay experience and they want the video to be sex positive.

Dan Savage also cited some chilling statistics, for example, that 40% of homeless teenagers are LGBTQ kids who came out and were thrown out by their parents, which is why telling kids to come out of the closet is not always a good solution. Kids who are LGBT are also four times more likely to commit suicide than straight kids, and if their parents are hostile to gays, they are eight times more likely to commit suicide.

He said the book based on the It Gets Better Project allows schools to show support for those teens. They can say “We’re putting this book on the shelves for the queer kids in the student body because we don’t want them to die.” If you go to the website, you can make a contribution there that will enable them to donate a copy of the book to the library at the school of your choice.

I wish I had room to share even more of Dan’s stories (among other things he described seeing the Broadway musical based on The Kid, his memoir of how he and Terry adopted their son, as a surreal experience) but since this post is long enough I’ll wrap up my article on the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books by saying that although I remain disappointed by the exclusion of the romance genre from the festival, I still had a great time.

REVIEW: A Conspiracy of Kings by Megan Whalen Turner

REVIEW: A Conspiracy of Kings by Megan Whalen Turner

A Conspiracy of Kings coverDear Ms. Turner,

Somehow, I've become a huge fan of your YA series. My love for the books has taken me by surprise because the first book, The Thief, was slow to engage me and aimed at a younger audience than the later books. It wasn't until the second half of that book that I was drawn in and not until the second half of the second book, The Queen of Attolia, did I become a true fan.

By the time I got my hands on The King of Attolia, though, I was enthralled with almost every page, and I am happy to report that the fourth book, A Conspiracy of Kings, which was just released on March 23rd (Can you tell I've been counting the days?) is nearly as satisfying.

My reviews of the earlier books can be found here:

Review of The Thief
Review of The Queen of Attolia
Review of The King of Attolia

Before I review A Conspiracy of Kings, I want to warn readers that due to the way these books are written, it is almost impossible to discuss any of the later three books without giving away spoilers for the earlier books in the series. Therefore this review will contain SPOILERS for books 1-3. Readers who have not yet read these books, who may want to read them and who prefer to avoid spoilers are advised to read no further.

Like the other books in this series, A Conspiracy of Kings is set in the fictional kingdoms of Sounis, Eddis and Attolia, which are patterned on Greece. But this book differs from the others in that the focus here is not Eugenides, the hero of the first three novels in this series. Gen does make an appearance in this book, and play a significant role, but in this book, the main character is Sophos, Gen's traveling companion from The Thief.

Readers of the earlier books may recall that Sophos disappeared in The Queen of Attolia, and in this book, we learn what befell him at that time, and during the events of The King of Attolia as well.

A Conspiracy of Kings begins with a third person prologue in which Sophos and the Magus (his elderly, wise advisor) arrive in Attolia and try to attract attention from Gen (now the king of Attolia) without drawing any to themselves. As Eugenides and his wife ride in an open coach, Sophos aims a peashooter at Eugenides, but Gen does not show recognition even after being hit with the pea.
Eventually, though, the Magus and Sophos do manage to gain an audience with Eugenides, who greets Sophos warmly-’at least until he hears that Sophos is now king of Sounis.

What is the king of Sounis doing arriving in an enemy country without a retinue? In the next several chapters, Sophos narrates his story in first person, and we learn where he has been all this time and why he arrived in Attolia as he did.

Sophos' tale begins in the country of Sounis, back when he was nephew to the king and heir to the throne. His father could find nothing right with Sophos, who was more interested in poetry and plays than in swordsmanship and political machinations. As Sophos tells it, his father blamed the Magus who had been Sophos' teacher, and had Sophos sent to the island of Letnos to study under new tutors, first one who indulged in drinking, then another who turned abusive.

One day, Letnos is invaded by a company of armed men. Sophos manages to overcome a couple of them, and to herd his mother and sisters into a hiding place in the ice house. But then he is captured and gagged, and has to watch helplessly as the villa is burned. Sophos is filled with grief for his sisters and mother, and anger that is directed at both himself and others. He refuses to cooperate with his captors, who reveal their intention to kill the king and use Sophos as a puppet monarch in his place.

The man who takes charge of Sophos is a slaver named Basrus. Sophos' face is scarred and his hair is dyed so he will not be recognized, and he is then taken on a slave ship to the island of Hanaktos. But there the captors' plans go awry. Basrus leaves Sophos in the care of another slaver for a short while, instructing the man that Sophos isn't for sale, but while Basrus is gone, a baron's softhearted daughter, Berrone, decides to rescue the slave that is Sohpos. The price she offers for him is so handsome that Basrus's friend sells him despite the orders to the contrary, and Sophos finds himself in Baron Hakantos' home- only to realize that the baron was in on the kidnapping plot.

The baron, however, does not know that Sophos was purchased by his daughter and is now among the field slaves, and Sophos does his best to act the part of a slave so as not to draw attention to himself. Sophos worries that he is becoming what he is pretending to be:

My freedom was like my missing tooth, a hole where something had been that was now gone. I worried at the idea of it, just as I slid my tongue back and forth across the already healing hole in my gum. I tasted the last bloody spot and tried to remember the feel of the tooth that had been there. I had been a free man. Now I was not.

But as time goes on, Sophos is surprised to realize that slavery has become a strange comfort to him:

I was still happy. It was no rest day. I faced a day in the hot sun, shifting dirt and stones, with scant food and ignorant company, and I'd never felt so much at peace. I laughed at myself as I shifted on my pallet for a more comfortable spot and a few minutes' rest. Let me be beaten, I thought, and then see how well I liked being a slave. Too soon the overseer knocked on the doorway with his stick, and we all rose, grumbling, for another day.

I had grown skilled at shifting dirt. If I couldn't compete with some of the men in the field with me, I could keep up with most of them. I worked hard, I slept well at night, and I dreamed often. I grieved, but a part of me felt a lightening of the burden I had carried all my life: that I could never be worthy of them, that I would always disappoint or fail them. As an unknown slave in the fields of the baron, I knew the worst was over. I had failed them. At least I could not do so again.

Eventually though, an opportunity to change his circumstances comes along, and Sophos must choose whether to maintain his disappearance or to step forward and claim a throne he never wanted.

A Conspiracy of Kings is an immensely satisfying book and probably my second favorite in the series, after The King of Attolia (I loved the last third of The Queen of Attolia to bits but I thought the book took too long to get there).

While Sophos isn't as charismatic or amazingly multifaceted a character as Eugenides, he is still very sympathetic. It is interesting to compare his portrayal here to the one in The Thief. In that book, which was told in Gen's first person POV, Sophos came across as younger, but very sweet and lovable. In this one, Sophos is the main POV character (the book alternates between his first person POV and omniscient third person). We see though his own eyes that Sophos is hard on himself, and doesn't always paint himself in a flattering light. For this reason, I found him a little less lovable here, but more complex and compelling.

This is a story about how a young man begins to come into his own, and Sophos' journey to greater self-confidence kept me turning the pages. I shared in his grief for his mother and sisters, in the freedom he experienced at a time when he was (ironically) pretending to be a slave, in his dreams of a magical library, in his love for and wariness of his friend Gen turned king of an enemy country, and in his longing for the woman he had loved for years.

There is one thing I'm torn about. I would have been disappointed had there been less of Gen in this book, yet at the same time, I did feel that Sophos faded a bit during those third person sections in which Eugenides appeared. The problem is that Gen has turned into such a compelling character that he casts most of the other characters into the shade. Thus, much of the book was Sophos' story, yet when Gen's presence was felt, the book became something else, and for this reason, it took some getting used to the transitions between the first person and third person sections.

I would have loved for there to be more of Irene (Attolia) in this book. She was mostly in the background and I greatly missed her. There is one scene in which Eugenides describes the moment he knew he was in love with her, and that is probably my favorite scene in the whole book.

As for Sophos' own romantic relationship with Helen, the queen of Eddis, it really tugged at my heartstrings to see how much she meant to him and I felt his love for her even when they were apart.

I have just a few more quibbles. One is that I never got a good fix on Sophos' father. The book seemed to alternate between two interpretations of this character. Also, the section just before the book's climactic scene felt a bit slow, one plot turn was a bit convenient, and in discussing the book with my friend Elle, she pointed out another contrivance that I hadn't noticed.

Nonetheless, I enjoyed A Conspiracy of Kings tremendously. Adventure, intrigue, and romance – this book had them all. That climactic scene near the end was thrilling, the love story was both poignant and romantic, and then there was Eugenides, who is such an amazing character. Although Sophos could not equal Gen in that regard, he was still interesting, sympathetic, and worth rooting for. A- for A Conspiracy of Kings.



PS I hope there will be a fifth book in this series — it seems like there is plenty of fodder for one. And if there is another, I personally would love to have one of the women as a main POV character. You write such strong and interesting female characters that I wish I could see more of them. I also adore Eugenides, so of course I can't wait for more of him, too.

This is a book published by one of the “Agency 5″ but it is a hardcover and the ebook price is $9.99

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