Everything is Cool When You’re Part of a Team

Guys.

Guys.

I’ve got NEWS.

THE BIG KIND.

The kind that requires an excessive number of gifs.

I am over-the-moon excited to announce that I am now represented by the lovely, brilliant, and utterly fabulous…

[drumroll please]

Holly Root of Waxman Leavell Literary Agency!

I’ve been pinching myself all weekend, and I still can’t quite believe it’s true. Holly is far and away my dream agent, and I cannot begin to express how blessed I am to be working with her, or how stupid-giddy-excited I am as we embark on the author-agent journey together.

If you are not entrenched in the publishing world (bless you, and your sanity) and aren’t sure what an agent is, or the role they play in the publication process, or why this is a Big Freaking Deal, check out Part 1 of Susan Dennard’s post on How to Get Traditionally Published. (Then read Parts 2 and 3, because they are Quite Informative and one of the clearest descriptions I’ve read on how this whole crazy looooooong process works.)

If you want to hear the nitty-gritty of how I came to sign with Holly, stay tuned. I predict I shall be long-winded. Both because I am long-winded, and because it was a long, windy road to get here.

This story actually starts a few years ago, back when I first started this blog. One day, through a series of random events, I happened to discover that a girl I went to college with was now a literary agent who represented a lot of YA. This may not seem that big a deal except for one thing: I went to a tiny little private university in Arkansas that no one’s ever heard of. The odds of someone from my school becoming A Somebody in publishing are…well, I haven’t crunched the numbers, but I’m gonna go out on a limb and guess they’re not very high.

Now, this girl wasn’t someone I was close to in college. I knew her more by reputation (ie: she was Wicked Smart and Good At Many Things), and because she married a guy in my class who sang with me in chorus. I think we might have smiled and nodded and possibly exchanged a couple pleasant “heys” during our years attending the same school. That was it. So I didn’t really think of this information about her being a literary agent as anything more than a bit of interesting trivia.

Then a couple days later, I finished the book I was reading and read the acknowledgements. Whaddya know, Lit Agent Girl From College — whom you’ve probably figured out was Holly — was that author’s agent. That was two interesting coincidences in a row. I looked up some other books I was reading and about to readHolly represented all of them. Holly was, apparently, a brilliant agent who represented exactly what I love to read. Hm.

I decided this anecdote was amusing enough for a first-contact Facebook message, despite our total barely-acquaintances-in-college status (Oh Facebook, you make it so easy to blur the lines of appropriateness). I proceeded to construct the awkwardest “Hey, you probably don’t remember me, but funny story…” message in the history of awkward Facebook messages. Holly responded almost immediately, with an “Of course I remember you! And yay for blogging, let me know if there are any books I can send you” message. Then I was even more awkward by requesting FAR TOO MANY books and saying embarrassing things and why am I bringing this up when I really hope she has forgotten all about it for all eternity? (Also, I have since come to learn that authors initiating contact with agents through FB is a BIG NO-NO. I’m guessing bloggers doing it is even worse. But I won’t ask, because we’re never going to mention that ever again.)

She was lovely and gracious and did not file a restraining order. Obvious proof that she is a Class Act.

A couple months later, I got the idea to write a book. A fantasy.

It was weird. I’d never had a book idea before. But I decided to try, because why not? It could be fun.

I did everything wrong. I didn’t plot at all. I flew by the seat of my pants. I wrote myself into corners. I blathered on forever with ridiculous subplots that could never, ever work. And I wrote a YA book that clocked in with a first draft of 133,000 words, which is far, far too long.

I revised and revised and revised, cutting out huge chunks and bringing it down to a more manageable length. I sent it to beta readers. They thought it was…okay. They had lots of nice things to say, but also lots of questions. Big questions.

I revised again. And again. Tried to answer their questions and fix what was broken. I eventually got it down to a 100K word revised draft that I was happy with.

When I was finishing what I thought was the final revision, I was asked by one of Holly’s clients — the lovely and brilliant Myra McEntire, whom I had met I believe a whopping three times at various book events — if I’d be interested in taking a look at her most recent manuscript and offering feedback. To this day, I still really have no idea why she asked me, since we knew each other only slightly better than Holly and I knew each other in college. (Hey, Myra, why did you ask me? Was it a dare? You can tell me if it was a dare.)

But I wasn’t about to look a gift horse in the mouth (or, like, something that’s not a terrible cliché. Man, I am so good at this writing thing.) So obviously I said yes. In exchange, Myra promised to read my book, just as soon as she passed her deadline.

As it turned out, Myra read my entire book one Saturday in early February 2013, shortly after turning her book in. Before she finished, she emailed me to say she’d already recommended it to Holly, and that I should plan to start querying on Monday, because it was Ready.

Um. Hello.

I did as I was told. I queried Holly, along with a few others, that Monday. Holly responded later that day requesting the full manuscript and congratulating me on finishing my book. No mention of my crippling awkwardness. Again, Class Act, people. I was ecstatic. I sent my story off and set about biting my nails and refreshing my email and starting a new story.

Then the rejections started rolling in from the other agents I’d queried. One after another after another. Form rejections — not even a hint of personalization.

I doubted. I convinced myself that Holly had only requested because we went to college together and because one of her authors liked me and because she didn’t want to hurt my feelings. (Hint: This is not a Real Thing Agents Do. They don’t have time for it.)

I shook it off, reminding myself that Real Authors pile up enough rejections to wallpaper a room! I didn’t have nearly enough yet! So I retooled my query and kept sending it out, one little feeler at a time, as I waited to hear from Holly. I got several requests, but no offers. After Holly had my manuscript for a month, I was utterly positive that she was just trying to come up with the words to let me down easy. My book was stupid. It wasn’t new or interesting. The other requesting agents were bound to be disappointed, and had probably requested by accident, and were probably going to reject me any day in a not-so-nice fashion, because they had no reason to care about hurting my feelings.

Here’s the thing about querying, guys. Or letting anyone see your work. You swear you’re going to be cool, you’re not going to obsess, you’re not going to let it get to you. You read all the stories of people freaking out, and vow, that will not be me. But once in the query trenches, remembering that is hard. Even if you are Facebook friends with your top choice agent and have a referral from one of her clients. Once someone is reading the story you poured your soul into, waiting to hear what they think is painful. And the doubt and fear can be crippling. Even when you know it is you psyching yourself out. You become your own worst enemy. Or at least I did.

Then, five weeks after sending her the manuscript, I got an email. It was from Holly and it was long. I was simultaneously excited and disappointed. Long meant she cared. But long also meant it did not just say, “Can I call?”

Turned out, she liked the fantasy. Very much. But she didn’t think it was quite to a place where she could sell it. She had a lot of suggestions for how to make it better, all of which I absolutely agreed with. They were the kind of suggestions that seemed so obvious in retrospect, like why had I ever considered writing my story any other way? That was the moment I became absolutely certain that she Got Me. She’d seen the story I had wanted to write underneath the story that I’d actually written.

So I contacted the other requesting agents, let them know I was revising and asked if they’d like to see it when I was done. They did. Then I plunged into the revision cave to tackle her notes.

It was a ton of work, but the story came out so much better for it. I sent it to critique partners. They gave me feedback, and I revised to their notes, sending them revised scenes pasted into emails with subjects like, “I AM SO SORRY” and “I AM TRYING A NEW THING, PLEASE TELL ME IF IT SUCKS” and “I’M NOT SO GOOD AT THIS.”

I’m not really sure why any of them are still talking to me.

Finally, after many weeks of intense revision, it was finished. I sent it back to her and the other requesting agents at the beginning of June. A week before she went on maternity leave.

Disclaimer: I totally knew she was going on maternity leave. It was in no way a secret. I actually knew she was going on maternity leave before I queried her the first time. But still, it wasn’t easy to send off my revision knowing she was about to step away for three months and then return to work three months behind. That was a lot of waiting. And I suck at waiting.

The other agents with my full wound up passing, for a variety of reasons. I hadn’t queried many agents, and I could always query wider, but I wanted her. I actually felt relieved by a couple of the other agents’ passes, because I’d come to realize that Holly was my top, and only pick. Her authors love her. She does amazing things for their careers. Her sales record is spectacular. Her list includes many of my favorite books. And I knew, from talking to her authors and keeping up with her on social media, that she would get me. She would be My People.

So I didn’t send any more queries. I waited it out. I got really good at waiting. I got so good, in fact, that I started to dread what would happen when she finally returned to work and I did hear back. I liked limbo. Limbo was comfy. Limbo wasn’t rejection.

But at the same time, I didn’t want to be waiting forever. I did, after all, want to get published someday. So I kept writing a different project that was 180-degrees different from the fantasy — a thriller about a teenage superhero. One of the biggest assets to being unpublished and unagented is freedom. I could write whatever I wanted. Why not something different? So I played with my superhero thriller, which was oodles of fun plus it kept me sane.

One million years Three months later, Holly returned to work from maternity leave. About six weeks after that, in October of 2013, I got an email from her about my fantasy revision.

It was a no.

It was a kind no. An encouraging no. But still a no. “You’re terrific and there is something really special to this story,” she said, but she didn’t think she could sell it. She then said a lot of lovely things about me and my skills as a writer, and closed her email with a heartfelt request to see whatever I did next.

Then I did Another Wrong Thing. Another Thing That Querying Writers Should Not Do.

I responded to her rejection.

(Don’t respond to rejections, people.)

I responded and laid my cards out on the table. I told her she was my first choice, and whatever I wrote next would be written with the goal of nabbing her. (I may not have actually used the word “nab.” At least, I hope I didn’t.) And then I did another thing you shouldn’t do, and pitched my totally-not-even-drafted WIP with a query I wrote on the fly in five minutes, asking not if she wanted to see the manuscript, but if the project itself sounded like something she might like if I could make it good. Because if she didn’t want to read what I was writing, I was actually prepared to start a totally new project that would be more to her taste.

Yes. This is how sure I was.

(Don’t pitch books you haven’t finished writing, people.)

Somehow, yet again, she did not respond to me like I was suffering from The Crazy, but instead emailed right away saying that my new story sounded awesome and that she’d love to read it when it was ready.

CUE FRANTIC DRAFTING.

This is the point where two things happened.

1) I started doing things right.

2) My book broke.

This time, I actually plotted my book. I made beat sheets. (Like, a thousand of them. And followed none of them. But that’s a post for another day.) I had made some excellent friends in my local writing community, and I brainstormed with them and had them read for me and attended a writing conference and writing retreats. I started seriously critiquing for friends and having them seriously critique for me, and I learned how to apply the critiques I was giving others to my own manuscript. I immersed myself in the publishing world. I did my research. I attended as many book events as I possibly could. I was serious, yo.

I also couldn’t finish this book for the life of me. I had to toss it out completely and start over. Several times. And it still wasn’t right. I finished it through gritted teeth, knowing something was wrong, but unsure what it was. I gave it to some trusted beta readers. Their feedback helped me realize I needed to yank out an entire subplot, and after doing that, I discovered a bunch of other stuff that didn’t work and had to be rewritten. When all was said and done, nearly ten months had passed since Holly passed on my fantasy, and I’d thrown out over 150K words. But I finally had a book that I thought might – might – be Good Enough.

Which was…terrifying. The voices in my head never stopped whispering that if I didn’t knock this book out of the park, I’d probably reached the end of my chances with Holly. (I’m not sure why I just decided this, but once the thought was in my head, there was no dislodging it.)

But I sent it to a new wave of readers, and all of them agreed, this book was ready to query.

I carefully crafted my query, this time (thankfully) spending more than five minutes on it. This time, I only planned to send it to one person. Two of my critiquers for this book were Holly clients (Myra again, along with the incomparable MG Buehrlen), and they both sent her heads-up emails telling her they’d read for me and thought this book was The One.

In mid-July of 2014, I pressed send. I included a note in my query that she was getting an exclusive, which is another thing you’re Not Supposed To Do, but I think we’ve established by now that I am terrible at Doing Things Correctly. Then I immediately texted a handful of friends something along the lines of “I JUST HIT SEND WHAT IS THIS MADNESS WHAT IF SHE HATES IT WHAT IF I FAIL.”

Forty-five minutes later, Holly requested the full manuscript. Always a good sign.

MG and Myra freaked out. My critique partners freaked out. My writer friends freaked out.

But then six weeks passed without a peep. I twitter stalked like a champ (can one be a champ at Twitter stalking? should one be a champ at Twitter stalking?), even though Holly basically never tweets about individual submissions, because what if she did for meeeeeeeeee? I texted Myra and MG and asked them to please use their telepathic powers to read her mind and tell me where she was in my book. (Spoiler alert: They don’t have telepathic powers and I was, once again, The Crazy.)

The Crazy came in waves. Some days would be just normal days. Other days I’d wake up at 4 a.m., certain that today’s the day, even though I had no reason to believe that. Sometimes friends would ask me how I was doing, and I’d say fine. Other times, they got ALL CAPS RANTS ABOUT MY OBVIOUS SHORTCOMINGS AS BOTH A WRITER AND A HUMAN.

Querying is so weird, guys. Even (maybe especially?) when you’re only querying one person.

Then, on my birthday, I went to C.J. Redwine‘s launch party for Deliverance. And a few minutes after I got there, guess who sat a few seats down and waved to me?

Oh yeah. Holly, who lives in California, was in Nashville visiting her family. And C.J. is her client. So of course she’d be at her launch. Duh.

I even knew she was going to be in town, because we are Facebook Friends after all, but somehow I had not connected those dots. A+ detective work, Lauren.

After C.J.’s launch (which was lovely, and if you haven’t read her Defiance trilogy yet, you should), several of us, including Holly, stayed and chatted a while about a variety of things. For once, I decided, I was going to do things the right way and not bring up that she still had my manuscript. Because imagine with me, if you will, the Epic Awkwardness of bringing up my book if she was trying to think of a nice way to reject it? Or a not-so-nice way? And then had to do it to my face?

No thank you.

But. BUT. When I was getting to ready to leave, Holly turned to me, fresh off of recommending a book to someone else. “Speaking of fantastic books,” she said, “I just started yours on the plane here and I am LOVING IT.”

And then I fainted while somehow remaining upright and conscious and engaged in conversation. I think she said more nice things about my book. I think it involved scaring other passengers. I don’t know. I was having an out-of-body experience. But I said something coherent-ish (I think?) and then I really did have to go because it was my birthday and I’d been promised cake.

I might have freaked out a little. Or a lot. I don’t know.

AND THEN – two more weeks passed. And I didn’t know what to think. If an agent’s started reading your book and told you they’re loving it, you’re supposed to hear back RIGHT AWAY, right? That’s what the success stories say in all the “How I Got My Agent” posts I’d been reading (you ever notice how most success stories are like, “AND THEN I HEARD BACK THE NEXT DAY,” and even though they say that’s not the norm, it seems like it kind of is? Well I am here to tell you: I did not hear back the next day).

I began to dread her response, the same way I’d dreaded her coming back from maternity leave. If she hadn’t gobbled up my story, that meant it was boring, right? A story you love shouldn’t take two weeks to finish. It sucked. sucked. Any day she was going to email me to tell me that maybe I should consider pottery, or window cleaning, as a better career option. I became convinced that she was merely attempting to craft the gentlest rejection letter she could, and that really not knowing was good, because I didn’t want to read another gentle rejection.

I should mention that all my friends told me I was crazy, and Myra and MG continually stressed how busy Holly was and reminded me that submissions have to come after client work, and did I mention Holly has a lot of clients and some of them are NYT bestselling authors and it’s not like she has a shortage of work? But even though, logically, I knew they were right, there’s a weird dichotomy when you’re waiting for someone to pass judgment on your work. I knew that if it was a no, she’d just tell me no. She wouldn’t sit on it forever. That didn’t make sense.

But what if she did?

Anyway. I actually wound up pushing the waiting to the back of my mind, because I had something else to focus on. The SCBWI Midsouth Fall Conference. I love this event, it takes place ten minutes from my house, it’s organized by some of my dearest friends, and it is one of the most edifying parts of my year. This year the conference was September 12-14, and the whole week before was basically one big countdown to the conference. I even stopped worrying about my manuscript. That’s how excited I was.

On Friday afternoon, I checked into the conference hotel with my critique partner, Sarah (who has read everything I’ve ever written, even the super-crappy first drafts that aren’t fit to line a hamster cage, a feat for which she deserves knighthood or possibly even sainthood), and her mother. We dropped our suitcases in our room and prepared to go downstairs and mingle.

Before we left the room, my phone rang. I don’t know anyone in L.A., I thought as I picked up.

“Hi, Lauren, this is Holly Root. Do you have a minute?”

I might have hit Sarah in the back so hard it scared her. And then I realized I couldn’t actually say anything so I mouthed IT’S HOLLY like I was trying to communicate with a lip reader in Djibouti while responding in my calmest tone, “Of course I have a minute.”

“Do you have a minute for me to tell you that I loved your book and think I can sell it?”

I definitely had that minute.

After talking briefly about my superhero book, she said, “So this is the part where I woo you. How should I go about the wooing?”

“It’s going to be really easy,” I said. And it was. We talked about revisions, and once again, I agreed with her on every point. We talked about how she does business. We talked about my other WIPs. We talked about the fact that I unpack in hotels, because I am weird. I’m sure we talked about other things too, but I was on a cloud somewhere and can’t tell you what they were. At the end of the call, she offered to give me a few days to consider, but I told her I didn’t need them. I’d had a lot of days and months to consider. I was good on the considering front. We got off the phone, she sent me the agreement, and bam. Agented.

One of the best parts of this entire year-and-a-half long process was that she called at the exact right time for me to be able to walk downstairs and tell nearly all of my best writing friends the news in person. And let me tell you, my husband was overjoyed, my mother screamed, but no one understands this particular thrill like writer friends. There were many hugs and much screaming that night.

So basically, if you are querying and can get your dream agent to call and offer to represent you ten minutes before you’re about to go spend a weekend with most of your closest friends at a writing conference, DO THAT. It’s pretty great.

My favorite reaction was my friend David, who congratulated me, gave me a hug, then promptly threw his wadded-up napkin in my half-full wine glass.

“WHY DID YOU DO THAT?”

“It’s a momentous occasion! I wanted to do something you’d always remember.”

Oh I’ll remember, all right.

I honestly think my friends were more excited than I was, because while I’d been holding my emotions back from the process (I’d been plenty neurotic, but I’d never allowed myself to be more than cautiously hopeful, because if you don’t hope, you can’t be crushed), they’d always believed in me. This is why it’s so important to have community. Writing can be lonely and full of self-doubt. I cannot stress enough how valuable it’s been to me to be surrounded by people who know the process and the struggles, but never falter in their faith that I can do this. I expect my emotions to crank up to eleven eventually. It’ll sink in soon. But until then, they’ll carry the giddy for me.

Also, I was asked at least a dozen times if I remembered to tell my husband. I told my husband first, people. We are not savages.

Signing the Agency Agreement. Husband is behind camera, being TOTALLY PRESENT AND INFORMED.

The conference was amazing (of course), and while I wasn’t ready to officially “announce” publicly yet (my overloaded brain simply could not handle telling the world my news and doing a writing conference on the same weekend), I had the rather surreal experience of being able to answer “yes” on the few occasions when one of the faculty asked me if I was agented yet.

How weird is that?

So there you have it, folks. The long, meandering tale of how I got my dream agent. If you made it through the whole thing, congrats. May your admirable perseverance serve you well in life.

Thanks for celebrating with me, friends. I’m so beyond thrilled to be an official part of Team Root, and can’t wait to see what adventures the future holds.

 

Review: DELIVERANCE by C.J. Redwine

Received an ARC from the author

As I’m sure you’ve noticed, if you’ve spent any time perusing this blog, I’m a fan of adventure stories. Hero journeys, epic battles, sprawling quests, monster slayage – in the Encyclopedia of Me, under the heading of “Favorites,” these are the things you’d find at the very top.

Which is why I’ve so enjoyed C.J. Redwine’s Defiance trilogy.  C.J. is a friend of mine, but before I was a friend I was a fan. I read Defiance in one sitting, and found the murder mystery plot of Deception riveting, so when she handed me an ARC of Deliverance, the conclusion to the trilogy, I may have hugged it to my heart like a world-saving prophecy baby and scampered away before she could change her mind and take it back.

I’m not saying that happened. But it may have.

If you’ve been swept up in the first two books of the series and can’t wait to see how it all concludes – buckle up. Here there be dragons.

The Plot (from Goodreads):

Everything hangs in the balance, and nothing is certain: Rachel has been kidnapped by enemy forces and is being taken to Rowansmark while Logan, imprisoned and awaiting trial, is unable to leave Lankenshire. Separated from each other and their Baalboden comrades, each must find a way to achieve what they desperately want: to rid their world once and for all of the Commander and the tech that controls the deadly Cursed One.

Fighting through her pain and embracing the warrior she’s become, Rachel will do whatever it takes to escape her enemies’ clutches and join Logan in his fight. But when she learns a secret that changes everything, she realizes that escaping Ian and his tracker friends is no longer an option if she wants to save the people she loves. Instead, she’ll have to destroy Rowansmark from the inside out—if she can survive the journey through the Wasteland.

Logan needs allies if he wants to thwart Rowansmark’s power grab and rescue Rachel. But securing allies will mean betraying his beliefs and enlisting the help of the man he hates more than anyone: Commander Jason Chase. Driven by his fierce love for Rachel and his determination to make their world safe, Logan may be just the weapon the city-states need to defeat the Cursed One.

But as Rowansmark bears down and uneasy alliances are tested, will Rachel and Logan’s love for each other be enough to surmount the unbelievable odds against them?

My Thoughts:

A word of warning before you start: if you haven’t read the first two books in the DEFIANCE series, or if it’s been a while and you really don’t remember them, you’re going to want to catch up before cracking open DELIVERANCE. The final book in the trilogy hits the ground running, picking up shortly after DECEPTION left off and plunging the reader back into the action-heavy plot with Rachel, Logan, and a host of characters that could get overwhelming if you haven’t ventured into their post-apocalyptic world for a while.

Fortunately, C.J. Redwine handles her hefty cast with dexterity, and while the list of players is lengthy, she manages to imbue each one with his or her own distinctive personality that keeps the pages from turning into a confusing mishmash of names. There are several new characters in DELIVERANCE, but most of the story centers around familiar faces from the first two books. Rachel and Logan, along with old favorites such as Willow and Quinn, are plunged into galloping adventure at a breakneck pace as they rush to save innocent people and bring justice to the evil Commander, as well as James Rowan, the sadistic ruler of neighboring city-state Rowansmark.

For fans of the romance between Logan and Rachel, the two lovebirds really get to test whether absence really does make the heart grow fonder in DELIVERANCE, as they spend the bulk of the book separated. Don’t despair, though, shippers – though it may take a while for them to find each other, they remain as smitten as ever, with their thoughts continually drifting toward each other. I thought it was a nice way to incorporate the romantic plot without retreading old ground, and it kept the pages turning to see how they’d eventually work their way back together.

In the meantime, there is action and intrigue galore, as our intrepid heroes now have to face not just one, but TWO Big Bads in the form of Commander Chase and James Rowan. We’ve had three books now to build up our hatred of the commander, but James Rowan gives him a serious run for his money. I found myself torn between WHICH dastardly foe deserved the more wretched end, but by the time the dust settled, I thought the outcome was just.

In addition to the duo of evil masterminds, Logan and Rachel also have to face off against armies, assassins, and tanniyn (read: DRAGONS!) galore, in a twisting, action-packed plot that rarely stops for a breath. Old questions get answered, long-overdue debts are settled, and while the resolution of the conflicts that have been building for three books now is not neat, it is fitting. Trilogy conclusions are tricky, but I believe this one wraps up most of the loose ends in a way that is both satisfying to the reader and appropriate to the characters.

If you have enjoyed the first two books in the Defiance series, I believe you will find DELIVERANCE a worthy send-off for C.J.’s fantastical, post-apocalyptic world, and for the characters you’ve grown to love. And if you haven’t yet plunged into the adventures of Rachel and Logan, now would be the perfect time to start.

 

Review: TEASE by Amanda Maciel

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for my honest review.

I can’t really put my finger on why I was so eager to read Amanda Maciel’s debut Tease. I read Jay Asher’s Thirteen Reasons Why last year, and remember feeling like it was a book that was important for high schoolers — and people of all ages, really — to read. Despite the difficult subject matter (teen suicide), I thought that book did an amazing job of showing how words and actions have consequences, and how many times people aren’t as strong as you think.

When I heard about Tease, written from the perspective of a bully following her 16-year-old classmate’s suicide, it seemed like it would be another challenging but eye-opening book that wouldn’t be easy to read, but would be important. So when I got the chance to read and review it, I snapped it up.

The Plot (from Goodreads):

Emma Putnam is dead, and it’s all Sara Wharton’s fault. At least, that’s what everyone seems to think. Sara, along with her best friend and three other classmates, has been criminally charged for the bullying and harassment that led to Emma’s shocking suicide. Now Sara is the one who’s ostracized, already guilty according to her peers, the community, and the media. In the summer before her senior year, in between meetings with lawyers and a court-recommended therapist, Sara is forced to reflect on the events that brought her to this moment—and ultimately consider her own role in an undeniable tragedy. And she’ll have to find a way to move forward, even when it feels like her own life is over.

With its powerful narrative, unconventional point of view, and strong anti-bullying theme, this coming-of-age story offers smart, insightful, and nuanced views on high school society, toxic friendships, and family relationships.

My Thoughts:

From the opening pages of TEASE, I knew I wasn’t going to like Sara — and that it was okay. It’s a rare YA book that has such a purposely unlikable narrator (the only other one I can think of off the top of my head is Lauren Oliver’s BEFORE I FALL) but when you’re reading about a girl that bullied her classmate to the point of suicide, you don’t really expect her to be all sweetness and light.

If you are looking for sweetness and light, a warning: there is none of that in these pages.

Sara is self-centered, whiny, and seems to lack even a trace of empathy for everyone around her. Her rolling eyes and her “like, whatever” attitude immediately set the tone for the rest of the book. This wasn’t a girl I wanted to root for. This was a girl I wanted to take by the shoulders and shake every time she repeated her “But I didn’t do anything” mantra — which she does for almost the entire novel, which alternates chapters between the months leading up to Emma’s suicide and the months following.

In the flashbacks, we get to watch Sara and her BFF Brielle (think Regina George from ”Mean Girls,” except worse) be utterly, inexcusably horrible Emma. They’re vicious and cruel and infuriating. But what’s interesting is that we also get to see that Emma was no saint herself. She made mistakes. She did some underhanded stuff. In Sara and Brielle’s eyes, she earned every bit of vitriol they spit at her. From Sara’s perspective, she was the victim of Emma’s cruelty, since Emma “stole” her boyfriend. Sara and Brielle were certain that Emma’s tears were a stunt to grab attention, and that everything she did was intended to irritate them.

Now, does that excuse what they did to Emma? No. Not in the slightest. I thought Brielle was an absolutely horrible person (and totally undeserving of Sara’s devotion to her) and that despite Emma’s missteps, the punishments that Sara and Brielle doled out were far, far worse. They were toxic in every way. Watching them revel in their constant abuse of Emma was sickening and horrifying, especially since we kept flashing forward to the period after Emma had died and Sara still couldn’t see that she did anything wrong.

That was the most disturbing part for me. How even after Emma was dead, Sara still couldn’t understand the role she played. She still thought that Emma deserved what they’d done, and that the main problem was her lack of ability to take a joke.

It may sound like I’m trying to discourage you from reading this book, but here’s the thing — I thought TEASE was brilliant. I spent the majority of it furious with Sara and Brielle, but I thought it did an amazing job of showing how bullying happens without romanticizing either the perpetrators or the victims in the slightest. Sara is a terrible bully, but then we get to see her be a wonderful big sister to her two brothers (although let’s be clear – I never really liked her). Emma is absolutely a victim, but she also purposely provokes them on a few occasions. Brielle is…well, Brielle is awful. But her awfulness is still somehow raw and real. Every character in TEASE was fully-formed and utterly believable, which is one of the things that made it so challenging. It wasn’t like reading a story. It was like watching these events unfold in real life, and watching these kids self-destruct, and being unable to do anything about it.

But that’s the beauty of a book. Because despite the fact that Emma, Sara, and Brielle don’t exist, there are kids just like them who do, and maybe after reading TEASE, they will think twice about pulling a prank or starting a rumor. I think it’s good that TEASE is infuriating, because maybe if a reader is furious with Sara, she will try harder to avoid being like Sara.

The prose is far from poetic, peppered with frequent, “like”s, “I don’t know”s, “whatever”s, and ”or something”s from Sara, who narrates exactly like the bored, insecure, self-centered teen she is. Her voice gives the whole book an authenticity that I don’t think could have been achieved with a more lyrical style. It’s a book where I thought the writing was perfection, even though it kind of made me want to rip my hair out.

Which is kind of the theme with every part of TEASE. Infuriating brilliance. Flawless abhorrence. Frustrating authenticity.

TEASE is not an easy book to read, but I found it impossible to put down. It’s beautiful and ugly and terrifying and real, and I think there should be a copy in every high school library. It’s not a book that made me cry, but it’s a book that made me think. I never really came to root for the characters, but I’m not sure that was the point of this book. I hope that in a strange way, this book about these kids who totally lacked empathy will be able to inspire empathy in the Saras and Brielles who are reading. Not toward these fictional characters, but to the real people they encounter every day. I hope they’ll be able to put themselves in someone else’s shoes and choose the higher road. The one that Sara and Brielle never took.

And to any Emmas out there, hang on. There is always hope.

 

Review: PRISONER OF NIGHT AND FOG by Anne Blankman

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for my honest review.

So a few months ago, I joined Young Adult Books Central (have you been there? You should visit. Fantastic site) as kind of a behind-the-scenes gear-greaser. I poke around in the parts of the site that you don’t see and help it all run smoothly. My role is mostly helping the site function, not reviewing, BUT when I signed on, the incomparable MG Buehrlen (site admin) also told me I could review books for the site if and when I felt like it.

For the most part, I haven’t requested any review books from YABC. Reviewers have to jump right on reading and getting reviews posted in a timely manner, and I knew I couldn’t commit to that if I didn’t feel SUPER excited about a book. Most of my time lately has been devoted to my own writing, critiquing works-in-progress for my friends, and OH YES, SUMMER VACATION. (Parents who homeschool, HOW DO YOU DO THIS? I am in awe. These children are going to be the death of me.) I haven’t done much pleasure reading, much less pleasure reading on a deadline.

But the last batch of review books that came in contained PRISONER OF NIGHT AND FOG, and I knew I had to request it. Not only was the concept intriguing (Hitler as a main character? A member of his inner circle as the protagonist? Veeeeery eeeenteresting. *strokes metaphorical beard*), but one of my critique partners is working on a WWII manuscript, and I wanted to brush up on the genre. So I requested. And I have no regrets.

The Plot (from Goodreads):

In 1930s Munich, danger lurks behind dark corners, and secrets are buried deep within the city. But Gretchen Müller, who grew up in the National Socialist Party under the wing of her “uncle” Dolf, has been shielded from that side of society ever since her father traded his life for Dolf’s, and Gretchen is his favorite, his pet.

Uncle Dolf is none other than Adolf Hitler. And Gretchen follows his every command.

Until she meets a fearless and handsome young Jewish reporter named Daniel Cohen. Gretchen should despise Daniel, yet she can’t stop herself from listening to his story: that her father, the adored Nazi martyr, was actually murdered by an unknown comrade. She also can’t help the fierce attraction brewing between them, despite everything she’s been taught to believe about Jews.

As Gretchen investigates the very people she’s always considered friends, she must decide where her loyalties lie. Will she choose the safety of her former life as a Nazi darling, or will she dare to dig up the truth—even if it could get her and Daniel killed?

From debut author Anne Blankman comes this harrowing and evocative story about an ordinary girl faced with the extraordinary decision to give up everything she’s ever believed . . . and to trust her own heart instead.

My Thoughts:

I’m no historian by any means, but I have a deep appreciation for a well researched piece of historical fiction. Even when I know very little about a time period, I think that when an author does her homework, it shows. This is especially essential when the subject matter is one about which many readers already have formed opinions — in this case, the Nazi (National Socialist) Party and Adolf Hitler. I was excited, but a little wary, to see how Anne Blankman would approach such a delicate topic. I knew the protagonist starts the book very close to Hitler, but surely she couldn’t actually like Hitler? Surely the author wouldn’t dare paint Hitler as a nice guy who’s been horribly misunderstood?

I needn’t have worried. While, yes, protagonist Gretchen Müller is very fond of Hitler when we meet her, referring to him as Uncle Dolf, I found PRISONER OF NIGHT AND FOG very thoughtful in its approach to her beliefs and her interactions with the infamous Führer. I could see how this young, intelligent girl would have been won over by Hitler’s charisma and propaganda. It was clear a lot of care had been put into Hitler’s portrayal, and Gretchen’s perception of him, and I found it extremely believable.

It was chilling to see characters that truly seemed like good people embrace Hitler’s horrifying ideals. Some of the Nazi characters in this book were, indeed, monsters, but many were otherwise decent folk who didn’t seem to see how wrong their beliefs and actions truly were. One by one, they all turn against Gretchen when they realize she’s pulling away from the Party, in a series of events that becomes more and more terrifying as Gretchen sees how deep Hitler’s poison has sunk into the hearts of her German friends and neighbors. Watching as Gretchen slowly has the wool pulled from her eyes was both compelling and heartbreaking, especially when I considered that this story takes place before World War II, which meant opposing Hitler would only become more difficult for Gretchen.

The murder plot is exciting, but I have to admit, it wasn’t much of a mystery. The reveals that shocked Gretchen I found somewhat predictable, but I didn’t mind, because I wasn’t really reading to learn who killed Gretchen’s father. The answer was interesting — and tied brilliantly into a real historical event — but the aspect of the story that gripped me the most wasn’t the ten-year-old crime, but how Gretchen would survive once she knew the truth.

Likewise, I loved watching Gretchen’s interaction with Jewish reporter Daniel. It was fascinating to watch Gretchen grow from someone who mindlessly accepted that Jews were subhuman into someone who understood the value and humanity in all people. The love story was sweet, but much like the murder mystery, it was secondary for me. I was mostly invested for Gretchen’s internal change and growth. It’s rare to read a book where the protagonist wholeheartedly buys into the rightness of society’s harmful ideals, and then is forced to change her mind and heart completely when she is faced with the truth. I thought PRISONER OF NIGHT AND FOG handled that transformation wonderfully.

As I mentioned before, the attention to historical detail in this story is commendable. While Gretchen, Daniel, and several other important characters are fictitious, many of the characters in this book were real people, in addition to Hitler himself. Similarly, many of the events and locations referenced also were based on true historical accounts. I thought Anne Blankman’s thorough research and her thoughtful portrayal of history helped the fictional events leap off the page, and gave her story a real air of believably. I don’t think anyone should pick up a historical fiction novel expecting a 100% educational experience, but I do think PRISONER OF NIGHT AND FOG helped shed a light on a period of history that isn’t often taught in schools, and did so with a lot of care and respect to the time period. The plot of the story may be fictitious, but the backdrop was real, and I thought the balance between the two was lovely.

Overall, I found PRISONER OF NIGHT AND FOG a fascinating read, full of compelling characters and challenging questions, set in one of the most intriguing and terrifying periods of history. If you enjoy well-written, thoughtfully researched historical fiction, or simply great characters making hard choices against overwhelming odds, I highly recommend you give it a try.

 

Film Review: The Fault in Our Stars

Earlier this week, I had the opportunity to attend an advance screening of the film The Fault in Our Starsbased on the novel of the same name by John Green. I had thoroughly enjoyed the book (as much as one can enjoy a book about kids dying from cancer), and although I had a few reservations about the film’s cast (having recently watched Shailene Woodley and Ansel Elgort, TFIOS’ star-crossed lovers, play siblings in Divergent), they were mostly dispelled when I attended the Demand Our Stars event in Nashville last month.

Naturally, I went into the movie pretty excited. I knew the film had the resounding support of author John Green, the cast was made up of enthusiastic fans of the book, and the few people I’d talked to who had already seen it unanimously agreed that it was an excellent adaptation.  So armed with a TFIOS-themed packet of tissues, I settled into my seat for what I guessed would be a solid two hours of sobbing.

Nutshell reaction:

The early reviews were right. This movie is well cast, beautifully acted, expertly scored, and faithfully adapted. Book fans should be extremely pleased, and those who haven’t read the book will walk away with tear-streaked faces and a solid understanding of what all the fuss is about.

Longer reaction:

From the opening scenes of the film, it’s evident that everyone involved in this production was trying to be true to the spirit of the book. Everything from the script to the costumes to the set design seemed lifted straight from the pages. That dedication carries through the entire film, and nearly all of the tentpole lines and scenes are present and accounted for (one notable exception being the lack of the Shakespearean reference from which the story draws its title, but considering the indifference to the source material that often happens when translating a book into a film, such small omissions are forgivable).  The tone also carried through, which was no small task. This is a story about kids with cancer, and in some cases kids dying of cancer, but never becomes maudlin. It’s interspersed with levity and humor and the kind of irreverent joking — from both the teens and the adults — that make it more a story about family and friendship and first love and growing up than a story about cancer.

Although I had my doubts about the chemistry between the two leads, Shailene Woodley and Ansel Elgort won me over with genuine performances. The dialogue in the book was often flowery and a bit pretentious, and I’ve often heard critics bash it with the claim that “no one talks like that, especially not teens.” (The fact that I knew teens who talked and thought very much like this just proves how much of a story’s believably relies on the consumer’s personal experience, which is an element totally outside of the writer’s control — but that’s a topic for another time.)

My point is that the two young actors, and Ansel Elgort in particular, did an excellent job of portraying exactly the sort of person who would talk like this. He would probably think of himself as loquacious, not necessarily pretentious; at one point, he asks Shailene Woodley’s character, Hazel, not to interrupt him in the midst of his “grand soliloquy,” which is a perfect example of just how much his character, Gus, likes to hear himself talk. He played it in such a way that I could feel the character’s need to matter, to say something worthwhile, in an effort to thwart “oblivion,” which is Gus’ worst fear. It made me wonder if Gus would be prone to such epic monologues if cancer never found him. Maybe. But it was questions like this, along with little touches like his insecurity about his amputated leg, or his initial fear and then subsequent childlike wonder at his first time on a plane, that kept him from becoming a caricature.

Shailene Woodley is a bit of an anomaly for me. I can never picture her as the characters she gets cast as, but then when I see her performance, she wins me over. She’s one of those actors that never seems like she’s acting, which may be why I always have a hard time imagining her outside her most recent role. Hazel was no exception. Her portrayal of a teen living with cancer is compelling and authentic, and she’s able to infuse lightness and humor into the role while never downplaying the gravity of the situation (the oxygen tank she has to cart around for the entire movie is a constant visual reminder of her struggle, but even if the tank wasn’t there, the tightrope Hazel has to walk between “normal teen” and “cancer kid” is always present).

Then Nat Wolff fills out the teen cast as Isaac, who starts the film with one working eye and ends it with zero. His role is reduced from what it is in the book, but he is able to make the most of the screen time he’s given, stealing every scene he’s in. While also a kid suffering from cancer, Isaac’s biggest struggle in the movie isn’t the loss of his sight, but the loss of his girlfriend, which adds both levity (as Isaac works through his frustration by smashing Gus’ basketball trophies — with Gus’ blessing, of course — and by egging his ex’s car, in full view of her mother), and perspective: These are kids living with cancer, emphasis on living. They have cares and hopes and struggles and heartbreaks that have nothing to do with their illness, even when it takes their eyesight, or their leg, or their ability to breathe.

As in the book, the parts that got to me the most weren’t the parts with the teens — though several scenes, particularly the fake-funeral, predictably tugged on the tear ducts — but the ones with the parents. This is probably because I’m an adult, and a parent, myself, but even teens or adults with no kids should be able to empathize with the powerful adult performances in the movie. The  one with the most screen time is Laura Dern, playing Hazel’s mother, but pretty much every scene where we get a glimpse into Hazel’s and Gus’ parents struggle as they watch their children fight their diseases was heart-wrenching. There were very few parent scenes that I made it through with dry eyes, and the fact that Laura Dern and Sam Trammell (playing Hazel’s father) could convey so much with a quiver of their chin or a sideways glance made their strength and their grief beautifully palpable.

Much like the book, The Fault in Our Stars is sad, but not melancholy; romantic, but not sappy; heartwarming, but not saccharine. It sensitively addresses hard questions, like is it possible to live fully while you’re dying, or can a parent still be a parent once their child is gone, without providing easy answers. The performances are sincere, the film making is straightforward, and the lessons are layered. It’s a film about kids with cancer without being a cancer film, where even the sickest characters are defined by so much more than their disease.

Augustus has a line early on in the film when he asks Hazel, “What’s your story?”

She starts in, “Well, I was diagnosed when I was thirteen…”

And he interrupts her, “Not your cancer story. Your real story.”

I think that line is one of the main themes of the movie, and the book. There’s the cancer story, and then there’s the real story. I thought the film did an excellent job of focusing on the real story.