Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Imagine cupcakes

Not this cupcake**. This is made of felt. The ones that are made of sugar and buttercream and other edible (but inadvisable) things, you have to imagine, because I didn't have my camera with me today when Jim and I and new friends Liesa and James happened upon Cupcake Jones in the Pearl District. The moment I saw the cupcakes through the window... I knew they were no ordinary cupcakes. Listen to this, and conjure the image in your head:

baklava cupcake -- cardamom cake filled with honey pistachio pastry cream topped with honey pistachio buttercream, candied pistachios and filo wedges. Uh huh. That's what I had. Well, that's what I had first.

snickers cupcake -- caramel velvet cake filled with whipped chocolate peanut ganache topped with caramel buttercream, chocolate and caramel drizzles and chopped peanuts. That's what I had second.


And listen to what's on the menu for later in the week: "Mallomar cupcake with homemade marshmallows and graham crackers," a "linzer cookie cupcake" -- that one involves brown sugar hazelnut cake. Brown sugar hazelnut cake? Oh. Yum. And, oh my god, they make an "almond joy" cupcake, chocolate filled with coconut cream topped with almond buttercream frosting. Ack! I'm getting fat just thinking about these!

Calm down, Laini. Calm.

Well, we had a really nice afternoon, cupcakes and books and Vietnamese food with new friends. We met Liesa and James at the conference last weekend, and they are spending a few days in Portland before heading home to New York/New Jersey, so we got to hang out. Liesa is an editor at Simon and Schuster, and it was fun going through the YA and Middle Grade sections at Powell's with her; I bought a couple of books she's edited. It was also fun seeing James' eyes bug out when he discovered the photography section. Powell's = Paradise. In the event of an apocalypse, that is where I want to be, and if at all possible, I'd like for the Whole Foods and Cupcake Jones to remain fully operational (okay, and Anthropologie too). Apocalypse Schmocalypse. Yes?

Belatedly, a few blog posts by attendees of the conference last weekend. It was really great to meet both Stephanie and Elise. I look forward to reading your books, as soon as may be! (Oh, and: Stephanie has blue hair. Yay!)

**For the adorable felty cupcakes pictured above, click here.

Monday, April 28, 2008


Yes, I am going to tell you the secret to getting your book published, but first, before anything else, don't you think you have to have this T-shirt? Go HERE.

Okay. I'm feeling a little emotional and a lot grateful right now at the end of another SCBWI weekend. It's been a new kind of SCBWI experience for me: one that involved not so much helping my dreams come true, as, well, my dream has already come true, and now here I am, up on the spotlight-side of the podium! Me! And of course, my dream of becoming a published writer would not have come true if not for all the SCBWI conferences in which I was on the listening side, the scribbling notes side, the yearning side. I mean that from the bottom of my soul. When asked about my path to publication, the answer is so simple:


I've written about this here before, but I think it bears telling again, especially in the light of the extraordinary full-circle that this weekend brought me in Bellevue, Washington. So here goes.

Seven years ago I splurged to go the national summer conference of the Society of Children's Book Writers & Illustrators in Los Angeles. I couldn't really afford it, but Jim and I had just gotten married, and I think we actually used some money that we'd gotten as a wedding gift so that I could do it. Looking back, I know I had dreams that I would be discovered by an editor or an art director and get an assignment to illustrate a children's book. That didn't happen. It didn't happen the next summer either, incidentally, when I went back again.

Something else happened. I learned to become a better illustrator, a harder worker, and most importantly... to rediscover myself as a writer.

A writer is what I am. I remember that now. But seven years ago I was in the midst of a long detour away from writing into illustration (a detour I am glad I took, by the way), and I had to find my way back to myself. AND... I had to learn how to write a book! (Minor detail!) I started going to SCBWI conferences hoping to learn the secret to getting published, and I did learn it. The secret is...

{drumroll please}

Write a really good book!

Mo Willems touched on this in his keynote address this weekend, in his hilarious way of being glib but deeply true at the same time. He said that all you need to know to get published is: BE SUPERLATIVE. Teachers in art school told us the same thing. Good work will rise to the top. Work hard. Do good work. Duh, right? Yeah, but I had to stumble onto this secret by going to workshops on craft, in between the workshops I thought I needed, which were the ones on how to get published. We conference attendees partly go to these things for the chance to meet editors face-to-face and hope they might publish our book; if we're really lucky, we might wander into a workshop where a writer tells us something that will help us make our book better, and better, and better, and hopefully, finally, worthy of publication. It happened to me. That workshop was taught by Dan Greenburg and I scribbled notes the whole time, a sudden fire of understanding lit in my brain, and when the conference was over I sat up on the hotel terrace in the Los Angeles late-afternoon sun, had a glass of wine, and rewrote those notes into my first Dreamdark notebook, the notebook in which Blackbringer was just beginning to take shape, and I asked myself questions that Dan had put in my head, and my book took a massive stride toward the next level. (Thank you, Dan!)

Those notes are still there on pages 10 and 11 of that notebook, that same notebook from which I read a [different] passage yesterday while teaching my first workshop on writing at the SCBWI! That's part of the full-circle, but there's more.

Two years ago Jim and I went to the Western Washington conference for the first time. It was at the moment in time that Blackbringer had sold to Putnam and I had just delivered the full manuscript to my editor Tim and was awaiting his response. To fill those nervous, fidgety days, I was working on some short stories (which happened to come from Sunday Scribblings prompts.) Well, we went up to Washington for the conference a day early so Jim could go to the friday "illustrator's intensive," and all day I sat in the Starbucks at the Bellevue Barnes & Noble and brainstormed how to take this very short story I had written -- Hatchling -- and flesh it out into a longer, more sophisticated story. I thought and scribbled notes all day. From the Starbucks I went to a sunny park and sat at a picnic table beside a lake where a heron was building a nest, and I came up with the BIG IDEA for Hatchling.

This past friday, two years after that, Jim and I sat at a brewpub next door to that exact Barnes & Noble, on the eve of that same conference, having lunch with Arthur Levine, who took a stack of edited manuscript out of his bag and handed it over the table to me. In that stack was Hatchling.

It kind of gives me chills. This book (which, by the way, is not going to end up being called Goblin Fruit after all; title announcement is forthcoming) started life at the SCBWI Western Washington conference in 2006, and it journeyed its way through the 06 Los Angeles conference, was sold to Arthur Levine in 07, and now, in 08, I got to sit with him and talk all about it and read the notes he'd written on my manuscript!

It's just so cool.

Here we are, by the way, and Jim of course:
Can you tell I feel totally blessed and amazed right now? I guess the moral of my story is: To get published, write good books. To write good books, go to SCBWI conferences! Go with a mind that is not bent exclusively on getting a contract. Go hoping to attend a workshop that will give you insight in how to make your book better, which will make it so much easier for you to get it published! Now, I do not mean to downplay the awesomeness and availability of the editors, agents, and art directors at these conferences. It is HUGE that they are there; it is important. It allows you to see the human face of publishing in a way that makes it seems like a real career filled with real people, rather than a mail drop box that eats your manuscripts ever now and then! AND, when your manuscript is ready, there they ARE. I'm just saying, there's more to it than that. Like Susan Patron said over the weekend, "A writer friend of mine said 'They'll only have one question for you, and that's: how do I get published?'" Just: have more questions than that!

And did I mention? Conferences are SO FUN.

Some writers reward you with candy for coming to their workshop.
There might even be cupcakes around.
And if not cupcakes, there's a strong likelihood of brownies, chocolate-covered strawberries, wine, cheese, and even rice krispie treats! Come for the snax!

Come to hear amazing, inspiring writers speak, like Newbery-award-winning Susan Patron (on right), and Newbery-Honor-winning Cynthia Lord.
And Newbery-Honor-winning Kirby Larson and talented illustrator, Sasquatch-costume-wearer, and [wo]man-on-the-street documentary film-maker Jaime Temairik:
(They kind of look like they're having fun, no?)

These two beautiful ladies are the Regional Advisors of the SCBWI, Sara Easterly and Jolie Stekly, who put the fabulous conference together and who everyone agreed were... amazingly well-organized!
They couldn't have done it without Laurie Thompson, left, shown here with Jim, me, and Kate Schafer, agent extraordinaire, aka Daphne Unfeasible, agent to the awesome Maureen Johnson, among others.

Here's Jim with, on the left, the super-talented Portland illustrator David Hohn, and in the middle, Laurent Linn, Art Director at Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers (he used to be creative director for Sesame Street and he got to tour Japan with Big Bird! Truly. He is also -- and it blew me away to learn this this weekend -- a reviewer for Bank Street College and was one of the ones who chose Blackbringer for their years-best children's books list! Thank you, Laurent!!)

Here are Jim and I with Sara and Jolie, Kate, and my fellow Putnam-author Royce Buckingham.
Below, agent Stephen Barbara, writer/illustrator Jim Averbeck, librarian and kidlit blog queen Betsy Bird (in her fab red dress) with Jaime, Kim, author Joni Sensel, and Sara.
And a few of Jim and I, in which you can just make out the new yellow racing stripes in my hair!**

And lastly, and most brilliant of all the people at the entire conference, are these ladies and gentleman (yes, I believe there was, in fact, only one gentleman)...
...who were smart enough to come to my workshop! Thank you!!

It was an amazing conference; I feel inspired, in love with the industry I am lucky enough to be part of, and ready to write more books. What more could you ask for?

**okay, the hair: my wonderful hair-stylist Maggie at Belle Epoque asked if she could put some fun colored extensions in my hair, and I said, "Okay!" We held up strands of all the 82 available colors, the blues and purples and stuff, and we decided on bright yellow. They barely took a half-hour to put in, and they last up to four months, though you can get them taken out at any time. They aren't the sew-in kind that makes girls cry on America's Next Top Model, and if you think you might want to try a splash of color, I say go for it! Call Maggie.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Chiapas Trip Part 2 - Around San Cristobal/ Chiapas Travel

As I mentioned in my last post, San Cristobal makes a great base from which to take day trips around the countryside. After our first day of wandering in the city, that's what we did. This involved going in vans with other travelers to see waterfalls, take boat trips, and visit Mayan villages. It's really the only way to feasibly see these areas without a car of your own (and there's still some sketchiness to driving in Chiapas; you hear of unofficial document-check sites that spring up on lonely roads, but are really bandits or Zapatistas or something. Anyway, we didn't try it.)

Our first day trip was to Sumidero Canyon, a dramatic stretch of the Rio Grijalva that goes through a narrow gorge. We took a fast lancha over the green water -- fast -- slowing down to gawk at sunning crocodiles and troupes of spider monkeys making their way through the treetops. It was gorgeously sunny and egrets were everywhere, sailing in twos just above the surface of the river, and the sky was just filled with circling black vultures. At one point, in a narrow part of the canyon, you looked up and up and the rock seemed to stretch so far up on both sides (the boat pilot said its highest point was one mile, but we didn't know whether to believe him) and the shapes of the circling birds seemed to recede into forever, until they were only specks so high overhead.
Funny thing about the crocodiles. In days after, when we'd meet others who'd done the same trip on different days, they all seemed to have seen the exact same number of crocs (2) under the exact same circumstances, giving rise to rumors that the guides have two trained crocodiles waiting at specified bends in the river. Ha!

The next day we took a much longer trip that was ostensibly about going to the Lagos de Montebello, down at the Guatemalan border. Well, we did end up making it to the lakes by evening, to find them relatively unspectacular, but along the way we had seen much more interesting sites: the waterfall of El Chiflon, the Tzeltal (Mayan) village of Amantenagro del Valle (known for its pottery), and some caves filled with very strange rock formations.

A potter named Maria:
The bird planters you see everywhere in Chiapas, made in Amantenango:
Interestingly, this day we ended up on a tour van not with foreign travelers, but with Mexican tourists. There were two brothers and a sister from Monterrey, in their 60s or 70s, and a mother and daughter from Mexico City, among others, and we had such a great time with them! We were the only non-Spanish speakers, and they helped translate for us. I should note here, we met NO other travelers from the US. For some reason, Americans don't go to Chiapas. There were Europeans and Israelis, primarily. Huh.If you're going to Chiapas, you can safely give the Lagos de Montebello a miss, unless you're planning on kayaking or something, but the pottery at Amantenango and the waterfall at El Chiflon more than made the day worth it. My only regret is that we only waded at El Chiflon, and didn't swim -- it would have been PERFECT swimming, sea-green water, perfect temperature, stretches of smooth rock in lazy bends of green water, with little chutes and eddies. . . But we only had an hour so we just waded, thinking we'd get our waterfall swimming fix at Agua Azul later on. Well, that was not going to be, alas, but we didn't know it yet!! (That story is for later.)
P.S. Those are only the "tiptoes" of the waterfall -- up above that there's the really high, dramatic part of the cascade, then it goes over a series of smaller drops, each with their own little plunge pools, one of which was just the perfect shady spot for wading.

Our third and final day trip was the most interesting, and took us to two Mayan villages near San Cristobal. San Juan Chamula and Zinacantan are both Tzotzil villages, but they couldn't be more different. Chamula. . . this was the strangest day of our entire trip. Really strange! First, there was a mild pall of fear cast over all us tourists because of the Chamulans' reputation for not tolerating photography -- you see, they believe they have 13 souls (12 human and one animal) and that when you take their picture, you steal one of their souls. Really! These girls let me take their picture (for 30 pesos), but I noticed that none of them looked at the camera. I wonder if that is their compromise, and they believe it protects their souls.
It's a fascinating experience, going to this village where they clearly have entered the modern era to some degree (there are satellite dishes and pretty nice cars, not to mention more Coca Cola than you've ever seen in your life), but they really truly stick to their old customs! They wear their traditional costumes, intricately embroidered blouses and furry black wool skirts for the women, and wool tunics and ribboned hats for the men, and they practice a very colorful blend of Catholicism and their old, mystic religion in the village church.
And here's the thing that had us all reeling: Coca Cola is part of their religion. Really! I want to know so much more, but here's the gist: there are no priests (ostensibly "Catholic," they actually worship John the Baptist above Christ), but five levels of shamans. For ills both physical and spiritual, you go to the church to consult a shaman. Once you tell him your problem he sends you off for supplies for your ritual. These involve white taper candles, eggs, Coca Cola (X number of bottles, depending on the severity of the problem), bottles of "posh" (sugar cane liquor, also used as medicine, even for babies and young children), and, in many case, a chicken or several to sacrifice in the church. We'd intentionally waited until Sunday/market day to go to Chamula, because that is when all of this is in full swing. The village zocalo and the church were crammed full, and walking into that church was like walking into another world. (Photography is absolutely forbidden, so sorry, no photos!)

There are Catholic saints in glass cases, but there any feel of Catholicism ends. The floor is strewn with fresh pine needles (the fragrance!) and covered with lit candles. It's dangerous to walk in there! Really. Every few paces is a shaman and client at work, and they'll have softened the ends of some fifty candles and stuck them right to the floor, and they pray as the candles burn down. Next to each client was their stock of Coca Cola, posh, eggs, and chickens in bags awaiting their fates. We avoided watching any actual neck-wrenching, personally.

The kicker is that the village leaders make big $$$ as the Coca Cola suppliers, and there it begins to make a kind of terrible capitolist sense. Shamans, apparently, will be shunned for refusing to use Coke in their rituals. It's a shunning society -- and worse. There's a charming little story in the town history I bought in the square that tells how in 1914 a Municipal President tried to change certain customs. Well, he was overthrown, and before they executed him, the townspeople made him dig his own grave. Oy. So, you can imagine that socially the Chamulans are really steeped in the old ways. The average age of marriage for the girls is a ripe old 13, and marriages are all arranged by the parents, with the girl having no right to refuse a suitor. Apparently the boys "shop" for wives on market Sundays! Our guide Fernando asked what traits we supposed the boys were looking for, and a smart-aleck Israeli named Charon quipped, "Brains?"

Ha. Not so! Fernando's answer was that of course they are looking for strong workers; specifically, they look at the one exposed body part -- the calves -- to see if a girl is strong or not!

Buying more weavings in the square:
Ooh, and I bought some embroidery yarn that they use in the weavings. Not all this! Just a selection. Don't know what I'm going to do with it, but some day I'll think of something:
Really, San Juan Chamula is another world, another time! But in Zinacantan, not 7 km away, though they are also Tzotzil people, things are really different. Because they have more communal wealth due to a greenhouse program that exports flowers all over Mexico, they have more education, and hence. . . change. Couples marry for love -- actually, they "escape" together and come back when the girl is pregnant, and are married in church by a priest!!

In Zinacantan we watched weavers at work, and we -- of course -- shopped, and we also got to see the inside of a traditional house and watch the women making tortillas over a wood fire. And then we got to eat fresh tortillas!
Note how all the Zinacantan women are wearing the same color scheme of purple and blue. Their clothing is so gorgeous!

Women weaving on a backstrap loom:

In the courtyard:

There's much more interesting stuff to tell, but this post is getting a little long, so I'll leave it at that.

Tomorrow we're off to the SCBWI conference in Seattle, where we will get to have lunch with Arthur Levine and talk about Goblin Fruit (yay!!), and have a "West Coast Kids Lit Drink Night" organized by the inimitable Betsy Bird. Can't wait! More after the weekend. Cheers!

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Chiapas Trip Part 1 -- San Cristobal de las Casas/ Chiapas Travel

San Cristobal de las Casas is a Spanish colonial city in the highlands of Chiapas, and aside from being a marvel of color -- raspberry-colored houses, lime green and sky blue, marigold-colored cathedrals! -- it also has a perfect climate. About 75 degrees, blue sky, breeze, with bougainvillea and banana trees growing in all the courtyards, and geraniums and hibiscus sprouting from the Mayan-made bird planters that are everywhere in the city.
We’d never been to Mexico before, never experienced that melding of European architecture with Latin color and indigenous culture. Beneath the arcades of the Spanish churches, Mayan women sell traditional weavings and embroidery and mangoes and pineapples and chili peppers are piled up in pyramids. It’s a magical combination, to which you add amber and jade jewelry, great organically grown local coffee, all the color you can look at, fun shopping, no herd of tourists like you see in Cancun, and that perfect, perfect weather! San Cristobal is pretty awesome.

We spent our first day just strolling around the city -- well, shopping and eating around the city, you could say! Not an hour out of our hotel and we’d bought two tapestries at the craft market that surrounds the Convent of Santo Domingo! And Jim found a gorgeous leather bag just the right size for a weekend trip and unspeakably cheap:
Now, from home, I am yearning to teleport back and buy more of everything. The shopping was hypnotic; I think there is something about all that color that kind of drugs you -- we would say, “We’re just going to look,” but as soon as we engaged in any way with one of the vendors, we were lost. They are experts at reading your reactions -- I swear, they can sense the subtlest shift in interest when you lay eyes on a color that you like, and before you know if they’ve unfolded ten more exquisite pieces and laid them out for you! I defy you to come away empty-handed!
We hadn’t been out long before we had to go back to our hotel to unload our first round of purchases. Oy! And this was just our first day, and we hadn’t even found the mangoes yet! We had to pass back by our hotel a second time to drop off the mangoes -- ha ha!

The Mercado Municipal was like a shrine to mangoes -- tree-ripened mangoes, like you never ever ever ever find in the US! Now, you may know this about me, but mangoes are my favorite food (well, mangoes and chocolate share that honor, but chocolate is good everywhere, and mangoes are not) and I have joked about making a Mango World Tour. Well, this trip can now be refered to as “leg one” of that tour!
We bought five different kinds of mangoes that first day, from a lovely Mayan girl named Veronica who showed us how to eat the littlest of the lot, a lemon-sized green mango that you don’t slice, but only make a little slit in its skin and then drink it. Oh yum. It was so good! But we didn’t actually feast until later. There was the whole rest of the day for wandering. We went to the Museum of Amber and the Cafe Museo Cafe, where we learned about the amber and coffee industries here -- Chiapas is Mexico’s major coffee state, and it is one of the world’s leading deposits of fossilized pine tree sap! (Did you know amber is 40-million-year-old tree sap?) We ate interesting things: banana soup and walnut and tamarind popsicles among them, and when it was time to head back to our really lovely hotel where we had a patio all to ourselves for our mango feast, we stopped at a bakery for bread and dessert. This was fun: when you walk in, you pick up a silver tray the size of a trashcan lid, along with a big long pair of tongs, and then you walk around loading yourself up with macaroons and apricot tarts and cream cake. Not a bad way to dine! (It reminded me ever so slightly of Turkish Delight shopping in Turkey, especially the one lovely shop in Fethiye where you were encouraged to taste as you browsed. Swoon!)

And then, yes, we feasted! Five kinds of mangoes, sampled in descending size order, finishing up with the little green “mango pine” (that’s pronounced peen-yay; I don’t know how to make the accent mark) which was a miracle of juice, and tasted a little like coconut! Oh, but don't attempt it on a first date. It's really slurpy and dribbly!

So, that was our first wonderful day. San Cristobal was our base for most of the trip, so we got a pretty good feel for it (the historic center, anyway). San Cristobal is a perfect base for a week-long trip or so, because it is so charming, with good restaurants and cafes, and many fascinating places are within day-trip reach, such as the Canyon del Sumidero, the waterfall of El Chiflon, and a number of Mayan villages, not to mention Palenque. All that and more, in my next few posts!

Oh, but first, look at our beautiful hotel courtyard!
If you're going to San Cristobal, I highly recommend the Hotel Posada Jovel. We had our own little mango-eating terrace right in front of our room, with a view of the rooftops of the city and the mountains beyond. Delightful!

[The square pages above are from the Shutterfly photo album I am making of the trip -- I am currently obsessed with it! Can't drag myself away from the computer! For the backgrounds I'm using close-up pictures of the awesome stucco walls in San Cristobal with all their peeling paint and rich colors; we might have looked a little nutty taking all those pictures of walls, but I'm glad we did!]

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Heard monkeys, ate mangoes

I have a confession to make. I haven't really been lost in a swamp of work, as I said in my last post. I have been in Mexico! Oh, lordy. Wowee. Look at that little collage of colors there. That doesn't even begin to convey it. That country knows color, from the Mayan weavings to the peeling paint on the colonial churches, to the hibiscus, the bougainvillea, the turquoise and sea-green waterfalls, the shimmering feathers of the macaws. Color is everywhere, the trees are plump with mangoes, the crafts are gorgeous, the sweets are sweet, and the sky is blue (except when it decides to dump a year's worth of rain on you in one day, but more on that later!)

We had a wonderful time. As I fervently hoped, we heard howler monkeys -- they sound like monsters, I'm not even kidding. They should be called roarer monkeys. When they are all around you in the jungle calling to each other, it sounds like rival gangs of monsters about to rumble (click HERE to hear audio). We saw spider monkeys too, swinging through the canopy, and we interrupted a few crocodiles sunning themselves on the banks of the Rio Grijalva. We bought our weight in Mayan textiles, stumbling home from the market feeling drunk on color.


I didn't even know -- imagine, me with my dreams of making a "Mango World Tour" -- I didn't know it was mango season in Mexico!!! That was just a stroke of wild good luck! The market stalls were piled high with them, my favoritest of all favorite foods. We ate them for dinner fully half the nights of our trip -- we tried seven different varieties, from one as big as a football, to a wee green kind you don't slice, but only make a little slit in and then drink like it's nature's own juicebox. Oh my god. And it tastes ever so slightly of coconut, and it makes a slurping, delicious mess, but it's worth it. Heaven!

We were in Chiapas for the entire eight days of our short trip. It's Mexico's far southern state, right on the border with Guatemala, and it goes from beaches to sugarcane and corn fields to cool crisp highlands, to deep, humid rainforest filled with jaguars, rebel camps, and long-lost Mayan cities. It's not one of the more touristy parts of the country, Lord knows why, and since this was our first trip to Mexico, we can't compare it with the other regions. I can just say I recommend it highly, and I'll tell you lots more about it in the coming days, and show lots more photos.

Meantime, I read a really awesome book on the trip, one fantasy lovers must check out:
The Lies of Locke Lamora, by Scott Lynch, is a fat, juicy book about a clever, tight-knit band of thieves, the Gentleman Bastards, headed up by the audacious Locke Lamora, master of disguise. The fantasy element is not overwhelming -- there is alchemy, and there's some sorcery, but none of those things are especially important to the plot (at least, not at first). It's all about the thieving, the wonderful characters, and the rich, weird, violent, harsh, incredibly colorful world that Lynch has dreamed up. The city is a kind of debauched Venice -- if Venice had been discovered already built by some mysterious ancient race long since vanished from the Earth! In this world the Gentleman Bastards ply their trade, reveling in being clever and richer than everyone else, steadily amassing a fortune -- when a shadowy new villain comes to town to threaten everything they hold dear. It's a real page-turner, so vibrant and strange, funny, horrifying, crude, creepy, and suspenseful. A sequel came out last summer; I haven't read it yet. Check out this one, though, fantasy readers!

Oh, and one last thing: my new favorite Spanish-language pop song (the only one song I know!), "Perfecta." The band, Miranda, is from Argentina, but we kept hearing this song in Mexico. It's catchy and adorable, and the video is so silly; I can't understand what they're saying, of course, but I see on Wikipedia that the band is known for the provocative lyrics. So I apologize if it's dirty! Watch to the end to see the farmers' weird beet brawl. Enjoy!

Tuesday, April 08, 2008

darn ether gremlins!!

Arg. For some reason, today the internet is saying, "No, Laini." Sites won't load, photos won't upload. Perhaps there are ether-gremlins toying with me. Well, I hope they're happy. I'm tearing out my hair in pink clumps. The birds are pleased about that. This year they shall have pink nests!

Went down to the Los Angeles area this weekend for my grandfather's 90th birthday. The whole family was there. Well, half the family has stayed there all along, while we -- the other half -- have moved around for the 39 years of my parents' marriage and settled elsewhere. That half of the family has been much more obliging about supplying my grandfather with great-grandchildren, with eight to their credit, to our one! My cousin's big house bursts at the seams with kids and basset hounds, teenagers and boyfriends, cheerleading pom poms and video games. There are wet footprints from the little cousins running in from the hot tub to grab a piece of cake, and there is the most giant TV I have ever beheld. It's noisy and always fun. We haven't all been together in almost ten years, since we convened for my great-grandmother's 100h birthday, so it was nice to see everyone.

We also saw Jim's family, saw our three-year-old niece Grace in a ballet recital (ever seen a ballet recital of three-year-olds? It's very very cute and there are lots of tutus, but not so much dancing!) The teacher videotaped the girls and asked them all what they want to be when they grow up. Grace answered first: she wants to be a pony! After that, about half the girls decided they too want to be ponies (though there was one cow) and the other half wanted to be ballerinas. Well, one little girl said, loudly and without hesitation, "I want to be a star!" (kid you not), and another said chef.

I don't know if it's me, if it's blogger, or my internet connection, but I cannot post a photo of myself with a tutu on my head! Darn!

While traveling, I read a couple of more Eva Ibbotson books. As someone mentioned in comments to my last post, these books were in fact published as adult novels, with explains the sexiness, but I guess Penguin has reprinted them as YA, with the cheesy covers that makes you want to not be seen with them on an airplane. To be fair, I bet the 1985 cover wasn't a paragon of sophistication either! Anyway, I didn't love the other two as much, but they were fun and romantic. I guess I like romance novels! Well, I wouldn't put it just that way. I like books that have romance in them. Like fantasy, that's something I've had to admit to slowly over time. After college I was such a book snob. I worked in a bookstore but I read mostly classics, not even contemporary fiction -- there was a Balzac kick, if I recall -- let alone fantasy or romance! But that's all over now. I'm sure Balzac is great and all, but I don't remember any of his books keeping me up til 2 in the morning. I don't think they ever made me want to flip to the next chapter in a welter of anxiety to cheat and make sure someone was still alive, or to get to the kiss already!!! I am no longer a snob, except in this way: like many former snobs, I am a snob about snobs. I feel qualified to pity them for all the great fun reads they're missing.

I'm going to try uploading photos again. . .

Nope, no luck.

Well, I'm going to be immersed in a swamp of work for the next few days, getting caught up on some stuff, so I probably won't be around here. Happy week!

Friday, April 04, 2008

I [heart] this book

Here's a new book to add to my favorites list. I absolutely loved it -- so much so that, as soon as I finished reading it I flipped right back to the first page and began again! I can't remember the last time I did that. The first time through I was reading so voraciously, wanting to lurch ahead and find out what happened next, that I needed to read it again to catch the nuance of the clever, beautiful writing, and also because there are so many scenes to savor. It's also one of those books that makes you daydream and fill in, in your mind, the scenes between the scenes.

It's called A Company of Swans by Eva Ibbotsen and you need to ignore the ever-so-slightly-cheesy cover. It doesn't capture the feel of the book at all. It opens in 1912 Cambridge, England, in the life of Harriet Morton, daughter of the priggish Merlin Professor of Classics. She's been raised by her father and her dreadful spinster aunt in a cold, dark, penny-pinching home of holdover Victorian values and though she's a very bright girl she's been taken out of school (her father doesn't approve of girls at university) and the only pleasure left in her life is her lessons at the dance school of an aging Russian ballerina. Her family is also trying to marry her off to a zoologist she does not love, and she's trying to resist but there is always a temptation, because it would mean escape from her dreary home. What other escape can there possibly be for her, when all else is denied?

Well, escape comes in the form of a visiting Russian ballet company owner recruiting dancers for a South American tour. (Can I just say: a period novel about a Russian ballet company steaming up the Amazon? Upon reading that description, I knew at once I had to have this book!) He invites Harriet to join them but she knows her father will never give her permission for something so audacious. So. . . she runs away!

I don't want to tell too much, but I will say that it is incredibly romantic, and even a little sexy. Sexier than most YA novels, more like an adult novel in some ways (it doesn't give details or anything, it just goes farther into sensual territory than most YAs). The writing is sharp, clever, and totally evocative of place, whether it is an aging English manor house whose gardens have gone to seed, or the voluptuous ripeness of the Amazon bursting with macaws and scarlet ibises. And Eva Ibbotsen is such a smart writer. That was what grabbed me and hooked me in so quickly. The book is full of the kind of witty humor you long to turn to someone and share, but you don't because you know it is too much a part of the book; they wouldn't understand it out of context. But you so wish you could share the cleverness aloud. And there are such wonderful details that make the book and the time period and the characters come alive! I loved that the old accompanist uses a ballet slipper as an ashtray. I loved the scenes in the zoology lab at Cambridge. I loved that Harriet's life essentially changed forever because of a serendiptious meeting in the center of a maze.

Thinking, as I am lately, about things I want to say in my SCBWI presentation, I couldn't help examining what it is about Harriet that makes you want to be her. In all books, to a degree, you consent to slip into the character's skin and live there for a while, but it is only in some books that you want to staythere. Here, I think part of what makes you want to live this girl's life is the romantic aspect. I think it's what has made the Twilight books so successful too: it's the notion of being a relatively ordinary girl who becomes the object of the genuine love, passion, and loyalty of an extraordinary man. In Twilight, what teenage girl does not want to be adored by Edward Cullen? It's such a fantasy. Well, I bought into that somewhat in the first book, but the Twilight spell has since been broken for me. But in A Company of Swans, you will want Rom Verney to be real. The romance is so compelling.

Ballet, the Amazon, sensual romance, steamships, country estates, tempermental ballet divas, and more. It's a wonderful, juicy world and a totally delightful book. I will be getting myself some more Eva Ibbotsen books. I don't know how I've missed her before now. This book was originally published in 1985, so I was about 13, just the right age for it, but I lived overseas and had scant access to books -- just what I could get at the piddly school library or the military PX, so I'm not surprised I missed it. Just makes it that much more fun to discover it now.

Besides Eva Ibbotsen, I've found another "new" author (new to me that is): Jo Walton.
Jim bought me Farthing for Christmas (he's an extremely good book-giver, always finding things I've never heard of that are right down my alley, and this was one). It's a murder mystery set in a world in which the United States never joined World War II and the British were forced to make a truce with Hitler. In this post-war Britain then, Jews still have some rights -- though they hang precariously in the balance -- but in the rest of Europe the Holocaust has essentially continued unabated. This "peace" was pioneered by a conservative political party, and it is at the great country estate of its main proponents, that the murder takes place. It is altnerately narrated by the daughter of the estate, who has "disgraced" herself by marrying a Jew, and the police inspector investigating the murder. The political situation is always in the background like a nasty shadow -- the book is really a fast-paced murder mystery with excellent writing and intriguing characters. It just happens to take place in this awful imagined world. There is another book, Ha'Penny, out that is set in that world, and a third on the way in the fall.

And Jo Walton doesn't just write murder mysteries! She has a series of Arthurian books out, and she has this:
Jo Walton describes Tooth and Claw one as "A Victorian novel of manners in which all the characters are dragons and eat each other." Ha ha! And that really does describe it. Jim got this for me at the library after I loved Farthing and to be honest, I didn't really think I'd get into it. I hate to say that, because so many people say the same thing about Blackbringer -- because they don't think they'll be interested in a book about faeries. I guess we have our prejudices about books and movies. We think we know what we like. But how many times has it happened that something you didn't think you'd be interested in totally grabbed you? To me, it happens all the time, and it is entirely dependent on the quality of the writing.

This is a great book for would-be fantasy writers to read, to see the creation of an entire world and culture that, however unbelievable it should be, nevertheless enfolds you completely and makes you fully submit to believing it while you're in it. It's about the way the five children of the old dragon Bon Agornin cope after his death. The characters, though dragons, make you care about them every bit as much as human characters, even if they do eat each other!

Oh, and go check out Jim's tiger art. Beautiful!