Wednesday, March 16, 2016

VOYA Magazine: DON'T GET CAUGHT Review

I thought I'd share this (awesome) review I just received from VOYA Magazine.

4Q 4P J S
Dinan, Kurt. Don’t Get Caught. Sourcebooks Fire, 2016. 336p. $10.99 Trade pb. 978-1-4926-3014-2.

Adolescent prank wars summon up all the ingenuity, madness, and vengefulness with which adolescents wrestle. Sixteen-year-old narrator Max Cobb and four of his classmates fall for a prank that leaves them looking guilty on top of a just-vandalized school water tower when the security guard turns on the spotlight. Ridiculed as the “Water Tower 5,” they blame the anonymous Chaos Club, a decades-old school institution with a reputation for legendary pranks. Max sees himself as gullible, boring, ordinary—“Just Max”—but with considerable knowledge of heist movies. Heist rule #7 is “Always get payback.” The Water Tower 5 use a series of outrageous pranks, hoping to draw out and expose the Chaos Club members. As the pranks escalate beyond clever raunchiness into meanness, Max has serious reservations. By the time he renounces the prank war, he has survived suspension, arrest, and a major double-cross, but he is sure about his own values.
The other members of the Water Tower 5—two girls and two boys—are well drawn. Each contributes a realistic backstory and personal flavor to the plot. Teen readers will delight in the way such totally different individuals begin to cooperate to triumph over their wrongs. Several of the adult characters, especially the vice principal, are exaggerated fascist stereotypes, so it is easy to root against them. Although the pranks never quite lose their clever charm, they do cost two adults their jobs. In the end, readers will have to detach themselves from the Water Tower 5, and they may also feel double-crossed by a late plot surprise.—Katherine Noone

Hard to imagine it being better written.
Better than most, marred by occasional lapses.
Readable, without serious defects.
Better editing or work by the author might have warranted a 3Q.
Hard to understand how it got published, except in relation to its P rating (and not even then sometimes).
Every YA (who reads) was dying to read it yesterday.
Broad general or genre YA appeal.
Will appeal with pushing.
For the YA reader with a special interest in the subject.
No teen will read unless forced to for assignments.
Grade Level Interest
Middle School (defined as grades 6-8).
Junior High (defined as grades 7-9).
Senior High (defined as grades 10-12).
Adult-marketed book recommended for teens.
Graphic Novel Format

Thursday, March 10, 2016

A Conversation with Jenny Manzer, author of SAVE ME, KURT COBAIN

I loved Jenny Manzer's SAVE ME, KURT COBAIN.  I found it incredibly ballsy --taking one of the most iconic figures of the 90's, and a dead one at that, and using him as a central(ish) figure in a novel that poses the question: What if you discovered that Kurt Cobain was not only alive, but might be your real father? Plus, Manzer uses Nirvana songs for all of the chapter titles, and "Sliver", one of my favorites of theirs, plays a big role in the novel.  What's not to love?  Go read this book NOW.  Oh, and we share an agent, the amazing Kerry Sparks of LGR, so that's pretty cool, too.  I talked with Manzer in a series of emails.  That conversation is below.


Me:  So let’s start with the basics, who in the heck are you?  You get 50 words…go!

Jenny:  I am a writer, journalist, runner, and reader. I live in Victoria on the west coast of Canada with my family. I am a fan of whales, birds, dogs, hiking, sarcasm, travel, basketball, and indy music. Recently, I’ve been getting into amateur baseball—something I never saw coming.

Me:  Wait, I know this is already off topic, but amateur baseball?  Explain.

Jenny:  Well, I mean that I used to dislike baseball. I grew up in Toronto, and went to Blue Jays games, and found them boring—even though I come from a sports-loving family. But then last year my son started playing ball, and it turns out he is pretty good. I learned more about the sport as I cheered him on, and my daughter started playing softball. Now I take my kids to local games, like the Victoria HarbourCats, which is a West Coast collegiate league. This week I learned what a balk is! Seriously, I think I only mentioned it because it is so out of character. But you know what? Baseball is stories. I think that’s what I like about it—and the characters at the games.

Me:  So you’re sort of the Susan Sarandon ala Bull Durham of Canada.  Got it.

Jenny:  Um, let me clarify that my baseball movie would be G-rated and involve a montage of doing laundry and preparing Rice Krispie treats. Didn’t want to give the wrong impression there.

Me:  Okay, now that we’ve cleared that up, we need to start with the question you’re not supposed to ask writers, and I try to never ask, but in your case, I have to.  Where in the hell did the idea for this story come from?  Did it grow from Kurt Cobain on out, or start with Nico and then you added Cobain later?  I ask because I think it’s a ballsy novel to write for various reasons--more on this later--but am totally curious not only how you came up with the idea, but how you developed it.  So, spill it.

Cool cover, right?
Jenny:  The idea for SAVE ME, KURT COBAIN started germinating after I read an article about a club in Victoria, Harpo’s Cabaret—a place I frequented in university, sometimes to do interviews for the campus newspaper. This article on the club noted that although Harpo’s had landed a lot of great bands, they’d missed out on booking the biggest one, Nirvana, right before the band went galactic. Nirvana ended up playing this ridiculous bar, The Forge, in March of 1991. This “one that got away” story got me thinking about the band’s early days, and also all the crazy stories that follow celebrities.  Then I started imagining this lonely girl, Nico, and how much a teenage girl can want to believe something. (There are photos of the Victoria gig at The Forge on my website here: if anyone is interested.) Then, I became pretty consumed in reading about Kurt Cobain and listening to Nirvana. I would say I became more of a fan rather than starting as a huge fan. My appreciation grew.

Me:  Well, and that’s what I meant earlier when I mentioned it’s a ballsy novel to attempt.  You’ve chosen one of the most notorious and beloved pop culture figures of the last twenty-five years, a guy who’s death inspired suicides, and who was labeled the spokesperson of his generation.  Was there any reluctance to using Kurt Cobain as the figure of Nico’s obsession and quest?

Jenny:  I knew what I was taking on—but there was no real reluctance. The story is about Nicola Cavan, age 15, a lonely girl in Victoria whose mother disappeared when she was four. The plot hinges on this March 1991 Nirvana concert in Victoria, and the healing power of music, and the Pacific Northwest, and so many other things. In short—it had to be Kurt Cobain. I couldn’t tell the story I wanted to otherwise.

Even though it is fiction, I definitely took the fact that I writing about a real person, whose loved ones are still living, very seriously. I think because I knew my own intentions, which was to tell the story of a girl using music and a desire to believe to fight her way out of a dark place—that helped me overcome those fears and keep writing.

In the end, most readers seem to feel the book is a real tribute to the complicated character of Kurt Cobain—with his quirks, and humor, and warmth, and demons—and his incredible musical legacy. I hope that is the case, but I am prepared for the fact that, as you suggest, some people may be annoyed that I wrote about him.

Me:  I think you’re right, this is a novel about Nico, not Cobain.  In fact, when I finished the novel I thought that you could’ve substituted any other dead iconic figure for Cobain and the book, while different, would still have been Nico dealing with her pain.  Although Save Me, John Belushi wouldn’t have the same appeal to YA readers, most likely.

Speaking of Nico, what I found astounding was just how far in her head you went.  I can’t think of the last novel I read where I really felt like I fully understood the character this well.  How did you create Nico, and, as a sort of follow-up, did you struggle with her behavior and choices?  Because, I’ll be honest, if she was my kid, it’s possible she’d be grounded until she was 80.

Jenny:  I am so happy you felt you understood Nico. I guess I started with the defining moment in her life, which was her mother promising to return—and then never coming back. I knew Nico had to resemble Cobain physically, and she also shares some of his other traits, such as a talent for visual art. She had to love music, and obviously she’d be self-reliant, having spent many nights alone while the man she calls her father, the loving but stoic Verne, worked nights as a security guard.  Nico definitely needed to have a sense of humor (as did the real Kurt Cobain, I might add). Oh yes, she also had to like Strawberry Quik. That was a given.

There are few creatures more determined than a 15-year-old girl on a mission, so I felt her choices made sense given her drive to find out what happened to her mother and get answers from “Cobain”—and she feels betrayed by Verne. It’s true that she puts herself in harm’s way—but these actions all stem back to a decision to take her life in her own hands rather than just “acting out.” I regard Nico as basically a good kid, actually, staying away from the typical drinking or drugging or whatnot—but she couldn’t continue without knowing the truth. Would I want my daughter to make some of Nico’s choices? Well, no, but Nico had a tough childhood and faced a lot of uncertainty. 

Me:  One of the things I found really fun in the novel was how you titled all of the chapters after Nirvana songs.   Was that difficult to do?   What was the process of figuring out what chapter went with what song?  Did you find yourself having to alter chapters or the story at all to fit the songs?  Because that’s exactly what I would see happening if I attempted something like this.

Jenny:  The suggestion to use the songs was a fun idea by Zsuzsi Gartner, a Vancouver-based short story writer, who provided a manuscript consult on an early draft. I have to say, it took an entire day to decide which songs to match to which chapters—and later I had to keep tweaking them as breaks changed. Nirvana has such an incredible repertoire of songs for a band that did not endure that long, so this made my job easier. I basically read through each chapter and considered my Nirvana options. It was sort of fun and tedious at the same time. I had to think about the intent of the song, too, or at least if the vibe matched. I didn’t actually change any chapters to fit the songs, though. And some Nirvana songs I left alone, such as “Mexican Seafood.”

Me: So since you had to listen to lots of Nirvana, I’ll ask the obvious question - What’s your favorite Nirvana song and why?  And no cheating…you get one. 

Jenny:  Well played, Kurt—you anticipate my every move. It IS difficult to choose, but I will say I especially love the opening to “Dive,” and the punk energy and playful-sad sentiment in “Sliver,” but if I am forced to choose one—I’ll go with “All Apologies.” A masterpiece.

Kurt:  Yeah, “Sliver” (see below) and “All Apologies” are definitely two of my favorites.  Good picks!

Okay, so to wrap this up, we’ll have the speed round.  I’m going to ask you five questions, of which you must answer without an explanation.  Readers who want more details can contact you.  Here we go:

Since you’re a self-described indie music fan, who should more people be listening to?

Jenny:  Whitehorse.

Me:  Who would you like to discover is not, as everyone believes, dead, but is actually holed up in a cabin in the woods?

Jenny:  Going with someone famous (at least in Canada): Terry Fox.

Me:  Here’s $1000 to spend irresponsibly in two hours.  What’s your plan?

Jenny:  Plane tickets to New York.

Me:  In one hour, all electronics are about to be shut off forever, but you can see one episode of one TV show before the big darkout?  What are you going to watch?

Jenny:  Flight of the Conchords.

Me:  You can invite one rocker, one writer, one actor/actress, and one miscellaneous person to your party.  Assuming all of your friends are going to be there, and knowing that yes, your invitees have to currently be alive, who are you inviting?

Jenny:  Steve Earle, Jenny Offill, Tina Fey, and Tim Winton.

Me:  Thanks for all of this, Jenny.  I’m hoping SAVE ME, KURT COBAIN is a great success.   Now, I’ll give you the last word.

Jenny: Thank you, Kurt. This has been really fun and I appreciate your thought-provoking questions. I would definitely invite you along to my theoretical party! You can sit next to Steve Earle.

Wednesday, March 9, 2016

A Conversation with Jeff Zentner, author of THE SERPENT KING

Jeff Zentner's THE SERPENT KING was the first arc I received as a member of The Sweet 16s debut author group.  This turned out to be good and bad simultaneously.  Good because the book is so damn good, bad because I was jealous of Zentner's accomplishment.  The novel--a story of three friends in a small town during the senior year, focusing mainly on Dill, a would-be musician torn between his dreams and his family responsibilities--has great characters you care about and some fantastic dialogue.  I said it then and I'll say it again now, I predict this book is nominate for a Printz Award.
Below is a conversation I had with Jeff after I finished the novel.


Me:  It seems from your bios that you've spent most of your life primarily as a musician.  How did the transition to writing a novel occur?  Was this a goal you had for a long time or was it more sudden?  Walk me through it.

Jeff Zentner:  My writing career was essentially born out of my commercial failure as a musician. Being a musician was a dream that came later in life—I picked up the guitar when I was 21—and so by my mid-thirties, I had taken it as far as I think I could. There's a much more defined age limit on musicians making it commercially. Plus, to make it as a musician, you have to tour nonstop, which is hell to me. I had a tiny and devoted fanbase, to whom I will always owe my heart, but there was still a hole inside me. 

I'd reached a crossroads where I realized that if I ever wanted to have a chance to reach more people with something I've created, I'd need to switch horses. I've always loved writing and reading. I thought "maybe the time's come for me to hang up my Les Paul and put on my tweed jacket." So that's what I did.

Me: That's a really inspirational story.  I think too many people get caught up in "this is who I am" rather than thinking, "who can I become?" Are there any lessons you learned as a musician that have carried over to writing?  Any glaring creative differences for you between the two?

Jeff: I've definitely learned from music not to take rejection personally. I've played to enough nearly-empty bars and juke joints that if someone says "eh, your book didn't really do much for me," I'm not going to be super disappointed. Above all, music taught me that the kind of art I love to make is the kind that aspires to make people feel something. 

As for glaring differences, I'd say the biggest one is that I was never able to use my sense of humor in music at all. Not even a tiny bit. It's like music came from a completely different part of me. But I find that writing engages a much fuller part of my personality, and I have no trouble injecting levity into books that have a lot of dark subject matter.

Me: You pull off humor extremely well in this novel. Yes, it has a lot of dark subject matter, as you say, but the conversations between Lydia and Dill, and heck, Lydia and anyone really, are hilarious at times. Did you model her on anyone specifically? How about any of the other characters?

Jeff: Thanks! I think the reason I've managed to get further with writing than with music is that I was never able to employ humor in music, even though I love joking around. 

Lydia is modeled after several of my very sharp, funny female friends. My friend, Tracy Moore, who writes for Jezebel and who grew up in Cookeville, Tennessee was a definite influence. My friend Alli Marshall, who grew up in rural New York and now writes for the Asheville Mountain Xpress was another. The biggest influence on Lydia, though, was Tavi Gevinson. 

Dill is also modeled on several of my friends as well as a young Ryan Adams. 

Travis is modeled on those dudes you see at every RenFaire in the South. Huge, beefy, blue-collar redneck dudes who improbably wear cloaks and carry staffs. I'd run into these guys at the Borders where I worked as a bookseller; they'd be buying stacks of fantasy novels. He has no famous analogue because you don't see many famous people like that. People like that seem to mostly live quiet lives, on their own terms. Like Travis.

Me: I have no good segue for this next question--I'll struggle like hell with transitions in my own writing--so I'll just flat-out ask it:  You handled Dill's parents' religious beliefs a lot more fairly than I think most writers would.  Dill clearly questions their beliefs, but he's never condescending of their religious practices.  Was that a deliberate choice or a conscious one?  Did you have any apprehension in dealing with religion in the novel?

Jeff:  I'm really glad that came through. I think it's boring and facile to treat religion in a condescending manner. It was a conscious choice to me to represent religion fairly for all of its good and bad aspects. I wanted to show, for example, what an incredible source of comfort religion is to Dill's mom in extraordinarily difficult circumstances. I wanted to how Dill comes to an understanding of God that's more commensurate with his experience and dreams. I grew up in a religious tradition and continue to participate in organized religion so I know firsthand the complexities of growing up in a strict religious home. My parents were and are very loving and have little in common with Dill's parents, but I definitely saw religion as something that both limited and added to my happiness. This experience made me less apprehensive to deal with religion in the novel, since I was writing what I knew.

Me: I think teen readers will definitely walk away from this seeing the even-handedness with how you've treated religion. I know most authors don't write with an agenda, per se, but is there a message you'd like readers to take away from this book?

Jeff:  I hope anyone who reads this book will come away feeling like their lives are their own and more than the sum of the choices and names of others.

Me: Dill, Lydia, and Travis really stuck with me.  Even now, a month or so after reading the book, I find myself wondering about them and what they’re doing with their lives.  Do you have plans to write more about them, or have you moved on to a different project?

Jeff:  I don’t have plans to write more about them.  My next book, Goodbye Days is a standalone. But there may just be a cameo from one of the The Serpent King crew in Goodbye Days. We’ll see if it survives my editor.

Me:  I’d like to end this with the lightning round.  I’ll give you five questions you only need to answer, not explain.  I’m hoping this’ll give you readers just some additional (and fun) info on you.  Here we go:  What one skill or ability do you wish you had?

Jeff: I wish I were really good at woodworking.

Me: You can time travel to any place and any year.  What concert are you attending?

Jeff: Since I’m a musician, this might be a surprise, but I’m going to say Tig Notaro’s standup show at the Largo where she revealed that she had cancer.

Me:  You are suddenly a big megastar, and like all big megastars, you have your eccentricities.  What the only food you choose to ever be seen eating in public?

Jeff: Pancakes, pulled carefully one-by-one from an expensive designer calfskin pancake holster on my belt.

Me:  A mysterious stranger shows up at your door and sends you can send a note back in time to your younger self.  How old is the recipient and what message are you sending?

Jeff: He’s sixteen, and the message is “You won’t always feel as alone as you do now.”

Me:  And, as my final question -- You can invite one writer, one rocker, one actor/actress, and one miscellaneous person to a dinner party.  Yes, they must be alive, and yes, your friends and family are already invited.  Who are you picking?

Jeff: Writer—Cormac McCarthy, Rocker—Nick Cave, Actor—Hannibal Burress, Miscellaneous person—Ira Glass

Me:  You can have the last word.  Anything you’d like to say?

Jeff:  Well, Kurt, as Nietzsche once said *I go to lean against table, slip, fall on top of comically large cake*