Into the Wild Nerd Yonder by Julie Halpern

You gotta love the title of this book. I did, and that’s why I picked it up. Those little flowery-looking things in the background? Those are 20-sided dice.

Yes, my nerdy friends, this is the book for YOU. (And you know who you are, although I shan’t name names.) (Yes I just wrote “shan’t.”)

Oh yes, the book review!

Set-Up: Contemporary middle-America (not Middle Earth, although Lord of the Rings references abound). Jessie’s so-called friends are using her, and it isn’t long into the story before they commit the cardinal sin: thou shalt not steal the crush of your BFF (or support said crush-thief). The so-called friends are also turning into punk poseurs, and they’re obnoxious.

Main character’s goals: Find new friends. Keep on making skirts. Stay away from the nerds, and stop crushing on hunky nerd boy.

My reaction: With her strange skirts, her math flashcards, and her love of audio books, I thought Jessie was already kind of a nerd (and she also admits this from the beginning), so why is she so worried about joining the uber-nerds?  But soon I recognized the subtle differences of her habits and the habits of the species Totallus Ren-fair-ius World-of-Warcraftiae. Oops, that’s not WoW, it’s Dungeons and Dragons. I guess they’re different somehow.

Anyway, I still loved Jessie, and she’s funny, which makes the book funny, which makes me like it even if there are subtle shades of dork explored here.

Of interest to writers: The family is lovable, both parents are present, and Jessie gets unending support from these folks. I wonder if this book (along with Flash Burnout by L. K Madigan) is some sort of response to recent talk about parents always being absent or losers in young adult literature.

I think a couple of things were too easy for Jessie, like the ending with her old crush. That’s all I’m going to say, because I don’t want to give anything away.

Oh, and she does some wonderful “larger-than-life” things, like how she resolves things with Bizza, and with the old crush.

Bottom Line: Totally worth a read, even if you aren’t a Renaissance Fair-attending, 20-sided dice-rolling, skirt-making nerd. Even a cool person would want to be this cool nerd’s friend.

To learn more about Julie Halpern and her books, you can visit her website  by clicking here.

And! Winner of a signed copy of Vintage Veronica….


wait for it…


I’ll be in touch to talk about the details of getting you your very own, autographed copy of Vintage Veronica by Erica Perl!

(It’s a contest. An overabundance of exclamation points is totally warranted.) !!!!!!

Mommy Goes To Los Angeles

My first weekend away from home since Z’s birth deserves a tribute, and Z deserves a new book. So I made one for her. It cost no money and took approximately forty minutes to create. The illustrations especially are an indication of the book’s hasty publishing.

Z has been without her father for weeks at a time (usually for work), so she’s used to him being gone (although she never likes it). Because I’m always around, I thought a book might be a good way to explain what’s going on. I could just tell her, but that would be boring.

Plus, I love making books.

So here’s the text:

Mommy is going to Los Angeles.

Los Angeles is a city in southern California. Auntie Dana lives there.

Mommy is going to visit Auntie Dana, and stay at Auntie Dana’s house.

Mommy and Auntie Dana will do fun things, like go out to dinner, go shopping, and tell stories.

While Mommy is in Los Angeles, Z will get to spend lots of time with Daddy!

Z and Daddy will eat together, play together, and do naptime and bedtime. Maybe they’ll read lots of stories, like this one.

Even though Mommy will have fun with Auntie Dana, she will miss Z and Daddy and Clark very much!

But remember, whenever Mommy goes away…

Mommy comes back!

Kids are so easy to impress. She LOVES the book. She especially liked how I used her markers to make it.

Quick bit of blog business (three things):

1) No post on Monday. I have a great book to review for you (Plain Kate by Erin Bow) and I want to do it justice, not, like, write it while I’m in an airplane.

2) Starting in December we’re going down to two author interviews per month. I’ve been missing my free-for-all entries. Starting next Friday, interviews will be shorter.

3) I’m thinking of going down to two updates per week. I need to focus on my fiction, which was the whole reason for starting this blog-website. If the blog is taking over fiction time (or family time), that’s a problem.

Happy weekending, everyone!

Flash Burnout by L. K. Madigan

Now, I’m not a teenaged boy, and I never will be. So my assessment of what a “valid” or “true-to-life” male teenager’s voice sounds like might not be one hundred percent accurate. But Blake’s voice in Flash Burnout is convincing enough for me.

The whole sarcastic/funny teenager can be overdone in YA literature. And writing from an adolescent male’s voice is undoubtedly tricky (click here to read the simultaneously scathing and encouraging gauntlet author Hannah Moskowitz throws down on writing books geared toward YA males). Blake’s voice is humorous and poignant, and not in the way that sounds like the author is breathing “look how funny I am” from the white space between the words.

I enjoyed this book. The humor worked, the male point-of-view worked, and without Blake appealing to me-as-a-woman because he was so unbelievably romantic and tragic and sparkly, but instead because he sounds like a real guy experiencing real problems. There wasn’t anything sparkly about the romance here…I don’t even think I want to call it romance, at least not in the traditional way everyone might think of it in literature.

Another interesting point in Flash Burnout: the parents are both present, and they are awesome. A few months ago Julie Just wrote an essay for the New York Times Sunday Book Review, discussing what’s going on with all the absentee/horrible parents in young adult literature. Madigan gives us something refreshing in Flash Burnout: I fell in love with both of Blake’s quirky, fun, and ultimately there and loving mom and dad. In fact, Blake’s family serves as a foil for the families of the two love interests, making the family excellence a double-whammy.

But really, the humor is what did it for me. I love funny books. This was effective, and still had a meaningful story. I’m very sorry to say it, but Louise Rennison’s Georgia Nicolson books are a bit lacking in the poignant, life-changing drama department (click here to read my review of those lovely tomes). Georgia is hilariously funny, but a well-curved character arc is not something she can boast about.

Blake, in Flash Burnout, isn’t a heart-throb. He’s a normal guy, and a funny one at that. His story is worth your time.

To read more about L. K. Madigan and her fiction, you can visit her website by clicking here.

Mayan Pick-up Lines

For today’s Friday Free-for-All I’m cheating and recycling something I wrote a long time ago. Yeah, I need a break. It’s late. [And I don’t know what’s going on with the formatting, but I’ll fix it later…maybe.]

When asked about my language learning experience, I don’t conjure up memories of singing Alouette in high school French class or of trying to teach myself German with a best friend, a book, and a cassette. Instead I look back to my Spanish learning in the mini-immersion sessions I had at a restaurant I worked at in San Rafael.

Not surprisingly, the kitchen staff, including cooks, dishwashers, and busboys, were all Latino. More specifically, they were all Mexican, with the exception of one Peruano late in the game. This is a common theme in San Rafael. The owners, managers, and anyone who makes money is white; everyone else is…not.

But the guys had fun. Until the owner or manager came in, they’d blast their Spanish radio station as they did prep work. Pedro would sing along as he made meatballs. Sergio would curse and flick balls of pizza dough at the dishwasher. Ernesto and Saulo would throw bits of olive at me as I refilled pepper grinders. Julian would talk to me about his English class, his girlfriend in Mexico, and the latest rumors about the lunch shift busboy.

At first I just listened to the Spanish. The guys would eat their pizza in a collective group after the shift was over, and I’d pick at my salad and be quiet. In the beginning, when they all burst out into laughter, I would feel anxious and self-conscious. Are they laughing at me? Is a piece of broccoli wedged between my teeth? As time passed, I lost some of my reservations and let the unfamiliar sounds roll around me so I could be still and enjoy the music.

Soon I wanted to join in on the conversation, and with the occasional gracias or por favor, I started speaking Spanish. The plenitude of teachers inspired me. I could gesture to anything–a box, an apron, a fork–and learn its Spanish name immediately. I’m not sure how it happened, but I know it started with short phrases: para llevar, por favor, Julian, and soon moved into sentences: Este es para mesa treinta y tres. Quieren dos cajas por favor.

I needed to be heard. Waiting tables in a busy restaurant is the material of nightmares (I know, because I still have them if I think about the restaurant too much), and I wanted to perform my nightmare well. That meant communicating effectively with the kitchen. Julian, the busboy, was my main teacher and translator. We conducted informal tutorials by the servers station as i scarfed down fresh-baked bread before the restaurant opened, or as I ate my free meal at the end of the shift. He asked me questions about English, and I tried out my Spanish phrases. As my Spanish improved, our conversations turned into a strange hybrid language, back and forth, English and Spanish, Spanish and English. In the middle of a Spanish sentence, I’d falter on a word. If I could describe it in Spanish, I could, and Julian would supply the word afterwards. I could always fall back on como se dice?
As far as functioning in the workplace, I found that when asking questions or giving instructions, Spanish was faster. It was smoother and danced out of my mouth in a melodic and concise string. Also, considering that many of the kitchen staff didn’t know much English, Spanish was more expressive; with Spanish I could communicate both what I needed and why in just a few words. The owner felt this was bad for business, somehow, since the kitchen was an open kitchen and our Spanish communications could be overheard by customers. He told me to speak English with the cooks, but I was never really able to stop the Spanish. As I said, it was too convenient.
Eventually I discovered that sometimes the  guys weren’t speaking English or Spanish. “Julian, what are they saying?”
“It’s in Maya,” he said, and translated some of the words.
“You speak Mayan, too?”
“My grandfathers taught me.”
I asked Julian and some of the cooks to teach me Mayan as well, but I didn’t get far with it–just hi, how are you; good; where are you going? nowhere; what are you doing? nothing, and…let’s have sex. The last one was a joke Julian played on me.
The guys told so many jokes in Spanish–about each other’s girlfriends, about the boss, about each other’s supposed femininity. A large part of my desire to learn Spanish was a desire to be in on the jokes. I wanted to be one of the guys.
Early on I was a novelty–almost a muñeca (toy doll) in the restaurant. My pronunciation errors and other mistakes made the cooks laugh genially, not frown with indignation. Learning Spanish in this way prevented me from feeling pressured, and I never felt stupid. It was all for fun, and I took on my identity of a white girl learning Spanish with glee. It probably helped that the cooks found me pretty and flirtatious, and I would repeat pretty much anything they said slowly enough for me to hear. (Hence, “let’s have sex,” in Mayan. Which sounds something like “cosh tseets.’)
As my knowledge of the language grew, however, the guys stopped staring at me and started treating me like a sister. The transition was slow, and I barely noticed it. What I do remember now is being very uncomfortable at first–I was touched and ogled a lot. It seems, though, that the change happened as I got to know each of the cooks individually, and they got to know me. It seems that as they learned I was a person with my own emotions too, they could stop treating me as a muñeca, or an object. This was reciprocal: the salad chef stopped being “the salad guy,” and became Guillermo. Communication was a huge factor in the transition from muñeca to person, and it didn’t really matter in which language the communication took place. But it had to take place.

For awhile when I went back to visit the restaurant, I would shout to the kitchen first and throw big hugs all around. Slang phrases came back to me in a rush, and I practiced “your mama” jokes with Sergio. There was always a lot to catch up on with Julian, like the house he was having built in Mexico with money he sent home, or whether or not his suspicions of his girlfriend being unfaithful were true. Everyone called me Doña Bethie since I got married, and they would ask me all sorts of inappropriate questions in Spanish. In my view, there was inherent respect in that, as they were treating me not so different from each other.

The last time I went back I had Z strapped to me in her baby carrier. Julian and Sergio were gone; only Guillermo from the old crew was left. I knew Julian wouldn’t be there anymore; his phone number stopped working about a year after I moved to Davis. Still I was saddened; the kitchen wasn’t the same. These guys had no idea that I knew how to tell them to take care of their butts in Spanish, and without the close friendship forged through stressful Friday night rushes, they didn’t care. I don’t think I’ll go back there very often anymore. It’s too painful to miss the faces and voices of my friends.