Katia Raina

The Magic Mirror

“So” Contemporary: A Book Impression, An Interview and A Giveaway

Not all YA trilogies have to feature bleak dystopian futures, fantastic beasts and golden compasses.

In the process of expanding my reading horizons, I stumbled upon an excellent contemporary “So” trilogy by Kieran Scott. Okay, so it’s not my usual literary fare. But let me assure you, it’s a very fun read — and the story is done well.

 The first book, “She’s So Dead To Us” (Simon & Schuster 2010), sucks the reader right in with a really intriguing premise. Imagine a rich girl living in a wealthy section of a town divided sharply along both geographical and money lines. Imagine the said girl keeping close friendships with her rich and troubled neighbors. Now imagine it all crashing down when her dad not only loses their family’s fortunes, but loses the fortunes of his (former) neighbors and friends by giving them investment advice that turned out to be rather . . . um . . . unfortunate. Now imagine the girl disappearing for two years, then coming back to the town she grew up in, only now having to move to its other side, the “have-nots” side. Imagine facing her old friends at school. What happens next? Maybe the book’s title can give you a clue of what the heroine is up against.

This is just the beginning, there is way more in this book, and the next one, “He’s So Not Worth It.” Kieran Scott definitely delivers — not only rich, subtle characters, but also a great voice (especially the girl narrator’s — there are two viewpoint characters, a girl and a boy). I also loved the novel’s vividly imagined setting.

Just one word of warning: the first book has a cliffhanger ending. No peeking — and don’t get upset when you get to the end — you’ve been warned!!

The third and final book in the trilogy, “This Is So Not Happening” will be released in May. In the meantime, I spoke to Kieran on the phone last week, and wanted to share some amazing bits of info and Kieran Scott trivia.

1. Kieran published her first book at the age of 24.

2. She has written more than 100 books (okay some of them are things like movie tie-ins and non-fiction, but still… Incredible, no?) Check out this picture she sent me of two shelves in her house that contain the books she has published, “well, the important ones, anyway,” she says.

3. Kieran is definitely a heavy outliner. When I asked her how detailed she gets, she said it all depends. “In one scene I could be putting down lines of dialogue,” she said, “in another I could just have something like, ‘Chloe goes to a store.'” Some writers claim outlining too much can be a bad thing. I must admit I am one of those writers who need to know where they are going, but at the same time are a little bit afraid of killing the story by writing it down in outline form. “It doesn’t stifle my creativity,” Kieran says. “I don’t hold myself to it. It’s more of a roadmap, but it’s definitely helpful to have.”

Heck, it worked for her. Just take another look at that bookshelf!

4. Kieran takes about six months to write a first draft, then goes through about two or three drafts revising. She writes about a book a year, not counting the shorter movie tie-in projects, etc.

5. Kieran worked as an assistant editor, and then an editor for a book packager. Publishers sometimes hire book packagers to put together series and all kinds of other projects for them. The job not only taught Kieran some important writing lessons, it led her to her first publishing contract!

“I think working as an editor definitely taught me to really look at things in a different way,” Kieran told me. “I know when a tory isn’t working, I can just feel it, because I have read so many stories so closely.”

Here is some more information about book packagers. Not a bad way to break into the business, now that I am thinking about it: http://www.underdown.org/packaging.htm


6. One of Kieran’s most favorite books right now is “The Summer I Turned Pretty,” by Jenny Han, who happens to be Kieran’s friend — and an internationally bestselling author. That book is the first in another contemporary YA trilogy, by the way. Something else to add to my long “to read” list, I guess.

Want to find out more about Kieran? Check out the profile I wrote about her for one of my local Patch.com sites, right here:


Finally, to celebrate the expanding of my literary horizons, I am hosting a grand giveaway of Kieran’s first novel, “She Is So Dead to Us” as a thank you gift from me for being there.

In addition to this, you will get a signed copy of the second book “He Is So Dead To Us,” a gift from Kieran!

Just leave a comment here to participate. The giveaway ends Monday, October 10th. Good luck!



October 3, 2011 Posted by | Book Impressions, Interviews | , , , , , , , , | 6 Comments

“Soldier X” by Don Wulffson: A Book Impression and My Own Take on the 1940s History

Speak (Penguin) 2001

I usually try to stick to new books when reviewing, but I couldn’t keep silent about this one. My 12-year-old son recommended this book to me, and the concept totally intrigued me. A teenage German soldier gets sent to the front in 1944, at a time when German supplies ae dwindling and the losses are heavy. While engaged in a battle, the protagonist, who has some knowledge of the Russian language, faces a difficult choice: be killed or pass himself for a Russian. He chooses the latter and finds himself on the other side of the war, looking after the wounded in a Russian hospital, where he befriends, then falls for a Russian girl.

This is a “war is hell” kind of a book, and it portrays the horrors of the front in awful, vivid detail. I always appreciate this sort of honesty. However, there were things that bothered me about this book — things I feel a  strong need to share.

The way this book portrays the war is essentially as a squabble between two governments, with little people with no particular feeling for their respective countries’ cause, caught in the middle of it.

I have a a problem with this portrayal. Sometimes, in wars, there really is a bad guy. There is an aggressor.

If you’ve been reading this blog for a little while, you’ll know that I am one of the first people to bash the former Soviet Union. For Stalin and the repressions he started, for the leaders who followed him, who continued his repressions, who kept telling his lies. I support books such as Rita Sepetys’ “Between Shades of Gray” that talk about the horrors the USSR unleashed on the people of Lithuania and others. However, one thing you must give the Soviet Union is that war.

In one hospital scene in “Soldier X,”  a whole bunch of wounded solders are so disenchanted that they refuse their medals. My grandmother lived through that war, and I’ve seen many others who have. I have heard many political jokes, and I have learned to tell when history textbooks fed us lies that everyone scoffed at. But no one ever questioned why the Soviet people fought the war known to the world as World War II and to the Soviet Union as The Great Patriotic War. For that’s exactly what it was. Hitler started the war with an air raid on June 22, 1941. In the same way that Japan declared war on the US with an attack on Pearl Harbor. People today still remember what they did that day long ago, where they were when the first raid started. The way we Americans remember that awful morning of September 11th ten years ago.

Once the Great Patriotic War began, people united like never before, bonded by grief and disaster, against an attack that left the earth scorched, homes destroyed, food supplies depleted and families broken. Sure, Stalin’s political repressions continued, but much slower than before or after the war. In fact, many political prisoners got a reprieve — hey, fighters were needed. Sure, the Red Army had strict rules — terrible ones, you could say — rules that would not allow soldiers to retreat, and some other barbaric practices that Wulffson talks about in his book did take place. Some Russians did desert, and used the war as their chance to emigrate to the West, even to Germany. But there were hundreds, thousands of other stories. Stories of people proudly leaving their families to volunteer to defend them against the German aggression.

Of course, Germany suffered too. And Eastern Germany in particular went on to suffer for many more years following the war. But that’s a different story. Just like the story of what the United States’ terrible nuclear revenge on Japan at the end of World War II. A different story. But remember that sense of injustice, that rage that filled America after the Pearl Harbor attack? The Russians felt that very same rage and carried it through the war. So to me, putting the Soviets on the same footing as the dejected Germans at the end of the war is, if nothing else, simply inaccurate. The losses were heavy, and fatigue was terrible, but by 1944 the people felt it — victory was drawing close. Sure, the Soviet radio and papers exaggerated the good news, still the news were good and getting better.

Sure, the German troops felt dejected and disgusted with the war as it was drawing to a close, but in the beginning it must not be forgotten that they marched in enthusiastic parades and saluted, eager to wipe out Russia as a country and enslave the Slavs and others that populated it, while on the other side, the Soviets were singing solemn songs and taking war preparation classes in schools as part of getting ready for the attack that was imminent.

At that point in time, those two sides cannot be morally equal. And, contrary to Wulffson’s portrayal, the Russian troops did not perceive it that way. While by the end of the war many Germans might have started to feel doubts about what they were doing in Russia, the Russians knew exactly what they were fighting for — simply — their home.

My feeling is, with the shortage of books dealing with the Soviet role in bringing World War II to successful conclusion, it is important to present an accurate perspective. I thought after my current work-in-progress I’d be done with Russia as far as my books go. I thought I’d be pretty much finished with historical fiction, too. I’ve never been much of a war book person, either. But now, having read this book, I’m not so sure about that anymore. Perhaps one day — a whole bunch of years from now — you’ll see my book set in the 1940s Russia, in the middle of the war.


September 18, 2011 Posted by | Book Impressions, Contemporary History, The U.S.S.R. | , , , , | 4 Comments

“The Berlin Boxing Club” by Robert Sharenow

I am so ridiculously late with this, but well, here we go… One of my last two historical fiction reviews, after which I will start compiling a new “best of” list, but more about that later…

At this summer’s New Jersey SCBWI conference I was fortunate to meet editor Kristin Daly Rens of Balzer & Bray at Harper Collins, who so very graciously sent me a copy of one of the  imprint’s recently released historical fiction, “The Berlin Boxing Club” by Robert Sharenow.

 In 1936 Berlin, 14-year-old Karl is a Jew by birth, though he didn’t grow up with any kind of religious upbringing. Karl has neither the looks of a Jew, nor any interest in Judaism. His country gives him no choice but to embrace his Jewish identity, however, as Karl is bullied, then forced to the fringes of German society because of Nazi’s burgeoning anti-Semitism. Karl finds an outlet in love and boxing, being trained by one of German’s biggest boxing celebrities, Max Schmeling. The story heart-breaking and fascinating in turn, as the reader follows Karl on his coming-of-age journey, while slowly everything he loves gets taken away from him. I think this unique story is an important one for the world to hear. It raises as many questions as it answers, and forces you to ponder the definition of courage and heroism. The book doesn’t offer any easy choices, and I think it’s great thinking fodder for young readers. I think they’ll love the raw honesty and complexity of this story — not to mention the cool boxing parts!

Have you read it yet? What did you think?

September 12, 2011 Posted by | Book Impressions | , , , , , , | 8 Comments

The Grace Lin Giveaway Winner

Thanks again to everyone who participated in last week’s giveaway. I know some of you wanted to win so very badly — in retrospect, I should have gotten more copies. Darn!

To make the winner’s selection as random as could be, I had my daughter pull a name from a box:

And the winner is . . . .

Stephanie Pyle!

Woo-hoo for you, Stephanie — and may Grace’s book bring you magic.


P.S. Of course I couldn’t stop at just one, so I picked a second winner for one of the other books I got at the conference! Kat Yeh, your name was on the second paper my daughter picked — which means you get a pretty good consolation prize, I think. You get the choice of one of the following autographed books written by the awesome authors who attended the NJ SCBWI summer conference: “Sirenz” by Charlotte Bennardo and Natalie Zaman, “Popular” by Alissa Grosso and “Eighth-Grade Super Zero,” by Olugbemisola Rhuday-Perkovich.

And those of you who didn’t win, remember, there is always another giveaway! One of the editors from the conference, Kristin Rens of Harper Collins just mailed me an awesome historical book which I cannot wait to review, and then share — “The Berlin Boxing Club” by Robert Sharenow, set in 1936 Berlin, about a Jewish boy dealing with Nazi bullies in school.

June 19, 2011 Posted by | Book Impressions, Updates, Writing Mirror | 4 Comments

A Drifiting Friendship And A Giveaway

Nothing is constant in the Universe,  except change, great philosophers say. (Change — and love, I would add — sorry Heraclitus!)

Have you ever experienced these changes when it comes to friendships? What was the longest friendship you have ever had — and have you managed to keep it going strong through the years?

What if a friendship between two nations affected your own personal relationship?

Read my guest post for my friend Joyce Moyer Hostetter http://joycemoyerhostetter.blogspot.com/2011/05/on-two-different-sides-of-growing.html , leave a comment and spread the word, for a chance to win another signed copy of Joyce’s beautiful first book, “Best Friends Forever” (Friendship Press, 1995).  Original, sweet, touching, funny and heartbreaking, this little treasure of a book is perfect for middle-graders (age 9 to 12, especially girls). It would make for a great gift for kids, teachers or parents.

Thanks in advance for spreading the word!!

May 22, 2011 Posted by | Book Impressions, Personal Mirror, Politics and Religion, The U.S.S.R. | , , , , | 10 Comments

“Inconvenient,” by Margie Gelbwasser

Flux, 2010

This isn’t, strictly speaking, historical fiction, though at times it does have that late 1980s, early 90s feel (when it mentions the James Bond movies, the ones with the sexy Russian chicks being viewed in a high school classroom. Also, the protagonist’s parents — and her boyfriend — are old-fashioned, so you won’t see any Ipods in this story, nor social networking sites). Anyway, contemporary or not, I cannot possibly keep quiet about this one.

First of all, this book is personal to me is that it features a Russian-Jewish girl living in a New Jersey suburb, trying to step outside of the shadow of her culture and create for herself a meaningful American life.

But that is only one of the story’s many layers. There’s also the romance with a hot cross-country teammate. There is a best friend who is growing up just a little too fast — and drifting away. There  is an alcoholic freelance writer mother with a gentle heart but not much willpower.

Though the beginning few chapters were a tad too slow for me, once I truly got into the book, boy did I get into it. First, let me just say, the characters seem so real. The main character, Alyssa, is kind, complex and wise, as unsure of herself as any teen, yet at times, instinctively understanding some of the truths many other teenagers are still struggling to learn. The fun mother who turns mean when fueled by alcohol does not come across as a stereotypical alcoholic — she is defeated, sweet, selfish, multi-dimensional. The main character’s boyfriend is afraid of commitment, and kinda-sorta lets another girl in a little too close, yet he is no shallow only-wants-one-thing jerk. The protagonist’s best friend made me laugh out loud at times, the way she so desperately pushed away her Russian-ness, and yet how so very “Russian” she was, even in doing that.

Speaking of Russain-ness, I thought the details of being a Russian-Jewish teen in America were spot-on! I was sixteen living in NYC and then at seventeen and eighteen my parents moved me to Central New Jersey, and yes, I saw many of the things that Margie Gelbwasser describes.

Finally, I loved the ending for the same reason I loved the characters — for its truth. I couldn’t stop thinking about the story long after reluctantly turning the last page.

May 10, 2011 Posted by | Book Impressions | , , , , , | 5 Comments

Another Title for My Awesome Recent Historicals List

“Bitter Melon,” by Cara Chow,  Egmont USA 2011

 There is so much to love in this unique YA story, I can only be glad that it happens to be set in 1989-1991, falling very neatly into the category of Recent Historical Fiction, which, of course, makes it a perfect candidate to be included on this list: https://katiaraina.wordpress.com/2010/09/27/best-contemporary-historical-fiction-yamiddle-grade/

Okay, so first of all, there is the premise: a Chinese-American teen whose mother has already decided on her future. Young Frances (or Fei Ting — which I think sounds way cooler) must get into Berkeley, conveniently located near home and Mother, and become a doctor, to help her ailing mother get cured of her stomach issues. I mean, we’ve all heard about some very pushy parents, but this? Wow. The conflict that this promised hooked me immediately. And for the most part, the story did not disappoint. Fei Ting is an incredibly complex and well-developed character. Often she is neither particularly nice, nor wise — but she is trying — and I think that makes her all the more endearing. Her mother also seems to have many sides to her personality. She is a selfless parent, crazy about her daughter. “You are my life,” she tells her. That same woman is a cruel and calculating bully. As I read, the mother fascinated and terrified me. 

I think the pushy parents “mommy-knows-best” theme is very interesting. I have struggled with it myself, as a daughter and granddaughter, and continue to grapple with it now as a mother, and I imagine most other people do too.  Also, I really enjoyed getting to know the Chinese-American culture, from the food to the occasional Cantonese, to even the characters’ thoughts sometimes, I felt like I got a glimpse into that world, without feeling as though I was reading a primer.

Personally, I would have liked a bit more of the taste of the early 1990s — not just the place, San Francisco, which was beautifully rendered, but also the time. Why couldn’t the story have been set during any other period? I am sure there is a good answer and I would have loved to know it. Also, I wasn’t sure how I felt about Fei Ting’s crush. I couldn’t say I really understood him all that well. Even so, I rooted for Fei Ting, and hoped, for her sake, that her feelings for this guy would be answered in kind.

Most important of all, though, I totally raced through this emotionally charged story. When I finished it, many of its images and scenes stuck in my mind. My favorite ones: Fei Ting’s mother beating Fei Ting with a trophy, Fei Ting wearing her mother’s old dress to the prom (naturally, without her mother’s permission) and the ending scene with her mother . . . which I won’t give away here, of course! 🙂

April 10, 2011 Posted by | Book Impressions, Contemporary History | , | 3 Comments

Story vs. history

“A Tugging String,” by David T. Greenberg

Dutton, 2008

David T. Greenberg’s book is set in 1960s Alabama, “blending facts, speeches, memories and conjecture.” A twelve-year-old boy, the son of a civil rights lawyer, tries hard to fit in at school. An African-American woman struggles to become a registered voter. As the two stories come together, the young protagonist sees first-hand the importance of the civil rights struggle. While many readers on amazon.com whose reviews I have checked are raving about the book, BookList and School Library Journal have called it “didactic” and “not always making for a smooth narrative.” (They also did call it “sincere,” “clearly written” and “fascinating.”) http://www.amazon.com/Tugging-String-Growing-During-Rights/dp/0525479678/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1297877810&sr=8-1

I am always very sad and a little sorry when I don’t fall in love with a book. I am, as my regular followers know, a fan of historical fiction. But I am also a fan of fantasy. Sci-fi. Contemporary YA. My point is this: I love learning about other worlds, be  they old or new, past or future, real or imagined, or a crazy blend of the two. But what I love the most about books is . . . the story. The characters thrust into a situation that takes center-stage. The feelings that come through, implode and explode as other events unfold, be they historical or fantastical. 

While reading “A Tugging String,” I did learn a lot. I did especially like the fascinating unusual little details no one thinks about when reading of the 1960s, like a Jamaican housekeeper with a ring on every toe!

But, to me, the book was trying too hard to “tell” me things: here is what is important, here is what’s horrible, here is how to feel.

I realize, the book is probably meant for the school market. Teachers give it great reviews, and the author David Greenberg is a popular speaker. Also,  judging from the amazon.com reviews, some kids like it too.

So yes, books can teach. Still, I feel an author shouldn’t worry so. An honest story with a character that feels real can teach a young reader more about that character’s time and place, than any amounts of footnotes or paragraphs of asides ever could.

What do you think? Writers and readers, when you write or read historical fiction, what sort of balance between STORY and HISTORY do you expect or hope to create?

Answer the question, and get the chance to win an autographed copy of David Greenberg’s “Tugging String!”

Then read it and judge for yourself, then maybe write your own review, so we could compare notes? 🙂

March 6, 2011 Posted by | Book Impressions | , , , , , | 6 Comments

“A Long Walk To Water,” by Linda Sue Park

“A Long Walk to Water” by Linda Sue Park

Clarion, 2010

I first read Linda Sue Park’s Newbery-award winning “A Single Shard” back in 2003 after I quit my newspaper reporting job and decided to plunge into the world of children’s literature. Now, eight years later, this new work feels even finer, somehow, a new accomplishment from a children’s writing master. The slim, gently fictionalized account features Salva Dut, a real man from Sudan, Africa. Forced from his village by a raging civil war in 1985, he departs on “a long walk to water,” a journey by foot, past hunger, thirst, grief and fear and desolation, toward decency, freedom and love. The parallel narrative also features a fictional girl from the present time, a young Sudanese villager who  must trek across dry hot land for eight hours every single day to fetch clean water for her family. The two stories are sparingly told, and intertwine most elegantly at the end. The book sheds light on a time and a place not much talked about. What do you know of Sudan, Africa’s largest country?

I didn’t know much — if anything, until I picked up Ms. Park’s latest story.

But in addition to showing us the time and the place, “A Long Walk To Water” reveals precious glimpses into the strength of the human spirit and the amazing triumph of goodwill over hate.

February 20, 2011 Posted by | Book Impressions | , , , , , | 4 Comments

Books are Our BFFs: A Giveaway

To continue with last month’s friendship theme, I’d like to offer you a little giveaway to celebrate books and friendship!

You see, starting this blog has been one of the very best things I have ever done. Through it I have met — physically and virtually — some amazing award-winning, up-and-coming, super-talented authors who, most important of all, turned out to be incredible human beings — wise, generous, supportive, inspiring, FUN. I guess that part shouldn’t surprise me too much — people who read and write this many books are bound to have learned a thing of two about kindness and generosity. People like that are also bound to be gutsy and contain a fiery spirit — just the sort of thing I love in human beings. Plus, in their trek toward literary success they have picked up a nugget of wisdom or two, which they are always more than happy to share.

Thus in honor of friendship, wisdom, generosity and — of course — books, which teach us all of those things — I am giving away two books by an author friend I have been fortunate enough to make through this blog: Joyce Moyer Hostetter:  www. joycemoyerhostetter.com   

I have read Joyce’s historical fiction story, “Blue,” Calkins Creek Books, 2006, a few years ago, before I ever dreamed she would actually follow my blog — before I even had a blog. I loved her story — an account of growing up in North Carolina in the mid 1940s, the times of polio epidemic and of course, World War II. 

Now Joyce sent me two more of her works  — her first one  is precious in a way, because it’s no longer in print. Published in 1995 by Friendship Press, “Best Friends Forever” was Joyce’s first imperfect “baby,” or at least that’s the way she describes it. It is a sweet story for young middle-graders about a friendship between n Orthodox Ukrainian girl and an American Mennonite. I am going to have to track down a used copy on amazon.com for me to read, but this spanking brand new signed one I wanted to give away to my supportive followers! The second book Joyce and I are giving away here is “Healing Water, a Hawaiian story” published by Calkins Creek in 2008. This book, which I am also going to find another copy of for my own pleasure, is a fictional account inspired by the actual historical events occurring at a Hawaiian leprosy settlement in late 1800s. The story’s protagonist in battling for survival, must make a choice between aloha — forgiveness — or revenge. It is an inspiration and friendship with one remarkable man who ultimately leads the story’s hero toward making the right choice.


By the way, Joyce and I have timed this giveaway to coincide with a first guest post I am writing for her about growing up in the Soviet Union. Check it out on her blog:


So, without further ado, here is to friendship — and to books!

Leave a comment here — or on Joyce’s blog: http://joycemoyerhostetter.blogspot.com/2011/02/soviet-union-did-have-god-guest-blog-by.html

so I could enter your name in this newest giveaway contest!

February 6, 2011 Posted by | Book Impressions, The U.S.S.R., Writing Mirror | , , , , , , , , | 14 Comments