Author Interview – M.A. and J.L. Powers

Today we welcome and M.A. and J.L. Powers to the blog. We appreciate their willingness to answer questions about Broken Circle, their writing life and more.

What was the inspiration for this world where souls are being shepherded after bodily
death?

M.A. Powers

M.A.: When I began thinking about personifications of death (such as the Grim Reaper) and what it would mean to shepherd the souls of the dead, the first image that popped into my mind was, of course, Charon poling clients across the river Styx in a flat-bottomed skiff. For the newly dead, the river Styx represents an insurmountable obstacle to the afterlife unless they are given, or pay for, help by a knowledgeable guide with a boat. This image turned into a conscious and subconscious working framework for our concept of Limbo, that unique place between life and death where a newly dead soul requires help to navigate.

Our Charon characters, Soul Guides, come from human families loosely based on the legends of supernatural personifications of death such as the Angel of Death, Grim Reaper, and Dullahan. Like Charon, they have special abilities to navigate Limbo and help the newly dead overcome their own personal Styx (an obstacle to accepting death). This “River Styx” for each person (“Limbo”) is developed subconsciously throughout their lifetime.

For us, the concept gave us a great vehicle to explore people’s fears, wants and desires and it is relatable because we all struggle to accept our own mortality. In this world, only someone who has completely accepted their own person, and has become friends with the concept of mortality, could cross Limbo without help from a guide. I feel, as humans, this is a very rare condition. Our refusal to accept death is a refusal to accept our own life and struggle.

The monster Adam repeatedly encounters is rather terrifying. I felt hints of La Llorona there. Was she an influence?

J.L. Powers

J.L.: I’m sure La Llorona was a subconscious influence. I don’t want to say too much about the similarities between La Llorona and the monster character in the book because it includes too many spoilers for readers who haven’t read the book yet. But let me just say that Matt and I grew up in El Paso, Texas, where the story of La Llorona is beloved and much told. As you know, I work at Cinco Puntos Press and our children’s picture book La Llorona is one of our best-selling books so the tale is something that is both extremely familiar and undoubtedly was an influence.

What was your favorite part about writing Broken Circle?

M.A.: First, my favorite part was writing with my sister who is a great idea generator and developer and could make my wild, and often pathetic, stab at writing dialogue pop!

Also, the laughter. We have a similar sense of humor and had laughing fits over parts of the book that may not seem funny to some readers.

Second, I was trained rigorously in biochemistry and genetics. My favorite part of
science was the intellectual pursuit of generating a hypothesis. Hypothesis is just a
fancy word for “scientific fiction production” and is the state of acquiring a handful of
seemingly unrelated and confusing facts and imagining a scenario where they do make sense. Furthermore, you have to propose tests that will confirm or reject this scenario. Although it did have its high points, I was not particularly fond of performing those tests because it was often repetitive and tedious for me.

Writing Broken Circle was a constant stream of generating hypotheses (In our case,
fiction based on world building rules instead of fiction based on a set of known facts)
and did not include any of the lab bench drudgery!

What does the collaboration process look like for you two?

M.A.: It’s a chaotic miasma of interruptions from our children and herky-jerky writing all dependent on babysitting schedules and poop. Yeah, when something smells funny, it’s time to stop writing and get out fresh pampers.

Our worst interruption was on a Skype call. I put my 9-month- old in the Bumbo on the table and turned my back to get the little table thing to snap her in when I heard a dull “THUNK” and then crying. She had launched herself out of the snug foam leg holes and off the table and was lying in a small heap of brown corduroy and pink onesie on our scratched hardwood floor.

Horrified, I scooped her up and yelled goodbye to Jessica as I rushed off to the emergency room, fearing I had irreparably broken my baby. My daughter was fine! In fact, she had stopped crying by the time I had put her in the car seat but I forged ahead, determined to do penance at the hospital by being “That Dad” who put his kid on the table and turned his back. Obviously, I needed a stiffer penance to get right with the god of muse. The book we were collaborating on at the time has yet to be finished. Karma?

Did you do any specific preparation before crafting the characters who are from cultural backgrounds that are different from your own?

J.L.: Over the years, I’ve become known for writing books about characters who are from cultural backgrounds that are different from my own. The process is similar each time. First of all, I should say that in most cases, it’s sort of organic. I don’t pull a culture from my hat and think, ‘Let me write about XYZ.’ For me, I am writing out of both my personal experiences with cultures I’ve lived within as well as professional knowledge. Just as an example, we have a Latina character in this book, Liliana La Muerte. As I said, Matt and I grew up in El Paso, Texas, which is 75% Latin@ and, specifically, Mexican and Mexican-American. We grew up in a neighborhood where we were the only white kids. In many ways, Mexican and Mexican-American culture is much more familiar to us and safe for us than the white American mainstream culture that we look like we’re supposed to be from. But of course, that level of familiarity doesn’t give us a pass. I try to do meticulous research: reading books and articles, talking to people, traveling as needed, immersing myself as much as possible so that I can present authentic and accurate characters, and asking other people from those cultures to read it and be brutally honest about errors….

Broken Circle is the beginning of a series. Are you able to share anything about the future books?

J.L.: That’s a scary question! We are working on Book 2, and I’m also starting to work on Book ½ (yes, there is a Book ½ in our series, just like the ½ chapters….). One thing you might be interested to know is that Book 2 starts almost at the same place where Book 1 leaves off, and it will end up in Chicago. So Chicago, here we come!

Also, we will explore the world of Limbo and Soul Guides a bit more in-depth as that has been one critique from readers—they’d like to have more information or world-building about those concepts. You’ve spoken, we’re listening, we’ll respond!

I think people should know that we planted some things in the first book that will emerge as bigger plot points in later books, but we tried to plant them in a way that people don’t notice them in the first book. So hopefully it’ll be this wonderful exploration over time….

You’re a blogger at The Pirate Tree. Could you share a little about that work and why you
are involved there?

J.L.: I helped to start The Pirate Tree with other like-minded authors who want to examine children’s literature positively from a social justice angle. This is a very broad mandate. A lot of times, people think that if you’re looking at social justice and children’s literature, you’re looking for issue-driven books. Not so! In fact, I definitely am not interested in books that appear preachy or have a moral attached. Any book can be examined for how it treats the human condition and how it analyzes society and the status quo. And good literature automatically does that. Our goal is to present and celebrate books that we think demonstrate a commitment to developing a more peaceful and just world.

In addition to being an author, you’ve also worked in publishing with Cinco Puntos Press and now you’re starting Catalyst Press. Can you tell us a little about that work and what keeps you working to publish the work of others?

J.L.: I started working with Cinco Puntos in 2002, if you can believe it! And I still work for Cinco Puntos Press. I absolutely love our books, which are some of the most important multicultural books being published today. We have been publishing diverse books since the 1980s—long before there was any kind of movement for it.

And I started Catalyst Press and Story Press Africa because I wanted to publish African writers and African-based literature. There’s a huge gap. Eventually, I want to branch out to publishing other indigenous literature from other parts of the world, but this is where I’m starting because of my own expertise—I have two graduate degrees in African history. And I can’t state often enough how much I love Africans and the continent of Africa….

I love to write, but I also love books altogether. I believe books change the world. So to me it is a supreme pleasure to be able to present important books to the world that might be overlooked by mainstream publishers.

You may find M.A. and J.L. Powers at www.powerssquared.com

M.A.  newborn – J.L. 2 1/2

Three new books this week

We have three books on our radar for this week, and they all look like they could be a lot of fun. Are any of them make it to your TBR pile?

Forest of a Thousand Lanterns (Rise of the Empress #1) by Julie C. Dao
Philomel Books

An East Asian fantasy reimagining of The Evil Queen legend about one peasant girl’s quest to become Empress–and the darkness she must unleash to achieve her destiny.

Eighteen-year-old Xifeng is beautiful. The stars say she is destined for greatness, that she is meant to be Empress of Feng Lu. But only if she embraces the darkness within her. Growing up as a peasant in a forgotten village on the edge of the map, Xifeng longs to fulfill the destiny promised to her by her cruel aunt, the witch Guma, who has read the cards and seen glimmers of Xifeng’s majestic future. But is the price of the throne too high?

Because in order to achieve greatness, she must spurn the young man who loves her and exploit the callous magic that runs through her veins–sorcery fueled by eating the hearts of the recently killed. For the god who has sent her on this journey will not be satisfied until his power is absolute.

Dare Mighty Things by Heather Kaczynski
HarperTeen

THE RULES ARE SIMPLE: You must be gifted. You must be younger than twenty-five. You must be willing to accept the dangers that you will face if you win.

Seventeen-year-old Cassandra Gupta’s entire life has been leading up to this—the opportunity to travel to space. But to secure a spot on this classified mission, she must first compete against the best and brightest people on the planet. People who are as determined as she to win a place on a journey to the farthest reaches of the universe.

Cassie is ready for the toll that the competition will take; the rigorous mental and physical tests designed to push her to the brink of her endurance. But nothing could have prepared her for the bonds she would form with the very people she hopes to beat. Or that with each passing day it would be more and more difficult to ignore the feeling that the true objective of the mission is being kept from her.

As the days until the launch tick down and the stakes rise higher than ever before, only one thing is clear to Cassie: she’ll never back down . . . even if it costs her everything.

Sparrow by Sarah Moon
Arthur A. Levine Books

Sparrow has always had a difficult time making friends. She would always rather have stayed home on the weekends with her mother, an affluent IT Executive at a Brooklyn bank, reading, or watching the birds, than playing with other kids. And that’s made school a lonely experience for her. It’s made LIFE a lonely experience.

But when the one teacher who really understood her — Mrs. Wexler, the school librarian, a woman who let her eat her lunch in the library office rather than hide in a bathroom stall, a woman who shared her passion for novels and knew just the ones she’d love — is killed in a freak car accident, Sparrow’s world unravels and she’s found on the roof of her school in an apparent suicide attempt.

With the help of an insightful therapist, Sparrow finally reveals the truth of her inner life. And it’s here that she discovers an outlet in Rock & Roll music…

Book Review: Buried Heart

Title: Buried Heart (Court of Fives #3)
Author: Kate Elliott
Genres: Fantasy
Pages: 465 pages
Publisher: Little, Brown & Company
Review Copy: Purchased
Availability: In Bookstores

Summary: In this third book in the epic Court of Fives series, Jessamy is the crux of a revolution forged by the Commoner class hoping to overthrow their longtime Patron overlords. But enemies from foreign lands have attacked the kingdom, and Jes must find a way to unite the Commoners and Patrons to defend their home and all the people she loves. Will her status as a prominent champion athlete be enough to bring together those who have despised one another since long before her birth? Will she be able to keep her family out of the clutches of the evil Lord Gargaron? And will her relationship with Prince Kalliarkos remain strong when they find themselves on opposite sides of a war?

Review: I enjoyed the first two installments of Kate Elliott’s Court of Five series so I was really looking forward to seeing how Elliott would end Jessamy’s story. Buried Heart picks up moments after the end of Poisoned Blade as Jessamy, Kal, and their families are running from Saryenia after Nikonos pulls a deadly coup and takes over the city. I expected most of the book would focus on Jessamy and Kal working together to unite the Commoners and Patrons and somehow overthrow Nikonos. I have to say I was surprised by what actually happened in the novel. Working with her father, Jessamy and Kal are able to takeover the throne fairly easily at that happens only a quarter of the way into the book. After that, the novel takes on an interesting turn where Jessamy is captured by Lord Gargaron and is separated from everyone she loves. While I hated that Lord Gargaron had the upper hand over Jessamy at one point, but this allowed Jessamy to find an inner strength and leadership ability that she didn’t know she had. It fully allowed her to choose a side and when it came time to fight for Efea, Jessamy was able to use her skills from the Five Court and her new found leadership skills to truly help turn the tide of the war.

One of the many aspects I liked about Poisoned Blade was that we traveled with Jessamy and saw more of the world of Efea, and in Buried Heart we experienced more of the same, but we learned more about the people of Efea (i.e. the Commoners). We also learned more about the customs and beliefs of the Efeans before the Saroese (Patrons) invaded and took over the land. Learning more the history of Efea and it’s colonization, bring a deeper meaning to the novel. At it’s core, through the story of Jessamy, Buried Heart is the story of an oppressed people rising up, and of the privileged people learning how to recognize their role in oppression and working with the oppressed to make change.

Even though Jessamy and Kal spend a lot of time apart in this novel (again) this time it was much more satisfying to me, as in their time apart they grew into the adults they were going to be, and their relationship grew as well. At the beginning of the novel, Jessamy and Kal are so sweet together, but their relationship is much more mature based on their first separation. Kai truly accepts Jessamy for who she is, the good and the ugly, though Jessamy tries to still “protect” Kal’s more innocent nature. It’s sweet at the beginning, but devastating for Jessamy when she must watch Kal make tough choices when he becomes king, a position he never wanted. However, with this second separation, both have to make tough, adult decisions and each lose their innocence in a way. They both change because of their experiences in the war and when they are able to finally come together (if only for a brief moment) they see each other as true equals. I loved that Elliott wrote a relationship that was equally balanced where each of the lovers grew not just together but on their own. Both Jessamy and Kal look out for each other and push each other to be better, which is a very healthy relationship not often seen in many books. The tension between them came from outside sources and these two had to find a way to create their happiness and find a way to be together. To me, that is what made their love story so touching.

There is so much more I could say about Buried Heart, but I would be giving away so much of the story. So I will say this, Buried Heart is a fitting end to a wonderful trilogy that had a beautiful love story, a villain you just loved to hate, complex family drama, and a world that was so complete it felt real, but at it’s heart was an amazing heroine that us readers could root for.

Recommendation: If you have been waiting for this third book to come out you need to run to your nearest book store and buy it. If you haven’t read the Court of Five series, you also need to run to your nearest book store so you can begin the adventure and read the whole series in one sitting!

Queer and Here in YA Lit

I feel like I’m always running around being like, “Look at this book! It’s going to be amazing! You need to read this when it comes out! Ahhhh!” It’s kind of a constant thing with me. But I’m here to say that this is my current to-read and must-read book on my radar:

Not Your VillainNot Your Villain (Sidekick Squad #2) by C.B. Lee

Available: October 5th, 2017 (soon!)

Bells Broussard thought he had it made when his superpowers manifested early. Being a shapeshifter is awesome. He can change his hair whenever he wants, and if putting on a binder for the day is too much, he’s got it covered. But that was before he became the country’s most-wanted villain.

After discovering a massive cover-up by the Heroes’ League of Heroes, Bells and his friends Jess, Emma, and Abby set off on a secret mission to find the Resistance. Meanwhile, power-hungry former hero Captain Orion is on the loose with a dangerous serum that renders meta-humans powerless, and a new militarized robotic threat emerges. Everyone is in danger. Between college applications and crushing on his best friend, will Bells have time to take down a corrupt government? Sometimes, to do a hero’s job, you need to be a villain. [Image and summary via Goodreads]

I loved the first book in this series, Not Your Sidekick, and I’m pretty darn excited for the sequel. Not Your Sidekick is all about queer superheroes doing their thing, and it’s just a lot of fun. I’m a huge fan of fun genre YA lit starring queer and PoC characters, and this fits the bill. What’s your favorite queer PoC YA book?

New Releases

There are quite a few new releases this week and I’m excited for several of them.

 

27 Hours (The Nightside Saga #1) by Tristina Wright
Entangled: Teen

Rumor Mora fears two things: hellhounds too strong for him to kill, and failure. Jude Welton has two dreams: for humans to stop killing monsters, and for his strange abilities to vanish.

But in no reality should a boy raised to love monsters fall for a boy raised to kill them.

Nyx Llorca keeps two secrets: the moon speaks to her, and she’s in love with Dahlia, her best friend. Braeden Tennant wants two things: to get out from his mother’s shadow, and to unlearn Epsilon’s darkest secret.

They’ll both have to commit treason to find the truth.

During one twenty-seven-hour night, if they can’t stop the war between the colonies and the monsters from becoming a war of extinction, the things they wish for will never come true, and the things they fear will be all that’s left.

27 Hours is a sweeping, thrilling story featuring a stellar cast of queer teenagers battling to save their homes and possibly every human on Sahara as the clock ticks down to zero.

Wild BeautyWild Beauty by Anna-Marie McLemore
Feiwel & Friends

Love grows such strange things.

For nearly a century, the Nomeolvides women have tended the grounds of La Pradera, the lush estate gardens that enchant guests from around the world. They’ve also hidden a tragic legacy: if they fall in love too deeply, their lovers vanish. But then, after generations of vanishings, a strange boy appears in the gardens.

The boy is a mystery to Estrella, the Nomeolvides girl who finds him, and to her family, but he’s even more a mystery to himself; he knows nothing more about who he is or where he came from than his first name. As Estrella tries to help Fel piece together his unknown past, La Pradera leads them to secrets as dangerous as they are magical in this stunning exploration of love, loss, and family.

Akata Warrior (Akata Witch #2) by Nnedi Okorafor
Viking Books for Young Readers

A year ago, Sunny Nwazue, an American-born girl Nigerian girl, was inducted into the secret Leopard Society. As she began to develop her magical powers, Sunny learned that she had been chosen to lead a dangerous mission to avert an apocalypse, brought about by the terrifying masquerade, Ekwensu. Now, stronger, feistier, and a bit older, Sunny is studying with her mentor Sugar Cream and struggling to unlock the secrets in her strange Nsibidi book.

Eventually, Sunny knows she must confront her destiny. With the support of her Leopard Society friends, Orlu, Chichi, and Sasha, and of her spirit face, Anyanwu, she will travel through worlds both visible and invisible to the mysteries town of Osisi, where she will fight a climactic battle to save humanity.

Much-honored Nnedi Okorafor, winner of the Hugo, Nebula, and World Fantasy awards, merges today’s Nigeria with a unique world she creates. Akata Warrior blends mythology, fantasy, history and magic into a compelling tale that will keep readers spellbound.

Broken Circle by J.L. and M.A. Powers
Black Sheep

Adam wants nothing more than to be a “normal” teen, but his reality is quickly leaking normal. Afraid to sleep because of the monster that stalks him in his dreams, Adam’s breakdown at school in front of his crush Sarah lands him in the hospital.

Now Adam can only vaguely comprehend some sort of future. His mother died when he was only four and his eccentric father—who might be an assassin, a voodoo god, the reincarnation of the Buddha, or something even stranger—is never available when Adam really needs him.

Adam’s life takes an even stranger turn when a fat man with a gold tooth and a medallion confronts his father regarding Adam’s supposed “true destiny.” Adam is soon headed toward a collision with life, death, and the entities charged with shepherding souls of the newly dead, all competing to control lucrative territories where some nightmares are real and psychopomps of ancient legends walk the streets of North America.

Seize Today (Forget Tomorrow #3) by Pintip Dunn
Entangled: Teen

The third book in the New York Times bestselling and RITA award winning Forget Tomorrow series is a thrilling conclusion to an epic trilogy.

Seventeen-year-old precognitive Olivia Dresden is an optimist. Since different versions of people’s futures flicker before her eyes, she doesn’t have to believe in human decency. She can literally see the path to goodness in each person—if only he or she would make the right decision. No one is more conflicted than her mother, Chairwoman Dresden, and Olivia is fiercely loyal to the woman her mother could be.

But when the Chairwoman captures Ryder Russell, a boy from the rebel Underground, Olivia is forced to reevaluate her notions of love and faith. With Ryder’s help, Olivia must come to terms with who her mother is in the present—and stop her before she destroys the world.

Not Your VillainNot Your Villain (Sidekick Squad #2) by C.B. Lee

Bells Broussard thought he had it made when his superpowers manifested early. Being a shapeshifter is awesome. He can change his hair whenever he wants, and if putting on a binder for the day is too much, he’s got it covered. But that was before he became the country’s most-wanted villain.

After discovering a massive cover-up by the Heroes’ League of Heroes, Bells and his friends Jess, Emma, and Abby set off on a secret mission to find the Resistance. Meanwhile, power-hungry former hero Captain Orion is on the loose with a dangerous serum that renders meta-humans powerless, and a new militarized robotic threat emerges. Everyone is in danger. Between college applications and crushing on his best friend, will Bells have time to take down a corrupt government?

Sometimes, to do a hero’s job, you need to be a villain.

Pashmina by Nidhi Chanani
First Second

Pashmina tells the story of an Indian-American girl who struggles to fit in at high school, then discovers more about her family’s history with the help of her mother’s magical pashmina.

— Cover images and summaries via Goodreads

Review: The Victoria in My Head

Title: The Victoria in My Head
Author: Janelle Milanes
Genres: Contemporary, Romance
Pages: 400
Publisher: Simon Pulse
Review Copy: Purchased
Availability: Available for purchase now

Summary: A shy, rule-following teen winds up joining a local rock band in this laugh-out-loud, heartfelt coming-of-age novel.

Victoria Cruz inhabits two worlds: In one, she is a rock star, thrashing the stage with her husky voice and purple-streaked hair. In the other, currently serving as her reality, Victoria is a shy teenager with overprotective Cuban parents, who sleepwalks through her life at the prestigious Evanston Academy. Unable to overcome the whole paralyzing-stage-fright thing, Victoria settles for living inside her fantasies, where nothing can go wrong and everything is set to her expertly crafted music playlists.

But after a chance encounter with an unattainably gorgeous boy named Strand, whose band seeks a lead singer, Victoria is tempted to turn her fevered daydreams into reality. To do that, she must confront her insecurities and break away from the treadmill that is her life. Suddenly, Victoria is faced with the choice of staying on the path she’s always known and straying off-course to find love, adventure, and danger.

From debut author Janelle Milanes comes a hilarious and heartfelt tale of the spectacular things that can happen when you go after what you really want.

Review: It’s very easy to relate to the heroine of Janelle Milanes’s debut novel. Victoria has always lived her life according to her parents’ expectations, and she is at the point where her parents’ ideas of what should bring her happiness are clashing with what she actually wants from life. (Not that she’s always right about what would make her happy, but she knows the status quo is definitely not it.) The repetition of her life is wearing her down, and she constantly makes decisions in reference to what would make her parents happy. That’s an inevitable recipe for rebellion in YA, and after some hesitation (overcome with the help of Victoria’s BFF, Annie), Victoria dives right in to quitting school sports and secretly joining a rock band despite her stage fright.

The members of the band are all distinct, interesting characters, and I appreciate that they didn’t supplant Annie in Victoria’s life. Levi, the perfectionist bass player, whose head is filled with plans and goals and too many details; Krina, the punk drummer, who has fierce opinions and an empathetic heart; and Strand, the hot guitarist, whose laidback attitude challenges a lot of Victoria’s worldview. The ups and downs of their relationships with each other made for an engaging group of characters. Victoria’s family members were also strong presences, and it was easy to see that her parents loved her and wanted what was best for her—the problem being that they and Victoria disagreed on where she could find happiness.

One of the things that I think Milanes excelled at was creating a relationship that should have been great on paper and then slowly proved just how wrong the two people were for each other. Personality clashes, differing priorities, confusion about needs and wants—all of those culminated into an increasingly awkward relationship disaster that fueled Victoria’s personal growth. It was a great contrast to the second romance in the book, which had been built up slowly and blossomed out of both attraction and friendship.

There are some missteps in the novel. There were a couple of scenes with ableist language, and I was a little sad that a lot of Victoria’s negative thoughts about her body never seemed to be strongly challenged. I wish that the reveal of a secondary romantic couple had been independent from Victoria’s own romantic plotline, especially since Victoria’s cluelessness about Krina’s romantic orientation had already been blatantly pointed out in text.

Recommendation: Get it soon. While there are a few blemishes, THE VICTORIA IN MY HEAD stars a relatable heroine and has a comfortably predictable romance. Music lovers, dreamers, second-generation immigrants, and anyone who has settled for something safe instead of taking risks for their heart’s desire will find something to relate to in Janelle Milanes’s debut novel.

Extras

Interview with Janelle Milanes + Giveaway