Blog Tour: Guest Post | Lela’s Houston: A Texas-Sized Setting

Today on Literary Treats, author Nicole Wolverton writes a guest post about Houston, Texas, the setting of her novel The Trajectory of Dreams

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In what town is your favorite book set? One of my favorites—A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving—is set in Gravesend, New Hampshire. Gravesend is, of course, fictional, as are many novel settings. There are reasons to fabricate a town. You can create the perfect backdrop. And if your novel becomes insanely popular, the town you choose won’t be overrun by tourists (which can be good for the economy but irritating for residents). In some cases, though, picking a real place is necessary.

I chose Houston, Texas as the setting for my novel, THE TRAJECTORY OF DREAMS. Because the main character, Lela White, stalks astronauts, it made sense. Astronauts train at the Johnson Space Center (in Houston), and the area is ground zero for space program-related happenings. Now, I live just outside Philadelphia city limits, and I rarely have reason to travel to southern states. As luck would have it, I’ve been to Houston a bunch of times to visit friends who live there. Friends, I might add, who schlepped my butt all over Houston to show me the sights. You’ve probably heard the advice “Write what you know,” right? Thanks to my Houston friends I was able to write from a position of familiarity.

Stuffed Animal car at Houston’s Art Car Museum (N. Wolverton, 2004)

Stuffed Animal car at Houston’s Art Car Museum (N. Wolverton, 2004)

It was also kind of a thrill (yes, I’m easily amused) to use my old vacation photos to choose locations for various scenes. For instance, at some point in the book Zory Korchagin, the Russian cosmonaut on loan to NASA, takes Lela to the Art Car Museum. The museum is one of the most fantastic things in Houston, so if you find yourself in town, do see it. The museum features various cars from Houston’s annual Art Car Parade, and the cars are gorgeous. It’s a little bit surreal, too, which made it the perfect setting since Lela’s entire world is precariously built.

Close-up of car design at Houston’s Art Car Museum (N. Wolverton, 2004)

Close-up of car design at Houston’s Art Car Museum (N. Wolverton, 2004)

There are other novels set in Houston other than The Trajectory of Dreams, of course. There’s an older essay from Texas A&M in which the writer notes that speculative fiction set in the area tends to focus on paranormal entities, a disaster of some sort, or “invasions of the state, not only by creatures from outer space, but also by foreigners, including the Russians, the Mexicans, and even the Israelis.” While Trajectory could not be considered true speculative fiction, Lela White is certainly someone who invades! Do writers who use Houston or other parts of Texas as a setting have an obsession with invasions? Well . . . I don’t know that I have the answer to that, but it’s worth thinking about!

Have you read a novel set in Houston?

TTOD_cover_wolvertonPublishers Weekly calls THE TRAJECTORY OF DREAMS (Bitingduck Press, ISBN 9781938463440) a “skillful mainstream examination of a psychotic woman’s final descent into insanity.” The novel exposes the chaotic inner life of Lela White, a sleep lab technician and mentally ill insomniac who believes she has been tasked with protecting the safety of the revitalized U.S. space shuttle program. She breaks into the homes of astronauts to watch them sleep, and she is prepared to kill to keep those with sleep problems from the shuttle launch. Her delicate grasp on reality becomes more tenuous when annoying co-worker Trina Shook insists on moving into her house and visiting Russian cosmonaut Zory Korchagin inserts himself into Lela’s life. Korchagin’s increasing interest puts her carefully-constructed world at risk of an explosion as surely as he does his own upcoming launch. Lela’s tragic childhood unfolds throughout the novel, revealing the beginnings of her illness and long-buried secrets, and as Lela’s universe unravels, no one is safe. Buy a copy of THE TRAJECTORY OF DREAMS at your local independent bookshop, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, or anywhere books are sold.

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NicoleWolverton_highres_RTTHE AUTHOR: Nicole Wolverton fears many things, chief amongst them that something lurks in the dark. From ghosts to stalkers, her adult and young adult fiction plays on the mundane and not-so-mundane things that frighten us all. THE TRAJECTORY OF DREAMS is her debut novel. She is a freelance writer and editor and lives in the Philadelphia area with her husband, dog, and two cats.


Win a signed copy of The Trajectory of Dreams and two cookie cutters! Enter here. Contest runs until March 12, 2013.


Review | Croak, Gina Damico

Lex Bartleby’s parents send her to live with her Uncle Mort for the summer in the hope that hard farm labour will help her with her anger issues. It turns out that Uncle Mort isn’t actually a farmer, but a Grim Reaper, and he is going to train Lex to be a Reaper herself. Gina Damico’s Croak has a funny premise and a cast of colourful characters. It starts off very weak, in my opinion, but the story gets better as it goes on, and I loved the ending.

My main issue with Croak is that Lex’s anger issues were just overdone. The book begins with her in the principal’s office for having bitten (literally!) a classmate because he’d called her a vampire. She’s sixteen. She’s also been a straight-A model student until a couple of years ago, when, for no apparent reason, she starts beating up practically everyone she meets. Her parents take her home and say they need to talk. “Are restraints really necessary this time?” Lex asks. I thought it was just another snark until I read that the mother really did bring out jump ropes to tie Lex to a chair, just so she won’t punch her parents when she learns she’ll be spending the summer with Uncle Mort.  Lex’s twin sister Cordy wonders if the ropes amount to child abuse, and by this point, I’m already picturing Lex as a rabid, foaming-at-the-mouth lunatic. I’m also wondering, if her parents are that scared of her, why they didn’t just ship her to a psychiatric facility at any point in those two years. For that matter, why didn’t the school do anything? Just because Cordy is still acting normal doesn’t mean that Lex’s parents are immediately cleared of all suspicion.

Over the next few chapters, Lex throws a shoe at a bus driver, stabs her uncle with a stick and threatens to beat a stranger with his sunglasses. The romance in the book kicks off with Lex giving the boy a black eye and him giving her one back. I’m not generally queasy about violence in books, and to be honest, Lex’s antics are too exaggerated, cartoon-style, to even make her scary. Still, Lex is beyond bratty. When Uncle Mort cuts off one of her rants and orders her to grow up, I wanted to hug him.

Her discipline problems are explained somewhat — apparently, all born Reapers have serious rage issues until they enter Croak, the town where Uncle Mort lives and one of the Grim Reaper centres in the US. Still, I don’t see the connection. In the Percy Jackson series, Rick Riordan explains that demigods are dyslexic because their brains are hard-wired to read Greek, and that they have ADHD because their bodies are designed to react quickly in battle. I love that, because I can understand how such characteristics can signal that one is a demigod. In Croak, however, I have no idea how wanting to beat everyone up is directly linked to being a Reaper, especially since the Reaper’s job is actually one of mercy — freeing the soul trapped a body that’s already dead.

Fortunately, it gets better. Once Lex begins training and realizes how much she enjoys being a Reaper, her anger issues fade a bit, and the book gets much more interesting. Lex and the other junior Reapers have noticed some mysterious deaths, possibly at the hands of someone from Croak, and investigate. It’s an interesting mystery, and it takes us right into the world of Grim Reaping. I really like the other junior Reapers, especially Elysia, whose bubbly personality adds some welcome cheer to the group. The whole world of Grim Reaping is very well fleshed out, and I loved learning details such as their use of jellyfish and their version of alcohol. The story just kept getting more interesting, as the mystery deepened, leading up to a powerful climax. Good on you, Ms. Damico. Brave, emotional twist, especially in what I presume is just the first book in a series, and I admire you for raising the stakes this early.

I also love that Croak raises an interesting moral dilemma. The most important rule for Reapers is that they can only take the souls of their targets. This seems fairly straightforward, but what if they enter the scene of a murder? What if they have to take the soul of an innocent child and see the man who killed her just a few feet away? In my review on Loss, I complained that the author played it safe and kept her protagonist from really exploring his dark side. In contrast, I love that Damico shows how torn up Lex is about letting murderers go. Surely it’s only justice to take the murderer’s soul as well, or at the very least, turn him in to the police. Yet such justice is beyond a Reaper’s jurisdiction, and there are dire consequences for any Reaper who disobeys this law. Lex is torn, and I love that Damico isn’t afraid to explore this subject. It’s a slippery issue, with no straightforward answer, and I enjoyed reading about it.


Win a copy of Croak, courtesy of Thomas Allen.

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Review | Loss (Riders of the Apocalypse), Jackie Morse Kessler

Imagine you’re a fifteen year old boy bullied at school. You take care of your grandfather with Alzheimer’s, you’re secretly in love with your childhood best friend, and you avoid social networking sites because the last time you checked online, you met with a barrage of taunts and insults. Now imagine you find out that, because of a deal you unknowingly made when you were five, you are now destined to become one of the four Riders of the Apocalypse. Specifically, the current Pestilence is unable to Ride, and the power to spread disease and create plagues is in your hands. That’s the choice Billy Ballard faces in Jackie Morse Kessler’s Loss, the third book in her Riders of the Apocalypse series.

What a compelling concept! I was immediately attracted by the tough moral and emotional conflict promised by such a plot. I could see Billy go from playing the victim to possessing immense power, from fear to strength to (and much more difficult) realizing that true strength goes beyond the knee jerk revenge impulse. How far will he take his abilities? Will the bullied become the bully?

Unfortunately, Kessler opts not to delve too deeply into this aspect of the story. The back blurb tells us that Billy is horrified after he makes people sick, and so he decides the current Pestilence should take back his crown. This sets into motion the next part of the story, where Billy needs to track down the current Pestilence — now “completely insane […] poised to unleash a plague” — and stop him. Does this bullied teen have the courage and the strength to face Pestilence and save the world? This is a much more ordinary quest/young-hero type story, and quite frankly, much less compelling than the first part.  I had hoped that the part where Billy has to face his own dark side would take up at least half the book. However, he’s such a good kid that he spends barely even a couple of chapters wreaking havoc before he’s plagued by guilt (sorry) and sets off to save the world.

Kessler plays it safe with Loss, and that disappointed me. This is not to say that I wouldn’t recommend this book to anyone. If you’re looking for an inspirational tale about how a bullied kid can overcome fear and become a hero, Loss has that. It even includes a lesson on how learning someone’s story can help change your perspective about them — Billy finds out about the past of the current Pestilence, and this new knowledge transforms the figure from Billy’s nightmares into an old man who inspires sympathy. Personally, I would’ve preferred more action. Most of Billy’s hunt for Pestilence takes place in Pestilence’s memories and consists of Billy learning about Pestilence’s past. Worse, Kessler includes in these memories characters from literature (names changed somewhat, of course) — they did play important roles in the story, but I just found it too cutesy a device.

I found Loss too preachy, even as an anti-bullying inspirational book. I think the reason it felt so heavy-handed was that Kessler couched the message in fantasy/adventure terms and that part fell flat for me. Not enough adventure. Death, incarnated as a pale, blond street musician, is the most fascinating character in this story, and Pestilence in the past is certainly a tragic figure. Billy is definitely sympathetic, and I love the scene where he stands his best friend up because the bullies are also in the pizza parlour and he doesn’t want to face them. They just weren’t given much to do for most of the book. Kessler also reminded us several times that Billy wasn’t used to fighting back. That would then be followed with either “so he curled up into a ball and took a beating” or “but this time he’d had enough.” Good in terms of message, but also too obviously trying to get that message across.

There were several scenes I liked, particularly the one where the grandfather stands up to death and the one where Billy makes the bullies sick. I also like the idea near the end of white blood cells fighting disease; I thought that was a cool spin, and wish Kessler had done more with it. Loss had several interesting snippets, but not much of an overall impact.

To be fair, I’m not the book’s intended audience. I do think it will resonate more with a younger reader (tween/teen). Personally, I prefer books that really explore a character’s dark side (e.g. Hunger Games trilogy, or Stuart MacBride’s crime novels), and I thought this tale provided the perfect opportunity. That being said, Loss does offer a bit of hope for kids who are bullied, or who may have been conditioned to think of themselves as losers — Loss shows that they have the potential to be heroes.

Out of curiosity, have you read any particularly amazing anti-bullying YA novels?


Want a copy of Loss? Thomas Allen has kindly provided a copy for one of my readers!

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