Warning: Long Post Ahead!
So I’ve never attended a book festival before – there’s one in Huntsville, a little under two hours north of where I live, and while I’ve thought about attending, I just didn’t do it. And now with COVID, there aren’t many live events out there and I had struck all in-person events from my radar until at least 2022.
Enter Jenny Lawson (aka “The Bloggess”), and her new store, Nowhere Bookshop. She posted about the San Antonio Book Festival moving online for its ninth year, and I decided I was going to take the day off of work and check it out. I always enjoy the panels at the anime conventions that I attend, so I figured an online festival/convention all about books would be a lot of fun! The hard part was picking what panels I wanted to attend (and of course, a ton of the ones I loved overlapped with other ones that I wanted to see, so I had to pick between them!).
The Ninth Annual San Antonio Book Festival took place from Friday through Sunday of this past weekend, and I attended seventeen sessions, but there were so many more that I wanted to go to.
COVID-19: How It’s Changed Us (11:00 am)
“There’s more to admire in people than to despise, especially in times of plague.” – Nicholas Christakis
“We overestimated how much we learned from previous pandemics, and there was a hope we’d learned our lesson. Are we going to forget the lessons of this pandemic, too?” – Charles Kenny
I kicked off the weekend with a very happy session, talking about the current global pandemic and the pandemics from the past, and how the world doesn’t seem to have learned its lesson. While it was informative and I feel like I learned a lot, I think the highlight of this session was when one of the host’s cat decided they wanted to join in on the discussion and screamed until she picked him up, which then meant that he promptly jumped down and ran away.
And Now For Something Funny (Unlike 2021) (12:00 pm)
I joined this not realizing that one of the presenters, Julia Claiborne Johnson, was the author of Better Luck Next Time, which I’ve been waiting for my local library to purchase, and I might just end up buying her book through Nowhere Bookshop at the end of this weekend. Steven Rowley, the other presenter, is the author of The Guncle.
I actually asked a question in this panel, asking how they deal with jokes either hitting or missing with their editor, and they said that while they see the jokes in dozens of drafts and they’re stale to the author by the time the book gets to the editor, the editor usually always finds them new and funny, and that’s pretty encouraging. It reminds me that while I may be sick of my own writing, someone else reading it for the first time is going to find it to be something new that that person hasn’t read before.
Rick Riordan Presents (3:45 pm)
This was the first kid-focused panel that I sat in on, and it had the most active participant chat. It’s also the first “big name” panel that I listened to. While Rick Riordan was not a part of this panel, three other authors (part of the RRP family) were – Sarwat Chadda, Roshani Chokshi, and Tehlor Kay Mejia. They all started the time off by reading a short selection from their books, and while I probably won’t buy these books (being as they are written for a middle school audience), I think that borrowing them from the library would be plenty of fun. You can really hear Riordan’s voice in these author’s words, and I think that’s very interesting.
Bless Your Little Gothic Heart (4:00 pm)
You’ll notice that I triple-booked myself with Bless Your Little Gothic Heart, It’s the End of the World, and Rick Riordan Presents, but luckily the book festival recorded every session so once RRP was finished, I just went back and checked out the ones I missed.
Edward Carey, author of The Swallowed Man (which I reviewed back in January), and Amber Sparks (author of And I Do Not Forgive You) were the panelists for this one, and they also started their session off by reading from their most recent novels, and And I Do Not Forgive You went into my cart for the end-of-weekend purchase as well. This whole panel was a delight, talking about the darkness and cruelty of everything from Wuthering Heights to fairy tales to the “recently removed orange idiot,” and upon that last note I think I might give Edward Carey’s novels another chance.
It’s the End of the World As We Know It: Creating Near Apocalypses (4:00 pm)
The panelists for this are Nicky Drayden (Escaping Exodus: Symbiosis, an afrofuturistic love story that takes place inside a beast the side of a small moon) and Jenn Lyons (The Memory of Soul, the well-established trope of the long-lost orphan boy who’s secretly a prince, and there are some prophecies involved), both of which are the second and third books into a series, respectively. I don’t know if either of these are ones that I would jump into buying, but maybe I’ll be able to find them at a library somewhere. (The only thing my little part of the city is missing is a nearby library, I swear.) Lyons’ book especially, because she herself described it as “tropey” and the more she talked about it, the more I realized she wasn’t kidding and she’d crammed literally every single trope she could into it, which makes me very leery of it, because I’m sure I’d end up getting exasperated.
Kristin Cashore & Brigid Kemmerer (6:45 pm)
I read Gracling (Kristin Cashore) in high school years ago, and came across a sequel, Bitterblue, in stores several years later and picked it up (but haven’t read it), and now there are four books, with the most recent one being Winterkeep. Brigid Kemmerer (A Vow So Dark & Deadly) has done a retelling of the Beauty & the Beast fairy tale, and I feel like I’ve fallen into the fairy tale hole for this book festival and I am loving it.
Notes From the Bathroom Line: A Conversation with the Funniest Women in Comedy (9:00 pm)
I signed up for this one just to see what was going to close out a pretty successful first day (although I absolutely didn’t meet my step goal today because I stayed put in my chair all day trying to watch everything!)
The panelists for this weren’t necessarily authors, but were comedians – Amy Solomon, Tien Tran, Catherine Cohen, and Rachel Wenitsky, and while they are all in Note from the Bathroom Line (which collects material from 150 female comedians!), they didn’t spend the night talking about the book. It was like listening to a really fun podcast episode with a bunch of best friends, and it was just a great way to end the day. I stayed up for a bit after this watching a couple of the panels that I double-booked myself on or that I missed while eating dinner, so that 10 am start time tomorrow is going to be a killer!
Not Your Average Princess: Fairy Tales Retold (10:00 am)
The first panel of Saturday had Kalynn Bayron (Cinderella is Dead, a story about what happens after Cinderella is long-dead and the consequences her actions had) and Anna-Marie McLemore (The Mirror Season, a retelling of The Snow Queen). I’ve seen Cinderella Is Dead on shelves at my local bookstore, but never felt like picking it up. It may be a library borrow at some point. Both of the authors talked about how the fairy tales and Disney princesses they grew up with were clearly not for them, because none of the princesses looked like them. Steven heard what I was listening to and said “Then this is a continued rebellion against Disney princesses?”
Old fairy tales will always be around, but we need to add to those classics and give young readers a more diverse collection of stories and hopefully they’ll be able to see themselves in one of them someday.
Take Me Away From Here: Fiction Set Long Ago (11:00 am)
The panelists for this are Afia Atakora (Conjure Women) and Signe Pike (The Forgotten Kingdom, book two of a trilogy), and this panel was put together specifically because “we’ve all been locked down for a long time and we’re all wishing to live in another time or place.” Signe Pike wrote about a real historical figure, while Afia Atakora didn’t base her book on anything specific. They talked about historical research and how much you do before writing and how much you don’t do before writing. I haven’t ever tried to write a historical novel, but I think Pike’s might find its way into my cart before the end of this weekend.
Unexpected Detours: Stories of Women Who Survive (12:00 pm)
The authors here are Fiona King Foster (The Captive) and Rye Curtis (Kingdomtide), and the host of the panel started off by asking the authors to read a small snippet from their books. And this is where I hit a wall – Curtis may be an interesting author, but his reading aloud skills need some work, because the more he read, the less interested I was in the book (a 70-something year old woman, the sole survivor of a plane crash, being tracked across a national park by an alcoholic park ranger sounds like an interesting concept for a book, but his narrative style turned me off completely).
2034: A Novel of the Next World War (2:00 pm)
I actually started a different panel, Dark Secrets of our Past, and I gave it about ten minutes before I switched to this one. The author is Admiral James Stavridis, and he talks about how there will be another World War on or before 2034. He’s written several non-fiction books, but this was his first fiction book, and while I don’t think I need the nightmares that come from a military leader’s predictions of the next few decades, I think this one would be excellent reading for someone else.
Nevertheless, She Persisted: Women Heroes of World War II (4:00 pm)
Rebecca Donner and Judy Batalion were the guest authors for this panel, and they talked about how women worked as spies and undercover agents in World War II. One interesting thing I learned is that Jewish women made better spies than Jewish men because they had no physical marker on their body (i.e., circumcision) so they passed as Catholics better. Jewish women also went to public school (learning Catholic cultural markers and learning Polish, in the case of Poland) whereas the men went to private Jewish schools. I thought this was absolutely fascinating, and it is easily one of my favorite panels of the entire weekend, maybe second only to the Gothic Fiction panel.
Existence is Elsewhere: Surreal Fiction (4:00 pm)
The authors for this panel were Roberto Ontiveros and Betina Gonzalez, and I actually looked at this one on a whim late Saturday night when I had nothing else to watch, and since I love Welcome to Night Vale and the surreal that goes with it, I figured this would be an interesting conversation. Betina Gonzalez ended up not showing up because she had computer issues, and unfortunately Ontiveros’s book was not one that truly interested me, so I ended up turning it off after about 20 minutes. I think the beauty of online conventions is that you can hop between panels at will and you don’t have to feel guilty for slinking out the back of a panel that just didn’t click with you.
Jenny Lawson Talks About Her New Book Broken (1:00 pm)
So I’m pretty sure this one was pre-recorded, because the Q&A box and the participant chat was turned off for this video. I don’t care, because I could listen to Jenny Lawson talk all day. My copy of her book hasn’t come in as of the time of this post publication (but it should be by the end of the day!), and I can’t wait to read it. Jenny talked about mental illness, and I love how much more “acceptable” it’s become to talk about the struggles you’re having in your lives, and while there are still barriers to getting help (some people still see getting help as taboo and there is a monetary barrier to therapy a lot of the time), I feel like we are getting to a better place in terms of mental health care.
Happily Ever After: Haha, We’re JK – These Books Have a Lot of Blood & Guts (2:00 pm)
Since Jenny Lawson’s thing was only half an hour, I ended up catching the last half of this panel, with Rose Szabo (What Big Teeth) and Goldy Moldavsky (The Mary Shelley Club), both of which are probably not in my preferred genre but are ones that I think could add something new to the somewhat stale YA audience.
My Kingdom for a Song: YA Fantasy Novels We Love (2:00 pm)
The authors presenting on this panel were Melissa de la Cruz (The Queen’s Secret) and Tanaz Bhathena (Hunted by the Sky), and I think this is where I realized that I have absolutely outgrown YA fiction. I read the synopsis for both of these books on Nowhere Bookshop’s buy this book page, and while I could see the general idea of the story, neither of these books – or any of the other YA books that I’ve watched panels about this weekend, to be honest – made me want to buy them. They’d probably be something I’d pick up for a younger cousin or someone along those lines, but as a twenty-six year old woman, I think I can close the chapter on YA lit. I’ll probably have a blog post coming up on this at some point. (I’ve been wanting to write it for a while, but haven’t gotten around to it.)
Melissa Albert Talks About Her Latest Book, Tales from the Hinterland (3:30 pm)
I don’t know why I’ve gotten so into fairy tales lately – between Leigh Bardugo’s Language of Thorns and Melissa Albert’s The Hazel Woods duology + the accompanying Tales from the Hinterland, I think I’ve spent the majority of my time in the last few years wanting to read more fairy tales and more fairy tale retellings. Melissa de la Cruz moderated this (she was in the previous panel I watched, too!) and I learned that both of them just write by the seat of their pants with no real plotting, which makes me feel a little better because I rarely write through an outline, either.
Fire In Our Veins: The Myths Who Make Us Who We Are (4:00 pm)
The authors here are Angeline Boulley (Firekeeper’s Daughter) and Jordan Ifueko (Raybearer), and this is the final session that I attended. I came in about fifteen minutes late due to the previous Melissa Albert panel, but it was still enjoyable. I ended up listening in on a lot of YA panels, and I wish there had been more adult panels that had been about books that I was interested in. This panel’s main purpose was concerned with the hashtag #WeNeedDiverseBooks, and I realized that I have been extremely lucky in my life because most everyone in kids/YA books look like I do, and I’ve never had to go search for someone who looked/represented me in any of the books that I read. I’ve been trying to read more diverse books (thanks to the Fantastic Stranglings book club for helping with this!) and this panel just showed how necessary these books are.
Books I Purchased:
The Lost Queen: A Novel (the second book was presented, and I decided to get the first book in paperback)
I also preordered All the Frequent Troubles of Our Days: The True Story of the American Woman at the Heart of the German Resistance to Hitler, which will hopefully ship to me in August.
I think it’s amazing that this entire festival was put on for free, and I figured that the least I could do would be to spend some money to help support not only the indie bookstore Nowhere Bookshop but also the authors of the books. Yes, they would have been much, much cheaper on Amazon (I’m trying not to look them up, honestly), but these books should all come with signed bookplates (if not all of them, then at least most of them), and I am very excited. I have no idea when they’re going to come in, but I’m looking forward to having a whole box of books show up at my door!
What about you? Did you spend the weekend at an online book festival? (They’re going to be putting some of the panels up on their YouTube page, which I think is super cool!) Have you ever been to an in-person book festival? Let me know in the comments!
And as always, keep reading.