Talking Story

Book Reviews

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In mid-June, I gave a three day workshop at University of Hawaii, Manoa, via Zoom about how to take traditional stories—Western fairy tales, Hawaiian mo’oleleo, Asian folktales, whatever—and turn them into something new.

We spent some time talking about simple vs. complex story structures, inner and outer character arcs, and how so many traditional stories are missing key story beats that western audiences expect because traditional stories were created for entirely different purposes.

One of my examples was Snow White, for the selfish reason that I was getting ready to write another novella for Tork Media as part of their Fractured Fairy Tales serials. It was due in completed form by mid-July. By mid-May, I’d done the research and had already pitched a couple ideas to my editor. I had a rough outline for my novella—as much of an outline as a pantster ever does—but I thought hearing a story pitch might be helpful for participants and lead into discussions about how publishers’, editors’, and agents’ ideas can shape a book, and how important it was to meet the audience’s expectations.

I also wanted participants to be fearless in giving and  getting critique, so I set myself up as the first victim, pitching two different Snow White stories.

I knew the first example I gave wasn’t an appropriate Snow White story for Tork Media’s target audience. It featured drugs, mental illness, dysfunctional family dynamics, and a main character that wasn’t Disney warm and fuzzy. Once the gang realized I was serious about critique, they had no trouble telling me that.

Whew, I thought. They got it.

The second story I pitched was much closer to Snow White. It involved a young hula dancer named Hua (Snow White), a jealous older dancer, Nini (Wicked Witch), a phony hula ratings app (Mirror), Menehune that helped the young dancer (Dwarfs), a toady male dancer named Renten (the Huntsman), and diabolical sabotages at a high school hula competition where Hua could be crowned with a majorly made-up hula title as the greatest and youngest ever—and the reason Nini was jealous.

This one wasn’t as deep as the drug story, but it better fit the target audience. I was about to turn the pitching session to their stories when somebody said, “I don’t like Hua. I think this should be Lilinoe’s story. We don’t hear much about her in the Niuhi Shark Saga. She disappears, and that’s too bad.”

Mic drop.

Lilinoe’s story.

What they didn’t know was book three of the Niuhi Shark Saga was supposed to be One Dance, No Drum. It was supposed to be Lilinoe’s story, and in many ways, it was supposed to parallel Zader’s. It was a hula story, too, fame vs. love of the dance, and it was how Lili reconnected with her biological mother’s family—they’d come to see her while she was preparing and competing for Miss Aloha Hula at Merrie Monarch. The seeds for this story are all through the Niuhi Shark Saga, particularly early editions before the books got cut from five to three.

Okay. If this is now Lilinoe as Snow White, that makes this Snow White story much higher stakes and a lot more interesting for me to write. But it can’t be Merrie Monarch; Lili’s too young.

Loooong story short, I fell into a deep hole full of research about hula lore and protocols. I started thinking about where this story fit into the Lauele timeline and realized dance, poetry, and music would be the way Lili would deal with her grief and anger over Zader’s death and Jay’s loss of his leg.

Lili’d be torn between wanting to be the dutiful daughter and listening to her newly discovered mother (who’d keep butting in because to her it’s all about winning), listening to Liz (her adopted mother/bio-aunt) and others with more traditional hula views, and Lili’s own heart’s desire to dance as catharsis. Liz would also have a few choice things to say (and do!) about Nancy suddenly wanting to be the mother.

And what would Lilinoe dance? Not something typical. Of course! She and her kumu hula would create new hula—‘auana and kahiko—plus mele and oli centered in Lauele that expressed herself.

Wait. NEW hula, mele, and oli?!!! All about Lauele, Zader, Jay, and ‘ohana? That worked on at least two kaona levels? I think I’m giving myself a heart attack.

We are now so far from Snow White, there’s no going back.

There’s also no time. If I have to write poetry and beg someone to translate at least part of it into proper Hawaiian, there’s no way I’m hitting a mid-July completion for publication date.

This isn’t novella length, either. It feels novel-ish.

Sigh.

But sometimes the muse rides hell for leather. Like an ocean wave, you have to go with the flow. This story is not going to be Snow White. It’s not going to be One Dance, No Drum, either. Guess I need to sit my pants in my chair and let the words flow.

I’m going to be as surprised as anyone to see Lilinoe’s story unfold.

But, really, telling your own story beats reworking a traditional story any day.

Ho’omakaukau.

Pā!

Published in 2011, Up Among the Stars is a continuation of Matthew Kaopio, Jr.’s novel Written in the Sky. I was excited to read it. I’ve loved Matthew’s books, and I wanted to know what happened to ‘Ikauikalani, the young homeless boy living in Ala Moana Park.

Up Among the Stars starts strong. ‘Ikaui is growing up and finding his place in the world. He’s got an ‘ohana that he looks out for, from Mom and Pops to Gladness for whom he does yard work. But being on your own is dangerous. There’s a skeebie guy who stalks ‘Ikaui, offering drugs and demanding unsavory favors. When Ala Moana Park is closed, the homeless scatter, and ‘Ikaui spends the night in a graveyard that morphs into wandering old O’ahu with a man who only speaks Hawaiian and calls himself ‘Ikauikalani.

There are tantalizing glimpses of the story’s amazing potential throughout the novel, but much of what is teased doesn’t come to fruition. The ending is rushed and confusing and would have benefited by good editing to help Matthew draw out story elements that were in Matthew’s head, but not yet on paper. Unfortunately, the latter third of the novel reads more like an author’s draft than a polished story.

My guess is that Matthew intended to write at least another ‘Ikauikalani novel, one that explored ‘Ikaui getting to know his blood ‘ohana, connecting more fully to his spiritual gifts, finding his voice as an advocate for Hawaiian culture, furthering his formal education at a place like Kamehameha, and continuing his spiritual classroom lessons with beings from all over the universe. ‘Ikaui was an extraordinary young man with an amazing destiny to fulfill.

Sadly, Matthew Kaopio Jr. died on December 25, 2018, having been in a care facility for several years. He carries ‘Ikauikalani and others with him into the land of dreams. Rest in peace, Matthew. A hui hou.

Up Among the Stars is published by Mutual Publishing and is available from Amazon in paperback.

 

 

I don’t know how I missed these books, but I am so glad I found them. Thanhha Lai’s writing is charming, funny, and oh, so real.

In Inside Out and Back Again, Thanhha pulls her readers into a fictional world based on her experiences as a child in Viet Nam, fleeting at the fall of Saigon, and emigrating to America.

In Listen, Slowly, Thanhha explores living in two worlds as a teen who has cultural and family roots in Viet Nam, but feels very American growing up in California.

 

 

 

 

 

 


Inside Out and Back Again went through many versions over many years as Thanhha experimented with different voices and styles. After starting with long, flowy passages that just didn’t seem like a 10 year old’s voice, and then moving to Hemmingway-ish close third-person, one day she started jotting down just how Ha, the 10 year old female protagonist, was feeling.

And that was powerful.

Told in free verse poetry, Inside Out and Back Again, shows the reader snapshots into the mind and heart of Ha during a single year, 1975-1976, a year where she and her family escape Viet Nam during the fall of Saigon, survive as boat people, and eventually settle in rural American. Through Ha’s eyes, we experience random acts of kindness, prejudice, fear, hope, longing, acceptance, and despair.  While told in English, the free verse poetry feels like lyrical, poetical forms of Vietnamese, blended with sucker punches of raw emotion. With Thanhha’s prose stripped down to the bare essentials, readers find space to fill in the gaps with their own experiences. The good, the bad, and the ugly are pitch-perfect of that time and of fourth grade politics. It’s a book that invites lots of discussion and deep thinking and, I hope, will inspire others to write their own tales. In the edition I read there was a lot of supplemental materials perfect for reading groups and the classroom.


 

Listen, Slowly, is about a second generation twelve year old Vietnamese girl growing up in California and reluctantly accompanying her grandmother back to Viet Nam one summer to learn more about what happened to her grandfather. It’s a classic insider/outsider story. Mai starts her journey with the goal of returning to Cali as soon as she can, but learns to love and appreciate her Vietanmese-ness and finds space within herself to bridge both worlds. Materialism, family obligations, roles in society, and worldviews are big themes. I think upper MG and YA readers will relate to Mai, and that can spark a lot of conversations about privilege, race, and what is owed.

Both books are available on Amazon and other fine bookstores. Go read ‘em, go read ‘em, go.

Rell never imagined an 18th birthday like this.

When Rell’s stepmonster Regina summons her to Lauele, Hawai’i, she knows better than to expect umbrella drinks, birthday presents, and open arms. The most she hopes for is some quality time with her twin step-sisters, a walk on the beach, and a little fun at a charity auction sponsored by her father’s corporation.

From the moment Rell lands in Honolulu, her life turns upside down as she reconnects with her Hawaiian heritage and discovers she’s surrounded by hidden agendas, lies, and ancient family obligations.

To save Lauele and Get Wet Prosthetics, Rell will have to navigate an island filled with Menehune day laborers, a snow goddesses’ vacation rental, a toppled sacred ‘aumakua stone, disappearing clothing, ‘Ilima as a not-so-fairy-godmother, and—worst of all—her stepmonster’s lawyers.

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Rell’s Kiss is a standalone novel inspired by Cinderella. It is Book 2 in Lauele Fractured Folktales, reimagined stories inspired by the world’s oldest tales retold with a Hawaiian twist.

Lauele Fractured Folktales are loosely connected standalone stories in the Lauele Universe that can be read in any order.

Rell’s Kiss features characters from the Niuhi Shark Saga trilogy and other works by Lehua Parker. Chronologically, Rell’s Kiss comes after the events in One Truth, No Lie, Book 3 in the Niuhi Shark Saga trilogy.

EBook available from Amazon and Kindle Unlimited. Paperbacks coming soon!

An earlier version of this story was published as Rell Goes Hawaiian in Fractured Slipper, a collection of Cinderella stories published by Tork Media.

When you’re dating a Niuhi shark in human form, there’s no such thing as a casual Hawaiian fling.

The last thing Justin wants is complications. Jilted at the altar, he’s spending his pre-paid Hawaiian honeymoon alone—sort of. Sasha, his ex, won’t get out of his head. Frustrated, he takes a walk at sunset and discovers a beautiful woman asleep on the sand.

But Pua’s not really a woman.

A shape-shifting Niuhi shark, Pua feels compelled to visit the beach at Lauele. She doesn’t care that it’s forbidden by her father, the ocean god Kanaloa, or that breaking kapu can only end in blood, tears, and teeth. Justin’s a tourist. Here today, gone tomorrow.

Nobody’d even miss him.

What starts out as a casual flirtation soon turns into a high-stakes cat and mouse courtship as neither Justin nor Pua are who—or what—they seem.

Lauele—and their world—will never be the same.

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Pua’s Kiss is a standalone novel inspired by The Little Mermaid. It is Book 1 in Lauele Fractured Folktales, reimagined stories inspired by the world’s oldest tales retold with a Hawaiian twist.

Lauele Fractured Folktales are loosely connected standalone stories in the Lauele Universe that can be read in any order.

Pua’s Kiss features characters from the Niuhi Shark Saga trilogy and other works by Lehua Parker. Chronologically, Pua’s Kiss comes before the events in Birth/Hanau and One Boy, No Water, Book 1 in the Niuhi Shark Saga trilogy. It tells the story of how Zader’s parents met and the events that ignited the Niuhi Shark Saga trilogy.

EBook available from Amazon and Kindle Unlimited. Paperbacks coming soon!

An earlier version of this story was published as Pua’s Kiss in Fractured Sea, a collection of Little Mermaid stories published by Tork Media.

 

Lauele Fractured Folktales are here!

These newly imagined stories are loosely inspired by classic western fairy tales and told with a Hawaiian twist. First up are Pua’s Kiss and Rell’s Kiss. These stories will be available in eBook from Amazon and KU on January 8, 2020 and are published by Makena Press. Paperbacks will be available in February. Nani’s Kiss will be available in eBook in February, with paperback soon to follow.

In the future, I’m planning to write more Lauele Fractured Folktales based on the world’s oldest stories and told with a Hawaiian twist. What are some stories you’d like to see?

 


Pua’s Kiss is inspired by The Little Mermaid and tells the story of how Zader’s parents met. When you’re dating a Niuhi Shark in human form, there’s no such thing as a casual Hawaiian fling. It’s a prequel to the Niuhi Shark Saga trilogy, but it’s NOT for middle graders or elementary students. It’s a hard PG 13+ with a fade to black sex scene.

 

 

 

 


Rell’s Kiss. is inspired by Cinderella and tells the story of Rell Watanabe who is summoned to Lauele by her stepmonster and finds herself dealing with Menehune day laborers, Poliahu’s vacation rental, a desecrated ‘aumakua stone, and ‘Ilima as a not-so-fairy godmother. Rell never imagined her 18th birthday like this. The story takes place after the events in the Niuhi Shark Saga trilogy and is a sweet PG romance appropriate for all ages.

 

 

 

 


Nani’s Kiss is inspired by Sleeping Beauty and Beauty & the Beast. After discussing this story further with my editor, I decided to rework it significantly before publication. I’m hoping to release it in early February. The story takes place in the far future on the planet Hawaiki in the space port of Lauele Iki. It’s PG-13 for its mature themes of politics and violence, but PG in language and sex.

 

 

 

 


Lauele Fractured Folktales eBooks are currently only available on Amazon. More stores and formats coming soon.

Big Bad Chief Lino by L. Michelle Tago-Tu’itupou and illustrated by Ash Grover is an English language chapter book written to help kids connect with Samoan culture. Born and raised in American Samoa, Michelle first created this narrative as a bedtime story for her mainland-raised kids.

It’s a charming tale about four sisters with sick parents who have travel past scary Chief Lino to gather food. With echos of the classic Three Billy Goats Gruff, the sisters figure out how to face their fears to take care of their family and community. As in Samoan culture, ‘aiga is the heart of the story, and it solidly deliverers a message of compassion, interdependence, and inclusion.

Just like its original form, Big Bad Chief Lino is a perfect bedtime story. The illustrations by Ash Grover are fun and playful and help bring the characters and action to life. In her afterward, L. Michelle Tago-Tu’itupou says she plans to write more stories like this one so that island kids can see themselves in literature.

Can’t wait.

Big Bad Chief Lino by L. Michelle Tago-Tu’itupou and illustrated by Ash Grover is available in paperback from Amazon.

Ho‘onani: Hula Warrior is a picture book written by Heather Gale, illustrated by Mika Song, and published by Tundra Books, an imprint of Penguin Random House. It’s based on the true story of Ho‘onani Kamai, a young gender queer girl growing up in Kalihi Valley who wants to lead the boys in a hula performance. Her story is also told in A Place in the Middle, a documentary written by Kumu Hina Wong-Kalu and produced and directed by Dean Hamer and Joe Wilson.

I first came to this story through the book. Things to love about the book in no particular order: it’s published by a mainstream publisher; it tells a story of empowerment; at its heart the message is inclusive and affirming; it uses Hawaiian language; it brings aspects of Hawaiian culture to a wide audience; it’s a picture book for kids about real people in Hawaii facing modern challenges, not geckos, turtles, or ancient legends. All of these things put this book squarely in the win column.

But.

Sigh.

While there is much to love about the book, I was dismayed and disappointed that it didn’t appear to be a very Hawaiian telling of Ho‘onani’s experience. The story arc is very western—Ho‘onani’s sister Kana plays the traditional role of villain by not initially supporting her in leading the boys and is embarrassed by her being gender queer—called being in the middle in the story. But with encouragement from Kumu Hina, Ho‘onani, the hero, preservers, and Kana supports her in the end. There are other small things that bugged me as outsider-ish, like the illustrations of food on their plates and the curious mixture of proper Hawaiian language complete with kahako and ‘okina markings alongside phonetic interpretations such as “Hai alla, hai alla, eh-oi-ay!” in the dialogue. Really, they just should’ve stuck with the proper language in all the dialogue and used a pronunciation guide in the back.

With such a mixed bag, I didn’t quite know how to review this title.

But then I saw the documentary it’s based on, and it all became so much clearer.

A Place in the Middle is the story I wish Ho‘onani: Hula Warrior  more faithfully told. It’s definitely from a Hawaiian perspective. It doesn’t need a western hero-villain arc to discuss the evolution of mahu—kane-wahine and wahine-kane—people in the middle—from our ancestral past to modern day realities. In the documentary, Ho‘onani is simply who she is, and she has the grace and maturity to articulate that while some people don’t understand her, that’s just who they are, just like she’s just the way she is. The world will catch up to her someday and until then, she’s going to continue to lead, learn, and teach. Kumu Hina’s example and message that breaks down to as a kid, sometimes you have to bend to others’ expectations, but when you’re a grown-up, you won’t is chicken-skin powerful. Ho‘onani is supported by her school, family, and community. We’re on the journey to see her in action. She’s not a problem to solve.

And I really like that.

I also like that she calls herself a girl because she has physical girl parts, but identifies as in the middle because she possess both masculine and feminine energy. Refreshingly, neither the documentary nor the book discuss her sexual orientation. Sexual orientation is often confused with identity and can pull the focus away from exploring cultural gender roles, which is really what this story is about.

Should you buy Ho‘onani: Hula Warrior ?

Absolutely. We need more books like this one. The only way this will happen is if we can demonstrate to traditional publishers that there is a demand for these kinds of books.

But be sure to watch the documentary, A Place in the Middle. Just click here or on the title in this article  to get to the website where you can view it for FREE. There are also free classroom materials and other short videos on that website.

Taken together, the book and documentary will give folks a lot to think and talk about with their keiki. And that’s a good thing.

Ho‘onani: Hula Warrior , written by Heather Gale and illustrated by Mika Song and published by Tundra Books, is available from Amazon.

A Place in the Middle can be viewed at https://aplaceinthemiddle.org/ .

“Gamble” is a new short story I wrote that’s coming out in an anthology called Grifty Shades of Fey, published by Fiction Vortex.

It’s a noir story, kinda like a something from the 1950s in tone. “Gamble” is about a mortal named Jace, the goddess of Chance, a kidnapped woman about to be whisked away to another dimension by some serious baddies, and a pair of dice that reveal whether a venture will be successful–or not. There’s nothing particularly Hawaiian in this one, but it was a lot of fun to write.

Grifty Shades of Fey features stories about fairies, brownies, and other creatures that go bump in the night by best-selling fantasy, horror, and speculative fiction authors. It’s only available for a short time in hardback, paperback, and eBook. Click on the link below to order your copies in time for Christmas.

Grifty Shades of Fey

 

A Song for the Stars by Ilima Todd is set in Hawai’i in 1779 at the time of Captain James Cook. It tells a fictional story of John Harbottle, an English officer serving as the Hawaiian translator for Cook, and Maile, the second daughter  of Kalani, the ruling chief. When Cook and his ships return unexpectedly to Hawai’i, important navigational instruments and maps are stolen. There’s a battle on the beach, and lives are lost on both sides. Against her better judgement,  Maile first nurses, then teaches John ancient Hawaiian wayfinding techniques to help the British sailors return home. Meanwhile, John’s men teach Kalani and his warriors how to fight with western guns to defend their village from an imminent attack from Wai’ole, an island to the south.

If your head is spinning, chillax. It’s historical romance, not a history book. Ilima takes several liberties with the historical timeline, geography, and Hawaiian cultural protocols to tell a story that appeals to both a Hawaiian and mainland audience. It’s a “what if” story with roots in Ilima’s own family history. The real John Harbottle was instrumental to Kamehameha I in 1795 during the Battle of Nu’uanu on ‘Oahu, an event more than 15 years in the future from Cook’s landing in 1779. In gratitude, Harbottle was gifted a high-ranking bride. A descendant of the real John Harbottle and his high chiefess wife Papapaunauapu, Ilima wanted to explore what it would be like to be “given” to a foreigner in marriage. While her original “what if” idea and family history are the genesis of her novel, the book’s themes and plot stretch well beyond those initial inspirations.

Ilima breaks with the historical record in ways only someone who has studied Hawaiian culture and history will catch. Foremost in her mind was her audience. A Song for the Stars is part of Shadow Mountain’s Proper Romance series and is marketed to regency romance readers who expect a specific kind of story–and Ilima delivers. Maile, her heroine is strong, independent, and capable. John is honest, forthright, and tender. It’s a story of equals from different cultures that deftly avoids the noble savage and white savior tropes so common in cross-culture stories. We see the main story from Maile’s point of view interspersed with John’s point of view from excepts from his journal, a technique that helps the reader appreciate the deeper cultural consequences of the characters’ actions.

Many reviewers compare A Song for the Stars with Moanawhich I understand, but find extremely frustrating because the stories aren’t similar at all. The comparison points to the dearth of authentic stories about Polynesians in mainstream media. We need more books that challenge expectations, more island voices redefining Pacific Literature for modern audiences. Mahalo, Ilima, for blazing a new path. I mua! Can’t wait for the next one.

A Song for the Stars by Ilima Todd is published by Shadow Mountain and is available in eBook, paperback, hardback, library binding, and audiobook from Amazon and other purveyors of fine books.

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When you’re allergic to water,
growing up in Hawaii
isn’t always paradise.

With Niuhi sharks,
even out of the water,
you’re not safe.

Everything you thought you knew
about Zader is a  lie.