Review

An Indies Introduce Q&A With Catherine Raven

Ariana had a few questions for Montana author Dr. Catherine Raven, about her new book Fox & I. Catherine Raven is the debut author of Fox & I, a Summer/Fall 2021 Indies Introduce adult selection and a July Indie Next List pick. Be sure to Join us for our live virtual event with Dr. Raven and Outside magazine editor Tim Cahill. Register here. Book cover of Fox & I by Catherine Raven

“Read this book for the story of Fox, stay for the story of the author and how we all are nature. An examination of our relationships with other animals, plants, each other, and the world, Fox & I is a beautifully-written, thoughtful blend of memoir and nature writing that will inform and inspire and make you feel,” said Ariana Paliobagis, the owner of Country Bookshelf in Bozeman, Montana, who served on the bookseller panel that selected Raven’s book for Indies Introduce.

Raven is a former National Park Ranger at Glacier, Mount Rainier, North Cascades, Voyagers, and Yellowstone National Parks. She earned her PhD in biology from Montana State University and is currently an assistant program director and professor at South University in Savannah, Georgia.

Here, Paliobagis and Raven discuss how the author found her memoir voice to tell the story of her friendship with Fox.


Ariana Paliobagis: Fox & I starts with the acknowledgement that foxes live short lives, so the reader always has an anticipation of an ending, and Fox’s life is just a short part of your life. How did this affect how you approached writing and structuring this book?

Catherine Raven, photo by Bill BurkeCatherine Raven: When I decided to write Fox’s story, we were still seeing each other every day. Because the book was meant to be about him, not me, the original structure was chronologic, and Fox was in every chapter.

I intended to write a true story about a fox who changed my views on anthropomorphism, became my first real friend, and inspired me to think more like an animal.

A published writer explained to me that Fox and I was not simply a true story, it was a memoir, as much about me as about him. I very much respected this writer (or I wouldn’t have asked her opinion), so I set out to turn my true story into a memoir. I changed the structure to include scenes that resonated with my own life experiences.

Fox altered my life in important ways. He is responsible for my choice to live in the country and to seek a purpose-driven life. In order to honor Fox, I had to share enough of my own story so that readers could see how greatly he influenced my life.

AP: As someone who has done lots of scientific and academic writing, how did you find your memoir voice? 

CR: I do have two voices; one is for scientific communication. I did not use that voice in my memoir. Two jobs helped develop my memoir voice: guiding and teaching undergraduates.

I’ve been guiding and instructing field classes in Yellowstone National Park for 20 years and I work hard to avoid jargon and “science speak.” Instead, I use my natural voice, one that is like the voice in the memoir.

When I started the book, I was teaching upper division classes for biology majors. I purposely switched to lower division classes designed for non-majors. I knew this would help with my writing. And, truly, I have come to enjoy teaching non-majors a lot more, just as I have come to enjoy writing.

AP: Other than Antoine de Saint-Exupery, Herman Melville, and Mary Shelley, who you reference often, are there other writers who influenced you?

CR: Several memoirs inspired me. Imagination runs wild in Maxine Hong Kingston’s Woman Warrior, a super creative memoir about living simultaneously in two different worlds. This was the first memoir that resonated with me after Fox died, reminding me that I, too, was living in two worlds, one with Fox and one when I entered the “real world” of serious, professionals, hawk-eyed on their lookout for violators of the anthropomorphism taboo. In a voice that blends hope and horror, Kingston brought me inside the dreams and struggles of a girl-child in a Chinese-American family.

In A Long Way Gone, Ishmael Beah of Sierra Leone, like Kingston, shows me a world that I knew nothing about, in the same way that I assumed science and biology would be a new world to the readers of Fox and I. Beah’s is the voice of innocence among almost unbelievable terror. I believe his story because his writing is clear enough to highlight his honesty and earnestness. Beah has more right to preach, rant, and rage about an immense humanitarian crisis than anyone in the world. He doesn’t. So, I saw how to address important issues without writing in an opinionated, editorial tone. Importantly, before I found Beah’s memoir, I thought all memoirs were written by professional writers looking for their next topic. Like me, Beah experienced something so profound that he became a writer in order to tell the story.

In Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, a voice very different from mine, I found a memoir with a creative structure that inspired me to finally start Fox and I. Reading Dave Eggers’ memoir, I realized there are no limits on structure if the writer is sincere and the story is well-told. He moves seamlessly in the first, second, and third person voices. This book freed me from the fear of writing a tightly structured book, which had to follow writerly rules that I had not learned.

I enjoy third person. Readers will notice this in the sections I wrote from Fox’s point of view. My favorite third person novels are so excellent, I sometimes pick one up and read a chapter chosen at random. I strongly recommend everyone reads Hilary Mantel’s trilogy (Wolf HallBring up the BodiesThe Mirror and the Light), Anthony Doerr’s All the Light we Cannot See, and Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries. But you’ll need to avoid these spectacularly entertaining books if you have an ego. I can’t tell you how many times I stopped, mid-paragraph to announce out loud, “I will never, ever write this well.”

AP: You write eloquently, passionately, and forcefully about how humans aren’t just part of nature, we are also nature, we are also animals. Can you talk a bit about why this philosophical distinction is so important? What changes once we realize we are not separate from nature?

CR: On a practical level, I worry about folks experiencing loneliness. I want them to realize that Nature isn’t a mother, it’s a community, and that they are inherently part of this community. It’s their birthright. When they realize they are part of this community, it’s unimaginable to me that they could be lonely. Humans might not have a welcome place for everyone at any given time, but the community I call Nature will always have a spot somewhere. I have found comfort with a slug on a forest floor. Would you turn your nose at a housefly? If not for that one dancing fly, Fox and I may never have connected when we did.

On a philosophical level, I think it’s helpful to reassess our common understanding of anthropomorphism. The term assumes that certain personality — or non-physical — traits are the exclusive domain of Homo sapiens. For example, an appreciation of beauty, or the ability to discern something that is visually pleasing. What happens if we believe that animals are more like us than we once imagined? Will we treat them better? I wish I were that naïve. But let’s face it, sometimes our own parents treat us worse than complete strangers; closeness doesn’t translate to kindness.

But I am optimistic enough to believe that some people will treat some animals better, and others will at least start thinking about it.

As a community, I find that people are anthropomorphobic. And so, we have created an artificial divide between humans and non-human animals. We fear the image of animals acting like people, but more so, and more concerning, we fear the image of people acting like animals. A small change leads to many possibilities. For example, what would you do differently, if, like other animals, you thought about your optimal habitat instead of just picking a career and following it to wherever?

AP: If you could have more time with Fox, how would you spend it?

CR: When you finish the book, you’ll know that I did a terrible thing to Fox. You’ll understand that I wasn’t the friend I should have been. I would have liked more time to make it up to him and more time to experience the responsibilities of friendship.

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Published: Spiegel & Grau - July 6th, 2021

Hungry Hearts by Elsie Chapman

Hungry Hearts: 13 Tales of Food & Love, edited by Elsie Chapman and Caroline Tung Richmond, is a short story collection that shares the impact delicious food can make on one’s life. Anthologies are usually connected by a theme, but I love that the stories included in Hungry Hearts take place in the same world. While each tale is unique, its connection to other stories in the anthology make the overall collection more meaningful to read. For example, characters who are introduced through small roles in earlier stories are featured in a later tale that may provide their backstory. Additionally, all of the stories take place in Hungry Heart Row, a fictitious town that has restaurants of all varieties on every street, so key locations are carried throughout the book. 

 

I enjoyed reading Hungry Hearts, but three stories particularly stood out to me. In “The Grand Ishq Adventure” by Sandhya Menon, Neha runs a love-related advice column. Despite giving helpful advice to her readers, Neha does not usually have much luck in the love department herself. One day, she decides to take her own advice to become braver: eat alone and try new cuisines. In “Gimme Some Sugar” by Jay Coles, Leo wants to enter a cooking competition to win money to help his mom. His grandmother suggests he cook with one of her recipes. With his grandmother’s support, Leo is able to feel more confident about his cooking in the competition. In "Panadería ~ Pastelería" by Anne-Marie McLemore, Lila wants to tell a childhood friend that she likes him, but does not know how to say it with words. So, she relies on baking. 

 

In each case, the characters are able to learn more about themselves through cuisine. The reader becomes engaged with the inhabitants and stories of Hungry Hearts Row.

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Published: Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers - July 7th, 2020

Misfits in Love by SK Ali

Janna’s brother is getting married in a few days and wedding preparations are the only thing on her mind. Well that, and the fact that Nuah, Janna’s crush—who likes her back— is coming home from college for the summer. But things become complicated when Janna meets Haytham, a boy who has an amazing voice, is great at taking care of children, and is good looking. So when Nuah arrives, Janna is surprised that he does not seem to mind her spending time with Haytham. Further complications arise when Janna meets Layth, a mysterious boy who seems to understand her. With the wedding and navigation of new relationships, Janna’s summer becomes busier than she anticipated.

 

Misfit in Love by S.K. Ali continues the story of Janna from Saints and Misfits. I went into the book without having read Ali’s first book, and while Misfit in Love can be read as a standalone, I was enjoying it so much (I could not put it down) that I wanted to read Saints and Misfits to see where Janna’s story began. 

 

Misfit in Love explores different types of love: romantic, friendly, familial, and self-love. I appreciate that Ali dives deeper than just the possible romances between Janna and her love-interests by including themes of family too. Janna reflects about the change her family experienced when her parents divorced and considers how it will change again when her brother marries. Though at first unwilling to let new members into the family, she begins to open her heart as she gets to know them better. She also realizes the importance of self-love and listening to her heart. Misfit in Love by S.K. Ali is the love story I have been waiting for.

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Published: Salaam Reads / Simon & Schuster Books for You - May 25th, 2021

This Train is Being Held by Ismée Willimas

Isa, a ballerina, and Alex, a baseball player, first meet while riding the New York subway. From the moment that they first lock eyes, there is an instant curiosity that passes between them. But all too soon, their ride together comes to an end. Over the course of the following months, Isa and Alex continue to run into each other on the subway. With their continual meetings, the two become friends, bonding over their dedication to athletics, but they both claim they are too busy to date. Unfortunately, this means their meetings are rare, so aspiring-poet Alex starts to leave poems for Isa to find. This brings them closer, so much so, that they decide to try to make a relationship work. However, their relationship becomes complicated when secrets are kept and explanations are not given.

 

This Train is Being Held by Ismée Willimas is a lyrical story about two passionate teenagers. Williams' descriptions are beautiful and create vivid and detailed images in the reader’s mind. Both Isa and Alex have Latin American heritage, and throughout the story, the reader is exposed to experiences that the characters go through because of stereotypes that are placed on them. However, they do not let this stop them from enjoying life. Isa and Alex have so much heart; they care deeply about their family and for each other. Their story of love and being willing to fight for it is moving, as well. In addition, Williams’ discussions of family expectations and making choices to pursue one’s passion—even when it is a different path that what is expected of you—resonates with the reader. This Train is Being Held by Ismée Willimas is a beautiful and powerful love story.

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Published: Amulet Books - February 11th, 2020

More Than Just A Pretty Face by Syed M Masood

Danyal has had a crush on Kaval for the longest time, but despite his good looks, Danyal is not the smartest person, and therefore, not the most appealing marriage prospect. The Renaissance Man, an annual competition held at Danyal’s school for selected bright students, is just around the corner. Unexpectedly, Danyal is chosen to be one of the representatives. Thinking that this is his chance to impress Kaval and her parents, Danyal knows that he has to win. To help him with his speech, he works with Bisma, one of the girls his parents had him meet, but strictly as friends. However, as they work together, Danyal realizes that he enjoys spending time with Bisma, and maybe his feelings toward Kaval have changed.


More Than Just a Pretty Face by Syed M. Masood is a wholesome, feel-good story. In the beginning, Danyal seems like your typical good-looking teenage boy (kind of full of himself), but as the book continues, he becomes more aware and interested in the world. Learning more about himself allows him to realize what is actually important to him. He becomes more compassionate, as well, which warmed my heart. Bisma is kind, evident in her choosing to help Danyal with his speech. And she is strong for putting on a brave face despite the criticism that she faces from her family. Complete with lovable characters, delicious food, and unexpected friendship, More Than Just a Pretty Face by Syed M. Masood is an enjoyable read.

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Published: Little, Brown Books for Young Readers - August 4th, 2020

Felix Ever After by Kacen Callendar

Felix Love, a passionate artist, is a transgender teen attending a summer art program to work on his college portfolio. But Felix is struggling to find inspiration. To make matters worse, one of his peers puts up a gallery of photos of him before he transitioned—outing him to the whole school. Following this spectacle, he receives hateful, transphobic messages that make Felix start to question his identity. While Felix has always wanted to be in love, these messages make him wonder if anyone could ever love him.  One day, his art teacher encourages him to try painting self portraits. Through his portraits, Felix is able to express himself as he sees himself, not as other people see him. In addition to the progress on his portfolio, Felix learns that he may be lovable after all, and perhaps, he just needed to know where to look.

 

I LOVE Felix Ever After by Kacen Callender, and I am so glad to have read Felix’s story. Through Felix, I was able to expand my perspective to have a greater understanding and appreciation for trans people. His story opened my eyes to the many identities a trans person may have, and his story made me aware that it is okay to question your identity until you have found the one that makes you feel like you. 

In addition, Felix is a character who you cannot help but love. He faces many trials, but he does not allow them to stop him from realizing his dreams. Furthermore, Felix is relatable. Throughout the book, he opens up and shares his honest feelings regarding love. His humility makes him seem real and genuine. Despite his insecurities, Felix truly is a strong, admirable character. Felix’s story is heartwarming.

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Published: Balzer + Bray - May 5th, 2020

You Should See Me In A Crown by Leah Johnson

Star student and clarinetist Liz Lighty cannot wait to attend college in the fall as she will be attending her dream school—the same school her mother attended. Liz is looking forward to following her mother’s footsteps, but she is most excited about the select music ensemble she auditioned for. However, when she receives the news she did not make it, Liz is heartbroken—especially because she will not receive the scholarship she needed to attend the school. Liz is losing hope when she remembers that the prom queen and king both receive a full scholarship to the school of their choice. Never having considered participating in prom before, Liz is suddenly determined to make the prom court, and most importantly, win prom queen. But to complicate matters, Liz finds that she may be falling in love with one of the other prom queen contestants.


You Should See Me in a Crown by Leah Johnson is an inspirational story that reminds us to believe in our true selves. Liz is such a likable character, and I found myself immediately cheering for her. I love how she completely applies herself to her passions, and I especially love how she cares deeply about the people closest to her; she is willing to drop everything she is doing to give them the support they need. The elements of family, friendship, romance, and self-love that are included in the story made my heart feel full. And I especially enjoyed watching the relationships between Amanda, Jordan, and Robbie grow as the story progressed. You Should See Me in a Crown by Leah Johnson is an uplifting story that will make you smile.

 

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Published: Scholastic Press - June 2nd, 2020

Dear Martin by Nic Stone

Justyce, one of a few black teens who attends a private school is Georgia, has encountered racism on a daily basis. One day, Justyce is walking when he notices his ex-girlfriend is trying to drive home while intoxicated. Doing the right thing, Justyce decides to drive her home. Before he can, a police officer stops him and puts him into handcuffs thinking Justyce was robbing this girl. In a few hours, the situation has been cleared up, but Justyce can still feel the handcuffs around his wrists. As Justyce reflects on the evening, he begins writing letters to Martin Luther King asking him what he would do in Justyce’s situation. As Justyce continues to experience racism at school, he researches more about King’s methods and works to apply them to his own life.


Dear Martin by Nic Stone is moving. Her story discusses white privilege and the misguided impressions white people have towards the country’s equality through conversations in Justyce’s societal evolution class. Many of the discussions the class has are the same conversations that are being talked about nationally. She seamlessly debunks these misconceptions through classroom debates. Stone also addresses police brutality and the often biased trials that determine the officer’s guilt when one of Martin’s friends is shot by an off-duty police officer. Stone succeeds in acknowledging the problems we are facing right now and provides perspective for us who are looking to understand both what and how we need to change as people and as a nation. Dear Martin by Nic Stone is a powerful story that captures the racism of our country and educates us about national issues. It is a must-read.

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Published: Ember - September 4th, 2018

An interview With Author Grady Hendrix

Bookseller Harry is back with a review of Grady Hendrix’s new release The Southern Book Club’s Guide to Slaying Vampires. “We’re a book club. What are we supposed to do? Read him to death?” A group of tired and unappreciated moms get together to read true crime, drink wine, and form meaningful friendships when a vampire moves to town. We've all been there, right? I honestly can't tell you how much I loved this book. This book kept me up many a sleepless night as I finished just one more chapter, got actually frustrated at antagonists, and cheered for the protagonists. I feel like Grady gets better and better with each new book, and I never wanted this story to end. I was able to ask him a few questions about The Southern Book Club’s Guide to Slaying Vampires. Check it out!

Harry J: Best Friend's Exorcism and Southern Book Club's Guide both have a strong theme of overcoming monsters with the power of female bonds. Is there a specific reason for this? 

Grady Hendrix: Unhappy endings always feel like you stopped telling the story too early, because life goes on and I always want to know what happens next. Unhappy endings just feel cheap and unrealistic to me. Cynicism is a sad and pointless way to look at the world. 

HJ: How much is the protagonist in The Southern Book Club's Guide to Slaying Vampires based off of your actual mother? 

GH: Every character I write is based on a real person, whether it’s someone I know or someone I see on the subway, but by the time they make it to the page, they’re virtually unrecognizable. Patricia has some things in common with my mom — they’re both former nurses, they both belong to book clubs, they’re both parents — but Patricia is a lot more naive than my mom. On the other hand, she’s also a lot more likely to try to kill a vampire than my mom.

HJ: You seem to favor strong female protagonists fighting against paranormal odds in your books. What inspired this? 

GH: I have no idea why I seem incapable of writing male characters. It’s clearly something I need to address with my therapist! Guys just don’t interest me as much.

HJ: What gave you the idea for The Southern Book Club's Guide? 

GH: I’ve always wanted to write a book about adult friendship and I’ve known the women in my mom’s book club since I was a kid. The longer I knew them the more interesting they became, but when I initially suggested this book to my editor they really pushed back against it, telling me that no one was interested in reading about a bunch of middle-aged housewives. That sealed the deal: I was going to write this book no matter what.

HJ: If Southern Book Club’s Guide became a movie or tv series, what would be your ideal casting? (Mine would be Winona Ryder for Patricia and Chris Sarandon for James Harris.)

GH: I like the Winona Ryder idea, but I have a hard time with these kinds of questions because I feel like I’ll jinx things. But if Patrick Wilson was younger, he’d be a great James Harris, and I’d love to see Octavia Spencer as Mrs. Greene. 

HJ: You've already covered a number of horrifying things; vampires, demons, Ikea. What's the next monster that you'd like to (forgive the pun) sink your teeth into?

GH: I actually already have a monster and their book is slated for publication in June 2021. So I’m not saying anything until closer to that date. But I will say that the one monster I really want to write and can’t find a way into: werewolves. I love werewolves but I just can’t seem to find that extra piece that makes them work for me. But maybe I’m just not inspired enough? I’m going to keep wandering around the moors at night and waiting to be bitten.

Books: 
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Published: Quirk Books - April 7th, 2020

The Sky Painted Gold by Laura Wood

Claire L is a reading machine - or there are just an amazing amount of good books coming out this summer. Check out her review below!

Lou has always longed for something more than her life in Penlyn, but she has never known exactly what she was searching for. That is until she becomes entranced with the Cardew House. Every so often, people in elegant attire drive over to the Cardew House for that night’s festivities. Curious as to what the parties are like, Lou sneaks over to the house one evening. Unexpectedly, she ends up making the acquaintance of Robert Cardew who seems to have an air of mystery and intrigue about him. The following day, Lou receives an invitation from his sister Caitlin, inviting her to their next gathering. Suddenly, Lou is thrown into the glamorous lives of the Cardews. As she spends more and more time at the house, she begins to learn more about this opulent world, and in turn, herself.

Complete with glamor, parties, and secrets, as well as a spark of romance, A Sky Painted Gold by Laura Wood is exciting and compelling to read. Set during 1929 in England, flapper dresses and suits describe the sophisticated appeal of the Cardews’ events. One of my favorite aspects of the book is that the story is told from the perspective of Lou, an outsider to the glitzy world. Her thoughts and observations invite the reader to join in the lavish summer schedule of the Cardews. In addition to Lou, there is a cast of interesting characters that are simultaneously fun and mysterious. The result is of new friendships and romances that guide Lou through an exciting lifestyle so different from her own. A Sky Painted Gold by Laura Wood is an enjoyable read reminiscent of my favorite elements of The Great Gatsby. 

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$17.99
ISBN: 9780593127223
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Published: Random House Books for Young Readers - June 23rd, 2020

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