Numbers flit around Josephine River’s brain like hummingbirds at a feeder. Everything she sees is a calculation — an equation, a distance,a percentage, a probability.
Where others see a building, she visualizes schematic blueprints, calculates architectural angles and counts windows, doors, floors.
A man hustling by isn’t just a commuter in a hurry but a mass to measure: length of stride, walking pace, distance to cover to catch the next bus.
It’s a blessing and a curse for the math prodigy featured in the novel, “Calculated,” the first in a series of young adult books by Nova McBee of Edmonds.
A self-described “hopeless nomad and culture nerd,” McBee, 41, is a mother of three young children. She grew up in Snohomish County, graduating from the University of Washington with a degree in international relations.
Traveling, studying, working around the world — seven countries over two decades — McBee lived in China for more than 10 years. There, she began juggling marriage, motherhood and writing.
Wise Wolf Books, Wolf Pack Publishing’s young adult imprint, released “Calculated” in February and is set to debut McBee’s follow-up, “Simulated,” in May. Her debut novel has been optioned for a movie by a Santa Barbara, California, production studio.
The fictional series centers on the main character of Josephine — known simply as Jo — who grows up in Seattle. While considered a genius at economics, differential equations and computer simulations, she struggles with the death of her mother and with being the middle child between a jealous older sister and an adoring younger one. Dad is alternately proud and protective of, and puzzled by, his prodigy daughter.
By age 7, Jo is writing algorithms. She zips through college, earning a Ph.D. at 15 in mathematical economics. At the tender age of 17, she’s wooed to work at a top tech global solutions firm.
Her future seems as bright as a sunburst breaking over Puget Sound.
But life — unlike numbers — isn’t predictable.
Jo is betrayed, kidnapped and knocked out. She wakes up in a swanky Shanghai hotel, where she’s held captive by Madam Maxima, one of the world’s most notorious human traffickers.
Soon after, Jo is trapped by another notorious thief, King. He keeps his criminal kingdom underground — literally. Jo lives for months in a labyrinth of dank tunnels called the Pratt beneath an old Chinese port.
Both Madam Maxima and King use Jo’s numerical neurons to assess financial data and commit embezzlement and other crimes that boost their respective evil empires.
How Jo endures the forced forays into wealth management is revealed in sequences of time and location, including recalling the people and places of her Northwestern upbringing.
“Calculated” is loaded with just enough intrigue, mysterious figures and mathematical maneuvering to keep the reader hanging on for the next plot curve.
One day, Jo is shivering in an underground jail cell. The next day, she’s being feted by a billionaire businessman. One day, she’s an accessory to bribes, blackmail and brothels. The next day, she’s rescuing young women forced into sexual slavery.
Two men, Red and Kai, provide a sense of calm to Jo’s demanding existence.
McBee followed the age-old advice for novice writers when embarking on her first work of fiction: Write what you know.
She was living in China when the plot unraveled in her head.
“After daydreaming if this story were to happen today, a modern story about a gifted girl in China came to me,” she said. “I wrote the whole book outline in a day.”
McBee started out writing lyrics when she was little, filling up notebooks with songs about love and culture.
Stacks of journals followed. Still, being a “real writer” seemed out of reach.
“When I was young, I had this strange idea that writers were unknown people who were mostly dead,” she said, with a laugh.
And her imagination? She gives Dad — a storyteller, creative writer and teacher — some credit.
Growing up, she remembers him tantalizing friends with fantastical stories of faraway lands.
“I had a very creative home, in which both parents encouraged and made space for every type of creative mess, I mean, project,” she said.
Her mother is a first-generation American with roots in Finland, another country and culture McBee has come to know and love.
At age 28, McBee set out to learn the craft of writing a novel, studying literary genres for five years. When she hit upon the emerging field of YA, or young adult, fiction she felt at home.
“Young adult fit me in a way that was natural,” she said. Her books, however, are considered to be in the “crossover” category. “I’ve had messages and reviews from people between the ages of 12 to 84.”
McBee is definitely a word person, not a numbers nerd. So writing about a girl who thinks in numbers took some research.
“I read a ton about math theories, concepts, differential equations, mechanics, physics, graphs, calculations, Newton’s laws — you name it,” she said.
“My brain hurt.”
It took McBee two years to write her first novel (nursing her second child, with a toddler in tow), then another four years to find a willing publisher.
“It’s been a long journey to get here,” she said. “So many friends around the world have rooted me on for this moment.”
McBee got a boost from Pitch Wars, a volunteer-run mentoring program, in which she was paired with New York Times bestselling author Pintip Dunn to learn about agents, pitching and publishing.
In the book, “Calculated,” Jo is bestowed with many alternate names — Octavia, Double 8, Mila, Phoenix — by various captors. It causes her to contemplate her place and purpose in the world.
As for the author, she seems destined to live up to her first name.
“I don’t know who I would be if I wasn’t named Nova,” she said. “It’s such a deep part of my identity.
“As the story goes, my father loved the stars, and my mother was excited that I was the first girl, which was ‘new.’ In China, my name is, “Shi Nuo” which means “history promise.” I also have a Uighur name, “Yultuz,” which means “star.”
About the author
Nova McBee lived more than a decade in China, writing books and teaching English and creative writing classes. She is the author of the young adult trilogy “The Calculated Series,” which consists of “Calculated,” “Simulated” and “Activated.” McBee also is the founder of the YA blog, The Spinning Pen, and a Pitch Wars 2016 alum and 2020 mentor. She lives in Edmonds with her husband and three children. Go to www.novamcbee.com for more information.
Washington North Coast Magazine
This article is featured in the summer issue of Washington North Coast Magazine, a supplement of The Daily Herald. Explore Snohomish and Island counties with each quarterly magazine. Each issue is $3.99. Subscribe to receive all four editions for $14 per year. Call 425-339-3200 or go to www.washingtonnorthcoast.com for more information.
By Nova McBee
Wise Wolf Books. 446 pages. $17.22.