October 24, 2016

Monday Review: GEMINI by Sonya Mukherjee

This is one of the most gorgeous and effective
covers I've seen. I love it.
Synopsis: Clara and Hailey are twin sisters, and like a lot of sisters, they are closer than close one moment, but in the next, they get on each other's last nerve. Hailey is the artistic one, Clara is an astronomy geek, and they couldn't be more different in terms of what they want out of life. Pretty classic sister stuff. But there's something big about this book that makes it much more than your average sister story: Clara and Hailey are conjoined twins, fused back to back at the base of the spinal cord. They have separate heads, bodies, and limbs, but their nervous systems are entwined from the waist down—so if Clara, say, steps on Hailey's foot, she feels it in her own foot.

The twins are seventeen, and have spent their entire lives in a small California mountain town where everyone knows and accepts them. But things are about to get a whole lot more complicated. For one thing, Hailey really wants to leave home to go to college—she wants to see the world, and she wants more out of life than their tiny community offers. Clara, meanwhile, wants to stay and attend the nearby college where their parents teach, sharing a house with their best friend Juanita and enjoying what she has. These are, needless to say, incompatible aims when you're physically inseparable from one another.

The other big wrench in the machinery is the new boy, Max. He's cute, he's mysterious, and he loves astronomy as much as Clara does. But, she wonders, how could he possibly want to have a romantic relationship with her? How could anyone from the outside world consider them as anything but freaks? Hailey's fearlessness counterbalances Clara's fears, but deep down, the future scares them both—and their parents are even more afraid. As both girls begin to tentatively explore their own dreams and goals for their lives, a possibly dangerous idea occurs to both of them: separation surgery. And the mere mention of the topic is enough to throw their home life completely out of balance.

Observations: There are a lot of interesting twists and turns in this story, and I found it intriguing (and wonderful) that both sisters are still able to surprise and confound one another—an amazing feat considering they have no choice about being present in one another's lives. The experience of being conjoined was handled with sensitivity, candor, and humor, which was admirable. Writing characters with disabilities, as an author who does not share that same experience, is a challenge, and I think it can be tempting to be tentative and shy away from the harsh realities of that experience. And yet ignoring the very real potential difficulties does readers a disservice.

I thought this was a wonderful example of a book that does not reduce characters to their disabilities, but creates distinct characters that are fully rounded who are striving for lives that are complete and fulfilling—as all of us do. This idea shone throughout the story, echoed by the subplots with various side characters who, also, are facing their own struggles in their own ways.

Conclusion: I'm kind of in awe of the author for tackling this unusual topic. The alternating perspectives were well done, and it was a story with a lot of heart.

I received my copy of this book courtesy of the Stanislaus County Library. You can find GEMINI by Sonya Mukherjee at an online e-tailer, or at a real life, independent bookstore near you!

October 21, 2016

Cybils Speculative Reader: WOLF BY WOLF by RYAN GRAUDIN

Welcome to the 2016 Cybils Speculative Reader!

As a first run reader for the Cybils, I'll be briefly introducing you to the books on the list, giving you a mostly unbiased look at some of the plot.


Synopsis: In a series of flashbacks, the story of a determined little girl emerges. She's flotsam in a death camp, chosen for her unflinching gaze. The Third Reich doctor who takes over her life has seen something in her eyes... something unbroken, despite the human wreckage of the genocide going on around her...

Flash forward, it's 1956, and the Axis powers of the Third Reich and Imperial Japan are sweeping through the world. America is crying "Peace at All Costs" as loudly as it can, hoping against hope that the ocean and their nonaggressive stance will save them, but in this story, The Fuhrer is alive and well - despite numerous assassination attempts - and he's come for... basically everyone. Italy is lost. Africa is lost. Everywhere the world is preparing for the Aryan heel to land solidly on new soil, conquering and claiming.

Yale is preparing, too - preparing to impersonate a woman she is not, preparing to fool that woman's beau, brother, and the eyes of the whole world to get close enough to -- at long last -- to do what has been years in the works. She will unveil herself as the Valkyrie - and finally, find her purpose.

But resistance and revolution is easy. Remembering who you are is harder than it looks.

Observations: Readers might wonder how a novel which is basically historical fiction ends up in the science fiction/fantasy fiction pile, but remember that our title is "speculative," which means that alternative history that asks "What If?" comes neatly under our banner. What if the Allies had never stopped Adolf Hitler? What if the Jews had been all but eliminated from the world? What would be changed - in Germany, in the Middle East, in Europe and America? What would be left of the world we knew in 1956? What would the Resistance be like?

In some ways, this is a very original premise, though there have been hundreds of stories where the Third Reich is resurrected so that it can be taken down/taken apart in a new way. The race is an excellent, interesting conceit, taking the "rebel with a cause" idea and running a new direction. The danger, cunning, mild violence, and suspense were very well done. I was less enamored of there being romance, and the idea that Yael, who was otherwise unflinching, would be derailed by this -- but also understand that some people believe YA lit *must* have a romance, or else.

Conclusion: Fond of heart-pounding thrillers, narrow escapes, and a fan of WWII noble heroines? Have I got a book for you!

I received my copy of this book courtesy of the public library. You can find WOLF BY WOLF by Ryan Graudinat an online e-tailer, or at a real life, independent bookstore near you!

October 19, 2016

A month on, this still gives me inappropriate laughs

...oh, I'm not laughing at the message itself -- I believe that. There are some people who are not your forever friends, and the sooner you know that, the better. The last lines make me crack up, though, because honestly, what else are you gonna do after acknowledging something like that but smile? And then think, "No, wait..."


October 18, 2016


Welcome to another session of Turning Pages!

Today my flying book-boat icon is especially apropos, as I'm talking about a time travel book, where the travel took place onboard a pirate ship. Now, I don't actually love time travel novels, because a.) I personally would have fared poorly in ANY time period, and b.) I Have Questions about changing the course of history, etc. etc. and most time travel theories don't speak to them. However, I was surprised to really enjoy this novel, not only because it touched on my questions, but mostly because the underlying narrative isn't about time travel so much as it is the ultimate question of When Do We Stop Trying To Please Our Parents.

This is kind of a lifelong query for me, so I was in.

Synopsis: When it's inconvenient, sixteen-year-old Nix is less a daughter, and more unpaid crew to her Navigator father, Captain Slate. Her life begins and ends on the decks of her father's ship, The Temptation -- the ship which she both loves and hates. Loves, because it contains what's left of her family - Bee and Kashmir, Rothgut and Slate. Hates, because Slate uses the ship to chase after his dream -- to Navigate back into the heaving swells of Time and sail back into the life of Nix's mother, who died when she was born. Slate has been trying - for years - to find the way. All it takes to time travel, for a Navigator, is the right map - and Nix is excellent at maps. They buy them from antiquities dealers and liberate them from old books - maps of all kinds of places, at all points in history or myth. However, the map they're really after is for 1868 Honolulu - and they're coming back with a cure for whatever fever killed Nix's mother.

At no point does Slate articulate his understanding that his quest is basically making it Nix's burden that her mother died. He seems not to realize how much he's hurting her, how much of the blame for her mother's death that she's absorbed, yet he's very resentful of her, and at times is just plain unkind. He's her father, by virtue of conquest - he took her from the woman who was caring for her, calling it a "theft" day, so he's not really even sure when Nix was born - but after all that effort, he basically dropped her onto his ship like a possession, content to sit with his syringe and his spoon and his opium, and dreams a world where her mother is - abandoning Nix in the here-and-now, alone with the crew. Bee and her ghostwife love Nix, Rothgut always feeds her well, and Kash would steal the world for a smile - and his liberated-from-elsewhere gifts at least make Nix pucker up in annoyance enough to forget her troubles. All of her people love her, but for Nix, it's not really the same. Her father doesn't seem to want her, won't teach her the ropes to Navigating, and he doesn't want to let her go, either. He could leave her anywhere - in his 80's New York, or even in Hawaii where she was born, to see if she can't find her own fated love out in the world, but instead, he's dragging her along, tied to his dream - where she's been for years.

An opportunity to make all the searches end comes in 1884 Oahu, in the form of a gentleman who says he has what Slate needs - only, there's a price. His organization, the League, would like Slate and his time-slipping cohort to commit a crime for the map. Nix knows she shouldn't help her father do something which will negatively impact the Hawaiian island's independence and integrity. But, she's torn - her father wants this one thing so, so much. If she could give it to him, wouldn't she begin - at last - to truly matter to him?

Observations: This book is detailed and twisty and one of the most different and imaginative things I've read in awhile. A ragtag collection of truly individual characters, the author manages to weave this faux pirate crew into a family of diverse parts. Nix desperately wants to go out into the world and experience it, but she's being held close to fulfill her father's dream, which to me can be a metaphor for the many ways our parental relationships are just doomed. Nix seems to yield to the status quo fairly passively, which may frustrate some readers, but despite the emotional difficulty and the fear of losing everything, she puts her foot down in a way that is both brave and realistic.

I thought the dynamic of time-slipping was interesting, in that it meant that though Nix is biologically sixteen, she functions as an adult, for the most part, in the world. She is starving for information and loves to read newspapers from anywhere, trying so hard to anchor herself somewhere through her mind. This is again familiar; even if you've never been on a time-slipping pirate ship, this is a go-to activity for someone who feels they don't fit. Books - knowledge - information - can be the place you do.

I was gratified that though there was a brief, experimental foray into romance, the novel mostly avoids love triangles and allows the characters to emerge unscathed from acting on impulse. This is nice - in real life, the odd kiss is usually just A Thing That Happened, and not the end of the world.

Conclusion: This is a very complete novel, with a beginning, middle and end by way of "episode," so I was surprised to find that it's the first of a duology. This thick, immersive, lose-your-weekend length adventure may overwhelm some readers, letting them find themselves in a tiny bit in over their heads with some of the technical aspects of time-slipping, but I only had brief questions which may be answered in the sequel. I'll be intrigued to see which direction the sequel goes.

I received my copy of this book courtesy of the public library. You can find THE GIRL FROM EVERYWHERE by Heidi Heilig at an online e-tailer, or at a real life, independent bookstore near you!

October 17, 2016

Postcard from Kidlitcon 2016

My goal is eventually to put together a few curated tweets from the con--seems appropriate since Sheila and I talked about that during our session on social media. But I haven't quite recovered, so for the time being I present you with a few pretty pictures. Oh, and we missed you. :)

Here's this year's organizing crew: Paula Willey and me in the back, and Sheila Ruth, Charlotte Taylor, Melissa Fox, and Pam Margolis in the front. We are thrilled that this year went so well, even with a smaller group this time--it felt like those who came got a lot out of it (I know I did) and it is always, always wonderful to hang with fellow kidlit peeps. Some amazing discussions on gatekeeping (this year's theme) and censorship happened, and Kristi Bernard gave a great presentation on diversity, tying back into last year's theme. We also had awesome keynotes from Clare Vanderpool (whose Powerpoint skills I am in awe of) and A.S. King. Speaking of which, here's me with A FAMOUS AUTHOR:

We also had a chance to wander around downtown Wichita after the conference ended, and found this very cool chalk mural thingy on a wall, posing the question "What positive changes have you seen in Wichita?" We were highly entertained by some of the feedback people decided to put up.

For my personal fave, it's a tie between "yellow brick streets," "Pie," and "I Don't Bang Herion [sic] in my eye no more!"

It was, in fact, very cool to see all the public art in the downtown, even the eerily realistic bronze sculptures of children. I am a fan of public art in general. But, as always, the best part was getting to feel like I was with my tribe. The worst part was trying to figure out how to Tetris all the books I acquired into my suitcase...

October 14, 2016

So, this is happening.

The Cybils Nomination period ends October 15th! Have you made your nomination in every category you can? Turn your attention to something fun - and non-election related, thus SOMEWHAT LIFESAVING AND BETTER THAN FUN - and nominate your favorite 2016 book! Visit Cybils.com.

October 11, 2016

Turning Pages Reads: IRON CAST by DESTINY SORIA

Welcome to another session of Turning Pages!

If we say we never judge a book by its cover, we'll sound like better people, sure, but we'll be total liars. I chose this book based on its beautiful cover, and that first snap judgment was enough to pick it up. I appreciated many of this novel's historical fantasy elements, the author's obvious dedication to historical detail, and the intriguing new set of powers that "hemopaths" bring to the fantasy pantheon.

Synopsis: It's 1919, and survivor's guilt is the new black. Rich, white, urban America is drinking and dancing itself into a frenzy, trying to forget the last few years of epidemics and war wounds. Boston doesn't believe in Prohibition, but something even odder has shown up - hemopaths. Those who carry the disease of the blood can create illusions with their art - a voice or an instrument can dupe everyone in the room into believing whatever the hemopath wants them to believe. Is your hat a rabbit? Are you dying in a hospital room, but thinking you're at a café in Paris? If so, thank a hemopath -- or, if you're not rich and jaded and looking for a thrill, run away. Being a hemopath isn't illegal, but plying their illusive trade is, and the Hemopath Protection Agency (HPA) has built asylums to give hemopaths a place to go and a safe way to live. Most people believe it's the best thing for them. Hemopaths have massive iron allergies - it makes them ache and enervates them - but buildings, cars, appliances and the whole modern world is bursting with the metals. However, young girls aren't made to live in an institution, which is, in part, why Ada Narvarra and Corinne Wells don't live at home anymore.

Corinne fears her family - wealthy and privileged - will find her affliction a way to get rid of her. Ada's Portuguese father was arrested by Bolshevik-fearing authorities and she fears having a daughter as a hemopath will make her Mozambican mother's situation worse. But at The Cast Iron, none of those realities intrude. The wealthy flock to see the hemopaths, believing them thrilling, but harmless. The club is made of brass and glass and wood, all safe materials, and hemopaths are on the bill nightly, and at The Cast Iron, the music never stops. Hemopaths also can't help spinning their fancies - a poem, a song, or even an instrument in their hands can put them in absolute power over anyone, and The Cast Iron makes it possible to drown in the spectacular illusions and the color and brightness -- and the club makes it possible for Ada and Corinne to shut out all about their lives that they don't want to hear - that the have no plans for the future, that Ada's African-Portuguese features will always be an impediment to a happy life in the city, and that Corrine's family is going to eventually find out -- and highly resent -- the lies she's forever telling them. The Cast Iron is a safety net which both girls can use to forget they're always one step ahead of the law, that Prohibition is coming, and once the Eighteenth Amendment passes, their haven will be closed against them. Until then, they do what their good friend, Johnny tells them to -- they run a few cons to make a little money, which gives him the means to grease palms and pay bribes to keep the cops off their backs. It's all about keeping everybody safe ... until it doesn't work anymore.

Observations: One of the strengths of this novel is that the young adult characters - Ada, Corinne, Saint & Gabriel - are not really "teens." The American concept of the teen years began after WWII, really, so it made perfect sense that in 1919, these people were basically young adults - jobs, drinking, smoking, beaux - all of this basically "gangster & flapper" behavior is normalized. Due to her wealth and family position, Corinne is in finishing school, but Ada isn't in school at all, because she doesn't have to be, and the life open to young ladies of color was pretty different at that time, though the novel makes very little mention of this. Another strength is in the novel's diversity. This is a club scene in 1919 - the patrons are rich and white, but the players are people of color, gay people, women and men. Ada's family is Portuguese and Mozambican; another character's family is Russian. I truly wished the author had actually delved into Ada's status as an immigrant in a time when American cities were flushed with people from other nations, and dealing with the uncertainty and hostility that came with that time. It seems like there was a lot of depth and richness available for setting and characterization that we weren't given time to sample.

While the author has a way with a turn of phrase, and this book has a lot of lyrical elements, I had a few questions about the book's settings, relationships and characterizations. Though generally enjoyable, with a praiseworthy focus on friendship and a lack of love triangles, I found the plot in some places muddled, gratuitously violent. Admittedly, I find this portion of American history, with its centering narrative of "Gatlings, Godfathers, godfellas, and gangstas" banal in the extreme, focusing, as it does, this time period the most often, and there was a LOT else going on across the country. Initially, I wanted to know when hemopaths had first appeared in the US, and how they were classified solely as diseased. I wanted to know their history and background in the States, and if there were hemopaths in other countries. There's a requisite mad scientist type in this novel, but it seemed to me that others must have been studying this effect, since laws had been passed. I thought knowing more of the politics of the time might have been interesting, but it seemed that radio and newspapers as vectors for information were limited - radios seemed not to have been invented yet, which is odd, as broadcast journalism was in its strong infant stages.

Iron Cast is owned by the charismatic Johnny Dervish who is, we're told, a vivid and compelling character, somehow demanding total loyalty from a pair of sixteen year old girls. Unfortunately, we never see why is he is beloved, or feared, though Ada's wariness to not cross him because she's been told never to do so at least makes sense - she has to walk a bit more lightly through the world than Corinne does. Corinne's overwhelming affection for him is harder to understand, as she seems to trust him for giving her a chance, even though he's a "norm" just like her family. She never gave them a chance to truly see her, however! I wish the novel had made the reader see Dervish as irresistible as well.

The narrative opens with a bang, then slows, which some readers may find hard to take after the opening "prison break" scene, which is seen as an part of an exciting con to Corinne, and rather harrowing to Ada. This told me a lot about the girls' personalities early on, and cemented my view of their friendship. Though this friendship is depicted as unbreakable and a central theme to the novel, I found that Corinne's privilege sometimes doesn't allow her to actually see Ada as anything but her sidekick or the object of her machinations. She doesn't see Ada's reality, and the limitations she has in their white-centric, immigrant-fearing, Bolshevik-hysterical world. This blindness, which comes of Corinne's privilege of being wealthy, white, and pretty causes her to act in brazen, pushy ways to get her own way.

I've said previously that Ada's Portuguese and Mozambican background is intriguing, but underutilized. I also wondered a great deal about her father, and the family's seemingly isolated stance in the US. They seem to be lacking in family or support, as her father languishes in jail. Ada also keeps her truest terrors of incarceration and abandonment from Corinne, and while I think most readers will want to be convinced of their friendship, I felt like there were some really hurtful things between them that Corinne had instituted that would prevent a true and deep relationship. I didn't see a reason for their tight friendship except that Ada had no one else. Corinne had myriad others from whom to choose - so, why Ada, especially because she was convinced she was the Negro laundress when they first met? Both girls have believable strengths and weaknesses, but I just wish we could have had more time to believe in them, for that friendship to gel and seem more true.

Conclusion: I must say again how gorgeous I find the cover; the beading around the neckline of Ada's dress is reminiscent of the leaded glass in a Tiffany lamp, doubly evoking the time period which Ada's giant afro does not. Though Ada's scene begins the book, this seems more of Corinne's story, so the choice to use Ada as cover image without Corinne is a bit odd to me, but I know many people picked this book up because there was a black girl on the cover, so... I guess well done book designers. Though engaging in many ways, this book is a bit uneven - so, so many positives, offset by so many things which confused me or bored me. Still, the world and the "powers" of hemopaths are intriguing and complex, I wanted more, and hope to see another novel written in this universe telling the history and genesis of these powers, where they came from, and how they could be used by people not overwhelmed by the shadow of the 1919 clubs-and-gangsters setting.

I received my copy of this book courtesy of the publisher. After October 11 - that's today! - you can find IRON CAST by Destiny Soria at an online e-tailer, or at a real life, independent bookstore near you!