December 09, 2016

Cybils Speculative Reader: TITANS, by VICTORIA SCOTT

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.

Enjoy!


While some girls are horse-crazy from the minute they're tall enough to reach a stirrup, others of us... are not into Pony Club books and that type of thing. I find that I'm mainly into the equine only when they're a.) bloodthirsty unicorns, a la RAMPANT, by Diana Peterfreunde, or b.) slightly rage/possessed water horses, a la THE SCORPIO RACES. Otherwise, meh. I could take 'em or leave 'em. Which is why this book tickled me. We gotcher insane horses, we gotcher mystical man-eaters, and now we've got... androids? Right. The Uncanny Valley widens.

Synopsis: Detroit once was a place for the people. Its working-class denizens knew where a good time was to be had - where the music was, where the best food was, and where to spend a lazy Sunday afternoon - at the races, sliding tickets across the counter, cheering and shouting, taking a chance, and making book. But, the racetrack where horses ran fell into disuse with the Titans came. Good, clean entertainment, it was supposed to be. Safer for everyone - for horses, for riders. But the Titans came and crushed a very old industry, and the betting on this new breed was easier - faster paced, and more addictive than anything that had come before. The rich got richer, the backers, the steel manufacturers, those in the right position...and the poor - betting on a dream of breaking even someday - got poorer. Families were losing houses, jobs, and everything was sliding downhill. Astrid could feel it -- and see what was coming for them. But she could no more ignore the Titans than her father. Only, her bailiwick wasn't the betting... it was the dream of a ride.

Astrid is betting on the "just one shot" like everyone else. She's given sweat, blood, time, and silence to put her hands on a single dream: to keep her family together. She just wants to make up for the one mistake she's made -- but is it possible? Can you ever really have back what you've lost?

Observations: This novel doesn't have a romantic storyline that toils away surreptitiously beneath the surface then rises up to swamp the narrative. Let's just caress that thought for a moment and gaze at it fondly.

Thanks.

There aren't a lot of YA novels featuring grandparents, and how we love them. There really aren't a lot of YA novels featuring irascible, cranky old people whom we love anyway. I like the grudging affection in this novel; Astrid's for the Titans, Rags for Astrid and Magnolia, even a family grudging affection for each other's failures. This novel is about the distance that is between people - between classes - and how it extends and expands. It is about the fractures that come into families in pursuit of security. It is about worry and strife and betting on yourself with your whole heart. There is a lot of heart in this novel, as well as a lot of math and guys with good tools.

Conclusion: The idea of mechanical horses I've not seen elsewhere, and I really like this interestingly post-contemporary world-building. There are big-picture themes in this novel, as well as fast-paced racing action and amusing characterizations. I can see this book appealing to boys and girls - it's very entertaining and engaging, as well as STEM-oriented. With its familiar feel, this old story of an old sport - betting and racing - is given a truly fresh, original face.



I received my copy of this book courtesy of the publisher. You can find TITANS by Victoria Scott at an online e-tailer, or at a real life, independent bookstore near you!

December 08, 2016

Thursday Review: THE ORDER OF ODD-FISH by James Kennedy

Synopsis: This is another one I acquired and got signed at the KidLitCon in Wichita a couple of months ago—and I got to meet and hang with the author as a fun bonus! Interesting aside—James Kennedy is founder of the really awesome 90-Second Newbery Film Festival, which brings students, teachers, and librarians together to produce condensed, often hilarious film versions of Newbery Award winners. As it turns out, he was in the running for the Newbery himself for this very book, but lost out to that pesky Neil Gaiman and his Graveyard Book. *shakes fist* NEIL GAIMAN!!!

Neil may have won, but this book still has it all. Hilarity: check. Mayhem: check. A level of quirky-cool-things-per-page that is heretofore unseen: check. Jo LaRouche, our thirteen-year-old protagonist, lives with her aunt Lily LaRouche—who seems to be an aging Golden Age film star of sorts—in a wild, gaudy mansion in the California desert. Jo was dropped on the doorstep as an infant, bearing only a note saying she was a "DANGEROUS baby." This is intriguing, since for much of the book, we bear witness to Jo being possibly the least dangerous or threatening (and definitely the least weird) in a rather amusing lineup of characters that includes a vengeful Chinese millionaire, a freakish reality-show host known only as the Belgian Prankster, various cockroach butlers, and previously unheard of orders of mysterious knights.

Of course, these orders of knights include the Order of Odd-fish, for which the book is named…and as the plot unfolds, the reader finds out the nature of Jo and Lily's connection to the Odd-Fish, as well as the secret of Jo's birth and her ultimate destiny in the magical realm of Eldritch City….

Observations: I see this one appealing greatly to fans of Terry Pratchett, in its combination of silly-yet-serious. Also, like Tiffany Aching, Jo LaRouche is kind of the heir apparent to a hidden world of magical weirdness. And boy, is it weird! And fun. And hilarious. Ever read something and think, in reference to the author, "Good grief, is THAT what it's like inside your brain? Whoa, man." It takes quirky to epic heights. And as such, it might not be for everyone—the ever-growing whirlwind of bizarre might be too much for readers who prefer realistic fiction—but I thought the author maintained the balance with a believable, relatable main character who somehow manages to remain a regular girl in many ways, despite all the strangeness going on around her.

Conclusion: Very, very enjoyable. Also impossible to really describe, so you'll just have to go read it. I'd call it middle-grade-ish, but appropriate for older audiences, too.


I acquired my copy of this book at KidLitCon 2016. You can find THE ORDER OF ODD-FISH by James Kennedy at an online e-tailer, or at a real life, independent bookstore near you!

December 06, 2016

Cybils Speculative Reads: VICARIOUS by PAULA STOKES

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.

Enjoy!


Writing inclusive speculative fiction is easily doable for a lot of people -- just, craft your imaginary world, know a great deal about the community and individuals who you're portraying -- de rigueur for any writer -- and then add them to the imaginary-ness of your speculative fiction. Done. I'm grateful that Paula Stokes decided to not white-default this novel. Though the Kim girls' culture doesn't figure largely into the story, it's worth having an Asian girl on the cover of the novel, and

Synopsis: Winter and Rose have been sisters like matching gloves, striving together all their lives, from their time in the Korean orphanage to their being brought to the U.S. and "adopted" only to be exploited and trafficked. Now they're out and away from their past -- though it has left indelible scars on them both. The girls work for Gideon Seung, Rose's onetime boyfriend, recording their thrill-ride life experiences for his Vicarious Sensory Experiences, or ViSEs. Dancing all night, jumping from a bridge, hooking up with random hotties: the girls have done it all -- and will do it all -- for Gideon. After all, he saved them.

But, then, Rose vanishes. Her ViSE is returned - with her murder on it. Winter can't find her emotions anymore -- she bounces from panicked to terrified to determined. All she wants is revenge, served ice cold. But nothing is as she thinks it might be -- and as the clues mount up, and her friend Jesse does his best to help her recreate Rose's last days, what Winter thought she knew turns out to be a lie.

Observations: There are many novels about women who have survived abuse, and novels about their emotional struggles. Though we're told early on that Winter and Rose are both struggling emotionally, we don't know how bad it is. I am not yet sure how I feel about the plot twist, and the girls' struggling from the past coming through as part of the plot twist. We get so many "strong female character" novels that when I read one which features a strong woman who breaks, it's uncomfortable. Many won't have seen the plot twist coming, and others will find it upsetting in that it draws into question the whole first half of the novel. Will this turn you off from finishing the novel? Probably not, especially since the novel rebounds and ends on an upswing which promises more story to come.

Conclusion: An adventure, this novel has some suspenseful thriller elements, and a plot twist which may be seen coming by some, but may be an affront to others. The novel ends this episode, but there's clearly room for more -- and this is a duology after all, so there will be another story in this universe. All in all, this is a fast-paced, engaging novel to pack in a bag to keep you engrossed during a long train ride.


I received my copy of this book courtesy of Tor Books. You can find VICARIOUS by Paula Stokes at an online e-tailer, or at a real life, independent bookstore near you!

December 02, 2016

Cybils Speculative Reader: MEMORY GIRL by LINDA JOY SINGLETON

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.

Enjoy!


There are elements to this novel which are so familiar -- THE GIVER vs. DIVERGENT vs. OLD MAN'S WAR vs. NEUROMANCER -- we've dealt with the "downloaded human consciousness" trope before. However, the dystopian grotesqueness of seeing it up close, using teens who are already seeking identity and trying to hold onto it -- who struggle with peer pressure and the overarching adult desire for them to conform make this a compelling read regardless.

Synopsis: At ShareHaven, life is shared -- and extended. Jennza knows it's not her lot to be herself forever -- the ultimate use for her is to take on the memories of someone who has passed away, and live again for that family, with those memories. She's meant to take on another life... but she worries. Is her life going to have her good friends Lorelei and Marcus in it? Will it have trips to the seaside, her silly little pet Petal, and her love of climbing? How do you keep all that makes you... you, if you have to grow up to be someone else?

There's not too much time to worry over that, however; Jennza is

Observations: We don't often, in dystopian novels, get a real sense of "what brought us to this point," and this novel offers only the barest hints of "some big terrible thing happened, and then we decided on this idea." The novel explains more than once that there was no choice but to do this - and the characters don't really react to this as much as the average teen. Though they're conditioned somewhat to accept their place and revel in the idea of exchanging it -- it seems there'd be more than one who rejected this idea.

Religion is pitted against Science in this novel; Scientists are the keepers of wisdom, and belief and faith and even praying are frowned upon as backwards and problematic behaviors in this brave new world. I really wished that the novel had delved further into these ideas, as things like assisted suicide seem compatible with Believers in this world, not Science. Which I found intriguing but a bit odd.

This seems to be a truly post-racial society in some ways - the question of whether someone who didn't look like your long-lost whomever could stand in for them never came up -- which for me was something I was looking forward to exploring. Do people pick their youth based on appearance, or is it only their scores? There is a lot more going on in this society than this book got into.

Conclusion: Though the slang is new, the trope is familiar. A bright, shiny, clean dystopia which walks familiar medical/scientific/we-have-all-the-answers paths, yet prolific Singleton has provided worldbuilding which gives a new depth and provides new ideas to explore for the reader.



I received my copy of this book courtesy of CBAY Books. You can find MEMORY GIRL by Linda Joy Singleton at an online e-tailer, or at a real life, independent bookstore near you!

November 29, 2016

Cybils Speculative Reader: THE IMPOSTER QUEEN, by SARAH FINE

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.

Enjoy!


I'm not too huge a fan of Fated King stories because it seems we've had endless permutations of Arthur &tc., being part of the Special Circle of Knights or being part of Merlin's coterie or Morganna's, etc. so stories of kings and princesses and prophesies are usually something I just race through and move on from. Sarah Fine's book arrested my attention because ...well, I'm not sure why. Maybe because I had no inkling, despite the title, that the protagonist wasn't really going to win the day. I was surprised and dismayed, along with the adults around her. That shows some skillful writing. While there are plots and counterplots in this novel, some more obvious than others, there's enough to keep a reader happily engaged, and enough for a sequel -- though because the novel ends tidily, a sequel is not necessary. And, that's what we like here!

Synopsis: Elli has lived a life of luxury, study, and expectation. As Saadella, she has whetted her curiosity against the sharpest minds in the kingdom, preparing for her role as Valtia. She has been told that she will be the most powerful to ever rule. Elli really doesn't care about that. The current Valtia must die in order for her the Saadella to lose her name and receive her power... and Elli's pretty much thrilled to let the current Valtia go on being the queen for as long as possible. The Valtia has cared for Elli since she was tiny, and is a clearer, sharper memory than Elli's own mother... thus, it's easy to tell when she begins to fail. Why don't any of the Valtia's ever live past their thirties? Why do the invaders have to come now?

What should have been a glorious victory for the Kupari turns from personal tragedy for Elli -- into disaster as the Saadella finally ascends to her throne, only to find that the magic which she has awaited -- gone. Instead of raised up and deified, Elli only feels ...hollow and empty and useless. And, soon, her uselessness is magnified by terror. How will she live? What will she do, if she is neither the Saadella nor the Valtia? What good is she?

Left with few choices, Elli disappears into the outlands, and finds herself in a nest of thieves -- but are they all thieves? Are they all bad people, as she has been taught? As they guide Elli into her new life, she realizes how much she hasn't learned about her own world -- and the prophesy that said she was powerful has a meaning she hadn't considered. There's a "right" side to be on, in the upcoming conflict, and then there's the side you make yourself. Elli's eventual grasping of her identity as a decider allows her to stop being used and to use circumstances for the betterment of all.

Observations: We've had a couple of books this Cybils cycle about powerlessness -- and I like how Fine deals with it, in such a way which gives it a real world application: after a theft of your power, you may have nothing left within you, but the hollow inside is empty for a purpose -- so that you can work as an amplifier on behalf of someone else. That's a pretty cool thought, when all is said and done. Elli was prepared to lose her name and lose her personal will on behalf of the people of her kingdom -- and while that in itself is laudable, sometimes our best power is to decide things for ourselves, on our own behalf, and if the kingdom comes along... well, okay.

Conclusion: Elli is a character who yearns for love, attention, and purpose, who knows when she's inflicting her affection on someone, but who doesn't always see when someone's affectionate attention is given to her. I like how Fine plays with ideas of power and will with a would-be queen, who is basically powerless in some ways, though she's allegedly the period at the end of the kingdom's sentence. Though I might wish the romance had been eliminated, to keep the reasons Elli does things more ..."pure," overall, I think this somewhat familiar narrative has just enough new things to engage teens seeking to understand their own powerlessness -- and to find ways to turn the tide of the world they know.



I received my copy of this book courtesy of the publisher. You can find THE IMPOSTER QUEEN by Sara Fine at an online e-tailer, or at a real life, independent bookstore near you!

November 28, 2016

Monday Review: REALITY BOY by A.S. King

Synopsis: I picked this one up (and got it signed; woot!) at the most recent Kidlitosphere Conference in Wichita—somehow I missed it when it came out a few years ago, but I'm so glad I went back for it, because it's up there with my favorite A.S. King novels.

Picture one of those awful, Nanny 9-1-1 reality TV shows that were so popular there for a while. Now, imagine being a teenager, and having been one of the luckless kids who was featured on such a show as a toddler, too young to have any say about it. Imagine you'd been acting out your anger at your manipulative older sister in all kinds of sad and horrible ways, but thanks to oblivious parents and heartless TV studio execs, you're the one who takes the blame. That's what happened to Gerald Faust. Now seventeen, he's biding his time until he graduates, working a job at the local sports arena and still working on his anger issues. You'd be angry, too, if all the kids at school knew you as "the Crapper" and your awful sister was still living in the basement, making your life hell.

Gerald feels very much alone at the beginning of this novel, but it is those who dare to reach out to him that begin to truly open him up to the world: his boss at the arena, who is everything his mom isn't; and Hannah, a girl with enough troubles of her own that she doesn't seem to care about Gerald's past. In tiny ways, and then in more pronounced ways, his walls start to come down, and his life starts to change. And, to his surprise…he finds hope out there beyond the walls.

Observations: This story was incredibly gripping, told as it was in alternating sections: Gerald's childhood on the TV show, and his experiences with the TV nanny, are juxtaposed with his present-day life and tribulations with schoolmates and family. Some of his problems are new, and some of them just never went away…and through it all, he struggles with his anger and powerlessness. Overcoming his anger, and realizing the power that he DOES have, is one of the core themes of this book. Feeling powerless, feeling like you're subject to the whims of your family and those around you—it's basically a childhood/adolescent truism, but Reality Boy takes it to heretofore unexplored heights.

I had so, SO much sympathy and righteous anger on behalf of Gerald—how could parents do something like that? How could they raise their children in such a dysfunctional way?—and yet these types of small tragedies happen every day, albeit not necessarily in such visible ways. Still, the presence of the media panopticon in this story is frighteningly relevant.

Conclusion: A.S. King does such an incredible job of telling Gerald's story here, making us feel for him AND feel his anger—and making us root for him to heal. Fans of her books won't want to miss this.


I purchased my copy of this book from Watermark Books in Wichita. You can find REALITY BOY by A.S. King at an online e-tailer, or at a real life, independent bookstore near you!

November 25, 2016

Cybils Speculative Reader: 23 MINUTES by VIVIAN VANDE VELDE

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.

Enjoy!

I have a ridiculous love for the novels of Vivian Vande Velde (I also love the alliteration of her name just that tiny shade too much) and her speculative worlds never fail me. I discovered her vampire novel in my 90's YA reading, about the same time I discovered Annette Curtis Klause's vampires, and devoured them both. I'm pleased to see Vande Velde still writing.

This is your little holiday reminder to hit the library and dig up some of your favorite authors, and see what else they've published since the 90's! Vivian Vande Velde has been busy!


Synopsis: Okay, so you're not going to care, but fifteen-year-old Zoe's had a crap day. She fought with her house mother, she stole her file from the office of her group home, and she's just been caught in the rain - so she steps into a bank, where everyone's giving her stinkeye. And then? There's a ROBBERY. And the one guy who's been kind of sweet and friendly to her... dies.

This is not the day Zoe signed up for.

What's worse is that though she's pretty sure her day is her fault -- totally sure, actually -- Zoe has to change the trajectory of this day -- she has that power, in theory. In practice, changing the world by changing your actions? Is darned hard. Sometimes she's too fast. Sometimes she's too slow. And she simply cannot think fast enough with guns firing and people falling on her -- her heart is beating too fast, and there's too, too much at stake.

Nobody looks at her. Nobody truly sees her. Nobody wants a damp, blue-haired girl to stand around, messing up the sanctity of their Adult World. But, Zoe has seen people die and she's got to stop it -- she's just got to... or else, what is her weird ability for? Who is she? What's her life about?

Observations: Vande Velde really stretches to determine the boundaries of this paranormal skill - twenty-three minutes is the amount of time Zoe has to change things, and ten times is how many times she can rewind. That's it. Establishing this clearly goes a long way toward helping the reader stay focused. While the book uses a lot of repetition, the focus of each scene is somehow subtly different, keeping the reader worried - and engaged.

This book was both funny and frustrating. It really says something about our culture that a teen is not listened to -- add to that a teen with blue hair, who doesn't look particularly prepossessing, is unaccompanied, has papers which detail her psychiatric history, and is by turns weeping, shaking, blurting, or snarking? She is NOT going to be heard. I knew this, and yet I kept hoping, and trying to think - and outthink - the protagonist, and come up with things she could try to get her very important message across, before the twenty-three minutes were up. I LOVE the mental gymnastics it took to plot this, and I hope to see a lot more uniquely fresh plot ideas like this. I really enjoyed this, even as it made me want to scream.

Conclusion: The Dutch version of this novel made me smile - I hope the paperback American version chooses to display that blue hair!

Vivian Vande Velde has a unique and twisty mind, which we already knew, but she truly put it -- and the readers' -- through its paces in this short, fast-paced novel.



I received my copy of this book courtesy of public library. You can find 23 MINUTES by Vivian Vande Velde at an online e-tailer, or at a real life, independent bookstore near you!