December 31, 2015

December 29, 2015


This is less of a book review than a book reaction, and is a little more self-indulgent than the way I usually book talk here in the Wonderland tree house. However, after reading just this morning that there's a thirteen day period where PTSD is catching and stressed people are more apt to copycat violent actions, and after a week in which two nasty and violent incidents occurred in our country, I am thinking seriously about the topic touched on in this book, thus this response is my attempt at being as thoughtful as possible.

We can state for the record, that this novel is carefully written, the multiple characters are voiced realistically in terms of dialogue and interaction, and there is obviously incidental diversity of character (though one of them presents as a refugee, and I found myself wanting to know more about how he'd ended up in Opportunity, how he'd ended up friends with a trouble-maker, how long ago he'd emigrated, etc.). This is more of a plot-driven novel than a character-driven read, as the reader doesn't have much time to connect with individual characters; the teens as individuals seem not to be the point of the novel. Some readers may find the multiple voices slightly confusing, but again; the characters aren't as much the point. The narrative is bolstered and carried by a violent individual, the storyline is shouldered forward by his violent actions, and the reader is simply dragged along for the ride, like a unfortunate rider hanging from the stirrup of a runaway horse.

Summary: Two girls, whose post-graduation plans are topics bringing both longing and pain, attend an assembly with their classmates. Two boys, whose desire for information exceeds their good sense, skip the assembly and rifle through the files in the principal's office. JROTC runners, excused from the assembly, are finishing up an exercise period. When the assembly is over, the doors are locked, shots are fired, and there's an incident ongoing in the bizarrely named Opportunity, Alabama. This novel chronicles the fifty-four minutes of panic, terror and violence which change both the town and the school, forever.

Discussion: A striking cover and a succinct précis gives readers an immediate sense of what is going to go on -- a fast-paced, harrowing narrative. If the novel's purpose is to make the reader feel that they are "there;" if it is to tell a story "ripped from the headlines," it does fulfill its purpose in spades. But, my question is, "why?"

Not, "Why did this author write this book;" because that is a baseless question. A writer's rights extend to the narrative creation of any tale that he or she wishes or likes, and the purpose of a book can be nothing deeper than entertainment. The teens who will enjoy this book may simply be after a frisson of drama or, more likely, are people who, perhaps without being able to articulate it, want to explore their emotional response to the idea of violence in a school situation in a way which is safe, because the victims and the aggressor are fictional. Fictionalizing the horrendous allows a reader to imagine themselves on both sides of the fence, to posit a "what would I do?" conversation into one's ethical universe. This is A Good Thing. However, the "why" I want to touch on is slightly bigger than the individual writer, and the reader both... and deals with the nonfictional aspects of the incident which the novel mirrors, the appalling and horrific phenomena that is mass murders carried out in American schools. I think my question is, "why should I look at this repellent thing any more closely?"

Social media has made it virtually impossible to miss tragic events. In this novel, there's a very realistic -- and intrusive -- reporter asking all the wrong questions at the wrong time to people not even on campus, trying desperately to get a "scoop" as breaking news of the school shooting is reported. All too realistically callous is his treatment of the terrified students and family members, waiting for real news from someone, anyone. We have post-traumatic solidarity down to a science - change your Facebook avatar, use a hashtag, be ready to offer information on how the trauma affects you, troubles you, angers you, grieves you; we are primed to react personally and sometimes politically. But this novel touches down on not just individual reactions -- and individual terror from students being in a room wherein classmates are dying. It includes a troubling look at an unreported assault - then takes an unfortunate turn of trying to examine the motives of the shooter from the perspective of his resentments and prejudices... The sadistically grinning Tyler, casually gunning down teachers and students alike is like an evil cartoon - his disordered behavior easily explained by specific things in the novel which basically boil down to rabid homophobia and prejudice. I feel this doesn't well serve the readers for whom this book is intended, for not only can we not comprehend anyone's true motives unless they tell them to us, providing readers an "explanation" for them writes them off as nearly normal -- "well you know what those racist homophobes are like. They'll pick up a gun and kill us all, right?" -- Actually... no. Every single human being on earth, racists and homophobes included, have more nuance and depth than we may ever know. As Mark Twain said, we only ever see one side of the moon. The novel simply didn't allow us time to know the characters well enough for their actions and reactions to be shown and not simply told to us with the expectation that we'd believe.

Conclusion: I found the book fast-paced and harrowing, all things the author likely intended, but also found myself looking for places where the reader bearing witness to this violent fifty-four minutes -- being at this school, seeing the shooter, seeing his victims - made a difference, revealed something, explained something, caused me to think. I was looking for the "why should I look at this repellent thing more closely" and didn't quite find a complete answer. Had the novel more narrative scope and taken more time and more pages to allow the reader to know the characters and understand their psychology, motivations and character as well as their relationships, this novel might have been more successful. Readers seeking a realistic understanding of violence, and its outbreaks in school settings might be better off reading nonfiction; those seeking a dramatic story with a chilling and riveting storyline should look no further.

I received my copy of this book courtesy of Source Books. After January 5, 2016, you can find THIS IS WHERE IT ENDS by Marieke Nijkamp at an online e-tailer, or at a real life, independent bookstore near you!

December 28, 2015


There's a very special day coming up, and I wanted to drum up a little buzz--I'm talking about New Year's Day, yes, but it also happens to be CYBILS SHORTLIST DAY, a red-letter day around the kidlitosphere. January 1st is when all 10 Cybils Award categories announce their shortlists to the world. These shortlists are an invaluable tool for parents, librarians, and booksellers who are interested in the grassroots blogging world's favorite titles of the year. Personally, I find them amazing for gift-giving as well as for my own reading enjoyment.

Of course, after that comes the Round 2 judging process, when a second slate of judges in each category picks a winner (heh heh...sorry) to receive the 2015 Cybils Award. Those will be announced on Valentine's Day. Tanita and I are excited to be serving together on the Round 2 panel for YA Spec Fic--we read a lot of the same stuff, but we also encounter plenty of different books in our reading explorations, so it will be a lot of fun to booktalk the same titles this time. I suspect you might see a few tandem reviews in the future...

Anyway, go to the Cybils site on Friday to check out the shortlists! And you can always peruse a selection of nominated titles reviewed on the Cybils blog by hardworking volunteers.

December 24, 2015

Happy Merry Holidays!

May you and yours enjoy the tastiest and most wonderful joys of the season--with love from Finding Wonderland!

December 22, 2015


Another Western with a youthful protagonist, Laura Anne Gilman's novel is the first in a sweeping new series. I read it -- passed it along to Tech Boy who also read it and said, "Wow, it just... worked." What's harder to say is... why. And we aren't the only ones - NPR's book reviewer had the same reaction: wow, this is cool, wonder what makes it so? In some ways, it's a simple Hero(ine)'s Journey adventure... and in other ways, not so much. This novel isn't marketed to YA, but can be considered another crossover for older readers not afraid of reading a book with big ideas and sturdy vocabulary, and who enjoy adventurous females who dream bigger for themselves than they imagined.

Summary: Izzy has turned sixteen, which means the indenture into which her parents sold her as an infant is... over. She's lived in the tiny frontier town of Flood in the Territory - the acres of land bought as The Louisiana Purchase in our world - for her whole life and worked for her keep in the Boss's gambling den and saloon, serving drinks, wiping up spills, dodging hands and making sure that the Boss knows what he needs to, in order to keep running an honest house. Oh, sure, she knows the gospel sharps - like card sharps, only they're kind of itinerant preachers who promise salvation and occasionally disappear with the offering plate - call him the devil, and she knows that he makes Bargains with everyone, and that they sometimes live - or don't - to regret them, but it's been a good, if safe and bland life. She could have more of the same, but... now that her indenture is over, she has... choices. She can leave Flood, go and see the world beyond - maybe someplace out of the Territory, like the United States. Maybe she can find her parents...? She feels there's a sense of ...something calling her to do something. Maybe it's just to know what's really going on, so she makes a Bargain that is both terrifying and exciting -- she signs up to work for the Boss, in hopes that she'll maybe someday work up to being his Right Hand in the business. Unfortunately what the Boss wants her to be is his Left Hand -- the one no one sees coming. He sends her off with a Rider - an itinerant lawman of sorts - called Gabriel, to learn the Territory, and to learn her job. But, Izzy -- or, rather more maturely, Isobel is still only sixteen. Sure, she's a canny sixteen, but what does she know about the wide-open spaces of the Territory and the monsters that live there? What does she know about sentient silver, dust-mad magicians, talking rattlesnakes, the Native dream walkers who don't speak and their fellow tribesmen who appear and melt into the hills without a sound? All she knew was the saloon -- but Isobel is discovering that there's a whole big world out there, and the Boss needs her to take her place... or live to regret her Bargain like all the rest.

Peaks: The worldbuilding here is immense. Just a discussion of the magic and the monsters in the Territory could take me an hour. The setting of the Old West is often, as I've said, problematic, but Gilman escapes a lot of the nonsense of "cowboys and Injuns" by simply rewriting history and highlighting some crucial differences. First, in this new version of the American expansion, the Native tribes haven't been lied to and betrayed, because The Devil's Agreement, by which the Boss holds the Territory, doesn't take from the Native people but is a literal agreement, with signatures and boundaries and law. As is often said, the devil runs an honest house. Second, the skirmishes between settlers and Native persons aren't part of this history, as the Native people have no need of the settlers nor need to constantly defend themselves and their lands, and the settlers know their place -- as immigrants. This means that the two groups have not much to do with each other, which is a happier fate all round. Third, the settlers aren't city-slickers from the East; in this version, they have come from Spanish held Mexico and parts Southeast, which means that their languages, religions and myths are vastly different. It's delightful, really.

Isobel is walking into an adventure in the grandest tradition of adventures, but she's also having to stand alone, as a single girl in the adult world. She may have the Boss behind her, but out on the road, she's the one to stand down monsters and magicians and horrible encounters with them that lead to ghost towns. She is, as she is named, the quick knife in the darkness, the cold eye, the final word. She has to do what has to be done... but how do you learn to do that? This book is about that, too. And immigrants, and political power of churches. And faith. And magic, and mystery. It's just a huge book, and I'm really glad to see that it's going to be a series.

Valleys: Honestly, I'm still just dazed at finding myself finished with the book... I really found I couldn't find valleys. It's nice to read a book where the storytelling just draws you in that quickly.

Conclusion: Though this is the first novel in a series, it ends as if it's the entire story told - which is a lovely extra. Isobel is a confused, conflicted, resentful, hopeful, frightened girl who is just driven to do a good job, and teen readers will relate with her desperate desire to be seen as an adult and capable, and not one of the kids anymore. I am eager for the next book in this series.

I received my copy of this book courtesy of the public library. You can find SILVER ON THE ROAD by Laura Anne Gilman at an online e-tailer, or at a real life, independent bookstore near you!

December 21, 2015

Monday Review: THE BEGINNING OF EVERYTHING by Robyn Schneider

Summary: It takes some serious stones to start a story off with a decapitation. But I don't think it's too much of a spoiler to say that, yes, in some ways that WAS the beginning of everything for narrator Ezra Faulkner. It wasn't fatal for HIM, obviously, but that day when he and his best friend Toby were twelve years old and witnessed something horrific and gruesome was the day their lives were changed forever. And, life being the way it is, it wasn't the last life-changing moment, either.

Fast-forward about five years. Ezra and Toby aren't close any more. Ezra, in fact, is kind of the King of School these days—varsity tennis champ, popular crowd, keggers every Friday night, and so forth. Until one night, he leaves one of his tennis teammates' keggers and his car is hit by another vehicle that blows a stop sign. His leg is shattered, as is his tennis career, and he finds out how easy it is for everything he knew in his comfortable life to fall apart.

Don't get me wrong; this isn't the kind of story where the narrator's life does a total 180. One of the things I like about this book is that the changes are realistic and believable. Ezra may not have a picture-perfect family life, but he has a comfortable upper-upper-middle-class existence to fall back on. He may have lost his brawn, but he actually does have brains and is fine with using them, especially now that his free ticket to college is kaput. And, after all these years, he has his friend Toby. They haven't been close, but they've stayed on decent terms, and now Toby's got what Ezra lost: a group of loyal true friends and a sense of his own core self. And so, what seemed like the end may in fact be another beginning. Especially when the new girl, Cassidy, comes along…

Peaks: Like I said, I enjoyed the fact that the life-changing moments in this story were believable and human-scale, and didn't go all the way over the line into Major Tragic Emo. Those types of stories don't appeal to me and I generally don't read them. I guess I prefer stories that deal with the everyday sorts of tragedies, the kind that might happen to someone you know—the kind in, say, a Sarah Dessen novel.

I also got a lot of pleasure from the depiction of the Southern-California setting in this book. I've written about very VERY similar settings because it's where I grew up and went to high school—not quite in the OC, where this story takes place, but basically 30 minutes east. The palm trees decorated with Christmas lights, the Santa Ana winds, the ability to drive out to the beach or into L.A. in about an hour, give or take…it's a very particular growing-up experience, and it was portrayed well.

Valleys: If there are any weaknesses here, it's that some of Ezra's previous jock-and-cheerleader friends are sometimes a little two-dimensional, but having said that, the author does make sure that the most important characters are well-rounded—namely, Ezra's ex-girlfriend Charlotte, who is not simply a hot-mess megabeeyatch but a real person, albeit quite flawed.

Conclusion: I recommend this one for fans of the contemporary coming-of-age tale, done realistically, with a focus on friends and school relationships. Because the characters are high school seniors, there's definitely mature language and behavior—it's not a "young YA" story. Again, if you like Sarah Dessen, or (I feel like such a dork for tooting my own horn here, but I really did think about the similarities) my second book Underneath, I'd suggest picking it up. Good male narrator, so there's guy interest here, too.

I received my copy of this book courtesy of my library's ebook collection. You can find THE BEGINNING OF EVERYTHING by Robyn Schneider at an online e-tailer, or at a real life, independent bookstore near you!

December 18, 2015


To begin with, this isn't a YA novel. It's a crossover adult novel, recommended for older YA readers due to some violence and disturbing interactions and attitudes. Lila Bowen is a pseudonym for Delilah Dawson, a familiar YA author. If you like stories of the Old West and enjoyed Moira Young's BLOOD RED ROAD or Patrick Ness' CHAOS WALKING series, you might find you really enjoy this. I honestly didn't think I would like it. Frankly, Westerns - the whole "cowboys and Injuns" thing -- is so problematic as to have been leeched of any enjoyment. But, I found this book sneakily got in under my radar, and I was riveted. It's weird as heck and oddly ...fascinating.

Summary: Nettie Lonesome has put away her femaleness, because what good does it do her? Having observed covertly, she knows females get to be only wives or whores, and she's not into either role. Half Native, half black, she lives as not-quite-a-daughter, but not-quite-a-slave, in a strange halfway place on a hardscrabble farm outside of town. Until one night, a well-dressed stranger insinuates himself onto the property -- intent on taking the one thing Nettie has that's hers. She's not going to let him, of course. An uncommonly strong girl, since she's the only one on the farm who works, Nettie fights for her life -- and nothing stops him, until by chance she hits him in the chest with a spike of wood... and then he turns into cold black sand and an empty suit of clothes with a hole in the shirt... Wait, what?

Even without the evidence of a body, anybody even half Black remotely suspected of doing violence to a white person is going to hang. Nettie makes tracks -- shoving her braid under the man's conveniently abandoned hat -- to the large ranch up the valley - because the lazy slobs for whom she works will miss her and raise a fuss... but they're not that bright. Posing as a boy called Nat and getting work is easy enough, but violence is following her - violence, and the spirit of a wet horse. There's something Nettie has to do to now -- some deaths to revenge -- and she has to keep moving, before the violence in her past overtakes her, and ruins her future.

Peaks: The setting was really amazing, and one of the best things about the novel. The author wrote that she binge-watched "Lonesome Dove" when she was a kid. It shows; the Western sitting just sings. The magic is bizarre and weird and it works. And, Nettie isn't just a girl, she's a girl who sometimes feels like a boy, who sometimes likes boys, who sometimes likes girls. She isn't a slave, she's not only Native, but both. Her identity is fluid and unsettled, and while everything surprises her for awhile, she unsentimentally just accepts what is, and moves on. Mostly. Eventually. She's funny and kind of abrasive.

Nettie is also angry - furiously so - and terrified. Having been treated as garbage her whole life, it's hard for her to come to grips with change, and with trusting the people she must trust to do the things she must do. WHY did her parents abandon her? WHY was she being raised by awful, abusive people who basically kept her as a slave? Why is she being hunted and haunted and tracked across the world? The big question of "why me," which we all ask so often, is answered in an unusual way. Though a kind of Bildungsroman for Nettie, as the story deals with her becoming and accepting herself the way the brother-and-sister duo with whom she travels accepts her, this novel is also fast-paced and gallops along through the empty desert in a really enjoyable way. Imagine a kind of folkloric Louis L'Amour with a female lead and chupacabras. Good times.

Valleys: Though the use of the word "Injun" and "Indians" appears frequently, the author deals respectfully with her Native characters, having made a commitment to diversity which I applaud. I am always leery of books which drag out folklore and characters from a culture which don't belong to them, but Bowen makes an attempt to do her best to research and describe things with accuracy and knowledge. Nettie is described as likely half-Comanche, according to the author in her notes, while Dan and Winifred are Chirichahua. The characters from Comanche myth, the skinwalkers and two-natured folklore she discovered through research. She also apologizes in advance for what she didn't get right.

Conclusion: This is a weird and wonderful first book in a new series, and I loved how it ended - you could stop with this book and be happy, because this adventure is over, with no cliff-hanger. However, it's a lovely thought to think there will be another strange and wild book late next year!

I received my copy of this book courtesy of the public library. You can find A WAKE OF VULTURES by Lila Bowen at an online e-tailer, or at a real life, independent bookstore near you!

December 17, 2015

Thursday Review: THESE SHALLOW GRAVES by Jennifer Donnelly

Pretty cool cover, except the tagline is kind of uninformative.
Summary: I like me a good period mystery, and I enjoyed Donnelly's award-winning book A Northern Light, so I was excited to find this one in my library's ebook collection. I also tend to be interested in books that engage issues of social class, as this one does, and in a way that makes for an absorbing and page-turning read. These Shallow Graves, though primarily a mystery set in the Victoria era, has plenty of suspense and action, and even a bit of romance, so it has something to offer a wide range of readers, along with really solid storytelling and a plucky heroine.

About our heroine: Narrator Jo Montfort is a member of one of the honorable old New York families. She's wealthy, all but engaged to her equally wealthy friend Bram Aldrich, and wants for nothing…except maybe to become a newspaper reporter like Nellie Bly. Then she finds out her father is dead, allegedly due to an "unfortunate accident" while cleaning his gun. Jo immediately becomes suspicious: her father was nothing if not conscientious and safe with his weaponry. When she overhears a reporter voicing a theory that it was suicide, Jo becomes bound and determined to find out what really happened to her father. In the process, she finds out more than she ever wanted to know about her family's shipping fortune, encounters plenty of danger and dastardly doings (and more dead bodies), and, of course, falls in love with a boy from the wrong side of the tracks.

Peaks: This was a well-crafted mystery. I like stories that keep me guessing, and while I did guess correctly a few times, there are plenty of twists and turns to make things interesting. I also thought there was a vivid cast of characters, especially the narrator, Jo, and her new friends from the seedier side of town. Jo is, as I said, plucky, and too clever and curious to be just another wealthy society wife. Once she sets out on the trail of the mystery, it's easy to stay right there with her as events unfold. There is, of course, the constant threat of discovery by her staid mother and friends or the nosy butler, and this maintains an ongoing tension throughout the book that culminates in a surprising, frightening turn towards the end of the book.

As I mentioned, one of the most interesting parts of this book was its depiction of social class, which ends up being a major theme, as Jo ends up repeatedly slumming it in less savory parts of town and meeting a wide range of new friends who humanize for her the aspects of life that she would normally never encounter in her sheltered existence. That transition from sheltered to (all too) worldly happens in a way that is true to the genre of historical Victorian fiction but still remains plausible, and it's most satisfying when Jo is proactive about it, taking responsibility for her own mistakes and her own personal growth.

Valleys: I wouldn't say the story goes too far beyond existing tropes of this genre, but in my opinion, that's what makes it fun. I can't even call it a guilty pleasure because it's hard to feel guilt for reading a solidly written mystery with three-dimensional characters who don't rely too heavily on Victorian "types" like the wilting flower, ambitious young reporter, or patronizing paternal figure. The book plays off of such tropes rather than duplicating them, which is nice.

Conclusion: I found this one to be a page-turner—I cared about Jo and wanted her to find out the truth about her father's death, and bring the bad guys to justice. And kudos to the author for ultimately not making it a love triangle, which is a refreshing change.

I received my copy of this book courtesy of my library's ebook collection. You can find THESE SHALLOW GRAVES by Jennifer Donnelly at an online e-tailer, or at a real life, independent bookstore near you!

December 11, 2015


I would have gotten to this book eventually, I think, but because Linda Sue Park mentioned it on her Beacon St. TEDx talk (and if you haven't had a chance to watch, please do) which was so full of good thoughts, I bumped it immediately to the top of my TBR list.

I laughed at some guy on Goodreads saying "police brutality is not my usual thing" - um, no, it should be NO ONE's usual thing, duh. A book in which I KNOW someone is going to be badly hurt is not something I want to read on a normal day, but I knew I needed to, as I've sort of eavesdropped on the chatter going on in the Twitter kidlitosphere and realized how many people are too terrified to talk about things honestly, how many people are sitting around waiting to leap to conclusions and point fingers at people who do try to talk honestly, how often emotions are invalidated, and how few people are able to listen and are able to hear and not be offended, or let another person's truth guilt them into lashing out. In short, we are a hot mess when we talk about race, even in the kidlitosphere. I wanted to read this book so I could suggest it to others.

More personally, I wanted to read this book because I think it was written, in part, for someone like me. I grew up with a heavy emphasis on respectability politics, was given "the talk" on how to navigate situations with law enforcement repeatedly. The basics? You're already in the wrong if somebody looks at you sideways; shut up, keep your hands where you can see them, and keep your head down. Like Rashad's father, I had this idea that racism could be reasoned with, if you just wore the right clothes, didn't sag your pants, did your hair nicely, or didn't wear too flashy of a manicure. However, the many, many, many, many people for whom this did not prove to be true - from Rodney King onward - slowly began to convince me otherwise. And, with that crutch of an idea gone, everything felt crazily... unsafe.

I imagine many teens are feeling like that now, and I want to hand them this book. I want to hand it to their parents. No, it doesn't have the answer within, but it's valuable because it begins the discussion on racism and injustice in a clear and calm way that many people are too hysterical - too fearful, too hostile, or too passive to think about without being primed. This book is an excellent primer.

Summary: JROTC cadet, basketball player, and Friday afternoon relieved Rashad - his mind on anything but trouble - is squatting down to pull his phone out of his bag in a corner store when a white lady trips over him. Possessions go flying, glass breaks, and he's accused of theft. The police officer who happens to be in the store has him down in a headlock before he knows what's up. Protesting his innocence - writhing in pain and being mistaken for someone resisting arrest - Rashad is --

-- someone who looks familiar to Quinn, being beaten to a bloody pulp, right in front of him. Frozen like a deer in headlights, Quinn hopes Paul - his best friend's big brother, who's been looking out for him since his Dad died overseas - doesn't know he's there, watching him beat down that black kid. Quinn just wants to get out of there, blow it off. NBD, right? Only it is a big deal. It turns out it's the biggest deal there is.

In alternating voices, Rashad and Quinn narrate the aftermath of an ugly incident, while they navigate an equally ugly truth: that there is no respectability which will save us from racism, it's the uneven, pitted surface upon which American society uneasily rests, it didn't disappear after the Civil Rights marches, and it's not going to go away if we ignore it.

Peaks: This is an excellent conversation starter which I believe will challenge and inspire readers. It's in many ways a straightforward, almost simplistic story, but in other obvious ways, there's nothing simple about injustice. Rashad and Quinn, standing in for everyman, may be lost as individuals to some readers, and secondary characters definitely ghost in and out, as if they're characters in a play -- so some of the conventions of storytelling are done away with. Some may find this problematic, while others will find enough points where their emotional truths overlap to make up for this novel being more about concepts than characters.

I related in various moments to both characters -- their desire at times to just not talk about any of this "race" stuff anymore, the realization that some people have the privilege to shut that off and walk away, and others don't; the feeling of being angry that you're angry about something you have no control over -- all of these truly genuine feelings of helplessness and rage and resignation are there, and really resonate.

I'm always really happy to learn a new thing from a novel. Rashad is an artist who likes old Bil Keane cartoons and mentions artist Aaron Douglas -- which prompted me to look up the artist and his stupendous work.

Valleys: This is less a valley than a choice - the authors chose younger readers as their audience, and chose to make Rashad blameless - ROTC, involved in a school sport, decent student. As a character, he is easily "defensible," in some ways: he doesn't do many things which a lot of kids do which people who indulge in casual racism can tick off as "problems;" Rashad doesn't wear dreadlocks, doesn't have friends who are gang affiliated, doesn't shoplift, doesn't have a record of any kind, never has so much as a Swiss Army knife in his pocket -- so he is clearly not at fault in the incident, and the police officer who beat him down is easily described as having a history of violence despite his clean-cut "good guy" ways, so he is clearly at fault -- clear, even from the perspective of someone who believes law enforcement personnel have superpowers and are always right. For some people, this may seem to be smudging an important point: that no matter WHAT, the penalty for shoplifting, back talk to a police officer, criminal trespass, etc., is not a white policeman beating up a black person of any age. I would hope that these finer points would be raised by adults reading along with a teen, but some people may feel the authors didn't go far enough. As a door-opener, I feel this amount of information is plenty for a reader, and can too easily tip into being heavy-handed.

Cover Chatter: I really like this cover - for multiple reasons. Backlit, the cover model is anonymous, yet striking. I like that you can't tell the color of the person standing below the title - he's simply a creature of light and shadow, anonymous. On a quick glance, this might look like a sports or music star raising his hands, limned in light on the field of victory... but those are the wrong kinds of lights.

A funny thing about light -- while it illuminates this kid in some respects, it also washes him out, erases his individuality -- and makes him just another brown kid, in the police spotlight... Much is conveyed in this subtle imagery.

Conclusion: You know that average person who thinks that they have nothing to do with race or racism; who believes this whole black/white thing that's been on the news recently is just uncomfortable and awful and we need to go back to "normal?" This is a book for them.

I checked out my copy of this book from the public library. You can find THIS BOOK by This Author at an online e-tailer, or at a real life, independent bookstore near you!

December 10, 2015


Summary: Some time ago I reviewed the first collected volume of the new (and surprisingly awesome) Ms. Marvel comic, starring the rebooted main character Kamala Khan: an ordinary American teenage girl from Jersey City who just happens to be a Pakistani-American from a Muslim family. As someone who has Muslim family (my dad's side), I was thrilled to see a realistic, sympathetic, and positive portrayal of American Muslims, and in today's social climate it's something we need more than ever. So I was happy when my friend Ross lent me the next volume in the graphic novelization, entitled Generation Why, which collects issues #6-10 and covers Ms. Marvel's continuing adventures defending her city from the mysterious giant-robot-building villain known only as The Inventor.

Peaks: There is so much to love about this comic series—and this is coming from someone who is admittedly not a huge fan of superhero comics in general or of Marvel characters in particular. Sorry; I guess I've just always been more of a DC girl (Vertigo, if you must know.). Anyway, one of the storylines I DO like in the Marvel universe is the X-Men, and, lo and behold, there was a cameo appearance by He of the Huge Ackman, the Wolverine himself. This was a very cool part of an even cooler plot arc in which we learn more tantalizing hints about Ms. Marvel's origins, get to see her charming, heartwarming, often hilarious interactions with her family, and watch her bring all kinds of entertaining and clever smackdowns on The Inventor's giant homicidal robots.

click to embiggen
This episode also focuses, for its moral message (because don't superhero comics usually have one? I find they do), on youth issues and the empowerment of the current generation beyond the stereotype of them being clueless, apathetic drones with smartphones grafted onto their hands. If you think about it, superhero comics have often been message-y, so I'm not going to pass judgment on that aspect because it just is what it is, but I will say that it's a message well suited to an audience of young readers, and I like the idea of this comic being able to appeal to a wide range of readers and interest a new generation in traditional comic-book heroes. Honestly, what's not to like? A butt-kicking girl hero, plenty of diversity, lots of humor and hilarity, and a giant, lovable, slobbering telepathic dog. Go read it.

One other thing which I didn't notice before that I just adored: Ms. Marvel's outfit. If you look carefully at it, it's actually a shalwar kameez, and instead of a cape she has a dupatta (shawl). It's pretty awesome, and it's featured prominently on the cover of this collection. The cultural aspects are well done, again, in this episode, and readers not as familiar with Pakistani culture or with Islam will see typical family interactions and learn, for instance, that dogs aren't considered to be clean animals you'd let live in your house. (This was a Thing when I was a kid, and as a kid who wanted a dog, it was not a thing I liked. However, having been to India since then, and seeing the sheer number of stray dogs all over the place, I kind of understand it more…) There's also a GREAT visit by Kamala to her imam at the mosque, who gives her very wise advice. Another really important scene, to me, given the number of people who have no idea what an imam really is or does beyond what they see on TV.

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Valleys: I honestly don't see any real valleys to this one. There was a change in artist starting from issue #8, and I wasn't sure about it at first, but the new artist grew on me after a while. I guess if you're the type of person who has trouble with reboots, and can't cope with change, it could be hard to get used to. I was never much of a Marvel reader in the first place, so it bothered me not at all.

Conclusion: I really think comics fans should read this one. Girls, boys, grown-ups. It is just so much fun, and is a great reboot for reflecting the diverse time in which we live. Stay tuned for my review of Volume 3: Crushed, which is also in my TBR pile.

I received my copy of this book courtesy of a friend. You can find MS. MARVEL VOL. 2: GENERATION WHY by G. Willow Wilson, Adrian Alphona, and Jacob Wyatt at an online e-tailer, or at a real life, independent bookstore near you!

December 09, 2015


Some people decide to read more books written by women and underrepresented writers. Others decide to try and read fewer YA novels featuring rail thin girls wearing big, foofy dresses on the cover... but, yeah. YA. Foofy dresses. It's a Thing. Less so in this novel, however, as the dress isn't quite what it's meant to be. Sarah Prineas describes it as kind of a Marxist thing, taking on fairytale ...slaves, a magic sweatshop, and evil Godmothers. Though Prineas is a familiar writer for middle grade, this is her first YA novel.

Summary: The Godmother is a powerful and terrifying being who is in charge of Story. She owns slaves, which she pulls from the Nothing and sets them to work - the Spinsters of Straw Into Gold, the Jacks of All Trades who can make anything, the Shoemakers and the Seamstresses. Together, under the lash of the Overseer and the iron hard fist of the Godmother... dreams come true. The Godmother's dreams, anyway. The Fortress where her makers live supplies her with endless magic to make Story come alive -- but to make the magic, she steals lives.

When Pin arrives from the Nothing, somehow she comes with a thimble clutched in her hand. It's... something from Before, and it reminds her daily that there is something more out there. Though others have been broken in the fortress, Pin hides her secret self. Like Shoe, the green-eyed, stubbornly resilient shoemaker who was lashed thirty times for making a single, tiny mistake, Pin doesn't cry when the switch falls. She grits her teeth and stubbornly decides to endure. She makes a plan. She prepares-- and then she escapes, taking Shoe with her.

But, life on the outside of the fortress isn't as easy as it might be. For on one side of the wall are the storymakers, but on the Outside, there's Story. And it's strong. And it's forcing Pin - now Penelope - into a prince-marrying-Godmother-loving Lady -- no one she'd ever be in truth. Though many loving hands reach out to help, Pin/Pen once again proves that one can best save oneself.

Peaks: I loved the idea of Story as first encountered in Pratchett novels, as a chemical element in its own periodic table which sluices through the Universe and effects things. Story here is absolutely sinister, more in line with Story in Mercedes Lackey's 500 Kingdoms novels, since it blithely ignores your will and creates your endings for you. Unlike those books, Story has no one fighting against it but one girl. This novel twists Cinderella and also contains elements of Sleeping Beauty. There are also references to Twelve Dancing Princesses, The Princess and the Pea, etc.

Some YA novels struggle to portray aging and various classes, but Prineas does well with this. It may surprise some readers to find that Story was trying to create a romance with a Princess who wanted to love another Princess - and this may help explain how insidious story really is. It is also such a strong force that even "good" people would often say, "But, I could be happy like this. Isn't this good enough?" Self-actualized characters, and characters who insist on being the heroes of their own tales are really rare, and you'll find them here.

Those who hate a Wicked Witch being blamed for everything in fairytales will be mollified to learn that the Godmother and the Witch kind of swap roles here.

Valleys: Though I found this an intriguing premise, personally, this novel and I didn't click. The Godmother's slavery was hopeless and grinding, and Pin simply... gets up and walks away from it. Not without consequence, but her inability to be turned away from determination, and the subtle assistance that she got from everyone around her didn't ring true for me. It seemed like the kind of magical thinking that makes people say that slavery wasn't so bad, because if it was, the slaves, who outnumbered masters and overseers in the American South, would have just gotten up and done something about it. The emotional toll wasn't really apparent in Pin. I tend to believe evil isn't disembodied so Story wasn't a villain I could believe in - I guess I'm programmed to dislike a mind behind evil, and the Godmother was pretty awful. I found the romances - all of them - unnecessary, and not really resonant.

The novel is divided into three, and the first section was my favorite, even with the many questions I had. I was okay with the not-knowing, but felt myself flailing a bit in the middle of the novel, as some of my confusion persisted and was exacerbated by new characters, a wealth of description and a whole different set of changing scenes. I found my feet a bit at the last, but not in enough time to feel fully immersed in the narrative.

Conclusion: This novel has an intriguing premise, but at the end I had big picture Questions which were never fully answered... I always wondered where the thimbles came from, and why Pin had one. I wondered where Godmother and Story - in all its people-powered strength - came from. I wondered that Pin came from the Nothing, but unlike others, she was so self-actualized, had this verve and attitude that she was looking people in the eye, poking into things, and being noticed. Why was she a Special Snowflake, immune to the ruinous depredations of slavery? Without revealing too much, I also wondered why she was contented to be Pen, and not know more about Pin - that drove me kind of crazy. I also wondered if anyone was looking for the many, many, many kidnapping victims from the Kingdom - were they only coming from one? It didn't need to be a CSI novel, but it did seem somewhat significant that people could appear/disappear without much ...concern.

A cover that piqued my interest - finally, a foofy dress getting snagged! - this was a reasonably entertaining novel which fairytale lovers might enjoy on a damp autumn afternoon.

I checked out my copy of this book courtesy of the public library. You can find ASH AND BRAMBLE by Sarah Prineas at an online e-tailer, or at a real life, independent bookstore near you!

December 07, 2015

Pictures of Cool Typewriters

Since I still don't have a book review ready to post, I hereby shamelessly fill this space with writer porn, aka pictures of cool typewriters from the Museum of American History in Washington, DC, which I saw a few months ago. Here you go:

A cool-looking old-timey typewriter
Lawrence Ferlinghetti's typewriter!

And that's all I have. Happy Monday...

December 04, 2015


I don't often like to review a book waaaaay before it comes out, so this is less of a review, and more of a squee with a few salient details you could find on the back of the novel. I posted this review for the first time in August, because I Could. Not. Wait. Not even a little bit. I'm happy to reread this book this month, and I really enjoyed this book; it was unashamedly a love story -- but a love between sisters and extended family first -- even when the family didn't extend very far. This holiday season, Tessa Elwood's INHERIT THE STARS is going to be a little early gift you give yourself... stop shopping or worrying about shopping, stop sniffling and whinging about your cold. Make yourself the perfect pot of tea, and snuggle in.

Yeah, I know that doesn't sound like anything you want to do when it's 82°F. But you will want to, months from now. Trust me.

Summary: Fane, Westlet, Galton. Three households, all alike in dignity, in the fair interplanetary space where we set our tale... but this isn't Romeo and Juliet in space -- it's quite possibly even more contentious.

Fane is in trouble. Not that you'd know it - the royal house of Fane never sags, never falters, never does anything but stand tall and smile. At least, not since Asa's mother left them for the Lord of Galton when Asa was three -- taking some of Fane's vital resources with her. That was years ago, but things have gone downhill in the sixteen years since, and Fane's people are rioting, fed up with the austerity measures which have left them all low on fuel - freezing - and starving. Wren, Asa's eldest sister, and the Heir, always smiled for the cameras -- no matter what. But now Wren is comatose, having been caught in a bombing, middle sister Emmie is being sold off to Westlet in marriage to their Heir, in return for food shipments and Asa's father... is going to make it so Em being the eldest and his Heir the literal truth.

The overlooked and patronized youngest, her hair prickly and thin on her recently-shorn head, Asa is no one's choice for a solution to life's problems. She's been passed over for looks, is gangling, clumsy, and talks too much when she's scared - which is a lot, lately. She's also been told she's just like her mother for too long. Part of the mess they're in is her fault -- and she's determined to fix it. She's Fane - no matter the cost. The first thing she needs to do is take Emmie's place with the arranged marriage... and all the rest should fall into place after that. Right?

Peaks: It's not often that a novel written in the first person still manage plot twists. Though we have eyewitness accounts and firsthand seeing of everything, the reader still finds some surprises. Asa's gift is that she doesn't quite understand herself, thus the reader is able to be caught off guard by various things.

There are few YA novels which tell the true repercussions of war and feature differently abled bodies and prostheses without some sort of practically super-power witty banter or compensatory good looks to make up for it -- that's not the case here.

The tension in this book just doesn't let up. From the first moment, there's chaos and trouble. Asa is a well-meaning girl with a good, loving heart -- but sometimes love isn't enough, unless it's coupled with cunning and braced with quick thinking. Asa makes every sacrifice count -- and does her utmost to plug all of the leaks, but Fane has been in isolation for thirteen years -- it's too much to expect for Fane and Westlet to make a perfect treaty. There is treachery threatening from every direction...

Another unexpected positive is the character descriptions - unexpected diversity.

Valleys: While I had no problems, some readers find rather cinematic narrative descriptions lacking in continuity and difficult to follow. They become confused, because of the amount of action in the first several chapters. I had to track back to find ages of the daughters, which seem to be obscured deliberately, but otherwise had no real issues. Some of what Asa thinks and says is metaphoric instead of literal, and at times, when the narrative to me could have used being more detailed and descriptive, in terms of the technology, for instance, there's a bit of fuzziness about what will and won't work to save everyone -- it goes a little Star Trek fuzzy there, but because I'm not particularly technical, I could suspend my belief for that.

Despite three houses and planets, it seems that most characters are described in the novel as some version of "American standard," - and though I liked the cover, I found myself wishing I knew a little more of the planetary history and how humans had gotten there -- but I was also okay not knowing that.

Conclusion: I love mystery, politics and romance all in one novel, and Asa is an awkwardly young, earnest, and at times completely wrong-for-it heroine who really works. With its romance limited on a very innocent beginning, I can see this being a big, swoopy romantic favorite for older middle graders looking for a challenging plot, too.

I received my copy of this book courtesy of Running Press in Philly. After December 8th, 2015, you can find INHERIT THE STARS by debut author Tessa Elwood at an online e-tailer, or at a real life, independent bookstore near you!

November 30, 2015

Happy Monday, Guerrilla Girls Style

I don't have a new review for you yet, but I do have this photo that I took while in Australia, at the Art Gallery of New South Wales in Sydney. Enjoy your wry yet biting art-world commentary:

For more great stuff by the Guerrilla Girls, check out the Gallery of NSW.

November 27, 2015


This book is a gem and a gift, and in order to avoid spoilers I'll say up front: Parker is blind. The dots on the cover are Braille. And now you know ...except, it's not a big secret. Really, Parker would be the first to say, "So? And get over yourself." It is Parker's voracious desire to be sure of EVERYTHING in her life - from your reaction to her intelligence - that makes this novel ring so terribly true for me. Tight friendships, believable middle school angst that spills over into high school, and some deep truths which might make you cry - this eminently readable book is that "YA type" that does well and gets the movie deals. You'll see this story somewhere again.

NB: This novel has a secondary storyline about suicide which isn't exhaustively dealt with, but it's there.

Summary: Parker treats her blindness like more of an inconvenience than a disability, her limitations like suggestions, and her friends like the chosen family that they are. Without them, she'd have nothing, now that her father has died. The accident which claimed her sight as a little girl also claimed her mother's life, and the aunt and uncle and cousins now reluctantly inhabiting her house - and haunting her life - are just strangers preventing her from being who she is. And, her relatives, like the whole load of newcomers to Parker's high school from the one that closed across town, don't know The Rules. Don't take advantage of her blindness, trick or, or treat her like a joke. Don't help, unless she asks for it. Don't touch her unexpectedly. Don't be weird, and treat her like she's damaged. Don't expect to EVER be forgiven if you screw up: you get ONE chance. All Parker wants people to understand is that she's brilliant and capable - that blindness doesn't change that. But the world has just a long, long way to go - except for a few people. Coach Underhill even thinks she can take her morning jogging habit - a thing she started with her dad years ago - and take on track meets at school. If Parker can get over feeling exposed and find a decent running partner who understands The Rules, it might just work out. Meanwhile, she and her bestie, Sarah, have ridiculous high school romances to sort out and a lot of newbies to inform about The Rules. It's necessary that everyone learn them.

The Rules came to life in junior high after her trust was shattered by someone Parker considered her best friend. To Parker's horror, she discovers not long after school begins that this ...enemy has transferred back to her school. He actually tries to speak to her - and Parker shuts THAT noise down quick - she's not stupid or forgetful, just blind, all right? But it scares her -- and she can't keep her brain from returning to the hurtful scene over and over and over again. And then Parker discovers that she doesn't know everything about what happened that terrible day when her friend Scott tricked her -- nor does she know all that happened the day that her father died. Finding out is both terrifying, gut-wrenchingly painful and disorienting, as Parker's True North for a long time has been first her best friends, and next... Parker herself. And Sarah's acting funny, and as for herself... if she can't believe in what she doesn't see - if she no longer can plumb the depths of her own heart - what CAN she believe? The truth has never been harder to see.

Peaks: This is a differently abled person who is a BIG SARDONIC JERK. And she doesn't do it to be "refreshing" to your perceptions of the differently abled, but thanks for playing. She does it because she's frankly kind of cynical and disillusioned and afraid to acknowledge that, so yeah snark is easier. I get that. I am that. You might be, too.

The voice in this novel is compelling, sharp, and witty; Parker has a ferociously lively, biting wit -- a is a character whose friendships ring true (I want an entire other novel about Molly, Mr. Lindstrom. Just putting that out there). The diverse cast of characters seems to have evolved to surround Parker organically, and even the hapless D.B. fits.

Parker's insistent belief in the infallibility of her own brain makes the novel's characterization achingly real life, and makes the out-to-sea-with-no-horizon feeling she suffers when she's wrong sharply realized - and terrifying to the reader as well. In this poignant and sharply bittersweet novel, you may find yourself and your best friend -- ugly cry hard enough to lose all your gold stars for the month - and hopefully be heartened to find that true believers in the gift of friendship, if they hold true to it, receive strength and love reflected back to them a thousandfold.

Valleys: These may be a valley to no one other than me, but I'm cynical enough that my mind struggles with characters in YA novels who are more cinematic than real. Parker is larger than life, and her dialogue reflects a mind that can craft the perfect comeback with 99% accuracy - readers may find themselves wishing to be her, except for That One Thing. Scott is also amazingly good, quite a bit too-good-to-be-true, both as an 8th grader and as a high school sophomore. The drama may be exhausting for some readers, and the situations at Parker's high school - also larger-than-life, give this novel moments of being a high-stakes, high-emo romance - but fans of John Green and novels of that contemporary type may take to this like catnip for a kittybeast. As always, your mileage may vary. /p>

Conclusion: I snort-laughed, and teared up repeatedly; this novel is full of all the raw, edge-of-the-blade feelings that make a year of high school, intense bravado hiding insecurity, fearlessness hiding abject terror. Less of an issue novel about blindness than a reminder that jumping to conclusions is sucky exercise, the smart-mouth Parker and her cohort provide a roaring start for this debut novelist, and I'm sure we'll hear more from him soon.

Edited to add: Disability in Kidlit co-founder Kody Keplinger reviewed the book and then and interviewed the author.

Enter to win a copy of this book! You have until November 30th, 2016. Check out the giveaway on Goodreads!

I received my copy of this book courtesy of Little, Brown & Co's Poppy imprint. After December 1 - the first holiday gift to yourself? - you can find NOT IF I SEE YOU FIRST by Eric Lindstrom at an online e-tailer, or at a real life, independent bookstore near you!

November 23, 2015

A Turkey Everyone Can Love

Vegetarian or vegan, kosher or carnivore, this is one turkey we can all get behind, especially book lovers and paper fetishists such as myself. Thanks to Reading With Scissors for this one:

Happy Thanksgiving, all! See you next week. In the meantime, check out my book review posts over at the Cybils blog, posted every MWF.

November 20, 2015


Full disclosure: I've served any number of times with Gwenda Bond on Cybils panels and consider her a sharp cookie as well as a friend. As we've never had a slumber party or a trapeze act together, I'm fairly certain that I can review Gwenda's novel without undue bias.

The whole superhero thing during childhood was ubiquitous and inescapable - from The Greatest American Hero, that weird Automan series (what was THAT about, ABC?!) and endless Superman films on the big screen and rerun on the small, my entire childhood was informed by caped crusaders... which is why I was easily able to abandon all of that as baby stuff, and move on. Then Smallville came on, and ... well. *cough* Those are some hours I won't get back. But, it was all to the good, because all that teen angst sparked more imaginations than mine. So, we know the trope of The Chosen One from our hero-centric narratives, but what is The Chosen One like as a teen? The best gift we received to explore that, of course, was Harry Potter - and now, we've got Lois Lane. The not-exactly-chosen-one. The one who volunteers.

Summary: If she can just stick to the plan, Army brat Lois Lane will manage to blend in at Metropolis High. If she can keep from pointing out the fallacies in the principal's attitude toward bullying. If she can keep her nose out of what's going on with her new job at The Daily Planet's teen newsmagazine, "The Scoop." If she can steer clear of this troubling gang of... gamer nerds? If, if, if. Two little letters that mean failure, because nope, Lois can't do it. She's nosy, but it's because a good soldier always needs to know the lay of the land -- which is important if you're always The New Girl. Lois also knows what it's like to be alone - and lonely - and can't stand seeing anyone bullied, so it's pretty disturbing to see someone begging the principal for intervention on her first day... and seeing her not get it, and the bullying continue. Ugh. Since Lois will be in Metropolis for the foreseeable future -- unless The General puts her in military school, as he often threatens -- at the very least she's going to make sure Metropolis High is a decent place. With her online buddy-maybe-more friend SmallvilleGuy and the new friends at "The Scoop" behind her, not hackers, conspiracy theorists, VR games, barefoot elves or even a five-headed monster can stop her -- she hopes.

Peaks: I cringe to hear characters described as "snarky" or "wisecracking," because most of the time the dialogue that goes with those words seems staged to resemble air-brushed Movie Kid speech. However Lois doesn't JUST snark, she also deadpans, she quips, she digs, and she's really, really good at it. Lois shoots off her mouth like anyone does, and though she occasionally puts her foot in it, that just makes her sound like a normal, incisively honest teen saying the things everyone is THINKING. Since Lois isn't accustomed to having to worry about the fallout from speaking her mind ...she doesn't. Not a lot, anyway. She's a good faker, at the very least.

The appearance of Nerdfighters in this novel - slightly myopically immersed and either weeping or laughing at their books, phones at the ready to record their latest reactions via vlog - made me laugh out loud. The representations of "type" of persons is closely matched by a diversity of class and ethnicity - the teens seem to organically and naturally to transcend the "American Standard," which is nice.

And can we talk about the covers??? Both the hardback and the paperback have bags of style, and are just amazing, not only reflecting the colors of Metropolis High, but... well, our Kansas boy in a cape as well. Swoon!

Especially Apt For...: People who loved Smallville and Lois & Clark, people who are fans of the teen sleuth, a la Nancy Drew and Veronica Mars; people who love stories of intrepid reporters a la Fitzhugh's Harriet or Pratchett's William de Worde, and also for everyone who loves books about do-gooder sidekicks like Hermione Grainger and Wendy Watson, aka "Dub-Dub" from The Middleman.

Conclusion: This was such fun - more fun than even I expected. With over-the-top, truly scary villains, a conspiracy theory site, this series debut is fast-paced, tautly written, absolutely immersive yet imminently re-readable, and will leave readers greedily impatient for May 2016 when we'll get the next one.

I sourced my own copy of this book. You can find FALLOUT by Gwenda Bond at an online e-tailer, or at a real life, independent bookstore near you!

November 19, 2015

Thursday Review: THE DIVINE by A. Hanuka, T. Hanuka, and B. Lavie

Summary: This story of ancient spirits in a war-torn Southeast Asian country—the fictional land of Quanlom—is a fast read, saturated with the brutality of war's aftermath and its effects on children who no longer are given the luxury of a real childhood. I'd deem it a crossover title in terms of content and characters both; the story's protagonist here is Mark, an explosives expert with a pregnant wife and a solid job, a steady life. That is, until his old buddy Jason offers him a top-secret military contract in Quanlom, rigging up some explosives. The money sounds too good to be true…and then Mark discovers that not only does he have to contend with the moral and ethical horror of child soldiers, he also must face a land imbued with—and protected by—ancient spirits… and then decide whose side he is really on.

A quick disclaimer for adult language with this one—there are a few instances of strong language, because one of the main characters is a military-type guy with a monster attitude. That's the main reason why I'd consider this a crossover title, good for YA and above but certainly not below unless you want kids to ask uncomfortable questions about the C-word (the female one). As a story of war, it's also got its share of violence.

Photo by Apichart Weerawong. Source: NY Times
Peaks: I love the fact that this story was actually inspired by a real-life photograph of two twelve-year-old twins from East Burma who had fought to defend their land by leading an army of refugees. Their story was surrounded by legends, but the kids were (and are) real, and the photo exists (it's reprinted at the end of the book). It's kind of a what-if-the-legends-were-real story, and it's also a painful reminder of the realities of what went on in Southeast Asia, the ground still seeded with land mines and permeated with past violence. It's a history that's easy to forget or ignore, and stories like this help us remember.

Click to embiggen
Valleys: As mentioned above, this one isn't for every reader, due to violent content and language. That aside, I found myself wanting to know more about the mythology—there's a dragon-like creature, his soldiers that look like Buddhist tomb guardian figures, but not much in the way of background culture. Nevertheless, the art in those sections is atmospherically rendered, and does reward those with some existing understanding of the visual references.

Conclusion: This is a great one for guy readers, and particularly, I think, reluctant guy readers. It's fast-paced and action-packed, with cool supernatural elements and video-game violence. From a moral standpoint, the ending was also quite satisfying. And if it gets readers interested in the story behind the story, so much the better.

I received my copy of this book courtesy of the publisher, First Second. You can find THE DIVINE by Asaf Hanuka, Tomer Hanuka, and Boaz Lavie at an online e-tailer, or at a real life, independent bookstore near you!

November 17, 2015


A YA novel with an adventurous (note I did not say "strong") female protag in an unusual place is most often fun. That same YA novel written by a man is intriguing for the simple fact that there aren't as many of those. I didn't know the author's gender before finding this book - I just thought the premise sounded a lot like the early Mike Shepherd Kris Longknife books (or a much improved teen David Weber-esque Honor Harrington type) before the character (and in Weber's case, the moralizing) started to annoy me - more space opera than science fiction, more sea adventure (kind of) than steampunk: Young girl runs away (not exactly) to the (not really) sea - that sounded adventurous enough for me. Now I know that this is a debut from an author who has already put out three books in this series, so no waiting!

Summary: At fifteen, Alexis is a driven, hard-working and beloved granddaughter of a prosperous colony settler, but she knows the truth about her life -- that is, it's amazing, but she can't have it for much longer. The only way to have her grandfather's land and her easy relationship with the workers and the business for keeps is if she marries someone who will let her keep it. "Let her" is a particularly bitter pill to swallow, as Alexis IS the family business, having worked with her grandfather since she was tiny. And in a way, it's his fault that she can't have the land; as one of the original settlers of the space colony, he, too, feared the youth and vitality of the settlement walking away with its women as they married, and so agreed that only men can inherit. That was then and years later, as her grandfather ages and is terrified of the land reverting to the colony upon his death, Alexis is treated to a noxious parade of the greedy and the shallow who salivate at the thought of digging into what her grandfather has fought so hard to build - and who want to plow Alexis under, too, as part of the bargain. In a hated, frilly dress her grandfather bought her, Alexis tries to show up and play her part, but she's not stupid, and she's not going to put up with stupidity. When she sees her chance to make a life for herself - she jumps at it. There aren't any rules against women joining the Royal Navy; in the outer worlds, there are plenty of women! But not on the prosperous and originally settled core planets... never mind. Alexis didn't expect easy - she just expects to earn a future another way. And she's determined that she's going to do it...

Peaks: There's a very classic feel to this novel, possibly putting readers in mind of other books they've read from the 19th century that are Ye Olde Tales of the Sea. There's the desperate young person, yearning to break free of the Old Country, there's the limitless horizon beckoning... there's uniforms and discipline and being burned up in the fire of an institution, to emerge as one of the tall, shining, and proud. Yep, this is a story we know, and its very familiarity is lovely - and a bit deceptive.

Despite the old, old familiarity of a book set in a patriarchal society, this novel still has lots of new things per page - a whole new world, which has, surprisingly, gone backwards toward kind of the late 19th century in terms of technology (and ideology), Dark Space, which creates a need for ships far forward technologically, ships which sail with solar sails; Naval terms and Naval discipline which is a lot like the 16th - 19th century maritime obsessed British who were always running away to sea -- and the absorbing characterizations really make the pages pass quickly. Alexis isn't a whiner, nor is she particularly plucky or feisty or anything outrageously sexist. She is not ugly or beautiful, nor genetically gifted or magical; she is shorter than her thirteen-year-old bunkmate, but that doesn't bother her too much. She struggles, but none of her struggles are overly painful or dwelt on for too long. She does have a disproportionate sense of the universe needing to be fair - and it isn't - but this doesn't embitter her too much.

Science fiction typically has a bit of science in it and there is less hard science in this novel than many readers might expect. However, there are solar sails on the space ship Alexis sails on - and she has to learn to understand that technology, which was first introduced in science fiction by Jules Verne. It's completely fantastical and really complicated and I didn't get it -- but was tickled to remember Bill Nye's solar sails experiment this past summer. It's that wonderful "what if" in science fiction that keeps me coming back. Adding to that an interesting female protagonist who is sometimes lonely, sometimes terrified, and sometimes overwhelmed -- new planets and the romance of the (kind of) sea, and you have a winner of a book.

I also thought it was a positive that Alexis notices that she's a girl, surrounded by boys. It would have been ludicrous if she didn't have a tiny, brief frisson of interest in someone!

Valleys: While these aren't true valleys, there are some spots where emotional resonance is missing for me; Alexis is assaulted early in her Naval career, and later in a maneuver has to kill someone - she is able to engage in violence and do what needs to be done, but I expected it to affect her more emotionally, as it would anyone, male or female, and felt that the author let her off with artificial ease.

While Alexis is thoroughly run off her feet, in other ways, she is not very challenged by the Navy; her first time on ship, while difficult in terms of what she's required to know mathematically (and I really felt for her there!), is largely a job she can push through by being her usual focused self and seems not much harder than the work she's been doing on her grandfather's tree farm. For instance, she doesn't witness her fellow troops being particularly gross, they're not that interested in her femininity, they limit their slurs and sexism to manageable, unsubtle confrontations. No one seems to be trying to pack her in cotton and protect her, people doubt her ability, but are shown in brilliant fashion that They Are Wrong. Fortunately, I cheated and read the jacket copy for the next book and know that this is actually lulling the reader into a false sense of security, which is all to the good!

I'll be interested to see if a richer diversity of background is included in subsequent volumes; I'm thinking back and can't really remember if the characters in this are anything other than American Standard characters, which would usually take me out of a story a bit, but didn't this time. I'll make note of that for next time.

Conclusion: A fast-paced, tautly written capital 'A' Adventure, this is another independently published gem I'm happy to discover.

I picked up my copy of this book on Amazon. You can find INTO THE DARK by J.A. Sutherland at an online retailer, e-tailer, or check out the audio version.

November 13, 2015


The second "episode" in the Nicki Haddon mysteries continues Chinese-born heroine Yu Fin's adventures with MI6, the FBI, and other super secret agencies that this sixteen-year-old manages to infiltrate and outthink.

Summary: Since her involvement in the Ming vase case crossed her path with law enforcement agencies in Canada, Nicki's been recruited and sent to London for training. Her not-a-butler friend, Fenwick, has set her up to live outside of London with his sister, Emma -- a middle aged punk rocker with a band who pretty much hates her on sight. He can't go with her - Fenwick is on the trail of a theft from Buckingham Palace, and looking for a book that's missing... about a certain golden flower.

Nicki's in an uncomfortable situation that gets worse -- at the airport she was photographed and followed. The guy who followed her turns out to be a gang member who peers into Emma's windows. And the spy school Nicki was looking forward to turns out to be odd as well -- Nicki runs into one of her suspicious-acting instructors at a museum where a docent preparing to speak on the history of the opium trade is found poisoned. Nicki fears her teacher has been compromised by drug dealers... and maybe it all ties to that book no one can find. It's time to pull out her Fu Yin persona and get to work.

Peaks: Nicki Haddon's wealthy upbringing gives her a great many advantages, and though she doesn't know a great deal, she's flexible and finds out. She is also always finding ways to help the people she sees as overlooked; this time it's a punk rock band. Nicki's merely supposed to be a student in this book, but is dragged away on a fast-paced, over-the-top adventure which includes Buckingham Palace, Balmoral Castle, a stuffy butler, opium poppies, East End London rhyming slang, and general comic-book style insanity. This series is like popcorn, and readers seeking diversion will return for another quick read.

I had a little trouble suspending disbelief about some of the plot elements in the novel, but I can see this being enjoyable for kids looking for wish-fulfillment reading. Adults may find it unlikely that a sixteen-year-old girl, even a smart one, would be taken seriously by various international spy agencies to the point of impressing them and being the only one on hand to save the day!

Valleys: The difficulties of plotting a mystery include suspicious adults, but Nicki meets few, since her caretaker is in a punk band and she fends largely for herself. Nicki even without her Fu Yin persona is incompletely characterized and remains mildly mysterious. Readers may find it hard to warm up to her, as the narrative voice explains a lot of her actions and emotions but the novel lacks emotional resonance. Some of the relationships in the novel seemed rushed and underdeveloped, and Nicki's search for her birth parents, which should be personal enough for her to keep close to her heart, and to endear her to the reader, she seems afraid to tackle. Readers may wonder why she isn't more direct, talks to her parents about what she wants and needs, and uses their prodigious money and reach to find out what she can. While the transracial adoption element keeps the novel interesting, emotional development is shortchanged in favor of action in the plot, as we are told and not shown who Nicki is, what she cares about, and what drives her.

Conclusion: Like a compact Chinese superhero, Nicki outthinks, outfights and outsmarts the villains around her in this over-the-top standalone sequel.

I received my copy of this book courtesy of the publisher. You can find THE SECRET OF THE GOLDEN FLOWER by Caroline Stellings at an online e-tailer, or at a real life, independent bookstore near you!

November 12, 2015

Thursday Review: THE WAY BACK FROM BROKEN by Amber J. Keyser

Summary: Full disclosure: Amber Keyser is an author I met at a past KidLitCon; her editor Andrew Karre at Carolrhoda Lab I also know from KidLitCon (a different one) and I'm in contact with both of them online. They sent me my review copy of The Way Back from Broken.

OK, business now out of the way.

When I sat down to think about it, there really aren't that many "guy books" that deal with emotional issues. There are general "issue books" with male protagonists, but compared to the number of books with female protags that place emotional recovery front and center? The guy books aren't as numerous, that's for sure. The Way Back from Broken is one of those rare books with a male main character that foregrounds grief and recovery, friendship and love, and does it in an authentic and believable way, because yes, teenage boys deal with their emotions differently, but that doesn't mean they don't HAVE them.

Rakmen Cannon, the protagonist, is a good kid who's had bad things happen to him. He's still recovering from the grief of his baby sister's accidental death, his parents' marriage is crumbling before his very eyes, and he has to suffer the indignity of going to art therapy in a basement with a bunch of other grieving kids while his mom goes to the mother's support group upstairs. Things get even worse when ten-year-old Jacey, the new girl at art therapy, latches onto him and seems to think he can help her somehow. Oh, and Jacey's mom is one of Rakmen's teachers at school.

Rakmen has no idea what he could possibly do to help. He doesn't even want to talk about his own feelings; what can he do for a ten-year-old girl? And yet…she seems to look up to him. Almost like a brother. He hasn't had that feeling in a long time, but he's forced to confront it when his mom sends him along with Jacey and her mother on a summer wilderness trip. It's when the three of them leave the cabin and go au large--French Canadian for "on walkabout"—with just their packs and canoes, that they are forced to really start depending on one another…and that's when the walls start coming down.

Peaks: Besides what I already mentioned about how it's great to have another book for boys (and girls) that delves into the inevitability of both grief and recovery, another thing I found noteworthy about this book is that the protagonist Rakmen is of mixed race—he has a black father and Latina mother—and it's clearly portrayed but also just as clearly Not An Issue. It just is, and Rakmen is who he is, and there are a few ramifications there, but this isn't the central plot point by any means. (Did you hear that? His race doesn't define him! He is a Complex Individual!) That was really well done, in my opinion. And the girl he kind of likes, Molly—a girl in his support group—happens to be white, but that isn't a Thing. What hangs over them isn't race, but sadness.

Ironically, it's what they share that keeps them isolated. Being able to open up can't just be done on command, though, and in this case, it takes an experience that gets Rakmen outside his own head. I've seen this to be true so often, and I like that it happens in this story. I also like that everything isn't tied up in a neat bow at the end, but is realistically a bit messy. Progress is made, there is hope, but you can't bring back the dead, and some things can't ever be quite healed.

Valleys: I have to admit, I wanted this to be a bit more of a survival story, when they got to their journey au large in the Canadian wilderness. There are scary moments and physical danger, but I never quite felt that life-threatening terror that I was, for some reason, expecting. I don't know that it's a problem with the book so much as with my expectations, though. And there's certainly enough emotional tribulation to go around without having to take their physical endurance to its limits.

Conclusion: This is the kind of story I'd put in the hands of a Chris Crutcher fan—because that's whose books this reminds me of. It's about love and loss and that elusive "learning to be a man" that can be so difficult and confusing, especially when you feel like you're supposed to control or hide your emotions. It's a really heartfelt story, with believably flawed characters, including the adults. This was a debut, and I look forward to reading more of the author's books in the future.

I received my copy of this book courtesy of the author and publisher. You can find THE WAY BACK FROM BROKEN by Amber J. Keyser at an online e-tailer, or at a real life, independent bookstore near you!