June 30, 2015


This book is one off-the-beaten-track for me. It's definitely a MG chapter book, and skews quite a bit younger than the books we usually review here -- but I'm reviewing it anyway, because I'm excited that I'll have the opportunity to meet the author this fall. Tracey Baptiste is one of our keynote speakers for KidLitCon 2015, which will be held October 9 & 10 at the Hyatt Place Harbor East in Baltimore, Maryland.

I wanted to read this book, too, because I'd not consciously heard of Jumbies... but for some reason, the word set off an echo that said... "haints." Now, a haint is... one of those things my grandfather and great-grandfather were not supposed to tell me about -- my mother protested vociferously about the stories of things that went bump in the night. Honestly, because I was a completely gullible child (bwa-hahahaha! "Was," she says), it was probably better that I didn't hear too many of these stories, but I did hear of them -- and they still fascinate me in every culture. Tracey Baptiste's tale of the Caribbean boogey...people is cool because it has some surprising twists that are unexpectedly deep -- the story ends up being about people taking what doesn't belong to them -- including land -- and it ends with figuring out what you can live with, and what deserves a compromise. And, it has really good oranges...

Summary: Eleven-year-old Corinne La Mer and her father, Pierre, have everything they need in their Caribbean home. Each other -- the sunshine, the sea, the sweet smell of oranges, and Corinne's mother, Nicole's grave nearby. They are happy, and Corinne is brave -- she's not superstitious and jumpy about the mahogany woods next to the house. Everyone says that there are jumbies there -- haunts and haints - but she doesn't let that worry her. Her father has told her that people who believe everything they hear are the only ones who believe in that nonsense. Unfortunately jumbies might be real -- Corinne has seen a pair of bright yellow eyes in the woods, where she's not really supposed to go. Those eyes might have followed her out -- because suddenly there's a new woman in town, a woman who seems to be dead set on being the one-more-thing Corinne's father needs. Corinne isn't in the market for another mother -- and she wants that woman gone. But, as it turns out, that's not going to happen without a lot of faith, a lot of hard work, and banding together with friends she never knew she needed. And in the end, Corinne discovers that the things she thought she needed won't ever be quite as simple as they were before.

Peaks: I love the originality of this novel. There are new animals, new descriptions and new-things-per-page which will enchant a fairytale reader. I like that people are described as sun-baked, wearing saris, with long braids and locks. I was intrigued by the animals and foods I didn't recognize - and there isn't any glossary, so readers will launch into the web and discover images and other links to what is found in one imaginary story - which is always cool, when a fairytale reaches into real life.

As Betsy noted in her review, there is diversity in this village - the author is from Trinidad, so we assume Corinne's island is a like Trinidad where live people of Indo-Caribbean and Afro-Caribbean ancestry as well. It's a nice reminder that monocultures are very nearly non-existent.

I love that there is a discussion of "us" vs. "them" in this novel, and the idea of appropriation and theft and what is owed to the land and who came before us. Though those ideas aren't entirely explored in this short book, I think that these thoughts will plant some seeds and make great jumping-off points for conversations.

Valleys: Some of the things brought up in the novel deserved, I felt, more exploration. This is a tiny valley, but I wondered if this book was in a strange way about accepting new people into a parent's life. If Corinne had accepted that someone wanted her father and her to be her new family, would everything have gone differently? Is the near-destruction of the village really Corinne's fault, because she was house-proud and went to war over the kitchen, and didn't immediately accept someone who was trying to be a substitute mother for her? While I'm sure that isn't the author's intent, it could be read that way.

Those lost in this novel - jumbies and villagers alike - don't come back after their war. It's typical for old school fairy tales - Cinderella's stepsisters' hacked up feet don't regenerate - but for a modern fairytale, it's a little alarming. The village never seems to mourn for those who are lost, except for Dru -- and when she resists the "happily ever after" ending, she's told it's just one of the facts of life, and "hey, look, something good came out of this, at least." That seemed to shift the burden of the jumbies' actions away from themselves and onto their ringleader -- which was kind of a conflicting message to me, since a lot of what the villagers had to learn, in the aftermath of the war, was how to live with the actions that they'd taken and the choices they'd made which had caused the problems in the first place. On the other hand, it may be that I'm reading way too much into a chapter book! I think kids - and adults - who feel a little uneasy about the ending may have some thoughtful conversations about how they would have ended things.

Conclusion: A fast-paced, colorful Caribbean fairytale, this culturally expansive book for boys and girls is only a little spooky and perfect for some tiny chills. Frankly, I found myself trying to imagine and draw the jumbies instead of fearing them (backwards feet? One cow hoof?), which is just the right amount of horror/spook for younger middle graders.

Don't forget: If you're a blogger and want to have a great weekend meeting like-minded librarians, parents and other bloggers who read and discuss children's and young adult lit, c'mon out to Baltimore for KidLitCon this next October and hear the author speak in person! You'll be glad you did.

I received my copy of this book courtesy of Sheila Ruth, KidLitCon 2015 co-organizer. You can find THE JUMBIES by Tracey Baptiste at an online e-tailer, or at a real life, independent bookstore near you!

June 29, 2015


Summary: I don't know why I put off reading this one for so long. I really love A.S. King's writing, and every time I read one of her books I'm pretty much blown away. This one's no exception. Trying to summarize it is only going to make it sound truly bizarre, but it IS bizarre in a most wonderful way, so here goes.

Glory O'Brien has a fairly circumscribed world. She lives with her father—her mother committed suicide when she was four, and it's left a gaping hole in her life as well as making her father lose his own way. Her best friend, Ellie, who is basically her only friend, lives in a commune across the street, but Ellie doesn't quite understand. And what neither girl realizes is the extent of the ties that bind them and the threads of love and loss that reverberate through their lives and those of their families. Things only get more complicated when they (here's the bizarre part) get bored and frustrated one night and decide to drink a desiccated bat for no real reason other than it's there, and they're there, and everything seems topsy turvy anyway.

After that, everything changes. Glory and Ellie both begin to have visions—whenever they meet someone else's eyes, they see that person's past, that person's future. And the future that Glory is beginning to piece together is not a pleasant place. Women are once again second-class citizens, and the New America is an all-too-believable place of war and extremism. What's more, Glory isn't even sure how she herself fits into it, or how she might have even a whisper of a possibility of stopping it. If it's even real in the first place...

Peaks: Like the author's other books, this one strikes that perfect balance between quirky and profound. Quirky might not even be the right word, but what I love about it is it doesn't shy away from the weird, the uncomfortable, the painful, the imaginative—things we as writers are often afraid to put into our writing because the risk seems too great. But they all interweave in this tale, which also manages to not fit neatly into a genre (which I like) but is something of an issue novel, magical realism, and sci-fi all blended into one. The SLJ reviewer mentioned Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale, and while the sci-fi aspects are only one part of this book, the comparison as far as genre fluidity is quite apt here.

What's interesting about a book in which the future is sort of foretold is that everything that happens has a sense of inevitability about it, and yet nothing here is predictable; in fact, it's a page-turner because of the real-life parts of the story just as much as, if not more so than the magical aspects.

Another thing I really liked about this book was the fact that the adult characters are not given short shrift; in fact, they're key parts of the complex plot that unfolds, whether they are present in the scene or—in the case of Glory's mother—painfully absent.

Valleys: I don't think anything A.S. King writes has any valleys at all. There, I said it. Insert fan-girl squeal if you must have sound effects.

Conclusion: Just read it. That is all.

I received my copy of this book courtesy of the Stanislaus County Library. You can find GLORY O'BRIEN'S HISTORY OF THE FUTURE by A.S. King at an online e-tailer, or at a real life, independent bookstore near you!

June 23, 2015


After I sighed enviously through Susan White's Ten Thousand Truths and longed to live on a magical farm like that (despite the fact that there's nothing magical about having to dig and drudge and deal with small, mad chickens who don't want you to take their eggs), I was pleased to find another book which I can only describe as magical realism. Is it fantasy? Not really. Is it speculative? Kind of. Magical is just the best way to describe it, and it's a marvelous book to take you through an extra-long lunchtime spent munching the first tiny, sour plums of summertime.

Summary: Betony Fraser wishes she could blow off her mother as easily as her two brothers do, but no, she got the guilt gene, and she dutifully drags along behind her mother on the weekly after school visit to see Gram, Betony's Mom's-grandmother. Betony is not good with Really Ancient; Grammie and Grampie, her grandparents, are only "older," and they're amazing, but Betony was mostly terrified of her speechless great-grandfather, who she only knew briefly while he was in the nursing home, and she's never even so much as touched Gram, preferring to kind of stay behind her mother as often as possible or escape down to the beach in front of Gram's house instead of doing chores inside. Gram is ninety-two, and though she be but little, she is fierce -- still strong enough to weed the garden, get the wood from the basement, keep the wood stove roaring (in her way-too-hot house), clean the house, and put a from-scratch dinner on the table every night. But while Gram is strong in body, she is additionally inflexible in mind, cranky and abrupt, full harsh criticism and stinging observations about how today is never as good as back when she was a girl. Betony's mother is full of warnings and threats toward she and her brothers, before they go to visit, which makes Betony and her siblings really appreciate Gram even less. Plus, Betony thinks her house smells weird.

On the late Spring afternoon that Betony falls into an after-school doze in her grandmother's chair -- and time-slips into the turn of the last century and her great-grandmother's childhood, things change. Betony dreams faces she's never been showed pictures of, experiences stories she's never been told -- and gains an abrupt and shocking insight into her great-grandmother's life. Betony wants to know more, begins to spend more time with Gran, digging into old family albums and hearing more stories. She's amazed at how hard Gran worked as a girl her age - and she started sewing when she was seven?! Betony realizes that she, too, can do more, and becomes interested in learning to piece quilts. As long as she keeps sitting in her grandmother's chair, she gains snippets of the past which connect her to something much bigger than herself -- her history. But, the chair is giving her a history of things that don't seem to be accurate in the present. Something happened to her family as it once was -- something Betony can't quite see. Even the most innocent of discoveries in the spare room closet send Gram into rage, but Betony can't stop. Is seeing into the past really worth digging up pain and trouble and a secret family shame in the present?

Peaks: Betony's discomfort with the elderly was written so accurately that I had to smile. I remember doing a lot of visiting with the elderly, at the leadership if my mother, and I could think of twenty-seven million other places I wanted to be, other than with steel-haired women telling me I should sit up straighter, and couldn't I speak up? I empathized with her resentment of her siblings, who somehow were always elsewhere, when visits came up.

I appreciated the gradual unfolding of the tale, which took me at its own, unhurried pace, then smacked me with a curveball I NEVER saw coming. It was so unexpected that I said, "Huh!" out loud when I was reading. I further appreciated the denouement took time as well; there was going to be no insta-happy HEA with the ending. Just adding water - either under the bridge or in smaller drops, as tears of joy - was fifty-three years too late.

In a way, I also appreciated that the mystery of the chair is never explained - or even fully shared. When Betony eventually ceases to rely on it for her link to the past, she makes a point that the present is what must be dealt with - which makes a lot of sense. But, I do wonder if it still works, or if it ever channels another family member's memories...

Valleys: Readers recommending this book to middle grade readers may find that because of its writing style that adults may enjoy it just as much, or more than younger readers. While we see through Betony's eyes and hear her voice, there's a bit of a disconnect from the character, and the other characters in the book, especially her brothers, occasionally come off as somewhat stereotypical blurs of testosterone and noisy activity.

Without revealing spoilers, there is indeed a very terrible thing Betony discovers, and I wish the narrative had slowed down to really explore how Betony felt about the actions taken, her own beliefs, her own beliefs within the context of her day-to-day experiences and school friends, and exploring her own true feelings in the face of that. I found myself wondering why she took the action she did - it seemed reflexive, but I would have liked to see her think about it, and weigh what she believed. A lot of the issue was dismissed relative to the time ("people didn't know any better"), and only one character of Betony's generation seems to be left with resentment and confusion - with no target, and no outlet. While not demanding that heavy and negative emotions need to be overemphasized at the expense of the plot, I believe we underestimate kids' emotional intelligence and ability to process beliefs and judgements, by glossing over a shameful behavior.

Conclusion: This is a really excellent book which digs into the past - Canada's past - and shines some light on beliefs and assumptions which many people hold about how "decent" of people they are. I loved it, and am grateful for the recommendation. Readers looking to spur important conversations about prejudices and family will find plenty to chew over in this slim volume.

I received my copy of this book courtesy of Emily at Nimbus Press. You can find THE MEMORY CHAIR by Susan White at an online e-tailer, or at a real life, independent bookstore near you!

June 22, 2015

On Plot Structuring

Cross-posted to Aquafortis.

I'm finally back to having time to devote to my WIP--or I should perhaps say, I have seized time back from the ravening bitch-goddess that is unexpected work. Not to mention the slightly less ravening bitch-goddess that is EXPECTED work. And what I realized was that my WIP has the extreme need for some attention devoted to structure. (And also that I wanted to change the title again.)

I've been spending a lot of productive time lately looking at screenwriting books, or at least books written with screenwriters in mind but which are also quite helpful for us novel writers. I've gotten a huge amount of thoughtful and practical advice from Story by Robert McKee and The Writer's Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers by Christopher Vogler, even though I haven't finished reading them yet. But possibly the most directly useful book has been Save the Cat by Blake Snyder, which was recommended by fellow author and member of our writing group Sara Lewis Holmes (of the lovely and poetic blog Read Write Believe). Snyder uses a method called the "beat sheet" to lay out plot structure in chunks--or maybe a better word than structure is "dynamics," because it isn't so much a matter of specific THINGS that have to happen at certain times, it's the rhythm of the thing.

I had done a beat sheet for this project last year, but that was before I decided to split it into two books, so it was long overdue for me to try to revisit my "outline" (or what passes for one) instead of just working on individual chapters and going into denial about major stuff like the book as a whole. I kind of like the beat sheet because it gives some structure to the story beyond just outlining the scenes or chapters. But I was starting to feel overwhelmed because what I have is this old, bloated beat sheet from before; a partially-rewritten manuscript with a bunch of scenes and changes not included in the old beat sheet; and a stack of index cards with plot points on them that I'd been attempting to shuffle around. What I decided to do, with the help of the Save the Cat Beat Sheet for Novels Spreadsheet that I found on Jami Gold's website, was create a set of Beat Sheet Cards, one for each beat listing the name of the beat and a short description (cut and pasted from the spreadsheet) and an approximate page count goal.

I did this by printing them onto big Avery shipping labels and slapping those onto the index cards. (I love office supplies.) Then I spread those out on my living room floor and aligned my plot points underneath them--reshuffling in a couple of cases, and inserting a couple of new ones as I found out there was kind of a gaping hole in the plot. Once I had it all laid out, I then went in and rewrote the beat sheet.

And changed the title again. *Shakes fist* TITLES!!!

Anyway, this was a helpful exercise. I was having trouble visualizing everything because of the fact that there are two POV characters that alternate, and because a third character is taking on a bit more of a role in this rewrite. This made it easy for me to pinpoint where I still needed to add in that third character's arc. It also made me realize I really need to do something about the ending....

June 19, 2015


I love fish-out-of-water novels so much. Junior high seems to be the perfect age to experience new things and retain the adventure of the newness, while exploring the difficulties of adjusting and taking it all in stride. Daphne Greer has written a fish-out-of-water novel with a classy cover that reminds me of THE GREAT GILLY HOPKINS, by Katherine Paterson, with a quieter protagonist who deals with the hand he's been dealt in different ways. While the fish-out-of-water/ mi familia loca trope is nothing new, the requisite "new-things-per-page" that makes a novel interesting is all right there, includes new landscapes - this book is set in the tiny village of Newport Landing, Nova Scotia, and now I have nineteen other reasons to pop over to Nova Scotia one summer. It sounds amazing.

Summary: Jacob Mosher's life is like a cracked cup. All that was familiar and loved has seeped out -- way back when he was tiny, his mother, then a year ago his father, now, this summer his foster mother, Maggie, and the familiar cityscapes of Ottawa. There's very little left in Jacob's life that doesn't seem to be departing on an outgoing tide. His social worker, Bernice, has worked a miracle in finding his last two surviving relatives. He has grandparents! But they're a world away in Nova Scotia - a.k.a. nowhere - and they're as weird as heck. SUPER weird. His grandfather, Frank, is forever barking nautical orders, wears this bizarre naval getup, is blind, and can't seem to remember Jacob's not some junior sailor on his nonexistent ship. His grandmother, Pearl, is... evasive, doesn't ask any questions - or answer any questions, either - and doesn't always remember to put in her dentures. And why didn't Jacob's father ever say anything about having family? Why hasn't he ever been to see Frank and Pearl? There are secrets and things left unsaid haunting all corners of the great big house on the hill.

Jacob begins the summer completely uninvested, but his grandparents seem to expect vastly different things from him than he thought, and his own expectations of surviving the summer are worlds away from what he finds. Fortunately, there Ruby from up the lane, Kenny, his grandfather's home health aide, and a few other reliable folk to help him find his feet. An absolutely sweet tale of secrets revealed and hearts mended, this is a perfect middle grade summer read.

Peaks: Though this book leaves the reader heart-full, it is also funny. While many people believe there is nothing funny about aging, "Captain Crazy, and his sidekick, Pearl" - a.k.a. Jacob's grandparents - are full of their own little quirks and habits, and Jacob is completely unable to say no to either of them, with the expected (sometimes exasperating, sometimes hilarious) results. I like the gradual way Jacob begins to care about them, and take more and more of their worries, and the worries of his friend Ruby onto his shoulders.

While this isn't exactly a mystery -- it's merely a summer-in-a-new-place kind of book -- there's a couple of little plot quirks at the end that I didn't see coming, which were quite satisfying.

Valleys: None to report, though a perceived lack of diversity may have had more to do with me missing some cues than there being none to report. This is a quick read about a boy who was a little sad and displaced, which is something we've all felt, and that commonality will pull in even the most reluctant of readers.

Conclusion: Like a perfect summer day - warm, but with just a kiss of breeze - Daphne Greer's book celebrates the best things about foster care, family, friendships, and bridging the generations to make our own truths. This is a book you'll want to hug.

I received my copy of this book courtesy of Emily at Nimbus Publishing. You can find JACOB'S LANDING by Daphne Greer at an online e-tailer, or at a real life, independent bookstore near you!

Reading all weekend! Join the Book Challenge!

June 18, 2015

Thursday Review: EXQUISITE CORPSE by Penelope Bagieu

Summary: This graphic novel isn't technically a YA book, but since it's about a 22-year-old young woman trying to muddle along in early adulthood, it makes a great crossover title. And because I loved it so much I want to hug it, I'm going to review it here. (How could I not like a book that references the Simpsons on the first page? Let me just say..."Canyonero!")

Zoe, the protagonist, has a rather underwhelming career as a booth babe at car shows and the like, and when she's not fending off the ham-handed advances of trade show attendees, she's at home "enjoying" the company of her somewhat loser-y boyfriend. So, one day, when she meets a rather odd, reclusive, but intriguing man who says he's a bestselling author, her life gets a little more interesting. And then it gets a LOT more interesting when she finds out what he's hiding and why he's so reclusive...

Click to embiggen
Peaks: This book was not only hilarious and charming, but the plot had fun twists, and the ending...the ending was just PERFECT. I can't go into too much detail with spoilers, so I'll keep it brief. Zoe is a wonderfully relatable protagonist whose life has that jogging-in-place feel that nearly all of us are familiar with, and her inability to resist a tiny infusion of adventure sets the story going in an all-too-believable way. The portrayal of author Thomas Rocher (and the authorial lifestyle) is highly entertaining, and the banter among the characters is so well-written and made me laugh out loud. There is something indefinably very French about it, something I also enjoyed. And the artwork is simple, cute, and down-to-earth, and also very funny. If you like Vera Brosgol or Faith Erin Hicks, you'll want to check this one out.

Valleys: I don't really have any valleys to report, per se, except that this one's probably best for older YA readers (there's a bit of mature content, i.e., sex and the F-word) unless you are French and lack our American puritanical hangups, in which case, go nuts.

Conclusion: This is another funny and all-around excellent contribution from the world of French comics, which, I have to say, has a lot of amazing stuff going on for all ages. My last review of Last Man: The Stranger was another originally French-language publication, and I've been impressed for a long time by animation coming out of France, too. Don't miss this one--it's a laugh, and I look forward to reading more from this clearly very talented author.

I received my copy of this book courtesy of First Second Books. You can find EXQUISITE CORPSE by Penelope Bagieu at an online e-tailer, or at a real life, independent bookstore near you!

June 12, 2015


Happy Friday!
Welcome to another edition of In Tandem, the dual read-and-review blog series where both A.F. and I give our on-the-spot commentary as we read and team blog a book. (You can feel free to guess which of us is the yellow owl and which of us is the pinkish-purply owl...frankly, it depends on the day of the week!)

This week's book has been described as a "disturbing and engrossing" psychological thriller, and Kirkus says it's about "reckless redemption" and not for the faint of heart. To read a Kuehn book is to delve into the bits of humanity that you might not yet have a name for, to be profoundly uncomfortable with your thoughts, and to realize that the species as a whole has more in common with a rabid pack of hyenas than you'd prefer to believe. In the name of full disclosure, we enjoyed meeting the author in person last autumn at KidlitCon over dinner, and were glad for the chance to team read this novel.

NB: Here There Be Dragons. This is as close to a "reader advisory" as we get. This novel contains some disturbing ambiguous scenes of abuse, violence, partying, sexual activity and disturbing depictions of mental illness. Older teens and those who enjoy digging into the twists of our psyche will be just fine. *dusts off hands* Now! We're going to talk about this book - sans spoilers - and we hope you'll join us. We're...

Two writers,
& Two readers,
With one book.

In Tandem.

When nearly killing a classmate gets seventeen-year-old Sadie Su kicked out of her third boarding school in four years, she returns to her family's California vineyard estate. Here, she's meant to stay out of trouble. Here, she's meant to do a lot of things. But it's hard. She's bored. And when Sadie's bored, the only thing she likes is trouble.

Emerson Tate's a poor boy living in a rich town, with his widowed mother and strange, haunted little brother. All he wants his senior year is to play basketball and make something happen with the girl of his dreams. That's why Emerson's not happy Sadie's back. An old childhood friend, she knows his worst secrets. The things he longs to forget. The things she won't ever let him.

Haunted is a good word for fifteen-year-old Miles Tate. Miles can see the future, after all. And he knows his vision of tragic violence at his school will come true, because his visions always do. That's what he tells the new girl in town. The one who listens to him. The one who recognizes the darkness in his past.

But can Miles stop the violence? Or has the future already been written? Maybe tragedy is his destiny. Maybe it's all of theirs.

We received copies of this book courtesy of St. Martin's Griffin Press for our tandem review. You can find DELICATE MONSTERS by Stephanie Kuehn at an online e-tailer, or at a real life, independent bookstore near you.

tanita: Wow, well, I started this novel Tuesday night at bedtime, and when I realized what a mistake that was I stopped -- took a deep breath, and ...finished the last ten pages Wednesday morning. I read most of this book in one setting, not because I couldn't put it down in the way that warmly memorable characters or snappy dialog or whatnot pulls you along, but because I kind of couldn't believe the stuff that was happening... I kept saying, "No, seriously!?" The things that were happening to the characters throughout the narrative kept me reading.

Sarah (aquafortis): I agree with that assessment entirely--it was very hard to put down, in a kind of train-wreck way. Each of these characters is battling their own private slide downward into morally dangerous territory. Battling their own worst selves, and often ignoring the better angels of their nature. It was both difficult to read and difficult to set aside.

When I think about character likeability, I first think about the book THAW, by Monica Roe which was a Cybils finalist some years back in YA Fiction, where I just could not like the character but he redeemed himself through personal growth. I feel like I have levels of not-liking which are sort of like those stupid survey choices:

  • I would actively hang out with this person and could see them being a good friend!
  • I would probably like this person
  • I would be okay with this person, but I'd probably never hang out with them
  • I would actively dislike this person
  • Person is a sociopath

The main characters in this book are somewhere between active dislike and sociopath for me. What I found myself wanting more of as I read was what made them this way in terms of background, environment, childhood...and yet it was clear that I wouldn't be able to know that kind of thing until the author revealed it, because it would tip her hand, maybe.

tanita: As I read this book, I kept a few notes. Ten chapters in, I wrote, I can see the rough shape of a tragedy forming -- and boy, could I.

As I read, I also thought about things like "likeability" in characters. The characters in this book make me feel by turns discomfort and active dislike. No one feels... safe, or truly friendly. Which I noted as an interesting observation, followed by... What do I need from characters in books I read? For them to be my temporary friends? Not... really. Do I need for them to allow me to accompany them on a journey as they grow/change? Not always, but more of that, I think. So, then, I asked myself, Do we get what we need from the characters in this book? Do I see potential in the characters for growth or change? Do I want to go with them on this journey? No. Yes. Maybe.

Which, for me, is what makes Kuehn's books masterfully frightening. Because I'm being dragged on this trip regardless, and I don't sometimes understand why, or where we're going, and I'm absolutely positive that I won't know where I am when we get there, or like what I see. For some people, this kind of book is utterly, appallingly addictive. You just have to know what happens next...

AF: Her writing consistently astonishes me.

tanita: Oh, yeah. Such beautiful writing - really confident, clear writing. The sort of writing that makes you have to read slowly to let the concepts sort of hydrate in your brain before they bloom...

So, beautiful writing about ...sociopaths. Unreliable narrators. Murky scenarios, where doubts and fears and good and bad are all rolled in, as Dorothy Parker says, "a crazy plaid." I roll my eyes a lot when I hear people say, "Man, Stephanie Kuehn must have really dark places in her soul," yadda, yadda, yadda. That isn't true - this is fiction, and we all have dark places in our souls; we writers merely take license and delve into them. I applaud the author for her ability. I think it's amazing that she has the language to articulate and explore these places.

AF: All of Stephanie Kuehn's books are very well crafted, but this one in certain ways impressed me the most because the characters are the most challenging for me as a reader. As a writer, creating a character who is unlike you is a challenge to begin with, but the thought of creating--and KNOWING--a character that is so very far removed from the "normal" conception of functional reality that most of us live in...What a task to set oneself, but she lives up to it and somehow blends the beautiful and the terrible in a way that quietly hooks you...

tanita: ...with those sociopaths. It's hard to know how to feel about characters who really would have no feelings... about ... you. People are so charmingly canine; we're ready to wag our tails and lick anyone who wags their tail first. But, cats are kind of sociopaths, and people who, like cats, go their own way - who may or may not do anything more than crouch in a corner and stare at you with eyes that are all pupil... for most folk, they're flat-out disturbing, discomfiting, and we're not really sure they belong indoors. Of course, inside or out, they're apt to chase us, toy with us, and wound us - and then abruptly get up and leave us alone. I'd say that if this book were about cats and dogs, Sadie Su would be a giant, fluffy Persian cat.
As I was reading, I wondered if it was significant that Sadie is very wealthy. Can you blow people off like that and really own your crazy so well if you're poor? I mean, Emerson is poor in a rich person's paradise (and the depictions of the Napa Valley, where I've lived, were spot on)... but he's invested in "normal" really heavily.

AF: I'd love to unpack issues of class a little more. I thought that was an interesting aspect of the book that I almost wanted to see investigated in more depth. One of the things that put me off about Sadie's character right away was her snobbishness about the West-Coast public school environment. As a primarily public school kid, it's the kind of character trait that makes me think "blah blah BLAH boarding school East Coast Europe WHATEVER snore," but it's also an important factor that sets her apart from her fellow students and has informed her identity. Her family's wealth, and its dysfunction, create an intriguing backdrop for Sadie that makes me want to know more about what has formed her character--so that I CAN have more of that sense of empathy. Or maybe it's that BA in Psychology still lurking in the back of my head, wanting to know what makes people tick.

tanita: You make a good point.
Because almost every depiction of the bipolar or depressive or other mentally ill folk in fiction depicts them as Seriously Deranged ...I was a little uneasy about some of the negative portrayals in this book ... to me, such extreme depictions make people say, "Oh, I'm not like that," and can make it harder for people not to fear people with a disease, and for others to acknowledge that they have it. To that end, I found myself wishing that the author had spent more time on the character of Emerson - although, maybe the time spent was enough, in spite of the label placed on his family. Maybe the author was deliberately brief, because all of Emerson's issues and all of his guilt loops had a simple and straightforward answer: as his friend Trey said, when you screw up, you apologize. His issues, despite his family having been touched with mental illness, were in some ways much more straightforward.

AF: Yes, I loved that simplicity of Trey's advice. THAT moment felt like it could have been a turning point, and I think I really wanted it to be. I guess Emerson's final act in the novel was his way of apologizing, and while that felt very real, I wanted more to be made of the question of whether it was an act of escape or an act of redemption; generosity, or cowardice. There is a lot of complexity there, and as you said, there is a danger to the possibility of oversimplifying portrayals of mental illness. And I know some of my repulsion is connected to the fact that I really cannot handle animal abuse (in fiction or reality), but it also seems to be a frequent shorthand in fiction for "bad person," for sociopathy, and I have trouble with that.

tanita: And then there are those other characters in the novel, and you find yourself sifting through levels of "bad." Who is worse, someone who actively acknowledges that they'd just as soon rabbit-punch you in the back of the head, or someone who sneakily trips you and helps you up after you fall down a flight of stairs?

AF:What was interesting, too, was the arc of each character. Maybe "arc" isn't even the right word, because all three wandered back and forth between redeemable and irredeemable. (I guess it's safe to say none of them is static!) In the end, we are faced with the dilemma of moral ambiguity, "levels of 'bad'" as you mentioned. And yet we also understand WHY they do what they do--it isn't arbitrary behavior. On the contrary, the action of the book, the characters' actions, seem in many ways inevitable. That's one of the things that's so disturbing.

tanita: I've read interviews with the author where she talks about empathy and compassion. Part of why she writes this way, she says, is to reflect the way that she feels about people - it's never one way. You can be afraid of someone, attracted to someone, and repelled by them and want them desperately to both hang with you and to leave you alone. We're all a pastiche of particular (and peculiar)... reactions to and interactions with other individuals. I think I have learned to think about empathy in a new way, since reading her books - empathy is simply the ability to feel what other people feel, in this respect. You may or may not understand or be able to like them better because of it, but you GET them.

AF: Yes, exactly. And, yet...

tanita: I get a sense that you didn't like this book very much. I feel that's okay to say... I realize I admired this book, because of the writing... but just as I can't say I like something like Stephen King's MISERY, I can't say I like this novel. It's masterful and disturbing, but ...well, it's disturbing. It's, as you said, real and raw, and this kind of "real" scares me far more than chainsaw wielding maniacs (rare in real life) and stuff like vampires and zombies and rabid unicorns (so far nonexistent). And I think I read sometimes to be ...comforted? To be comforted that my worldview is right, or shared, to be comforted that Whatever triumphs over whatever Conflict the character is going through, to be ...reassured. For people who read to have their worldviews challenged, to get a frisson of Otherness and horror, this is definitely their book.

AF:I feel the same--I admired the book very much, and was amazed at the depth with which she explored the characters and their torturous worlds. But I can't like them. I really wanted to like Emerson, really wanted to like Miles, for much of the book. But as we gradually learn more and more...as the story unfolds...I went from "wanting to like" to just wanting to understand, and even that I had some difficulty with because I wasn't sure about the nature of the mental issues, whether there was bipolar or dissociative issues...and then Miles as a character kept a LOT of secrets from us throughout the book.

This is the Stephanie Kuehn book whose characters I have connected with the least. Their unreliability, their unpredictability, their destructiveness and sadism, pushed me away. That's very much something personal, not a comment on the writing itself.

I could still see this making a really good movie, because of the mysterious "following just behind the character's head" sensation that the author creates. In writing, we end up being SO close inside each character that we don't see what they aren't thinking about, if that makes sense.

tanita: I keep hearing people talking about this ending being "up in the air." It a little bewildering for me because it's not up in the air, at least it isn't for me. I know exactly what's going to happen - a happening that's been played out repeatedly in past years in conflicts between teens and the "warrior" mindset police confronting them. There's a certain air of tragic inevitability here; maybe tragedy is the destiny of these teens. Maybe they're past the point where an apology would have made a difference. And yet... and yet... even to the last scene, I wanted something better for them all. Not gonna lie, they broke my heart a little.

AF:I think, with the ending, it just went fast for me...choppy movie-like scenes where, instead, I wanted it unpacked a bit more. Not that they need to have explanatory soliloquies, but...Something. Maybe I'm just a completist who wants to understand everything and not have the end of the story left up in the air. :)

tanita: So - tragic, disturbing, enigmatic, ambiguous -- yet brilliant in a way that leaves us uncomfortable. Those are the descriptions we'll stick with. Thanks for reading along with me, and thanks to our readers for joining us for another round of In Tandem.

Psst! If you're in the SF Bay Area, Stephanie Kuehn is having the book launch for DELICATE MONSTERS on June 13th at 7:30 p.m. at Mrs. Dalloway's Books. Check it out!

June 11, 2015

Tumblin' Around the Kidlitosphere

KidLitCon is coming soon--and the new keeps getting more and more exciting, as we learn that one of the keynote speakers will be The Jumbies author Tracey Baptiste! For more information about that, check out the post on the Kidlitosphere Central website.

In related news, did you know there's a new KidLitCon Tumblr? I am just starting to foray gently into the world of Tumblr, although Tanita has been participating for a little while now. Anyway, KidLitCon has got a Tumblr so you can keep up with all the latest conference developments, and...drum roll...I NOW HAVE A TUMBLR TOO.

However, there is currently nothing on it. Sorry.

But it's called Better Living Through Sarcasm and my plan is to use it to post original cartoons from time to time--not just reblogged Toon Thursdays (though, believe me, I'll be doing that!) but also scans of old cartoons I drew as a kid, just for fun, and brand new material that will be based on funny quotes from student essays (aka Students Say the Darnedest Things!). Possibly other humor will show up, too, and the occasional reblog of other funny stuff.

As with everything I seem to want to do lately, there is a dearth of time to actually start on the Tumblr, but if you happen to visit and there is something up there, it means I managed to successfully scrounge a few minutes. And I'm hoping it's the right kind of forum for easy sharing of toons.

That's it for today. Sorry for being relatively quiet the last couple of weeks, but that's how it goes sometimes...

June 05, 2015

Mid-Afternoon Funnies: The Forever Girls

Okay, so Rapunzel might be a leeetle over-honest -- I mean, come on, if you'd lived by yourself in a tower and had people climbing your hair all the time, you might be apt to blurt and duck more often than not, no? And Alice... well... she gives new meaning to the word "vague," as she tends to kind of wander... mentally. The Little Mermaid can't hang out much, what with the whole must-stay-in-water thing, and Snow White appears to have a pigmentation difference and is worryingly surrounded by birds (which must be potty trained. Right?????). We haven't really met the rest of the girls yet, but they seem like they'd be so fun to hang out with, don't they?

Dude, unicorn horns can do ANYTHING.

Meanwhile, the cartoonists remind us to stay tuned, 'cause there's more to come.

June 04, 2015

Thursday Review: LAST MAN 1: THE STRANGER

Summary: A collaboration by French comics and animation luminaries Balak, Bastien Vivès, and Michaël Sanlaville, Last Man 1: The Stranger is the first installment in a series that's been popular in France and is now being released in the U.S. by First Second (who kindly provided a review copy). I always really enjoy reading graphic novels from various countries, and this was no exception.

Peaks: The unique setting was, for me, one of the most intriguing aspects of the novel. Early on, we are introduced to Adrian Velba's world, a sort-of-medieval town where the annual gladiatorial games are the most anticipated event. But these are not your run-of-the-mill jousts or sword fights—the games are magical, and competitors fight in teams for the prestige, honor, and riches of the gold-filled winning cup.

Adrian goes to a magical fight school, but he's…kind of the youngest and smallest right now. But he's excited and optimistic anyway, and when he ends up partnered with the mysterious new-hero-in-town Richard Aldana, he thinks he might just have a chance. Aldana, meanwhile, is a bit of a nomad, but despite his fighting prowess, he's clearly in a different world here—a world with some unexpectedly magical forces flying around. But he does notice that his fighting partner Velba's mom sure is hot…which might be a good perk if she wasn't so protective of her son. There's a fair amount going on here with all three of these characters, and several interesting side characters, but the story never gets confusing, though it's a bit surreal at times.

click to embiggen
The style of the drawing here is loose, flowing, and dynamic, with the only color being flat areas of black, white, and gray. It works well for conveying a sense of movement in the action sequences (of which there are many) while also making sure the reader can still tell what's going on in each panel. I liked it; there's something simple and appealing about it, even as it stylistically owes a bit to the Japanese manga style.

Valleys: This is so much a serial it isn't even funny. If you can't deal with total middle-of-the-action cliffhangers, then you might want to make sure you have book 2 at hand when you finish this one. Just sayin'. Not everyone has a problem with this, but I crave instant gratification when it comes to books. I require resolution.

Conclusion: I suspect fans of other popular kids' manga series will enjoy this one, and fans of The Last Airbender and other series that combine action and fantasy. The adult characters have as much screen time (and character development) as the kids, so I see this one as having crossover appeal as well.

I received my copy of this book courtesy of First Second. You can find LAST MAN 1: THE STRANGER at an online e-tailer, or at a real life, independent bookstore near you!

June 03, 2015


This book is either a primer on how to find out stuff your parents are keeping from you, or a primer on how to make the most of your very best friends in the world. Its action-focused, galloping plot is a tale of family and chosen family, the ones we trust, the secrets we keep, and the lengths to which a girl will go to get at the truth...

Summary: Claire's father has been dead for ten years, but the seventeen-year-old, along with her older and younger brothers, dutifully follows her mother's cultural cues and does the Buddhist ritual for him -- lighting the incense, meditating, bowing. It means something to Claire and Parker because it's for their father -- but it doesn't mean Claire understands all of the cultural references, nor does she remember him, not really, and Avery, her obnoxious skater brother, remembers him even less. Claire's mother - now happily remarried - goes absolutely lockjawed on the topic of her father, which frustrates Claire even further. All Claire knows is that he was a judge, and he was a good but very busy man -- and that he died way too soon.

A chance paper cut leads to finding a note in the endpapers of an old journal of his - which she stole from her mother. The letter is mostly in Japanese, and it's addressed to... her stepfather? But... they didn't know each other! Or, that's what her stepdad has always said... Discovering one lie convinced Claire that there might be others. She calls a meeting of the Axis Powers - her German best friend, Forrest, her brother's best friends, Nicholas and Fed, and her brothers, Parker and Avery - representing Japan, of course -- and they decided to get to the bottom of everything.

But Claire learns too late it's best to be careful what you dig for in the closet of your family secrets. Like her, you might pull out more than skeletons - some of the things shoved into the cave of family secrets were still alive - and had more destructive power than she would have ever believed.

Peaks: Fast paced and bursting with quirky guys, this story has a lot of incredible detail, which might sometimes feel a little jarring, as the reader leaps from school bullying drama to This-Could-Kill-Me sort of drama. Claire's quiet diary entries, as she struggles to find a footing for her identity in a family full of contradictions and her close friendships with Forrest, who is a steady, true-blue friend who always makes things better, and manga-obsessed Fed, whose mind is well away from reality most of the time - are a really nice touch for the young adult genre, and reflect the way characters form and the way we find out who and how we can be. Claire is very typically a teen, in that she does really dumb stuff - stuff that doesn't necessarily make you scream, "No! Don't!" but it's kind of close. She and her family take her school drama very seriously, but she - in a sort of random and arbitrary way - chooses to ignore the very clear and present danger which fire bombs and people breaking into the house represents, which is... weird, but makes a kind of twisted sense. The romance is slow and sweet, and is not about falling in love, but choosing to love, which is also a refreshing change.

Valleys: The emotional resonance - the point where the character's emotions read true to me, and elicit an emotional response - was thin in places. Note that these aren't issues which will ruin the story for everyone, but for me, they just seemed to demand more. I so wanted to understand this character who is the lone girl in a sea of boys, and to fully explore her feelings, but at times could not. Sometimes, I felt that Claire's restlessness and her inability to be in the same room with others for too long was something which needed... explanation. Maybe not a label, but a consistency that would itself give an explanation... Because she seems both introverted and socially anxious/panicky by turns. Possibly because of everything that goes on with her and the fast paced action/intrigue/mystery thing going on, at times I didn't have a good read on her.

The mother character suffers from the same issue for me -- she is obviously not someone with whom Claire gets on well - but she's also written very one-dimensionally; a series of superstitions, slapped hands and terse utterances, despite Avery's shenanigans or, later, Claire's direct accusations. She's present for a great deal of the book, but of all the characters we get to know her the least -- yet it is her choices to keep secrets and tell half-truths, well past the age that Claire should have known something about her father's history, that affect Claire the most. There is a confrontation during which Claire lambasts her mother for keeping secrets -- and her mother says, "I'm sorry," and no explanation is ever given, nor do we have a sense that they mend their relationship, or that it changes - meanwhile, Claire and her stepfather have a similar - and far more serious - confrontation, and he cares enough to keep asking, "Do you trust me, do you know I love you." It's a curious imbalance, and I wish there had been more time to delve into these relationships.

Claire begins the novel as a girl adept and apt to pick locks, nose her way into private rooms and otherwise really push the envelope of her parent's patience -- but why? Why is she good at that? It's not really made clear, and the character seems written without as much perspective on herself as the usual run of young adult characters. With her large ready-made friend group of Forrest, Fed, and in smaller ways, Parker and Nicholas, Claire has, in most ways, all the entertainment and information-getting resources that she needs, but for some reason it is Claire who absolutely NEEDS to know everything, and everyone indulges her whim. It's not clear if that's because she is being catered to as the only girl, or this is a means of entertaining everyone else, or what. Claire is an intriguing character, and though this book is 400 pages long, I still didn't get a sense that I knew her. I wish I did.

Conclusion: A fast-paced, suspenseful piece of writing which has a lot of detail and will be enjoyable for those looking for a beach read that has a breath of intrigue but doesn't go too deep. A beautiful cover, winning narrative and a great debut from an author we hope to hear from again soon.

I received my copy of this book courtesy of Lee & Low. You can find INK AND ASHES by Valynne E. Maetani at an online e-tailer, or at a real life, independent bookstore near you!

June 02, 2015


Because I believe that every young reader should see themselves reflected in fiction, I am always on the lookout for books which depict the varied shades of growing up religious to put in my "faith in fiction" file. Though the author does not claim it directly, this novel closely reflects the experience of life in the conservative fundamentalist movement called Quiverful, which celebrates large families and a strict, patriarchal interpretation of the Bible. Understanding the church explored in this novel necessarily includes an understanding of "fundamental," as a ideological construct, and what it means to be a community which adheres solely to an ancient text while negotiating the modern world. Though this book is conflicting and strongly emotional, it is heartfelt and powerful and true. One of its strengths is that, in spite of everything, every misunderstanding or narrow interpretation of the Bible, that faith can still be a positive, courage-giving, steadying, light-in-the-dark kind of thing. That's a tough takeaway message when writing about conservative fundamentalism.

Summary: Rachel is modest, earnest, and faithful, a true daughter and faithful member of Calvary Christian Church of Clayton. Her upbringing is strict, her movements and activities are constrained, and her future is already mapped out - pure maiden, faithful wife, devoted mother, full woman of God. Rachel knows that she and her nine siblings are different from other children who belong to the "government" and attend public schools with other Christ-haters; she and her brothers and sisters live better than all of those people, because she belongs to God, and is taught Christian principles at home, because her parents love them enough to keep them free of the world's taint.

It's a hard path that their family has chosen, and not everyone can stay true to this path; sometimes, temptations beckon, and then Pastor Garrett must send unbelievers on a Journey of Faith, so that they can, through hard work and studying Scripture regain their walk. It's a terrible shame to bear, however - and nothing Rachel wants to happen to her...

While Rachel is positive about her faith, and sure she loves her family, what's she's less sure about is her role in the church community. When people come back from the Journey, they're changed, all right - but maybe not in a way that speaks to Rachel of faith, at all. And, though her sister, Faith, never seems to have selfish moments, waver, or doubt - and is happy with her husband and her new baby, and with not knowing what the largest mammal in the sea is... that's not Rachel. Sometimes, Rachel even struggles to pray. When losses shake her family, and she's pushed unexpectedly into greater responsibility, Rachel almost breaks under the load. This is not the world she wants - the endless round of caring for children, cooking, cleaning, wearing her hair long and loose, her clothes plain and severely modest, so as not to further burden the men with her temptations; the always answering with scripture quotes, thinking in Bible verses, wearing the weight of her father's blessing on her head... never having a chance to read, to wander aimlessly, to catch a breath and embrace her curiosity. But, a submissive woman submits to her husband as to God - and Rachel isn't learning either one of those very well, if this is what God wants. And, she's terrified that she never will learn.

There's aren't many choices in Rachel's world... but the rumor mill reminds Rachel that once a girl named Lauren left their community, and survived the elders, the prayers, and all the condemnation with a thousand-yard stare. Now, Lauren's back... and Rachel desperately longs to know if Lauren's choices were worth it, and if there are other choice out there for a girl like her.

Peaks: Because I was raised in a conservative faith, it's easy for me to identify books about faith that mush together a lot of religions, a lot of dogmas, and a lot of ideologies - in short, they can be critical of something obviously not understood. This book leaves little doubt that the author both did her research and has experience from which to draw, which makes its emotional punch genuine.

I found that though the accurately portrayed (and deeply negative) depictions of fundamental Christianity are a lot of what the plot spends time with, Biblical faith - balanced and open and giving and sound - isn't trashed along with cultish, patriarchal, fundamentalist faiths, which I deeply appreciated. In light of fundamentalism, many don't understand how any faith can be good, but that isn't the case here. I further appreciate that Mathieu doesn't treat Rachel's faith or her church as a sideshow for readers to gawk at and poke fun over - this is not a reality show about a woman with ten kids - but treats Rachel's church as a fact of her life which becomes less and less easy to bear, as she seeks her own mental and spiritual identity.

A little Reader Beware: this book IS emotional and may be triggering for people who had to set aside a lot of panic and guilt and pain to live as they believe, and not as they were raised, so if that's you, read with the tissues near to hand, and maybe a friend or a pint of sorbet with which to decompress.

Valleys: My only concern in this novel is for how homeschooling is portrayed. Many - too many - people believe that teens who are in home schools for faith reasons are schooled as this character was - being taught all a parent knows, not relying on computers or libraries or in any connection with the school system or the state, and deciding that's sufficient. That is NOT how most homeschooling goes, and I think it's important to differentiate and remind readers that most people who are homeschooled aren't ignorant or weird - more often than not, they're learners well ahead of public school students because they've had the opportunity for 1:1 learning, or at the very least, a much smaller classroom size. Much like the idea that people who telecommute and work at home never stop working, students in mainstream, curiosity-centric and tech-augmented homeschools really never stop learning.

Conclusion: Becoming your own person is something many people - religious or otherwise - never truly learn, nor is this huge concept often explored in young adult literature to the extent to which it is in this book. A quiet novel, it nonetheless has a powerful lot to say about identity, faith, hope, and knowing your own heart and mind better than anyone on earth. It is my sincere hope that this novel finds many readers who take its truth to heart: you can still be you and not believe what your family believes, and still love and be loved unstintingly by God.

I received my copy of this book courtesy of Roaring Brook. After June 2, you can find DEVOTED by Jennifer Mathieu at an online e-tailer, or at a real life, independent bookstore near you!