November 21, 2017

Cybils SpecFic Bookmark: MURDER, MAGIC, AND WHAT WE WORE by KELLY JONES

The Cybils Speculative Fiction Bookmark:

As a panelist for Cybils YA Speculative Fiction, Round 1, I'm going to be briefly writing up some of the hundreds of book I read as part of the award. As panelist conclusions are not for public consumption, the purpose of these write-ups is to keep track of what I'm reading, and will mostly touch on plot synopsis, with minimal comments on thematic tropes.


Synopsis: Annis Whitworth's world quietly crumples when it's discovered that not only has her father died under rather unlikely circumstances (but why was he traveling on a night with no moon?) that all of his money has vanished. The father she barely knew is, in a way, only a minor loss, but Annis had been promising herself for too long that she was going to get to know him -- and now it's too late. It feels like it's too late for everything, including regret. The servants are sent packing, the lease on the house is terminated, and Annis and her Aunt Cassia are away to make their way as governesses or companions. Only, Annis isn't going to go quietly. As she is taking in a rather ghastly mourning gown, she makes the discovery that she has the power within her hands - and within her needle - to save them. All she has to do is ply her trade -- but despite her friendships with woman who manage shops, Cassia insists that no girl in trade will ever be able to hold her head up. Determined, Annis whips up a disguise and sets herself up as a dressmaker.

For anyone else, it would be a tame endeavor to measure, cut, and sew, tamely minding a shop created solely to outfit Society women, but not for Annis. She saves a friend by chasing off a would-be rapist, delves into the secrets of the Quality, finds clues and trails after strangers. She decides to follow in her father's footsteps and set herself up as a spy. After all, if he could do it, why not?

Observations: Fans of Patricia C. Wrede's SORCERY AND CECELIA, Mary Robinette Kowal's SHADES OF MILK AND HONEY or Gail Carringer's ETIQUETTE series will find a kindred spirit in Annis Whitworth. Grieving, impetuous, and ridiculous, Annis is everything we love about Regency heroines. She is well-dressed and well-spoken, hyperfocused on gossip and Society, completely oblivious to ways to avoid trouble, and slightly unable to avoid saying just the wrong thing. This novel gently mocks the social conventions and the mores of the Regency, while celebrating girlhood friendships, bluestockings, and the flinty spirit of womanhood which, when backed into a corner, is unpredictable and can do ANYTHING.

Conclusion: An unusual magical power, spies, and derring-do bring together a fast-paced and satisfying Regency romp celebrating the power of demure womanhood, and leaves rooms for readers to want seconds.



I received my copy of this book courtesy of the public library. You can find MURDER, MAGIC, AND WHAT WE WORE by Kelly Jones at an online e-tailer, or at a real life, independent bookstore near you!

November 14, 2017

Cybils SpecFic Bookmark: THE EPIC CRUSH OF GENIE LO, by F.C. YEE

The Cybils Speculative Fiction Bookmark:

As a panelist for Cybils YA Speculative Fiction, Round 1, I'm going to be briefly writing up some of the hundreds of book I read as part of the award. As panelist conclusions are not for public consumption, the purpose of these write-ups is to keep track of what I'm reading, and will mostly touch on plot synopsis, with minimal comments on thematic tropes.


Synopsis: Eugenia "Genie" Lo - one of way too many Eugenias of her generation - has always been a bit of a firebrand. Unlike her fashionable friend Yunie - another Chinese Eugenia - Genie finds her center in her homework - which she does routinely, expertly and superbly - and in ignoring her mother's ranting, which she also does like a boss, because her mother is always screaming about something. A Bay Area kid living in the SiliValley, she also bitterly acknowledges that she's just like most of the hordes of teens living in the land asphalt, parking lots, bubble tea shops and strip mall nail salons: she's an education junkie. She's high-achieving. She's Asian. She's desperate to get out of the reach of her mother's voice, and into A Good School. Princeton, for preference, or even Harvard. So, when this weird new guy at school scopes her out and says, "You belong to me...?" Oh, nu-uh. Nope. Not in this lifetime. Genie Lo has way too many other plans - mainly to work on not being just like her father and to get the heck out of dodge.

But Quentin Sun - new guy - is not prepared to leave Genie alone, and soon, Genie realizes she needs him - and not just because he's ridiculously good looking. Quentin is all Genie has to teach her what she needs to know to save the world... and soon it's time to school herself on perfecting a whole new set of skills -- those of demon fighting. Genie's pretty sure she can't do it, but Quentin Sun is only an international transfer student in Earth's realm... in the Heavenly Realm of the Jade Emperor, he's the Monkey King, down to the love of peaches and the fuzzy tail. ...And Genie? Well, she's a reincarnated sidekick of his. Quentin's convinced that he and Genie's shared power will be enough to answer the rash of demon incursions on Earth - and into the Bay Area. They're terrifyingly strong and flesh-eating, and it's crucial Genie gets on board with the plan before more people - human people on the earth plane - are brutally murdered and eaten. But, what about being on track for an Ivy League? What about all of her plans? Right now, Genie's got a lot of studying to do - about everything, including the world as she once believed it to be - and there's not enough time...

Observations: Many YA readers were first introduced to this oldest and greatest of Chinese fables, the story of the Monkey King, in Gene Luen Yang's AMERICAN BORN CHINESE. The adventures of the Monkey King in that book are myriad and surreal. Author F.C. Yee renders these same surreal battles between "the good guys" and the demons through the eyes of one of the newest good guys - a sarcastic, short-tempered California teen who just wants to get on with things so she can polish up her college entry essays and go back to crushing her opponents on the volleyball court.

Readers seeking the trope of the "strong female character" will find a lot more than they bargained for here. Genie is strong both physically and mentally, and by meeting these characters from Chinese myth, she is learning to be strong spiritually. There is a lot of humor and snark which will appeal to many teens, and a lot of exploration of the various roles of Bodhisattva, gods, and monsters in the Buddhist pantheon, which also makes this an unique foray into the mythological and folktale history of Chinese literature.

Conclusion: This novel is written cinematically, in that readers may be able to envision each chapter as a television episode along the lines of THE MIDDLEMAN or a comic book. The colorful descriptions and sharp-edged snark combined with completely surreal demons and monsters make this a fast-paced, quick read which engages the attention and doesn't let it go.



I received my copy of this book courtesy of the public library. You can find THE EPIC CRUSH OF GENIE LO by F.C. Yee at an online e-tailer, or at a real life, independent bookstore near you!

Cybils SpecFic Bookmark: WONDER WOMAN: WARBRINGER by LEIGH BARDUGO

The Cybils Speculative Fiction Bookmark:

As a panelist for Cybils YA Speculative Fiction, Round 1, I'm going to be briefly writing up some of the hundreds of books I read as part of the award. As panelist conclusions are not for public consumption, the purpose of these write-ups is primarily to keep track of what I'm reading, and will mostly touch on plot synopsis, with minimal comments on thematic tropes.


Synopsis: Diana knows, as her mother's daughter, that everything she does is going to have more weight. Her mother is the queen of the Amazons, and Diana has her place on Themyscira by accident of birth, rather than right of sisterhood as the other warriors there have earned. Diana knows that everyone believes her to be small and easily broken, the least of her tribe. She only wants her chance to prove herself -- which seems to come in the form of a plane crashing off the shore of their hidden island. Diana saves the human girl from the wreckage, but breaks Amazon law... and soon discovers she's made more of a lasting, horrific mistake than her little law-breaking led her to believe. Meanwhile, the human girl, Alia, was only on the plane - without her brother's permission - because since their parents' death, he NEVER let her go anywhere or do anything, ever. She just wanted to prove that she didn't need the Keralis name to protect her, and she could take a biology internship with strangers, and do just fine. But, no - a bomb on the plan changed those plans, and now she's stuck with a half-dressed supermodel type who was obviously raised in cult. She thinks Alia is some kind of violence magnet -- and she's trying to convince her that she needs to go to Greece to stop a world war.

The people chasing the two girls are not imaginary illusions from a cult, regardless of what Alia longs to believe. It is going to take nerves of steel to outwit their pursuers, survive betrayal, and make herself safe again... if she even survives. The only way to do this is to trust her shieldsisters and stand together.

Observations:

Sister in battle, I am shield and blade to you. As I breathe, your enemies will know no sanctuary. While I live, your cause is mine."

Readers seeking representation of strong female friendships will find them in this book. Alia, Nim, and Diana do not always trust each other, nor believe in how the other sees them, but in and out of the face of danger, their interactions are both amusing and instructive in terms of sisterhood and how true friends should be.

Diana is inexperienced in terms of American society, but she isn't ignorant or naive, her people having studied men, nations outside their own, disease, weapons, religions and history for years before coming across examples of the real thing. Likewise, though she is uneducated in all things Greek mythology, Alia is able to inform herself by reading and study, which allows her to be prepared.

"It's a trap for us. Alia and I always have to be better. We always have to be a step ahead. But the stronger you get, the more you achieve, the more people want to make sure you know your place." He bumped the back of his head gently against the rock. "It's exhausting." - WARBRINGER, p. 272-3

Including Diana's friends as people of color in this novel allowed the author to make some interesting choices and parallels between the lives of superheroes and the lives of successful people, especially people of color. I found it intriguing that she often explored the limitations society puts on people of color and allowed Diana as a character to explore her own society's limitations as being matriarchal and female-exclusive, and how that allowed the Amazons to both identify - and misidentify - the mores of their culture and their world.

Conclusion: One of the strengths of this DC novelization of the iconic Wonder Woman backstory is that readers with little to no experience with the comic books, the cartoon, or 70's era TV show can still find their feet in the story. A place of entry for those unfamiliar with the Wonder Woman superhero universe, this fast-paced story is full of peril and humor, betrayal and determination, and shows the grounding and powerful force true friendship can be.



I received my copy of this book courtesy of the public library. You can find WONDER WOMAN, WARBRINGER by Leigh Bardugo at an online e-tailer, or at a real life, independent bookstore near you!

November 10, 2017

Cybils SpecFic Bookmark: THICK AS THIEVES by MEGAN WHALEN TURNER

The Cybils Speculative Fiction Bookmark:

As a panelist for Cybils YA Speculative Fiction, Round 1, I'm going to be briefly writing up some of the hundreds of books I read as part of the award. As panelist conclusions are not for public consumption, the purpose of these write-ups is primarily to keep track of what I'm reading, and will mostly touch on plot synopsis, with minimal comments on thematic tropes.


Synopsis: If he can just get past his master's few bad day here and there with life and soul intact, Mede slave Kamet will continue to prosper as he minds his Master's business. His Master is an important man - brother to the emperor - and Kamet knows his ultimate destiny is to be his Master's gift to that great man. And what a life that will be! Kamet has so many plans and ambitions. The appearance of an Attolian soldier offering him his freedom is nothing short of hilarious -- why would a slave who sleeps in luxury want to squat in that cesspit when he has all of Mede at his fingertips by the will of his Master? But all of Kamet's hopes and dreams come crashing to the ground when he is warned by a beloved friend that his Master has been poisoned. Kamet knows he is doomed, for Mede isn't exactly a culture that makes sense. Sure, everyone knows it was probably the emperor or one of his men, but now the slaves will be tortured to confess, and to implicate others... and they will all. be. killed. From the youngest to oldest. If Kamet flees, he can perhaps take the burden of guilt only onto himself - and save the lives of the youngest boys, and his dear friend. Weaker than he ever believed himself to be, Kamet is now desperate for that Attolian's offer of freedom.

Of course, nothing is simple when the world is turned upside down -- the Attolian is immensely stupid and coarse, and it seems that his Master's reach is longer and faster than he could possibly have believed. Kamet ricochets between the frying pan and the fire, a scribe turned fugitive who is in no way prepared for life outside his golden cage, who struggles to be civil to the inferior man to whom he owes his life, who is filthy, guilty, exhausted, grieved, and terrified.

It's the escape of a lifetime - and when it's over, Kamet isn't sure he ran the right direction.

Observations: When an author creates memorable worldbuilding and highly complex characterizations, it's often difficult to resist, at the end of a series, to add epilogues and promising notes to readers that they "all lived happily ever after," and everything was fine. Turner offered no "PS" and instead left readers at the end of A CONSPIRACY OF KINGS with a six year gap, and for some, a belief that the series was over. Resurrecting the same characters in the same world after that length of time in this fifth book of the Attolia series was thus highly anticipated. Readers will find that though not all the familiar characters appear, that the worldbuilding and writig style remain solidly excellent and consistent. The choice to elevate a minor character to a main character allows readers to reenter the world from a new door, giving them deeper insights and probably a need to reread the entire series to discover what other nuances they may see revisited as the series reboots.

Conclusion: Readers who have not yet read other Attolia books will be able to read this book for its adventure and the narrative arc introducing Kamet and his world. They will not, however, fully understand the subtext and won't be able to appreciate the genius of the Attolian-Medean history, nor the history of the Thief. It is advised that readers begin the series with THE THIEF, and carry on from there.



I received my copy of this book courtesy of the public library. You can find THICK AS THIEVES by Megan Whalen Turner at an online e-tailer, or at a real life, independent bookstore near you!

November 03, 2017

Cybils SpecFic Bookmark: MILES MORALES, SPIDER MAN, by JASON REYNOLDS

The Cybils Speculative Fiction Bookmark:

As a panelist for Cybils YA Speculative Fiction, Round 1, I'm going to be briefly writing up some of the hundreds of books I read as part of the award. As panelist conclusions are not for public consumption, the purpose of these write-ups is to keep track of what I'm reading, and will mostly touch on plot synopsis, with minimal comments on thematic tropes.


Synopsis: Miles is a Brooklyn Boy who attends the prestigious - and aggravatingly rich boy - Brooklyn Visions Academy, on scholarship. When he's back in his neighborhood, he's just a guy - yawning through early Mass with his mother, rolling his eyes at his Dad while taking out the trash, and cracking wise while playing video games with his best friend Ganke. He's also, through all of that, trying to listen to his spidey-senses... which lately have been acting a bit weird. Spider-Man duties don't quit, even while Miles is at school, so when Miles is suspended for abruptly leaving class one time too many - with no explanation to his least favorite teacher, Mr. Chamberlain, his parents are through, especially his dad. Miles is pretty certain it's time to give up the Spider-Man gig, because Spider-Man or not, it's Miles' mother's worst fear that he'll turn out to be a hood like his Uncle Aaron, his Dad's brother. And Miles' father is determined that no son of his turn out to be thieving hustlers like he and his brother were. The neighborhood is Miles' responsibility, his father pounds into him over and over - but to Miles it feels like he's been charged and condemned to fix something that he never broke.

Maybe Miles isn't meant to be good at saving the world. Maybe Miles' best bet is to save himself - get out of his corner of Brooklyn, and make his parents proud. But, it's hard to change overnight - there are clearly some evils still abroad, and one of them is Miles' history teacher, Mr. Chamberlain. Miles cannot stay silent while his teacher essentially lies about the effects of slavery and the modern prison industrial complex. Mr. Chamberlain tries to make Miles feel bad about who he is - a young black man - and who he has the potential to be. And when Miles protests in class, Mr. Chamberlain lets Miles know that his scholarship can disappear just. like. that.

If this is what it means to be a superhero, Miles isn't sure he wants to stay signed up.

Observations: Readers coming to these episodes in the life of Miles Morales may feel that they are missing something, and indeed, references are made to previous adventures. However, this book is well-written enough to stand alone without having read any of the comics, as I had not.

This book is less about superhero-ing and more about the realities of a regular life. It is against a backdrop of teen-and-parent tension that the superhero stuff is displayed. What may surprise readers the most is that Miles is not "good" in the single-dimensional comic book sense. He is himself - a normal teen, which means he makes good decisions and poor decisions, and he does normally stupid things. He has self-doubt and struggles, too.

We learn more about the specific pressures and privileges which shape a hopeful, successful, and genuine human being than we do about the Spider-Man canon, which for some superfans of the comic strip will be not as appealing, and especially those who disagree with Marvel's decision to create a black Super-Man. However, the commonality of the challenges Miles faces are what makes him, in this setting, unique, and are what I feel will bring more readers to this superhero world.

Conclusion: Miles embraces his Puerto Rican and African American heritage, tries to be the type of man worth knowing, and cooks bad ramen dinners. He also crawls up walls and finds a way to overcome the racist antipathy of a teacher, taking superhero-ing into a new and different direction. His story reminds every reader that they have within them the ordinary-guy chops to be a superhero, too.



I received my copy of this book courtesy of the public library. You can find MILES MORALES, SPIDER-MAN by Jason Reynolds at an online e-tailer, or at a real life, independent bookstore near you!

November 02, 2017

Happy NaNoWriMo 2017!

Hey, it's November, and that means it's National Novel Writing Month! As per usual for me lately, I don't even have a wisp of a dream of a hope of participating--but that doesn't mean I don't LOVE NaNoWriMo. I've been a participant (and a completer) a handful of times in the past, and I'm here to encourage you to GO FOR IT if you can. You never know what greatness might occur; what jewels in the rough; what bezoars in the poo, or whichever metaphor you prefer.

Don't believe me? Well, two of my three PUBLISHED novels started during NaNoWriMo. I wouldn't necessarily describe myself as either a panster or a plotter, but the evidence seems to tip me into the former category, doesn't it? When you let the words flow, sometimes that's what you need to find your voice and loosen your imagination.

So. No excuses (unless you're like me and have enough work this month for at least two months' worth of stress)--grab your computer and get going!

October 31, 2017

Cybils SpecFic Bookmark: LEIA PRINCESS OF ALDERAAN, by CLAUDIA GRAY

The Cybils Speculative Fiction Bookmark:

As a panelist for Cybils YA Speculative Fiction, Round 1, I'm going to be briefly writing up some of the hundreds of books I read as part of the award. As panelist conclusions are not for public consumption, the purpose of these write-ups is to keep track of what I'm reading, and will mostly touch on plot synopsis, with minimal comments on thematic tropes.


Synopsis: Leia is an atypical princess in that her life has been spent not at the mercy of nannies and waiting women but mostly with her parents, Breha and Bail Organa, who have taught her and helped her to develop interests and ways of thinking close to their own. This closeness has resulted in Leia noticing when the relationship between she and her parents gradually deteriorates. Suddenly her mother is a super-socialite, instead of being the kind of Queen who cares for her people. Suddenly her father is too busy to talk. As the distance between the once tight family grows, Leia is at first bewildered, then grieved, and finally resentful. She decides to get her parent's attention by excelling at her body, mind, and heart challenges, the traditional ceremonial challenges presented to an heir of Alderaan in order to earn the right to the throne. Leia figures that if she does something real using her body, mind and heart, they'll remember that she's a real person, and not a decorative object.

As it turns out, convincing her parents is not as easy as it seemed, and Leia goes to further and further lengths to prove herself to herself - to her classmates, and to her erstwhile parents. Meanwhile, the cold eye of the Empire is watching, as Leia flies closer to some disastrous political situations. Is the way to help to rebel against the powers that be, or is there anything else that a once decorative princess might do to help people? Leia figures there's only one way to find out.

Observations: Unlike many of the pop-culture tie-in books on the Cybils list this year, this one takes its canon entirely from a 70's era film, and not a WW2 era comic book series, thus making a space for a feminist ideal in which a young woman has agency, wit, and desire to do something with her privilege. It may give some readers a bit of a pinch in the heart to see a sketch of a young Carrie Fisher on the cover, but there will only ever be one Leia, because the film is, as always, the roots of the canon.

The author balances the headstrong and commanding rebel Leia from the Star Wars films with a wholly new character - filling in the echo of who that same person must have been at sixteen. Thus this Leia is written as impulsive, big-hearted, sensitive, and over-achieving. While she spends an inordinate amount of time pouting which seemed both remarkably "young" and out of character for a sixteen year old, and for a young lady who has been reared to the grace and dignity of a throne, the emotional tailspin the distance between them gives her reads as genuine.

Conclusion: Readers who are not hardcore Star Wars fans will be able to read this novel as a standalone and enjoy the story of a privileged, talented young girl with a big heart and an impulsive nature who makes mistakes and keeps trying to do something with who she is, for the betterment of all. Fans who are hardcore fans, having read all the books and the radio drama pre-Disney typically come down on either the love-or-hate side, but most fans agree that this novel is true to the canon. Fans of the film series only who come to this seeking the same enveloping Star Wars universe won't enjoy quite the same all-encompassing feel, but will find the roots of the epic stretching out and taking their place to support a galaxy-wide storyline.



I received my copy of this book courtesy of the public library. You can find LEIA, PRINCESS OF ALDERAAN by Claudia Gray at an online e-tailer, or at a real life, independent bookstore near you!

October 27, 2017

Don't Miss...!

If you haven't yet had a chance to grab Sara Lewis Holmes' newest book The Wolf Hour the following posts and her various guest post/interviews around the web will raise this book on your TBR list.

This week, Sara's talking music with poet Laura Salas. Interestingly, the poetry in THE WOLF HOUR is something that Sara, a poet herself, excels at -- but isn't something you'd ordinarily expect in a fairytale, which is what makes it significant and fun.

Sara's interviews elsewhere can be found at Charlotte's Library where she unpacks some quotes from the book; Maureen Eicher's review at 'By Singing Light' and our interview here at Wonderland, which kicked it all off is right here.

Cheers, and happy reading!

Cybils SpecFic Bookmark: REBEL SEOUL by AXIE OH

The Cybils Speculative Fiction Bookmark:

As a panelist for Cybils YA Speculative Fiction, Round 1, I'm going to be briefly writing up some of the hundreds of books I read as part of the award. As panelist conclusions are not for public consumption, the purpose of these write-ups is primarily to keep track of what I'm reading, and will mostly touch on plot synopsis, with minimal comments on thematic tropes.


Synopsis: Lee Jaewon is doing what he has to, to stay in the Neo Seoul military school where he attends. His side-hustle in this war-torn place is actually three jobs - one of student, doing his best to hang on to his grades, and the other two as couriers for war vets - and those who need black market items. He's barely making ends meet, but he's got rent money and food, at least. Alone in the world - abandoned by his bestie, who stepped away from him to gain power in a gang, and by his mother, who, after the execution of his father for being a traitor to the new state, left Jaewon to the Old Seoul gangs when he was eight, so he'd have a "better life," Jaewon is a realist - and bitter. As a realist - and the son of a traitor - the worst thing Jaewon could do is get mixed up with the Director's son and his mad schemes, but here he is -- being recruited to the military weapons complex in Neo Seoul. He's a senior with everything to lose, so he's going to do his best to make his mark, take his money at the end of two years, and escape his past.

At least that was the plan before he discovered what his job for the military is going to be - working in weapons development. And the weapon is a supersoldier... a girl who doesn't exist, who has no future, and no past. She's a weapon. When Jaewon realizes that he sees her as a person, he tries to keep his distance. She warns him that she will hurt him -- that eventually, she hurts everyone. As events hurtle to a confrontation between New and Old Seoul, the state and the seething rebellion of the people, Jaewon wonders what it is that he's been fighting for - and if any nationstate is worthwhile if it treats people as objects. There are choices to be made.

Observations: There are myriad Korean words used within the text, many of which the reader will be able to decipher from context clues, and many Asian groups represented in authentic and matter-of-fact ways, including the correct ordering of their patronymic and given names, which is nice to see. This is a wildly futuristic novel, and the setting is chock full of bright lights, K-Pop style bands, vice and luxury existing alongside filth and poverty, all set against the backdrop of an endless rebellion after the war in the East Pacific. Yet, for all of the Blade-runner vibe, this is a sweeping, deeply sentimental romance -- boy meets girl, girl could break boy in half, they fall in love anyway. The deeper theme of both loving and criticizing a national ideology are especially pertinent for readers of all nations just now, and engage critical thinking beyond the satisfyingly swoony and dramatic romance.

Conclusion: A sure hit for teens seeking cinematic, action-packed, futuristic science fiction, this novel also touches on quieter emotions such as loneliness, loyalty, and love.


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

October 26, 2017

Throwback Thursday: Sarah as Ramona

I admit I've been a bit quiet lately, but I thought I'd emerge momentarily to put up a little photo comparison that I assembled a while back, featuring me with a really 1980s-tastic haircut courtesy of my mom and/or Fantastic Sam's (is it the Mary Lou Retton? the Dorothy Hamill? we may never know), along with the historically appropriate cover of Ramona Quimby, Age 8 by Beverly Cleary. (While you peruse the pictorial evidence, I'll be groaning over the fact that I've gotten to a stage in life when I can use the word "historical" in reference to myself.)

Sarah, Age 6, and Ramona, Age 8


I adored the Ramona books, but I also saw her as this kind of trickster figure without any impulse control. Reading about her exploits left me in awe and cringing at the same time. I guess that was the idea--if, for instance, I could READ about Ramona cracking an egg all over her head during lunch at school, I wouldn't actually DO it. Of course, I would never have done such a thing as a kid, and obviously the very idea was alarming enough that I remember that scene TO THIS VERY DAY.

Ramona is still a classic, which amazes me; but there are so many wonderful kids' chapter books being written and illustrated now, too--I admit to being out of touch with reading for that age group, but I always rely on my work as the Cybils blog co-editor to keep me abreast of some of the really fun-looking books outside of my preferred comfort zone. On that note, the Cybils blog reviews have begun running, and will continue throughout the award period (that is, until the winners are announced in February), so make sure to swing by and check out reviews of the nominated titles. I started by excerpting a review of easy reader King & Kayla and the Case of the Secret Code, and you can check that out here.

Meanwhile, Tanita is already queuing up reviews of Cybils Speculative Fiction nominees, so it's going to be fun times around here as I read her assessments and frantically start adding to my TBR pile.

No wonder we love fall so much...

October 24, 2017

Cybils SpecFic Bookmark: FROSTBLOOD by ELLY BLAKE

The Cybils Speculative Fiction Bookmark:

As a panelist for Cybils YA Speculative Fiction, Round 1, I'm going to be briefly writing up some of the hundreds of books I read as part of the award. As panelist conclusions are not for public consumption, the purpose of these write-ups is to keep track of what I'm reading, and will mostly touch on plot synopsis, with minimal comments on thematic tropes.


Synopsis: Ruby is a Fireblood, a girl whose gift is the use and power of flame. Her grandmother, the learned woman who taught her to read and memorize books, knew something about Fireblood's art and history, but passed away before Ruby could learn all she needed. Her mother, a master healer, just wants Ruby to hide her gift and to be careful -- for they live beneath the power of the Frostbloods, and all Firebloods are dragged to the King's arena to battle as gladiators -- or they're outright killed. Ruby's impetuous nature is like the fire's insistent heat, and when her mother is killed trying to save her, Ruby find a new direction for her rage and pain - overthrowing the evil king, and bringing the world back into a balance between fire and ice.

It is not easy for a Fireblood to master herself, and Ruby is used to giving herself the excuse that Frostbloods are emotionless automatons -- and that she will always struggle because there is more life to her. It turns out this isn't strictly true, though the Frostbloods do see her as a tool to be used in the battle against the king. For revenge, for her own reasons, Ruby is willing to be used -- until she is captured for the gladiator pits. Her ultimate destruction has to mean something more than just her own end -- and she's desperate to find a way to make a difference, any way she can... even if it means letting in evil to do good.

Reader's Advisory: The Opposites Attract trope is strong and familiar in this book, which appears to be the first in a trilogy. Romance blooms in the grip of danger, as desperate enemies unite under a common banner. There's a further thematic metaphor of the "white hats" using the darkness in the world to destroy the dark, which will likely be further developed as the series goes along. Though this is a familiar narrative structure, many teens who enjoy a more traditional Strong Female Heroine Saves The World will find this a worthy adventure for them.



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

October 20, 2017

Turning Pages Reads: CALLING MY NAME by LIARA TAMANI

Welcome to another session of Turning Pages!

Synopsis: Taja Brown lives to the left of the buckle of the Bible Belt with her parents, annoying little sister, and vexing older brother, and from early days, she knows what's expected from a good Southern Baptist black girl: be good, keep up your grades, get to church, and don't shame your family. God - the Almighty - is faceless but speaks in the voice of her mother and father, so Taja also knows his requirements - stay out of other people's beds until you're married. But Taja as a budding young woman isn't the same as Taja as a parent-mimicking child. She's watching her athletic sister take her place on the track team, and feeling loss. She's watching her older brother swan off to college, and freedom, and feeling a loss there. She's sensing the wider world, and wondering about what she's been taught -- does church attendance really equal goodness, and planting begonias on a Sunday morning really mean hell? For everyone? Who is really "good?" Taja wrestles with these disquieting voices while still trash-talking the "hos" at church, openly, righteously critical of unmarried girls with babies and classmates who let more than one by kiss them... but after finding out for herself that kisses can take her brain to a faraway place, Taja is beginning to doubt that she's so immune. Her older brother, Damon, has been around the block a time or two, and the way he deals with the girls he's done with is scandalous. Taja hates how he uses and discards sexual partners. She doesn't want to be the girl who's discarded, but she wants... so much of everything. There's life out there, color and wildness and experiences outside of their straitlaced life in Houston. All Taja wants is to read it, write it, drink it down, and take a big bite. Can't she have what she wants, and still keep what God wants, too? And then, she meets the gorgeous Andre, and ... all questions become moot.

Taja's parents have she and Andre sign purity pledges, and though she wears the tiny ring, Taja knows it ought to tarnish on her. God, whom she's never heard from before, surely cannot be listening to her now. Can he...? Or, does it matter?

Observations: Probably the best description of the writing in this novel is 'dreamy.' There are eloquent phrases and sometimes it slows the narrative pace, but it's also reminiscent of the classic styling of memoir narrative, so patient readers will read on and become hooked.

Taja's world is narrow - and the overwhelming questions for her are regarding heterosexual intimate experiences - which reads as authentic, because many conservative Christian kids never meet anyone of another faith or another gender expression until they go away to college, and in the 90's, there was less sexual freedom for non-cis-gendered teens.

Because the novel is historical - set in the 90's - early '00's - there are musical references which may go over some teens' heads. The main thrust of the novel is dealing with the pressures of growing up within a conservative religious home, and straying from one's parents' values, and while this is touched on beautifully, I wished for more. While the reader spends the majority of the novel seeing Taja's frustration with the double standard between her brother and herself, I wished she would have gone deeper and named that hypocrisy for what it is within religious communities: women are policed one, because a baby is tangible shame, and two, because men often seek to control women. The license Taja's brother had to do just whatever was annoying.

This novel has a feel of looking back, begins slowly, but speeds up as Taja matures to the point of standing between two roads: the life she wants to lead, and the life her parents believe is best. There is explicit intimacy in the novel, so it would work better for more mature teens, or potentially 14+ instead of younger readers.

Conclusion: With lyrical language and one of the prettiest covers in YA this year, this time-capsule of a black Christian girl coming of age in the 90's evokes the quiet moments of bildungsroman spiced with the headiness of a teen's first explorations of sexuality, life, and independent thought. This one may work better with adults looking back, but will likely be passed from hand-to-hand in some teen circles.



I received my copy of this book courtesy of the publisher. You can find CALLING MY NAME by Liara Tamani at an online e-tailer, or at a real life, independent bookstore near you!

October 17, 2017

Cybils SpecFic Bookmark: DREADNOUGHT by APRIL DANIELS

The Cybils Speculative Fiction Bookmark:

As a panelist for Cybils YA Speculative Fiction, Round 1, I'm going to be briefly writing up some of the hundreds of books I read as part of the award. As panelist conclusions are not for public consumption, the purpose of these write-ups is to keep track of what I'm reading, and will mostly touch on plot synopsis, with minimal comments on thematic tropes.


Synopsis: A quiet kid and longtime recipient of the grade school bullying, even in high school Danny doesn't feel safe without an empty corridor and a wall at her back. Faced with impossible pressures - her own inner identity as a girl and her father's testosterone poisoned insistence that Danny be "the man" her father raised her to be, Danny finds relief - and a little rebellion - with a downtown New Port City nail polish purchase. But a covert pedicure puts Danny in the unenviable position of witnessing a superhero fight - and seeing a white cape go down. Dreadnought has been one of The Good Guys forever, and when Danny sees him crash and burn, her heart is broken... but then her heart is reformed... along with her body. Now Danny-the-boy is good for good. Taking on the mantle of Dreadnought's powers means that Danny has a new power: the power to truly be Danielle. Everything is going to be awesome now, right?

Ri... No. First of all, there's the white capes - Danny is a minor, and can't officially join Legion Pacifica. Second, there's Danny's best friend, a loner like Danny who desperately just wants a chance with a girl - and thinks the new and improved Danielle is now his chance... and that Danny, like, owes him that chance. What? Third, there's Danny's Dad... and his belief that Danny is a disease to be cured. All this plus battling a malicious flying cyborg...? Means Danny's life just got a lot more complicated.

“I see a world that is terrified of me. Terrified of someone who would reject manhood. Terrified of a girl who knows who she is and what she’s capable of. They are small, and they are weak, and they will not hurt me ever again. My name is Danielle Tozer. I am a girl. No one is strong enough to take that from me anymore.”

Reader's Advisory: In looking at this book for accurate representation, the obviously fictional nature of a presto-change-o gender transition can be overlooked in favor of the realities the author puts forth in other areas. The focus Danny's father had on "curing" her seems accurate to the way many people view transgender people, that they have some sort of a mental instability that needs to be fixed. Danny seems to believe that most of her issues stem from her a mismatch of body and brain. However, in the "right" body she discovers that she nevertheless has to experience being female in all its aspects, positive and negative, (and I can attest that it sucks sometimes), that other people's experiences of gender and their understanding of yours can be the single most frustration barricade to happiness, and, finally, that choosing to be yourself in all your authenticity has less to do with your genetics and everything to do with your choices. I feel this book will read well with older teens who are interested in trans issues or who don't know much about them and just want to read an adventure.



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

October 13, 2017

Turning Pages Reads: ARROW OF LIGHTNING by JOSEPH BRUCHAC

Welcome to another session of Turning Pages!

A funny thing happened on the way to reading a book, way back in 2013, that I didn't think I'd enjoy... I fell in love with a world, a character, and an entire series.

"Fast-paced, action-packed, and easy to get into, KILLER OF ENEMIES is a dystopian fantasy that flat-out erases the stereotypical "simple Native" tale in favor of a cold-eyed, sharp-shooting monster-killing menace, whose powers are freaking her out, but who is nonetheless DETERMINED to save her little corner of the world, and those she loves." - my original review.

I eagerly swallowed down ROSE EAGLE, the much-too-short prequel to KILLER that I wasn't aware I was jonesing for, with a character who is NOT superhuman, and who, in fact, falls down, gets dirty, and screws things up. She wins anyway, because she knows how to accept help. I whined until -- finally -- TRAIL OF THE DEAD was released, showing us a different side of the derring-do super heroine main character from KILLERS than we'd known before, as she struggles with being in charge, and mastering herself.

And then, we moved. And I MISSED being part of everything - I missed doing the cover reveal and reviewing ARROW OF LIGHTNING the day it came out. I saw it on Edelweiss and gasped out loud. HOW did I miss it!?! And, as always, I feared, What if it isn't as good??!

Silly me.

Synopsis: As the book begins, Rose and her band are heading out, ranging wider and further from the Valley Where First Light Paints the Cliffs in their quest to find and gather more people who are under the tyrannical control of the Ones and their last henchmen. Just when she feels a little less wobbly on her feet, Lozen's on her own again. Unfortunately, her Power is still... unsettled. Surely all is well now, and all real enemies slain? Nope. And the trouble is not the massive genmod river dweller that she and Hussein discover -- and which her surprising new Power helps dispatch. Her Power shows her something much less reassuring - that her archnemesis Luther Four Deaths is still ... living. And, the Jester and Lady Time are sending him after her. Again. What's it going to take to make this dude finally have to die!? Lozen is frustrated - and afraid. She realizes that the way she's been stomping out fires wherever she finds them isn't going to work anymore. She's made a promise to herself to take no more human life, and so... she must leave her band of family and friends, and stake out herself as bait, in hopes of bringing the fight to herself. She doesn't quite know what she'll do, then. She'll have Hussein with her - and hopefully, between the two of them, they'll come up with... something.

Of course, no plan works that smoothly. Before she can even get away to begin hunting Luther, a plague of locus and some of the Ones' henchmen reappear, and the entire encampment, in their safe, fire-proof, cliff-dwellings are suddenly threatened. Lozen has to make some choices - hard choices - and walk away from the people she believed it was her responsibility to safeguard. She wants a happily-ever-after with Hussein and with her people, she might even want a family, like Rose is carrying for a few more months -- but to get all of that, those hunting her have to go. Lozen, for the first time, is truly overwhelmed. Even Hussein can't calm or cure her - and he doesn't try. Lozen walks her path alone but for the wisdom of Coyote in the stories from her father and Uncle Chato, and from the Horse People, who lend their calm and support. And, putting one foot in front of the other, with no superior wisdom, and with a new Power that seems unreliable and shaky at best, Lozen does what must be done, one more time.

The theme of this novel is change, and who changes, and why, and how may surprise you.

Observations: Of all of the exhausting battles, cleverly unique monsters, diabolical shenanigans of the Ones and hard grind of living with a heightened sense of danger and survival at all times, the one thing that separates the KILLER OF ENEMIES series from other post-apocalyptic/survivalist narratives is that these books are wise... and hopeful. Wise, because Lozen may carry the burden of being the one with the plots and the plans, to keep the life and limb of her ragtag community together, she is but the namesake of another Lozen of long ago, who, too, held the torch for her people, and helped them to overcome. Thus, she is never alone with the burden. There is a Bedu story, to help her remember what to do. There is a Coyote tale, or a visitation from the ever-annoying Halley. There are sparks of skill from her younger siblings, and surprising contributions from the older generation. Lozen is surrounded by stories, wrapped in wisdom, and carried on the shoulders of her people as a leader - they lend her their minds, and they collaborate together to survive.

Readers encountering Lozen's community can't help but wonder how to draw some of that wisdom and hope into their own communities... and therein is woven the magic of a brilliant story. Monsters? Yes. Great evil? Yes. Unbeatable odds? Yes. But community and survival, and a "we'll do it anyway" attitude? Also yes - and that gives me life.

Conclusion: There is nothing on earth as satisfying as an excellent conclusion. I really kind of hate leaving Lozen's beautiful, sere landscape, filled with things which want to strip the flesh from my bones. How Bruchac made this place seem like home, I don't really know... except that he made the Spirits whisper in the wind, and shine down from the stars. No empty landscape filled with enemies here; this place is inhabited, and its heart beats. I want to go back... so it's time to re-read the first one again. You're welcome to join me.



I received my copy of this book courtesy of Lee & Low Publishing. You can find ARROW OF LIGHTNING by Joseph Bruchac at an online e-tailer, or at a real life, independent bookstore near you!

October 10, 2017

Turning Pages Reads: I AM ALFONSO JONES by TONY MEDINA, ill. JOHN EDWARD JENNINGS & STACY ROBINSON

Welcome to another session of Turning Pages!

Usually A.F. is the one with the graphic novels, but I was given the opportunity for an early peek at this one - thanks, Lee & Low! Lee & Low is coming up with a new vibe in terms of their offerings; this is the first graphic of theirs that I know of, and the another book for older teens that isn't from their Tu Books imprint. This novel is both awful and gorgeous, horrifying and heroic in its execution, and will strike readers in the heart. I appreciate that it's not played for entertainment - this isn't about pain for the drama and entertainment value, but a conversation about the reality of what's going on in our world - and hopefully it will bring those more flexible, intelligent minds of younger readers to lean on the question of what it's going to take to stop this.

ff

Synopsis: I AM ALFONSO JONES opens with anticipation of a joyful event. Fifteen-year-old high school student and bike messenger Alfonso has just learned that his father’s fifteen-year prison term has ended, and with DNA evidence, his name has been cleared. The ensuing celebration promises to be epic, and Alfonso and his crush, Danetta, are in the mall buying Alfonso’s first suit when an off-duty policeman mistakes the hanger Alfonso is holding for a gun. Alfonso dies of multiple gunshot wounds, but his story doesn’t end there. Alfonso’s class has been studying Shakespeare’s play, Hamlet, and to bear witness to how his story evolved, Alfonso too becomes a ghost, one riding the ghostly subway back through time, to revisit the history of his neighborhood, his people, and himself.

Observations: The tragedy of Hamlet is an appropriate vehicle for the contemporary tragedy of Alfonso Jones. Betrayed by those who should have loved and cared for him, Prince Hamlet’s rage and confusion mirrors that of Alfonso and his classmates. King Hamlet, as Ghost, does not help his son to solve his murder, but bears witness to the inevitable reverberations from his death, and brings up questions for Prince Hamlet to consider. Likewise, Ghost Alfonso, as he bears witness to the others on the Ghost subway, reverberates these question from the other side of the veil: When did black males become public enemy number one? When did children stop being seen as innocent, and become thugs? When did the color of one’s skin become cause for fear, and anticipated violence? When will this war on black lives cease?

This story of love and rage is conveyed with a surreal cast of characters. Alfonso’s story, and the stories of the others on the ghost subway will both grieve and inform, allowing readers to access the language to talk about class and race discrimination, and the very real fact of the propensity for violence by police against people of minority race and class. Despite the grim topic, there are sparks of light in Alfonso’s family relationships, his classmates’ clowning, and the love his community shows him, which will enable readers to consider parallels within their own lives. There is no solution to Alfonso’s murder, no tidy wrap-up of his death in which the rest of his community lives happily ever after, but they do live, as we do – in love and defiance, never forgetting that justice has not been served.

Conclusion: There are always some people who can say, "But he shouldn't have been --" or, "If she hadn't --" to blame the victims, excuse the racist reflexes, and justify the injustice on the part of our nation's police force. This is a painful, yet cathartic read as the author provides new ways to look at the situation, and new ways to keep it before our eyes -- so that we never can not see, and so that we never forget.



I received my copy of this book courtesy of Lee & Low. October 2017 and beyond, you can find I AM ALFONSO JONES by Tony Medina, illustrated by J.E. Jennings & Stacy Robinson at an online e-tailer, or at a real life, independent bookstore near you!

October 09, 2017

Monday Miscellanea: A Blog Tour, the Cybils, and More...

...not MUCH more. But more!

First of all, today is the second day of the blog tour for Sara Lewis Holmes' newest book The Wolf Hour--go check out her guest post/interview at Charlotte's Library for a peek at some favorite quotes from the book. Edited to add: Also don't miss Maureen Eicher's post at By Singing Light - reposted today - as well! (And if you missed our interview with Sara, you can read it right here.)

Next, if you haven't nominated books for the Cybils Awards yet, there's still plenty of time! Nominations are open through the 15th for the general public, and after that there's a submission window Oct. 16-25 for authors, publishers, and publicists--check out the info on that here.

Lastly, have you registered for Kidlitcon yet? I'll be on vacation with my mom, but YOU could be there--and the program is amazing with a stellar lineup of authors and bloggers, and panels on topics as diverse as Children's Books for Reading Development, Sports Books for the Unathletic, and Immigrants and Refugees in Kids' and YA Books. 

That's it for this fall Monday...and fall is definitely in the air, bringing cooler breezes and wafting pollen into my sinuses. But it's still my fave season, sneezes and all.

October 03, 2017

Turning Pages Reads: MS. BIXBY'S LAST DAY by JOHN DAVID ANDERSON

Welcome to another session of Turning Pages!

While I love John David Anderson's books, I was scared to read this one, because "last" is a word for me that contains expectations of OTT emotion and pathos. But, then, I remembered who I was dealing with. John David Anderson writes books with heart, but they are always, always, always, in tiny, screwball ways, or in ridiculous, massive, exploding building fashion - funny. So, content commentary for this book: Some may need tissues, others might only feel heart pinches and not need them. Most young readers I would expect will come away feeling a bit melancholy, but Anderson artfully ends the novel with its beginning, to help keep the focus on the theme of the story, and to bring the question back to the reader: what would make for your perfect last day?

"We all have moments when we think nobody really sees us. When we feel like we have to act out or be somebody else just to get noticed. But somebody notices, Topher. Somebody sees. Somebody out there probably thinks you're the greatest thing in the whole world. Don't ever think you're not good enough."

MS. BIXBY'S LAST DAY, pp. 232-3

Synopsis: Topher, Steve and Brand are sixth graders in Ms. Bixby's class at Fox Ridge Elementary. They're thoroughly different - Steve is Japanese American and the genius of the group, with his eidetic memory and a head full of stats and detail. Brand is the biggest - calm, serious, full of smart, made-up words, and could probably beat up Trevor Cowly, or even a seventh grader, if he put his mind to it. Topher is the artistic one - full of wild stories and amazing drawings. On the surface, the three of them don't have that much in common, except pizza, video games... and Ms. Bixby. But, a look beneath, and Steve, wilting under the sky-high expectations of his parents is a lot like Topher, withering under the busybusybusy-lack-of-attention from his, who is just like Brand, who is struggling with a father who fell down, but lost the heart to get up again.

When their favorite teacher lets the class know that she's withdrawing from school to fight the cancer she's just been diagnosed with, the three boys - so different, and so much the same - don't know how to manage. To each of them individually, Ms. Bixby has been Their Person - the one who sees something good in them, cheers them on, only minimally rolls her eyes when they're being doofusy, and who never gives up on them. Without her, who are they? When on the day of the planned class farewell party, they arrive at school to find a substitute teacher, they embark on The Plan - a plan to bring the party to her, to make it a perfect last day of school with three of her favorite students. They plot to cut school - which makes Steve's knees shake - and go see her in the hospital. Topher's already imagining chases with police and truant officers. Brand is making detailed lists. The genius is that The Plan will to give Ms. Bixby back everything that she's given to them.

It's ...a disaster.

It's also, perfect.

Observations: I can't say much about The Plan without ruining the story, but I think the genius here lies in the character shading. Anderson takes the time to explain why Brand would pick Steve's nose for him - (it made sense at the time. Kind of) that gives us insight into the rigid rules that Brand is locking himself into. That, in turn, explains at least in part why Steve kind of couldn't stand Brand for a long, long time, and there's another part of Steve that isn't all the way filled yet, at least not by Steve. Topher, whose easy acceptance of Brand is hard for his best friend Steve to accept, likes lots of people and lots of different things, and has a running screenplay in his head that makes him imagine himself to be a lot of other people, all the time. Who wants to be just himself, when he could contain multitudes? All three of these aspects of the boys' characters enlarge the story and help make it memorable.

Conclusion: There really are no perfect books, but this book has both wit and emotional resonance. The imperfection of its characters - and even of Ms. Bixby - step it back from being a overly-sweet paean of tribute to being a slice-of-life-ordinary, rare-and-extraordinary love story between a group of students, and one of The Good Ones; an excellent teacher.



I received my copy of this book courtesy of my personal library. You can find MS. BIXBY'S LAST DAY by John David Anderson at an online e-tailer, or at a real life, independent bookstore near you!

October 02, 2017

Cybils Nominations Are Open!


Book lovers! It is that time of year! The time when we all hustle over to the Cybils website to nominate our favorite children's and YA publications of the past year for the 2017 Awards!

If you're new to the Cybils Awards, here's a brief intro:
The Cybils Awards aims to recognize the children’s and young adult authors and illustrators whose books combine the highest literary merit and popular appeal. If some la-di-dah awards can be compared to brussels sprouts, and other, more populist ones to gummy bears, we’re thinking more like organic chicken nuggets. We’re yummy and nutritious.
The nominations are OPEN TO THE PUBLIC (that's YOU!) from October 1-15, and you can nominate one title for each category. There are lots of categories and we really want to be able to recognize and plug the best books of the year for ALL genres and age ranges. Unfortunately, Audiobooks is on hiatus this year, and you'll find a couple of other minor changes, but with more than 10 categories, there are plenty of opportunities to send worthy book suggestions to our Round 1 judging panels. You can get all the relevant information right here.

September 29, 2017

Turning Pages Reads: UNUSUAL CHICKENS FOR THE EXCEPTIONAL POULTRY FARMER by KELLY JONES

Welcome to another session of Turning Pages!

When I was a kid, we had ducks. We had dogs. We had pigeons. We had chickens. Occasionally, we had hamsters, crawdads, and the neighbor's bunnies and goats. I grew up in a suburban zoo, apparently, so the title of this book made me smile and want to read it. I don't have chickens right now - and I'm not sure I'd want chickens like these!

Synopsis: Sophie is twelve, and a new arrival from LA into the wilds of Sonoma County. Her mother is a freelance writer, working frantically to provide the family income. Sophie's Dad got laid off from his old job - which is one of the reasons why they've moved to her great-uncle Jim - on her father's side - farm. The other reason is that he died, and left it to the family in his will. Sophie's family has no money, and nowhere else to go - and they're going to make the best of this place.

Sophie's loneliness stems from missing her bestie, LaToya, and her Abuelita, who passed away before they left LA. She's afraid she won't make new friends, and then she finds... a chicken. A kind of angry chicken, really, which glares a lot, and ... occasionally does other things that Sophie's not sure of. Writing a letter to Redwood Farm Supply in Gravenstein makes perfect sense now, because Sophie's hopeful SOMEONE will be able to tell her how to care for the chicken, which Sophie names Henrietta and reads to daily. Through trial and error, and working hard like her Abuelita always told her to, Sophie makes a start on things. Agnes at Redwood helps... but her typing is kind of awful, and she's sporadic help at best.

And, it seems like someone is trying to steal Sophie's chicken already!

Through the kind auspices of the mailman, the boy down the road, and with a little help from her poultry friends, Sophie finds her way through the first summer on Blackbird Farm, and provides readers with a lot of humor along the way.

Observations: This is kind of prime Middle Grade fiction to me - extraordinarily creative, gently amusing, and a quick read. Sophie is lonely, and a little sad, and readers will sense that her curiosity about her new home is leavened by this - and by her parents' fears for the future, and their own grief and losses. I like that Sophie is a quick study - she knows that there is Stuff Going On with the adults, and while it doesn't totally derail her, she's fairly convinced that figuring things out on her own is her best bet.

Middle grade books seem specially geared to doing well with dealing with loss. Sophie's hole-in-the-middle feelings from losing first her grandmother, then her best friend are detailed well, and the slow evolution of strangers-to-friends she experiences with the boy from up the road and the girl she sees in the library will remind readers of how friendships begin: slowly, over time, and silences are bridged with smiles, even when one doesn't have words.

Additionally, this is a fun prompt to get people to libraries! Sophie sympathizes with her father, whose delayed grief - and guilt - from growing up with his great-uncle Jim, and then never visiting him again, and STILL inheriting his farm, leads him to try viticulture, even though he doesn't know what he's doing. Sophie shows him an excellent example when she goes to the library and finds A BOOK and READS about caring for chickens. It takes him a bit, but eventually, he catches a clue. Sophie actually checks out books for him, and soon he signs up for a viticulture class on his own.

Conclusion: The matter-of-fact inclusion of fantastic or mythical elements into seemingly realistic fiction is the basis of surrealistic fiction and magical realism, and because Sophie is Mexican-American, I think that label fits for this story, at least partially. A lighthearted, funny and creative book, this made me want to have chickens again someday, and probably will lead every twelve-year-old who reads it to have at least the tiniest twinge of wanting a chicken - or six - for pets.



I received my copy of this book courtesy of my local bookstore. You can find UNUSUAL CHICKENS FOR THE EXCEPTIONAL POULTRY FARMER by Kelly Jones at an online e-tailer, or at a real life, independent bookstore near you!

September 28, 2017

Thursday Review: LITTLE MONSTERS by Kara Thomas

Synopsis: Kacey Young has only been living with her dad and stepfamily for a year or so, after escaping from an unpleasant home life with her mother. Things are still delicately balanced, but it feels like she's finally found a real home—her stepbrother Andrew has become one of her best friends, and she's finally won over her 13-year-old half-sister Lauren.

Kacey's friends, though, are another matter entirely. At the beginning of the book, it seems like Kacey, Bailey, and Jade have become an inseparable trio, even if Bailey's always suggesting ways for them to get into trouble in their small Wisconsin town. Kacey goes along with it—even if she'd rather not, sometimes. And that's where we see the cracks start to form in their seemingly perfect unit. One night, Bailey and Jade go to a raging party without inviting Kacey along…but Bailey never comes home afterward.

In this page-turning thriller, everyone's got something to hide—and the person who's got the most to hide is sometimes the one you least suspect.

Observations: As with a lot of my reviews of suspense novels, I've tried to keep this one brief to avoid spoilers. But I can say a few things! One of the intriguing structural choices for this story was the decision to alternate sections from Kacey's first-person viewpoint with diary excerpts from another character's point of view. This sets up an immediate opposition and tension, with the reader wondering who's hiding what, and who they can really trust as a narrator. It kept me sort of suspicious of everyone until the last few chapters. In a way, that distanced me from Kacey as the primary narrator of the story, but not so much that I didn't want to keep following along.

The fact that all the major players DO have something to hide makes this an intriguing and gripping story—obviously, in a good whodunit, lots of possible motives are at play, and if they're woven in well, it keeps the reader guessing. And in this one, Kacey's murky past keeps her right in the center of things, including the suspicions of everyone around her.

Conclusion: I often turn to a good thriller when I'm looking for a fast read that's immersive and emotionally tense, to distract me from stress and busy-ness. This fit the bill perfectly and, as a fun bonus, there's a mixed-race Asian American character! (Though his identity was not really explored in the story. Pretty sure it would be a THING in a small town. Oh well.) Recommended for suspense fans.


I received my copy of this book courtesy of my library's ebook collection. You can find LITTLE MONSTERS by Kara Thomas at an online e-tailer, or at a real life, independent bookstore near you!

September 25, 2017

Starring Sara Lewis Holmes

It's Day One of The Wolf Hour blog tour!


Welcome, my little lambs, to the Puszcza. It's an ancient forest, a keeper of the deepest magic, where even the darkest fairy tales are real. Here, a Girl is not supposed to be a woodcutter, or be brave enough to walk alone. Here, a Wolf is not supposed to love to read, or be curious enough to meet a human. And here, a Story is nothing like the ones you read in books, for the Witch can make the most startling tales come alive. All she needs is ...
      A Girl from the village,
            A Wolf from the forest,
               & A Woodcutter with a nice, sharp axe.

So take care, little lambs, if you step into these woods. For in the Puszcza, it is always as dark as the hour between night and dawn -- the time old folk call the Wolf Hour. If you lose your way here, you will be lost forever, your Story no longer your own. You can bet your bones.


And with a bit of a shiver, come in! We bid you Welcome!

Sara Lewis Holmes has been a very dear friend since 2007, when Tanita joined she and five other women in a year-long poetry challenge which culminated in a National Poetry Month Crown of Sonnets way back in 2008. This poetry effort then turned from a trial experiment for one poem into a yearly, year-long delight of poetry and wordplay. We expected good things when we reviewed Sara's second book, and when Sara joined our writing group, we were pleased to indulge ourselves in talking craft and sharing stories. Today, we celebrate the release day of Sara's fourth book, and we're excited to tell you all about it! Well... all about it within reason, anyway. We're focusing on writing details, and the craft of fiction today, and working hard to present NO SPOILERS here, so you may find this interview vague on points of plot. -- No worries, though! You'll have all the plot you'd like when you pick up your own copy. So, without further introduction, we're thrilled to welcome author and poet Sara to the Wonderland Treehouse!


Finding Wonderland: Hi Sara! Let's get right into it - THE WOLF HOUR is a "Once upon a time" type of tale, but stories don't always actually start that way for writers. What was the starting point of this story for you? What initially inspired you to write this book, and which character(s) sprang to mind first?

Sara Lewis Holmes: I’m more like a magpie than a spider when it comes to story. I don’t spin a carefully symmetric web of plot and character out of my guts, as much as I would love to say I do. Rather, I collect shiny baubles over the years, hoarding and obsessing over them until I figure out how to make a story out of all the strange beauty.

For THE WOLF HOUR, those glittering pieces included: a conversation with a stranger about why some stringed instruments howl when played, the image of a child clinging to a tree rather than be forced to lessons, a rotund china pig given to me by my mother-in-law, and a former piano teacher whose entire house bloomed with pink.

Those elements were in my magpie’s nest of a journal but it took an encounter with a wolf to set them free. Not a real wolf, although I’d seen one, in a carefully fenced wolf park, and listened to one howl in a chilling YouTube video, and read about many in both fairy tale and fact—-but one whose voice stole into the forest of words crowding my head, and told me that if I wanted to write about wolves, he would be my guide. His name was Martin, and he had been raised by books, and knew everything about everything—-except the human heart. I could not help but love him, and be terrified for his future, too.

Finding Wonderland: Okay, we LOVE that you based this story on actual items that you were GIVEN! Story magpies! How cool a concept! So, let's talk readers --

Despite their often bleak or violent content, fairytales are traditionally seen as stories intended for children. What's the optimum age of your target reader for THE WOLF HOUR? Who is this book for? Who, if anyone, is it not for?

Sara Lewis Holmes: Age and readership questions are hard. Do you like to shiver and chew your lip ragged as you read? Do you like a story that twists and turns and doesn’t go where you expect it to? Do you enjoy a story that KNOWS it’s a story, and might even challenge you to think about your own Story and whether you like your place in it? If you do, even if you aren’t in the 8-12 age range for this book…read on!

Finding Wonderland: Ah. So, what books are for you? What are a few of your favorite fairytales, and why do you love them?

SLH: East of the Sun and West of the Moon has to be the most lovely title ever for a fairy tale. And in it, the girl rescues her prince, instead of the other way round. Also, there’s a princess with a nose that is “three ells” long! I’m also fond of works that focus on the told nature of stories, such as William J. Brooke’s three part TELLER OF TALES book series, as well as the 2000 American/British TV miniseries, ARABIAN NIGHTS, adapted by Peter Barnes. Like a hall of mirrors, these “stories within stories” crack open my view of the world. Finally, I’d add that all fairy tales are, to a fault, weirdly defiant of the world’s conventions. They are like poetry in that way, and I love their wildness.

Wonderland: I'm going to have to look up what how long an 'ell' is!

Often, setting is itself a character in a novel, acting as an active metaphor. Would you say that you consciously, or unconsciously used THE WOLF HOUR'S setting to speak to the reader? Do you consider this novel a "fairytale mashup”?

SLH: The Wolf Hour, in legend, is the hour between darkness and dawn; it’s the hour more people are said to be born into this world and more people leave it than any other —-and, if you are like me, you are often awake then, wondering if you will ever get your Story right. So I would say that part of the “setting” of my novel deals with such fairy tale time—-how twisty it is, and how “once upon a time” can stretch to many, many days and nights, and how being in charge of your own time means being in charge of your own story. Easy to say, difficult beyond measure to do.

The other part of the setting is the deep, dark forest. In Polish, the word for such a place is “Puszcza,” and yes, I absolutely wanted the reader to feel that such a place was both desirable and dangerous. I wanted the reader to feel its call, as Magia does, and to discover the Stories that dwell there. I think it’s those various Stories that make me say THE WOLF HOUR is not a re-telling but “a fairy tale mashup.” It’s a story about the power of stories, and how everyone tries to cast you in the story that is easiest for them to hear—-but not necessarily the one you want to live in. How do you fight that?

Wonderland: How one combats someone trying to recast their Story is something few tales look at quite so directly, so this is very interesting.

Those of us who know you through your work know that you delight in Shakespearean stories, and acting as a tool for self-understanding. How did your appreciation for the Bard and your interest and skill in theater help to shape this novel?

SLH: Reading Shakespeare taught me that disguise is uncommonly common, death is a persistent beast, and love is found in unexpected places. His plays are filled with a more than a touch of unbelievable—-a trait I admire in novels such as COSMIC by Frank Cottrell Boyce, THE WHITE DARKNESS by Geraldine McCaughrean, and NATION by Terry Pratchett—-not to mention most fairy tales. The Bard was also a master of the “story within a story” trope, which I find irresistible, as I mentioned earlier, and he absolutely inspired me to make up words as needed, and to not be afraid to pair utter despair with low comedy. (I think of the pigs in THE WOLF HOUR as a villainous take on his “rude mechanicals.”)

Finally, I am ever grateful to the brilliant artists at the American Shakespeare Center in Staunton, VA, who hold a Shakespeare camp for adults every summer and stage the most compelling theater I know. Their work informs mine in ways I cannot explain, but I do know that they remind me that Magic Happens. Every Day.

Wonderland: All hail the magic, indeed. We never quite know how it works... but sometimes, it's enough that it does.

So, softball question: If you could write yourself into a fairytale, which one would it be? Would you prefer a role which gave you Power or Guile?

SLH: Puss in Boots is a master class in Guile, or How to Make Something from Nothing. As a writer, I identify. However, if I had to pick some boots to fill, I prefer seven-league boots. The power to travel great distances without burning carbon fuel would be both practical and fun.

Wonderland: Ooh, good answer. Definitely, we writers must use all we've all got to get ourselves as far along as we can!

So, while you studied the Bard, my studies were in 19th c. British and American lit... and the 19th century canon uses a lot of intrusive narrator/direct address authorial comment to help readers gain a deeper understanding of the characters, but authorial insertion is largely absent from modern novels. What prompted you to use that 'Dear reader' sort of narrative technique in THE WOLF HOUR? Do you think more novels would benefit from that sort of "breaking the fourth wall" technique, in order to allow readers to come closer to the action?

SLH: My editor, Cheryl Klein, and I talked at length about the challenge of signaling to a reader HOW to read this story. I needed to convey that all was not going to proceed as normal, and that the path ahead would be scary and often double-back on itself before coming to a conclusion. After all, the novel is ABOUT how to find and live in your own story…and how unbelievably hard that can be. So we decided that a direct reader address would set the right tone for the three-stranded tale that would follow, and that the voice would re-occur at the beginning of each section, to both invite the reader forward, and to chillingly warn them of the darkness ahead. This is a choice, obviously, that most novels don’t need, so I wouldn’t recommend it often. (I found it enormously fun to write, however.)

Wonderland: Many American kids have never heard of Scottish author Andrew Lang's 12-volume "Coloured" Fairy Books. Which one is your favorite? Do you own them all? How were you introduced to them?

SLH: The only one I own is The Green Fairy Book, and it sits on my desk along with my other favorite fairy/fantasy books. I was introduced to the Lang Fairy Books by finding them mysteriously lined up in the non-fiction section of the children’s room of Lawson McGee Library in Knoxville, TN. I mostly went to the non-fiction section to hunt down books on magic tricks and codes and secret languages, so it was a surprise to find stories here, too. Especially stories that couldn’t be true: tales of iron shoes that tortured their owners; of Winds who offered you soaring rides along with their down-to-earth advice; and of children who were loved less than coin shine and left to die. Casual cruelty and stunning beauty lived side by side. Animals and people fought and slept and morphed from one form to the other. Nothing made sense, and everything did. And most of all, these tales seemed to offer a glimpse into the dangers of “adult” life. I was utterly fascinated.

Wonderland: I can see why! So, from language hints, we can tell The Wolf Hour takes place in a specific geographical setting, in a fairytale Poland. First, what prompted your fairytale Eastern European setting, especially now? Additionally, how did you select the stories that you used, and what prompted you to choose them?

SLH: Originally, the humans in the novel were a default English family, but I questioned if that was laziness on my part. Stories are everywhere, and even though most of our American fairy tales come to us filtered through Western European tellings, stories such as Little Red Riding Hood and The Three Little Pigs are told the world over. So why not draw on my Polish heritage and research and feature a fairy-tale Polish family encountering these tales instead—-although perhaps in a form they hadn’t seen before? (Miss Grand, however, DOES retain her English name, which might tell the reader a thing or two about the specific tellings of the Stories she controls.)

Additionally, when I chose the Stories to “mashup,” I was looking for those tales which featured a Wolf. (To my surprise, there were not as many as you would think.) And then I let those stories “live” in the forest—-in the Polish Puszcza—-where they could cause trouble for Magia and the townfolk of Tysiak—-at least until they could confront those tales, and face up to their own hunger in creating them. Hunger, by the way, is a big theme in the book—-hunger for what you can’t have, hunger for the truth, hunger for safety, and hunger for home. (You see now why I needed stories in which a Wolf swallows people and Pigs employ a giant cooking pot?)

Wonderland: Ah! What a fun way to explore your own heritage and metaphor at the same time. SO, to wrap up our time with a cheater question - and I'm kind of cheating, because AF and I are in your writing group... but, every writer comes to the end of the first (few hundred) drafts with bits of the story that end up on the cutting room floor. What were the bits of THE WOLF HOUR which you needed to cut that you wish you could have kept?

SLH:In an early draft, I had one more fairy tale that was active in the Puszcza—-that of the Little Lambs whose Mother tells them to keep the door locked while she is away. Then the Wolf comes to their cottage, and to fool the wooly wee ones into letting him in, he dips his paws in white flour and pretends to be her. Holy Horrors, that fairy tale scared me when I was a kid! I still remember the picture of the rangy wolf with his snowy paws on the door’s transom to this day. But…the novel didn’t need another cast of characters, so those Lambs only make a teeny-tiny appearance now---for when the Story voice addresses the readers, this is its endearment for them: my Little Lambs. I hope we will all be frightened (and saved) together.


"Fairy tales are precarious places for girls and wolves. In a brash, dazzling break with tradition, Sara Lewis Holmes arms a woodcutter's daughter and a sensitive wolf pup with a means of defense against the old familiar roles that threaten to swallow them whole. The story of how they come together to rewrite fate is bewitchingly delicious; you'll gobble it up." -- Christine Heppermann, author of Poisoned Apples: Poems for You, My Pretty

Thank you, Sara, for your quirky, funny, thoughtful comments, and thank you, Readers, for joining us on the first stop of The Wolf Hour tour!

Friends, you do not want to miss this dreamy, scary, funny, unusual retelling of Little Red Riding Hood and the Three Little Pigs, all tied up in a very Sara sort of collision. Readers who enjoyed last year's THE GIRL THAT DRANK THE MOON may find this is right up their alley. Stay tuned for more chat with Sara Lewis Holmes through October at Charlotte's Library, with Maureen at By Singing Light, with Laura at Writing the World for Kids, with Tricia at The Miss Rumphius Effect & Liz Scanlon's blog.

Images used in this interview courtesy of the author. You can find THE WOLF HOUR by Sara Lewis Holmes at an online e-tailer, or at a real life, independent bookstore near you!