September 19, 2017

Surveying Stories: Soul Survival in Erin Entrada Kelly's HELLO UNIVERSE

Bullying was a problem in middle schools in the dinosaur years when I was there, so it's not like it's a new phenomenon. However, the "just ignore them and they'll leave you alone" school of thought has finally wised the heck up (and not before time, either) and since about 2006, after the film "Mean Girls" had its success, a new wave of middle grade books has begun to explore some of the more painful realities of living with the dichotomy of "being yourself" while being assured by your peers and classmates that your "self" is unacceptably and irreparably flawed.

Because middle school to high school is a time of immense pressure and personal development, these books are necessary, as social media and its adjacent technologies are giving sadistic little bullies more and more access to peers at an earlier and earlier age. Now that it's become even more obvious that adults are finding their strength in bullying (you needn't look too deeply into our politics to see that link), books which examine the painful and individual repercussions of being bullied are more important than ever. Bullies suffer from an unwillingness or inability to recognize or identify with the feelings and needs of others. They won't be able to learn to act with empathy until they more clearly see the results of its lack. One cannot heal what has not been revealed.

Granted, this is hard for some adult readers to grasp. Complaints that a book is "too sad," "dark and depressing" or "guilt-inducing" are unfortunately common when less mainstream (privileged?) characters are presented in fiction. Fortunately, through the auspices of adults with a little more emotional range who are , the kids who need these books find them. All it takes, adults, is decentering your feelings on the matter, and realizing that there's always at least one child who takes refuge in books because they really don't fit in. And these stories of kids who are sad but surviving can be the path through the jungle, the maps to the treasure, the how-to-deal manual that every kid needs. With that in mind,

Let's survey a story!


Acclaimed and award-winning author Erin Entrada Kelly’s Hello, Universe is a funny and poignant neighborhood story about unexpected friendships. Told from four intertwining points of view—two boys and two girls—the novel celebrates bravery, being different, and finding your inner bayani (hero), and it’s perfect for fans of Lynda Mullaly Hunt, Thanhha Lai, and Rita Williams-Garcia.

In one day, four lives weave together in unexpected ways. Virgil Salinas is shy and kindhearted and feels out of place in his crazy-about-sports family. Valencia Somerset, who is deaf, is smart, brave, and secretly lonely, and she loves everything about nature. Kaori Tanaka is a self-proclaimed psychic, whose little sister, Gen, is always following her around. And Chet Bullens wishes the weird kids would just stop being so different so that he can concentrate on basketball. They aren’t friends, at least not until Chet pulls a prank that traps Virgil and his pet guinea pig at the bottom of a well. This disaster leads Kaori, Gen, and Valencia on an epic quest to find the missing Virgil. Sometimes four can do what one cannot. Through luck, smarts, bravery, and a little help from the universe, a rescue is performed, a bully is put in his place, and friendship blooms. The acclaimed author of Blackbird Fly and The Land of Forgotten Girls writes with an authentic, humorous, and irresistible tween voice that will appeal to fans of Thanhha Lai and Rita Williams-Garcia.

One of the things easily apparent in Erin Entrada Kelly's books is the link each character has between the present and the past. Like a string at the end of a balloon, each needs the other to keep the story grounded. In BLACKBIRD FLY, Apple Yengo reaches back to the past both with the Beatles' music, and with what she's literally holding onto from the past; something she believes belonged to her late father. These things, brought together into the present, help give Apple the wings she needs to fly. In THE LAND OF FORGOTTEN GIRLS, Soledad and Dominga hold onto their mother through sharing the fantastical tales of Auntie Jove. Soledad also holds onto Amelia, her late sister, through the whispering of her own conscience. In HELLO, UNIVERSE, Kelly takes a slightly different approach, stretching each character to reach toward something bigger than themselves for comfort. This is both grounding, and a means of expanding the character's worldview.

The deeply shy Virgilio clings to his guinea pig, and to his Lola's myriad tales of boys who get eaten by rocks and crocodiles and girls who ask so many questions they have to travel the world to find their destinies. Through his imagination, a starring character in a story speaks back to him from his deepest despair, reminding him that he is a hero, and that the worst thing he can do is give up. Independent-but-lonely Valencia, whose parents love her without understanding her, looks to the natural world as a larger organism to absorb and make unimportant the isolation she endures. The psychically inclined Kaori opens herself to dreams, crystals, portents, spirits, and the universe to guide her steps (even when opening her eyes to the here-and-now might help her a bit more), and even self-aggrandizing Chet frequently imagines himself a big, important hero like his father - not a truly larger-than-life guide through the world, but a familiar one.

This imaginative reach is also a survival tool, perhaps the best survival tool of all. Looking outside of themselves saves each of these children. Soledad has a strong, battle-cry of a name, but she is so lonely and isolated in her silent world that even religious solicitation at seven-thirty in the morning isn't viewed as something entirely horrible - besides, she's always open to learning a new thing, and maybe that church is interesting. Being open to finding out makes Soledad unique. Seeking an outlet for both her nightmares and her prickly moments with her mother, she unexpectedly finds Kaori... whose sense of wonder about life, the universe, and everything spurs her to be useful to many different people - even though Kaori only has two clients and one little sister in her sphere of influence so far. Despite having only her little sister for company, Kaori is never lonely, and never bored, because the universe is right there with so much to teach her, despite her parents preference for TV, March Madness, and earthbound concerns. Virgilio, the family turtle, constantly compares himself to his louder, livelier family, and it is his rich imagining of one of Lola's characters that sees him through his time alone in the woods. (Of course, that also plays against him a bit, since Radu is there, too.) Chet whistles in the dark by imagining himself a conquering hero... and in the end, his imagination of what the words "you'll regret it" mean just maybe will set him on a better path. We'll never know!

Far from guilting or making sad the children who read these books, this quiet story of a summer day in which four kids become better known to each other hits that sweet spot of being intriguing and well characterized while still leaving room for readers. Real life kids will draw conclusions, make assumptions and guesses and write their own "and the next day" hopes for these characters. And then, hopefully, they'll take the tools to reach out that the characters have set before them - a ladder, a handful of stones, a pink jump rope, a notebook - and go out and find their own way through the vast universe.



I received my copy of this book courtesy of the public library. You can find HELLO UNIVERSE by the inimitable Erin Entrada Kelly at an online e-tailer, or at a real life, independent bookstore near you!

September 18, 2017

Monday Miscellany, a.k.a I Don't Have a New Review

I guess it's time I admitted it to you all--there are times when I'm not actually reading YA books. Surprise! Over the past few weeks I read a couple of grown-up books instead: The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead (which won last year's National Book Award) and No Time Like the Present by Jack Kornfield, which was helpful for anxiety and stress and the like. I highly recommend it if you have any interest in mindfulness as a therapeutic practice. I wouldn't say I'm any GOOD at mindfulness, at meditation, or at stress relief as a general rule, but I think I'm better off having read the book. And, as a special bonus, both of these books were available in my library's ebook app!

I did run across a couple of items of interest, though, which I thought I would share. First, the program for this year's Kidlitosphere Conference in Hershey, PA has been finalized, with a ton of fantastic authors and presenters including keynote Rachel Renee Russell, author of Dork Diaries, Jordan Sonnenblick, Tracey Baptiste, Laura Atkins, and many many more.

Second, in the process of desperately googling ways to make my novel notes more coherent, I found a really cool resource for writers who use Evernote (I don't, but after this I'm thinking about it!). In honor of last year's NaNoWriMo, the Evernote blog did a post about several writer-oriented templates, from character worksheets to plotting outlines. They look really fun to play around with for those who a) use Evernote and b) like to fiddle with their notes and stuff.

As per usual for me these days, I don't think NaNoWriMo is in my future this year, due to work-related circumstances, but I am starting a new project...which is also good news!

September 12, 2017

Turning Pages Reads: BLACKBIRD FLY, by ERIN ENTRADA KELLY

Welcome to another session of Turning Pages!

It's another Erin Kelly book! I heard a lot of good things about this book from the Cybils crew last year, and was happy to read it. Also, not gonna lie, the title does good things for me, because I can just hear that pretty little guitar riff from the Beatles song. ☺ Content commentary: The bullying in this novel seems pretty brutal to some people, but to me, for middle grade, it feels gruelingly spot on. Your mileage may vary.

Synopsis: Chapel Spring, Louisiana, where Apple Yengko lives, isn't the type of place you'd write songs about. Certainly Apple won't do so, when she becomes famous. She's going to run away to New Orleans where she can have a guitar and make her living from it. Of course, she doesn't have a guitar yet. Her mother won't let her get one, even though music is all Apple has of her father, who died in the Philippines when she was only three. Since they emigrated to the U.S., Apple's mother has become the block in the road to a great many things Apple feels like she needs - like pizza and a normal name, and good friends. Why can't her mother understand the Beatles are everything? Why must they always eat pancit? Why can't her mother stay out of her way, and start calling her Analyn?

Apple knows, if she thinks about it, that it's not anyone's fault that she's on the Dog Log as the third ugliest in the school... and now even her best friends believe that she eats dog - and that her tilted eyes mean she's Chinese. Just as her girlfriends are beginning to "date" suddenly Apple is a social pariah - the boys bark at her in the hall as she passes, and her friends, humiliated by her mere existence, first won't speak to her, then actively seem to hate her... but why? Why don't they care that she's actually Filipino, and has never eaten dog in her life? Why are they acting like the Hot List matters, and listening to the boys? Apple's only escape comes through listening to Abbey Road and other Beatles albums. Her father loved the Beatles, and all Apple has left from him is a single old tape. She holds on to that tenuous link between herself and a man she doesn't really remember, and longs to fly away from her life. When she finds out that her class is going on a field trip to New Orleans, one of the only places Apple has ever seen musicians making a living from their art, she knows where she wants to go, to start a new life. Now, if she could just get a guitar...

As Apple's unhappiness grows, and she bends her natural personality more and more to accommodate her friends, she slowly begins to realize what she's giving up - dignity and character, and for what? For people who don't really see her, and want her to be the same as everyone else. Readers will cheer as Apple learns to stand up against bullying and her new friends help her to cherish the self she was throwing away. And finally, like the blackbird song she adores, she flies.

Observations: Erin Kelly writes emotional books - close to the root of one's feelings, allowing readers into the character's deepest inner mind - yet without making the reader feel guilty about things. Apple falls in line with the mean girls, and through her guilty silence, she shares in their worst behavior. She doesn't outwardly believe in the popularity "tiers" as her friend Alyssa does, but she acts like it, making her complicity actually worse. Because Apple doesn't sit in the seat of the Unassailably Right Behavior Judgment Panel like many other bullied characters do, she is realistically flawed - which as a protagonist makes her easier to relate to and to understand.

Despite her complicity, this is recognizably a redemption story. When it begins, Apple is in a place where nothing she IS is okay, and everything she is NOT is what she wants. She wants to be JUST an American, not a Filipino-American. She wants to be fair and blonde like her friends, have "good eyes," which to her meant eyes with no tilt and no epicanthal fold. She wants to throw away her native language and culture. It takes having a friend who has no special link to a particular heritage valuing her language and food and culture for her to be able to see it as anything worth keeping. Additionally, it's significant that he's white and male -- at Apple's school, where she is the ONLY Filipina, other white males are devaluing her for the same reasons Evan values her. As she learns to look at her mother with fresh eyes, her love outpaces Evan's regard for her culture, and she comes back into valuing herself for her own sake again. This is important, and allows Evan to be simply a catalyst for the work that needs to be done, and not the whole reason Apple sees herself correctly again by the story's end.

Conclusion: In middle school, kids are encouraged to step out of childhood and grow into themselves - but no one can reassure them that their "selves" are okay except their peers, who unfortunately are, at that point, jockeying for position and trying to shine as their best selves. It's an exhilarating and awful time - usually with more emphasis on the awful, unfortunately - but Kelly's characters see themselves through this awfulness into triumph, allowing readers to come along for the ride.



I received my copy of this book courtesy of the public library, but it, like all of Kelly's books, is worth not just a Borrow but a Buy. You can find BLACKBIRD FLY by Erin Entrada Kelly at an online e-tailer, or at a real life, independent bookstore near you!

September 11, 2017

Monday Review: RED QUEEN Trilogy by Victoria Aveyard

Good covers, too
Synopsis: I was drawn to Victoria Aveyard's trilogy--Red Queen, Glass Sword, and King's Cage--because I saw some echoes of the project I'm currently working on and was immediately intrigued. In the world of protagonist Mare Barrow, there are two types of people, Reds and Silvers; and the color of your blood determines your worth, your skills, and your fate. It's a world that is very possibly our own world, drastically changed on a fundamental level by centuries of destruction and eventual recovery. But the focus is not on the past here, but on the grim present, where those with Silver blood rule the Reds and subjugate them with hereditary powers: abilities to manipulate metal, to control fire, even to conquer minds.

As regular red-blooded humans, Mare and her family live a rather hardscrabble existence—not on the level of the Hunger Games, but not too far off. Young people who aren't able to land a job or apprenticeship are drafted into the legions of their country of Norta and sent to the border to die fighting the neighboring Lakelanders. When Mare's best friend Kilorn finds out he's to be drafted, her whole life feels like it's falling apart—she's already lost brothers to the war, and her father was left without the use of his legs.

After Mare is sent to the Silver capital in a job as a servant, she is hoping to help keep her family safe and fed, but instead, something completely unexpected happens: she finds out she has some powers of her own. And she might not be the only one. It's a discovery that could tear apart the fabric of their strictured society—but not if the Silvers can help it.

Observations: The synopsis above is how the story starts, but these events set in motion a movement of Reds that fuels the entire trilogy. Mare is whisked into a world of Silver nobility and made into a pawn for multiple sides of the struggle, while still hoping to keep her family safe. Not only that, she discovers that the Silvers themselves aren't universally amoral and evil—and her feelings for a Silver prince make things particularly complicated.

Mare's story ramps up throughout the second and third books, and we find out that the struggles between Red and Silver aren't confined to Norta—things are changing throughout the world as they know it. This trilogy is definitely a sweeping epic on a grand scale, and the author doesn't ignore complex social ramifications and the interplay between countries, even if the action is primarily focused on one locale.

It's really impressive and tightly plotted, but the characters and their struggles remain central—the books don't get hijacked by the speculative fiction elements, which are wonderful and intriguing but (appropriately) are ultimately less important than the all-too-human motivations and emotions of the players themselves. These players—Mare, her allies, her enemies—nobody is wholly good or evil, and that makes for a believable and very gripping story with a lot of twists and turns.

Conclusion: Of course I WILL recommend this to fans of The Hunger Games, but also to any fans of postapocalyptic or dystopian fiction, as well as fantasy about paranormal powers. The blurb on Amazon calls it Graceling meets The Selection, so I guess there's that, too.


I received my copy of this book courtesy of my library's ebook collection. You can find RED QUEEN, GLASS SWORD, and KING'S CAGE by Victoria Aveyard at an online e-tailer, or at a real life, independent bookstore near you!

September 06, 2017

Turning Pages Reads: RAYMIE NIGHTINGALE by KATE DICAMILLO

Welcome to another session of Turning Pages!

I picked up this book because of the author, and the enigmatic - or meaningful, as Betsy Bird calls it - cover. And then, I almost put it down, because it is set in 1975.

It is hard for me to imagine the seventies as a time anyone wants to read about, much less venerate as "historical." After all, to be antique, an object must be at minimum a mere hundred years old; novels set in the seventies and eighties feel... indulgent and nostalgic; more about the authors than the readers. But, on the other hand, the 20th century is now considered "historical fiction," so setting my hesitation aside, I read on.

Synopsis: Raymie Clarke's plan for the summer is this: learn to twirl a baton in Ms. Ida Nee's baton-twirling class; win the Little Miss Central Florida Tire 1975 competition; get her name and picture in the newspaper... and thus create enough interest in her life and well-being to make her father come back from where he's run off with the dental hygienist. By all accounts, it was a reasonable plan. It was something Raymie could hold up to herself when she was afraid, when her mother was silent and sat in the sunroom, staring into space: she had a Plan that was going to Fix Things.

Unfortunately, other people had plans - and troubles of their own. Louisiana Elefante, a tiny, blonde asthmatic, wants to win Little Miss Central Florida Tire 1975 so that she can claim the prize money and free her cat from the pound. Unspoken is her hope that they can use the money to then eat more than tunafish and she and her grandmother can stop running from Marsha Jean, the invisible social worker who might put her in foster care. Beverly Tapinski's plan is to sabotage the pageant - somehow. With a knife. Beverly hates Little Miss pageants, is tired of her mother signing her up for them, and has tried to run away to her father in New York, twice. She is angry and fearless - and sometimes bruised.

Raymie strikes out alone, at first, to do a good deed so that she can list it on her Little Miss application, but soon she, Louisiana, and Bev find themselves doing things together... not willingly, at first, but Louisiana's winsome imagination draws them, and Raymie is eager for something brighter and better than life at home. Even Bev finds herself charmed, despite herself. The girls have more in common than Raymie first believed, and in the end, relying on each other's strengths saves them

Observations: I did not love this book, but found it ...complex and textured. The people Raymie meets during the course of the novel add a depth and nuance that is unexpected. There are cynical elderly people and optimistic ones; haughty ones living on their past successes, like Ms. Ida, and ones running from their current responsibilities, like Raymie's dad. Among her peers, Raymie's problems don't seem so very big to her. While it's true that her father left them, and her mother is depressed and silent, Louisiana, in addition to her very serious asthma, is food insecure, living in a house with no power and no furniture, and a grandmother who is very old and teaching her survival tricks to help her live outside of the county assistance she needs. Beverly poses as self-confident and brave, but she is furious at being abandoned by her father, always running away to be with him, and fighting with adults - to the point of having physical altercations at home. With all of this, the time period and the setting weren't... significant.

"Issues" were obviously not something which were talked about in school in the 70's, as Raymie didn't automatically respond by speaking with an adult when it was revealed that Louisiana was food insecure, whereas I think most of today's ten-year-olds would at least mention it to someone in passing. Infidelity seems to be much less common, and much more a source of shame to those left behind. By avoiding the obvious stereotypes, DiCamillo avoids a dated feel - no super bell bottoms and flower children or anything - but, to be honest, I don't think adding a year is going to be really significant to young readers.

An interesting quibble I did have with the novel setting, though, is that it depicted central Florida without any people of color in it. The only people in the novel who are of a different class than Raymie other than Louisiana signal this by speaking non-standard American English. These two nurses are kindly, immediately helpful, speaking endearments and providing tea and sympathy on the phone to Raymie's mother, and to a soaked and shivering Raymie, a sweater. The author provides no racial description for them, but I find myself hoping that those ladies are white with beehived brunette hair, because they move perilously close to the enveloping, comforting Mammy stereotype otherwise.

Conclusion: I'm still not sure about children's books set in the 70's and 80's, but this book in particular explored meaningful relationships with old people, divorce, grief, abuse, depression, food insecurity and poverty, the idea of having a plan to fix the world, and recovering when that plan shows itself to be flawed, and kind of going with the flow and finding new plans, new purposes, and new friends. Not much happens... but, in a way, everything -- life -- does.



I received my copy of this book courtesy of the public library You can find RAYMIE NIGHTINGALE by Kate DiCamillo at an online e-tailer, or at a real life, independent bookstore near you!

September 04, 2017

Apply to Be a Cybils Judge!

The call for 2017 Cybils Awards judges is open! Bloggers, vloggers, Goodreads reviewers--any or all of those are welcome, as long as you have a love of kidlit, a passion for reading, and a discerning eye for the best of the best.

Judges for Audiobooks and Easy Reader/Early Chapter Books are especially wanted at the moment, so if you have experience with either of those, please apply. The contest relies on as many as 100+ volunteers every year, and can't exist without us. I've already thrown my hat into the ring for judging, and I'll be co-blog-editor again this year--and as perennial participants, Tanita and I can both vouch for the fact that it is one of the most fun ways to take part in the kidlit community and draw attention to the many worthy books out there.

Also, don't forget to register for KidLitCon in November! The program (and registration information) is available here. There are some amazing authors in the lineup, and a wide range of sessions on topics including STEM, Historical Fiction, reading development, activist books, and much more.

September 01, 2017

Turning Pages Reads: THE LAND OF FORGOTTEN GIRLS by ERIN ENTRADA KELLY

Welcome to another session of Turning Pages!

Though I don't often do so, after reading this book, I checked to see what kind of critical acclaim it had received. I was pleasantly surprised to see a star from SLJ, a star from Booklist, as well as a commendation from Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books.

Content Commentary: This is may be painful or distressing to people who have experienced physical and psychological abuse. It's indirect enough that most kids will likely simply express unhappy surprise at some of the interactions, but more sensitive children (and knowing adults) may find themselves utterly brokenhearted. Provide tissues.


Synopsis: Auntie Jove never did come to take them to live with her. Soledad expected her at seven, after her mother died, but now that she's twelve, she knows Auntie Jove was just a story - her mother didn't have a sister, and now she's dead. To comfort her little sister now, Sol shares the arresting, vibrant, beautiful adventure stories of the dashing Auntie Jove with her little sister, Dominga, to keep Ming's spirits up. Since their father left them, three years ago, things have been going from bad to worse with their stepmother, Tita Vea. Ming doesn't talk to Vea, and sometimes, she hardly talks to Sol. Her silence just pushes Vea to get worse and worse, to scream louder and louder, to pinch and throw ice water, and take their toys... They're not little girls in a fairytale story. There's no one going to step in and save them. And really, who should save them? Tita Vea always says Sol is a bad, bad girl.

Soledad is so bad, she and her best friend, Manny, sometimes pick on the kids from other schools for fun. She's so bad, she steals from the corner store - and now Ming's done it, too, which is NOT what Soledad intended. Sol is so bad, she's responsible for her other little sister, Amelia's death, when Amelia was only ten. And recently Sol threw a pinecone at a girl's head, and the girl ....had to get stitches. Oops.

Sol believes herself to be bad, but not quite that bad. After some effort, she tracks down the girl, with her pale skin and paler complexion, and Soledad apologizes. In doing so, she discovers that it's not so hard to make a enemy a friend... All it takes is listening. The girls share stories, and Soledad begins to feel a little bit heard, realizing that harsh realities feel just as harsh to others, even when they've got different problems. Now that the weird skateboarding girl from the snobby school talks to her, and the boy who hangs around with her, Sol's almost got three new friends. Things get a tiny bit brighter, for Sol, at least. But after Ming's theft, Tita Vea has been told, and there was Real Trouble. Since then, Ming's been... acting odd. She's insisting that Auntie Jove is coming for her -- and her silences grow louder. She's packing her bags. She's retreating inside of her own head, and Soledad can't get her out. Now all of her trips to Blackbeard's junkyard to find her a special something just might be in vain. She's got to find someone to help her -- but is there anyone who sees them?

Observations: It's rare to see a book with Filipino main characters, and these girls were born in the Philippines, and immigrated to the U.S. Most of us who live in California grew up with immigrants surrounding us at work, at school, and in our neighborhoods. More of us who lived on the margins will recognize that at times, the real America to which these families came did not mesh well with dreams the families brought with them, nor with the cultures and mores of the countries these families had left behind. This caused some tension in those families, and for a variety of reasons, in a variety of ways, many of us observed this tension. While I dealt with the fallout from this tension, teaching group home students, I have never seen a book deal with this specifically. It was heartbreaking and strengthening in myriad ways, because how often do kids in trouble - immigrants or no, being bullied by children, or by the adults who are meant to care for them - how often do they wish desperately that someone saw them? The children in this story were visible, by virtue of finding people to listen amongst their peers, by virtue of learning to listen to others, and through the salvation of a silent but kind neighbor. This made me wonder how I could do better at seeing, and will spark some important conversations with the big-hearted and intelligent children who read this.

There are magical elements of the story, as Amelia appears and reappears as Soledad's conscience, in a manner of speaking, but she is ambiguously not much of a ghost, but more of Soledad's inner mind, or what she believes a protective adults would think or say. Amelia tries to help Soledad be an amazing sister to their baby sister, Ming, and her proactiveness allows Ming as much protection as their rough world affords. This tender relationship provides a tendril of hope and allows mature readers to set aside their sadness at the circumstances in which the girls find themselves, and embrace the truths, that story is a lifeline, that sisters can be fierce protectors, and that hope is sometimes found by taking less traditional and unexpected paths.

Conclusion: This novel is not tied neatly in a bow; life, especially lives in the margin, are a series of victories and defeats. The story certainly ends with the traditional "kernel of hope" however, and most readers can clearly see better days ahead. Some readers will find it "too depressing" and be upset that an adult writer articulated so clearly the struggles of children, but I encourage you not to allow your feelings to be centered, and shift your focus to potential young readers. It's important that more privileged children learn that not everyone has their privileges, and it's important for less privileged children to know that their lives and struggles have meaning and validity and that they are seen. The voices in this book are real and true, and Soledad is allowed to be "bad," angry, confused, and flawed. The adults in this book are not irredeemably bad, either; Vea is a selfish, monstrously abusive woman, but she is also an immature person who paid a staggeringly high price for what she wanted, feels trapped, and doesn't know how to better herself. There are complexities available to the reader who doesn't assume this entire book can be understood in a single glance.



I received my copy of this book courtesy of the public library, but for me, this is a Buy book not a Borrow. You can find THE LAND OF FORGOTTEN GIRLS by Erin Entrada Kelly an online e-tailer, or at a real life, independent bookstore near you!

August 29, 2017

Turning Pages Reads: TWO NAOMIS by OLUGBEMISOMA RHUDAY-PERKOVICH & AUDREY VERNICKAT

Welcome to another session of Turning Pages!

Synopsis: Okay, so Naomi Marie knows her mother is getting ...serious about someone. That's what she's overheard. It doesn't really matter to her; she knows who her Dad is, and he's just a couple blocks away, and that's fine. She'll help out with her overly enthusiastic baby sister, who is only four, and doesn't really know how to feel about things -- she'll be a good example. It's what Dad would want from her, right? And anyway, she's busy with the library clubs she's starting. Eventually, ONE will catch on, and people will come and hang out with her. It's the best library in the world, so they'll have to, eventually...

Naomi Edith is named after the famous clothing designer, Edith Head ... and that name keeps Naomi E. close to her designer mother, away in California, working madly as a costumer on various plays and films. Regretfully, with the time and distance between them, Naomi E's mother has little time to talk to her daughter anymore, but Naomi E. cherishes the traditions she made with her mother - their favorite bakery on Saturdays, their ability to talk about any and everything. With her best friend in the backyard, too many snacks with Dad to mention, Naomi E. keeps faith with how their family used to be. It helps, keeping things the same, to fill the yawning chasm in her insides that the word 'California' leaves inside...

Naomi Marie and Naomi E's parents are having "meet-the-family" meetings, and the Naomis get squished together. Then, their Saturdays are interrupted with "family" outings. It's fine for Naomi Marie's baby sister, who really thinks everything is just awesome, but for the Naomis, who have their own friends and their own particular preferences, it's all getting to be A Little Too Much. And then, there's the class that eats up the rest of their Saturdays. Surely, it won't hurt to do a project together... if Naomi E. would do something. Naomi Marie just wants everything to be PERFECT. Is that so wrong?

Inevitably, the girls clash in earnest. Feelings are hurt, expectations are disappointed, and there are many tears. While readers see the fallout coming, the way the girls resolve things, for the good of everyone, is true grace under fire.

Observations: A lot of YA and MG books are predicated on the fact that adults are occasionally absolutely, drastically, painfully blind to how kids feel about things. This book has such a decidedly, strongly, realistically kid's-eye-view on things that it's hard to read as an adult. My kid brain was sputtering with rage a lot of the time. The pushing - and the pushback - and the digging in of heels on both sides was Real and readers will really feel it.

This was a delightfully urban setting - the girls walked, rode the bus, and their families used ZipCars on the weekend to get where they needed to go. (The complaints about the new car smell wearing off were realistic and amusing.) That Naomi Marie is black is also included in myriad aspects of the narrative - she's not just described and abandoned; her sister goes to Little Nubian playgroup, Naomi Marie takes African Dance. While Naomi E. has less culturally specific interests, care is taken to differentiate her as an individual as well.

Though the girls are listed as ten-year-olds, older readers - and younger readers - may find this a valuable book, because there's a lot of information and discussion and rumination on how to get along with others - a skill many grade school and middle grade kids truly struggle with for a while until getting the hang of things.

Conclusion: I'm glad I finally got around to writing up this book; it's on my list of books for strong girls displaying strength. The Naomis are strong because they aren't railroaded into anything; they CHOOSE their behavior and their acceptance and their level of effort. I love that about them - it's not all sunshine and roses, but they make their own road. A delightful book for kids going through a divorce and family blending, or for kids coping with a sudden influx of family members, as I experienced periodically through childhood.



I received my copy of this book courtesy of the Newark Public Library. You can find TWO NAOMIS by Olugbemisola Rhuday-Perkovich & Audrey Vernickat an online e-tailer, or at a real life, independent bookstore near you!

August 25, 2017

Turning Pages Reads: MISS ELLICOTT'S SCHOOL FOR THE MAGICALLY MINDED, by SAGE BLACKWOOD

Welcome to another session of Turning Pages!

Synopsis: The most important thing is Deportment. At the Ellicott School for the Magically Minded Maiden, it is what Miss Flivvers gently forces into maidenly minds. Without Deportment, maidens like Chantel Goldenrod wouldn't know how to sit or to stand or to speak, nor would they know that their best bet was to be 'shamefast and biddable.'

Life has a certain symmetry, even within the confines of School. The Patriarchs send the money, the cook sends the single male factotum, Bowser, to fetch the groceries, and the girls are fed. Not great food, but any number of baked potatoes, so all is well, as far as Chantel is concerned. The city of Lightning Pass needs the magically minded sorceresses-in-training at Miss Ellicott's school to do the hard spellwork of protecting the City from the Marauders, the tribe who live beyond the wall and are simply waiting to attack and carry them off... but Miss Elliott knows that the worst thing would be if the men of the City were frightened of her girls. Chantel's been taught all of this, yes, but the courtesies and nonsense really get up her nose. She just. wants. to. do. magic. Big magic! Wild magic! Possibly loud and dangerous magic! However, she knows better than to balk too much. Miss Ellicott's not too bad a sort, after all, she did tell Chantel that she was The Chosen One... of course, when Miss Ellicott mysteriously vanishes, Chantel finds out that she also told that to Anna, Leila, Daisy, Holly, too...

The Patriarchs without the sorceresses, have no means to protect the City - yet they're in charge. When it turns out that ALL of the sorceresses have vanished, that also means there are no shipments of food coming in from the other side of the Maurauder's Wall, no money for food, and no order in their lives. The mad caretaker the Patriarchs sends wants to sell the girls as slaves. Clearly, Chantel needs to save the sorceresses - and the School - and the City - and possibly the world.

Observations: Though Chantel is written as thirteen, this is probably an adventure type fantasy which will read well for ten-through-twelve as well. This is a familiar and beloved trope for middle grade: smart, feisty girl escapes adult expectations, finds her power, and saves the world. That Chantel is written and pictured as a brown-skinned heroine is even more interesting, though it is only marginally referred to, and doesn't seem to affect how anyone sees her or interacts with her. Chantel is very much the central character in the novel, as Anna and Bowser and Franklin we never learn quite as much about. There is so much detail, though, that readers won't find that a problem. The City of Lightning Pass itself is lovingly described, and the aspects of magic are clearly laid out throughout the book, so the reader is left with few, questions.

This book has the richly detailed worldbuilding and labyrinthine plotting of a serious fantasy novel, but may frustrate younger readers, because Chantel is not in for an Easy Win. She wants desperately to CHANGE THE WORLD... and she's met with pushback from her trusted teachers, who encourage her to believe that the King has all the answers, even though he has zero magic and hasn't himself been where Chantel has gone, from the literal patriarchy in the form of the Patriarchs, who chase her down for her own "protection," from the Marauders, who indeed show up and make trouble, and from her own brain, as what she's been taught to be and what she thinks makes sense to do is disrupted by the squirming in her own head (Snakes... well, never mind. You'll have to read that for yourself). While Chantel is visibly and obviously flawed, eventually - after a bit of self-study - she works things out. The adults, however, are jolly stupid in this book - and Chantel is betrayed frequently by them. When she stops being baffled by the perfidy of adults is when she finally figures out how to change things - thus making the entire book a metaphor for how a magically minded - or a mundanely minded - young lady ought to get on in the world.

Conclusion: I was intrigued by the deportment rules; girls were to be 'shamefast' and biddable. Shamefaced isn't a word, I thought, but it is! It's from Middle English shamefast, schamefast, schamfast, sceomefest, from Old English sċeamfæst, scamfæst and means: “modest, shy, bashful.” I'd say Who knew!? but clearly the author did - so I learned something there. Recommended for serious readers who enjoy a story of a girl who stands tall - and proudly on the right side of history, because she's making it - in the end.



I received my copy of this book courtesy of the Newark Public Library. You can find MISS ELLICOTT'S SCHOOL FOR THE MAGICALLY MINDED by Sage Blackwood at an online e-tailer, or at a real life, independent bookstore near you!

August 22, 2017

Turning Pages Reads: LANDSCAPE WITH INVISIBLE HAND by M.T. ANDERSON

Welcome to another session of Turning Pages!

M.T. Anderson is the king of the intellectual young adult novel. His work is arguably not written for young adults, but rather simply marketed toward them, because his characters are teens and tweens whose behavior is not circumscribed by the "usual" teen boundaries which get books challenged and called out by concerned parents. A lot of times, teens might not truly even quite understand M.T. Anderson's novels... but there's definitely still something about them that makes them fascinating, worth rereading, arguing with friends about, and dissecting in English class. This novel is just about how fragile our society is, and how, if one leeetle domino was pushed, how quickly it would all fall apart, and what do we REALLY know, and what do we REALLY cherish and what REALLY has value in what we have now -- today? And that kind of observation and rumination is very intelligent - and something we all need to consider.

This is another classically Anderson book - a short, stabby little satire, with a dark futures, existentialist narrative that might upset some - but which will amuse and provoke others to further consideration and insight.

Synopsis: Adam Costello's carefully ordered world began to unravel when the vuvv landed on Earth. Not that the vuvv are killers or anything, no. They've just brought progress - all at once, igniting a new kind of class war. Now, there's no need to work, because the vuvv do all the jobs; no need to research and strive, becaue the vuvv have brought the cure of all illnesses. At the expense of human jobs, Earth's ecology, and myriad nations' sovereignties, the Earth has been made a client planet. Now there's no competition, because the vuvv have the least expensive everything. Farmers are undersold, goods are commercially produced elsewhere, and all the new tech and medicine is behind a steadily rising paywall. For those who made relationships with the vuvv early on, there are riches untold. For the "have nots," there's nothing, literally and truly nothing. People are bored, bitter, and starving. All that seems left is for humans to try and be and do what the vuvv see and enjoy - the 1950's in terms of art, music, and film. Entertaining the uber-rich and the vuvv, humanity scrambles to be funny, romantic, sexy, and pleasing. It is both lowering and amusing that adult humans, with advanced degrees, can think of nothing else to do to survive but to pander.

Adam doesn't fit into the new world order really well. This is not because he has not tried, and tried hard, with an entertainment vlog scheme hatched up by he and his lust neighbor, Chloe. For a while, they made decent money off their scheme. But lust doesn't last for long. Adam's crush wants to Be Somebody, and Adam, whose father has stolen their means of travel and disappeared into the night, is kind of a nobody. His mother is unemployed, his baby sister is grimly selling her stuffed animals, and Adam is desperately ill, from a gastrointestinal disease which he got from the unfiltered water that his family is forced to drink. With municipal utilities no longer under the control of anyone with a human digestive system, Adam is hardly anyone to inspire lust - especially not without health insurance or medication. Between bouts of horrible fevers, diarrhea, and flatulence, Adam tries to determine what is of value to the human world anymore, now that the vuvv determine value. What Adam really cares about is his art, and while he once made computer landscapes of fantastical beauty as the places to which he'd like to escape, now he processes all he sees and feels through the medium of paint. He paints what he sees - not a brave new world, or castles in the air, but the detritus of a dying civilization, and the oddly tacked on ephemera of the vuvv society. What the vuvv want to see in art are still life and kitsch, bright colors and castles in the sky. While most people will do anything to survive in this brave new world, the artist in Adam realizes that he can't give them what they want, and that, in a larger parallel, that maybe none of humanity can give the vuvv what they want.

Maybe it would be better if everyone stopped trying.

Observations: This novella-length satire is, in some part, about art and humanity. It is also about, in part, the way the United States relates to the rest of the world, and its colonialist attitudes. This is a novel about how everything is monetized, and only those who are workers or somehow "valuable" to what Important People need and want - entertainers, worker bees, soldier drones - are worth anything in Western society. This is also a book about family, and individuals, and what we do to survive. It is both sparsely written and terse, and voluminously artistically rendered. It is both bleak and grim, and sneakily, snarkily funny.

I noticed that there really was only one America in this novel, and that Adam didn't seem to know anything about how the vuvv interacted with anywhere which wasn't America. The were issues where people complained that immigrants were stealing jobs, and knocking apart bodegas, but the vuvv seem to see humanity as just... humanity, a group of cattle worth corralling. Ironic, that humans still blamed humans for what was going on, and yet... isn't that what we do? Isn't that what we always will do? Or, do we have it in us to try something else?

Conclusion: Adam and his frequent, explosive gastrointestinal disorder is going to gross out and confuse a lot of readers, young and old, but this is one of those short pieces of literature which we'll see later as a classic of economic thought and worth sticking with and returning to again. While it would be a challenge to teach, it would be a worthwhile challenge, and I look forward to hearing how it is received.



I received my copy of this book courtesy of the publisher. After September 12th, you can find LANDSCAPE WITH INVISIBLE HAND by M.T. Anderson at an online e-tailer, or at a real life, independent bookstore near you!

August 21, 2017

Just For Fun: An Eclipse Reading List

Solar corona of 1893 eclipse from Popular Science Vol. 60
Honestly, there really is no running theme to these books other than they feature astronomical bodies in the titles, but is there ever a bad time for a book list? I don't think so. They also happen to be books Tanita and/or I enjoyed and reviewed here on the blog. If you're looking for some eclipse-worthy reading, put on your special dork, I mean dark, glasses and check these out! Meanwhile, I'll be in a car, probably stuck in traffic, driving up through Oregon hoping to witness the real deal...

In no particular order:

Every Soul a Star by Wendy Mass (MG fiction; this one is actually about a solar eclipse!)
Black Hole Sun, Invisible Sun, and Shadow on the Sun by David Macinnis Gill (action-packed sci-fi)
I'll Give You the Sun by Jandy Nelson (nothing whatsoever to do with eclipses that I remember)
The Midnighters trilogy by Scott Westerfeld (a good, scary read)
Horizon by Patti Larsen (more sci-fi)
Sunbolt by Intisar Khanani (wonderful indie fantasy)
The Cloud Roads by Martha Wells (cool YA shapeshifting fantasy)
Jumping Off the Planet by David Gerrold (wicked cool overlooked sci-fi)
Under the Dusty Moon by Suzanne Sutherland (girl's mom in a band)
The Shade of the Moon by Susan Beth Pfeffer (4th book of Life As We Knew It)
Shadows on the Moon by Zoe Marriott (Asian-American themed fantasy)
Under a Blood Red Moon by Lu Sylvan (pirate apprentices novella)
Moon Over Manifest by Clare Vanderpool (MG historical fiction)
The White Road of the Moon by Rachel Neumeier (fantasy and friendship)
Tiger Moon by Antonia Michaelis (South Asian fairytale themes)
The Chaos of Stars by Kiersten White (modern-day Egyptian gods)
Mirror in the Sky by Aditi Khorana (a message from space!)
Airborn by Kenneth Oppel (airships)

August 16, 2017

In Tandem Reads: THE NEW VOICES OF FANTASY edited by PETER S. BEAGLE & JACOB WEISMAN

SFF is ...changing. Long the bastion of men, especially white men, the genre's stories and boundaries are at last making room for a greater variety of voices and points of view. 2017 has been a particular great year for that in our corner of the woods with FIYAH Lit Magazine, showcasing African American SFF; Comic Con this summer celebrated more diverse characters in comic books and films, including a superb Muslim crimefighter; the Star Trek TV series franchise is being resurrected with black and Asian female crew members, as well as the usual undefined aliens; and of course, everyone is still vibrating over the Star Wars beloved General Leia and the new strong female leads in that world. All of this means that when we had the opportunity to read the New Voices in Fantasy Anthology, we both jumped at the chance.

New Voices is not a YA anthology, although there are contributors who write for YA and MG lit included, but we wanted to look it over anyway, because we strongly support diverse voices in science fiction and fantasy. So, without further ado:

Welcome to another edition of In Tandem, the read-and-review blog series where both A.F. and I give on-the-spot commentary as we read and blog a book together. (Feel free to guess which of us is the yellow owl and which of us is purple ...who's driving this bike??)
We are...
Two writers,
     & Two readers,
            Exploring one book...

In Tandem.




What would you do if a tornado wanted you to be its Valentine? Or if a haunted spacesuit banged on your door? When is the ideal time to turn into a tiger? Would you post a supernatural portal on Craigslist? In these nineteen stories, the enfants terribles of fantasy have entered the building—in this case, a love-starved, ambulatory skyscraper. The New Voices of Fantasy tethers some of the fastest-rising talents of the last five years, including Sofia Samatar, Maria Dahvana Headley, Max Gladstone, Alyssa Wong, Usman T. Malik, Brooke Bolander, E. Lily Yu, Ben Loory, Ursula Vernon, and more. Their tales were hand-picked by the legendary Peter S. Beagle (The Last Unicorn) and genre expert Jacob Weisman (The Treasury of the Fantastic). So go ahead, join the Communist revolution of the honeybees. The new kids got your back.

“This anthology represents some of the most exciting and interesting work in the fantasy field today, and anyone interested in the genre should read it immediately.” —Booklist ♦ “...a valuable snapshot of SF/F’s newest generation of writers.” —Publishers Weekly ♦ “A stellar anthology that proves not only that fantasy is alive and well, but that it will be for years to come.” —Kirkus
We received copies of this book courtesy of the publishing company, via NetGalley. You can find THE NEW VOICES OF FANTASY edited by Peter S. Beagle & Jacob Weisman at an online e-tailer, or at a real life, independent bookstore near you!
 



tanita: I don't know why, but I love, love, love anthologies. Maybe it's the little snippets of someone's work, which gives me a jumping-off point to getting to know them as a writer. Maybe it's the reality that sometimes, I don't have mental bandwidth for a long novel, but there's always time for a story. Maybe it's just that I have attention deficits. I enjoy how some stories turn out to be favorites, and others, not so much, which is always my experience - which makes even reading something I'm not sure I like A Good Thing. You were remarking the other day how hard it is to read them sometimes, though. I agree... this was both fun, and really hard!

sarah: I guess any "new voices" type of thing is going to be highly varied. It's hard for me to do more than a few stories a day... Is it weird that I find short stories require more stamina in a way than novels?
tanita: No, no - not at all. I had to put this down and come back to it repeatedly. For me, the issue with anthologies, where there are rich, fully realized stories is that I can't change lanes that fast. The finned Chevy of my imagination is hurtling down the dark freeway, weird sights blurring as I fly by... and then the story ...ends. I have to find where the car went and turn it around before I can start something new.

The stories featured in this collection were were fully realized, fully populated little worlds we spent time in. Which one was your favorite? Or, which two, probably, that you're having a hard time picking between?
sarah: I have to admit, I'm kind of a sucker for selkie stories--for anything based on myth, really--and so I think my favorite of the bunch is Sofia Samatar's "Selkie Stories Are for Losers." It also is a YA-friendly story, and was nominated for several awards. It does such an amazing job of doing what myths do best--they teach us something about ourselves, show us what already exists in our all-too-human hearts that has existed through history and across time. In the same way, the selkie has both a literal and a metaphorical role in Samatar's story.
tanita: Funny - for the selfsame reason, I kind of hate selkie stories; I find them tragically sad, which is why I loved the Samatar's story -- because her character, too, came from a place of where the story of selkies and sentient sea creatures IS traditionally tragic, and so she decided to reject those stories, in a show of bravado, despite that story being HER story. Similar in themes of loss of wildness and freedom was the story of the anarchist bees - and well done to that person for being able to portray a hivemind in a story - and of course, the Jackalope Wives... I am SO here for any Vernon story, anytime. While I had read this particular story before (which kind of detracts from the "new" voices in the title), I'm glad to see her non-kid work find a larger audience.
sarah: I also liked Ursula Vernon's "Jackalope Wives"--not surprisingly. I'm already a fan of her work for young readers (e.g. the Dragonbreath graphic novels). 

Other stories I enjoyed were "Tornado's Siren" by Brooke Bolander for sheer uniqueness of concept; "Left the Century to Sit Unmoved" by Sarah Pinsker for being YA-friendly, very literary, and leaving the reader with intriguing questions; and "Here Be Dragons" by Chris Tarry for having an interesting new take on dragons and dragonslayers.
tanita: There were echoes, in "The One They Took Before," by Kelly Sandoval, of Seanan McGuire's EVERY HEART A DOORWAY trilogy that was really haunting, in combination with the weirdness of Craigslist. But, my favorite of the new-to-me pieces was Max Gladstone's "A Kiss With Teeth," which started off with me feeling pretty unsure of things... In a novel filled with pieces which will appeal to adults and teens alike, this is definitely an adult story. Parents looking back at their lives before becoming part of the Upright Citizens Brigade and remembering when once they were vampire and vampire hunter, when the night was filled with menace and promise and dangerous, obsessive romance... I adored it. I love that story because it's about maturing - and maturity is something you just don't read a whole lot about in speculative fiction, despite the thousand-year-lived vampires and the like that you get in urban fantasy. More often, you get the angst and drama of what happens when people live nearly forever and don't mature, but just... roll into later adulthood, still acting a fool. It was partly side-eyeing those types of stories, and partially celebrating settled, selfless, mature relationships. Which is super rare. Having read that, I'm very much open to finding Gladstone's other work for adults, in a way I wasn't prior to now (although, not going to lie - I have been struck by the wonderful representation on the covers of his books. I mean, look at this!).


sarah: Yes, I enjoyed the "but what happens AFTER?" approach of Gladstone's story--that was something I liked about "Here Be Dragons," too. There are so many tropes in fantasy, and that's not inherently bad, but fantastical creatures like dragons and vampires and werebeasts and whatnot have been done in the same way so many times (hence the trope, I suppose). Bringing a new approach to existing tropes is something that was well done in this anthology as a whole.

tanita: What else stood out to you about this collection in terms of theme or stylistic choices, or anything, really?
sarah: I wanted to just mention how much I enjoyed the variety and risk-taking in terms of form and storytelling approach--there were surprises at every turn, from unusual characters like bees, buildings, and ducks, to unique conceits of form like the how-to guide, Craigslist ad, and anthropological study. I really enjoyed "The Pauper Prince and the Eucalyptus Jinn" by Usman T. Malik for its sweeping, epic, multigenerational look at jinn mythology--great to see something that's not from the well-used Western mold. I'm already a fan of Rushdie, who similarly draws on the history and myth of the Indian Subcontinent, and I'm glad to see more writing in that vein.
tanita: Oh, yes! My main interest in choosing this anthology is that it is aimed at "new voices;" the overarching meaning, in this particular, is not solely stories I haven't yet read from "new" to the field authors, but additionally, nonwhite voices in fantasy, which brings that new vibe to the entire genre. Usman T. Malik allowed us to glimpse both old Lahore, new, busy Lahore, and the mental and physical and spiritual space in between, bridged by the character's life in the West. It was enchanting, in part because the story was about family stories, and how they stretch the truth and what we understand of truth through time. Wouldn't it be lovely, if an aging relative could remember themselves in another time, in their dementia -- and it would all be real? That... in a way would redeem old age and remakes it into something beautiful.

And, in a way, that's what the whole anthology does. Familiar bits of ephemera from our imaginations, from our urban myths and legends, from our cultures and our worlds have been transmuted into something both less familiar and more knowable, both more off-puttingly gross and horrible (and there are some prime bits of horror in this collection - eek), and more charmingly disturbing. This collection runs a good gamut. It's meaty stuff, and could easily be taken along to ease the pain of airports and train rides. It's absorbing and invites the reader to a feast of a thousand different senses. It's not our usual fare here at the Treehouse, but I'm glad we read it.


sarah: Me, too! It definitely fulfills our goal to read widely and diversely, something that we both try to do as much as possible--just not usually at the same time...  In this case, though, a tandem review seemed like a good way to survey the gamut of stories in the anthology--we each responded to different ones, and as a result, hopefully, we were able to do it justice as a collection...and tempt you into picking it up, perhaps.

Thanks for joining us on our latest tandem review journey!

August 14, 2017

Welcome to the 2017 Cybils Awards!

A new Cybils year is already ramping up and getting ready to launch! And with a new year comes a new (well, refreshed) logo with nifty new color scheme. This year I decided to go with a sort of dark-magenta-and-orange, fall-ish look. I'll be helping out again as co-blogger with Melissa Fox of Book Nut, and both Tanita and I will most likely be applying to be judges again as well. It's a lot of work, but it's fun to be able to read a wide variety of worthy titles and try to bring some attention to them via our little corner of the blogiverse.

Stay tuned for the call for judges, and if you want to download the new logo, check this Cybils blog post for various shapes and sizes!

August 10, 2017

Toon Thursday Blast from the Past! Social Media Edition

Social media continues to find new ways of invading our time and brain space and making our lives more complicated and annoying, so I thought I'd bring this old chestnut out of the archives. This really IS never gonna happen!

Have a happy and hopefully productive writing week, everyone!

August 09, 2017

Turning Pages Reads: YOU BRING THE DISTANT NEAR by MITALI PERKINS

Welcome to another session of Turning Pages!

It is the best of times... it is the worst of times. It is the time of unremitting nonsense. It is the time of sobering reality. It is a time of despair, it is a time for hope. Which means it's a perfect time for this gorgeous, gorgeous book.

Synopsis: Bengali sisters Tara and Sonia Das both want different things - Tara, to finally fit in to her place, Sonia, to have a moment -- a moment -- to herself to breathe, and write and think. With the help of their indulgent father and traditional mother, Tara fulfills her need to blend, first in London, then in the U.S. by calling on her vivid acting skills to inhabit and embody someone else. Sonia escapes to the fire escape with her notebook. Each girl's way of coping and acclimating to being an immigrant means stepping away from what they knew in London, and becoming someone new, even as they defend, in each other, what makes them who they are. Tara relies on her acting skills, as Sonia loses herself in her gifted classes. Family, even one as closely knit as the immigrant Das family has to be, is a sometimes fragile boat, and the expectations and stresses of the desire for a "good life" begin to feel like they're going to swamp it -- but finally as things work out, life in America seems sweeter. They finally live out their nicknames of "Sunny and Star" and have learned from living in Flatbush, have gained experiences and lost prejudices and gone where their parents cannot follow. Meanwhile, after tough times, their parents experience a renewal of their love - and Dad receives the promotion of which he spoke. The family ship remains upright and watertight -- and then, capsizes.

As Sonia and Tara leave home, each trying to rediscover her equilibrium, college brings more challenges and changes. There, they still grapple with who they are, and how they present themselves as both South Asians and Americans, as young woman and feminists. Each girls takes a a different track, which leads them into vastly different directions - one to small stages, then larger ones, then finally, to Mumbai; one straight back to Flatbush. Generations follow, each looking at their culture, language, and traditions with different eyes. When we are old, and when we are young, we are still challenged by how the world sees us, and must grapple with the questions of who we are, and who we want to be. What do we keep, that our families give us? What do we let fade away? What do we change to better suit ourselves? These are the heartfelt, crucial questions and observations the reader is confronted with, through three generations of shared sisterhood, culture, faith, and friendships.

Observations: With a shiny four starred reviews so far, we're very, very pleased to have had a chance to read and review our friend Mitali Perkins' latest book. (Also, Tanita is SUPER STOKED to have won it in a Goodreads giveaway - because THAT NEVER HAPPENS.) The beauty of having a hard copy of this book is the ability to pass it on. It could be given to a young adult -- but also to an older reader; the generational saga is beautifully inclusive. The jacket copy of this book uses the word "timeless," and though the eras and continents are distinctly laid out on the page, there is an element of "everyone"-ness that could make this story about any time, any lineage of women in any culture. It's a gifted rendering of what could be a very personal story - because there seem to be hints of autobiographical storytelling included - into something deeply universal.

I got choked up, laughed aloud, and became vexed with and for various characters at various times. Many teens will relate, both biracial and not -- to feeling pressure from family matriarchs who want their grand babies to be juuuust like them, despite the passage of time and eras. Questions of what beauty is, what womanhood means in feminist contexts and who best embodies these roles are things which the young and old women in this book encounter repeatedly. When Chantal's grandmothers join forces, they become TRULY their best selves. When the American cousin and the Mumbai cousins stop trying to change each other into being more or less immigrant or American, and truly see each other as they are - both, - the Das family remains unstoppable - strong, beautiful, and full of love that radiates to the world. Nosy aunties, scolding mothers, tsking uncles; Catholics, Hindus, atheists and all -- you'll want three generations of Das women to be your family, too.

Conclusion: This, more than anything, is a love story. How we love our sisters. How we love our families. How we love our cultures. How we hold each - and ourselves - lovingly, to a standard that says, 'we must improve. We must expand. We must be better than we were.' This is a love story about how we love those who are like us, and can come to loves those who are unlike us. It is a love story to hope, and the belief that, though we came from some distant then, now that we are here, we can choose to bring the old into the new, and love will ground and equal out the equation. We each of us inherits prejudices and circumstances; through our generations, we each can choose to leave those behind, and walk into a new world.

And I cannot articulate to you just how much I needed to have this book in my hand today.

It is lyrical, poetically beautiful writing, with realistic teen voices. It is a feminist book, about equal rights and inclusiveness without feeling like you're being schooled. Full stop: this is just a really great book, and I hope you have a chance to pick it up. It's worth it.



I received my copy of this book courtesy of the Goodreads Giveaway. You can find YOU BRING THE DISTANT NEAR by Mitali Perkins at an online e-tailer, or at a real life, independent bookstore near you!

August 03, 2017

Thursday Review: THE SPECIAL ONES by Em Bailey

Synopsis: A few years ago I read Em Bailey's earlier novel, Shift (reviewed here), and found it to be a suspenseful page-turning thriller, so I was interested to check out her newest novel: The Special Ones. This one's also a psychological thriller, with a lot of intriguing surprises and plot twists as well as a scary, unhinged villain.

When the story starts, we are immediately plunged into the rather unusual life of narrator Esther. Esther lives in a farmhouse with a younger girl, Felicity, and a slightly older boy, Harry, where their self-sufficient lifestyle has earned them the admiration and, dare I say, worship, of countless internet followers. They are the Special Ones. The only problem is, they can't leave. They can't even do anything outside of their prescribed roles, because he will punish them if they stray. I won't say much more, in order to avoid spoiling the suspense, but as the story unfolds, we find out the answers to critical questions like why are they there? How did they arrive? And, of course, who is he?

Observations: The Special Ones provides an interesting twist on the stuck-in-a-cult type of story; in fact, it is so much more than simply a cult, but I can't give you any more information than that. The suspense is well crafted here: As the author slowly reveals more and more details about the situation Esther is in, the ominous feeling continues to grow until we find out the true danger that she and her companions are in, and it is just as horrible as our imaginations feared it would be. AND THEN IT GETS WORSE! Of course it does.

There was a disorienting narrator switch well into the book that momentarily had me think, no! I don't want to leave Esther's POV now! But rather than being a book of two halves/two narrators, the switch was to introduce alternating viewpoints between Esther and another character, so ultimately the change of perspective wasn't too much of a jolt.

Conclusion: Overall, this book is a very gripping thriller with lots of psychological tension in the first half that translates into action toward the end of the story. It's also got well-rounded, interesting characters who are developed enough to make us care about what happens to them—a trait that is sometimes missing in more plot-driven suspense stories. The characters add a lot of dimension to this one, which is important in a story that asks WHY people make certain choices, and why they do the inexplicable and sometimes terrifying things that they do.


I received my copy of this book courtesy of my library's ebook collection. You can find THE SPECIAL ONES by Em Bailey at an online e-tailer, or at a real life, independent bookstore near you!

July 31, 2017

Monday Review: ONCE AND FOR ALL by Sarah Dessen

Synopsis: Sarah Dessen writes books that make wonderful summer reads, and by that, I don't mean they're "beach books" or chick lit. Rather, they have a dreamlike and immersive quality, delving deeply into relationships and emotions that might otherwise remain fleeting and obscure. They bring us, the readers, out of ourselves, and into someone else's life—into some perhaps relatively brief but still critical defining moment. They are in some ways "quiet" stories, but thought about another way, a moment that defines us is never really quiet. It takes up psychic space and causes internal noise.

In Dessen's latest novel, Once and for All, narrator Louna is in her last summer before starting college, and she's trying to stay busy enough to keep her internal noise at bay. She works for her mother's wedding planner business, along with her mother's best friend William. William serves as a father figure for Louna, since Louna's own father died when she was too young to remember him. Being exposed to the nitty-gritty behind-the-scenes chaos of weddings week after week has given Louna a cynical outlook on love and romance. What's more, her own first love the preceding fall came to a shocking and devastating end, and she's not ready to try again.

Still, life sometimes presents us with opportunities when we least expect them—and in ways we might not immediately recognize. When handsome but incredibly cheeky and annoying Ambrose begins working for her mother over the summer, she sees him as a disruption to her routine. But his laid-back, seemingly careless outlook on life is intriguing, and she realizes that taking a few chances might be just what she needs to move on from her past.

Observations: I always end up reading Sarah Dessen books with no small amount of wistfulness. Her characters seem to have a lot more freedom than I had as a teenager, even an older teenager—an adult sort of freedom that allows them to roam with few consequences, to take part in the working world, to have experiences that I didn't have until I was in college and living on my own.

And yet, what seems like freedom from my perspective is often just a different type of entrapment to her characters. We might envy Louna's ability to party until all hours with her best friend and date with impunity (and certainly, she seems to be 18 and technically an adult, so it isn't out of the realm of believability), but at the same time, sometimes freedom just leads to us making our own traps for ourselves. Like Louna, we can voluntarily put on blinders, making it hard to realize that what we think we are searching for is not what we really need.

Conclusion: Fans of Sarah Dessen will eat up this latest novel, and anyone who is a fan of realistic romance fiction and/or family and coming-of-age stories will want to check this one out, too. It would also make a good crossover or new adult book, due to the age of the protagonist.


I received my copy of this book courtesy of my library's ebook collection. You can find Once and for All by Sarah Dessen at an online e-tailer, or at a real life, independent bookstore near you!

July 25, 2017

Turning Pages Reads: THE GENTLEMAN'S GUIDE TO VICE AND VIRTUE by MACKENZI LEE

Welcome to another session of Turning Pages!

If you ever wanted to read Jane Austen's books with a male lead... you might have to pick up this book. Austen's books are quiet routs of Victorian era manners; this is a rather noisier affair poking holes in the idea of the staid or wholesome English boy, making his way in the big world via The Grand Tour...

Synopsis: Henry Montague is a hot mess, really. He's privileged and the son of the Lord of Standards and Manners practically - frequently lectured, with fierce physical punishments to back up the cutting words - but this only spreads out the veneer of rakishness further and thicker. Henry is a good time boy, always laughing, drinking, smirking, and hitting on anyone with a pulse. It's his last hurrah, however; his bestie, Percy is off to law school after this Grand Tour they're embarking on. Felicity, Henry's sister, will be "finished" and ladyfied at her school, and Henry himself will be working side-by-side with his father, running the estate... all of which sounds like a living death, frankly. So, it's time to have fun, fun, fun 'til Papa takes his freedom away.

Henry is reckless - and sometimes stupid - with drink, with terror, with pain. He makes the worst choices, about people about money, and about his various vices. With some deliberate nudging, soon their Grand Tour goes grandly off the rails. They lose the minder Papa Montague sends along with them... and then the trip really begins. Unfortunately, this is still Henry we're talking about, so it's not all fun and games - highwaymen, robbery, dodgy conveyances and dodgier people mean their trip careens from bad to worse. As a manhunt gets underway across the continent for them, Henry has one more awful, heart-stopping surprise. Percy, Henry's darling best friend, reveals a truth and Henry realizes he doesn't know him that well after all.

Broken-heartd, terrified, and determined to wrest something good from this journey before his life ends, Henry pushes onward. Persistence - and a whole lot of pigheaded stubbornness has this gamer gambling at last to find the best answers to the biggest questions in his life, to help a friend, and to find his happy ending.

Observations: I delighted in my first introduction to The Grand Tour years ago in Sorcery and Cecelia by Caroline Stevemer and Patricia Wrede, followed by The sequel, The Grand Tour: Or, The Purloined Coronation Regalia. It was a story of two closely sheltered young ladies discovering the large grand world, and it was a lot of Regency with pixie dust.

This is not that book.

... rather than a sheltered Englishman seeing the world for the first time, Henry is a jaded... jade. The boy is a tightly wrapped bundle of neuroses and emotions pinging all over the place, a boiling stew of hormones and appetites. He's likely rather a more realistic illustration of young manhood (READ: rakishness), but I found his privilege and ignorance somewhat exhausting. If you love Regency novels and adore the reformed rake trope, this will work out well for you. Henry's vices sometimes overwhelm his virtues, but there is truly a tender love story going on, true diamonds amongst the glitter and the paste... which is a good thing, or many readers would have drop-kicked him.

Henry is queer as well as being young, so his confusion is multiplied. Percy is half Barbadian, and I found it interesting that he's described as having skin the color of sandalwood and ungovernable hair, but that's it - he seems to face no prejudice or scrutiny on the continent - at least not for being browner than is fashionable. As there were quite a few persons of African ancestry wandering the British Isles and the Continent all the way from Medieval times, this is wholly accurate, but I did wonder what Henry thought of his being different, since he had an opinion on EVERYTHING. Even Percy seemed rather quiet about himself; I found myself wondering if he ever wondered about the family his father took him away from when he brought him to England then up and died...

With his self-centered, narcissistic, shallow hedonism covering his wounds and poor self-esteem, Henry's a lot of work, and you've got to dig before you get to anything worthwhile with him. Which is true of us all, I guess. But, his sister and his friend don't give up on him, even though he takes them straight into trouble. With combined ingenuity, they take themselves back again - so there's an 'ever after' to look forward to - maybe a hard one, but the right one.

Conclusion:Henry is like a male Emma in Jane Austen's world - frivolous, silly, privileged, very attractive and charismatic, and sometimes dangerously ignorant of the true harm he can cause. But, like Emma, Henry is redeemed through the love - tough and merciful love - of a good friend.



I received my copy of this book courtesy of the public library. You can find all 528 pages of THE GENTLEMAN'S GUIDE TO VICE AND VIRTUE by Mackenzi Lee at an online e-tailer, or at a real life, independent bookstore near you!