April 14, 2014

Monday Review: POISON by Bridget Zinn

The first and only time I had the privilege of meeting author Bridget Zinn was during Kidlitcon in Portland a handful of years back. About my age, she was sweet and funny and quiet and one of so many kindred spirits I met that weekend, my first ever Kidlitcon. A fellow writer, a fellow blogger, her untimely death from cancer really hit me—and I'd hardly had a chance to get to know her.

Her posthumously released YA fantasy, Poison, gave me another chance to know her, even if it was just a glimpse. It was such a bittersweet moment to see it on the YA new releases shelf at my library. It was a long time in coming, yet at the same time, too late, and reading it made me want to cry because we've already lost her voice. But it also reminded me: those of us who want to write should write, must write, before we no longer have the option to do so.

Reading Poison made me so sad that we won't be reading more from Bridget, that the world of readers won't have any other opportunities to know her through her writing. Like her, the book was funny and sweet and imaginative. Fans of Terry Pratchett's Discworld series, Jasper Fforde's Last Dragonslayer books, or Standard Hero Behavior by John David Anderson should give this one a read. At the beginning, all we know is that Kyra is on the run—she's gone from being one of the kingdom's most lauded potions masters to being on the lam, and all because she tried to kill the princess. Oh, and the princess? Used to be Kyra's best friend. All Kyra's got now is her secret forest hideout, her wits, and her as-yet-unsuccessful vendetta against the princess. And if she doesn't succeed, the entire kingdom is at stake.

This book is a study in how to gradually reveal a backstory full of twists without annoying the reader. There are SO many books out there that feel like the author is manipulating the reader into a feeling of suspense, or a moment of revelation, using a gratuitous info-drop. Zinn did a really good job, on the whole (with just a few exceptions), of timing when to insert critical information about what happened in the past without making me feel like the character (or the author) was hiding something from the reader. We start off not knowing anything about Kyra except her immediate situation; but as she continues to forge stubbornly ahead on her quest, as she gets to know the infuriatingly handsome adventurer Fred and even begins to grow fond of the piglet she's been saddled with (a piglet who, incidentally, is the only one who can help lead her to the princess)—as we get to know her as a character, we are also introduced to how she landed in this mess in the first place. And, of course, much as Kyra tries to ignore her past to fulfill her goals in the present, her success depends on embracing who she is AND where she comes from.

The characters were so real, and so funny—that was my favorite part of the book, though I of course enjoyed the quirky fantasy aspect. The banter between Kyra and Fred, between Kyra and the princess; the growth Kyra shows in her dealings with others; the sometimes-hilarious hot water she lands in—all were satisfying and enjoyable and made me laugh out loud. Ultimately, the very real danger and creepiness of the bad guys, and the sincere, determined efforts of the good guys, made the happy ending well earned.


You can find Poison by Bridget Zinn online, or at an independent bookstore near you!

April 11, 2014

TURNING PAGES: PROPHECY, by Ellen Oh

So, I sat down to prep for reviewing a book that I have coming from the library when I realized I'd never reviewed its predecessor... um, wait. How did that happen? As I recall, this book's release date was at a super busy time for both of us here, so it slipped through the cracks. We'll fix that right now!

Concerning Character: This is fantasy -- grand, high fantasy with the historical feel of ancient Korea. At first, in my head I was calling it "historical fantasy" but as we don't call Arthurian tales "historical fantasy," as if anyone believes that Arthur, Merlin et al were part of, say, real English history. *cough* Yes, arguably there may have been people named those names in reality, but the stories are... fantasy, right? So is this novel: high fantasy, set, instead of in an English countryside, in a Korean countryside. The weapons and armor say medieval Korea, and the novel is set during the Gojoseon era which as utterly fictional as the Arthurian era, but sounds as realistic.

We're introduced to our main character as she moves through the city. From the first few scenes there are fantastic and detailed explanationsof food, armor, clothing, people, and housing. We are also introduced to Gojoseon era myths and monsters -- and Kira, as one of its monster-slayers.

For all of Kira's life, there have been plots and counterplots to destroy the royal family, of which she is a member. When she was only a tiny child, Kira saved the crown prince Taejo, her cousin, from a monster. She's been impressive her whole life - impressively strong, impressively fast and fast-healing, and ...impressively weird. She's yellow-eyed, and a known slayer of demons. She can see them -- smell them -- find them like none other seen before, and she has a Tiger Spirit. Kira's different -- too different to easily and successfully fit into the royal family of Hansong or any of the Seven Kingdoms. A toughened soldier, Kira tends to be impatient with the Queen's attempts to drag her into pink, and she is horrified by an upcoming arranged marriage. It's almost a relief when its discovered that there's a traitor in the palace, and the Yamato's invade. It's almost a relief -- but not really. Taejo's bodyguard, Kira has no choice but to concentrate all of her wits on keeping him out of the hands of the enemy, leaving her mother behind and unprotected -- and the other ladies of the palace to certain death.

The loss and the violence of war aren't sugar-coated. The deaths are brutal and the losses pile up, as Kira and Taejo and their small band are go on the run to the safety of a hidden temple. Though they at last reach their objective, as they wait for things to calm in the capitol, they make stupid mistakes and get emotional. Kira can't stop thinking about the safety of his parents, Taejo is dying to know the fate of his mother, and all the temple monks keeps talking about this ...prophesy of Dragon Masado that no one can make sense of. Someone is supposed to be a dragon, and unite the Seven Kingdoms and save everyone. Is it Taejo? Is it Kira's older brother or their mother's older brother, who calls himself the Dragon King? When Kira and Taejo find themselves on a quest to find the things Dragon Masado needs to manifest himself, questions begin to finally be answered -- but the demons are already there.

Critical Reader Reaction: There has been a lot of criticism surrounding this novel, because apparently the ARC copy said something about "It's Graceling meets Eon." Mmm, no, it's not, really, but you certainly can't blame Ellen Oh for that; she writes the novels, not the jacket copy, and furthermore, sometimes PR people scramble when trying to describe something. From me, I'll just say I haven't quite read a book like this one before, and leave it at that.

While I felt the romantic drift was a tiny bit disingenuous - even a tough warrior would know what those fluttery feelings meant around a certain individuals - and I'm not entirely sure I buy that, in the midst of trauma and loss and drama she's feeling the urge for anyone, I enjoyed the pacing and the background of Ellen Oh's debut novel. While this is a really super quick review -- there is a LOT of setting and backstory in place that I didn't touch on, I felt she took the time to set the stage carefully because this is the first book in a trilogy. The history and action made me comfortable handing it to Tech Boy and saying, "Hey, you might like this one," but also with the knowledge that he gets testy if I don't have all three books in hand. He might not be starting it just yet. Still, both of us are fans of historical fiction and tend to gloss over things like fight scenes and that kind of drama, but it doesn't take much to have a lot of love for dragons, Tiger Spirits, and the like. I hope that in the following books, other characters will display special skills or spirits as well, not only so that Kira isn't so alone, but from the sound of the mess about to break out, the girl's going to need a little help, supernatural or otherwise.

I'm glad I got around to actually talking about this book before I get my hands on the sequel - do stay tuned for that review.


My copy came from the library. You can find your copy of PROPHESY by Ellen Oh at an online or independent bookstore near you!

April 08, 2014

TURNING PAGES: BIG FAT DISASTER, by Beth Fehlbaum

"The truth is not always pretty. It can be disturbing, enraging, and enlightening. I found my way out of Hell by choosing Truth, and, regardless of anyone’s opinion, I am committed to telling Truth AND extending Hope, through my stories." - Beth Fehlbaum, "When Story Touches a Nerve," Nerdy Book Club Blog, Author Posts, April 6, 2014

Kirkus, in its starred review of BIG FAT DISASTER, says "The fast pace, lively...dialogue, and timely topic make it a quick and enjoyable read." Honestly, I'm not sure what book Kirkus was reading. Don't get me wrong - the pace is fast, the dialogue is lively, and the topic is deeply timely, but this book is not what you can call enjoyable - it is cathartic, it is authentic, it is painful and incredibly real, raw, and honest. There is even a glimmer of hope, in the end. But I don't think "enjoyable" will be the word for me.

Taken individually, the incidents which take place in the novel are together enough to send a person crashing to their knees. Put together, they are overwhelming, leaving this story of a life unfinished, as unfinished as any life would be in the midst of healing -- which is going to take a long, long time, longer than any novel would ever go on.

This is not a novel about a fat girl who suddenly found the religion of dieting, the god of svelte, and was saved, hallelujah. Nope. This is a bit more... realistic. As I read along I mused, "This book reminds me so much of STAYING FAT FOR SARAH BYRNES," and wouldn't you know it, in the author essay on Nerdy Book Club, Beth Fehbaum mentions Chris Crutcher, and that very same book. Prepare yourself for that level of honesty.

Finally, if you've ever suffered from an eating disorder, weight issues, or seriously considered suicide, prepare yourself...this book is by someone who has been there. She knows. Take seriously the helpline information at the end. Don't forget that this book takes you back to the dark places - but Colby's getting out, and the rest of us can, too.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

Concerning Character: Colby is not fond of cameras, eyes on her, and judgement - and her father is running for Senate. Unfortunately, Colby's getting a lot of flak about how much of a detriment to his run. His image doesn't call for an insecure fat girl in the background - his family values platform shows he values family that looks ...good. Unfortunately, things are about to look a lot less good. Colby's just found out something about her father -- something that can't be taken back. It's bad enough that her stupid sister Rachel picked a fight with her when she was trying to get out of singing with the Young Conservatives choir for her father's latest election appearance, Rachel made her spill coffee on her father's desk. It's much worse that in trying to clean up, she accidentally found a picture of him...with his tongue down some woman's throat - some woman not her mother.

It's not the first fracture to hit their picture perfect life, but it's the first one that Colby doesn't feel like she's caused by looking - and weighing - like her father. She's nothing like her mother, and also nothing like her two sisters, who are pretty much mini-Miss Texas clones, which is what her pageant-winning mother was, sometime back in the eighties. Colby's not really ...pageant material. She's a binge-eating, nervous wreck, and now that her father has betrayed her mother, she's a binge-eating, nervous wreck whose mother hates to even look at her. If you thought her life was bad before, it gets worse. The FBI seizes the family's assets, after determining that her father stole from his campaign fund. Now, they have to move into the single-wide trailer behind the house of her Aunt Leah - the family black sheep. A new school, a new place to be humiliated by her father's very public fall from grace -- and a new place for her mother to pressure her about her appearance. Bullied, hounded, and hated, it's no wonder Colby feels like her whole life is a big, fat disaster.

Reading Critically: First, I have to give kudos to the design team for allowing a pair of plump arms to be shown on the cover of a YA novel. This is fairly groundbreaking stuff, and honestly, I don't know that I've ever seen evidence that rounded, full-figured, plus-sized, zaftig, rubenesque or otherwise heavy people exist in YA lit. So, well done, book designers.

This is a novel about a lot of things - adultery, political graft, date rape, bullying, and eating disorders. Because Colby is a classic example of an unreliable narrator -- she believes that "everybody" hates her, and that "all" the kids think this or that. This narrow viewpoint distorts her picture of herself, and her place in the world. While some of what she believes is true, much of it is not. SOme readers may have trouble identifying that Colby is unreliable, and feel overwhelmed or disturbed by her version of truth. I encourage those readers to read on.

Is there a such thing as "too much" truth in a YA novel? It's been "suggested" to me as a writer not to write about certain things in my life because "no one would believe you," and seriously, I get that: some of the over-the-top, Craytown Bus stuff that I've experienced and observed - who would believe that kind of stuff and those kind of people existed - exist, still, even - in real life? But, just because "nobody normal" would believe it... should writers keep silent?

I don't think so. For myself, personally, I don't write some stories because they are filled with, and overlap with stories not my own to tell. I am not yet to a place where I can separate mine from others, and frankly, I think I'm still too emotional about some of the stories to be balanced and impartial, as a good storyteller must be. Other authors make other choices, of course, but I don't believe that there's anything like "too much truth." Nobody "normal" would believe what was being said and done to bullying victims like Hannah Smith, Megan Meier, or Morgan Musson, and, frankly, no one "normal" would be involved, but the bullying happened to them, and they died from it. Writers write from the place where they are, and as Beth Fehlbaum proves, writers choosing to write their own truths should not be silenced. "Find your voice," a character in the novel urges. It's hard to do, but it's vital. Find your voice, find your ears, bear witness, and live your compassion. < /rant >



I received a copy of this book courtesy Merit Press, via NetGalley. You can find BIG FAT DISASTER by Beth Fehlbaum online, or at an independent bookstore near you!

April 07, 2014

Cybils Finalist Review: ROSE UNDER FIRE by Elizabeth Wein

Full disclosure: the author of Cybils finalist Rose Under Fire, Elizabeth Wein, is a blogging/writing friend of ours. Yes, that did make me excited to read this companion book to Code Name Verity (reviewed here by Tanita and here by me), which I greatly enjoyed, but I did my utmost to evaluate the book just as fairly as I did the other finalists.

As with my other Cybils-related reviews, this final one is drawn from my notes during the Round 2 reading and judging process, which took place in January and February.

Though it's a companion book to Code Name Verity, Rose Under Fire definitely stands on its own and doesn't require you to have read Code Name Verity to enjoy it. In fact, it takes place a bit later in the war—World War II—and while there are brief mentions of the characters from Code Name Verity, this story focuses on a new character: Rose Justice, an American transport pilot working in Europe to fly planes from place to place. On one of her jaunts to France and back, she gets in a bit of a fly-off with a Nazi plane or two, and it doesn't end well for her: it ends with her being sent to Ravensbruck, a concentration camp for women.

The story is told through the eyes of Rose as she pens her sometimes haunting, sometimes shocking memories of imprisonment, and she does so from the vantage point of newly acquired freedom: a hotel room in Paris, just after her harrowing ordeal. However, we don't simply get the prose version of things: we also get Rose's poetry, which gives everything a different flavor. If you've ever read the war poems of, say, Randall Jarrell…the raw honesty of a poem can convey so much more, such a different vision of war. That is what Rose's poems do—they lay bare the emotional core of the experience, and I absolutely loved them.

For me, that's huge, because I am not (for whatever reason—I'm not sure) a fan of novels in verse, and I have vastly varying reactions even to novels that contain verse.

In this case, I think it worked well for me not only because of the quality of the poetry itself, but also the strength of Rose as a character—she's a fantastic protagonist, one whom it's easy to root for and rewarding to watch persevere. Because she's so relatable and so vivid, that went a long way toward eliminating the "oh, no, not another concentration camp novel" feeling that this particular jaded reader sometimes has. (Having said that, I do have an interest in novels set during WWII—and my upcoming book involved extensive research into that time period.) It's just that…I think teens tend to be deluged with WWII novels and memoirs as part of curriculum, so I appreciated that Rose Under Fire and Code Name Verity both draw readers into the story, the adventure, the characters, without pounding them over the head with the historical subject matter.

There's a lot to love here besides Rose herself, too. The side characters are distinctive, vivid, and do a lot of unexpected things to further the story and help Rose—and help her grow. And I appreciated that, in many cases, those who appeared weak on the surface were repeatedly proven to be strong. There are a lot of characters who have been physically debilitated by the camp, but they show again and again their force of personality, their inner strength and will. Rose must learn that inner strength for herself, not only to survive, but to do what needs to be done at the end.

Speaking of the end, the section of closure at the Nuremberg Trials was extremely well done. The beginning of the story—it did move a little slowly at first, I thought. The journal format, while it worked really well to move us between past and present as the book progressed and as things got more action-packed, it took me a while to get drawn in. But once I was engaged, I was hooked and couldn't put it down. (As you might be able to tell, this was one of my faves of the finalist bunch!)


You can find Rose Under Fire by Elizabeth Wein online, or at an independent bookstore near you!

April 04, 2014

TURNING PAGES: BLUE GOLD, by Elizabeth Stewart

This is an important book. I'm hesitant to use the word "worthy," because that sounds earnest and a little uncomfortable, but -- that is this book. Earnest. A little uncomfortable. Apt to start conversations which are less than comfortable. Apt to raise consciousness, and awareness. Budding historians and sociologists? This one's for you.

If you know anything about the situation in the Democratic Republic of Congo (formally Zaire), you know that it lacks infrastructure and honest leadership. It is currently the province of Uzi-toting warlords and their murderous bullyboys, and it's a nasty, nasty place to try and make a living as a miner, or to make a safe place for a family. This novel bounces in between a refugee camp, where a Congolese family has fled, after rape and murder, a factory in China, where cell phones are assembled by painstaking, blistered hand, and to a home in Vancouver, where, one night, a phone was misused.

There's a lot of geopolitical territory worked into one novel, and at times the reader may feel a little overwhelmed -- but at the same time, the reality on which it is based is all too true. In the tradition of Cory Doctorow's FOR THE WIN and Paolo Bacigalupi's SHIP BREAKER, as well as Terry Farrish's THE GOOD BRAIDER, there's no traditional "happy" ending to this true-to-life tale -- but everybody survives. And that's just it: it's a novel about survival. But, isn't there supposed to be more to life than that?

Concerning Character: SYLVIE is dutiful, but desperate. At fifteen, she is junior mother to nine-year-old Pascal and six-year-old Lucie, but fourteen year old Olivier will no longer follow her lead. Disappearing for days on end, poaching outside the Tanzanian refugee camp where they live, running errands for the nastiest thug in the camp - a thug who is doing a black market trade in coltan, the mineral for which their father was killed, and their village razed. Olivier is a constant thorn in Sylvie's side, as she hauls water, and spends her days cooking, cleaning, and standing in line for provisions, all the while silently accepting her mother's criticism that no one will marry a sour woman. Sylvie knows what her mother means to say -- no one will marry a scarred woman. And, honestly -- Sylvie's just as glad no man wants her anymore. Until one does...and won't take her "no" for an answer...

LAIPING's cousin Min told her of the wonders of the factory job she had in Shenzhen. High tech jobs, she'd told Laiping proudly, were the best. She could make real money, making cell phones. It was the way to opportunity, and there was a dorm, a theater, and swimming pools for the lucky workers, too. A TV! Phones! Good clothes! Surely, everyone would come out from their poky little farms to work in the city for such luck.

Underaged, but deeply worried for her frail parents, Laiping is determined to make good. Soon, her world narrows to capacitator-solder-place, over and over again. Who knew the little blue-flecked chip of electronics, made from the special African mineral, could be so important? Such a tiny thing - but so important to Mr. Chen, the company owner, Mr. Wu, her supervisor, and to the thousands of workers who listen to the daily exhortations and strive harder to do better -- because those who don't work hard today will have to work hard finding a new job tomorrow. So what if Laiping's neck cramps, and her fingers blister from learning to solder? So what if the dorm room is stacked three high with bunk beds, a factory snoop watches her both at work and in the dorm room... she's living the farm girl's dream, isn't she? But, why are those high rise dormitories surrounded by nets? At least Laiping has a friend, Fen has stuck with her through thick and thin. When there's trouble about her wages, it seems like the boy she met the first day at the factory might have the answers to making this factory job work for her -- or, he might just make it all worse...

FIONA's mother hates it when Fiona's father springs for the latest tech for her, because it is a luxury -- not a necessity. Since he remarried, Fiona's dad is alll about the luxuries, though, and Fiona's good with it. She has a pretty sweet phone, and, okay, it's nice to have the things, all right? Despite her Mom's carping, there's nothing wrong with it, and it's tiresome to hear her mother criticizing Dad's coltan mining company. Fiona would rather not know who has human rights issues, and what trouble is going on in other countries -- she's got enough problems of her own. Yeah, so once she sends an unwise text. But, that doesn't mean she's a bad person. That doesn't mean she's stupid, or that she deserves everything they're saying about her. It's not fair that all of the choices she makes now seem wrong.

In the midst of her own suffering, Fiona gets a glimpse into the suffering of another... Having her heart battered teachers her a little compassion for someone else. But, is compassion enough?

Critical Reader Reaction: There are no easy answers for this, and the afterword goes a long way toward both explaining the author's real world point of view, and informing the reader on where to go to get more information. That will be MOST appreciated, as most readers will come away from this with a "what do I do next!?" kind of feeling, and many will feel both resentful and guilty about their electronics.

This is very much an issue novel, but I appreciate that the author does her best to create a real story, with realistic pacing, slow and fast moments, danger and pain. I felt there were some missed opportunities to make the North American girl more realistic. I felt closest to the African and Chinese characters, as their confusing and horrifying situations were not of their own making. It was harder to feel compassion for Fiona - and hard to believe that the fulcrum on which the lever of changed rested was on her small shoulders - but this made a troubling but satisfying expose into a real situation. Well worth reading as a social studies companion, or for entertainment, and guaranteed to open up real conversation on what to do and how to be in the consumer sense.



I received this copy of the book courtesy of Annick Press, in return for the opportunity for an unbiased review. You can find BLUE GOLD by Elizabeth Stewart online, or at an independent bookstore near you!

April 03, 2014

Toon Thursday: Write, Revise, Repeat


If only putting on a metaphorical hat and necklace was the key to writing success, right? I'm still in the first stage of my next project, and that sorry mess on the left is probably an optimistic visual representation at this point. (To be totally accurate, it should probably be missing a few limbs...maybe an eye...really, it's more like a Mr. Potato Head that hasn't been fully assembled yet...)

April 02, 2014

New Ventures: Inscription Magazine

It started last November with an Indiegogo campaign - raise five grand to produce and fund (for a year - the goal is for it to carry its own weight at some point, I would assume) a free ezine for teens containing diverse speculative fiction stories. A laudable goal, and the campaign raised in excess of its five grand. They had enough to hire illustrators, and web builders, and logo designers -- and authors -- and pay them a professional rate (which, according to the Science Fiction Writers of America guild is at minimum, $.05/word).

If you've been on Tor.com or a few others sites this week, you know that the first story is up! While probably not everything is finished or perfect, this site looks shiny, and has powerful goodwill and hope behind it. Submissions are open, so writers of short stories and readers of awesome will want to hop over.

Want to do more to support the ideals and goals of diverse children's lit than move your mouth and read endless articles in various journals and newspapers? Want to relive the brief kidlit glory days of THE EDGE OF THE FOREST or TBR TALLBOY (I KNOW! Remember them???) Find out how you can be involved. There have been too many "great ideas" and "great starts" in ezines that haven't ever had a chance to find their feet. Read, submit, talk!

P.S. - TALK ABOUT A SMALL, SERENDIPITOUS WORLD: Kelly Herold, editor-in-chief of the currently shuttered EDGE OF THE FOREST... was INSCRIPTION editor-in-chief Rachel Halpern's professor at Grinnell College in Iowa... and together they ran a YA reading group her Senior year. You've gotta love the kidlitosphere, people. ♥