September 22, 2016

Cybils Judging Panels Announced!

Just like this entire year has been flying past at inconceivable speed, the Cybils season is revving up without delay, and Tanita and I are both incredibly excited to be judging again. Tanita is part of the Round 1 YASF panel (which brings back memories of early days when I had the time to do the vast amount of reading for Round 1...I'd really like to do that again before too long, but it was not in the cards this year) and I will be on Round 2 for Graphic Novels along with a few familiar faces and a couple of new ones--so fun, and always a wonderful opportunity to talk books when the time comes.

It's been such a busy year for me, and for Tanita, too, so I think the routine of Cybils is a welcome comfort in so many ways and is incredibly rewarding to boot. I'll be blog co-editor again with Melissa Fox of Book Nut, so I'll be in charge of cruising volunteers' blogs and posting reviews of nominees and finalists to the Cybils blog once the reading period kicks into gear. It's something I truly enjoy and value because I seem to have less and less time to visit blogs just for the heck of it, just to see what others are reading and doing.

This year should be really interesting with the addition of Board Books and Audiobooks as new pilot categories, so I hope you'll have fun exploring along with me!

September 20, 2016


Welcome to another session of Turning Pages!

The jacket flap copy for this novel was "Newsies" meets "Les Mis" or something like that, which made me chuckle, as I have seen neither and am not particularly interested in musicals, in any event. However, I like history a great deal, and had hopes for this novel from that point of view.

Synopsis: Metaltown is where it all gets done - where the detonators for the bombs are made, where the shells are filled, where the war gets its weapons while the ultra-rich Josef Hampton and his heir, Otto, get richer. The people of Metaltown are exhausted, grimy, and treated less as human beings than as cogs in the Hampton family's wheel, however -- and no one knows this better than Ty. She was raised in an orphanage, and has relied on the tight friendship and code of the streets of her friends, especially Colin. Colin isn't like Ty - once, he lived on the better side of town, went to school, and didn't have to work, but with his Mom doing double shifts at a factory, her girlfriend, Cherish, sick from corn flu, the sickness which comes from the bio engineered food which has killed hundreds, and with Colin's brother a junkie, they've come down in the world. Colin is all Ty's got, and though he's got a bit more family, she knows he's got her back, too. Or at least, he did -- but then he met the clean, pretty girl who reminds him too much of his old life. Lena's a Hampton - what does she know, really, about going without pay and working twelve hour shifts at the factory? What does she really know about suffering? Ty can't see anything good about Lena getting involved in their lives. She's determined to change the world of Metaltown - and all she needs is a guy like Colin at her back. They can start a union like the Brotherhood, and won't let anything stop them.

Observations: The podcast, "Stuff You Missed In History Class" recently had a piece on the London Match Girls Strike of 1888. If you remember this from the history of the Industrial Revolution, you know that the situation that made the strike happen was real -- the deadly bone rot caused from the phosphorus used in the match heads, the fires from the "strike anywhere" aspect of the matches, the poor working conditions, including dimness and long hours of standing, the fines for lateness or for talking, the charges for the tools the women used to make the matches -- and the fines for them being broken or stacked wrongly or whatever. It was, to put it succinctly, sharecropping with matches, and like most 19th century labor strikes, it was ugly and brutal and frequently covered in the British press, which brought out a lot of gasping from Nice People who were Shocked, Sir, Simply Shocked by the mere thought of such poor people living on London's East End and living in squalor, etc. etc. To be honest, I tend to hate stories like that, because I find that reality and the level of gasp-clutch-pearls painful -- simply because the whole idea of industrialists making bank on the backs of their workers isn't just a story -- it's real life today, and it never stopped, only mostly moved out of English-speaking countries. And yet: if we don't know about it, read about it, or talk about it, we don't remember what we have or where we came from. From that point of view, this is a necessary book.

This novel has a lot of the elements historically present in a story of unions and laborers -- poor working conditions, a union crystallizing from the desperation of the poor and mistreated, graft, and abuse. It lso has a series of coincidences, a clueless, idealistic, rich-girl white savior, and a love triangle -- which I bluntly think the novel would have been stronger and cleaner without. I found myself disappointed by that, and frustrated that a strong and smart girl like Ty turned into an all-about-the-boy girl - especially when there was SERIOUS STUFF TO DO -- but then, I'm always the one who rolls their eyes and throws the book across the room when the hero gives the girl a scorching kiss in the middle of a gun battle, and I loathe obvious plot devices like triangles. I didn't buy the romance and feel it detracted. Your mileage may vary.

Conclusion: While there were plenty of stereotypes at play, there was some quiet diversity in this novel, which was good to see. A slow start - about the first 200 pages - before the action catches on might make this a tricky novel for those who like to simply leap in, but the gritty realism will keep most reading. I did wonder was how this dystopian world had come into play - historically how the world had come to this sorry pass to begin with - and unfortunately, that wasn't covered in the novel. The history behind a dystopia is as important, to me, as how people live in the here-and-now. As infected as people are today with the spirit of "never forget," how would people not know their history? World building questions will probably less to those in search of a fast-paced story with strong romantic elements. Will probably go down well for those who liked Patrick Ness' THE ASK AND THE ANSWER, Phillip Reeves MORTAL INSTRUMENTS books or the dystopian elements of INCARCERON.

I received my copy of this book courtesy of the publisher. Today, you can find METALTOWN by Kristen Simmons at an online e-tailer, or at a real life, independent bookstore near you!

September 19, 2016

Monday Review: THE QUEEN OF BLOOD by Sarah Beth Durst

Synopsis: The Queen of Blood, which comes out TOMORROW, is a foray into YA crossover fantasy by Sarah Beth Durst, author of numerous wonderful, whimsical, fantastical MG and YA fantasy titles such as (most recently) The Girl Who Could Not Dream (reviewed here). The author has such a facility for writing for all ages—her adult title The Lost (reviewed here) received acclaim as well—so I was not surprised at all that I enjoyed this one so much.

The Queen of Blood is Book 1 of the Queens of Renthia—Renthia being the world where the story takes place. In the nation of Aratay, as in the other lands in Renthia, there is an uneasy balance between the human denizens and the spirit world: spirits of earth, fire, ice, air, and water inhabit the natural world, and only the female humans might be born with the power to control and command spirits. The Queen of Aratay is the one who maintains this balance: selected from those with the innate ability and trained for years in the right skills to keep the human-hating spirits at bay.

Daleina grew up in the small village of Greytree on the forested fringes of Aratay, far from Queen and capital, training under the village headwitch to perhaps grow up and take her place. One fateful day, when Daleina is still a child, her village is attacked by spirits: something that isn't supposed to happen with the Queen in charge. But it sets events in motion, and Daleina finds herself a few years later just barely squeaking into the magical Academy at the capital, getting trained to use her rudimentary powers. Could someone as low in power as Daleina truly be in the running to be Queen? She doesn't know, but she's determined to learn as much as she can along the way…and help Aratay hold back the increasingly frequent spirit attacks. Of course, in a world that is increasingly subject to supposedly impossible incursions by malevolent spirits, one must expect the unexpected…and that pertains to Daleina's story, too.

Observations: There is an element of the magical school story in this one, like Harry Potter or (even more so) Princess Academy, and that is definitely a positive in my eyes. And like many school stories that revolve around the new kid, the smallest kid, etc., the protagonist goes from someone who is out of her element and seemingly lacks the same skill set as those around her, to realizing her own special and unique abilities and coming into her own power.

In fact, I think this is one of the areas where this book truly shines: Daleina is relatable because she is so very much someone who does not feel special at all, and yet she is. In compensating for the abilities she herself lacks, she is able to uniquely see and tap into the talents of those around her, and has the humility and pragmatism to actually do so. And this just might be the one skill that truly saves her life, and her world, as she grows into adulthood and is challenged in every way, physically, mentally, and magically.

Conclusion: I stayed away from specifics because this book was full of so many wonderful surprising elements in terms of world-building and the way the magic works, but here is one more teaser in case you need more reason to pick this one up: in Aratay, a forest world, everyone lives IN THE TREES, in magically grown houses that are an organic part of branches and tree trunks, getting around via bridges and zip lines from tree to tree and village to village, like Ewoks. If that isn't awesome enough for you, I don't know what is.

I received my copy of this book courtesy of the author/publisher via NetGalley. You can find THE QUEEN OF BLOOD by Sarah Beth Durst at an online e-tailer, or at a real life, independent bookstore near you TOMORROW!

September 14, 2016

Starring Sherri L. Smith ~

It's Day 6 of the PASADENA blog tour!

Bad things happen everywhere. Even in the land of sun and roses.

When Jude's best friend is found dead in a swimming pool, her family calls it an accident. Her friends call it suicide. But Jude calls it what it is: murder. And someone has to pay.

Now everyone is a suspect--family and friends alike. And Jude is digging up the past like bones from a shallow grave. Anything to get closer to the truth. But that's the thing about secrets. Once they start turning up, nothing is sacred. And Jude's got a few skeletons of her own.


There's been a whole lotta Sherri L. Smith on this blog. One of the verrrry first reviews we featured, way back in the mists of time (in 2005) was of Tanita's then-fave Sherri book (the wearer of the "favorite" title tiara changes from moment to moment), LUCY THE GIANT. This was more gushing than an actual *cough* review, but we live to improve, people.

As we blogged on, reviews of Sparrow, Flygirl, Orleans and The Toymaker's Apprentice were interspersed with guest posts from Sherri on such topics as blended families and the historical price of passing for white for African Americans in the US. Today this superb author is dropping by again to talk about her latest - blow-your-hair-back, Muppet-flail-and-exclaim-at-its-excellence novel, PASADENA. (You'll note Aquafortis had to take on the latest review. Tanita's had too many exclamation points.) We are - well, I'd say "speechless," with joy, but "speechless" rarely happens to Tanita, at least -- we are giddy with the privilege of probing her brilliant brain for all the writer goodies, so sit back and enjoy!

Finding Wonderland Blog: Readers by now are already being teased by a lot of little sneaky peeks at the book, knowing it's all about the Southern California scene. With idiosyncratic elements like surfing and rampant wild fires, in PASADENA SoCal culture is pretty much a character in its own right. Is this a novel you could imagine set elsewhere? Other than the aforementioned elements what do you think would and would not translate if this novel was set in the Midwest or in the South?

Sherri L. Smith: Hmm. Aside from the Los Angeles-based roots of so much of the original noir fiction canon, there is noir around the world, so I’d say, in some ways, yes Pasadena could translate. I’m thinking of another landscape I know fairly well, Chicago. If I tried, I could certainly adapt this story to be called Lincoln Park. I could even possibly write a Southern version called Orleans (wait a minute. I… uh… maybe I’d call it, Crescent City.) But the details would change.

What I think is key is having a line between the haves and have nots—which you can do just about anywhere. And you need to have a landscape with a voice of its own. It has to have a history that can echo throughout the story. Pasadena is special in that it offers such beauty and glamour, past and present. But you could say the same for the other cities. We’d lose the fires in favor of a snow storm in Chicago, or something out on the lake. I’d probably set it during the winter—such fantastic imagery as frozen beaches, and those first few blocks by the water where cars get iced in by the waves. Summer is another story in Chicago. The oppressive humidity, the experience of hot sidewalks and crowds. Maybe the pool would be indoors, though. The greenness of the river. There’s stuff to work with there. And New Orleans—I mean, come on! Maggie would have totally shopped at Trashy Diva down there. Mardi Gras, Jazz Fest, gothic imagery… Now you’ve got me wanting to write two other versions of the book, just to see what would happen! What makes Pasadena the right spot for this story, though, are those noir roots, and the dream factory that is Los Angeles hovering just over the hill. There’s an unreal quality to Southern California, both a pretense and a grit, that isn’t quite the same as anywhere else.

Wonderland: So, here's another writer-ly question - this book is written so far inside Jude's point of view that we don't ever "see" her, and our vision of Maggie's circle of friends is filtered through what Jude knows - and what she does not. Kirkus Reviews comments (or, complains?) that "the absence of other markers implies [Jude's] white." What influenced your choice to write a so indeterminate a character?

Sherri: I did find that an interesting call out in the Kirkus review. Part of what pleased me about it, if that’s the right word, is that it touched on my original intent. When I set out to write this book, I decided the narrator would have no name. I wanted her to be the camera, and I wanted you, the reader, to be her. See what she sees, feel what she feels, but not limit yourself by deciding what she must look like. I didn’t want any judgement calls to be made on “that kind of girl.” However, when it came to Jude’s friends, they showed up the way they did. I had a really diverse group of friends in high school, so much so that a cab driver told us we looked like a United Colors of Bennetton billboard walking down the street. We were cool with that (and embarrassed, and creeped out, because… what?). But, as with Orleans, I didn’t want race to be the issue. People are the issue. That’s it.

Wonderland: *takes a moment to revel the über 80's cool that was Bennetton... and the peak randomness of that comment*

Hmmm! With voices from the YA and children's lit book community emphasizing a need for more diversity of experiences written by writers of color, this "you are the camera" method is an often overlooked way of allowing every reader to see themselves - by deemphasizing appearance. I feel like in PASADENA, it really worked. Enough to cause comment, anyway, and comment is good, in this case! ☺

So, the big, exciting thing about this novel is that it's described as "noir." According to Wikipedia (so it must be true), noir fiction is a literary genre characterized by an amateur detective protagonist who is either a victim, a suspect, or a perpetrator in the explored crime. Additionally, the protagonist is also usually self-destructive in some way. YA lit has been criticized in the past as being too dark, as both celebrating and normalizing self-destructiveness in teens. What's your take on that, and the way adults view younger adults' capacity for painful and disturbing topics?

Sherri: First off, I have to disagree with part of that Wikipedia definition. These detectives are not always amateurs—just ask Sam Spade and the Continental. The key trait in noir is damage. Not just the crime committed, but the people involved. Everyone has ghosts. Everyone has scars. Young adult lit—all literature, in fact, is a reflection of life, informed by the experiences of the authors, and the stories they see around them. It’s possible that some books out there glorify this damage (or that some marketing teams do, sometimes it’s hard to tell), and it’s definitely possible that young readers take away the “wrong” side of the story. (I put that in quotes because neither side is wrong, but both sides should be taken into account.)

A friend of mine went to a girls’ boarding school. She had trauma in her past and tried to commit suicide. What followed was a rash of attempted suicides. (Somehow, no one succeeded). So, did she inspire a trend because it was “cool,” or did she give a bunch of other traumatized kids the inspiration to act out similarly (and, similarly, try to get help)? I don’t know. What I do know is, she was a teenager, and that some rough crap goes down in life, no matter what your age. We do a disservice to young people if we pretend otherwise. Can kids take it? Not always. Can adults? Not always. It doesn’t change the fact that life can be painful, terrible, and hard to navigate, or that it can also be amazing, blissful and joy-filled. In my opinion, YA books are there to help negotiate the middle path. How do we survive to adulthood? How do we not just survive, but gather the tools we need to thrive, both along the way and once we get there? We start with stories that have truth in them. Stories that say, this secret you live with is not just your secret. The shame you feel has been felt by others. You are not the first, and you are not alone, and guess what? We’re still alive. We’re still here. And you can be, too.

Wonderland: Yes. That's just the message we all hope comes away with every book we write, isn't it? "Not alone" is probably the first thing any of us want to know, ever.

So, another writer-ly question - Kurt Vonnegut once said that every (short) story writer ought to give the readers at least one character he or she can root for. How important do you think it is that readers strongly identify with the protagonist in a novel?

Sherri: Ah ha! Is this a question about likeability? You phrased it well. Characters do need to be identifiable, but not necessarily likeable. Jude is a tough cookie. I’m not, particularly. But I can get behind her. I think some of the best protagonists are complicated people who maybe even scare us a little, but we want to go along for the ride because we believe in what they are doing, or trying to do. We have access to their inner selves. We know what hurts them (surprise, it’s what hurts us, too!), we know who they love and what they fear, and we see ourselves mirrored in that. Maybe they deal with problems differently—I’ve never staked a vampire in my life, but I totally get Buffy. The main thing we connect with in a protagonist is their striving for a goal. I heard a Radio Diaries piece recently about how everybody loves an underdog. According to a study they sited, the majority of people root for the little guy. We love the idea of overcoming the odds. So, even if your protagonist is a puppy-kicking malcontent (boo!), if he or she is struggling to overcome a seemingly insurmountable obstacle, we’ll read along. Even if we secretly hope a bigger puppy comes along to bite him/her in the butt. (That’s just another obstacle to overcome—being a jerk.)

Wonderland: The likeability question is a little silly in some ways, but it really is a big deal for a lot of readers unsure how they're supposed to "like" some protagonist whose experiences - level of privilege, gender or ethnicity, sexual preferences, etc. - do not match their own... It can also come down to empathy building in some instances, too -- a tool which readers of any age can develop through reading and benefit from...!

And speaking of that empathy connection, after a fashion -- many fandoms basically live in 'shipping culture right now, with lots of romance and furious discussion about who ends up with whom, or who they should have ended up with as part of the YA's fandom's oeuvre. Will you talk a bit about how you chose to write about relationships in this novel?

Sherri: Ugh. So, me and romance. I tend to paddle around the edges rather than go into the deep end with love stories. (I’m working on that!) For a lot of my characters, love just isn’t the priority, at least not within the scope of the story. But Pasadena is all about relationships: who’s with whom, who means what to whom, who did what to whom—all the whoms you can fit matter. Friend circles are like that, like a giant kinetic sculpture that tilts and whirls wildly depending on the connections. I think there’s a question teens ask themselves that gets overlooked by a lot of the love triangle romances in YA lately, namely—am I loveable? Do I deserve love? Triangles imply that yes, you are the center of the universe and at least two people should be chasing you down at any given moment. And maybe that’s true for some people. But, ahem, for the rest of us, there can be some lonely nights spent wondering if it’s going to happen at all. And then, what is “it” anyway. Jude’s got baggage she’s not willing to unpack. Dane and Tallulah are storybook perfect, but it’s a short story and a long life. Hank and Eppie have their issues. Everyone does. Joey might be the most normal guy in the book, but his damage is his circle of friends. There is a saying I read somewhere that I think about whenever I see a friend who deserves better: “We only accept the love we think we deserve.” Chew on that for a while. (Bitter? Maybe. True? You decide.)

Wonderland: I like how you put that - what is "it" indeed! And, since no one has time for my rant on The Statistical Improbability Of Love Triangles In The Average Lifetime, we'll just move on... ::cough::

So, your last novel prior to this one was a crazily magical historical fantasy; the post-apocalyptic novel before that was a different beast entirely, as was the WWII historical fiction you published prior to that. Would you speak a bit about writing across various genres, how you approach publishing for different groups, and why you chose, unlike many writers, to write everything under the same name?

Sherri: I believe you were the ones to call me the “will not be pigeon-holed Ms. Smith!” I love that title. I will wear it proudly! My writing is as broad as my reading and my interests. If you write what you know, and what you love, I couldn’t do any less. The biggest adjustment for me was not so much genre-based, but age- and gender-based. Adjusting my vocabulary to better suit a middle grade reader was a challenge. The Toymaker’s Apprentice also features my first male protagonist (with apologies to Daniel, who is really a secondary character in Orleans). In various drafts, Stefan—this boy on the cusp of adulthood—came across as too young, too old, too emotional, too pensive, too everything. It was Lisa Yee who told me to cut his dialogue by a third and use action instead of dialogue wherever possible. And my husband who said, “If you love this other character, make him like that guy.” And I did. And it worked!

As far as pseudonyms go, I have notebooks full of pseudonym doodling the way I used to write my own name (or more often, my crush’s name) in bubble letters down the page in elementary school. I’m jealous of Anne Rice for having such a pseudonym-able name! Sadly, I have never settled on a good one. When I first thought about it, I canvassed a few writers. One told me the story of a person who wrote a fun little book under a pseudonym and saved their own name for “serious” writing. Well, the fun little book became a huge success. The serious stuff did not. And then they were faced with outing themselves so they could promote (and enjoy) their success. So, no pseudonyms for now. Although my agent once suggested Bella Donna Boudreaux. (Any X-Men fans out there?)

Wonderland: Okay, that has GOT to be the pseudonym you use for your first realy bodice-ripper of a romance: the beatific Bella Donna Boudreax. I LOVE it. The pseudonym of an already fictional character wins ALL the things!

What is the first piece of noir - book or film - you remember coming across and really enjoying?

Sherri: My introduction to noir was probably in film school, or more likely in a Sunday matinee on TV as a kid. But I wouldn’t have known it at the time. The first noir to really speak to me was probably neo-noir: Blade Runner. I’d say that grabbed me for both the visuals and the story. But, if you want to go for pure cinematography, then Touch of Evil, directed by Orson Welles. The opening shot of that movie—three and half minutes, uncut—is legendary. Unmatched until Robert Altman’s insane eight minute opening in shot in another noirish film I like, The Player. And Alfonso Cuaron’s mindblowing three minute 20 second shot in Children of Men. In fact, Children of Men might also qualify as a noir—gritty world, anti-hero—except, unlike so many noir stories, it ends with a spark of hope. (I hope you’re making a list. We have a whole film festival here!)

Wonderland:(I AM making a list. Not even joking, here.)

While noir is traditionally a male-dominated genre with the hard-boiled detective type, you went with a female narrator. There's a sort of accepted conventional wisdom that YA readers need to see "strong female protagonists." Is "strong" the right word, and would you describe the women in PASADENA in that way? Who do you characterize in this novel as being most and least in need of rescue?

Sherri: While “strong” is a fantastic trait to explore, I’d say what’s needed are well-rounded, “real” female characters across the board. I say “real” because there will always be an element of the unreal in fiction, an elevated version of reality. But, real women are multi-faceted. They can be strong and sometimes weak, smart, creative, insightful, and the opposite of each. If we create characters with depth, you’ve got something that lasts. The wonderful thing about Pasadena is how messed up everyone can be—sometimes. The men, the women, the boys, the girls—I think there is a sense of reality to each of them because of the damage that noir insists on in its residents. They each have their moments of strength, wisdom and weakness. And, to me, that’s very human. To answer your second question, again noir is the great equalizer. Everyone is a lost soul to some extent. Everyone has a psychic wound. Sometimes they save each other, sometimes they have to save themselves. Or, at least, they have to try.

Wonderland: YES. Strong is a thing, yeah, but real is ... something so much bigger and deeper and more vital.

And speaking of real, let's talk about Sherri-when-not-writing. As well as being an author, you have had creative day jobs working in film and stop motion animation, creating comic books, working in construction, and in a monster factory. Does your hands-on creative work fuel your brain, or does your writing brain more inform your hands-on work? Which do you find more challenging?

Sherri:I tend to have the most boring job in the most interesting places, so the chicken or the egg question has changed over the years. I had my own stories first, and my work in animation in particular helped me further develop my writer’s toolkit. Since then, it’s been a bit of a volleyball match. I always have a story on the stove, and being around other creatives helps add to the soup. Then, I can operate on auto pilot in the real world, making the donuts, while in my head I’m in the kitchen doctoring my soup. The most challenging part is being in one realm when you want to be in the other. There are days when writing gets so lonely and isolating (when you are slogging through a rough spot) and I long for a co-worker to stop and tell me a story or someone to joke with. And then, when the crap on the desk is piled high and there are a million interruptions, or worse, when you are chained to a desk and phone and nothing is happening… then, I wish for nothing more than to be in front of my laptop writing furiously away. That’s the hardest. Loneliness passes, but the denying the urge to write turns me into a harpy.

Wonderland: The best thing in the previous answer is that there's ALWAYS A STORY ON THE STOVE. The Sherri-well has not run dry! *happy dances*

So, a final question on the story - Maggie and Jude are, in some ways, polar opposites, just as Maggie and many of her friends seem to be equally dissimilar. What was it about this girl, Maggie, and her particular friendships which called to you? What is the big idea, or takeaway that you want readers to derive from your story?

Sherri: There are some people that move between worlds. Maybe they’ve got charisma, and everybody loves them. Or maybe they just know how to listen, and everyone needs that. Maggie is that girl, “genre” hopping, like me, I guess. When my mother died, we had to pull the funeral together rather quickly, so we had no idea who would show up. Who actually came was amazing. There was a two-year-old boy who had been her friend his whole life. College and grad school friends of my brother’s who remembered how she would cook for them whenever they passed through town. Old men, war veterans, young mothers, a woman she hadn’t seen since high school. It was beautiful and the priest, who had never met her, could not help but comment. Who was this woman who had appealed to so many different folks, enough so that they were willing to miss school, or work to see her off? Maybe I was echoing that. We walk through a lot of different lives and leave footprints. Maybe being aware of that will make us tread more kindly through the world.

As for the big idea, the takeaway from this story? Remember, everyone has felt what you feel, even in your darkest moments. Show a little love, and lighten the burden if you can. If not, show the love anyway. Sometimes all you’ll have left is knowing that you gave what you had to give, even if it doesn’t end the way you want.

How sad is that? Maybe that’s the other takeaway—Sherri L. Smith is effing morose. But that’s okay too, because she’s well-rounded and “real” so she’s got some peppy moments, too. Cheers.

Wonderland: You are not morose! That's... well, now you've cast aspersions on "real" so I can't say you're realistic, but... asi es la vida. The takeaway of the novel for me is that this is life - in its more weighty, specific instances, and in its broader aspects as well. Sometimes the load we bear is pain -- and realizing that yours is not the only pain scours clean your perception -- sometimes just in time, other times, when it's too late to do anyone much good.

As we always do, we've gone deep and splashed some in the shallows as well - thank you, Sherri, for coming by and dropping some wisdom (and some film suggestions) and having a most excellent conversation with us!

Thanks for joining us for Day 6 of the PASADENA blog tour. Blog-friends, do NOT miss PASADENA - it's a book with a cynical protagonist who made me laugh and wince - about the unexpectedly wrenching banality of life and loss in sunny Southern California.

Have you missed any stops on this blog tour? Check this handy list and see where Sherri has been & where she will appear next:
*Day 2: @Ana & Thea's BOOKSMUGGLERS
* Day 6: ~ HELLO, YOU ARE HERE ~
* Day 7: @Christin's PORTRAIT OF A BOOK
* Day 8: @Bonnie's FOR THE LOVE OF WORDS
* Day 9: with the smiling kitty @IN WONDERLAND
* Day 10: @Sabrina & Samantha's THE FOREST OF WORDS AND PAGES
*Day 11: Finishing up @HERE'S TO HAPPY ENDINGS

September 12, 2016

Monday Review: PASADENA by Sherri L. Smith

Don't miss our interview with author Sherri Smith this Wednesday, as part of the Pasadena blog tour!

Synopsis: "The thing I'm finally learning is that someone can be your best friend in the world, but you're not necessarily theirs."

Pasadena. It's not L.A., but there is something quintessentially L.A. about it nevertheless: dusty brown hills, Santa Ana winds, that wish-we-were-Hollywood vibe. It resonates in stories and movies, and it resonated with me, as someone born in the town next door and brought up within an hour's drive. And the setting makes an appropriate title for this book, in which the city itself is almost a character in its constant presence.

It feels that way to seventeen-year-old Jude, too—only she is an outsider, having moved to SoCal from the East Coast a few years before, and Pasadena is not necessarily a benign character in her life. It brought her and her mother away from their painful past, but it also brought in Mom's creepy, sleazy boyfriend Roy. And it brought her a new best friend, Maggie Kim—but it took Maggie away. The novel opens with us finding out that Maggie was found dead, floating in the family swimming pool, an apparent suicide. The mysterious tragedy becomes more and more peculiar the more details emerge, and it forces Jude to examine her own life and how well she really knew her best friend. And, as it turns out, maybe nobody really knew Maggie Kim, not entirely.

Observations: This is a fascinating piece in its structure, because there is the obvious mystery of Maggie Kim and how and why she died, but then there's an inner mystery as well—the mystery of the narrator, which the author skillfully sneaks in around the edges, hinting at Jude's past through her present-day actions. Why is she so virulently repulsed by her mother's boyfriend Roy? Why does she keep pushing away her friend Joey, who obviously loves her and wants more than friendship? Why is she so convinced her friend's death wasn't a suicide—what's at stake for her in proving that it wasn't?

Appropriately, with the past and present mysteries both intertwining in this book, the author interweaves scenes of the past and present: Jude and Maggie's friendship in the past, as Jude tries to examine every detail of their friendship for clues to Maggie's actions, and Jude's determined and relentless quest in the present to unearth the real story of her friend's death. And of course, what she finds out along the way makes her question how well she really knew her friend at all—which is a feeling that anyone who has lost a loved one to suicide will recognize.

Like a tinted overlay in photography, the almost palpable presence of the setting informs the story on a constant basis, and grounds it in space—but not in time, because there is a timeless quality to it in the sense of it feeling frozen almost, a moment lived and relived again and again as Jude continues to search for something she might have missed. The varied and colorful cast of side characters—their sort of ancillary friends—are almost more a part of that setting rather than individuals in themselves; character archetypes that inhabit the social imaginary of youth in SoCal: Hank and Eppie the hippie surf bums, Luke the neurotic Chinese-American kid yearning to fit in, Dane and Tallulah the sickeningly picture-perfect perma-couple. There's a slight feeling of unreality to it all—which provides just the right amount of balance (or imbalance) to the all-too-real events of the plot.

Conclusion: This is an emotion-packed, suspenseful read, with a diverse cast of characters (diverse in a non-self-conscious, effortless way, and in a way that is very California). It's also got somewhat of a twist ending that will leave you questioning how easy it is for someone to hide their real selves in plain sight—I definitely felt very differently about the main characters at the end of the book than I did at the beginning. A very intriguing book that's a not-quite-thriller, not-quite-mystery, not-quite-issue-book, but something surprising and unusual all to itself in the way the story unfolds.

I received my copy of this book courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley. You can find PASADENA by Sherri L. Smith at an online e-tailer, or at a real life, independent bookstore near you!

September 08, 2016

You Be the Judge!!

No, really. It's already time for another Cybils Awards season, and the application for judges is open until September 14th, so get cracking! There are TWO new pilot categories this year for you to explore--Board Books and Audiobooks--so if you write any kind of kidlit book reviews (even if you don't have an official blog and write them on Goodreads, you might be eligible), throw your hat in the ring. Check out the official call for judges here, and read more about the judging process here if you're not sure.

If you ask me and Tanita, though, you'll get nothing but rave reviews, since we've taken part just about every year since the beginning. And this year there's something more to celebrate: the Cybils Awards are officially a non-profit organization! It's another big step on the road to doing more and more good in the world of kids, teens, and books, so CHEERS TO CYBILS!

September 07, 2016

Pssst! It's out this week!!!

Labyrinth Lost
By Zoraida Córdova
September 6, 2016; Hardcover, ISBN 9781492620945

Praise for Labyrinth Lost

“This work is a magical journey from start to finish... A compelling must-have for teens
School Library Journal, STARRED review

Córdova’s (the Vicious Deep series) magic-infused, delightfully dark story introduces readers to an engrossing, Latin American–inspired fantasy setting and an irresistible heroine”
Publishers Weekly

A brilliant brown-girl-in-Brooklyn update on Alice in Wonderland and Dante’s Inferno. Very creepy, very magical, very necessary.”
Daniel José Older, New York Times bestselling author of Shadowshaper

“Labyrinth Lost is more like reading Paradise Found. Zoraida Córdova brings us a new generation of witches, enchanting and complex. And every page is filled with magic.” 
Danielle Page, New York Times bestselling author of Dorothy Must Die

Córdova’s world will leave you breathless, and her magic will ignite an envy so green you’ll wish you were born a bruja. Delightfully dark and enchanting. An un-putdownable book.” 
-Dhonielle Clayton, author of The Belles and Shiny Broken Pieces

“Córdova’s rich exploration of Latin American culture, her healthy portrayal of bisexuality and her unique voice allow this novel to stand out among its many peers.”
–RT Book Reviews

“Cordova draws inspiration from Ecuadorian, Spanish, African, Mexican, and Caribbean folklore and mythology to craft a page-turning tale about a young bruja unsure of her place in the world.”
 “Córdova pulls elements from Greek mythology and Spanish and Latin American legends to craft a memorable world in Los Lagos, a supernatural realm that is as fascinating as it is threatening. The history and customs of Alex’s family’s type of witchery are also carefully constructed, giving readers a complete world to sink into with satisfaction and wonder.”
-Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books

“This succeeds with its lush use of Latin American mythologies, an unexpected love story, and, above all, in Alex’s complicated relationship with her family. Alex is a necessary heroine, and this dark fantasy nicely”
Finding Wonderland concludes, "A lovely addition to the YA canon, this darkly powerful adventure reveals a diversity of Latin American culture and magical realism which will have readers wishing to connect strongly with the bruja within themselves, and straighten out the maze of their own lives."

Nothing says Happy Birthday like summoning the spirits of your dead relatives.

Alex is a bruja, the most powerful witch in a generation…and she hates magic. At her Deathday celebration, Alex performs a spell to rid herself of her power. But it backfires. Her whole family vanishes into thin air, leaving her alone with Nova, a brujo boy she can’t trust. A boy whose intentions are as dark as the strange marks on his skin.

The only way to get her family back is to travel with Nova to Los Lagos, a land in-between, as dark as Limbo and as strange as Wonderland…

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Labyrinth Lost Coloring Page:

About the Author:
Zoraida Córdova was born in Ecuador and raised in Queens, New York. She is the author of the Vicious Deep trilogy, the On the Verge series, and the Brooklyn Brujas series. She loves black coffee, snark, and still believes in magic. Send her a tweet @Zlikeinzorro or visit her at
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Twitter:  @zlikeinzorro
Labyrinth Lost Tumblr:

Follow our voices, sister.
Tell us the secret of your death.
—-Resurrection Canto,
Book of Cantos
he second time I saw my dead aunt Rosaria, she was dancing.
Earlier that day, my mom had warned me, pressing a long, red fingernail on the tip of my nose, “Alejandra, don’t go downstairs when the Circle arrives.”
But I was seven and asked too many questions. Every Sunday, cars piled up in our driveway, down the street, and around the corner of our old, narrow house in Sunset Park, Brooklyn. Mom’s Circle usually brought cellophane--wrapped dishes and jars of dirt and tubs of brackish water that made the Hudson River look clean. This time, they carried something more.
When my sisters started snoring, I threw off my covers and crept down the stairs. The floorboards were uneven and creaky, but I was good at not being seen. Fuzzy, yellow streetlight shone through our attic window and followed me down every flight until I reached the basement.
A soft hum made its way through the thin walls. I remember thinking I should listen to my mom’s warning and go back upstairs. But our house had been restless all week, and Lula, Rose, and I were shoved into the attic, out of the way while the grown--ups prepared the funeral. I wanted out. I wanted to see.
The night was moonless and cold one week after the Witch’s New Year, when Aunt Rosaria died of a sickness that made her skin yellow like hundred--year--old paper and her nails turn black as coal. We tried to make her beautiful again. My sisters and I spent all day weaving good luck charms from peonies, corn husks, and string—-one loop over, under, two loops over, under. Not even the morticians, the Magos de Muerte, could fix her once--lovely face.
Aunt Rosaria was dead. I was there when we mourned her. I was there when we buried her. Then, I watched my father and two others shoulder a dirty cloth bundle into the house, and I knew I couldn’t stay in bed, no matter what my mother said.
So I opened the basement door.
Red light bathed the steep stairs. I leaned my head toward the light, toward the beating sound of drums and sharp plucks of fat, nylon guitar strings.
A soft mew followed by whiskers against my arm made my heart jump to the back of my rib cage. I bit my tongue to stop the scream. It was just my cat, Miluna. She stared at me with her white, glowing eyes and hissed a warning, as if telling me to turn back. But Aunt Rosaria was my godmother, my family, my friend. And I wanted to see her again.
“Sh!” I brushed the cat’s head back.
Miluna nudged my leg, then ran away as the singing started.
I took my first step down, into the warm, red light. Raspy voices called out to our gods, the Deos, asking for blessings beyond the veil of our worlds. Their melody pulled me step by step until I was crouched at the bottom of the landing.
They were dancing.
Brujas and brujos were dressed in mourning white, their faces painted in the aspects of the dead, white clay and black coal to trace the bones. They danced in two circles—-the outer ring going clockwise, the inner counterclockwise—hands clasped tight, voices vibrating to the pulsing drums.
And in the middle was Aunt Rosaria.
Her body jerked upward. Her black hair pooled in the air like she was suspended in water. There was still dirt on her skin. The white skirt we buried her in billowed around her slender legs. Black smoke slithered out of her open mouth. It weaved in and out of the circle—-one loop over, under, two loops over, under. It tugged Aunt Rosaria higher and higher, matching the rhythm of the canto.
Then, the black smoke perked up and changed its target. It could smell me. I tried to backpedal, but the tiles were slick, and I slid toward the circle. My head smacked the tiles. Pain splintered my skull, and a broken scream lodged in my throat.
The music stopped. Heavy, tired breaths filled the silence of the pulsing red dark. The enchantment was broken. Aunt Rosaria’s reanimated corpse turned to me. Her body purged black smoke, lowering her back to the ground. Her ankles cracked where the bone was brittle, but still she took a step. Her dead eyes gaped at me. Her wrinkled mouth growled my name: Alejandra.
She took another step. Her ankle turned and broke at the joint, sending her flying forward. She landed on top of me. The rot of her skin filled my nose, and grave dirt fell into my eyes.
Tongues clucked against crooked teeth. The voices of the circle hissed, “What’s the girl doing out of bed?”
There was the scent of extinguished candles and melting wax. Decay and perfume oil smothered me until they pulled the body away.
My mother jerked me up by the ear, pulling me up two flights of stairs until I was back in my bed, the scream stuck in my throat like a stone.
Never,” she said. “You hear me, Alejandra? Never break a Circle.”
I lay still. So still that after a while, she brushed my hair, thinking I had fallen asleep.
I wasn’t. How could I ever sleep again? Blood and rot and smoke and whispers filled my head.
“One day you’ll learn,” she whispered.
Then she went back down the street--lit stairs, down into the warm red light and to Aunt Rosaria’s body. My mother clapped her hands, drums beat, strings plucked, and she said, “Again.”

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