July 03, 2015


Normally I'd gush about this being a great summer read to tuck into your bag for the beach, but I kind of hate the term "beach reads" and the relentless marketing campaigns and lists surrounding them. For me a beach read is a book I can get through quickly and simply be entertained, even while people are running around and screaming and flailing in the water -- but I realized that's more than a little reductive. Here at Wonderland, we feel there's not a thing wrong with a book primarily plot driven, fast-paced and doesn't require you to keep track of too many characters or their motivations. However, since I don't know if that's going to be your experience with this book, I'll call this book a one-long-drink read, describing my experience with it. With an original title and a fun premise, this romp through an alternate history will be, for newbies and fans of the genre be read in one gulp, and enjoyed like a cold lemonade on a hot day.

Summary: Verity Newton, daughter of a Yale professor and more educated than most women of her class and station, and at sixteen is well able to move in society and marry. However, now that her mother has passed away, she opts to leave the chilly halls of learning - and live a little. Adventure comes almost immediately - her train is robbed, and she clobbers the masked bandit she fears will accost her before he can do so much as look at her, she rides in a steam-powered mechanical bus, because a regular horse-drawn cab isn't allowed in the Magister neighborhoods where she's seeking employment, and without even trying she aces an interview to find herself in the biggest house on the best street, employed to chaperone three children, only one of whom is really in need of her. Verity is sitting pretty, for the most part. At almost every turn, she lucks into good friends, an interested beau, and a cause which grips her interest. Verity is in the best of positions to be of help to her new friends -- and her special skills give her an even greater edge, if she ever mentioned them. However, there are risks abounding -- and soon more risks than she could have imagined. It will take some fast moves to maneuver through her new life and allow those dear to her to emerge unscathed.

Peaks: This isn't so much historical as alternate history with a soupçon of steam, studded with gears. The mechanical things in the novel are entertaining, as is the political rivalry between the British and the Americans.

I enjoyed Rollo and Olive and the character of Verity is plucky and daring. She seemed a little unreflective at times, but the action bowls the narrative - and its characters and readers along, and mostly not something there's time to worry about.

Lord Henry is mysterious exactly the right length of time in the book -- which is for about four minutes. Verity has him pegged, and lets her curiosity about him lead her into things -- and then she keeps wondering why she wants to know. I think that really shows the best natural progression of emotion for a curious person. I think subsequent novels in this line could have Verity solving all sorts of little mysteries while just listening, looking, and being underestimated. I loved that part. While I wanted a little more about the magic -- does it take a lot out of you? Does it have any limits? - the magicians seem simply explained enough for this "episode" of the novel, and easily understood.

Oh, and while this "episode" ties up neatly, the author left room for a sequel.

Valleys: I enjoyed the novel, and found the imperfections small. I found the setting a little non-specific; this New York City setting could have been London, for all of the "My Lord"-ing and &tc. Lacking descriptions of the fabulous apartment buildings and neighborhoods of New York, and the bits of the 1880's, which were an intensely interesting time in New York history (there was a massive and memorable blizzard, foppish dandies dressing competitively and teams of pickpockets), I was a tiny bit disappointed. Though a lot of the novel takes place within the house, the city itself is a little stock, and diminished.

Also slightly diminished are some of the secondary characters - there are myriad characters, and quite a few are like the cast of a play you see who have names like Newsboy One. With the crowd in the novel, I could have missed someone, but it seemed there is a single character of color which is a disappointment, since this is an alternate history, and the author could have changed history in any way she wished. A single minority is a failure of imagination in an otherwise richly imagined tale.

There is a romance in this novel, and while some readers see it as a triangle, I think some will be surprised, while others will merely wonder if the lady in question should have questioned emotions and incidents a bit more, as it all happened rather quickly. Not quite insta-love speed, but the actions of several characters are a bit out of keeping for the social mores of the day -- arguably, this is alternate history, of course, and there are class differences, but sometimes things more easily make their presence known by an absence of even a thought about them.


I received my copy of this book courtesy of Macmillian publishers. After July 14th, you can find REBEL MECHANICS by Shaunna Swendson at an online e-tailer, or at a real life, independent bookstore near you!

June 30, 2015


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

June 29, 2015


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conclusion: Just read it. That is all.

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

June 23, 2015


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

June 22, 2015

On Plot Structuring

Cross-posted to Aquafortis.

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

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

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

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

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

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

June 19, 2015


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reading all weekend! Join the Book Challenge!

June 18, 2015

Thursday Review: EXQUISITE CORPSE by Penelope Bagieu

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

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

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

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

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

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