August 19, 2014

TURNING PAGES: CHARM & STRANGE by Stephanie Kuehn

Got a long stretch of quiet time available? This isn't a read-at-the-crowded-airport-layover novel, necessarily, but I found it absolutely arresting over the one-sitting course of a quiet morning. I grabbed this book because this author's debut novel is winner of the 2014 William C. Morris Award, was longlisted for the 2014 CILIP Carnegie Medal and was a finalist for the California Book Award, and I've read three starred reviews already for her second book, which has only been out since June. I thought it was well past time for me to read some Stephanie Kuehn (pronounced "keen").

NB:This is, at its heart, a book about truth and silence. I focus on more of the narrative structure than I do the plot arc, in an attempt to leave the details for readers to discover, but know that this is an engaging, disturbing, challenging read. I can imagine older teens who enjoyed Patrick Ness' THE KNIFE OF NEVER LETTING GO, A.S. King's EVERYBODY SEES THE ANTS, and books of that ilk will find it a worthy challenge.

"The school devours privacy and rumors are like drops of blood in an ocean full of predators."

Summary: Andrew Winston Winters - using probably the best description of a hated boarding school I've read - has been marooned in Vermont; he's been sent away and is marking time after a massive family meltdown. He's waiting -- for something to happen, really. After all that's gone down, there must be something next, some malignancy which will appear from within himself. When a dead "townie" turns up in the woods off-campus, Win's sure that this is it: the "something" has happened - he has become a wolf, and he has killed. His main hope is not to ever hurt anyone else when it the wolf erupts from him -- he's seen people hurt enough. He's hurting enough. He's miserably lonely sometimes... but also terrified. His classmates see him either a snob or a kook, a withdrawn, ultra-brilliant, and ultra-isolated outcast. When a girl who doesn't know his history - and hasn't yet found her feet at his school - latches on to him, he's tempted to make a friend -- but the past is always only moments behind him, and nothing is possible, until that past is brought into focus. With the help of friends he didn't know he has, Win makes sense of incidents in his past, and finds his way to having a future.

...we talked about matter - most notably quarks, those tiniest components of everything. They come in six flavors, you know: up, down, top, bottom, charm, and strange. I'll admit those talks helped me, and when I read about the sea quarks, I understood why. They contain particles of matter and antimatter, and where the two touch exists this constant stream of creation and annihilation.

Peaks: Creation. Annihilation. A constant push-pull. What a perfect description, and one which physics buffs will appreciate. Despite the fact that I found the novel troubling, it was a superb read. With balanced structure and careful revelations, the novel uses woods, wolves, darkness and other images to take the reader into the realm of the unknown. As illumination, in the form of facts, emerge through the voice of a deeply unreliable narrator, the facts morph, like elongated and distorted shadows as created by a flashlight bobbing through deep woods. Consequently, at times the reader feels a little lost, even a little frightened as they're learning the path. Is all that we see all that we should see? Or, is there something else to know...? This lack of clarity mimics the protagonist's journey into the tangled undergrowth of himself, where it is very dark indeed, where sharp-edged branches slice and impale, and there is pain and trauma and danger.

Nine-year-old Drew, plagued with frequent motion-induced vomiting, bouts of rage, and a lot of poor impulse control, shows classic symptoms of a troubled kid. The narrative bounces back and forth between this conflicted Drew and the isolated, sixteen-year-old Win, all that's left of him. The irony of him taking his long name down to a single syllable, "Win" when all that he feels left with is clearly loss gives us another edged insight into the character. Through these deft characterizations comes clear a very disturbed character, as secret-upon-secret is folded up and pushed further and further down, down, down... but, nothing stays pushed down forever. Win feels the past scrabbling up the steep sides of his throat, pushing out hair and claws through his skin. He fears -- and feeds - the wolf to come. He welcomes the change -- and the carnage -- almost as much as he fears it.

But every birth needs a midwife. Though he doesn't choose them, Win finds coaches to help him breathe, and take him to the place where the ugliness and violence is given voice and life -- and is declawed in a way that lets he and the wolf not kill.

Valleys: This is a complex, brilliant book - and to me there are no valleys. Some readers may find the psychological thrillers aspect of the novel and the subject matter disturbing. Not knowing is also challenging to many readers; untangling the cords strangling the voice out of truth is a difficult task. This novel, however, is still worth the work.



I read a library copy. You can find CHARM & STRANGE by Stephanie Kuehn online, or at an independent bookstore near you!

August 18, 2014

Blast from the Past: Last Year's KidLitCon

That's right--it's time for our weekly plug for this year's KidLitCon! (Are you going? Are you going? Are you going??? We are!!) This time, though, I thought I'd entice you by re-posting my recap of last year's conference in Austin, which was, as always, an amazing event. Here are a few photos and impressions, plus lots and lots about why this is one of my favorite kidlit events EVAR.


...I did want to post some pictures from KidLitCon Austin this weekend while I'm still riding high on the fabulousness of having gotten together with my blogging kindred spirits to compare notes on two of our favorite things: kidlit, and sharing kidlit.

Jen and Pam at the registration table
You are all the most lovely people. We have such an amazing community, I can't believe it sometimes, but Kidlitcon always reminds me how incredible it is.

"Kindred spirits" is the two-word phrase Leila used when I asked my roundtable panel to describe what they felt was the greatest thing about the kidlitosphere. And I couldn't agree more. It's one of my favorite parts of the Kidlitcon experience. This year was no exception: sharing SFF opinions (and cringeworthy first lines) with roomie Charlotte, getting caught up with Lee Wind on his many wonderful projects (and his gorgeous family), meeting Paula of Pink Me's book-toting sons, renewing good friendships with regulars like Pam and Jen and Maureen and Melissa and Sheila and Kelly and Camille and Katy, finally meeting old blogging friends Chris Barton and Leila Roy and finding out that kindred spirits are everywhere. Oh, there's more, much more. Great conversations abounded. I met Jennifer Donovan of 5 Minutes for Books, Kelly's blog partner Kimberly Francisco over at Stacked, Sherry Early of Semicolon, Rosemond Cates of Big Hair and Books, authors Margo Rabb and PJ Hoover, serious blogging bigwig and all-around amazing person Jen Bigheart, Guys Lit Wire frequent commenter Liviania--aka Allie--of In Bed With Books.

Cynthia enlightens us on writing and blogging--a perfect start to the day
Really, that isn't even all of it. Did you know many a kidlit blogger is addicted to Candy Crush Saga? I seriously cannot start on that. I had a major Tetris addiction growing up, and have loved games like Mean Bean Machine and Jewelbox and Columns and whatnot. I'd lose weeks of my life.

Cynthia Leitich Smith is a GEM. We all knew that. But her keynote, "Blogging on the Brain," was not just a throwaway inspirational speech but full of heart and full of fantastic tips for all of us bloggers from someone who is an inveterate blogger herself, devoted to sharing information. I especially liked these:
  • Re: her own writing: "It was time to change perceptions or I couldn't write many of the stories I wanted to write."
  • Re: building a successful blogging platform: "We associate consistency with credibility," and "You can build an audience by playing to your strengths." 
  • Re: the potential dangers of engaging with critics online: "Blogs are a battlefield, so pick your battles and pick them wisely." 
Kimberly and Kelly of Stacked discuss the importance of critical reviewing
Jen and I presented on Fighting Blog Burnout, and hopefully sharing our stories and strategies was something others could relate to and benefit from. I moderated a panel on where we've been and where we're going, us folks in the kidlitosphere community. I learned about Soft Sell Marketing from Molly Blaisdell, who knew just how to pique my interest by using Malcolm Gladwell's The Tipping Point as a point of departure. And I broadened my knowledge of Critical Reviewing and Middle Grade Books.

Blogging the Middle Grade Books with Katy, Charlotte, and Melissa
And, of course, I came out of it feeling energized about blogging again, which is always one of the great benefits of attending. I feel like one of my big goals for after my rewrite is turned in will be to spend time thinking about my own blogging and what I want to do going forward, and to get my blog READING under control, too--getting back into it a little more, even if it's just in small ways.

Lastly, not to get overly sentimental here--because the curmudgeon in me hates that--but I got a little teary last night when I got home, thinking about how I have all these wonderful online friends and yet we live so far away from each other geographically speaking. At the same time, without our blogging we would never have met at all, would never have found this community of kindred spirits.

August 15, 2014

TURNING PAGES: WORDS AND THEIR MEANINGS by Kate Bassett

Novels dealing with death in young adult literature aren't exactly new - we're currently living in The Summer of the Cancer Novel, hello - but what's always new is every young person's - really, every person's - way of dealing with death - dealing with loss, dealing with grief. Some choose to go on and have super relationships in the face of death -- and other people just... choose, as their means of "dealing," not to deal with it at all. Kate Bassett's debut novel with the clever, origami-wordy cover, explores what happens while dealing, and shows readers one girl's way of finding a path out of the dark.

Summary: Anna O’Mally is seventeen, and experiencing her first losses. Unfortunately, they're world-shattering. First, Anna's experiencing the loss of being clever -- when she loses the London writing fellowship she's positive she was fated to have, she's not able to believe in herself as a powerhouse writer anymore. Second, the loss of The Good Life - now that her uncle, who was raised as her brother, has died, she is wracked with guilt -- guilt that isn't hers, but guilt nonetheless. Finally, she's experienced the loss of childhood - and innocence. With the death of his brother, her father has gone off the rails into some clichéd midlife crisis and gotten his young secretary pregnant. It sucks to be Anna right now -- except, that it doesn't. Not entirely. She has people who love her, a grandfather and mother still deeply involved in her life and caring about her - and a best friend who has grieved next to her and stayed with her step-by-step - through the hospitalization, the coffin-yoga, and the general "meh" attitude about life and everything. Anna's been taking everything at face value, filtered through the lens of her massive self-centeredness. When she finds out that not everything is as she believed, she's thrown out of her spin -- and into somewhere she's never been before: self-exploration. Self-awareness. And maybe, finally, personal truth.

Peaks: This book is a pitch-perfect reflection of grief. With that said, it is sometimes slow, sometimes bruising, sometimes boring. The protagonist is sometimes thoroughly grating and unlikeable. If you're looking for prettied up versions of grief, you won't find them here: this is the real deal. Anna wallows, and that's who she is. Her life is one long chant of ritual -- wake up and do This. Eat That. Find a phrase for the day. All of these things are designed to keep grief -- feelings -- at bay, but of course, none of it works. There are too many cracks in the world to seal them up with glue sticks and band-aids. Whistling through the graveyard isn't going to help: Anna's "bruncle" Joe is irretrievably gone, her baby sister has turned into Houdini the vanishing artist, her mother has turned into someone who sighs and finally actually sides with her father to threaten her with some kind of Christian anti-suicide school, and her grandfather is folding paper cranes. Endlessly.

This is not a portrait of a family doing well.

And yet, this is the portrait of a family. No matter that they are falling apart at the seams, no matter that they have made catastrophically poor choices, no matter that they are whistling past the graveyard as the roof caves in, they are present and are trying to love each other the best way they know how. The family in this novel is colossal. And, they eventually get better... because even grief -- a grief that you try your best to hold onto, because you feel like it's the only thing that means something? Even grief fades. Time wins, every time. The trick is the make that win mean something.

Valleys: This book is a pitch-perfect reflection of grief. It is selfish, self-centered, grating, unpleasant, and at times utterly banal. The pacing is slow, and the pressure of ritual, secrets, and pain is intense. There's a plot twist which wasn't surprising to me, which I think many readers will anticipate -- but what isn't intended to be a plot twist, what I refer to as a "Little Women" (remember when Amy burns Jo's manuscript???) moment in the novel ENRAGED me. I was shocked that the protagonist - much lauded as a wordsmith - seems to take this violation in stride. I truly expected more of a reaction to the transgression, but perhaps by that point, so much has happened to the protagonist that the author was simply ready to move the character forward and conclude the novel. I felt that the realistic angst in trying to find a model for forgiveness for someone you deeply love and also somewhat hate would have made for a bittersweet and very realistic conclusion.

Anna's Uncle Joe died of something horribly like meningitis - a simple cold turned 'flu turned superbug. The novel never names it - H1N1? Swine 'flu? Not naming the disease seemed unnecessarily mysterious to me. This is a tiny quibble, given that the sickness is part of the mystery in the novel, but I kept wondering why the name was an actual unknown.

Aaaand, as is standard in the young adult realistic fiction world, it seems, there's the romance. I admit to being really disappointed by this - in one way. In another, a super dysfunctional romantic relationship made perfect sense; when we're avoiding our own feelings we often latch onto other people like they're our personal life buoys. That being said, I don't think the relationship was portrayed as honestly as it could have been. It was torturous, and needy but survived -- and I'm just not sure that someone so consumed within the firestorm of her own needs would have noticed another person in the room, stark naked and dancing a jig, much less a guy she just sees at a work gig. They have a rather clichéd "across a crowded room" moment, and both seem instantaneously bitten by the love bug. That he's Latino, smokes, is a "bad boy" and she's from the metaphorical "other side" of the tracks feels less true. The super-foreign feeling of his family as ethnic people I found questionable; it's as if she's never met Spanish-speaking Latino people before (and, maybe she hasn't; Mario seems to be the only person of color in the entire novel with lines to speak).

Those quibbles aside, this is an intensely felt, deeply thoughtful novel which touches on our sometimes desperate need to step out from being ourselves and become someone else, the price we pay for that, and the way to get back home. This family-firm debut novel from Kate Bassett is a strong start, and we can expect more good things from her.



I received a copy of this novel courtesy of Flux. After September 8th, you can find WORDS AND THEIR MEANINGS by KATE BASSETT at online booksellers, or at an independent brick-and-mortar bookstore near you!

August 14, 2014

Drrrummm Rolllll.....

Just you wait until tomorrow.

I could not be more excited that the Cybils Awards are launching a BRAND-NEW-SUPER-DUPER-AWESOME website!

I helped out with the redesign, but most of the credit for the heavy lifting goes to Sheila of Wands and Worlds (who is the Cybils tech guru) and Jen Robinson, who is all-around talented and awesome.

There are so many great new features on the new site, including a mobile-friendly design, Twitter feed in the sidebar, popup finalist lists by year and category, and tons of info for bloggers, authors, and publishers. Oh, and it's on Wordpress now. It's going to be amazing. And there will be growing pains, but hopefully the sheer awesomeness will carry us through.

You'll also be able to buy new 2014 Cybils bling--in plenty of time for KidLitCon, hint hint... (I'm going! Are you going?) Anyway, don't forget to check out the new Cybils website tomorrow and let us know what you think.

August 12, 2014

Congratulations, Betsy & Jules!


From Booklist, who knows good literature, a star for WILD THINGS: ACTS OF MISCHIEF IN CHILDREN'S LITERATURE. Congratulations, you guys! May this be the first of many accolades.

Haven't got your copy yet? For a most EXCELLENT review from Kelly, pop over to Writing & Ruminating.

August 11, 2014

Monday Review: THE FALCONER by Elizabeth May

I enjoyed this book a lot more than I thought I might, given that it has faeries, and I'm sort of burnt out at the moment on the whole faeries thing. But The Falconer by Elizabeth May does something new with the concept.

I'd describe it as…Charles de Lint meets Stoker & Holmes. Steampunk alternate history meets Old-World faery legends tinged with Scottish folklore. Throw in a dash of Highlander and a little Kill Bill, maybe a sprinkling of James Bond.

What you'll get is Aileana, age eighteen, eligible young Victorian lady, secret weapons tinkerer, and vengeful murderess of faeries. A malevolent faery killed her mother, and now Aileana has been training hard for one thing and one thing only: that day when she'll meet that faery and kill her. In the meantime, she's hunting down faeries one at a time in her city of Edinburgh, where new murderous faeries seem to pop up out of nowhere every night. Her secret life—the life of a Falconer—comes with fighting, thrills, a smart-mouthed and honey-addicted pixie, and a sense of power like none other.

But will that power be enough? And what happens when Aileana's proper, widowed, conveniently distant father gets wind of her unorthodox activities? Can she confide in anyone, other than her faery-fighting guru, Kiaran—who also happens to be a faery himself? This is a rather rollicking adventure, with lots of monster-defeating and valiant battles (yay for girls who kick ass!) as well as gadgets worthy of a James-Bond-style spymaster.

The story puts Aileana in the position of facing hard questions about friendship and loyalty—and how much one might have to give up for the sake of a personal vendetta. But there's also a strong running theme throughout concerning power and powerlessness: Aileana's power in her secret nighttime life versus her relative lack of power by day, confined by the mores of Victorian society; Aileana feeling powerful when killing faeries in contrast to her powerlessness in the face of her mother's death. While I didn't love the potential for a human-faery-human love triangle, that aspect of the story didn't necessarily head in the direction I expected, either. Overall, an enjoyable read and a vivid, fast-paced adventure.

Thanks to Chronicle Books for the review copy.


You can find The Falconer by Elizabeth May online, or at an independent bookstore near you!

August 08, 2014

TURNING PAGES: SIX FEET OVER IT, by Jennifer Longo

We are in the final lap of summer, but this is one book you'll be able to savor on into autumn. It's a perfect book to take you into October Country; bittersweet, funny, very sharp and smart. It's a book about grief - grieving - holding it together until you can't, then falling apart, so that you can get up, and go on.

Summary: Fifteen-year-old Leigh has had a craptastic last few years. Her older sister, Kai, was diagnosed with leukemia when Leigh was eleven. Their carefree, sunny, seaside Mendocino home turned dark and depressing. Three horrible years were spent reading the Little House books aloud, holding the bucket while Kai vomited, and watching as her hair fell out. All she could eat was York Peppermint Patties, which soon became Leigh's obsession too. Her parents, Wade and Meredith, were stretched to the limit -- with nothing left for Leigh's needs, and so Leigh learned to have no needs - not even for new clothes. She wore a single pair of pink sweats for an entire school year. Fortunately, she was saved by a school friend, Emily, and Emily's mother, whose warm concern and affection refused to let Leigh sit in a silent lump at school - and even bought her jeans to replace the nasty, outgrown sweats. Leigh was drawn out of herself, and saved. And then, Kai got better. Life at home improved. Suddenly, the summer ahead seemed like it was full of light and beauty -- everything was better, everything. Only there was the difficult summer to get through - Emily going to Scout Camp, Kai and Leigh, foisted off by exhausted parents to their grandparent's house. And then -- instead of returning home to Mendocino, they were given bus tickets to Hangtown... Sierrawood, where their father had bought a cemetery. Leigh can't get hold of Emily, and she is gutted. And then, it gets worse.

But, at least Kai is better. Sure, she's off to track meets and finds a boyfriend she doesn't tell Leigh about, but at least she's alive. Sure, Leigh is stuck working first three days a week at the cemetery after school, then every day, but at least she has help - Dario's there. Sure, Meredith's disappearing to Mendocino and Wade's foisting off ninety percent of his work at the cemetery office to Leigh - because selling coffins and doing the horrible, horrible work of helping people pick graves as they weep makes him uncomfortable -- but it could be worse. Right?

Peaks: I hate calling books "quirky" so much, so I'll avoid that, and say that though topically, this book is unorthodox, it's truly funny and unique. Leigh's voice leaps off the page, and though the narrative initially moves slowly, she shines through. Though I gave more of a thorough summary than I normally would, you still don't have a sense of this book until you read it -- it's one of those books where the narrative arc is internal, and where the changing/growing happens not so much in dialogue exchanges, but within the main character's head. Leigh is a complicated character -- she knows she's ridiculous and choosing poorly in many cases, but she honestly does not see what else she could do, or is supposed to do. She's angry with her parents, resentful of her mother's abdication, horrified by her grandmother -- and yet, she's also very much wanting these people to take note, pay attention, and see her, that she's caught in a trap and can't extricate herself from the morass of grief - and duty - into which she's fallen.

Plenty of authors writing for adults delve into this sort of thing; it's a rare and respectful author who believes that teens will get it - and writes so that they do. This is Jennifer Longo's debut novel, and we hope there will be more of this caliber.

I also love novels which are set in Northern California. Often authors are afraid of defining settings too clearly, because then one has to be specific and detailed -- but the author used the perfect balance between real and literary imagination to give clear outlines of where the characters begin -- and how far they go. In this way, setting is also employed usefully as metaphor - which works.

Valleys: Though the characterizations are well done in this novel, there is limited diversity, which is curious, since the novel's setting is allegedly Northern California.

Dario is a problematic character -- and readers who know my grim distaste for the Magical Negro trope will see where he walks that very thin line between being a real character, and being a handsome, charismatic, brown-skinned Ken-doll for the author to move around. Dario is very much into talking about death, very into Día de Muertos as a Thing, and is very tsk-tsk to Leigh about her White American squidgy-ness about death. At one point he says to her "Americans hate a mystery. They've made death so dark and scary. Hateful. It is a door, it is beautiful; it isn't - it's not like here." (ARC) I have to admit that I rolled my eyes there - pretty hard. Though I was glad that there were diverse characters in this novel, I was disappointed that they only existed in the tiny world of the graveyard, they were predominantly poor indigents or laborers, and they were illegally in the country. Since the novel is set in California, only those people of color as representative seemed a bit of a stretch, even as far North as Placerville, which is Hangtown's real name.

Though Dario ticks all the boxes for the Magical Negro trope - an exceptional (as in "not like other Mexicans, he's the exception"), stock character with no real past who just appears one day, socially constrained by being in the country illegally AND by being a gravedigger, there to help the Caucasian main character, dispenses somewhat mystical wisdom - there's a little twist in his and Leigh's relationship at the end of the novel which saves him from being a total plot device, and nudges him toward being a person. I saw it coming, but other readers may find themselves surprised - and wonder about his motives toward befriending Leigh in the first place. This may cause some vigorous discussion!

I have a quibble with the cover as well - The novel makes a big point of the fact that Leigh wears one pair of jeans, just about always... so the lacy little slip dress? With... are those tights!? - in a graveyard, in which she sometimes has to dig is a completely out of character and quite a little bit ridiculous. A dress at all is out of character. But, what can an author do about her cover? Not much, so ...

Though slightly uneven, this is a promising debut nonetheless.



After August 26th, you can find SIX FEET OVER IT by JENNIFER LONGO everywhere; online, or at an independent brick-and-mortar bookstore near you!