May 21, 2015

Toon Thursday Flashback: Game Shows for Writers

I was watching an episode of Chopped last night while making dinner, so it seems appropriate to revisit this one! And, never fear, I do have plans for actual NEW cartoons in the very near future, by which I mean sometime after this month ends...at which point I will also UPDATE THE ARCHIVE I've also been neglecting. Sigh.


May 20, 2015

TURNING PAGES: UNDER A PAINTED SKY by STACEY LEE

I'd wanted to read this book for a long time because in my head I'd heard it was historical and was a story about a Chinese girl. Somehow, my mind equated "historical fiction" with an absolutely parallel true-to-life tale of someone back in time. I think a lot of people do that, almost expect a documentary novel, despite the word "fiction" tied up with the "historical," thus their hesitation to read historical fiction. I'm glad Stacey Lee remembered the fictional part.

What's not fictional? That there were Chinese-American people in the U.S. in 1849. That there were African American people who were free in some states and slaves in others, and depending on if someone dragged you across state lines, your existence was tenuous and often depending upon the kindness of strangers, subterfuge, and lawless behavior. That there were young men seeking their fortune on the Oregon Trail, that there were cowboys and miners heading West in a steady stream -- and that sometimes loners found families and the broken found healing along the trail.

Summary: At the mercy of various circumstances, two bright and determined girls end up alone -- Samantha, a fifteen-year-old whose father had been pondering a move West, dies suddenly and tragically, and Annamae, a sixteen-year-old slave whose family has been ripped from her all at once, has finally decided to make a move to find her only remaining family. Disaster follows disaster, and chance throws the two girls together, though Annamae just knows something higher than mere Fate is in the cards for the two of them. Shedding their female appearance, the girls decide to head West as "Sammy" and "Andy." They find their backbones and their grit -- and the limits of their skill -- as they make the dangerous and terrifying journey, but their luck changes when they meet a group of cowboys - boys with skill and strength in numbers, who become, in return for help with the cooking, the fire-building, and a few language lessons - protection and help along the trail. While the girls are safer, nowhere is exactly "safe" for a runaway slave and a fugitive -- and the girls don't dare trust anyone to truly help them. Samantha is terrified of one more loss, and wants to keep Anname close, but Annamae is stubbornly determined to find her family and the heart of her world -- at whatever cost. This tale of losses, chosen family, friendship, and survival may carry few surprises but a lot of enjoyment.

Peaks: The cover of this novel - with silhouetted "cowboys," one of whom is carrying a violin - is just beautiful. I love that this novel is a Western based on the Oregon Trail -- that was a huge thing we studied in school, and the romance of the trail is still a big thing in my head - despite the fact that eating dust for six months, possibly starving, getting bug-bitten and achy from either walking or riding and risking cholera and bandit attacks are hardly romantic.

I love that Sammy and Andy are not Victorians, cringing at every crudity - nor does the novel linger over the assumed messiness or crudeness of males - some guys are neat, some are not, just like girls, and the story fairly reveals this equality. I love that this novel has the girls just embrace their toughness, and not worry about returning to some more "delicate" state. I love that this novel has an Asian girl and a black girl riding a horse and roping things and cowboying up. It's important that we're able to stretch our imagination to include other faces and genders in the pantheon of our Old West images. I love that the novel just ...ambled along. There was dramatic tension, of course, and there were times when it was easier to put the novel down than others -- but once you got hooked/lost, you were in, and the current simply took you away.

That this is also a love story may surprise some readers - while I wasn't necessarily in need of a love story which tied up so tidily in Happily Ever Afterland, I know that its muted dramatic tension will help some readers love a good adventure-Oregon Trail tale that much more. If you find that you don't "get" some of the interactions halfway through the novel, don't let it throw you.

Valleys: I had trouble getting into the novel in part, I think, because the voice didn't really settle until a little ways into the tale. Samantha's "trying to be a boy" voice changed fairly drastically - she used words like "disingenuous" conversationally in the novel's opening, yet was down to "ain't" a few pages on. Yet, Annamae, who used the odd contraction(?) of "you's" to mean both "you is" and the plural "you" nevertheless understood the word "disingenuous" without comment - which jumped out at me as odd -- especially since Annamae is a slave girl who can't read and counts unreliably on her fingers. Neither dialect was comfortably settled until the middle of the book, when the plot made such details less jarring.

I struggled a little bit with the character of Annamae. It's hard for me to sometimes see novels where the African American character is just... so... wise. While both girls were full of aphorisms and proverbs, Samantha's seemed to appear more organically than did Annamae's - and they were just IN Sammy's head. Annamae seemed to dream them up for the specific purpose of enlightening Samantha -- arguably, she was accustomed to doing that for her little brother, who had a hard time with the drudgery of slavery, as her older brother had done for her, but her convenient wisdom still didn't always come across as "non-magical" for me.

Conclusion: Thought the tiniest bit unsure of its voice in the beginning, this was a fun and ultimately very satisfying debut novel from the author - and I'm excited to be drawn into a new way to imagine early America, and look forward to more tales from her keyboard.



I received my copy of this book courtesy of the Benicia Public Library. You can find UNDER A PAINTED SKY by Stacey Lee at an online e-tailer, or at a real life, independent bookstore near you!

May 19, 2015

TURNING PAGES: KUNG FU KITTY, LAYING DOWN THE LAW, by LAURI BORTZ

Honestly? I did not see this one coming.

Some of us in the kidlitosphere who have grown up in a faith have frequently bemoaned the scarcity of accurately, positively and creatively depicted faith in children's fiction. (Please note I said "faith" and not "Christianity.") I had just had a conversation with a fellow blogger about this very thing when I was approached by a small press to review their book. For some reason, I thought this was a poetic book, but soon discovered it's not quite poetry, nor, despite the artwork, is it quite a graphic novel. It's a cross between a parable and a history, an earnestly told folk tale and a really, really long pun. In the weird tradition of Jonathan Swift, Lewis Carroll and Frank L. Baum, we have... The Exodus. With Cats. It's ...amazing, actually.

The Cat Code of Conduct

A cat must be loyal to family
And do his best to keep folk free
A cat my kill spiders, mice and rats
But never, ever other cats
A cat shouldn't steal, curse or lie
Or poke his neighbor in the eye
A cat should take care not to bite
The hand that feeds, and not to fight
To do good deeds with all his might
And champion what's fair and right
Above all else, a cat must see
It's best to live in harmony
With creatures both alike and not
In form, in fact, in heart, in thought.

Summary: Wu Zhua - whose name means Five Claw - saved her people from the Monkey Dynasty, where they had been slaves for so long. But, what happens after freedom? Mostly a lot of complaining, aimlessness, and confusion. Kittens were growing up without any knowledge of Kung Fu, or the years in service to the monkeys, and without any gratitude or understanding of what their ancestors had gone through - or of what the Water God Zhi Shui Zhi Shen had done for them. Now President of Catland, Wu Zhua worries that the newly formed society she longed for is hollow and doomed to fail.

Every good leader takes help from all sources. For Wu Zhua, this involved a pilgrimage to the Milky Way where The Water God showed her that help was available from a tribe of cats who had freed themselves long before the Catlanders, and had come up with the Cat Code of Conduct. Convinced that these cats were a vital part of her people's history and could save their future, Wu Zhua returns to Catland to prepare her kin the eventual reunion between the Wavians and the Catlanders, bringing back a silk scroll with the Wavian cats' Code written down. Sadly, their President returns to find Catland in disarray. Her people had changed the society she had formed, done away with the reminders of the past she had left them, and come up with their own world. Wu Zhua, stung by their neglect, decides that she, too, can give up on her people. But the Water God has other plans, which include a giant carp, a Phoenix, and some lovely jade eggs...

Peaks: This is one of the quirkiest, most original and fresh retellings of the Exodus I've ever read. Using Chinese-style mythology, with its myriad gods and sometimes obscure logic, the story reveals new insights to an old story. It's unexpected, on a number of levels, occasionally funny, and largely sticks to the original Biblical tale in Exodus... with the brilliant addition of cats.

Valleys: In such a short, short book (only 72 pages) there is SO MUCH story that it's information-saturated and super-packed. Readers have to pay attention, or they can be overwhelmed and overloaded - or irretrievably lost. For me, the book could have used a bit more of a linear plot and reshuffling to organize bits of the story which, while interesting or punny, didn't necessarily lend themselves to a clear narrative.

Conclusion: For readers who like history, mythology, and the odd pun, this short and creative retelling of the Exodus is packed full of quirk and character, and will produce an enjoyable, if slightly surreal, treat over coffee.



I received my copy of this book courtesy of Abaton Book Company. You can find KUNG FU KITTY, Laying Down the Law by Lauri Bortz at an online e-tailer, or at a real life, independent bookstore near you!

May 18, 2015

Quick Monday Review: TANDEM by Anna Jarzab

I'll admit two things first: 1) I put off reading this one for far too long, and 2) the first time I opened it and read the first few pages, I just wasn't immediately drawn in. There was a princess, and I had not assumed that there would be princesses in this book.

THEN, the second time I picked it up, I kept reading, and realized that the princess in question was not simply a fairy-tale princess from some fantastical land, but in fact an alternate-universe version of the story's protagonist: Sasha Lawson, from Chicago, USA, Earth. Her analog is Princess Juliana of Columbia City, UCC, Aurora. And the UCC is no fairy-tale world, but one very much like our own except for the fact that the past 200 years of their history has unfolded a bit differently from ours.

Why should Sasha care? Well, at first, she doesn't even know Aurora exists. She lives with her gruff but loving grandfather, and is fairly content with her life, and then things get even better when her longtime crush Grant suddenly and surprisingly...asks her to prom. Prom night is awesome.

And then things get WEIRD. One minute Sasha's on the beach having the night of her life, and the next minute she's waking up in totally foreign surroundings. Oh, and Grant's not Grant, but his Aurora analog, Thomas. Sasha, dead ringer for the Princess, is immediately plunged into the deep end of a potential political firestorm.

IMPORTANT LESSON, KIDS: Getting whisked off to a mysterious land where you're suddenly the princess is not all it's cracked up to be.

I ended up really enjoying this book; I do like alternate-universe scenarios and while I am still having trouble with the idea that you could have a near-perfect analog in another universe but NOT have the same parents, if you can suspend that niggle of disbelief, it's a suspenseful story of intrigue, complicated relationships, and the importance of upholding your personal integrity. And there's a Book 2, Tether, which is out now.


I purchased my copy of this book as a Kindle ebook. You can find TANDEM (Many-Worlds) by Anna Jarzab at an online e-tailer, or at a real life, independent bookstore near you!

May 15, 2015

TURNING PAGES: A SCHOOL FOR UNUSUAL GIRLS, by KATHLEEN BALDWIN

Reader, after you finished Robin LaFevers' His Fair Assasains series and powered through Julie Berry's The Scandalous Sisterhood of Prickwillow Place and frothed through the lighter Finishing School novels by Gail Carringer and plowed through Charlie N. Holmberg's Paper Magician novels, did you, perchance, have a yen for something more? Already finished with the Ally Carter Spy novels, you are now ready for some alternate history -- and some more devious, bright, recalcitrant and slightly cutthroat flowers of gentle young womanhood. Long may they reign.

Summary: Stranje House even sounds strange. It's a reform school for girls, and Georgiana Fitzwilliam most ardently does not wish to be reformed. She does not want to learn to take tea, dance properly, or curtsey beautifully. She does not wish to compose pastels and watercolors and sit with her spine properly rigid, as a successfully unexceptional and marriageable miss of the beau monde must do in 1814. All she would LIKE to do is finish her experiment. All she was trying to do was perfect a recipe for invisible ink - the sort of recipe which might have passed invisible orders across enemy lines and saved the life of her brother, who died fighting Napoleon. She had no intention of setting her father's stables on fire, taking out half the neighbor's orchards, nor nearly killing all of her father's hounds and horses. Nevertheless... she has done so, and now the piper must be paid. Stranje House has an iron maiden. A rack. And a handful of possibly dangerous, odd, nosy, pushy girls who have also been abandoned to Ms. Stranje's tender mercies. Georgiana is terrified - furious - and determined to finish that ink. Fortunately, her determination is well-supported. Ms. Stranje wants that ink -- desperately -- and so do two gentleman called Captain Grey and Lord Wyatt. If those fighting to keep Napoleon from regaining power don't have a way to get messages to each other, he may make another try at being emperor of Europe... and that simply won't do.

Peaks: I'm not always fond of alternate history novels because my understanding of Actual History (TM) is muddled enough, but this is a fun and fast-paced "what if" that focuses mostly on individuals and less on the big events. The back of the novel gives a quick update on Actual History vs. Stuff The Author Made Up, which is helpful.

I love school stories to an unbelievable extent. The ensemble cast gives the author lots of time to explore individual girls' stories, and to give more life and shape to some of them who aren't very clear to the reader at this point. They each have mysterious skills, and this being a SERIES just tickles me to death, as there will be plenty of time to find out all we could desire about this school.

I think that the Headmistress having her own romantic leanings is awfully sweet as well, though the school and its students seem to exist in a bubble outside of Polite Society. Aside from a Beautiful Villainness (think Disney Wicked Queen), no one seems to care what any of them at Stranje House do - and I wonder if that will change... Time will tell.

Valleys: The author has previously been known for writing Regency romance - and this book is described as such - so perhaps the heroine be forgiven for a fairly fevered and immediate crush on Sebastian, Lord Wyatt. What surprised me was that it became so serious so quickly - because their interactions were for me not very developed. Kirkus compares their "dazzling wits and flashing eyes" to Darcy and Lizzie, and there's some of that, yes, but I felt their relationship needed quite a bit more time to mature into the "I'd die for you" stage, but what do I know? At any rate, while I personally found it a little ridiculous, I know that I am Old and Crotchety and that myriads of the young romantics will enjoy the heck out of the romance.

I will admit disappointment in Madame Cho, however, one of two non-white British characters in the novel. Because everyone has somewhat of an air of mystery to the blindered Georgiana, and because it takes her forever to twig to the fact that This Is Not Your Mother's Reform School (TM) she is slow on the uptake and doesn't realize Madame Cho character and importance to the school. Unfortunately, really, neither do we.

Madame Cho's first physical description, after "Chinese" and Ms. Stranje explaining that she teaches Asian history and "helps" in the discipline room is "crafty as a black cat." Immediately plunged so far into the cliché of the Mysterious Dragon Lady of the Orient, it doesn't appear that Madame Cho will easily get out. It's a shame that she had virtually no speaking parts in the book and no character development, because, with her only action smacking the girls with her cane, threatening, barking orders at them, or lurking silently around the edges of the room, she simply exists as ...well, a stereotype. I kept searching the story for her -- surely she had more to give to the plot -- but sadly, she disappears 3/4 of the way through the book.

Conclusion: Despite a few flaws and unevenness plaguing this first book in the Stranje House series, there's nevertheless a lot to recommend this quick-paced, romance-saturated romp, filled with quick-thinking, devious girls and their adventuresome exploits. Take a couple of hours to yourself and grab your bag of caramel corn - this book is just as super-sweet and compulsively readable.



I received my copy of this book courtesy of Tor Teen, via NetGalley. After May 19th, you can find THE SCHOOL FOR UNUSUAL GIRLS by Kathleeen Baldwin at an online e-tailer, or at a real life, independent bookstore near you!

May 14, 2015

In Case You Missed It...

...the Call for Session Proposals for this fall's Kidlitosphere Conference is open! From the original post:
This year’s KidLitCon will be held in Baltimore, MD on October 9th and 10th. This year’s theme is Celebrating Young People’s Literature
...
We hope to examine what makes a good children’s book, hear from judges who have participated in various award programs, and celebrate any authors or illustrators present at the conference.
And, of course, anything on diversity is always topical and always welcome. I'm just really wishing I could go...but this is one of those weekends when multiple commitments collide, and instead I'll be presenting at the Great Valley Bookfest, which is happening here locally.

May 12, 2015

TURNING PAGES: 5 to 1 by Holly Bodger

The cover of this novel is striking and colorful, signalling a South Asian tale. Readers may be surprised to discover that it's both dystopian -- and, in part, a verse novel. The detail is absorbing and the political landscape surprising, and the conclusion is just enigmatic enough to be hopeful -- scary -- and perfect. I found this to be a beautiful book.

Summary: It's 2054, and portable ultrasounds, a low-cost and useful medical innovation from our time, have had an unexpected and negative effect on the sprawling population of India that's already beginning in our time. Parents, carefully looking at the cloudy images for a child who will fill their coffers, protect them in their old age and bring honor to their families have chosen boys, boys, boys, boys, boys -- for too long. The obvious and natural effect of illegally abandoning girls in parks and aborting them with risky home procedures is a decades later 5:1 ration of boys to girls. Suddenly girls are precious and wanted, no -- demanded, and an endangered commodity. Sold to the highest bidder, competed for, abducted -- the world is dangerous for women in all ways. From an honest desire to turn their nation around, the women of Koyanagar take power into their own hands politically. They then wall their State and community, and create Tests to give five boys from anywhere in their region and throughout the city a solid chance to marry one of the few girls in the community -- and to allow girls choices again -- so long as their choice is to marry and bear daughters and support the system.

It quickly becomes obvious that not all is acceptable to the young people of the city. Boys have futures as limited as girls once were -- marry, protect Koyanagar's wall as a guard or be a manservant, fetching and carrying in a house - or be ground under the heels of society, if you're not worthy of supporting it. Those, according to Five, are false choices, one and all. In Sudasa's life, choices have been twisted out of all bearing. Women make all the decisions in her society, and the older the woman, the more influence. Sudasa's dragon-lady Nani is old and steeped in guile, and has cowed Sudasa's mother -- and her father -- and even her eldest sister -- for all of her life. Sudasa discovers to her horror that she is definitely a commodity, only this time, unlike the Koyangar girls in history, she is being offered up on the altar of her Nani's ambition.

Still, life and death choices have a way of presenting themselves, but does everyone have the courage to ...live?

Peaks: In this carefully paced narrative, told in alternating blank verse from Sudasa and prose from a boy she calls "Five," a picture of a future India is sketched, then filled in with precise detail. It's exciting that it's actually India -- how often does it get to star in a dystopian novel? Gender disparities, identity, gender politics, choice and freedom are great, meaty topics that a reader can sink their teeth into, even in blank verse. Five is a thoughtful, worthy -- angry character, rightly protesting a completely ridiculous system which has cast him as a competitor -- despite that not being his choice. His inability to quiet his conscience makes him a very realistic, believable character. Sudasa is obedient and compliant on the surface, but soaked in grief and a terrified resignation that this is all there is to life. Despite the calmly presented verse, her mind beats against the bars of her prison like a panicked bird. The phrase "quiet desperation" really fits.

Another strong positive for me, along with the political is that there is no romance in this novel. None. No 11th hour insta-love between strangers. No sneakily planted seeds of passion. Nothing but terrifying uncertainty about an endlessly hideous or uncertain future -- as it should be, in a society which forces arranged marriages.

The author is not Indian, but her acknowledgements list friends and associates who helped her with cultural accuracy. Huzzah.

Valleys: Readers who don't appreciate quiet, thoughtful books may need to select something else, but for many of us, the premise of the dystopian plot is clear and the promise of the story is fulfilled in a fresh and original way.

Conclusion: A strong debut from Holly Bodger with a relevant, original dystopian premise digging into issues of gender and politics and choices in an unusual way.



I received my copy of this book courtesy of Knopf Books via NetGalley. After May 15th, 2015, can find 5 to 1 by Holly Bodger at an online e-tailer, or at a real life, independent bookstore near you!