September 19, 2014

TURNING PAGES: THE SCANDALOUS SISTERHOOD OF PRICKWILLOW PLACE, by Julie Berry

My poppets, gather round, do! There's a simply scandalous novel you must sit down and read, right away! It's a school story - boarding school. It's set in the Victorian era. There are stern spinsters, callow boys, naughty dogs, and ...dead bodies buried in the garden!

I reviewed an electronic copy of this novel and can't wait to see the finished product. The cover is adorable, but the endpapers and the illustrations of the girls in the front pages are going to be wonderful, when it all comes together.

Summary: Seven young ladies, enrolled in a school for girls, are kept in fairly straitened circumstances, under the leadership of stern Headmistress Mrs. Plackett, and her rude and coarse brother, Mr. Godding. At Sunday dinner, the two are rather abruptly poisoned...

There are many reasons the girls are enrolled at the school. Roberta Pratley's only offense is being a stepdaughter. Her Stepmama sends her off at once to Saint Etheldreda's School for Young Ladies to strengthen her weak brain. She must have one, seeing as the poor dear grew so fast she's nearly as tall as a man, and she's always crashing about, tripping over herself. Mary Jane Marshall's offense is... a bit disgraceful. Her mother has locked her away at Saint Etheldreda's in order to keep her from turning up behind back doors and in hall closets with unsuitable young men. Martha Boyle ...well, everyone calls her dull, but... perhaps the nicest thing that can be said is that she has a lovely voice and a gift for the piano. Yes, let's just say that. Meanwhile, Alice Brooks has a big heart - and if the rest of her is plus sized as well, it shouldn't exactly be a crime, should it? Katherine Heaton is a smooth operator -- and she learned it at her railway magnate Daddy's knee. Too bad he doesn't think she can learn, being only a girl. Louise Dudley is only twelve, but she burns with intelligence - and, after surviving smallpox, she burns with the desire to be a doctor. Her parents have instead burned her chemistry set, and hope that Saint Etheldreda's might burn the desire out of her. Elinor Siever's watchword is "memento mortis" - remember death. Unfortunately, she doesn't tend to remember much else. Saint Etheldreda's School for Young Ladies is meant to change her dour nature into a lively, spritely one.

Seven ladies enrolled in a finishing school - and seven impossible dreams dreamt by those who sent them there. Seven ladies who, nevertheless are plucky, doughty, bright, sly, deceptive, and conniving as the day is long. Seven young ladies who, after Sunday dinner are going to be without a Headmistress -- and these young ladies of Saint Etheldreda's are going to make the most of it.

Peaks: This was a snicker-fest, a frothy cake of hysteria, bewilderment and sisterhood. The girls know that their Headmistress has been murdered - that's no spoiler. The question of why they choose to stay in a house where there's been a double-murder? That's a bit more complicated. Sniffing a whiff of freedom makes you do any number of crazy things... and, if you're young and impressionable and have a smooth-talker and a disgraceful operator shoving you along... if you actually are happy in the place you've landed, away from your pesky little brothers, annoying Stepmama or ice cold father, it might be worth showing a little spirit, a little grit -- and it might be worth shoveling a bit -- to stay there. This story is just a gem.

Valleys: Honestly, there are no valleys - though, I might question that this is marketed to middle school. Because of its humor and the complicated farce, as well as the novel's themes of friendship, I think it might fare better as YA (nothing to do with the murders, though - they're fairly bloodless). The Victorian language is simply turgid and overwrought at times, but the author doesn't let it slow her down. The sentence structure might give some readers a few tiny problems, as sentences tend to be longer and descriptive, reflecting the time period of the novel's setting, but it really shouldn't inconvenience most young readers. The novel is funny and fresh and a hoot. Though they're covering up a murder, the girls aren't stupid - they each know, in their heart of hearts, that their lease on freedom is short. The novel reads like watching someone running with a full glass of water, and knowing that they're going to trip -- you can't really do anything about it but watch with a slightly horrified expression as the twists and turns of the plot keep going and going -- and all the mile-high pile of deceptions come tumbling down.



I received a copy of this novel courtesy of Roaring Brook Press. After September 23rd, you can find THE SCANDALOUS SISTERHOOD OF PRICKWILLOW PLACE by Julie Berry online, or at an independent bookstore near you!

September 18, 2014

Thursday Review: GIRL ON A WIRE by Gwenda Bond

Right--in the interests of full disclosure, Gwenda and I have the same agent, and we've been blog buds for a number of years, so be aware that any viewpoints herein may or may not be free of personal bias. :) I received a review copy of this book from the author/publisher via NetGalley.

Girl on a Wire is one of those books packed with all the characteristics I would have loved as a YA reader growing up: magic, mystery, and just a hint of Romeo and Juliet (literally: the main characters are Remy aka Romeo, and Jules aka Julieta). The high-flying circus setting lends even more drama and atmosphere, with enough detail that you feel like you're there, living the behind-the-scenes touring circus life, but not so much detail that it takes away from the action.

And action there is, promised from the very beginning by the fact that protagonist Jules wants nothing more than to perform with the famous new Cirque American, and do her high wire walk like her old-school idol, Bird Millman (who was a real person). Unfortunately, Jules's parents and grandmother have other ideas, because the Maronis' mortal enemies the Flying Garcias are part of the Cirque American, and there's just no way they can occupy the same patch of ground.

Until, of course, Jules forces the issue. I would have loved to see a bit more of the fallout from her stubbornness, but we quickly move to the main part of the book, which is the tale of the Maronis' return to national circus fame. It doesn't come without a cost, though, and that cost is the fact that every single one of the Flying Garcias comes with an insta-grudge attached. Only Remy (aka Romeo) seems not to buy into the whole family grudge thing, and so Jules's growing friendship with him has to happen in secret. Soon, though, Jules realizes that the bad blood between their families isn't simply aggravating, it's potentially dangerous. It's NOT, of course, because of the allegedly cursed items she keeps finding in her possession. Or is it? And will she and Remy be able to figure out who's trying to sabotage the Maronis' return before someone really gets hurt?

This was a super fun idea, and as a reader I liked seeing the alliances develop between the young protagonists, trying to solve the mystery and move on while the adults remained stubborn and prideful. This one would be great especially for younger YA and older MG readers, and those looking for a mystery with a hint of magic and daring, but without too much violence or danger.


You can find Girl on a Wire by Gwenda Bond online, or at an independent bookstore near you!

September 16, 2014

TURNING PAGES: THE EMPRESS CHRONICLES, by Suzy Vitello

I admit that this book put me in a bit of a spin, when I'd finished it. I had no idea how to talk about it. Magical realism? Historical fiction? Problem novel? The line between what was, and what wasn't was... a little shaky. The pacing was very gradual, especially at the beginning, and the conclusion... didn't leave me with much of a conclusion. Looking it up, I realized that it was a first in a series, which answered some questions, as to why it felt so slow to me -- the author will finish up the story elsewhere -- but it seemed a good idea that didn't receive the polish it needed in its first iteration. Nevertheless, this is a richly detailed cultural experience, and quite a tale of mental health and individual power to change things.

Summary: Liz's mom has... kind of had it. Her OCD has spiraled out of control, and the constant washing/counting/tidying thing, which culminated in Liz spending some time in a facility and in the hospital, has brought her to the conclusion that Liz needs to spend time with her dad. With her DAD!? With the fake farmer and his much younger girlfriend, on their farm?! This is a good option for Liz who so wanted things to be clean that she mixed up bleach and ammonia to wash her HAIR!? Um... no. This isn't the best option. Liz's mom is abandoning her -- and Liz knows it. But, it's hard to admit. It's hard to admit anything - even to her psychiatrist, who is quietly despairing of her, Liz feels sure. When, in a sympathetic moment, her doctor shares with her the battered diary of a relative - one Elizabeth (Sisi) of Bavaria, for some reason, Liz becomes enthralled. Here was someone, the doctor says, who a hundred and fifty years ago also had food disorders, also struggled to control her world, and find her place within it. Liz wants to learn from this girl, who became Empress of Austria -- and more than that, Liz wants to understand. She goes to great lengths to find the diary - and to find the woman within it. The longing for connection creates a path where there was none before - helping Liz to heal, and helping Sisi to change history... maybe.

Peaks: This novel has the earmarks of a richly detailed fairy tale - a locket, a diary, an unrequited love. There's much to enjoy in the historical detail of this novel - fox hunts, ball gowns, jewelry, tapestry, home furnishings. The setting, at least of the historical novel, is rich and lush, as opposed to the modern side of a farm outside of Portland. There is also detailed historical note of practices, including a rather grisly fox hunt. On the modern side, detail is also lavished on OCD, on the disturbing feelings and routines Liz becomes locked into - there's a lot of detail to engage the reader here.

Valleys:Despite a promising premise, at times, it felt like I was reading two different novels - and I was - but I couldn't easily tell why the two novels were in the same cover, and not simply two different books. The two different voices varied by chapter, and there were times I didn't want to leave one storyline and go to the next. For me, one was engaging and vital, the other, I had no idea what it was about, or why I should care. I didn't get a strong sense of connection between the modern character, whose OCD obsessed and consumed her, whose abandonment, at the hands of her mother, must have been crushing and terrifying -- and whose pothead, ineffectual father and his immature but blandly kind hippie girlfriend were the WORST people with whom she could have been left - and the self-obsessed royal, who was childish and short-sighted, mooning after her bodyguard, and seemed willfully blind to her situation. When Liz takes risks to break out of her world, for the sake of her sort-of step brother (what do you call the little brother of your father's very young girlfriend?), the reader is confused at his role: is he the love interest? Is he the catalyst for her getting better? Why is he in the novel? When Sisi is simply carried along in her life, the reader wonders, why do I care? Eventually, most questions are answered, but possibly not in a timely enough manner for many readers.

I had further questions about the magical realism -- the mysterious writing in Liz's blank journal is never explained, or are the mechanics of other quasi-magical occurrences. There are quite a few loose ends - especially in the novel's conclusion. The historical tale leaves off just as Sisi is informed that her life will never be the same... and Liz, whose actions have both influenced the past and the future, is suddenly left teetering. It's hard to see exactly why she's suddenly just fine, and stable enough for the narrative to wrap up and leave her. So much is left unfinished and yet both storylines feel equally portentous and loaded -- primed to go off, but never getting there. Still, those seeking what promises to be an absolutely epic historical series will engage with this and drink it down, and wait eager for the next.



I received an advanced review copy courtesy of the publisher. You can find THE EMPRESS CHRONICLES by Suzy Vitello online, or at an independent bookstore near you!

September 15, 2014

Color Me Excited--It's Cybils Season Again!

I just wanted to make sure you all know that Cybils Awards judging panels will be announced this week--Wednesday, to be exact! It's always an exciting time because I know, once the panels get announced, it's time for me to start thinking about books to nominate. And this is a really inspirational year for children's and YA books: we've seen so much well-deserved attention being given to books featuring protagonists from a variety of races, ethnicities, socioeconomic background, gender, sexual orientation...it's the year of #WeNeedDiverseBooks and countless other efforts to bring wonderful diverse reads into the hands of the readers who need them.

If you're a blogger and you have something to say about diversity and diverse books, please consider coming to KidLitCon this year in Sacramento, CA. There's already a growing list of fantastic attendees, authors and bloggers alike, and you'll have a chance to meet several authors (and buy books and get them signed, too!) at the Friday afternoon meet and greet. Plus, of course, there will be a wide range of panels and sessions on children's/YA books and blogging--this year, there's a special focus on diversity, so go check out the program for more details. My favorite part of the conference, though, is always getting to meet bloggers I've "known" for years online, and getting to talk books with bloggers who have become longtime friends both online and offline. Registration closes at the end of this week, so don't delay!! Register now.

September 12, 2014

TURNING PAGES: COMPLICIT, by Stephanie Kuehn

This is necessarily going to be a shorter review, since this is a psychological thriller and there is virtually not much other than the barest of plot summaries I can share with you without providing spoilers and clues that you don't need. What I can say is that Stephanie Kuehn is all kinds of talented, and it's a hoot to read a novel set so clearly in familiar areas of Northern California (A shout out to the Iron Triangle/Richmond, Danville/Blackhawk, Berkeley, and Mt. Diablo, woot!) Her fragmented, complicated and nuanced protagonists are perceived by most unfamiliar with YA lit as a rarity - but smart novels like this remind me of something like TANGERINE, by Edward Bloor, Mark Haddon's THE CURIOUS INCIDENT, or Robert Cormier's I AM THE CHEESE -- the plot is a mosaic of pieces the reader isn't sure all fit. Tautly paced, disturbing, steeped in mistrust and with a spooky-gorgeous cover in black, white and ...burnt, the novel is just packed with goodness. This is definitely a crossover - adults who love a good thriller will enjoy this.

And, a little warning -- that MFA professors of mine, the one who talked with relentless cheer about the necessity of the "kernel of hope" in all YA lit -- probably just hates the ending to this novel. It works for me, though. Sometimes, hope is a thing with feathers that get singed. The fact is, young adults aren't stupid. They already know that hope sometimes gets abandoned, and people go on with whatever else they've got.

Summary: All Jamie Henry wants to do is put the past behind him. Growing up rough with a single parent in the destitute Iron Triangle (an industrial area near refineries), he has few memories before the age of six, when he and his sister, Cate, at ten, were taken out of a group home and adopted by a wealthy, white-collar Danville family who have themselves lost two children aged six and ten. After flailing for a few years, he's found traction at sixteen -- a concert-level jazz pianist, a 4.0 student, a winner -- a replacement for the son his adoptive parents have lost. A winner, after having a loser's start. He still has a few tics and shivers - a few cracks in the armor which show where he's come from, but he's going places, now. He's seeing his therapist, taking his pills - he's stopped pulling out his eyebrows, he's gained some positive coping mechanisms, his hands even work reliably -- he'll be okay.

Only, it's not so easy, for Cate. She's... angry. At Jamie - at her adoptive mother, at everyone. She's destructive. She's -- terrifying. The kids at the high school talk about her making secret pacts with the girls in the woods, doing mental trances and finding spirit animals, and stuff -- crazy, noticeable stuff. Her adoptive parents can't reason with her - she's doing drugs and skipping classes. And, after a terrible fire which destroys lives and property, she's finally taken away - and Jamie honestly breathes a sigh of relief, even though he feels guilty.

It all falls apart one morning, when he receives a phone call. Crazy Cate's just been released after two years in juvenile detention -- and she says she's coming back -- for Jamie.

Hands numb and heart pounding, Jamie tries to strap in and weather the worst...

Peaks: Other than a simple story about adopted siblings, this novel is about our brains - knowing right and wrong, and being too sick to know right from wrong. It's about belief and perception -- responsibility, and guilt. Culpability. Complicity. How much we are to blame for what we tell ourselves. And, how much of what we tell ourselves is the truth. It's sharply realistic, deftly woven, nuanced, layered, and deep.

Jamie Henry is, bar none, the most untrustworthy narrator I've encountered this year. I went into the novel believing everything he said, and then, quietly, that solid belief shifted... was undermined ... one step at a time...somehow. That's where the author's deft touch comes in -- I don't know why I started thinking something was wrong. It's the choices he makes -- or doesn't make -- that begins the quiet wondering. It's the way he reacts -- or doesn't react -- that leads the reader to not quite accept what he says -- or at least question it. The reader comes to the end of the novel... worriedly reading over the beginning again, wondering if what they thought was right was right, or -- ??

What, that doesn't sound like a peak? It's a peak. No, seriously. That's good. Thrillers are supposed to keep you off-balanced, edgy, disturbed, guessing, yes? You will guess and guess and guess until you're second-guessing your first. You won't know quite where you've ended up when you've read through the novel and are done -- and I suspect the ending will cause a lot of rereading, frowning, and intense discussion. No two readers likely will entirely agree on what actually went down. Every reader will know that they've cause to fear for the characters' future, though...

Valleys: Once again, I don't really find valleys here. Kuehn's writing is assured and decisive -- you are where she puts you, for good or for ill, and you know what she tells you -- period. You're led along like a sheep to... well. You're guided through the narrative, let's just say.

There will be some who argue this novel's suitability for young adults, as it deals with many disturbing instances of psychological and mental aberrations. Also, there's that missing "kernel of hope." However, it's a pulse-pounding, scary, twisted, dark psychological thriller, and readers who didn't even know that's what they enjoyed might find themselves unexpectedly immersed - and have trouble sleeping nights after.



I found my copy of this book at the library. You can find COMPLICIT by STEPHANIE KUEHN online, or at an independent bookstore near you!

September 11, 2014

Thursday Review: CONSTABLE & TOOP by Gareth P. Jones

This was one of those total surprises for me. I found the book in my library's ebook selection and thought: ghosts? Victorian London? a murder mystery? Sign me up. And then, all through the book as I kept getting more and more absorbed, I kept thinking, where the heck has this Gareth P. Jones been all this time? I love this!

Turns out where he's been, is writing middle grade and kids' books. And I've mostly been on the YA tip with just the occasional MG foray, so yeah, I suppose that's why I hadn't run into his books before. Constable & Toop, though—I'd say this not only crosses the line between MG and YA (and actually is scary enough, with enough adult main characters, to be more YA), but also would make a good crossover that adult readers would enjoy. I'd compare it firstly to The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman, but it also had more than a dash (in my mind) of Beetlejuice, with its post-death bureaucracy (remember the Handbook for the Recently Deceased?) and its maze of rules and regulations.

As you might guess, this means the book has its share of humor as well as spookiness. But it's also got likeable, endearing main characters who you simply MUST root for because they're on the side of all that is good and non-bureaucratic in the world, living or dead. One of those characters is the rather unfortunate Mr. Lapsewood, who is himself a ghost, working behind a desk for the Ghost Bureau. Being sent to investigate the mysterious disappearance of a fellow ghost employee out in the streets of London feels like the chance of a, er, lifetime, and a chance to prove himself as being capable of more than his current life as a desk jockey. But then he discovers something truly awful: the Black Rot. It's an affliction developed by haunted houses that are deprived of their resident ghosts—say, via a rogue exorcism. Who's responsible? And can Lapsewood solve the problem?

Meanwhile, our other major character is Sam Toop. He's the son of an undertaker, his father being the Toop in the Constable & Toop funeral and mortuary business. He's about twelve or so, and he's a pretty normal kid for someone who's lived in a funeral home all his life. Oh, except for that one thing: he can see ghosts. Generally, though, things are going along pretty well for Sam until his lowlife Uncle Jack shows up one day and…uh…sorry, can't resist…threatens to make life a living hell if Sam and his dad don't help him out just a little. And then Jack "helps" Sam out, too, but maybe he doesn't want that kind of help…since it seems to coincide with some awfully nefarious doings out in the alleyways of London.

The stories of the living and the dead entwine and, in the end, come together in a most satisfying way. As you might guess, Lapsewood and Sam (and a few other fun minor characters) have to help each other in order to rid London of the Black Rot. The story's filled with atmospheric detail and subtle, witty humor along the lines of a Terry Pratchett or Douglas Adams. I absolutely adored it.


You can find Constable & Toop by Gareth Jones online, or at an independent bookstore near you!

September 09, 2014

Visions of the Future: A Post-Apocalyptic Blog Tour, featuring Caragh O'Brien

First of all, huge thanks to Gina Gagliano at First Second/Macmillan, who set us up with Caragh O'Brien on this blog tour--Tanita and I are both fascinated by the topic and love a good post-apocalyptic vision of the earth. (Um, in fiction only, please.) What is "Visions of the Future" all about? Macmillan Teen's website says this: "Five writers talk about what they think of the future—and why they wrote it the way they did." Five authors of recent novels that spin a rather grim view of what might happen to us in the not-so-distant future--and we are thrilled to host an essay by Caragh O'Brien, author of Birthmarked (which Tanita reviewed here).

Tanita describes the novel much more aptly and eloquently than I can do at the moment (you can blame the brain freeze on my day job), so go read the full review, in which she notes, "The post-apocalypse survival narrative is excellent, and as she gets deeper into trouble, Gaia has to make agonizing, hair-trigger decisions based on only what she feels is right." She also says, "This book is -- intense. There just aren't a lot of YA novels about midwifery, inbreeding, and hemophilia," and if that doesn't make you curious, then nothing will. So, without further delay, here is Caragh's post.


To talk about the fictional world in my Birthmarked trilogy, I must begin with a true story. A few years back, I took a road trip across the country with my family, and somewhere in Arkansas, we drove over a bridge where the river beneath was a dry gully. The next bridge spanned another dry river, and then we passed a lake that was as dry as a baseball diamond. Mile after mile the drought extended, and whenever we passed what was supposed to be water, it was another dusty, sloping void.

Until that drive, I had thought climate change was a doom that would happen in the distant future, to other generations, but it was suddenly right in my face. It freaked me out.

I began writing the Birthmarked trilogy because, in essence, I was afraid. I wanted to predict who could adapt and how they might do it. I wondered how much cutthroat self-preservation would be justified, and most of all, I wanted to believe that some of us would survive. Writing the novel let me delve in to my fear and search for something that could give me hope.

The story of Birthmarked takes place 400 years in the future on the north shore of Unlake Superior, after climate change. I take Minnesota, the state I grew up in, Land of 10,000 Lakes, and imagine all the water gone. I envision it as a wasteland that’s both beautiful and severe. I figure that certain smart, wealthy people prepare for the change by building the Enclave, a walled city with solar power, geothermal power, and deeply drilled wells. Inside the walls, they have education, technology, culture, and enough food, but they’ve miscalculated on one thing: how many people they need for diversity in their gene pool. Due to inbreeding, they’re having trouble with infertility and hemophilia. What they need is a most basic resource: more human genes.

Here’s where our heroine comes in. Gaia Stone, a young midwife, lives outside the wall in Wharfton, an impoverished community that exists in essentially medieval conditions, with no electricity or services. In exchange for rations of water and mycoprotein from the Enclave, Wharfton must surrender a quota of babies every month to the authorities inside the wall. Gaia accepts this system until the first time she helps a mother deliver a baby solo, and the mother objects to forfeiting her child. That same night, Gaia’s parents are arrested, and Gaia determines to rescue them from the Enclave.

As happens with world building, I found that the physical setting of the novel wove into the plot, and the shortage of resources underscored every choice that the characters made, individually and at a societal level. On one hand, the Enclave was lovely and thriving, but it hid the heartache of dying hemophiliacs and its citizens could stand by while a pregnant woman was hanged. I respected that people like Gaia would do almost anything to survive, and I could also grasp that the evil leader meant well when he justified his ruthless decisions. My story grounded in climate change was really about need, family, power, and fairness.

Of course, I’m still troubled by what’s happening with climate change, especially when I see that the populations that suffer the most are our poorest. Yet I also believe that we’re ingenuitive and compassionate, and our most important resource, as in my novel, is our humans. We are already the survivors.


Thank you so much, Caragh and Gina! Here's the full schedule for the Visions of the Future blog tour:

Monday, September 8
Andrew Smith
Cuddlebuggery

Tuesday, September 9
Caragh O’Brien
Finding Wonderland

Wednesday, September 10
Farel Dalrymple
The Book Wars

Thursday, September 11
Emmy Laybourne
Green Bean Teen Queen

Friday, September 12
Carrie Ryan
Forever YA