January 30, 2011

Jazz in Love by Neesha Meminger

I received a review copy of this book from the author.

Reader Gut Reaction: When one of the quotations kicking off a book is by Lisa Simpson, I already feel positively disposed toward it—and I was already excited to read another book by Neesha Meminger, author of Shine, Coconut Moon, which I loved (reviewed here). I'm always interested in stories that address what it means to live the second-generation, children-of-immigrants life. Jazz in Love does that with a premise sure to hook not only South Asian readers but any young reader with strict parents, especially those who go a little overboard with respect to controlling their child's social life.

Because my dad is South Asian, I related A LOT to the narrator, Jazz (short for Jasbir), whose Indian parents are petrified that any opposite-sex contact that's not strictly related to school will automatically lead down a road of delinquency, immodesty, and embarrassment to the family. But, unlike Jazz, I did not have to embark on the Guided Dating Plan—a series of matchmaking "dates" with parentally-approved nice and upwardly mobile Indian boys. It's a step removed from arranged marriage, and Jazz is NOT happy. Even a whiff of arranged marriage—in our day and age, in the United States--is enough of a hook to keep readers absorbed from the beginning, even if it's from an outside-looking-in perspective.

Concerning Character: Jazz is very easy to relate to, especially for someone like me who was definitely the "good girl" during high school. She might have strict parents, but she's got the same longings that other girls have. What's more, she also wants to be able to talk to her guy friends without having to be grilled time and again by her parents—something that's not a problem for her school friends. Even Jeevan ("Jeeves"), a guy she's known since they were kids, is borderline off-limits--despite being Indian, he's not the right kind of Indian. There was a realistic and appealing range of characters in this book, from Jazz's best friend Cindy to potential marriage candidate Mit, who's got his own reasons for not being into the idea of matchmaking.

Recommended for Fans Of...: Stories like Skunk Girl by Sheba Karim or 1001 Cranes by Naomi Hirahara, featuring characters trying to balance their parents' wishes and values with their own; also, fans of books where there's a decision to be made between the good boy and the bad boy, and the bad boy doesn't end up quite as appealing as he originally might have seemed.

Themes & Things:The subtleties and complexity of what it means to be Indian are nicely dealt with here—all the characters are individuals, and there's a range of different South Asian subcultures introduced, along with the fact (which may be new to some) that those groups don't always seamlessly mesh with one another. I also loved the balancing act created by Jazz wanting to please her parents but, at the same time, wanting to follow her heart and not always wanting to stick to her parents' traditional values. That really rang true, and it's something a lot of readers will relate to regardless of cultural background. Lastly, the theme of finding love and friendship in unexpected places is always a good one. It permeates the story, as the concept of "love marriage" runs up against the traditions of matchmaking and arranged marriage, and Jazz (and her family) discover that neither approach precludes finding true love.

Authorial Asides: I firmly believe we need more stories like this, not because I feel that teen readers need to be educated, but because there are readers like I used to be who really NEED them—readers who want to see themselves in stories and see that they aren't the only ones questioning, testing, discovering what it means to be between cultures. Also important is the idea that culture is THERE, but it's not all that defines a character or a story, and it's not something exotic to be gawked at. It's simply part of the myriad of different stories out there to be told.


You can find Jazz in Love at an independent bookstore near you!

January 27, 2011

Toon Thursday: The Title-O-Matic

That's right, it's time for your semi-monthly edition of Toon Thursday. This one's got a little heavy reading, but I promise it's worth it. I even used type rather than writing it out. Don't say I never consider my loyal audience. All four of you.


Disclaimer: Toon Thursday is not responsible for the success or failure of the Title-O-Matic. Use the Title-O-Matic at your own risk. Do not taunt the Title-O-Matic. Thank you.

January 26, 2011

Stumbled On: Miranda's Hierarchy

Ah, I love blog-wandering. Thank you, awesome people, for having linkage in your margins. I do find the most awesome things sometimes...



I discovered this retake on Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs, designed by writer/blogista Miranda Kenneally, at The YA-5. (The YA-5 are a team-blog of five writers, one of which is K.A. Holt of The Spectacle Blog, at which we also lurk and read about YA speculative fiction.)

Though a mere starting point in the challenge of unraveling the human psyche, the whole Maslow's thing is pretty entertaining. At least, I was entertained by it mightily in my sociology class in college. I used to identify people by where they were in the hierarchy, and was greatly amused to watch my students try to manipulate me by using the lower tier needs to disrupt the higher tier needs. (I made you these cookies! They're still hot -- don't they smell great? You liked my essay, right? I don't have to rewrite?)

We'd all like to think we're well on the ladder to self-sufficiency, creativity, acceptance, morality, and rational living, but... let's be honest, this kind of thing varies from minute to minute. As is everyone else, I'm on the ladder, but that's about all I can say.

I have to laugh at finding myself on Miranda's Hierarchy of Publishing. I'm not sure knowing how to properly use the word "irony" works as a filter - I know professional people who write and don't differentiate between "peak" and "peek" (homonym homicide), and who also believe that, due to popular usage, "irregardless" is an acceptable word. (TRUST ME: It. Is. Not. Let's not get me on my soapbox.) However, I think the lowest tier covers basic middle school English - verb conjugation and such -- and that makes sense.

I chuckled at the inclusion of John Green in the hierarchy. I stood in a room with him once, did I tell you that? He didn't know who I was from Eve. But, still. I'm on the rungs, people. I am ON MY WAY.

(Not.)

My main problem with this hierarchy - though it's really funny, clever, and gave me a moment of introspection as I tried to figure out my place within it - is that self-actualization is equated with winning a major literary award, and meeting Oprah. I don't know about that.

One of the things writers do is write. They write, and it doesn't matter who reads it, or who wants to read it, or who thinks it's good or bad - they fulfill their potential by writing. It's not something that has to do with external validation.

Publishing, conversely, will obviously have to have an outlet which will lead to being in print. But as we as bloggers have gone back and forth about what reviews mean to us and to the kids and young adults who read the books we discuss, I'm not convinced that awards and attention by the literati have any more meaning than someone handing you a book and saying, "Oh, my GOSH, I loved this one, and you should TOTALLY READ IT."

Actually, to me, that means more.

Not that I'm turning down meeting Oprah. Discreetly. Somewhere there are no cameras. But, you know what I mean...

Thoughts? Your own place in the hierarchy? The general awesomeness of John Green? Discuss.

January 25, 2011

Turning Pages: Airships, Icepunk & Afro-Celts...

I greet you today with joy, fellow-readers! Cold Magic by Kate Elliott is the book I have to share with you, and though it's not marketed as a YA novel, it crosses over beautifully. The main characters are a pair of cousins who are below their majority (20 years old) and are still in school and ruled by the adults around them. You will love them. No, really...

Reader Gut Reaction: At first, I thought, Okay, a sisters/cousin novel, a school story, maybe kinda steampunk, what with the airships and carriages going on. But then: Magical (severed) heads! Kena’ani (or Phoenician) spies! Family secrets! Missing journals, a surprise -- shock! -- marriage, spirit world dragons, and saber-toothed tigers(!!!!)! Intelligent trolls! Revolution! Running for your life! Romance! WOW. This novel was way more than I expected, when I looked at the cover. It was an adventure, a mystery, a deeply textured, detailed, labyrinthine path that the author encourages us to follow with little hints and treats along the way. I sat down to read this in one sitting and emerged, blinking, and a little despairing that the sequel isn't going to be out until later this Spring.

Cold Magic is set in an alternative Europe peopled by various Celtic and African tribal groups who were defeated by the Romans -- but outlasted its fall, pulled together, and created a new world. For those of you who like your steampunk fantasy epic, your history alternative, your adventures dangerous, your female characters intrepid and varicultured, this is for you.

Concerning Character: Speaking of intrepid females, you'll enjoy Catherine Hassi Barahal - a woman nearing her majority - the legal age of reason - almost ready to leave school, but still sneaking into her Uncle's library and reading all she can of her father's journals. She has a best friend and snarky cousin in Beatrice, with whom she's lived since she was orphaned as a small child. Cat is fairly clear-eyed -- she knows doesn't have Bee's shockingly good looks, and fortunately not her huge crushes that change every five minutes, but the girls are loyal to each other like no one else -- which turns out to be a good thing, when everything Cat thought she knew about herself and her place in the family turns upside down. A Cold Mage comes to call one night, and her whole life changes...

Recommended for Fans Of...: Those who loved Hilari Bell's A Matter of Profit will get the same kind of worldbuilding feel in this. Ursula LeGuin's Earthsea fans will also feel a similar twinge of homecoming.

YES. I did invoke The LeGuin. To me, it was that good.

Themes & Things: Family loyalty is a large part of the novel. Believing that no matter who you come from, you must be who you are is an oft-repeated theme, and this truth affects each of the main characters. The sort of epic nature of the novel comes across like a hero's journey: we have a girl who thought she knew most of who she was, but was searching for her identity through her father's writings -- and then, her place in the world crumbles. She has to seek an identity from the ground up, and fully inhabit the person she was born to be.

(Could I be any more cryptic, mystical and esoteric?? Actually, yes, I could. But, read the book and avoid that, okay?)

Authorial Asides: The wealth of the African culture is its storytelling. Mix that up with Celtic culture of bards and lays, and you have tales for days. The various cultural traditions from both worlds are given equal weight in this novel - and though there is a LOT stuffed into this novel, the layering is faultless, and the storyline is nuanced. It's the first in a triumvirate (I believe - Cold Fire & Cold Steel forthcoming), but I didn't get the feeling that the author rushed to pack everything in -- nor did I come to the close of this novel feeling like I was at a cliffhanger. It was finished - but the story is definitely not done.

And a word about the cover: We have Afro-Celt characters in this novel. There may be some discussion whether or not or to what degree the cover reflects this biracial mix, but I think the more ...interesting thing is that the mass market cover (the first cover pictured, in bluish tones) is so subtly different from the original cover of the book. Cat becomes more of a typical romantic heroine - with a more made-up face and less of a look of a young survivor. Cover people constantly baffle me... I like the original better, and I think they've skewed more toward making her look more typically European on the paperback cover - which is too bad.

Those of you seeking romance, it's a very minor storyline, but it's minor like a vein of gold is "minor" in a mountain of quartz. It's there. You'll see it. It's worth the effort.

I'm gushing, aren't I? Fine, fine. One last thing: Kate Elliott lives in Hawaii. I think this is why she has such awesome writing chops. I may need to move to a tropical island.

That is all.


You can find COLD MAGIC (Book 1 of the Spiritwalker Trilogy) at an independent bookstore near you!


P.S. - Author Kate Elliott blogs this question:

Oh voracious readers.

Can you please mention (and perhaps briefly describe the basic story Without Spoilers) book titles for books that

1) fall clearly into the YA category

2) with preferably some kind of supernatural or fantastic element (major or minor)

3) either set in this world or a secondary world (I don't care)

4) possibly written post-Twilight (2005) but I'll take earlier if it's a good example of a book that is still being read

5) in which the teen protagonist(s) has (have) consensual and non regretted sex that does not involve getting married first (as it does in Twilight).


I am having a SQUEE moment, because perhaps this question means that she is going to write more YA-type of tales!!!! Give the question a think, and go give her an answer.

January 24, 2011

International & Multicultural Children's Book Links

I ran across a few fascinating links via a recent issue of the Expression Online e-newsletter (the international SCBWI newsletter), and I thought I'd post those along with the news that the US Board on Books for Young People recently released their 2010 list of Outstanding International Books. The list includes some personal favorites by Shaun Tan, Patrick Ness, and Neil Gaiman--and I got a sneak preview (well, not REALLY sneaky) and copy of the bookmark at ALA! Go check it out and download the bookmark or the PowerPoint on the USBBY website.

Did you know there is an Iran Book News Agency? It's a nonprofit organization whose website includes all sorts of interesting news about the Iranian book scene, including news about teen books and authors. I found out that the classic stories of the gorgeously illuminated Shahnama will be rewritten for children--very cool.

Lastly, a fascinating article in the Twin Cities Daily Planet disputes an oft-quoted claim that there are few images of Muslims in children's literature today. According to the article's author, Mary Treacy:
The ten years since 9/11 have actually seen promising rise in books about Muslim history, Muslims in America, and books about young Muslims, particularly stories that debunk myths about Muslim girls and women.
Read the full article for numerous examples and other resources.

January 20, 2011

Two from Kidlitcon: The Freak Observer and Split

I'm sorry to report that today's reviews are going to be on the brief side. They're also on the "better late than never" side. But I still wanted to share them--two titles that I picked up at fall's Kidlitcon in Minneapolis, by two authors I greatly enjoyed meeting and chatting with. One last thing: tune in next Thursday for another installment of Toon Thursday!

Source: I purchased both of these books.

The Freak Observer by Blythe Woolston

Reader Gut Reaction: Loa Lindgren is an enigmatic, troubled but sharp-witted narrator, and that kept me intrigued and kept me reading. I also loved the physics facts and problems that began each chapter--I kept scouring them for hints about the upcoming section, and they tied everything together in a neat way.

Concerning Character: Loa and her family are realistically flawed, and I was impressed by how much attention was given to their individual journeys through grief. It was not easy to read about any of them, because they seemed so true to life; yet because they were so clear as individuals, it kept this from being simply a straightforward or moralistic problem novel. And Corey, Loa's former best friend, was defined in many ways by his absence--a tricky approach that was really well done.

Recommended for Fans Of...: Laurie Halse Anderson's Speak and Catalyst.

Bonus Linkage: Author Blythe Woolston's blog

You can find The Freak Observer at an independent bookstore near you!



Split by Swati Avasthi

This book is a Cybils 2010 YA Finalist.


Reader Gut Reaction: Bravo for a convincing male narrator with the strength to escape from an abusive home. A lot of tension is created simply through the horror of Jace's situation, and the constant possibility that his father might track him down and drag him back into the cycle of abuse, a cycle his mother seems unable to escape. His relationship with his older brother is convincingly complex and rocky given the circumstances--Jace shows up out of the blue looking for a new home, and Christian is trying to leave his past behind.

Concerning Character: The depiction of Jace's struggle to break the abusive cycle that he sees germinating within himself is heartbreaking. His brother's internal struggles are nearly as wrenching, sort of an older-brother echo of Jace's, as Christian tries to maintain a normal relationship with his girlfriend Mirriam when his past has just been flung back in his face. Mirriam is kind of a saint, and I love both her patience and no-nonsense attitude. She makes a great foil for the two brothers learning to open up to other people--including each other.

Recommended for Fans Of...: Nancy Werlin's The Rules of Survival

Bonus Linkage: Author Swati Avasthi's website and blog

You can find Split at an independent bookstore near you!

January 18, 2011

Debut Drumroll: Ashley Hope Pérez's WHAT CAN'T WAIT


Reader Gut Reaction: After a few blinks of watery eyes, some sad chuckles, and some wincing, my gut reaction? Oh, man, this is my life. Well -- that is to say, this is my life if I were Latina and still in high school.

Marisa is seventeen, and an excellent student. She works as many hours as she can weekends and after school at Kroger's, and does her best to help her sister with her five-year-old daughter, Anita. She cooks for her brother and father in the mornings, since her mother doesn't get home from work until 11 p.m. She cooks dinner for them, too. She gives her father half her paycheck, like clockwork.

Family is supposed to support family. That's how things go.

Oddly enough, her brother is not held to that rule.

Marisa suffers from parental indifference to her grades, from friends and siblings who don't understand her drive, and from a well-meaning teacher who wants to encourage and push her, but who doesn't understand the very real barriers in her life to success. Anyone who is raised in a household that doesn't really value education -- where a mother's sigh of "Another day finished, gracias a Dios," is a daily occurrence, where a shouted threat from a parent is, "You think you're too good to help out? You think you're going to college? You'd better get a JOB!" -- these are the people who will totally get this book and think, "this is my life..."

Concerning Character: Marisa is very, very real. She makes mistakes. She feels sorry for herself, and whines, and then eventually realizes she should suck it up. She holds things in and doesn't talk about her situation with her pushy teacher, because hey - her life is nobody's business but her own. She cannot force herself to act when she knows she's being steamrolled. When she needs help, she cannot find it within herself to ask. What I loved about this novel is that there is CHARACTER EVOLUTION. She learns -- oh, there's blood, sweat and tears involved, but the character changes from someone determined to do it all -- because no one else can do it -- to someone who learns to accept help, learns to say, "I'm sorry, this is what happened," learns to walk away from a father who is frozen inside and too threatened by her brain to be able to see her as someone he can love. She makes some pretty mature and wrenching decisions for her life, too.

I'm a little in love with her boyfriend, Alan. He's not perfect, but their relationship is realistic, and those who like a little romance with their reality will sigh, Awwww! and swoon because he draws for her. (Sucker for artwork, right here.)

Recommended for Fans Of...: Sparrow, by Sherri L. Smith, Like Sisters on the Homefront, by Rita Williams-Garcia, Make Lemonade, by Virginia Euwer Wolff, and other books where teens are forced into self-sufficiency, and learn how to deal.

Authorial Asides: The author of this novel is a teacher - which means that somewhere out there someone who actually knows what life is like is teaching kids and having compassion for them -- while still pushing them to open the doors which will secure their futures. Oh, that makes me happy. Also what makes me happy is that Ashley Pérez was recommended to us by Andrew Karre, editorial director for Carolrhoda books and Darby Creek, and a good friend of the YA/kidlitosphere. Thanks, Andrew.

I hope this book gets into the hands of tons of young adults who are striving to be the first in their families to finish high school without a child, or to finish at all, and go on to college. I hope they think, "...this is my life... and I can GET OUT, TOO."


Hi, FCC! This novel was sent to me via NetGalley, and this review is based on the uncorrected .pdf galley of the book I received.

On March 1, 2010 (or probably at online booksellers right now) you'll find WHAT CAN'T WAIT at an independent bookstore near you!

January 17, 2011

A First-Timer's ALA Recap

It's hard to describe such an overwhelming experience (to an introvert like me) of the bookish extravaganza that is the American Library Association Midwinter Meeting, so I'm going to take a page from CazzyLibrarian (whom I met this past weekend) and stick to a few key highlights.


The YA Blogger Meetup:
Courtesy of Stacked and Baen Books came Friday night's YA blogger/author meet-and-greet mingle-tastic event. Among the fab bloggers I talked to (NOT an exhaustive list! I know I've forgotten some--apologies) were Sarah of Green Bean Teen Queen, Bookalicious Pam, Kelly Jensen, Liz B, Melissa Wiley of Here in the Bonny Glen (who I'd met in person at Kidlitcon 2010), and Kelly Metzger of The Cazzy Files. I had a lot of fun talking to Flux publicity director Steven and fellow Flux author Rebecca Fjelland Davis (who wrote Chasing Alliecat—which is now on my TBR pile), both of whom I'd met at the Kidlitcon.

January 16, 2011

Thinking About Going to KidLitCon 2011?

KidLitCon--the annual conference for children's and YA lit bloggers--has attracted bloggers, authors, illustrators and other kidlit enthusiasts for the past four years. This year, the conference will be held in Seattle (yay--back in our neck of the woods, relatively) and the organizers are LOOKING FOR YOUR INPUT!

If you haven't already, don't forget to take the KidLitCon survey so that the organizers can get a good idea of what you're looking for in this year's conference. Even if you're not sure you can make it, your feedback is valuable.

Personally, I'm looking forward to some sessions on issues in blogging and children's/YA lit--maybe a discussion on diversity (in literature and in the blogosphere), or ways bloggers can contribute to the conversation.

***

Also, MotherReader's and Lee Wind's Comment Challenge 2011 has started. Haven't signed up yet? Go here. I may have to take a pass this year...I haven't even been able to read many blogs lately, let alone comment, although I probably have been commenting on most of the posts I've actually managed to read. Gosh darn those other obligations...I should've made a New Year's resolution to ditch some of 'em...

(Edited by your blogging partner to add: Of course, if one's BOOK has just come out the first month of the year, one is excused from all other obligations other than panicking and doing PR for it, so one can give oneself a break, perhaps??)

January 15, 2011

Craigslist: not just for jobs, but adventure, apparently

Book Reviewer: $150 - $1500 (Telecommute)


________________________________________
Date: 2011-01-13, 7:13AM PST
Reply to: XXXXXXX
________________________________________

Prepublication book reviews needed for literary novel.

I am an Author and Professor of English in Austin, Texas. I also own a small publishing company. I am currently seeking prepublication reviews for a novel set for publication at the end of next month (February 2011). If your review is favorable, I would like to include a blurb from it on the back cover of the novel.

I am an advocate of finding new and better ways to accomplish common tasks. The old way of seeking prepublication reviews is to send galley proofs (Advance Reading Copies – ARC) out into the abyss of the mainstream media to compete in the mailboxes of those organizations with the one thousand other books they received that day. To me, that sounds like the definition of insanity.

If you are a book critic, an author, a university professor, a member of the media, a blogger, a review writer, a representative of an independent bookstore, or anyone with high literary credentials, I will pay you between $150 and $1500 for your review. Those with higher credentials will receive a higher stipend.

Of course, your review should be honest. Just because this is a paid review does not mean that you have to review the novel favorably; however, I certainly hope that you like the book. If your review is negative, I will not be using any portion of it on the back cover of my novel, on my website, or anywhere else.

Although I will not reveal the name of the novel or the synopsis in this ad, I will tell you that it is literary fiction in the vein of Lolita, Blood Meridian, and Steppenwolf. The novel challenges organized religion and is left-leaning, but the overall message of the novel is one of peace, tolerance, and unity. The novel has been described as Less Than Zero meets Dead Poet’s Society.

I would expect you to read the novel and write a thoughtful evaluative review that is somewhere between 500 and 1500 words long. The review should not be merely summative. It should evaluate the novel, pointing out its strengths in the areas of style, theme, narrative, characterization, etc. It should also compare the novel and writing to other major writers and novels. Remember, this is a pre-publication review, so I am looking for blurbs to include on the back cover of the novel accompanied by your name and organization. Keep in mind that you must be authorized to use your organization’s name. I will also use your review and organization name on my website, in promotional materials, and I will ask you to post your review on Amazon.com.

If you feel you are a qualified reviewer and you are favorable to the type of novel outlined above, please respond to this ad with a list of your credentials. If I feel your credentials are adequate, I will contact you with the full details of the novel, and we can negotiate a stipend amount and a timetable for completion.

Although I will have to verify your credentials, the entire process will be confidential. No one will know that you were paid for your freelance review.




Eeevery once in awhile, people point things out to me on Craigslist that really make me shake my head.

Now, we as bloggers review books - for our blog, eventually once again for The Edge of the Forest Children's Lit Journal, some of us for print magazines, or for the School Library Journal, but the largest percentage of us do it because we like the book, not for a paycheck.

This gentleman offers not only a paycheck, but a word count.

He wants 500-1500 words, which is really an essay. And he wants to check out all of your credentials. My question is, what about his credentials? We have only his word for it that he's a professional. Further, if he's truly a professor, surely he can find colleagues to review his book?

Ever since I read about the MFA Program/James Patterson Frey (thank-you, Brian) writing mill, I've wondered, Who does this kind of stuff??

And now, reading this, I find that I'm confused. It seems obvious to me that this is a bad deal. (I mean, Steppenwolf, and Lolita AND the Dead Poets Society?? Really?) But, I imagine a writer who is broke would be more than tempted.

I guess it's a question of how much one values one's skill. Am I worth too much to be tempted by a purchased review? Or is my writing good enough that I should be paid for it, no matter what I'm writing?

...Hm.

(P.S. And as for "nobody will know that you were paid;" well, that's a bit disingenuous as the Federal Trade Commission has some funny notions about disclosure for bloggers... I daresay this will have to show up somewhere...taxes, at least...)

January 13, 2011

Toon Thursday: The Unnecessarily Triumphant Return!

Weeeee'rrrrre baaaaacccckk....and we're bad. Good bad. Not bad bad. I don't think.


Yeah, that felt good.

I had some links I was going to post, but I'm kind of worn out now. I'll limit it to this: Check out new site Diversity in YA Fiction, pioneered by authors Cindy Pon and Malinda Lo. It's "a book tour and website devoted to celebrating diversity in middle grade and young adult books," particularly those with characters of color or LGBT characters. Right up our alley here at FW, and a truly excellent endeavor!

January 10, 2011

WCOB: A Hint of Deception

As numerology buffs (and, frankly, straight out nutters) are preparing for the Day of Significance that will be tomorrow - Tuesday, the eleventh day of 2011 at 11 a.m. (or p.m., unless you like military time) -- we lesser mortals will start our celebration of significance today. The first Monday of the month..., erm, no...

Let's try again: The first non-holiday Monday of the year -- technically.

Okay, fine. You've got me. I'm late, which is typical, but what the heck.

Because I say so, it's time once again for book talking. It's Wicked Cool Overlooked Books (The Late Edition)!

Reader Gut Reaction: DECEPTION by Joan Aiken = SO. MUCH. FUN.
Now, I admit that I am a Aiken fan of the first water. Many a great love of Gothic art was born of the marriage of Aiken's books and Edward Gorey's book jackets. Her books were deliciously spooky, the adults crooked and evil and mean -- which we all at some age suspect that they truly are. (And we're not half wrong on that.) Because of my early (- okay, I read her in college, but I was eighteen, that counts) love of her delectably dark books, I will read ALL THINGS Joan Aiken. This, while surprisingly different than what I've read of hers previously, is to date one of my favorites, and I still have REAMS of her books to go. (YAY!)

Published in the UK in 1987, it followed her series of Austen-esque fiction, and still keeps kind of the flavor of ridiculousness those books have. No, seriously - Jane Austen wrote the big-time humor. Her novels poked sly fun at the manners of society in that day, and Aiken keeps up the good work in this novel. It features a typical storytelling trope of trading places, and adds spice to the brew by throwing in a.) a girl with a mission to save souls, b.) a penniless girl with little interest in making the switch, who wants to be left alone to write and c.) British/American differences. Could a girl from Massachusetts actually trade places with a British girl, and no one see any difference? Welll.... no, actually...

Concerning Character: Because Aiken was herself a mix of American and Britishness(her father was the American poet, Conrad Aiken, and her mother was apparently no one special and British; in her books it is noted who her father is, and her mother is not named at all. Nice, huh?) the characterization of the American girl, Alvey, really works. She is at once observant and inobservant; seeing at first only the gloriously huge, old home in which the Brits live, and their servants and their dependents in the village, and not seeing the people themselves at all. I have been guilty of this, in the UK -- everything is so simply infused with venerable old history that it's easy to make the mistake of looking at everything -- and seeing nothing. Eventually, Alvey sees that not only are the family to which she is pretending to belong real -- they are people with their own problems and issues. There are no gilded, gentried British families; there are only people, and they are flawed, flawed, flawed. And she's stuck in the middle.

Recommended for Fans Of...: Lovers of period novels and school stories will enjoy this, though the action doesn't take place at a school, and it's not written IN 1815, but Aiken did her research, and the novel has a good feel. Readers who like Dodie Smith will enjoy this, too -- there's a lot of melodrama and an insufficiently caring family. Fans of Jane Austen, who enjoy the way her characters stand on the fringes and peer into the human psyche, and writers -- this book is dedicated to us, and will make writers who think themselves observant laugh most of all. It is funny and witty - and frothy enough to read happily in a short afternoon.

Themes & Things: The major themes of switching stories are always things like Appearance vs. Reality, and/or Image and Identity. The book is seriously about identity -- once you've been playing a role, who are you? When you are writing, and filling your head with the lives of others, where does the "you" that makes up YOU go? There are a few moments when Aiken steps out and asks herself these questions - and the answers are sort of queasy-making for the character. Like an emptied out cup, once her Great Work is written, there's nothing more in her head -- and that's a little alarming. It happens, though - and fortunately for writers, the imagination eventually fills the cup again.

Authorial Asides: In a 1998 Locus interview, Aiken admitted that there was a seven year gap in the middle of her writing of The Wolves of Willoughby Chase, due to the death of her husband, and her having to get a job to support herself. That gives me hope - that myself, and my fellow writing-group peeps, and others will be able to survive and write, no matter what interruptions. We are hardier than we think, scriptors!

Oddly enough, though I HATED The Prince and the Pauper and all other Twain/Disney/Freaky Friday switcheroo type of stories, this one really works -- mainly because of the ways in which it doesn't -- switching doesn't change anyone drastically nor does it remove obstructions to various circumstances. It simply puts life on pause - and then it resumes at a fast-forward.

Hat tip to Jo Walton, who first interested me in this book by reviewing it at Tor.com.

Sadly, this book is out of print. However, since it wasn't published that long ago, it's bound to be at Powells or Abebooks, as well as in those lovely bins full of used books in the better indies. Look for DECEPTION at an independent bookstore near you!

January 08, 2011

Randomly Book-Related: Epistolary Adventuring

My inbox is filled, on a daily basis, with projections and prognostications from Publishers Weekly and various other book related people, about the future of publishing, the future of libraries, the future of bookstores, etc. Obviously, change is in the air, and how we read and purchase our reading material is evolving.

That evolution has affected the written word as well -- for a long time, email has taken the place of "snail mail," and now texting has obliterated email in terms of the quickest way to communicate.

But nothing makes "quick" necessarily better.

I love receiving letters, the people - older and younger - to whom I send letters and postcards always respond with such joy. Somehow, email and texts are for daily, ordinary messages that you have to send -- about groceries, rides, meetings, etc. But letters you get in the mail are most often about friendships, and those are things that you keep. (This is not to say CARDS that just have signatures on them count as anything near the same. But that's just my opinion.)

The postal services in the U.S. and the UK are hoping that people will embrace their inner Luddite, and keep writing letters. These stamps make a good case for doing so!
While the Archie stamp is just gorgeous, I love Calvin & Hobbes. I'm thinking they should do an ENTIRE stamp series of Calvin & Hobbes, messing around. (Imagine a series of Christmas stamps with The Snow People...) On the other hand, I could do without Garfield, ever.

Not to be outdone, the Royal Mail recently came out with "The Very Best of British" stamps -- British what, they never said, but one assumes it's British stories. Featured are two Pratchett stamps, which makes me happy, and the lovely depiction of Aslan from the Narnia tales, then the rest are movie stills -- the White Witch, Dumbledore and Voldemort, which make me somewhat less happy. I think artwork from the books would have been much better, but then, no one asked me.

(And, to whom would one send letters with Voldemort postage!?? Exes and bill-collectors, and other people you hope will die?? Just getting a card with that the noseless You Know Who as a stamp would send a message in and of itself.

ALSO: did anyone else think he just looked kind of ridiculous in the movie? He didn't "look" like that from my imagination of him from the book. Just sayin'.)

As quick-time communication devices flood the market, I think we'll see brighter and brighter postage stamps, with the idea that people can be enticed to write more letters. It will be interesting to see how that goes!

I'm always on the look-out for other book-related postage stamps, and have hopes for this new season of philately. I'm still bummed that the Very Hungry Caterpillar stamps from 2005, or the Where The Wild Things Are stamps from the same year were not widely available, but with the rise in children's books being made into films, we may see more stamps ( -- and I'll make a point of grabbing some this time). Of course, there's always vampires and zombies; no doubt, someone somewhere is making a Twilight postage stamps as we speak...

Happy Mailing!

January 06, 2011

Drum Roll, Please....

Today, gentle readers, is Thursday. For quite a while here at Finding Wonderland, Thursday has simply been, well, Thursday. The day after Wednesday and before Friday. Nothing special.

Oh, but it used to be. Thursday used to be special, and it will be again. I used to do a little something called Toon Thursday, in which I posted a cartoon (usually writing- or blogging-related) just for fun, for a change of pace, to amuse the two of us in our ongoing writing endeavors--and hopefully amusing a few others along the way. The poets had Poetry Friday, and, not being much of a poet myself, I was, I admit, a bit jealous. So I started up Toon Thursday.

For a variety of reasons, I stopped posting the 'toons. But for a while now, I've been thinking about starting up again. Probably not weekly like I was doing before--that was pretty ambitious--but maybe twice a month. And I'm excited about it. In preparation, I've put together an archive of every Toon Thursday I've drawn so far, sorted alphabetically by title, which I'll update as I continue drawing cartoons.

In honor of re-starting Toon Thursday--next week, if all goes according to plan--here's a reprint of the first cartoon I ever posted. Enjoy!

January 05, 2011

"That'll Do, Pig."

Having a bit of a sob here.
Dick King-Smith, well-known British children's book author of The Sheep-Pig died yesterday. You and I know The Sheep-Pig as Babe, The Gallant Pig.


We all loved Babe, but have you ever heard of King-Smith's bigger (at least in the UK) success? The Hodgeheg is apparently quite well-loved; I'll be looking for it.

January 03, 2011

Monday Middle-Grade Magic

Parts of these reviews were initially posted to Goodreads. (Yes, I'm plagiarizing myself.) And--this kicks off a new format for writing reviews here at Finding Wonderland. We're trying to be a bit more focused, a bit more distinctive...and hopefully a bit more interesting as a result!

Found: Magic Thief #3 by Sarah Prineas

Reader Gut Reaction: I've really enjoyed all three of the Magic Thief books, and the third book didn't disappoint. In fact, I was pleased that this volume held some new and fun surprises. I haven't been keeping up with the sections written in code, but I haven't found them to be essential to the story, so I think I'll be OK there. Readers who are big code fans will no doubt enjoy it—my childhood self would have probably loved it. (I spent ages making bookmark "cheat sheets" of both the runic and elven alphabets in the Lord of the Rings books.)

Concerning Character: What continues to impress me about this series is the author's ability to convey so much atmosphere and feeling through a very laconic narrator. At the same time, Conn is very likable, stubbornly doing what he knows is right even when very few people seem to be on his side. All of the major side characters are nicely fleshed out and 3-dimensional. Okay, sure, there are a few faceless interchangeable thugs, but they aren't critical to the story. It's characters like the wizard Nevery—so much more prickly yet relatable than the very distant-seeming Dumbledore—and his knitting, biscuit-baking housekeeper/bodyguard/manservant Benet, and the tough, no-nonsense Duchess-to-be Rowan, that lend uniqueness to what could be just another fantasy adventure about a would-be wizard.

Recommended for Fans Of: I've already kind of hinted at it, so I might as well say it: fans of Harry Potter or Lord of the Rings-style epic fantasy adventures might well enjoy these, especially if you're looking for a quicker read. They'd also be great in the hands of readers who aren't quite ready for those two series. I think Tamora Pierce fans would also dig these—there are some similarities in the world-building and in how the characters relate to the world's magic.

Buy The Magic Thief: Found from an independent bookstore near you!

Theodosia and the Eyes of Horus by R.L. LaFevers

Reader Gut Reaction: Another enjoyable installment from a series that is truly charming, appealing, fun and adventuresome. Don't expect the books to stick perfectly to historical accuracy—that's not the point. Just know that you'll be following a plucky and determined heroine whose agenda of saving the world from ancient curses does not necessarily align with her parents' more prosaic museum-managing duties. The latest adventure finds Theodosia encountering a mysterious Egyptian magician while trying to avoid the usual crop of nefarious enemies.

Concerning Character: Theodosia continues to exhibit the sort of spunk and sense of adventure we expect from her, and she continues to face an assortment of threatening baddies and unexpected setbacks in her latest adventure. Fortunately, she's got a rather interesting collection of allies to help her along the way. Most exciting, though, about this book were the revelations and hints about who Theodosia is and why she ended up with her curse-detecting powers. (That's all I'm going to say about that!)

Other Writerly Thoughts: I loved the setup of having Theodosia come up against her mentor, Wigmere, who is being aggravatingly adult and bureaucratic about the whole thing. For one thing, he's sidetracked by the fact that Theo is an eleven-year-old girl, forgetting that she's no ordinary girl but somewhat of a genius with rather unusual abilities. I was just waiting and waiting for Wigmere to get his comeuppance at the end and to see Theo proved right after all, and I was so NOT disappointed. Sweet vindication! It's a thematic device that a lot of successful classic children's books employ, and it's used to good effect here.

Recommended for Fans Of: If you enjoy Egyptology, secret societies, and Victorian/Edwardian settings, and you like mysteries, this is a fun series. Fans of Joan Aiken's Wolves books, Frances Hodgson Burnett, and other children's classics featuring strong girl heroines may enjoy these. If you like edgy-but-heartwarming children's fantasy like Neil Gaiman's The Graveyard Book, this might also appeal.

Bonus Linkage: Shrinking Violet Promotions - writerly self-promotion for us introverts! Starring R.L. LaFevers and friends.

Buy Theodosia and the Eyes of Horus from an independent bookstore near you!

January 02, 2011

Need a Resolution? Get tied up in Y.A.R.N.!

Resolve to get more involved in writing and young adult literature? If so...



It was a quiet debut, when YARN kicked off in January of 2010; a clean, well-laid out site with the promise of good things -- but pretty empty. They've come a long way since then. A busy site, author interviews, a "Teachers" section with NCTE-standard lesson plans on the novels YARN reviews, and news, news, news. I got a heads-up about them in July, when they interviewed Mitali Perkins, and now it's time for you to get to know them.

Why? 'Cause they've got a call for submissions out. You said you'd be writing more in 2011 -- maybe poetry? Some short stories? Little exercises to help you think of some bigger themes? Why not submit some work, and start letting people see it? Think of it as dress rehearsal for your success this year.

Call for Submissions:
Imagine. Envision. Write. Revise. Submit.
YARN, the Young Adult Review Network is taking submissions of original short stories, poems, and creative essays for a YA audience. Submissions can by written by authors of any age, as long as the subject matter is of interest to readers 14-18 years of age. We take a special interest in teen writers. Be published alongside the YA writers you admire, like Tina Ferraro, Terra Elan McVoy, Barry Lyga, and Mitali Perkins. YARN reads submissions year round, and also takes submissions of photography to accompany our writing. Please see our submission guidelines for more details. What’s your YARN?

January 01, 2011