August 31, 2011

Turning Pages: WOLF MARK, by Joseph Bruchac

Previous books I've read by Joseph Bruchac have been targeted toward middle grade readers, and have been flavored with Native American folktale retellings, full of the natural world and sharp - but gently presented - wisdom. This story has the wisdom and the tales, but more sharpness -- a pair of needle-sharp canines, an host of evil villains, the Sunglass Mafia, a really cool motorcycle, and a cute Pakistani girl.

Every time I thought I had this one figured out, I'd read a little bit more, and mutter, "Huh!" A few too many details sometimes, but this absorbing novel is a new direction for Bruchac, and it's one I really like. We need more guy authors writing YA, more of them who have varied life experiences and varied cultural goodies to bring to the table. I really enjoyed the dark thriller aspects of this novel, as well as the friendship aspects, and the narrative voice, and I really hope to see more from this author for this audience.

Reader Gut Reaction: I am over werewolves, zombies, unicorns, and vampires. That said (and I do feel like I say this every week!), any story that breathes new life into these tropes is going to get a five minute once-over. Wolf Mark got me past that first five minutes, and then I was in for all 392 pages.

An intelligent narrative voice, a slow unfolding of events that paced along faster and faster until the plot was at a gallop, a sense of creepiness that just straight up flowed along to menace, complete with cackling über-villain, genetic manipulation and Creature Features made this a surprising lot of fun. A male author and manly protagonist in a novel which is effortlessly interesting to both guys and girls is just an extra plus.

There is so much going on in this one small town, and in the character's pasts. I wanted to know more, and felt sometimes like I was being shown a few rabbit trails that we wouldn't have time to delve into, and that was a mite frustrating. The novel feels complete, so this wasn't setting the scene for sequels, but there's a lot of room to reuse some of the history and setting details for other books, in a more sparing fashion, perhaps.

Concerning Character: Luke is a loner -- his Mom and favorite Uncle Cal are dead, his ex-military Dad's a drunk with post-traumatic stress disorder, and his two best friends are a geeky musician who could body double for Abbot from Abbot & Costello and a Muslim girl he's not even supposed to be thinking about, much less thinking the kinds of things he's thinking about her. Luke's a realist -- in a small town, he knows he sticks out, he knows that everyone knows about his Dad's substance abuse, and he knows that he'll never get the girl, and possibly that he'll never get his Dad back. Loneliness, solo time in The Sardine Can, their nasty little aluminum trailer, and remembering life as he knew it is going to have to suffice for him, at least until he graduates from high school and figures out what it is that he wants to do in this wide world.

Luke thinks he has the world pretty well figured out... but, what he thinks he knows is nothing like what reality turns out to be. One day, his father calls him at school to say he's been called out of town for a job... coded words, which bring Luke alert...

Recommended for Fans Of...: Creepy paranormal fantasy fiction turned science fiction, and suspense novels with an intelligent narrator... like The Monstrumologist by Rick Yancey, or fast-paced, high body count and high gadget books like Ian Flemming's Bond novels - seriously. There's an element of Super Whacked Villain that is pure Flemming going on. Think Dr. No with werewolves and vampires.

However, Meena remains covered appropriately, so her Bond Girl creds are a little low...☺

Themes & Things: This novel has a lot of tragedies - when it opens, Luke's mother has already died, as has his Uncle Cal. His father is lost in his bottles, and later losses include The Sardine Can. However, the bright thread is Luke's buddies - his friend Renzo, who is always ready to have his back, regardless of the odds, his brilliant friend Meena, who defies convention and tradition to befriend him, and other unusual allies who unexpectedly become friends. And yet, there's really no happy ending - which is the truth.

The novel is about dealing, when no happy ending presents itself. Luke deals with his losses as his father deals with the things that have been thrown his way. The reader concludes that things continue dark, but friends are the best happy ending a book - and a life - can have.

These friends and loved ones give the novel its heart.

Page-turning suspense, a creepy sense of menace, and a deliberate and cool narrator - this novel will go down well with many readers wanting a new twist on an old trope.

FCC: I reviewed this book an advanced review copy, with thanks to NetGalley and Tu Books.

After its release on September 15, you can find WOLF MARK at an independent bookstore near you!

August 29, 2011

Monday Review: EXTRAORDINARY by Nancy Werlin

Dear FCC: I got an audiobook copy of Extraordinary from my library.

Reader Gut Reaction: My gut reaction to Nancy Werlin's Extraordinary--another tale of Faerie, like Impossible—is based heavily on the fact that I listened to the audiobook version. I have to be honest: I wasn't entirely sold on the voice acting. Something about the timbre of the primary narrator's voice just didn't feel right to me. Having said that, this was an intriguing story about a young woman whose destiny is inextricably intertwined with the fate of all of Faerie—but not in the way you'd expect. Not because she is a long-lost queen or a fact, it's got very little to do with her at all...after all, she's ordinary, right?

I enjoyed how the author played with the storied history of the Rothschild family to create an intriguing legend of Faerie, but I also enjoyed the way her narrator, Phoebe, questioned that very story, viewing it through the lens of a contemporary teenager with strong opinions about anything that smacks of antiquated attitudes.

Concerning Character: The main character, Phoebe Rothschild, is the scion of a famous family (yep, THOSE Rothschilds), but you might not guess it just from meeting her. Still, her best friend Mallory doesn't care that she's relatively ordinary. Mallory, who is striking and beautiful and mysterious, used to be the weird new kid until Phoebe decided to ignore her shallow junior-high clique of friends and follow her strange compulsion to befriend Mallory. But now, their friendship is complicated by the sudden appearance of Mallory's older brother, older brother she had somehow never bothered to mention.

When Phoebe gives in to her attraction for Ryland, she not only risks her friendship with Mallory, but she discovers something shocking, sinister, and supernatural about the two siblings. Over time, however, she learns to tap into her own inner strengths, and realizes that she doesn't have to be overshadowed by her glamorous friend, her accomplished mother, or her famous family name—being herself is plenty. Although most of the story is told from Phoebe's viewpoint, we are given just enough clues about Mallory and Ryland's true motives through brief segments between chapters that the sense of danger is palpably heightened.

Recommended for Fans Of...: Stories about the intersection of Faerie with the ordinary world, like Holly Black's Tithe (reviewed here), Melissa Marr's Wicked Lovely (reviewed here), and Maggie Stiefvater's Lament (reviewed here)and Ballad.

Themes & Things: This story asks a number of interesting questions: What is the true measure of a person's worth? What makes a person extraordinary rather than ordinary? It also depicts the strength of loving family bonds, and the fact that the bonds of true friendship can be just as strong—and that these bonds can help us transcend even seemingly impossible difficulties and rise up to our full potential. Lastly, it makes the important point that we are NOT our families—that our family tree is not the sum total of our worth in life, yet family can be an important tether to ground ourselves when we aren't sure who we are or where we're going.

Authorial Asides: Nancy Werlin, to me, is amazingly versatile. She seems just as adept at writing tales of the supernatural as she is at writing the mysteries and suspense that characterized her earlier novels. Bravo! Envious here. You can visit her website here.

You can find Extraordinary at an independent bookstore near you!

August 25, 2011

Toon Thursday: Plotzing about Plot

Toon Thursday is back with a brand-new cartoon. For those of you trying to wrangle your plot into a semblance of coherent order, this one's for you! (As always, click to view larger.)

Don't give up, valiant plot wranglers. We have confidence in you.

August 24, 2011

Ahahahah! Yeah. YA is now "cool" to adult authors?

“Hallaway said that she decided to write YA because it was the 'it' genre that all the 'cool' writers were publishing in. She also wanted to feature a nerdy teenage girl as the heroine and not just the sidekick.”

Heroes & Hearbreakers this morning on mainstream fiction authors who cross over to YA: they've got their reasons. Editors and agents are asking them to, because it's where the money's at... and somehow, these people aren't getting asked when they're going to write "real" books for adults. (Although, perhaps they're being asked, as Katie Crouch must have asked herself, when they're going to stop being "literary predators" preying on children for their money?! What the heck, Katie Crouch!? It was a joke, yes, but ugh!)

August 23, 2011

Turning Pages: The Uninvited, by Tim Wynne Jones

Honestly, it was so much fun throwing out my preconceived novel notions last time, I thought I'd do it again.

Apparently, I am a wuss.

Just the cover of this novel and the title made me cringe and want to pull the covers up. Something Bad was potentially going to happen, and I was wincing even before the first page. Tension? Check. Mystery? Check. Love? Yeah. Check.

Reader Gut Reaction: I was happy to discover that this novel is a definite crossover. The main characters are slightly past high school, and living and interacting with and without adult supervision in adventurous and independent ways. There are the usual life situations in the novel -- annoying parents, nosy neighbors, and new friends -- and these things make it a great novel for anyone. Older teens who enjoy mysteries may really like this.

Also: people who collect weird words will love this. The word snye -- a word local to Ontario, Canada -- means a backwater spot where a river channels off, then and then later rejoins the larger flow.

Leave it to the Ontarians to have their own word for channel.

Concerning Character: Mimi Shapiro is, on the surface, an amusingly ditzy character who coordinates her outfits with her beloved Ms. Cooper - the name she's given her Mini - videotapes everything around her, and has a flair for the dramatic. In truth, she's also someone who is hurting, unsure of herself, and who has made some rather bad mistakes in a relationship with a college professor her freshman year. Unable to deal with the mess she's made, and the fact that the man now won't stop calling, she's on the run -- and drives up from New York to Canada to stay in her famous artist father's dilapidated cottage in the middle of nowhere.

Problem is, there's kind of someone else there... a fairly cute guy named Jay. He's a musician - but kind of angsty, wound up and tense. He accuses her of pranking him and leaving him some pretty weird and twisted gifts around the house almost as soon as she arrives. Obviously, she hasn't been, as she didn't even know he was there, or who he was, but the messages he tells her about are disturbing... and maybe so is he...

What should have been a simple misunderstanding is partially cleared up, and as things are explained, Mimi and Jay come to a shaky truce. It lasts until Mimi finds out she's been sent a twisted message of her own...

The Uninvited has a cast of creepy characters who could either be just small-town rugged individualists or threatening. There's a sleepy charm to this backwater woods, but the wisest folk will keep their eyes open. Something strange is going on in McAdam's Snye.

Recommended for Fans Of...: mysteries with a strange, lurking, fish-out-of-water character, or "new girl in town" trope. Just think Lois Duncan, Sonya Harnett, Joan Lowery Nixon, Nancy Werlin, and Eve Bunting - those kind of disturbing books which start out normally enough, and then...

Authorial Asides: In case you wondered, Tim Wynne Jones is not related to the late Lady Diana. At all. Which is sad, because you can't help hoping that her magic goes on in as many children as possible. (I suspect she would have found that sentiment both somewhat horrifying and amusing.)

Liz reviewed this novel back in February at the SLJ Tea Cozy, and the American version of the cover shows up at her review. For once, they're rather similar. You can find your own copy of THE UNINVITED with either cover at your local library where I found mine (thank you, FCC) or at an independent bookstore near you!

Tales From High Mountain: Another Writer for Japan

Tara Austen Weaver is a writer, editor, and traveler. She's the author of The Butcher and the Vegetarian; she's a well-known and popular food blogger, and A.F. and I went to grad school with her, which is the least of her claims to fame. Some of my best memories of my MFA days are reading Tara's seamless prose about food and family in Japan, and so it is with excitement that we introduce her latest book, TALES FROM HIGH MOUNTAIN, which we know is going to be gorgeous. In it, Tara writes about her life in Japan where she lived for five years, and the beautiful people she encountered. The best part? The proceeds from this book go to rebuilding Japan.

Lynedoch Crescent D 429

Says Tara: "I’m sending the little book I’ve written out into the world. It’s not the full story of my five years in Japan—just the first part (if there is interest, I will continue it). I’m selling it as a fundraiser, to raise money to continue supporting people who have had their lives shattered. A portion of the money will be donated directly to organizations doing work in the earthquake zone, a portion I may use to put in place some morale boosting efforts. There will be more information about that in the next month or so, along with some creative ways you may be able to participate (this could be fun!). They have to do the hard work of rebuilding, but we can cheer them along, remind them of hope and kindness."

We don't often say "hey, buy this!" on our blog - actually we never say that - but this project is dear to our hearts, because we know Tara, and we also know that people are suffering from disaster fatigue in a big way. Sometimes it seems like, "Dear God, what now?" but you know what? It's better to light that candle than to say, "I can't think about hurting people anymore." One small thing you can do, that you already love to do, is read. And book talk.

Will you sharethis link on your blog? Please click through to the blog post to look at Tara's amazing photography and find the link to purchase. TALES FROM HIGH MOUNTAIN is available for Kindle, in .pdf form, and Tara will list it for Nook if anyone is interested. Please, pass the word along. Keep the candle lit. Thanks.

August 22, 2011

Monday Review: TENDER MORSELS by Margo Lanagan

Dear FCC: I got a copy of this book from my library.

Margo Lanagan has written several volumes of short stories, including Red Spikes (reviewed here); Tender Morsels, however, is a novel—an imaginative, dark retelling of the Grimm fairy tale Snow White and Rose Red. That was one of my favorites as a child. I had (I think) a Little Golden Book version, which I read and re-read. I loved that the two sisters were so different but both got their own Prince Charming in the end, and I loved the bear who was really a prince, even as they mildly tormented him with their childish antics. And I always thought that gratuitously mean dwarf was a bit odd. Well, nearly all of these elements are present in Lanagan's retelling, but she also makes the story her own, which, to me, is critical to a good retelling.

Reader Gut Reaction: Like I said, this is one of my favorite fairy tales, perhaps because of its sheer oddness. It isn't one of the classic Disney-fied ones—it's odd, and a bit wild, and Lanagan preserves this feeling throughout Tender Morsels. Actually, her version of the story has a rather traumatic beginning, with a young woman named Liga and her baby fleeing terrible trauma and somehow finding themselves transported to a parallel version of the world—one in which nobody is mean or harmful, and in which she can raise her baby in peace, as well as the new baby on the way. It was not easy to read the opening chapters, actually, but it was important to establish the harsh, painful realities of the real world in order to believe that Liga could somehow find the fresh start she needed and so desperately wanted.

I really loved the aspect of the story having to do with the Bear Festival in the town, and the young men who are selected to dress in bear costume and chase the girls around—it was an ingenious approach to the idea of how a man would come to be a bear. And the fact that it's based on a real traditional festival is even better. But my enjoyment of this book ended up being curtailed somewhat by the ending, which seemed unaccountably abrupt and left hanging what I thought was a major plot thread. After enjoying the rest of the book so much, and its gorgeous writing, I ultimately found myself a bit frustrated.

Concerning Character: This book is chock-full of varied and interesting characters from beginning to end. I was very satisfied with how the author developed fairy-tale characters into very real, individual, sympathetic people (and, in some cases, very UNsympathetic people). The motivations underlying Liga's behavior and sometimes-questionable decisions were particularly well established, and her two daughters, Branza (Snow White) and Urdda (Rose Red) were distinct in personality but both quite relatable. And I liked that the not-so-wicked witch Annie earned redemption in the end, despite her disastrous meddling. Although the story began in such a way as to make me wonder whether there were ANY nice people in this story-world besides Liga, I was glad of the fact that we were granted the relief of a few truly good souls as well.

Recommended for Fans Of...: Other dark fairy tale retellings, such as Juliet Marillier's Wildwood Dancing (reviewed here), any of Robin McKinley's retellings, like Beauty, or the Ellen Datlow/Terri Windling-edited series of fairy-tale short stories.

Themes & Things: As with many fairy tales, a strong thread in this book is the strength of love—its transformative power and its ability to save us. There is also a lot here about building (and rebuilding) a life, about the family members you choose and don't choose, and about dealing with the things in life you can't control, devastating as they may sometimes be. Liga, Branza, and Urdda all have their own unique journeys toward coming into their own strength and self-awareness as adult women. In the subplot with the dwarf Collaby Dought, though he is not truly evil, we see the obligatory cautionary dangers of greed and selfishness. And, in the end, the witch Annie is a powerful vehicle for the theme of redemption.

Authorial Asides: Margo Lanagan is another fabulous Aussie author. You can read all about the story behind this story in her interview with Little Willow over at Bildungsroman.

You can find this book at an independent bookstore near you!

August 18, 2011

Thursday Tidbits: Great RIF News, Online Fun, &C.

Via Chasing Ray comes this awesome news about Kidlitcon and RIF:
I am delighted to announce that KidLit Con is now entering into a partnership with Reading Is Fundamental which we hope will extend for many years into the future and make a powerful difference in the lives of many....

RIF does nothing less than change the world - that's its very mission - and if you don't think that's the most worthy thing any of us can be part of then you really are not the kind of book lover I know you to be.

Don't let us down, folks. Join KidLit Con's effort to raise money for RIF over the next thirty days as we count down to the conference.

What are you waiting for? Click here to go directly to the donation page. Every tiny bit helps. ALWAYS.

How awesome does this School Library Journal/Library Journal Ebook Summit sound? This is their second annual one-day virtual conference on ebooks and their role in the future of libraries, with keynote speaker, the most brilliant M.T. Anderson. Via Horn Book.

Last but not least, you know how much we love First Second around here. Well, they've recently announced another entry into the world of comics with girl appeal--a graphic novel called Friends With Boys by Faith Erin Hicks. But here's the kicker (and it's a good one)--in the leadup to its publication, Friends With Boys will be serialized online as a webcomic, with a new page posted 5 days a week. It's got an interesting backstory--it was originally intended for DC Comics' Minx imprint, but sadly, as we all know, Minx went bye-bye, leaving somewhat of a void in terms of quality comics targeted at girls. I'm really pleased to see other publishers like First Second stepping in to fill that void. Kudos!

August 16, 2011

Turning Pages: Trapping Demons, Hanging Tough

I'm not really a fan of angel fiction -- being raised in the belief that angels aren't fictional - nor am I particularly a fan of demon fiction, same reason. It's a little weird that I picked up this book (from the LIBRARY, FCC, thank you), then, but I've been known to toss out all of my "I don't like..." rules when I feel like it -- because I can.

Reader Gut Reaction: A fast-paced adventure with attitude and humor, The Demon Trapper's Daughter had a couple of surprises and twists, but overall a fairly familiar framework, which, when you're reading for sheer entertainment, is a good thing. There was a slight air of predictability - I knew a couple of things that happened were going to happen -- but there were also a couple of twists which I didn't see coming -- also good. Jana Oliver managed to snag my attention and keep it, which proves me right again about throwing out my "I don't like..." rules and reading what strikes my fancy. Score another point for not judging a book by the cover or the title and stated content.

Concerning Character: Riley Blackthorne is an apprentice demon trapper in Atlanta. Please note, not demon hunter - demon trapper. She carries around Holy Water and sippy cups into which she bags and tags the little creatures. Demons, in 2018, are just part of the norm, and like an exterminator, Riley and her former history-teacher Dad are part of the solution to the outbreak.

It's not an easy life - as Riley soon finds out on a solo run. Even when you do everything right, you're dealing with an intelligent pest, and things can go bad quickly. It's even worse being seventeen and also trying to go to school - in a manky former grocery store - and having friends whose parents are in normal professions and who don't understand what you're into.

There are a couple of people who know the score. One is Simon, a twenty-year old apprentice to a nasty trapper named Harper, whose fervent beliefs and kindness to Riley make her appreciate his gorgeousness all the more.

But, most of the time, it's just Riley and her loving but tough Dad -- and her Dad's partner, Beck, who is a smart-mouthed, taciturn, bossy pain in her behind. Once upon a time, she had a mad crush on him, but she was fifteen. He shot her down pretty painfully, and since there's a fine line between love and hate, Riley prefers to stick with the hate, even though it's been years since she got over him.

There's something weird going on in Atlanta, though, something that even old rivalries and hatreds have to play second fiddle to -- the Trappers will all need to stick together.

Recommended for Fans Of...: The Devil's Kiss by Sarwat Chadda and Strange Angels by Lili St. Crow - and any novel with a tough girl who carries a weapon and Deals Deadly with evil.

(Despite the well-lined eyes on the British version of the novel, and the new title of Forsaken, this isn't a Gothic or even a Goth-y novel - this is a Tough Girl Kicks Behind And Sometimes Wonders About the World novel. Don't know where they were going with the pale-n-pouty look and the swirly tattoo, but it doesn't work for me.)

Themes & Things: Well, you've got your demons. And then, you've got your angels. Basically, it's good vs. evil, us vs. them, and dark vs. light. On the other hand, there are those gray areas -- necromancers, who feel the dead just ought to earn their keep -- some of them aren't necessarily evil, just walking a line that others don't see; then there are the angels, who seem to not be jumping in and helping out the trappers. Aren't trappers the Good Guys? What's the hold up? And about those trappers... some of them, like Simon's mentor, Harper, are plain mean. If you're doing the right thing for the wrong cause, are you right after all?

The subtle play of light and shadow is what separates this book from just being a rip-through-and-douse-things-with-Holy-Water type of book. Like the questions Buffy came up with after years of slaying vampires, gray can become more than an "area" in a decision; gray can become a way of life...

Authorial Asides: Jana Oliver has written short stories and is author of the Time Rovers® time travel series for adults (which I may have to track down). This is the first novel in her first YA series (heads up for people looking for author interviewees).

And lucky you - if you hurry, you can make it through this novel and be just in time for the sequel -- The Soul Thief -- which is being released August 30th. So, get a move on!

You can find THE DEMON TRAPPERS DAUGHTER - and soon its sequel - at an independent bookstore near you!

August 15, 2011

Monday Review: THE PIPER'S SON by Melina Marchetta

Dear FCC: I checked this book out at the library.

In The Piper's Son, Melina Marchetta returns to the same set of characters from Saving Francesca (reviewed here), five years later. After some serious family trauma, Tom Mackee is in bad shape. He's blown off his former friends, given up his music, alienated the girl he cares about most, and has gone to live with his single aunt Georgie, who's facing her own grief, her own problems, and a pregnancy. Yet somehow, these two very broken souls end up being one another's salvation.

Reader Gut Reaction: I couldn't snatch this one off the library shelf fast enough, after thoroughly adoring Marchetta's earlier novels Finnikin of the Rock (reviewed here) and Jellicoe Road (reviewed here). This one, however, couldn't be more different from either of those two. In fact, what floored me the most about it was the fact that her writing is so versatile, but so strong in a variety of types of stories. The Piper's Son was no exception. Although I had some reservations about how some aspects of the book were resolved (in some ways, it felt like Tom's friends forgave him a bit quickly), this was a satisfying read, particularly with respect to the family subplots.

Concerning Character: I thought it was a really gutsy maneuver for YA fiction to have one of the narrators be a woman in her early forties—Tom's aunt Georgie. On top of that, Tom is an older young adult, in his early twenties. I applaud that, actually, since there ought to be more YA fiction with slightly older protagonists and stories about college and working life. Anyway, on to the characters themselves. The story begins from Tom's point of view, and at first, he did not come across as a sympathetic or likeable individual. Slowly, though, the author builds a picture of a young man who is torn apart by grief and anger, hardly himself anymore. But there's still enough of the old Tom left to actually make a good decision about his future, even if it's mostly by luck—his roommates have kicked him out of their apartment, so he goes to his aunt Georgie's house.

One major factor in making Tom more sympathetic is his relationship with his aunt—it's close, and it's real, and even though their family has been torn apart by his uncle's death in a London subway bombing, Georgie is bighearted and loves her nephew. She takes him in, and we get to know her, too—her pregnancy; her troubled relationship with the father of her baby, Sam; and her own struggles with grief.

Recommended for Fans Of...: This story is a truly complex one. Besides the overarching theme of the family members dealing with grief and reconstructing their lives as best they can, this is also a story about the real meaning of family and of friendship, of love, and of forgiveness—not just forgiveness of others, but forgiveness of oneself.

Themes & Things: Melina Marchetta's other novels, particularly Saving Francesca. Stories about families moving past trauma and rebuilding their lives, like Blythe Woolston's The Freak Observer (reviewed here) and Nothing but Ghosts by Beth Kephart (reviewed here).

You can find The Piper's Son at an independent bookstore near you!

August 11, 2011

Toon Thursday: Welcome to My Life

Shhhh...don't tell anyone, but it's another rerun. However, this particular rerun so nicely encapsulates the craziness that has been the past month or two of my life, that I thought it would be better to post this than flake out yet again. 
Sadly, I did not take into account the fact that I would be away from home this week and without my normal Toon Thursday drawing and scanning accoutrements. I also did not take into account the fact that EVERYTHING IS HAPPENING THIS WEEK as far as having to turn things in, write things down, get on planes, etc. etc. So there you are. And there I am. It makes me very sad that now that I'm enthusiastic about doing Toon Thursday again, I have a lot less time to squeeze it in...

August 10, 2011

ROCK ON, Sensei Keiko

A fighter never stops 'til they reach their dream.

At 98, it's still never too late to reach your dream.

I now have no more excuses.

August 09, 2011


At last, the ever-fabulous Greg Neri's GHETTO COWBOY is out! Especially for the post-summer camp kid, don't miss Mr. Neri talking about his book at Cynsations, and the signed book giveaway from Greg and Candlewick!


Turning Pages: Black, White, Other

I admit I approached this book with some hesitation. While it's definitely on-topic for our blog - ethnicity and YA lit is a topic we love to delve into - the Wonderland treehouse is a non-denominational, bipartisan (mostly), humanist-safe space. I especially have some strong feelings about mixing books for kids with "messages" about politics and religion.

Despite both of us having our own spiritual ties, we generally stick pretty middle-of-the-road in terms of the books we cover. Looking back through our reviews, I don't think either of us had ever reviewed a "religious" book up 'til now -- and the publisher for this novel is Zondervan, the people who brought you the NIV Bible in those handy hard covers for whacking other kids at church. (Not that I ever did that.)

Despite the various slant(s) I feared this could have, I felt that the topic was important enough to give it a whirl. I'm glad I did, because I can say that I will definitely look at Zondervan again as just a publisher of kids' books, and not worry about dogmatically exclusive or slanted religious content. Though Black, White, Other: The Search for Nina Armstrong had spiritual touches, it had no particular slant, and contains content accessible and appropriate for anybody. Hurrah.

Reader Gut Reaction: This is clearly a traditional issue novel or "problem novel" as we called them in grad school, and there are multiple topic threads woven through the narrative. A family divides - literally. Mom has taken one sib, Dad the other, and they've split to different sides of a Bay Area city. The father is African American, and takes with him the younger, darker Jimi, and the mother is Jewish-Irish, and is left with the lighter skinned daughter, Nina. Whoa. Secondary issues include social unrest in poorer neighborhoods in the wake of a disaster, the father taking up with an African American girlfriend, the younger sibling suddenly acting out and stealing, fissures in Nina's long time friendships, and overriding it all, a sense of fear which underscores prejudices, misunderstandings, and allows too much to go unsaid.

Additionally, there is a novel within the novel, being written by Nina's father about their ancestor, Sarah, with research help from his new girlfriend. Sarah's narrative is a slave narrative which I found to be the less weighty portion of the novel. While Nina becomes more and more invested in Sarah's survival, as if she's never read a slave narrative before, I found myself increasingly bewildered as to what drew her to the story, and why it seemed to speak to her, especially in light of the fact that it is something her father and his new girlfriend have put together, and she can barely bring herself to speak to either one of them with any civility (for good reason, much of the time).

Concerning Character: Nina is a fifteen year old biracial girl who has seemed blithely unconcerned about her combined cultures for most of her life. Her grandma was a union supporter, and Nina's mom still sings the old sixties songs which shaped her childhood. Nina's father is an accountant whose parents were into Black Power in the sixties, who has reinvented himself as a part-time writer researching his family history in the light of African American history. We are not given a time-period for their divorce, but the father has already moved on, and is seeing an African American Studies professor at Cal.

Nina stays on Dad's side of town every other weekend, where, as she walks from the bus stop, she is eyed by guys hanging out around cars, which makes her feel unsafe. (This also depicts the unconscious prejudices/atavistic fears many experience seeing minority males socializing in public spaces.)

Nina's three best friends are Caucasian, one is of Italian ancestry, and while she's noticed differences, the main thing has been their similarity. One of their number departing for a new town creates a space for another girl to join them, and between her influence, and the political talk on the news and around the city Nina's closest friendship with Jessica implodes, then doesn't recover. Nina is unable to communicate her distress at the "them" vs. "us" world in which she finds herself, is unable to find someone to listen, and seems to connect solely with a fictionalized character her father is writing, her ancestress, Sarah.

I wanted to like this family and this novel so much more, but I found some things, especially the blatant segregation of the family, jaw-dropping. While I'm sure that it happens, there is insufficient discussion of its emotional impact in the novel. Nina's father's rejection of her Caucasian half must have made her feel incredibly insecure and terrified that parental love can turn off/on like a faucet based on perceived ethnic makeup, not to mention how unsettling it must have been for the younger brother to realize that perhaps he was valued more greatly on the basis of his "greater African Americaness," despite the genetic incorrectness of that assumption.

The adult characters overall inability to communicate by turns confused and frustrated me; the reader is asked to believe that Nina's father is drafting a coherent slave narrative when he cannot really even speak to his daughter, nor understand her angry distaste for his smoke-ring blowing new girlfriend, (Nina says they know no one else who smokes, clearly placing Miss Helane on the side of evil), who disingenuously calls Nina, "little sister," and shows up inappropriately to Nina's home, uninvited. (And I won't even get into how a woman who is a professor whose studies are dedicated to African American history can fail to sense the sensitivity required to enter into a biracial family.) Nina's mother seems mired in a past that wasn't even her own, is vague and distracted when attempting to speak on the issue of race to her daughter. She seems mostly concerned that no one see her as "the man." The adult's issues loom larger and louder than Nina's struggles much of the time.

Recommended for Fans Of...: historical novels which have a story-within-a-story framework, and those that move back and forth between present times and history, such as Jane Yolen's Number the Stars, Richard Peck's The River Between Us, or even Mare's War, though neither of these is an exact match.

Also for fans of books depicting the daily life and challenges of biracial characters such as Sarah J. Stevenson's The Latte Rebellion, Marie Lamda's What I Meant, Justina Chen Headley's Nothing But The Truth (and a few white lies), and Jamie Adoff's Jimi and Me.

Themes & Things: As I mentioned before, this novel encompasses a great many things - so many that it's hard to articulate just exactly what this book is about. Divorce, and what absolute crap it puts kids through, the herd mentality racial segregations of high school and what pressure it puts on biracial kids during lunch periods, yes. But surrounding and at times overwhelming the young adult issues are sociological and political themes such as the issue of poorer areas of urban cities having fewer services and greater numbers of minorities - which for some is a chicken/egg question; the newly emergent, militantly political identities of Nina's father, as well as her mother's old-school flower-child, genially clueless and unhelpful liberal sixties union political identity; the idea of African American reparations, which is deeply polarizing and highly political, and a welcoming - yet discriminating - African American community, which seems to want to claim Nina's African American side, even as they disparage Caucasians, and by proxy, Nina's additional identity.

Because of the dating on some of the political themes, I found it difficult to place this novel in time. Union busting was big in the mid-fifties, with Pete Seeger and others putting out collections of songs which supported the union effort. It struck me as odd that Nina's mother sang these songs. They were a hand-me-down from Nina's grandmother, but it still struck me as odd that the text inferred that Nina's mother was a hippie (a 70's thing), but Nina was only fifteen - either her mother was the age of MY mother, or ...something. Additionally, Nina's father talks about getting a lot of "black power" stuff when he was a kid - a 1960's, civil rights movement phrase, which would again make him the age of my father now. So, the explosion which caused the civil unrest in the novel was ... in the 90's? This is unclear.

Though Joan Steinau Lester portrayal of Nina's life and issues garnered her a starred review from Publishers' Weekly, for me the confusion of details and additional political issues muddied the waters, creating talking points instead of narrative, and changing the tenor of this YA novel from something I would voluntarily pick up and read to something I'd expect to be assigned.

Authorial Asides: The author is well-known in multicultural education circles, having, according to her website, pioneered the movement in education in the 80's and 90's. This definitely informs her writing. You can read more of her accolades and experience here.

Producing a thought-provoking brain-full of political, social, and multicultural themes, the debut novel BLACK, WHITE, OTHER: IN SEARCH OF NINA ARMSTRONG hits independent bookstore September 1, 2011.

August 08, 2011

Be There or Be Square!

Yep, it's another plug for the upcoming Kidlitosphere Conference, also known as KidLitCon, to be held Sept. 16 - 17 at Hotel Monaco in Seattle, WA. This time, you can see a preliminary list of who's coming so far (as of a couple of weeks ago) AND, just as exciting, a tentative schedule of conference events. There is an amazing lineup of meetups, panels, and speakers, including keynote speaker Scott Westerfeld--and I'm not just saying it's amazing because I happen to be on a panel (although I am very excited about that fact, and honored). I'm also really excited to see a lot of good friends, some of whom I've met in person and others whom I've only known online and will be meeting for the first time.

It's not too late to register for the conference--just go to this page for more details on fees and registration.

August 07, 2011


As my niece gets ready to scrape together funds for her last year at college, I was amused to find this whilst web-wandering....


Happy collegiate funding~!

August 05, 2011

Turning Pages: ASHES by Ilsa Bick

Aside from a brief flirtation with zombies in ROT & RUIN by Jonathan Maberry for last year's Cybil Awards, I avoid zombie books. I'm not a fan of the genre, so when I started reading ASHES, by Ilsa Bick, I was ...surprised, to say the least.

The whole zombie thing has never to me made sense. How come the zombies never eat each other? And yeah, we're omnivores and designed to be that way, but how does a person spontaneously develop a craving for brains, and how does one's digestive system suddenly deal with eating people raw? I mean, seriously. Zombie outbreaks happen, and you never see people rolling around in agony and dying of bowel flux and dehydration. Sorry. But I have trouble suspending disbelief about some things.

So, when I picked up Ilsa Bick's book from NetGalley (which is where I received it from her publishers at Egmont USA in .pdf form, FCC, thank you), I was surprised by how much I liked it, to say the least. Last year, Ilsa Bick's Cybil-nominated DRAW THE DARK was a strong contender, it was spooky and well written and desperately disturbing, so it shouldn't have been a surprise that ASHES also followed suit. A dystopia that opens with an elecromagnetic pulse zapping out all power - watches, cell phones, iPods, pacemakers -- well, that's got that touch of realism that Bick's novels so far have used. ASHES, I knew, would be fast paced, exciting, and spooky-real.

Boy, is it ever. Even with the army of the Changed...

Reader Gut Reaction: The military details are hideously, incredibly real -- possibly reflecting the author's past employment as an Air Force major who really knows a.) what weapons are out there and b.) what damage an electromagnetic pulse could really wreak. It is disturbing, as birds fall from the sky and animals break and run. Everything goes haywire. Watches stop, planes fall, car engines fail. No computers, cash registers, automatic doors, elevators...

Because former Major Bick is also Dr. Bick, child psychologist, her additional insights into the complexities of the young human mind fine tune and ratchet up the novel's freak factor. There's no shortage of reactions and emotions in this novel - people are full of fears and bravado and behave with craven cowardice, heroism, and sheer cussedness. Bad Things Happen -- and over and over the characters are saved. People begin to believe in Fate. However, at times, the reader often doesn't know what to root for, what to wish or hope for.

Which merely heightens the suspense.

A lot of the questions that could have come up in this novel were unexplored by virtue of it being set in the Northeast/Midwest and peopled solely by Caucasian Anglo-Saxon folk, which is often a failing of dystopias (apparently only Caucasians will survive the end of the world). Because there's no discussion of putting aside ancient rivalries or old racial tensions to work for the preservation of humanity - those sorts of discussion, which would have added further richness and texture to the plot, are missing from ASHES. It may be that the author figured with the multiple "changed," "awakened" and "chosen" people designations, adding in ethnic and gender categories might have created simply too many groups. Maybe it was oversight. As this is the first novel in Bick's trilogy, she may have some thoughts on the matter later - or not.

Concerning Character: Alex is a girl with a lot on her mind. Cutting school to get out and try and straighten her head out, carrying the ashes of her parents with her, is either the best thing she's ever done, or the most dangerous. She's independent, tough-minded, and fed up with her life, and against her aunt's wishes, she leaves to rough it in the countryside for ten or twelve days.

When the "zap," as she calls it later, happens, she's just met up with a kind-but-nosy old man, his grumpy eight year old granddaughter, Ellie, and their dog.

And then the world falls apart.

Alex is left with flashbacks of terrifying human atrocities that she can't handle, responsibilities she doesn't need, abilities she never knew she had, and a renewed fears that a ticking time bomb inside her body could change everything - for the much, much worse.

Meeting Tom, a young soldier survivor of the catastrophe, means that now she has someone on hand that she can maybe trust -- maybe. He's hero material and handy, good with Ellie, and very easy on the eyes, but there's a darkness in him -- he has secrets of his own. What is he running from, other than those whose brains have been zapped. Why was he in the woods so far away from his posting in Afghanistan? Was he really deserting?

Midway through the novel, the dramatis personae changes, and Alex is exposed to a whole new group of people - with their own rules, beliefs, and quirks. Characters in this novel aren't always who they appear to be at first - and Alex learns that while sometimes, people can be trusted to show their true colors, likely, they don't...

Recommended for Fans Of...: EPITAPH ROAD, any of the Susan Beth Pfeffer trilogy, Meg Rosoff's HOW I LIVE NOW, Brian Yansky's ALIEN INVASIONS, AND OTHER INCONVENIENCES, though without Yansky's light touches of humor. If you like your dystophia fast and filled with menace, this one's for you.

Themes & Things: In a dystophia, of course the theme is survival. Alex, Ellie and Tom reconfigure the meaning of the word family to make it the three of them, and Alex struggles with ideas of loyalty, compassion, and determination.

As always, dystophia also has an understated discussion about technology -- those in charge always control it, and all resources, and the rest of everyone else has to scramble and scrounge. This opens up a discussion of a caste system, which in this novel is something much darker. How do people determine who is worthy of being the one to hold technology, have food and shelter, or carry forth the brave new world? With God's help...?

What happens if you're not quite sure about the God thing -- or the motives and actions of the people left in charge?

ASHES hits bookstores the first week in September. Find it at an indie near you.

August 04, 2011

Adventures in Writing Voice

Happy Thursday, guys! This week is mostly work, work, work, but in the process of doing some of that work, I came across some great tips on characterization and voice on Cockeyed Caravan, the blog of Matt Bird (husband to fab blog friend Betsy Bird of Fuse #8 and recent father of the Baby Bird). Matt is a screenwriter, but his blog posts about various aspects of storytelling and writing pertain just as well to the fiction writer.

I ran across a few choice posts from Matt's blog as I was putting together a handout on voice for an upcoming teen writing workshop I'm doing (if you're in the Seattle area, it's on Aug. 9, 4:00 pm, Lynnwood library). He's got an entire series of posts on putting together a compelling character. In particular, Part 3 (Choose a Metaphor Family) and Part 4 (Determine Their Verbal DNA) have some great tips for finding a character's speaking voice. As Matt put it: "So far I’ve focused on how to make characters compelling through behavior, but, alas, eventually they have to open their mouths, too."

Seriously, though, there's some great practical advice for making your characters' voices distinctive and making your writing sing. Like this: "You need a way to find hard-and-fast rules that always govern how a character talks, even as their emotional state varies and their general attitude shifts. This is their verbal DNA." He's even got a chart. We love charts.

If you're looking for more voice advice, check out this Suite101 article on Finding an Authentic Voice in Writing for Young Adults and another one with Character Voice Writing Exercises, and It's Not What They Say on Writing-World for hints on making your characters' speech come to life.

August 03, 2011

WCOB Wednesday: The Dragonsdome Chronicles

It's time for another Wicked Cool Wednesday!

The book I'll chat about today comes by its "overlooked" status by virtue of the fact that it came out in 2009 - not sure if there was a time difference to when the novel came out in the US vs. the UK, but it's out, and it's been out, and I haven't heard a word about it. I know very well that some of the fantasy fans in the room would really love this one, so here goes:

Y'know, it's not every day that I turn the pages of a book of high fantasy for the middle grade audiences.

For some reason, books of high fantasy in general seem to be a dying breed. Add in the age factor, and you've got tumbleweeds rolling across the plains -- high fantasy seems to be written with gamers and guys in mind, not middle grade kids, or girls.

Reader Gut Reaction: Our title is The Dragon Whisperer, by Lucinda Hare.

This book is classic high fantasy. It's got language -- it doesn't stint on those rich descriptive details, full of vivid colors, sounds, and smells. It's got unspeakable evil, and a just war. It's got heroes and heroines, queens and quislings, traitors and tacticians and ... it's like reading a middle grade version of Lord of the Rings, but with hobgoblins, gnomes, dwarves, and ...prejudice.

Eh, what's that, you ask? Yes, prejudice. Actually, there's a bit of that in the most classic of high fantasy novels, the LOTR series. You'll recall - elves wafting around being superior to dwarves, dwarves believing themselves to be superior to hobbits. The Dragon Whisperer adds human beings, which means there's hardcore issues between people. It's all dealt with - subtly. Which is A Good Thing.

There are Evil Beings in this book - there are questionable people, of course, and there are hobgoblins, which are a bit inhuman, which is helpful in differentiating Good Guys from Bad Guys. They're also kept away from the reader, so though we see their movements, we're only given to understand what's going on, a little at the time. The periodic visits to their settlement definitely up the dread factor, as the reader realizes there's Trouble Afoot before the heroine.

Overall, the story arc is good - the characters grow and change, and there's plenty of room for a sequel, yet the story episode is tied together sufficiently.

Concerning Character: Our heroine, Quenelda DeWinter is eleven, and human. She loves her father, her dashing half-brother, Darcy, and the battledragons which protect the kingdom. She has always wanted to fly with her father, who is the commander of the Stealth Dragon Services (SDS), and the Queen's champion, though her brother has shown a complete disinterest in the greater dragons, and prefers the pomp and ceremony of the unicorn guard.

The kingdom is at war with the hobgoblins, and it has been brutal. There has been much death, and many dragons have been sacrificed to the cause. Quenelda is unlike other girls her age, and wants to do something about it. The trouble is, with her flights of fancy and dreams of glory, no one takes her seriously. There has never been a girl in the SDS. Ever.

The war has left gnome Root Oakley without a family or a place. Because of his father's valor on behalf of the Queen, he has gone from being an apprentice dragonmaster for the dwarf, Tangnost, to being the esquire of Earl DeWinter's daughter. It was bad enough working around hippogriffs (squee!), griffins, unicorns, and lesser dragons, cleaning their tack, scooping up their poo, and caring for their fodder, but now he's expected to go near a battledragon -- and fly after the Earl's daughter?! She hates him! And, there have never been gnomes who ride dragons. Ever.

You see the problem...

Recommended for Fans Of...: The Lord of the Rings. No, seriously. Also, fans of the Eragon series, the Harry Potter book, Susan Cooper's The Dark is Rising series, Cornelia Funke's Igraine the Brave, Sherwood Smith's Wren to the Rescue series, Patricia Wrede's Dealing With Dragons series, and etc., ad infinitum. will find something here to love.

Themes & Things:I've already mentioned the theme of prejudice - who we like and why is subtly put forth as an idea, and embroidered upon. Are there right "people" to like, and wrong ones? Does it matter who someone's mother was, or if they don't know? Readers will find themselves indignant at some of Quenelda's unthinking assumptions, and learn along with her how much it hurts to be on the receiving end of an assumption. The other clear theme in this book is friendship, trust, and Doing The Thing You Think You Cannot Do. Too young, too small, too weak, too scared, too hurt, too shy -- none of that matters when Right needs to be done. Real heroines and heroes have to suck it up, and step up to the plate.

Despite the myriad details going on in the books dealing with Treachery and Dark Forces, that friendship comes through as a clean and bright thing... much like in books about a boy wizard, which means this series will be doubly endearing to many.

Authorial Asides: As previously mentioned, this is Lucinda Hare's first book. A creative writer and illustrator, this Scotswoman was introduced to Tolkien at the age of eleven, and her love for that history, legend, and fantasy seriously informs this book, in a tribute kind of way that is a touch derivative, but respectful, and provides an entry into the genre for younger readers. Hare slips readers deftly into her world, and confidently pilots them through a bewildering array of names and cultures and makes it all seem easy. Through her skill, I was able to read the book in one sitting, and discover the glossary after I finished reading it.

Amusingly, the one word which wasn't defined that I had to have a moment's thought over was haar -- which I then realized I knew. It's a word that means a yellowy thick sea fog, in Scots English. I've heard that one before!

As previously stated, this book came out in 2009. A sequel, Flight to Dragon's Isle followed just last year, and is already highly sought after (there's a bit of a line) at the library (which is where I got this copy, FCC, thanks).

You can find THE DRAGON WHISPERER, and its sequel, at an independent bookstore near you!

August 01, 2011

Random Monday Madness: Archie in Hindi, and More

That's right, I said Archie in Hindi. Your old pals Archie, Betty, and Veronica are getting a South Asian makeover, and will soon be released in Hindi and Malayalam for audiences in India. Says the article:

"Fans can now expect Archie and Veronica to dance to the popular Bollywood number 'Aakhon ki gustakhiyaa' or see the gang sing some popular songs like the college classic 'Purani jeans' and oldie 'Kankariya maar ke jagaya' as smart chicks walk past the brood," [the co-CEO of Archie comics] added.
I'm sort of not sure how to react, to be honest. I kind of want to giggle. And I kind of feel horrified, like it's just another example of the McDonalds-ization and Disney-fication of everything. But really, if it's marketable and kids like reading it, I guess I'll just scratch my head and say ooookay.

Link courtesy of the SCBWI Expression newsletter.

On a totally different note, hooray for girls and science! My mom forwarded me an article entitled First-Place Sweep by American Girls at First Google Science Fair, and as I read it my mouth dropped in amazement at the amazing things budding scientists can do these days. You don't even want to know how lame MY science projects were.

Hey, parents and librarians and such: want author Laurel Snyder to come to your school? You're in luck--she's doing a HUGE Skype tour: 100 schools in 100 days, talking about writing and about her new book, BIGGER THAN A BREAD BOX. Go check it out.

And, just a tiny plug, if you're in the Seattle area and you know any teens interested in writing: I (ME!) will be at the Lynnwood library on August 9 giving an hour-long workshop on voice. Jooooiiinnnn uuusssss.....