March 31, 2012

TURNING PAGES: Gift, by Andrea J. Buchanan

CREEPY. I think that's the word we're looking for here. WEIRD, dark, disturbing, with a Gothic feel. Those are the words that came to mind as I read this book. Andrea J. Buchanan, with the help of Open Road Media, has created an experience - an ebook, book trailers, original composed music, and a graphic novel. This is a project I can see appealing to young adults to read - and to create for themselves.

Reader Gut Reaction: I'm not really into ghost stories, as such. I am, however, one who can give kudos to a really creepy premise, and I think this will elicit goosebumps for tween readers, if not for others who don't do hardcore horror.

As is often the case in YA novels, the adults who could be told are either keeping secrets of their own, disinterested, or unavailable. The one adult who knew that something was going on was discredited dramatically. The one quibble I had with the novel was that at the conclusion, one character took the fall for everything - and then exits, stage left, and no one mourns her. She has fallen victim to the ghost's schemes, as do most of the other main characters, and yet she's the only one who doesn't get away with it?

Concerning Character: Daisy is ...normal. Relentlessly so, at least on the surface. She's average and nice enough, but doesn't attract attention. She avoids too much entanglement with other students, because she tends to zap them. Static electricity, and sometimes stronger electrical disruptions - seem to flow from her body. She kills any technology she touches - it's just how it goes. No iPhone, no MP3 player. No computer. A wind-up alarm clock. This is Daisy's world, and she's always trying to hold it together, because getting out of control might mean blowing it all up - or blowing it out, anyway. There was this incident at her last school...

Daisy has one good friend, one teacher she really likes, and... that's pretty much her life. She lives alone with her mother in a technology-starved manufactured home (we can't really call it a trailer if it doesn't roll). She has Secrets, and feels no one can ever really know her.

Daisy's best friend, Danielle, knows Daisy's secret, and actually has kept it - which occasionally surprises Daisy. As a character, Danielle is only lightly sketched - she's a little edgy, a little brash and impatient with Daisy's tech-free world, and a little sarcastic. We know that her mother keeps a fairly tight rein on her. Later, we are told her secrets - secrets she was unwilling for anyone to find out.

And then, there's Vivi - the odd girl out. While she sails confidently through the halls, she's utterly disconnected from everyone. To Daisy she seems self-possessed, and then... she discovers how little of Vivi's self is really left. She's absolutely positive that Daisy is supposed to be something to her -- something which will be revealed in time. Vivi is completely baffling, wafting through the halls at school with a secret smile, talking to ...herself... Daisy both worries for her, and is utterly freaked out by her; Danielle finds her repellent.

Vivi is also a less dimensional character, but most readers won't mind; her mother thinks she's possessed, she's been suicidal, she's the stereotypical Troubled Girl everyone has heard about.

It doesn't make sense that these three are friends - except, they have to be. Vivi's imaginary friend, Patrick, said they're all connected... but who takes their orders from a ghost?

Recommended for Fans Of...: Breathe, and other ghost stories by master-spooker Cliff McNish, Look for me by Moonlight, by Mary Downing Hahn, the works of Vivian Vande Velde, and the Nightworld series by L.J. Smith. Lovers of lush, over-the-top, creepy, Gothic tales will enjoy this light, quick read.

Themes & Things: This book is more atmosphere than anything else, but the lightly touched on theme might be simply stated as - Use what you have, don't let it use you. That's pretty much the same message of Star Wars, really. Use the Force, don't go to the dark side. Or something like that.

Cover Chatter: Since this book is only in digital form, the cover doesn't seem to be as important - and yet, care has been taken that it matches the storyline well - all the lovely electrical currents crawling all over, and Daisy's hair standing on end works beautifully. The graphic novel included in the book is illustrated by Alexis Seabrook, and the music -- yes, there's music! -- is by Fredrik Larsson, a Swedish musician who will probably be signing in record deals soon. Altogether, this is a really engaging package, and makes the story a full experience.

FTC, this ARC came from NetGalley; my opinions are my own.

You can find GIFT by Andrea J. Buchanan at Amazon, B&N, Google Books, Kobo, and Overdrive, or you can find the audio version, complete with four original songs plus the narration from these same sources. It's also available on iTunes, where you get the complete package with text effects and everything.

March 30, 2012


There's a smell, when old books have congregated in a room for a long while - the dust of the ages, scented with bits of memory - perfumes, soaps, perspiration, exhalation from the reader. The homey smells of glue and fabric stretched over heavy board, the odd leather binding, cracked with age, the slightly yellowed, rough-edged pages of an old book with watermarked pages... and the idea that there are within treasures and hoards of stories one hasn't yet read.

How could I resist a novel set in a bookstore? A mysterious novel, at that?

Reader Gut Reaction: I finished this book easily, but I struggle to describe it. The three distinct storylines woven through it are of O helping her aunt out physically - through the agonies of angina and her physical neglect of both her home and the bookshop. The second thread is Emily's memories of a scary childhood event with an überscary Magician, and the third thread is the present-tense business of the bookshop, which at first seems straightforward - buying a load of first editions from a wealthy family moving away - a coup that might just keep her aunt in business. However, tangled with the books is a mystery which deepens and darkens, and has drawn both aunt and niece into something they never suspect -- until it is well too late.

The threads are not always evenly woven; readers of less "quiet" books might be frustrated by the enigmatic nature of the text. The novel is atmospheric and slow-paced, giving plenty of space for Emily's love of poets, poetry, and the written word to influence the reader. The intergenerational relationship between a teen and an elderly woman create a summer which Kirkus called "transformative" for O.

Concerning Character: O - who loathes the name Ophelia and the madness of Hamlet's namesake ladyfriend - is a quirky character. She is almost less of a person than a collection of ...opinions. The author indicates that she's an atypical teen in a number of ways -- there is an "incident" on an airplane that's referred to but never explained, but the upshot is that O does not fly. She does not do any number of things that "ordinary" teens are meant to do, and inasmuch as her father is worried about the health of his eccentric poet older sister, he seems worried in equal parts about his daughter. The chance to send them to each other seems nothing less than fortunate. O herself dislikes quirkiness as she finds it in herself, and fears eccentricity -- she believes her aunt is short a few bricks. She worries that she, too, is losing her mind - and this makes her more believable and sympathetic. Sure, she sees crazy people everywhere, but at least she knows the truth: if it's them, it's her, too.

Meanwhile, Emily, O's aunt, seems to be ...beyond eccentric. For one thing, she seems quite frail, and O fears she is losing her grip -- at first. When her mind wanders to spooky, creepy things that have happened in the past, the reader wonders, "Really?!" and then feels a sense of impending doom... whatever IT was, it is surely coming again. Eek. When she and O are at last in step with their suspicions and fears, the author uses atmosphere to truly Gothic effect - some well placed shivers.

An ephemeral homeless boy -- or is he homeless? Or a real boy? Emily's poet friends, and the others who wander in and out of the scene set in the bookstore come and go, mere background to mainly what's going on in the character's heads.

Between the haunting characters in the bookshop, a moment of time travel, and a boy who flits in and out of O's life, the book left quite a few ends dangling - unfinished. I was shocked to discover that it's a sequel, so perhaps the author intends to tie up loose ends in another novel? An unfortunate choice, as a final chapter might have allowed the climax to feel a bit less rushed, and would have given us a better sense of closure.

Recommended for Fans Of...: Oddly enough, the Hilary McKay books come to mind when I think of this book - the slowness of the pacing, the eccentricity of the family, and the satisfying intersection of adults and their art. This book might also appeal to those who like slow and beautiful books, like the works of Eva Ibbotson, and readers of William Blake may also enjoy the imagery and evocative turns of phrase.

Cover Chattter: The beautifully carved wooden sign that hangs above the bookshop both interests and unnerves O - and the cover of the novel which depicts a green man goes well with the novel. According to Wikipedia, that font of all knowledge, "the Green Man is often related to natural vegetative deities springing up in different cultures throughout the ages. Primarily it is interpreted as a symbol of rebirth, or "renaissance," representing the cycle of growth each spring," which fits in with the idea of this as a transformative novel. An excellent cover choice for the type of book, I think.

FTC/FCC, This ARC comes from NetGalley; my opinions are unsolicited and are my own.

After April 10, you can find THE GREEN MAN by Michael Bedard at an independent bookstore near you!

March 29, 2012

Thursday Review: SHIP OF SOULS by Zetta Elliott

Reader Gut Reaction: I tend to think there needs to be more contemporary-setting fantasy for the middle grade/younger YA set—without vampires or werewolves, thank you very much—and I particularly like to see fantasy novels with multicultural characters in them. So I was excited to get the opportunity to read Zetta Elliott's Ship of Souls, which takes place in Brooklyn and includes a realistically diverse cast of characters. Brooklyn might not be the first place you'd think of when you think about urban fantasy, but add in a venerable old park, some ancient monuments, a mysterious bird-spirit, and a whole, er, boatload of restless ghosts, and you've got the setup for an intriguing ghostly adventure.

Concerning Character: Dmitri, or D, is a great narrator—he's a smart kid who's trying to muddle along and be strong in the wake of his mother's death, but that's hard to do when your world has turned upside down and you're living with a foster mother. Endearingly, he wants to do everything right, and he really is a good guy, but he still feels set apart from his classmates at his new school. The two new friends he makes couldn't be more different from one another—Hakeem is a Muslim basketball star D is tutoring in math, and Nyla is a worldly-wise, mouthy military brat who hangs out with the self-confessed "freaks". But they quickly forge a bond when they're drawn into D's adventure. I loved that both Hakeem and Nyla are as multicultural as you can get, from diverse families, but in a way that was still realistic rather than seeming forced. I also liked D's foster mother Mrs. Martin, although I kind of wished she'd had a bigger part somehow.

Recommended for Fans Of...: Fantasy that blends aspects of the contemporary and historical, like Susan Cooper's Dark Is Rising sequence, or historical fantasy with a lot of ghosts and cloak-and-dagger business like the Theodosia books by R.L. LaFevers.

Themes & Things: As I mentioned, this book had plenty of fantastical adventure, even Goonies-style crawling through underground passages. In fact, I couldn't help wishing that more time had been spent on the fantastical plot elements. The aspect of this novel that dealt with the developing friendship between D, Hakeem, and Nyla was particularly strong and really nicely done, but I occasionally felt a little lost or rushed along when it came to the fantasy action. What really shone, though, was the idea that D comes to learn that he isn't alone, and that the bonds of friendship and family can appear in unexpected forms and places.

Authorial Asides: The author is a faithful fellow blogger--go check out Fledgling.

Review Copy Source: Publicity contact

You can find Ship of Souls by Zetta Elliott at an independent bookstore near you!

March 27, 2012

TURNING PAGES: Shadows on the Moon, by Zoë Marriott

When I first reviewed a Marriott book in 2009, I found a satisfying, well-paced adventure with a warrior-woman protagonist in DAUGHTER OF FLAMES. Fast forward years later, and seeing Zoë Marriott's name with a whisper of familiarity, and I delved eagerly into this new novel. I was glad I did. A complicated story which frustrated me sometimes, Shadows on the Moon nevertheless delivered on the Zoë Marriott Guarantee - a well-paced, satisfying adventure, filled with detail, led by a strong female with a survivor's spirit.

And now, to the story.

Reader Gut Reaction: I was surprised by the setting of the story - somewhere in Asia, I thought at first. There was a great deal of detail but it was nothing I could determine as belonging to one Asian country or another. The endnote reveals the truth: the story is set in Tsuki no Hikari no Kuni, or, The Moonlit Land, which is embroidered, whole cloth, from the writer's imagination. For an unreal landscape, it has a number of very real elements - instruments, hair ornaments, buildings, styles of court, and social hierarchy. The research that must have gone into this -- and the note-taking to keep Marriott on track must have been phenomenal.

Concerning Character: This novel is touted as being "Cinderella set in feudal Japan." Fortunately, nothing so simplistic comes to mind after a close reading. Suzume is a little spoiled - an only child of noble birth, but she is learning to grow up and be better. Later, in her incarnation as Rin, her capacity for swallowing her the pain of the past, and putting on a serene face becomes even more ingrained. As Yue, she puts on a mask - of her true self - and her gift imbued with that self leaves everyone stunned. Who is this girl, really? And of what is she capable? That's the question which Suzume asks for the whole of the novel. When the strong foundation of her character is tested, she bends, but she doesn't break. Though the bend almost becomes a permanent blemish, she straightens, she strengthens, and she wins.

Recommended for Fans Of...: Ash, by Malinda Lo, Ella Enchanted, by Gail Carson Levine, Trickster's Queen, by Tamora Pierce, and other fab novels with strong female characters who manage to save themselves.

Themes & Things: This novel is packed full -- full! -- of thematic subject matter. There are cultural issues, mother-daughter issues, greed and avarice, themes of identity and self-harm. There are themes of social hierarchy, gender differences, injustice and revenge. And then there's the romance... I feared at first that this book was so issue-laden that we would lose sight of the character and her elemental desire, but though the details were numerous, the novel was never out of control. While at times I felt a question asked here or there would have thinned down some of the angst to a dull roar, at the pivotal moment, when it really mattered, all of the issues, noise, and drama fell away. The greatest theme of all is choosing happiness; if we don't learn to achieve happiness as we go along, we can at least decide to grab it when we realize what it is.

Cover Chatter: Pluses for both covers include an Asian model. Minuses for both novels include a face on a cover - I really have come to prefer an object. However, both novels use elements of flora and fauna to represent Asian culture and the main character. I rather like the British cover better, which came out in 2011 over here. The pale circle of the face of the model from the American version makes her look a bit washed-out and ethereal -- and see-through, but I suspect the book designer attempted to deliberately tried to make her look like the moon. I prefer the healthy sliver of face which appears on the British novel, and the masses of cherry blossoms, which are often repeated within the novel. The typeface choice is interesting, and appears in pale pink, deep pink, and black. On the American version, the bamboo backdrop and meekly lowered eyes seem unnecessarily "Asian-esque mystique," and stereotypical.

Authorial Asides: Last autumn this British author did a little writing week at The Book Memoirs. Well worth reading for tips on process.

NB, FCC/FTC: This ARC was a courtesy of NetGalley; my views are my own.

After April 24, you can find SHADOWS ON THE MOON by Zoë Marriott at an independent bookstore near you!

March 26, 2012

Monday Musing

Translation of "Monday Musing" = I didn't manage to write up a formal post for today, so I'm going to ramble instead. Ignore if so desired.

In fact, I'm going to make a confession here and perhaps puncture an illusion or two in the process. I am not, it turns out, one of those writers who doggedly and determinedly works on my writing every day. Or even every other day. Oh, most days of the week I write SOMETHING--a freelance article, or journal-esque ramblings, or (gulp) a blog post. But I don't sit down every day to work on my WIP.

Whew. There. I said it.

The thing is, I've figured out that it isn't a lack of discipline. It is a rather lamentable inability to prioritize my personal creative work, combined with no small talent in the area of procrastination. I have trouble seeing my creative endeavors as more important than everything else, when they very probably ARE. This problem extends to my artwork, too, perhaps even more so than my writing. I have trouble telling myself that it's OKAY to leave those papers in a massive toppling pile, it's okay to vacuum tomorrow instead of right now, it's okay to consider lessening my other responsibilities so I can address my need to make stuff. We live in a society that encourages us to believe the very opposite, in fact, and it's difficult to withstand that pressure. It's difficult to compete with that inner voice saying that my paying job is where I need to devote my time and energy, that I should spend more time with my family, that I should address those commitments I've already made to other people before tackling my own projects--because those are all compelling arguments and it's hard to say they're wrong.

I wonder how other creative types handle this dilemma, assuming I'm not the only lucky person to struggle with it. :) I know I can't possibly be, although it's in the nature of this particular beast that it feels very isolating and tends to lead to a downward spiral of self-criticism.

I found some thoughtful insights on the inner critic over at Wordswimmer. There are also some interesting lists of creative tips on the website of creativity coach Eric Maisel.

March 22, 2012

Toon Thursday: A Rerun, but a Good One

This one's for Jules especially, and all my weird-solicitation-receiving kidlitosphere homies.

To be fair, the amount of inappropriate books that actually ARRIVE in the mail is far lower now than when I originally drew this cartoon. However, the e-mail solicitations continue and range from things like "if you rewrite your blog post with links to our site and become a shameless marketing shill, we'll pay you BIG BUX" to "would you like to review our book about swingers?" So, I thought I'd run this one again.

The other reason for the re-run is that, guys, I am TIRED this week. So I made a bit of an executive decision that it's a Toon Thursday spring break, as a little early birthday present to myself. Not that I don't love drawing the toons, but I also love reducing my workload and, thereby, reducing my stress, at least temporarily. In the meantime, go check out this intriguing new site called 20SomethingReads ("A time to re-discover reading for pleasure"--great tagline, eh?), give a virtual visit to the upcoming LA Times Festival of Books (which I would dearly love to attend someday), and read this interview with Friends With Boys author Faith Erin Hicks, all shamelessly pulled from the Graphic Novel Reporter newsletter. Enjoy!

March 20, 2012



Stirling 229

Despite the fact that the trees are practically being leveled by the wind, or there's slush blowing sideways, or there's ankle-deep rain where you live - by the calendar, at least, the vernal equinox begins today, flower children. Spread your roots and get ready for those petals to unfurl...

March Madness has gotten a great jumpstart in the poetry field. I go daily and vote and read and ...just wonder. I am startled at how many poets I know (for a given value of 'know,' meaning lurking at their blogs and meeting them maybe once in person). There are a tremendous number of talented people working with children and working with words, and it gives me a big happy. Plus: the whole thing is crazy fun. There are some random words being handed out, and some on-the-spot poets making up poetry to go along with them. It doesn't always succeed as well as they might expect, but more often than not, it doesn't fail. Which is simply astounding. Thanks to the brain of Ed DeCaria - or, possibly, his alter ego, Charles Mund - for coming up with the tremendous idea, putting in so much work for the polls and scoreboards, and just for making it fun.

Meanwhile, every weekend Tech Boy and I make a point of sitting down and watching Crash Course for our little knowledge nugget. I've already mentioned John Green doing the amazing Crash Course History, but I'm loving Hank Green's Crash Course in biology - and laughing because the first video Tech Boy said, "Wait. Isn't that the same guy?" Er, no. And clearly, Hank needs to do a section on genetics and why brothers look alike. And sound alike. And occasionally do things alike, like, you know, teach people via Youtube. Also, Tech Boy needs to get out more. Anyway.

If you're like AF and I, you grew up playing boardgames - endless games of Monopoly and Scrabble, LIFE, and Risk. If you're like AF and Tech Boy, you took those board games one step further and played role player games that allowed you to tell stories and create new worlds from your imagination. If you grew up with games, I think you'll be interested to hear about Tabletop.

Stirling 228Produced by Geek & Sundry - an amazingly funny group of people creating amusingly eccentric media (if you've watched the webseries The Guild, you're familiar with the main masterminds) - Tabletop, which premiers on April 2, is hosted by the one and only Wil Wheaton, who is Wesley Crusher with a beard and a real life. I'm totally going to watch it, because a.) they got Grant Imahara to play with them, and he'd probably be fun to watch just doing his shopping, much less playing a game where he might LOSE and b.) they play Settlers of Catalan. I have heard much about this game.

Other offerings on Geek & Sundry look to be just as cool, including bringing Dark Horse Comics to life with "motion graphics," and a SFF bookclub podcast-turned-video show called "Swords & Lasers". And, of course, The Guild.

While I'm talking webseries, I want to point you to Unintentionally Awesome, a show about a girl who, because her fabulous, glamorous sister is Going To Be An Actress, must move away from all she's known. She enrolls in a new high school and almost immediately runs afoul of a nasty Mean Girl, and her completely clueless - but occasionally amusingly sharp -- Mini Me sidekick. Mallory makes a friend - a fellow geek - and together they weather the usual trials and ironies of high school. And yes, that wide-eyed little geeklet you see trailing after the popular Mean Girl? Why, she does look familiar - because she's Little Willow who blogs at Bildungsroman. Unintentionally Awesome has been accepted into the Hollyweb Festival, screening March 31st at Dim Mak Studios in Hollywood, so fingers crossed that there will be more episodes...

We're graphic novel aficionados around these parts, and are excited to discover a new serial comic online. Bad Machinery, by John Allison was recently given props by Hark, A Vagrant!'s Kate Beaton as a series to watch, and she's right - it's really worth the time. For me, it's hilarious because it features a group of tweens living in Manchester, and has a lot of similarities to the community I observed in Glasgow. I'm eager to get my hands on a copy of Murder, She Writes, John Allison's first (I think) graphic novel on the series, but until then, there are tons of episodes online of the teens solving mysteries. Hilariously WEIRD mysteries. The author kindly organizes them with a "newbies start here" kind of order, so you don't miss anything. It's good fun.

So, there you have it - maybe not much sun yet, but some reasons to smile anyway this first day of Spring.

March 19, 2012

Monday Preview: COURTNEY CRUMRIN, VOL. 1 by Ted Naifeh

Courtney Crumrin, Vol. 1: The Night Things, Special Edition, a fantasy adventure by Ted Naifeh, was recently sent to me in galley form by Oni Press. This special color edition re-release of the original title (which I'm now reading for the first time) is available next month.

Reader Gut Reaction: Anyone who likes the over-the-top Gothic atmosphere and dark, mordant humor of Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events will want to check out this first volume in what promises to be a series packed with somewhat hyperbolic but entertaining magical misadventures. Courtney Crumrin's rather vapidly social-climbing parents have moved her out to rich Uncle Aloysius's creepy old house in a posh suburb full of mean rich kids, but Courtney is soon to find out that her uncle's quite a bit more than just an eccentric old dude...

The visual feel for this one is sort of a blend between traditional comics (reminds me just a little of some of the '90s Sandman art) and a more informal, fun, cartoon-y, funny-papers style. Anyway, it works, and the extra covers and concept art at the end were enjoyable.

Concerning Character: Courtney is set up to be the heroine who's a fish out of water in both her family and her new neighborhood, but she isn't by any means insipid—she's got sass, even a little bit of attitude, and is determined to survive. The peripheral characters, for the most part (including her parents) are a bit exaggerated for humorous purposes, but Uncle Aloysius gets fleshed out into a rather intriguing and even sympathetic character. As a reader, it was satisfying to watch the development of their relationship.

Image thanks to No Flying No Tights,
an awesome website about comics.
Recommended for Fans Of...: Anyone who was a fan of the Lemony Snicket series and wants to move on to something intended for a slightly older audience would probably enjoy this one. Fans of magical or paranormal-type fantasy with a lot of humor, like Anya's Ghost (reviewed here) or Friends With Boys (reviewed here), both of which also happen to be stories about being new in school.

Themes & Things: As I mentioned, the development of the relationship between Courtney and Uncle Aloysius was the most satisfying thematic thread for me—it gave the story added stability as it veered in and out of silliness and even satire. And, of course, the idea of being new and not fitting in at school is always a classic theme; in this case, Courtney has good reason to not fit in, and what's more, she really wouldn't WANT to, even if she could. So this story's got the added plus of sending the message that you don't have to conform to be happy.

Review Copy Source: Publisher

You can find Courtney Crumrin, Vol. 1: The Night Things, Special Edition by Ted Naifeh at an independent bookstore near you!

March 15, 2012

Thursday Review: PAGE BY PAIGE by Laura Lee Gulledge

Page by Paige was a finalist in this year's Cybils Awards for YA Graphic Novels. Check out the author's blog for a sneak peek at her next YA graphic novel.

Reader Gut Reaction: The new kid in school. We've all been there, whether it's because we moved from one town to another, or by virtue of starting a new stage in our education: middle school, high school, college. For Paige Turner, she's also moving from Virginia to the big city of New York, and as a quiet artistic type, she's worried about fitting in, about finding friends, and about finding herself. So she keeps track of her roiling feelings in a sketchbook/journal.

Teen readers, particularly girls, with an artistic/intellectual side will probably gravitate towards this one. Not only that, the visual encapsulations of her feelings and the sketchbook-as-journal will feel very familiar for a lot of teen readers, who will relate to Paige's troubles in expressing—and moving past—her feelings. I thought the visual aspects of this one were outstanding, both artistically and conceptually, and did a great job of communicating both the story and the more pensive, in-her-head nature of the protagonist.

Fun Fact: In case you were rolling your eyes at the fact that the narrator was named "Paige Turner" by her writer parents, my husband IN ACTUAL FACT had a student one semester—an art student, even—named Paige Turner. Really. Not making it up.

Concerning Character: Paige's introspectiveness, her self-doubt, will be immediately recognizable and relatable to many readers. By the same token, her stubbornness and willingness to try to be herself were inspiring, and the results hopeful and satisfying. Paige's parents are fleshed out as people, not just cardboard cutouts, and the artist grandma was a cute idea for a mentor, although in some ways her advice seemed a bit convenient. Paige's friends were all appealing and quirky, from her best friend Diana back in Virginia to her diverse and motley group of comic-reading, music-loving new friends in NYC. And how much do I love the fact that they're self-described ethnic mutts?

Recommended for Fans Of...: Stories about being new in school, or even new in town, which there seem to be plenty of right now in graphic novel format, happily: Friends With Boys by Faith Erin Hicks is a good one (reviewed here), as is Americus by MK Reed (reviewed here) and any of Hope Larson's books. Also, stories with artist characters like The Plain Janes by Cecil Castellucci (reviewed here).

Themes & Things: The story of being the new kid in school is, of course, a classic theme. However, I really liked the aspect of the story that deals with creativity, self-examination, and learning to let yourself be YOU, foibles and all; and the emphasis on the fact that true friends will forgive you your faults and boo-boos. I even think that part could have been developed more, though it probably didn't quite fit in the scope of the book. Still, I couldn't help wondering more about the context of the story—where did Jules and her friends fit in at their school, in a larger sense? Were they misfits? Well-liked? I suppose in a way the point is that it doesn't matter how they fit in at school because they're comfortable in their own skin and with one another...and they're helping Paige learn to feel comfortable, too.

Review Copy Source: Publisher (Cybils review copy)

You can find Page by Paige by Laura Lee Gulledge at an independent bookstore near you!

March 14, 2012

Happy 3.14

Rustic Blueberry Creme Pie

Pi. It's what's for breakfast.
(I wish. Unfortunately, it would mean making a crust, and I really have revisions to do before TOMORROW. Tech Boy is coming home from work soon, though. And I have blueberries... 3.14159265 plus blueberries wins!)

(And yes, I am a big dork. Were you expecting someone else?)

March 13, 2012

TURNING PAGES: Grave Mercy, by Robin LaFevers

The first thing you need to know: this novel is out on April 3rd. That's just twenty days from now, so you have time to put your house in order before it sucks you in, and you lose an entire afternoon.

Secondly, we've interviewed the author, Robin LaFevers (AKA "Fabulous LaFevers), here at Wonderland before, and consider her a friend of the blog. This doesn't mean it's not an honest review, but that we're maybe a tad... giddy in our adjectival usage. Pay no attention to the squeeing, jumping-up-and-down bloggers, all right?

This review is a skotch early, so just think of it in terms of a preview.

Reader Gut Reaction: The writing never gets in the way of the story. That was my initial thought. Somehow, Robin writes, and you lose her author's voice entirely. It's like a voiceover in a film - it drops away, and there you are, in the action. I heard the priest mumbling, saw the ugly smile on Ismae's stepfather's face, smelled the clammy, damp earth in the blackness of the root cellar, and felt the fierce exultation when she figured out her true purpose, as one of St. Mortain's... The convent is satisfying, and has elements of parochial school that bring a smile. The friendships are believable, and the romance builds upon itself in such a way that when it finally catches fire, its sizzle is worth the wait.

Concerning Character: Seventeen-year-old Ismae has lived in the shadows, for her whole life. The daughter of a turnip farmer and his downtrodden wife, her life has been a series of beatings and cowering on the edges of things. Her scarred back is not attractive, but less attractive is the fear she engenders - and the rage in her father and the other men of the village. At least her mother didn't use any excuse to beat her, or throw things. Now that Ismae's mother has died, marriage mightbe an escape from her father, but it turns out to be a deadlier trap than Ismae believed. With the unlikely aid of a priest and an herbwitch, Ismae is spirited away to the convent of St. Mortain -- the convent where she will learn to be a Handmaiden of Death -- an assassin.

It's not easy, completing all of the learning and work that is before her, but Ismae is confident that her life's work -- and her life's worth -- is tied up in watching to see the marque Death places upon the guilty, and being the knife in the dark - or the garotte or subtle poison - come at just the right time. She is no longer one of the sheep, but a true wolf in sheep's clothing - innocent, unassuming young woman, demure and coy, her wrist circled in a fine gold bracelet -- which just so happens to turn into a garotte. Death's Handmaiden, through the advanced information of the seer at the convent, is always right -- always. Ismae's place as Death's daughter is to obey, and to act.

Except, action is not always straightforward - and waiting on will of gods is frustratingly slow, when the wrongs before her are so very clear! One strike, and she can right wrongs, restore balances, and clear the way for how things should be. A daughter of Death surely knows what her father-god desires, doesn't she? Unfortunately, life and death -- and finally, love -- turn out to be much more complicated than Ismae could have possibly dreamed.

Recommended for Fans Of...: Well, people have said this would appeal to fans of Graceling, by Kirsten Cashore, so I'll let that stand. Also for fans of the Victorian spy-girl novels of Y.S. Lee, of Megan Whalen Turner's Attolia books, of Elizabeth Bunce's Starcrossed/Thief Errant novels, Maria V. Snyder's Poison Study novels -- a lot like that, with well written and tense scenes of danger and desire -- and, to add something random, some fans of Michelle Jaffe's Bad Kitty series will probably like this, too. Just because.

Themes & Things: An unusual theme in an assassin novel is body image, but that's what we have going on here - Ismae is deeply ashamed of the mark that covers her, a "deep red stain that runs from my left shoulder down to my right hip, a trail left by the herbwitch's poison" -- the evidence that her mother took poison to abort her. This mark signals that she is one of Death's children, as the children of Death are disturbingly hard to kill. As Ismae grows in strength during her training, she begins to see her body differently - and eventually take not just pride but pleasure in it.

Further themes are to do with ethics -- again, a surprise, as we're already killing with the blessing of a god, so why quibble? -- revenge, loyalty, and independence. Without giving more away, these themes support an organically unfolding sense of each character, and supports believable plot progression as we discover more of who they are, how they think, and how they will react to the rolls of fortune's wheel.

Cover Chatter: (As usual, click to embiggen the cover.)

That's one hefty wee crossbow, there. And one big old dress. Who can shoot in that thing?? Well, Ismae, for one. Though many covers have no bearing whatsoever on the story inside of them, this whole dress-crossbow scene is actually in the book. Woot!

Both castle and crossbow - and embroidered gown sleeves - successfully invoke the book's era of 15th century Brittany, and create a powerful image for this historical romance.

Authorial Asides: This novel has a star from Publishers' Weekly, a star from Booklist, and a star from Kirkus... which must have felt extremely good to this author. Congratulations, Robin, you have so earned this. ☺

An intelligent novel with a gripping premise, a tautly woven web of tension and desire, a memorable romantic entanglement, and a satisfying conclusion. It's too early to talk beach reads, but I'd wager this one will be a great one for Spring Break. FTC TAKE NOTE: It's thanks to NetGalley for providing the ARC; my opinions are, as always, my own.

And it's coming soon - APRIL 3rd! You can find GRAVE MERCY by Robin LaFevers at an independent bookstore near you!

March 12, 2012

Monday Review: HEREVILLE by Barry Deutsch

Hereville: How Mirka Got Her Sword was a finalist in this year's Cybils Awards for Elementary/Middle Grade Graphic Novels. A few words about Hereville from the author's Amazon bio: "After graduating PSU, Barry created Hereville, an online comic book about the magical adventures of an 11 year old girl, and the very religious Jewish community she lives in. The Webcomics Examiner declared Hereville one of 'the best webcomics of the year' shortly after Hereville's premiere, in 2004." Our own Betsy Bird of Fuse #8 called it "the best graphic novel of 2010 for kids. Bar none." Read her review for an in-depth look at this book, or check out the various viewpoints in the roundtable discussion on Good Comics for Kids.

Reader Gut Reaction: Why all the extra external info? Well, I have to admit, this wasn't one that had crossed my radar until the Cybils, so I decided to do a little research before writing up my review. But how could I not be drawn in by that tagline, "Yet another troll-fighting 11-year-old Orthodox Jewish girl"? It's a fabulous hook, and it was paired with wonderful, appealing cover art. And I was really excited to read a fantasy story set in an Orthodox Jewish community, which is a culture I have limited knowledge of. It sounded cute, unique, and bold.

And it was all of those things. I have to admit, though...I had a few mixed feelings about this one. I'm going to say right off that I didn't end up as wholeheartedly enthused as many reviewers were. That's not to say I didn't enjoy it. I absolutely did. It provides a fascinating glimpse into the lives of an Orthodox Jewish family—the day-to-day aspects as well as the celebrations and beliefs and strictures and everything else, and the fairy-tale adventure aspect was great, too. Who doesn't love a swashbuckling girl heroine? Also, the cartooning was very good, very solid and very polished—funny when it was supposed to be, and informative when it needed to be.

Having said that, I worried that this one might be a little limited in terms of kid appeal. To me, it felt a bit teach-y at times. I'm sure plenty of readers wouldn't be bothered by it, but for me, it got in the way of the story from time to time, when I felt as though I was being informed instead of entertained. But it's a good story, and I would be horrified should my opinion stand in the way of others' enjoyment of what is really a charming and appealing book in many ways.

Concerning Character: As a heroine, 11-year-old Mirka immediately hooked me. She's spunky, funny, and longs for adventure in a way that exasperates her devout family and well-behaved siblings. And when she finally finds her adventure in the form of a talking pig and some other unexpected obstacles, we find that she doesn't have to be foul-mouthed like the girl in Kick-Ass to, well, kick ass. (Not that I didn't love that movie.) The other characters—her brother and sister, and even the villians—were enjoyable, and I also liked the fact that the stepmother was not an evil fairy-tale stepmother but actually quite wonderful.

But: I couldn't help wondering, over and over, where's the dad? I know this takes place in an Orthodox community where the women's and men's worlds are quite separate, but as far as I know, you'd still see the men from your immediate family, right? It felt weird—something seemed missing to me. He only appeared a couple of times, almost in passing. What we see is the world of the women and children, and in a way, this is probably an underrepresented viewpoint, so in that sense I think it's a good choice. Still, it gave me pause.

Recommended for Fans Of...: Fairy-tale adventures like Sarah Beth Durst's Into the Wild (reviewed here) and Out of the Wild; or fans of quirky fantasy adventures like The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making by Catherynne Valente (reviewed here).

Themes & Things: Adventure as a metaphor for learning to go forth into the world and rely on your own smarts and resources—a theme that is used to great effect in this book, and which is heightened by the fact of the story's setting in an Orthodox community, a place that is quiet and proper and decidedly non-adventuresome. At the same time, this isn't a story about rejecting where you come from; rather, it expresses the idea that where you come from can be a strength, even when you're trying to get away from it and do something far more exciting. The appreciation for family, for ritual, for propriety, and what happens when you are just a bit not-proper—all well conveyed.

Review Copy Source: Library

You can find Hereville by Barry Deutsch at an independent bookstore near you!

March 10, 2012

The Weekend Word... from Hello *Ello

Why The Pretty White Girl YA Book Cover Trend Needs To End.

I love it when I find a writer with whom I agree, who is much more genteel and polished than I whilst still giving a teensy rant. So, so, so many well articulated points made. Here's hoping she's not just preachin' to the choir.

Happy Weekend...

In case you didn't know: "Ello is short for Ellen Oh. Transplanted from Brooklyn, NY, I'm a lawyer, a writer, and a college instructor now living near the nation's capital. I have three smart, beautiful little girls and an ultra-supportive husband who tells me to write every day so that maybe, one day, I'll actually get a book published. I'm repped by the amazing Joe Monti of Barry Goldblatt Literary. And what do you know, Da Man was right! My first book, Prophecy: The Dragon King Chronicles, is being published by HarperCollins Childrens for release in Winter 2013! Life is very good."

March 09, 2012

Readers, I Have Finished Grave Mercy.


I ... lost track of time reading. There was sun on my chair, and then, I looked up, and it was dusk.

Oh, my goodness.

I sat down with GRAVE MERCY, and nibbled at it - and was hooked, but I was still able to get up, and, you know, function. She was out of a bad situation, into a better one, it was all good. And then, things got interesting. I was unable to stop, at that point.

And then, things went all, as the British say, "pear shaped." And I couldn't put it down until the last page.

I cannot WAIT for you to get a chance to read this one. It's OUT APRIL 3rd, and it's a great story - and those of you who serve on the Cybils SFF will know what I mean when I say that there's a PURPOSE to the sequel. This is a complete tale, with a beginning, middle, and end, but you will LONG for more.

Review to follow, first, I should make an attempt to, oh, you know, cook food. Eat it. Bathe. That sort of thing... Tune in next week.

Meanwhile, a note to the author:
Dear Robin, THANK YOU.
That was amazing.

March 08, 2012

Toon Thursday: Box Up Those Books!

As always, click the cartoon to view it larger.

Yeah, I know--there probably ARE some lucky bloggers out there whose lives look more like the "Myth" side of that cartoon. And I'll admit the number of wildly inappropriate unsolicited review copies has declined greatly in number over the years (nor have I ever received a book on geriatric cyberdating). But really, MY office looks more like the one on the right.

And, if you're like me, you wonder what the heck you can do with all those books. Well, yesterday we featured a call to action for tornado-devastated Henryville's school libraries. And today, in honor of this year's Share a Story - Shape a Future tour (with fab logo at right designed by the lovely Elizabeth Dulemba), I've got a guest post over on Terry Doherty's Family Bookshelf telling the story behind the collaborative resource site Reach a Reader, which I put together just about a year ago with the help of Terry and several other wonderful kidlitosphere friends. The inspiration for the project? You'll have to read the post to find out, but rest assured it definitely has something to do with cleaning out all those review copies! You'll also find out how to locate places to donate YOUR out-of-control book piles, so that you, too, can share a story and shape a future.

March 07, 2012

Hope for Henryville

On March 2nd, tornados ripped through Southern Indiana, killing 14 people and devastating several communities. Among the towns that were practically erased from the map was the small community of Henryville. Its elementary, middle, and high schools were torn apart, shredded, and flattened. All the books in the school libraries were ruined.

Perhaps you'd already heard the news. Lives upended and lost in the wee town of Henryville, Indiana, and books - the best vehicle to escape madness - in a sodden mess. The Authors for Henryville - Julia Karr, Ashley Hope Perez, Christine Johnson, Mike Mullin, and Josie Bloss - are Indiana-based writers who have rallied to help. They're asking for donations from the general public, with a little incentive - a drawing to give away books and book swag from YA authors all across the spectrum. YA authors are enlisted to join the effort by contacting their publishers for books - check the website for details - but here's how everyone else can get involved:

* You can donate funds directly to the Henryville library project (link will follow when the school has it set up) & tweet your donation amount with #authors4henry as hashtag. You can also email your donation amount to

* Help us get the word out about Authors for Henryville via twitter, your own website, facebook, and any other megaphones you have. Or, simply forward a link to this site to your author friends who might be interested in donating.

The important thing to know in any crisis in which you feel helpless and horrified is that there is ALWAYS a way to help - even if it's just passing the word along and telling someone about it. It's better to polish up your tiny star than to let the midnight go dark. The most you can do is your best. And that's all.

Thanks for being a star.

Artwork by David Pearson, apparently illustrating a fortune cookie saying. He could be this same designer, but I'm unsure.

March 06, 2012

Turning Pages: Summers at Castle Auburn, by Sharon Shinn

Many of the books I read are new - we have contacts with publishers who want us to talk up things that are recent releases. Those are fine. But, we also have our trusty library cards, and I for one love to talk about earlier releases which catch my eye and which I find on my own. (I like old books, and I cannot lie - though this one is not really even "old," per se...) While this novel was marketed as a fairytale for adults, it is a perfectly attractive and intriguing novel for teens, and I think this is one which many will enjoy.

I don't even remember who told me about this book anymore. Probably Charlotte, since I learn of all of the really cool old books from her... except, this one doesn't include time travel. Hm. Well, whomever suggested this one, thank-you. It was eminently readable in the way the historical fantasies like Hilari Bell's or Lawrence Watt-Evans are -- totally immersing and the world-building was believable and fantastic.

Reader Gut Reaction: This novel's blend of non-magical and magical was so well done that when the magic came, it felt... fairly mundane. SUMMERS reads like historical fiction, and the novel is a period piece that shows all the ins and outs and backstabbing that happens in royal political families. It follows the life of a young girl who saw just what was in front of her - beautiful, shiny people that she had the privilege to spend time with each summer, and their glorious captive alioras. It's a gradual story of how a life changes, bit by bit - how each summer at the castle produces changes - and what always stays the same.

Concerning Character: Coriel's father was a Lord, despite her mother being merely a wise woman and green witch. Her death during Coriel's early childhood leaves Coriel her grandmother's apprentice, and she has learned herblore from the time she was tiny. Coriel believes she will be serving a village of her own as wise woman someday. She is serious about her studies - very serious. And then, in a fairytale move, a great man comes. It is her uncle, Lord Jaxon, who informs her that her father has died, but that because Jaxon promised his brother that his daughter should be introduced to life at court, Coriel is to be taken away to summer at Castle Auburn and learn to know her half-sister.

We enter the story when Coriel is fourteen. Her half-sister Elisandra is engaged - to a prince, which thrills Coriel no end, especially because Prince Bryan is beautiful and charming, and everyone loves him. Coriel looks forward to her glittering summers most because of the aliora, the beautiful, fey creatures Jaxon captures for use in the castle. They are almost human - they cannot abide the bite of metal, and just being in their presence is calming and centering, and brings everyone great joy. Coriel is allowed to go on a hunt for aliora once and is delighted just to be out with her uncle and the prince and all the men. Her life circles around her love for her sister, and her absolute slack-jawed adoration of Prince Bryan. The prince's cousin, Lord Kentley, becomes a good friend, indeed, Coriel finds friends everywhere. Even the guardsmen are fun and congenial companions. For the first few summers at least, life is good.

Gradually, as Coriel ages, people seem to ...change. Her uncle doesn't seem as happy as she thought him to be. The prince's regent, Lord Kent's father, seems to look at her speculatively a great deal. Elisandra seems to wear serenity over any true emotion, and Prince Bryan has changed -- he is paranoid that someone is going to kill him, is brittle and brash and drinks too much. One of the guardsmen is behaving oddly - and Coriel finds herself with a niggling and confusing envy she cannot shake at the alliances and entanglements among the royals - and she often has to remind herself of who she is, and how lowborn she will always remain.

When Uncle Jaxon brings a new aliora to the castle - a very young one - Coriel can't get the image of her cringing beauty out of her mind. What if Coriel were that child herself, ripped from her magical homeland and her family's arms and brought to be sold to strangers?

Suddenly, the summers aren't quite so bright at Castle Auburn.

Recommended for Fans Of...: Ever, Fairest and Two Princesses of Bamarre, by Gail Carson Levine, plus the novels of Robin McKinley, Hilari Bell, and the Ethshar novels of Lawrence Watt-Evans.

Themes & Things: This novel is clearly a bildungsroman, exploring the way we see the world that is full of the same things, from one moment in our lives to the next as we age. Also there are issues of slavery and freedom, of love and obsession which are darker and more involved that they appear on the surface. (When any of us love, are we really free, whether we are in chains or no?)

Cover Chatter: Though the color palette is not especially bright or arresting, and the picture of the young girl with a Lordly looking dude in the background on a horse has a sort of long-ago murky museum portrait quality, as far as fantasy novels marketed to adults go, this cover is not bad. (Boy, that's damned with faint praise, isn't it? Let me rephrase: it's not particularly engaging, but it's still not a headless female, a female torso, or a girl in a ridiculously huge dress with an earnestly constipated expression.) Repackaged with brighter, stronger colors and more emphasis on Coriel's green witchery, this title would surely sell to younger readers.

You can find SUMMERS AT CASTLE AUBURN by Sharon Shinn at an independent bookstore near you!

March 05, 2012

Monday Review: FEYNMAN by Ottaviani and Myrick

We don't usually review nonfiction here on FW, but I like to make the occasional exception for an outstanding graphic novel—because, naturally, even a biography or a memoir has to present a good STORY for it to hold the reader's attention. Feynman, which was a finalist in this year's Cybils Awards for YA Graphic Novels, does that and more.

Reader Gut Reaction: Richard Feynman was not only a physicist but a larger-than-life character in many respects, whose voice lives on in numerous writings and recordings and whose charisma alone has inspired generations of would-be scientists. That would seem to make him a great choice for the subject of a graphic novel, and with a few qualifications, I think this was accomplished with Ottaviani and Myrick's Feynman.

Yes, the chronology was a little confusing at times, flipping back and forth in time, but for the most part this wasn't an issue. Also, not everyone will gravitate toward the subject matter, and there are some lengthy portions that concentrate rather intensely on math and physics. However, readers with an interest in science and/or biography, or at least those who are open to reading about a real character (in both senses of the term), will enjoy it quite a bit. It has a great visual style, with a loose, indie-comics feel that makes it stand out from the crowd. I also see this as having a large adult crossover audience.

Concerning Character: It's so easy to say the word "genius," but surely it's not as easy to depict one. I really liked how this one portrayed the humanness of a great scientific figure, showing him in his quiet moments, with his family, not hiding his foibles. It's a fascinating way to bring Feynman's speeches and anecdotes to life, and it doesn't talk down to readers—rather, it assumes readers will want to learn about the physics as well as about the man, and by doing so it succeeds in giving us a fuller picture of what was really going through his head. I also thought the authors did an admirable job of showing Feynman's wife; though she's not the focus, she was an important figure in his working and non-working life.

Recommended for Fans Of...: Graphic memoirs that take place against a specific cultural and historical backdrop, like Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi; fans of biography, especially scientists' biographies; and particularly recommended for those who liked The Watchmen and want to know more about the real history of the development of the atomic bomb.

Themes & Things: Theme and character are almost impossible to separate in this one, but besides the biographical aspects, this one's also fascinating in terms of history—the history of science, of course, but also the history of how science and politics became bound up together, for better or for worse, during the nascent nuclear age. There is also a strong underlying thread that concerns the history of women and science—we see Feynman's wife serve as a sounding board for his ideas; and we see his sister, discouraged by everyone around her EXCEPT him, from her interest in science, but who nevertheless goes on to be quite accomplished and learned herself. This is definitely a must-read for science enthusiasts, whether you're a layperson or an expert.

Review Copy Source: Publisher (Cybils review copy)

You can find Feynman by Leland Myrick and Jim Ottaviani at an independent bookstore near you!

March 04, 2012


Like many in the blogosphere, I often get videos from TED talks passed to me. I love TED stuff - conversations, since 1984, about the best in Technology, Entertainment, and Design. In some ways, I'm a little torn about their role - I think the conferences are ridiculously elitist, in that it's so prohibitively expensive to attend them that only the über rich do, and in that way sort of create themselves (dominant culture, male, AND the 1%) as the leaders in the field of "spreading ideas." On the other hand, I appreciate that TED invites thinkers to speak to them from every field and also that they always encapsulate the messages the thinkers present via free and easily accessible video media, worldwide. So, there's that.


Because Tech Boy's doctoral dissertation is on information management and media, I'm familiar with Sherry Turkle, author and director of MIT's initiative on Technology & Self. What she said about privacy struck chords with me - big, ringing chords, like tolling bells.

Whether the bells are tolling, TOO LATE TOO LATE TOO LATE or some other message, however, remains to be seen. Think on this:

From NPR's All Tech Considered:

"We like to say that we grew up with the Internet, thus we think that the Internet is all grown up. But it's not. The problem is that we have not created a privacy culture on the Internet that we can live with. We created the wrong one. What I think about is: What is intimacy without privacy? What is a democracy without privacy? We weren't asking those two questions when this was created and we bequeathed to our children this culture then we shrug, 'they don't care about privacy.'

"I was trained to care about privacy. My grandmother of Eastern European descent used to marvel at the mail. The idea that you were in a country where mail was sacrosanct... that to tamper with the mail was a federal offense, to her, this was one of the great things about being an American. What drives me crazy is that people turn to these babies, these children and say, 'They don't care about privacy.' But it was our responsibility to teach them.

"[Facebook CEO] ]Mark Zuckerberg says privacy is no longer a social norm. When he said that, I tweeted — and I never tweet, that's how angry I was — it may not be relevant for the social network, but it is for intimacy and democracy. Technology makes people stupid. It can blind you to what your underlying values are and need to be. Are we really willing to give away our Constitutional and civil liberties that we fought so hard for? People shed blood for this, to not live in a surveillance society. We looked at the Stasi and said, 'That's not us.' And now we let Apple do it and Google do it? For what?"

Turkles message resonates with me because I'm old enough to have been taught voting by "secret ballot." In many ways, the political ...contagion brought about by media saturation and social, wherein we now know what everyone else thinks about everything, is kind of scary to me - I was raised believing that political stuff, like religion, was a matter of intense personal belief, and thus deeply private. In many ways, I still view myself as an educator, so these things matter to me, on behalf of the teens with whom I interact, and on behalf of myself. Who do we want to be, as writers and bloggers and people, online? Who do we want to be seen as? Or, does that no longer matter, since it seems that we're seen whatever we do? Is there any going back from the edge of this cliff??

Talk amongst yourselves.

March 02, 2012

TURNING PAGES: Man Trip, by Graham Salisbury

It has to be every once in a great big blue moon that we'll do a middle grade review on this blog, mainly because AF, Citysmart Girl and I write YA lit and tend to limit our reading choices in that direction. However, CSG has two wee boys, and one who might enjoy discovering the Calvin Coconut books, so I thought I'd give this one a whirl. Plus, deep-sea fishing is big at AF's house!

Funny and full of Calvin's boundless energy - for anything except mowing the lawn or doing story problems - the book is a quick-paced read that will be a lit, like the rest of the series. Though this series is aimed at boys, there are female characters, and I think it can easily be enjoyed by everyone.

Reader Gut Reaction:There's something about author Graham Salisbury books which is appealing, regardless of the age he's writing for. His island-centric fiction, colorful characters, and little snapshots of a world where we'd all love to live is a good hook. His Calvin Coconut series has been ongoing for some time, and the title of this episode in Cal's life kind of hooked me, too. MAN TRIP. I laughed. Man trip? Calvin's a fourth grader!

Oh, well. Calvin's Mama always tells her he's the man of the house... which isn't really what Calvin wants to hear.

Concerning Character: Calvin is a well-drawn fourth grader - full of enthusiasms which do not include story problems or chores like mowing the lawn, or girls in general and Shayla, who sits next to him at school, in particular. He's a typical kid - not particularly bad, not particularly stellar, just ... a kid with his own concerns. He is, fortunately, surrounded by older people who are reasonable - His long-suffering mother, who does not screech when he leaves the lawn unmowed for days after she's requested his assistance with that chore, Mr. Purdey, an ex-Army man who is his teacher, the live-in exchange student, Stella. His mother's boyfriend, Ledward, a mountain of a man who owns a banana plantation, provides a non-intrusive male presence at home. It is Ledward who comes up with the idea to take Calvin on a man trip to the Big Island with his friend Baja Bill - just the three of them, getting away to clear their heads in a manly fashion. It is a deep-sea fishing trip that's going to change things for Calvin.

Recommended for Fans Of...: Bruce Coville, including books like Jeremy Thatcher, Dragon Hatcher, Gary Paulsen's books, including Lawn Boy, and Richard Peck's middle grade books including A Year Down Yonder, and Here Lies the Librarian.

Themes & Things: And this is where Graham Salisbury catches me: he writes books directed toward male readers which have strong thematic elements about basic issues of manhood... in short, how to be a man. Truthfulness, honorable behavior, responsibility, kindness - these are all covered in an oblique fashion which does not club readers over the head, but the issues are there, nonetheless. Calvin does thoughtless things, like running over toads with the lawn mower, or catching tiny fish, and leaving them on the bank for the mongoose to find -- or the ants. He's not deliberately destructive, but he doesn't think about the fact that tiny fish deserve to live. Through Ledward's example - being shown and not so much told - Calvin absorbs the idea of respect for the natural world. Ledward and Calvin's "man trip" bumps Calvin up the ladder toward being a man through unobtrusive leadership in a book which still manages to be fresh and funny and full of wonder. And exaggeration. And gross bits. And the odd nose picking. And a fairly pesky girl.

Cover Chatter: One fun thing that middle grade books have that YA books often don't? Interior artwork! Jacqueline Rogers does a fantastic job of creating active looking b/w sketches for the interior pages of the story, as well as an appealing cover which shows Calvin buckled in, front and center, having his big moment, wrestling his ono into the boat. Fun stuff.

You can find CALVIN COCONUT: MAN TRIP by Graham Salisbury after March 13 at an independent bookstore near you!

March 01, 2012

Thursday Review: BAD ISLAND by Doug TenNapel

Doug TenNapel, who the increasingly aged among us may remember as the creator of the video game character Earthworm Jim, has written several graphic novels by now, which have gotten quite a bit of positive buzz; however, Bad Island is the first one of his that I've read so far. It was a finalist in this year's Cybils Awards for YA Graphic Novels, and this isn't the first time he's had that honor—last year his GN Ghostopolis was also a YA GN finalist.

Reader Gut Reaction: Who doesn't love a story about being shipwrecked and solving the mystery of a weird desert island full of fantastical plants and bizarre creatures? It's like Indiana Jones, but this one's got a few interesting, creative, and unexpected twists to the underlying premise. Although this one seems to skew to a slightly younger YA (or even older MG) audience, that adventuresome setup is pretty appealing to any reader with a love of action and fantasy. This is definitely a plot-driven piece, with two nicely structured parallel stories: one that takes place on a strange planet in an unknown time and place, and one that follows Reese and his disastrous family boat outing.

I really enjoyed the graphic storytelling in this one, particularly the use of color to set a mood, and establish a different atmosphere between the two storylines. The way the panels are laid out and the action is portrayed has a classic comics feel to it and makes everything easy to read. Style-wise, it's a nice blend of funny, scary, and fantastical.

Concerning Character: As I mentioned, this one is more plot driven, but all of the characters, including the parents, were fully rounded, and each of the four family members played a relatively even role in the story, though it's arguably teenage son Reese's adventure. The dialogue was well-written and entertaining, and distinct for each of the characters. Without giving away too much of the plot, the alien characters, too, were distinctive, fun, sympathetic when appropriate, and scary when they needed to be.

Recommended for Fans Of...: Stories that blend fantasy, sci-fi, and adventure, like Kazu Kibuishi's Amulet books; also, fans of TV shows like Lost or Terra Nova, in which humans must use their wits to survive in an alien and sometimes hostile environment.

Themes & Things: Bad Island is loaded with themes appropriate to an adventure story and a shipwrecked-on-an-island-with-your-aggravating-family-possibly-forever story: most notably, though, it's a story of forgiveness, courage, and trust.

Review Copy Source: Publisher (Cybils review copy)

You can find Bad Island by Doug TenNapel at an independent bookstore near you!