July 31, 2012

TURNING PAGES: Since You Left Me, Allen Zadoff

Wow. It's almost August! It's the last official month of summer reading...woe!

Kudos today to newbie teacher *Anne Boles Levy*, and to all the rest of you teacher and librarian folk going back to the grindstone, reveling in the smell of chalk (I think the last time I was in a class that used chalk was 4th grade. Maybe new whiteboard markers? Oh, technology, you have robbed...) and blank grade-books.

And to those few students who lurk at our blog - good luck this year!

Now, ONWARD, to the books!

Reader Gut Reaction: Reading a Zadoff book is like eating a really dense, chewy, slightly sweet pumpernickel... each book is a whole mouthful, and there are little bits that stick in your molars which you must tease out and chew some more to get it all down. No matter the length of a Zadoff book, they're just jam-packed with the gamut of emotions - from isolation, to humiliation, loss, grief -- and a quirky black humor underlying it. Poignant yet chuckle-producing, and lightly seasoned with hope, a Zadoff book is a meal to be savored and returned to again. Take for instance his latest, to be released August 28th, SINCE YOU LEFT ME...

Concerning Character: First, his name is Sanskrit Zuckerman. As in, the language. Middle name? Aaron. Ancient language... plus Moses' brother, and a Jewish surname. Clearly, Sanskrit is a guy who encompasses nations - though not voluntarily. While no one in his family is the least bit observant, Sanskrit is being forced to embrace all things Israel and Jewish, in order to get his grandfather's last and only gift to him - an all-or-nothing fully paid tuition at a Jewish high school. Sure, it looks great on paper, but you try being an American Jew surrounded by students from Israel who think you're spoiled and soft. Now, add to that being the sole unbeliever on campus, and Sanskrit's school is the loneliest place on the planet. His ex-girlfriend -- well, she was his girlfriend in the second grade until she inexplicably quit speaking to him -- is an ice queen he only refers to by her initials -- because the thought of her makes him bleed. His ex-best-friend, Herschel, went to Israel and turned into someone else entirely - someone who wears the full Orthodox black uniform and ear-locks. Someone he doesn't know at all. Sanskrit is loud and proud with his unbelief but since Herschel's defection, sometimes, it doesn't feel worth getting up in the morning.

Of course, Sanskrit doesn't exist in isolation - he has a younger sister, who manages her world fairly successfully, while lambasting him with sarcasm and extorting younger sister "gimme, or I'll tell" bribes; an intelligent but vague father, for whom the BIG thing in life is not his kids, but The Big One -- that apocryphal earthquake which will one day devastate the West Coast; a lithe, yoga fit, Zen, harmonious, and utterly inattentive and unfit mother, often found standing on her head, channeling a brief new enthusiasm for a style of yoga, a chiropractic theory, a macrobiotic diet -- and this week, a man. It's apparent she's got some celestial connection with her guru, since now she wants to go and live with him ...

Prize given: the Zuckermans, for the most dysfunctional Jewish family this week. No wonder Sanskrit feels like there's not a lot in the world to hold onto. Everybody's headed for the exit in his life - whether physically or emotionally or mentally. And the biggest leave-r? Hasn't been seen on earth for a couple thousand years. And what has HE done for anyone lately???

Look, Sanskrit doesn't want your pity. He just wants to be left alone to figure out some of the big questions in life -- the largest of which, currently, is how to extricate himself from the lie he told to get out of being pitied... because now nobody is leaving him alone. While it might feel good to be a part of the community - the real lie just might be in acceptance. Because, everything has a cost...

Recommended for Fans Of...sort of more literary, thoughtful YA novels, that wrestle with deeper topics, such as: GODLESS, by Pete Hauptman, OyMG, by Amy Fellner Dominy, or ONCE WAS LOST, by Sara Zarr.

Cover Chatter: Do I immediately get a fix on exits, from this evocative cover. Why, yes, I do. Well done, book designers. This book has appeal for both guys and girls, because the cover remains neutral, despite the narrator. Please, book designers for books with female narrators: follow suit.

After August 28, you can find SINCE YOU LEFT by Allen Zadoff at online and independent bookstores near you!

July 27, 2012

Writers' Rites: Getting Back on the Horse That Threw Ya

Yeah, remember when we talked about the YA Steampunk Anthology, REAL GIRLS DON'T RUST, with the deadline of SEPTEMBER 1, 2012 for story submissions?

Or, remember when we talked about the Buzz Books seeking novella/novel length subs for HONEY, their romance line, or SWARM, their mystery/thriller/horror line, or YA Short Stories for their Mythology High Series??

Or, maybe you thought you'd send something to the folks at YARN, or Tor.com, or Strange Horizons...

... and you didn't?

Here's a thing to know: writers, yeah, write. And then, when they mutter about actually connecting with the outside world, they follow through... Sadly, there's no little bluebird of subs who comes along and sends things for you. Stop fiddling with your work, and get it out there.

This Message Brought To You By The Letters G and O.

And it is just as much a letter to US as it is to YOU. More, actually.

July 26, 2012

Thursday Review: HOLD STILL by Nina LaCour

Reader Gut Reaction: There were a couple of things that initially drew me to this book. First, the author, Nina LaCour, is a fellow alumna of the Mills College MFA program. Second, certain aspects of the book bear a disconcerting similarity to my next book due out (scheduled for release next year), and so I wanted to arm/educate myself so that I'd be able to make sure my book is distinctive enough, so I don't sound like I'm rehashing, and also, on a more positive note, so I can consider where my book fits into the market. So I was pleased to find it at my library, since I've been meaning to read it for a while.

Hold Still is a story about grief, about tragedy and its aftermath and how it changes you. At the beginning of the book, Caitlin is returning to school in the fall after a summer that she'd rather forget, but can't possibly: at the end of the previous school year, her best friend Ingrid killed herself. Really, Ingrid was her only friend. So when Caitlin returns to school, she feels lost until others reach out to her: the new girl, Dylan, who everyone says is a lesbian; Jayson, the guy Ingrid had a secret crush on; Taylor, a cute skater boy who never paid attention to her before. Complicating matters even further, Caitlin finds one of Ingrid's journals—her last journal—under her bed, exposing some of Ingrid's innermost thoughts in the months leading up to her suicide, and maybe, Caitlin hopes, answering the overarching question of why she did it.

There are some really lovely moments in this book: Caitlin's relationship with the art of photography, and her discovery of other creative outlets, was one of my favorite aspects of the story. Her developing friendships were also wonderful, as she discovers that there are good, caring people and that she doesn't have to suffer alone. I loved the portrayal of Dylan's relationship with her girlfriend, Maddy, and how welcoming they are. It was a quiet story, very internally focused, but well written.

Concerning Character: Caitlin is a very reserved narrator. Even in the first person, we only get to know certain things about her, and I was left with the feeling of someone very closed-in, very difficult to know. We do get some flashbacks of what she was like before the tragedy, but we only see her in relation to Ingrid, which has the effect of focusing us very strongly on the suicide and its effects. Ingrid herself, we get to see in many forms: her diary entries, which take the form of letters to various people; Caitlin's memories; other people's reminiscences. We clearly get to see the hole she's left, the Ingrid-shaped space.

I really loved some of the side characters in this book: Dylan, Maddy, Taylor, Jayson. They were really amazing people. Almost too good to be true, and very mature for their age—I questioned a bit whether juniors in high school would have such poise and grace in certain situations—but they were likeable and enjoyable to read.

Recommended for Fans Of...: Books about struggling through the aftermath of a tragedy to emerge from the other side, like Try Not to Breathe by Jennifer R. Hubbard (reviewed here) and The Freak Observer by Blythe Woolston (reviewed here).

Themes & Things: Above all, this book is about coping with grief and loneliness and despair, about the survivor's guilt that happens when someone you love decides life isn't worth living anymore. It's also about learning to open yourself up again to hope, to love, to friendship, even in unexpected places. Maybe especially in unexpected places. The only way out is through, and it isn't easy, but Caitlin's story shows that sadness shared can be sadness halved, that living alone with grief isn't the only answer.

Review Copy Source: Library.

You can find Hold Still by Nina LaCour at an independent bookstore near you!

July 25, 2012

Oooh, Aaaah.

This is SURELY the summer of the awesome reprint. Check them all out at SF Signal -- and check out Lady LeGuin's chat about the books' new look.

July 24, 2012


It's been a busy month, including moving, moving again, and basically catching up with wedding and other family events. Summer daze takes a lot out of a person - but never fear that I'm not holed up somewhere, avoiding everyone and reading to my heart's content. ☺ Well, almost to my heart's content, anyway...

Reader Gut Reaction:Last month, I eagerly awaited a Tor anthology called Fierce Reads, which highlighted YA authors who are now attached to the Macmillan/Tor label. Each of these original pieces is either a prequel or a selection from their books. I selected the freebie reads with the idea that they'd be at least okay -- but was really shocked at how tightly written and excellent some of the pieces were. They made me really excited to read each author's YA book!

Concerning Character(s): ALL of the selections were good - from Anna Banks' “Legacy Lost” - an OF POSEIDON prequel - to the riveting and horrifying psychological thriller depicted by Emmy Laybourne in “Dress Your Marines in White” - unrelated to her debut novel MONUMENT 14 - each selection in the anthology definitely proved its worth. However! I had a couple of faves which I think you'll love, too:

“Glitches” by Marissa Meyer, is a prequel to her novel CINDER, out last December from Feiwel & Friends. Cyborg Cinder is completely sympathetic - so very human, confused, and ...lost. The new home she's gone to is unwelcoming, and she's reminded frequently that she's not entirely human... but she feels so human... even though she cannot cry... I loved the character immediately, for her very humanity, and cannot wait to see what she does. And, I understand there's already a sequel in the works...?

Leigh Bardugo's “The Witch of Duva: A Ravkan Folk Tale” is my very favorite in the entire anthology. It's a tightly crafted story with a solidly once-upon-a-time feel that allows you to get comfortable in the familiarity of the folktale style. But, there are some rather nasty and unexpected turns and you will be surprised... metaphors abound. Especially after reading this short, and then her piece on The Big Idea, I am very eager to read SHADOW AND BONE, Bardugo's debut novel which just came out this past month from Henry Holt. Cybils people, take note!!

Recommended for Fans Of...: Well, fans of Tor books, yes, but one thing all of these novels have in common is that they pit young protagonists against their worlds. Cinder tries to fix things - but has to learn a new way to fix herself, in Monument 14, the whole world is falling apart, and the kids trapped in a superstore - the Walmart from hell, can you imagine?! - have to use what's in front of them to cope; the merpeople war begins because of misunderstanding - and tragedy - but it takes those who still believe in love and its potential to undo the damage. Love novels with strong protagonists of any gender? These will work for you.

Thanks, Tor-peoples, for the freebie reads!

You can find all of the books mentioned at their publisher's sites. Just follow the links!

July 23, 2012

Monday Review: SHINE by Lauren Myracle

Reader Gut Reaction: I have to admit, all that book award controversy was what drew me to Lauren Myracle's Shine, which was on display at my library. The good part about the controversy from a publicity perspective is that I learned a lot more about the book beforehand, and it was much more apparent on my radar than it would have been otherwise. And, a lot of what I'd read about the book during the context of the controversy was positive buzz, so I was looking forward to reading it.

I was not disappointed. This was a gut-wrenching story about the aftermath of a hate crime—the narrator's onetime best friend, Patrick, was attacked and beaten and left in a coma because he was gay. In the small North Carolina town where they live, homophobia is much more the norm than we like to think about, but Cat knows there's more to it than that. There has to be. Putting herself at risk, she sets out to solve a mystery that the local sheriff seems to have little interest in pursuing. Who's responsible? And could it even have been someone she knows? Cat is a nosy narrator typical of the whodunit genre, and, unsurprisingly, her incessant questioning and pestering catches the villain's eye, which keeps the tension gripping and the stakes high.

Concerning Character: Besides Cat being too nosy for her own good, what I liked about this book was getting to see the development of Cat's conscience and her personal moral code. The very idea of someone being gay, and the very topic of homophobia, tends to raise all kinds of moral hackles regardless of one's opinion, and this book puts Cat in a situation that challenges longstanding viewpoints she was raised with. She is forced to reevaluate her own assumptions about the people she's known all her life, the people in her own small town.

In the context of the mystery, then, Cat not only finds the answer to the question of who perpetrated the crime, she also finds herself, and finds courage she didn't know she had. There are also a range of colorful side characters of exactly the sort you would hope to find populating a mystery: shady drug dealers, friends with secrets, reticent witnesses, and, of course, gossipy old church ladies. The author does an excellent job of differentiating character voices and bringing to life the sound and dialect—not to mention the difficult and often unforgiving lifestyle—of rural America.

Recommended for Fans Of...: Books that take place in a gritty setting, in which the narrator must overcome both environmental and personal difficulties in order to persevere. Fans of Ashley Hope Perez's latest The Knife and the Butterfly (reviewed here) or Siobhan Dowd's A Swift Pure Cry (reviewed here) may enjoy this one.

Themes & Things: The social and personal cost of homophobia is, of course, one of the overt themes of this book. Also, as Cat's world is turned upside down by the crime and its aftermath, and as she reevaluates her opinion of everyone around her, she is also forced to consider the true meaning of friendship and family, and of trust. Staying true to one's personal convictions is also a running thread throughout this book. What probably struck me the most, though, was the portrayal of rural life in a very small town, one rampant with poor education, poverty, limited opportunities, limited access to technology, and too-easy access to drugs. In particular, the growing problem with meth in our small (and large) towns was something that resonated with me, and something that there just does not seem to be enough awareness of. I live at the northern end of the Central Valley, a region that is known as one of the worst in the U.S. for meth-related crime, but the sad truth is, it's by far not the only region with that dubious claim to fame. So I really laud Myracle's inclusion of this serious issue.

Review Copy Source: Library.

You can find Shine by Lauren Myracle at an independent bookstore near you!

July 20, 2012


I'm always intrigued by herbalists, and herbalists in fantasy fiction are even more fun. Can you really brew a tisane of willow bark which will cure a headache? (Well... yes. But that's a LOT of willow bark to equal one aspirin. And it's nasty-bitter. They rarely tell you that in books.) Will a poultice of onion break up chest congestion and cure typhoid-like fevers? (Um... maybe no. Or, maybe yes? There's sulfites in onions... but are there enough...?) There's a lot of texture and interest in herbs - used correctly or incorrectly - in a book. Throw in a glittering parallel-universe Euro-style court, an oblivious princesse, and sorcery -- and I'm definitely in.

Reader Gut Reaction: This was a complex, detailed, unexpected and arresting book. I wasn't terribly bothered by variations on spellings used in the novel - I think the author did it to try and create her own dialect and give more of a feeling of a parallel universe and a parallel French-style medieval ...English court. Since the medieval people could not be bothered to spell things consistently through the ages, I guess I don't mind.

Be warned: this is book one of a two-book series, and when it ends, you will feel it. There are things unfinished -- annoyingly unfinished, to the point where I was a teensy bit angry with the author. HOWEVER, because this book came out in 2011, the sequel is out, too. Whew.

Concerning Character:I will say up front that Vianne as a bluestocking hedgewitch type is completely believable. She reads obscure things and likes knowing random poets. She takes pride in knowing just the right tincture or leaf to do whatever, and prefers to be in a muddy dress with smudgy boots*. Vianne as a royal lady-in-waiting is also believable - she's learned all the proper forms of address, genealogies to the third and fourth generations; she knows who is important to placate and whom she can cut. She's observant and figures out ways to keep the Princesse in her charge out of trouble, as scandals are always afoot, and though beautiful, her Princesse is ...spoiled, willful, and rather blind to the fact that people back-stab and would like nothing better than to trip her up to shame the King. What Vianne is NOT believable as is someone stupid. There were times in this book that, for all of her other fine qualities, I would have liked to run her over with a horse. She was ANNOYINGLY stubborn, sure that she was so deeply unimportant that no one should turn a hair for her. There's selfless service, and then there's ridiculousness. I felt like reaching into her brain and writing, "NOTE TO SELF: IF PEOPLE ARE TRYING TO KILL ME, IT IS OKAY TO DO ALL IN MY POWER NOT TO DIE. Even learning that she has the ability to wield power in the vast and vicious conspiracy in which she finds herself does her no good. She's just, at times, a total featherbrained milksop.

THAT ASIDE, I liked her.

Recommended for Fans Of...: Novels in which it looks as if some man must ride in to save the day. See Cinderella, Snow White, etc. In the same genre, but not at all the same, Crown Duel/Court Duel by Sherwood Smith, and Decoy Princess, by Dawn Cook.

Cover Chatter: Dear, dear cover people: NO. Just... no. Remember how we referenced Vianne's hedgewitchery? And how she preferred to be in a *muddy dress with smudgy boots? Uh, yeah. Also, her braids? Are mentioned constantly. Her dress? If dragged like that on leaf-mold would have been muddy. AT NO TIME did she race through the wilderness in a flouncy white gown, her hair down and her shoulders bare. At no time.This is NOT flippin' Snow White and the Huntsmen, all right???


First out in December 2011, THE HEDGEWITCH QUEEN by Lilith Saintcrow is at online and independent bookstores near you! FTC: I bought my personal copy. All opinions and comments my own.

July 19, 2012

Toon Thursday: The Return of Revision IV: The Revenge

In honor of the fact that I will soon be embarking upon a major novel revision for my next book, due out in 2013, I set my mind a-pondering on the topic of what we actually spend our time on when we sit down to revise. I don't know about you, but for me, you could probably have a pie chart that's 75% staring blankly at the computer and going "derrrr."

I realize now that I forgot a critical slice of the pie: PROCRASTINATION. That would be a very large slice.

July 17, 2012

TURNING PAGES: The Youngbloods Books 1&2 by Lynn Viehl

You said you were over vampires, right? You were, uh-huh. Then explain why you're looking forward to seeing that Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter thing. And why the Van Helsing name still provides a flicker of interest...?

Yeah. I know. Sometimes the vampires just get you anyway.

Reader Gut Reaction: Full disclosure - I am a dork, and read these books backwards. NetGalley had the second one, and I didn't realize it wasn't a FIRST until I started reading it. I frowned a bit - there were several descriptions that read like summary - and I started feeling like I should have been present as a reader in some of those scenes. I was confused - the author, some of whose books for adults I have read, is usually much, much, MUCH better than that.

So, imagine my relief to find I was reading Book 2. Well, okay, then.

In Book 1, After Midnight, Catlyn Youngblood lives with her two brothers, moving around the country. When they finally settle into the podunk town of Lost Lake, Florida, she's secretly relieved - maybe now they can have a somewhat normal life instead of bouncing around so much. Her brothers are so much older than she is that they're ridiculously overbearing and overprotective - but they're trying desperately to take care of their baby sister, and be parents to her.

Catlyn would like to be understanding of this, but it not like they're her real parents, thank you. Catlyn would like to be left in peace. Escaping her brothers means riding on her horse at night. When she meets another night rider, she's intrigued. He's cute, doesn't go to her school, and ...has secrets of his own. Jesse Raven is the perfect secret to keep from her brother - but eventually, truth will out, and it turns out what each of them was keeping a secret was something which could destroy them - and their families.

The action in Book 2 continues - in spite of everything, Catlyn and Jesse are still friends - but now their friendship is the secret, as neither family is in favor of their continued association. Now Catlyn decides to get a job in town in order to still see Jesse -- and knowing that her brothers will completely freak if they find out does nothing for her. She is biding her time until she's eighteen, and has plans to sue for emancipation status. The job Catlyn interviews for is easy - it's just sorting through some rare old books which the local bookstore has inherited on the death of the neighborhood recluse. It's what Catlyn finds in those books - together with the disappearances of girls in Lost Lake - that turns out to be a chilling discovery. Once again, Catlyn's secret life is impinging on her new life -- and at the novel's end, it's clear that this won't be the last time...

Concerning Character: Catlyn is a realistically written and reasonably likeable character -- not someone I'd expect to seek out as a buddy, but she doesn't make me want to throw her somewhere. I will say that I hate her name - Tally Youngblood is what I kept finding myself calling her. Cally, even. There seems to be room for only one Youngblood clan in my mind. Anywho. Jesse Raven is, of course, impossibly good looking, but someone not as annoying as boys in books with sparkling, shiny, sweaty muscles and names that begin with E, or J. This book is surprisingly light on romance, for all that Realms of Fantasy described it as "Twilight crossed with Romeo and Juliet." (That description is only missing Jane Eyre to be my personal triumvirate of favorite books. Not.) That's actually kind of a relief, because the rest of the situations are potentially so heavy - it'll be interesting to see how long that will last, and whether or not emotional entanglements are taking a back-seat because of constant danger, or what... and how long that will last.

Recommended for Fans Of...: the Alyxandra Harvey "Drake Chronicles" books - those human-vampire hybrids were my first thought on reading this series. Harvey uses much more humor, and the characters, despite their danger, take themselves much less seriously. The Drake Chronicles romance is definitely more intense and immediate - so I'll be interested in seeing how long Viehl keeps this series light.

Cover Chatter: Is it just me, or does the character drawn as Jessen Raven look... a little... old? I recognize that he's supposed to be dark and dangerous-looking, but on the second cover especially he looks like a reject from a Broadway production of Grease 2. With the everlasting white tees, I hoped that maybe this was meant to be one of her brothers, but that smoldering look in his eye says no. Hm. It's a passable, but fairly clichéd effort - but, what would a YA cover be, without a girl showing bare shoulders and/or long hair? At least she has a head and somewhat of a facial expression. Somewhat.

Authorial Asides: This author is ...sort of gobsmackingly prolific. She writes science fiction, romantic fiction, paranormal romance, and Christian fiction... and possibly some crossovers between the four (paranormal Christian romantic science fiction?) She writes as S. L. Viehl, Gena Hale, Jessica Hall, Rebecca Kelly and Lynn Viehl. Her actual name is Sheila Kelly. Or so Wikipedia says.

The Stardoc series, and adult SF/romance series which she began publishing in 2000 (the most recent - last? - was published in 2010), is how most SF readers know the name Viehl - here's hoping this prolific writer's new efforts in the YA field are as fruitful for her.

Thanks to NetGalley for ARC copies, courtesy of the publisher. All opinions my own.

Newly released this month, you can find AFTER MIDNIGHT and DEAD OF NIGHTby Lynn Viehl at Flux's online site, or at an independent bookstore near you!

July 16, 2012

An Ode to Bloody Jack

Jacky Faber is exactly the kind of character my childhood self would have adored. As it is, my adult self is gobbling up her stories with a jumbo spoon. I listened to the audiobook version of the first book in the series, Bloody Jack, narrated both ably and commandingly by Katherine Kellgren, and knew I’d have to check out more books in the series.

I've just finished book two, The Curse of the Blue Tattoo, and my enthusiasm for this series by L.A. Meyer is undimished. I decided to go for the traditional ink-on-paper version this time, and though I wondered how the voice would come across compared to the audiobook, I shouldn't have been worried. I did, however, hear Ms. Kellgren's voice in my head from time to time, though that wasn't a bad thing, to my mind.

Anyway, I love Jacky. She's indomitable, spunky, brave, impulsive, a bit reckless, determined, practical, and clever. She's got a kind heart, despite weathering more of the storms of life than most people ever suffer in a lifetime. Her conscience pricks at her whenever her recklessness causes her to take advantage of others' kindness or gets them into trouble—and it often does, as she's a strong, smart, and stubborn young woman living in a time period (the early 1800s) when women's roles in society were still very limited.

In the beginning, she gets away with a lot because she's disguised as a boy; later, in the second book, her boy disguise doesn't get her as far anymore, but her youth keeps her from suffering the full punishment that early U.S. law would prefer to levy for her mischief. I'm very curious to see how this aspect of the story morphs in future books, as Jacky gets older, more physically mature, and (presumably) a bit wiser.

As a writer, I'm impressed by how L.A. Meyer has created a character who is fun and entertaining but also complex and multidimensional. Jacky isn't simply a swashbuckling adventurer—she acknowledges the side of her that is a blossoming woman, at the same time that she resists the strictures that society at the time placed on women. That tension is dealt with very effectively, and in fact ends up getting Jacky into trouble more often than not. It really brings home the idea that if a writer wants to create interesting plot developments in an organic way, you create a compelling character, place her into a challenging situation and let things happen from there. Here, Jacky is placed into exactly the sort of situation that tries her patience and throws up obstacles at every turn—in a way, society is her nemesis.

Besides, of course, dread pirates and cutthroats and ruffians and mean girls.

Note: I am posting the hardback cover images here because I really think the paperback covers are BLECCHHH. Sorry. That's my professional artistic opinion. The hardcover images are just way more evocative and interesting and fun and have that historical flavor. The paperback ones look like photos of a teenage girl at the Renaissance Faire. OK, rant over.

You can find Bloody Jack, The Curse of the Blue Tattoo, and many others by L.A. Meyer at an independent bookstore near you!

July 12, 2012


Oh mighty sun, why must thou smite us with thy rays of burning?
...one Toon Thursday, fresh from the oven. And by oven, I mean the 100+-degree weather that has been roasting everybody and setting the land on fire and making me tired and just generally beating us all down. But yes, I owe you a new cartoon, and I plan to put said cartoon up next Thursday. And I hereby deem today TOO HOT TO LIVE and, at 104 degrees, definitely too hot to write or blog. Even sitting here with my laptop on my lap is making me sweat.

Want to know the worst part? WE'RE OUT OF POPSICLES.

July 09, 2012

Monday Review: SCARS by Cheryl Rainfield

Reader Gut Reaction: Scars, by longtime fellow blogger Cheryl Rainfield, is a book I've been meaning to read for a while. I don't normally gravitate toward problem novels or issue books, but as I found out by reading it, this is much more than just a book about cutting, or about abuse and recovery; it's also a gripping, even scary, thriller in which the mystery unfolding inside the protagonist is echoed by the ramping up of tension and increasing very real danger in Kendra's outside world. There's also just a hint of romance, as Kendra opens up to a friend at school and, even then, battles against her fears and her lack of self-confidence.

When we're introduced to Kendra, at the beginning of the story, she is in one of her few safe zones: the office of her therapist, Carolyn. We quickly find out that Kendra's situation is intense and unsettling. She was sexually abused by someone when she was younger, but she can't remember the man's face. All she can remember is that he said he’d kill her if she told. We also find out that the only way she gets relief from her fear and anxiety is by cutting herself, but she hasn't told anyone about that. Not yet. Ultimately, she must find the courage within herself to remember, and to break the silence—about a lot of things—in order to heal. Of course, breaking that silence is a risk, because...she's sure that her abuser is following her, trying to intimidate her into never telling.

Concerning Character: The characters in this book are quickly sketched at the beginning, putting more focus on the tension and action, but through Kendra's viewpoint we are rapidly introduced to her terrifying situation and the primary players. Kendra herself is a bit of a loner, inward-focused, but brought out of herself by her soon-to-be friend and love interest, Meghan. Kendra is drawn in sympathetic fashion, and her pain and fear has an immediacy that drives the story along. Her parents could have been fleshed out a little more, but at the same time, it makes sense for the plot that the focus remain on Kendra herself.

Meghan, her new friend, is outgoing, mouthy, and sort of known as the school ho, willing to sleep with any guy, but she's hiding her own secrets; she's not just a good complement to Meghan, but a pillar of strength and just the type of person to lend that strength and courage to Kendra when she needs it most. Carolyn is a truly caring therapist who reminded me strongly of those therapists who have provided me with invaluable support over the years—a critical and positive image to convey to teen and adult readers alike. And in Kendra's friend Sandy, we see not only a lifesaving father figure (who happens to be gay, and this is portrayed in a positive but also non-intrusive way) but also someone who is truly a good soul and a real friend to Kendra and her mother. By the end of the book, I wanted to be friends with Sandy.

Recommended for Fans Of...: Intense, no-holds-barred issue novels that do not talk down to teens but rather reassure them that they are not alone (and are also critical for caregivers aching to understand), especially those novels with a strong suspenseful component: Split by Swati Avasthi (reviewed here), Leftovers by Laura Wiess (reviewed here), and Wintergirls by Laurie Halse Anderson (reviewed here), to name just a few recent examples. Of course, there will also be comparisons with Cut by Patricia McCormick.

Themes & Things: As I mentioned above, this is a book that deals with disturbing, sometimes graphic, but unavoidably real issues of abuse, of cutting, of recovery. However, it's also a novel of love, relationships, and forgiveness; of the true meaning of family and how we can and should create our own family by gathering around us those we love. There is also a small dose of romance, as Kendra gets to know Meghan and realizes that she can, in fact, learn to trust again and let go enough to be herself—and comes to know that there are those who do love her for who she is and want her to be happy and healthy.

Review Copy Source: I rather fortuitously found this one as a free Kindle download one day.

Authorial Asides: Don't miss Cheryl Rainfield's wonderful blog, where she posts about writing, book reviews, and various worthy causes. Her book came from a place that is deeply personal, and you can find out more about that, too, and get help for yourself or loved ones who are suffering.

You can find Scars by Cheryl Rainfield at an independent bookstore near you!

July 06, 2012


You thought I'd forgotten about you, didn't you? I started talking about role-playing games, or RPG and mentioned a book - but spent too much time talking about a movie to get into it. Now I'm ready to talk books.

You know how you get sort of a book hangover because you've finished a novel, but don't want to leave the novel universe? The Other Normals gave me that kind of feeling. Funnily enough, parts of his own world gave Perry that feeling, too...

Reader Gut Reaction: I went into this book thinking that the word "normal" was going to be about mental health. I would guess that having read It's Kind of a Funny Story would have given me that misleading assumption. It's not about mental health - well, not in a possibly-you-should-be-institutionalized kind of way. It's about mental health in that it's a maybe-if-I-do-this-I-can-avoid-that sort of way, which is the way a lot of people approach reading or gaming - as an escape. Of course, sometimes with life, there's no escape...

Concerning Character: Perry - or, really, Peregrine - Eckert is kind of a geek. He's a muscle-free, style-less and relatively charm-free braniac who can be counted on to not only say the wrong thing at the wrong time, but to glaze over and stare when wits are required. Partially it's adolescence - that stuff happens to everyone - but partially it's because he's kind of living in the Twilight Zone Family - his people are nuts. His brother's constantly loaded, his parents, now divorced, speak solely to each other via their lawyers -- oh, yeah, their divorce lawyers - with whom they've hooked up. So, issues? Oh, yeah. Issues.

A lot of Perry's geekitude is not his fault, and it's easy to cut him some slack when all he wants to do is disappear into Creatures & Caverns, this super-dorky RPG. However, as much pain as he deals with - bullies at school and brush-offs at home - he makes things worse with constant escapism. He CAN'T relate to the world anymore - he just doesn't... get it. He's a gamer's gamer, and if it doesn't have sixteen-sided dice and rules, well... Eventually, his parents tune out of their narcissistic haze long enough to send him to realize he should have some fresh air and socialization skills, so off he goes to a camp where he's stripped of his dice and forced to interact with reality.

Good thing escapism is his superpower. There's a bunch of bullies, an attractive girl, and this guy with a tail. He's stumbled into the world of The Other Normals, and suddenly a lot going on he'd like to avoid...

Recommended for Fans Of...: HEIR APPARENT, by Vivian Vande Velde, DUPLICATE, by Cherry Cheva, DANGEROUS REALITY, by Malorie Blackman and MY FAVORITE BAND DOES NOT EXIST, by Robert T. Jeschonek

Themes & Things: I think the title of this book could be "Dude, Just Deal," because a lot of Perry's problems could have been avoided if he'd tried to relate to real life as... real life. Unfortunately, not everything can be solved by rolling dice and deciding you're a wizard with 9th-level powers. The theme of facing issues and grappling with them actually extends to his parents -- clearly, they've set the tone for avoidance -- they avoid the reality of his brother's issues, they avoid each other -- so nobody is stripping away pretense and avoidance and facing the truth. Family is flawed, situations are painful, and sometimes, there's no way to turn the other way and ignore it.

The theme of "confront-and-deal" is frequently accessed in the work of Ned Vizzini, but never quite in such a wildly unpredictable, slightly surreal way. I mean, there's a tail. Had I mentioned that?

Cover Chatter: I've mentioned before how much I love the gaming pieces. The character is as stated - short, dark haired, and skinny. Though Perry doesn't look as geeky to me as he thinks himself to be, he's clearly not your stereotypical ripped, blonde, and partially-exposed (chest, arms, whatever) male YA cover model. Sooo, a question, book designers: if we have a spotty and scrawny looking (only very slightly, but still) title character gracing this cover, why can't we have slightly less than perfect looking girls? Just a thought on objectification there...

DEAR FTC: ARC received from publisher, courtesy of the author. No money exchanged hands; my opinions are my own.

ON AND AFTER SEPTEMBER 25, 2012, find THE OTHER NORMALS by Ned Vizzini at online and independent bookstores near you!

July 05, 2012

Cover Chatter: Repackaging the Classics?

Our occasional co-blogger CitySmartGirl tipped us off to a fascinating NY Times article on reimagining the covers of some literary classics to make them more appealing to teen readers. The reception, as you might imagine, has been mixed. The reasoning behind the change does make sense: "Alli Brydon, the editor of the series, dismissed more traditional covers as too 'Victorian' and 'old-fashioned' for teenagers," plus they tend to be muted, quiet, and portray the protagonists as older than the young adults they often are.

By contrast, the owner of Book Passage (a bookstore here in the SF Bay Area) said that the repackaged classics don't always sell well: "If kids want to read ‘Emma,’ they want to buy it in the adult section, not the teen section....Kids don’t want to feel like they’re being manipulated.” What do you think of the new covers (shown above)? I have to say I have mixed feelings. They're nice, as such, and interesting, certainly, and eye-catching...but I tend to agree with the teenager quoted at the end of the times article--I kind of like my classics to look like classics, or at least retain an echo of their venerability in some way. These say very little about the time period in which the books were written.

Having said that, I don't think it's necessarily a bad thing to update cover artwork. I just think a little more could have been done with these to give them a classic feel while still retaining that loose, modern style. For instance, while I like the handwriting font used for the author names, I don't love the font style used for the titles of the books. Font nerd that I am, I'm convinced something else, something just a bit more "finished"-looking, would work better and make these look less like mock-ups or sketches for covers. What does work for me is that they have a sense of lightness and cleanness, although the Pride and Prejudice cover goes a bit too far with that and implies airiness and lack of substance.

Anyway, that's my two cents.

July 02, 2012

Monday Book Musings

After a busy week last week—including a fantastic visit to a teen creative writing class at The Storyteller Bookstore in Lafayette, CA--I find myself energized about reading and writing but lacking the wherewithal (read: energy) to write up a formal book review. So I thought today would be a good day to catch up on some of what I've read in recent weeks and maybe ask YOU all what’s been on your reading pile lately.

In my currently-being-read pile is the outstanding and hilarious Redshirts by John Scalzi, which I was luckily able to borrow from a friend. However, I’m probably going to have to get my own copy. If you've ever at any time been a fan of Star Trek, this one's a must read. It essentially addresses the question of what would happen if all those sad, doomed, redshirted Star Trek ensigns actually noticed how egregious their fatality rate was and decided to try to do something about it. It is a great, quick, light read and I highly recommend it.

The book I just finished reading prior to Redshirts was another book for grownups: The Children's Book by A.S. Byatt. Her writing's very intellectual and not for everyone, but if you liked her novel Possession and/or if you're a fan of convoluted Victorian/Edwardian social drama, you might enjoy this one. Beyond its exhaustive look at the repressed and dysfunctional social and romantic relationships of Victorian England, this book is about purpose, about art, about the sweeping, dynamic societal and philosophical changes that were the backdrop of an era that we often think of as far more staid than it actually was. Although I had occasional trouble keeping track of who was sleeping with whom and who was whose sibling and so forth, I found this one a fascinating read for its window into an era in which not only women but men were highly subject to increasingly irrelevant social strictures. It also provides an interesting mirror into our own time, which still retains a surprising amount of Victorian characteristics.

Another book that I read a little while ago, that I meant to write up a review of but now I've waited too long and my memory fails me, is Replay by Robin Brande. I was tipped off to a free Kindle copy of this book, and I'm so glad I read it. Without giving away too many spoilers, in Replay we follow the story of Cara Campbell, whose life irrevocably changes after she recovers from a near-death experience during surgery. During the less than a minute she was clinically dead, she experienced some things she can’t explain away, especially when she starts seeing eerie echoes and coincidences in her waking life. Though it might sound creepy, this isn't a scary Lois-Duncan-style suspense novel. It's no less gripping, but rather than being a thriller, it asks thoughtful questions about why we're here on earth and what we would do if we were given another chance at life and at mending the relationships with the people important to us.

I'll leave it there for today. If you've read any of these, I'd love to hear what you think. Or, if something great has crossed your desk lately, I'd love to hear about that, too!