November 30, 2012


Written by a woman who can channel the voice of younger teen guys, this novel says "Boyhood Dreams" all over it. I loved the outright wish-fulfillment bits of this novel. I mean, this kid goes from being a nobody to being a hero -- from fairly weak and pimply to strong and studly. I can say that without giving away spoilers because the boy's just like it says on the package: a monster hunter.

This novel manages to be both bildungsroman and buddy tale. It has a strong male figure in the form of an uncle, it's got a bit of flag-waving, but in an acceptable way, and it's all about Mom's Apple Pie, Saving the World, and Taking Care of Business. And Monsters. A fast-paced self-pubbed action novel with funny asides that the 12+ crowd will really enjoy - even folks who might not want love reading.

Reader Gut Reaction: Matt Archer is so well-written - he comes across clearly as just a guy. By this I mean he is full of insecurities and obsessions, which he mostly doesn't say out loud, he is full of thoughts about a girl named Ella fairly constantly. He likes his friends, and sticks by them; he's a pain to his siblings (sometimes), a worry to his mother (not too much, but...) and is pretty far down the pecking order to the jocks at school. It usually takes his Uncle Mike to keep him straight. He adores his uncle, who has taken the place of his father. His Uncle Mike teases his mother, and even keeps his boneheaded jock brother in line.

Pretty much everyone should have an Uncle Mike.

Concerning Character: All is well in Matt's world, until he finds out that his Uncle is going back to Afghanistan. Then, Matt falls apart. It isn't fair. Mike's already been called up. He's supposed to be a reservist. The agony Matt goes through is realistic, and something to which children of soldiers might really relate.

Mike and Matt go on one last camping trip -- and then, EVERYTHING changes. Absolutely everything. Those things that go bump in the night aren't just faceless things. Matt's seen something that nobody in his hometown would ever believe... and he kind of hopes they never have to...

Recommended for Fans Of...: Boy Warrior tales, including HARRY POTTER, by JK Rowling, THE LIGHTNING THIEF, et al, by Rick Riordan, THE MAGIC SHOP BOOKS, by Bruce Coville, SWEET VENOM, Tera Lynn Childs, MONSTER BLOOD TATTOO, DM Cornish.

Themes & Things: Thematically, this novel is about powerlessness and power. Much like the Mysterious Orphan tales, which mirror the Hero's Journey, Matt is taken to a place he never expected, and forced into a role he never dreamed existed, much less knew he wanted or needed. After several rough starts, false confidence, terror and near-fatal mistakes, he comes into his own. It's A Manhood Thing.

Cover Chatter: I didn't get to see this cover in its full glory until I got online - the ebook version of it was in shades of gray for me - and in the interest of getting to the story, I frankly didn't pay too much attention. However, now that I've seen it, I cannot but love the wee monster eyes. ☺ The knife and the skull give just the right touches of darkness and drama.

A lot of work was put into this novel - not just story, plot and proofreading, but thematic elements, and cover. I just want to say, PUBLISHERS, TAKE NOTE! This indie author is another one to watch. Good luck, Kendra Higley!

FTC: This novel provided by the author in ebook form, review unsolicited.

You can find MATT ARCHER, MONSTER HUNTER by Kendra C. Higley at CreateSpace, or a Barnes & Noble online retailer!

November 29, 2012

Random Notes and Blather

Today's supposed to be a Toon Thursday. But last weekend was Thanksgiving. I got behind on everything. I'm still catching up. It's gray and chilly outside and all I want to do is sit around under a blanket with a hot beverage and read until my eyeballs fall out. To that end, I went to the library a few days ago and came home with way more books than I had planned on getting. Still inhaling Bloody Jack books like there's no tomorrow, though I try to check out only one at a time so I can sort of pretend I'm savoring them. I think I have a writer crush on L.A. Meyer. I love that there is ongoing character development and change over the course of the series, and while the sense of adventure remains the same, Jacky is not quite the same person from book to book, and each one builds on the previous volume, unlike the Sweet Valley High model of series fiction with its insta-reset button.

On the topic of writing, Tanita and I are going to once again be doing an online short fiction project, but this time for realz and all. The Cracked Kettle will be us and three friends in Ireland, whipping up a weekly story in response to a visual prompt, all posted to our very own group blog, soon to be accessible to the general public once we've got some writing on there. We used to do this on our own blogs, posting for Flickr Fiction Friday, and then for a few years there we all got super busy with books and/or babies and whatnot. But now that the literal and metaphorical birthing has hit a lull, we'll be back to our old tricks, and hopefully come up with something we can all enjoy writing and that people will enjoy reading, too. I look forward in particular to resuming the discipline of having to play with a new idea every week. I'm not always able to sit around drafting fun new stuff, and this will be my excuse.

What's on your TBW (to be written) pile? Any super-secret-special ideas you want to share, that you're looking forward to tackling over the holidays or in the new year? (I swear I'm asking because I want to know, not because all of my web content articles require a "call to action" at the end and now I can't stop...)

November 28, 2012


Rack the bones, and grab the whetstones, falalalala, lalalala. 'Tis the season for assassins... fa la la la la...

Okay, maybe not.

Reader Gut Reaction: I think this book was impressive to me because the character of Celaena Sardothien was impressively ...much. Impressively filthy. Impressively foul-tempered. Impressively unlikable. It takes a lot of courage for a writer to GO THERE, to make up a character her readers may not like -- whom she herself may dislike -- and then slowly but surely let her grow on them, like a particularly noxious mold. It worked.

Ardalan is an impressively dark country. The prisons are grim, the slavery is more grim, and the King - oy. There is no magic. There is no light. There is no chance in Ardalan, nothing lives but the King's will.

Into this dark landscape is sketched an epic tale.

Concerning Character: Celaena Sardothien is a thug. She's a killer, cold-blooded, and by the laws of Ardalan, she flat-out deserves to die. Right? I mean, a.) Kill, b.) Die. That's generally how it goes. And yet, this killer has survived the Salt Mines of Endovier -- killed overseers and guards, and is still kicking. Something is unusual about this chick. Her reputation precedes her, for one thing. Her name brings on a frisson of fear. Ironic, really - because she's a teen girl.

It turns out that Celaena is a killer because her country has been enslaved - and those whom she kills have in some way been responsible for the deaths of her family. Though in some ways, her imprisonment is just, in other ways, her response to a greater injustice begins to make since, as Prince Dorian of Ardalan frees her. Of course, there's a catch: he frees her and ensures that she might die - or live - by how well she serves his father. As the King's Champion, she'll have a chance to serve the most evil man alive - the man responsible for the deaths of her family.

How much is her life worth? How much is revenge?

There's a fabulous Girl Power thing going on in this novel; between Calaena and Princess Nehemia, another near prisoner, there's friendship, intrigue, sword fights, and a really high body count. Just the thing for a holiday afternoon.

Recommended for Fans Of...: This book brought THE PRINCESS BRIDE to mind, as well as GRACELING, by Kristin Cashore, SHADOW AND BONE, by Leigh Bardugo and - duh, obviously - GRAVE MERCY, by Robin LaFevers...and everyone says, GAME OF THRONES by George Martin. Having not read that one yet, I will just throw that out there and let you decide.

Cover Chatter: I am not fond of faces on covers, so neither the US nor the UK/Commonwealth covers of this novel work for me all that well. However, I find that I like the US cover better simply because we know from the story that Calaena liked knives and had them strapped all over. The fantasy killer on the other cover, with her dual swords and flowing hair is ... sorry, kind of a joke. If you have hair like that, you're letting someone pull it to cut your throat. Reality fail. I know! I know! It's a fantasy novel! However, I like things to be a little more grounded; the UK cover looks almost cartoon-y.

Authorial Asides: This is Ms. Maas's debut novel; she rejoices in twenty-six years on this earth. This is heartening; there's a lot more time for her to produce many more fun and adventurous novels.

FTC: Source: library book, unsolicited review.

You can find THRONE OF GLASS by Sarah J. Maas online, or at an independent bookstore near you!

November 27, 2012


I love Mysterious Orphan stories; they've been some of the most successful in modeling the Hero/ine's Quest. Like Superman, Lyra, Harry Potter, and all the rest, Mysterious Orphan tales start with a kid who isn't sure of their place in the world, or the details of their lives -- after all, missing a parent means missing 5/10ths of your own story, until you grow up enough to make more of your own, and even then. Of course, being a wise orphan, the missing pieces lead them to create their places in the world. This process works on the Reader as well, as they are able to diminish within themselves feelings of unbelonging and embrace the feeling of control over their universe. It's maybe a temporary feeling... but then, you can always open another book, until you learn to do this for yourself!

And so, on with the story!

Reader Gut Reaction: I started this book earlier this year, as a sneak preview. I should never, never, never do that, because once I started it, I wanted it, and it wasn't out yet. And then, as is my wont, I forgot about it completely. Picking it up again meant a big leap back into the depths of a story it felt like I already knew - and no wonder. Those mysterious orphans! Those missing pieces of their lives ... except, in this case, the orphans are parted; one to become a cheerfully womanizing soldier, the other to be a fairly useless mapmaker. And yet, it's the useless one who shines - literally.

Concerning Character: Alina Starkov (is just the best name, is it not?) looks good on paper, anyway. An orphan of the endless wars of Ravka, raised in the home of a benevolent Duke, and employed to usefully make maps for the war effort. Except for her best friend, Mal, there's not a lot about Alina which stands out. Mal is splendid, Mal is wonderful, Mal is gorgeous, Mal is ... drifting further and further away from Alina, who can only wish after him. It's only when she's about to lose him for good that she figures out her purpose in life - to light the world. Unfortunately, the Darkling, the head Grisha in her country, is in need of light. His ancestors have left the world dark, through the fold, a supernatural division in their country which is infested by flesh-eating flying beasties. Traveling through that place requires a Grisha, or Ravkan witch, and Alina is now required for the good of the nation. Finally, she has a place to belong! -- but all is not at all as it seems...

Recommended for Fans Of...: Shannon Hale, BOOK OF A THOUSAND DAYS, MY MOTHER, SHE KILLED ME, MY FATHER, HE ATE ME, ed, Kate Bernheimer, FIERCE READS ANTHOLOGY, etc., Also, any of the Baba Yaga stories, or any stories with baffling heroines, like Rapunzel, etc.

Cover Chatter: There's a lot to discuss in terms of covers, here! I can't even tell you how much I love the final American cover. No faces! Story elements! Gray, lovely gray! Perfect touches of Russia in black, gray, and red! See, I used exclamation points. There is so much love.

Now, the scary British hardback is my second fave - on a sepia background, it depicts the Darkling, plain as day - the lone, handsome, romantic figure -- although I'm not loving the title near as much. The German one has a lot of interest, as it depicts a watercolor of an antlered head next to the title character's, but - meh. I prefer no faces, as always. And then, there's the ARC with the battered black background and the sliver of moon, and THEN, there's another with a girl on the cover, an entirely different title, and a dramatic tagline that makes it seem very romance-y - another British one, I understand. The designers really went through a lot of changes with this one book, and each cover (okay, you know me: except for the one with the girl and the drama-lines) has something to offer... but I still love the American one the best. Surprise!

Authorial Asides: Leigh Bardugo's “The Witch of Duva: A Ravkan Folk Tale” was my very favorite in this year's FIERCE READS anthology, so I KNEW I would love this book. And, sure enough! SHADOW AND BONE - Bardugo's first! - was acquired by DreamWorks, and the same producer who did the Potter movies is going to do this one. Hopefully, there will be no camping!

FTC: Source: library book, unsolicited review

You can find SHADOW AND BONE by Leigh Bardugo online, or at an independent bookstore near you!

November 26, 2012

Monday Review: THE NAME OF THE STAR by Maureen Johnson

Hardback cover
Reader Gut Reaction: As I often am with Maureen Johnson's work, I was immediately drawn in by the premise of this book—a teenager from the U.S. whose family leaves for England, so she decides to live and go to school in London—because of my own experience living in London as a college student. So I enjoyed this book for its nostalgia-inspiring setting. But I also enjoyed the, erm, RIP-roaring mystery and suspense aspects of the story: not long after Rory (short for Aurora) arrives in London, a series of Jack-the-Ripper-copycat murders start to occur. We all know Jack the Ripper targeted young women. Even scarier, the murders are taking place not far from where she lives, and the police aren't finding much in the way of clues or leads.

Then something inexplicable happens: Rory spots someone who might be the suspect. But nobody else saw him. Why is that? And is she in danger? I don't want to give away too many spoilers, so I'll just say that this is a spooky, suspenseful mystery with plenty of atmospheric London locales, a hint of romance, and a whole lot of freaky happenings. And it's only Book One…

Concerning Character: Rory is a likeable combination of grounded in herself yet also looking to find out more about who she is—she's practical and smart, but not so smart that she doesn't get into trouble from time to time, and of course, it's trouble that makes for a good story, isn't it? She's from Louisiana originally, but the author does a good job of not making Rory a stereotypical Southerner, just reminding us from time to time with gentle hints or memories from Rory's life before. Mostly, in contrast with her new London classmates, she's just terribly AMERICAN, and plenty of things get lost in translation. It doesn't mean she's friendless, however, or boyfriendless, and her allies (some of them in VERY unexpected places) end up being vital to saving her life.

Recommended for Fans Of...: Suspenseful thrillers with a supernatural element, like Scott Westerfeld's Midnighters books, Lisa McMann's Wake etc., or anything by Lois Duncan. Also, fans of stories set in London, like Neil Gaiman's Neverwhere.

paperback cover
Themes & Things: Being a mystery, this is a very plot-driven story, but no story is complete without some driving themes no matter how plot-driven it is. In this one, we're following Rory through a rather dramatic life transition, from living at home and going to high school like a normal American teenager to taking up residence at a London boarding school; coming of age in this story, however, means not only gaining independence and learning what to do with it, but also learning some unexpected things about herself and having to decide what to do with THAT, too. And then there's the friendship and romance—how well does she really know these people after only a few months? And how much should she tell them about the strange things that keep happening around her?

Cover Chatter: The hardback cover is just SO far superior to the paperback. That ghostly, Victorian daguerreotype-ish Jack the Ripper in the background is fantastically creepy, as is the "is she sleeping or dead?" girl in the foreground. The paperback cover is a bit more generic—I probably wouldn't pick it up on its own.

Review Copy Source: Library.

You can find The Name of the Star by Maureen Johnson online, or at an independent bookstore near you!

November 22, 2012

Happy Thanksgiving!

Whether you're serving up a turkey, a tofurkey, or something entirely different, Finding Wonderland wishes you a wonderful Thanksgiving, even if you live somewhere where it's celebrated on a different day or not at all--because we are grateful for all of you regardless! Here's to consuming mass quantities, getting a wicked food coma, and curling up in a chair with a good book for the long weekend. (Me--I'll be finishing up Froi of the Exiles by Melina Marchetta, having three days in a row of turkey dinners with three different parts of the family...and probably gaining back the five pounds I lost over the past few months. Sigh...)

November 19, 2012

Zombie Monday: DUST & DECAY and FLESH & BONE by Jonathan Maberry

Today's review is kind of a two-for-one—two books in the same series, which I sadly thought was a trilogy and was all excited that I was able to get the last two books at the same time and therefore wouldn't have to wait around in suspense to end the story, BUT NO, there is a fourth book coming. And really, I don't mind, because sometimes it takes as long as it takes for the story to end, and Jonathan Maberry has written an action-packed and suspense-filled story that just gets meatier and meatier. Um, no pun of any kind intended there.

Reader Gut Reaction: I've said it before: I'm not that big a fan of zombie stories, for a variety of reasons. But I read Rot & Ruin, the first book in this series, for the Cybils a while back (reviewed here) and enjoyed it a lot more than I thought I would. Besides compelling (and mixed-race!) characters, it had nonstop plot action, an intriguing post-apocalyptic setting, high stakes, and bad guys who were way scarier than the zombies. It also had enough flashes of humor, romance, and coming-of-age to balance out the suspense and the scary stuff. That all continues in Books 2 and 3, in which we keep following the adventures of Benny Imura, his older brother Tom, and his friends. (MINOR SPOILERS to come in the rest of the review, so if you haven't read book one, consider yourself warned!)

Since they glimpsed the jet plane at the end of Book One, Benny and Nix have been obsessed with finding out what's out there—whether there really is still civilization somewhere in the great Rot & Ruin. The small town of Mountainside only offers denial and constant sameness, so they decide to set out into the unknown to try to find the source of the jet, with experienced fighter Tom as their guide and the Lost Girl Lilah as their defender. But things quickly go wrong and get out of control, as they encounter crazed animals, even more crazed humans, and, of course, legions of the living dead.

Concerning Character: Everything this story throws at Benny and his friends seems designed to test the characters' mettle and fortitude—they're stretched to the limit again and again in different ways, but of course this reveals a lot about the inner strength at the core of each of them, and what is driving each one on this possibly fruitless journey.

We learn a lot about Chong and Lilah in these two volumes, as each one gets their own side story—Chong, the physically awkward intellectual who really doesn't feel like he belongs in the great outdoors, really sets the plot in motion. Meanwhile, Lilah, who considered herself impervious to everything, hardened by years on her own in the wilderness, is shocked by her sudden vulnerability now that she has, once again, people to care about who care about her. And of course we continue to follow Benny and Nix, the two primary characters, as their bond is tested time and again by violence and tragedy and the harshness of the world they live in. Oh, and there are also super scary villains. I shouldn't forget to mention that.

Recommended for Fans Of...: The Forest of Hands and Teeth and its companion books, by Carrie Ryan; The Knife of Never Letting Go and its companions by Patrick Ness; and other dark post-apocalyptic suspense.

Themes & Things: Courage in the face of adversity—if I had to pick a pervasive theme for these two volumes, that would probably be it. Each of the characters has to figure out what courage and bravery truly mean, and some of them have a more difficult time of it than others. But they all come to realize that you don't necessarily stop being scared; you just end up doing what you have to do anyway.

Cover Chatter: All I can say is, they're appropriately EWWW.

Review Copy Source: Library.

You can find Dust & Decay and Flesh & Bone by Jonathan Maberry online, or at an independent bookstore near you!

November 16, 2012

CYBILS F/SF: Erebos, by Ursula Poznanski

I read a Cybils book the other day wherein the villain was so clearly and easily identified that I lay the book down in reproach. (I couldn't throw it, but I thought about it.) Really? I asked it, Is that all you've got? Well, I didn't have to ask that question this time; in EREBOS there is no simple way to ascertain whodunnint - or whodunwhat, and that, my writing group tells me, is the mark of a master mystery-writer.

Someone has described this book as Fight Club meets "World of Warcraft." I think that's pretty apt - it's a game nobody talks about, but it simply consumes the players. Of course, what you don't know can consume you as well... I can see gamers and non-gamers alike REALLY getting into this one, and wondering if they could have played better...

Reader Gut Reaction: Based on the cover, I didn't think the book was going to be anything but pure horror in a multi-player gaming platform - I expected zombies and screams and bloodshed hacking through the computer at me. No... it was so much more subtle than that. And the subtlety is what won me over - and the characters, too. If you're going to freak me out, you're better off doing it with tiny things out of place in a locked room than with herds of zombies groaning and dragging themselves at me. Zombies you can find some kerosene and light up and wander away from whilst they die. Things out of place in your house when you know it was hermetically sealed - those things are going to eat at you until you figure them out. Suspense, subtlety, and shivers - an unbeatable combination, but not for the reasons you suspect. This is mad scientist stuff with a soupçon of ethics thrown in, and it's fun.

Concerning Character: Nick, at sixteen, is surprised to find himself out of the loop with the Next Thing in school - his best friend, Collin, is well into it, but he says it's the next Limp Bizkit CD or something - which, after a point, Nick knows very well it's not, since air-headed Brynne has it, the Freaks have copies, and who are they to get a new CD before he does? And why does Collin seem to be begging them for something? When Nick FINALLY gets his hands on the CD - from Brynne, incidentally - it's a thrill, a huge thrill. He's in the know at LAST, and the game is amazing. Except... it knows him, really well. Maybe too well...

Recommended for Fans Of...: The film, War Games, Data from Star Trek, I, Robot, and Robot City by Isaac Asimov, as well as his others on the positronic robot; Cinder, by Melissa Meyers, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, by Phillip K. Dick, Flowers for Algernon, by Daniel Keyes, Feet of Clay, by Terry Pratchett, etc.

Cover Chatter: A bright red cover with an eye... works. The battered red paint underscores the idea that the game isn't for the faint of heart or the easily bruised. The tagline It's a game. It watches you is by way of being the most unnerving and simple explanation for things that could have ever been said - very concise, very evocative. Rather than trying to depict the characters, who matter very little in the face of the awesome that is Erebos, the cover targets the emotions the book brings out in the reader: the emotion of creeptasticality, if I may. I like it a lot.

Authorial Asides: This is a tightly written and suspenseful novel, and there's a clarity of style that's evident despite its being a translation. The novel was originally written and published in Austria, where apparently things are MUCH CREEPIER than they are here. Yowza. This book is rightfully a 2012 ALA/YALSA Best Fiction for Young Adults list nomination, and won the Jugendliteraturpreis in Austria.

FTC: This book was sent courtesy of Annick Press; unsolicited review.

You can find EREBOS by Ursula Poznanski online, or at brick-and-mortar indies near you.

November 15, 2012

Toon Thursday: The Writing Guru Speaketh Again

...and my thanks to blog bud/fellow YA author Jenn for this week's toon idea! Enjoy, and as always, click to view a larger version.

You, too, can submit a question to the Writing Guru! Simply leave it in the comments and the Guru will ponder the worthiness of your request.

Happy Thursday!

November 14, 2012

News and Errata

If Eric Carle wrote Game of Thrones as a picture book...

These aren't quite up to Carle standards, but they're adorable. You can find all of them here. Shared via

Meanwhile, Sir Terry Pratchett reveals that his daughter is inheriting his storytelling empire. Surprised he has a daughter? You've got to respect a famous man who doesn't drag his family into the limelight, actually. Rhianna Pratchett, 35, is a well-known figure in the gaming world, as she writes games. How cool is that? The storytelling gene has been put to good use. Anyway, this article in The New Statesman talks about his Alzheimer's, his little heart attack this past summer (boo), and how he's making plans to make sure the Discworld lasts, if not forever, then a good long time. Hat tip to again.

Finally, you all know I am a big fan of Geek & Sundry's Tabletop and since for some odd reason, our house has been chosen as Thanksgiving Crash Pad (and a menu made and dishes assigned without consulting me... how does this happen??) I've been thinking I need to get some new games. It's a tough crowd I'm working with, though - aside from the swelling ranks of the Ancients ☺ the younger set runs from 23 - 3 in age. Obviously Mr. 3 is going to take joy in doing vastly different things than the rest of us, but I'd like to hear from anyone who has a thought about what kinds of good family games there are out there to enjoy. We're trying to avoid the Monopoly Wars of 1998, and we usually have a rousing game or two of TABOO before screams and fistfights break out, but we're looking for something new. Thank you in advance for any thoughts.

EDITED TO ADD: Jules has very kindly pointed out a HAWT helping of the men of YA lit. Be prepared to snicker at MT's sexy stripey socks, and Barry Lyga's exposed verbiage... and much more.


November 12, 2012

Monday Review: TRICKSTER'S GIRL by Hilari Bell

Reader Gut Reaction: I used to be a huge fan of Native American mythological tropes in fiction. Then I became old and read way too many books and realized it's a theme that has been, if not done to death, certainly hashed and re-hashed until I got to a point where my eyes want to roll whenever I see such things as the premise for books.

However, I didn't always feel this way. I certainly didn't feel that way as a teen reader—quite the opposite. So I put a temporary gag on my cynical adult self when I picked up Trickster's Girl, Book 1 in The Raven Duet. Yes, tricksters abound in YA fantasy. Yes, we've angered the spirits of nature by ruining our environment time and again. Hush, you—THIS BOOK IS GOOD.

Not only that, it manages to squeak just a teensy bit of the dystopian/futuristic setting in (which I'm apparently NOT sick of yet—go figure) along with the fantasy, which is unexpected but, weirdly, it really works. It's unobtrusive, mostly—cars and motorbikes that are rechargeable; portable folding solar panels; personal "pods" that serve as phones, recorders, and data devices all in one; that kind of thing. The implication is that the story's taking place perhaps a hundred years from now, but society's structure hasn't substantially changed.

Concerning Character: Kelsa is fifteen years old. She rides one of those rechargeable motorbikes. And at school she's sort of an outcast, but it's mainly because she's been preoccupied over the past year with her father dying of a rare, aggressive cancer. At the start of the story, her father has just died; because he was a scientist so connected with the study of trees and ecology—he was researching what's been making all the trees start to die from a mysterious disease—Kelsa has decided to go AWOL with his ashes and bury them in the shade of an ancient tree. It just seems right somehow, and damn the consequences.

But in this case, the consequences are more bizarre than she could imagine. A beautiful but strange and only quasi-socialized boy shows up and says he's Raven. Nope, not his name—he says he's THE Raven. According to him, the tree disease, maybe even her father's cancer, these are just symptoms of something a whole lot bigger. And he's somehow decided that Kelsa has to be the one to help him heal the earth. What could possibly go wrong?

Recommended for Fans Of...: Fantasy authors who incorporate a lot of mythological elements into their work, like Charles De Lint, Laini Taylor, Karen Healey, Robin McKinley.

Themes & Things: Throughout this book, as you might expect, there is a strong environmental theme: what we've done to the earth, what can and can't be healed, what we've already done whose consequences we can't even foresee. As Kelsa gets to know Raven in all his imperfect, exasperating, tricksy glory, we think a lot about the nature of trust. And as Kelsa decides to help him, to help the trees her father loved so much, we watch her learn about her own sense of personal responsibility, of how and why you decide to make something out of your life beyond people's everyday expectations of you.

Review Copy Source: Library.

You can find Trickster's Girl by Hilari Bell online, or at an independent bookstore near you!

November 09, 2012

CYBILS F/SF: SHATTER ME, by Tahereh Mafi

Fair warning: this is a bewildering review. It's for a book that makes no sense to me with the cover it has, with a title that doesn't makes as much sense to me, either, and a tagline - MY TOUCH IS LETHAL/MY TOUCH IS POWER - which hasn't come to fruition for me either (WHEN does she feel powerful? Um, never...), all of which may make you wonder why I'm reviewing a book I clearly don't seem to like. Well, because... I don't hate it. Yes, there's a shocking abuse of adjectives, yes, it's got many generic themes and some seriously HYPED romance that doesn't do anything for me, but something about this novel has potential. I kept reading, because I kept thinking that around the next corner, the wobbles would firm, and it would all would straighten out. To be honest, it never did.

I'm disappointed to see yet another YA post-apocalyptic so-called dystopia so larded with romantic themes that the specifics of the oppressive government, the reasons behind the oppression, and a clear picture of the curtailed freedoms are lost. Since we hardly see anything but the character and her love interest(s), it's all very hazy - and maybe deliberately so. And yet...

Reader Gut Reaction: The alleged dystopia, has a lot of the typical earmarks (I don't concur that this is what the genre is in truth): a civilization is essentially over because of Some Big Thing that no one truly comprehends, remembers, or understands; the birds/animals are gone, which is my first clue that some major ecological Thing had gone on, the food is poisoned, the water is poisoned, and people eat manufactured substances from nutripacks. Oh, and the new prison state is run by traditionally Aryan looking young adults who double as extras from THE LORD OF THE FLIES movie set. There is, at first, prison: grim, dirty, tricky, and a laced with whole lot of crazy. There is no LIGHT. No one ever sees each other. Superheated food it left at random intervals in a slot on the door, and the main character has to learn to leave it alone for three minutes, or be burned. Of course, if you haven't eaten in two days, this is a little hard to recall; main character Juliette's hands bear the scars of being reminded.

There seems to be a lot less thought and background and world-building than chaotic, useless action - soldiers marching, leaves flying, lots of build-up to nothing much, and then, BOOM: into the world of silent and solitary comes ... a boy. Adam.

Concerning Character: Juliette has been in solitary 264 days, and when Adam is suddenly her roommate, she shows signs of strain. The psychological tension of this event have been ramped up until it was at a screaming pitch, but instead, it ends anticlimactically. After two weeks of essentially obsessing on him, showing him tiny kindnesses, and being shown one in return, they're jumped by the guards, and she wakes elsewhere, with A Deal being put before her. She suddenly finds her voice - which mainly says, "Oh, no, no, no, bad guy, no to you!" and she puts her faith and love in Adam, who had been in her cell with her, a boy she had known from afar years before her incarceration - but a boy whom she cannot trust because she has A Big Secret.

At the outset, I was engaged with Juliette because she was clearly trying to figure out the world along with me. There was a BIG element of WTH going on - she was taken from prison, given fancy clothes, a banquet dinner, and the works -- WHY??? Except, she seemed to lose interest in all of that just when it became crucial to the reader's understanding. Everything was Adam, Adam, and more Adam. There are a LOT of metaphors, a lot of similes, and a lot of focus on Adam's dreamy blueblueblue eyes, etc.

And then, there's the literary convention of frequently and randomly(?) crossed out lines - both within the title tagline and throughout the text. They are bewildering, because do the crossed out lines mean that a thing is not true? Or that it is an also-ran to the new truth Juliette is now embracing? Or, is it just to remind you that there is a journal, which, somehow, no one ever takes from Juliette, despite it being allegedly illegal to have individual thoughts?? We're never told.

Further, while Adam is a hot distraction - imagine being presented with a cute boy after not having been touched for a few years, there's a little MORE crazy to have - I would have been deeply concerned about a.) where the HECK were her parents, b.)had there been a trial for her trumped-up incarceration, or was this jail thing forever, or c.) why was an accidental ability criminalized when CLEARLY she wasn't responsible, d.) how the heck did she get that power? (it's hinted at in the end, but not thoroughly explored to anyone's satisfaction). I would have had SO MANY QUESTIONS! And a LOT more crazy! Instead, she collapses into the trending role in a lot of YA post-apocalyptic pseudo-dystopia as Victim Heroine, so people come and save her. She is, after all, blindingly beautiful (264 days in solitary with infrequent two minute showers and intermittent food would make me look my best, too), and the object of a love triangle, between the bad guy and Adam. Bah.

Recommended for Fans Of...: Romance novels in which the heroine is all Girl In Peril, like DELIRIUM, by Lauren Oliver, the BUMPED series, by Meghan McCafferty, WITHER, by Lauren DeStefano, XVI by Julia Karr. Oh, and TWILIGHT, by that Stephanie Meyers person.

Cover Chatter: I mentioned my bewilderment about the big white dress - it does show up, in one of the very odd scenes wherein Juliette is asked to dress for dinner with the bad guy/dictator/head guy/random thug; however, for a novel which starts in a psychiatric prison facility, and spends a lot of time in darkness filled with soldiers and riding in tanks and running for one's life and hiding in yet another facility, it seems that THAT dress would not be the most accurate pointer toward a hint about the plot.

The new cover depicting a gigantic eye with the lashes growing ...leaves? at least gives a good hint about the psychiatric facility. It's striking and vivid in color, and very different - no generic Girl With Long Hair And Foofy Dress, which means it's a win, and the following two novels of the trilogy will stick with that cover trend.

Final Thoughts, During Which I Still Flail About Trying To Explain: I do not love this plot. There are issues. However, Tahereh Mafi is a talented writer whose freshman outing with this novel shows some wobble - but I cannot help but see the talent, too, and hope for more from her - maybe not dystopia, with its necessarily detailed world-building and focus on the complexities of freedoms and government and corruption, etc., but maybe strictly post-apocalyptic romance - I think she'd be good at conveying, At The End Of The World, I'll Still Love You. She's doing that here, and for readers who enjoy the heightened sorts of emotions and blisteringly fast build-ups to Love Eternal, this is the book for you.

Library copy, unsolicited review

You can find SHATTER ME by Tahereh Mafi at an independent bookstore near you!

November 08, 2012

A Chance to Give Back, and other Linky Goodness

You've probably heard of the Kidlit Cares: Superstorm Sandy Relief effort already, but if you haven't--you can go check it out on Kate Messner's blog and bid on a wide range of fabulous items like critiques, signed books, swag, Skype author visits and more, all to benefit those in need after the ravages of the storm(s) on the Eastern seaboard. Proceeds go to the Red Cross, so if you haven't donated yet, this is a great way to give back and get something nifty for your efforts.

It is, of course, NaNoWriMo, and while this year is yet again a total bust for me as far as participating, I know some of you are--and if you're working on a YA novel, remember that the Serendipity Literary Agency is holding their Young Adult Novel Discovery Competition again this year--go read about it here.

Last but not least, an interesting article via the SCBWI Expression newsletter: in the Guardian, YA/MG author Frank Cottrell Boyce is critical about the way literature is often taught. He says that if you teach it the wrong way, you risk putting kids off reading forever, rather than showing them that reading can be fun. Definitely some food for thought, and should make us reflect a bit on how we teach literature in the U.S., too...

Also from the same newsletter, a fascinating look at the ethical questions raised by the translation of children's literature. The article starts this way:
Since a language inevitably embodies the norms and ideologies of a culture, to impose the ideas of one culture on another through the medium of a translated book is an act of violence. Even more intense dynamics can arise from the history that these cultures share...
Very, VERY thought-provoking stuff. Happy reading!

November 06, 2012

CYBILS F/SF: THE CHAOS, by Nalo Hopkinson

Another week, and another unique novel. After Leila so strenuously recommended Enchanted, I figured I had pretty well done my "every-fairytale-you-know-stuffed-in" plot for awhile. And then came this one, with duppies, Sasquatch, and Baba Yaga.

The crazy is never over.

Author Nalo Hopkinson grew up in Jamaica, Trinidad, and Guyana before moving to Canada when she was sixteen. As an author, she is known for her uniquely populated speculative fantasy, and I was fairly certain she could successfully cross into the young adult field. This novel is more imaginative urban fantasy than straight fantasy, and the level of crazy isn't for everyone - it will be a bit too quirky for those who like all of their loose ends tied down - but for others, it has just the right amount of surreal.

Reader Gut Reaction: What we have here is a Journey novel - it's obvious in that it begins with a reluctant character - being led or drawn to either tell a truth or act in a certain way, but dragging her feet, until WHAM, there's no choice. This is coming of age, with a ladle of insanity - a novel like eating something spicy late at night and having weird, surreal dreams that are rooted in the familiar, but take you far, far away. The quest structure is very clear, but there's no bowl of gold at the end of the rainbow. There is just a world, and a bucket of perceptions, forever, irrecoverably, changed.

I could see Hayao Miyazaki (Spirited Away)taking this novel and having a heck of a good time making it even weirder, though I think there might be a cultural disconnect on some of the deeper issues of color and ethnicity which are explored. This is a strange, strange novel which pulls together varicolored folk and folk tales from various cultures and sets them all bubbling in a stew in a volcano in Toronto, of all places. The setting is certainly fun and fresh - this is Canada with sharp edges. And teeth.

Concerning Character: Scotch is just a girl, hating an assignment she's doing in school, which nonetheless allows the reader to see her - her hopes and her fears and her appearance. Scotch is both sexy-hawt and yucky, as she's dealing with a very sticky, black, scabby skin condition, even as she works the short-shorts and the boots and her bodacious bod. The early structure of the novel helps us to understand Scotch's dual mental states - happy, on one hand, with her school camouflage and her leftover bestie, and unhappy - after dumping her boyfriend, repeatedly screwing up her dance routine, and watching her ex-best friend talk to her ex - which apparently isn't allowed. Scotch is erratic, selfish, moody, and overall, scared of a world in which cannot always be in control or find her feet - that of the old school world of the Caribbean, and her father's Jamaican requirements clashing with the new ideas of Toronto. Especially as she contemplates a mysterious scabby growth on her skin diminishing her beauty, Scotch is not exactly endearing, but the world around her is interesting, and the reader is okay to stick with her story long enough to figure out what's going on. For instance, what is with the horse thingies? What? As the world plunges into chaos, everything non-essential is boiled away. It turns out that the things we all know we should revere: family, friends, those we love - are the ONLY ones that matter.

Recommended for Fans Of...: surrealist fiction, where all sorts of weirdness happens, as in the worlds of Nina Kiriki Hoffman, Charles de Lint, Shaun Tan and Alan Moore. There's not a lot of YA out there like it, as you can see; certainly very few which showcase Caribbean folktales.

Themes & Things: Scotch is biracial, the product of a Caucasian Jamaican father and African American mother. Her mother and father share a lot, but they also struggle - and there are some deep, painful craters in the smooth road of family togetherness. Scotch's brother is A Problem to his parents, and they react in a way that Scotch believes is overreacting - even as she nurtures a secret guilt about it. Scotch believes her father doesn't really love her - he only has criticism for her - and she is grieved and furious by his perception of women as sweet and weak -- because she herself is bawdy, bold, and strong. He does not see her. After an assault and accusations at her old school that she was a slut, Scotch's parents have locked her into a conservative mold, classically blaming the victim, and forcing her into polyester slacks and sweaters which not only muffle her spirit but hide her body. Scotch believes that deep down, they believe that she did something to deserve what she got -- why else would they muffle her in ugly clothes and demand that she limit her self-expression. Her grief, anger, guilt, and fear deep down often bubbles into bad choices and thoughtless, snarky behavior.

Scotch has issues with her coloring - despite a fair complexion, she self-identifies as black-Caribbean, but is irritated by how much more readily people identify her brother's ethnicity, whose coloring is darker. A stranger's comment, "You could be anything!" is meant to be freeing, but for Scotch drives home the point that she's nothing concrete and fits nowhere - not black, not white, not Caribbean. She's enraged with the person who so casually dismisses her cultural and ethnic roots, and takes refuge next to her brother - who is dark enough that no one questions him. It is interesting that later her "skin condition" creates a situation where questioning her racial or ethnic identity is no longer even at issue.

I found myself wishing the author had spent a little more time on some of the interpersonal issues of Scotch's family, including her shaming, and the self-acceptance which came later - and the prejudices against the wheelchair bound Indonesian artist, the homophobia Scotch expresses - and later is forgiven for, easily, by her best friends - but the plot is more tuned in to the chaos - which is indeed wildly creative, but isn't ever entirely explored and appreciated. Dare we hope to see more of this character and/or the Chaos and how it left the world?

Cover Chatter: Despite my distaste for novels with faces on the cover, I at least like the chaotic nature of this one - the slashes of color indicative of the volcanic activity, the city on fire - and the face of a girl. Above her head, the city skyline is repeated - a world upside down.

Is the girl light enough to "pass" as the author at one point suggests? Could she be "anything" ethnically? For me, no, but that's something only answerable by individual beholders. I'll be interested in which direction the publisher goes when the novel comes out in paperback.

FTC: Sourced by a library copy, unsolicited review.

You can find THE CHAOS by Nalo Hopkinson online, or at an independent bookstore near you!

November 05, 2012

Monday Review: MOMENTUM by Saci Lloyd

Reader Gut Reaction: Saci Lloyd wrote the thought-provoking, fast-paced, near-future dystopian Carbon Diaries novels (reviewed here and here), and I enjoyed those, so I was intrigued to read this one—also a near-future dystopian, also very concerned with dwindling resources and an ever-growing gap between those who have and those who don't.

How British authors portray the class system is always very interesting to me, partly because in the U.S. we like to pretend we don't have one. But, fair enough, the class system in the UK is in many ways a more entrenched institution than ours. Momentum takes place in a future London where the class system has apparently become very simple: either you're a Citizen, and you have your personal technology devices and your life of relative privilege, or you're an Outsider, living under constant oppression by the government's Kossak officers (essentially military police) and struggling to make do in the favelas, or slums. But the Outsiders have something the Citizens don't: secret access to their own technology network, the Dreamline, and their own brand of freedom.

Concerning Character: It took me a little while to get absorbed in the story on this one—it's told in a quick, flashing, cinematic style, with lots of action and setting-related detail and not a lot of cerebral or character stuff. But once we really get to know the protagonist, Hunter, it started to pick up for me. Hunter is a Citizen, but when we meet him, he's basically practicing his parkour out in the favelas. He's got a yearning for a type of freedom that Citizens don't quite have in their safe little lives, a freedom that he only pretends at in his virtual reality games.

Searching for that freedom, though, has its cost and its reward: he witnesses the horrible death of an Outsider kid at the hands of the Kossaks, giving him a new perspective on how society really works in the real world. In the process, he meets Uma, an Outsider girl with whom he quickly becomes entangled. Hunter has a conscience, and he's a good guy, and of course both he and Uma end up teaching each other a lot about their respective worlds. In the end, though, as you'd expect, Hunter learns some painful lessons about the world he lives in, and has to choose sides in a conflict that goes deeper than he can imagine.

Recommended for Fans Of...: High-action sci-fi techno-thrillers, like For the Win by Cory Doctorow (reviewed here), Brain Jack by Brian Falkner (reviewed here), or Black Hole Sun by David Macinnis Gill (reviewed here). Also, books about the London underworld, like Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman (reviewed here).

Themes & Things: I've covered most of the major themes already—the meaning of freedom, the dynamics between the haves and the have-nots in society, the consequences of unchecked industrial-technological growth on people and the environment. But the character interactions bring forth a number of other threads as well: truth, loyalty, friendship, and the complexity of right and wrong.

Review Copy Source: Library.

You can find Momentum by Saci Lloyd online, or at an independent bookstore near you!

November 03, 2012


And in answer, YES, I do have that wretched song armor-plated to my brain, thank you Roberta Flack, Fugees, et al.

It's a fitting title, in many ways, but the image that occurs to me, after reading the book, is that of being smothered by very pretty, brocaded pillows... there are indeed all sorts of soft ways to die.

Reader Gut Reaction: I love fairytale retellings when they're done well, when they're unusual and offbeat. I tend to tire of them quickly and easily, though, so I was surprised by my attention to this one. In many ways, I had that sense of being behind a screen, screaming at the girl running through the foggy forest to, "NO! Don't go in there!" and groaning as she tripped over absolutely nothing four inches from the pursuing vampire/werewolf/Bad Man. I could see The End coming, in this story -- the trap was set with zero cunning whatsoever. After all, "That Can't Happen To Me" is what's on the headstones of myriad people from scary movies.

This novel by turns annoyed me and amused me, and yet, I kept reading.

In the end, I realized that was because my teen self was copying whole swathes of the book out in her journal. The author has some good things to say, even through the very flawed vehicle of this slightly goofy, bent-on-self-destruction character. I think she's the bit of the fairytale that always rings true.

"Layla," she said. "Is it possible to avoid your destiny? Like if you're fated to be with someone, but you can sense that it isn't right between the two of you?"

... "I don't know," Layla said. Her voice was fragile - this was a sensitive subject for her, too. "But I hope it's possible. That what we want - what we're willing to fight for - matters as much as, or more than, our curse."

p. 167

Concerning Character: Mirabelle Lively is a very fortunate girl - very fortunate. She's had all of the advantages she could ever have in life, and two godmothers who dote on her and spoil her. She has been kept from a whole host of craziness by these overprotective women -- but she doesn't appreciate it, not much. She's almost sixteen, and she can't even get a straight answer about where she came from. After all, she's told her parents died when she was three -- but, why on earth can't anyone just tell her the truth about their deaths - the fire that consumed them? And why can't she visit their graves? But, the godmothers have always, always said and unequivocal "NO" to that request. And so, Mira's off to find her past -- not for any good reason except that it's been kept from her... and no one could POSSIBLY have a good reason for not telling her everything they know.

Mira is pushy in some areas of life, and in others, completely passive, and MADDENINGLY unable to learn from the fact that people repeatedly are leaving things out when they tell her things. She cannot seem to understand that she needs to look more closely before leaping, and think harder before accepting the word of those who share the märchen -- the mark of those cursed. But Beau Rivage is all too beautiful, the lovely people she meets all too accommodating. There are secrets for her to uncover, and she's eager and ready

Recommended for Fans Of...: Cameron Dokey and Jackson Pearce's fairytale retellings, Heather Dixon's ENTWINED, the work of Jessica Day George, and Zoe Elliot's SHADOWS ON THE MOON.

Cover Chatter: I have to say that this cover doesn't do it for me. I have no idea why book designers seem to love the concept of tainted roses, but they do. I don't - mainly because it's a vampire/horror standard, and this novel, while horrific in its own little ways - doesn't approach the rip-your-throat-out gorefest that vampires represent. The horror of this novel is the whiny characters running around - maybe we should have a portrait of the bruised, middle-aged backside of The Princess and the Pea -- that's horror, right there.

To my mind, the book designers missed a key symbol for the cover - but I can also see why they would have chosen a more innocuous one than they did -- spoilers. Plus, the item I'm thinking of might have sent a different message than was intended. The rose is still a thin substitute, however, and makes a beautiful, but ultimately generic statement for a book that, in glimpses, is anything but.

A naked blade hid nothing, feared nothing. She wanted to be like that. Because that was how you found yourself, created yourself. You didn't hide. You didn't wait for the perfect moment to settle on you like a butterfly, like magic.

You went out and made magic. Made your own wishes come true.

p. 308

You can find KILL ME SOFTLY by Sarah Cross at an independent bookstore near you!

November 02, 2012

Go. Read. Think.

I've heard authors say, “Well, we can’t take responsibility for what a reader will take from a book. It could be anything.”

Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris could have been reading Judy Moody just as easily as The Catcher in the Rye.

It's a tempting idea for anyone who has ever written anything. You write what you write. Readers take whatever they want from it. May the reader beware.

No one blame Author X if kids start filleting one another in the woods (or Author Y if they start fellating).

That is absolutely fair. But as any workshop or football coach will tell you, don't accept the compliments if you won't believe the criticism.

Probably one of the more interesting discussions you'll have with yourself today: are YA novels getting edgier? And, if teens are responding with increasingly edgy behavior, is it the fault of the authors? Do we hold books responsible? Do books have a power for evil? Because, surely we all agree that books have the power for good... don't we???? Caveat lector at CBC Diversity.

Why I Vote: A Multi-Blog Event

Today, around the kidlitosphere, you're likely to see a lot of voting-related blog posts. What you won't see is proselytizing, muckraking, mudslinging. What you WILL see is a wide range of inspiring personal stories along the theme of "Why I Vote." Thanks to Colleen, Lee, and Greg for revisiting this multi-blog effort to get out the vote, after a successful Blog the Vote event in 2008. Go check out the master post roundup and pass it on to all your friends and family, especially those who aren't sure they'll vote. No matter who or what we're for or against, voting is the most basic way we make our voices heard in this country. And, as my husband often puts it, it gives you the right to complain. If you don't vote, quit complaining!

The right to complain isn't why I vote, though. I vote because I am lucky to be part of a politically active and interested family. When I was little, my mother would bring me with her to the polling place--often in some devoted volunteer's garage--and I'd see the excitement, the people going in and out of the little voting booths, and I already looked forward to being a part of it. It wasn't just a matter of getting a neat "I voted" sticker. Voting was a fact of life, and there was no question that I'd one day do it.

My father, too, has always been politically active. He loves to talk politics--argue politics, really--and although I'm sure part of that is due to innate interest, I also know he's aware of the privilege of voting as a U.S. citizen, because he was not born in this country. He became a naturalized citizen when I was small, and I can't remember a time when he wasn't a fan of reading about politics, watching the news at full volume...and baiting my mother, since they supported opposing parties.  And since he retired, he's become even more involved, helping a local L.A. area politician run for state Senate--a fellow Pakistani-American; supporting and attending local interfaith community events. And, of course, he still loves to have those political arguments.

So, yes, staying informed about current events was a fact of life in my house when I was growing up. But it wasn't just my parents. I played my part, too. When I was in high school, I was a member (and ultimately vice-president) of the Junior Statesmen of America, even attending regional conventions and leading debates and discussions, so there was no way I was NOT going to vote when I became of legal age. And then, I went on to attend college at UC Berkeley, one of the more politically active campuses in one of the most politically active cities I can think of. Compared to people I knew there, I was one of the least active with respect to causes and issues. Believe me, you get burned out pretty quick when people are shoving Food Not Bombs or Affirmative Action By Any Means Necessary flyers into your face whenever you cross Sproul Plaza.

But the one thing I did do, the one thing I've done without fail (except for one eensy weensy local ballot) is VOTE. I always vote. I always read the pamphlet, I always do extra research if the voter information they send me isn't enough, and I always cast a reasonably informed ballot. Yes, part of that is because I'm a huge nerd, but it is also incredibly important. The why of it isn't always tangible, especially when you're just one vote among millions. But that's why I'm sharing my voting story--what it's meant to me, what I think of when I think about being politically active and an informed citizen. It is what you make of it, and this country is what we make of it. WE THE PEOPLE, each one of us, is a piece of the giant, unwieldy, amazing, incredible jigsaw puzzle that is E pluribus unum--out of many, one. The question is, do you want to be a part of it?

November 01, 2012

Toon Thursday: Answers to the Questions You Never Asked!

As always, click to view larger. And if you have questions for the Writing Guru, go ahead and leave them in the comments, and the Writing Guru may attend to them in a future installment!