February 27, 2015


"Have you ever had the feeling that you aren't the main character in the story of your life? That you fill a more minor role - supporting cast, maybe, comic relief, or even antagonist? If that is true - if you aren't the big deal in the story of your life, if your whole purpose is to act as a foil or a catalyst for someone else - then maybe it doesn't matter what you do. Or what you don't do.
Maybe all that matters is what others do to you."

- INFANDOUS, by E.K. Arnold, from an Advanced Review Copy.

Infandous is an old, old word from the Latin infandus, which straight up means abominable. Indeed, there is something fairly horrible hiding behind a corner in this novel - a horrible, meaningless error that the reader knows could have been prevented. Where does one go from something unspeakable? This novel is a series of snapshots - before - after - during of a truly bad moment in sixteen-year-old Sephora's charmed beachfront life -- but is it really charmed? Is there more to life than finding your art or following your bliss? What if you find out that not all is blissful? What then?

Summary: Yeah, so Sephora is pretty sure she was named after the cosmetics store, no matter what her mother says about it meaning "beautiful bird" or "independent." She's a realist, is our Sephora; cynical, jaded, smart and too hip for words -- but in her heart of hearts, no matter how snarky she is, she has a small child's adoration for her mother. She says repeatedly throughout the novel how beautiful she is, how heads turn when she goes anywhere -- but Sephora's same adoration is tainted with an edge of dis-ease -- if her mother hadn't gotten pregnant with her by some nameless tourist so many summers ago, who would she have risen to be? In the fashion world, where she was already making waves? In the larger universe, which was open to her, before her conservative, religious parents and sister turned their backs? Rebecca Golding is so amazing now, shimmering in the beachfront firmament, making do as a worker bee hygienist, when she could have been a runway model. Without the mistake that was Sephora, that cost her youth and beauty and freedom, her family and her options, who could she have been?

And, without her losses and mistakes looming over Sephora - doubled and compiled and repeated - who might Sephora be? Who does Sephora WANT to be?

Peaks: While this isn't the sort of book that you can say that you LIKE - at least I can't - the voice is arresting, as is the conceit of prefacing pivotal points in the protagonist's narrative with chapters of fairytales for context, the real tales, in all their brutal, misogynistic hideousness. This is the sort of novel writers pore over in grad school, and has the requisite intellectual mentions of Greek mythologies, Nabokov's LOLITA, and Latin and Greek vocabulary words. This is a novel about sex and power and the use and misuse of both. The voice is compelling, and this is definitely a grown-up feeling novel for young women who want to be serious thinkers but still like a narrative.

The book is also about extremes in relationships - blind mother love vs. informed distance from our parents; a Disney simplicity and innocence contrasting with highly sexualized, original fairytales; loyalty vs. betrayal; Sephora's cynicism vs. Sephora's wistful hopefulness about what the world could be; art vs. real life and the intersections between said. Even Sephora's relationship with her best friend is caught between public performances of erotic behavior and closeness, and private needling, as her friend bullies, blackmails, and otherwise tries prying away secrets Sephora hangs onto with both hands - despite claiming to love her best of everyone. Indeed, this is a book about tangled webs of lies, lives, and loves.

Valleys: NB: Due to these themes, this book is obviously not a good choice for every young adult reader.

While the voice in this novel is compelling, the character herself, with her sometimes jaded, cynical, very self-aware nature, is hard to engage with emotionally. Sephora's passivity is at times disturbing, in the face of her best friend's actions on her person, the actions of random boys on the beach, on her person -- and maybe it was just me, but I read the novel with a faint sense of nausea, the disturbing aspects of the fairytales pointing more and more clearly to the inevitable reveal, which wasn't surprising for me, but which may catch many readers off-guard. Sephora feels very acted-upon in the world, a character without her own agency, and while this is a large part of adolescence, feeling like you have no control over anything, Sephora just sort of going along with the tide feels disturbingly fatalistic, as if she in no way could have prevented her own tragedy. Because we don't feel quite as deeply for this passive, flaccid doll, the revealing moment her secret is discovered doesn't gut us - or at least, it didn't gut me. IT was more a moment of, "Huh. Well, lie down with dogs, rise up with fleas," and a pained shrug, which I doubt the author intended. Also, as is a common objection of mine, despite this novel taking place in Venice Beach, in the less wealthy part of it, even, where real people live and work, the characters are overwhelmingly white.

Conclusion: While not emotionally gripping for me personally, this is an intelligent and craftily plotted novel about nothing in general, and everything in particular, this one summer on the beach.

I received my copy of this book courtesy of Carolrhoda Lab. After March 1, you can find INFANDOUS by Elena K. Arnold at an online e-tailer, or at a real life, independent bookstore near you!

February 26, 2015

10½ Questions with Reshama Deshmukh, creator of THE PIED PIPER

One of the big draws of KidLitCon is getting a chance to meet your fellow bloggers, find out what their interests are, and discover where they intersect with yours. As you may know by now, here at FW our main focus is on Young Adult fiction, with an emphasis on diverse speculative fiction and graphic novels and, a bit more secondarily, the odd Middle Grade book which catches our attention. We aren't experts in MG anything, which is why we're excited to feature a change of pace today and interview our fellow KidLitCon co-organizer Reshama Deshmukh of the blog Stacking Books. She's a fellow blogger, yes, but she's also done something we know absolutely squat about: she's created and produced a book app from start to finish--one that's aimed at helping kids learn to read with their parents and on their own.

Based on Robert Browning’s well-known story The Pied Piper of Hamelin, this app has been a labor of love to produce, and now it is available for purchase on iTunes and Google Play.

We wanted to know more about what goes into the making of a book app, and we also wanted to do a good turn for one of our fellow KidLitCon peeps, so without further ado, here is the scoop on the brand-new app The Pied Piper.

FW: Where did you grow up? What's your educational background?

I grew up in suburban Mumbai in the late 70’s and 80’s. Mostly middle class commuting, apartment community, the city was well known for its amazing performing arts center. I remember looking forward to summer drama marathons, children’s theater classes and swimming lessons.

I went to school in my hometown and graduated with a Bachelor’s degree in Commerce. I was very fortunate to attend a school with a fantastic library. My parents were voracious readers. Growing up, I remember the pile of newspapers at our doorstep each morning and number of local library visits that my mother would take me to. At school too we all read a ton! The love for reading started at school and continued at home.

In US, I completed my Masters in management with a focus on Finance and Marketing.

FW: Can you briefly describe the process of getting a book app made, from concept to a finished product ready to buy?

Creating an app is much like directing a movie. From script, art, music and voiceover, the many pieces need to be put together to make an app. But it all starts with a story :)

Our Pied Piper App story started with a re-writing of the original Robert Browning’s Pied Piper of Hamelin. Once the script was in place, we re-imagined the story book as an app. At Stacking Books, we want to make sure we inspire children to engage in literacy and excite them. That meant making a book app with incredible art, music and voice experience.

Our artist, Andrea Dailey created the original story board for the script and from there we narrowed it down to specific interactivity for the smart platform. While we envisioned the interactive aspect of a story book app to be integral, we had to constantly keep a fine balance between distracting from the reading and keeping the reader actively engaged. Andrea worked tirelessly to create the right texture, palette and characters for the story. Her high resolution art work makes it easy to fit the book for many screens.

Then came the voice over, sound and music. We interviewed several voice over artists but one voice stood out. Lucas Schuneman, with over 10 years as a voice over artist, expertly modulated his voice to suit the many characters of the book. We loved how he was able to capture the mood of the story right off the bat. Lucas successfully captures the various emotions of distress, joy and treachery of the story.

Mark Kueffner, our brilliant music and sound editor, finished the creative aspect of the app by providing original soundtrack and sound effects. We asked Mark to give this book app a sound that will take you back in time and imagine the setting of the original story. Mark experimented in his lab and came up with a tune that does exactly that. Again, our focus was to not distract but add to the experience of story- telling through the medium of an app. Mark with his many years of experience in TV and Movies, created the original soundtrack and worked from there to create mini tunes as the Piper’s magical tunes.

Parallely, at Stacking Books, we were hard at work putting all the pieces into software. Our goal, right from the beginning, was to create book apps targeting the most popular devices. Our publication as of this writing works on both iOS and Android devices worldwide.

FW: What was the inspiration for this app?

The goal of creating book apps was to create rich content for little readers. To give them a choice of reading on all platforms. Our libraries and book stores are filled with amazing literature. At Stacking Books, we hope to provide similar rich kidlit for the next generation digital readers.

We grew up reading stories by Brothers Grimm. The story of Pied Piper is one among the many stories. Robert Browning’s version of the mystery man called the Pied Piper was intriguing. Bordering on fact and fiction this was a tale that we found we could recreate with easier to understand language. We hope we got a chance to capture the same mystique from the original telling in our story book app.

FW: Who is its ideal audience?

We have seen many book apps designed for the very young. At Stacking Books, we believe that children who have a basic foundation of reading, and are engaged readers are ideal to use book apps. Our Pied Piper App, was thus designed for children 4 years and above.

FW: What made you decide to go with the app format instead of a traditional book or ebook?

The Book App is a unique story telling platform. The audio visual components of a book app are perfect for many types of readers, but especially for reluctant readers. Also, by nature book apps are interactive, which lends to more immersive experience when done correctly. At Stacking Books, we were thrilled to leverage the creative aspects of storytelling on tablets and extend, moderate and design books for this media.

FW: What was the hardest part in developing this app?

I think there was no one piece that was more or less challenging than others. Different tasks had their own unique challenges and we had to constantly re-think and re-work on our assumptions. For example, while we had worked out a storyboard, we stumbled into a particular page that simply did not work towards the flow of the story. We had to go back a re-work on the page several times before we could finally say “done”. Another time, we had a major software stumble when the software capabilities fell short of what we had envisioned as the interactive piece. We finally had to write code outside of the software and plug it in to make it work.

FW: Did you have to gain any new technological skills in order to create a book app?

Yes! In the beginning we had decided to outsource the technology piece. But we soon realized that we had less control over the creative pieces if we did so. Subsequently, I decided to simply “DIY” and dove right in. The decision paid off. We now have critical software, skills as well as processes in place to streamline the next book app production.

FW: What was the easiest part of production and development?

I wish I could actually honestly say there was an easy part :) The Pied Piper app is our first production, and it has been a thrilling yet challenge all through the way. I think once we had the software piece and skills in place, the time to create and build the latter half of the book app was slightly easier or faster than earlier.

FW: What's next for you? Is this going to be an ongoing thing, building apps?

Our fantastic group of KidLitCon organizers, including Reshama (2nd from right)
We are thrilled to release our first production. We loved every aspect of building it and look forward to making more. We are, at this point, looking for content and partnerships with publishers who might be interested to add book apps as potential extensions to their portfolio.

FW: Bonus question: What do you hope people will ask you as they interview you that no one's asked yet?

We have a wonderful blog where we share our favorite children’s books. We hope you can stop by and take a look.

Our minds are pretty well blown at the whole project -- what a huge learning curve, and what a beautiful end product! Definitely do go visit Stacking Books, and check out the charming and visually impressive Pied Piper for yourself. Our sincere thanks to Reshama for stopping by and giving us such a vivid behind-the-scenes look at creating a book app!

February 24, 2015


This book is a 2015 Cybils Award YA Speculative Fiction Finalist.

This is a review by a finalist judge, so will focus more directly on summary. We hope you pick up this Cybil nominee, read, and enjoy!

Summary: Sixteen-year-old Ava is a dichotomy - living in a polygamous, patriarchal, rigidly gender-divided, hunter-gatherer tribe-style life... on a deep-space merchant trading ship called Parastrata. She's different from everyone else in her crewe as it is, because her father was from Mumbai, so her hair is black, not red like the rest, but her stepmother bleaches it, so she'll fit in. The "so" daughter of the ship - the Captain's child - she is the perfect age and bearing to become a bride - traded to another crew and another spaceship. Ava has perfected following the rules - but has such hopes, when she finds she is to be traded to the Aether, a ship on which lives her friend Soli, and Soli's brother, Luck. It is over Luck that Ava falls short of the perfection she once exhibited. Now having lost her value to her clan, she is declared dead. Only the timely intervention of a strong and determined auntie saves her -- and she is saved, time and again, by people who can see the big picture far more clearly than she can. When Ava finally finds her feet again, she is on Earth, in a future Mumbai, trying to find the last scrap of blood relatives she might have, desperate to try and keep her tiny adopted family - and her ship - and her life in balance.

Peaks: The language in the novel from the first lets the reader know that there's been some... shifting in attitudes and beliefs since modern times. Ava's archaic cant brings the feeling of a 19th century trader. The reader, expecting a traditional YA since we do have a girl lying prostrate in a floofy dress on the cover, is scrabbling for familiarity, but won't get any reassurance from Ava, anyway. She's a fish out of water within the first fifty pages. This is a good thing.

There are choices to be made - and the first is to choose to survive the explosive realization that her society is not the end-all, be-all and that there are other ways to live. This is a harder realization for many than others. I like that this is included and is something Ava has to consider. I like that her decisions about men are not either/or (despite a triangle thing), but "Is this what I want, or not?"

There is a lot of detail - which is why this is a very long book - a lot of landscape, knowledge of the way things work, and basically process -- processing everything from the simple questions of survival and "how do you learn to read" to how should a society function. The detail makes the book.

Valleys: Despite this book being quite a tome, I still felt like I was missing some information in basic world-building. Ava's lack of knowledge about even basic science is criminal, and a little terrifying. The reader is left constantly to wonder how this all happened. Why did the crewes initially board ships and go into orbit above Earth? Where they'd come from and who had they been before that event? What was the triggering event for downgrading of the status of women, and why did the women participate wholesale in their own disenfranchisement, striving to each be more perfectly downtrodden? What was behind their drive to obey? Why did they keep silent, still, with eyes lowered? On what cultish faith was their society based that has gone so heinously, so misogynistically off-base? We never get enough information on that, which is a real shame, because I found myself far more interested in questions of structure that mandated that life aboard the spacegoing, the lack of regulated social services, and basic education, etc. -- The women sitting, content, with not being able to read was unconscionable. Surely, if all they believed women were good for was work and bearing, they could be BETTER baby-machines with the ability to read and adequately care for their offspring? Ergh.

There's a lot of discussion about this book as feminist science fiction, but don't look for Ava to become self-actualized or in any way save herself until you're heading WELL toward the end of the book. She is saved, repeatedly, by others... over and over and over again, showing a lack of being the center of her own story, in some ways. Some may find her conversion to self-reliance a little choppy and unbelievable or too slow.

Conclusion: I truly liked this book, though I wanted more. If you enjoyed TIN STAR or ACROSS THE UNIVERSE or THE HANDMAID'S TALE, you will find enjoyment here. The gradual pacing of this five hundred plus page world epic will give readers an entire universe to discover and explore, and they will cheer for Ava's slow but sure growth toward selfhood.

I received my copy of this book courtesy of the Benicia Public Library. You can find SALVAGE by Alexandra Duncan at an online e-tailer, or at a real life, independent bookstore near you!

February 23, 2015

Cybils Finalist Review: THE DUMBEST IDEA EVER! by Jimmy Gownley

Summary: This book has got a great title. Rest assured the premise lives up to the promise. This was one of my personal favorite titles from this year's excellent crop of Cybils graphic novel finalists. The autobiographical story of how the author decided to become a cartoonist and start drawing comics, The Dumbest Idea Ever! is also one of the funniest books ever--Jimmy is a relatable narrator who endures the usual bumbling toward adolescence that anyone who has ever been a tween will recognize.

Peaks: Creative kids and teens in particular will really relate to Jimmy's story. For the sake of those readers, not to mention the younger me, I loved the final message about not giving up, and being humble enough to know where you still need to learn and to ask for help when you need it. But this is obviously not just a story with a moral message—it's also the story of a regular kid who comes up against obstacles (the normal ones like sports and girlfriends, as well as a few curve balls) and muddles through. He battles his own ego (and its inverse, the nasty voice that tells you you aren't good enough).

Click to embiggen
I was impressed by the accurate portrayal of the teen characters in all their awkward, poor-impulse-control glory, the highs and lows of teen life in a small town. Also, the role of the parents and other adults in the story is not minimized, but the focus remains on Jimmy and his quest. And, again, there's a great underlying theme/message of persistence despite obstacles in order to achieve your dream. The visual style is simple and traditional, easy to read as well as very, very funny.

Valleys: There were a few moments here and there when the story's timeline jumped and I was momentarily confused, but that was my only quibble. An all-around excellent title.

Conclusion: This book is so hilarious and endearing and inspiring, too. I laughed out loud many, many times. Really. I keep trying to think of people I can shove this onto, besides my 10-year-old nephew, who is definitely getting a birthday copy. (Good thing he doesn't read this blog!)  If you like graphic novel memoirs, especially ones like Smile by Raina Telgemaier or El Deafo by Cece Bell (this year's Cybils winner), read it.

I received my copy of this book courtesy of my library. You can find THE DUMBEST IDEA EVER! by Jimmy Gownley at an online e-tailer, or at a real life, independent bookstore near you!

February 20, 2015

Odds & Book Ends: Five & Dime Friday, Procrastination Edition

Skyway Drive 069

Yes, I am the big nerd who occasionally has themed bookshelves. In my house.
Because, apparently I am a pretend librarian.

Happy Friday, kids! I'm here because I'm procrastinating. Knowing that, I'm going to keep this short... but I did want to pop in today and say hello. AF and I quietly celebrated ten years here on our blog this month, and both of us are a little sad because we pathetically are overbooked and can't really do much about it. Oh, well! Throw some confetti for us.

♦ Let's kick off this blitzkrieg of links and nonsense with a bit of BOOK NERDDOM, as Mother Reader wins 2015 (thus far, anyway) by being included in the mental_floss List Show broadcast of Weird Awards. Yes, and she will now be known as the "weird ass picture book lady" for-ev-ah. I also love that there's a nerdfighter touch to this whole thing, too. Cheers, Pam!

♦ It's been a quiet week here in Lake... um, at the Treehouse, anyway. We finished out the Cybils in triumph - and then kind of collapsed (did you read Pam ; we dispatched a few questions to a KidLitCon blogger we'll be featuring in the next week or so on the blog; we selected - and then rejected - two books for a tandem read - we're still looking, but the books we keep choosing either both of us have already read, so it wouldn't be an actual tandem READ, or only one of us has access to them - etc. There's a science to this thing, apparently.

♦ This week has been a good one for deep thoughts, as Malinda Lo's four-part critique of ...critique - or, book reviewing raised some good thoughts and questions in our WritingYA writing group about how the historical imbalance of voice and power in the U.S. has influenced the voices speaking about what a book is and should be. (Even with its eye-roll invoking title, TheHorn Book blog raised the topic up and carried it to perhaps a new audience with some in-depth conversation as well.) If you haven't made time to read this whole essay, do. One of the things we appreciate about Malinda is that she articulates things that few other people are talking about as coherently and completely. This is a thorough and well thought out essay.

On the flip side of Malinda's piece, though, was a recent review in Kirkus... a troubling review wherein a reviewer tried to explain why a book was panned, and used their platform as critic to shake a finger at authors and say, "Let's all play inclusively now." In the interests of full disclosure, in my book reviews, I will note when a cast of characters is entirely dominant culture, but first, I don't use that consideration to completely discount a book, and second, I don't consider this blog "professional" space, and neither do I have the scope and audience of Kirkus, obviously. In a blog attached to a national magazine, this awkward, grossly oversimplified blow felt ...convenient, and so unnecessarily slighting to the author. It seems to us a more positive move is to simply highlight OTHER books out there doing the better job of being inclusive, rather than to shake a finger and pan a book for what it's not - and what it never claimed to be. We're just not sure this is the right direction for book reviewing either... it's as if someone heard about inclusiveness in reviewing, but didn't actually understand it...

♦ It's the year of the Goat... or the sheep, or the ram, depending on where you are in various Asian countries. I love the whole goat thing, as I've said before, because I am rather fond of the animal, so here's to a year that will eat anything, jump on anything, occasionally faint, and keep us hoppin'. One of the things I miss from living in Scotland was the Lunar New Year celebrations - the Scots are ready to celebrate ANYTHING in this dreich and cold time of year, and they're ALL about the fireworks, so there were plenty of parades in Glasgow and fireworks and sales at the big Asian groceries. Good times.

♦ Been talking with various people about Black History Month, and what it means to honor that when you're not in school anymore. Some people want to dress as something, because cosplay makes the world go 'round. Rather than donning my nonexistent Ghanian outfit (and let's not say "African outfit," because, all together now, "Africa is a continent, not a country"), I'm puttin' on my kickers today in honor of Bass Reeves, as highlighted in BAD NEWS FOR OUTLAWS by Vonda Micheaux Nelson and THE LEGEND OF BASS REEVES: Being the True and Fictional Account of the Most Valiant Marshal in the West,by Gary Paulsen. For me, "observing" Black History or Women's History or Asian/Pacific American Heritage month is simply trying to find out something new about some historical person, every day. I also learned about Dr. Pauli Murray this month - who was both a lawyer, a priest and was nominated as an Episcopalian saint. (Seriously, I need to work up an outfit for her!!!)

♦ Didja know Gwenda - recently honored with a STARRED REVIEW from Kirkus for LOIS LANE: FALLOUT, her newest book - has a fancy new website? She does.

♦ Checking in with The Brown Bookshelf's 28 Days Later this month has been to happily - and in some cases, ruefully - discover many books and authors I'd never heard of, including C. Taylor Butler and Jesmyn Ward. The Cooperative Children's Book Center just released new statistics that most of us have seen - relating that the number of books for children and teens including African and African American people of color has increased fairly dramatically in the last two years. That's certainly not hard to believe - we've been preaching to the choir long enough for the news to get out beyond the congregation. We've not reached any sort of ethnic parity yet - books for Latino and Asian kids haven't shifted much at all - but it's nice to see a step in a positive direction.

♦ I love Laurie Halse Anderson. I seriously love Buzzfeed (though it's kind of The Website Black Hole Timewater, but whatevs). The two together are a match made.

♦ Aaaaaaand, speaking of Black Hole Timewasters, this day is not going to organize itself. Cheers, and have a good one.

February 19, 2015

Cybils Finalist Review: STRANGE FRUIT, VOLUME I by Joel Christian Gill

Summary: In a recent NPR interview, Joel Christian Gill said, "These stories are quintessentially American stories. I can't say that enough. It's not that I dislike Black History Month. I just don't think Black History Month is enough." I agree completely--most especially with the fact that these ARE quintessentially American tales, and interesting ones, to boot. Yes, these are stories of "Uncelebrated Narratives from Black History," but aside from that, they're just plain absorbing: true stories about nine individuals from black history who made an impact each in their own way--and in some surprising ways, too: for instance, the first American stage magician was an African American, as was Bass Reeves, the most successful Wild West lawman in history.

Peaks: I was drawn in so quickly to these intriguing, fascinating, action-packed, little-known stories from history. Each of the characters was inspiring and brought to life with a lot of personality and humor--with just a touch of the old-style American tall tale to them, though the subject matter is factual--and the stories were all very different and interesting.

click to embiggen
Overall, in fact, this one really does a nice job of combining education and entertainment. The book ends with a Did You Know section containing added facts about each of the nine individual stories, which was a nice touch. There is also ample bibliographic information for people who want to study the subject in depth. But purely on their own merits, the stories have a lot to offer readers, regardless of their level of interest in black history. It brings to life some lost voices from history that are interesting in their own right, independent of adding black history to the standard canon, which this book also encourages.

With respect to the graphic storytelling, I loved the fun and humor and expressiveness of the artwork. It was just very well done—simple but effective, and with great integration of text and image in a variety of ways. Humor is also used well, and I enjoyed the use of "placeholder" images inside word balloons to substitute for racial slurs like the N-word. (Gill addresses this in his NPR interview; I highly suggest checking it out.)

Valleys: Something I couldn't help noticing--as much as I really loved this book--there are no stories in which women are the central figures. Given that this is Volume 1, I'm hoping Volume 2 rectifies this situation, because it seemed a rather glaring omission otherwise...

Conclusion: While the title of this one might prompt some to assume that it is more factual than fun, rest assured that it is most definitely both. I was quite inspired and moved by these tales of heroism and accomplishment, both ordinary and extraordinary, in arenas as varied as the stage, the Old West, the cycling arena and the basketball court. Make sure you read that NPR interview if you want to learn more about the book and its author.

I received my copy of this book courtesy of the publisher. You can find Strange Fruit, Volume I: Uncelebrated Narratives from Black History by Joel Christian Gill at an online e-tailer, or at a real life, independent bookstore near you!

February 18, 2015


This book is a 2015 Cybils Award YA Speculative Fiction Finalist.

This is a review by a finalist judge, so will focus solely on summary and leave out most additional editorializing and discussion. We hope you pick up this Cybil nominee, read, and enjoy!

It would be really cool if I weren't this person who STILL - after aphorisms and everything - judges books by their covers. It's like I can't stop. Yadda, yadda, yadda, homo sapiens are a visual species - blah, blah, whatever. As many indie books as I read, with sometimes just awful covers done by unpaid non-professionals hacking away with stock images and Photoshop, I know sometimes you find the most AMAZING things in dubious packages. I. KNOW. THIS. But, truthfully? I think I skew towards rooting for the underdog. I'm ... like, okay with ugly covers on science fiction and indies, because... look, it's science fiction and indies. Somehow, covers that are pastel and bright, glossy, on-trend high concept things like, oh, headless-torsos or leg shots of couples in Chuck-Taylors-and-cute-flats - those turn me RIGHT off. And seeing this cover - part of a trend Book Riot already mentioned - I was like, "Meh." Because I'm nothing if not all hip and contrarian and anti-trend.

Which is just bull, right? Because, really? I've read nothing by this guy, and I'm ready to blow him off because of a cover? How can I even call myself a story girl with an attitude like that? SHAME. I'm feelin' it. Readers, don't make my mistakes. Pick up books with goofy covers. There are stories inside.

Summary: Travis Coates is like the best science experiment you could bring to class. He died - painfully and awfully - of leukemia, and then, boom, he was alive again. It wasn't difficult to decide to take part in the one-in-a-million-chance, risky procedure the Saranson Center for the Preservation of Life offered. His body was done for, he could see that his friends and loved ones were suffering through his suffering, so -- so, he let go. Of everything, all of it. On an appointed day, he said goodbye to his beloved best friend and his family. A cocktail of drugs was administered so that his brain function shut down, and then his head - the only cancer-free part of his body left - was removed and cryogenically preserved somewhere in Denver. A heartbeat and ---

-- Travis opened his eyes to a world where time had lapsed the length of a nap for him, but five years had passed for everyone else.

And then things got weird.

Still sixteen, though his birth certificate says he's twenty, Travis is finding it hard to exist in the world where he feels the same, but nothing else is. See, in this world, his girlfriend is engaged - to someone else - his best friend is pretending that the truth he'd told Travis when they'd said goodbye is something that can be ignored, and people all across the world either want to stare at him, touch him, tell him to repent, or beg him to help them be reborn. He so longs for his old life back - his old friends, his old clothes, his old possessions, his old loves. Is there room for anything new? Is it okay to make new friends? Is it possible to live the hell out of the do-over he's gotten out of life? Maybe... but that's a whole lot to process for a guy who's continuing to look down at the hands in front of him -- and keep realizing that they're not his. Is there any way to step into the same spot in the river of time? Travis is willing to splash around, hope, and get soaked.

Conclusion: A surprising second finalist touching on the theme of cryogenics in the speculative fiction/science fantasy genre, John Corey Whaley's use of voice and characterization make this novel a memorable, sometimes disturbing, sometimes painfully poignant, and often funny as hell rewind into the life of a guy and his head.

I received my copy of this book courtesy of the Benicia Public Library. You can find NOGGIN by John Corey Whaley at an online e-tailer, or at a real life, independent bookstore near you!

February 17, 2015


I'd previously only read this author's middle-grade novels. Her debut with THE CABINET OF WONDERS, was a Cybs contender awhile back, and pretty amazing in terms of detail and overall WOW factor of new-things-per-page. I LOVED that novel, so when I read the jacket flap on this one, I wasn't quite sure how to feel. It's totally different territory, of course, intended for readers 14-18; it's not magical fantasy, exactly, quite... sort of. Nor is it exactly entirely historical fantasy-fiction; there is a bit of magic... thus it's perfect for the Cybils YA Speculative Fiction Category. As this is a Cybils review, it will focus solely on summary and leave much else to the judge's discussions.

Happiness depends on being free. And freedom depends on being courageous.

Summary: An average fighter with a general for a father, Kestrel is deeply unimpressed with the choices her society has left a young woman of her age: join the army or get married. She's nearing the age of decision, and General Trajan is pushpushpushing her to join the army. It's the ultimate "bring your daughter to work" thing, but Kestrel hates the drills, isn't good at the discipline, and prefers to spar with her mind - which fortunately her father allows, as she plays Bite and Sting and works on war theory - that uses her wit, and she's really, really, really good at it. But, she's still... discomfited. Too smart to be a pretty, precious jewel locked in a box and kept safe. Not vicious enough to be one of the locks on the jewelery box. Not really bored, but not really... engaged. Not really happy... The vast Valorian empire is holding the Herrani's country as victors, in the name of might, but Kestrel, though she's known nothing else, feels neither mighty, nor valorous. She's looking for something more... then inadvertently finds it.

Valorians keep slaves - and Herrani slaves are normal. Less normal is Kestrel simply buying one because she had the cash in hand, and he looked interesting. He keeps ... bugging her - just by not looking particularly cowed or downtrodden. He says, "No." He's... really not that great a slave, when it comes down to it. But, there's something within him that draws her. Sure, he's swoony, yeah, and she's heard he can sing. But, there's something else... Inevitably, Kestrel begins to fall in love - and then the shape of the world changes yet again.

Conclusion Rutkoski's worldbuilding is lush and detailed, and readers who like romances, novels of manners and war and political intrigues will eat this first in a trilogy right up. This is a novel about the balance of power, about victories in the political arena, about slavery, protection and dominance, about who has the right to shape history, the survivors or the victors. Mostly, this novel is about winning and losing and the lies we tell ourselves to believe in both.

Winning what you want may cost you everything you love.

I received my copy of this book from the library. You can find THE WINNER'S CURSE by Marie Rutkoski at an online e-tailer, or at a real life, independent bookstore near you!

February 16, 2015

Cybils 2014 Review: EL DEAFO by Cece Bell

Summary: Before writing up this post, I honestly didn't realize that El Deafo by Cece Bell had won the 2015 Newbery Award. Well, now it's also won a Cybils Award for 2014, in the Elementary and Middle Grade Graphic Novels category! And I'm thrilled that I got to be a Round 2 judge this year for Graphic Novels, because I got to read so many of last year's fantastic works of comic literature.

Anyway, clearly I was not influenced by the fact that this book won the Newbery, since I found that out well after we made our choices, but obviously this one is a standout. A memoir of the author's elementary school years learning to cope with a hearing impairment as well as the other tribulations of being a kid, this one became an immediate favorite for me as soon as I started reading.

Peaks: As I just mentioned, one of the strengths of this book is the fact that it's a funny story about an endearing character going through all of the classic problems of childhood, plus a few unexpected challenges because she is hearing impaired, but none of these daunt Cece's ongoing optimism, resilience, wit, humor, or doggedness. That image in itself is one that any child with a disability very much needs, and those without disabilities also need to see, to show how other people's reactions come across and to emphasize that they are fully-rounded people—they are not simply a disability.

Cece's youthful experiences and misadventures will be relatable not just by kids with hearing loss but all kids, as she runs up against the classic problems caused by being the new girl in class, getting a crush on a boy, and dealing with the sometimes-fickle friendships of grade school. Her fantasies of herself as superhero El Deafo--her giant Phonic Ear hearing aid giving her amazing super-hearing powers--are hilarious and also relatable.

Click to embiggen. Do it now!!
I loved the graphic storytelling. It was cute, and also impish, the characters rendered as humanlike rabbits (reminding me of how Matt Groening's Life in Hell characters were mostly rabbits...but more PG, I suppose). Appealing, colorful, and funny.

Valleys: I honestly didn't have any criticisms about the book itself. But--and this could be just me--I can't get past the idea that adults might hand this to kids for didactic purposes only, rather than because it's a funny story about a kid their age who just happens to be deaf. I would hate for that to ever be the case because it just such a great book all around. I guess the upshot is, whether kids pick this up on their own or because they are "supposed to" read it, I see it as having that critical combination of kid appeal and literary merit that will make it both a memorable and enjoyable read.

Conclusion: As I've mentioned in previous posts, when I make notes about Cybils finalist titles, I use a numerical rating system which is there to help me weigh each book on its own merits according to the Cybils criteria. It helps me zero in on which titles have just the right combination of traits, so that I can try to put any personal biases or preferences aside to focus on what would make the best CYBILS title and not just my own favorite. This one was one of my favorites AND it scored the highest on my rating system for the E/MG graphic novel finalists.

If you loved it as much as I did, you can find out more about the book and the author (who is married to the equally talented and hilarious Tom Angleberger, aka Sam Riddleburger) on her website and follow her on Twitter @CeceBellBooks. Also, don't miss the fab interview from 2008 by the 7-Imps.

I received my copy of this book courtesy of my library. You can find EL DEAFO by Cece Bell at an online e-tailer, or at a real life, independent bookstore near you!

February 15, 2015


This book is a 2015 Cybils Award YA Speculative Fiction Finalist.

This is a review by a finalist judge, so will focus solely on summary and leave out additional discussion. Thanks!

It's rare that I can't tell anything about a book from its cover. This one has a twisted stone castle and mist as seen through a Gothic-style window. I wasn't sure what to expect -- but from the first page, this read like a post-conflict fairytale. The setting is Earth-like, but no country (except something vaguely European, since the characters are pale) is specified; there's magic, but mere tinges at first. Readers who appreciate more realistic fairytales will appreciate this novel.

Summary: An air of desperation marking her steps, Illeni heads into the most terrifying job in the world - that of magic tutor to a cult of assassins. She wouldn't have gone, except that to the Elders of her people, the Renegai, she's expendable. Once, the Renegai were powerful mages, but the Rathian Empire invaded, and brought them brutally to heel. The mages are in hiding, as are the assassins, but both carry the same dream - to bring the empire down. An uneasy truce cemented by the same goal, the Elders send tutors to the assassins to help them, and in return, they never fall within the assassin's contracts... or, that was the agreement. But the last two magic teachers the Elders sent have been murdered... and what can Illeni do? Nothing. Because not only has she, the lone, expendable girl, been sent away, she's been abandoned for another reason. She's losing her magic.

No one must find out the truth - no one - or her dangerous pupils, none of whom have any reason to even like her, will find out that she's expendable, too.

Conclusion: An on-trend novel with its depiction of assassins, empires, secret cabals, lies and spies, this imaginative novel has just enough grit and darkness to subvert the sort of fantasy-fairytale effect the cover implies. Fans of novels where the hero(ine)'s journey involves travel and adventure will also find this enjoyable. The sequel arrives March 2015.

I received my copy of this book courtesy of the public library. You can find DEATH SWORN by Leah Cypress at an online e-tailer, or at a real life, independent bookstore near you!

February 14, 2015

A Cybils Bookmark: THE LIVING, by MATT DE LA PEÑA

This book is The Winner of the 2015 Cybils Award in YA Speculative Fiction.

This year I was a finalist judge, and I know how this book was both enjoyed - and gave us nightmares. Please visit The Cybils page for more reveals on winners and additional information on other categories. We hope you'll pick up this Cybil nominee, read, and enjoy!

I'm not a great traveler, I'll admit. When I get on an airplane, I've been known to look around and wonder if it's with these people that I will die... yeah, I generally try and not say that out loud, but you know how it goes.

I come by my travel paranoia honestly. Many, many years ago, when an older family friend turned fifty, I was inveigled into going on an Alaskan cruise. I was not all that enthused. But, it will be fun, they said. It won't matter that you're the youngest people on board with the exception of the staff college students, they said. You can use the gym 24 hours a day and watch movies anytime in a theater, they said, or visit a chocolate fountain at midnight, they said. Oh, indeed, the 'theys' were right. I could do all of those things, if the water had been calm and we hadn't hit stormy weather. At the beginning, when it wasn't storming, though, it was creepy to be served and greeted respectfully - as if I were Somebody. It was dismaying to see the upturned kayak floating by empty. We were horrified by the ship's refusal to stop, and how long it took them to lower a rescue boat -- and I won't even get into the worst of it -- the sort of manic Titanic glamor of the dinner parties despite the churning seas, and the snap of bone we heard from the hip of the elderly passenger who fell on that hard marble floor in the fancy dining room. (If you swooned a bit, reading that sentence, imagine living it. And, no, they didn't turn back to the harbor we were less than a day out from. The show must go on, after all. Cheers!)

So, you'll understand me when I say I HATE travel conveyances, LOATHE cruise ships, and would have to be marched aboard one at near gunpoint, and can easily conceive ALL KINDS OF EVIL SHENANIGANS going on aboard one, and news reports from the past couple of years would back me up, right? Which means I was in a perfect frame of mind to read Matt de la Peña's THE LIVING.

Summary: Border-born Shy just took this job to make money, that's it. Since he was small, he's been Mami's little man, helping out, and since his grandmother's death from the horrific virus that struck Otay Mesa, the tiny town near San Diego where he's from, Shy's been doing all he can to make sure the rest of them keep their heads above water. While others on the cruise ship work there for reasons of their own, Shy's buddy, Carmen, knows the drill - she's from a town like his. And, though she's engaged to a lawyer and all, Shy can't help but keep his eyes on her. He's only looking - and he's working on a cruise ship, right? Girls, bikinis, sun - can't blame a guy for looking, and everybody's doing it. Unfortunately, the Universe has more in mind for the group than luxury treatment and harmless fun in the sun. First, there's a suicide, with Shy left trying to figure out what happened. Then, there's a earthquake - the Big One. And every day after that is a chain of circumstances and a series of disasters which challenge the survival skills of those left standing. Shy - a loyal friend and a big-hearted guy - must open his eyes and see the world around him for what it is. Only those left standing will be able to tell the truth -- and all secrets lie untold in the grave. The fight for survival is on.

Conclusion: Readers will want to know beforehand that this is a first book in a series, however, this doesn't stop this work from being enjoyed on its own. THE LIVING is an award-winning work - with a 2014 Pura Belpre Honor book, ALA 2014 Best Fiction for Young Adults, 2014 ALSC Notable Children’s Book, and a Junior Library Guild Selection notation; a starred review from Kirkus, Shelf Awareness, and Voya and listed in The Latinidad List as a Best Young Adult Novel, as well as the 2015 Texas Tayshas Reading List, this book showcases the author's tendency toward themes of class and identity with a realistic plot to create a disturbing and vivid thriller.

According to Entertainment Weekly, “The Living seamlessly incorporates his trademarks (racial identity, class, street slang) into a lightning-paced page-turner…De la Peña has created a rare thing: a plot-driven YA with characters worthy of a John Green novel.” While I agree with the solid gold of the author's chosen themes, I'd like to register my outraged frothing at that bit of negligible stupidity referencing both the rarity of plot-driven YA of worth, and comparisons of every darned thing with the work of John Green. Thank you.

I received my copy of this book courtesy of at the public library. You can find THE LIVING by Matt de la Peña at an online e-tailer, or at a real life, independent bookstore near you!

February 13, 2015


"Man, those were some hard times," I say real soft, trying to calm him down.

"But we got through it, and you know why we did it?" Gramps asks. He seems less testy now. "We did it for our kids, their kids. We stood our ground and took those beatings for you."

I got no idea what to say to that, so I go with, "Thanks, Gramps."

Gramps nods, staring hard at me. "So don't blow it by acting like some fool."

"I won't," I say - even though I still don't know what's most foolish - to fight, to flee, or to freeze.

- DOING RIGHT, by Patrick Jones, from the Advanced Review Copy

In grad school, they told us that most of what is reflected in today's headline news won't filter into novels until at least ten years have gone by. Books like Sharon G. Flake's JUMPED and Kekla Magoon's HOW IT WENT DOWN as well as many others show us that both the headline news stories have picked up pace and our novels are starting to have a faster turnaround in touching on truly relevant topics. The Locked Out series by Patrick Jones is about the intersection of incarceration and teens - and the emotional, psychological and intellectual toll it takes on a kid to have a parent doing time.

Summary: DeQuin has an awkward relationship with the father figures in his life. His dad, who has been doing hard time since DeQuin was in Kindergarten, murdered a guy, but still finds himself full of advice to dish out to DeQuin on how to act, and "take care of his own." His Uncle Lee, the manager of a chain of KFC restaurants, and on the cusp of buying his own franchise, tries to share his rule of success: head down, go along to get along. And then there's DeQuin's Gramps, the old man who will tell a long-winded story about 1965 at the drop of a hat, reliving his glory days, when he marched in Selma, and met the Reverend Martin Luther King. Everyone's afraid DeQuin will end up doing time like his father, and even DeQuin fears it - he knows he's not making the best choices. Still, while it's true that Anton and Martel are becoming strangers, they've been his friends since Kindergarten. It's not like you drop friends, even though lately, they've moved past drinking and a bit of weed to find other, bigger trouble... When a throw down with some white boys from a neighboring high school goes bad, the break with friends becomes permanent - and nearly fatal.

A new school, new friends, and a new love interest still aren't enough to save DeQuin from himself, and from the prejudices and shortfalls of the society in which he lives. He struggles with questions that will feel relevant to many young readers: if you don't know what's right, how can you tell how to do it?

Peaks: This is a really short novel which will appeal to a lot of teen readers who live in an urban environment, who have lives which intersect with gangs or jail and prison and who think of themselves as living lives that are full of drama and pressures which have nothing to do with high school. There's an immediacy to the plot which will really hook and engage and lead potentially to some excellent conversation. This is standalone part of a five book series which can be read in any order, and all books deal with the topic from a different angle. Questions in this novel are posed, but not answered.

Valleys: This is a really short novel - which is both a blessing and a curse. I had some conflicted feelings about the novel's understanding of the subject matter it explores, and concerns that the questions it raises are explored in a not entirely neutral and unbiased fashion. EVERYONE brings their bias to the table in a discussion on racial injustice - absolutely everyone - but in its brevity, I fear the novel leans toward one side of the fence, and leaves quite a bit unresolved.

The phrase "standing our ground" is used in a very literal way in the novel which doesn't reflect the meaning behind the controversial law known by the same phrase. This seems to have the great potential to muddle things in reader's minds - which seems at best, disingenuous and at worse, flat out dangerous. I wish specific glossary-type information had been available because though this book is fiction, that law, in some States, is not.

The novel leaves the voices of the white people with whom DeQuin comes into contact, of women, and of older people as less significant, or entirely absent. While as the protagonist, DeQuin's voice and narrative viewpoint should be most significant, the secondary storyline of racial tension and injustice, his characterization as a young African American male in the thick of it might leave readers unclear if he is a reliable narrator. His bias is not examined, either.

Gramps fades from the novel about halfway through after a negative experience with high school students as he shares a civil rights story, and he never reappears. Characterized first as a blowhard martyr whose historical sacrifices are so fragile that they can be rendered null by his grandson's behavior, he exits the novel as an impotent old man in need of protection. This is a departure from the many books revering the history and experiences of those who lived through the Civil Rights movement, and I wished that there had been time within the narrative to present voices from the modern civil rights movement that would potentially have more relevance to today's young thinkers.

While there are girls in this novel - in the form of love interests - there are few, if any, women who come off well. DeQuin has issues with his mother and her defection - but this doesn't seem to come up when he relates to his girlfriend, who is working hard to fulfill her obligations, unlike his mother.

Conclusion: The subject matter from which this book is drawn is rich with potential, though it was too short for its ideas to be fully fleshed. DeQuin and friends will ultimately leave readers wanting more. The series as a whole should provoke plenty of discussion and thought on teens dealing with incarcerated parents, racial injustices and peer pressure.

I received my copy of this book courtesy of the publisher. After March 1, you can find DOING RIGHT by Patrick Jones at an online e-tailer, or at a real life, independent bookstore near you!

February 12, 2015

Thursday Review: THE SCULPTOR by Scott McCloud

Summary: Yesterday, rather serendipitously, I had just finished reading the just-released graphic novel by Scott McCloud entitled The Sculptor and was reading some online news when I encountered this story about the collapse and rebuilding of a 60-foot ice sculpture alongside Lake Superior in Wisconsin. The artist, Roger Hanson, said, "I live with failure on a daily basis. It's just a matter of putting your jacket on, and going and fixing what you have to do, and get this thing back on track."

In McCloud's new graphic novel, sculptor David Smith has to live with failure on a daily basis. First of all, he has to be known as "the other David Smith" (because of this guy). Second of all, he's scraping out an NYC living as a starving artist but he feels like he can't interest anyone in his work. Depressed and morose, he is desperate not to be doomed to mediocrity. That's when Death comes along in the guise of David's dead Uncle Harry and offers him a deal: David will gain the power to sculpt anything he wants, or can imagine, with his bare hands, but with one teensy catch:

He'll only have 200 days to live. 200 days to make his mark on the world. 200 days to reinvent his life, mend his friendships, fall in love, and realize what he has to lose.

click to embiggen
Peaks: Though it's not specifically aimed at a teen audience, The Sculptor is a great crossover title for both adult and teen readers. With themes (described on the back of the book) including "a wish, a deal with death, the price of art, and the value of life," it's got broad appeal for those who like magical realism, or who like their midlife career crisis stories leavened with a healthy dose of divine intervention. No, this isn't "It's a Wonderful Life" for artists, but any creative person will recognize narrator David's internal struggles, wanting his life and work to be meaningful but unable to figure out how to get there.

Of course, there's an important subtext to this story, which is that sometimes you already have what you want and don't recognize or appreciate it. David carries guilt for not feeling like he appreciated his family until they were all dead and gone. Now he's seized with the idea that in order to make the rest of his life meaningful, he has to achieve certain specific milestones or he will be a failure. Then his new power to sculpt anything he wants—shaping marble with his bare hands, for example, or twisting iron girders into dazzling configurations—provides the possibility of another shot at his career. But having a meaningful life is more than just having this power or that ability, and when love enters David's life in the form of the dazzling but troubled aspiring actress Meg, his plans for the last 200 days are complicated in ways he hadn't ever pictured.

click to embiggen
Since this book was written by the guy who basically wrote the book on drawing comics (I mean Understanding Comics and its companion books, NOT Drawing the Marvel Way, of course), I was not surprised that it turned out to be not only well written but visually stunning. Drawn monochromatically in black and white with tones created using wash, McCloud uses the full range of graphic conventions when it comes to panel layout and visual expressiveness, with a result that is absorbing and even cinematic in style.

Valleys: I guess the only negative thing I can say is that David the narrator was sometimes annoyingly dense and clueless. Realistically so, but sometimes I just wanted to give him a smack and tell him to get his head out of his butt.

Conclusion: If you like the style of Adrian Tomine and other comic artists who have a knack for exploring the inner mind with subtlety and expressiveness, you'll want to read McCloud's latest foray into fiction. If you like graphic storytelling that weaves the realistic and the supernatural (like Neil Gaiman's Sandman), this is a good one. And of course if you've been influenced and educamacated as much as I have by McCloud's instructional books, you won't want to miss it. I may have made the story sound like it's all heavy seriousness, but I laughed out loud, too—there's plenty of humorous banter and comic misadventure to balance out the tragedy, and in the end, the story manages to be both sad and uplifting at the same time: no mean feat.

I received my copy of this book courtesy of First Second. You can find The Sculptor by Scott McCloud at an online e-tailer, or at a real life, independent bookstore near you!

February 10, 2015


I was reminded of the controversy surrounding this title in its infancy when I happened upon a Big Idea article about it last month. I'm pretty sure the authors are quite tired of the novel being tied to the someone-asked-us-to-change-our-gay-characters tempest, so I won't go into it all over again: they said no, they sold the novel anyway, they rode off into the sunset: /end trans.

What hasn't been said as frequently about this novel is how unexpectedly generous toward the future it is, in some respects. Racial hostilities are all but forgotten. Species hostilities - well. Something new to obsess over is just human nature. Telekinetic squirrels, cute fuzzy pets which prove disastrous, and all-age involvement in community protection is an interesting addition. Kirkus joked that this new subgenre of post-apocalyptic fiction could be called uptopian dystopia. A complex, thoughtful book, it's not quite all good-feels and happy endings -- the novel opens with someone running for his life...

Summary: This novel's focus is split among five narrative voices. The novel opens with a prospector, Ross, running for his life, trying to find shelter a dude shooting at him plus blood-sucking trees. This post-apocalyptic Las Anclas - possibly once Los Angeles, but now "the anchor," ostensibly to hold onto the last fraying vestiges of society - is now the world of Mia Lee, Felicite Wolfe, Ross Juarez, Jennie Riley, and Yuki Nakamura - all young people with different desires and yearnings and frustrations and hopes and fears, who live and work in, feel responsible for and crushed by their big-little village-outpost-town. Las Anclas is hard to explain, nearly impossible to find, and difficult to leave. An engaging, new-things-per-page, indulgent read that will set up a fun quartet of books for readers who are ready for something different and well sick of the Hopeless Dark Future thing dystopia has been selling.

Peaks: New Things Per Page: there are TONS. I read this in two sittings, over meals, and my food went ice cold each time, as I neglected to eat while blinking over chiming trees, telekinetically thieving squirrels (JUST. IMAGINE. THE. HORROR.), a doctor who warps time (Cue Dr. Who theme), furred...protosnakes, goat cheese kimchee, antlered horses... the list goes on. The Change has wrought a TON o' weird in the former U.S. Further goodness is found in the diversity of the characters - of size, sexualities, ethnicities - the people are varied and rich in description and stereotypes are faint memories - somehow, Future Wild West LA is way cooler than Present-Day Urban LA.

The novel is peripherally about open prejudice vs. the serene, chiming words in the foreground, wish-I-could-gut-you in the background kind that I used to call "genteel prejudice" when I was in college. There's a clash against our own brains when we indulge in that kind, and it's going to hurt someone, somewhere in the course of these four books. It's just introduced in this first section, but I can feel the portent. Sometimes, the worst thing in the world is a polite racist...er, species-ist...

Relationships are complex in this novel - and you may find yourself pleasantly surprised by them.

Valleys: The first and most problematic issue of the novel for me is an issue I have repeatedly with post-apocalyptic narrative - and which may be answered in the ensuing three novels of this series, and I'm content to wait for it -- but it's that pesky WHY? factor. Why has apocalypse imploded the world? What scientific goof caused The Change? How long into the future is this novel projected? For all that the novel is extremely, extremely detailed, with sometimes overly dense passages describing things, this information is not really explored. As I said, it may come later; despite its completed story arc - it does finish reasonably well - it was still kind of a set-up novel.

There are five narrative voices that each have their own font. While this wasn't much more than a minor disruptive thing for me, for at least a couple of other readers I've talked to HATED IT, and it threw them out of the narrative each time. Be forewarned if that sort of thing annoys you, and be prepared to read through anyway.

The novel felt uneven in some ways to me - sometimes the characterization and character motivation was tight and clear, other times I felt I was wading through murkiness. There is just SO MUCH going on that the authors seemed to lose track of the reader at times. Having this ONE novel spread out between a pair of books might have made it easier for me to clearly see each character and actually feel them - and feel for them. I liked both Jennie and Mia, but wasn't sure how I should relate to them, partially because most of the time experiences in books are binary - someone must win, someone must lose. These two girls are attracted to the new boy, and no one has to lose, exactly, not at this point, anyway. That's both a good thing, but an enigmatic, ambivalent, maybe-let's-not-come-to-a-conclusion-on-this bad thing as well.

As previously mentioned, I struggled with character motivations - the bad guys at times felt like paper villains while at the same time the plot seems to be asking us to have sympathy for them and understand their fears and actions. Again, I'm just more accustomed to more specific and defined tropes and want to go for the easy route - white hats, good guys, black hats, bad guys. You won't find that ease here.

Finally, I have a hard time buying that suddenly in the amorphous, post-apocalyptic future, racial divides and hostilities will be discarded in favor of ...species divides. The Change is a massive and disruptive force upon the world, and when we're all working on saying "It" and "Not It" about a thing which divides us, the subdivisions seem even more important, to my mind, not less. I could be wrong.

Conclusion: The YA novel narrative conceit "Mysterious new boy comes to town," is such a worn and hoary trope that it was a little shocking to find a novel which not only exploits it, but even titles the novel STRANGER to make sure and bop the reader over the head with it. Yet, despite its slightly uneven execution, which left a few things untied at its conclusion, this novel took the worn trope and turned it on its head. Whatever my mild confusions or objections, none of these drawbacks prevented me from buying the sequel, which tells you pretty much all you need to know. Jump on it; the sequel's already out.

I received my copy of this book courtesy of my local public library. You can find STRANGER by Rachel Manija Brown & Sherwood Smith at an online e-tailer, or at a real life, independent bookstore near you!

February 09, 2015

Cybils Finalists for Black History Month

Source: NAACP
Readers, February is Black History Month. We've admittedly been a bit busy around here with Cybils reading and judging and whatnot, but while I was trying to settle on today's post topic, I thought it would be a great opportunity to highlight some of the many diverse titles that made it to the second round as Cybils finalists. We've had more diverse books than ever before, which is lovely, and they are all of high quality with fabulous kid appeal, of course.

Without further ado, here's a list (to the best of my knowledge, and in no particular order) of finalists that feature African American protagonists, themes, and/or authors.

For Kids and Tweens:

by Hilary McKay

by Nicola Davies

by Daniel Beaty

by Kwame Alexander

by J. Patrick Lewis and George Ella Lyon

by Jacqueline Woodson

by N. D. Wilson

For Teens:

by Joel Christian Gill and Henry Louis Gates Jr.

by Max Brooks, illustrated by Canaan White

by Don Mitchell

by Steve Sheinkin

by Brandy Colbert

by Jason Reynolds

While We Run (African-Australian)
by Karen Healey

February 06, 2015

Diversity + SpecFic = Match Made of Awesome

Blog note: In light of the scary fact that no one has actually spoken to Harper Lee from HarperCollins in person... we've taken down our happy piece on her new novel. Slate has a lot to say about whether or not the project should go forward, and they put forward some interesting questions for the introverts in this treehouse. Personally, no matter how excited I was about a new book, I was torn about whether or not I wanted to read it... much like I didn't want to know what happened after the last of the Potter adventures, I think part of me needs Scout to stay as she was in my brain... you know? Anyway, while I stand by my glee that holding onto work until the time is right for it is the right attitude, I am just not sure that's what's happening in Ms. Lee's case.

Hat tip, SF Signal.

This Open Road media video echoes something I read recently at The Brown Bookshelf, on diversity in speculative fiction. Incidentally, if you guys aren't popping by THE BROWN BOOKSHELF for 28 Days Later this month, you're missing out. Take some time this weekend to catch up!

Last month, Jules celebrated the art of Christian Robinson and the lyric of Matt de la Peña in LAST STOP ON MARKET STREET, which is a MUST GET picture book for me this year, as it celebrates the extraordinary in the commonplace - the actual coolness of such a thing as public transportation. NPR is celebrating more picture books lately and they, too, have a lot of nice things to say about this one. Most of us YA types are big fans of Matt de la Peña in any book, so don't miss hearing about his picture book, too.

Meanwhile, it's Poetry Friday and if you pop over to my blog, you can see what the Seven Sisters are doing for this month's poetry challenge!

Happy weekend!

February 05, 2015

Blog Tour: ARES: BRINGER OF WAR (Olympians #7) by George O'Connor

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Summary: Ares is the seventh book in O'Connor's very successful Olympians series of graphic novels. In fact, I was amazed to see that we've already gotten to book 7, because that means I've missed quite a few in the middle. For those who are interested, we featured the first book, Zeus (reviewed here), and last year we hosted a guest post from the author in honor of the publication of Aphrodite, which was book 6.

I've already talked endlessly about my love of Greek (and all other) mythology, so I won't go into that. But I do want to say that Ares was never my favorite character of the bunch. In that respect, I suppose he represents a side of humanity that I relate to less—the warlike, gleefully conquering, savage side. (Ironic, since my zodiac sign is Aries.) So I was interested to see how O'Connor handled his story, especially given that all I remembered clearly of the stories from my mythology book was something about Ares sowing the teeth of some monster in the ground and reaping a crop of fierce warriors. What the author does is quite clever: we get to see Ares in his element, in context, set against the backdrop of one of the greatest battles in history, the Trojan War. In the process, he comes up against his own divine cousin Athena, also a goddess of war, but of strategy and tactics, based on wisdom.

Peaks: As the battle between the Greeks and Trojans rages, we see—from the gods' vantage—the whole sorry escapade with Patroclus disguising himself as Achilles to rile up the troops and get them raging for blood, and then Hector killing Patroclus thinking he's Achilles, and then Achilles going after Hector in a battle to the death. Yep, you've got it: it's Homer's Iliad. It's a clever way to flesh out the story of Ares and really show him being a war god, and it's also a fun way to show the gods in one of their many times of strife, their battle echoing the one on the ground and driving home the point that the Greek pantheon was anthropomorphic, reflecting human traits and preoccupations.

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O'Connor brings this all to life in a very readable, traditional comic-book style, with plenty of action but a minimum of actual gore, and little flourishes of anachronistic humor that the contemporary reader will enjoy. It's got a high production value, and quite a bit of wonderful educational extras at the end (don't miss the G(r)eek Notes for some entertaining glimpses into the author's thought process), but at the same time this is a friendly, fun series that in no way feels didactic.

Valleys: If I have to articulate my quibbles, there were a couple of minor ones. Every so often I found myself wryly smirking at a particularly apparent example of "Learn to Draw the Marvel Way," although it does seem fitting to depict the Greek gods in superhero-like dramatic fashion, so that's more of an observation and a personal reaction than anything else. (Believe me, I live with someone who learned to draw the Marvel way, and now he teaches figure drawing and I have to hear all about how anatomically inaccurate the Marvel way can be.)

From time to time, the flashing back and forth between the action at Olympus and the action on the ground had me a little confused, in terms of who was who and which gods supported which mortals, and so I had to fall back on my background knowledge of the Iliad to get it straight in my mind. Ultimately, though, since this is NOT the actual Iliad, it isn't critical to have all those details straight in my head for the purposes of this book.

Conclusion: Overall, this is another excellent addition to the series, and a fantastically fun way to get younger readers interested in Greek mythology. Mythology buffs like myself will almost always enjoy a new retelling, and this one sticks quite close to the original tales, so I can see the series being a great addition to either a home or classroom library. Now, if you'll excuse me, I gotta go catch up on all those volumes I missed…but in the meantime, be sure to check out the other entries in this blog tour--including blog buds Charlotte, Mary Ann, and Mary Lee! Thanks to Gina Gagliano at First Second for organizing the celebration.

I received my copy of this book courtesy of First Second. You can find ARES: BRINGER OF WAR by George O'Connor at an online e-tailer, or at a real life, independent bookstore near you!