February 29, 2016
I received my copy of this book courtesy of a friend who loaned it to me. You can find THE SHEPHERD'S CROWN by Terry Pratchett at an online e-tailer, or at a real life, independent bookstore near you!
reviewed here). Her books tend to be quick, vivid, page-turning reads, great for a one-day reading binge and appealing for reluctant readers who want plenty of action. The Detour is no exception. Readers will start off with little sympathy for narrator Livvy Flynn—she's 17 years old and already a bestselling author, and she sounds like she feels pretty darn entitled. By the time she crashes her fancy red sports car on an Oregon back road, on the way to a writers' retreat, you'll find yourself thinking, well, perhaps it's no more than she deserves. But then things go from bad to worse. When she wakes up and finds out she's been locked in a basement, injuries and all…well, she's got a lot of time to think, and it's interesting to watch the backstory unfold and see how Livvy got to this point. Although there was one plot point that I guessed at early on (making it hard to wait for the final reveal), and although I ultimately still found myself annoyed at the narrator, this was a fast read that kept me turning the pages and needing to find out not only WHOdunit but also WHY.
I received my copy of this book courtesy of the Stanislaus County Library. You can find THE DETOUR by S.A. Bodeen at an online e-tailer, or at a real life, independent bookstore near you!
February 26, 2016
Welcome to another session of Turning Pages!
Synopsis: Ludmila Novakova is a girl of wealth and privilege. The daughter of the Chancellor, she has lived her seventeen years as the pampered denizen of Prague Castle, a good Catholic girl who accepts the things she's been taught - that those of the ruling class are put into place by the grace of God, that the poor are pitiable, but something always with us. But as she grows older, the one thing she can't accept is being sold off in marriage like a piece of land or cattle -- and she's not having it. Unprepared and completely clueless - dressed in her finery on a good horse with only a cape to cover her diamond-crusted hair ornaments - Mila lights out from the castle, prepared to ride her horse to the country where her aunt lives and change her circumstances. No food, little money, all impulse. She is, of course, set upon almost immediately, her horse lamed then killed, and if it wasn't for the blacksmith's son, she would have been in terrible straits.
Mila starts out as foolish but for the most part, she tries to learn from her mistakes. She's intrigued by the blacksmith, so befriends him, but friendship, she soon learns, between the daughter of the Chancellor and a workingman's son is a dicey proposition, and much more trouble for him than it's worth. Worse, though their heady romance blossoms almost immediately, she can't be sure of his motives. He's a Protestant, after all, and she knows what they're all about -- upsetting the natural order of things. Her father, the Chancellor, has always told her this. The truth, however, isn't quite what she's been told. Mila has seen with her own eyes that the peasants in the village are hungry. The King can't possibly know what's going on - what's being done in his name. Mila has to do something -- but what? All that she's known thus far is turning out to be false. Mila doesn't know what she can trust anymore - or who - but she's going to do something. This time, she's going to change not just her circumstances, but everyone in Prague's.
Observations: It's easy to get "winter slumps" in reading, and I was intrigued by this novel primarily because it was different. The tumultuous time of the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century had a huge impact on much of the western world historically, politically, intellectually, and culturally... yet there's pretty much crickets in terms of YA novels in the past fifteen years set in that period. Ditto a novel of the Reformation NOT set in Britain or Wales or Scotland, but in central Europe - there's just not a lot there, despite the fact that plenty happened outside of the British Empire. You can imagine how happy I was to see a novel which delved into custom and religion and expectation of the period. The author sets up the tension between Protestant and Catholic lightly, but the tension is evident. There's a light discussion of papal indulgences, which really was a flashpoint for Martin Luther, and the reader quickly gets a sense of how dangerous it was to have divergent beliefs in those days. I was slightly disappointed with the characterization of Mila as a good Catholic girl who didn't seem to have an actual understanding of her religion, though frequently speaking in its defense, nor does the novel seem terribly concerned with the ramifications of being Protestant, and the deep conviction and faith behind it, and how by culture mores and norms it was not that far from Catholicism. (Mila's casual relationship with Marc would go against her Catholicism and his Protestant beliefs, for instance.)
And speaking of Marc... yeah, this is a swoonfest, full-fat, sugar-frosted, whipped cream-on-cake-with-ice cream-and-chocolate syrup-and-sugar sprinkles, full on epic romance. I'll be honest: I don't read those, because the "love conquers all" suspension of disbelief is something I usually can't manage, and that much sugar brings on nausea. (Hello, cynicism.) There's a great deal of trauma and drama in this novel, which seems to be necessary to that style of Great Love romance, but I \found myself a bit frustrated with Mila's Princess-in-the-tower mentality; she has power but doesn't seem to know how to access it, and someone is always having to save her from impetuousness, after she pulls a knife and has it knocked out of her hands, etc., etc., and that type of thing. It's frustrating, yet this is the first book in a series, and ends on a triumphant note with almost everyone in place for some real action to begin. As to whether or not further volumes will actually get more into the issues of the Reformation - for some reason, more about a peasant "uprising" than Protestant v. Catholic politics - only time will tell.
Conclusions This novel reads like Romeo and Juliet on acid. I found that the depth of the longing for each other, etc. etc. etc. didn't match the time they had to get to know each other. People who love romance, really swept-off-their-feet types of romances, may enjoy this more than I did. The premise of the story is promising, but it is not as much about the Reformation and its impact as I had hoped. It is more about star-crossed lovers, a turbulent family history, and a painfully naïve girl who finally -- after violence, pain, and death for others - catches a clue about the realities of her world. Paired with lots of tea and a cuddly, rainy weekend, this will be catnip for someone.
I received my copy of this book courtesy of Kensington Publishing. After March 1, you can find LIONS IN THE GARDEN by Chelsea Luna at an online e-tailer, or at a real life, independent bookstore near you!
February 25, 2016
This month is THE month, and so we're posting a special infographic provided straight from the publisher: a fantastic February reading list that focuses on great YA graphic novels--many of which have been reviewed right here. Below the infographic you'll find links to the reviews on our site. And, lastly, stay tuned for a special graphic novelist INTERVIEW (never say First Second didn't hook us up!) and more fun posts celebrating comics throughout their anniversary year. Congratulations to an imprint that has made it abundantly clear graphic novels can be great art and great literature!
American Born Chinese by Gene Luen Yang
Anya's Ghost by Vera Brosgol
Delilah Dirk and the Turkish Lieutenant by Tony Cliff
Foiled by Jane Yolen and Mike Cavallaro
Friends With Boys by Faith Erin Hicks
In Real Life by Cory Doctorow and Jen Wang
Nothing Can Possibly Go Wrong by Prudence Shen and Faith Erin Hicks
This One Summer by Jillian Tamaki and Mariko Tamaki
The Wrenchies by Farel Dalrymple
February 24, 2016
Welcome to another session of Turning Pages!
Synopsis: Twelve-year-old Lloyd Saunders' grandfather had gone to fish off of Pedro Bank, and hadn't returned. He'd called the family from his cell phone on Tuesday, and should have been back on Thursday, but he hadn't come, and none of the other fishermen, his friends, knew what had happened. Some of them said, "Wait a few days; he'll be along," but others avoided his grandson Lloyd's eyes. Maas Conrad Saunders is a good man, and a good deepwater fisherman, but he's one of the last of a dwindling breed. Other fishermen cast their nets near where the sewage pipes empty into the sea; others use chlorine or dynamite to kill fish and bring them to the surface for an easy catch -- but Lloyd's grandfather is not one of those men. Still, something had driven his grandfather out to fish in unfamiliar seas - but Lloyd doesn't know what. All he knows is that he misses the old man, misses being out on the boat, doing the simple things fisherman do to bring in fish for his mother to sell, misses his grandfather showing him the ropes, telling him stories about dolphin and how wise and beneficial they are. A man of few words, still his grandfather is Lloyd's whole heart and soul, the only one who speaks kindly to him, and if anyone is going to find him, Lloyd will be the one. Whether he has to sleep standing vigil at the seawall, hang around behind bars and scrounge in the trash, talk to every man with a boat in all of Grey Pond, stow away about a Coast Guard cutter, meet with gangsters, and talk to dolphin scientists, Lloyd is going to find his grandfather -- even if no one helps him. Even if no one believes him.
Observations: This book has been published in the Caribbean, and readers may be unable to easily find it in the States, but I believe that with our help, the cream rises - because we lift it up. I found this book to be extraordinarily well written, and I want to urge those who can find it to pick up and read this book so that it will find its way to a larger share of readers. There is no glossary in this book, but readers who can simply pull information from context will understand the cadences and the patois and words they don't understand easily enough. The author is from Kingston, and the Jamaican words seem in many ways to have been the only way the book could have been written; readers are in Lloyd's mind from the first.
This novel is held in perfect tension between memory and tragedy, between the beauty of the sea, and the wonders therein, and the draining deficit human beings, pollution, and overfishing have on the Caribbean. The close-knit, simple and joyful life Lloyd lives contrasts with the thin edge of subsistence living that fishing provides. Readers who enjoyed Theodore Taylor's THE CAY, or Nancy Farmer's A GIRL NAMED DISASTER will find in this novel another of the classic survival novels that are absolutely immersing, that certain kinds of young readers just love, as they ask themselves the questions of "what would I do?" and "could I survive?" This novel also has the coming-of-age feel of those novels; though Lloyd himself isn't the one to survive being marooned, he must survive the knowledge that there is treachery and betrayal in the world, that it is killing dolphins, poisoning the Caribbean, and has also done in human beings. This is the author's first novel for young adults, based on her 2012 Regional Commonwealth Writers prizewinning short story and originally entitled The Dolphin Catchers, and took second prize for CODE's Burt Award for Caribbean Literature in 2015, which recognizes outstanding literary works for young adults written by Caribbean authors.
Conclusion: This tightly plotted, tautly written narrative will engage your heart and your head - pull you in, and spit you back out with its enigmatic, terribly painful, yet fiercely hopeful conclusion.
I received my copy of this book courtesy of Papillote Press. After February 28, you can find GONE TO DRIFT by Diana McCauley at an online e-tailer, or at a real life, independent British or Caribbean bookstore; Americans can also find it at AmazonUK
February 22, 2016
And it turns out Lady Helen Wrexhall is one of them. A very powerful one, as it turns out.
Peaks: Part of the joy of this book is seeing the society and culture, so vividly portrayed, unfold before the reader's eyes. Admittedly, this is not necessarily to every reader's taste, but anyone with a passing acquaintance with historical fantasy will appreciate the level of detail the author included, while still writing a quite fast-paced plot that kept me turning the pages. I don't want to give too much away about this one because the intrigue and developing suspense are so good, but the revelation of the paranormal aspect—Helen's gradually appearing powers, the darkly enigmatic Lord Carlston, the ever-increasing danger to herself and her household—was deftly combined with the more down-to-earth elements of plot and setting, like Helen's presentation to the Queen and the expectation of impending marriage to a man of some quality.
Certainly Helen joining a secret society to fight evil does not fall into her Aunt and Uncle's plan for her, as her constantly hovering guardians; they are determined that she not follow in her mother's disgraceful footsteps, and rather be married quickly and settle down like a respectable young lady. Because of the nature of society at the time, there are some very intriguing, thought-provoking themes here having to do with women and empowerment, as Helen quite literally comes into her own powers and yet still must navigate the world she lives in, where young women are essentially property until they come of age, and then they tend to marry and become somebody else's property. The decisions she must make about who she is—those give this story quite a lot of depth.
Valleys: For those who want instant action, this might take a while to get moving. The paranormal element doesn't really kick in right away, and Helen's Regency world could seem tiresome if the historical aspect isn't your thing. But that's really a matter of taste.
Conclusion: I picked this one up kind of at random, in the sense that I didn't know the author had a new book out—and I'm so glad I did. Where I felt a little distance from the narrator in Eon and Eona, I did not feel that way with this book. I had trouble putting it down, which honestly made for a very enjoyable weekend. Except for the "to be continued" part—because, yes, dears, this is a Book 1. Yay, but also AARGGGHHH because waiting will be difficult.
I received my copy of this book courtesy of my library's ebook collection. You can find THE DARK DAYS CLUB by Alison Goodman at an online e-tailer, or at a real life, independent bookstore near you!
February 18, 2016
Find out whether Dess and Hope can learn to cross socioeconomic, racial, and plain old personality divides to become friends as well as foster sisters--You can buy Tanita's latest novel PEAS AND CARROTS at an online e-tailer, or at a real life, independent bookstore near you!
Go check out this wonderful post by Sharon Levin entitled Children's Books Make Me Smarter. I kind of thought I might be the only one who feels this way, but I'm glad I'm not! I am ALWAYS (and PROUDLY) learning from what I read, fiction and nonfiction alike; written for children, teens, or adults. This is yet another reason why we need lots and lots of stories, why diversity in children's literature is so incredibly important. As a child I learned about animals and people, about illness (You Can't Catch Diabetes from a Friend) and about Waltzing Matilda. As an adult I am still learning: pox parties, the Women's Army Corps, female aviators, neuromorphic circuitry, what it's like to live life as someone with a very different background. Let's not stop reading; let's not stop getting smarter.
Next Wednesday, February 24th, is World Read Aloud Day! Thanks to author and agent-sister Kate Messner, I was able to sign up to participate in Skype classroom visits in honor of World Read Aloud Day, and now I'm booked for four virtual middle school visits, two on Wednesday and two on Thursday. I am very excited and a bit daunted, but I think this is a wonderful opportunity to talk to students about writing and read a little of my work. Plus I get to talk to kids in Minnesota, Florida, and Maryland without leaving my office....now I just have to clean my desk so it doesn't look like I am a total slob....
February 16, 2016
Welcome to another session of Turning Pages!
Synopsis: Sixteen-year-old Jules Verity - whose last name does indeed mean "truth" - can't stop herself from blurting the truth. All of it. All the time. The weird thing is, though, that she can't exactly recognize it as truth. She normally can't recognize the sentences and phrases she blurts out as... anything. Her best friend, Cami, calls it "Psychic Tourette's Syndrome, which is also inaccurate, but whatever it is, it's caused Jules to be fired from every single job she's ever had and to be regarded as somewhat of a freak in the quirky small town of Lunevale. If she'd stop fighting it, her Gran assures her, her gift would sort itself out. All of the Verity women have some sort of gift; Gran helps people find their true love, while Jules' mother can tell the provenance of anything, making her a very useful sort of antique dealer. Jules can't figure out what her gift is good for, and only wishes to get rid of it, buy a car, and drive out of town, in that order. Oh, and if she could somehow separate Grayson Chandler, the boy she's been crushing on since the sixth grade, from his perfect girlfriend, Bree, her life would also be improved. Unfortunately, the thing with Grayson is not going to happen - Bree is way too sweet, and Jules is not like that, anyway -- and Jules' dream of buying a car (and avoiding her Gran's hot pink electric golf cart) are derailed when her mother announces she's traveling to Europe on a buying trip - and plans on the antique store for the summer. Without her usual summer gig, Jules is at a loose end until she meets Henry VIII at the antique shop - Hank Bacon in costume. She blurts out something odd to him, but only later she finds out it means that Tudor Times, Hank's mansion-turned-dinner-theater which once belonged to the Lunes who founded the town, will have an opening. Jules rapidly finds herself employed - but not some gorgeous Tudor princess, but as a mad nun who spouts prophesy. Regardless of the fact that this is one job she can't possibly get fired from, things get dicey the first day -- Jules, trying to hide her black-swathed nun's outfit from Grayson's eyes, trips a switch, finds a secret room and - falls over a dead body. Which, when she screams and finds her way OUT of the secret room, disappears.
It is seriously shaping up to be a LONG, weird summer.
Observations: This book is a ROMP. I love the whole RenFaire vibe, costuming, dinner theater, and all of that - it is a rich, rich setting. Add in Jules' particular "gifts" and the whole thing is just over-the-top awesome. The novel is the kind of deliciously delirious, frothy fun that I love to read in cozy mysteries. It is JUST. TOO. SHORT. I wanted more, more, more - reader greed will bite you badly with this novel.
My cry of "more" can be said of a lot of things: the characters, the town (LUNEVALE. I mean, come ON, it's like Nightvale only...weirder? Is that possible?) the length, yes, but also the emotional detail. We know that Jules is twisted in the clutches of a crush, but we don't really know... why. The way we like people in the sixth grade has to change if we still are crushing that hard sophomore year. What is it about Grayson - other than his resemblance to Prince Wesley and his stunning abs - that make him swoonworthy? I wanted Jules to dig deeper into her own emotions - I know that in many ways, the novel was action focused - that made it really, really fun - but I would have loved to slow down and really feel Jules' emotions of sheer terror, anger, and disgust. She's sometimes just a bit unflappable. Except about Grayson, which, okay, got it: she's crushing.
There is diversity in this novel, but I wanted more of that too - essentially, a deeper exploration of the choices and the emotions behind the discovery. I'll leave it there to avoid spoilers, but if there's anything I'm mildly critical of in the novel, it's that both the emotion and the resolution were just handed to us as faits accompli, which robbed the narrative of a texture and depth it could have really developed. I wanted a little backstory, a little...depth to the Verity family magic as well. If I couldn't have it in this book, I'll accept a sequel. Just putting that out there, Entangled Teen, and Ms. Held. Just putting that out there...
Conclusion: The Verity's are hilarious; Jules is amazing, and this absolutely fantastic debut novel feels like a gift you give to yourself. A quick, light, funny read, the book will leave readers happily clamoring for more.
I received my copy of this book courtesy of the publisher. After March 1, you can find HOLDING COURT by K.C. Held at an online e-tailer, or at a real life, independent bookstore near you!
February 13, 2016
MG Speculative Fiction
Young Adult Fiction
Every Last Word stands out because of its honest, moving portrayal of mental illness. But it also stands out because of Sam’s hard-earned character growth. After being a bully just to fit in with her toxic friends, becoming a member of Poet’s Corner allows her to right some past wrongs and learn that finding your unique voice is more important than blending in with your friends. Along the way, we experience the highs and lows of high school cliques, show how there are always ways to redeem yourself even if they aren’t easy, and feel the emotions of all involved from every angle. The poetry included helps break the ice on what can be a difficult topic, making it more accessible, while the “feels” you succumb to will make and break your heart. It’s not always pretty, but it’s real and fair, making it a story that Young Adult readers can connect with on many levels.
by Steve Sheinkin
Roaring Brook Press
Nominated by: Benji Martin
The concept of good came up frequently among the judges in the Cybils Speculative Fiction list, as the Round One crew offered up seven novels which were very good indeed, and left to the Finalist judges the struggle to elevate one above the shining host. Intriguingly, the concept of “good” and “good enough,” repeated within the narratives as well. Whether any of the protagonists in SLASHER GIRLS & MONSTER BOYS, edited by April Genevieve Tucholke, can be considered “good” is debatable unless you’re a fan of horror, as many of our judges are. Ultimate good is at issue in THE SIX by Mark Alpert, as characters sacrificed their bodies to become mechanized weapons.
And then, there was “good enough;” Hallie struggled to be good enough to be loved by her sister in AN INHERITANCE OF ASHES by Leah Bobet; In MORTAL HEART by Robin LaFevers, Annith longed to be good enough to leave the convent of St. Mortain to do real work. Sierra Santiago must fight monsters AND patriarchy to prove she’s good enough to own her own magical heritage in SHADOWSHAPER, by Daniel José Older. In the novel by Laura Ruby, Finn O’Sullivan has to fight the belief of the town of BONE GAP that he and his brother aren’t good enough for the people they love not to just leave. There were a lot of “good” reasons to choose any one of these books, because they all have skillful writing and teen appeal. But, eventually, we realized that few books could be more appealing than what some of us referred to as “the killer ballerina book.”
Ballerinas, normally the artistic apex of beauty and grace, were shown as something violent and unfamiliar, underscoring themes of innocence and its loss. Nova Ren Suma’s THE WALLS AROUND US provides an unhinged look into the competitive, obsessive world through the eyes of Amber and Violet, two girls with vastly different futures: one in a Juvenile Detention Center; the other on her way to a promising career at Julliard. A challenging narrative with definite speculative, creepy supernatural elements, the novel’s shadowy, edgy setting with its distinctive voices, together with the atmospheric beauty of the writing convinced even the dubious to embrace this psychological thriller. We cordially invite you to weigh the good in these selected books, and do the same.
February 12, 2016
Welcome to another session of Turning Pages!
Synopsis: It was pretty well going to be the most depressing visit to Blackheath 17-year-old Rosie Clayton had ever taken. Though she visited her grandparents in the London neighborhood from Nashville eight weeks every single summer, this year her beloved Papa has been given just three weeks to live, and Nana is devastated. Complicating family matter further, her brother, Paul, has turned into a hostile, drunken stranger in the wake of his best friend's accident. Paul, only fifteen, is drinking himself blind while Rosie's frantic parents send him to therapists and counseling that isn't working. Nobody is telling him, "No," not her mother, who bites her lip and endures, nor her father, who never deals well with anything, and spends most days in a wordless, sleepless rage, breaking dishes. As her grandfather's life abruptly ends, Rosie can feel her family - her life - imploding, and tragedy dragging them all in the undertow.
And then she watches a girl get brutally attacked. Screaming, she watches as the girl fights to get away, as her attackers drag her inexorably toward a parked van. Helpless, Rosie runs after them, knowing that now she, too, is in danger...then, while a bright light flashes, and her stomach seems to turn her world inside out, Rosie... sees the attack... not happen.
What Rosie sees and then doesn't see changes the whole tenor of her summer. Everything that has happened since they arrived in London - really, the last six months - have been mired in pain and tragedy. But, if tragedy happens and can... unhappen, she's got to know more about how. The boy who suddenly appeared and saved the day, Albert, he knows too many things he won't tell her. Who is he, who are the people he hangs around with, saving others? And why is Blackheath, just a safe, slow, corner of London on the heath - why is it so dangerous suddenly, so full of terrifying strangers who seem to be attacking Albert's crew? And why does it seem that they might be... after Rosie, too?
As Rosie struggles to make sense of things, Paul continues to drift, fading inexorably from the brother she knew and loved to a cold, desperate stranger. He hangs out with violent thugs Rosie knows are trouble - and yet -- he's grieving, just like she is, just like their parents are. When his life is on the line, if she can't save him, nothing she's finding out about her grandfather's past, and about herself -- nothing she now knows -- is worth anything.
Observations: There is a LOT going on in this book - the pacing is fast, the details are crammed in there chock-full. This book is going to be a favorite of people who love time travel novels like Myra McEntire's HOURGLASS and INFINITYGLASS books - however, it has the breakneck danger-danger-danger feel of an episode of Dr. Who or at least the MORTAL INSTRUMENTS series, and it's definitely more fantasy/speculative fiction because despite the technology usage, NOTHING here is based in science; this is pure magic. PULL isn't quite about traveling back in time... at least not more than a half hour. It's time jumping, - time fiddling - which seems more useful. I don't need to go back and see history in person, but if I could take back a stupid conversation or the moment before I landed on my tailbone on a sidewalk curb, that would be downright helpful.
Rosie is not entirely credulous, so it takes a while for her to believe what she's experiencing, and then it takes even longer for those involved to tell her - which seems a bit unfair, and enrages her, and rightly so. I like that Rosie is independent, and even though there's a love interest, she's a woman of her own mind, very much so. One does wonder where she gets this from, as her mother's example in the book is definitely of a woman who bites her lip, bites her tongue, and doesn't speak -- even when she should. Even her grandmother simply waited for her husband to come home, accepting her role and not seeming to seek adventure outside their door, so when her husband died, she was utterly gutted - and left with no clue to who he really was. That seemed unfair. The frayed familial emotional knots and ties don't ever untie - Rosie's father is a rageaholic control freak when the book begins, and is still when the book concludes, but he's defanged, because... Rosie went out and did what must be done, not waiting to ask anyone and he's had to accept that, as every bully whose victims move out of their power must. Rosie's mother and grandmother are just... quiet, and accepting; their detail of their character sketches becomes more chalk than charcoal as the novel moves forward, and Rosie takes center stage. In the end, her parents seem awfully accepting of an awful lot, but other readers may be able to suspend disbelief on that detail.
The conclusion of the adventure is, at first, a tiny bit of Deux Ex Machina, with an eleventh hour save - but reversals happen on a dime in this novel, and achieving a happy ending is sometimes less a matter of luck then of sheer determination. I was a bit disappointed that money can simply make all problems go away, but more important was the idea of choices - some of them you may not be positive are the best ones you could have made, but accepting what you've chosen is something no one can avoid - or reverse.
Conclusion: With its striking orange and blue cover overlaying a watch face atop Tower Bridge, this book has both a very commercially successful look and a fast-paced, sticky hook to bring readers in. The quick pace, sense of danger, and details will keep them interested and wistful for more.
I received my copy of this book courtesy of the publisher. You can find PULL by Anne Riley at an online e-tailer, or, as of 2/16/16 in paperback at a real life, independent bookstore near you!
February 08, 2016
Three years in, I posted a cartoon of THE TWO OF US in our imaginary writing spaces--Tanita was still in Scotland, as evidenced by the sheep and castle, and I apparently lived within sight of the Golden Gate Bridge (which is a wee 90-mile exaggeration):
And, exactly 10 years ago yesterday, we put up our 101st post! Tanita posted a quote from the wonderful Sid Fleischman, and it's the perfect inspiration for another blogging and writing year:
Now that Finding Wonderland is 11 years old and counting (puberty must be coming--uh oh), let's hope that any reliving of our awkward adolescence is limited to the books we read and write!
February 05, 2016
(AF, If we were married, we would totally FAIL this anniversary thing. How did we miss 10 years last year????
Well, if you're having fun, you must not notice where the time goes. Or something like that. Happy Blogversary.)
Welcome to another session of Turning Pages!
Synopsis: Jaded, bored, and sarcastic, Evelyn Wyndham, at an eminently marriageable age, is deeply disinterested, and thought to be the tiniest bit odd both by her parents, and by well-bred Bramhurst society at large. She's indifferent to their opinion, however, because she's mostly indifferent to everything that isn't her envious and wistful attention to her friend Catherine's travels on the Continent - oh, if she could only GO! - her younger sister, Rose, and Rose's prospects of being a doctor someday. The Wyndham girls have become well-known throughout their community for seeing associates through the frightening fevers and terrible consumptions which plague England and sending them on their way to health, and now at Sir Winston's ball, given in honor of his nephew Sebastian Braddock, even before the dancing even begins, Rose is being stared at and whispered about, although Mr. Braddock is the worst, the way he stares like a loon, makes mention of her miracles ... then basically runs away.
The ball is as tiresome as Evelyn suspected it would be, but for Mr. Kent, an old friend who always provides her entertainment. Seeing a large stranger peering into the drawing room from outside worries Evelyn tremendously. When Evelyn finds Mr. Braddock furiously ordering the large man away from Rose, her curiosity edges into dismay ...! Who is he, and what does he want? Rose assures Evelyn that the man has an ill sister, but Evelyn is more worried by the way Mr. Braddock snarls at the man, acting as if Rose is his possession to which the stranger has no right. When he mentions her "powers," in such an odd way, Evelyn is on edge. Certainly, Rose is beautiful and good, and of course, as she's now marriageable age, the gentlemen will be interested, but all Rose needs is to start collecting attention from odd men. Gathering her oblivious sister, Evelyn insists that the family cut their time at the ball short.
The morning after the ball, Rose is gone, her room shows signs of a disordered exit, and a scribbled note saying all the wrong things is all that's left. Now Evelyn is convinced it's not Rose's medical skills that were in demand -- it was Rose herself, and that she's been kidnapped to London. Evelyn, against her parent's expressed wishes, heads for London -- on foot, until Mr. Kent happens upon her -- to the rescue. Her first clue along the road to finding Rose? Mr. Braddock, who seemed to have known the giant who asked her to see to his sister. Surely, that enigmatic and odd man must know something. But there are secrets, evasions, and mistakes ahead - and there's too much at stake for anyone to lose focus, or fall in love.
The novel concludes the sometimes worrying, sometimes frustrating search with a rather abrupt ending which leaves a clear gateway to the next novel.
Observations: This was a novel which for me was, by turns, entertaining and frustrating. Evelyn is hilariously deadpan, but her snarkiness is of a decidedly modern bent; it's hard to imagine a well-bred and high class Victorian girl as defiant and mouthy as she. There are bits and pieces of the novel which are picked up - and then discarded. The first is Evelyn's best friend Catherine, who is on the Continent -- her trip is everything Evelyn wants, at first, and then... she's not mentioned again, nor do the girls write, when letter writing and household arts seem to have made up most of how a young Victorian woman spent her time. Evelyn's parents are at first deeply concerned for their progeny's launch into society, and then when Rose disappears, they seem to vanish -- while it's believable that they would want to protect their family name, not even mounting a search for a disappeared younger daughter who is only seventeen seems a trifle beyond belief. To avoid spoilers, I'll only say that the conclusion is a gut punch that leaves a great deal to be desired and will frustrate some.
Some readers seeking to see themselves within the novel and within the fun setting of Victorian London may be disappointed; the authors leave no space for diversity, which, as there were Victorians of many ethnicities, is both inaccurate and unnecessarly, since this recreated Victorian London already has people with unheard of fantasy powers - apparently diversity is too far a stretch?
Tarun Shanker and Kelly Zekas met in a writing class, and began writing this book a few years later. Tarun is one of the few guys writing YA speculative fiction romance; I can't tell which is his perspective vs. his co-author's, but it's nice to welcome another guy into the field, and we can only wish him good things and hope to hear more from them both.
Conclusion: Some have called this book "X-Men meets Jane Austen;" to me it more resembles that frothy confection of a film The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, a beautiful movie with enormously enthralling effects, breathtaking cinematography, and an incomplete plot coupled with flawed and problematic storytelling. For those fans of snark and sisterhood, there's a great deal of potential to this debut book, and the series looks to have enormous teen appeal and will most likely be swallowed whole by some, but there are a few details yet to be worked out for those with a little more discriminating palette.
I received my copy of this book courtesy of Swoon. After February 9th, you can find THESE VICIOUS MASKS by Tarun Shanker and Kelly Zekas at an online e-tailer, or at a real life, independent bookstore near you!
February 04, 2016
Anyway, The Secret Coders--the first book in a new series that promises lots of fun and adventure (and CODE)—did not disappoint. And, especially as it comes during a time when a lot of effort is being put into STEM education for girls, and there are groups out there like Girls Who Code and so forth, it made me very happy to see this adventure into the world of programming being led by a (mixed race!) girl, Hopper.
It's not just about coding, though. This book is about the perennially relatable theme of being the new kid in school—and it just happens to be a school where something SUPER CREEPY is going on. Why is the shed door padlocked? Why is the janitor so crabby about them going near it? (MUST be something interesting in there.) Why do all the birds have FOUR EYES? Hopper is confronted with all of these questions at the same time that she's trying to make new friends at her new school, where nobody seems to be amused by her cool robot voice. Luckily, she does manage to find a friendly face, and her new friend Eni even helps her decode the secret of the four-eyed birds. But when the two of them find out what's in the locked garden shed, all craziness breaks loose…very, very slowly…
|Click to embiggen|
Much as I thought at the time that this was a terribly inefficient way to draw pictures, it was one of the earliest opportunities for kids in school to start learning very simple programming. I'm sure it set the right tone for me, many years later, to be unafraid to try tackling HTML and CSS. And this graphic novel brings back those memories and provides some actual coding—and decoding—fun for a new generation of readers, with try-it-yourself coding problems that you can solve right along with the characters.
Of course, this book isn't all about learning how to translate numbers in binary and learning how to command a so-called turtle (imagine the disappointment! the "turtle" was a mere triangle!) to draw geometric shapes. Hopper is an appealing and funny main character, and one of the hilarious parts of the story is watching her make friends with Eni, who then teaches her the secrets of binary and logo. Appropriately (since many a 1980s computer had those green-on-black screens), the book is printed in green and black, but don't let the simplicity of the color choices fool you: there's plenty of fun stuff going on here, and just as the story brings us to an exciting peak with robots and angry janitors and the ultimate test of the kids' coding skills (and yours, if you choose to follow along)—you're left with a cliffhanger. Until next time, kids.
|So easy, a monkey could do it!|
Conclusion: This will surely appeal to fans of other graphic novel series where kids solve the mystery of a creepy school—e.g. Gunnerkrigg Court—as well as existing fans of Gene Yang's work.
I received my copy of this book courtesy of First Second Books. You can find SECRET CODERS by Gene Luen Yang and Mike Holmes at an online e-tailer, or at a real life, independent bookstore near you!
February 02, 2016
Welcome to another session of Turning Pages!
Synopsis: One day she's leaping in the waves near the family's Paradise-by-the-Sea beach home, the fittest of the fit, dreaming of finishing Little Women and having a new best friend; the next moment her lower body is numb and unresponsive and she's so terrified that she can barely breathe, and cannot speak... polio in the 1920's stole many children's lives and liveliness just that quickly - but it stole didn't just steal Rowan Collier's legs, it stole her family - because the Colliers are charter members of the Betterment Council, an organization which encourage people to come in and fill out information about their family histories, their family trees, and see if they're "fit" to breed. Rowans father and sister have made their mark on society, writing eugenics articles and doing research regarding the burden of the feeble-minded and the unfit on American society. As Colliers are nothing but fit, Rowan now simply cannot be one. The disease steals her name, as her father abandons her to be taken into a hospital for orphaned children for care.
No name, no home, no hope -- Rowan withdraws into a silent bubble of shame and pain in the hospital until a caring physician comes along, who revives her spirit, and reminds her to take care of herself. She flourishes under his care, but her older sister, Julia takes even that away from her, in the name of sending her to a Betterment Society doctor... who pressures Rowan to be sterilized. Now, at sixteen, Rowan's not heard a word from her father in five, long lonely years. Her "livelihood" - a cot in a tent and at least two meals a day - is earned through work as an actress in a play. She lives the role of Ruthie the unfit cripple who drops the baby. At night, she is imprisoned with the group of the "unfit," locked away as a sideshow freak for the Betterment Council's traveling show. Dorchy, an orphan carney girl who is employed by the leaders of the freak show, thinks "fit to breed" is a crock. She's determined to use her con-woman skills to find her uncle, and restart her life on the Midway. With nowhere to go, and without the protection of her father's name, Rowan must escape from an uncomfortable situation with the show which rapidly becomes dreadful. When Rowan and Dorchy go on the lam, Dorchy revives her con-artist carney ways to get them money and leverage, but Rowan fears that the two girls are too different to go the same direction. They make a plan, a pact, each giving the other courage as needed. The two of them find themselves working as staff at an island summer camp in Maine. Camp Loup is a Betterment Society camp for orphaned unfit children -- but though the Betterment Council representative makes many promises, it quickly becomes apparent that this situation is worse than their last. An influenza has swept through, and many of the campers have died -- and still more are dying, of the 'flu, or of the cold-eyed doctor's so-called cure? Rowan and Dorchy must survive the camp's directors, the island, a storm long enough to escape, and let the world know the truth about what's going on at Camp Loup. At the last Rowan must stand - on her own two, polio-weakened two legs - against how she was raised, and decide how she wants to use what she knows to make a difference.
Observations: The information in this novel about eugenics, "fitness" and "betterment" movements throughout the United States through the 1920's-30's is a little explored region of pseudoscience, and it's usually only dug into in YA lit in reference to how it was practiced in Germany during the Jewish genocide. However, it's an American science, and it's something which informs the historical treatment of the poor and those with mental health issues in this country, and should shape how we respect those populations today. There are myriad German doctors who make appearances in the novel, but the author is unstinting in her revelations and lets no one off the hook - everyone who was of a privileged or upwardly mobile class was interested in eugenics, and everyone - even Civil Rights activist and N.A.A.C.P. founder W.E.B. DuBois - believed that Americans should be somehow better. DuBois wrote eloquently about "uplifting" the race, chiding African Americans to be aware of and rejecting of the unfit within their own race. Eugenics wasn't a German mistake, it wasn't merely the furtive study of some mad scientists in a Frankensteinian laboratory somewhere: this was mainstream supremacist ideology supported by thinkers such as Thomas Edison, Winston Churchill, Margaret Sanger, Linus Pauling, Marie Stopes, Robert Heinlein, HG Wells, Theodore Roosevelt, Nikola Tesla, Alexander Graham Bell, Woodrow Wilson, and George Bernard Shaw. It was virally infectious in a country which feared contagion from the lower classes, from other nations and the pollution of their ideas as well. There's plenty of history here to sink one's teeth into in this work of historical fiction, and readers may come away wanting to find out more.
With that in mind, the narrative aspect of this novel - of Rowan and Dorchy - is less arresting, as the girls' emotional resonance doesn't have as much time to develop. Still, Rowan's many falls and her dependence on her crutches, her weariness with her disabilities and her occasional despair rings all too true. Readers may find it unbelievable that there was no one to whom she could go for help. Still, Dorchy's strong friendship, and the risks and terrors of the girls' escape catches the heart, and will help readers identify more personally with the history and information that they read.
An author's note at the end of the novel emphasizes a strong takeaway message about ignorance and the abuse of power masquerading as "thought" and theory, "I wrote Of Better Blood to emphasize the danger of policies in which people are categorized, isolated, and eliminated for political ends," the author writes. This is a timely reminder in an election year, for sure.
Conclusion: A horror story told in matter-of-fact prose, the story of eugenics, "fitter families," and "better baby" contests is a history that led American medical health facilities to atrocities like the Tuskegee Experiment, forcibly sterilizing women in mental institutions and a wave of negative attitude and abuse against poor families with many children. It is the shame of medical history that we at times abused the poor and weak and those who needed help and support the most. This novel clearly shows what evil happens when good people do nothing, and will give a horrified shudder to a science-minded reader, and be a good jumping off place for a lot of discussion.
I received my copy of this book courtesy of Albert Whitman Teen. After February 1st, you can find OF BETTER BLOOD by Susan Moger at an online e-tailer, or at a real life, independent bookstore near you!
February 01, 2016
|The cover even LOOKS like a Libba Bray book...|
Against this backdrop of extremely rapid change, our narrator Victoria Darling embodies some of these radical departures from the norm. As the story begins, we see her in her art atelier, which she attends when she isn't going to finishing school in France. That day's session, alas, is without a figure model…and, after some trepidation, Victoria decides to take her turn. The young men in the class have had to do it from time to time, after all, so why not her?
Why not indeed. Part of the reason there are so few female Impressionist painters who have made the history books is that they were usually prevented from drawing from the live model—and yet drawing from the live nude was a necessary prerequisite to being a serious artist. Painting still-lifes and domestic scenes was a mere hobby for young ladies. Women had to resort to dressing as men and sneaking into art classes, or they had to have the support of a husband or father to gain art training, and even then, it was not a "suitable" pursuit for a young lady, but rather a mad, wicked folly.
Plus, you couldn't go about on your own or consort with people of the lower classes if you were someone like Victoria. But she's determined to be a serious artist. Even when her father finds out about her scandalous disrobing and brings her home to London to be married off, Victoria plans to try to gain admission to the Royal College of Art. While implementing her plans, she meets suffragettes campaigning for the vote (getting her in further trouble), a handsome young constable (SO off limits), and continues to be dogged by scandal—and of course, at a certain point she ends up having difficult choices to make, between her family and her social position and her own goals and what she thinks is right.
Peaks: This is a great period piece for showing the incredible social and technological change that was taking place at the time, but it's also a story of a character whose moxie and determination will appeal to contemporary readers. There are multiple love interests, there's Victoria's fascination as she discovers what life might be like if women had more power, and there are very real repercussions to her actions, ranging from family disappointment to a frightening night in jail. The characters are varied and well drawn, and the contrast is made stark and clear between the older generation represented by Victoria's staid parents and the changes taking place before their very eyes. The fact of her mother's frustrated artistic inclinations makes this particularly poignant.
Valleys: Victoria does have a tendency to rush headlong into things without thinking about what might happen, and that was a bit frustrating as well as discomfiting, especially when she lands in trouble through very little fault of her own, simply being in the wrong place at the wrong time. And yet, for all the times she lands in trouble, the results were hardly ever grievous. I found myself the most excited when her explorations finally result in her having to make a major change in her life (I won't give away spoilers) but this part of the story wasn't developed quite as much as the earlier portions.
Conclusion: Besides the minor pacing issues, I really enjoyed (for obvious personal reasons) this story of a young woman determined to be an artist in a world that is dead set against her…but which is in the process of changing. The fact of it being a time period of upheaval and change keeps Victoria's character from feeling anachronistic, and she meets plenty of like-minded sympathizers in her journey. Readers who enjoy stories set in the Victorian era or the early 20th century (e.g. fans of Libba Bray) will want to check this one out.
I received my copy of this book courtesy of my library's ebook collection. You can find A MAD, WICKED FOLLY by Sharon Biggs Waller at an online e-tailer, or at a real life, independent bookstore near you!