November 29, 2016

Cybils Speculative Reader: THE IMPOSTER QUEEN, by SARAH FINE

Welcome to the 2016 Cybils Speculative Reader!

As a first run reader for the Cybils, I'll be briefly introducing you to the books on the list, giving you a mostly unbiased look at some of the plot.


I'm not too huge a fan of Fated King stories because it seems we've had endless permutations of Arthur &tc., being part of the Special Circle of Knights or being part of Merlin's coterie or Morganna's, etc. so stories of kings and princesses and prophesies are usually something I just race through and move on from. Sarah Fine's book arrested my attention because ...well, I'm not sure why. Maybe because I had no inkling, despite the title, that the protagonist wasn't really going to win the day. I was surprised and dismayed, along with the adults around her. That shows some skillful writing. While there are plots and counterplots in this novel, some more obvious than others, there's enough to keep a reader happily engaged, and enough for a sequel -- though because the novel ends tidily, a sequel is not necessary. And, that's what we like here!

Synopsis: Elli has lived a life of luxury, study, and expectation. As Saadella, she has whetted her curiosity against the sharpest minds in the kingdom, preparing for her role as Valtia. She has been told that she will be the most powerful to ever rule. Elli really doesn't care about that. The current Valtia must die in order for her the Saadella to lose her name and receive her power... and Elli's pretty much thrilled to let the current Valtia go on being the queen for as long as possible. The Valtia has cared for Elli since she was tiny, and is a clearer, sharper memory than Elli's own mother... thus, it's easy to tell when she begins to fail. Why don't any of the Valtia's ever live past their thirties? Why do the invaders have to come now?

What should have been a glorious victory for the Kupari turns from personal tragedy for Elli -- into disaster as the Saadella finally ascends to her throne, only to find that the magic which she has awaited -- gone. Instead of raised up and deified, Elli only feels ...hollow and empty and useless. And, soon, her uselessness is magnified by terror. How will she live? What will she do, if she is neither the Saadella nor the Valtia? What good is she?

Left with few choices, Elli disappears into the outlands, and finds herself in a nest of thieves -- but are they all thieves? Are they all bad people, as she has been taught? As they guide Elli into her new life, she realizes how much she hasn't learned about her own world -- and the prophesy that said she was powerful has a meaning she hadn't considered. There's a "right" side to be on, in the upcoming conflict, and then there's the side you make yourself. Elli's eventual grasping of her identity as a decider allows her to stop being used and to use circumstances for the betterment of all.

Observations: We've had a couple of books this Cybils cycle about powerlessness -- and I like how Fine deals with it, in such a way which gives it a real world application: after a theft of your power, you may have nothing left within you, but the hollow inside is empty for a purpose -- so that you can work as an amplifier on behalf of someone else. That's a pretty cool thought, when all is said and done. Elli was prepared to lose her name and lose her personal will on behalf of the people of her kingdom -- and while that in itself is laudable, sometimes our best power is to decide things for ourselves, on our own behalf, and if the kingdom comes along... well, okay.

Conclusion: Elli is a character who yearns for love, attention, and purpose, who knows when she's inflicting her affection on someone, but who doesn't always see when someone's affectionate attention is given to her. I like how Fine plays with ideas of power and will with a would-be queen, who is basically powerless in some ways, though she's allegedly the period at the end of the kingdom's sentence. Though I might wish the romance had been eliminated, to keep the reasons Elli does things more ..."pure," overall, I think this somewhat familiar narrative has just enough new things to engage teens seeking to understand their own powerlessness -- and to find ways to turn the tide of the world they know.

I received my copy of this book courtesy of the publisher. You can find THE IMPOSTER QUEEN by Sara Fine at an online e-tailer, or at a real life, independent bookstore near you!

November 28, 2016

Monday Review: REALITY BOY by A.S. King

Synopsis: I picked this one up (and got it signed; woot!) at the most recent Kidlitosphere Conference in Wichita—somehow I missed it when it came out a few years ago, but I'm so glad I went back for it, because it's up there with my favorite A.S. King novels.

Picture one of those awful, Nanny 9-1-1 reality TV shows that were so popular there for a while. Now, imagine being a teenager, and having been one of the luckless kids who was featured on such a show as a toddler, too young to have any say about it. Imagine you'd been acting out your anger at your manipulative older sister in all kinds of sad and horrible ways, but thanks to oblivious parents and heartless TV studio execs, you're the one who takes the blame. That's what happened to Gerald Faust. Now seventeen, he's biding his time until he graduates, working a job at the local sports arena and still working on his anger issues. You'd be angry, too, if all the kids at school knew you as "the Crapper" and your awful sister was still living in the basement, making your life hell.

Gerald feels very much alone at the beginning of this novel, but it is those who dare to reach out to him that begin to truly open him up to the world: his boss at the arena, who is everything his mom isn't; and Hannah, a girl with enough troubles of her own that she doesn't seem to care about Gerald's past. In tiny ways, and then in more pronounced ways, his walls start to come down, and his life starts to change. And, to his surprise…he finds hope out there beyond the walls.

Observations: This story was incredibly gripping, told as it was in alternating sections: Gerald's childhood on the TV show, and his experiences with the TV nanny, are juxtaposed with his present-day life and tribulations with schoolmates and family. Some of his problems are new, and some of them just never went away…and through it all, he struggles with his anger and powerlessness. Overcoming his anger, and realizing the power that he DOES have, is one of the core themes of this book. Feeling powerless, feeling like you're subject to the whims of your family and those around you—it's basically a childhood/adolescent truism, but Reality Boy takes it to heretofore unexplored heights.

I had so, SO much sympathy and righteous anger on behalf of Gerald—how could parents do something like that? How could they raise their children in such a dysfunctional way?—and yet these types of small tragedies happen every day, albeit not necessarily in such visible ways. Still, the presence of the media panopticon in this story is frighteningly relevant.

Conclusion: A.S. King does such an incredible job of telling Gerald's story here, making us feel for him AND feel his anger—and making us root for him to heal. Fans of her books won't want to miss this.

I purchased my copy of this book from Watermark Books in Wichita. You can find REALITY BOY by A.S. King at an online e-tailer, or at a real life, independent bookstore near you!

November 25, 2016

Cybils Speculative Reader: 23 MINUTES by VIVIAN VANDE VELDE

Welcome to the 2016 Cybils Speculative Reader!

As a first run reader for the Cybils, I'll be briefly introducing you to the books on the list, giving you a mostly unbiased look at some of the plot.


I have a ridiculous love for the novels of Vivian Vande Velde (I also love the alliteration of her name just that tiny shade too much) and her speculative worlds never fail me. I discovered her vampire novel in my 90's YA reading, about the same time I discovered Annette Curtis Klause's vampires, and devoured them both. I'm pleased to see Vande Velde still writing.

This is your little holiday reminder to hit the library and dig up some of your favorite authors, and see what else they've published since the 90's! Vivian Vande Velde has been busy!

Synopsis: Okay, so you're not going to care, but fifteen-year-old Zoe's had a crap day. She fought with her house mother, she stole her file from the office of her group home, and she's just been caught in the rain - so she steps into a bank, where everyone's giving her stinkeye. And then? There's a ROBBERY. And the one guy who's been kind of sweet and friendly to her... dies.

This is not the day Zoe signed up for.

What's worse is that though she's pretty sure her day is her fault -- totally sure, actually -- Zoe has to change the trajectory of this day -- she has that power, in theory. In practice, changing the world by changing your actions? Is darned hard. Sometimes she's too fast. Sometimes she's too slow. And she simply cannot think fast enough with guns firing and people falling on her -- her heart is beating too fast, and there's too, too much at stake.

Nobody looks at her. Nobody truly sees her. Nobody wants a damp, blue-haired girl to stand around, messing up the sanctity of their Adult World. But, Zoe has seen people die and she's got to stop it -- she's just got to... or else, what is her weird ability for? Who is she? What's her life about?

Observations: Vande Velde really stretches to determine the boundaries of this paranormal skill - twenty-three minutes is the amount of time Zoe has to change things, and ten times is how many times she can rewind. That's it. Establishing this clearly goes a long way toward helping the reader stay focused. While the book uses a lot of repetition, the focus of each scene is somehow subtly different, keeping the reader worried - and engaged.

This book was both funny and frustrating. It really says something about our culture that a teen is not listened to -- add to that a teen with blue hair, who doesn't look particularly prepossessing, is unaccompanied, has papers which detail her psychiatric history, and is by turns weeping, shaking, blurting, or snarking? She is NOT going to be heard. I knew this, and yet I kept hoping, and trying to think - and outthink - the protagonist, and come up with things she could try to get her very important message across, before the twenty-three minutes were up. I LOVE the mental gymnastics it took to plot this, and I hope to see a lot more uniquely fresh plot ideas like this. I really enjoyed this, even as it made me want to scream.

Conclusion: The Dutch version of this novel made me smile - I hope the paperback American version chooses to display that blue hair!

Vivian Vande Velde has a unique and twisty mind, which we already knew, but she truly put it -- and the readers' -- through its paces in this short, fast-paced novel.

I received my copy of this book courtesy of public library. You can find 23 MINUTES by Vivian Vande Velde at an online e-tailer, or at a real life, independent bookstore near you!

November 24, 2016

Happy Thanksgiving!

Wish I could take credit for the nice graphic, but in fact I found it on a great site called Open Clip Art. It's based on art from the Columbia Evening Missourian of 1922.

With much love and gratitude for the amazing people of the kidlit community--readers, writers, bloggers, teachers, librarians, booksellers, publishers, etc. etc.,  Finding Wonderland wishes you all a very happy Turkey Day!

November 23, 2016

Cybils Speculative Reader: THE STEEP AND THORNY WAY, by CAT WINTERS

Welcome to the 2016 Cybils Speculative Reader!

As a first run reader for the Cybils, I'll be briefly introducing you to the books on the list, giving you a mostly unbiased look at some of the plot.


NB: Author Cat Winters is a go-to for historical fantasy for many, and the covers of her first two novels, which also took place in the early 19th century, were atmospheric and memorable, sifting through history, complete with wonderful black-and-white photographs, to reveal something important and disturbing about today. This novel, which is set in the roaring Twenties and the heyday of America's love affair with fast cars, fast women, and bootlegging, is no exception. Winters frames this novel within the story of Hamlet - and if you'll recall, that play ends with a pile of bodies. Readers should be aware of a content warning for Klan appearances, lynching & racism-related violence in this novel. Though the plot isn't ripped from today's headlines, but yesterday's, readers may find themselves distressed at the similarities.

“I believe that 'love' and 'wrong' are two deeply unrelated words that should never be thrown into the same sentence together. Like 'dessert' and 'broccoli.”

Synopsis: Hanalee Denney is biracial, and her father, Hank, who was black, has died under mysterious circumstances. Hanalee now lives uneasily with her white mother and her new white stepfather, Uncle Clyde - Clyde was the last one to see Hank alive. The boy whose car struck and killed her father, Joe Adder, swears up and down that he'd merely broken Hank's arm and a leg -- and that he was nowhere near death when Joe sent Uncle Clyde to him. Hanalee's conversation with Joe was helped along by a pistol -- and so she's pretty sure he's telling the truth. Maybe.

Of course, it's hard to take the word of someone like Joe... who is an Oscar Wilde, after all.

Hanalee didn't know what an Oscar Wilde was, -- but, she finds out. And it turns out that she and Joe are a minority of two, in their little town. According to the Klan, folks like them aren't supposed to exist. Neither are ghosts, either, but ...apparently, one does. Hanalee's father is haunting the neighborhood. Taking her courage in hand, Hanalee goes to find out what he has to say...

The Elston, Oregon where Hanalee is growing into womanhood isn't the town she remembers as a child. Her parents' marriage was illegal -- and the "one-drop rule" is in full force; even biracial, Hanalee will never be allowed to marry, and further schooling will soon be unavailable to her. Joe's in danger of being forcibly sterilized. When Joe informs her of the tail end of a plot that maybe fingers her stepfather for her father's murder, she is wild to follow it up - but there just aren't many leads, or many options open to a colored girl in racist Oregon. Also, there aren't that many people who care that a black man died. With her mother urging her to stay calm -- and stay safe -- and with Joe hiding from the Sheriff, and his own family, there's not danger and fear around every corner. But, somewhere, too, there is also the truth, and Hanalee is going to find it.

Observations: I love that the title is about religious hypocrisy, and is taken from Hamlet, I love the cover of this novel, and that the hours of research the author put into it show. Oregon in the 20's -- and, not gonna lie, in some pockets, well beyond those years -- was a scary, scary place for people who were black. The charter for settling the state had basically a proviso: if you're black, don't bother, which was vastly different from the rest of the more easygoing West. Sundown towns aren't just a horrific remnant of the South; many people were hounded to death or died more directly at the hands of the Klan in Oregon. And of course, their agenda didn't stop with racial purification, but moral purification. Gay men and women's lives were made a living hell, as they were sterilized and incarcerated and beaten, so that the state would be "purified." This is a history which makes us shudder and turn our faces away -- but it's a history which should not be forgotten. How do we remember this history? By vowing never again, not today, not tomorrow, and doing all in our power to keep the topic something that isn't a secret shame, but a public reminder.

Conclusion: Despite its heavy subject matter, this novel has a dreamy, important friendship in it - not a romance, but a friendship. It has moments of quirk and humor, as most Winters' books do. While I don't as clearly see Hamelet's story throughout the novel, this is an excellent, spooky, and generally horrific novel which brings to light Oregon's racist roots and reminds us of what it takes to combat intolerance and hate -- sustained effort, taking hits for each other.

I received my copy of this book courtesy of the public library. You can find THE STEEP AND THORNY WAY by Cat Winters at an online e-tailer, or at a real life, independent bookstore near you!

November 21, 2016

Monday Review: FORGE and ASHES by Laurie Halse Anderson

Synopsis: Forge and Ashes are the 2nd and 3rd books in the Seeds of America trilogy by Laurie Halse Anderson. Way, WAY back in 2009, I reviewed the first book, Chains, and was so glad to know there was a sequel in the works: it was an absorbing tale of the difficulties of life as a slave in colonial America. Well, the sequel came out in 2012, and it took me so long to get to reading it that I am sorry to admit I forgot a lot about what happened. As it turns out, though, there is a change of narrator in Book 2, and some time has passed, so my sieve-like memory was not an obstacle to my enjoyment of the story.

Book 1 was told from the point of view of the young woman Isabel, who was freed along with her sister when their master died, but then forced by his nephew back into slavery for an unkind Loyalist family. Book 2, Forge, takes place after the events of Chains, but follows the story of Isabel's friend Curzon, a runaway slave with forged papers who ends up joining up with the Patriot Army at Valley Forge. He finds meaning in his fight for freedom, he finds friendship in his fellow patriots (some of them), and, of course, he finds Isabel in his life again. She's trapped in a bad situation, and Curzon's avoiding his own past, which seems to insist on chasing after him…

Book 3, Ashes, returns to Isabel's viewpoint. Having fled Valley Forge, she and Curzon are headed to the South to find Isabel's intellectually disabled younger sister, Ruth, from whom she has been separated for a handful of long years. After rescuing Ruth from a plantation, along with her friend Aberdeen, the four make their way back north. To Isabel, the hardships encompass much more than just the journey; for one thing, Ruth is angry at her sister and doesn't want to accept her back into her life. For another, Curzon seems obsessed with his newfound ideas of freedom after serving with the Patriots. But it seems that the struggle for freedom is where their destiny indeed lies, and they all make their way to the front lines at Yorktown…

Observations: I ended those synopses with ellipses (hee) because I don't want to give away too much of the adventure of these two books—part of the enjoyment is following these determined, brave, honorable protagonists as they overcome obstacle after obstacle, all for the sake of the type of personal freedom we as contemporary readers take for granted, and the security of their loved ones. Their stories are also gripping because of the fascinating and important window they provide into colonial America, and what it was like to navigate society as a slave, a former slave, a servant, a free worker, a soldier, a woman on the battlefield. These are less-commonly told stories that give us a much fuller picture of what life during the era was actually like, and they are interwoven with the stories of real-life people who are included in the bigger-picture story, as well as interesting snippets from historical documents. These two books, incidentally, skew a little older than the first one, as the characters themselves age.

Beyond the value of these books as historical portrayals or as gripping tales of personal struggle, they also have amazing depth in terms of theme. The idea of freedom, of course, pervades this trilogy: what people are willing to do and to suffer for the sake of freedom; how much they are willing to fight for it; and who they are willing to trust to help them achieve it. The bonds of family, friendship, and love, both within and across color lines, are forged (there's that word again) and tested by the ravages of time and war—and prove themselves to be strongest.

Conclusion: By the time I finished reading this trilogy, I felt newly awed and inspired by the incredible stories of those unsung individuals from colonial America who were nevertheless such a huge part of our past history. The author tells their stories with sensitivity and honesty.

I received my copy of this book courtesy of my library's ebook collection. You can find FORGE and ASHES by Laurie Halse Anderson at an online e-tailer, or at a real life, independent bookstore near you!

November 17, 2016

Thursday Review: CUCKOO SONG by Frances Hardinge

This scary cover almost made me not want to read it.
Synopsis: I’m a huge fan of Frances Hardinge’s Fly By Night books, so I was eager to check out this one—another middle grade fantasy. It’s hard to talk about this one without giving away too much (or at least without minor spoilers), so if that is the sort of thing you mind, I’d stay stop reading now.

Okay. For those of you who remain, I’ll now note that if you are familiar with the habits of the cuckoo, then you’ll be able to guess pretty quickly that this is a changeling story. The era is shortly after WWI, in England. The narrator is thirteen-year-old Triss, who has recently woken from illness, after an accident when she fell into a sort of mill pond. She’s gradually feeling better, and her world is starting to fall back into place, except that her family is…treating her strangely. Her younger sister Pen acts scared of her, and insists she just isn’t herself—but then, Pen always hated her. Even Triss’s parents, though, are acting weird, whispering and lying to her.

And then there’s the fact that Triss doesn’t quite FEEL like herself. For one thing, she is ravenously hungry. She can eat and eat and eat and not feel satisfied. But when she checks her diaries to see what might have happened and why she might be this way, all the pages have been mysteriously ripped out. One day, she follows her sister into town to try to get to the bottom of things, and finds out that not only is she NOT who she thought she was, but the Architect who made her that way may soon be threatening her entire family, her entire town, and her very existence.

Observations: I love the unexpected twist here on the changeling story: we get the viewpoint of the usurper, who has so completely been plunged into the life of the original Triss that she thinks she IS Triss, at first. By the time she finds out she isn’t, Not-Triss already cares for her family, even her sister—because she has Triss’s memories, too. And she feels no allegiance towards those who created her and forced her into this situation. The changeling in this story, as it turns out, is NOT the one to be worried about...

In certain ways, this reminds me of stories like The Wolves of Willoughby Chase, wherein the adults are either flawed or evil, and the kids have to band together. And in Cuckoo Song, boy is there plenty of flawed-ness and evil to go around. The parents are selfish and desperate, and allow their grief over their son (lost in WWI) to drive their decisions. Meanwhile, the adults who are fey or fey-involved are downright malicious and scary. It was a huge relief when a trustworthy adult eventually did come along to be an ally for Not-Triss and Pen—and ultimately, that resulted in a satisfying ending, with the sisters saving the day and their ally taking enough of a role that it was believable.

Conclusion: I won’t lie: this book was SUPER CREEPY. And that doll’s head on the cover almost made me not want to read it, but fortunately the actual dolls were not a huge part of the book. But, as always with Hardinge’s books, the writing was exquisite, and the story was an unputdownable adventure as well as a story about sisterhood and friendship.

I bought my copy of this book on Amazon. You can find CUCKOO SONG by Frances Hardinge at an online e-tailer, or at a real life, independent bookstore near you!

November 14, 2016

Elsewhere Around the Kidlitosphere...

I haven't been producing a lot of new content (or stringing together coherent sentences) over the past week, so instead of a regular blog post I thought I'd do a quick roundup of other online stuff I've been doing:
The Cybils blog is always such a great resource for finding new reading material (NOT that I ever have trouble finding new reading material), and I love having a mandated opportunity to go around and read a ton of different kidlit blogs and check out books in categories that aren't my usual go-tos.

Welp, that's about all I can manage for today. I leave you with this bit of humor I found on Twitter:

November 11, 2016

Cybils Speculative Reader: ON THE EDGE OF GONE by CORINNE DUYVIS

Welcome to the 2016 Cybils Speculative Reader!

As a first run reader for the Cybils, I'll be briefly introducing you to the books on the list, giving you a mostly unbiased look at some of the plot.


Many readers know author Corinne Duyvis from her work with the Disibility In Kidlit website. This is her second novel.

Synopsis: Denise is struggling to stay calm. She's researched and knows the rate of survival, knows the details of the deep impact comet that's going to hit Eastern Europe. She knows everyone in her Amsterdam neighborhood is in their shelter -- everyone but her drug-addicted mother who has fiddled and fluttered and has made them late. The shelter won't take them, and now they're delaying again. But, the last delay has given them a two-day reprieve from the underground shelter. It's given them a temporary spot on a generation ship - still grounded, doing repairs, but space-worthy. Denise desperately wants to get herself and her sister on-board, but her sister didn't make it home in time to leave with them, and her mother has smuggled her ketamine along. All the problems that they had before have come along with them; Denise's inability to communicate easily, her mother's drug addiction. Add to that the comet, its temblor aftermath, and the tsunami following part of Norway falling into the sea, and everything feels impossible.

There's no place for them on the generation ship. Passengers have been chosen for their practical skills and contributions. There's no room for a drug-addicted woman and her autistic daughter, Denise is positive. There's certainly no room for soft and beautiful things like cats in this world anymore. Denise believes she's not able, and that her inability is going to keep them stranded. But she's more stubborn than anyone - and her conviction and tenacity matters more than she expects.

Observations: Politically this year has shined a light on the inequities in our system. We know what is valued, and which lives are swathed in privilege. Denise is Dutch-Surinamese, disabled, dark-skinned, and female. Iris, Denise's sister, is also dark-complected, and was once Denise's brother. Their mother, though white and Dutch, is equally "damaged goods," as a drug addict. Who matters? Who is good enough to be caught up and carried away to a better world in this metaphorical Ark? Denise is uneasily aware of how people see her, with her inability to meet their eyes for long, sometimes not knowing where to put her hands, or how to hold her body. However, unlike many others, Denise has a titanium core. She longs to find her sister -- she keeps searching, over and over, until she finds her. She longs to secure herself and her mother a safe space aboard the generation ship. Through sheer determination, she holds a job, even when her mind is spinning a thousand different directions and she struggles. She has to be a contributing member of her new society, so she... simply becomes one. She works, she schemes, and she plans to make the reality she needs to happen, happen. It doesn't always work easily, but she never gives up -- on her family, and eventually, she learns not to give up on herself. A disability doesn't mean that you can't be a survivor - a hero - and a fighter.

Additionally, there is a strong subtext in this novel about self-care, and deciding what boundaries you need to lay with the people around you. Much of the anxiety and pressure that Denise finds herself under is because her mother is unreliable as a provider. Denise takes on that role for herself until she can work alongside of her sister, but her mother never truly fulfills the role she's meant to fill, except to unnecessarily explain and highlight Denise's autism. When she can, Denise sets a boundary - and that I'd love to see more of in YA lit.

Conclusion: This probably wasn't the best novel to read when I am already feeling agitated -- the nail-biting tension within the world-building is way too good for this to be a comfort read, as readers will really feel the mounting panic in anticipation of crowded underground refugee spaces, the horror and the desolation at the natural disaster(s) which follow, and the panic of the narrator, as she struggles so hard to adjust, to focus, and to be present in this new and dreadful reality. If you're looking for a book that tells a whole store yet still leaves the door open for a sequel - perhaps? - and is a quick-paced, slightly agonizing, yet excellent read, have I got a book for you...

I received my copy of this book courtesy of the public library. You can find ON THE EDGE OF GONE by Corinne Duyvis at an online e-tailer, or at a real life, independent bookstore near you!

November 08, 2016


Welcome to the 2016 Cybils Speculative Reader!

As a first run reader for the Cybils, I'll be briefly introducing you to the books on the list, giving you a mostly unbiased look at some of the plot.


Tera Lynn Childs' previous novels dealt with various fairytale creatures in moderns settings, so superheroes was a perfect next step. I'm not a huge fan of superheroes for various reasons, not the least among these is that the canon is largely majority privileged, and the same is true here, but as a YA novel, this one still falls solidly in the category Aquafortis calls, "reasonably entertaining."

Synopsis: Kenna is an Ordinary, which doesn't just SUCK but it sucks BIG TIME. She's over it, though; her Mom works in the lab at the League of Superheroes and she interns for her Mom, so it keeps her busy. The Supers overlook her - a lot - with the prevailing attitude that she needs help or saving and that she's basically useless for anything - even cleaning up a lab that gets broken into. But, that's fine. The Supers - Villains and Heroes - don't bother her. Her mom's cooked up a vaccine to make her immune, and she's been immune forever. Mind wipes? Nah. Flinging her around the room? Nah. Kenna might be powerless, but she'll go toe to toe and scream in anyone's face. She believes in the power of her temper, if nothing else.

That kind of comes in handy when villains break into the lab one night.

First, villains aren't supposed to be that hot. Second, they're not supposed to jump in front of danger for you. And third... okay, they're just not supposed to be that hot. Seriously. Kenna is pretty brain-spun by the whole experience (also, the hotness. Did we mention Villain Boy is hot?). And the surprises keep coming - about the people she thought she knew, about the League, and about her own family. From gentle bemusement, Kenna plunges into feeling betrayed and furious -- and more than a little hurt. As the twists in her story are suddenly revealed, Kenna doesn't know who to trust, who is telling the truth, and what's worth fighting for... but she's always known that she's going to fight - because without superpowers still doesn't mean powerless.

Observations: This book is engaging and fast-paced, and, in a word, cinematic. With all the superhero films out there, it's easy to see how this one would translate to film, especially with the descriptions of The Hotness (seriously, the descriptions of the boys in this book made me smile), the testosterone-poisoned villains for comic relief, and the action-hero adventure pacing. Additionally, this is the third "get your grrrl power on!" book I've read this Cybils season, and it's making me smile. Against the balance of books presenting themes which seem to say "love is going to make it all better" and "teens must save the world but will risk all for a cute someone because gullible," this is good to see.

Another interesting theme that surfaces in this novel is the theme of Doing Right. Kenna is someone who thinks very much in terms of black and white: supers are good, villains are bad. It's how most people think - how Americans tend to think of our country, for instance. Maturing helps most people understand that we are not lawful good only - sometimes, a country's white hats move into deep shades of gray that edges right into charcoal.

I was pretty disappointed that Powerless is only a title and breaks down as a concept; Kenna is a white girl whose mother works in a lab. She has access, privilege and is far from powerless, and this novel would have been a great place to discuss what power we do have when we're privileged, and now to work on behalf of those who are less so.

This is the beginning to a series called The Superhero Agenda, and while the end isn't a cliffhanger, this novel is largely set-up for all their agenda items. I suspect this series will have many fans, and many waiting with baited breath for RELENTLESS to drop next summer.

Conclusion: Despite Kirkus' haughtily deriding this as "fluff," escapist reading is not a bad thing, because sometimes we all wish we were elsewhere. If your 'elsewhere' includes a snarky girl and her Hotness, as well as superhero capers, mad scientists, and fighting for justice? Then have I got a book for you...

I received my copy of this book courtesy of the public library. You can find POWERLESS by Tera Lynn Childs & Tracy Deebs at an online e-tailer, or at a real life, independent bookstore near you!

November 07, 2016

Middle Grade Monday: MOON OVER MANIFEST by Clare Vanderpool

Synopsis: Yes, look, I'm participating in a Thing, and that thing is Middle Grade Monday! When am I ever organized enough to do that? Today, evidently. Anyway, I recently read Newbery Award winner Moon Over Manifest by Clare Vanderpool, who was one of the keynote speakers at this year's KidLitCon in Wichita. While I don't read as much MG as I do YA, this one shares many similarities with my favorite MG books from over the years: a main character who isn't sure who she is or where she fits in, thrown into a new situation like a fish out of water, and forced to rely on her natural pluckiness, wit, and kindheartedness; a young girl exploring her family's past and a town's secrets, and finding out she has a family-of-the-heart just as true blue as her own father.

When twelve-year-old Abilene Tucker gets to Manifest, where her father has sent her to live for the summer with his old friend Shady Howard, it's 1936, and a lot has changed in the town of her father's boyhood. It doesn’t match any of the stories of mischief and colorful townspeople from her father's stories, or the gossip from the newspaper columns she's been scouring from the 1917 edition of the Manifest Herald. The town Abilene shows up in is dusty, old, and dying. But it's got a history, and she's determined to root it out and discover what her father's connection is to this place.

Told in alternating storylines, past (1917) and present (1936), the reader learns along with Abilene the story of two young men, Jinx and Ned, who take very different paths in life, and a town made up of a fascinating array of immigrants, all of whom arrived in Manifest hoping for new lives and honest work at the nearby mine. By the time Abilene arrives in 1936, the mining operation is dead—but the stories aren't. They're there for her to find, and she goes on finding them, even when a mysterious note warns her to leave the town's secrets alone. In the process, she finds new friends, too—and a new adoptive family that has a heart and soul the size of a town.

Observations: This book is set up in a way that is so much fun and so clever. There's the story-within-a-story, which naturally unfolds as Abilene gets to know the mysterious diviner Miss Sadie, a slightly unnerving recluse who lives alone behind a gate marked Perdition. And then there are the bits of ephemera that illuminate the world of Manifest's past—newspaper columns from Hattie Mae's News Auxiliary and fictitious ads for hilarious old-timey-sounding products like "Velma T.'s Vitamin Revitalizer." In this way, the past is brought to life using bits and pieces that are cleverly put together to tell a story—to tell parallel stories, really.

I loved the intriguing cast of characters in this one, too. Immigrants from Germany, Hungary, Poland, Scotland, Italy, and more are thrown together in a small Kansas mining town, and it's such a wonderful microcosm of the history of early-20th-century America. Well, not always wonderful—because the KKK is there, too. This story doesn't pull many punches about the darker side of our history, and something that isn't always written about is the many immigrant groups who were viewed as somehow lesser. In this instance, in 1917, the Germans are the prime scapegoats, under suspicion as wartime spies. And it turns out there are a LOT of people in Manifest who are hiding things…

But, of course, one big takeaway from this story is that few people are what they seem to be on the outside, and we all have hidden histories to tell. Abilene finds her father's history, and in the end, realizes that it's hers, too—and, much like the town, it isn't dead but is very much alive, and just needs a bit of spark…

Conclusion: The word "heartwarming" is overused but suffice it to say that by the time I finished this book, I wanted to hug it.

I purchased my copy of this book from the fantabulous Watermark Books in Wichita, home of the Kidlitosphere's own Book Nut. You can find MOON OVER MANIFEST by Clare Vanderpool at an online e-tailer, or at a real life, independent bookstore near you!

November 04, 2016

Cybils Speculative Reader: REBEL OF THE SANDS by ALWYN HAMILTON

Welcome to the 2016 Cybils Speculative Reader!

As a first run reader for the Cybils, I'll be briefly introducing you to the books on the list, giving you a mostly unbiased look at some of the plot.


Synopsis: Amani Al'Hiza is sixteen, and desperate. Her mother had always told her wistful stories of her sister's home in Miraji's capitol - of how someday, somehow, she would escape her brutal husband and the Last County town of Dustwalk where they lived, and escape there. But, time ran out - Amani's mother killed her husband - and hung for it, leaving an orphaned Amani behind. Now her her life is circumscribed within the demands of her fractious aunt, too many backstabbing cousins, and an uncle who's only happy enough to consider Amani as a second wife. Amani determined to do anything to escape that fate. Escaping her unhappy home, Amani taught herself to shoot straight when she was only tiny, and, to her aunt's disgust, she's been more gunpowder than girl most of her life, making it easy enough to get over to the local bar and compete in the pistol pit. The purse is large - potentially giving Amani enough to escape her wed-or-dead chances in Dustwalk. Unfortunately, the competition is rigged in favor of the house, and chaos - and a massive brawl - forces her to abandon the plan. She gets a second chance at freedom when she crosses paths with a wounded foreigner, Jin, who is hiding from one of the sultan's vicious generals. Jin refuses to take Amani when he leaves town, but a last-minute change of plans puts her in his path again. Once Amani is finally is on her way, nothing is going to stop her. She'll stoop to trickery, guile, and outright violence to gain her freedom.

Seeing the world through Jin's eyes forces her to reevaluate her priorities. With the wide world at her disposal, she could really go anywhere - not just to the capitol. She could join the Rebel Army and fight to unseat the sultan. She could leave the country entirely, and go out to sea. All it takes is figuring out what she wants... and who she's supposed to be.

Observations: I'm always a little uneasy when writers take existing cultures and fictionalize them in order to make their fantasy worlds work. This is recognizable Middle Eastern culture, or what Westerner's assume it is, complete with women who are considered worthless, and multiple wives, but fortunately, this tossing-around-the-tropes thing doesn't stop there, but continues in a more creative vein, complete with religious practices, myths, and religion. It mostly works, freshening and transforming the fictional Arabian desert adventure narrative.

The novel has major elements of an American Western; this is a lawless, gunslinging kind of town with scavengers and rebel armies, so it's kind of a steampunk Tatooine... and also has a sultan and bells for prayers, and traditional Middle Eastern clothing. Their horses are made of sand and spirit, and djinn are real... as are skinwalkers and other nighttime horrors. Like the rebellious Westerners, the people of Dustwalk are prey to the larger forces which are shaking Miraji; the sultan's treaty to arm the Gallan, and the Rebel Army who both the Gallan and the sultan's forces are chasing. Many people feel loyalty to one side or the other - but Amani feels the most loyalty to herself.

The best novels show a clear progression of character development; Amani doesn't move easily from feeling like she's on her own to becoming part of a ragtag group, but she does it - on her own terms, discovering things about herself and her world that she never expected. She's a child of the desert, practically born with a gun in her hand -- but the greatest fight isn't with weapons, but in knowing who she is, and what her purpose is meant to be. Once she finds it, the sun truly rises on a new dawn.

Conclusion: Instead of lost treasure, this is a Heroine's Adventure mashup sending our heroine in search of a greater treasure than a pot of gold in the desert - instead, she's looking for her freedom. Though they may not feel entirely in sync with Amani's emotions, readers will be sympathetic to the idea of a rightful sultan, yet equally beguiled by the idea of the freedom, and tempted by the idea of safety in familiarity. The narrative arc swings wider than expected, toward the freedom to be found when a young woman truly knows herself, and owns her own power, which...if you're looking for a lovely theme for both boys and girls in young adult fiction, have I got a book for you!

I received my copy of this book courtesy of the public library. You can find REBEL OF THE SANDS by Alwyn Hamilton at an online e-tailer, or at a real life, independent bookstore near you!

November 02, 2016

Cybils Speculative Reader: FLAWED by CECILIA AHERN

Welcome to the 2016 Cybils Speculative Reader!

As a first run reader for the Cybils, I'll be briefly introducing you to the books on the list, giving you a mostly unbiased look at some of the plot.


One of the strengths of speculative fiction is allowing a reader to look at a subject without the trappings of modern society. This is what makes dystopian novels such a useful blank slate on which to dissect an idea. Many readers felt last year's ALL AMERICAN BOYS was a good starting point for discussing police violence in society; I maintain that this novel will work better for those who feel that issues are too political in current events. This novel takes place... elsewhere, which maybe makes it easier to see how the labeling of imperfection in the flawed hands of a abusive State can hurt, especially in terms of a young person of color's (the family is biracial) imperfect performance of adulthood.

Readers should be advised that there are descriptions of violence in this book.

       “HARP!” I shout at the police officer, feeling the anger fully within me now. I learned this at school. I learned all this. Why doesn't he know these basic principles that I was taught, that he was surely taught too? Why doesn't anybody in the real world do what we're taught? H is for honesty,” I say, hearing the tremble in my voice, not from fear but from anger. ... A is for accountability. Accepting individual responsibility and ensuring public accountability... R is for respect. Having respect for people, their human rights and their needs.”
       The police officer lifts the baton from his hip belt.
       “Whoa, now,” the man to my right says. “What are you going to do with that?”        “You keep quiet,” he says, sweat on his upper lip now.
       “She's just a child,” a woman calls out. “For the love of God, would you all leave her alone.”
       Her desperate cry introduces a whole new wave of emotion.
       “And you” - he looks at me menacingly - “need to keep your mouth shut. Understand?”
       I take a deep breath. I'm not finished. It would be logical to at least finish what I was saying before the inevitable happens... Professionalism,” I say finally, gently, just to the police officer. “Providing a professional policing service to all communities.”

from FLAWED, p. 309-10

Synopsis: Celestine's mother is a model, so she knows how to walk the walk, to stand tall and straight and let the world look. If you're flawless, you shouldn't gloat, but you definitely should own it. Sure, Mom gets a little help with her flawless look, but that's okay - nobody's perfect. Celestine isn't perfect, either, but she's specific. Exact. Her skill in mathematics and her linguistic prowess are something her boyfriend, Art, laughs at her about a great deal, but she doesn't mind. She likes definitions, things that have boundaries, rules that clearly edge the path she must walk. Because she lives in the Guild, where the highest ideal is to be Flawless, Celestine is in good company. It's a horrific thing to be Flawed; to wear on your skin the brand which tells the world how you fell from grace. Whether it's on your temple, your hand, your foot, chest, or your tongue, the world will still know by the red band you're legally obliged to wear on your sleeve. Nobody wants to be Flawed, so nobody pushes the envelope.

Well, Celestine's sister, Juniper, does. Though they appear to be almost twins, Juniper is grumpy, sarcastic, and always seems pissed and on edge. She's linguistically vague, too, which bugs Celestine a great deal, but at least she's consistently inconsistent. She always pushes authority. Celestine never does. She's always late, always a disaster, always trying to stand out from the family - Celestine's total opposite... until one day, Celestine acts from the heart -- not from the predigested set of rules the Guild lives by. Juniper is frozen in fear, Art tries to hold her back, but it's all too late. And when they come for Celestine, she is shocked.

But, are they right? Is she Flawed to the bone? Or, are the Flawed - the imperfect ones, marked and ignored in society - not the ones violating the laws of human decency? Not the ones who are wrong?

Observations: Celestine is flawed.

She's human.

She's a human teen.

She makes mistakes - big ones. Dumb ones. She clearly doesn't believe people's true colors once they've shown them. She's naive. She was sheltered. She is swollen like a tick on her privilege, and it makes her blind to the pitfalls of the society in which she lives. When that life ends for her, when she is treated as others who have fewer privileges, it is a short, sharp, shock. She reels. She hates herself. She rejects the truth she knows. And then, she decides to own it.

Readers who has been quiet and good, hopeful that their "respectability' would save them from whatever, if they just kept your head down and were nice, will find that this book resonates strongly. Readers who have been pressured and have "gone along to get along," and found themselves doing so with a stomach ache will also find this book to resonate. Taking our choices in our hands and saying "NO" to what we perceive as injustice and wrong in this society, whatever the cost, has never been as serious an issue as it is now, and this book just blew me away with how seriously it presented these issues.

When you decide to own your power, that's when you make a difference in the world.

Conclusion: Though the novel doesn't quite end with a cliffhanger, Celestine begins her journey in her new understanding at its conclusion. Readers who've only read Ahern's adult work aren't sure what to make of this book, but I think many young adults will find this worth their while, and if you're looking for a valuable tool to open discussion on society, our place in it, and how we change it... have I got a book for you!

I received my copy of this book courtesy of my public library, but this is a BUY book for me. You can find FLAWED by Cecelia Ahern at an online e-tailer, or at a real life, independent bookstore near you!

November 01, 2016

Cybils Speculative Reader: DARK ENERGY by ROBINSON WELLS

Welcome to the 2016 Cybils Speculative Reader!

As a first run reader for the Cybils, I'll be briefly introducing you to the books on the list, giving you a mostly unbiased look at some of the plot.


Synopsis: "There's a lot in the universe that we don't understand. Sometimes it lands here.

Alice is... not amused. Her dad works for NASA and he's like a little kid hopped up on sugar, because at LAST, at LAST, a real life Unidentified Flying Object has crash-landed in the Midwest, and it might be ALIENS. Which would be, obviously, awesome for him in the investigative sense, although Alice isn't sure that even potentially awesome aliens make it worth leaving Miami for the Minnetonka School for the Gifted and Talented in Minnesota. Alice - and her new roommates, Rachel and Brynne - are even less amused when actual aliens come out of the ship, aliens who call themselves "Guides." Um, really? Alice didn't sign up to be guided, thanks. Especially not by super pale - though admittedly also super muscular and hot - people who couldn't even land a ship properly and who have killed a lot of central Iowans. Alice and her friends think the whole thing is dubious. And when they get a chance to get a bit closer to the story, and even look inside the ship, they're even more skeptical - and more than a little concerned. There's something their new school mates are just not telling them...or the government... or Alice's dad. The alien's ship is like, a mile tall, and three miles long... so, just how big of a problem are they hiding?

Observations: Robinson Wells does voice and characterizations like few others - there's heart and humor in his novels, even when the incident - aliens landing! - isn't necessarily funny. Additionally, the combination of First Nations + Fantasy is very well done. Aliens + aliens arriving at Halloween is funny on myriad levels, additionally forcing the reader to look at what we celebrate in Western society and ask ourselves why we do what we do - which is always a good thing.

Dismissing the stereotypical Strong Female Character, Alice has dramatic self-doubt, but also hilarious nerdish tendencies, and a fierce, big-hearted love for her father. Half Navajo, half white, she is a product of both halves of her biracial heritage - comfortable with both hogan and being well-heeled - and she is refreshingly unapologetic about what her privilege gets her. Her roommates are scholastically gifted math and science scholars possessing a thoroughly sharp-eyed disinclination to believe whatever tripe the "management," whether faculty or government, is peddling. This rises so far above the disaffected characterization of a lot of teens in YA lit - these girls care DEEPLY which galvanizes them to challenge and to question and to not accept.

Conclusion: If you're into snark and Star Trek references, like real-life reflected diversity and adventure in your aliens-come-to-earth novels and tend to be narrow-eyed and cynical about believing anything but what you see... have I got a book for you!

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