August 31, 2014

A Little Amusement for a Long Weekend...

...drum roll, please: THUG NOTES does THE GIVER and THE HUNGER GAMES.

What I love about these is that they're not just summary, but literary criticism as well - good, often deeper-than-I'd-thought-of litcrit, which makes me extremely cheerful.

Best digital use of that PhD in English, EVER.

August 29, 2014

TURNING PAGES: TIN LILY by JOANN SWANSON

This debut novelist describes herself as "an avid reader of just about every genre (plenty of YA, a smidge of Sci-Fi, buckets of horror, a dash of literary, even some graphic novels)." Her familiarity with both horror and literary works shines through in this beautifully covered, emotional novel. Compelling, powerful, and heartbreaking, full of spare, evocative language and shutter-blink leaps between Maybe Real and Maybe Not Real, the reader is sent on a quietly harrowing internal journey, from an echoing hole inside, to one filled up with the barbaric yawp which screams within those of us who refuse to sit down quietly and die. This is a story of grief, and the quiet triumph of one girl over loss.

He comes close, wraps his arms around me, pulls me to him. His smells fill my nose -- mint, to try to cover the whiskey. Paint, to cover up his pain. One arm holds me against him. His other hand reaches of a dishtowel and presses it to my back. A pillow for his gun, still damp from Mom doing dishes. "Be over in a minute, sweetheart." I turn my cheek, rest it on his shoulder, watch the window's empty place. I see a mosaic of fear, of rage, of nothing left.

Listen to the first chapter of TIN LILY, read aloud by the author on her site.

Summary: The situation with Lily Berkshire's alcoholic father, Hank, has deteriorated to the point where she and her mother, Rachel, pack up and leave. A visit to Seattle, a break and time to heal, and then they return to Utah where they find a tiny, shabby house next to a dog food plant and try to make a life. There are some good times - some happy times, because without the accusations, the sarcastic, flaying words, slurred speech and the arguments, they can finally relax, and sleep the night through. Until the phone rings, anyway. Nightly, Lily's father calls and accuses. Calls, and cracks the veneer on Lily's mind. Is her mother really hiding money? Is she really sleeping around with every guy she met? Is it really Mom's fault that things have gone so bad? Of course not -- when she's not scared, Lily knows the truth: Dad's an artist, and his father, whom he could never please, berated him, lied to him, convinced him to come and work for him -- and then poisoned him again. He's an abusive alcoholic and it's not Lily's mother's fault... but if her mother is a little late coming home from work, Lily wonders... questions... doubts.

For awhile, that's the worst thing about Hank, the worst thing he does. Makes Lily doubt her own mind. Until he does something even worse --

Life after losing her mother is an irregular checkerboard of moments when Lily's not always entirely in her right mind. Sometimes, she just has to go away, to a place where... well, she's not sure where she goes, she's just gone. She's also not sure what she's seeing is real, or if her mind playing tricks. She keeps smelling whiskey and mint: real stench, or fear? And, that pair of paint-spattered boots next to her feet... is anyone really standing next to her? Tension builds as the reader silently urges Lily to wake up -- look up -- before it's too late.

Peaks: I love books where I learn something. This novel has information about metallurgy in it -- and I learned that tin makes a little soft crackling noise when it's bent -- the atoms move together and makes a sound wave. It's kind of a disturbing tiny knuckle-cracking sound. I also got to revisit Seattle in my mind's eye - the Pike Market is beautifully described, and I got a little Seattle-sick for a moment.

Another thing I love is the diversity in this novel. Seattle is a city which skews toward certain kinds of diversity and not others, but the story naturally and wonderfully provides difference -- and similarities -- in the way that we are human. It was beautifully done, and I can say nothing else.

Lily is such a deeply sympathetic narrator that the reader wants to trust her, but soon realizes she's utterly untrustworthy - unintentionally hiding things even from herself. That capability is what makes this book so much like looking through a kaleidoscope; the picture keeps changing and changing and changing. This may be a hanky book for some readers -- I had that cannonball in my gut feeling as I was miserable along with the main character, but when, in the midst of a party, she is carried away to a dark place, I suddenly had a lot of things in my eye. And in my throat. And in my nose. And, when other people share with her what their triggers are, it's a powerful moment of recognition - and a reminder that Lily - though she feels like a hollow metal doll, bending and crying, instead of a living girl - is not alone.

Valleys...: There are no valleys; this book is well paced, heartbreaking, disturbing, moving, and ultimately, joyful in that raw kind of joy that's like the first clean breath after a hard cry. It's a novel about being driven to the jagged edge - going beyond - and dragging oneself back.



You can find TIN LILY by JOANN SWANSON online, or at the independent bookstore Rediscovered Books.

August 28, 2014

Get Your Bookish Opinions Heard!

That wig is BIG.
Let's face it--we're all in this because we love children's and YA books. We read them. We write them. We want to talk about them until we drive everyone nuts within a 10-foot radius. But sometimes it seems like the people who really get to have their opinions heard are the ones we might call Bigwigs, the review outlets and official book awards (although whether they actually wear wigs of an outlandish size is unknown at this time). 

This is why YOU should be involved in the Cybils Awards. Yes, YOU! It's THE blogger-driven grassroots book award for children's and young adult books, and book apps, and right now their application for judges is open and just waiting for you to fill it out. It is so much fun, you get to read a ton of the year's best books, and it's US BLOGGERS--whether we're parents, teachers, writers, librarians, booksellers, whatever--who get to decide on the best of the year in a wide range of genres. We hash it out. The gloves are off. (Also the wigs.) So if you haven't applied to be a judge yet, go!

August 26, 2014

TURNING PAGES: THE HIDDEN BLADE, by SHERRY THOMAS

I'll admit that I'm not familiar with this author's more popular work in the historical romance genre. I ran across this book on NetGalley and didn't realize it was a prequel, either. This is another example of an author independently publishing a work. In this case, the novel is the backstory for a previously published mass marked produced novel.

Reader, this is very definitely not a romance, nor is it speculative fiction, and while it was listed as YA in the catalog, likely because the main characters were nine and eleven when the story opens, it's not for kids that age, definitely, and it's not really marketed to young adults. I'd say it's something of a crossover novel, appropriate for older teens who enjoy historical fiction, and adults. It's a two-hanky read, too, by the by.

Summary: Two stories, two lives unspooling on either side of the world. In 1873 Peking, the nine-year-old daughter of a favored concubine finds a photograph of a foreigner in her mother's things -- which means that the foreigner is maybe someone important... especially since the Chinese woman in Western clothes in the picture is her mother. Though her Amah reminds her to mind her own business, Ying-ying knows better than to ask her beautiful and busy mother about something she's snooped to discover...so she's left with terrible questions about who she is, and her precarious place in the world. Meanwhile, in England, eleven-year-old Leighton discovers there's more than he ever understood, to his father's relationship with his old friend, Herb. Observation lends a rapidly maturing Leighton insight into his mother's frequent visits to an elderly relative, visits on which she takes his dark-haired baby brother, but never blond-haired Leighton. Understanding the truth behind the secrets in his world reveals both more joy and more pain. Outside pressures eventually cause the family to implode and with a single gunshot, Leighton's world blows apart. Now that his father is gone and he's driven his mother away, Leighton is left with an uncle whose goal is to crush Leighton's will... what is he supposed to do now?

Adrift without the protection of her beautiful mother, in Peking, Ying-ying loses her importance -- and her identity. All that is left is survival and her own two hands, and a mysterious secret society. In England, Leighton, isolated and locked away, plots to disappear. Two survivors, bruised from the beating of the world. Two lushly detailed lives, set against the backdrop of history, strive and struggle and fail and finally succeed -- and just barely miss intersecting. This was both a beautiful and a frustrating book for those reasons.

Peaks & Valleys: This is a novel which is difficult to characterize. I don't love how it ended, but knowing that it's a prequel to an already written novel helps to make more sense of it. While the ending is not a cliffhanger in the traditional sense of the word, you will NOT be left with a satisfying feeling of "yep, that story's done," when you're finished reading. You'll be left with the unflinching faces of two young, bruised people, picking themselves up once again, and going on their way. Be WARNED. Yet, the writing is compelling. The pacing is slow and expository, and gives a lot of history and motivation for the way the characters engage.

This book was described as "Crouching Tiger meets Downton Abbey." Well...not so much. If you're expecting dowagers and dandies, you won't find them in this novel, and there's less of the Crouching Tiger stuff than many might want, except near the very end. More on that in a moment.

This is a very intensely detailed, lyrically written book, and gives a wonderful account of the lives of the characters. (Here's a sample of the first two chapters from the author's website.) It is, however, stark and dark about the tragedies that took place behind the scenes of this time of opportunity and exploration in Britain, and this precursor to the end of the Chinese dynasties. A real positive is Leighton's accepting attitude towards his father, and his unchanged love for he and his "uncle" Herb. Ying-ying's place as an ornament in society - to simply accompany a man - is also correctly specific to the time. Societal mores constrict everyone - and the appearance of evil can get you into trouble even if you've done nothing wrong. These are simply the sad realities with which the characters live

While care is taken to raise neither country or culture above the other, I can't help but feel there's a tiny bit of exoticizing going on. Western society tends to be a little hyperfixated on the idea of concubines and harems and geishas - and I kind of wished that Ying-ying had been a little awkward or anything but blazingly beautiful, even as a child, but if her appearance received undue emphasis, it was because she is biracial. The other less believable cultural clue was the martial arts and fighting; I rolled my eyes at the "Crouching Tiger" bits; I don't know much about how many martial arts aficionados there would have been just hanging out at the end of the Quing Dynasty, but the fight scenes felt a tiny bit over the top for me. Of course, I really do know nothing about the average person's level of training at that point, and understand that the author was writing from her research and interests. I think it's just that fight scenes of any sort tend to lose me.

A final quibble is, of course, the cover of the novel. The woman in the Western strapless formal gown seemed a little odd; who is she? Ying-ying would never have worn a dress like that, and seemed to feel that Western women's dress and Western society as a whole was debauched and disturbing. These are just tiny quibbles against the overall scope of the novel, which is stark and unforgiving - painful, but striking.



You can find THE HIDDEN BLADE by SHERRY THOMAS at online retailers or at the author's website.

August 23, 2014

TURNING PAGES: TOAD WORDS AND OTHER STORIES, by T. KINGFISHER

I make a pretty solid effort not to over-feature self-published and indie published books which are SOLELY ebook offerings, because I'm still a fan of the pages-cover-artwork-words experience that comprised books for me for most of my life. However, I love experimental fiction, and know some authors every once in awhile put out works that are only to be read on a screen, and this is one of them. This is a GOOD one.

Fairy tale retellings have been done. Fairy tale retellings from blogs have been done. The thing is, "new" is not a word you're every going to get in conjunction with fairy tales; they're hundreds and hundreds of years old, so retellings are just-fine-okay-right by me. Retellings which widen the circle of imagination? Better still.

Fans of the dangerous and tip-tilted worlds of Margo Lanagan or readers of the Merry Sisters of Fate short curiosities - Brenna Yovanoff's stories, especially - will find these an enjoyable new pot to stir.

Summary: I am a lover of the short story form - but I can't write short stories, at least, not if you ask me. Which is why the forward for this novel made me laugh - T. Kingfisher didn't think she could write them, either. And yet, we now have an entire book of her short stories. She focused on the fairytale - because all the cool kids are doing it - and I'd like to note that this is a book for older readers. Yeah. See, the idea here is that folk and fairy tales are generally not for children, because, those tales are dark. Terrible things happen - stalking, assault, theft, murder, grue and gore - but, so do wonderful things - frogs, privacy, baking, and potatoes, and true friendships. And honestly, bad puns.

Peaks: This book contains several stories ("Toad Words," "The Wolf and the Woodsman," "Bluebeard's Wife," "Loathly," "The Seawitch Sets the Record Straight," and "Never;") a few poems in blank verse (It Has Come To My Attention, Bait, and Odd Season), a shorter piece of flash fiction called "Night" and "Boar & Apples," a novella.

It is always hard for me to assess short stories - I suck them up greedily, lurching from one "favorite" to the next "favorite-this-hour" -- I have no literary restraint. Fortunately, T. Kingfisher does -- there's restraint in these stories. There's observation, wit, and a dry, almost detached narrative voice which, "Dear Readers" you without ever actually saying that. You get the sense that you're snug in a recliner in a dim room somewhere, a mug of something tasty in your hands and a fuzzy blanket of dog, cat, or knitting over your lap, listening to someone tell all that they saw or heard, in that village, or the next over the rise. There's a sense of coziness, in that it's almost confessional - lean close, and let me tell you...

This makes some of the disturbing tales ESPECIALLY disturbing. Please don't whisper in my ear about hearts kept in boxes... please...!

The stories are so well written. I love "Bluebeard's Wife," -- because I have played with a version of the horrific fairytale myself, and am always intrigued to see varying takes on it. Kingfisher cleverly plays with the concept of privacy and secrets as a GOOD thing, and the concept of bad vs. evil. Bluebeard was an evil man, but he wasn't a bad one, in this tale. And his poor wife is mainly... introverted. Understanding. And, in the end, a bit regretful that she can't go home.

Toad Words is my all-round favorite poem; I have always hated the traditional toads-for-bad-girls-and-diamonds-for-good story - as much as I love rocks, what's wrong with frogs? It was LOVELY to imagine whispering spring peepers into streams. This is not the type of story for those not really fond of things found beneath rocks, or those who earnestly believe the message of If you girls don't speak nicely BAD THINGS WILL HAPPEN. this poem challenges the idea of punishment, and turns it on its ear.

"Never" made me tear up a bit. Perhaps through having read the story when I was older and less malleable, I've never been a fan of the (disturbingly erratic) mercurial Tink and Pan - at all - and imaging being forced to live as a child forever is truly, truly vile. This story captures that painfully.

Authorial Elements: The author, T. Kingfisher, is Ursula Vernon - and her "vaguely absurd" pen name is to separate her stuff from her kids' stuff. (The author being Ursula Vernon, Actual Artist, is also why the cover art is so fantastic on this book.) Being fans of her Hugo-Award-winning, multiple Junior Library Guild selected graphic novels will give you a hint of the humor and talent in her narrative. If you've popped by her blog, you've seen some of these short stories in progress - as she plowed through longer fairytales she found through reading, and marveled at how whack job they were... which of course encouraged her further to write her own. As it would. Why self-publish? I think it's because she wanted to see if she could write short stories that would sell. And, guess what...? Now she has her answer.



I purchased my very own copy. You can find TOAD WORDS and Other Stories by T. Kingfisher at Smashwords, Amazon, or her various livejournal sites. Enjoy!

August 22, 2014

TURNING PAGES: THE EDGE OF THE WOODS, by Ceinwin Langley

This morning it is downright chilly... Which is kind of ridiculous for August, but it's also rained already this month, so what can you do. School is starting within this week or the next for most of the county, and my armchair-by-a-sunny-window motif is about to get replaced by suede boots and a thick sweater and a stack of books. Roll on, autumn.

Never mind the weather; a good book can take you through any season, of course. This self-pubbed "indiebook" by Australian debut author Ceinwin (Kine-win) Langley (which has a fab cover in paperback and ebook) takes us to the edge of the cold... a withered, wintry little village of patriarchy. No, that's not its name, but it might as well have been...

Summary: Emma and her mother live in grinding poverty, but five-year-old Emma has no real idea. Her father has died, and for her birthday her mother organizes a lovely picnic at the edge of the woods. It's a rare treat, to be so close to the dark, encroaching wall of trees, and when Emma runs around - tumbles down a hill - and grabs a tree to get to her feet, her mother is quick with a smack and a scolding. NO ONE - not even on their birthday - goes into the woods, and even the edge of the woods, where the bluebells Emma loves grow, is TOO CLOSE. Later, Emma dreams she saw a mysterious boy playing a flute in the woods, but over time, reality erodes those childish dreams. Reality, for Emma and her mother, is a drafty shack, ironclad rules, and hard, hard work. No bluebells. No running around. No real dreams, either. Work, and worry is all that's left.

Once, they lived in an actual house, within the village proper. Once, Emma and her mother were well dressed, the family of the village tailor - but Emma's father died that year when she was five, and no widower in the village stepped up to marry Mama. Their tiny family's hope is now built on... Emma's marriage. She's seventeen, and at eighteen, she'll be Of Age. She MUST marry -- it's the only way to put food on the table, a roof over their heads, and clothes on their backs - but there are only two eligible boys of her age, and one of them is the Mayor's son. He's too high for her to shoot for, but there's another boy her mother insists will "do." Problem? Emma doesn't really know either of them, and could care less about them. But, reluctant or no, it's vital that she make a good impression. It could mean the difference between surviving or ...not.

A very poor girl, Emma has no opportunities to work on becoming superfluous and beautiful or talented. She's doing her best to survive. All she has is her mother's love, her dreams -- the dream of the boy with the flute, who, oddly, seems to have grown older as she has -- and the smiles provided by her snarky best friend, a Stranger called Mona. But, on the other side of the balance of Duty -- saving her mother, providing them security - is what Emma has enough? Enough to challenge the Mayor? Enough to actually get what she wants? Enough to change her world?

Peaks: The voice is memorable and consistent, the prose is uncluttered, the characterizations are deft, and the imagery - the rigid line of houses, the encroaching woods, the cloying carnations, dancing bluebells, and magical lightning bugs -- works. (Need a sample? Here ya go.) I think the best thing I can say about this story is that it's a Little Story.

We don't always talk about it in this respect, but a little story to me is one which plays out life-and-death issues close to the chest, where the microcosm is as detailed, vibrant, and important than the bigger issues. I LIKE little stories. It's not about an entire planet that needs to be saved from Certain Doom, it's one life. It's not a novel describing nations which need to be restored or some sort of epic where the heroine Saves The World. Nope. One village. One shack. One girl. Sometimes, the smallest gains are the ones which mean the most.

Class, wealth, gender, religion -- it's all there, writ tiny on the stage of this Little story. Emma faces discrimination, makes assumptions, and "others" and is "othered" based on seeing and being seen through the lens of difference. The author leaves Emma free to make poor decisions, make futile gestures, kiss up and demean herself. She is not always noble or dignified - sometimes, she stops caring and falls down on the "heroine" job. Those are the times she becomes real.

The discussion on sexism, patriarchy, and women is pretty much right out there in this YA novel, which may surprise some readers. In this village, women who work? Are not respectable. Women who have opinions? Are not respectable? It's a woman's fault, if she lives alone. Only Married ladies are respectable - within the bounds of a marital relationship, where their husband can speak for and vouch for them. Unmarrieds aren't to be spoken to or look anyone in the eye - and the only color they can wear is gray. Strangers - people who are from elsewhere - the Unmarrieds and the poor are what can only be tangible proof of not living by the rules. The shocker is that though the men make the rules... the women live and die by them. (I wished very much that could have been explored just a bit more). The first half of the novel lays this stuff out -- and the reader soon catches on to the fact that only those within the system can change it. It's a clever ploy to get the reader hooked on thinking about it.

Valleys: If there's anything that caught my attention it was the lack of information on the three "enemies" in the novel: the Monsters, the Strangers and the heavy-handed religion which adds a burden to the lives of the villagers and offers no relief to anyone.

First, the religion: It's not that this doesn't reflect or parallel real life, not that there aren't awful interactions with religions -- the little detail on the church just served to make me curious about it. Suffering the fate of poverty or - the fate of being female - seems to be tangible proof of not living by the rules - and thus out of favor with the Lord. The Mayor always tells everyone, if people would just attend Defense every Sunday and listen to his rules on how to live, they would be shown favor, and live well. At least, it seems to work for him.

I wondered, how did it start? Was it once a real faith? How did the Mayor become head of their non-religious "church?" (Or, maybe I'm from a country wherein the government leader isn't the head of the official State Church, and this is a stupid question. The author is from Australia, a Commonwealth country; Britain's Queen Elizabeth is the head of the Anglican church. Moving on.)

Next, I wondered about the Monsters and the Strangers. Without spoilers, you'll figure out who/what the Monsters are easily - they're not a great mystery - but I wondered at the history of their interactions with the village. I was deeply curious. What divided all of the villages into untrusting little burgs dotting a trade route? How did everyone become so divided? How did the Strangers come into the village if everyone eschewed travel because of the Monsters? And how, if they knew there were Monsters, did the villagers forget their Lore? These questions could actually have been answered with a sentence or two, and not knowing the answers didn't at all take away from my enjoyment of the novel... but they do prove that I have a bad case of Reader Greed, and I want to know ALLLL the things. This is a common failing when reading a good book.

Finally, I noted the lack of racial diversity in the novel. The descriptions of the characters in the novel make it clear that fair skin and blonde hair is still the beauty standard - the Doctor's daughter is attractive and well thought of - but there doesn't seem to be any other kind of beauty. This is, again, a tiny quibble - and more an encouragement: if one is going to write speculative fiction, please let's speculate a world where there is more than one color!

A surprise find with an excellent and professional appearance, this is a greatly enjoyable fairytale - it went down like a cold glass of lemonade on a humid day - quick and satisfying. I have the highest and best of hopes for this author, and expect to see more good things from her, in due time.



I received a promotional copy of this book, courtesy of the author. You can find THE EDGE OF THE WOODS by CEINWIN LANGLEY online, or at an independent bookstore near you!

August 21, 2014

Toon Thursday: Exciting and New! (Like the Love Boat!)


Difficult as it may be to believe, somehow I managed to come up with a NEW CARTOON today. It's been a while, and for that I apologize. Plus it's one of the sort-of weak ones where I recycle the part I already drew, and just add new text. (Do other cartoonists do that? Or am I just SUPER lazy?)

Anyway, one other thing, in case you didn't know: the Cybils Awards call for judges is open, and if you're a blogger in the area of children's or YA lit, you should check it out! It is a really fun experience, and provides a lot of insight into what it's like to judge one of those fancy-schmancy book awards.