September 15, 2014
If you're a blogger and you have something to say about diversity and diverse books, please consider coming to KidLitCon this year in Sacramento, CA. There's already a growing list of fantastic attendees, authors and bloggers alike, and you'll have a chance to meet several authors (and buy books and get them signed, too!) at the Friday afternoon meet and greet. Plus, of course, there will be a wide range of panels and sessions on children's/YA books and blogging--this year, there's a special focus on diversity, so go check out the program for more details. My favorite part of the conference, though, is always getting to meet bloggers I've "known" for years online, and getting to talk books with bloggers who have become longtime friends both online and offline. Registration closes at the end of this week, so don't delay!! Register now.
September 12, 2014
This is necessarily going to be a shorter review, since this is a psychological thriller and there is virtually not much other than the barest of plot summaries I can share with you without providing spoilers and clues that you don't need. What I can say is that Stephanie Kuehn is all kinds of talented, and it's a hoot to read a novel set so clearly in familiar areas of Northern California (A shout out to the Iron Triangle/Richmond, Danville/Blackhawk, Berkeley, and Mt. Diablo, woot!) Her fragmented, complicated and nuanced protagonists are perceived by most unfamiliar with YA lit as a rarity - but smart novels like this remind me of something like TANGERINE, by Edward Bloor, Mark Haddon's THE CURIOUS INCIDENT, or Robert Cormier's I AM THE CHEESE -- the plot is a mosaic of pieces the reader isn't sure all fit. Tautly paced, disturbing, steeped in mistrust and with a spooky-gorgeous cover in black, white and ...burnt, the novel is just packed with goodness. This is definitely a crossover - adults who love a good thriller will enjoy this.
And, a little warning -- that MFA professors of mine, the one who talked with relentless cheer about the necessity of the "kernel of hope" in all YA lit -- probably just hates the ending to this novel. It works for me, though. Sometimes, hope is a thing with feathers that get singed. The fact is, young adults aren't stupid. They already know that hope sometimes gets abandoned, and people go on with whatever else they've got.
Summary: All Jamie Henry wants to do is put the past behind him. Growing up rough with a single parent in the destitute Iron Triangle (an industrial area near refineries), he has few memories before the age of six, when he and his sister, Cate, at ten, were taken out of a group home and adopted by a wealthy, white-collar Danville family who have themselves lost two children aged six and ten. After flailing for a few years, he's found traction at sixteen -- a concert-level jazz pianist, a 4.0 student, a winner -- a replacement for the son his adoptive parents have lost. A winner, after having a loser's start. He still has a few tics and shivers - a few cracks in the armor which show where he's come from, but he's going places, now. He's seeing his therapist, taking his pills - he's stopped pulling out his eyebrows, he's gained some positive coping mechanisms, his hands even work reliably -- he'll be okay.
Only, it's not so easy, for Cate. She's... angry. At Jamie - at her adoptive mother, at everyone. She's destructive. She's -- terrifying. The kids at the high school talk about her making secret pacts with the girls in the woods, doing mental trances and finding spirit animals, and stuff -- crazy, noticeable stuff. Her adoptive parents can't reason with her - she's doing drugs and skipping classes. And, after a terrible fire which destroys lives and property, she's finally taken away - and Jamie honestly breathes a sigh of relief, even though he feels guilty.
It all falls apart one morning, when he receives a phone call. Crazy Cate's just been released after two years in juvenile detention -- and she says she's coming back -- for Jamie.
Hands numb and heart pounding, Jamie tries to strap in and weather the worst...
Peaks: Other than a simple story about adopted siblings, this novel is about our brains - knowing right and wrong, and being too sick to know right from wrong. It's about belief and perception -- responsibility, and guilt. Culpability. Complicity. How much we are to blame for what we tell ourselves. And, how much of what we tell ourselves is the truth. It's sharply realistic, deftly woven, nuanced, layered, and deep.
Jamie Henry is, bar none, the most untrustworthy narrator I've encountered this year. I went into the novel believing everything he said, and then, quietly, that solid belief shifted... was undermined ... one step at a time...somehow. That's where the author's deft touch comes in -- I don't know why I started thinking something was wrong. It's the choices he makes -- or doesn't make -- that begins the quiet wondering. It's the way he reacts -- or doesn't react -- that leads the reader to not quite accept what he says -- or at least question it. The reader comes to the end of the novel... worriedly reading over the beginning again, wondering if what they thought was right was right, or -- ??
What, that doesn't sound like a peak? It's a peak. No, seriously. That's good. Thrillers are supposed to keep you off-balanced, edgy, disturbed, guessing, yes? You will guess and guess and guess until you're second-guessing your first. You won't know quite where you've ended up when you've read through the novel and are done -- and I suspect the ending will cause a lot of rereading, frowning, and intense discussion. No two readers likely will entirely agree on what actually went down. Every reader will know that they've cause to fear for the characters' future, though...
Valleys: Once again, I don't really find valleys here. Kuehn's writing is assured and decisive -- you are where she puts you, for good or for ill, and you know what she tells you -- period. You're led along like a sheep to... well. You're guided through the narrative, let's just say.
There will be some who argue this novel's suitability for young adults, as it deals with many disturbing instances of psychological and mental aberrations. Also, there's that missing "kernel of hope." However, it's a pulse-pounding, scary, twisted, dark psychological thriller, and readers who didn't even know that's what they enjoyed might find themselves unexpectedly immersed - and have trouble sleeping nights after.
I found my copy of this book at the library. You can find COMPLICIT by STEPHANIE KUEHN online, or at an independent bookstore near you!
September 11, 2014
Turns out where he's been, is writing middle grade and kids' books. And I've mostly been on the YA tip with just the occasional MG foray, so yeah, I suppose that's why I hadn't run into his books before. Constable & Toop, though—I'd say this not only crosses the line between MG and YA (and actually is scary enough, with enough adult main characters, to be more YA), but also would make a good crossover that adult readers would enjoy. I'd compare it firstly to The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman, but it also had more than a dash (in my mind) of Beetlejuice, with its post-death bureaucracy (remember the Handbook for the Recently Deceased?) and its maze of rules and regulations.
As you might guess, this means the book has its share of humor as well as spookiness. But it's also got likeable, endearing main characters who you simply MUST root for because they're on the side of all that is good and non-bureaucratic in the world, living or dead. One of those characters is the rather unfortunate Mr. Lapsewood, who is himself a ghost, working behind a desk for the Ghost Bureau. Being sent to investigate the mysterious disappearance of a fellow ghost employee out in the streets of London feels like the chance of a, er, lifetime, and a chance to prove himself as being capable of more than his current life as a desk jockey. But then he discovers something truly awful: the Black Rot. It's an affliction developed by haunted houses that are deprived of their resident ghosts—say, via a rogue exorcism. Who's responsible? And can Lapsewood solve the problem?
Meanwhile, our other major character is Sam Toop. He's the son of an undertaker, his father being the Toop in the Constable & Toop funeral and mortuary business. He's about twelve or so, and he's a pretty normal kid for someone who's lived in a funeral home all his life. Oh, except for that one thing: he can see ghosts. Generally, though, things are going along pretty well for Sam until his lowlife Uncle Jack shows up one day and…uh…sorry, can't resist…threatens to make life a living hell if Sam and his dad don't help him out just a little. And then Jack "helps" Sam out, too, but maybe he doesn't want that kind of help…since it seems to coincide with some awfully nefarious doings out in the alleyways of London.
The stories of the living and the dead entwine and, in the end, come together in a most satisfying way. As you might guess, Lapsewood and Sam (and a few other fun minor characters) have to help each other in order to rid London of the Black Rot. The story's filled with atmospheric detail and subtle, witty humor along the lines of a Terry Pratchett or Douglas Adams. I absolutely adored it.
You can find Constable & Toop by Gareth Jones online, or at an independent bookstore near you!
September 09, 2014
Tanita describes the novel much more aptly and eloquently than I can do at the moment (you can blame the brain freeze on my day job), so go read the full review, in which she notes, "The post-apocalypse survival narrative is excellent, and as she gets deeper into trouble, Gaia has to make agonizing, hair-trigger decisions based on only what she feels is right." She also says, "This book is -- intense. There just aren't a lot of YA novels about midwifery, inbreeding, and hemophilia," and if that doesn't make you curious, then nothing will. So, without further delay, here is Caragh's post.
Until that drive, I had thought climate change was a doom that would happen in the distant future, to other generations, but it was suddenly right in my face. It freaked me out.
I began writing the Birthmarked trilogy because, in essence, I was afraid. I wanted to predict who could adapt and how they might do it. I wondered how much cutthroat self-preservation would be justified, and most of all, I wanted to believe that some of us would survive. Writing the novel let me delve in to my fear and search for something that could give me hope.
The story of Birthmarked takes place 400 years in the future on the north shore of Unlake Superior, after climate change. I take Minnesota, the state I grew up in, Land of 10,000 Lakes, and imagine all the water gone. I envision it as a wasteland that’s both beautiful and severe. I figure that certain smart, wealthy people prepare for the change by building the Enclave, a walled city with solar power, geothermal power, and deeply drilled wells. Inside the walls, they have education, technology, culture, and enough food, but they’ve miscalculated on one thing: how many people they need for diversity in their gene pool. Due to inbreeding, they’re having trouble with infertility and hemophilia. What they need is a most basic resource: more human genes.
As happens with world building, I found that the physical setting of the novel wove into the plot, and the shortage of resources underscored every choice that the characters made, individually and at a societal level. On one hand, the Enclave was lovely and thriving, but it hid the heartache of dying hemophiliacs and its citizens could stand by while a pregnant woman was hanged. I respected that people like Gaia would do almost anything to survive, and I could also grasp that the evil leader meant well when he justified his ruthless decisions. My story grounded in climate change was really about need, family, power, and fairness.
Of course, I’m still troubled by what’s happening with climate change, especially when I see that the populations that suffer the most are our poorest. Yet I also believe that we’re ingenuitive and compassionate, and our most important resource, as in my novel, is our humans. We are already the survivors.
Thank you so much, Caragh and Gina! Here's the full schedule for the Visions of the Future blog tour:
Monday, September 8
Tuesday, September 9
Wednesday, September 10
The Book Wars
Thursday, September 11
Green Bean Teen Queen
Friday, September 12
September 08, 2014
Come, Best Beloved, and sit you by my feet. I shall tell you a tale such as sister Scheherazade could have scarce imagined. A tale of wonders, of deeds both great and grievous, of courage that defies description, and above all, Child of Adam, I shall tell you a tale of love.
Read the first chapter of this novel here.
Most of you who've hung around the blog for awhile know how fond I am of the idea of collaboration -- it's always amazing to me to read about and hear about how authors interact as separate individuals to produce a single work. Danielle Ackley-McPhail is an editor and writer with six novels, and one writer's guide to her credit, as well as editing seven and contributing to fifty short story anthologies. Editor Danielle, while pulling together a forthcoming fairytale anthology called
GRIMM & GASLIGHT *cough* GASLIGHT & GRIM (sorry, Danielle), wanted to include a retelling of "Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves," and so arranged with a friend, Day Al-Mohamed, to be her cultural and ethnic adviser, since Day was born in Bahrain and could help her American-born friend to "get it right." Day was so enthused that Danielle eventually asked her to be a full collaborator and co-author. This is Day's first novel.
SUMMARY: You know the story from the original translation of 1001 Nights, Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves. If not, a quick summary: two brothers, Cassim and Ali split an inheritance; one lives large, the other lives small. Ali one day sees a large tribe of thieves open a magical cavern in which a treasure is secreted. Ali imitates their "Open, O Simsim!" and opens the cavern and then takes out bags of gold pieces. Through the usual no-one-can-keep-a-secret ridiculousness, Cassim's wife finds out, Ali reveals all, and Cassim goes to take treasure - but forgets the magic word and is caught by the band of thieves. They do away with him, Ali has to retrieve his body and in order not to cause suspicion, they bury him in secret... but again, a secret is only something one person knows. In the fairy-tale turn of events, someone brags about sewing a body back together, and the thieves come looking for Ali and his household. Through trickery and relying on the Middle Eastern hospitality inherent in the entire Arab community, the thieves get inside Ali's compound, hidden in huge oil jars. A slave girl discovers that there's the Arabic version of the Trojan Horse going on, and takes care of them fatally - and Ali honors her by giving her freedom. The last thief this same girl manages to off during a dance for her master, and Ali is so grateful he marries her to his son, as the highest honor.
Since this story is known - at least since the 1700's - there can hardly be said to be spoilers. But! If I tell you the twists and turns and differences in the retelling, there WILL be spoilers, so... I won't. Instead I'll mention Victorian England! Steampunk! Airships and Adventure! Charles Babbage! Dastardly thieves, magical puzzle-boxes, enigmatic djinns and mechanical birds...!!! Isn't that enough to whet your curiosity? This is a richly-detailed, fascinating and wonderfully adventurous novel. You'll enjoy the heck out of this - and reading it aloud will be even better.
PEAKS: Baba (the name is an honorific) Ali is a student at the beginning of the novel -- young and unsure of many things, but he's DEFINITE about his faith. His belief is rock-solid, and his every response is tempered through the lens of his belief. For Americans who rarely have a positive picture of the Muslim faith, this is a gift, and additionally would make me consider this a positive read for religious parents seeking fun fiction for their young adults. Keeping in mind that it's still a fairy tale, the novel has a lot to offer on a number of levels.
Though the tale of Ali Baba was added to the original Arabic translation of 1001 Nights by one of its European translators, Antoine Galland, he may have heard it orally in Syria, while another theory has it to be of Cypriot origin. Regardless, the way the authors spun the tale as belonging to the Arab world works beautifully. And, did I mention the appearance of CHARLES FREAKIN' BABBAGE!? The philosophical discussions of faith and science are amazing -- really well done. I truly enjoyed imagining conversing with this great man.
And, of course, there was food -- dates, olives, fruit, oils, spices... *sigh* This novel has such wonderful diversity and this exploration of the Arabic culture is pure fun. There are richly detailed historically accurate outfits, gender roles, courtesies and conversations. While taking strength from the foundation story, this tale stands on its own. It is just a gem to read, and those fond of the original tale will have a ball.
This novel also contains a love story - one that sneaks up on the characters, which is the furthest thing from insta-love that there could be. Huzzah.
VALLEYS: There just aren't really valleys here. While the pacing slows a bit in the middle, I find the sense of urgency, danger, and threat begins early and builds throughout the novel. The language may be richer than many readers are accustomed to, but I found it truly beautiful - and while not a quick read, a really charming one! The only tiny quibble I had in the novel is that there are two djinns... but we don't explore what went wrong in their relationship, WHY they are enemies, and really what drives the one we know best to be who she is ... I tend to have a lot of "reader greed," but this seems to be a tiny spot that was overlooked in an otherwise tightly plotted and well-polished novel.
NB: This isn't Disney's version with a beloved, wise-cracking blue djinn and rousing choruses of "Arabian Nights," not by any means. (Though that song IS stuck in your head now, isn't it? My bad.) This novel is a.) a crossover, and will be enjoyed by adults, and b.) isn't really appropriate for the squeamish, as it hews much more closely to the original tale. There's death - violent, gory death, just like in most original fairy tales. Enjoy responsibly. Do not read while driving heavy machinery. Your mileage may vary, etc.
BONUS: Here's a fun interview where Danielle and Day talk about what each of them brought to the table in this collaboration on this book; Danielle discusses her control issues and Day her random enthusiasms for chopping up protagonists...no, really.
I received a copy of this book courtesy Palomino Press, the young adult imprint Dark Quest Books, via NetGalley. You can find BABA ALI AND THE CLOCKWORK DJINN by Danielle Ackey-McPhail & Day Al-Mohamed online, or at an independent bookstore near you!
September 05, 2014
I received this book courtesy of New South Books, a small press based in Montgomery, Alabama. After skimming the initial description of the book - that it was about a preacher's granddaughter - I assumed it was a novel about an African American girl. The striking gray-scale sketch-and-photograph cover immediately corrected that assumption. The novel is set in the mountains of Georgia, which is from where the author, Faye Gibbons, hails.
SUMMARY: Fourteen-year-old Halley Owenby had a life she loved, once. Her family, made up of her father Jim, her mother, Kate, herself, and her brother, Robbie, was poor, but so was everyone in their little town, and it really didn't make much of a difference to them as they worked and sang through their days. One of the few families with a piano, Halley only slightly envies Robbie's skill in playing anything he's ever heard. Halley has her books and her good friend Dimple to keep her occupied. She has a hungry mind, eager to learn all she can, and is saving her money from hunting ginseng in the woods to go away to high school.
When Halley's father dies in an accident involving an illegal moonshine still, everything changes. Halley's grandparents come immediately -- allegedly to help, but immediately Halley's grandfather insists that her father has gone to hell, because, seeing as Prohibition is alive and well during this time, only sinners have anything to do with moonshine. Rather than defend her late husband, Halley's mother crumples into the girl she grew up as, the daughter of the Baptist fundamentalist preacher who litters the countryside with signs about The Rapture. Kate becomes meek and subservient overnight -- giving up the farm, leaving their town and moving over the hill to live with he and Ma Franklin. It is, as Halley suspected it would be, miserable. Aside from the casual cruelties of a controlling man, there are the indignities of being left alone, when her mother takes a job at the Belton Mill, with Ma Franklin, who is forever nagging her to do this or get that, as if she's a surly, spoiled child. Halley's mother is a colorless shadow of the person she was, and refuses to talk about her late husband - as if he'd never existed. Even Robbie works Halley's nerves, ducking responsibility and making more work for her. But the very worst thing is having her dreams of an education totally extinguished. Pa Franklin is good at snuffing out the dreams of others - after all, the only thing in his mind everyone should be dreaming of is Heaven. Pa Franklin's version of heaven is where he always gets his way, and where he has complete and total, Bible-sanctioned rights over his entire family, and his dog.
Fortunately, Pa Franklin's idea of heaven, and even his domineering heaven-on-earth doesn't exist for long -- and Halley's salvation from his rigid, joyless household is closer than she thinks... All it will take is resistance.
PEAKS: In many ways, this book of historical fiction parallels the American woman's fight for freedom. Women were emerging from a long "ornamental" period by the 1920's and some of them were stepping out, taking secretarial jobs, driving their own cars, and bobbing their hair. What started as a 20's lark surged into necessity by the 1930's as The Great Depression galvanized every able-bodied worker into doing their share to keep afloat. Women worked in mills, and their men ranged far and wide repairing roads and planting trees in Roosevelt's New Deal programs intended to strengthen the sagging economy. There was no time to worry about whether women should be making their own choices and shouldering their own weight -- except in tiny towns and villages in the deep country, where progress hadn't yet really happened. The author notes that The Depression hung on longer in the mountain towns of Georgia; so did old attitudes about women and family. It is against this tyrannical bent toward control that Halley - and her mother and grandmother - must battle. It is significant that despite the many things that seem to be against them, the real adversary is a single man who believes himself to be backed by a single book and a single god... however, against him, a single word eventually suffices: NO.
In the words of John Stuart Mill, "Bad men need nothing more to compass their ends, than that good men should look on and do nothing." When the women of Halley's family stand together and stand against the abuse of power in their midst, Pa Franklin's reign of terror ends.
It is awesome.
There are interesting historical "cameos" in this novel; a young woman finds religion - and embraces it, telling everyone she's been called to preach. She's attractive and vibrant and may remind readers of another notable woman preacher of the 1920's-30's, Aimee Semple McPherson. There's also a trouser-wearing, female photographer in the novel. Theodora Langford is a sensation to the mountain towns, and of special interest to Halley, seeing as she's a woman out on her own, making her own decisions, and her cameo is obvious, as even her name is reminiscent of the great photographer Dorothea Lange.
VALLEYS: Though the novel's title character is meant to be the protagonist, the novel is as much about Halley's mother and grandmother, in many ways. Unfortunately, this division of focus doesn't allow readers to get as close to Halley OR her mother OR her grandmother as they could if this was wholly either of their stories. The split focus dilutes the feeling that this is a young adult novel. I suspect many adults who don't mind slow pacing and rich details of "olden days" will enjoy this more than teen readers. It's difficult to get a sense of Halley's feelings on various topics. It's clear she hates her grandfather and resents her grandmother and is bitterly disappointed in her mother, and rightly so - but not much else seems to penetrate. Halley is depicted as many of the characters in Northern Georgia's Blue Ridge Mountains - as resilient and tough, pragmatic and a bit taciturn. Though she is fourteen, there's very little of the young girl about her, and though we are told that she reads, we don't get a sense of her favorite books, nor much of her inner mind. Care is lavished, however, on the setting and her observations of the world around her.
One group which is only lightly touched on is the Klan. They're alive and well during this time, "correcting" Southerners, black and white, with their beat-downs and cross burnings. Halley seems to have no opinion on them whatsoever. I found that surprising.
There is only one African American family in the novel - Opal Gower is unfortunately exceptional, with a mystical power of healing - trending close to the "magical Negro" trope. Opal also has the goal of going away to high school, and to study to be a doctor. Halley thinks of their similarities without any sense of irony, and envies Opal going away to school. I was a little nonplussed that Halley doesn't seem to think that Opal might have a few problems with her dreams. For all that the rest of the novel takes care to stay true to historical context, it seems a little disingenuous that Halley has such a blind spot about Opal and her position within the community and the larger world.
Kirkus said, in its starred review, "A Depression-era novel defined by the hard-edged beauty of its rural Southern setting." Though this isn't the mellowed, warm and whimsical South of a Flannery O'Connor or Harper Lee novel, fans of Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, Ingrid Law's SAVVY will feel on familiar ground. Halley isn't as relatable as Katherine Paterson's TERABITHIA or Susan Patron's heroine in THE HIGHER POWER OF LUCKY but readers will find the hard lives and determination of these women realistic and detailed.
You can find HALLEY by FAYE GIBBONS online, or at an independent bookstore near you!
September 04, 2014
|Click to embiggen. Totally worth it.|
I'll also come right out and say THIS: this one is WEIRD. It is surreal, and it is bizarre, and yes, it all holds together in an utterly take-it-as-it-comes, magic-realism sort of way. It is layered, stories within stories, meta upon meta. Sometimes it's confusing. Is it the story of Sherwood, a kid who walked into a cave with his brother, ended up killing a scary, zombie-esque Shadowsman and finding an amulet and never being the same again? Or is it the story of Hollis, kid-in-a-superhero-costume, decades later, next-door-neighbor to grown-up, alcoholic, troubled Sherwood? Or is it the story of the Wrenchies of the title, a gang of kids in a post-apocalyptic wasteland, fighting zombies until they reach their inevitable adulthood and become zombies themselves? (Hmm, symbolic, that…) Are the Wrenchies simply a comic book created by Sherwood, or are they real? YOU DECIDE. (No, really. And then come tell me, because I haven't decided what's real and what isn't, in this story…or maybe the point is NOT to know.)
If you like stories you can easily follow and know what's happening, The Wrenchies might not be for you. But if you don't mind taking a ride through a strange world, with a lonely young boy named Hollis as your sometime adventuring companion, there is some fascinating stuff here. It's just…super difficult to talk about.
You can find THE WRENCHIES by Farel Dalrymple online, or at an independent bookstore near you!