March 27, 2015


I am ALL about the mysteries, and it's kind of all over the board - adult fiction, YA fiction, and now MG. I heard about this mystery series by an American woman raised in England last year from The Book Smugglers, and to be honest, I got tired of waiting for the American version. And, while we're on the topic, can I rant just a tiny bit about Americanized versions of British books? I deliberately chose the British version of this novel - and do you know why? Because it seems to be The American Way to ruin good British books with a lot of useless word changes, as if American tweens and middle graders are so dull they'll never pick up on things.

YES. I know it's a marketing decision. YES, I know they're trying to make the words go down easily like overly-sugared soda so the American kids will want to buy the books. And while I do understand that there would be some things that an American child would not immediately understand -- squashed fly buns comes to mind - I think we make mistakes in lowering comprehension expectations that the child cannot learn to read in context, or that it's a negative when they're a little challenged by an unfamiliar word in a good book. Do we really expect them to fling the book away in disdain if they don't know what squashed fly buns are? Seriously? Will it completely damage their self-esteem, leading them to never read another British book in their lives? And while we're on the soapbox, WHY must they change the titles? Do American children really struggle so much with compound words such as "unladylike?" Is it a conceptual struggle? Because MURDER IS BAD MANNERS, which is the clunky American title, is really not as zingy as this one, which plays off of the deliciously Shakespearean (Hamlet) phrase, "Murder most foul." American children, is the common conception, don't know the classics, and wouldn't appreciate that, I guess. Of course, if no one ever has high expectations for them, of course they won't live up to them.

< / end rant> For now.

Summary: Hazel Wong is thirteen, spotty, lumpy, and utterly out of place at the Deepdean School for Girls in England. Oh, sure - she's a girl, but as far as her classmates are concerned, she's the child of an opium-smuggling drug lord from The Far East, which is clearly a mystical, magical place where the girls all lay about on purple cushions and paint and draw -- and smuggle opium, obviously. It's not easy being the lone Asian girl - and child of an Anglophile Chinese father - in Actual England, and it's harder still being the best friend - most of the time - of a real English girl, Daisy Wells, whose sunny, bubbly, take-charge personality means she's never wrong, she refuses to be questioned, and she never lets Hazel have her say. She doesn't have to -- after all, it's DAISY who is the President of their super-secret detective agency - Hazel is only the Secretary, after all. When Hazel finds an Actual Dead Body, Daisy is all set to investigate the heck out of things - only Hazel is sure she's wrong about most everything. The girls sneak about, investigate, and find that things are never truly what they seem - especially not at Deepdean School.

Peaks: There's a lot to love about this book - boarding school hijinks, which is a huge plus for those of us who love our School Stories; unique characterizations, a sense of place, a very neat little notebook which reminded me fondly of Harriet the Spy's, and a lot of new things per page - things which were unfamiliar and therefore intriguing. This book is a real mystery - readers will likely not find themselves with all the clues before our junior detectives because the facts are simply laid out in the story -- and we are so far into the mind of Hazel and disagreeing with Daisy's determined theories that things are easily missed. This is all to the good, as it's fun to figure things out with the detectives.

There is so much tension in this narrative as well - because Hazel is dealing with racism of the daily sort - microaggressions that chafe like fiberglass cuts against her bewildered heart - she doesn't know how to deal with the girls who insist that her father is an opium smuggler (he's a banker) who call her "foreign girl" and play mean pranks (one of the staff speaks loudly and slowly to her, as if she is hard of hearing), who make snide remarks and then excuse themselves with a perfunctory "Sorry." Over and above the whole "people are dying and no one seems to notice" thing, is far and away the most conflict-producing part of the novel for me. I wanted to at times both snatch Daisy bald and give meek and compliant - but inwardly raging - Hazel a little shake and force her to speak up/stand up for herself. I am eager to see how she deals with being treated as Other, as the series progresses - even if there were no more random deaths, it would be worth the price of admission to see whether this friendship actually becomes real and holds together.

Concerns: This book is allegedly middle-grade, but it is a murder mystery; there is blood. Some adults may find the nature of the murders gruesome, or find the identity of the responsible party disturbing. While I did not have that issue, I am not pre-reading for middle graders (I think plenty of YA readers will enjoy this as well, incidentally). The descriptions will not, I think, upset even queasy young readers, and I think that most will appreciate that this was a real wrong done.

Conclusion: With its classy British cover (in the American one, Hazel's hair is wrong. Has anyone ever tried to put a bob "up?" And she is decidedly unfashionable - why the attempt to make her stylish and Daisy a bubblegum-chewing American looking girl? It was 1935... I thing GUM Is Bad Manners might have been a more suitable title. *sigh*), snappy title and absolutely smashing story, this mystery is perfect for a chilly, damp morning with loads of tea and a snuggly blanket.

I bought my copy of this book. After April 21, you can find MURDER MOST UNLADYLIKE or MURDER IS BAD MANNERS (under the second title) by Robin Stevens at an online e-tailer, or at a real life, independent bookstore near you!

March 26, 2015

Thursday Review: THE WALLS AROUND US by Nova Ren Suma

Summary: Happy book birthday—two days ago—to Nova Ren Suma's latest YA offering, The Walls Around Us! This title shares a lot with Imaginary Girls, most noticeably the atmosphere of strangeness and the slow unfolding of past and present events; the unreliable narrators and their limited viewpoints which only let slip a little at a time of what really happened.

Our two narrators here are Violet and Amber. Violet is a talented dancer who shines onstage, but whose heart hides the pain of her best friend Orianna's imprisonment for a horrifying crime. Amber, locked in a girls' detention center, lives and relives day after monotonous day behind those walls, until someone new arrives and a shocking occurrence changes everything.

Peaks: One of the most wonderfully page-turning aspects of this book is the author's ability to slowly release tantalizing details, from each narrator's viewpoint, that subtly weave together in the reader's mind as the story progresses, until we gradually realize this tale has already been set in stone, the ending inevitable. This also means I can't say much without spoilers, but I will say that there is so much to this book—it's so deceptively simple on the surface but hides a myriad of delicate layers. The writing is literary and yet not self-conscious, focusing us on the characters and the mystery unfolding both inside and outside their minds.

Forming a backdrop to the mystery is the sort of train-wreck-fascinating world of ballet and the single-minded competitiveness and even viciousness that seems to pervade that environment, as well as the class implications of who each character is—Violet, who comes from wealth, but it's her cutthroat determination and hard work sending her to Juilliard; Orianna, mixed race (though that's not an Issue in the book), quirky and kind, decidedly not rich but devastatingly talented. And Amber, a bit of a cipher, trapped behind walls that are not simply physical.

Valleys: This one isn't a traditionally structured suspense novel. If you're looking for the kind of mystery that offers consistent action and a clear sense of what's going on at all times, this may not be the book for you. The Walls Around Us is far more mysterious, circling the truth and coming closer and closer each time, rather than progressing in a straight line toward the big reveal. I wouldn't call that a negative thing at all, just something that may attract a different set of readers.

Conclusion: This book is hard to talk about, elusive, difficult to pin down without telling too much. You'll just have to read it. The writing is luminous, and the genre not easily categorized, though you could call it magical realism. If you've enjoyed Nova Ren Suma's other YA books, you'll have an idea of what to expect. Readers who like a distinctive voice and an intense, literary style—I keep thinking of A.S. King, or Beth Kephart—would probably enjoy this one.

I received my copy of this book courtesy of the publisher. You can find THE WALLS AROUND US by Nova Ren Suma at an online e-tailer, or at a real life, independent bookstore near you!

March 25, 2015


I was attracted to this novel first by the cover depicting the SF Bridge, second by the name of the author, Ellery Kane which of course reminded me a great deal of Ellery Queen. Third, the author is a forensic psychologist which was the eventual when-I-grow-up goal of one of my best friends in high school - back when I though forensics only had something to do with guns. I'm always intrigued and enlightened with people with backgrounds other than in English lit write books. This dystopian novel begins with the fragmentation of a family... then of a belief system... and finally, a nation.

Summary: Lex remembers when her father still loved her and her mother. When her mother had been a psychological researcher instead of a superstar, making biopharmaceutical news with mood-suppressing drugs which gave a anxious and fearful populace the ability to go on. When they lived happily in Tiburon, and things were normal, the internet was safe and everything was fine. Now she's eighteen, the world has unraveled, and "fine" hasn't been seen for a long, long time.

The drug Emovere, her mother's brilliant invention, turned out to be a chemical evil unleashed on an unsuspecting world. Thought to be useful to the government as a way to prevent wartime post-trauma stress, it was instead embellished upon and given to Guardian Force soldiers - the elite government-appointed military police force - to block all of their emotions and to turn them into emotionally deadened machines. After speaking out forcefully and repeatedly, Lex's mother resigned from the biopharmaceutical company and cut ties with the government, and now spends her time at home being harassed by men in unmarked black cars. The government believes her a disloyal defector -- but they have their hands full with riots, mobs, drug addicts, and a rapidly devolving society. San Francisco has been evacuated by Guardians - but Lex has to get to them with hew information for the Resistance. It's her mother's plan - her face is simply too well known to sneak into the city, and if she goes missing from the house, the men in the black cars will have questions... Lex is the only one who can do this, and the only way to contact the Resistance is to go into the bombed out, silent, evacuated city.

Or, so Lex's mother says.

They'll come to her, Lex is assured, if she just waits in the place they select. The Resistance knows she's on her way. But, it's not as easy to find the resistance as Lex had hoped - and once she does, she's not sure she trusts them. The big, military-looking boy, Quin McAllister, who leads her to the underground has a Guardian tattoo on his arm - so, how is he safe? Why does the leader, Augustus, give her the creeps, with his wide, genial smiles and his lifeless eyes? And when can she go home?

Truths within lies and more lies are revealed as Lex joins the Resistance. There has to be a way to fight - and retrieve the world they know from the hands of General Ryker, the sadistic head of the Guardians. But Lex keeps finding out more about the people she's working with - and more secrets about the boy she's come to love. In the end, your history matters more than you might think - your legacy, and what you leave behind. And, what you don't know - and what your mother has kept a secret out of what she thought was love - can still hurt.

Peaks: This is a fast-paced, fairly typical dystopian novel with some interesting twists. Fans of books like ACROSS THE UNIVERSE, the CHEMICAL GARDEN series or other novels wherein the populace is keep complacent or breeding or whatever with drugs or fans of novels like PARTIALS which have super-soldiers will find something to like. Lex's relationship with her mother - and with other dynamic leaders - is at the core of this novel, and made me think of how I react to people in leadership. I think that's always a good topic to delve into for young adults. Layered on top of that are her issues with love and trust which thread through the novel - and her ability to see personalities and reactions and behaviors are a direct result of having a mother who is an extrovert and who explains her work to her. This makes her a good protagonist and the reader feels like they understand what's going on. This also makes the action feel very close and the suspense very suspenseful.

There is an ensemble of friends who become important to Lex, in contrast to her somewhat isolated life before this crisis. The Resistance allows the novel an authentic-feeling diversity, and for once supplies a dystopian novel with someone other than just teens to save the world. Of course, this being a YA novel, the teens play a large role.

Valleys:It's never clear what happens to the world initially - and how it all comes so far apart. Why is the government recruiting so hard for the Guardians? Is there an outside threat? A lot of the antecedents for this crisis are murky.

There is a romance in this novel - one that is both a little speedy and intrusive for me, in light of the danger that they're in. It also is a little questionable. Love is put forth as a panacea to soothe the savage beast, and Lex is in a relationship with former soldier, Quin, who after his drugging has trouble controlling his emotional reactions. When his jealousy spikes and he's punching walls, it's clear he's dangerous - but it seems the answer to that is that "love conquers all." After Lex withdraws from him, Quin decides he's going to be a better person, and works to understand himself, reading psychology books and whatnot... and while this is indeed the baseline of what it takes to make personal changes - actually becoming informed and making an effort - it all seems to happen pretty quickly for me. This is unfortunate, especially since this appears to be a series - I feel it would have been okay to let the situation just sit for a bit - and let readers see and understand the time this sort of thing takes, and let Quin and Lex be just friends a bit longer.

Conclusion: A cleanly-written beginning to an action-packed Bay Area dystopian adventure - though San Francisco seems to be the city most often destroyed in dystopia, at least in this book, it's only the Bay Bridge that's been bombed flat. Sequels forthcoming - maybe they'll rebuild.

I received my copy of this book courtesy of _____. You can find THIS BOOK by This Author at an online e-tailer, or at a real life, independent bookstore near you!

March 23, 2015


Welcome to another edition of In Tandem, the read-and-review blog series where both A.F. and I give our two cents at the same time. (You can feel free to guess which of us is the yellow owl and which of us is the purple owl...we're not telling!) We're discussing the latest book from Elizabeth Wein today, the well-regarded NY Times bestselling YA fiction author, and, in the interest of disclosure, a personal friend. 

Told, as it is, in a series of essays, a letter, and flight logs, the novel is a pastiche of places and histories. Our discussion, to reflect this, will be more thematic than linear summary, so be warned. We also won't go into more detail than the jacket copy supplies, so you can read without fear of spoilers, if you worry about that kind of thing. This imagination-capturing story is an unforgettable work of historical fiction dealing with airplanes, Ethiopia, and love of country. It's billed as a historical thriller, a novel put together with a series of other documents - pieces of essays, a letter - detailing lives and purpose - and a need to go home. Join us. We're...
Two writers,
& Two readers,
With one book.

In Tandem.

A new historical thriller masterpiece from New York Times bestselling and award-winning author Elizabeth Wein

Emilia and Teo's lives changed in a fiery, terrifying instant when a bird strike brought down the plane their stunt pilot mothers were flying. Teo's mother died immediately, but Em's survived, determined to raise Teo according to his late mother's wishes - in a place where he won't be discriminated against because of the color of his skin. But in 1930s America, a white woman raising a black adoptive son alongside a white daughter is too often seen as a threat.

Seeking a home where her children won't be held back by ethnicity or gender, Rhoda brings Em and Teo to Ethiopia, and all three fall in love with the beautiful, peaceful country. But that peace is shattered by the threat of war with Italy, and teenage Em and Teo are drawn into the conflict. Will their devotion to their country, its culture and people, and each other be their downfall or their salvation?

We received copies of this book courtesy of the publisher, via NetGalley. After March 31st, you can find BLACK DOVE, WHITE RAVEN by Elizabeth Wein at an online e-tailer, or at a real life, independent bookstore near you.


ts davis ~ As always, I appreciate a good Elizabeth Wein book, and this one is no exception. This is a biiiig book. A big book. Not so much in terms of ... size dimensions, although I guess it's three hundred and sixty-eight pages, which is about a little longer than average, but it's a big book because it contains... multitudes. It's about love. It's about loss. And it's about ...history. The history of an old, old world that Westerners, really, but mostly Americans - know not that much about. Africa has been misidentified too many times as a single culture, a single story; a country and not a continent. And now here's this piece of a piece of a place, broken down to give us a little bite -- and it's just not enough. Though I'm not usually a fan of "reader directions," per se, like glossaries and forewords and the like, I love the afterword by the author, because she gives us a little more history and places the story within context - but lets us know how much more there is to know. I realize that everything I want to know about Ethiopia will never be enough. This is a novel which makes me want to both think, and travel. Maybe even time travel.

...many don't know the history of Marcus Garvey and Liberia and African Americans in the early part of the 20th century leaving the United States, and longing for a place where no one would mess with them. As an African American now, I have a different perspective - and no real connection to any nation in Africa, as it's not an empty continent onto which we can impress our stories - it has its own stories, and yes my ancestors were taken from there hundreds of years ago, but stories move on. Their story is no longer my own, and the people who were kind of "deported" to Liberia eventually figured that out... Anyway, I was intrigued by the whole concept - of what Americans would have had a connection with Ethiopia, and how they would have seen it.

sj stevenson ~ The whole idea of Empire as not "constructive" (constructing a vast landscape) but destructive (of what it already there) is something that we are given a vivid glimpse into in this story. Both kids, having grown up pretty much American in some critical ways, are our eyes, through which we see the problematic early-20th-century history of a place in which many nations were still clinging to the last vestiges of the old-style empires. And Ethiopia too was clinging to their own past, their own great empire and history. It never ceases to awe me that they were the last country to retain its independence against outside empirical powers. Really, there is a lot in this book to be inspired by: the accomplishments of women and African American pilots, just for a start. The movement between worlds, opened up and made possible by air travel.

Bessie Coleman; Photo: Smithsonian Institution
ts davis ~ Travel seems like it was so much easier back in the 20's and 30's - between the British and their Grand Tours and their "empiring" everything in sight, and the Americans "empiring" everything that was left (which wasn't much, granted), there were wealthy white people colonizing things all over the place. It was really nice in this story to see historical brown faces in the mix, too -- some I'd never heard about before, but then some I'd known about for years. I love so much that Bessie Coleman was included in the book as an inspiration for Em and Teo's mothers, who were at that time just pretty ladies sitting on the sidelines, to become barnstormers.

sj stevenson ~ Yes - I was fascinated by this unusual, adventuresome, determined family who are so dedicated to carving a space of their own, and how Ethiopia fit into that space (and they into IT). "I want to live in a place where people can do what they like, and it is ordinary." It is amazing to remember that this is still something many are struggling with--the right, the ability to simply live their lives and be who they are. And Africa as a setting is something that many people still see as an undifferentiated, monolithic place. We see the overarching (yet less important) similarities and know nothing about the vast differences between cultures. This book breaks down that monolith and introduces us to distinct landscapes, to concrete places we can feel (Beehive Hill!), to individual human beings and their stories.


ts davis ~Em and Teo's mothers are striking - Delia, because she is game for anything, and makes it work, and Em's mother, because she appears, at first read, ...flighty. There's really no other word for her - at first read. She has that post-Great War, 1920-30's enthusiasm thing - everything's a bright, lovely game! Let me drink champagne out of your slipper! And stand on the wings of my plane - wheee! - It's like they were all making up for the Great War, and dancing as hard as they could, Gatsby style, and yet, despite her breathless narrative, there was something more to this woman - because she was raised Quaker and a believer in equality? I don't know. What would make her really befriend this Colored woman, Delia? And what would make Delia really trust her? So much in that relationship - in the barnstorming and the friendship - depended on so little - one tiny point of congruence: absolute trust.

I also loved that though Em & Teo's mothers - and the shadows they cast - were immensely impacting in their lives that they were still different - they didn't allow their mothers to overwhelm them, force them into identical roles, etc., though at times it was a near thing!

sj stevenson ~ I completely agree with your characterization of the two mothers. Their personality contrast is fascinating, and yes--making up for the Great War by almost WILLING themselves into a different world, some parts of which were real and other parts fantasy, perhaps. The two women have a fascinating story in and of themselves for sure. Something I didn't really HAVE to know--but which kept popping into my head time and again--was the nature of their relationship. They were "soul mates," yes--and I really loved the fact that Grandma characterizes a soul mate as something unique and qualitatively different, not necessarily your life partner or spouse (though they could be) but your best friend in the whole world, someone who understands you better than anybody else. Besides that, though--clearly the moms were best friends, they were partners in flight, they were a team. They are the kids' parents, and that trumps any other possible aspects of their relationship. The four of them are a family and that is the important part and nothing else matters. There was something profoundly simple about that which I loved.  

ts davis ~ As with the friendship of Diana and Anne in ANNE OF GREEN GABLES, there are those people who feel that Elizabeth Wein's books have lesbian subtexts - that the relationship between the original Black Dove and White Raven is romantic, and maybe it is - but I have also often heard the author rail against the idea that there must be a romance in every single YA - that if you're not romantic, or if you're just not there yet or choose not to partake in relationships that there is no story for you. I think that these women could have had a romantic relationship, but I think they were truly and deeply soul mates, in truth, above all and before other considerations. And I find that I am intrigued by that, in many ways, because I don't know how to do that with girls... most of the female friendships in the Western world are not that trusting. I mean, we get the idea of "Mean Girls" shoved at us in the second and third grades. A misogynist society pits women against each other, as if men are some resource we're running out of -- so we don't know how to be this kind of friends.

Wouldn't it be amazing if we could learn?
With the exception of Teo and a few of the Ethiopian guys, in this novel, men - makers-of-rules, bringers-of-war, goers-back-on-deals - don't fare too well. Historically they were the makers of empire, the writers of history - but this time, they tried to write history on a place which had its own. Even the Emperor Selassie didn't fare well - his mistakes, in tolerating some things in the name of support in other areas is a political trade-off that happens all the time - this time with fairly disastrous results. And yet, Teo grows up to be a man -- a good man. Why? Because he was raised with his eyes open, observing men... and observing women.

I liked the roles in which this novel depicted women. They didn't always need or want husbands, that they didn't always have or show maternal caring. Some of them have children and love them traditionally, and others, differently. Despite the hard-and-fast roles for women in that time, this novel showed them crossing continents, and their love - for families, children, partners, friends - surviving, even in an age without electronics, where the only connection comes via airmail. This love doesn't have to be in the same room to be love. Love doesn't have to be on the same page, of the same color, of the same family. I think that, for some people, will be a discovery most profound. Some people will not see this mother as a loving mother - but she was, and she remained so... but she also loved herself. That's not something we see a lot of in fiction -- mothers, if they don't love the character as they want, are uniformly bad. This seems like it opens up so many possibilities. I'm liking the non-binary trend I am seeing in realistic and historical fiction -- that there is more than black and white, more than one story, areas of gray. This is, at last, truth.


ts davis ~ "Doing the thing you are scared of is much harder than not being afraid of anything. It is easy to be brave. It is not so easy to be scared and do a brave thing anyway." Sometimes, breathless optimism wears you out. Sometimes it can feel like recklessness. Then, desperation. As I read this novel, I was both glad NOT to be a mother, and that no one was asking anything adventurous or protective of me, in a time of war.

Emperor Haile Selassie
sj stevenson ~ It was so painful to witness Teo being caught up in events in Ethiopia simply due to his parentage, something he had no control over. And yet, in the end, seeing him realize that if people had only ASKED him if he wanted to perform the task, rather than turning right away to their ownership of him, he would have done it freely--Wow.

ts davis ~ Who owns us - what we owe - these things are SO HARD. As an Ethiopian of African American descent, Teo wasn't a caricature of a black Southerner as is so often the case in YA historical fiction where we see black kids on a plantation or something -- he was depicted as a regular, 1930's kid, someone who wore his sweater backwards and wrote stories and read comic books and flew planes and went to school and had a mom who died -- and someone whose life was just as suddenly shot out of the air like a previously soaring bird. He was just... downed. Boom. All that potential, crumpled up and ricocheting off the edge of the garbage can. Doomed by history. And even in the calmest manner, the book doesn't shy away from this: "Are we important, or just valuable?"

Part of me - cynical, person-of-color me - was really mad at Em's mother and thought, You fools! You walked him right into this snare! And again, this idea is reflected by Em: "Everything is all your fault. You are our momma, and you are supposed to protect us."

I like the way the book talks about that ownership, though -- how it is something which just grows with you, like the cells with which you were born. That inevitability of Teo and Ethiopia meeting up in negative ways felt a lot like how inescapable everything has been, since last summer, about all the racial violence and tension just floating in the air... it owns you, in a way, even if you don't think you know or care about it... because it's written on your skin, it's a birth...debt, instead of a birthright. You, by virtue of your birth, are owned by this faceless THING and you can't escape it -- "The whole way out, White Raven worried about how they were going to get rid of Black Dove's invisible chains without hurting him any more." The metaphor in that story that Em and Teo wrote together is just kind of mind-blowing. Invisible chains. It's what shackled Teo at every turn. At every turn. That realization within the narrative was, for me, just huge.


sj stevenson ~ I wasn't entirely absorbed at first by the narrative format, but once the story got going, as always, the author is a master of using an epistolary storytelling method. And the "Theme for Miss Shore" provoked echoes for me of Langston Hughes' "Theme for English B" and its honest, self-exploratory, subtly provocative style.

ts davis ~ I love that Hughes piece, so much, and I think it's a brilliant little leap from that to this. If I could write essays like Em and Teo could when I was a teen, I would've been happy... It was a happy-sad thing for me how they wrote stories when they were completely overwhelmed and out of ...countenance with the world. When they needed to think. When they needed ... a bedtime story themselves, they wrote themselves one. Very poignant, and true-to-life as a coping/comfort mechanism.

sj stevenson ~There is some really awesome stuff in this book about the power and role of story, how we can turn to stories in times of trouble and they will strengthen us for the times when we need to put the book away and ACT. Em and Teo create their own stories, their own alter egos, and find strength in them. They are "maps to help you navigate." I love that.

ts davis ~ That larger theme is what makes this a crossover, to my mind - and that's one of the other things I like about the writing of Elizabeth Wein. It's not like she writes FOR teens, and tries to simplify things, or FOR adults, and tries to write... up, or what have you. She just writes, and tells her true. Honestly, this is not going to be an easy book to read for everyone. It's like paging through a scrapbook and finding an historical mystery, and putting the pieces together - an essay here, a flight log there, a little bit of backstory, a fragment of history -- and then you find this family. And they're real. And they're vital. And they -- change things; maybe even their own hearts and mine, maybe how we think of slavery and freedom and people of color, maybe nothing... but maybe everything. And this is a Wein book. She writes her truth, and I think her books always find their tribe.

As noted, we received copies of this book courtesy of the publisher, via NetGalley; all quotations from the book are from the uncorrected review copy and may not reflect the final version. Thanks for joining us on this journey. And if you've read the book, feel free to join in the conversation!

March 20, 2015


I guess you know I'm not a "real" old-school Science Fiction person - "real" Science Fiction people can make it through H.P. Lovecraft. I can't. I've tried. It's not his labyrinthine sentence structure and 19th century word choices - I've read a lot of 19th century British and American lit; I can deal with that. It's just that I find his intense, twisted, and morbid work a little hysterical, gruelingly dark, and at the end of the day, I don't find that style of dramatic, gimmicky horror compelling. I get bored. What I like are books with a hint of Lovecraftian style -- novels that leaven Lovecraft's weighty Gothic sensibilities with just enough quirk to let us know it doesn't take itself too seriously. This novel is one of the best examples of the Lovecraftian I've read - and one of the few with a young adult protagonist. While not technically marketed to YA perhaps, I think this crosses over beautifully and am calling it early - this one needs to be a Cybils nominee.

Summary: Harrison Harrison - H², as his mother calls him - is the fifth male of that name in his family - H²5. Harrison the Fourth was killed in the accident that lost H²5 his leg when he was just a toddler and their boat overturned somewhere on the California coast, and from that accident, Harrison remembers... tentacles. And rings of pointy teeth. That's entirely wrong, of course. A piece of metal practically sheered off Harrison's leg, there aren't any toothy, tentacled monsters in California, regardless of what he remembers...and regardless of the lingering terror of water which it seems will haunt him for the rest of his life.

Aside from an irascible grandfather and an incredibly flighty aunt, most of H²'s family is in Brazil and his mother is all he has left. When she's in Absentminded Professor Mode, which is most of the time lately, he fends for himself, which is why he's come along to Massachusetts on her latest research venture. Harrison and his mother are trucking across country to the grim little Northeast coastal village of Dunnsmouth, because there have been sightings of something ginormous in the water - possibly a giant squid. Dr. Harrison's just going to set out buoys at certain GPS coordinates, buoys which will ping back information to the computers at the research center in San Diego. Only, Harrison isn't feeling like Dunnsmouth is an entirely healthy place. The kids in the junior class all look the same - pale with dark hair, like an extensive cult of sun-avoiding vampire zombies. The teachers are another lot of weirdies, the villagers scuttle about bearded and gloomy like something out of Melville or The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, and some weird half-fish dude - no, seriously, he was slimy and he had gills - stole Harrison's comic book. Exactly WHAT is going on in this freaky little town? And, why does his stump hurt here all the time? When Harrison's mother vanishes - the mysterious little town turns deadly. All Harrison wants is some straight answers and his mother back, - NOW - but it will take heart, determination, and the team of total misfits he's gathered to help him.

You KNOW you want to read an excerpt, so here, have one.

MORE BONUS HARRISON CONTENT! A FREE Harrison Squared choose-your-own-adventure game!! Try not to kill him before you read the book, though...

Peaks: The obvious WEiRdNeSS in this novel just sells it for me, from the tentacle-festooned cover onward. It spools out from the first scenes like a fisherman's line, hooks the reader, and drags them seamlessly beneath waves of odd. Strange, strange people - with descriptions that liken them to sea life - descriptions of the grayish little town with its clammy weather, depressing architecture and utterly bizarre school. I loved this dry humor, the references to Dr. Harrison's Terena ancestry and H²5's biracial Presbyterian-Terena ancestry (according to Harrison, “like 'eggshell' and 'ivory,' 'Presbyterian' is a particular shade of pale”) being cause for concern in the very white, very backwards village - an oppositional poke to H.P. Lovecraft's blindly virulent racism - and how in general racists become a little joke poked at repeatedly. It's interesting how Harrison's fatal flaw - a rotten temper - works for him and against him. He's truly a take charge of things in his own life, and makes them work kind of character.

Harrison's voice is confiding, snarky and bewildered by turns. He's slightly delusional in the beginning of the novel, but unlike many YA heroes, he's never self-deceiving. I love him as a character because he KNOWS there's stuff going down in Dunnsmouth, and he's not afraid to look at it and find out. Also, because he's hilarious. To wit: "Mom once said Selma wasn't a woman but an ad in a women's magazine: glossy, two-dimensional and smelling like a perfume insert." Snark! The zingers are a great deal of fun, even the dumb science jokes and the manga references. Each chapter begins with a piece of Coleridge's "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner," which is another lovely thing that will make readers feel smart - especially if you were a reader assigned this for school and never enjoyed it before - you will now! All together, this novel is sheer enjoyment.

Valleys: This is only a valley to ME, but this book is actually a prequel to an adult novel, WE ARE ALL COMPLETELY FINE. If we all buy this book, maybe we can talk the author into writing more for YA? It's worth a shot, isn't it? This novel has a messy ending - no shiny bluebirds flying around the HEA, but a grimly determined monster hunter, having been tried in the fire, stands ready to use the power of science to make things right... which is a good thing, since evil never sleeps... Frankly, I want more of KID Harrison, not adult Jameson Jameson, who is apparently Harrison under a pseudonym. This also makes me want to pick up WE ARE ALL COMPLETELY FINE, which I can't guarantee is a YA crossover but will undoubtedly be interesting!

Conclusion: You know I am a wuss about horror, yet I cannot properly convey to you the charm of this book, which is ...kinda horror. Just pick up a copy. This is a great book for anyone who loves adventure and horror-lite, and is a quick, engaging read that will leave you craving more.

I received my copy of this book courtesy of Tor. After March 24th you can find HARRISON SQUARED by Daryl Gregory at an online e-tailer, or at a real life, independent bookstore near you!

March 18, 2015

♦ ACL 2015 ♦ KidLit Community ♦ Our Peeps

ALL DUE RESPECT. A Dialogue about Diversity, Equity, and Creating Safe Spaces for All Youth. Friday, April 10, 2015. The keynote for the Association of Children's Librarians Institute is prolific children's book writer Jacqueline Woodson, and the effervescent Maya Gonzalez, whom we met in person for the first time at KidLitCon, is giving a creativity session.

Children's book editor Laura Atkins - also a KidLitCon attendee last October - is speaking on a panel chaired by Nina Lindsay, the children's services coordinator for the Oakland Public Library who recently published this intensely important SLJ piece on the challenges and choices ahead for diversity in children's publishing. Co-paneling with Laura are author Jacqueline Woodson, writer, blogger and activist Malinda Lo, and poet, activist and writer Aya de Leon. Does this not sound weighty and thought-provoking and fabulous with potential? And the Institute is open to the public. Register for the day here.

Meanwhile in other KidLitCon attendee news...

Recognize the name of your Cybils Overlord? Of course you do.

Coming August 4th from Skyhorse Publishing.

Hat tip and curtsey to blog-buddies Laura and Overlord Anne for letting us know what they're up to in the community.

March 17, 2015


One of the things I love about mysteries is how much they vary. This mystery could be described as "cozy," because of the presence of old ladies, but the main character is an out of work child actress who really is the most reluctant of Miss Marples. A little bit of humor, a lot of atmosphere, and a bit of a mystery make this a perfect complement to a wish for summer-to-come. It's difficult to describe without spoilers, so I won't go into it too much - but pick this up if you need a break from annoying characters who don't ask enough questions -- Francie is insatiably curious, quick on her feet and determined - even when she doesn't intend to be.

Summary: Seventeen year old Francine - "Frenchy," to her nutty aunties, Astrid and Jeanette, and "Francie" to the people around the lake where they live - has been left behind one time too many. First, by an absent mother, and than by a father who died too soon - in an inexplicable car accident. Packing her heart away, Francie's preferred interaction with the world is taking on other roles and other personalities, though it seems those other roles are drowning her. A former child star, Francie's auditioning in Manhattan and going to summer school as her grandfather wants her to when she receives a baffling phone call from the aunts in northern Minnesota. Something is happening, or has happened. Maybe. People are dying - they're in imminent danger - or they're not. Francie isn't clear what's going on, and by the time she gets all the way out to Enchantment from New York, the water is even muddier. People around the lake have been dying - lots of them. But in odd little accidents, not murders. A tree falling through a roof. A well being poisoned. Snakes -- on the island which has none. Nobody could be doing all of that, no matter what the Aunts say. Unless the developer who wants their land has been offing them all? Are her aunts in danger? Or did they just want her to come back to Enchantment - to the dark little box in her heart she's been avoiding since her mother's desertion and her father's death?

“To go in the dark with a light is to know the light.
To know the dark, go dark. Go without sight,
and find that the dark, too, blooms and sings,
and is traveled by dark feet and dark wings.

~ Wendell Berry, "To Know the Dark"
from Farming, A Handbook (Harcourt Brace, 1970)

Peaks: Francie reads poetry, which is a delight. At times she seems a bit world-weary and mature for seventeen, but she is a loner, an independent who has chosen to fend for herself, instead of getting too involved with others. Much of who Francie is comes through in the snippets of poetry -- but mostly what she's NOT is bandied around the town. Loudly. She's NOT a detective - but she did play one on TV...

This is a wonderfully evocative novel; the sense of place is second to none. The screen door's slap, the trill of the chickadees and the sound of the boats on the lake give deeper layers to the idyllic town of Enchantment. The friendly, slightly scruffy people who make it their home are charming and real. Francie alone seems solitary and aloof. She's a stranger to herself, but Astrid and Jeanette help her begin to see who she is again. Returning to Enchantment only focuses her view.

The mystery in this novel isn't hard-edged or hard-boiled. There really ARE mysterious deaths, spooky sounds in the woods, watchers and stalkers and kinda-confessions -- though it's all introduced in as bumbling and roundabout a way as the aunts minds work. The reader shares Francie's affection for - and exasperation with - the pair of them. Hints about a mystery under the lake, environmental issues, unscrupulous real estate agents and land grabs are derailed with red herrings in killer casserole dishes. Nerve-wracking night-walkers are diffused by an indifferent, near-retirement Sheriff but a sweet legal assistant who pays attention gets things stirred to a nice simmer, and finally - eventually - things reach a surprising boil. A quiet novel, but don't let that fool you.

Valleys: While this isn't a particularly diverse cast of characters, this is nonetheless a lovely afternoon read and a perfect lakeside accompaniment to a float chair, sunscreen and mosquito coils. (Let's all think hopeful thoughts that direction, right?) Some readers who like a straightforward plot, and to be told everything rather than allowing it to unfold may be impatient with the pacing, but I feel that this moves along in exactly the right way, and will find its home as the returned-to favorite of many readers.

Conclusion:A quirky, disarming gem of a mystery about the lovely, lake-filled Midwest, this moves as sweetly and simply as a loom skimming over sunlit waves - but as with every lake, there's more than you imagine underneath. I'm hopeful we'll see Francie again.

I received my copy of this book courtesy of University of Minnesota Press. You can find ENCHANTMENT LAKE: A Northwoods Mystery by Margi Preus at an online e-tailer, or at a real life, independent bookstore near you!