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 FOREST 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.

August 20, 2014

Another KidlitCon Shout Out!

Charlotte's been dropping programming peeks down on the Bookshelf lately, so I felt I had to throw down with another mini-poster, now that I know that Stephanie Kuehn is going to be at the Con on Friday! Knowing how socially limited I am, I'm just going to stand near her and squee silently, but I'm excited she's going to come and mingle and join in the conversations.

There are other fun, intelligent, and ridiculously good-looking people coming to grace this Con - and other authors not pictured on this poster, as well. (Running out of space for faces is a DELIGHTFUL problem!) It's worth coming to see friends and be a part of the conversation about books, blogging, and diversity - we might just kick off something which opens up a whole new world. Hope to see you there!

As always, click to embiggen!

August 19, 2014

TURNING PAGES: CHARM & STRANGE by Stephanie Kuehn

Got a long stretch of quiet time available? This isn't a read-at-the-crowded-airport-layover novel, necessarily, but I found it absolutely arresting over the one-sitting course of a quiet morning. I grabbed this book because this author's debut novel is winner of the 2014 William C. Morris Award, was longlisted for the 2014 CILIP Carnegie Medal and was a finalist for the California Book Award, and I've read three starred reviews already for her second book, which has only been out since June. I thought it was well past time for me to read some Stephanie Kuehn (pronounced "keen").

NB:This is, at its heart, a book about truth and silence. I focus on more of the narrative structure than I do the plot arc, in an attempt to leave the details for readers to discover, but know that this is an engaging, disturbing, challenging read. I can imagine older teens who enjoyed Patrick Ness' THE KNIFE OF NEVER LETTING GO, A.S. King's EVERYBODY SEES THE ANTS, and books of that ilk will find it a worthy challenge.

"The school devours privacy and rumors are like drops of blood in an ocean full of predators."

Summary: Andrew Winston Winters - using probably the best description of a hated boarding school I've read - has been marooned in Vermont; he's been sent away and is marking time after a massive family meltdown. He's waiting -- for something to happen, really. After all that's gone down, there must be something next, some malignancy which will appear from within himself. When a dead "townie" turns up in the woods off-campus, Win's sure that this is it: the "something" has happened - he has become a wolf, and he has killed. His main hope is not to ever hurt anyone else when it the wolf erupts from him -- he's seen people hurt enough. He's hurting enough. He's miserably lonely sometimes... but also terrified. His classmates see him either a snob or a kook, a withdrawn, ultra-brilliant, and ultra-isolated outcast. When a girl who doesn't know his history - and hasn't yet found her feet at his school - latches on to him, he's tempted to make a friend -- but the past is always only moments behind him, and nothing is possible, until that past is brought into focus. With the help of friends he didn't know he has, Win makes sense of incidents in his past, and finds his way to having a future.

...we talked about matter - most notably quarks, those tiniest components of everything. They come in six flavors, you know: up, down, top, bottom, charm, and strange. I'll admit those talks helped me, and when I read about the sea quarks, I understood why. They contain particles of matter and antimatter, and where the two touch exists this constant stream of creation and annihilation.

Peaks: Creation. Annihilation. A constant push-pull. What a perfect description, and one which physics buffs will appreciate. Despite the fact that I found the novel troubling, it was a superb read. With balanced structure and careful revelations, the novel uses woods, wolves, darkness and other images to take the reader into the realm of the unknown. As illumination, in the form of facts, emerge through the voice of a deeply unreliable narrator, the facts morph, like elongated and distorted shadows as created by a flashlight bobbing through deep woods. Consequently, at times the reader feels a little lost, even a little frightened as they're learning the path. Is all that we see all that we should see? Or, is there something else to know...? This lack of clarity mimics the protagonist's journey into the tangled undergrowth of himself, where it is very dark indeed, where sharp-edged branches slice and impale, and there is pain and trauma and danger.

Nine-year-old Drew, plagued with frequent motion-induced vomiting, bouts of rage, and a lot of poor impulse control, shows classic symptoms of a troubled kid. The narrative bounces back and forth between this conflicted Drew and the isolated, sixteen-year-old Win, all that's left of him. The irony of him taking his long name down to a single syllable, "Win" when all that he feels left with is clearly loss gives us another edged insight into the character. Through these deft characterizations comes clear a very disturbed character, as secret-upon-secret is folded up and pushed further and further down, down, down... but, nothing stays pushed down forever. Win feels the past scrabbling up the steep sides of his throat, pushing out hair and claws through his skin. He fears -- and feeds - the wolf to come. He welcomes the change -- and the carnage -- almost as much as he fears it.

But every birth needs a midwife. Though he doesn't choose them, Win finds coaches to help him breathe, and take him to the place where the ugliness and violence is given voice and life -- and is declawed in a way that lets he and the wolf not kill.

Valleys: This is a complex, brilliant book - and to me there are no valleys. Some readers may find the psychological thrillers aspect of the novel and the subject matter disturbing. Not knowing is also challenging to many readers; untangling the cords strangling the voice out of truth is a difficult task. This novel, however, is still worth the work.



I read a library copy. You can find CHARM & STRANGE by Stephanie Kuehn online, or at an independent bookstore near you!

August 18, 2014

Blast from the Past: Last Year's KidLitCon

That's right--it's time for our weekly plug for this year's KidLitCon! (Are you going? Are you going? Are you going??? We are!!) This time, though, I thought I'd entice you by re-posting my recap of last year's conference in Austin, which was, as always, an amazing event. Here are a few photos and impressions, plus lots and lots about why this is one of my favorite kidlit events EVAR.


...I did want to post some pictures from KidLitCon Austin this weekend while I'm still riding high on the fabulousness of having gotten together with my blogging kindred spirits to compare notes on two of our favorite things: kidlit, and sharing kidlit.

Jen and Pam at the registration table
You are all the most lovely people. We have such an amazing community, I can't believe it sometimes, but Kidlitcon always reminds me how incredible it is.

"Kindred spirits" is the two-word phrase Leila used when I asked my roundtable panel to describe what they felt was the greatest thing about the kidlitosphere. And I couldn't agree more. It's one of my favorite parts of the Kidlitcon experience. This year was no exception: sharing SFF opinions (and cringeworthy first lines) with roomie Charlotte, getting caught up with Lee Wind on his many wonderful projects (and his gorgeous family), meeting Paula of Pink Me's book-toting sons, renewing good friendships with regulars like Pam and Jen and Maureen and Melissa and Sheila and Kelly and Camille and Katy, finally meeting old blogging friends Chris Barton and Leila Roy and finding out that kindred spirits are everywhere. Oh, there's more, much more. Great conversations abounded. I met Jennifer Donovan of 5 Minutes for Books, Kelly's blog partner Kimberly Francisco over at Stacked, Sherry Early of Semicolon, Rosemond Cates of Big Hair and Books, authors Margo Rabb and PJ Hoover, serious blogging bigwig and all-around amazing person Jen Bigheart, Guys Lit Wire frequent commenter Liviania--aka Allie--of In Bed With Books.

Cynthia enlightens us on writing and blogging--a perfect start to the day
Really, that isn't even all of it. Did you know many a kidlit blogger is addicted to Candy Crush Saga? I seriously cannot start on that. I had a major Tetris addiction growing up, and have loved games like Mean Bean Machine and Jewelbox and Columns and whatnot. I'd lose weeks of my life.

Cynthia Leitich Smith is a GEM. We all knew that. But her keynote, "Blogging on the Brain," was not just a throwaway inspirational speech but full of heart and full of fantastic tips for all of us bloggers from someone who is an inveterate blogger herself, devoted to sharing information. I especially liked these:
  • Re: her own writing: "It was time to change perceptions or I couldn't write many of the stories I wanted to write."
  • Re: building a successful blogging platform: "We associate consistency with credibility," and "You can build an audience by playing to your strengths." 
  • Re: the potential dangers of engaging with critics online: "Blogs are a battlefield, so pick your battles and pick them wisely." 
Kimberly and Kelly of Stacked discuss the importance of critical reviewing
Jen and I presented on Fighting Blog Burnout, and hopefully sharing our stories and strategies was something others could relate to and benefit from. I moderated a panel on where we've been and where we're going, us folks in the kidlitosphere community. I learned about Soft Sell Marketing from Molly Blaisdell, who knew just how to pique my interest by using Malcolm Gladwell's The Tipping Point as a point of departure. And I broadened my knowledge of Critical Reviewing and Middle Grade Books.

Blogging the Middle Grade Books with Katy, Charlotte, and Melissa
And, of course, I came out of it feeling energized about blogging again, which is always one of the great benefits of attending. I feel like one of my big goals for after my rewrite is turned in will be to spend time thinking about my own blogging and what I want to do going forward, and to get my blog READING under control, too--getting back into it a little more, even if it's just in small ways.

Lastly, not to get overly sentimental here--because the curmudgeon in me hates that--but I got a little teary last night when I got home, thinking about how I have all these wonderful online friends and yet we live so far away from each other geographically speaking. At the same time, without our blogging we would never have met at all, would never have found this community of kindred spirits.

August 15, 2014

TURNING PAGES: WORDS AND THEIR MEANINGS by Kate Bassett

Novels dealing with death in young adult literature aren't exactly new - we're currently living in The Summer of the Cancer Novel, hello - but what's always new is every young person's - really, every person's - way of dealing with death - dealing with loss, dealing with grief. Some choose to go on and have super relationships in the face of death -- and other people just... choose, as their means of "dealing," not to deal with it at all. Kate Bassett's debut novel with the clever, origami-wordy cover, explores what happens while dealing, and shows readers one girl's way of finding a path out of the dark.

Summary: Anna O’Mally is seventeen, and experiencing her first losses. Unfortunately, they're world-shattering. First, Anna's experiencing the loss of being clever -- when she loses the London writing fellowship she's positive she was fated to have, she's not able to believe in herself as a powerhouse writer anymore. Second, the loss of The Good Life - now that her uncle, who was raised as her brother, has died, she is wracked with guilt -- guilt that isn't hers, but guilt nonetheless. Finally, she's experienced the loss of childhood - and innocence. With the death of his brother, her father has gone off the rails into some clichéd midlife crisis and gotten his young secretary pregnant. It sucks to be Anna right now -- except, that it doesn't. Not entirely. She has people who love her, a grandfather and mother still deeply involved in her life and caring about her - and a best friend who has grieved next to her and stayed with her step-by-step - through the hospitalization, the coffin-yoga, and the general "meh" attitude about life and everything. Anna's been taking everything at face value, filtered through the lens of her massive self-centeredness. When she finds out that not everything is as she believed, she's thrown out of her spin -- and into somewhere she's never been before: self-exploration. Self-awareness. And maybe, finally, personal truth.

Peaks: This book is a pitch-perfect reflection of grief. With that said, it is sometimes slow, sometimes bruising, sometimes boring. The protagonist is sometimes thoroughly grating and unlikeable. If you're looking for prettied up versions of grief, you won't find them here: this is the real deal. Anna wallows, and that's who she is. Her life is one long chant of ritual -- wake up and do This. Eat That. Find a phrase for the day. All of these things are designed to keep grief -- feelings -- at bay, but of course, none of it works. There are too many cracks in the world to seal them up with glue sticks and band-aids. Whistling through the graveyard isn't going to help: Anna's "bruncle" Joe is irretrievably gone, her baby sister has turned into Houdini the vanishing artist, her mother has turned into someone who sighs and finally actually sides with her father to threaten her with some kind of Christian anti-suicide school, and her grandfather is folding paper cranes. Endlessly.

This is not a portrait of a family doing well.

And yet, this is the portrait of a family. No matter that they are falling apart at the seams, no matter that they have made catastrophically poor choices, no matter that they are whistling past the graveyard as the roof caves in, they are present and are trying to love each other the best way they know how. The family in this novel is colossal. And, they eventually get better... because even grief -- a grief that you try your best to hold onto, because you feel like it's the only thing that means something? Even grief fades. Time wins, every time. The trick is the make that win mean something.

Valleys: This book is a pitch-perfect reflection of grief. It is selfish, self-centered, grating, unpleasant, and at times utterly banal. The pacing is slow, and the pressure of ritual, secrets, and pain is intense. There's a plot twist which wasn't surprising to me, which I think many readers will anticipate -- but what isn't intended to be a plot twist, what I refer to as a "Little Women" (remember when Amy burns Jo's manuscript???) moment in the novel ENRAGED me. I was shocked that the protagonist - much lauded as a wordsmith - seems to take this violation in stride. I truly expected more of a reaction to the transgression, but perhaps by that point, so much has happened to the protagonist that the author was simply ready to move the character forward and conclude the novel. I felt that the realistic angst in trying to find a model for forgiveness for someone you deeply love and also somewhat hate would have made for a bittersweet and very realistic conclusion.

Anna's Uncle Joe died of something horribly like meningitis - a simple cold turned 'flu turned superbug. The novel never names it - H1N1? Swine 'flu? Not naming the disease seemed unnecessarily mysterious to me. This is a tiny quibble, given that the sickness is part of the mystery in the novel, but I kept wondering why the name was an actual unknown.

Aaaand, as is standard in the young adult realistic fiction world, it seems, there's the romance. I admit to being really disappointed by this - in one way. In another, a super dysfunctional romantic relationship made perfect sense; when we're avoiding our own feelings we often latch onto other people like they're our personal life buoys. That being said, I don't think the relationship was portrayed as honestly as it could have been. It was torturous, and needy but survived -- and I'm just not sure that someone so consumed within the firestorm of her own needs would have noticed another person in the room, stark naked and dancing a jig, much less a guy she just sees at a work gig. They have a rather clichéd "across a crowded room" moment, and both seem instantaneously bitten by the love bug. That he's Latino, smokes, is a "bad boy" and she's from the metaphorical "other side" of the tracks feels less true. The super-foreign feeling of his family as ethnic people I found questionable; it's as if she's never met Spanish-speaking Latino people before (and, maybe she hasn't; Mario seems to be the only person of color in the entire novel with lines to speak).

Those quibbles aside, this is an intensely felt, deeply thoughtful novel which touches on our sometimes desperate need to step out from being ourselves and become someone else, the price we pay for that, and the way to get back home. This family-firm debut novel from Kate Bassett is a strong start, and we can expect more good things from her.



I received a copy of this novel courtesy of Flux. After September 8th, you can find WORDS AND THEIR MEANINGS by KATE BASSETT at online booksellers, or at an independent brick-and-mortar bookstore near you!

August 14, 2014

Drrrummm Rolllll.....

Just you wait until tomorrow.

I could not be more excited that the Cybils Awards are launching a BRAND-NEW-SUPER-DUPER-AWESOME website!

I helped out with the redesign, but most of the credit for the heavy lifting goes to Sheila of Wands and Worlds (who is the Cybils tech guru) and Jen Robinson, who is all-around talented and awesome.

There are so many great new features on the new site, including a mobile-friendly design, Twitter feed in the sidebar, popup finalist lists by year and category, and tons of info for bloggers, authors, and publishers. Oh, and it's on Wordpress now. It's going to be amazing. And there will be growing pains, but hopefully the sheer awesomeness will carry us through.

You'll also be able to buy new 2014 Cybils bling--in plenty of time for KidLitCon, hint hint... (I'm going! Are you going?) Anyway, don't forget to check out the new Cybils website tomorrow and let us know what you think.