April 29, 2016

Turning Pages Reads: EVERY HEART A DOORWAY by Seanan McGuire

Welcome to another session of Turning Pages!

Synopsis: The story of children vanishing isn't new; they slip between worlds even when they're safely at home. Mostly girls, because they're quieter, and not as quickly missed when they're taken Underhill. At times, a changeling is left, made of mud and sticks... and, not much hue and cry is made. But when they're sucked into Fairyland, or dropped down a rabbit hole into Nonsense, or emerge into the Moors, or end up via the wardrobe in some Virtuous world where all is sunshine and unicorn and rainbows, it's not the disappearing that matters... The worst thing on earth is the bump when you land coming back.

And, what then?

Then you end up at Eleanor West's Home for Wayward Children. On the surface of things, it's a reform school where your parents send you when you need straightening up. Once the front door closes, and they're safely back at home, there you find your tribe.

Nancy was the Princess-in-Waiting to the Lord of Death. Her black-and-white hair, habit of stillness, and grayscale color scheme bespeak her the world in which she once lived in a state of cool, bloodless peace with no haste. But, the world she's landed back in is colorful, cacophonous, and her parents don't know her anymore. Desperate, they steal her black clothes and send her away with a dreadful pink suitcase stuffed with rainbow-brights. Nancy's desperate with longing to find her door, and go back to where she feels she belongs. But, there is no going back. That's what the child-sized psychologist at her new school, Dr. Lundy, says. Restless, tree-climbing Sumi, Nancy's new roommate, agrees, stating that hope is the worst of the four-letter-words no one should say. Eleanor, the sixty-ish woman who runs the home, says that's not true - that some doors reappear for some kids. She knows exactly where her door is located, after all. She's only waiting to go home when it's the right time.

But, for some of the children, it won't ever be the right time. Tragedy stalks this tiny boarding school-cum-sanitarium and strikes just after Nancy's arrival. Suddenly all eyes are on her - the new girls who's ruined everything. Others are suspected in their turn -- but accusations and panic are spinning them all in tightening circles. She doesn't know anyone well enough to suspect them, but Nancy decides that no one has the right to determine who she is -- and battling suspicion, her fears, and a load of loss and near paralyzing grief, she and her newfound friends in this awful, beautiful world have to get to the heart of what's going on, before it's too late.

Observations: Readers who enjoyed MISS PEREGRINES HOME FOR PECULIAR CHILDREN may find a sympathetic echo in this novel, but Ransom Riggs wrote more of a straightforward adventure story -- crossing into the Weird, and going home safely to familiarity at night, and returning at will. This is a darker, sadder story. The slim volume is one hundred, sixty-nine pages long and yet manages to get its claws into your heart.

Like Nancy, readers come into the world confused - without benefit of the orientation which takes place after her first night's sleep at the Home. We live, at first, in the expectation that all the quirky characters are going to be spontaneously entertaining - poof off somewhere, do something fun - but they don't. They grieve, and soon we become accustomed to that -- and then everything changes again.

The tension heightens, the screws tighten, and then All Is Revealed. The little revelations continue to spill along until the final one, which surprised me a bit. I had to think whether I wanted things to conclude in the way that they did, or not. I'm still not quite decided.

Conclusion: A gorgeous depth and stillness inhabits Seanan McGuire's prose in this brief literary fantasy. There is a diversity of age in this novel which allows it to cross over beautifully, and will be of interest to older teens who may find themselves jaded with fantasy novels of evil fey, or are searching for an offbeat novel about acceptance and finding one's tribe. There are some surprising moments - and attitudes in this novel, but the surprises make sense from the characters. I found this work seamless, and found myself tearing up a bit just from ...a gentle nostalgia for places that don't exist, to which I'm sure I ought to be going home. In two words, disturbingly beautiful.

I WON my copy of this book via a Tor.com contest which never, ever happens. You can find EVERY HEART A DOORWAY by Seanan McGuire at an online e-tailer, or at a real life, independent bookstore near you!

April 28, 2016

Thursday Review: HUMAN BODY THEATER by Maris Wicks

Synopsis: Iiiiiit's—a kids' comics extravaganza! Featuring The All-Singing, All-Dancing Anatomy Extravaganza, Human Body Theater: A Nonfiction Revue by Maris Wicks! With a name like Human Body Theater, if you're of a certain generation like myself, you might first (unfortunately, and inaccurately) think of the Jim Rose Circus Sideshow. NO, no. Clear all those thoughts out of your head. (If you can. My one experience with the Jim Rose Circus is indelibly imprinted on my gray matter and involves a lot of going "EEWWW" and "UGGGHHH".) If you're squeamish, don't even Google it.

No, what we've got here is another wonderful science comic by the very talented Maris Wicks, author of the graphic novels Coral Reefs (reviewed here) and Primates (reviewed here), among others. This fact-packed book provides an entertaining introduction to all the various systems of the body, how they work, what their components are, and their roles in our everyday lives, from the tiniest cells to our complicated superstar brains. Each "Act" of the performance that our astounding bodies perform every day focuses on a different bodily system, such as the Digestive System.

Click to embiggen. Courtesy of Macmillan.
As with Wicks' other science comics, all the organs and cells and whatnot are adorably brought to life with expressive little faces, and described by our intrepid and knowledgeable narrator the Skeleton. There are cartoon diagrams, pictures of organs, fun (and funny) yucky stuff, and if you're still confused at the end, there's even a glossary for you. But you won't be, because it's all so seamlessly put together, and even talks about how various systems work in concert to enable us to do things like see, hear, walk, talk, burp, and sneeze.

Observations: I know I would have enjoyed this one a lot as a kid, and gone back to flip through it over and over, because I really liked illustrated science books. I think I've mentioned that I had numerous volumes of Charlie Brown's Super Book of Questions and Answers; this fits that sort of niche. Kids (and older readers) have all kinds of questions about how their own bodies work, and this is the perfect book to answer those questions, especially if, like me, you've reached adulthood and information has started falling out of your brain

It's clear, informative, and the drawings invariably put a smile on my face. My only caveat with this one is that it is rather exhaustive. It's not a book to be (necessarily) read in a single sitting, and younger kids might find it a bit information-heavy, depending of course on the reader. On the other hand, the level of detail in this book makes it a good one for anyone who might need a refresher on their anatomy and physiology, or anyone who simply enjoys reading about science.
Click to embiggen. Courtesy of Macmillan.

Conclusion: I am a big fan of well-done educational comics. For kids who are visual learners or who respond well to multiple learning modalities, comics are a great way to introduce material that might otherwise feel discouragingly complex. Human Body Theater turns what could easily be a dry subject into a lively, personified look at the amazing human body. Stay tuned later this month for an interview with the author!

I received my copy of this book courtesy of the publisher, First Second / Macmillan. You can find HUMAN BODY THEATER by Maris Wicks at an online e-tailer, or at a real life, independent bookstore near you!

April 26, 2016

Surveying Stories: Observing adults in Kwame Alexander's THE CROSSOVER and BOOKED

Children's literature trends toward patterns or themes which repeat -- sometimes because that's just what happens to hit the market at a given time, and other times it's an active interest which people are seeking to promote. Occasionally, I observe these themes or topics in a certain author's work, and try to work through the ideas of what I find intriguing. This is an occasional series which proposes to study these elements in children and young adult fiction from a writer's perspective.

Let's survey a story!

Today's books are both by Kwame Alexander; THE CROSSOVER and BOOKED; companion novels which are both sports-centric novels in verse with male protagonists. Both books briefly feature the complexities of children's relationships with the adults in their lives - both parents and others.

Observations: Poet Kwame Alexander came to my attention with the snap-crackling dialogue in HE SAID, SHE SAID (2013). Adults - parents - weren't as largely featured in that book, possibly because he wrote the story around characters he met in leading a writing workshop. This gives the novel immediacy and authenticity -- but not a lot of adult input. (And there wouldn't have been room for a whole lot, as Omar's ego takes up 90% of the room.) This was also clearly a YA novel, with a frankness about sex which sort of... precluded adult interaction. Not entirely, but enough that the adults didn't, for me, really register.

However, in THE CROSSOVER, the 2015 John Newbery Medal for the Most Distinguished Contribution to American literature for Children, the Coretta Scott King Author Award Honor, etc. etc. etc., and winner of allll the stars -- parents are very visible. THE CROSSOVER is clearly a middle grade novel, with all the complications therein. Josh and Jordan, at almost thirteen, still rely heavily on their parents for support -- and in this novel, entertainment. One of the things I really loved in THE CROSSOVER is the boys' tender relationship with their mother and their father. I like the way they were challenged and gently buffeted in the storm of adult ability until they upped their game. Their father was a font of unchallenged ridiculousness - and bits of wisdom thrown in, too. And, Mom and Dad have ... a life. Even a private life. (Ewwww.) When so many novels do the lazy thing and merely sketch in adults as the narrative version of Charlie Brown's cartoon teachers, fully realized human beings with their own stories - stories which have an affect on the narrative arc - it adjusts the perception of adulthood in children's stories, and maybe in child readers' eyes.

BOOKED, which is a sport-centric companion novel to THE CROSSOVER, though not a sequel, depicts an only child, which necessarily positions the adults in his life more centrally. Nick Hall places soccer at the center of his world - but, he learns, it is not central to his parents' world. As circumstances stretch and challenge their family, he has to reframe his relationship to mother. He is forced to see her not just his pancake-provider, and forehead kisser, but as a person occasionally solely allied with other adults - as all parents sometimes are - but then, Nick also realizes his mother is a person who occasionally allies with just... herself. Mothers as individuals separate from their children isn't something which gets delved into a lot in children's lit, especially in the middle grades, and this is fantastic to see here.

Two more characters from BOOKED intrigued me; Mr. "Mac" McDonald and Ms. Hardwick. Both adults are unmarried and childfree in the novel. Historically, childfree adults in middle grade or children's literature have been either elderly, odd, or sort of neutered caretakers (too many teachers to count, including Miss Honey in MATILDA; Heidi's grandfather in HEIDI; Miss Spink and Miss Forcible in CORALINE) or less dimensional characters with sort of walk-on roles or few lines at a time (the Magician Uncle in THE MAGICIAN'S NEPHEW; Hagrid in the Potter books). Having interests not child-centric or a life outside of the classroom/home where they interact with the child seems to be a relatively new development for childfree adults in middle grade literature. Having someone like your school librarian be a former rapper -- with a scar -- makes for a character who is intensely interesting. Having him be whimsical and unpredictable makes him a well-rounded, real human adult as well (and, wisely, Alexander never satisfies our curiosity about him... which leads me to believe [hope? cross fingers?] we'll be seeing him again).

Ms. Hardwick, Nick's frowning 8th grade English teacher, is distinguished from being just another figure in the long blurry ranks of "adult" by being seen out of context: first smiling, understanding who he is, and then by jarring him entirely by wearing red shoes, and being someone's... date. (Oh, the horror!) It's kind of terrifying to poor Nick, but it makes her real, if not rather amusing - and reassuring. Childfree adults do exist without being The Crazed Crone in the Woods, and without being a faceless teacher, droning - human wallpaper.

Which leaves me to wonder whether we're changing our perception of childhood, as writers, or our perception of adults. Maybe we are, at last, giving some respect to the middle graders and not believing them totally oblivious. Maybe we're giving some respect to the mentors and the relationships that adults have with children, not just as their jailers and their providers, but including the relationships they have with those who are also their guides and friends.

I read my copy of these books courtesy of the Public Library. You can find THE CROSSOVER and You can find BOOKED by Kwame Alexander at an online e-tailer, or at a real life, independent bookstore near you!

April 25, 2016

Monday Review: THE GIRL WHO COULD NOT DREAM by Sarah Beth Durst

Synopsis: I'm catching up on some long-overdue reviews this week, and one of those is Sarah Beth Durst's latest middle-grade fantasy The Girl Who Could Not Dream. Sophie, the twelve-year-old main character, is the girl in question—and how strange and awful it is to be a person who is unable to dream when one's parents are, in fact, dream-sellers. Oh, ostensibly they own a bookshop, but there's a SECRET shop in the basement where all the dreams are stored in bottles; where they are distilled from dreamcatchers and readied for those special clients in the know.

Though she herself does not have dreams, she knows their seductive and sometimes frightening power…because one time, as a child, she stole a dream in a bottle. And she discovered that, while she cannot dream, she can undeniably experience someone else's dream…and even bring things out. That's how she ended up with a pet monster. Named Monster. He's furry, like a cat….only with sharp teeth. Oh, and tentacles. And he's very protective of her, though he is always very careful never to be seen by the outside world.

One day, Sophie's parents are away and a dream client comes by, and the client accidentally sees Monster. A creature who should not exist. Sophie has to explain it away, and hope that the client doesn't report her (or Monster) to the Night Watchmen. Unfortunately, this is only the first sign that things are about to go awry in Sophie's world. She may not be able to dream while sleeping, but soon, her waking world becomes all too nightmarish…

Observations: As with all of Durst's books, this one is undeniably fun, quirky, charming, magical, and really unlike anything else out there. Actually, if I had to compare it to anything, it would be the worlds created by Diana Wynne Jones, where magic exists in a kind of parallel, tangential plane but still alongside our own, visible to those with the ability to see it. Similarly, while there is gentle humor and a loving family portrayed here, there is also fear and danger lurking in the corner of one's eye, and plenty of excitement, as Sophie and Monster must spring into action to save Sophie's parents--and their livelihood.

Durst's books always charm me with their imaginativeness, and this one is no exception. How wonderful, to bring all sorts of dream monsters and fears and mythical beasts to life, from frighteningly surreal Dali-esque creatures to good old flying unicorns. But, hands down, Monster is the best monster. I'll leave it to you to read the book and find out why.

Conclusion: I'd recommend this one heartily to all readers of middle-grade fantasy, especially fans of Diana Wynne Jones's Christopher Chant books. It's just an all-around enjoyable story, and the author creates one of those worlds very like our own that you'll end up wishing you, too, could inhabit, nightmares and all.

I received my review copy of this book courtesy of the author/publisher. You can find THE GIRL WHO COULD NOT DREAM by Sarah Beth Durst at an online e-tailer, or at a real life, independent bookstore near you!

April 22, 2016


Welcome to another session of Turning Pages!

Synopsis: Maya has lived her life as a pariah in her father, the Raja's, court. Her horoscope is dire, promising a marriage of death and destruction, and as the stars are not in her favor, she remains un-betrothed. Nerdy and knowledgeable; always with her head in a book, she's never had the attention, affection, and respect of her father's many wives, nor her servants or tutors, either. Only her baby sister loves her, and for her, Maya imagines ...worlds.

When her marriage is arranged to create the peace among warring neighbors her father desperately needs, Maya is horrified - but resigned. She's always wanted to mean something to her father, hasn't she? Prepared to sacrifice herself for the greater good, Maya is whisked up into a magical place as the queen of Akaran and wife of Amar. The worlds she's imagined are wider than she's ever dreamed... but there are things she can't know, doors closed against her, and voices, just on the edge of hearing... trying to tell her something it must be important to know. Choosing who to trust in her new situation is vital -- knowing who to listen to is impossible. Maya must learn to choose herself - and in this choice, she finds all the knowledge - freedom - and power she's ever believed she needed.

Observations: Often books talk about being steeped in various folklores; this one isn't just a few names tossed in, but a rich and romantic and very detailed fairytale set in an ancient parallel South Asia. The writing is, in a word, lush. Succulent. Detailed and descriptive, it is easy to get lost in it. In fact, I did - in the middle of the novel, I found the pacing was a little cluttered with the beauty of the writing. The plot was all but obscured, and I found the novel something I could set aside easily enough, because the urgency was, for me, a bit obscured with meandering, decorative prose. I was just about to give up, when, abruptly, the novel took a left turn and the gear re-engaged. Stuff Happened - urgency was re-introduced, and readers were hit with a lot of crazy, magical doings which fit in with the setting and the characterization of this as a world of layers where anything could happen - at least in a story.

Conclusion: With a whimsical world reflected in a beautiful cover, this standalone novel has a clear beginning, middle, and end, and though there will be a companion novel, once this narrative is finished, it's done. I'm reading the Odyssey just now, and ruminating about some of the earmarks of a mythological story, which this feels like, because of the magical realism and weird occurrences layered in amongst the mundane. This story has a lot of the feel of Persephone and Hades to it, with a rich South Asian type setting, and though it is not for everyone, it will satisfy readers who are fond of a lot of imaginative, deeply romantic writing.

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

April 21, 2016

Toon Thursday: Never Gonna Happen

It's nice being back on a semi-regular schedule of Toon Thursdays. (Psst! Did you know I've also started posting my toons over on Tumblr?) Let's see how long it lasts this time...

April 19, 2016


Welcome to another session of Turning Pages!

Synopsis: Grace Mae has lost everything - her home, her lovely clothes, her voice - even her last name. Shoved into the faceless void of the late 19the century insane asylum, hers is a life of violence, assault, degradation, starvation, cold, and fear. And, Grace is perfectly sane. Just pregnant... which, for a single young lady of 19th century Boston obviously means wildly licentious behavior, ergo, she is deemed mad. Just until the baby is born, however. All will be mended when her belly is flat again. But, Grace would rather die than go back home - and has decided to stay in the asylum forever. Except, there are worse things at the asylum; there's the asylum cellar, where the truly mad are kept in unrelieved darkness. When Grace finds herself there, the discovery of unexpected light changes everything. A visiting doctor trained in phrenology and is just beginning a study of criminal psychology sees someone worth saving. Grace is removed to an ethical asylum where her heart begins to heal. Grateful and relived, Grace works hard to help the doctor solve murders - but while his clinical interest and maturity has prepared him for his work, Grace is still young, and still idealistic... What happens when a young girl continues to gaze into the abyss? Eventually, the abyss gazes back...

"It's a madness so discreet that it can walk the streets and be applauded in some circles, but it is madness nonetheless."

NB: As with other reviews on this blog for books in the mystery or suspense genre, the synopsis fails to provide detail, to prevent spoilers. Nevertheless, I feel compelled to state that this book should definitely be only for mature readers. Violence against women, the loss of a childhood, the loss of a child, and murder are pretty common for 19th century asylums, and may trigger negative emotional reactions in some readers.

Observations:Months ago, there was a list passed around on Twitter of reasons someone could be - and had been - admitted to an insane asylum in the mid-1800's. We laughed about it, but it was... creepy. Fits? Desertion of husband? Desertion by husband? Business nerves? NOVEL READING?????? Off you to to the mental institution, and may God help you. Despite the word "asylum" meaning "protection," the line for any woman between the protection of home, and the loss of all self and all right to leave in peace in this manner was dangerously thin.

"Simply using the words sane and insane is a way for the population to draw a safe line through humanity, and then place themselves squarely on the side of the healthy."

This Edgar Allan Poe Award Nominee is simply... dark. It isn't scary in the gasp-and-jerk way, it isn't spine-tingling horror, and doesn't leave one breathless with suspense, it's simply grim. This novel depicts the most common, garden-variety evil, which means it grinds both reader and characters into a paste by the end. The emotion I felt most from this novel was great weariness, and a sense that the conclusion was meant to be cathartic. It was not, for me; it might not be for you. It presented moral conundrums which troubled the adults in the novel; teen readers may feel differently.

The history of America's treatment of the mental ill is deeply toxic. (America's present treatment leaves much to be desired, as the stigma still remains.) The topic is somewhat leavened by Grace beginning to enjoy her life and using her prodigious wits to examine crime scenes, but moving into the realm of being a 19th century detective is also somewhat dark - there are those murders, after all. Still, unlike most novels about young women before the idea of equal rights and parity, Grace is not powerless. The novel underscores that, if one is willing to cross the boundaries of societally acceptable behavior, no young woman is. But, are you willing? And, if you're willing... then, are you sane?

That is the question Grace has to grapple with.

Is justice something which can be meted out by the average person? Is revenge justice? Is there justice in revenge? How much does it matter?

Conclusion: Though some readers may find this painstakingly told story slow, this novel is well-research, well written, refreshingly free of romance, and while it lacks much diversity, it does portray strong female friendships. While I can't say I liked the novel, as it seems difficult for me to fully embrace provocatively writing about the horrors of the past while many writers consistently ignore violence the horrors of the present, the subject matter is thought-provoking, and the questions of moral relativism it brings will resonate. Do two wrongs ever make things right? But, are you convinced there has been two wrongs...? Each reader must answer for themselves...

I received my copy of this book courtesy of the public library, through the review of my friend Liz who is serving on the Edgar Award panel. You can find A MADNESS SO DISCREET by Mindy McGinnis at an online e-tailer, or at a real life, independent bookstore near you!