April 30, 2012

Monday Review: MORTAL ENGINES by Philip Reeve

I really enjoyed reading Philip Reeve's 2010 novel (and Cybils SFF Finalist) Fever Crumb, with its post-apocalyptic feel and its enigmatic main character. Little did I know that Fever Crumb was actually a prequel to Reeve's first novel, Mortal Engines: The Hungry City Chronicles #1. In fact, Mortal Engines was an impulse grab from the library shelves, and, I must admit, one that intrigued me in part because of some similarities it bears to my current work-in-progress—COMPLETELY serendipitous and coincidental, but intriguing nonetheless.

Reader Gut Reaction: One of the things I liked about Fever Crumb was that it had an appealingly steampunk sensibility without really being steampunk—in fact, it takes place far in the future, not in an alternate Victorian past, and so, too, does Mortal Engines. (And, uh, so too does my WIP.) While the premise is just a tiny bit farfetched, I was willing to indulge in the fantastical setting because it was just too cool: in this future time, the world is a post-apocalyptic wasteland, and in order to acquire the resources to keep running, cities have gone mobile. And not just mobile, but carnivorous. Large traction cities like London, where Tom Natsworthy the lowly apprentice lives, roam about the wastelands on colossal treads in search of smaller, feebler cities to capture and dismantle for their raw materials.

When Tom fortuitously saves the city's Head Historian from a mysterious and disfigured assassin named Hester Shaw, he finds himself not rewarded for his bravery but tumbling down a chute and out of the city after her, where they must cope with one another and with privation and hardship in the Out-Country. Tom soon finds out that the world is far more complex than he realized working in the depths of the History Museum, and the authority figures he's been taught to revere have nefarious plans of their own. As he tries to catch up with his moving city, it becomes clear that he may be the only one able to save it from hurtling headlong towards danger.

Concerning Character: Tom is an appealing character—bright and ambitious but still humble and kindhearted. In fact, it's his kindheartedness that gets him into trouble, and makes it difficult to know whom to trust. Unfortunately, sometimes he has to find out the hard way. And he may be bright, but his wits might not be enough to save him out in the wasteland of the Out-Country. Luckily for him, his survival is aided immensely by Hester Shaw.

At first he's loath to trust the frighteningly disfigured young woman who tried to kill his intellectual idol, the Head Historian, but soon realizes that his survival may depend on her, and he learns that the man he put on a pedestal may be hiding some terrible secrets. These secrets are so long-buried that even the Historian's daughter Katherine doesn't know them—in fact, to her, Thaddeus Valentine is dear old dad, and enables her to live a life of ease in one of the Upper Tiers of the city. Katherine also has her part in the story, however, and the tension builds as she and Tom make their respective shocking discoveries and realize what they must do to save their beloved London.

Recommended for Fans Of...: Steampunk that borders on the fantastical, like Scott Westerfeld's Leviathan series. Post-apocalyptic adventures like Blood Red Road by Moira Young.

Themes & Things: TRUST is a huge theme in this book—whom to trust, and whom not to trust. Betrayals of trust, enemies who are really friends, and friends who perhaps shouldn't be trusted quite so blindly. It keeps Tom on his toes, and the reader, too. I ended up constantly being nervous on his behalf, lest someone he encountered turn on him. Another major theme is having the strength and personal fortitude to do the right thing even when it means betraying someone you love or admire.

Review Copy Source: Library

You can find Mortal Engines by Philip Reeve at an independent bookstore near you!

April 26, 2012

Thursday Review: THE PROJECT by Brian Falkner

I've enjoyed Brian Falkner's other books--Brain Jack (reviewed here) and The Tomorrow Code (reviewed here)--so I was looking forward to this one and hoping it'd be another fast-paced book of intrigue and suspense and just a little sci-fi. It did not disappoint.

Reader Gut Reaction: Though this one was more of a light, quick read than the other two, it was no less of a page-turner, and had the same constant, non-stop action I now expect of Falkner's books. There's always a mystery at the heart of his stories, and this one concerns a book. Not just any book, though. It's THE MOST BORING BOOK IN THE WORLD. And, for some reason, Luke has discovered the most boring book in the world RIGHT IN HIS LOCAL LIBRARY. Now, obviously this might not be the most exciting discovery (har har) but the book is mildly famous and, to someone out there, it's worth millions. And, turns out it's got a connection to Leonardo Da Vinci. Intrigued, Luke decides to go back to the library and get it, but he finds out he's not the only one with that plan. Shady doings are afoot, and suddenly he and his best friend Tommy are caught in the thick of it. (Reviewer's note: I was mildly concerned this might be a Da Vinci Code Lite, but not to worry--it ain't.)

Concerning Character: Luke is a pretty typical small-town kid in some ways. He's smart, but not a huge fan of school. He and Tommy are inveterate pranksters. He's relatable and funny. Less typical is that he's fairly new in town, compared to the kids who were born and raised there. He's originally from New Zealand. And he's got an astoundingly photographic memory. Of course, this memory ends up being key to helping him not only solve the mystery of the most boring book in the world, but also to keeping his butt relatively unscathed. His friend Tommy is an engaging sidekick with a key role of his own--his propensity for collecting dubious and quasi-legal investigative "toys" is allegedly explained by his desire to become a spy for the CIA one day. So of COURSE they will get into real trouble when said real trouble appears in their backyard.

Recommended for Fans Of...: Investigative stories with a lot of humor and suspense, like Alan Gratz's Horatio Wilkes mysteries, Cold Case by Julia Platt Leonard (reviewed here), or The Dark Days of Hamburger Halpin by Josh Berk (reviewed here), and books in which the protagonists must rely on their skills and wits, like John Marsden's Tomorrow series.

Themes & Things: This one's a pretty straightforward thriller, and as such, it's more plot-driven than anything else--and that's not a criticism. But thematically you'll also find that it's a satisfying friendship story, and one in which questions of conscience and accountability run strongly throughout: if you knew someone was doing something wrong, what would you do about it? Is it okay to do something illegal if it means saving the world--do the ends justify the means? Would you put your own life in danger, or those of your friends, on the slim chance of saving everything that you hold dear?

You can find The Project by Brian Falkner at an independent bookstore near you!

April 25, 2012

TURNING PAGES: The Peculiars, by Maureen Doyle McQuerry

Interest in steampunk has been divided of late; the diehards are still into it, and everyone else wants to play Tribute and run around with a bow and arrow. Never mind. Those of us who were into it are into it still, and looking for stories and plots worthy of our time.

I think we've found one.

Reader Gut Reaction:Steampunk is ideally set in the 19th century, that is, within the age of steam. Most authors get at least that much right. Few authors get the 19th century dialogue down properly. Ms. McQuerry does. There's atmosphere, the slow pacing, the frittering of worries about status and position and reputation (sometimes the main character will make you want to scream - such a circumscribed life!!). There are gloves and pelisses and cross-continental travel by train. There is longing and hope - all muted by the repressive social mores of the day. The author has set the all the hopeful (wo)men of science, with their tinkering and gears against the proper background, and here they shine.

Concerning Character: For her eighteenth birthday, Lena Mattacascar has purchased her freedom. A bequest from her father - who left when she was five - allows her the monetary freedom to leave the rigid and few comforts of the home with her mother and Nana, both of whom constantly worry at her and over her - and leave the civilized world.

But, where is a gently bred young woman going, on her own? To the wilderness borderlands and then onward to Scree, where her outlaw father lives. Her outlaw goblin father, that is. From her freakishly long digits, complete with the extra joint, to her strangely long, delicate feet, Lena is an original. Different, however, is something to be kept silent, tucked away, and hoped against. Lena is tired of shrinking, tired of living a half-life. She wants to be noticed. She wants -- a beau. A home. A life.

She wants to find out if her father is like her, if he is, in fact, and evil and soulless creature, as she's been taught that all goblins are. Lena wants to know if her blood has doomed her before her life has really started.

It is a righteous quest -- and on her way, Lena is thrown in with strangers of all circumstances. Jimson Quiggley is traveling her way - and he plans to work as a librarian in Scree, for a famous and wealthy inventor and recluse, the owner of Zephyr House. A marshal, Thomas Saltre, boards the train in pursuit of a train robber who escapes dressed as a nun. Almost everyone she meets has an interest in her - but what does their interest mean? Is there any way to tell what other people think of you, when you're not sure what you think of yourself?

Eventually, Lena has to face the truth about herself - and decide what to do next.

Recommended for Fans Of...: Jenna Starborn, by Sharon Shinn, Leviathan, by Scott Westerfeld, The Monstrumologist by Rick Yancey, The Girl in the Clockwork Dress by Kady Cross, the Infernal Devices by Cassandra Clare, and Mortal Instruments series by the same author.

Cover Chatter: Every steampunk novel must have gears on the cover.
This is in The Rules.
This novel has both gears and a dirigible and strange mutations! And a funky, worked-metal font with yet more gears! See their enmeshed little teeth!
(Wo)Men of science, we have a steampunk novel.

That is all.

Authorial Asides: I was surprised to learn that the author, Maureen Doyle McQuerry is a poet as well as a writer, and is often published in Southern Review, Atlanta Review and other literary magazines. Her poetry shines through her prose, as she sets the stage for her tale, and her scholarship shows through her researching of time, imagination of place, and in her characterizations. Each steady word and phrase creates a perfect foundation for the next.

After May 1, you can find THE PECULIARS by Maureen Doyle McQuerry everywhere, including at an independent bookstore near you!

April 24, 2012


It's officially Spring. Means it's time for a band novel.

Or, something like that.

Not as many of these crossing my reading space these days, and when I saw the punky cover on this one, I had to smile.

"What drew you to it?" CitySmartGirl asked me curiously.

It's just ...something. The fact that I think that people who punk are creative and brave and revealing something - maybe nothing much, but a corner of themselves that otherwise people keep hidden.

I was intrigued.

The novel has some tiny imperfections - sometimes the love interest seems WAY too good to be true, and that Amanda and Jenn couldn't discuss their problems, oh, the next day seemed to be out of character for best friends to me, but then, what do I know? The voice is harshly self-deprecating and spot on, and the wrenching decisions made work.

Reader Gut Reaction: If you're looking for a great summer read, look no further than this one. Each chapter begins with a quote by Salvador Dali, the main character's artistic hero. The steady theme of self-discovery and finding your way comes across clearly, with no preachy overtones. A good beach read, and a good excuse to do some heavy thinking about the future, with good lyrics and a throbbing bass line.

Concerning Character: Actually, her name is Amanda, but her mother calls her "Amy," her father calls her "kid," and her best friends call her Zero. That's how she thinks of herself. To her mind, she's too fat, too plain, too boring, and only a hopeful, in terms of being an artist. Unfortunately, all of this seems solidified when she gets a scholarship to an art school -- only to have them rescind their invitation, because her work didn't show the technical brilliance they were after. They gave her opening to someone else.

And then, some STUFF happens with her best friend, and she can't talk to her anymore.

So. Dreams gone, best friend out of the picture with some major awkward 'splaining to do, well, then, obviously that's the time to go find new dreams and new friends, yes? And yet, Amanda can't make herself move. She can't lose herself in her art, either; at home, her Dad's drinking and her mother's screaming at him drive her halfway up the wall and across the ceiling.

Something's gotta give.

Recommended for Fans Of...: Struts & Frets by Jon Skovron, Lemonade Mouth by Mark Peter Hughes, King Dork by Frank Portman, and Heavy Metal And You by Christopher Krovatin. (Wow. Male YA writers, all.)

Themes & Things: Is there any such thing as a "typical" band novel? No, not really - but, yeah. There are elements. This is an atypical novel - in that some of what you expect doesn't happen, and some of what you are sure shouldn't happen, does. And yet, it works. Thematically, this novel is about getting your stuff together and living the life you're supposed to have. It's not just the young adults in the novel who have to do that, either - it goes for everyone. In a subtle and spare fashion, the author lays out the truth: life is what you make it. If, within this culture of perfectionism and "rah! rah! achievements!" you fail, what matters is getting up off of your tush, and trying again.

Cover Chatter: I already mentioned how much I liked the mishmash of black spaces with the white and contrasted with the color-leached and pale face of the cover models; they appear almost black-and-white in contrast to the drenched shades of the desert. The blocky/bold font for the title works well, too. The design team could have done any number of things, taking the title character's artwork into account or any number of things, but I like this - the hands linked are not just a hint that there's a love story, but they're also a bit about holding on -- to those we love, to those we need to keep, and to those who keep us grounded. Things go better with a friend to hang onto.

Today! April 24th, 2012~ You'll find ZERO by Tom Leveen everywhere, including at an independent bookstore near you!

April 23, 2012

Monday Review: BIGGER THAN A BREAD BOX by Laurel Snyder

In the fall, I helped celebrate the release of Laurel Snyder's Bigger Than a Bread Box by posting a story about my own parents' divorce and participating in a rather serious blog tour. And, I confess I read the book a couple of months ago, but I haven't yet had time until now to write up the review. My blogging is a bit slow and after-the-fact these days, but better late than never!

Reader Gut Reaction: I must admit, I had two very distinct reactions to the premise of this book. The jaded adult in me thought, skeptically, "A breadbox that grants wishes? Hmm...", while the child in me, devourer of magical worlds, voracious reader, eager to believe, went, "Ooooh! Magic breadbox!" Good thing the kid won.

By turns funny, touching, and even a little scary, this is far from being a dry, moralistic story about dealing with divorce or a feel-good, saccharine, wishful-thinking escape fantasy. Instead, it doesn't pull punches about how tough it is for kids caught in the middle of the breakdown of their parents' marriage. It's far from a worst-case-scenario—you won't find harrowing custody battles or anything like that. Rather, it focuses on the quiet, internal wars that leave us lonely and grieving, and on learning when to look inside ourselves for answers and when to look outside ourselves and ask for help. And it's got a good dose of fantasy and a little suspense to boot.

Concerning Character: Rebecca is twelve years old when her parents separate, and one of the most difficult things about it is the literal physical separation—she and her mother and little brother move unexpectedly to their Gran's house. As if leaving her father weren't enough, as if it weren't enough just feeling mystified, upended, lost and angry, they've gone from Baltimore to Atlanta, a different city in a different state. Rebecca starts at a new school, and has to figure out who she is all over again. Her emotional struggles are realistically complex, and her overwhelming need to find answers and try to wish her way out of her difficulties was wrenchingly recognizable.

Recommended for Fans Of...: Stories with a magical or serendipitous element along with realistic character development and a strong family theme, like Wonderstruck by Brian Selznick (reviewed here); Darius Bell and the Glitter Pool (reviewed here), and even City of Spies (reviewed here).

Themes & Things: Sometimes confronting your demons and difficulties is the only sure way to escape them. You can't always run away from them, or wish them away. We are reminded of this throughout Rebecca's story, whether she's feeling the wonder of being able to ask for anything she wants—as long as it fits in a bread box. Of course, the things she really wants, deep in her heart, are as immeasurable as the sky. This theme, and most of the others in this book, are poignant and bittersweet, like the realization that your parents are people who are far from infallible and who make their own mistakes, and that we are all struggling and yearning for happiness and sometimes our attempts to reach it are fumbling and imperfect. In the end, though, love and hope and honesty—with oneself as well as with others—can help us through some difficult times, even when optimism seems impossible.

Authorial Asides: Laurel Snyder is a longtime blogger and part of the Kidlitosphere and entertaining Twitterer and all-around lovely person whom I hope to meet someday—DO go visit her blog.

Review Copy Source: Library

You can find Bigger Than a Bread Box by Laurel Snyder at an independent bookstore near you!

April 21, 2012

TURNING PAGES: The Good Braider, by Terry Farish

The immigrant experience is not for the faint of heart. Merely living abroad in one Western country instead of another has produced misunderstandings, depression, and wry amusements.

I cannot begin to imagine the immigrant experience when coupled with the displacement of a war.

Terry Farish has not only imagined it, she's written about it multiple times. She is a literary evangelist for newcomers to American shores, thus has an unique perspective. She blogs at The Elephant Rag, a blog exploring multicultural literature.

“ The Good Braider is a masterful triumph of character and story. Terry Farish’s Viola – strong, frank, tenderly wistful, and brave – is so expressive and endearing, that you will never encounter a refugee from anywhere without remembering Viola and her family. This is a novel of deep understanding and unforgettable empathy.” – Naomi Shihab Nye

Reader Gut Reaction: Can a work about a postwar diverse population be written by someone who has neither lived in a war nor is a member of that diverse community? In this case, yes. Though at times I struggle with first-person narratives about lives from multicultural nations encountering, for the first time, American soil, this novel works for me because the author has studied her subject. The voices ring true, as well as the situations. Without her advocacy, would these characters have a voice? Maybe. But, with her, they have a very certain voice, and the larger community needs these stories.

Perhaps, if we keep listening, and understanding, we can make the transitions easier, and our nation more welcoming to those from abroad. If nothing else, we can begin to understand what America looks like from the outside - and how quickly a land of promise can turn into simply a continuation of long-ago pain...

Concerning Character: Keji - or Viola, her Christian, name - is a Sudanese girl who has seen the world as nothing but a place of fear. Living with her grandmother and her mother, eking out a simple existence, caring for her small brother -- and avoiding going anywhere alone, avoiding groups of soldiers, avoiding sharing space with a young man. The invading armies are Muslim - or so they claim. And yet, their faith takes a backseat to their viciousness; everyone moves silently and in fear, and they are brutal - relentless. Viola keeps herself modestly covered, in drab colors, and keeps her eyes on the ground -- but this doesn't save her, or the boy who tried to protect her by claiming her as his sister.

Once a good braider, Viola has lost faith in herself, and in her place in the world. Her bride-price - what made her worth something - is gone, even her mother says so, and so she leaves her hair is a snarl of curls, covering over the broken, tangled ends with a scarf. It's hard to care about her body when it feels her souls is gone.

In Violet's life, there are too many losses.

And then, having escaped to Cairo, and then, onward to Maine, Viola finds herself a stranger in a strange world - she finds school to help her survive, and in time, makes a few good friends, but her mother is angry and mute, and the misery of their truncated household winds tighter and tighter and tighter -- until something breaks.

The language of the novel is spare, the violence bleak, but the story rings true. And, in the end, America offers hope, not because of what it is, but because of who - the immigrants - who it is that lives within it.

This is a story of courage - not just Viola's, but of all immigrants.

Recommended for Fans Of...: Stylistically, this novel reminds me of Sold by Patricia McCormack. An Na's A Step From Heaven, and First Crossing: Stories about Teen Immigrants, edited by Don Gallo, and
Beverley Naidoo's, Out of Bounds: Seven Stories of Conflict and Hope round out a decent reading list.

Cover Chatter: The cover of this novel goes beautifully with the tale. A limitless blue sky, a knot of braids at the base of a long, graceful neck - the image epitomizes beauty and promise.

While many African American communities braid hair, I hadn't known that it is held in such high regard in Sudan. The intricacy of the braids, the narrowness and style means something. It is a mark of honor to be known as A Good Braider. Once upon a time, Violet's mother was such a woman. Violet herself hopes to be known as one.

It is pride, honor, and a place within the community. Being a good braider can make all the difference in the world...

After May 1, you can find THE GOOD BRAIDER by Terry Farish everywhere, including at an independent bookstore near you!

April 20, 2012

TURNING PAGES: The Vicious Deep, by Zoraida Córdova

Ah, YA lit. How I love your twists and trends.
Shrugging on capes and dimming down their sparkles, we exit vampires, at long last.
Enter angels, various transforming fey, unicorns, and ...mermaids?

We don't have a lot of male voices in the mermaid thing.
As a matter of fact, mermaids are even kind of ... I dunno, girly. Despite Poseidon and his trident, the most enduring idea of sea-people seem to be the sirens... thus, most of YA lit deals with a girl and her fin-affectation. However, that this book goes "guy" and can still riff off of the typical mermaid lore with a great voice - realistic guyspeak - as well as true-to-life bro-interactions, muscles, and a lot of testosterone - these things will make this one a win for guys and girls.

Don't be afraid to take this one to the pool: it's got lifeguards, water, and mermaids, er, men. Merpeople. Sheesh.

Reader Gut Reaction:One thing you have to say for mermaids - they've had a lot of press. If I simply say the phrase, "Under the Sea," even though of you who never suffered through primary-colored Disney fare still have a horrible little calypso earworm going on in your head, right?

Yeah, sorry about that.

Zoraida Córdova is doing for merfolk what Holly Black did for fairies, yo.
Forget Ariel and that crab Sebastian. There's a lot of vicious out there, rolling in the deep...

(Yeah, now you've got TWO songs in your head. I did that for YOU. To get the first one out...

Probably it's too late to apologize for that, right?)

Concerning Character: Tristan Hart is ...Just This Guy. He's just this guy whom everyone likes, he's just this guy who is a lifeguard, he's just this guy who is... eye candy, essentially, at Coney Island. And, he knows it..

He's not stupid, no. But, he's just not deep, all right? Woman of the moment. Urge of the moment. "Bros before babes," and all that pseudo-deep pseudo-manliness that goes with it. Except for his place on the swim team, and his friendship with his best-friend-since he was tiny, to Tristan, most things aren't worth hanging onto even for a day. His friends call him "manslut" without exaggeration. His girlfriend of the moment professed undying love at a bonfire - and about a half hour later, he was swapping spit with some other girl.

That's Tristan.

But, when it comes down to it, he delivers. A killer wave comes up on Coney Island, and he grabs his lifeguarding gear and swims into it, not away as everyone else is doing, trying desperately to save a drowning victim. And, when he gets thrown up on shore, three days later with a bit missing from his memories, he's not just This Guy anymore. He's THAT Guy. The one who survived, when everyone else died. The one whose tail just... manifested... in... the... bathtub...

Yeah. And about those dreams he's been having? About a silver-skinned girl with shark teeth? Something about her might kind of be a problem...

Recommended for Fans Of...:FATHOM FIVE, and the rest of The Unwritten Books, by James Bow, Tricia Rayburn's Siren series, SEA CHANGE, by Aimee Friedman, ASCENSION, by Kara Dalkey and Tera Lynn Childs' FINS series.

Cover Chatter: Well done, design team!
That is all.

Okay, not all, it's just a REALLY sharp design - no stock photo boy body to ogle (and some of you may be grieving over that, so sorry), no attempt at the mer-tail, nothing but the water and the trident - and its sharpness and the glint of light from the tip remind us that it's not just something that Poseidon holds - it's a weapon, and a freakin' effective one, at that. The rough edging of the title font against the backdrop of the roiling waters let the reader know that Something Is At Stake. It's not all eye-candy and lifeguards around here.

I like it.

Authorial Asides: I don't often include book trailers, because they are not all created equally. In this case, the music is by a relative of the author - and I thought it added something.

Zoraida Córdova - pronounced zor-EYE-duh - is an Ecuadorian author who came to the English language by way of watching The Little Mermaid and Michael Jackson's Moonwalker over and over. She grew up in Jamaica/Hollis, Queens, which means she has many more stories to tell.

You can find THE VICIOUS DEEP by Zoraida Córdova at an independent bookstore near you!

April 19, 2012

Toon Hiatus & A Few Links

Today, I think, was supposed to be Toon Thursday. Alas, my utter swampage still persists, and I couldn't quite make it to doing a toon this week. Thus, I present you with various links (most of them toon-related, some just general visual goodness) for your information, amusement, and so forth, and profuse apologies for my lack of original thought this week.

  • Wondering what graphic novels to read over the next few months? GraphicNovelReporter has put together a handy Spring Preview List, sorted by age range. I've been too busy to even LOOK at it, but rest assured I'm going to be in serious coveting territory when I do.
  • Also toon-related are the nominees for this year's Eisner Awards, featuring several familiar publishers and authors/illustrators, like First Second, and Habibi by Craig Thompson (a Cybils nominee), and more.
  • Can I just say that I find the idea of Mutant Mathletes incredibly hilarious? Check out a review of Jarrett J. Krosoczka's latest Lunch Lady adventure. It's MG rather than YA but I crack up every time I see a title.
  • Our own fab Gwenda Bond has a debut YA novel in the works, and THAT RIGHT THERE IS HER AWESOME COVER, recently featured on Book Smugglers. Woohoo! And Gwenda is an Agent Sister, which makes it doubly cool. 
  • One last cover-related bit of news: check out the latest edition of Coverfail over on Bookshelves of Doom. Seems like a really epic coverfail, too. Boo.
Happy Thursday!

April 18, 2012

TURNING PAGES: The Wicked and the Just, by J. Anderson Coats

A bundle lies beside the door. The creature within is colorless and smooth, oddly calm. Like statuary, or a figure cast in wax.

I shove the bundle into the brat's arms. She shudders and and scrambles to hand it back. "You'll hold it, " I tell her. "You did this. SO have a good look at what you wrought."
Her eyes widen and she says, I did not do this.
I pinch the warm pink flesh of her upper arm. "This is hunger's work."
The brat rubs the reddening patch and says, your poor neighbor. Who will look after her? Where is her husband?
"Husband?" I snort. "She should be so lucky..."
The brat swallows hard. She looks greensick. She whispers words in English I do not recognize...

Ave Maria gratia plena, whispers the brat, and she holds the bundle close as if it's a live, breathing child.

Reader Gut Reaction: This debut novel is really close to my heart - not because I've ever been to Wales, but because I've lived in Scotland. Here there are T-shirts which read "Bannockburn, 1314." Some people here will never forgive the dirty dealing by the English, even so long ago. EVER. For the sake of their ancestors, the oppressed never, never, never, never, never, never forget. Unto their third and fourth -- and by now, fifteen hundredth - generation.

Perhaps this is as it should be. Not the endless unforgiving hatred, no. But, the not forgetting bit.

Studying history, have you ever been tired of hearing about the Holocaust? Would you have preferred to live it? People who get sick of hearing about slavery? Ditto: your lot could have been to experience it in person. My history teacher, Mr. Reedy, reminded us of this frequently: those who forget -- and sometimes, even those who remember - are truly and surely doomed to repeat our history.

This is the bloody, raw, and terribly true story of how England "joined" with Wales from 1249 onward. It is engagingly, brilliant told, and will leave readers with a fire in their heart over the utterly and appalling injustice meted out again and again. No doldrums from historical fiction haters, here. The author takes some gambles - and goes out on a limb to not soften any blows. She rejects the soft-focus ending. This is real, and gripping and important and -- HISTORY, dear readers. This is an awesome book.

Concerning Character: The book is voiced by two - Cecily, an English girl, and Gwenhwyfar, a Welsh girl. Neither of them are a good fit in the town of Caernarvon, and both struggle.

Cecily is frightened and angry when she arrives in Wales. Since she'd been a child, she had longed to be the lady of the house, and her mother had promised her when she was tiny that someday, she would hold the keys, and see to the keeping of the land. But Cecily's mother has died, and her uncle returned from the Crusades and for his service to the King, their family's steading now belongs to him. Eventually Cecily's father was given land in Wales - a land that Cecily never wanted, and she knows she'll never warm to. Things are different in Wales - she's thought of as common, coarse, and poor. Though they have the King's regard as well, she's a novi - or what we'd call nouveau riche - and she'll never be as good as those who were born in Caernarvon.

She pushes down her anger and her fear, but what happens to acid shoved down? It seeps, sputters, and burns in terrible, terrible ways...

Gwenhwyfar wishes all the English dead. All of them. All of them, forever. For every groping at the hands of the guards. For every fondling simply to be allowed to sell their thin cow's rapidly souring milk, for every bribe to the miller for a ridiculously small amount of oats. The English had them thrown out of their home when she was tiny, and now they have trod upon her land and her brother's lands with metal-shod feet, and mean to see themselves raised up as demi-royalty, and herself and her people, outside of the walls, dead.

She will see them dead first.

And the bratling, in whose house she works, who walks with such airs, as if she thinks herself a fine, fine lady? Oh, she will be the first to burn...

Not the most sympathetic of characters, at first blush, either of these girls. And yet - both girls grow on the reader in a fierce and gripping way, as the history becomes more and more personal.

Recommended for Fans Of...: The Ramsay Scallop, by Frances Temple, Catherine, Called Birdy, by Karen Cushman, Quest for a Maid, by Frances Mary Hendry, and other fiction by Ann Rinaldi or Donna Jo Napoli, the Historical Fiction mavens.

Themes & Things: As the title, THE WICKED AND THE JUST suggests, the big themes here are evil and J-U-S-T-I-C-E; right, wrong, and responsibility. For what are we responsible, when it's our parents doing the wrong? How much responsibility does a king hold over his lords? When the downtrodden rise up, are they responsible for their actions? After, all they were wronged. Is their responsibility tendering mercy? There are some huge, deep wells of thought to have which will spark hundreds of intense and potent classroom conversations.

Cover Chatter: While I do not often love seeing a girl on a novel cover, this novel shows us not a disembodied torso to judge or even a girl curled up on the floor, defeated and posturing weakness and pain, but her full body, in motion. A silhouette, set against the castle of Caernarvon, we cannot tell which girl the walker is -- and that's just as it should be. Because, when it all came down to it, the girls were identical, merely one side of the coin and the other, both on Fortuna's wheel, as it were. A really striking cover.

FTC: All quotes from ARC copy, and may contain phrases which will be amended in the final copy. Copy furnished by NetGalley at the courtesy of Harcourt Publishing. My opinions are my own.

You can find THE WICKED AND THE JUST by the brave and brilliant debut writer, J. Anderson Coates at an independent bookstore near you!

April 17, 2012

TURNING PAGES: Pure, by Julianna Baggott

It is just not often that I come across a book which defies description.

On a nudge from a mutual friend of Melissa Wiley, I requested this ARC from NetGalley in March, and immediately dove in. It's only taken me this long to come up with a review because... PURE is a book that's hard to put into words.

Reader Gut Reaction: I was by turns engaged, provoked, and thoughtful.
Not only because PURE has a kind of post-apocalyptic Mad Max vibe going on, where bands of like-bodied mutants band together to protect turf, but because, as I read on, I discovered the author's immense imagination. The division of the world is CLEARLY not solely the than haves vs. have-nots, in terms of resources, but it's the scarred vs. pure. This both privileges and identifies those person from the Dome. Privileges, because they're... unbelievably beautiful to those who were outside the Dome during the Detonations. Identifies, because those mutated know who to blame... after all, as the children's rhyme says, "burn a Pure, and breathe the ash..."

Those this is not strictly dystopian, by the rules of the genre, it falls under post-apocalyptic disaster novel, which is close to that.

Concerning Character: Pressia is tough, single-minded, and a survivor. Though comparisons have been made to Katniss Everdeen, Pressia's kind of toughness is different - her vulnerabilities show in the little sock she pulls over the doll head embedded around her fist, and in her inability to give the coup de grace to a dying boy -- whose only crime was being too small to cope with the rigors of his new life. In daylight, Pressia remembers no other world than the one she inhabits, but in quiet corners of her mind, in dreams, she recalls that once upon a time, she knew something other, something else. Something... better. Of age now to be part of the street paramilitary - who's in charge of these wild and violent people? She doesn't want to know - Pressia fears she's too small to resist, and if you're not a soldier -- one of those untaught to read and seeded with violence -- then, you're target practice. She knows how to hide. And, she'd been completely prepared to do that - except, she ran across someone stupid - someone standing tall and flawless and Pure - and now, her life is all tangled up with his.

Inside the Dome, not all is perfection, by any means. Partridge just barely remembers his mother, in the time before the Detonations, but it's his brother he misses - the perfectly muscled, intelligent, über-son who should have been exactly what his father wanted, only he died on his first mission outside the Dome. And now, Partridge is all that's left, and the memories of a mother who didn't make it into the safety of the Dome before the world as they knew it perished in flames.

Maybe that doesn't mean she's dead, though. Partridge is willing to gamble his entire existence in the belief that there is something out there, outside the Dome, that is worth having, and worth saving.

There's certainly nothing much for him to live for on the inside...

A daring escape to the Meltlands puts his life at risk -- and the lives of those around him. Was this all fate and destiny? Or... something else?

Recommended for Fans Of...: the post-apocalyptic stuff with mutants, like Daybreak 2250, by Andre Norton, The Folk of the Fringe by Orson Scott Card, The City of Ember, by Jeanne DuPrau, Moira Young's Blood Red Road, and James Dashner's Maze Runner series.

Themes & Things: Themes of identity and discovery are relevant for each character -- without giving away too much, those within the Dome and without are all in a manner of speaking survivors, and all trying to figure out for whom and for what they survived, and how to move on. The grotesqueness of some of those surviving brings the question of whether or not they should have died.

And the question reverberates: what is survival? What is worth living for? What is worth living with, to have survived?

There is also a theme of sacrifice in this novel - and the question of what each character is willing to give up to go forward is threaded through minor moments and major scenes. There is incredible selflessness followed by mind-bending parsimony. This keeps the reader engaged and never quite sure how the twists and turns are going to pan out.

Cover Chatter: Instead of focusing on the theater of disturbingly mutated and melded body parts featured in the novel, the publishers wisely chose to focus on the beauty and perfection of the Dome, and the Pure inside of it... and the metaphor of a butterfly perfectly preserved, ...and perfectly unable to fly free.

Man, it works.

Authorial Asides: Julianna Baggott is a novelist, essayist and poet who also writes under pen names Bridget Asher and N.E. Bode. She is an associate professor at Florida State University's Creative Writing Program. She has written SEVENTEEN BOOKS, and yet retains the humility and new-book nerves of any author who hopes their book does well in the big world of readers.

(It did, Julianna. Thanks for writing.)

Check the author's blog if you'd like to interview her; she's making herself available for book chats!

PURE has been film-optioned by Fox 2000, and it really will play well on the big-screen, just for the weird and horrific Meltlands, the Groupies, and the Dome rising pure and unsullied in the distance... this will be like The City of Ember meets Mad Max on steroids.

You can find PURE by Julianna Baggott at an independent bookstore near you!

April 16, 2012

Help Finish Ballou HS's Library!!

It isn't all that often that we, as individuals, can feel like we've directly contributed to a library's actual collection. Many times, the books we donate to our local library end up on the half-price sale shelves, which is a great way to help the library raise much-needed extra funds, but you don't always end up seeing the book YOU donated on the loan shelves, being lent out to other patrons.

Well--Guys Lit Wire is giving us all another fantastic opportunity to really add to a library collection. You might remember the two book fairs they've held for Ballou Sr. High School in Washington, D.C.:
Between our spring book fair and a small holiday fair last November we have helped Ballou move from a library that had less than one book for each of its 1,200 students at the beginning of 2011 to a ratio now of two books per student. While this is an impressive achievement and something we are quite proud of, the American Library Association advocates ELEVEN books for each student. It's obvious that Ballou is still operating at a serious literary deficit and because of that we have decided to commit ourselves to the long haul and stay with this school library until they have everything they need.
While they got a lot of initial support when their plea first went out, they still need help, and every one of us can make a difference by buying even just ONE book off the wish list. You'll have the satisfaction of knowing you've been able to put a book YOU love into the hands of high school students--students who are already grateful beyond words. For more information, please visit Colleen's post on GLW.

April 15, 2012

WEEKEND WORD: And it's even a good book!

She's blind, yes. But, that doesn't end the imagination, now does it? Unfortunately, it does make it hard to tell, when you're writing longhand, if you've got ink in your pen...

Fortunately, the police are here to protect and serve - and this time, they served as impression readers, in the proud tradition of TV detectives who always decipher the phone messages after the written-on sheet from the pad has been torn away.

Now, what's your excuse for not writing????

Yeah, I thought so.

April 13, 2012

Wonderland, Found: Dame DWJ

Each of us walks a different path when finding wonderland. For us, it has largely been the flight of fantasy which has fueled our imaginations. We delight in other faces, other worlds, the "what if" of science commingled with the "of course we can" of fantasy fiction. Though we discovered Diana Wynne Jones at very different times in our lives, we both had the similar experience of knowing we'd found a friend, an ally, a home.

Wonderland, in connection with other blogs and kidlit writers around the world, most proudly presents our little tribute to Dame DWJ, just over a year after her star went down to "rise upon another shore." She will never be truly gone; she lives on in every story, and thus, in all of us.

I was nine years old. Earlier that year, I had moved to a new school district, a new school. I was in the sixth grade. Everyone, obviously, was older than I was, and they'd all been going to the same school for years, already knew one another, already had friendships and factions and alliances and dynamics I knew nothing about. So-and-so had been so-and-so's boyfriend in first grade, and they'd walked around the playground holding hands. Those guys always played basketball at recess, while that girl played football with the boys after lunch.

I was quiet. Oftentimes, I didn't find friends so much as the friends found me. At some point early in the school year, Cindy found me. Yes, she already had a best friend from kindergarten days, already had a small close-knit group, but Cindy was (and still is) friendly and boisterous and talkative and openhearted. What's more, she loved books and reading as much as I did. Her parents were both chemistry professors, but she was like me, willing and eager to be lost in worlds of the imagination.

One day, we were at her house and she asked if I'd ever read some book or other about magic and time travel. We liked a lot of the same books already—from Sweet Valley High to Madeleine L'Engle — but I hadn't heard of the one she was talking about. We went upstairs. Right at the top of the stairs, on the landing, was a small, low bookshelf, right outside the door to Cindy's bedroom. We sat on the beige-carpeted stairs and she pulled a paperback out, then another: Witch Week, and A Tale of Time City, by Diana Wynne Jones.

That was how it started. I felt like Diana Wynne Jones's books filled a reading void I hadn't even known existed, stretched my imagination in a new direction that nevertheless struck a chord of almost primal recognition. They filled me with wonder and made me believe. The characters seemed real, they came alive on the page, and because of that, even the most implausible and fantastical worlds seemed possible. At a time when books were not only a source of joy but an escape from feeling uncertain and new at school, from feeling angry and frustrated by the ongoing aftereffects of my parents' divorce a few years prior, I was more than happy to believe, to plunge headfirst into the adventures of Christopher Chant and Sophie and Howl and everyone else.

What I find most wondrous, perhaps, is that whenever I pick up one of DWJ's books even now, I still feel the same way. I still feel the same willing surrender to belief, the same eagerness to let the waters close over my head and be completely immersed in her worlds. I miss her, but thanks to her written legacy, I am able to find her again and again, as her books found me.

"Things we are accustomed to regard as myth or fairy story are very much present in people’s lives. Nice people behave like wicked stepmothers. Every day."

I met the writings of Diana Wynne Jones much, much later in life than AF. I was seventeen, fully reveling in the opportunity to be away from home and parents, to read what I wanted, when I wanted. Of course, the first thing I’d read had been romances – awful, bad, hideous, poorly written epics full of “what the heck?” and misogyny. I was well sick of them – having figured out after a bit of experimentation that most of them were identical. I was just dipping a hesitant toe into the back shelves of the tiny St. Helena library, to the science fiction and fantasy section, when I happened upon a book that was misshelved from the young adult/children’s area. It was called CASTLE IN THE AIR. It was thick-ish, but not too thick, and with the boy on the magic carpet, I was sure I recognized it. It was a Arabian Nights Tale, right? Maybe a fairytale-ish take on the original? I was, even then, a sucker for a good fairytale – having not read those as a kid, I had a lot of ground to cover, and at seventeen wasn’t too proud yet to read them.

Standing quietly in the library aisle, I just thought I’d scan the back cover and the first few pages.
The first thing I realized was that it wasn’t an original Arabian Nights tale. This was something else…
The next thing I realized was that I’d been standing with one book in my hand for twenty minutes, and that, in no universe, could be called “skimming.” I tucked the book into my bag and edged nervously into the outskirts of the children’s section until I found another – HOWL’S MOVING CASTLE. And another. CHARMED LIFE. ARCHER’S GOON. THE HOMEWARD BOUNDERS.

I figured that was enough time in the children’s section. I retreated, clutching my prizes and my dignity.

In my usual neurotic fashion, I organized the books by publication date, and got started. I laughed and laughed and thought and wondered.

I fell head over heels for Christopher Chant. I read HOWL’S MOVING CASTLE six times. The THEY and the THEM in THE HOMEWARD BOUNDERS became the faceless adult enemies whom I lived to thwart. Quick thinking and thoughtful action turned chaos into clever time and again, and even the books obviously for younger readers were funny and unusual.

After that, I got aggressive. I strode BOLDLY into the children's section. I used the computer. I ordered titles on the interlibrary loan system. My goal was to read EVERY. SINGLE. DIANA WYNNE JONES BOOK. In order, of course.

I never did manage that – a writer who started writing before I was born will have had plenty of books go out of print, and a library as tiny as St. Helena’s was unlikely to have access to them all, even with tapping other branches. But, I tried.

Writing this now, I think it’s time to try again. DWJ’s writing is multilayered, and then as now, appeals to the intellectual and to the instinctive in me. While diverse books are deeply important to me, and DWJ's work doesn't necessarily tick ethnic boxes, I love her books because they are always inclusive, always extensive and welcoming. All wishers and liars and magic-bean buyers of any stripe will find, as I have, a place.

I felt a bit of kinship with DWJ the child – knowing that she didn’t have an easy childhood and sympathetic adults in her world. I suspect that this rocky start gave DWJ the writer the tools to open her imagination further than most, and to force her dyslexia into abeyance and to force better worlds into existence.

And it is a better world. We have Dalemark. We have the Chrestomanci. We have Howl and Calcifer and The Dark Lord. And we can never unhave them.

Her books are a crowbar, prying open my imagination. Because of Dame Diana, there will always be more and better worlds to discover.

This little point of light is but the beginning of a very bright universe. There are daily celebrations, memories, fine words and pictures. Check the schedule, and find out who's next for this month's celebration tour.

It doesn't surprise us at all that we know almost everyone on the tour so far. No wonder we're friends...♥

Continuing the celebration of the life and contribution of Diana Wynne Jones, DOGSBODY, FIRE AND HEMLOCK, and A TALE OF TIME CITY are being reissued by Firebird Books, with introductions respectively by Neil Gaiman, Ursula LeGuin and Garth Nix. New covers and new artwork make these works extra-special, as well as the inclusion, in FIRE AND HEMLOCK, of an essay by DWJ not previously published with that book. If you've never read these three titles, you'll want to jump on this chance!

April 11, 2012

DWJ Days

APRIL 12-26 are hereby designated DWJ Days - that's Diana Wynne Jones Days. Wonderland is proud to be a part of the blogosphere celebration of that worthy individual, and beginning tomorrow, if you'd like to keep up with the stops on this little light parade, check here daily.

She will always be loved around these parts.

Our stop is on Friday...! If you'd like to join the show there's still time.

April 09, 2012

Catching Up: Monday Mini-Reviews

I've gotta be honest with you—lately I've been so busy that fitting in a blog post even twice a week has seemed like an impossibly Everestian endeavor, so today I'm just going to offer a few brief, informal reviews, catching up on a couple of books I read a while ago and haven't yet had the opportunity to mention. These are both books which present complex and even tormented narrators, whose experience makes the reader question what's real and what isn't. As always, if you've read them, we would love to hear what you think in the comments!

A couple of months ago I was at the library and happened to see Adele Griffin's latest book, Tighter. Having enjoyed the other books of hers I've read—particularly The Other Shepards and Sons of Liberty (reviewed here)--I was looking forward to reading another one, especially since I haven't read one of hers in quite some time. Like those other two books, this one, too, features a narrator who might or might not be reliable. After all, we find out early on that the narrator is...well...being haunted. It's been happening for a while, and when she gets the opportunity to spend summer as an au pair for a lonely 11-year-old girl on a small New England island, she's hoping she'll be able to escape her ghosts.

But to her horror, she finds she's being haunted by new ghosts, and one of them is the au pair who used to work in the very house where she's now living. While it's not quite as character-driven as I remember her other books being, this one's got plenty of suspense, danger, disorienting twists, and and creepy surprises; I'd recommend it for fans of the classic ghost story Turn of the Screw by Henry James.

You can find Tighter by Adele Griffin at an independent bookstore near you!

In the same library haul as Tighter, I also came across another one I hadn't heard about, Cecil Castellucci's First Day on Earth. Like Adele Griffin's narrator, Castellucci's teenage protagonist Mal is different, and he knows it. Because Mal has been abducted. By aliens. Beamed up, probed, set back down miles away, the whole bit, with a scar to prove it. Of course, nobody he knows at school would ever understand, and so he sort of floats through life, trying to take care of his alcoholic mother (since his father abandoned them years ago) and not attract too much attention. The only people who really seem to understand are the ones in his support group, a kind of Abductees Anonymous where he can tell his story and not be afraid of ridicule.

Some of the group members are downright crazy, but then Mal meets Hooper. Hooper stays quiet during group, but Mal finds out something even more different about Hooper—he says he IS an alien. And he's going home soon. Though this causes Mal to begin questioning his own sense of reality, he also, for the first time in a long time, finds himself connecting with another person, even if that person might not really be...human. Dark and more than a little painful, this one evocatively depicts the pain of alienation (no pun intended) and the undeniable need for connection that we as humans can't push away no matter how hard we try. Jen Robinson wrote up a more detailed review with a few great quotes—go check it out for more info.

You can find First Day on Earth by Cecil Castellucci at an independent bookstore near you!

April 06, 2012


THIS WAS FIRST PUBLISHED FEBRUARY 14, 2007: How ironic that not much has changed, and yet so much has - and I STILL need to hear all of this again.
Maybe you do, too...

For my Valentine's Gift today, I got a note from my agent telling me that yet another house has passed on my second novel. I just sighed and sort of wandered away from the computer, deciding it was time to raid my stash of chocolate chips again.

There's a part of me that just knows I'm going to be called on to revise this manuscript -- again, and right now, I just can't even think about it. I have a semi-solid mid-March deadline for the piece I'm working on now (before ye olde Agent, S.A.M., goes to Barcelona for the Book Faire), and I'll soon be doing final edits on the first novel, so there's a big "Noooo!" swelling up from my soul at the idea of going backwards yet one more time to mess with this piece. I've heard it's too dramatic, too this, too that, but everyone loves the writing, loves the way it deals with "sensitive subjects." All right, then... can anyone be more specific about what they don't love, then?

A trip to Our Jane's Brain has cured me of my tendency to pout, though. Well, not entirely, but work with me, huh? Jane Yolen spoke at the SCBWI Midwinters Conference in NY, and this is some of what she said, as recorded in her online journal:
"If you enter into revision angrily, hating the editor and all of her notes, you will get little out of the process. So learn to love the process as well...

"Read the letter, put it down, and re-read it again the next day. Call a best friend and read the letter to her or him. Or take a hot bath and let the water soak away that initial anger, which—after all—is just the body reacting to being thwarted in the age-old desire to be loved unconditionally.

Mothers and fathers, grandmothers and grandfathers can love you that way. An editor has better things to do with her time and your manuscript."

And incidentally, so does your agent have better things to do with their time! I have wasted a lot of time repeatedly allowing myself to become emotionally flayed by a guy who is really only doing his job on my MANUSCRIPT, not ME (oh, why is that still so hard to separate the two?).
Granted: rejection stinks. I still HATE hearing him say "No" and his gift for dry understatement in his pithy little margin comments initially brings me to hives -- or worse -- until I set his note aside for awhile. Writers just live too far inside of their own heads sometimes, and rejection in any form sometimes feels overwhelming. But when I'm sane (and when is that, exactly?) I know it's really not personal. Really. And though I may never feel comfortable with him, I know my agent knows his stuff. I think highly of him professionally, so maybe... maybe the fact that we'll never name our (non-existent) children after each other... well, maybe that's okay.

For Valentine's Day, I bequeath to myself the gift of realism: not everybody has to be best buddies.

All right, enough navel-gazing nonsense. Back to work...

April 05, 2012

Toon Thursday: You, Too, Can Be a Fiction Writer!

Toon Thursday is back with a brand-new cartoon today, and you will surely be thrilled to know that I have updated the Toon Thursday Archives, too (which, if you haven't looked, is an exhaustive list of every Toon Thursday I've ever posted). As always, click the cartoon to view larger.

Yes. Well. Viking fathers, orange mothers, and pastry chef infamy aside, this could actually BE a fun way to brainstorm character ideas if you're really stuck. Why not, really? I often feel like I'm just picking ideas at random anyway--at least, for the parts of the backstory that don't immediately follow from what I already know about the character. ("Hmm...I've always wanted to visit Moscow. Let's make this character from...Moscow, Idaho! And, uh, I like lizards. When she was kid she had a pet lizard! Who died tragically in a...uh...I don't know! Earthquake! Volcano! Flood! COLLAPSED BURROW!")

Any and all REAL backstory tips to share, please feel free to leave them in the comments.

April 04, 2012

TURNING PAGES: Cat Girl's Day Off, by Kimberly Pauley

John Hughes fans will appreciate this very madcap and lighthearted tongue-in-cheek tribute to Ferris Bueller's Day Off which combines a family story with fantasy elements and lots of feline hijinks.

If you're in the mood for something fast-paced and frothy, and you love Chicago, John Hughes, Ferris Bueller, and ...cats... pick this one up.

Reader Gut Reaction: This book is an airy confection filled with hijinks, shady characters, star-struck fanboys and a lot of running around. I found some of the characters slightly over-the-top, and the real-life celebrity parallels were amusing, but this novel has a lot of glitter going for it - and a lot of heart.

Concerning Character: Natalie Ng has supersmart parents - a mother with laser vision, a father with an incredible nose for discerning scents, a little sister with chameleon abilities and a supergenius brain that landed her in her senior year -- two years ahead of her Nat - and an elder sister, Viv, who, as a college freshman, is already hired and working for the BERM - the Bureau of Extra-Sensory Regulation and Management - with her three Class A Talents, which include levitation, and being a human lie detector.

You kind of understand why Nat is thoroughly underwhelmed by having a Class D Talent - she can communicate with cats. She's more than a little hung up on it, and fairly self-deprecating. Nobody, she alleges, could possibly think that talking to cats is cool. Her parents overlook her, and she lets them. Her baby sister is Evil, as far as Nat's concerned. Even the cat encourages her to engage a little bit more, and actually communicate to her family what's going on with her - but, no Nat's happier whining and talking herself down. So, when only she hears a cat complaining that it's been kidnapped... it's a hard decision for her to actually DO something. Something other than wonder what she should do, anyway.

Good thing she has a couple of pushy, star-struck friends.

Her friends are the only major negative to this novel for me. Oscar is flamboyant yet punky airhead, a stereotypical drama-diva only concerned with following the utterances of a celebrity blogger. While he's kind, when he thinks about it, mostly he seems to be in the novel for comic relief. As a six foot tall gay half-Asian boy, though, he isn't typecast, at least.

Best girlfriend, Melly, while supportive in other ways, including pushing Nat to finally actually speak to her trig partner and crush, Ian, is so blitzed out on the idea of meeting her favorite actor that she willingly walks away with A Known Evil. I found that really hard to swallow - even in a comic novel. It seems like Natalie - the one who talks to cats - is the only one with half the sense of a gnat, which is really ironic when it comes down to it. Score one for the crazy cat girl, even though she's terrified of anyone finding out her Talent, and poised to go into hiding FOREVER if anyone calls her Cat Girl.

Take one missing celebrity blogger - add a stolen pink-dyed cat, a filming on a high school campus, a real catfight, a cat-shelter break-in, Wrigley Field, and whole lot of snarky backtalk from cats. Mix in a breezy fashion to create an absolutely nutty novel which reminds you to never, never, never take suggestions from your feline pet.

Recommended for Fans Of...: BAD KITTY, by Michelle Jaffe, I'D TELL YOU I LOVE YOU, BUT THEN I'D HAVE TO KILL YOU by Ally Carter, and pretty much of all E. Lockhart's Ruby novels. If you like your comedic novels light, fast-paced, with a lot of snarky patter, this is one you might enjoy.

Cover Chatter...: How much do I like that a.) the main character's Asian face shows up on the cover, purple hair streaks intact (my sister WOULD LOVE THIS. No joke. She covets those streaks.), and b.) both she and the cat have speech bubbles? Also, I love that the cat has those stupid, notched down ears -- I know that's a cat breed, but I swear it looks REALLY GOOFY. Which is what Nat thought of Rufus Brutus the Third... aka Tiddlywinks.

This ARC courtesy of NetGalley; my opinions are my own.

After April 12th, you can find CAT GIRL'S DAY OFF by Kimberly Pauley at an independent bookstore near you!

April 03, 2012

TURNING PAGES: Vodník, by Bryce Moore

Now, THIS is what I'm talking about. No werewolves. No vampires. No British isles fairytale constructs. No Arthurian legends, creaky with age, being unfolded and poorly cleansed of the dust of ages for the nth, nth, nth time. No. This is neither the U.S. nor the UK, but Trenčín, Slovenia, baby.
And it's got big, sharp teeth.
Or, you know, big, drown-y-and-then-throws-you-in-a-teacup hands. Whatev. Point: it's vicious and dark and dangerous...and completely amicable, in a "just doing my job" kind of way. It's also full of The Crazy, and funny. This is a Tu-worthy book, indeed - another hit out of the ballpark for Lee & Low's amazing little imprint that could.

Reader Gut Reaction: The folklore mythologies presented in Vodník are fresh and brand new (well, to most Westerners in the Americas), the character development is realistic and steady, the pacing is a tiny bit erratic, due to the onslaught of details, but it's fairly consistent. The balance between funny and serious is well done, and the voice is wry and self-deprecating and endearing.

Many books which feature Eastern European characters wouldn't at all consider the population "people of color," but this author intelligently considers race as a construct and delves into the prejudices against Roma peoples - which I've seen over and over again, living in the UK. It's not pretty, but it's real, and a grim reality for most Roma. (For more on Eastern European prejudice throughout American history and the social constructs of race, vis-à-vis "not quite white enough"-ness, see this section of the brilliant PBS series Faces of America with Henry Louis Gates, Jr., and Jamil Khoury's provocative WASP: White Arabic Slovak Pole.)

While that sounds fairly serious, that's not the first thing that strikes you over the head about this novel. Here - read the first four chapters and see what I mean.

Concerning Character: Tomas - toe-MAHS - is a generally friendless movie buff, and as long as he can put a DVD or a screen between himself and reality, he's all right. When he wakes in the hospital suffering from smoke inhalation - because the house has burned to the ground around him - he's a little more than freaked.

This has happened before.
Eleven years ago, when he was five. Only, that time he came away with his right arm and chest disfigured with third-degree burn scars that reminds him of melted candle wax. He's been deeply self-conscious about short sleeves and bare skin ever since -- and terrified of fire. Oddly enough, the day he was burned? He also, somehow... almost drowned. He's left with scarring on his lungs -- and a pathological fear of water.

There's a lot about the incident Tomas doesn't remember -- make that everything -- and, frankly, that's fine. If it's not on a movie screen, there are some things Tomas is pretty okay with putting out of his mind.

With no home and facing the shaky economy, the family returns home to Slovakia where his mother was born - a country Tomas doesn't even remember. Now, with post-Communist tech issues, the TV/DVD/movie thing isn't happening. Tomas has to work to get to know Katka, to avoid racist Roma-haters, to wrestle his bilingual skills back into shape... and figure out what the heck is going on with his brain. Because, he's pretty sure he just saw a man made out of water, and a woman made out of fire, and Death hanging out with her scythe by the town fountain...

Memories and family mysteries are resurfacing, tied to the "imagination" Tomas was said to have as a small child, where he saw škriatokov and vily - dwarves and fairies - around every corner. While childhood memories are all very amusing, Tomas is finally figuring out the worst bit - it's not his imagination. The woman in the fire dress... isn't all in his head. A vodník IS trying to kill him - for real - and make him live out eternity in his teacup. And bargain though he might, Death - not at all the mythological being he imagined - is coming for someone in his family.

Some things sound funnier when they're not happening to you.

Recommended for Fans Of...: If you have a taste for a bit of dark humor in your fantasy, this will work for you. Fans of Vampire High by Douglas Rees or The Chronicles of Vladmir Tod by Heather Brewer, or Holly Black's original Tithe series will enjoy.

Themes & Things: At its heart, this novel is partially about memory - and communication - two things lacking, for various reasons, in this family, and often between adults and teens as a whole. Parents might have a "revisionist history" take on one's childhood, and be happier leaving things in the past which happened - but because Tomas and his family have so long been leery of digging into their past, some memories have been lost - memories and family lore and beliefs which might have kept them safe. In order to get to the truth, a lot has to be disturbed - but like tearing the bandage off of a wound to let it heal, in the end, it's worth it.

Cover Chatter: The chapter illustrations are lovely grayscale little death's head images which show up on the cover on Tomas' t-shirt. Death the character is kind of freaky, but the little image is from a helpful book and makes me want that t-shirt.

There are a LOT more images, though - Lee & Low have fully appreciated my love for Teh Cover Chat. They blogged the entire process - the images their artist drew, and the whole process of selection for their final image. I LOVE the one which reminds me of a WICKED poster, and the Death on Duty as lifeguard is very near perfect - but I appreciate much the design team's assessments that they needed to reflect some Roma ethnicity into the cover. The final model is very nearly perfect, and reminds me of my friend Axel, who is Romanian - and gets a lot of the same static about being olive-skinned and Eastern European as Roma do.

Authorial Asides: From the notes at the end of the book, you'll be pleased to find that author Bryce Moore has actually visited Trenčín, really likes the castle, and thinks you'd like it, too. Even if you don't see a vodník down the well.

You can find VODNÍK by Bryce Moore at an independent bookstore near you!

April 02, 2012

Monday Review: GIRL MEETS BOY edited by Kelly Milner Halls

Out from Chronicle Books earlier this year, Girl Meets Boy is an anthology of he-said, she-said stories from a selection of YA authors you already know and love: James Howe and Ellen Wittlinger; Rita Williams-Garcia and Terry Trueman; Chris Crutcher and Kelly Milner Halls; Joseph Bruchac and Cynthia Leitich Smith; Terry Davis and Rebecca Fjelland Davis; Sara Ryan and Randy Powell. You'll get the girl's viewpoint AND the guy's in each set of stories, whether there's a happy ending, a sad one, or something in between.

Reader Gut Reaction: This was a fun idea to begin with, and one that was well executed all around, though I don't necessarily gravitate toward "love stories" as such. But I was struck by the high quality of every single story in the collection, and it made me happy to see an addition to the oeuvre of short story anthologies for YA readers. Also, I'm a sucker for collections that follow a related theme, and Girl Meets Boy does just that while also maintaining a wide variety of characters and authorial voices. It's got surprise twist endings and painful moments, longing from afar and love from unexpectedly close by, dangerous love and safe love, same-sex relationships and interracial ones, unlikely pairs and couples destined not to be together after all.

Concerning Character...and Theme: Obviously, in a book like this, character is going to be a critical focus—it's what makes that centuries-old, infinitely-rehashed theme of love into something new, individual, never seen before. And every single character in this book was vivid and distinct, brought to life in just a few pages. So I'll just relate a few standout stories here. One of my favorite pairs of stories was the Bruchac/Smith pairing—the voice was so strong in both, whether it was Cynthia's Native American basketball star longing for something more than just a clumsy pawing by some oafish dude, or Bruchac's short, thoughtful martial artist who's just a little scared to make that leap into the unknown territory of love.

I also was struck by the interracial love story by Terry Davis and Rebecca Fjelland Davis, because it's the story of a Muslim, Bangladeshi boy in—of all places—rural Iowa, in love with a local girl who is obviously neither Muslim nor South Asian. Issues of race and religion were sensitively handled, but the focus is on the fact that love (and, of course, physical attraction) transcends any boundaries we finicky humans might invent. This one also appealed to me on a personal level, because my grandfather—my mom's dad—and his family originally hailed from Iowa, and I remember being a little kid, visiting Iowa with my parents and having the Midwest relatives mentioning how "exotic" my dad and I were. However, Rafi's got the added difficulty of living in a post-9/11 world, and the difficulties that attend that are not sugarcoated.

Lastly, I want to mention the story by James Howe and Ellen Wittlinger, mainly because Howe wrote a few of my ABSOLUTE favorite books as a kid--Bunnicula and the sequel, The Celery Stalks at Midnight. But here, he writes about a lonely gay teen who meets his soul mate over the internet...or so he thinks. I can't talk too much about it without giving things away, but he's in for a surprise when he finally meets Alex in person.

ALL of these stories are great, though. I could go on about each of them, but I won't—you'll have to explore each gem on your own.

Recommended for Fans Of...: Realistic fiction anthologies, of course—Chris Crutcher's Angry Management (reviewed here) comes to mind, or Twice Told (reviewed here).

Cover Chatter: I think this one's got a really nice cover. It's simple but eye-catching, the image itself is visually striking with the teens' legs nicely echoing the crooked branches, and (at the risk of sounding like a design dork) I really like the title font.

Review Copy Source: Publisher

You can find Girl Meets Boy at an independent bookstore near you!