January 30, 2014

Reviews in Brief: Suspense!

There is a bit of a twist these two books have in common, besides being intense and suspenseful, but I can't tell you what it is without spoilers. Two quick, absorbing reads in a Lois Duncan sort of vein that have you constantly questioning what's real and what isn't…and who's out to get the protagonist.

Pretty Girl-13 by Liz Coley. First: check out that cover! Very cool overlay/dream-like effect, and the font could not be better. </end font nerd gushing> If you enjoy psychologically intense, frightening kidnapping stories, like Stained by Cheryl Rainfield (reviewed here), then I recommend this one. The last thing Angie remembers is being thirteen years old, at Girl Scout camp—and now everyone's telling her she's actually sixteen, and she's been gone for the last three years. Disappeared. Vanished. As she tries to figure out what happened to her during her captivity, what Angie finds is that things aren't quite what they appear to be. Her returning fragments of memory send her deeper and deeper into her own mind and her own past, and she has to come to terms with everything that's happened to her—EVERYTHING—if she wants to truly move past her harrowing experience. Though I had a few minor issues with the writing, this one is sure to engage fans of problem novels as well as thrillers.
Review copy source: Library ebook | Buy from Indiebound

Shift by Em Bailey. Olive Corbett used be Popular Olive, Queen Bee of the School. Now she's Crazy Olive, Taking Chill Pills and Flying Under the Radar. Until new student Miranda shows up and starts taking Olive's former popular role, her former best friend…and her best friend's clothes, and her personality…What is up with Miranda? It might sound impossible, but Olive thinks Miranda might be a shapeshifter—she read all about them on the internet, and they usurp people's lives, and, hey, her one real friend Ami believes her, so Olive starts snooping. Nobody else seems to notice Miranda's takeover of Katie's life, or the fact that Katie's getting paler and sicker-looking. Even if Olive isn't friends with Katie anymore, it's not like she wants her life energy to get slurped up by some malevolent creature. Of course, there's no guarantee she IS a shapeshifter…and Olive is recovering from a personal trauma. So what's real and what isn't? Another plot-driven one with a strong psychological component—intriguing to wonder what's truly happening, even if sometimes I felt a little manipulated: partly because Olive is not an entirely trustworthy narrator, and partly due to elements of the plot seeming a little forced. Still, an interesting premise and worth a read for fans of suspense.
Review copy source: Library ebook | Buy from Indiebound

January 29, 2014

The Future Is HERE

Introducing the Sensory Fiction Machine. Can you imagine reading THE FAULT IN OUR STARS and being as sad as the characters - on top of your own sads?

Eek. No. Creepy. I'll have my own feelings, thanks.

January 27, 2014

Now Reading: The Van Gogh Blues

I don't feel like I have it in me to talk books today, this Monday at the start of what promises to be yet another week of hectic-ness, so instead I'll talk writing. (That's what this blog is ostensibly about, yes? Writing YA, or so I'm told? Um.) Also, there is one of those city trucks right outside our house, the kind that sucks leaves out of the storm drain with a gigantic hose, making a ridiculous amount of noise. SHHH PEOPLE ARE WORKING.

Anyway, I've started reading something called The Van Gogh Blues: The Creative Person's Path Through Depression by Eric Maisel, a psychologist and creativity coach who specifically addresses creative types and often writers in particular.

Oh. I guess I AM talking books. Or book. Oh well.

I'm still very early on in the book, but it's intriguing in that it posits writers and artists and other creatives often have a specific source for their depression that others may not: for those whose lives and psyches are intimately tied up with the creation of things new and meaningful, depression can result from more existential sources, a "crisis of meaning," as the author puts it. If you feel like what you're creating isn't meaningful, for instance, or you're not sure how to create something real (or even cope) when the world feels meaningless or difficult, then you're having a meaning crisis. We as artists, Maisel says, will feel more empowered if we are able to step back a bit, and embrace our role as creators of meaning rather than trying to find or receive meaning from somewhere "out there."

From time to time I enjoy reading books like this, about the creative life. I think I like them more than I like the how-to-write or how-to-art type of books (although I enjoy those, too) because they address the nagging issues of day-to-day existence, going beyond questions that are writing-specific. I find both types of books valuable, because hearing about others' experiences and the myriad of ways other writers and artists persevere is helpful. But as someone who does feel a lot of anxiety and angst—and someone with a very analytical side—it also gives me a sense of control to try to articulate and put a name to, or at least describe, what I'm feeling. One of the most formative books of this type that I've ever read is Art and Fear by David Bayles and Ted Orland. I've owned two copies of it and lent both of them out never to be seen again, so I'm assuming the people I lent it to really needed it. Highly recommended. I've read it again and again, flipped through it when I needed a bit of wisdom or reassurance.

A few other recommendations in this vein:
  • Writing Yoga by Bruce Black (of the lovely Wordswimmer blog) 
  • Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg 
  • Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott 
  • What It Is and Picture This by Lynda Barry 

Know of any others I should read? Eric Maisel actually has written a TON of books, and if I enjoy this one, I plan to explore those.

January 24, 2014

Unscheduled Extra Grumpy: Early Soapbox Edition

Under the category of GOOD GRIEF IS NOTHING SACRED:



Hey, Sorrywatch? Wanna weigh in on the craptasticness of this non-apology for me?

Publisher IDW's Dirk Wood responded to Barger online over the controversy, saying the artist – chosen by the Cartoon Network – was "thinking of it more along the lines of 'female empowerment' than the kind of thing you guys are talking about". He added: "Half of the employees have kids here, and we pride ourselves in making comics they'll enjoy and not give them a warped view of the world (except, you know, in a good way). Anyway, I certainly see your points, and we'll be sensitive to these things, as I think we mostly have been."

These guys are my FAVE. They kick butt - literally. They're hilarious. They're ...completely ridiculous. I LOVE the Powerpuff Girls. The whole latex dress, sexed-up version of them IS NOT EMPOWERING, you morons. Big muscles and big shoes for butt-kicking = Empowering. Outthrust chests and microminis= YOUR FANTASY, NOT MINE. And how dare you overlay your fantasy on top of a child's show. HOW FREAKIN' DARE YOU.

Why, yes, there ARE a lot of other injustices in the world to get pissed off about.

This one just happens to toast my muffins hottest Now. Tune in an hour from now, and I'll be pissed off about something else.

Hat tip to The Guardian for fodder for this soapbox moment.

January 23, 2014

Toon Thursday! New! Exciting! Whee!

Yes, it's a new writing-related cartoon for your Thursday viewing pleasure. Enjoy!

January 22, 2014

TURNING PAGES: We Were Liars, by E. Lockhart

I received a copy of this novel in October, and it was ...rather plain. No cover. No fancy fly-leaf. Just a note from the author, and a stack of manuscript. Cybils was in full swing, so I set it aside to read and chat about it a little closer to the date. This is a LITTLE closer to the date, but you still have a ways to go. Never mind - there's much to tell! As you can see from the note, I get to lie about it, which isn't normally what I do, when I review a book, but hey! The title suggests it. The cover supports it.

The finished cover is itself a whole discussion. The sun-bright sea, the blinding shine of the water. The beautiful people standing in the sea, being beautiful, the way the letters smear, just a little, mean that you can't see anything clearly. This both says nothing and everything about this story. In the tradition of The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks, this is the tale of a beautiful, privileged family, and their stylish escapades. It's the story of subverting the dominant culture and making a place for yourself to emerge as you really are - if you can believe it.

Once upon a time, there was a king who had three beautiful daughters.

Or, maybe there wasn't.

If it starts with "Once Upon a Time," it's a fairytale. Everyone knows most fairytales are just the collected stuff people had already told for years. I mean, the Brothers Grimm. Everyone knows they stole their stuff from half the German countryside. And let's not forget Hans Christian Anderson, - sure, he made up his stories, but there were heavy morals that were borrowed from conventional wisdom back then. Stories from France, collected by Charles Perrault, are a lot like the tales from Greece, which Aesop told, only with less of a clearly defined moral. The Thousand and One Nights was collected over many centuries by various authors, translators, and scholars across West, Central, South Asia and North Africa. This book has a lot of "Once Upon a Time" in it, so it could all be conjecture, guesswork, a full-blown tissue of lies. It's a story. Just ...a story.


Be normal, now. Right now.
Because you are. Because you can be.

Concerning Character: Candace Sinclair knows better than to cause a problem. No tantrums, no public quarrels. No scenes. Sinclairs don't do that. Sinclairs respect their elders, make allowances, and make do. Sit up. Smile. Show your family how much you love them. There are ironclad rules of being a Sinclair. Take what you get, don't pitch a fit. Winners never quit, quitters never win. Don't take no for an answer. Fortunately, Candace is used to the rigamarole, the nosy aunts, her sometimes stern, autocratic and bossy Grandfather, the hyperactive Littles running around, and really, all of the craziness and the beauty that distinguishes the Sinclairs from everyone else. The truth is, she's really above it, because none of it matters. Not the adults, not their nonsense, not the fussing and the scolding. What matters is, on the Sinclair family's island, the annual summer meeting of the Liars. For three solid months, Candace and her very best friends on Earth can do anything, say anything, be anything they want to be, until the world splits them apart again. They're the only people she truly loves -- and so all the other pettiness she endures throughout the year, living with her mother, being estranged from her father, being ordered around and enduring freezing cold Vermont winters at a school she hates - everything is leavened by being allowed to go to the island every summer, hang out with the Liars, eat clams, lie in the sun, and recover.

Everything is recoverable, everything is salvageable, everything is better, with the Liars.

None of the lies told without them matter.

When Candace is sent to Europe, she misses the Liars something fierce. She writes them frivolous, silly letters and angry bitter ones. She hates being away from them, but the adults are up to some stupidity she has to endure. When she's finally allowed to return, their summer reunion is supposed to be the stuff of legend. Things have happened - Cady knows there's something she isn't quite getting - but none of it matters. The Liars are together again, and there will never be another summer, like their seventeenth...

I received this book courtesy of the author and her publicist, for which I thank them. If you'd like to see some more of this novel before it appears, check out the very pretty WE WERE LIARS tumblr, and remember to SAVE THE DATE. After May 13, 2014, you can find WE WERE LIARS by E. Lockhart online, or at an independent bookstore near you!

January 21, 2014

TURNING PAGES: Coaltown Jesus, by Ron Kortege

Ever since STONER & SPAZ, I've been a fan of this author's work, and when he made me cry reading poetry about baseball, of all things, he had me for good. Ron Koertge's work just shines, so finding his latest book as a Cybils nominee was no surprise.

The Cybils folk, however happy they were to see the nomination, found themselves slightly at a loss when it came to genre. Though the book was nominated elsewhere, it was moved to speculative fiction. I mean, it's got Jesus in it, and he talks. He doesn't do that really, right? So, it's like speculative, that he's really there, saying stuff, right? Or is this kid talking to himself, or delusional, or ...?

Eventually, the book was passed to another group, as Our Overlords determined that the main character's experience was real, for a given value of "real" in fiction, and that it wasn't speculative. Necessarily. We were left, those of us in the Panel 1 round of judging, with a distinct relief that it wasn't our call to make...

In the tradition of Cynthia Rylant's GOD WENT TO BEAUTY SCHOOL, this Green Light YA Read - to use Kelly Jenson's term - projects the uncontainable into the context of the ordinary -- and elevates it into something altogether "other" - and amazing. It is listed for grades 7-10, and I can see it being a dog-eared "read again" for many tweens and older-than-teens who have a spiritual sense, but maybe not any particular religion. Its beautifully hopeful ordinariness may offend some people -- more honestly, it will offend some people, probably the same folk who argued with Cynthia Rylant's interpretation of a God who went by Jim and painted nails for a living, and the ones who hate that one Joan Osborne song which will remain nameless (lest you blame me for the earworm it became after "Joan of Arcadia."). Readers who were raised with a more conservative faith may remain uneasy, not with the plot, but with a character. Is it right to make Jesus human? Is it right to make him wear tennis shoes, and hang out doing card tricks, and be excited about ice cream, candy bars, and dogs?

Just a thought for the uneasy Christian-religious folk: weren't you taught that the "being human" thing is already what Jesus did?


...Moving right along.

Walker Pointed
"This is Bissell House. Rooms up
And down both halls. Nurses' stations.
Rec room. Dining room. Pretty standard
Jesus nodded. "Nice-looking place.
It has a very cool vibe."
Walker whispered, "Nobody says vibe
"Oh, that's nice. Correct the King
of kings and Lord of lords."

Concerning Character: Walker's brother, seventeen-year-old Noah, has been dead now for two months, and some nights, he still hears his mother crying. It sucks. After weeks of nightmares and numbness, this is what pushes fourteen-year-old Walker over the edge, and he sends up a tortured prayer of sorts, asking whomever is up there to come and fix his mother's pain. And, Jesus comes... to Coaltown, Illinois. Walker is terrified - elated - and ...confused.

He's just not as advertised... not by the Sunday School stuff Walker remembers, anyway. He looks okay - sandals, beard, the whole robe getup - but he likes red high tops - size 11 - and is he supposed to tell such bad jokes? Isn't that kind of... irreverent? He answers questions with more questions sometimes, too, which pisses Walker off. And, why does he keep hanging out with Walker? Isn't his mom the one with all the sadness? That's who he's supposed to be fixing, after all.

In what can only be described as a gentle, gradual revelation - from walking the streets, hanging out with the old folks at his mother's nursing home, playing basketball in the park, having Brain Freezes at the Dairy Queen, and through endless conversations, readers see Walker - a kid who is brokenhearted, furious, and confused. Leaving aside The Big Questions of theology and dogma, Jesus is a friend, a funny, patient listener, gently encouraging Walker to sort through and share memories of Noah - the fun, despairing, loving, angry, abrasive, playful, brilliant, uncaring, talented, drug-abusing brother who he loved - whom they both loved - and find a way to love him, see him truly through his very human contradictions and complexities, forgive him, and finally, finally, begin to let go.

"...It seems like he was mad all the time."
Jesus nodded. "I know. He was mad when he prayed.
"Noah prayed?"
"Oh, yeah. One night out on Bethel Road.
He was by himself, and he got out of the car,
looked up at the sky and said, "Who am I,
anyway. Really, who the hell am I?"
"That doesn't sound like a prayer to me."
Jesus said, "Sure it was." He leaned and petted
Shadow, who let his tongue loll out in ecstasy.
Walker asked, "So, what did you do?"
"I loved him."
"That's all?"
Jesus caressed Shadow one more time.
He straightened up, and looked directly
at Walker.
"Dude," he said. "that's everything."

- pg. 76
WARNING: Reading this book may cause inexplicable feelings of "something in my eye" and blurred vision. Your mileage may vary. I cannot be blamed for the Joan Osborne song, you're the one singing it to yourself. There is a Coal City in Illinois. Jesus has been there.

My copy came courtesy of the publisher. You can find COALTOWN JESUS by Ron Koertge online, or at an independent bookstore near you!

January 20, 2014

Reviews in Brief: Thrills and Chills

Boston Jacky by L.A. Meyer. This historical adventure series is one of the few (maybe the only?) set of series books I find myself religiously following. I haven't been disappointed yet. For sheer fun and entertainment, as well as immersive historical detail, these books can't be beat. Narrator Jacky Faber, a plucky, smart, mischievous, and daring young woman, ages and grows and learns as she adventures her way through an exceedingly interesting time in history--the early 1800s. In this latest volume, the social turmoil of a young United States forms the backdrop to Jacky's attempts to branch out in business. Her new venture is the purchase of beloved but ailing tavern the Pig & Whistle, complete with a brand-new adjoining playhouse for musical and dramatic entertainment. However, the movement for women's suffrage has other ideas--because, during this time, the suffragettes also embraced temperance, and a tavern is of course a bawdy house full of unsavory influences. Meanwhile, love-of-Jacky's-life Jaimy Fletcher has finally come to Boston to join her, but, as always, he isn't sure if there's room for him in her ever-so-active lifestyle...And then there's the Irish Question, which Jacky is in the thick of, because of her profitable business shipping over Irish workers...This latest in the Bloody Jack series does an excellent job of integrating Jacky's adventures with the major historical happenings and social issues of the time.
Review copy source: Library | Buy from Indiebound

17 and Gone by Nova Ren Suma. I'm not going to be able to say TOO much about this one, because of spoilers, but I'd been looking forward to reading it for quite a while and was excited to find it at my library. Main character Lauren's life changes irrevocably the day her van breaks down and she catches sight of a "Missing" poster on a phone pole. The missing person is Abby Sinclair, 17 years old--the same age as Lauren--and she disappeared months ago without a trace from a nearby summer camp. And now Lauren is having visions of Abby. Convinced she's meant to somehow help Abby, Lauren begins delving deeper, and finds out that there are SO MANY girls out there who are 17 and just...gone. Disappeared. Never found. And now she's started to dream about them--about all of them. Why are they starting to haunt her, and what can Lauren do about it? What's she supposed to do? And is her desperation to save these girls so strong that it's taking over her own life? Though this one has a slower ramp-up in the first part of the book, it serves well to draw the reader into Lauren's viewpoint until we're just compulsively turning the pages, unable to stop watching.
Review copy source: Library | Buy from Indiebound

January 17, 2014

Five & Dime Friday: Author Edition

I've had a few links I've been keeping open on the desk top for a bit, and realized I need to get them out there! For some reason, most of these are writerly, so forgive the slant:

We had a REALLY GOOD discussion and follow-up exercise in our writing group the other week about privilege -- and excuse me for linking to a personal post. We followed up by doing an exercise of identifying our core identities -- and it was kind of a surprise. What we DON'T identify as is sometimes as surprising as how we do!

"...The thing is, publishing books is--even though our books are not ourselves--extremely revealing, by which I mean it opens us up to lots more casual judgment and criticism, especially when we voice opinions that not everyone agrees with or wants to hear." This past week, the Bond Girl blogged about ... self promotion. Ugh. Ugh, ugh, ugh. Just the phrase brings on panicky negativity. The personal becomes the public, and we, as authors - and women, and people of color, who are historically less reviewed and less visible - have to rely a lot more on social media, personal appearances, and being accessible, because sometimes to critics, we're not even here. Add YA to the mix? Yeah. A thought-provoking, disturbing post.

Hip blog Guys Lit Wire just welcomed NINE new contributors. NINE. Guys are reading, and guys and girls are sparking, live wires on the subject, and Guys Lit Wire continues to support the written word. Well done, GLW, awesome sauce, since 2008!

Buzzfeed reveals some wise words on Writing the Other - by Daniel José Older, one of the editors of LONG HIDDEN which I was squeeing about just the other day. Am really looking forward to doing more reading on this topic, and am excited to hear others chiming in. Yaaay!

So, we're fond of Reddit's AMA's, which of course stands for "Ask Me Anything." Our favorite Tu Books editor, Stacy Whitman, spent time with author Joseph Bruchac on Reddit just the other day - and Wow. It's an idea worth doing again, guys. Well done!

Meanwhile, Tor.com has risen to further levels of coolness by hosting a weekly YA roundup on their site. Now your new YA speculative fiction picks are all in one place. AND, there are tips for writers and just general cool informational stuff. Got Twitter? Got a novel you'd like to get out there, if you could just get through all the @($(*& publishing hoops and find the words to talk to a publisher or agent? #PitMad might just be your thing. "It gives authors the opportunity to pitch to agents over Twitter. Authors use 140 characters to sell their novel, including the genre and category, and agents can favourite the ones they like and contact those authors for submissions." Click through for details on when the next one will happen! *Hint: March!*

SO, I got an email from an author about a writing retreat -- with not a whole lot of details, but I'm brows-raised-interested to hear more. But, then I thought about it -- someone else had a similar experience, awhile back... Note To Author Who Contacted Me: there will be NO SPARTAN RACE at any writing retreat I attend. NONE. Just being clear, here.

January 16, 2014

A Few Thoughts on Being a Cybils Judge

Since I have to zip my lip on the Cybils YA titles I'm judging until the contest is over, I thought I'd do a quick post on what it's like to be a judge for a book award contest. I might have done this before (honestly? I can't remember). But something has changed in the way I evaluate books as a judge. What I've noticed is, the way I read and think about these titles has changed since I've been published myself.

The biggest change I've noticed is, I'm more likely to count it against a book if it seems to me that a problem could have been dealt with in the editing process. I'm not just talking about typos (although those annoy me, it really isn't fair to hold them against the story, if that part is strong). I'm talking more about inconsistencies, pacing issues, things that are left out or unexplained, stylistic indulgences or other things that could have been stripped out before the final version. These are all things that I notice a lot more while I'm reading, having been through the editing process multiple times myself. It takes a very particular type of book to make it past my barriers and enable to me to just get lost in it.

And I guess now that's what I'm looking for: those books that don't boot me out of the story for one reason or another. I realize part of that is personal resonance--for a story that resonates with me, or characters that resonate with me, I'm less likely to get tripped up by details. And of course a story that resonates with one person isn't necessarily going to resonate with another person. But that feeling of being lost in a book can happen even when I'm very conscious that I don't relate strongly to the character or the setting or whatever.* That's when I know a book has been really well crafted.

* I've also noticed the opposite can happen: I can relate to the characters or the story but I'm not getting lost in it because of the style or some other issue that brings me out of my immersive state.

When I'm reading a book for judging purposes, therefore, I try to be very conscious of WHY I don't like something--if it's because I don't agree with a stylistic choice, for instance, because it's not one I would have made, versus whether I think something just wasn't well done. Or if it's just not the kind of genre I would naturally gravitate towards. That one is more difficult for me to move past, because genres have conventions of their own, and while I tend to read fairly widely, there are a few types of stories I just don't have a strong interest in, and so it's hard to judge them because the very things I dislike about them may be the things fans LOVE about them.

(Side note: While I may actually BE a judgmental person when it comes to certain types of books, it does NOT mean that other people shouldn't be reading whatever the hell they like to read just because I think something is crappy.)

When I'm judging, then, I have to be very honest with myself and about myself as well as about the books. Only then can I be open to the judging criteria the way I need to be. It's a very different process from winnowing down titles in Round 1, which I've also done in the past. In fact, being on Round 2 for a while has kind of made me miss Round 1, and the ability to be eclectic and broad rather than specific and choosy.

For those of you who have been on Cybils or other award committees, what do you find yourself getting tripped up by? Do you prefer creating shortlists or picking winners? I'm curious.

January 14, 2014

Calling All Speculative Fiction Fans...


Oooooooh. Purty.

This is the cover of a new speculative fiction collection coming out this Spring.

From the website:

About Long Hidden

Most written chronicles of history, and most speculative stories, put rulers, conquerors, and invaders front and center. People with less power, money, or status—enslaved people, indigenous people, people of color, queer people, laborers, women, people with disabilities, the very young and very old, and religious minorities, among others—are relegated to the margins. Today, mainstream history continues to perpetuate one-sided versions of the past while mistelling or erasing the stories of the rest of the world.

There is a long and honorable legacy of literary resistance to erasure. This anthology partakes of that legacy. It will feature stories from the margins of speculative history, each taking place between 1400 and the early 1900s and putting a speculative twist—an element of science fiction, fantasy, horror, or the unclassifiably strange—on real past events.

Thanks to the success of our Kickstarter campaign, Long Hidden will include 27 stories, totaling about 154,000 words. The anthology will be released in trade paperback and DRM-free digital formats in May 2014, with launch parties in NYC and at Wiscon.

Today the Table of Contents for this collection went up. Included in this non-YA-but-cool-sounding anthology are works by Nnedi Okorafor as well as Victor LaValle, author-in-residence at Mills College when A.F. and I were there.

This just looks amazing.

January 13, 2014

Reviews in Brief: Monday Miscellany

The Wig in the Window by Kristen Kittscher. I don't review middle grade novels all that often, but I'd been wanting to read this one since meeting the author (full disclosure: we have the same agent). Great things about this book: it's completely silly and funny and chock-full of comical misunderstandings and what I'd describe as just plain kid humor, and yet it also has a serious side, and the characters learn from their misunderstandings and misbehavior. Also, I love that one of the main sleuthing characters is Asian-American, and I LOVE-love the overarching theme that appearances can be deceiving, and sometimes you can find friendship where you least expect it. The noir-ish, wise-beyond-her-years narration style of Sophie occasionally tripped me up, but it also often cracked me up. The plot involves spy-game-crazy Sophie and Grace, best friends, who catch their weirdo middle-school counselor Dr. Agford in what appears to be flagrante delicto, so to speak—mid-criminal act, or so it appears, and, as you might guess, they jump to the absolute MOST incriminating conclusion. What is Dr. Agford's secret? And what happens when play-spying turns into something all-too-real? Hilarity ensues, but so does trouble.
Review copy source: KidLitCon 2013 | Buy from Indiebound

Catch & Release by Blythe Woolston. One of the things I liked most about this author's previous novel The Freak Observer (reviewed here) was the fact that the characters were flawed, yet realistically so, making what could be an oversimplified problem novel into a complex exploration of what it means to recover and heal. The same applies to this book. We meet narrator Polly Furnas in the wake of a life-changing, terrifyingly believable incident: infection with MRSA. MRSA being Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, one of our most frightening drug-resistant superbugs. People died. Polly survived, but with a scarred face. Odd Estes lost a leg. Now she and Odd—who never had much to do with each other before—are together in a car, on a fishing trip that turns into an extended cross-country road trip. They're both damaged; Odd is, quite possibly, slightly unhinged; and neither of them knows what life is going to mean now that they both bear physical and emotional scars. It's hard to know what to say about this book, because it's very subtle and very character-driven. Their story is really a journey in every way, tangibly and intangibly. But don't assume that means there isn't any action or suspense, because there is. It's just…a sense of lateral motion. Go read it and you'll know what I mean.
Review copy source: KidLitCon 2013 | Buy from Indiebound

Sorrow's Knot by Erin Bow. I enjoyed this author's earlier novel Plain Kate (reviewed here), which was a Cybils finalist in Sci-Fi/Fantasy in the 2010 contest. Like the earlier book, one of the strengths of this one was the fact that the author weaves a new-yet-recognizable mythology out of recognizable elements and places. And weaving is a good metaphor to use, here—main character Otter was born to be a binder for her tribe, using string figures to bless, defend and protect against the hungry dead. The dead are always creeping in on their settlement at the ends of the earth: the tiny slips, the hungrier shadows, and the most horrifying of all, the White Hands, revenants whose mere touch means becoming one of them. And then one day, one of the dead—just a tiny one—almost takes her friend Cricket from her. From that point on, things start to change. As Otter and her friends Cricket and Kestrel come of age, they realize that not everything is as easy or as predetermined as they were led to believe, and it may be up to the three of them to forge a new path, for their own survival and that of their people. It's a unique story, and I can't say too much about it without giving things away, but I will say that I couldn't put it down, and had a few late-night reading marathons as a result.
Review copy source: KidLitCon 2013 | Buy from Indiebound

January 09, 2014

Holy Infographic Madness, Batman!

Way back in November, Jen Robinson and I gave a presentation at KidLitCon 2013 about Blog Burnout and how you can fight back against it. We provided a nifty handout with some of the strategies we came up with to stay engaged and enthusiastic about blogging--and we talked about how great it would be to try to get the word out there with an infographic.

Well, as you may or may not know, me and graphic design? We're "like that." So of course I had to go look up how to make infographics, and whether there was some kind of special software or app I should use, and so on and so forth. After a few days of bonding with good old Photoshop, I turned our handout into a (hopefully) fun, shareable, visually interesting graphic that you should FEEL FREE to Pin, Tweet, and whatever else. And, for a bit of a recap on our session, please read Jen's post about it.

Without further ado, here is the infographic. PLEASE click to view larger.

January 08, 2014


One of my goals for the year is to read more books that are older. I love new books as much as anyone, but some of the VERY best library finds are from times past, and just because they don't have a kicky new cover (READ: headless fit torso, or Pretty Caucasian Girl In Gown) or a publication date within the last five or ten years doesn't mean they're not good books, or even diverse books. This book was first published in 1992, went out of print, and was picked up again in 2000.

I've been a fan of The Bujold, ever since the Vorkosigan sagas and after I wept my way through her CHALION trilogy (the second of which won a Mythopoeic Fantasy Award for Adult Literature and was nominated for the Hugo, World Fantasy, and Locus Fantasy Awards in 2002), this one-off fantasy was a nice surprise. This book wasn't marketed as YA literature, but the teen protagonist says teen enough for me, and I know my fifteen-year-old self would have loved the adventure and the drama and the quest for True Love (yes, DO imagine the priest from The Princess Bride movie, thank you).

As always with Sword and Sorcery books from the 80's/90's... the covers... oy. The covers. The hardback of this book is dire, with its dark background and scowling ring - but you can't say it's not straightforward. It's called THE SPIRIT RING, and look - a ring. End of story. The flying ring on the backdrop of somewhat melty looking stone buildings on the paperback - and the evil, toothy frog? Demon? Thingy? - is just as bad. Neither of them evokes the beauty and artistry of medieval Italy or seems to be about jewelry smithing or diverse characters, and neither of them says, "pick this up, younger readers! There are teen characters!" No... the cover shrieks something else entirely... but, never mind. It's what's between the covers that counts.

Concerning Character: Fiametta is a girl disregarded on all sides. It's bad enough that since she's "only a girl," her father barks at her, orders her to do, unpaid, twice the work of his apprentice, yet can't be bothered to teacher her any magic, despite his being a mage of some strength. Good thing she can get into his notes and books and figure it out for herself. In this medieval, parallel-universe-Italy setting, Fiametta is socially in a fragile position. As a girl whose barely remembered mother was a Moorish woman, or possibly Ethiopian, Fiametta only has her clothes and jewelry to remembers her, she's been left with a legacy of dark skin, wild black curls, and a sharp and curious mind. Uri, the soldier she likes, doesn't take her seriously as a woman, and won't even put on the magical ring she casts and enchants to reveal to her her true love. Her father, Master Beneforte, an impatient, perfectionist and proud man, knows his daughter's dreams, and disregards them in favor of criticizing her and dismissing her hopes. Fiametta despairs of ever having the life she wants...

Meanwhile in a tiny village in the hills, Swiss copper miner Thur Ochs plods along in his father's footsteps, doing the work for which some think his God perfected him. His wide shoulders, big hands, and stong-as-an-ox constitution make him a natural for dirty work, hard work, and work that doesn't require wit. Thur wants to be more than a miner - desperately. He'd love to do anything else, but his brother's offers to find him a place as a soldier don't appeal - though a big man, Thur is gentle. Their father died in the mines, but Thur can't think of another way to support his mother in their tiny cottage, and she's so lonely, he doesn't want to leave her to find something else. However, Thur has just made a startling discovery -- the kobolds in the mines, which every miner fears, not only see him, but they talk to him. They warn him that if he stays down in the cold and dark, he'll die. An accident in the mines convinces him of this, and the wheel of destiny turns...

As a master mage and metal smith, Master Beneforte is entitled to pride in his position - he's worked hard for what he has, and though he's come to the attention of the Inquisition for past...indiscretions, for now, his magic is fully white, and approved of by the Church. Fiametta is proud of him - but his swelled ego blinds him to much, including the brilliant daughter right in front of him, and the dicey political situation in the ducal household, who is his patron.

With a wedding gift of a magical salt cellar in hand, expecting gold and loud acclaim, Master Beneforte and Fiametta crash a dinner party meant to celebrate the Duke's daughter's betrothal to the wealthy and powerful Lord Ferrante, a Lord from another city-state who brings with him an honor guard of beautifully dressed troops and attendants, who look a bit like bravos to Fiametta. Ignored in favor of higher class guests, the Benefortes are seated far away from the Duke. Unfortunately they're perfectly placed, however, to witnesses his murder. As the guards cry treachery, all hell breaks loose. Swords are flying, guests are fleeing, and an overturned table reveals the evidence of black magic at work. Having seen too much, the Benefortes are fleeing for their lives. Too late, Fiametta finds out just how much of a mage her father used to be...

With her hometown invaded and its citizens on the run, Fiametta and her destiny collide. Of course, who ever recognizes destiny when they see it? And, enough with the woo-woo stuff -- when there's real work to be done, it takes heart, faith, bravery, and, yes, True Love, to win the day. As sword-and-sorcery tales go, this one is a solid and entertaining read, and while it won't change your world, it will certainly make you smile.

WARNING: Offer void across time lines. Be Careful What You Wish For. Any magic rings you put on may have an adverse effect on your fingers, your life, or the lives of others. Your mileage may vary. This novel contains people of color in a medieval setting. This is not an anomoly; people of color were not invented during slavery, but were free merchants, traders, teachers and doctors, minding their own business throughout the world. No, really. Any attempt to read books while operating heavy machinery will end in tears.

I picked this book up at our public library. You can find your copy of THE SPIRIT RING by Lois McMasters Bujold online, or at an independent bookstore near you!

January 07, 2014

No, it's not Friday, but here's a handful of links on a slow afternoon anyway.

Book Riot, responding to Lee & Low's recent commentary on the lack of diversity in the NYT Bestseller list last year (of 124 authors in the top 10, two were Asian and one was Latino), have actually taken steps to do something about it. Go name drop your fave author of color, whatever genre, so that they can read some new books and write some more inclusive reviews.

KUDOS Book Riot for not just looking and joining the head-shaking chorus of "Such a Shame."

That ARC stack isn't going to read itself. Take this handy speed reading test to see how fast you'll need to be to get it done this year.

Meanwhile, in another corner of the blogosphere, it's already Award Season with the Nerdy Awards for YA Fiction. Who knew?

Writers know: sometimes you have to just let go of a crap story. Or a good story with some crap pieces you can't make work. Here's a How To Move On for 2014.

Speaking of 'let go', didja know that between this very moment and January 12th, Andrew Karre at Carolrhoda Books is accepting unagented debut YA author subs? A.F., who met him at the Minneapolis KidlitCon says he is THE NICEST guy. So, if you've got that polished but not sent manuscript in the back of the drawer, take one last look, and release it into the wild...

It's bloody cold out, but inside a beehive? If properly winterized, the bees keep it a toasty ninety-five degrees -- obviously, we're not volunteering to pay their heating bill this year. If you're feeling like crap, and much colder than I am (Oh, Midwest and East Coast, friends in NYC, Duluth, Minneapolis and Rochester, I am sending sunny vibes), hang in there. Meantime, here are some tips for combating depression during the cold and dark of the year.

Go get a book. You'll feel better.

January 06, 2014

Reviews in Brief: Great Graphics

The Cute Girl Network by Greg Means, MK Reed, and Joe Flood. As I mentioned on Twitter when I first finished this one, it was definitely one of the funniest books I read all year. Seriously—when you get the line "OW! MY COCCYX!" within the first three pages, how can you NOT laugh? (Anyway, how can I not laugh?) In the most general sense, this is a story about two goofballs who find each other and fall in cute, hilarious goofball love. Jane's a skater chick who works in a skate shop. Jack's kind of a semi-loser who works at a soup cart. They really like each other. Problem is, his loser-dom is rather legendary, and the more girls Jane talks to, the more they try to warn her away from Jack for her own good. But, of course, one size does not fit all in dating as in clothing, and there's an inevitable (but rewarding) happy ending to be had. I really thought this was both sweet and comic, and all the silly side characters were made even more hilarious by the fact that they are all just a bit believable, as if you could have met them in real life. Also, do not miss the many sidesplitting references to Twilight. Also by MK Reed: Americus, reviewed here.
Review copy source: Publisher | Buy from Indiebound

Tune Book 2: Still Life by Derek Kirk Kim and Les McClaine. I reviewed Book 1 of this graphic series just about a year ago, and in that first installment, protagonist Andy Go finds himself taking a too-good-to-be-true job in an alien zoo—perfect for his unmotivated, lazy self, or so he thinks. The first book had a lot to say about parental expectations and early career lack of focus, as well as romantic haplessness; this one takes place in the interdimensional zoo and is a LOT more surreal. But still quite funny, as we see Andy trying to get in the good graces of the aliens and learning to cope with having his entire life on display in cross-section for zoo visitors. Of course, as he learns more about the aliens, he learns more about himself, but he doesn't necessarily put that knowledge to good use…and of course hilarity ensues.
Review copy source: Publisher | Buy from Indiebound

Brain Camp by Susan Kim, Laurence Klavan, and Faith Erin Hicks. This one was a Cybils nominee several years back, during a year when I was on a different panel, so I hadn't read it yet. However, I really enjoyed other graphics by the same authors, so I was excited to get caught up. Brain Camp sort of sounds like it would be about kids who get sent to nerdy summer camp, but really, Camp Fielding is all about turning kids who are in some way losers—Jenna, who can't seem to satisfy her ambitious parents, and Lucas, whose single mother is an alcoholic and who can't stop getting into trouble—into so-called winners. Or something. Our unlikely pair of protagonists are certainly no dummies, so they quickly figure out that there's something weird going on at Camp Fielding. I don't want to give too much away, but of course it's the very fact that Jenna and Lucas are stubborn, curious, creative, and determined that not only drives their parents crazy but also helps them solve the mystery. Also by Susan Kim and Laurence Klavan: City of Spies, reviewed here. Also by Faith Erin Hicks: Nothing Can Possibly Go Wrong, reviewed here, and Friends With Boys, reviewed here.
Review copy source: KidLitCon 2013 | Buy from Indiebound

January 02, 2014

Toon Thursday: On Writing Resolutions

I was going to write a new cartoon about writing resolutions, and then I went back over the Toon Thursday Archives and realized I'd already done a perfectly good one on this topic that pretty much says it all--and I did it SO LONG AGO you've probably forgotten all about it, just like I did. Thus (trying to avoid using "so," which is one of the BBC's 20 overused words of 2013), I present you with the real truth about writing resolutions. Don't try to deny it. I've already had this happen JUST TODAY.

Here's to a writing year that's hopefully more productive than this cartoon portends...

January 01, 2014

A Happy Cybils Year! Faves in YA Spec Fic

These books are 2013 Cybils YA Speculative Fiction Finalists.

We've had to be good and quiet and not tell what we've been loving and hating as we've been reading, but we have a good, good, GOOD shortlist this year - and we got it with very little fuss or muss. There were a lot of "good" books, but few "great" books we were willing to arm wrestle over - an interesting trend. This may be my last Cybils serving as a first tier judge, so it was a great year to go out on - thank you so much Hallie, Sarah, Leila, Karen, Patrice, and Sheila for another fabulous year, and thank you, Cybils, for six really fun years judging.

Here are my faves amongst the few, blurbs taken from the Cybs page:

2013 Finalists
Speculative Fiction: Young Adult

Sarah Beth Durst
Walker Books for Young Readers
Nominated by: Leila Roy
Conjured is a multiverse fantasy about a magician, a dark carnival of horrors and delights, a group of snarky, teenaged magic users, and a protagonist who is hugely powerful but also hugely vulnerable. It's a cop story about a girl in witness protection. It's a story about friendship and first love, about discovering one's self, about finding a safe haven in a library, and about what it means to be human.
Our narrator is Eve, a girl who doesn't entirely know who she is; who isn't sure who or what, exactly, she's being protected from; whose memory is so fragmented that she sometimes loses entire weeks of her life. By turns, it is frightening, funny, romantic, and heartwarming, and it is, from beginning to end, completely mesmerizing. As Eve unravels the mysteries that surround her, it becomes more and more clear just how layered, complex, beautifully realized, and wholly original her voice--and Durst's vision--is. Upon finishing the book, readers will want to immediately turn back to the beginning to read it again with a completely new perspective.

Robin McKinley
Nancy Paulsen Books
Nominated by: Stephanie Burgis
Maggie's mother marrying a backwards, Oldworld geek with a thick accent and a lamentable fashion sense isn't the worst of it. It's abruptly seeing what no one else seems to see - shadows. Newworld belongs to science - bright lights, reason, and technology is what keeps its denizens safe. But with every tremor shaking up her safe, familiar life, Maggie realizes that Newworld - and everything else - isn't what she's been told, and sometimes looking into the shadows lets a person see.
Panelists were nearly unanimous in their love for this fast-paced novel with obedient dogs, less obedient algebra books, quirky humor and loveable characters who are clearly a tribute to the imagination of Diana Wynne Jones. Robin McKinley's Shadows is a classic fantasy novel which reveals a new world to a reluctant heroine, and sends her on a fantastic journey. McKinley touches on themes of civil liberty, freedom, and knowledge in this book and reminds us that we can take what we fear, and use it to arm ourselves to take on the universe.
— Tanita Davis,Finding Wonderland

The Summer Prince
Alaya Dawn Johnson
Arthur A Levine
Nominated by: thereadingzone
In the lush city of Palmares Tres, June Costa creates art that's sure to make her legendary. In Enki, the bold new Summer King, she sees more than his amber eyes and a lethal samba. She sees a fellow artist. Together, June and Enki will stage explosive, dramatic projects that Palmares Tres will never forget. And June will fall deeply, unfortunately in love with Enki. Because like all Summer Kings before him, Enki is destined to die. Set in a world rich with organic diversity, The Summer Prince is sure to take readers on a journey through the beautiful Palmares Tres and the lives of its inhabitants. Teens, especially, will relate with the pain the book’s protagonist, June, feels, wanting to be recognized for her art in a society where being under 30 means you are no one. In addition, the complex relationship between June, her best friend, Gil, and the one they both love, Enki is sure to pull at heartstrings, making readers fall uncontrollably in love. The Summer Prince is a fantasy like no other, and from its very first sentence, it promises to amaze.
— Patrice Caldwell,Whimsically Yours

Robin LaFevers
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

Nominated by: Laurie Ann Thompson

In late fifteenth-century Brittany, Sybella is sent from the convent of Saint Mortain to her ancestral home, where her faith will guide her in the assassination of her father, the horrible Count d’Albret. She is ready withcrossbow, garrote, even poison—but she cannot see the marque of death that allows her murder to be sanctioned by her god, and cannot decide whether or how to act. Throughout Dark Triumph, the sequel to Grave Mercy that can be read as a standalone, Sybella struggles with dissonance: mercy and justice, fate and free will, betrayal and loyalty, vengeance and forgiveness, family and freedom, faith and skepticism. And there’s no time to delay, no time to consider, because France could invade at any moment. Dark Triumph is a grim but hopeful fantasy that blends intrigue, danger, and a little romance into a real historical setting.

— Hallie Tibbets, Undusty New Books

I ADORE SHADOWS, CONJURED was our first (and only - but we're getting to that!) "Reading In Tandem" selection last year at Wonderland, and the last two books, THE SUMMER PRINCE and DARK TRIUMPH tied for my third place in the top three. For the last two books in the YA speculative fiction finalist list, as well as the rest of the finalists from all the hard work of every first round judge - 213 books in YA Spec Fic, people!! - check out the Cybils page.