March 31, 2014
Cybils Finalist Review: OUT OF THE EASY by Ruta Sepetys
I bring this up because one of the points of discussion in our Round 2 panel this year was the idea of teen appeal. And, well, one of my only reservations about this book—which I really enjoyed—had to do with that elusive idea of reader appeal. Is historical fiction a genre with broad appeal among teen readers? As an adult, I loved it, but would I have loved it as a teen? Do boy readers enjoy historical fiction, and will they pick up a book with a female protagonist if it's got plenty of action and grit? These are questions I really can't answer, but the fact that they came up more than once made for an interesting discussion in our group.
As for my personal reaction to this one, I enjoyed it quite a lot more than I thought I would, and I was expecting to like it—I can't help being a fan of the Girl-From-Rough-Origins-Claws-Her-Way-Out-By-Her-Wits-and-Makes-Good scenario. It's a classic setup, no? Josie, the protagonist, has goals and dreams most anyone would relate to: she wants to be free of the burden of her no-good mother and get into college so she can have a better life than the one everyone expects her to sink into on the streets of the Big Easy, New Orleans.
It's 1950, and the French Quarter is rife with proto-greasers (like potential love interest Jesse), prostitutes with hearts of gold (yeah, I know; but they are GREAT characters), and seedy criminals, one of whom is seeing Josie's mother. Her mother, a prostitute who seems to have NO heart, skips town and lands Josie in the thick of things, even though all Josie wants is to earn her way in the bookstore where she works and eventually get the hell out of there. The mystery and suspense of Josie's increasingly tense situation are well drawn, as she is forced into deeper involvement with a murder investigation.
The characters are colorful and dynamic in this one—whether some of them are a bit exaggerated is a matter of opinion, but I thought it worked well for the style of the story. The good characters are not only likeable, but lovably flawed, while the baddies are truly icky. Because of the clarity of the writing, I was able to focus on the characters' voices and the building suspense—I would describe the writing as unpretentious, and that was a very positive thing. Ultimately, Josie has to make some realistically difficult decisions in order to put her goals and her personal life back in order. The ending did feel a bit rushed in this regard—loose ends get tied up very quickly—but overall, this was a really enjoyable read.
You can find Out of the Easy by Ruta Sepetys online, or at an independent bookstore near you!
March 28, 2014
TURNING PAGES: THE LAST WILD BOY, by Hugh MacDonald
This novel reminds me of Lois Lowry's THE GIVER, Margaret Atwood's THE HANDMAID'S TALE and, peripherally, BUMPED by Megan McCafferty. It has echoes of the style of AMONG THE HIDDEN by Margaret Peterson Haddix and Jeanne DePrau's THE CITY OF EMBER as well, and is a new, thought-provoking novel for YA readers from Canadian poet Hugh MacDonald. According to his biography, he's the winner of the L.M. Montgomery Children's Literature Award, 1990 and the 2004 Award for Distinguished Contribution to the Literary Arts on Prince Edward Island. I believe this is his first YA novel.
This book is a novel of ideas, and, like the aforementioned books, it doesn't really resolve the ideas he presents. Readers will keep turning pages because there's an adventure here, and the novel's conclusion presents a beginning of new ideas - leading to a more hopeful future for the novel's characters, and perhaps new thoughts for the reader.
"Poor people are lucky," Alice said, bouncing back into the room in a pink floral sundress. "They get to learn so much about life."
Concerning Character: Alice lives in Aahimsa, a city-state named for the Sanskrit word for peace, literally, "to not injure." Alice is the daughter of the mayor of Aahimsa, and she is well blindingly beautiful and indulged and ...well, ignorant, at best, as the quote from pg. 17 of the novel suggests. Alice is too precious a child to be left alone while her mother, the mayor of Aahimsa, is busy, so when Alice was small, Mayor Blanchefleur had chose a motherless "friend" from the poor section of town for her. Through the years, Nora has gone from a enforced (paid?) companion to an actual partner -- sort of. Nora thinks she returns Alice's affection, she thinks that when they're older, they'll partner, and have babies of their own, bu the relationship is imbalanced in its power dynamic. Nora does the work, Alice calls the shots. Alice wants to have the baby, and Nora has no doubt she'd end up doing all of the diapering. Heterosexual partnerships and conception are all in the past, and Alice and Nora represent the brave new world. But, if you scratch the crust of Nora's world, there's lava just bubbling beneath the surface. She's not a companion or partner, she's a badgered, teased, bullied servant, and there's got to be more to life than this!
In Aahimsa, Mankind's inability to get along with each other has culminated with the women taking control. They have ejected the men, first dominating them politically, and then using military force to divide the sexes. Births are regulated, and baby boys are set aside, leaving some of them "complete" and able to breed while sterilizing or terminating the majority of the rest at birth. Other of the feminized city-states have done away with men entirely, relying on cloning to propagate the species. Mayor Blanchefleur feels sure that's the wrong direction, that women are made of male and female, and that, in time, the old biological urges will fade. Men are good for being forest rangers, and picking up the dead birds that fly into the force field around the walls surrounding Aahimsa, but, aside from those left "complete" to provide "fluids" for the Temple of Life until their usefulness to society is at an end, to Blanchefleur, they're not good for much else.
A chance discovery while in the woods picking blackberries outside the Blanchefleur summer house discloses a hidden baby -- an infant of indeterminate age who is discovered to be an outsider -- the lumpy appendage between its legs seals its fate. Alice is all for defiance and rule-breaking when it's not that serious, but she's appalled -- their little doll is suddenly dangerous. She's determined to call her mother, who will then call the guards to exterminate the vermin. But, Nora has a different point of view. Nothing so small is vermin. Nothing that tiny is dangerous. It tracks, and follows her face with its eyes. It smiles at her. It's... alive.
Nobody's going to take this little outsider -- this baby boy -- away and kill him. Not while Nora's got strong arms and legs to carry him away...
Critical Reader Reaction: The author hasn't made the mistake of heavy handedly "sending a message" with this story, though he clearly has a few things to say. As he depicts a city-state with political upheaval and a police force still in place, it's clear that he's describing a place of imperfection. Regardless of the women touting the increase of peace in their time, and carrying with them tales of the man-made wars which happened before the Uprising and bitterness from a distant history of being second class citizens, nothing is as peaceful as it should be. There is no Utopia with the women in control, and no real fairness. However, one of the drawbacks of writing dystopian or post-apocalyptic fiction as parable is that the moral of the story - or several "morals" may appear unintentionally.
The narrative is vague on how women take over the political landscape to begin with, but that simply requires the suspension of disbelief it takes to get into any story. Though the plot had an answer to most of the details of how this post-apocalyptic world worked, I had questions on how the transgender or intersex would be dealt with in this strange new world. And, what happens in a society with no heterosexual options if you have fewer gay or lesbian tendencies?
Though we're told of Alice and Nora's alleged affection and fidelity for each other, I found myself unconvinced. When their paths inevitably part, Nora seems only vaguely regretful, ditto when their paths cross again -- which to me would have had an impact second only to a thunderclap. What Nora does have a strong and visceral emotional reaction about is the outsider baby she and Alice find. Despite the infant dribbling liquid poo down its legs within the first hour, Nora is entranced.
Nora's mother, after all, is a worker in the Palace of Caretakers and had "told her all about it," so Nora's breezily perfect handling of the infant is, obviously, going to be effortless. She never makes a mistake. She never nearly drops his slick, squirmy self, and she loves him immediately, in spite of his high-pitched screams for no real reason, the poo, and the tremendous responsibility he represents. The presentation of maternal instinct is idealized to an extreme in this. Worse, Alice has no maternal instinct, as she's already been depicted as blonde and selfish, and pushed aside as merely decorative. Nora - despite not giving birth, despite not being raised around small children, who are cared for in the Palace of Caretakers, and not involved with the general populace as a deterrent to childbirth, Nora is regardless an immediate warm and loving Earth Mother.
The trouble is less what this says about Nora - and Alice - and the perception that "of course all good girls love babies," but takes me back to an odd moment in the beginning of the novel, where the emotions of a male in helpless, immediate love are much the same. When the first man sees the outsider baby, he's ...pleasant, but largely indifferent. It's more "oh, it's a baby," than "where has it BEEN all my life??" Men, too, have been raised in this society for generations, separated from women. When a young man in the novel first encounters a young woman at the beginning of the book, he, too is struck with that same helpless, melting, instinctual... love, ergo, as women automatically love babies, men automatically...? Is this a statement about humankind? [A SPOILERY QUESTION} Why, then, don't the old men react in this way toward Nora? Just because they're old doesn't mean they're totally dead, does it? The novel does not at ALL touch on the potential tension of a lone woman in a camp of men - no one even looked at Nora flirtatiously. It seems to me greatly disingenuous to bring her to that place, but avoid that conversation. What about the fears she'd been told about the men all her life, and how they were led around by their "appendages," to use another euphemism? ... Anyway, I found this a missed opportunity for further discussion, as well as problematic on a number of levels.
Despite the slight unevenness of the narrative, paper villains, and the questions the reader is left with, this book indeed fulfills its objective, which is to stimulate and create ideas and generate thought about gender dynamics, war, peace, and the responsibility each of the sexes have, in creating a better world. I'd suggest this novel to older teens, and believe it has crossover potential for adults as well.
I received this book courtesy of Acorn Press, in return for my two cents, Canadian. You can find THE LAST WILD BOY by Hugh MacDonald online, or at an indie bookstore in Canada or elsewhere.
March 27, 2014
Cybils Finalist Review: ELEANOR & PARK by Rainbow Rowell
The reason I bring that up is, it could well have made me more vigilant for flaws than I would be otherwise. I do my best to give all Cybils candidates a fair shake, though, and so I hope I wasn't any more nit-picky with this one than I was with the other finalists.
Anyway, on to the book: Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell. Awards and acclaim aside, there was a lot I personally really liked about this story. The connection develops sweetly and naturally between the two main characters, both misfits for very different reasons. (And I love it that Park is a multiracial character, though that could have been brought out a bit more.) The strength of this book is, above all, its realism—an authentic portrayal of the awkwardness and fumbling and happiness of a first love that transcends time period (this one's set in the 1980s) and feels familiar and relatable.
The everyday (and not-so-everyday) dramas of school, of family, are realistic, absorbing, and suspenseful, and against this backdrop, the ups and downs and misunderstandings of Park and Eleanor's developing relationship form a believable counterpoint as they move from friendship to something more. Together, they can do more—be more—than they've been able to do alone thus far, but of course, each of them has to embrace their individual inner strength in order to continue to grow—and that's something that has to be done on one's own.
That's really the most I can say without ending-related spoilers, but it WAS a very good ending, very appropriate and satisfying.
The beginning, however, felt a bit slow—I'll admit here that this is probably a love-it-or-hate-it thing, that many readers may enjoy the gradual unfolding of the characters and their world, but I wanted more clarity, more movement, right off. But I'm not a fan of the romance genre generally, and while this isn't a "romance novel," it is a story *of* romance, and so I may not be the best person to judge its tropes.
The other aspect of the book that nagged at me (and I hate to be critical of this, because again, very subjective) was an ongoing sense of indulgence in the writing. I felt it rode the line, at times, between authentic teenage angst and a feeling that the writing was overwrought. A matter of opinion, I'm sure.
In a similar vein, there are the 1980s references. This is something people NEVER seem to agree on: whether setting a book in a time period as recent as the 70s or 80s or 90s is going to even appeal to a contemporary teen reader. I'm on the fence about that sort of thing in general, and in this specific case, there were times when I thought it was fine and times when it didn't work for me. Given that the book is, in some ways, aimed squarely at ME, since I grew up in the 80s (albeit a few crucial years younger than the characters in question), I understood the vast majority of the pop culture references. But on the few occasions where I didn't get it, it REALLY brought me out of the story. I suspect that teen readers would be even more confused.
That made me wonder about the intended audience for the book vs. the actual audience. And certainly it's been a very popular title among adult readers, as I understand it, so it's interesting that this one was ostensibly marketed to a YA audience—I guess that makes it a true crossover, though, which is rare enough and a positive thing. Overall, I liked the book a lot—truly I did—but I was not struck with the same Book Love that many others were. I suspect much of that is a case of Not My Genre.
You can find Eleanor and Park by Rainbow Rowell online, or at an independent bookstore near you!
March 25, 2014
TURNING PAGES: LIGHTS OVER EMERALD CREEK, by Shelley Davidow
I'm always on the look out for more science fiction - real science fiction - for young adult readers. Finding science fiction with a diverse cast is THE DREAM, even, but I tend to read all I get my hands on. Flipping through NetGalley, I saw the cover of this one, noted its SFF listing, and thought I'd check it out.
Davidow's writing is lyrical, at times noticeably so. The pacing in the first half is even, though at times dreamy, which might lose some readers, but there's enough science -- the real life, exciting science of sine waves, resonance and cymatics -- stuffed into the novel to make readers want to leap up and experiment and travel. While the novel's relationships didn't hold up for me -- the character and plot interactions became muddy as emotions and intentions were less clear -- this may be a really great book for budding scientists and Mysterious Event Theorists.
Also: it's not "book," singular. This is the first book in a series, so be prepared for an inconclusive ending, and "more to come."
Concerning Character: Lucy is vague, quiet, and controlled, externally. She and her father have fallen into a kind of habit, now that she spends most of her time at home -- he cooks, she cleans up. He runs the nature camp where they live, picking up people from the airport, bringing them to the cabins, and taking them on night hikes, rafting, and such, to teach them about the Australian wildlife in the area. Lucy gets online and does her homework -- mostly. She likes to surf the web. She doesn't see friends, much, because only Nelson - called Nel, because she really is a girl, despite the stupid name her father gave her - comes over much anymore.
On the surface, that suits Lucy fine, but inside, she is a roiling, guilt-ridden, suicidal mess. Everyone else has been an overwhelming font of pity and discomfort, since her accident six months ago where she was made paraplegic. Lucy and her mother were on their way from shopping, with Lucy driving at the time, and they were hit, head-on. Now Lucy has half a life, and her mother, none at all.
Lucy thinks she has a handle on her self-pity and rage, but inside she knows she's run out of reasons to go on. The evening she sees a strange ball of light over the gorgeous creek that rushes along down the hill on their property, she's prepared to end it all. But... her curiosity gets the best of her. It's not quite just a light -- it's a light, and a sound, and patterns on the sand, and a --feeling...
Something else is going on in the world -- something other than routine and misery. Lucy's flagging spirits hook onto the mystery, which sends her to the internet, which quickly links her to a new friend, miles away, with whom she talks and shares nearly everything. She moves through her days with a smile and picks up her cello again, her determination to solve the mystery reviving her, and driving her to a place she never expected... This novel is adventure and mystery and science, all rolled into one -- a compulsively readable, unusual and quirky piece of fiction.
Critical Reaction: While Lucy moves organically from depression and isolation toward a more balanced acceptance at the beginning of the novel, the last half of the book becomes plot driven, and seems to lose this elegant balance. I had a hard time understanding Lucy's choices, after specific instances. She has had a single, spidersilk thread of a lifeline since her accident -- her bestie, Nelson, who has, during her own personal tragedy, moved in with her. Lucy's treatment of Nel, while at first accidental, is horrendous, given her faithful friendship and patience. Lucy's treatment of her recently bereaved father is less upsetting, as parental friction is all but expected in a YA novel, but it is still shoddy and thoughtless. Drawing another character into a lie she chooses to tell - with no clear reason as to why the lie must be told - struck me as disingenuous. Lucy barely reacts with either emotional consequences or internal dialogue that lasts more than a single scene. In contrast to the potential for self-awareness and personal development of the character at the beginning, by novel's end, Lucy seems cold and robotic, simply being forced to move through the labyrinthine plot, emotionally and personally unchanged, despite her change of circumstances. Readers may find themselves unconvinced by the convenient romance as well; the novel may well have been stronger without it.
The science in the novel is real - but the fantasy elements overwhelm it, and they are less well-rounded, and, next to the realness of the science, appear very thin, undeveloped, and hastily constructed. Lucy is thrust into an instant quest, gains an instant nemesis, and is the standard bearer for an instant cause, which leaves the reader clutching a bit, as if the ground has shifted. The author indicates at the end of the novel that a sequel is coming -- we can hope that it more strongly ties the novel together, to a harmonious finish.
You can find LIGHTS OVER EMERALD CREEK by Shelley Davidow online, or at an independent bookstore near you!
March 24, 2014
I Aten't Dead! I Swear.
In the meantime, I just found out the Hans Christian Andersen awards were announced by the IBBY (International Board on Books for Young People) and while I'm not familiar with either the winning author OR illustrator, I'm eager to get to know both.
And I HAVE been doing a lot of reading, just not a lot of reviewing. In fact, I've been RE-reading some books, which is something I haven't done in a very long time. Because I finished the Beka Cooper trilogy by Tamora Pierce--a prequel to the other Tortall books--I was inspired to go back to the beginning and re-read the adventures of Alanna. Now I'm in full fantasy escapist mode and attempting to block out the real world, which is filled with WORK and DRUDGERY, and instead read about adventures and swordfighting and worthy deeds and magic. Oh, and a little black cat. (Actually, I have one of those in my house, but she is decidedly less magical and decidedly more bitey...)
March 21, 2014
TURNING PAGES: ONI THE LONELY, by Jamie Brazil
Humor is really hard to define.
For instance, I don't consider myself a funny person. I cannot tell a joke to save my life. While I am the queen of deadpan and snark, I forget punchlines and narrative order too often to risk telling jokes, and anyway, I find most of them unfunny or at least, not funny enough. So, to read a book by an author who has already descending into punning with the title - well. It was a risk, but I did it for you, my chickadees.
This book has a seriously immature, self-absorbed, untrustworthy narrator, an array of stereotypes, plenty of demon action, and a wrap/outfit made of cow intestines. The narrator doesn't change much until the very end, and then there is a Deus Ex Machina moment that may make your laugh - or roll your eyes. The novel is best described as "frothy," and will appeal to young readers assaying their first romances, who are looking for a smile.
Concerning Character: Mari Kato is sixteen and sure that she deserves what everyone else has: a driver's license. If she had a license, she could do things - mostly unspecified things, since she doesn't really have friends or much of a life - but she wants the "grown-up" card having a license confers. And so, she takes her driving test. Again.
Of course, driving tests are fraught, and when the unemotional energy takes its toll, the steering wheel is melted, the turn indicator has broken off and stabbed the instructor in the shoulder, and despite parallel parking well enough not to hit anyone or anything, Mari's failed. Again. Worse, her voice has gone weird and her eyes have gone red -- bad signs. When her horns sprout, and she roars at the driver's test guy, she knows the drill: they're moving. Again.
Mari's father - a Buddhist monk, now - was an Oni demon for a thousand years. He's been expecting Mari to demon-out on him for awhile now - it's her birthright, after all. The "gift" passes from him to her, when she turns sixteen. Mari is in Egypt, she's so far in denial and frankly, she's acting a little unhinged. Most people accept that wishing things doesn't make them true, and that pretending they're not happening doesn't make them not happen, but... Mari lives in a world with her own delusions, and she seems to rather like keeping them close. What the heck, she's the one manifesting horns.
A convenient job offer for her geologist mother seems promising. The isolated and über-green town's lack of internet connectivity, lack of cell towers (apparently satellites somehow don't work there), the weird deaths of cows - totally stripped to the bone in their fields - have Mari nervous. Despite what her parents seem to think, SHE'S not the one eating the cows. (SHE'S obsessed with chicken nuggets, not raw beef.) Instead, moping over her lack of license and horrified that her vegan parents have brought her to a town so small that it'll be hard to sneak out for meat, Mari's self-absorption lifts only long enough for her to become obsessed Juan - a gorgeous, gentlemanly, too-mature-to-be-true boy who is the ONLY one not wrapped up in pandering to the stereotypical blonde villainesses who rule the school. The only one - everyone else is in Stepford lockstep.
There are no real surprises when the demons appear, and as Mari's worldview finally extends to embrace the other people in the world with her, she manages at the eleventh hour to Save Everything - and act like the awesome demon she's always been.
Reader Gut Reaction:There were things which came up in the story which I feel were missed opportunities to give the main character more depth of personality and emotional resonance.
First, Mari is half Japanese. Her mother is a tall, willowy Nordic blonde (the one blonde in the novel who isn't Autopilot Bad) -- and her father is a short, slight-bodied, Japanese Buddhist - down to the saffron robes and expression of benevolence. Mari never comments on this - that it's unusual, or normal in her world, to be biracial, how it makes her feel, to see her parents together, about their atypical height pairing: nada. She never even seems to think about it, how it looks to others, seeing them for the first time.
Second, her father's Buddhism is painted in the broadest, shallowest, most stereotypical brushstrokes - he's constantly spouting wisdom and aphorisms, and lecturing on Buddhism - as if Buddhists have no other role in society. I was surprised Mari's father didn't ever wear modern clothes, and wondered how the main character felt about that, when she remarks on the outfits of the father of her nemesis: nice suits, silk ties. She tells her obsession, Juan -- in a whisper -- that her father is Buddhist, like this is a deep, dark (and, should have been obvious, given the robes) secret, making me wonder what anti-religious place she'd lived in before -- surely not Seattle, where the novel opens. I have it on good authority: there are Buddhists there.
I wondered about oni. Beyond the fact that her father gifted her this demon, we're not really told anything about the demon in Japanese mythology. As this is part of Japanese cultural history, I would have loved to know more, and to feel the author knew something about it.
And, then, there are the blondes. The Mean Girl trope aside, that a half-Asian girl goes on and on about "the Blonde Mafia" gave me pause... racism is a tricky thing, and while in a comedic novel, there may not be room for self-assessment on the part of the protagonist, I think it's important for the author to make it clear that this is not a personal prejudice - maybe by having other characters of the blonde persuasion be indifferent, tentatively friendly, etc. - letting the reader see that the blondes in the book have a range of responses and attributes, that their blondness doesn't make them bad or good. Also, it would be nice if the villains were not single dimensional "everything I want, I get" henchwomen -- but in this case, that's definitely their role, played for laughs.
Despite the various issues which kept throwing me out of the story, I like this novel. It's quirky and over-the-top ridiculous, and though Mari only takes responsibility for herself once, fails to recognize or apologize for her faults, which cause her family to be constantly moving; and though I wish the author had allowed the protagonist emotional resonance -- had asked those questions of her which allowed her to reveal herself as more "real," even in a comedic, fast-paced novel, than a paper-cutout stereotypical selfish, self-absorbed teen -- this is a novel with "good bones, which will probably best appeal to tweens looking for a quick, ridiculous story to fill an afternoon.
We were supplied this ARC courtesy of the lovely NetGalley. You'll find ONI THE LONELY by Jamie Brazil at an online bookseller near you!
March 18, 2014
TURNING PAGES: THESE GENTLE WOUNDS, by Helene Dunbar
I'm not generally a fan of weeping, though I do it at Cheerios commercials, when reading Dear Sugar, when watching little kids do just about anything precious, and pretty much when anybody else cries. I cry like a bean sídhe people, on every day that ends in -y, which is why I tend to avoid novels which contain cancer (Sorry, John Green) and parent deaths, sibling deaths, friend deaths, dead horses, dead dogs (Sorry, much of the elementary school Reading Class canon) -- but, I didn't think I was going to cry about this book. The cover is innocuous - a boy who looks slightly out to lunch, sure, but he's not crying. From the jacket flap description, yeah, the guy has suffered, but he's coping -- what's there to cry about? Yeah, right. The compelling storyline is pretty well "ripped from the headlines" of Daytona, Florida in recent weeks -- and it will grab you, and shake you, and not let go.
Concerning Character: Geordie has had the Life of Suck. There's really no way around it. He's a nice guy - and it's apparent from the first pages of the book - but because of The Incident, which happened when he was ten years old, he's a shell of who he should be. Most of the space inside of him is taken up with fear and loathing, nightmares, and Kevin -- his salvation. His sanity. His best friend. His only living brother, and only a half at that, Kevin grounds Geordie in what is increasingly a crazy, crazy world, and allows him to function. In spite of his "anger issues," Kevin is Geordie's home. He smacks Geordie when he needs it, and beats up the people who need beating up -- and there's always at least one. Kevin pokes Geordie in the side when he goes on one of his little mental vacations, wherein he replays The Incident. Kev's always there to wake him up, prop him up, straighten him up... and this year, Kevin's getting a few friends, with whom he smokes and drinks, which makes Geordie nervous, as the smell of smokes and booze remind him of The Incident, and his horror show of a father. Worse than Kevin's emotional distancing is the physical distance both boys know is coming - Kevin's leaving for college in a year. It's a senior year and a summer away, but as the college catalogs pile up, Geordie is already wondering how he'll cope.
Things have started looking up, a little, though. There's Sarah, the weird photographer girl in Geordie's sophomore English class who seems to want to talk to him - for reasons which remain opaque to Geordie. There's hockey -- heck, there's always hockey -- and despite the stupidity going on with another player, Geordie's awesome at being a goalie - focused and brilliant, and going places with his skill. Some days, when he and Kevin sit on the widow's walk at the top of the house, some days, he doesn't feel like he has to be tethered to the roof, or he'll fly away. If there was a way to leave the past in the past, Geordie wishes he could find it -- but, as the frayed wrists of his shirts attest, he's not quite gotten there yet. Every day is a step forward, and some days, two steps back. But -- movement and progress are happening, even gradually. Ragged and raw, but upright, Geordie is finding his feet -- until the little flashes of hope are all but snuffed out. With a letter to Kevin's dad, the darkest cloud on the horizon - Geordie's father, who abandoned him right after The Incident -- comes back, and with him he brings the monsters under the bed, the blame and the shame and the horror. Geordie's never told anyone about The Night Before The Incident, which is what started it all -- and, in Geordie's case, is what will end it all -- if he doesn't find a way out, fast.
But, if you've suffered five solid years of unspeakable disaster, and are stuck in the loop of PTSD; if just thinking about The Incident and The Night Before The Incident leaving you a rocking, humming, hyperventilating, twitching, sweating mess, what do you do? If you've kept your brother's secrets, and your brother-- who has the right to have a life of his own -- is terrified and furious and can't save you, either -- what do you do? Well, if you're Geordie, you pull your stuff together, and, no matter what it takes, you find something to salvage -- and save it. In doing so, you just might save yourself.
Helene Dunbar's debut novel will break you in all the best ways. Tightly written and keenly articulated, the storyline takes you deep into the valley of shadows, and brings you back to where the sun is just limning the horizon once again. A hard book to describe, THESE GENTLE WOUNDS is cathartic and cleansing and poignant and hopeful and -- beautiful.
WARNING: Even if you're not a cryer, this book may lead you there, multiple times. Your clue is that the title contains the word "wounds." In future, referencing books containing the word "wounds" in the title, know that you will need a.) a box of tissues, and b.) a quiet place, and c.) to fend off well-meaning glasses of water and concerned glances, as you sob. Do not read this book in the bookstore, or in the library. Do not read in the backyard, where your sobbing will scare the squirrels. Do not read on the front porch, or the neighbors will give you odd looks and ask each other if you're actually crying or just having an asthma attack. Take this one to bed, but read it on a weekend morning, or you won't be able to sleep at night, being unable to breathe through your stuffy nose...
This book comes to me courtesy of the publisher, in return for being considered for a review. After May 8th, 2014, you can find THESE GENTLE WOUNDS by Helene Dunbar online, or at an independent bookstore near you!
March 14, 2014
TURNING PAGES: RIOT, by Sarah Mussi
A few years back, protest came to the attention of the world consciousness in a brand new way. A loosely organized group of individuals, some self-identifying with Guy Fawkes masks, dedicated their time to disrupting the social order, in order to reveal the truths of it, and came to international attention under the name "Anonymous."
Most young people believe in speaking out for their beliefs - but the consequences of activism - or hacktivism, white hat or no, - can be incompletely understood. Many young hacktavists aspired to groups like Anonymous, but failed to appreciate and protect their anonymity online. Do young people truly understand the issues over which they take to the streets? Is protest the answer? In the tradition of Cory Doctorow's LITTLE BROTHER and Saci Lloyd's MOMENTUM, RIOT, with a provocative one-word title and an attractive cover, attempts to explore and explain the bundle of ideas, contradictions, and responses behind direct-action activism.
"Tor [sic] is an Onion Router and I've already downloaded its browser bundle. Like an onion, it has layer after layer of encryption. It bounces me around a global network of relays, hosted by sympathisers, well-wishers, those who lend their services to protect identity, location, today's date. Suddenly I am anonymous."
Concerning Character: Tia Thompson has a bright future - on paper. Her father is a Minister of State, her mother is a doctor, and she's been sent off to boarding school, well-educated, and by all accounts, is not the next in line for the British government's austerity measures, which include forced sterilization for school-leavers who have no immediate job prospects or influential sponsors. That's ridiculously unfair, Tia thinks. It's not her friend Lacey's fault that there's unemployment and inflation and overpopulation. But, Lacey is being raised by a single mother on assistance, and if all she has waiting for her is enforced sterilization - no word on Lacey's school options or job prospects - well, someone should change that, Tia decides.
As they take part in the protest, "Act your rage!" Tia reminds Lacey, who is bewildered. Lacey isn't raging. She's concerned - worried - thinks the sterilization is unjust, but the rage and the reaction isn't Lacey's... and, it Tia's, either. Tia is tired of writing thank-you notes, is missing her mother, angry with her father, and ultimately, educated, entitled, and bored... Bored enough to lead a double-life. Bored enough to explore the anonymous underground internet, Darknet, to sign onto a Tor browser to anonymize her movements through the internet. Bored enough to set herself up as EVE and glom onto Che Guevera's revolutionary phraseology, "¡Hasta la victoria siempre!" and, despite having no real knowledge of what resistance to the government means, to fly the revolutionary flag with relish.
People who jump from windows and know nothing about gravity usually come to a bad end - and the reader knows instinctively that Tia is a naive little poseur who is headed for trouble. Everyone tells her - her best friend, Lacey, her savior, the über-brilliant Cobain Reilley, who's too good to be true, and almost never sets a foot wrong - and her father, when he finally catches up to her. From all sides, the message comes that Tia is wrong, but she doesn't hear. Ultimately, the novel shows, when all is stripped away, how terrified and intimidated the protesters are, how frail their bodies, when confronted with gas, tanks, and bullets. Away from the camouflage of the internet, things in Tia's world are different.
While readers might sense that this novel has a Message, it's a hard one to fathom. Tia - as EVE, the "mother" of this new world - is all slogans and cant, interspersed with the word "flippin'," which makes her sound naive and shallow, as opposed to the masterminding hactivist she's supposed to be. Unlike in Cory Doctorow's novel, Tia has no real information, nor any true vocation and calling to this cause. She's like the girl who wears the Che Guevera T-shirt and paratrooper boots but knows nothing about the history behind either item, only their fashion cachet. Though she sets up flash mobs and actions against the government through her anonymized site, Tia lacks the essential paranoia hackers possess. (Additionally, actual hacktivists don't trust TOR - The Onion Router - knowing that it started its life as a U.S. Naval Intelligence bundled software ...) Over the course of the novel, Tia repeatedly shows shock that people will go so far to support an ideal. When the tanks begin rolling, she is gobsmacked, when the guns fire live ordinance, she is shocked. That continual shock gets old - even as blood is shed, Tia can't seem to understand that she's in the real world.
Tia blindly trusts that her father will not "sink" that low, will not go "that far," and gets nearly everyone she cares about - for a given value of caring, in that she doesn't even stop and weep over the death of a friend - violently and abruptly killed. Despite being repeatedly warned by a seemingly all-knowing Cobain, somehow - she still trusts all the wrong people. The author seems to have characterized her as someone merely who doesn't want to be told what to do, and goes off in a blind fit that embroils an entire nation because of it. This is disingenuous and disrespectful of people who embrace protest as a means of response to their governments, knowing that they can face gas and rubber bullets and misunderstanding.
Because Tia's point of view is fairly narrow, readers encounter a marked lack of dissent in the novel, other than from young adults. The government seems to move unopposed, with the House of Lords and the House of Commons as eerily congenial as the Prime Minister could ever dream. The lack of adult women's resistance in this novel is telling - adult women would surely object to the idea of enforced sterilization, and interestingly, the initial news report on the government's intention to intervene in the "overpopulation problem" come from a woman. Tia's issues with her father and the predominantly male lawmakers in her government are a little disingenuous as well, in that she never seems to at all resent her mother's inability to protect her from her father, to stand up to her, or to do anything but wring her hands and be all the way in India. (It is also disturbingly convenient that Tia's mother is hooked up with someone else at the close of the novel, and the fate of Tia's father seems to be of no concern to anyone.)
Initially, the riots in this novel are supposed to be about the forced sterilizations and the right to bear children -- and yet, there's a lack of children represented, with the exception of one infant who is never seen alive. Aside from a surreal view of a sterilization surgery, and a few wistful moments in which Tia thinks of the babies she could have with Cobain, this seems a dream of dubious attractiveness, even given Tia and Corbain's uneven, insta-love relationship, and the fact that they're both running for their lives. There's no connection for the reader as to what's at stake, and what is being lost, with the idea of forced sterilization, and what would be missing from British society if only the upper classes reproduced. There are some opportunities missed to explore the issue in terms of some of the rich ethnicity and cultures of Britain.
Using the character of Tia - a poseur who gets caught up in something bigger than she could have imagined - the novelist attempts to deconstruct complex social questions. While the author may have, with all good intentions, intended to speak to the issue of conflict with power, protest, and young people's voices, for many readers, this novel may fall short. Instead of highlighting the concerns that British young people justifiably have regarding the sometimes unduly exerted power wielded by their government, it instead trivializes both true protest and the concerns of young people everywhere about political issues - which is a real shame.
After May 1, you can find RIOT by Sarah Mussi online, or at an independent bookstore near you!
March 13, 2014
A Toon Thursday/First Draft Blast from the Past
It's interesting to look back on the original post, because I referenced a problem manuscript I'd been working on during NaNoWriMo, and I'm almost positive that problem child was Underneath--which is now, like, an actual book and everything. It just goes to show you: don't abandon that first draft without giving it a fair shake--even if you feel like this when you're working on it:
[P]age 70 is where the misery strikes. All the initial excitement has drained away; you've begun to see all the hideous problems you've set yourself; you are horribly aware of the minute size of your own talent compared to the colossal proportions of the task you've undertaken. - Philip Pullman
March 11, 2014
TURNING PAGES: Grim, An Anthology edited by Christine Johnson
Oh, happy day! It's anthology time! This one from Harlequin Teen just last month, and the list of authors is shiny, award-winning, and long: Ellen Hopkins, Amanda Hocking, Julie Kagawa, Claudia Gray, Rachel Hawkins, Kimberly Derting, Myra McEntire, Malinda Lo, Sarah Rees-Brennan, Jackson Pearce, Christine Johnson, Jeri Smith Ready, Shaun David Hutchinson, Saundra Mitchell, Sonia Gensler, Tessa Gratton, and Jon Skrovan. Based on the classic fairy tales from the bros Grimm, these are re-imagined and in most ways, reinvigorated with new life. Some you'll have seen before -- if you were a Merry Sisters of Fate fan, you'll have seen an earlier incarnation of Tessa Gratton's story BEAST/BEAST, and a few stories are merely retellings, but for the most part, this is a strong collection that will make you want to go back to your old fairy tales and see those familiar stories with fresh eyes. The cover isn't anything to get excited about, but it does the job - brings to mind both a family tree, and a family crest - and gives the cover a "you already know these guys" familiarity vibe.
There's no really good way to do a review of the anthology as a whole - so, here's just a little story-talk highlighting my favorites:
We're INUNDATED with fairytale retellings - Malinda Lo's take on Cinderella, Jackson Pearce's twist on Little Red's wolves. Some of the least popular and most avoided tales are the ones which sparked my interest. I have a particular and appalling interest just now in Bluebeard, so I was thrilled - in a horrified fashion, like watching an accident - to read Saundra Mitchell's "Thinner Than Water," based on the Grimm story of Donkeyskin. This one is a DOOZY. There is the death of a mother, the asphyxiation of innocence, a delusional, crazy father, and a complicit counselor - and the sinister rejection of almost an entire kingdom. Almost. And then, the death of a horse, instead of a donkey, which just put the perfectly awful mafia shine on the whole thing. I haven't yet read any of Mitchell's VESPERTINE novels, but seeing this writing - bold-faced, inevitable horror, but with a razor-honed conclusion - not so inevitable, but deeply, chillingly satisfying - I want to.
Two phrases stick with me from this story, "You are not alone," and "There are worse things than death..." Indeed. But, even when your soul's been battered, there's nothing worth giving away your life for - so stand up, pick up your horse head, and take what belongs to you - in this case, revenge, and a kingdom. Long live the flippin' Queen.
Rachel Hawkins' "The Key" is a spooky little tidbit -- and could have been enlarged into a longer story. It is based, I believe, on the story of Bluebeard -- because in that tale, he gives all of his wives the key to his secret, and they none of them can stop themselves from using it -- and finding out everything they didn't want to know. I sometimes find myself dying to know What Happened Next when I read short stories -- and in a way, that's the nicest kind of wistfulness. In this case, the heroine's Mom is psychic - so we kinda know what happens, even if we don't know details. I can only hope this character reappears somewhere in Rachel's work -- and figures out how to handle her own psychic gifts. I like that she questions the shame she's feeling, and knows that shame hasn't any place in relationships which are supposed to be built on love.
"The Brothers Piggett" by Julie Kagawa is a funny one -- "The Three Little Pigs," re-imagined in a totally new way -- what if the pigs were all boys? And the wolf was a girl? As Sara Lewis Holmes will tell you, pigs are vicious - and they'll do anything for their fellow pigs. I want her to read this one very much.
"Sharper Than A Serpent's Tongue," by Christine Johnson was also a favorite - and the title spins off of the proverb, "Sharper than a serpent's tooth is a thankless child." In this story, there are two girls, one who is Upstanding And Good and the town favorite, well-placed to be smart enough to rise above her mother's drunkenness and poverty, and Dina, the Other Daughter who is a smart-mouthed artist who people agree is No Better Than She Should Be. The first daughter chooses to keep a secret that she should scream to the world -- and in return for her secret, is given something that ties her even more tightly to the worst things in her life. A really unusual - and disturbing - take on the Grimm tale, "Diamonds and Toads."
"The Twelfth Girl" by Malinda Lo was a tough read. I'm not a huge fan of the rich-boarding school-we-all-wanted-to-be-part-of-their-clique tale, because honestly? I would AVOIDAVOIDAVOID those people like they'd been sprayed with ebola and dog poop. However, the tough heroine in this novel doesn't PUT up with people telling her what to do. She's first told by a palmist to avoid these girls? Nope - she seeks them out. Then the girls finally take her in as one of the twelve who live in their swank dorm, and warn her not to ask questions, and to do what she's told -- nope. When she breaks the curse that binds them, she finds that -- nope. Nobody's grateful to her, either. This one is a disturbing little commentary on the teaspoon shallow pool of wealth and fame and partying.
Jeri Smith-Ready's "Figment" is a poignant sideways retelling of "Puss and Boots" which itself was a story intended to remind listeners of the importance of being grateful for the "little people" and the luck which got you where you ended up. It took me awhile to figure out which story this came from, because Puss - especially after the Shrek films - took on the same status as Puck, practically -- you expect scheming and tricks, but there weren't any. Not sure if I agree with the personality change, but this is a compelling story nonetheless.
Do we not always love Sarah Rees Brennan? YES, WE ALWAYS DO. Do we want to stand near her and bask in her greatness? WHY, YES, WE DO. Even though she made us snort-take with this story, "Beauty and The Chad."
I mentioned Tessa Gratton's Beast/Beast story -- where two creatures determined that they could live together, regardless of their beastliness, regardless of the height of the wall enclosing them, regardless of scars, uneven gaits, and ugliness. That's a better love story than most get, and as much of Gratton's work is, it is eerie and poignant and meaningful and beautiful. Meanwhile, Sarah's retelling is all those high and upstanding things, but also completely ridiculous -- and comes with added BroSpeak(TM). Here, the Beast has a name - Chad. And, Dude, it's hurtful not to use it. And, Chad feels like the witch overreacted, this whole Beast issue is his to solve, and he'd really rather the candlestick not do games or tricks with their fellow candlesticks -- he'd be much happier to be the castle's Guest if everything would stop moving around in such a creepy fashion.
Meanwhile, Beauty isn't really beautiful - and The Chad calls her Dude. This story contains heroism, but of the self-righteous kind, lectures, freakishly animate soup tureens, and a healthy dose of Not Taking Itself Seriously. Thank you, Sarah. Again.
Claudia Gray's "A Real Boy" is so Asimov it made me happy. It's Asimov with Mature Content, though. And ol' Isaac would have been pissed, as he wasn't a huge fan of women writing SFF anyway. Nevertheless, even though The Three Laws aren't quoted, this is AI up my alley, and I could see this being made into a whole book, which made me really happy, as I haven't read much Claudia Gray before now. Another author to discover!
There were only a few stories in this collection which I didn't finish at all, and there are more great tales unmentioned - Jackson Pearce's "Sell Out" is a bit sobering, but also intriguing. While everyone's taste in short fiction differs, for me, this book has enough good in it that I think it's one you'll want to pick up. A great tuck-in-the-bag book for waits between doctor visits and gym team try-outs, this book is like a little portal to a very odd world, and will keep you well entertained.
FTC: This book courtesy of Harlequin Teen, no money exchanged hands, nor were any bribes made for a review.
You can find GRIM: An Anthology edited by Christine Johnson online, or at an independent bookstore near you!
March 10, 2014
Women's History Month Fun over at STACKED
Anyway, go check it out and keep checking back for the rest of the series--if today's post is an indication, it's going to be a lot of fun.
March 07, 2014
Five & Dime Friday: The Quick and Dirty Edition
Fridays always get away from me -- and the Friday after I quickly rewrote the ending to a novel and turned it in and happy danced as it got sent off to my editor -- fingers crossed -- seems to have gotten away from me more than most. It's late, yeah, but I have a few things which have been on my mind this week:
Your blog should be looking better any moment now: Getty Images are now free for non-commercial use. Yeah, that's right - all those bizarre and awkwardly bad stock photos you've made fun of for so long are now yours to use - if you sign up with Getty and promise you're not making money off of your blog. (If you have Amazon affiliation status, I don't think you can use them. Double check before you do.)(EDITED TO ADD: However, EFF suggests you read the fine print, proving that once again, nothing is "free" when the cost is your privacy.) This should make the Fiction Friday groups have deeper and weirder pools from which to pull images than even Flickr can provide...
"My Brother's Keeper" you've probably all heard about by now - the political initiative which is supposed to assess and support at-risk minority guys - was announced in late February. $200 million in private funding for the initiative will connect businesses will connect young men and guys with mentors... though this sounds like a post-high school thing, I hope that there's some room in the funds to somehow up books and literature, too. Whatever happens, this seems to be A Good Thing.
In more "Good Things," I have one word for you: BELLE. Hat tip, Tu Books, and I further credit my undergrad Survey of Art course for my knowledge of the 1779 painting attributed to Johann Zoffany which depicts Dido Belle and her cousin Lady Elizabeth Murray. Thanks, college!
Meh. You know how I am about remakes. I mean, Annie,, and now The Jungle Book, too? Can we not leave my childhood alone? (Although, to be accurate Annie is from the 1930's - so not my childhood. As someone commented on Jezebel the other day, isn't it deeply ironic that the message of "cheer up, we'll survive this financial madness" from the Great Depression is still applicable today? Erg.)(To be even more accurate, THE JUNGLE BOOK was written between 1893–94... so, also not my childhood. Fine, I take it back.)
How much do I LOVE the Let Books Be Books thing happening over in Britain? And, since the Guardian Children's Books coverage online turned three this month, here are some authors in character - that is, their favorite book characters. They're decked out for a show at the Oxford Story Museum. (My GOODNESS, here's a good excuse to be in England in April.) I think my fave has to be Malorie Blackman - pure evil, that Wicked Witch. Evil, but misunderstood... and defying gravity. ☺
March 06, 2014
Happy Women's History Month!
March 05, 2014
TURNING PAGES: SEKRET, by Lindsay Smith
Wow, thrillers and mysteries, and books, oh, my! Remember back in the day, when we all complained there weren't very MANY of these for YA readers? And we were all really hyperfocused on the few that existed? It looks like the field's really opening up, and thus far, 2014 is shaping up to share some unique voices with the genre.
I'm not a huge fan of modern-historical YA, but this one works as an alternate history historical. In the tradition of DANCER, DAUGHTER, TRAITOR, SPY, by Elizabeth Kiem, it's set in Russia during Cold War times. In a new twist and in an alternate history, however, the novel contains SpecFic elements, too. The tagline on the book cover says it all "An Empty Mind is a Safe Mind." Really, a KGB-run Russia, you'd think would be bad enough, but no. Here, even your brain is under suspicion...
The author fascination with Russia serves her well in this novel, and the research into time and place shows. There's a small romantic triangle in this novel which was a little surprising to me -- I didn't entirely feel like it was necessary, but I know that a lot of people LOVE romance in anything, and can imagine it, even in the midst of oppression by the KGB. I couldn't, but the subtle romantic elements didn't detract from my appreciation of the storyline. While this review contains no specific spoilers, telling you just about anything is giving you more than you need - the book is a thriller, after all! WARNING: The cliffhanger ending of this first novel will be hard for some to take - sorry in advance! - but this will encourage you all the more to pick up that next book, SKANDAL already slated for a 2015 Spring release. And now, on with the book talk.
Concerning Character: Yulia is doing all she can to help her mother and her autistic brother get by. Her father was smuggled from the country, but until the rest of them can find a way out, they do what they can. Yulia walks with her brother through the streets of the village, letting him whistle, tap, and make all the noises he needs to -- there's no way to ask an autistic child to be quiet and hide all day. He needs all the help he can get.
Beneath the thumb of the State, there's no help for those who need more time, more routine -- and more drugs. The State's concerns are a crushing load, and all Yulia and her family can do is bear that load, along with everyone else. Lines for food and medicines and clothes stretch out - days long - and who has that kind of time? And yet, what other options are there?
Yulia's life wasn't always this way. They were once wealthy. Her parents were doctors - and her mother still feels strongly about her oath to help those and harm none. Black market medicines are what's needed, and Yulia has an uncanny ability to make the best trades in the market, to make the best connections to get what's needed. Except, one day, it all comes crashing down. Someone knows how Yulia makes those deals. Someone... in the KGB.
With her mother incarcerated, brainwashed, and forced to work, her brother placed in a mental hospital - which is terrifying - Yulia is naked. She can't even protect her mind from the others in the house, who pick through her thoughts at random, answer questions she hasn't asked, and expose her inner heart to mockery at best, or at worst, reporting to the hard-faced woman who is in charge of their unit. There are some positives - Sergei is comforting and friendly, though a staunch loyalist to the KGB. Valentin - Valya - is moody and intense and frightening, but his silent voice in her mind encourages her to rebel. A good citizen of the State, Yulia is expected to cooperate - but she can't. She hasn't lived by her wits for the last few years to go down like this! Stubborn and recalcitrant, she is hurt and her family threatened before she at last is forced to give in to what her comrades at the Psychic Program want. No matter how far she forces it down, though, through her mind whispers the voice of freedom. She's not going to be locked into a stone building forever. She's not going to be separated from her mother and brother forever. She's going to get OUT.
Everybody wants to escape. But, can anyone do it?
FTC: this book was a review copy courtesy of Roaring Brook Press/Macmillan Children’s Books and NetGalley. No payment or bribes were exchanged for the review.
After April 1, you can find SEKRET by Lindsay Smith online, or at an independent bookstore near you!
March 03, 2014
Please to enjoy whilst I attempt to cling to the last shreds of sanity:
- Firstly, the VIDA count came out again, the study that tracks gender disparity in books reviewed and in book reviewers themselves. While the news is still less than stellar, there was this: "The [New York] Times showed improvement in this year's VIDA count: In 2013, the number of male and female book reviewers was almost equal, and they reviewed 332 books written by women and 482 by men. [Pamela] Paul took over as editor during that time, and she says diversifying the book review section was a priority for her." That is definitely something.
- Have you checked out Guys Lit Wire lately? We've got some new reviewers and a lot of great titles getting written about: among them, much to my excitement, is a new title by John David Anderson, whose Cybils nominee Standard Hero Behavior was highly enjoyed around these parts. (Check out our WBBT interview with him here!)
- What NOT to name your book? Try these: Pie-ography: Where Pie Meets Biography. Or, Working Class Cats: The Bodega Cats of New York City. STRANGE BUT TRUE. They're both in the running for the Diagram Prize for the year's oddest book title, a contest that's been around since 1978. Here's another, from a past year's contest: Goblinproofing One's Chicken Coop. Methinks I will look forward to this contest almost as much as the Darwin Awards, the Ig-Nobel Prizes, and the Bulwer-Lytton Awards....