June 30, 2014

Reviews in Tandem: THE SHADOW HERO by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew

Welcome to another installment of Reviews in Tandem, where we both have our say about a book we've each read in an informal back-and-forth discussion. This is going to be a shorter review than many, because it's a graphic novel, and it's too easy to give away too much if we over-discuss. Today's chosen title is the latest from National Book Award winner Gene Luen Yang (American Born Chinese, reviewed here) and Sonny Liew (Re-Gifters, reviewed here). The Shadow Hero is interesting in that it's both nostalgically reflective of the earlier Golden Age of superhero comics, AND provides an updated, multiculturally aware re-imagining of the tropes of the classic superhero story.

Image: Macmillan US
AF: You might well ask: But wasn't the Golden Age of superhero comics notoriously, inalterably, unmistakably…non-multicultural? The answer is: kind of. Because, as I have learned from this book, there was a short-lived series called The Green Turtle, and it was penned in 1944 by an Asian-American cartoonist named Chu Hing. I don't want to give away too much of the fascinating end notes to The Shadow Hero, but suffice it to say the Green Turtle, a World War II superhero, may well have been the first Asian-American superhero. Readers never got to see his face, after all, and rumor had it that Hing wanted a Chinese character…
tanita: that Chu Hing wanted to draw a Chinese superhero and didn't get to I found a bit depressing. Obviously, during WWII and the following Korean conflict, there was a lot of space in the press for cruel depictions of Asians and Asian-Americans in cartoon form, and I think it must have been difficult to be an Asuan kid (or, heck, an adult) during those days. It would have gone a long way toward making it better to have an Asian superhero -- and I wonder how many people figured this out, that this subtext story - that Mutant Turtle looking shadow thing - was truly theirs.

AF: So, enter these two modern-day, wonderfully accomplished, much-lauded Asian American comic artists—and what comic artist doesn't owe some sort of debt to that Golden Age? Of course, readers all want to look for characters that in some way reflect ourselves, and that's what Yang and Liew have found (and elaborated upon) in the Green Turtle: a chance to build the mythology of such a character. It's both a what-if reimagining and an homage, and in many ways a pastiche, too—because of course those Golden Age comics were in many ways silly, with the innocence and jingoism of an earlier era.
tanita: That jingoism really is difficult for me to take. Especially in comics, it seems a deliberate subverting of what is supposed to be innocent and fun - a really nasty stinger in something that was supposed to be for kids. Prejudice training. Ugh.
Anyway, I take your point - what Yang and Liew did with this book is to kind of leave in the bigger-than-life silly storyline and, by actually looking at issues of ethnicity and race during that time period instead of brushing it away or simply taking on the attitudes of the dominant culture, they make this comic book reboot do the work the humor and comic books could ideally do, with a little extra. This is what comic books could have been back in the alleged "Golden Age," had their creators been a little braver.

Image: Macmillan US
AF: Given that a World War II superhero who spends a lot of time fighting "Japs" (don't miss the reprinted original comic in the back of the book!) isn't really going to be relevant today, Yang and Liew did an admirable job of instead focusing on the backstory of how the Green Turtle came to be. Who is that mysterious masked man? How does a young first-generation Chinese-American named Hank, who works in his parents' Chinatown grocery, become an actual, honest-to-god superhero in a world that's already littered with such luminaries as the Anchor of Justice, who can even fly? Turns out, Hank's Ma—as will be familiar to many of us with Asian-American parents—has lofty ambitions for Hank.
tanita: Let's maybe say anyone with pushy parents. Sadly, pushy isn't limited by ethnicity (!!).

AF: Of course, you can put a costume on anyone, do some serious physical conditioning, and end up with a passable-looking hero, but nobody expected Hank to actually acquire a superpower, especially after all of Ma's well-meaning attempts failed. The mysterious entity which grants Hank his superhero name is a shadow. A shadow which looks like a turtle. You may well ask, and the answer is YES—this shadow was in the original comic. With NO explanation. So the turtle shadow gets his own backstory, too, as one of four guardian spirits of the nation of China. How he gets attached to Hank, you'll have to read to find out, but having a guardian spirit on your side can give even a fallible, squishy mortal a bit of an edge, which Hank will need when he gets into a spot of bother with the Chinese mafia…
tanita: I really loved that random turtle-shaped shadow thing, and it still strikes me as hilarious that it was simply... plopped into the story... and... accepted. Like, "Here, have a turtle silhouette in black, instead of a normal face. Never mind why. Ta-dah!

Also, the mafia was fun. I mean, they were dangerous, but also somewhat comical. I liked that; there always has to be conflict, to have a story, but I've always liked that in comic books, you can laugh at the bad guys, too.

One of my favorite things about Gene Yang's books is that he's constantly taking new angles on identity. In this novel he's really exploring the immigrant experience in America -- sometimes isolating and tough, because of other Americans, sometimes isolating and tough because of your fellow ethnic group -- but very much a "melting pot" experience in which the character comes out stronger for the alloy of which he's made. I like the character of Hank, his very "average"-ness makes him a perfect model of an American guy, and this novel the perfect example of a classic comic book from a simpler time.

Even if you don't know much about much about comic books and superheroes, this is an easy-entry book into the genre. The meticulous detail in depicting a time period, the absorbing storyline, quirky characterization and historical scope makes it a quick, easy read that lots of fun.

Wonderland received a copy of this book courtesy of the folks at first:second. After July 15th, you can find your copy ofTHE SHADOW HERO by GENE LUEN YANG online, or at an independent bookstore near you!

June 27, 2014

Five on a Friday: Quick Change

Oy. Friday afternoon, at the end of a long week. I feel like I've been revising with tweezers, rearranging microscopic letters in a dim room by feel. I have things open on my browser I've been meaning to share though, so quickly, before I find my deck chair and pass out:

  • First, Stacy Whitman has continued her chat on worldbuilding over at Tu Books. Go and read. The first part is here.
  • The School Library Journal has continued the conversation about diversity in children's lit. Ellen Oh's piece on not ghettoizing diverse books into some isolated "special interest" zone makes some good points. Make sure you read Cyn Leitich Smith's piece on writing outside your comfort zone as well.
  • Twelfth Planet Press has announced that coming in August they have a YA speculative fiction collection out. Authors include Karen Healy, Jim C. Hines, Garth Nix, E.C. Meyers, and more faves. Hat tip to SF Signal.
  • Is it just me, or is it a fab week for speculative fiction collections? Lightspeed's Women Destroy Science Fiction just made me smile.
  • "Kidlit Summer School is a four week writer’s workshop that will run from July 21 through August 15." Need a little push to help you keep writing through the dog days of summer? Sign up - it's free, and encouragement always makes a tough job easier. Hat tip to Cynsations.

Happy Weekend! Be good, kids, and if you can't be good, be smart.


There's something to be said for a story that can finish in one go. Now, this novel is also set up perfectly to be the first in a series, but if you're not of a mind to find the sequel, this story has been neatly sewn up, signed, sealed, and delivered. This is an increasing rarity in the trilogy world which speculative fiction/fantasy tends to inhabit.

You know what else is rare? Consequences. I love high fantasy, with fights and clashes and weird creatures and spells... but no one ever seems to sweat in those books. Emergencies? Oh, surely, but there's Magical Assistance (TM) for that, and they practically have their own 800 number. Injuries - dealt with, easily - someone can always "do" healing. There's limitless supplies of energy and derring-do. No one is too cowardly or craven for long. Fantasy mimics the best of the hero's journey - sure, there's scattering, there's setbacks, but our hero is steadily going upward, and the story always follows.

Except this time.

This time, the cowardice isn't simply good for a three page soliloquy. This time, it means losing a friend without having a chance to say goodbye. This time, magical assistance is mistimed - the chance to lend help to the one who needed it most is gone forever. I was...surprised. And, when all the dust is cleared, the consequences persist. What is taken is not magically given back. Fantasy has fetched up against some pretty realistic barriers. I like. Though the novel ends slightly awkwardly, the language is precise, and clear, and the slightly distractible Ifor reminds me of some of Ursula LeGuin's sociologist characters - busy studying the world, not always the best at conversation that doesn't go off on tangents, but kind and gentle and mostly wise.

And, we didn't even need the boost that the author self-published. After some really, really good experiences via Cybils, I still am really intrigued by a good story told by an "underdog" author, finding their way through publishing with very little help. It's definitely not something my risk-averse self is able to do, but I'm happy to give a really good story the type of reading and word-of-mouth sharing that it deserves.

The author, a former ethnohistorian and archaeologist (and current book cover designer - she drew her own - and school librarian) living in Western Australia has said quite a few intelligent things about writing. I was nodding firmly as she noted on her personal blog that "fantasy, written properly, is a difficult genre to handle." She goes on to note that you can't just throw things in without rules, including magical rules, which must be both defined and followed. She didn't note cause and effect and consequences, but she really does show them, and I can't help but think that their inclusion is what makes this adventurous novel stand out.

While this book was published by CreateSpace in 2013, it's now available both in paperback and as a Kindle ebook.

Concerning Character: Fifteen-year-old Kira has the rather humdrum life of being her brilliant father's only child and being a lady of the upper classes of Timberlee, in the kingdom of Myrtonia. Life stretches ahead of her with few surprises -- and as she accompanies her father and his friend, Dr. Hingel, to market, nothing prepares her to see a child knocked into traffic. Hearing the screams of the bystanders and the horse's pounding hooves, Kira hides her face, so doesn't see what really happens -- that her father stretches out his hand and -- pouf! -- saves the day. The child levitates.

Wait, what?

Kira -- gobsmacked -- has had no prior warning that her father was a magician -- none at all. So, when he hustles her home and instructs her to pack lightly to leave immediately is her first hint that something is wrong, really wrong. The second is his punishing pace as they leave the city - practically in silence. He hardly answers a single question, except to tell her that he's broken the Oath of Brynd. But, the Oath of Brynd is sworn by wizards who have broken the law... criminals. The penalty for breaking the oath is death -- in the horrific Verebor Prison.

Kira is horrified to discover that not only is her staid, tutor father a murderer, there's no way that they can escape capture. None. And, though well-meaning people do their best, everything is spiraling down and falling apart. Nothing in Kira's life has prepared her for this - nothing.

What happens, when everything you thought you knew turns out to be a pleasant fiction? A smart girl digs for the truth -- and Kira finds it, first about her true circumstances, then about her family, and finally about herself, most of all. An adventure with dragons, exile, magical battles and secrets, this novel is a fun summer read for all ages. It's written for young adults, but there's nothing in it which would be unfortunate for someone younger than 9 to read.

You can find MARK OF THE DRAGON QUEEN by KATIE W. STEWART in paperback or Kindle, via Amazon.

June 24, 2014

TURNING PAGES: The Prank List, by Anna Staniszewski

It's official! Happy Summer!

Reading outside usually has all the same specialness as reading in the bathtub -- it never works out well. Even with an e-reader, it can get dicey. I'm super photosensitive, so even with my Ginormous Bug sunglasses, I tend to go blind from things like the combination of sun and white pages, and then there's that inevitable pine tree that dumps a load of pollen on me, and -- *sneeze* -- mostly, I stay within screened porches, or actually all the way IN THE HOUSE.

Which seems, as I think about it, really, really unadventurous.

HOWEVER, for the rest of you, who boldly go where sand-fleas and those little grasshopppery-leaf-peepery things dare to go, who don't mind sun, pollen, drifting leaves, sand, or the odd ant clambering over your drink and offering itself to you as an impromptu and accidental bookmark, then I wish you happy summer reading. I'll wave to you through the window...

This book comes courtesy of the publisher, Sourcebooks Jabberwocky, and it's a standalone sequel to THE DIRT DIARIES, and my age recommendation says it'll play best with the 9-11 year olds. I was impressed with the novel; there are very few books aimed at young adults in the 9-13 age group which discuss issues of class. Rachel's family status has changed. They own their own home, but her mother works as a housecleaner AND an legal clerk to keep it. Rachel works too -- because she "borrowed" over $200 from her mother for an ill-fated "get Mom and Dad back together" project in the previous book in this series, and she must pay back her future account. I like that Rachel knows the value of her help, and that, when she loses someone money, she offers her hands and her back for sweat equity. Excellent.

Though I'm also not a fan of photographic covers, Rachel is depicted as definitely having Asian characteristics (in the novel she is defined as being biracial), and her wide-eyed expression on this novel is the same as the expression (same model) on THE DIRT DIARY. This model is cute and engaging looking, and I'm sure the cover would make any girl, Asian or not, comfortable with picking it up.

Wonderland reviews very little MG - and this one is a LOT younger than I normally review for, but the character is an 8th grader, so I picked up the novel, expecting Rachel's characterization and plot to skew older. It doesn't at all, so this is the perfect beach novel for those just getting out of chapter books.

Concerning Character: Since her father left them, Rachel Lee and her mother have bonded into the kind of mother-daughter team she's always dreamed of. Mom seems ...happier, in a weird way, since she's actually running her own cleaning business and even has a boyfriend Rachel's okay with, and Rachel's learning how to scrub toilets even better - which is, admittedly, kind of gross, but it's keeping them afloat in the house. Rachel has an almost-boyfriend, Evan, who has really been there for her, and she couldn't be happier. Sure, Dad is, frankly, unreliable, and even he's having a bit of trouble launching his scuba business in Florida, but Rachel has saved up for a cooking class this summer, and nothing is going to diminish her joy in this -- not the instructor, who screams at her, not the cute-but-arrogant Whit, who is ruining everything for her, and not the people who accused Rachel of stealing in a house she was cleaning, who are posting bad reviews about her, and doing their best to ...make Lee Cleaners go out of business.

Ladybug Cleaners, with the nifty red-and-black vans and the cute uniforms, has arrived in town -- and the Lee's customers are cancelling them. Even worse, because of a lost necklace -- which disappeared after Rachel was the last one seen touching it -- Rachel is being pointed to as a known thief. She's costing her mother big-time, so Rachel does her best to make it up to her. When every single one of the flyers they post around town is vandalized, however, It Is On. Rachel is no stranger to revenge, and she's out to destroy Ladybug Cleaners. After all, if she doesn't, she and her mother will... have to sell the house and maybe even leave town!

Though what Rachel does is more sabotage than pranks - and I think the title is a little disingenuous calling the stuff she does mere "pranks" -- the worst thing is that she gets her best friends involved. She has to win -- at any cost -- but has she stopped to look at what it's costing her? Almost everything...including friendship, and peace of mind...

Critical Reader Reaction: While Rachel is adorable, there were times when I was definitely feeling like I was reading a book for nine-year-olds. Though Rachel is fourteen, she's incredibly short-sighted, self-absorbed and wildly immature, and she crashes through the novel, heedlessly making very obvious mistakes and judgments which are at times a bit frustrating. Her behavior is much more impulsive and early-middle-school than someone newly graduated from the 8th grade. The saving grace of her mutton-headedness is her best friend, Marisol, who more often than not yanks her back over the sanity line. (I did wonder if Marisol is going to get tired of being the elastic that holds Rachel's act together -- but maybe that's a topic for another book.) The sort of "life lesson" feel of the things Rachel goes through and eventually understands, though, seem a little unmatched to her all-over-the-board impulsive behavior. Would she really, so quickly and easily, come to a realization that holding onto things too hard and trying to avoid change is what got her into most of her mess in the first place? I'm not quite sure it works entirely that way for someone so visible immature -- but because the book is quick paced, lighthearted and funny, the almost instant-wisdom Rachel gains near the end of the novel is pretty forgivable.

This will be an interesting series to watch as Rachel changes and matures and grows into herself.

You can find THE PRANK LIST by Anna Staniszewski online, or at an independent bookstore near you!

June 23, 2014

Monday Review: THIS ONE SUMMER by Jillian Tamaki and Mariko Tamaki

The awesome team of Canadian cousins behind the wonderful graphic novel Skim (reviewed here) is back with a thoughtful, sometimes-wistful, sometimes-wrenching, always poignant look at what it feels like to grow up. Rose Wallace and her parents have gone to a cabin at Lake Awago every summer since she was five years old, a time of sun and rain, swimming and DVDs and silliness and Twizzlers from the corner store. Rose's friend Windy is always there, too, a year and a half younger, but one of those summer friends you grow close to with proximity and lack of other options and years upon years of being together.

This summer's different, though. This summer, Rose is—I don't think we're ever told exactly how old she is, but she seems to be on the edge of teenagerhood; twelve, thirteen, maybe. Old enough to look a little differently, with new interest, at the guy who works the corner store, Duncan. Old enough that the age difference with Windy really does make a difference. Old enough that her parents can't explain away their continuing arguments. Old enough to find out about the secrets of adulthood, but not quite old enough to fully understand, not quite young enough to pretend that fear and sadness don't exist. Old enough to find out that adults aren't perfect and neither is anyone else. It's a book about the barely-perceptible transition out of childhood that happens over a period of time, to all of us, that involves something lost as well as something gained.

This is such a thoughtful story, such a slice of life, with vivid characters you can believe in and feel like you know, even after just a short time—just like those summer friends you meet and instantly bond with. It's not one single drama, but a series of events that, taken cumulatively, are life-changing in a quiet way. This One Summer perfectly captures that elusive feeling of being on the cusp of young adulthood, ready and maybe not-quite-ready for the expanded world that encompasses both pain and joy.

Thanks to First Second for the review copy.

You can find This One Summer by Jillian Tamaki and Mariko Tamaki online, or at an independent bookstore near you!

June 20, 2014

The Weekend Word: The Perks of Being a YA Author

So, Tech Boy and I recently spent some four days in Portland, the one in Oregon, anyway, and for those of you who have been there or heard it called The Berkeley of the Pacific Northwest, it isn't; Berkeley is still offbeat and a little dirty, and Portland is This Other Thing Entirely for which I don't think I yet have words.

It was four days of ink and piercings, body mod, dye, and vegan/raw food. I love my counterculture as well as the next person, but GAH, sometimes you want to just, you know, have an egg sandwich, not a Free Range, Cruelty Free Lightly Coddled Egg on Artisan-Made Cracked Spelt and Oatmeal Bread Sprinkled With Pink Himalayan Salt, Garnished With Slightly Wilted Kale And Finished With Freshly Cracked Szechuan Peppercorn - hand delivered by a girl on a "fixie" bike with Malcolm X eye glasses, wearing cowboy boots with green-dyed hair. But - you get what you get, and you don't pitch a fit. Portland was friendly and lovely and full of roses and full of organic everything. Good times. Also, a shout-out to all the pink-haired girls in Portland, Lainey Taylor was in Europe while we were there, but I waved at every pink-haired girl regardless, waving to her in spirit.

We were in Portland to see friends, of course, but Tech Boy has a coworker who ...commutes from Portland each week (as one does. With an airplane.), so we brought our friends and met he and his wife at a pub downtown, and over really good coffee and purloined candied hazelnuts (mine, which everyone else stole. What is it with candied nuts? They're like French fries. JUST ORDER YOUR OWN, PEOPLE.), we listened to stories about WWII and Polish relatives in the resistance and all, and then, as I was sipping my mocha, the wife said, in an aside to me at our far-at-the-end corner of the table, "Oh, so you write young adult literature...have you ever heard of an author named John Green?"

SNORT. Choke.

Reader, I laughed internally for five solid minutes. I was also tempted to say, "No, who?" but that just would've been ridiculous, as I'm pretty sure BUSES went by with posters for The Fault in our Stars on them, and I do avoid being completely ridiculous, if at all possible.

So, I admitted, "Oh, yes, I've ...stood in the same room with him, even," and I was treated -- seriously treated -- to a lovely reminiscence of John Green as a cute and pudgy two-year old.

Color me surprised.

Apparently, this lady whom I'll call Cee and John Green's mother went to high school together in Indiana somewhere back in time. His mother, interestingly enough, hated it, hated the town, the school, and Indiana, and when she left she basically told everyone that and brushed the dust of their little town off of her feet. And, nobody blamed her -- C. said she got out as soon as she could. I loved hearing that -- it made the whole "teen angst in my little do-nothing town" thing that John Green writes about feel very true.

"Did you know his mother used to write?" Cee asked. Couldn't say that I did. "And, did you know that they wanted to film that movie right there, in his home state, and Indiana said no?!" she went on in disgust. "It really is just the stupidest state." (I don't know -- there is STILL nothing in Forks, Washington, except for empty parking places for Dr. Cullen, and people still make pilgrimages there. Were you just avoiding the crazy, Indiana? I feel you...)

Cee regaled me with more tales of things she and Mrs. Green got up to, way back in the day. Because of how much Cee hates Facebook, she knows she is always "the last one" to know anything of what is going on with other people's kids(also felt her on that)," but that she thought they were having another baby (and since the President essentially gave them a high-five for that, I could say that, yeah, I'd heard that one). I did a lot of listening, of course, but Cee was tickled to death for me to get a chance to share. I hooked her up with some vlog brothers stuff, Crash Course, all the REST of John's books she hadn't heard of, SciShow, for the vlog brother she hadn't gotten to meet as a toddler, and The Lizzie Bennet diaries...

So, we came to the end of our stories and we parted ways with big hugs -- I mean, we bonded over someone she met when he was two, and someone I don't even know, but come on, the world is weird, and I'm a writer, right? Weird is implied. And then, Tech Boy tells me, days later when we're home, "Hey, Cee wanted to know if you've actually, uh, published anything she could buy?" He gives me a disgusted scowl. "She doesn't even know if you're published. Dude, what did you two talk about for all that time?"

Um, John Green. Isn't that who everybody is talking about?


Okay, yeah, so I suck at self-promotion, and while I like John Green just fine, I was glad at least Cee realized there are other authors. And, in light of the Green Acres, Greenlit, Green-a-holic fest the media has become, just remember, in time, guys, everyone else will, too. This slightly unmerited glut of attention to YA's alleged "savior" will pass, because the rest of us are writing awesome books, too. Meanwhile...

Portland 142

Do your part, y'all.
Keep Portland weird.
Not that flamingo-head here needs any help...

June 19, 2014

What We Talk About When We Talk About STRUCTURE

No, no, no--I said STRUCTURE, not A structure.
Today, in our writing group, we talked about the idea of STRUCTURE in writing YA novels (or any fiction, for that matter). I've obsessing over it a bit because I'm working on a new project, so it was interesting to me to hear about what other writers do. Some are outliners (granted, I don't actually know that many people who are fully committed to the preliminary outline). Some write totally freeform and then go back and impose structure. What do YOU do, gentle readers? I want to know.

The way people conceive of structure, too--that's different from writer to writer. Avoiding formula is, of course, a concern, but just coming up with a plot that actually WORKS is the primary concern for most of us, I think. We can finesse the fiddly bits later, once we've written the first draft and have something to fiddle with. (Advice I often dish out, but find much harder to follow myself.)

The truth is, there are so many possibilities out there for structures that work. So many variations on those structures. And so many different ways of writing about those different structures and characterizing them on paper, from Beat Sheets to outlines to (my personal favorite) flow charts. I think my default way of thinking about structure is Things Get Crazier and Crazier, and then The Big Crazy Happens, and then Character Resolves the Crazy. In other words, I'm pretty Aristotelian that way. Truthfully, though, I think it's because I can't keep anything more complicated in my head while I'm first-drafting. It's all I can do to just come up with scenes that more or less fit that structure, let alone get all fancy and break it down further. Perhaps it would be different if my sole occupation were writing novels, but sadly for my novels, my brain is crammed full of other crap constantly threatening to make the good stuff leak out of my ears.

How do you deal with it? Structure, I mean, not brain leakage? Inquiring minds want to know...

June 17, 2014


As an occasional lurker on Shannon Hale's blog, I'd read a bit about this novel before it came out -- a very little bit -- but was surprised when Hale revealed that her character had been differently-abled from birth. I read Mindy's review on Disability in Kidlit and was convinced to read the novel. It is entirely in the Science Fiction realm, it's for young adults, and it has a half-Paraguayan, one-handed, female protag. It also has a lot -- a lot -- of plot twists, a dicey love interest, and a lot of cartoon violence/ethical gray areas that were a little... bothersome to me as a reader, because they were left open-ended. Finally, it had a character who felt too close to the Magical Negro trope to make me very comfortable. I'll cover both of those last two items a little later.

In an attempt to avoid spoilers, there is a blank line left near the end of the review. Highlight it, and the words will show up. SPOILER ALERT.

Concerning Character: Maisie Brown can honestly say her "middle name is Danger..." because it is. Her full name is Maisie Danger Brown, and she usually thinks of it as kind of a sick joke. Her parents are scientists and a bit weird, she's been homeschooled her whole life, and she's super smart and feeling... stifled. Her whole world is her mother, father, and Luther down the street. No other kids, no other activities.

Her world enlarges exponentially when she wins entry into a space camp -- on the back of an inedible cereal. She wins an all-expenses paid trip, excitedly leaves her small live behind, and emerges into the most fascinating, wonderful thing, ever. No one gives her crap about her arm at all (which, Mindy felt, was somewhat disingenuous and not like real life - but, okay, point, this is fiction), there's plenty for her agile mind to cling to, and blammo -- she very quickly catches the attention of a boy who says to call him Wilder. He gives her quite a few "sexy Latina" pick-up lines that would have made ME make him a grease-spot on the ground, but Maisie doesn't seem to mind. Wilder is part of her "fireteam," a group of kids who score the highest on the strength, ability, flexibility and smarts testing and training the Space Campers are given. Mi-sun, an eleven-year-old Asian girl, who drinks nothing but blue slushies, a strong and tall Louisianan named Ruth, a nerdy-smart African Franco-American boy, Jasper, Wilder, and Maisie. As a prize, they're allowed to go up the space ladder -- into actual space... where it's revealed that there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamnt of in their philosophies, that they're needed for A Noble Purpose, and that they're kind of in a Fantastic Four/Incredible Hulk/Iron Man movie... only not.

Their gig as Superhero teens is fairly short -- with ultimate power comes ultimate responsibility, and some members of the team aren't up for it. An accident quickly divides loyalties and confuses priorities. Adults are less trustworthy than feared - some downright frighteningly evil. Maisie thinks Wilder is someone she must stick with -- but it turns out that maybe he's not. When her parents and everything she holds dear is threatened, Maisie pushes herself to become more than she is -- more than she thought she could be -- to take on every threat. But, is it enough to just be dangerous? Or, do you need sidekicks to be a real superhero?

Critical Reader Reaction: This book moved fast -- fast, fast, fast. It is chaotic, packed with plot, and twists and turns and it just -- man. I felt in places that it had some details that stood out more than they needed to -- things which seemed important, but weren't, and things which seemed throwaway, but were integral to the story arc. The pacing was so breakneck it was just too fast for real emotional resonance in spots; I wanted SO MUCH to be closer to the main character especially, but didn't quite click with her. I believe I had trouble seeing the character, because she had trouble seeing herself. The author doesn't characterize her as owning her identity, in many ways. If readers asked Maisie how she self-characterized, it would probably have been something like a.) smart girl b.) astronaut aspiration c.) her parent's daughter, d.) differently-abled, and e.) half Paraguayan. Which is fine -- especially when a person is made up of two cultures, sometimes they feel more at home in a middle-space that is both and neither. I get that, but it still felt, in some ways, that Maisie should have been more realized.

Part of the plot is that Maisie is home-schooled. While this isn't seen as a negative in the book, she has about zero knowledge of boys other than Luther -- so Wilder's smarmy "heyyyy, sexy Latina" come-ons doesn't bother her as much as it seems it should. She leaves the camp with him, takes risks, is physical with him - with not a peep from her inner mind. For me, this was hard to take, and also heavily foreshadowed the inevitable triangle. Still, as a reader, I was uncomfortable with Wilder until the end -- I didn't buy the protagonist's trust in him, or her hormonal whatevers that allowed her to trust him, in spite of everything. Her forgiveness seems very easily bought.

There were things which didn't feel true to me -- like the fact that the teens were insanely smart -- all of them. They quoted Macbeth and ran around with Frost poems in the back of their minds. While the kids were meant to be genius level math-science folks, the English lit stuff seemed out of character. And then, the adults -- of all the parents in the novel, only ONE set was anywhere near decent -- but it's clear that parents would have complicated the story arc, so they were essentially written off. The adults in the novel are just as madcap and/or hopeless as the teens -- the two apparently brilliant scientists are downplayed, Dr. Howell, into a poorly socialized, emotionally stunted juggler, and Dr. Barnes into strictly muscle...

Dr. Dragon Barnes is the Aerospace Chief of Operations. He is described as large and he's usually added into the mix for muscle. He fights battles for the diminutive Howell, he smooths things out for her socially, and he otherwise pretty well carries the world on his back for her.

Dragon, as Maisie calls him, was taken from a group home by Dr. Howell, because she saw his brilliance (that trope is called The Noble Savage, which is a minority who is brought up from his mean and humble beginnings and raised to greatness). Dragon's role in DANGEROUS is to supply wisdom and support to Maisie -- and to Howell -- at the right moments, and he has a lot of good lines like "I've got you, Brown." He is a rock of strength and imparts his calm wisdom, helping her to overcome her fears, and go forward. He seems to have few qualms or agendas of his own and few or no issues with Howell's actions; his only goal is to Make It All Happen.

OF COURSE HE DIES. This is what is troubling to me: that his whole purpose was to allow Howell to achieve her purpose. This is really true to the trope of the Magical Negro. Obviously, the author didn't do this on purpose, but it was such a predictable death that readers will spot it well before it happens. What made me sad is that Maisie didn't even grieve. Granted, he was part of a group of nutjobs who essentially manufactured a way for her to be exposed to a major danger, but it felt oddly out of character for her to not really... react. Howell grieved -- but though he was the most stable and helpful adult to her, Maisie was like, "Huh, Howell will always miss him," and she went on. It was a little distressing.

There are coincidences and betrayals left and right - crosses and double-crosses. I found myself distressed by some of the brute force used -- fitting in with superhero movies and comic books, but in a novel, harder to take. In some ways, it felt like the characters in the entire novel were kind of manipulated and lacking agency -- but I also know that the pacing, metaphorical "explosions," and our current love of superhero films is where it's at in terms of popular culture right now, and will bring a lot of teens into really liking this book, or at least feeling that the action is familiar. There are puns, there is poetry, there is a lot of skill in the narrative. I hope that Shannon Hale writes more YA, and more speculative fiction, and while this one wasn't my favorite, I know it will find its audience.

Authorial Asides: Hale has written extensively about her views on writing and on inclusiveness. She explores the idea that it would be more "convenient" and easier as an author to write dominant culture "neutral" characters, and talks about why she didn't; more recently, she blogged about the fact that we're none of us really able-bodied. It's good food for thought.

I picked up a copy of this novel at the library. You can find DANGEROUS by SHANNON HALE online, or at an independent bookstore near you!

June 16, 2014

Now Reading: BREAKFAST SERVED ANYTIME by Sarah Combs

I haven't done a "Now Reading" post in a while. I was planning to do more of these—blog posts that happen mid-read, just reactions and thoughts and free-form writing about a book I'm currently enjoying.

Right now I'm reading Breakfast Served Anytime by Sarah Combs. First of all, how could I resist a book that's about the narrator attending summer Geek Camp at a local university? I went to Geek Camp way back when. In my case (believe it or not), it was the Total Immersion Science Program and the novelty of staying in a college dorm for two weeks was only slightly dulled by the fact that said college (University of California Riverside) was approximately 5 minutes' drive from my house. Anyway, the book's narrator, Gloria, has been selected for Geek Camp at University of Kentucky, and so the book is imbued with the sort of atmosphere and setting-specific detail that makes me think of my lovely writing friend Gwenda and her equally lovely Kentucky accent.

Her Geek Camp is for the full summer, and she has already chosen her major—Secrets of the Written Word, with the mysterious professor X. (No, not THAT Professor X.) With only three other students and just a few mysterious paper clues to lead them through their first few days, Gloria's wondering what she's in for, but as a quirky, artistic sort of soul who believes in the meaningfulness of small things and coincidences, she's willing to wait it out and see. In the meantime, she forms unique bonds with not only her roommate (as a pageant brat, decidedly different from Gloria) but her three fellow classmates in her major, all of whom are just as quirky. The characterization is wonderful in this book—characters are believable not only on a surface level (I can readily visualize them) but they also have depth and seem very real and individual. Tiny, dark-haired Chloe, who has an unholy love of France. Quiet, thoughtful Calvin. And then there's Mason, who at first annoys the holy hell out of Gloria, but he too has unplumbed depths.

There is a lot of humor in this book—the humor of everyday situations. And there's a lot of magic, too—again, the magic that happens to us on a day to day basis that we don't always notice. The author does a nice job with both. It took a little time for me to feel connected to the narrator, which I think was an issue of voice…at first, it felt a little too…maybe…Too perfect? Edited? Witty? I don't know, but after the first chapter or two the narrative voice seemed to feel more natural, either because it grew on me or because it settled into a more natural pattern. Truly, the narrator is quite hilarious and charming and relatable, even when she's being cringeworthy, especially if you were that quirky girl growing up. And now I'm very eager to find out what's going to happen by the end of this coming-of-age summer at Geek Camp. For me, two weeks didn't teach me a huge amount, other than a) resentment at not having gotten either of my 2 choices of major, and b) figuring out I didn't want to study Plant Cytogenetics. So my vicarious experience needs satisfying, people! On to the end…

You can find Breakfast Served Anytime by Sarah Combs online, or at an independent bookstore near you!

June 12, 2014

Beautiful Bookstores...

...I saw several while we were traveling the past few weeks. (Travel was the reason for my recent blog absence. I usually have the best intentions of blogging while away, but I almost always end up too exhausted to even think about doing anything productive after we've been out and about all day. This time I only managed a single post.)

But every time I saw a lovely bookstore (like the one at left, in Budapest) I certainly thought about how I should be blogging, and documenting my travels in writing, and so on and so forth. Instead, I took a ton of pictures which I'll soon be posting to Flickr, and my husband was the one blogging (see his videoblogs here). I guess I'm still fighting that blogger burnout just a bit, as well as some general burnout (ever feel like you need a vacation from your vacation??), but I do look forward to getting back to a quasi-normal schedule soon, once I'm caught up.

Even my reading hasn't been quite as routine--when I need a break from YA and all the thinking and reviewing that tends to accompany it, I usually turn to adult fiction or nonfiction, so this time I've been reading the Nina Borg mystery series set in Denmark. If you like international mystery/thrillers with good character development, I recommend them. The ongoing character Nina Borg is angsty and complex, and her involvement in the mysteries is constantly threatening to unravel her personal life, as one might reasonably expect. Good stuff, and definitely a much-needed change of pace.

Anyway, that's it for me today--back to your regularly scheduled programming soon.

June 10, 2014


This is a companion novel, second in the SOME QUIET PLACE series. SOME QUIET PLACE, which was published in 2012, has a common emotional personification, but that's the only overlap; it's definitely a standalone novel.

While the cover is attractive, it has zero to do with the novel, utterly zero, and continues in the theme of Pretty Caucasian Girls In Big Dresses, which really makes no sense. As the main character tends to mope around in jeans, I'm not even sure who the girl with the dress is. Maybe a personification of Hope? Who knows.

Concerning Character: Alexandra Tate, at seventeen, has been haunted by the need for revenge ever since the death of her mother, father, and brother in a car accident. She knows the man who was responsible for running them off the road, Nate Foster, and the day he is released from his prison - early, for time served with good behavior - she is there, to sit in front of his house, stolen gun in her hand, hoping to drum up the courage to end him, like he so callously ended her family.

It's not that simple, of course. In Alex's case, it's even less simple, because for her, Revenge is not just a feeling... he's a guy. A gorgeous guy, her age, whom she really, really, really wants. He can't touch her, though -- not until she chooses him. Somehow, the irony of the fact that their relationship is contingent on her pulling the trigger on that gun and ending a life misses her entirely. She agonizes over killing this man so that she can have a few minutes of physical time with Revenge. If she could just do this one thing, it would change her whole world. Yeah, yeah, she knows he's not human, but the fact that she's living in a metaphor? Goes right over her head.

It's her inability to understand how Revenge could not be awesome which ...bewildered me. Yes, her family was dead, and Revenge, who greeted her at the table every morning, was indeed a constant -- except when she couldn't do what he wanted. Then he was... spotty. He was an inconstant friend. Alexandra's weariness, her wandering, cutting classes, obsessing -- all realistic actions of grief -- were disturbingly realistic. The novel didn't progress very quickly, and so readers are caught off-guard when a new character appears.

When Forgiveness shows up -- also an otherworldly hot guy -- things get... immediately complicated.

Reader Gut Reaction: I liked a lot about this novel, but there were some elements which didn't work for me. First, there's insta-lust. Forgiveness comes on-scene, and Alex really reacts to him. He's beautiful -- just beautiful -- but she doesn't know him from Adam. It's not made especially clear that something about him pulls Alex to him immediately -- and it should have been. Even in the metaphorical sense, forgiveness can seem repellent, because it represents so much of what we DON'T want, that is, giving up our grudges, but when we truly consider it, it looks like a cold drink of iced tea in a desert. It looks like rest and unknotting muscles. I wanted her to be drawn and to feel that, and wonder at it -- and to realize she was living in a metaphor. Okay, maybe that last is asking too much. I always love it when, in fractured fairytales, the character kind of breaks the fourth wall and realizes, "Oh, I have to do this, because Cinderella!" and they get it. Not this time. The author's insistence on a feel of more romance, less parable is what made this confusing for me; at times Alexandra seems, at best willfully blind, and at worst, completely idiotic.

Then, there was the love triangle, which are never my favorite things. Revenge and Forgiveness, of course, absolutely loathe each other, though Forgiveness -- or Atticus, as Alex calls him -- is a lot more cool about it. The Choices, as Alex calls them, know things about her -- about her childhood, about her memories, about the secrets that lurk in the home of her aunt and uncle. They know things -- but they're not supposed to interfere and tell her. No touching, no telling. No crossing the line. And yet, they're both calling to her, one insistently, one gently asking her what she really wants. It was here, where the author didn't stick to the metaphor that kind of bugged me. Revenge and forgiveness can know nothing I don't know -- and, eventually, Alex discovers things, based on the nudges Forgiveness gives her, and finds her way to truth. Oddly enough, truth isn't personified.

Alexandra's inability to move past life after losing her family, should have been the A Plot, but the love triangle takes over -- leaving the secondary plot, to do with missing children, kidnapping, and mad scientist experiments a little jangled and almost anticlimactic. The secondary plot seemed to be attempting to explain the how and why of anyone's ability to see Choices and Elements and everything else Alex can experience that others can't, but not enough time was spent with it to truly flesh it out -- it could have been a novel of itself.

This novel was a bit uneven, at times really slow-paced, and I was a little confusing going in, but despite my reservations I'm still intrigued to see Magical Realism and personifications being written for modern readers. This novel was wrenching, surprising, very involved, tumultuous, and a complete mind trip, but overall, an interesting read. I'll be interested to see if there's another, and where that one goes.

I received a copy of this book courtesy of the publisher. After July 8th, you can find WHERE SILENCE GATHERS by KELSEY SUTTON online, or at an independent bookstore near you!

June 03, 2014

#WeNeedDiverseBooks, The Panel & Musings on Diversity Discussions

Have you had a chance to hear what went on at BEA? This morning I listened to a podcast of the panel at BEA made up of Ellen Oh (PROPHECY Series), Aisha Saeed (Written in the Stars, 2015), Marieke Nijkamp, founder of DiversifYA, Lamar Giles (Fake ID) and Mike Jung (Geeks, Girls, and Secret Identities). Special Guests included acclaimed Authors Grace Lin (Where the Mountain Meets the Moon), Matt de la Peña (The Living) and Jacqueline Woodson (Beneath a Meth Moon).

The panel was moderated by I.W. Gregorio (None of the Above, 2015). Each of the authors got a chance to talk about the first diverse book they'd read (IF IT HADN'T BEEN FOR YOON JUN, by Marie G. Lee was mine, just FYI), and they reiterated, for those who didn't notice, that Lee & Low/TU Books has re-announced their NEW VISIONS AWARD:

"The NEW VISIONS AWARD will be given for a middle grade or young adult fantasy, science fiction, or mystery novel by a writer of color. The Award winner receives a cash grant of $1000 and our standard publication contract, including our basic advance and royalties for a first time author. An Honor Award winner will receive a cash grant of $500."

This panel was full of great, brilliant people with plenty to say, and really good questions... but it was way, way, way too short. There was vital and necessary conversation, but a single, hour-long panel in a tiny corner of BEA - filled to standing room only, with people turned away at the door for fire safety reasons - was simply not enough time to get into things really deeply. One thing that was said, however, was that there'd be a Diverse Books Festival sometime in 2016, in Washington D.C. Yay, right? It is to be "the first of its kind."

Or, so they said.

Anybody else remember the University of San Francisco's Department of Education putting on Reading The World?

What you may not know is that USF chose to get involved in this after a similar Cal State Hayward (CSUH) conference had ended after a nine year run. Beverley Hock, who had started the one day conference as a graduate student, finished it as a doctoral candidate, and her time in the area had ended. Disappointed that there was no other venue to talk about diverse children's books, from 1998-2009, under the skilled direction of Dr. Alma Flor Ada and her education graduate students, USF started READING THE WORLD.

This two-day event brought education students, librarians, authors, teachers, and the community together to interact with an impressive list of authors including Ashley Bryan, Nikki Giovanni, Yuyi Morales, Peter Sis, Rosemary Wells, Lady Jane Yolen, Arnold Adoff, Virginia Hamilton, Joseph Bruchac, Naomi Shihab Nye, Rita Williams Garcia, Jack Zipes -- the list of luminaries goes on and on. READING THE WORLD was utterly fantastic -- it was a thrill to attend, and to rub shoulders with all of these amazing authors who were Out There, Doing This Amazing Thing. Especially as there are only one or two children's literature conferences west of the Mississippi, these gatherings were a little taste of heaven for those who were apprehensive about "multicultural books" as diverse books were called at that time, and how they would work in their classrooms and libraries, how they would sell and be accepted by the community, and what they needed to be. There were presentations on all kinds of things, including cultural identity, folklore, gender identity, social justice, storytelling, and more. It was brilliant, and even without social media, people knew about it and attended and came away with SO MUCH. I wish they could have gone on hosting it forever.

To be clear, I bring these guys up because they were awesome. I just want to give props to Dr. Alma Flor Ada, all of those graduate students over the years, and all of the people who threw their backs into this. Before Twitter hashtags made information sharing quick and easy. Before Facebook — in the creaky old days of MySpace. Before iPhones. Before social media was a “thing.” THANK YOU, READING THE WORLD. You were amazing.

But, time moves on, funding gets cut, people move. Dr. Alma Flor is a professor emeritus now, and the torch has been passed. Though not the first to dip a toe in serious celebrations of diversity, #WeNeedDiverseBooks is nevertheless taking the challenge East of the Mississippi. But, things are awfully quiet around these parts. Maybe the West Coast doesn't think we need to really talk about diversity - because we're pretty diverse out here, and more comfortable with it? And yet, there's considerable excitement surrounding the KidlitCon's plan to have diversity be our central theme this October. I think we've got plenty to talk about, don't you? Hope to see you there.

TURNING PAGES: THIRTY SUNSETS, by Christine Hurley Deriso

This is necessarily going to be a short book blurb. It's hard to review a book like this one, where so much of what goes on is a secret. The author intended for the reader to be in the dark, so I'll leave you there. Just know that it's a slice-of-life summer read, with quite a few surprises. It's about what you know, what you think you know, secrets kept, and ...why.

I write family stories, so I'm always intrigued by the families and their truths that other authors create. This novel is a "you'll laugh, you'll cry, you'll reel" type of story; all of the characters, but especially the narrator get hit with one thing after the next - boom, boom, boom - and while she's ultimately resilient she's still reacting and not acting, and could have really gotten herself into trouble. I found myself surprised that after everything, they manage without the help of a therapist. I don't exactly know how I feel about that, but we'll get back to that in a moment.

Concerning Character: Forrest Shepherd has the right to expect that everything is going to stay the same. After all, for the past sixteen years, it has: her Mom's been her Mom, lovingly micromanaging the whole family and über-controlling at times, her Dad's been the sunny-side-of-the-street calm one, her brother has been gorgeous, popular, and headed for med school, and she's been a word nerd, boyfriend free, and socially a disaster. Every year, the family spends a month at Sparkle Beach, nicknamed Spackle -- and they mooch around in their musty old place, running around, surfing, and just being a family. Except this summer: things have changed. Forrest's brother, Brian, turned eighteen, and gave up his place at Vanderbilt. No more prestigious Ivy med school. Also? He started dating Olivia, one of the snottiest, most beautiful girls in the school, who, typically, is mean, rumored to be on drugs or anorexic, and who makes Forrest feel small and stupid. Then, Forrest's mother goes from control freak to Summer Hostess: she's invited Olivia to spend the month of June with the family at their beach house -- when she KNOWS Forrest can't stand Olivia, and she can't stand her either! What gives!? The house at Spackle Beach has always been Forrest's refuge, but between Olivia - puking after every meal like the anorexic she obviously is, and Mom and Dad's super-vicious arguments, and Brian snarling at Forrest if she even looks at Olivia cross-eyed -- nothing is as it was. Forrest is isolated, miserable, and something's gotta give...

It's a good thing she met a cute guy on the beach. Scott's promised to catch all thirty sunsets with her this month, and until he came along, nobody seems to have even noticed that Forrest's even around. But, Scott notices -- and suddenly, Forrest sees everything in a new light... Suddenly, things have the potential to be good. Olivia might be... okay. All might not be lost, and it might be a fabulous summer, just like always. Or, it might be the summer that changes everything.

Reader Gut Reaction: As I've said, this novel is about Family Secrets. And, there's not just one secret the Shepherds are sitting on. There's two big ones, initially, with a third popping up in the end. There are plot twists that are unexpected -- and honestly, by the end of this summer, there would have to have been, for me, a psychologist's bill for weekly visits. Man! There's a lot that happened in this novel - and the pacing was at times breakneck. I felt like a Weeble, having been punched from all directions, and just wobbling back for more. DRA-MA, wow. And yet, for some people, that's what's going to make this novel un-put-down-able: the chance to sneak a peek into the dirty laundry of another family's life.

At the same time this novel is complicated, it is also very simple: no matter what the issues are, if you love the people to whom you're related, they'll work out -- really. That being said: love is more complex, nuanced, and ultimately harder than just a lot of Kumbaya and Good Feelings. There's a lot of unsolicited forgiveness and understanding in this novel of which I am dubious and critical -- and a lot of unanswered questions about motivation and the "spackle" the family tends to put over the cracks. How do people, who know they're spackling, accept that of each other? Or, more specifically, why didn't the members of the family who knew that secrets were being kept insist that someday, a reckoning would be a difficult thing, and let Forrest know at least one, inevitable truth?

Because the novel takes place within the span of a month, it must have been difficult for the author to find the characters enough time to truly concentrate on accepting their new circumstances and work to digest and assimilate all the new information in their lives. To my mind, some of what was shared should have started a grieving process, and should have seriously been accompanied by some family therapy sessions, even the DIY sort where you all just sit down and check in about how you're feeling! -- and even more, when near the end of the novel, Forrest is seeing something through on her mother's behalf, picking up a burden that isn't hers to bear. Despite what I feel to be seriously unresolved psychological issues, the novel ends with a feeling of reconnection, and overall, a strong family love, which means that the family will survive. If you pull for a HEA regardless of details, this one's for you.

You'll laugh, you'll cry -- and you'll be glad you didn't get invited to the beach house!

While I got my copy of this novel courtesy of the publisher, in early July 2014 you can find THIRTY SUNSETS by CHRISTINE HURLEY DERISO online, or at an independent bookstore near you!