August 31, 2014

A Little Amusement for a Long Weekend...

...drum roll, please: THUG NOTES does THE GIVER and THE HUNGER GAMES.

What I love about these is that they're not just summary, but literary criticism as well - good, often deeper-than-I'd-thought-of litcrit, which makes me extremely cheerful.

Best digital use of that PhD in English, EVER.

August 29, 2014


This debut novelist describes herself as "an avid reader of just about every genre (plenty of YA, a smidge of Sci-Fi, buckets of horror, a dash of literary, even some graphic novels)." Her familiarity with both horror and literary works shines through in this beautifully covered, emotional novel. Compelling, powerful, and heartbreaking, full of spare, evocative language and shutter-blink leaps between Maybe Real and Maybe Not Real, the reader is sent on a quietly harrowing internal journey, from an echoing hole inside, to one filled up with the barbaric yawp which screams within those of us who refuse to sit down quietly and die. This is a story of grief, and the quiet triumph of one girl over loss.

He comes close, wraps his arms around me, pulls me to him. His smells fill my nose -- mint, to try to cover the whiskey. Paint, to cover up his pain. One arm holds me against him. His other hand reaches of a dishtowel and presses it to my back. A pillow for his gun, still damp from Mom doing dishes. "Be over in a minute, sweetheart." I turn my cheek, rest it on his shoulder, watch the window's empty place. I see a mosaic of fear, of rage, of nothing left.

Listen to the first chapter of TIN LILY, read aloud by the author on her site.

Summary: The situation with Lily Berkshire's alcoholic father, Hank, has deteriorated to the point where she and her mother, Rachel, pack up and leave. A visit to Seattle, a break and time to heal, and then they return to Utah where they find a tiny, shabby house next to a dog food plant and try to make a life. There are some good times - some happy times, because without the accusations, the sarcastic, flaying words, slurred speech and the arguments, they can finally relax, and sleep the night through. Until the phone rings, anyway. Nightly, Lily's father calls and accuses. Calls, and cracks the veneer on Lily's mind. Is her mother really hiding money? Is she really sleeping around with every guy she met? Is it really Mom's fault that things have gone so bad? Of course not -- when she's not scared, Lily knows the truth: Dad's an artist, and his father, whom he could never please, berated him, lied to him, convinced him to come and work for him -- and then poisoned him again. He's an abusive alcoholic and it's not Lily's mother's fault... but if her mother is a little late coming home from work, Lily wonders... questions... doubts.

For awhile, that's the worst thing about Hank, the worst thing he does. Makes Lily doubt her own mind. Until he does something even worse --

Life after losing her mother is an irregular checkerboard of moments when Lily's not always entirely in her right mind. Sometimes, she just has to go away, to a place where... well, she's not sure where she goes, she's just gone. She's also not sure what she's seeing is real, or if her mind playing tricks. She keeps smelling whiskey and mint: real stench, or fear? And, that pair of paint-spattered boots next to her feet... is anyone really standing next to her? Tension builds as the reader silently urges Lily to wake up -- look up -- before it's too late.

Peaks: I love books where I learn something. This novel has information about metallurgy in it -- and I learned that tin makes a little soft crackling noise when it's bent -- the atoms move together and makes a sound wave. It's kind of a disturbing tiny knuckle-cracking sound. I also got to revisit Seattle in my mind's eye - the Pike Market is beautifully described, and I got a little Seattle-sick for a moment.

Another thing I love is the diversity in this novel. Seattle is a city which skews toward certain kinds of diversity and not others, but the story naturally and wonderfully provides difference -- and similarities -- in the way that we are human. It was beautifully done, and I can say nothing else.

Lily is such a deeply sympathetic narrator that the reader wants to trust her, but soon realizes she's utterly untrustworthy - unintentionally hiding things even from herself. That capability is what makes this book so much like looking through a kaleidoscope; the picture keeps changing and changing and changing. This may be a hanky book for some readers -- I had that cannonball in my gut feeling as I was miserable along with the main character, but when, in the midst of a party, she is carried away to a dark place, I suddenly had a lot of things in my eye. And in my throat. And in my nose. And, when other people share with her what their triggers are, it's a powerful moment of recognition - and a reminder that Lily - though she feels like a hollow metal doll, bending and crying, instead of a living girl - is not alone.

Valleys...: There are no valleys; this book is well paced, heartbreaking, disturbing, moving, and ultimately, joyful in that raw kind of joy that's like the first clean breath after a hard cry. It's a novel about being driven to the jagged edge - going beyond - and dragging oneself back.

You can find TIN LILY by JOANN SWANSON online, or at the independent bookstore Rediscovered Books.

August 28, 2014

Get Your Bookish Opinions Heard!

That wig is BIG.
Let's face it--we're all in this because we love children's and YA books. We read them. We write them. We want to talk about them until we drive everyone nuts within a 10-foot radius. But sometimes it seems like the people who really get to have their opinions heard are the ones we might call Bigwigs, the review outlets and official book awards (although whether they actually wear wigs of an outlandish size is unknown at this time). 

This is why YOU should be involved in the Cybils Awards. Yes, YOU! It's THE blogger-driven grassroots book award for children's and young adult books, and book apps, and right now their application for judges is open and just waiting for you to fill it out. It is so much fun, you get to read a ton of the year's best books, and it's US BLOGGERS--whether we're parents, teachers, writers, librarians, booksellers, whatever--who get to decide on the best of the year in a wide range of genres. We hash it out. The gloves are off. (Also the wigs.) So if you haven't applied to be a judge yet, go!

August 26, 2014


I'll admit that I'm not familiar with this author's more popular work in the historical romance genre. I ran across this book on NetGalley and didn't realize it was a prequel, either. This is another example of an author independently publishing a work. In this case, the novel is the backstory for a previously published mass marked produced novel.

Reader, this is very definitely not a romance, nor is it speculative fiction, and while it was listed as YA in the catalog, likely because the main characters were nine and eleven when the story opens, it's not for kids that age, definitely, and it's not really marketed to young adults. I'd say it's something of a crossover novel, appropriate for older teens who enjoy historical fiction, and adults. It's a two-hanky read, too, by the by.

Summary: Two stories, two lives unspooling on either side of the world. In 1873 Peking, the nine-year-old daughter of a favored concubine finds a photograph of a foreigner in her mother's things -- which means that the foreigner is maybe someone important... especially since the Chinese woman in Western clothes in the picture is her mother. Though her Amah reminds her to mind her own business, Ying-ying knows better than to ask her beautiful and busy mother about something she's snooped to she's left with terrible questions about who she is, and her precarious place in the world. Meanwhile, in England, eleven-year-old Leighton discovers there's more than he ever understood, to his father's relationship with his old friend, Herb. Observation lends a rapidly maturing Leighton insight into his mother's frequent visits to an elderly relative, visits on which she takes his dark-haired baby brother, but never blond-haired Leighton. Understanding the truth behind the secrets in his world reveals both more joy and more pain. Outside pressures eventually cause the family to implode and with a single gunshot, Leighton's world blows apart. Now that his father is gone and he's driven his mother away, Leighton is left with an uncle whose goal is to crush Leighton's will... what is he supposed to do now?

Adrift without the protection of her beautiful mother, in Peking, Ying-ying loses her importance -- and her identity. All that is left is survival and her own two hands, and a mysterious secret society. In England, Leighton, isolated and locked away, plots to disappear. Two survivors, bruised from the beating of the world. Two lushly detailed lives, set against the backdrop of history, strive and struggle and fail and finally succeed -- and just barely miss intersecting. This was both a beautiful and a frustrating book for those reasons.

Peaks & Valleys: This is a novel which is difficult to characterize. I don't love how it ended, but knowing that it's a prequel to an already written novel helps to make more sense of it. While the ending is not a cliffhanger in the traditional sense of the word, you will NOT be left with a satisfying feeling of "yep, that story's done," when you're finished reading. You'll be left with the unflinching faces of two young, bruised people, picking themselves up once again, and going on their way. Be WARNED. Yet, the writing is compelling. The pacing is slow and expository, and gives a lot of history and motivation for the way the characters engage.

This book was described as "Crouching Tiger meets Downton Abbey." Well...not so much. If you're expecting dowagers and dandies, you won't find them in this novel, and there's less of the Crouching Tiger stuff than many might want, except near the very end. More on that in a moment.

This is a very intensely detailed, lyrically written book, and gives a wonderful account of the lives of the characters. (Here's a sample of the first two chapters from the author's website.) It is, however, stark and dark about the tragedies that took place behind the scenes of this time of opportunity and exploration in Britain, and this precursor to the end of the Chinese dynasties. A real positive is Leighton's accepting attitude towards his father, and his unchanged love for he and his "uncle" Herb. Ying-ying's place as an ornament in society - to simply accompany a man - is also correctly specific to the time. Societal mores constrict everyone - and the appearance of evil can get you into trouble even if you've done nothing wrong. These are simply the sad realities with which the characters live

While care is taken to raise neither country or culture above the other, I can't help but feel there's a tiny bit of exoticizing going on. Western society tends to be a little hyperfixated on the idea of concubines and harems and geishas - and I kind of wished that Ying-ying had been a little awkward or anything but blazingly beautiful, even as a child, but if her appearance received undue emphasis, it was because she is biracial. The other less believable cultural clue was the martial arts and fighting; I rolled my eyes at the "Crouching Tiger" bits; I don't know much about how many martial arts aficionados there would have been just hanging out at the end of the Quing Dynasty, but the fight scenes felt a tiny bit over the top for me. Of course, I really do know nothing about the average person's level of training at that point, and understand that the author was writing from her research and interests. I think it's just that fight scenes of any sort tend to lose me.

A final quibble is, of course, the cover of the novel. The woman in the Western strapless formal gown seemed a little odd; who is she? Ying-ying would never have worn a dress like that, and seemed to feel that Western women's dress and Western society as a whole was debauched and disturbing. These are just tiny quibbles against the overall scope of the novel, which is stark and unforgiving - painful, but striking.

You can find THE HIDDEN BLADE by SHERRY THOMAS at online retailers or at the author's website.

August 23, 2014


I make a pretty solid effort not to over-feature self-published and indie published books which are SOLELY ebook offerings, because I'm still a fan of the pages-cover-artwork-words experience that comprised books for me for most of my life. However, I love experimental fiction, and know some authors every once in awhile put out works that are only to be read on a screen, and this is one of them. This is a GOOD one.

Fairy tale retellings have been done. Fairy tale retellings from blogs have been done. The thing is, "new" is not a word you're every going to get in conjunction with fairy tales; they're hundreds and hundreds of years old, so retellings are just-fine-okay-right by me. Retellings which widen the circle of imagination? Better still.

Fans of the dangerous and tip-tilted worlds of Margo Lanagan or readers of the Merry Sisters of Fate short curiosities - Brenna Yovanoff's stories, especially - will find these an enjoyable new pot to stir.

Summary: I am a lover of the short story form - but I can't write short stories, at least, not if you ask me. Which is why the forward for this novel made me laugh - T. Kingfisher didn't think she could write them, either. And yet, we now have an entire book of her short stories. She focused on the fairytale - because all the cool kids are doing it - and I'd like to note that this is a book for older readers. Yeah. See, the idea here is that folk and fairy tales are generally not for children, because, those tales are dark. Terrible things happen - stalking, assault, theft, murder, grue and gore - but, so do wonderful things - frogs, privacy, baking, and potatoes, and true friendships. And honestly, bad puns.

Peaks: This book contains several stories ("Toad Words," "The Wolf and the Woodsman," "Bluebeard's Wife," "Loathly," "The Seawitch Sets the Record Straight," and "Never;") a few poems in blank verse (It Has Come To My Attention, Bait, and Odd Season), a shorter piece of flash fiction called "Night" and "Boar & Apples," a novella.

It is always hard for me to assess short stories - I suck them up greedily, lurching from one "favorite" to the next "favorite-this-hour" -- I have no literary restraint. Fortunately, T. Kingfisher does -- there's restraint in these stories. There's observation, wit, and a dry, almost detached narrative voice which, "Dear Readers" you without ever actually saying that. You get the sense that you're snug in a recliner in a dim room somewhere, a mug of something tasty in your hands and a fuzzy blanket of dog, cat, or knitting over your lap, listening to someone tell all that they saw or heard, in that village, or the next over the rise. There's a sense of coziness, in that it's almost confessional - lean close, and let me tell you...

This makes some of the disturbing tales ESPECIALLY disturbing. Please don't whisper in my ear about hearts kept in boxes... please...!

The stories are so well written. I love "Bluebeard's Wife," -- because I have played with a version of the horrific fairytale myself, and am always intrigued to see varying takes on it. Kingfisher cleverly plays with the concept of privacy and secrets as a GOOD thing, and the concept of bad vs. evil. Bluebeard was an evil man, but he wasn't a bad one, in this tale. And his poor wife is mainly... introverted. Understanding. And, in the end, a bit regretful that she can't go home.

Toad Words is my all-round favorite poem; I have always hated the traditional toads-for-bad-girls-and-diamonds-for-good story - as much as I love rocks, what's wrong with frogs? It was LOVELY to imagine whispering spring peepers into streams. This is not the type of story for those not really fond of things found beneath rocks, or those who earnestly believe the message of If you girls don't speak nicely BAD THINGS WILL HAPPEN. this poem challenges the idea of punishment, and turns it on its ear.

"Never" made me tear up a bit. Perhaps through having read the story when I was older and less malleable, I've never been a fan of the (disturbingly erratic) mercurial Tink and Pan - at all - and imaging being forced to live as a child forever is truly, truly vile. This story captures that painfully.

Authorial Elements: The author, T. Kingfisher, is Ursula Vernon - and her "vaguely absurd" pen name is to separate her stuff from her kids' stuff. (The author being Ursula Vernon, Actual Artist, is also why the cover art is so fantastic on this book.) Being fans of her Hugo-Award-winning, multiple Junior Library Guild selected graphic novels will give you a hint of the humor and talent in her narrative. If you've popped by her blog, you've seen some of these short stories in progress - as she plowed through longer fairytales she found through reading, and marveled at how whack job they were... which of course encouraged her further to write her own. As it would. Why self-publish? I think it's because she wanted to see if she could write short stories that would sell. And, guess what...? Now she has her answer.

I purchased my very own copy. You can find TOAD WORDS and Other Stories by T. Kingfisher at Smashwords, Amazon, or her various livejournal sites. Enjoy!

August 22, 2014


This morning it is downright chilly... Which is kind of ridiculous for August, but it's also rained already this month, so what can you do. School is starting within this week or the next for most of the county, and my armchair-by-a-sunny-window motif is about to get replaced by suede boots and a thick sweater and a stack of books. Roll on, autumn.

Never mind the weather; a good book can take you through any season, of course. This self-pubbed "indiebook" by Australian debut author Ceinwin (Kine-win) Langley (which has a fab cover in paperback and ebook) takes us to the edge of the cold... a withered, wintry little village of patriarchy. No, that's not its name, but it might as well have been...

Summary: Emma and her mother live in grinding poverty, but five-year-old Emma has no real idea. Her father has died, and for her birthday her mother organizes a lovely picnic at the edge of the woods. It's a rare treat, to be so close to the dark, encroaching wall of trees, and when Emma runs around - tumbles down a hill - and grabs a tree to get to her feet, her mother is quick with a smack and a scolding. NO ONE - not even on their birthday - goes into the woods, and even the edge of the woods, where the bluebells Emma loves grow, is TOO CLOSE. Later, Emma dreams she saw a mysterious boy playing a flute in the woods, but over time, reality erodes those childish dreams. Reality, for Emma and her mother, is a drafty shack, ironclad rules, and hard, hard work. No bluebells. No running around. No real dreams, either. Work, and worry is all that's left.

Once, they lived in an actual house, within the village proper. Once, Emma and her mother were well dressed, the family of the village tailor - but Emma's father died that year when she was five, and no widower in the village stepped up to marry Mama. Their tiny family's hope is now built on... Emma's marriage. She's seventeen, and at eighteen, she'll be Of Age. She MUST marry -- it's the only way to put food on the table, a roof over their heads, and clothes on their backs - but there are only two eligible boys of her age, and one of them is the Mayor's son. He's too high for her to shoot for, but there's another boy her mother insists will "do." Problem? Emma doesn't really know either of them, and could care less about them. But, reluctant or no, it's vital that she make a good impression. It could mean the difference between surviving or ...not.

A very poor girl, Emma has no opportunities to work on becoming superfluous and beautiful or talented. She's doing her best to survive. All she has is her mother's love, her dreams -- the dream of the boy with the flute, who, oddly, seems to have grown older as she has -- and the smiles provided by her snarky best friend, a Stranger called Mona. But, on the other side of the balance of Duty -- saving her mother, providing them security - is what Emma has enough? Enough to challenge the Mayor? Enough to actually get what she wants? Enough to change her world?

Peaks: The voice is memorable and consistent, the prose is uncluttered, the characterizations are deft, and the imagery - the rigid line of houses, the encroaching woods, the cloying carnations, dancing bluebells, and magical lightning bugs -- works. (Need a sample? Here ya go.) I think the best thing I can say about this story is that it's a Little Story.

We don't always talk about it in this respect, but a little story to me is one which plays out life-and-death issues close to the chest, where the microcosm is as detailed, vibrant, and important than the bigger issues. I LIKE little stories. It's not about an entire planet that needs to be saved from Certain Doom, it's one life. It's not a novel describing nations which need to be restored or some sort of epic where the heroine Saves The World. Nope. One village. One shack. One girl. Sometimes, the smallest gains are the ones which mean the most.

Class, wealth, gender, religion -- it's all there, writ tiny on the stage of this Little story. Emma faces discrimination, makes assumptions, and "others" and is "othered" based on seeing and being seen through the lens of difference. The author leaves Emma free to make poor decisions, make futile gestures, kiss up and demean herself. She is not always noble or dignified - sometimes, she stops caring and falls down on the "heroine" job. Those are the times she becomes real.

The discussion on sexism, patriarchy, and women is pretty much right out there in this YA novel, which may surprise some readers. In this village, women who work? Are not respectable. Women who have opinions? Are not respectable? It's a woman's fault, if she lives alone. Only Married ladies are respectable - within the bounds of a marital relationship, where their husband can speak for and vouch for them. Unmarrieds aren't to be spoken to or look anyone in the eye - and the only color they can wear is gray. Strangers - people who are from elsewhere - the Unmarrieds and the poor are what can only be tangible proof of not living by the rules. The shocker is that though the men make the rules... the women live and die by them. (I wished very much that could have been explored just a bit more). The first half of the novel lays this stuff out -- and the reader soon catches on to the fact that only those within the system can change it. It's a clever ploy to get the reader hooked on thinking about it.

Valleys: If there's anything that caught my attention it was the lack of information on the three "enemies" in the novel: the Monsters, the Strangers and the heavy-handed religion which adds a burden to the lives of the villagers and offers no relief to anyone.

First, the religion: It's not that this doesn't reflect or parallel real life, not that there aren't awful interactions with religions -- the little detail on the church just served to make me curious about it. Suffering the fate of poverty or - the fate of being female - seems to be tangible proof of not living by the rules - and thus out of favor with the Lord. The Mayor always tells everyone, if people would just attend Defense every Sunday and listen to his rules on how to live, they would be shown favor, and live well. At least, it seems to work for him.

I wondered, how did it start? Was it once a real faith? How did the Mayor become head of their non-religious "church?" (Or, maybe I'm from a country wherein the government leader isn't the head of the official State Church, and this is a stupid question. The author is from Australia, a Commonwealth country; Britain's Queen Elizabeth is the head of the Anglican church. Moving on.)

Next, I wondered about the Monsters and the Strangers. Without spoilers, you'll figure out who/what the Monsters are easily - they're not a great mystery - but I wondered at the history of their interactions with the village. I was deeply curious. What divided all of the villages into untrusting little burgs dotting a trade route? How did everyone become so divided? How did the Strangers come into the village if everyone eschewed travel because of the Monsters? And how, if they knew there were Monsters, did the villagers forget their Lore? These questions could actually have been answered with a sentence or two, and not knowing the answers didn't at all take away from my enjoyment of the novel... but they do prove that I have a bad case of Reader Greed, and I want to know ALLLL the things. This is a common failing when reading a good book.

Finally, I noted the lack of racial diversity in the novel. The descriptions of the characters in the novel make it clear that fair skin and blonde hair is still the beauty standard - the Doctor's daughter is attractive and well thought of - but there doesn't seem to be any other kind of beauty. This is, again, a tiny quibble - and more an encouragement: if one is going to write speculative fiction, please let's speculate a world where there is more than one color!

A surprise find with an excellent and professional appearance, this is a greatly enjoyable fairytale - it went down like a cold glass of lemonade on a humid day - quick and satisfying. I have the highest and best of hopes for this author, and expect to see more good things from her, in due time.

I received a promotional copy of this book, courtesy of the author. You can find THE EDGE OF THE WOODS by CEINWIN LANGLEY online, or at an independent bookstore near you!

August 21, 2014

Toon Thursday: Exciting and New! (Like the Love Boat!)

Difficult as it may be to believe, somehow I managed to come up with a NEW CARTOON today. It's been a while, and for that I apologize. Plus it's one of the sort-of weak ones where I recycle the part I already drew, and just add new text. (Do other cartoonists do that? Or am I just SUPER lazy?)

Anyway, one other thing, in case you didn't know: the Cybils Awards call for judges is open, and if you're a blogger in the area of children's or YA lit, you should check it out! It is a really fun experience, and provides a lot of insight into what it's like to judge one of those fancy-schmancy book awards.

August 20, 2014

Another KidlitCon Shout Out!

Charlotte's been dropping programming peeks down on the Bookshelf lately, so I felt I had to throw down with another mini-poster, now that I know that Stephanie Kuehn is going to be at the Con on Friday! Knowing how socially limited I am, I'm just going to stand near her and squee silently, but I'm excited she's going to come and mingle and join in the conversations.

There are other fun, intelligent, and ridiculously good-looking people coming to grace this Con - and other authors not pictured on this poster, as well. (Running out of space for faces is a DELIGHTFUL problem!) It's worth coming to see friends and be a part of the conversation about books, blogging, and diversity - we might just kick off something which opens up a whole new world. Hope to see you there!

As always, click to embiggen!

August 19, 2014


Got a long stretch of quiet time available? This isn't a read-at-the-crowded-airport-layover novel, necessarily, but I found it absolutely arresting over the one-sitting course of a quiet morning. I grabbed this book because this author's debut novel is winner of the 2014 William C. Morris Award, was longlisted for the 2014 CILIP Carnegie Medal and was a finalist for the California Book Award, and I've read three starred reviews already for her second book, which has only been out since June. I thought it was well past time for me to read some Stephanie Kuehn (pronounced "keen").

NB:This is, at its heart, a book about truth and silence. I focus on more of the narrative structure than I do the plot arc, in an attempt to leave the details for readers to discover, but know that this is an engaging, disturbing, challenging read. I can imagine older teens who enjoyed Patrick Ness' THE KNIFE OF NEVER LETTING GO, A.S. King's EVERYBODY SEES THE ANTS, and books of that ilk will find it a worthy challenge.

"The school devours privacy and rumors are like drops of blood in an ocean full of predators."

Summary: Andrew Winston Winters - using probably the best description of a hated boarding school I've read - has been marooned in Vermont; he's been sent away and is marking time after a massive family meltdown. He's waiting -- for something to happen, really. After all that's gone down, there must be something next, some malignancy which will appear from within himself. When a dead "townie" turns up in the woods off-campus, Win's sure that this is it: the "something" has happened - he has become a wolf, and he has killed. His main hope is not to ever hurt anyone else when it the wolf erupts from him -- he's seen people hurt enough. He's hurting enough. He's miserably lonely sometimes... but also terrified. His classmates see him either a snob or a kook, a withdrawn, ultra-brilliant, and ultra-isolated outcast. When a girl who doesn't know his history - and hasn't yet found her feet at his school - latches on to him, he's tempted to make a friend -- but the past is always only moments behind him, and nothing is possible, until that past is brought into focus. With the help of friends he didn't know he has, Win makes sense of incidents in his past, and finds his way to having a future.

...we talked about matter - most notably quarks, those tiniest components of everything. They come in six flavors, you know: up, down, top, bottom, charm, and strange. I'll admit those talks helped me, and when I read about the sea quarks, I understood why. They contain particles of matter and antimatter, and where the two touch exists this constant stream of creation and annihilation.

Peaks: Creation. Annihilation. A constant push-pull. What a perfect description, and one which physics buffs will appreciate. Despite the fact that I found the novel troubling, it was a superb read. With balanced structure and careful revelations, the novel uses woods, wolves, darkness and other images to take the reader into the realm of the unknown. As illumination, in the form of facts, emerge through the voice of a deeply unreliable narrator, the facts morph, like elongated and distorted shadows as created by a flashlight bobbing through deep woods. Consequently, at times the reader feels a little lost, even a little frightened as they're learning the path. Is all that we see all that we should see? Or, is there something else to know...? This lack of clarity mimics the protagonist's journey into the tangled undergrowth of himself, where it is very dark indeed, where sharp-edged branches slice and impale, and there is pain and trauma and danger.

Nine-year-old Drew, plagued with frequent motion-induced vomiting, bouts of rage, and a lot of poor impulse control, shows classic symptoms of a troubled kid. The narrative bounces back and forth between this conflicted Drew and the isolated, sixteen-year-old Win, all that's left of him. The irony of him taking his long name down to a single syllable, "Win" when all that he feels left with is clearly loss gives us another edged insight into the character. Through these deft characterizations comes clear a very disturbed character, as secret-upon-secret is folded up and pushed further and further down, down, down... but, nothing stays pushed down forever. Win feels the past scrabbling up the steep sides of his throat, pushing out hair and claws through his skin. He fears -- and feeds - the wolf to come. He welcomes the change -- and the carnage -- almost as much as he fears it.

But every birth needs a midwife. Though he doesn't choose them, Win finds coaches to help him breathe, and take him to the place where the ugliness and violence is given voice and life -- and is declawed in a way that lets he and the wolf not kill.

Valleys: This is a complex, brilliant book - and to me there are no valleys. Some readers may find the psychological thrillers aspect of the novel and the subject matter disturbing. Not knowing is also challenging to many readers; untangling the cords strangling the voice out of truth is a difficult task. This novel, however, is still worth the work.

I read a library copy. You can find CHARM & STRANGE by Stephanie Kuehn online, or at an independent bookstore near you!

August 18, 2014

Blast from the Past: Last Year's KidLitCon

That's right--it's time for our weekly plug for this year's KidLitCon! (Are you going? Are you going? Are you going??? We are!!) This time, though, I thought I'd entice you by re-posting my recap of last year's conference in Austin, which was, as always, an amazing event. Here are a few photos and impressions, plus lots and lots about why this is one of my favorite kidlit events EVAR.

...I did want to post some pictures from KidLitCon Austin this weekend while I'm still riding high on the fabulousness of having gotten together with my blogging kindred spirits to compare notes on two of our favorite things: kidlit, and sharing kidlit.

Jen and Pam at the registration table
You are all the most lovely people. We have such an amazing community, I can't believe it sometimes, but Kidlitcon always reminds me how incredible it is.

"Kindred spirits" is the two-word phrase Leila used when I asked my roundtable panel to describe what they felt was the greatest thing about the kidlitosphere. And I couldn't agree more. It's one of my favorite parts of the Kidlitcon experience. This year was no exception: sharing SFF opinions (and cringeworthy first lines) with roomie Charlotte, getting caught up with Lee Wind on his many wonderful projects (and his gorgeous family), meeting Paula of Pink Me's book-toting sons, renewing good friendships with regulars like Pam and Jen and Maureen and Melissa and Sheila and Kelly and Camille and Katy, finally meeting old blogging friends Chris Barton and Leila Roy and finding out that kindred spirits are everywhere. Oh, there's more, much more. Great conversations abounded. I met Jennifer Donovan of 5 Minutes for Books, Kelly's blog partner Kimberly Francisco over at Stacked, Sherry Early of Semicolon, Rosemond Cates of Big Hair and Books, authors Margo Rabb and PJ Hoover, serious blogging bigwig and all-around amazing person Jen Bigheart, Guys Lit Wire frequent commenter Liviania--aka Allie--of In Bed With Books.

Cynthia enlightens us on writing and blogging--a perfect start to the day
Really, that isn't even all of it. Did you know many a kidlit blogger is addicted to Candy Crush Saga? I seriously cannot start on that. I had a major Tetris addiction growing up, and have loved games like Mean Bean Machine and Jewelbox and Columns and whatnot. I'd lose weeks of my life.

Cynthia Leitich Smith is a GEM. We all knew that. But her keynote, "Blogging on the Brain," was not just a throwaway inspirational speech but full of heart and full of fantastic tips for all of us bloggers from someone who is an inveterate blogger herself, devoted to sharing information. I especially liked these:
  • Re: her own writing: "It was time to change perceptions or I couldn't write many of the stories I wanted to write."
  • Re: building a successful blogging platform: "We associate consistency with credibility," and "You can build an audience by playing to your strengths." 
  • Re: the potential dangers of engaging with critics online: "Blogs are a battlefield, so pick your battles and pick them wisely." 
Kimberly and Kelly of Stacked discuss the importance of critical reviewing
Jen and I presented on Fighting Blog Burnout, and hopefully sharing our stories and strategies was something others could relate to and benefit from. I moderated a panel on where we've been and where we're going, us folks in the kidlitosphere community. I learned about Soft Sell Marketing from Molly Blaisdell, who knew just how to pique my interest by using Malcolm Gladwell's The Tipping Point as a point of departure. And I broadened my knowledge of Critical Reviewing and Middle Grade Books.

Blogging the Middle Grade Books with Katy, Charlotte, and Melissa
And, of course, I came out of it feeling energized about blogging again, which is always one of the great benefits of attending. I feel like one of my big goals for after my rewrite is turned in will be to spend time thinking about my own blogging and what I want to do going forward, and to get my blog READING under control, too--getting back into it a little more, even if it's just in small ways.

Lastly, not to get overly sentimental here--because the curmudgeon in me hates that--but I got a little teary last night when I got home, thinking about how I have all these wonderful online friends and yet we live so far away from each other geographically speaking. At the same time, without our blogging we would never have met at all, would never have found this community of kindred spirits.

August 15, 2014


Novels dealing with death in young adult literature aren't exactly new - we're currently living in The Summer of the Cancer Novel, hello - but what's always new is every young person's - really, every person's - way of dealing with death - dealing with loss, dealing with grief. Some choose to go on and have super relationships in the face of death -- and other people just... choose, as their means of "dealing," not to deal with it at all. Kate Bassett's debut novel with the clever, origami-wordy cover, explores what happens while dealing, and shows readers one girl's way of finding a path out of the dark.

Summary: Anna O’Mally is seventeen, and experiencing her first losses. Unfortunately, they're world-shattering. First, Anna's experiencing the loss of being clever -- when she loses the London writing fellowship she's positive she was fated to have, she's not able to believe in herself as a powerhouse writer anymore. Second, the loss of The Good Life - now that her uncle, who was raised as her brother, has died, she is wracked with guilt -- guilt that isn't hers, but guilt nonetheless. Finally, she's experienced the loss of childhood - and innocence. With the death of his brother, her father has gone off the rails into some clichéd midlife crisis and gotten his young secretary pregnant. It sucks to be Anna right now -- except, that it doesn't. Not entirely. She has people who love her, a grandfather and mother still deeply involved in her life and caring about her - and a best friend who has grieved next to her and stayed with her step-by-step - through the hospitalization, the coffin-yoga, and the general "meh" attitude about life and everything. Anna's been taking everything at face value, filtered through the lens of her massive self-centeredness. When she finds out that not everything is as she believed, she's thrown out of her spin -- and into somewhere she's never been before: self-exploration. Self-awareness. And maybe, finally, personal truth.

Peaks: This book is a pitch-perfect reflection of grief. With that said, it is sometimes slow, sometimes bruising, sometimes boring. The protagonist is sometimes thoroughly grating and unlikeable. If you're looking for prettied up versions of grief, you won't find them here: this is the real deal. Anna wallows, and that's who she is. Her life is one long chant of ritual -- wake up and do This. Eat That. Find a phrase for the day. All of these things are designed to keep grief -- feelings -- at bay, but of course, none of it works. There are too many cracks in the world to seal them up with glue sticks and band-aids. Whistling through the graveyard isn't going to help: Anna's "bruncle" Joe is irretrievably gone, her baby sister has turned into Houdini the vanishing artist, her mother has turned into someone who sighs and finally actually sides with her father to threaten her with some kind of Christian anti-suicide school, and her grandfather is folding paper cranes. Endlessly.

This is not a portrait of a family doing well.

And yet, this is the portrait of a family. No matter that they are falling apart at the seams, no matter that they have made catastrophically poor choices, no matter that they are whistling past the graveyard as the roof caves in, they are present and are trying to love each other the best way they know how. The family in this novel is colossal. And, they eventually get better... because even grief -- a grief that you try your best to hold onto, because you feel like it's the only thing that means something? Even grief fades. Time wins, every time. The trick is the make that win mean something.

Valleys: This book is a pitch-perfect reflection of grief. It is selfish, self-centered, grating, unpleasant, and at times utterly banal. The pacing is slow, and the pressure of ritual, secrets, and pain is intense. There's a plot twist which wasn't surprising to me, which I think many readers will anticipate -- but what isn't intended to be a plot twist, what I refer to as a "Little Women" (remember when Amy burns Jo's manuscript???) moment in the novel ENRAGED me. I was shocked that the protagonist - much lauded as a wordsmith - seems to take this violation in stride. I truly expected more of a reaction to the transgression, but perhaps by that point, so much has happened to the protagonist that the author was simply ready to move the character forward and conclude the novel. I felt that the realistic angst in trying to find a model for forgiveness for someone you deeply love and also somewhat hate would have made for a bittersweet and very realistic conclusion.

Anna's Uncle Joe died of something horribly like meningitis - a simple cold turned 'flu turned superbug. The novel never names it - H1N1? Swine 'flu? Not naming the disease seemed unnecessarily mysterious to me. This is a tiny quibble, given that the sickness is part of the mystery in the novel, but I kept wondering why the name was an actual unknown.

Aaaand, as is standard in the young adult realistic fiction world, it seems, there's the romance. I admit to being really disappointed by this - in one way. In another, a super dysfunctional romantic relationship made perfect sense; when we're avoiding our own feelings we often latch onto other people like they're our personal life buoys. That being said, I don't think the relationship was portrayed as honestly as it could have been. It was torturous, and needy but survived -- and I'm just not sure that someone so consumed within the firestorm of her own needs would have noticed another person in the room, stark naked and dancing a jig, much less a guy she just sees at a work gig. They have a rather clichéd "across a crowded room" moment, and both seem instantaneously bitten by the love bug. That he's Latino, smokes, is a "bad boy" and she's from the metaphorical "other side" of the tracks feels less true. The super-foreign feeling of his family as ethnic people I found questionable; it's as if she's never met Spanish-speaking Latino people before (and, maybe she hasn't; Mario seems to be the only person of color in the entire novel with lines to speak).

Those quibbles aside, this is an intensely felt, deeply thoughtful novel which touches on our sometimes desperate need to step out from being ourselves and become someone else, the price we pay for that, and the way to get back home. This family-firm debut novel from Kate Bassett is a strong start, and we can expect more good things from her.

I received a copy of this novel courtesy of Flux. After September 8th, you can find WORDS AND THEIR MEANINGS by KATE BASSETT at online booksellers, or at an independent brick-and-mortar bookstore near you!

August 14, 2014

Drrrummm Rolllll.....

Just you wait until tomorrow.

I could not be more excited that the Cybils Awards are launching a BRAND-NEW-SUPER-DUPER-AWESOME website!

I helped out with the redesign, but most of the credit for the heavy lifting goes to Sheila of Wands and Worlds (who is the Cybils tech guru) and Jen Robinson, who is all-around talented and awesome.

There are so many great new features on the new site, including a mobile-friendly design, Twitter feed in the sidebar, popup finalist lists by year and category, and tons of info for bloggers, authors, and publishers. Oh, and it's on Wordpress now. It's going to be amazing. And there will be growing pains, but hopefully the sheer awesomeness will carry us through.

You'll also be able to buy new 2014 Cybils bling--in plenty of time for KidLitCon, hint hint... (I'm going! Are you going?) Anyway, don't forget to check out the new Cybils website tomorrow and let us know what you think.

August 12, 2014

Congratulations, Betsy & Jules!

From Booklist, who knows good literature, a star for WILD THINGS: ACTS OF MISCHIEF IN CHILDREN'S LITERATURE. Congratulations, you guys! May this be the first of many accolades.

Haven't got your copy yet? For a most EXCELLENT review from Kelly, pop over to Writing & Ruminating.

August 11, 2014

Monday Review: THE FALCONER by Elizabeth May

I enjoyed this book a lot more than I thought I might, given that it has faeries, and I'm sort of burnt out at the moment on the whole faeries thing. But The Falconer by Elizabeth May does something new with the concept.

I'd describe it as…Charles de Lint meets Stoker & Holmes. Steampunk alternate history meets Old-World faery legends tinged with Scottish folklore. Throw in a dash of Highlander and a little Kill Bill, maybe a sprinkling of James Bond.

What you'll get is Aileana, age eighteen, eligible young Victorian lady, secret weapons tinkerer, and vengeful murderess of faeries. A malevolent faery killed her mother, and now Aileana has been training hard for one thing and one thing only: that day when she'll meet that faery and kill her. In the meantime, she's hunting down faeries one at a time in her city of Edinburgh, where new murderous faeries seem to pop up out of nowhere every night. Her secret life—the life of a Falconer—comes with fighting, thrills, a smart-mouthed and honey-addicted pixie, and a sense of power like none other.

But will that power be enough? And what happens when Aileana's proper, widowed, conveniently distant father gets wind of her unorthodox activities? Can she confide in anyone, other than her faery-fighting guru, Kiaran—who also happens to be a faery himself? This is a rather rollicking adventure, with lots of monster-defeating and valiant battles (yay for girls who kick ass!) as well as gadgets worthy of a James-Bond-style spymaster.

The story puts Aileana in the position of facing hard questions about friendship and loyalty—and how much one might have to give up for the sake of a personal vendetta. But there's also a strong running theme throughout concerning power and powerlessness: Aileana's power in her secret nighttime life versus her relative lack of power by day, confined by the mores of Victorian society; Aileana feeling powerful when killing faeries in contrast to her powerlessness in the face of her mother's death. While I didn't love the potential for a human-faery-human love triangle, that aspect of the story didn't necessarily head in the direction I expected, either. Overall, an enjoyable read and a vivid, fast-paced adventure.

Thanks to Chronicle Books for the review copy.

You can find The Falconer by Elizabeth May online, or at an independent bookstore near you!

August 08, 2014


We are in the final lap of summer, but this is one book you'll be able to savor on into autumn. It's a perfect book to take you into October Country; bittersweet, funny, very sharp and smart. It's a book about grief - grieving - holding it together until you can't, then falling apart, so that you can get up, and go on.

Summary: Fifteen-year-old Leigh has had a craptastic last few years. Her older sister, Kai, was diagnosed with leukemia when Leigh was eleven. Their carefree, sunny, seaside Mendocino home turned dark and depressing. Three horrible years were spent reading the Little House books aloud, holding the bucket while Kai vomited, and watching as her hair fell out. All she could eat was York Peppermint Patties, which soon became Leigh's obsession too. Her parents, Wade and Meredith, were stretched to the limit -- with nothing left for Leigh's needs, and so Leigh learned to have no needs - not even for new clothes. She wore a single pair of pink sweats for an entire school year. Fortunately, she was saved by a school friend, Emily, and Emily's mother, whose warm concern and affection refused to let Leigh sit in a silent lump at school - and even bought her jeans to replace the nasty, outgrown sweats. Leigh was drawn out of herself, and saved. And then, Kai got better. Life at home improved. Suddenly, the summer ahead seemed like it was full of light and beauty -- everything was better, everything. Only there was the difficult summer to get through - Emily going to Scout Camp, Kai and Leigh, foisted off by exhausted parents to their grandparent's house. And then -- instead of returning home to Mendocino, they were given bus tickets to Hangtown... Sierrawood, where their father had bought a cemetery. Leigh can't get hold of Emily, and she is gutted. And then, it gets worse.

But, at least Kai is better. Sure, she's off to track meets and finds a boyfriend she doesn't tell Leigh about, but at least she's alive. Sure, Leigh is stuck working first three days a week at the cemetery after school, then every day, but at least she has help - Dario's there. Sure, Meredith's disappearing to Mendocino and Wade's foisting off ninety percent of his work at the cemetery office to Leigh - because selling coffins and doing the horrible, horrible work of helping people pick graves as they weep makes him uncomfortable -- but it could be worse. Right?

Peaks: I hate calling books "quirky" so much, so I'll avoid that, and say that though topically, this book is unorthodox, it's truly funny and unique. Leigh's voice leaps off the page, and though the narrative initially moves slowly, she shines through. Though I gave more of a thorough summary than I normally would, you still don't have a sense of this book until you read it -- it's one of those books where the narrative arc is internal, and where the changing/growing happens not so much in dialogue exchanges, but within the main character's head. Leigh is a complicated character -- she knows she's ridiculous and choosing poorly in many cases, but she honestly does not see what else she could do, or is supposed to do. She's angry with her parents, resentful of her mother's abdication, horrified by her grandmother -- and yet, she's also very much wanting these people to take note, pay attention, and see her, that she's caught in a trap and can't extricate herself from the morass of grief - and duty - into which she's fallen.

Plenty of authors writing for adults delve into this sort of thing; it's a rare and respectful author who believes that teens will get it - and writes so that they do. This is Jennifer Longo's debut novel, and we hope there will be more of this caliber.

I also love novels which are set in Northern California. Often authors are afraid of defining settings too clearly, because then one has to be specific and detailed -- but the author used the perfect balance between real and literary imagination to give clear outlines of where the characters begin -- and how far they go. In this way, setting is also employed usefully as metaphor - which works.

Valleys: Though the characterizations are well done in this novel, there is limited diversity, which is curious, since the novel's setting is allegedly Northern California.

Dario is a problematic character -- and readers who know my grim distaste for the Magical Negro trope will see where he walks that very thin line between being a real character, and being a handsome, charismatic, brown-skinned Ken-doll for the author to move around. Dario is very much into talking about death, very into Día de Muertos as a Thing, and is very tsk-tsk to Leigh about her White American squidgy-ness about death. At one point he says to her "Americans hate a mystery. They've made death so dark and scary. Hateful. It is a door, it is beautiful; it isn't - it's not like here." (ARC) I have to admit that I rolled my eyes there - pretty hard. Though I was glad that there were diverse characters in this novel, I was disappointed that they only existed in the tiny world of the graveyard, they were predominantly poor indigents or laborers, and they were illegally in the country. Since the novel is set in California, only those people of color as representative seemed a bit of a stretch, even as far North as Placerville, which is Hangtown's real name.

Though Dario ticks all the boxes for the Magical Negro trope - an exceptional (as in "not like other Mexicans, he's the exception"), stock character with no real past who just appears one day, socially constrained by being in the country illegally AND by being a gravedigger, there to help the Caucasian main character, dispenses somewhat mystical wisdom - there's a little twist in his and Leigh's relationship at the end of the novel which saves him from being a total plot device, and nudges him toward being a person. I saw it coming, but other readers may find themselves surprised - and wonder about his motives toward befriending Leigh in the first place. This may cause some vigorous discussion!

I have a quibble with the cover as well - The novel makes a big point of the fact that Leigh wears one pair of jeans, just about always... so the lacy little slip dress? With... are those tights!? - in a graveyard, in which she sometimes has to dig is a completely out of character and quite a little bit ridiculous. A dress at all is out of character. But, what can an author do about her cover? Not much, so ...

Though slightly uneven, this is a promising debut nonetheless.

After August 26th, you can find SIX FEET OVER IT by JENNIFER LONGO everywhere; online, or at an independent brick-and-mortar bookstore near you!

August 07, 2014

Thursday Review: I AM THE MISSION by Allen Zadoff

When I reviewed the first book in The Unknown Assassin series, Boy Nobody (click here for full review), I said it was a great addition to the YA thriller genre and a good "boy book" despite having a somewhat unbelievable premise. What makes this series transcend any minor grumbles I might have with the premise is the growth of the character, as well as a very close narrative viewpoint that keeps the reader engaged and riveted throughout the action-packed plot.

The second book in the series is I Am the Mission, and it continues the story of Boy Nobody as he struggles to maintain his faith in the goals of the Program even as they send him on a new mission that's more dangerous than ever. Father and Mother—his shadowy Program mentors—want him to prove his loyalty, but he's caught in one impossible situation after another. His latest mission sends him to a recruitment event for an extremist militia training camp for teenagers, run by the subversive and dangerous Eugene Moore. Moore's the target, and "Daniel" (as he's known for the purposes of this mission) is supposed to take out the target and get out of there.

That goal turns out to be anything but straightforward, and Daniel makes the difficult decision to infiltrate Camp Liberty itself and get close to Moore that way. The only problem is, the Camp is cut off from all outside communication, and Father and Mother aren't answering his hails. What's going on? And how is their radio silence connected to the operative that went missing four months ago—after being assigned the very same mission?

As in the first book, Boy Nobody is faced with the tough reality that these are not just targets he's dealing with, but actual people, with complex problems and reasons for doing things that make them much more than one-sided villains. But the Program wants him to obey without question. Trouble is, Boy Nobody is full of questions…not just about his mission, but about himself, and the things he can't quite remember. This is a good, gripping sequel to the first book—in fact, I think I enjoyed it even more because the nature of the mission, the setting of the militia training camp, felt very topical and frighteningly believable.

You can find I Am the Mission by Allen Zadoff online, or at an independent bookstore near you!

August 06, 2014

Another KidlitCon Shout Out!

Click to embiggen!

Author photos courtesy of their personal blogs.

August 04, 2014

Monday Review: OBSIDIAN MIRROR and THE SLANTED WORLDS by Catherine Fisher

You wouldn't necessarily think time travel, alternate worlds, mad science, and faeries would go together so well. But when it comes to Catherine Fisher, they really do. I loved her books Incarceron and the sequel Sapphique for their unique combination of both magical fantasy and sci-fi, and her latest project, the Chronoptika books Obsidian Mirror and The Slanted Worlds, has a similar feel in terms of seamlessly bringing together themes and even genres that don't traditionally go together in spec fic. Yet Fisher does it, and does it SO WELL.

Who is Oberon Venn? Explorer, iconoclast, mad scientist, wealthy recluse… Nobody really seems to know, not even Jake, whose father works for the elusive Mr. Venn. When Jake's father disappears while working on a strange set of experiments for Venn, Jake blames Venn and immediately goes AWOL from his Swiss boarding school to return to Venn's estate at Wintercombe Abbey and find out what's really going on. What he finds, though, is the obsidian mirror, which seems to be a portal to other times, other worlds. Is it scientific or is it magical? Again, it's mysterious, and seems to be a bit of both, and it just might be the key to finding Jake's father.

Jake isn't the only one interested in the mirror, though. We are also told part of the story through the viewpoint of Sarah, who has traveled back in time to prevent a disastrous future, and we soon learn that a whole array of parties want to control the mirror for their own ends: its former owner, Maskelyne, who is just as secretive as Venn, and a race of dangerous, fey beings who live on Venn's estate and with whom Venn has a connection he refuses to divulge. Where did the mirror come from, how did it get to where it is now, and what can Jake do to get his father back and keep the fabric of his world—and other worlds—from falling apart?

I can't tell you much without spoilers, but I will tell you that the characters are amazing: each one has a fully developed and intriguing backstory and each is believably flawed. Jake isn't fully likeable at first, and we hardly know Sarah or Venn or Maskelyne or any of the other oddball folks who begin to gather at the estate, and the fey are strange and inscrutable and selfish, but the characters all grow in complexity as the story proceeds through these two books, and as we learn more about each one's vested interest in the mirror and its powers. If you liked Incarceron, or Pete Hautman's Obsidian Blade; if you like Neil Gaiman or Nancy Farmer or Sarah Rees Brennan; if you like books that blend genres and are hard to categorize, I highly recommend this one.

You can find Obsidian Mirror and The Slanted Worlds by Catherine Fisher online, or at an independent bookstore near you!