September 30, 2014


Attention, residents of Blogosphere-opolis: This is no ordinary review. This is a very special blog tour review, organized by First Second, who kindly supplied me with review copies of the new superhero graphic novels created by Paul Pope: Battling Boy and The Rise of Aurora West (which is a sort of prequel/companion book to the first volume). In addition to the usual review, I'm also thrilled to draw your attention to some ORIGINAL, EXCLUSIVE ART provided by the artist of The Rise of Aurora West, David Rubin. That's what those amazing sketches are down there: drawings of Haggard West, Aurora's superhero father.

Anyway, on to the review.

Summary:The Rise of Aurora West is just out this month, and it’s the second volume in the series that began with Battling Boy, though each one stands alone pretty well and, honestly, you could read them in reverse order and be just fine. You'll find some overlapping characters, of course—most notably Haggard West, who is city of Arcopolis's main line of defense against the Monsters. Which monsters? Basically all of them, and they steal children. In Battling Boy, readers were introduced to Haggard; Aurora, his daughter and superhero-in-training; and the god-boy sent down by his Thor-like father to help them: Battling Boy. He's basically on his training mission, a rite of passage he must complete to achieve full god-like status. Unfortunately for him, fighting the monsters of Arcopolis proves a bit more difficult than he'd thought, even with the help of Haggard and Aurora.

Battling Boy is, unsurprisingly, the story of Battling Boy. In The Rise of Aurora West, we get some backstory on Aurora and her father, which makes it feel like a prequel more than simply a standalone volume. How did Aurora get to be the butt-kicking almost-fully-fledged superhero she's portrayed as in Battling Boy? How did her mother die, and what does it have to do with her father's monster-fighting mission in life? Though Haggard tries to be a protective father (making sure, of course, that she has proper training in such superheroic areas as monster-mauling and proper jetpack use, and doesn't go out after curfew when the monsters roam), Aurora has a mind of her own and is determined to figure out what her father's not telling her about what happened to her mother.

From Battling Boy - click to embiggen
Peaks: These two volumes are fun, funny adventures that reward readers who are familiar with the tropes of superhero comics—they both adhere to and lightly mock many of the conventions of classic comic series. The writing is clever, and the artwork is engaging, with plenty of atmospheric detail in the city itself (reminiscent of, say, Metropolis or Gotham City) and villainous monsters who are just the right amount of ooky and creepy without going unnecessarily overboard.

Valleys: I found it a little more difficult to distinguish what was happening in the action scenes (especially with multiple monsters) in the monochromatic The Rise of Aurora West--it was easier to tell what was happening in the full-color version of Battling Boy. Overall, though, that wasn't a huge issue; it didn't seem to be too important to my understanding of a fight scene to know exactly where Aurora just kicked which monster. (In his…um…monster junk?)

Conclusion: Basically, I'd call this one a super-fun (pun intended) hero series that pays homage to a lot of classics of the genre, and would appeal to both boys and girls who like adventure comics as well as adult readers who like superhero comics (oh, I KNOW you are out there and I am friends with some of you, so don't bother with the denial!).

For the full blog tour schedule complete with links (and more awesome exclusive art), visit Macmillan Teen.

You can find Battling Boy by Paul Pope and The Rise of Aurora West by Paul Pope, JT Petty, and David Rubin at an online e-tailer, or at a real life, independent bookstore near you!

September 29, 2014


As you know, I was a HUGE fan of the first of the Stoker & Holmes novels, and for me it felt genuinely "Holmesian" (Sherlockian? That's even worse. Forget it), with its Victorian rigidity and bleak stratification of London society. I was was both pleased and nervous to see a sequel; second books so often are... troublesome. But, my worries were unfounded; this is not Colleen Gleason's first rodeo (or her pseudonym, Joss Ware's, first rodeo, either) and the woman knows what she's about. This was a disturbing, surprising, and altogether worthy successor to THE CLOCKWORK SCARAB. More weird Victorian spiritualism, more rigid manners, beribboned fashions, and astonishing gentlemen - and a few kisses, too.

Summary: Princess Alix calls on the Misses Stoker and Holmes again, when it turns out that a dearly beloved friend is running herself to the poorhouse on spirit mediums. Talking to the dead is not done, and it's expensive to boot. Charlatans stand ready to fleece the gullible, and all the ladies must do is to debunk a medium and help seventeen year old Willa Aston find her missing brother - if he's not actually dead - and convince her that her mother is not speaking to her from beyond the grave. Ever the "stake-em-and-slay-em" Stoker, Evaline is beyond bored with what she sees as a superficial case, and dearly wishes vampires would pop out of the woodwork. Mina "observes-while-others-merely-look" Holmes is ...well, a touch hostile, to be honest. In her mind, all mediums are frauds, and only the weak-minded and hysterical fool consults with them -- making this case a vast waste of time. When it turns out that rumors of La Société de la Perdition being back in town are true -- and when both girls see for themselves a green ectoplasm-ish thing on the ceiling, it may just turn out that this "simple," boring case has dropped our sleuthing girls in well over their heads. Where's Buffy and Uncle Sherlock when you need them??

Peaks: As mentioned in my first review, both Evaline and Mina are ANNOYING, and they don't actually endear one to the other very much more in this novel -- I feel like any true "friendship" between the two of them will be a long time in coming. I don't actually consider this a problem as much as a very realistic stroke of modernizing Victorians that writers writing within the time didn't actually make clear. I don't imagine that Sherlock Holmes' original writer thought he was annoying - but taken altogether, he MUST have been - I mean, who says "elementary" when explaining the answer to a question? Someone annoying. And Mina, with her obsessive self-observation, and pedantic analytic insistence on condescendingly letting everyone know how and why they should have caught up with every clue -- wow. You'd want to smack her a couple of times a day. Equally aggravating in her leap-first-don't-think worldview is Miss Stoker. She is an excellent example of a young woman entirely blind to her privilege -- not realizing that many of the shenanigans she gets up to are because her family is filthy rich and noble. In this novel, Evaline's violent streak is equally unnerving, especially as it's not entirely clear if La Société de la Perdition is actually entirely everywhere, or if that's only Evaline's fevered imagination, as she sees vampires behind every post, and wants to KILLLLL THEM ALLLLLL. She's a little scary.

In addition to the relationship between the girls slowly taking shape, the plotting is tight. There's no "second book slump" here; the action and pacing are kept crisply moving right along, and though there's not novelty on every page, as with the first novel, the relationships move forward, and there are secondary mysteries tying from the first book to pull things together. Victorian elements abound - child pickpocket gangs and organized crime, spiritualism, medical advances and ghoulish research. And while the random reinvention of historical figures isn't something I normally love whole-heartedly, Gleason has a light touch, and the historical is far enough removed from the realm of the real to keep things interesting. Also, combining the historical with the supernatural really elevates the work into something else entirely. The gadgets Mina loves are quite a bit more in evidence this time around, as are the supernatural elements, which really begins to raise the profile of the novel as steampunk.

Valleys: Some have complained that the girls sound indistinguishable... and I would agree, for a given value of "indistinguishable." They're of similar class in Victorian England, which was practically a monoculture at that point (PRACTICALLY, I said, not entirely or literally) so there is going to be similarity. Where they differ is in what captures their interest (gadgets vs. killing vampires), what they obsess over (gadgets & appearances vs. killing things & appearances), and how they react to things (detached observation vs. getting in there and killing things). Where I tended to sigh was over the romances both Mina and Evaline experience in this novel. Evaline's quite drawn to Pix, which makes sense, since she spends a great deal of time wishing she were as strong, dashing and daring as he -- and the noble suitor she has in the previous novel pales in comparison, yet persists. In her turn, Mina has been drawn to the time-wandering Dylan, but her heart also beats for the red-headed Inspector, rescuer of dogs, and owner of his own crime-busting gadgets, which he sometimes will even share.

It's definitely a positive that Dylan becomes more of a defined character in this episode, as he goes off and has his own adventure, separate from the girls. I do find Dylan's storyline to be troublesome, mostly because I've wondered why it's included, and feel the novel would be just fine without it, but also because I find his calm acceptance a little disingenuous. Yes, steampunk is cool, yes, and a steampunk Victorian England would be interesting, but if I had time-dropped there, I'd be a lot more frantic about getting home - obsessed with it -- and terrified I'd be in the past through some stupid wars and other nonsense that I wouldn't want to live through. Add to that, jumping to an historical timeline that he can't even really recognize --? I would think a character's emotions would be all over the place. At any rate, it looks like Dylan will be around a bit longer, though I wonder how much he can be, as he is an anachronism out to change history. How long do you exist in the future, though, if you change the past...?

Conclusion: With a decorously Victorian sensibility and a break-neck steampunk pace, THE SPIRITGLASS CHARADE strikes just the right notes between the strictly defined genres of steampunk and mystery to produce an addictively readable and fun sequel to the Stoker & Bram series.

I received my copy of this book courtesy of Chronicle Books. A week and a day from today, on October 7th, you can find THE SPIRITGLASS CHARADE by Colleen Gleason at an online e-tailer, or at a real life, independent bookstore near you!

September 27, 2014

"A More Diverse Universe:" Celebrating the Works of Authors of Color, Year 3!

It's that time again, Reading People!

Time flies. Last year's selection was SHERRI L. SMITH'S mind-blowing (and mosquito-the-size-of-a-hovercraft-scary) ORLEANS. In its inaugural year, we highlighted INTISAR KHANANI's THORN (HM! What is THAT author doing these days...? I need to check and see). And this year's novel is another fabulously unexpected one which I read last month -- and it's unexpectedness raised it above the other books I was already considering to recommend to the list this year. I've already reviewed it but want to give props AGAIN to BABA ALI AND THE CLOCKWORK DJINN, by Danielle Ackley-McPhail & Day Al-Mohamed.

The "A More Diverse Universe" challenge came by way of one blogger, Aarti, challenging other bloggers to read and talk about ONE BOOK written by a diverse author during the last two weeks of September. Just one. If everyone reads -- and recommends -- just one book... well, then we bloggers will finally become the change we want to see. Are you in? There were one-hundred thirteen recommendations at last count! Click here.

September 26, 2014


I haven't been this stressed out by reading a fantasy novel since Holly Black's TITHE. Tension simply sings in this second book in the Twixt series. While not exactly a standalone - it does help to know a little about the world and its denizens - even the protagonist is still flying blind, unsure who to trust, so new readers can get up to speed quickly.

Summary: To recap, in the first novel of The Twixt, INDELIBLE, Joy accidentally sees what she shouldn't - that is, the Fae. Normally they put your eye right out for that, but the scalpel wielded by Invisible Ink -- slipped, leaving Joy with a flash across her vision that is Ink's magical signature. Through this mistake, Joy's had to become his lehman - his servant, his... woman, and they'd best hope nobody guesses Ink's not infallible and screws up sometimes, or else they'll both die horribly. The Twixt has RULES, yo. Fortunately, Joy and Ink learn to get along - deal with each other - and have even fallen a lot into like... and at the conclusion of the adventures that happen in INDELIBLE, The Twixt decide that Joy's going to be allowed to live... except, in INVISIBLE, one old knight hasn't gotten the memo. He shows up everywhere - in rusting armor, at Joy's job, in the woods on the way home, in terribly ordinary places ... waiting to kill her. He's undying, unstoppable, unkillable -- but Joy CAN'T do what will get him off her back: give up Ink and the Twixt, and all of her power. She can't. She won't. She has tasted of both love and power -- and surely, surely, there's got to be a way to have it all?

Peaks: Many times, sequels disappoint -- and while I didn't read the first book in this series, I can't imagine this is one of those "slumpy sequels." From the first page, there's action, and the character's emotions are ping-ponging off all over the place, as thoughts and choices and reactions are on go-go-go frequency. There's not a lot of time to stop and mope or to stop and ponder -- which eventually kicks her in the butt, because sometimes Joy is NOT thinking, and the reader will want to give her a sharp slap. (Fortunately, that doesn't happen too often.)

There's drama and danger and tension and cheerful creepiness throughout. It's a novel which is hard to put down, even if you're new to the whole thing. I was surprised by how well I liked it -- truly surprised. I was also surprised (and maybe I shouldn't have been) by how physical the novel was, in terms of the relationship -- not necessarily physical in a whoa-hawt-sexytimes way (though they are officially trying to date), but physical in terms of description. The author worked hard to make everything - light and shadow, the brush of skin against skin, even an innocent brush of fingers - hugely descriptive, in just the way a young heart categorizes every. single. moment of a first love... All that innocent discovery is really intense, and there are two more books in this series -- ! I can see readers looking forward to that.

I like that the question of this novel is a bigger question that people face - how much happiness, of what we want -- are we allowed to have? How much should we hold onto, when what we're clinging onto with a death grip could ruin everything? Joy tugs away on the threads of a world, and could be the instrument which unwinds... or the one who ties everything back together.

Valleys: The pacing is, for the most part, swift and revelatory. I was surprised by how little I found with which to quibble - there are times, as mentioned, that readers will want to SMACK Joy, but they're rare - my suggestion is that you READ INDELIBLE FIRST. You *can* get into this one without background, but it'd be easier to understand exactly what's at stake if you read them in order.

I received this copy courtesy of the publisher. After September 30th, you can find INVISIBLE by DAWN METCALF online, or at an independent bookstore near you!

September 25, 2014

Toon Thursday: Writing Retreats - The Real "Story"

Since I'm leaving today for a weekend writing retreat (during which I sincerely and fervently hope to make serious progress on my WIP), I thought it would be appropriate to repost my cartoon featuring a writing retreat pie chart. Enjoy!

September 24, 2014


The prequel you didn't know you needed to Bruchac's epic KILLER OF ENEMIES:
This novella prequel to Joseph Bruchac’s Killer of Enemies is set in the Black Hills of South Dakota, where readers are introduced to seventeen-year-old Rose Eagle of the Lakota tribe who is trying to find her place in a post-apocalyptic world.

Before the Silver Cloud, the Lakota were forced to work in the Deeps, mining for ore so that the Ones, the overlords, could continue their wars. But when the Cloud came and enveloped Earth, all electronics were shut off. Some miners were trapped in the deepest Deeps and suffocated, but the Lakota were warned to escape, and the upper Deeps became a place of refuge for them in a post-Cloud world.

In the midst of this chaos, Rose Eagle’s aunt has a dream: Rose will become a medicine woman, a healer. She sends Rose into the Black Hills on a quest to find healing for their people.

Gangly and soft-spoken, Rose is no warrior. She seeks medicine, not danger. Nevertheless, danger finds her, but love and healing soon follow. When Rose Eagle completes her quest, she may return with more than she ever thought she was looking for.

I was surprised as heck to hear that there was a prequel to KILLER OF ENEMIES, the post-apocalyptic tale of Lozen, the noteworthy girl of quiet skill who took back her people's pride. I actually am still sneakily hoping for a sequel, or at least something else in that vein from Bruchac, but I'll take Rose.

Stay tuned for more about this novel!

September 23, 2014


Not gonna lie; we've been the bemused and bedazzled fans of Ysabeau Wilce since waaaaaay back in the day and the advent of her first book of Western fantasy, packed with rangers, skirted men, hummingbird gods, and plain craziness. We invited her by for the Blog Blast Tour, plied her with lies and libations, and asked her all manner of questions. A Good Time Was Had. We haunted her blog until news of her next jaunt to Califa emerged, and happily read of the derring-do of Flora, faced with Tiny Doom, a fittingly post-apocalyptic name for surely the most disastrous and ambitious chit of all time - next to Flora Segunda herself, of course. Our third outing with Flora was rich and thick with Huitzil magic and a new nemesis. Flora's secrets spilled would spell her doom, and now older, and (somewhat) wiser, Flora strove to secure her future.

Finding that there was a book of short stories under the name of the author's old blog which included "Metal More Attractive," published in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction in February, 2004;" "The Lineaments of Gratified Desire," which was included in The Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror, 2007 and "The Biography of a Bouncing Boy Terror," the short story about Springheel Jack previously published online in the Bibliotheca of Crackpot Hall (another of Ysabeau's blogs) was good to see -- people who didn't know about the author's blog shouldn't miss those tales. However, finding new shorts I hadn't yet read was icing on the cake. Published by Small Beer press and passed along to me by our bud Colleen, who knew how much we'd loved the strange land of Califa from the first, made this collection twice the treat. Fans of her work will be so glad to see more of Califa; those who've never encountered that place on any map will be intrigued and hopefully look around for more. This is a lot of fun.

Summary & Review:Here's the thing: Califa is odd. Rich and strange, as the saying goes, filled to the brim with realistic detail, and a sort of steampunk sensibility which includes amazingly specific clothing and ritual courtesies, akin to 19th century, Gold Rush-era West Coast America in "real life," native peoples who Will Not Be Subdued, family histories which have their own power and magic and -- oh, yes. Power. And magic. The 19th century, according to the author, is the most durable mythic era of the Western, so exploiting - poking it, adding to it, and seeing how far it will stretch and what it will embrace, makes perfect sense. Part of Califa's charm is that its roots are so familiar to us, so when we come across the inevitable sideways leap off the well-trodden path, we leap down the rabbit hole after Alice, as it were. The historical notes which follow are amusing - and as always contain that little pinch of historical fact to leaven the load of hooey.

The anthology begins with "The Biography of a Bouncing Boy Terror," the simple tale of the Sparkly-Red Boots of Doom, and reminds us how Springhill Jack, the first of Flora's toughest nemeses, came to have the boots and wreak his reign of terror upon the innocent citizens of fair Califa. It's a good story to open with, my dovetails, since we've not had a Flora tale for awhile, and puts us back into the rhythm and lingo of the city.

Before we delve deeper here, a caveat -- the Flora novels are published as young adult/middle grade and marketed as such, these shorts - and this anthology - are not YA. These are about the world in which the Flora tales are set, and the boot-wearin, mescal-drinkin' in-the-eye-spittin' riotous, rambunctious frontiersfolk show their stripes. If you imagine a Venn diagram, the only overlap between the Flora books and this collection is setting -- but what a gloriously chaotic and fun setting.

"Quartermaster Returns" is like a Western yarn that is three parts a joke with a great punchline, and one part again that tantalizing mix of "Huh? That might have some basis in the truth..." which comes from great details about how the Frontier Army operated in the West. I enjoyed it because it included female soldiers -- with no apologies or expectations. That's one of the gifts of Califa - that the author dreamed up this place entirely, and managed to include the idea of equality in the fantasy, as so many others seem categorically unable to do.

"Metal More Attractive," is a Hardhands story - a tale of the famously villainous, punk-rocking wizardly type, and his niece, his leman, and the hoped-for lover he almost chose over everyone. That all characters in the novel are male except for the Hardhands' saccharine sweet Grandmama and the toddler Tiny Doom is completely irrelevant - just another important taste of that diversity in fantasy.

If you've ever wondered how the ginormous pink pig which Tiny Terror totes around became so... er, unique, "The Lineaments of Gratified Desire" will help you out there. And leave you worried about the slightly vacuous smiles and possibly hungry inner lives of your stuffed animals.

A little older - and a little wiser? - Tiny Doom runs against the Will of Hardhands and her own determination to Do Things. Stymied by his influence, Tiny Doom decides to go glamored and anonymous to Wreak Havoc with a Black Deed in order to find admittance into a secret regiment. After cutting a swath through a party, stealing innocuous things, Tiny Doom thinks she's done enough. Unfortunately, the dollymop she uses to gain admittance to a soiree is accused after she's gone. Well, there's no honor in letting the innocent suffer, right? In "Lovelocks," our cadet sets everything right. Mostly.

"Hand in Glove" also deals with innocents going to be punished for the Dark Deeds of Others. The golden boy of the Califa Police Department, being plied with beer and praise in the saloon, doesn't want to hear that the suspect he's caught, bang to rights, is the wrong guy entirely. What are facts, against the adulation of the crowd? Fortunately, Constable Etryo - and she'll be fiked if she quits this job she hates - isn't just there to be a stone in Detective Watkins' shoe. She's there to dispense justice... any way she can.

"Scaring the Shavetail" is a good old-fashioned tale of a "rupert," a "jonah" - a fresh-out-of-school officer put in charge of soldiers who actually know what they're doing - which is never a good match, ever. It Never Ends Well. This story is another old soldier's joke, and indeed, it has a great punchline, and ties up the novel with just slightly creepy overtones. Nice.

This book was a well-appreciated gift! After October 14th, 2014, you can find PROPHECIES, LIBEL & DREAMS by Ysabeau S. Wilce online, or at an independent bookstore near you!

September 22, 2014

Alison Bechdel is a Genius, but We Already Knew That

Just a quick post today--but I wanted to make sure you all knew that cartoonist/graphic novelist Alison Bechdel has won one of those nifty MacArthur Genius Grant thingies. Yes, of COURSE we knew she was a genius way back when we first heard of the Bechdel test and challenged folks to go forth and write with an awareness of what diversity really means. But it's fantastic to see her ideas recognized and her work get more exposure. If you haven't read Fun Home (reviewed here) or its companion book, Are You My Mother?, I can't recommend them highly enough.

Also, there was a really cool Q&A with Bechdel posted on NPR several days ago--go check it out. Seriously, I'm chuffed that someone so deserving (and someone I've even heard of, no less) has been honored so highly. It's awesome. Go cartoonists!

September 20, 2014


Have you been on the fence about whether or not you're interested in KidlitCon? Have plans changed for you, but you thought you'd run out of time? You're in luck: we've been able to extend registration for one more week. The Citizen Hotel has graciously extended its block price (though only by phone; reservations after Friday, September 19th, MUST contact the onsite reservation coordinator Raquel at 916-492-4440. Raquel will ensure that they you added to the block at the group rate as long at there is availability) as well. Please go to the KidlitCon site and register.

Diversity is our keynote topic, and your voice is vital to the discussion. Please come out, even if it's only for a day, and join us!

September 19, 2014


My poppets, gather round, do! There's a simply scandalous novel you must sit down and read, right away! It's a school story - boarding school. It's set in the Victorian era. There are stern spinsters, callow boys, naughty dogs, and ...dead bodies buried in the garden!

I reviewed an electronic copy of this novel and can't wait to see the finished product. The cover is adorable, but the endpapers and the illustrations of the girls in the front pages are going to be wonderful, when it all comes together.

Summary: Seven young ladies, enrolled in a school for girls, are kept in fairly straitened circumstances, under the leadership of stern Headmistress Mrs. Plackett, and her rude and coarse brother, Mr. Godding. At Sunday dinner, the two are rather abruptly poisoned...

There are many reasons the girls are enrolled at the school. Roberta Pratley's only offense is being a stepdaughter. Her Stepmama sends her off at once to Saint Etheldreda's School for Young Ladies to strengthen her weak brain. She must have one, seeing as the poor dear grew so fast she's nearly as tall as a man, and she's always crashing about, tripping over herself. Mary Jane Marshall's offense is... a bit disgraceful. Her mother has locked her away at Saint Etheldreda's in order to keep her from turning up behind back doors and in hall closets with unsuitable young men. Martha Boyle ...well, everyone calls her dull, but... perhaps the nicest thing that can be said is that she has a lovely voice and a gift for the piano. Yes, let's just say that. Meanwhile, Alice Brooks has a big heart - and if the rest of her is plus sized as well, it shouldn't exactly be a crime, should it? Katherine Heaton is a smooth operator -- and she learned it at her railway magnate Daddy's knee. Too bad he doesn't think she can learn, being only a girl. Louise Dudley is only twelve, but she burns with intelligence - and, after surviving smallpox, she burns with the desire to be a doctor. Her parents have instead burned her chemistry set, and hope that Saint Etheldreda's might burn the desire out of her. Elinor Siever's watchword is "memento mortis" - remember death. Unfortunately, she doesn't tend to remember much else. Saint Etheldreda's School for Young Ladies is meant to change her dour nature into a lively, spritely one.

Seven ladies enrolled in a finishing school - and seven impossible dreams dreamt by those who sent them there. Seven ladies who, nevertheless are plucky, doughty, bright, sly, deceptive, and conniving as the day is long. Seven young ladies who, after Sunday dinner are going to be without a Headmistress -- and these young ladies of Saint Etheldreda's are going to make the most of it.

Peaks: This was a snicker-fest, a frothy cake of hysteria, bewilderment and sisterhood. The girls know that their Headmistress has been murdered - that's no spoiler. The question of why they choose to stay in a house where there's been a double-murder? That's a bit more complicated. Sniffing a whiff of freedom makes you do any number of crazy things... and, if you're young and impressionable and have a smooth-talker and a disgraceful operator shoving you along... if you actually are happy in the place you've landed, away from your pesky little brothers, annoying Stepmama or ice cold father, it might be worth showing a little spirit, a little grit -- and it might be worth shoveling a bit -- to stay there. This story is just a gem.

Valleys: Honestly, there are no valleys - though, I might question that this is marketed to middle school. Because of its humor and the complicated farce, as well as the novel's themes of friendship, I think it might fare better as YA (nothing to do with the murders, though - they're fairly bloodless). The Victorian language is simply turgid and overwrought at times, but the author doesn't let it slow her down. The sentence structure might give some readers a few tiny problems, as sentences tend to be longer and descriptive, reflecting the time period of the novel's setting, but it really shouldn't inconvenience most young readers. The novel is funny and fresh and a hoot. Though they're covering up a murder, the girls aren't stupid - they each know, in their heart of hearts, that their lease on freedom is short. The novel reads like watching someone running with a full glass of water, and knowing that they're going to trip -- you can't really do anything about it but watch with a slightly horrified expression as the twists and turns of the plot keep going and going -- and all the mile-high pile of deceptions come tumbling down.

I received a copy of this novel courtesy of Roaring Brook Press. After September 23rd, you can find THE SCANDALOUS SISTERHOOD OF PRICKWILLOW PLACE by Julie Berry online, or at an independent bookstore near you!

September 18, 2014

Thursday Review: GIRL ON A WIRE by Gwenda Bond

Right--in the interests of full disclosure, Gwenda and I have the same agent, and we've been blog buds for a number of years, so be aware that any viewpoints herein may or may not be free of personal bias. :) I received a review copy of this book from the author/publisher via NetGalley.

Girl on a Wire is one of those books packed with all the characteristics I would have loved as a YA reader growing up: magic, mystery, and just a hint of Romeo and Juliet (literally: the main characters are Remy aka Romeo, and Jules aka Julieta). The high-flying circus setting lends even more drama and atmosphere, with enough detail that you feel like you're there, living the behind-the-scenes touring circus life, but not so much detail that it takes away from the action.

And action there is, promised from the very beginning by the fact that protagonist Jules wants nothing more than to perform with the famous new Cirque American, and do her high wire walk like her old-school idol, Bird Millman (who was a real person). Unfortunately, Jules's parents and grandmother have other ideas, because the Maronis' mortal enemies the Flying Garcias are part of the Cirque American, and there's just no way they can occupy the same patch of ground.

Until, of course, Jules forces the issue. I would have loved to see a bit more of the fallout from her stubbornness, but we quickly move to the main part of the book, which is the tale of the Maronis' return to national circus fame. It doesn't come without a cost, though, and that cost is the fact that every single one of the Flying Garcias comes with an insta-grudge attached. Only Remy (aka Romeo) seems not to buy into the whole family grudge thing, and so Jules's growing friendship with him has to happen in secret. Soon, though, Jules realizes that the bad blood between their families isn't simply aggravating, it's potentially dangerous. It's NOT, of course, because of the allegedly cursed items she keeps finding in her possession. Or is it? And will she and Remy be able to figure out who's trying to sabotage the Maronis' return before someone really gets hurt?

This was a super fun idea, and as a reader I liked seeing the alliances develop between the young protagonists, trying to solve the mystery and move on while the adults remained stubborn and prideful. This one would be great especially for younger YA and older MG readers, and those looking for a mystery with a hint of magic and daring, but without too much violence or danger.

You can find Girl on a Wire by Gwenda Bond online, or at an independent bookstore near you!

September 16, 2014


I admit that this book put me in a bit of a spin, when I'd finished it. I had no idea how to talk about it. Magical realism? Historical fiction? Problem novel? The line between what was, and what wasn't was... a little shaky. The pacing was very gradual, especially at the beginning, and the conclusion... didn't leave me with much of a conclusion. Looking it up, I realized that it was a first in a series, which answered some questions, as to why it felt so slow to me -- the author will finish up the story elsewhere -- but it seemed a good idea that didn't receive the polish it needed in its first iteration. Nevertheless, this is a richly detailed cultural experience, and quite a tale of mental health and individual power to change things.

Summary: Liz's mom has... kind of had it. Her OCD has spiraled out of control, and the constant washing/counting/tidying thing, which culminated in Liz spending some time in a facility and in the hospital, has brought her to the conclusion that Liz needs to spend time with her dad. With her DAD!? With the fake farmer and his much younger girlfriend, on their farm?! This is a good option for Liz who so wanted things to be clean that she mixed up bleach and ammonia to wash her HAIR!? Um... no. This isn't the best option. Liz's mom is abandoning her -- and Liz knows it. But, it's hard to admit. It's hard to admit anything - even to her psychiatrist, who is quietly despairing of her, Liz feels sure. When, in a sympathetic moment, her doctor shares with her the battered diary of a relative - one Elizabeth (Sisi) of Bavaria, for some reason, Liz becomes enthralled. Here was someone, the doctor says, who a hundred and fifty years ago also had food disorders, also struggled to control her world, and find her place within it. Liz wants to learn from this girl, who became Empress of Austria -- and more than that, Liz wants to understand. She goes to great lengths to find the diary - and to find the woman within it. The longing for connection creates a path where there was none before - helping Liz to heal, and helping Sisi to change history... maybe.

Peaks: This novel has the earmarks of a richly detailed fairy tale - a locket, a diary, an unrequited love. There's much to enjoy in the historical detail of this novel - fox hunts, ball gowns, jewelry, tapestry, home furnishings. The setting, at least of the historical novel, is rich and lush, as opposed to the modern side of a farm outside of Portland. There is also detailed historical note of practices, including a rather grisly fox hunt. On the modern side, detail is also lavished on OCD, on the disturbing feelings and routines Liz becomes locked into - there's a lot of detail to engage the reader here.

Valleys:Despite a promising premise, at times, it felt like I was reading two different novels - and I was - but I couldn't easily tell why the two novels were in the same cover, and not simply two different books. The two different voices varied by chapter, and there were times I didn't want to leave one storyline and go to the next. For me, one was engaging and vital, the other, I had no idea what it was about, or why I should care. I didn't get a strong sense of connection between the modern character, whose OCD obsessed and consumed her, whose abandonment, at the hands of her mother, must have been crushing and terrifying -- and whose pothead, ineffectual father and his immature but blandly kind hippie girlfriend were the WORST people with whom she could have been left - and the self-obsessed royal, who was childish and short-sighted, mooning after her bodyguard, and seemed willfully blind to her situation. When Liz takes risks to break out of her world, for the sake of her sort-of step brother (what do you call the little brother of your father's very young girlfriend?), the reader is confused at his role: is he the love interest? Is he the catalyst for her getting better? Why is he in the novel? When Sisi is simply carried along in her life, the reader wonders, why do I care? Eventually, most questions are answered, but possibly not in a timely enough manner for many readers.

I had further questions about the magical realism -- the mysterious writing in Liz's blank journal is never explained, or are the mechanics of other quasi-magical occurrences. There are quite a few loose ends - especially in the novel's conclusion. The historical tale leaves off just as Sisi is informed that her life will never be the same... and Liz, whose actions have both influenced the past and the future, is suddenly left teetering. It's hard to see exactly why she's suddenly just fine, and stable enough for the narrative to wrap up and leave her. So much is left unfinished and yet both storylines feel equally portentous and loaded -- primed to go off, but never getting there. Still, those seeking what promises to be an absolutely epic historical series will engage with this and drink it down, and wait eager for the next.

I received an advanced review copy courtesy of the publisher. You can find THE EMPRESS CHRONICLES by Suzy Vitello online, or at an independent bookstore near you!

September 15, 2014

Color Me Excited--It's Cybils Season Again!

I just wanted to make sure you all know that Cybils Awards judging panels will be announced this week--Wednesday, to be exact! It's always an exciting time because I know, once the panels get announced, it's time for me to start thinking about books to nominate. And this is a really inspirational year for children's and YA books: we've seen so much well-deserved attention being given to books featuring protagonists from a variety of races, ethnicities, socioeconomic background, gender, sexual's the year of #WeNeedDiverseBooks and countless other efforts to bring wonderful diverse reads into the hands of the readers who need them.

If you're a blogger and you have something to say about diversity and diverse books, please consider coming to KidLitCon this year in Sacramento, CA. There's already a growing list of fantastic attendees, authors and bloggers alike, and you'll have a chance to meet several authors (and buy books and get them signed, too!) at the Friday afternoon meet and greet. Plus, of course, there will be a wide range of panels and sessions on children's/YA books and blogging--this year, there's a special focus on diversity, so go check out the program for more details. My favorite part of the conference, though, is always getting to meet bloggers I've "known" for years online, and getting to talk books with bloggers who have become longtime friends both online and offline. Registration closes at the end of this week, so don't delay!! Register now.

September 12, 2014


This is necessarily going to be a shorter review, since this is a psychological thriller and there is virtually not much other than the barest of plot summaries I can share with you without providing spoilers and clues that you don't need. What I can say is that Stephanie Kuehn is all kinds of talented, and it's a hoot to read a novel set so clearly in familiar areas of Northern California (A shout out to the Iron Triangle/Richmond, Danville/Blackhawk, Berkeley, and Mt. Diablo, woot!) Her fragmented, complicated and nuanced protagonists are perceived by most unfamiliar with YA lit as a rarity - but smart novels like this remind me of something like TANGERINE, by Edward Bloor, Mark Haddon's THE CURIOUS INCIDENT, or Robert Cormier's I AM THE CHEESE -- the plot is a mosaic of pieces the reader isn't sure all fit. Tautly paced, disturbing, steeped in mistrust and with a spooky-gorgeous cover in black, white and ...burnt, the novel is just packed with goodness. This is definitely a crossover - adults who love a good thriller will enjoy this.

And, a little warning -- that MFA professors of mine, the one who talked with relentless cheer about the necessity of the "kernel of hope" in all YA lit -- probably just hates the ending to this novel. It works for me, though. Sometimes, hope is a thing with feathers that get singed. The fact is, young adults aren't stupid. They already know that hope sometimes gets abandoned, and people go on with whatever else they've got.

Summary: All Jamie Henry wants to do is put the past behind him. Growing up rough with a single parent in the destitute Iron Triangle (an industrial area near refineries), he has few memories before the age of six, when he and his sister, Cate, at ten, were taken out of a group home and adopted by a wealthy, white-collar Danville family who have themselves lost two children aged six and ten. After flailing for a few years, he's found traction at sixteen -- a concert-level jazz pianist, a 4.0 student, a winner -- a replacement for the son his adoptive parents have lost. A winner, after having a loser's start. He still has a few tics and shivers - a few cracks in the armor which show where he's come from, but he's going places, now. He's seeing his therapist, taking his pills - he's stopped pulling out his eyebrows, he's gained some positive coping mechanisms, his hands even work reliably -- he'll be okay.

Only, it's not so easy, for Cate. She's... angry. At Jamie - at her adoptive mother, at everyone. She's destructive. She's -- terrifying. The kids at the high school talk about her making secret pacts with the girls in the woods, doing mental trances and finding spirit animals, and stuff -- crazy, noticeable stuff. Her adoptive parents can't reason with her - she's doing drugs and skipping classes. And, after a terrible fire which destroys lives and property, she's finally taken away - and Jamie honestly breathes a sigh of relief, even though he feels guilty.

It all falls apart one morning, when he receives a phone call. Crazy Cate's just been released after two years in juvenile detention -- and she says she's coming back -- for Jamie.

Hands numb and heart pounding, Jamie tries to strap in and weather the worst...

Peaks: Other than a simple story about adopted siblings, this novel is about our brains - knowing right and wrong, and being too sick to know right from wrong. It's about belief and perception -- responsibility, and guilt. Culpability. Complicity. How much we are to blame for what we tell ourselves. And, how much of what we tell ourselves is the truth. It's sharply realistic, deftly woven, nuanced, layered, and deep.

Jamie Henry is, bar none, the most untrustworthy narrator I've encountered this year. I went into the novel believing everything he said, and then, quietly, that solid belief shifted... was undermined ... one step at a time...somehow. That's where the author's deft touch comes in -- I don't know why I started thinking something was wrong. It's the choices he makes -- or doesn't make -- that begins the quiet wondering. It's the way he reacts -- or doesn't react -- that leads the reader to not quite accept what he says -- or at least question it. The reader comes to the end of the novel... worriedly reading over the beginning again, wondering if what they thought was right was right, or -- ??

What, that doesn't sound like a peak? It's a peak. No, seriously. That's good. Thrillers are supposed to keep you off-balanced, edgy, disturbed, guessing, yes? You will guess and guess and guess until you're second-guessing your first. You won't know quite where you've ended up when you've read through the novel and are done -- and I suspect the ending will cause a lot of rereading, frowning, and intense discussion. No two readers likely will entirely agree on what actually went down. Every reader will know that they've cause to fear for the characters' future, though...

Valleys: Once again, I don't really find valleys here. Kuehn's writing is assured and decisive -- you are where she puts you, for good or for ill, and you know what she tells you -- period. You're led along like a sheep to... well. You're guided through the narrative, let's just say.

There will be some who argue this novel's suitability for young adults, as it deals with many disturbing instances of psychological and mental aberrations. Also, there's that missing "kernel of hope." However, it's a pulse-pounding, scary, twisted, dark psychological thriller, and readers who didn't even know that's what they enjoyed might find themselves unexpectedly immersed - and have trouble sleeping nights after.

I found my copy of this book at the library. You can find COMPLICIT by STEPHANIE KUEHN online, or at an independent bookstore near you!

September 11, 2014

Thursday Review: CONSTABLE & TOOP by Gareth P. Jones

This was one of those total surprises for me. I found the book in my library's ebook selection and thought: ghosts? Victorian London? a murder mystery? Sign me up. And then, all through the book as I kept getting more and more absorbed, I kept thinking, where the heck has this Gareth P. Jones been all this time? I love this!

Turns out where he's been, is writing middle grade and kids' books. And I've mostly been on the YA tip with just the occasional MG foray, so yeah, I suppose that's why I hadn't run into his books before. Constable & Toop, though—I'd say this not only crosses the line between MG and YA (and actually is scary enough, with enough adult main characters, to be more YA), but also would make a good crossover that adult readers would enjoy. I'd compare it firstly to The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman, but it also had more than a dash (in my mind) of Beetlejuice, with its post-death bureaucracy (remember the Handbook for the Recently Deceased?) and its maze of rules and regulations.

As you might guess, this means the book has its share of humor as well as spookiness. But it's also got likeable, endearing main characters who you simply MUST root for because they're on the side of all that is good and non-bureaucratic in the world, living or dead. One of those characters is the rather unfortunate Mr. Lapsewood, who is himself a ghost, working behind a desk for the Ghost Bureau. Being sent to investigate the mysterious disappearance of a fellow ghost employee out in the streets of London feels like the chance of a, er, lifetime, and a chance to prove himself as being capable of more than his current life as a desk jockey. But then he discovers something truly awful: the Black Rot. It's an affliction developed by haunted houses that are deprived of their resident ghosts—say, via a rogue exorcism. Who's responsible? And can Lapsewood solve the problem?

Meanwhile, our other major character is Sam Toop. He's the son of an undertaker, his father being the Toop in the Constable & Toop funeral and mortuary business. He's about twelve or so, and he's a pretty normal kid for someone who's lived in a funeral home all his life. Oh, except for that one thing: he can see ghosts. Generally, though, things are going along pretty well for Sam until his lowlife Uncle Jack shows up one day and…uh…sorry, can't resist…threatens to make life a living hell if Sam and his dad don't help him out just a little. And then Jack "helps" Sam out, too, but maybe he doesn't want that kind of help…since it seems to coincide with some awfully nefarious doings out in the alleyways of London.

The stories of the living and the dead entwine and, in the end, come together in a most satisfying way. As you might guess, Lapsewood and Sam (and a few other fun minor characters) have to help each other in order to rid London of the Black Rot. The story's filled with atmospheric detail and subtle, witty humor along the lines of a Terry Pratchett or Douglas Adams. I absolutely adored it.

You can find Constable & Toop by Gareth Jones online, or at an independent bookstore near you!

September 09, 2014

Visions of the Future: A Post-Apocalyptic Blog Tour, featuring Caragh O'Brien

First of all, huge thanks to Gina Gagliano at First Second/Macmillan, who set us up with Caragh O'Brien on this blog tour--Tanita and I are both fascinated by the topic and love a good post-apocalyptic vision of the earth. (Um, in fiction only, please.) What is "Visions of the Future" all about? Macmillan Teen's website says this: "Five writers talk about what they think of the future—and why they wrote it the way they did." Five authors of recent novels that spin a rather grim view of what might happen to us in the not-so-distant future--and we are thrilled to host an essay by Caragh O'Brien, author of Birthmarked (which Tanita reviewed here).

Tanita describes the novel much more aptly and eloquently than I can do at the moment (you can blame the brain freeze on my day job), so go read the full review, in which she notes, "The post-apocalypse survival narrative is excellent, and as she gets deeper into trouble, Gaia has to make agonizing, hair-trigger decisions based on only what she feels is right." She also says, "This book is -- intense. There just aren't a lot of YA novels about midwifery, inbreeding, and hemophilia," and if that doesn't make you curious, then nothing will. So, without further delay, here is Caragh's post.

To talk about the fictional world in my Birthmarked trilogy, I must begin with a true story. A few years back, I took a road trip across the country with my family, and somewhere in Arkansas, we drove over a bridge where the river beneath was a dry gully. The next bridge spanned another dry river, and then we passed a lake that was as dry as a baseball diamond. Mile after mile the drought extended, and whenever we passed what was supposed to be water, it was another dusty, sloping void.

Until that drive, I had thought climate change was a doom that would happen in the distant future, to other generations, but it was suddenly right in my face. It freaked me out.

I began writing the Birthmarked trilogy because, in essence, I was afraid. I wanted to predict who could adapt and how they might do it. I wondered how much cutthroat self-preservation would be justified, and most of all, I wanted to believe that some of us would survive. Writing the novel let me delve in to my fear and search for something that could give me hope.

The story of Birthmarked takes place 400 years in the future on the north shore of Unlake Superior, after climate change. I take Minnesota, the state I grew up in, Land of 10,000 Lakes, and imagine all the water gone. I envision it as a wasteland that’s both beautiful and severe. I figure that certain smart, wealthy people prepare for the change by building the Enclave, a walled city with solar power, geothermal power, and deeply drilled wells. Inside the walls, they have education, technology, culture, and enough food, but they’ve miscalculated on one thing: how many people they need for diversity in their gene pool. Due to inbreeding, they’re having trouble with infertility and hemophilia. What they need is a most basic resource: more human genes.

Here’s where our heroine comes in. Gaia Stone, a young midwife, lives outside the wall in Wharfton, an impoverished community that exists in essentially medieval conditions, with no electricity or services. In exchange for rations of water and mycoprotein from the Enclave, Wharfton must surrender a quota of babies every month to the authorities inside the wall. Gaia accepts this system until the first time she helps a mother deliver a baby solo, and the mother objects to forfeiting her child. That same night, Gaia’s parents are arrested, and Gaia determines to rescue them from the Enclave.

As happens with world building, I found that the physical setting of the novel wove into the plot, and the shortage of resources underscored every choice that the characters made, individually and at a societal level. On one hand, the Enclave was lovely and thriving, but it hid the heartache of dying hemophiliacs and its citizens could stand by while a pregnant woman was hanged. I respected that people like Gaia would do almost anything to survive, and I could also grasp that the evil leader meant well when he justified his ruthless decisions. My story grounded in climate change was really about need, family, power, and fairness.

Of course, I’m still troubled by what’s happening with climate change, especially when I see that the populations that suffer the most are our poorest. Yet I also believe that we’re ingenuitive and compassionate, and our most important resource, as in my novel, is our humans. We are already the survivors.

Thank you so much, Caragh and Gina! Here's the full schedule for the Visions of the Future blog tour:

Monday, September 8
Andrew Smith

Tuesday, September 9
Caragh O’Brien
Finding Wonderland

Wednesday, September 10
Farel Dalrymple
The Book Wars

Thursday, September 11
Emmy Laybourne
Green Bean Teen Queen

Friday, September 12
Carrie Ryan
Forever YA

September 08, 2014

TURNING PAGES: BABA ALI AND THE CLOCKWORK DJINN, by Danielle Ackley-McPhail & Day Al-Mohamed

Come, Best Beloved, and sit you by my feet. I shall tell you a tale such as sister Scheherazade could have scarce imagined. A tale of wonders, of deeds both great and grievous, of courage that defies description, and above all, Child of Adam, I shall tell you a tale of love.

Read the first chapter of this novel here.

Most of you who've hung around the blog for awhile know how fond I am of the idea of collaboration -- it's always amazing to me to read about and hear about how authors interact as separate individuals to produce a single work. Danielle Ackley-McPhail is an editor and writer with six novels, and one writer's guide to her credit, as well as editing seven and contributing to fifty short story anthologies. Editor Danielle, while pulling together a forthcoming fairytale anthology called GRIMM & GASLIGHT *cough* GASLIGHT & GRIM (sorry, Danielle), wanted to include a retelling of "Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves," and so arranged with a friend, Day Al-Mohamed, to be her cultural and ethnic adviser, since Day was born in Bahrain and could help her American-born friend to "get it right." Day was so enthused that Danielle eventually asked her to be a full collaborator and co-author. This is Day's first novel.

SUMMARY: You know the story from the original translation of 1001 Nights, Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves. If not, a quick summary: two brothers, Cassim and Ali split an inheritance; one lives large, the other lives small. Ali one day sees a large tribe of thieves open a magical cavern in which a treasure is secreted. Ali imitates their "Open, O Simsim!" and opens the cavern and then takes out bags of gold pieces. Through the usual no-one-can-keep-a-secret ridiculousness, Cassim's wife finds out, Ali reveals all, and Cassim goes to take treasure - but forgets the magic word and is caught by the band of thieves. They do away with him, Ali has to retrieve his body and in order not to cause suspicion, they bury him in secret... but again, a secret is only something one person knows. In the fairy-tale turn of events, someone brags about sewing a body back together, and the thieves come looking for Ali and his household. Through trickery and relying on the Middle Eastern hospitality inherent in the entire Arab community, the thieves get inside Ali's compound, hidden in huge oil jars. A slave girl discovers that there's the Arabic version of the Trojan Horse going on, and takes care of them fatally - and Ali honors her by giving her freedom. The last thief this same girl manages to off during a dance for her master, and Ali is so grateful he marries her to his son, as the highest honor.

Since this story is known - at least since the 1700's - there can hardly be said to be spoilers. But! If I tell you the twists and turns and differences in the retelling, there WILL be spoilers, so... I won't. Instead I'll mention Victorian England! Steampunk! Airships and Adventure! Charles Babbage! Dastardly thieves, magical puzzle-boxes, enigmatic djinns and mechanical birds...!!! Isn't that enough to whet your curiosity? This is a richly-detailed, fascinating and wonderfully adventurous novel. You'll enjoy the heck out of this - and reading it aloud will be even better.

PEAKS: Baba (the name is an honorific) Ali is a student at the beginning of the novel -- young and unsure of many things, but he's DEFINITE about his faith. His belief is rock-solid, and his every response is tempered through the lens of his belief. For Americans who rarely have a positive picture of the Muslim faith, this is a gift, and additionally would make me consider this a positive read for religious parents seeking fun fiction for their young adults. Keeping in mind that it's still a fairy tale, the novel has a lot to offer on a number of levels.

Though the tale of Ali Baba was added to the original Arabic translation of 1001 Nights by one of its European translators, Antoine Galland, he may have heard it orally in Syria, while another theory has it to be of Cypriot origin. Regardless, the way the authors spun the tale as belonging to the Arab world works beautifully. And, did I mention the appearance of CHARLES FREAKIN' BABBAGE!? The philosophical discussions of faith and science are amazing -- really well done. I truly enjoyed imagining conversing with this great man.

And, of course, there was food -- dates, olives, fruit, oils, spices... *sigh* This novel has such wonderful diversity and this exploration of the Arabic culture is pure fun. There are richly detailed historically accurate outfits, gender roles, courtesies and conversations. While taking strength from the foundation story, this tale stands on its own. It is just a gem to read, and those fond of the original tale will have a ball.

This novel also contains a love story - one that sneaks up on the characters, which is the furthest thing from insta-love that there could be. Huzzah.

VALLEYS: There just aren't really valleys here. While the pacing slows a bit in the middle, I find the sense of urgency, danger, and threat begins early and builds throughout the novel. The language may be richer than many readers are accustomed to, but I found it truly beautiful - and while not a quick read, a really charming one! The only tiny quibble I had in the novel is that there are two djinns... but we don't explore what went wrong in their relationship, WHY they are enemies, and really what drives the one we know best to be who she is ... I tend to have a lot of "reader greed," but this seems to be a tiny spot that was overlooked in an otherwise tightly plotted and well-polished novel.

NB: This isn't Disney's version with a beloved, wise-cracking blue djinn and rousing choruses of "Arabian Nights," not by any means. (Though that song IS stuck in your head now, isn't it? My bad.) This novel is a.) a crossover, and will be enjoyed by adults, and b.) isn't really appropriate for the squeamish, as it hews much more closely to the original tale. There's death - violent, gory death, just like in most original fairy tales. Enjoy responsibly. Do not read while driving heavy machinery. Your mileage may vary, etc.

BONUS: Here's a fun interview where Danielle and Day talk about what each of them brought to the table in this collaboration on this book; Danielle discusses her control issues and Day her random enthusiasms for chopping up, really.

DOUBLE POINTS: I've decided to recommend this book to my peeps on the A MORE DIVERSE UNIVERSE list this year. This group challenges each other to read one book written by an artist of color the last two weeks in September (I kind of fudged on that), and share that book with the group. Just one. Together, we become the change we want to see. Thanks, Aarti.

I received a copy of this book courtesy Palomino Press, the young adult imprint Dark Quest Books, via NetGalley. You can find BABA ALI AND THE CLOCKWORK DJINN by Danielle Ackey-McPhail & Day Al-Mohamed online, or at an independent bookstore near you!

September 05, 2014


I received this book courtesy of New South Books, a small press based in Montgomery, Alabama. After skimming the initial description of the book - that it was about a preacher's granddaughter - I assumed it was a novel about an African American girl. The striking gray-scale sketch-and-photograph cover immediately corrected that assumption. The novel is set in the mountains of Georgia, which is from where the author, Faye Gibbons, hails.

SUMMARY: Fourteen-year-old Halley Owenby had a life she loved, once. Her family, made up of her father Jim, her mother, Kate, herself, and her brother, Robbie, was poor, but so was everyone in their little town, and it really didn't make much of a difference to them as they worked and sang through their days. One of the few families with a piano, Halley only slightly envies Robbie's skill in playing anything he's ever heard. Halley has her books and her good friend Dimple to keep her occupied. She has a hungry mind, eager to learn all she can, and is saving her money from hunting ginseng in the woods to go away to high school.

When Halley's father dies in an accident involving an illegal moonshine still, everything changes. Halley's grandparents come immediately -- allegedly to help, but immediately Halley's grandfather insists that her father has gone to hell, because, seeing as Prohibition is alive and well during this time, only sinners have anything to do with moonshine. Rather than defend her late husband, Halley's mother crumples into the girl she grew up as, the daughter of the Baptist fundamentalist preacher who litters the countryside with signs about The Rapture. Kate becomes meek and subservient overnight -- giving up the farm, leaving their town and moving over the hill to live with he and Ma Franklin. It is, as Halley suspected it would be, miserable. Aside from the casual cruelties of a controlling man, there are the indignities of being left alone, when her mother takes a job at the Belton Mill, with Ma Franklin, who is forever nagging her to do this or get that, as if she's a surly, spoiled child. Halley's mother is a colorless shadow of the person she was, and refuses to talk about her late husband - as if he'd never existed. Even Robbie works Halley's nerves, ducking responsibility and making more work for her. But the very worst thing is having her dreams of an education totally extinguished. Pa Franklin is good at snuffing out the dreams of others - after all, the only thing in his mind everyone should be dreaming of is Heaven. Pa Franklin's version of heaven is where he always gets his way, and where he has complete and total, Bible-sanctioned rights over his entire family, and his dog.

Fortunately, Pa Franklin's idea of heaven, and even his domineering heaven-on-earth doesn't exist for long -- and Halley's salvation from his rigid, joyless household is closer than she thinks... All it will take is resistance.

PEAKS: In many ways, this book of historical fiction parallels the American woman's fight for freedom. Women were emerging from a long "ornamental" period by the 1920's and some of them were stepping out, taking secretarial jobs, driving their own cars, and bobbing their hair. What started as a 20's lark surged into necessity by the 1930's as The Great Depression galvanized every able-bodied worker into doing their share to keep afloat. Women worked in mills, and their men ranged far and wide repairing roads and planting trees in Roosevelt's New Deal programs intended to strengthen the sagging economy. There was no time to worry about whether women should be making their own choices and shouldering their own weight -- except in tiny towns and villages in the deep country, where progress hadn't yet really happened. The author notes that The Depression hung on longer in the mountain towns of Georgia; so did old attitudes about women and family. It is against this tyrannical bent toward control that Halley - and her mother and grandmother - must battle. It is significant that despite the many things that seem to be against them, the real adversary is a single man who believes himself to be backed by a single book and a single god... however, against him, a single word eventually suffices: NO.

In the words of John Stuart Mill, "Bad men need nothing more to compass their ends, than that good men should look on and do nothing." When the women of Halley's family stand together and stand against the abuse of power in their midst, Pa Franklin's reign of terror ends.

It is awesome.

There are interesting historical "cameos" in this novel; a young woman finds religion - and embraces it, telling everyone she's been called to preach. She's attractive and vibrant and may remind readers of another notable woman preacher of the 1920's-30's, Aimee Semple McPherson. There's also a trouser-wearing, female photographer in the novel. Theodora Langford is a sensation to the mountain towns, and of special interest to Halley, seeing as she's a woman out on her own, making her own decisions, and her cameo is obvious, as even her name is reminiscent of the great photographer Dorothea Lange.

VALLEYS: Though the novel's title character is meant to be the protagonist, the novel is as much about Halley's mother and grandmother, in many ways. Unfortunately, this division of focus doesn't allow readers to get as close to Halley OR her mother OR her grandmother as they could if this was wholly either of their stories. The split focus dilutes the feeling that this is a young adult novel. I suspect many adults who don't mind slow pacing and rich details of "olden days" will enjoy this more than teen readers. It's difficult to get a sense of Halley's feelings on various topics. It's clear she hates her grandfather and resents her grandmother and is bitterly disappointed in her mother, and rightly so - but not much else seems to penetrate. Halley is depicted as many of the characters in Northern Georgia's Blue Ridge Mountains - as resilient and tough, pragmatic and a bit taciturn. Though she is fourteen, there's very little of the young girl about her, and though we are told that she reads, we don't get a sense of her favorite books, nor much of her inner mind. Care is lavished, however, on the setting and her observations of the world around her.

One group which is only lightly touched on is the Klan. They're alive and well during this time, "correcting" Southerners, black and white, with their beat-downs and cross burnings. Halley seems to have no opinion on them whatsoever. I found that surprising.

There is only one African American family in the novel - Opal Gower is unfortunately exceptional, with a mystical power of healing - trending close to the "magical Negro" trope. Opal also has the goal of going away to high school, and to study to be a doctor. Halley thinks of their similarities without any sense of irony, and envies Opal going away to school. I was a little nonplussed that Halley doesn't seem to think that Opal might have a few problems with her dreams. For all that the rest of the novel takes care to stay true to historical context, it seems a little disingenuous that Halley has such a blind spot about Opal and her position within the community and the larger world.

Kirkus said, in its starred review, "A Depression-era novel defined by the hard-edged beauty of its rural Southern setting." Though this isn't the mellowed, warm and whimsical South of a Flannery O'Connor or Harper Lee novel, fans of Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, Ingrid Law's SAVVY will feel on familiar ground. Halley isn't as relatable as Katherine Paterson's TERABITHIA or Susan Patron's heroine in THE HIGHER POWER OF LUCKY but readers will find the hard lives and determination of these women realistic and detailed.

You can find HALLEY by FAYE GIBBONS online, or at an independent bookstore near you!

September 04, 2014

Thursday Review: THE WRENCHIES by Farel Dalrymple

Click to embiggen. Totally worth it.
Two things to get out there right away: 1. I received a review copy of this book from First Second, and 2. I'd definitely recommend this one for an older YA/crossover audience, due to some fright/violence/swearing moments.

I'll also come right out and say THIS: this one is WEIRD. It is surreal, and it is bizarre, and yes, it all holds together in an utterly take-it-as-it-comes, magic-realism sort of way. It is layered, stories within stories, meta upon meta. Sometimes it's confusing. Is it the story of Sherwood, a kid who walked into a cave with his brother, ended up killing a scary, zombie-esque Shadowsman and finding an amulet and never being the same again? Or is it the story of Hollis, kid-in-a-superhero-costume, decades later, next-door-neighbor to grown-up, alcoholic, troubled Sherwood? Or is it the story of the Wrenchies of the title, a gang of kids in a post-apocalyptic wasteland, fighting zombies until they reach their inevitable adulthood and become zombies themselves? (Hmm, symbolic, that…) Are the Wrenchies simply a comic book created by Sherwood, or are they real? YOU DECIDE. (No, really. And then come tell me, because I haven't decided what's real and what isn't, in this story…or maybe the point is NOT to know.)

Oh, and the artwork. The artwork! This one has some of the most memorable, amazing, jaw-dropping artwork I've seen in a comic in a while. Scratchy and dirty and grim, yet fully-realized and beautiful; horrifying and gorgeous by turns (and sometimes at the same time). There were so many individual panels, small and large, that I felt were just little stand-alone masterpieces on their own. I can't even imagine how long this one took to draw. Or how the writing proceeded, for that matter—in a way it's almost free-form, stream-of-consciousness, but it's got so many layers, and things do sort of come together in the end. Kind of.

If you like stories you can easily follow and know what's happening, The Wrenchies might not be for you. But if you don't mind taking a ride through a strange world, with a lonely young boy named Hollis as your sometime adventuring companion, there is some fascinating stuff here. It's just…super difficult to talk about.

You can find THE WRENCHIES by Farel Dalrymple online, or at an independent bookstore near you!

September 02, 2014


I was just starting grad school when the bright, thick, door-stopper of a book, BORN CONFUSED came out. I read it in between cramming other studies in, and found its sharply delineated cross-cultural content unlike much of the homogenized young adult literature I'd read before. Dimple Lala was American Born Confused Desi - the ABCD designation a stinging slur which identified she and so many other South Asian American young people -- too Indian to be American in the States, and in India, too American. I wasn't the intended audience for the novel - neither a clubber nor bicultural -- but I identified with the cultural confusion and the lack of identity Dimple found - and surfed on the heady, bright-light descriptions of the bhangra-club fusion scene, sampled the richly layered scents and sounds of South Asian culture as filtered through the lens of young America, and most of all, enjoyed the thoughtful, deep, and often silly Dimple, lining up the world in her viewfinder, doing her best to be real.

Of course I signed RIGHT up to read the sequel as soon as I heard about it.

Summary: A bright doorstopper of a book, I dove into a world where it was instantly apparent that everything had changed. Dimple was older - still hopeful, but foreshadowing clearly indicates to the reader that Something Of Portent will happen. Soon. Dimple and fam are going to India, for her parent's anniversary celebration AND for her cousin-sister Sangita's wedding, but it's clear not all is well. While her mom and dad are off on their own little jaunt, it's clear Sangita is not at all the girl Dimple knew - she's quiet, eyes modestly lowered, and she dresses like a Mumbai Auntie. What's up with that? Where did the jeans go? Kavita - wearing and buying rainbow colored everything - is going to use this trip to come out -- because, it's time to be herself in her own country, what? -- but her mother is so stressed marrying off Sangita -- and making remarks about marrying her off - that Kavity's more caustic and stressed out than ever. And Karsh - Dimple's precious, DJ-music magician man - has lost his groove entirely. Shattered over the death of his father - the shiftless, gambling alcoholic father he so rarely lived with growing up - he's directionless, rudderless... and sailing right into unfriendly waters, as far as Dimple is concerned. The Hare Krishna - and some rasta'd up, dreadlocked little trying-to-be-Indian yoga-blonde - are NOT the answer. Heartbreak looms around the corner.

When Dimple runs into a guy she met in the airport for the second time, it seems like fate. I mean... maybe fate is what's taken Karsh from her, right? So, anything else that happens is... fated? Or, do we -- with both hands on the wheel, eyes open -- construct our own fates?

Another brightly chiaroscuroed, strobe-lit stream-of-consciousness dip into the land of the Lala, BOMBAY BLUES is a non-stop slog to another level of maturity for our girl Dimple.

Peaks: In the extravagant language of the novel, Dimple Lala is headstrong and timid, confident and foolhardy. She's dealing with some serious stuff this time around - more serious, now that she's nineteen and in college. Her cousin's in an arranged marriage -- and just got accepted to art school... where she won't be allowed to go. For Dimple-follow-your-heart-Lala, that's a huge, multi-armed elephant in the room. How can they be together to celebrate a marriage and ...that? Meanwhile, Kavita is trying so hard to be real - own her life as a lesbian woman, but homosexuality - and sex toys - are illegal in India. Who are you if your motherland tells you you're nothing? If your own Mother doesn't see you... who does? Dimple's identity has been to be Karsh's girlfriend -- never the other way around. Always the DJ's appendage, never he, hers. Now that Karsh is stumbling - unrecognizable, with new habits, new friends and new -- utterly foreign -- music, does his stumble pull down Dimple, too? And, once she falls - how far will she go, and how will she be when she lands? Circling from America to India to London and back, Dimple's identity is no longer just a question of ABCD -- now it's American Desi vs. South Asian Desis - two vastly different groups. And the question, as always, is - who is Dimple? And, is loving her as she is... enough?

The vast breadth of this novel -- the stream-of-consciousness, blow-by-blow, tell-every-thought gives the reader the feeling of really being there, and reminds me quite a bit of the vibe I got from reading THIS IS ALL: The Pillow Book of Cordelia Kenn awhile ago. This book is intensely crammed into the present - there's just a LOT on every page, in every chapter.

Valleys: The language of the novel is both beautiful and at times relentless and impenetrable. Readers might find their gazes glazing at the stream-of-consciousness outpouring, reminiscent of a club scene where all is frenetic, intermittently lit, and whiplash inducing. While the chaos is reflective of both internal dis-ease and the constant pulse of Bombay - or Mumbai - the sea of bobbing, bouncing, color-smeared crazy sometimes leaves the reader outside of the narrative. It was something which with I struggled in the first book, but a second read enabled me to gloss over the concepts which didn't matter, and the hopefulness and naiveté of the protagonist dragged me to the conclusion. In the sequel, Dimple is - understandably - weary. Betrayed - betraying - and so eagerly hoping for a new lease on life that she takes risks which seem a little out of character. In the end, the overarching storyline reaches out and pulls her back into its grasp -- with far fewer consequences, perhaps, than would have taken place in real life. Though I sort of phoned it in during the clubbing scenes, I know that other readers will find the vibe intoxicating. This book is a worthy offering to the BORN CONFUSED fanbase.

You can find BOMBAY BLUES by Tanuja Desai Hidier online, or at an independent bookstore near you!