April 30, 2015
Rambling on a Thursday Afternoon...
Saturday, for instance, I'll be attending the SCBWI Northern California Spring Spirit conference, a one-day event in Citrus Heights (nearly 2 hours away! sigh) with Matt de la Pena as the keynote (yay) as well as several interesting-looking breakout sessions. Matt's will be on writing dialogue, and I'm going to that one; I'm also attending sessions on writing humor and on developing a good school visit program. And there is HOMEWORK I have to do beforehand, because evidently everything I do nowadays has homework in addition to the actual work. ('Sup with that, universe??)
Going back to the grading fun, though...I've decided I want to start a Tumblr solely for the purpose of posting cartoons. Some of these will be my writing-related Toon Thursdays, but for quite a while now I've been collecting amusing student errors from essays, and I would also like to turn some of those into cartoons. Right now my struggles are twofold: 1) time (the perpetual problem) and 2) a title. I don't want to call it Toon Thursday, because it's too much pressure. It implies I'm going to post something regularly on Thursdays, and I've already established pretty conclusively that drawing a weekly cartoon may or may not happen.
But! This is going to happen, people. Stay tuned.
April 27, 2015
Monday Review: The SHADOWFELL Trilogy by Juliet Marillier
So it's no surprise that Alban is peopled with not only…people, but also Good Folk, fey creatures that seem like they leapt straight out of the pages of Brian Froud. Good Folk and humans—well, they cohabitate in Alban, but at best, they have an uneasy truce. Ancient wisdom says they can never fight on the same side. But, in the face of a tyrannical ruler, that ancient wisdom might have to be challenged. The only way to do this, says that same lore, is through a Caller: someone with the canny skill of calling the Good Folk to the same side as the humans.
Peaks: This trilogy completely absorbed me. True, I'm predisposed to like most anything that deals with lore of the British Isles, but Marillier's storytelling is immersive and her land of Alban, vivid and magical. It was a very solidly plotted trilogy, as well, with what felt like constant action and tension propelling things forward to the denouement in the third book, The Caller, which I just finished. Neryn and Flint, as narrators, are easy to relate to, and this makes the difficult choices they are faced with, the awful things they must bear witness to, all the more believable and wrenching. There aren't easy answers or entirely happy endings in this book; sacrifices must be made and loved ones must be lost for the ultimate cause of freedom and justice. War ain't easy.
Conclusion: Starting with Shadowfell, continuing with Raven Flight, and concluding in The Caller, all three of the books in this trilogy are now out, so if you are the type of reader who simply can't wait out a cliffhanger, then you're in luck. (As I neared the ending of The Caller, I was actually scared this might not be the last Shadowfell book, but this plot arc, at least, was concluded…and then I was kind of sad because it's over…There's no pleasing me, evidently.) Fans of books about the faerie world, from Maggie Stiefvater to Charles de Lint, won't want to miss this trilogy; and if you like strong female protagonists, you'll want to throw in your lot with Neryn.
I received my copy of Books 1 and 3 courtesy of the library, and bought Book 2 as a Kindle ebook. You can find SHADOWFELL, RAVEN FLIGHT, and THE CALLER by Juliet Marillier at an online e-tailer, or at a real life, independent bookstore near you!
April 25, 2015
Psst. Enjoying The Forever Girls?
Happy Weekend! Enjoy The Forever Girls, a little tale by graphic novelist and cartoonist (& Melissa Wiley's beau) Scott Peterson, with artwork by artist and animator Monica Bruenjes. So much to love here: Snow White is seriously Nordic, Rapunzel can give you whiplash with her braids, Cinderella looks like she's annoyed to be putting up with fairytale nonsense again, and I love the expression on Wendy's face, and that she carries a Union Jack umbrella - and beats on annoying creatures with it. Long live fractured - and restructured - fairytales, and doughty heroines.
April 24, 2015
TURNING PAGES: UNDERTOW by MICHAEL BUCKLEY
I've read two adventures lately which I can only describe as "cinematic." There's so much chaotic action, I can easily imagine the novel translating itself to film - and the book trailer at the bottom goes right along with that -- this would make a superb movie hook. I'm not entirely certain that the chaos/adventure thing makes for the most complete story arc in a book - I have a feeling that this is the beginning of a series - but this is a capital 'A' imaginative adventure of the watery kind - with a deadly edge.
Summary: Lyric Walker was there the day the Alphas came up out of the waves near Coney Island. A somewhat rough neighborhood, Coney Island is policed by well-meaning - and overworked men like Lyric's patrolman father and brought together by the community-building of people like her yoga teacher mother, a beach-loving hippie chick who "gets" Lyric, and has been helping her combat her massive migraines since she was a tiny girl with waterfront yoga. The sea is a big deal to both of them, but Coney Island isn't the greatest place to live -- the racial intolerance is bad, the public schools are pathetic, and everyone's goal is to someday get out of the neighborhood -- and live somewhere else. It's an especially horrible place for Lyric's best friend, Bex, whose stepfather makes her life a living hell, and for their friend Shadow, whose mother is in the country illegally.
Lyric, now with a packed away closet-full of vintage clothing and a backpack full of escape plans -- was just like everyone else - until the day the Alphas came. Coney Island is the last place anyone should have expected... aliens, and yet, here they were with oddly wide-spaced eyes, freaky, see-through skin and bones that jutted out of their arms like blades. These aren't the pretty Little Mermaid style - they were a freak show, and Lyric wanted nothing to do with them. Neither did anyone else -- and there are all sorts of gun-toting police and National Guardsmen patrolling the streets to make sure that peace is kept. For Lyric, it's all way too close to home. She just wants this all to disappear, or, barring that, for she and her family to disappear. Too bad the freakish new principal, Mr. Doyle, insists that Lyric get up close and personal with one of them - and he's offering her what she needs in return. Too bad the more time Lyric spends finding things out, the more strange and twisted the truth becomes. Too bad that the Alphas turn out not to be the worst thing her the world, in the end...
Peaks: An imaginative setting, quick-paced action, hard choices and high stakes. Like Zoraida Córdova's Vicious Deep series, the mermaids aren't real sweet -- and some of them are outright disgusting looking. I kind of like the horror show effect, because honestly, if you take the time to really stare at fish and jellyfish, it can get a little squicky to imagine them as human.
Valleys: Not gonna lie; this book has a great many of the earmarks of a Things Teens Like type of book, which means it will work very well for some, but though the setting is really well-done, this novel lacks a bit of originality and depth in the storytelling. It's supposed to take on gang violence, bullying, and racism as a discussion -- but actually doesn't dig down too far. Yes, it's mean to dislike the aliens and call them fish people and to punish those in the community for trying to help them, and calling them fish lovers, etc. etc.. That is Bad and no one should do that, or beat them up, or kill them... well, that's obvious, but we all know that - could the author tell us something bigger, some deeper truth? I think it's okay to both challenge and entertain readers.
The characterization of the evil people was a bit cinematic (READ: single-dimensional) - bad gangsta type black kids, check. Bad boy Latin lover type (with whom cop's daughter Lyric is slumming), check. Threatening/crazy government/FBI/CIA type, check - Governor Bachman's name immediately reminded me of Michele Bachmann (so maybe her single-dimensional evil was fact-based, so never mind). The novel also took a very traditional approach of storytelling within the appearance of newness. Instead of sticking with the parade of odd-looking aliens and really filling out the xenophobia and fear aspect there were the Beautiful People types of aliens because... possibly the author didn't feel YA lit was ready for the transgressive act of non-Beautiful People being the love interest. Imagine if someone had the hots for someone who didn't look beautiful/deadly but beautiful creepy/weird/odd, and they had to do the work to get to love their inner person! I was disappointed - because the baffling and violent character was crushed on at least 9/10ths for his beauty - but then, Lyric never said she was anyone super deep, and "insta-love" is a tried and true YA trope.
Meanwhile, SPOILERS here: In terms of diversity, there were "thug" types who made up the majority of the brown people who got brief (thuggish) speaking parts within the novel and then there was the exceptional Tito - and spoilers ahead - he dies. For Bex, a white character, who manages to somehow put him in the line of fire simply because... the plot needed someone to die for nothing really. Yes, the magical Latino lives (albeit briefly). I was deeply disappointed by this; we never really know the character before he was gone, and it's meant to be a big moment when he dies, because it finally forces Bex to ...act for herself... which is odd, but whatever. However, the story arc by that point is so packed... there's so much else going on that the characters that even those who ostensibly love Tito don't really seem to mind too much past the memorial service that he's gone. He felt really extraneous to the plot and to the lives of the main characters, and it always saddens me when a character of color is killed and it doesn't matter, because WOW, we have enough of that going on in real life.
Conclusion: Seriously, does that not remind you of District 9 and other post-apocalyptic invasion-type stories which have been really memorable? This is cinematic, oh, yes indeed. Worth your time for a summer airport/ waiting room/ beach read? Sure, especially if you like paranormal adventure series - it'll suck you right in. If you like fast-paced action series with an antihero sort of love interest and "quiet girl gets pushed to the center and saves the world" types of books, then you're set.
I received my copy of this book courtesy of NetGalley. After May 5th, 2015, you can find UNDERTOW by Michael Buckley at an online e-tailer, or at a real life, independent bookstore near you!
April 23, 2015
IN TANDEM: HUSH, by JACQUELINE WOODSON
Welcome to another edition of In Tandem, the read-and-review blog series where both A.F. and I give our on-the-spot commentary as we read and team blog a book together. (You can feel free to guess which of us is the yellow owl and which of us is the purple owl...we're not telling!)
Whenever book awards are announced, we're intrigued -- and sometimes bewildered. There are SO many books published every year, it's hard to keep up with them based on buzz and word of mouth. Oftentimes many of the weighty "worthies" which are awarded are virtual unknowns to us -- but not this time. When this year's National Book Awards were announced, we cheered again for Jacqueline Woodson, one of the winningest authors we know. We're familiar with Jacqueline Woodson's work, much of which can be characterized with the words "quiet," and "intelligent" and "revealing." Despite the hype about other writers inventing realistic fiction, anyone who reads a Woodson book knows that's simply not true - and hasn't been for her entire career. Because much of what we'd read of Woodson's was a.) middle grade, and b.) picture books and c.) a long while back, we hadn't blogged more than one of her books here. We decided to read and tandem-blog a Woodson book - one we knew nothing about, one that hadn't won any particular awards - and randomly chose HUSH. As we explored this short, poignant book, we found it wasn't nearly as straightforward as it appeared. While we've done our best to outright avoid spoilers, some of the plot is revealed in a general fashion, so reader be advised. Without any other caveats, we invite you to join us as we discuss this book, which we discovered was a National Book Award finalist (Ms. Woodson seems to be inescapably award-winning - that's what we get for just going by sticker/lack of sticker on a cover). We're...
& Two readers,
With one book.
Evie Thomas is not who she used to be. Once she had a best friend, a happy home and a loving grandmother living nearby. Once her name was Toswiah.We read library copies of this book in the treehouse. You can find HUSH by Jacqueline Woodson at an online e-tailer, or at a real life, independent bookstore near you.
Now, everything is different. Her family has been forced to move to a new place and change their identities. But that's not all that has changed. Her once lively father has become depressed and quiet. Her mother leaves teaching behind and clings to a new-found religion. Her only sister is making secret plans to leave.
And Evie, struggling to find her way in a new city where kids aren't friendly and the terrain is as unfamiliar as her name, wonders who she is.
Jacqueline Woodson weaves a fascinating portrait of a thoughtful young girl's coming of age in a world turned upside down.
tanita: So, this book... surprised me. I tried really hard to avoid reading the jacket copy or knowing much of anything that it was about, aside from the single-sentence WorldCat description. And then, I was reading along and the phrase "the blue wall of silence" just sort of popped out at me. And, I was like, "Hmmmmmmmmm."
I wanted to read HUSH because of the microtrend identified at STACKED awhile ago, as Kelly Jensen blogged about the sudden splash YA witness protection novels were making. I didn't know anything about witness protection or why the people in HUSH were even in protective arrangements ... and the reason now makes me wonder about the people - the families of the people - involved in the recent police violence and filmings of police brutality and misconduct, and in the ensuing court cases... where are they now? Is this their lives now? I love it when a book just pulls me right into the moment and slaps me upside the head. I love when it takes me off-center from what would normally be my focus. What's ironic/weird/funnynotfunny is that this book was written in 2002. We've either entered a serious time warp or society is going backwards. Either way....
aquafortis: I've read the first chapter and I am already in love with the author's sense of the musicality of language, and how quickly she draws these characters, this family, for us. I'm kind of in awe.
It's also very interesting that a book which might traditionally be framed as a suspense story and go straight to the danger and whatnot, really isn't about that, at least so far. What we're getting instead is a story of what's been lost, of coping and grieving, of having to give up who you are just when you're starting to figure it out. I remember reading, ages ago, a Lois Duncan book about a family in witness protection, and I think that's the type of story I tend to associate with witness protection as a theme: suspense, somebody's-after-you-- Don't Look Behind You was the name of the book. Rarely, it seems, are the PEOPLE and their feelings and their upended lives the focus.
tanita: Oh, I agree -- I love Jacqueline Woodson's writing style - how her "quiet" books nevertheless have a massive, ringing impact on the reader. Woodson keeps our focus tightly honed in on the characters - how she structures the novel really works toward that. Opening the story in the "before," with all that Toswiah had and what she lost feels like the right decision because it helps articulate the now so much better, and the heartbreak she experienced.
Right there, that evening with Inspector Albert Oliver standing on our porch, biting on his cuticle, is the point where I'd pause. Then I'd press stop and my father would still be a cop in Denver, his uniform pressed, his shoes shined, his face calm and smiling. HUSH, by Jacqueline Woodson, p. 50
aquafortis: YES--that moment right there was so poignant and sad. This book is packed with images like that, almost like static photos of Toswiah/Evie's life before; still frames that she can never have back.
tanita: Yes - I like that use of imagery. So, the theme is identity - loss - loss of identity, and there's this sense of desolation -- not a lot of whining, but desolation brought to life in just a few word pictures. Continuing through this story, I'm drawn as well to the characterization. The language is still somehow spare, even with all if evokes.
aquafortis: I agree--it's impressive how the author has such a spare use of language and yet packs so much in. It's not at all surprising that she's written books-in-verse. There's the constant sense that the words are conveying so much more than they're saying on the surface, as with poetry.
tanita: Interesting that you mention poetry - Woodson is a poet, and I think that actually informs a lot of her prose writing style. It gives each word she chooses that certain heft and polish that poets seem to use.
"Afraid" is this hollowed-out place that sometimes feels bigger than I am. Most days my fear is as long as my shadow, as big as my family's closet of skeletons." p. 77
Along with the evocative and beautiful language, the narrative really resonates with me on a personal level because I find myself, day after day, nostalgic for a time when I waved at the police from the backseat of our station wagon, a time when I trusted the police, when I proudly wore the little silver star my adopted uncle left me with his badge number etched on it, and the words "police niece." Toswiah -- Evie -- is not only grieving for the name she's lost, she's grieving for lost innocence. That's huge, and to lose innocence and identity so early in life is devastating... because innocence, once lost, is not recaptured, and our identities are always a shifting thing anyway - we chase after who we are for so much of our lives, once we become adolescents anyway that this seems like loss piled upon loss. Even if she recovers herself, to my mind, Evie will always have a cynical part of herself, and that's really painful -- and really true -- of our society in many ways right now.
aquafortis: It is cynical, and true, and so, so sad. Stories like this, and like the ones we are seeing reported so often in the news recently (as opposed to before, when they would happen and go unrecorded and uncontested) make me want to cry because it's not the type of world I want to live in or want young people to grow up in, and yet it IS, and the stories must be told if we ever want to change anything. Evie is a perfect narrator for this story because she epitomizes the lost innocence of the observer, caught up in events beyond her control.
tanita: Having finished with this novel, I know why it was shelved and marketed to YA readers, but at twelve, then thirteen, then fourteen, Evie is definitely a young adult, with all of the growing and changing that implies. I think this novel would appeal so very much to thirteen- to-fifteen-year-olds, just experiencing those shifts, wherein life kind of transitions from one piece to the next -- because this novel would help them maybe understand and articulate the things that are going on inside, from being able to have such an articulate character go through some of the same thing.
aquafortis: Right, and one of the most powerful themes that comes in here with her coming of age is the idea of names, and their power, and the power we have to name ourselves and in doing so, not only invent ourselves but fix our sense of self in place. One of the most touching moments of this story for me was when Evie's track teammates decide to start calling her Spider, and she settles into it, into an identity, for the first time in a very long time. Names are such a fundamental part of how we connect with others; and one of the many ways in which their family was uprooted, besides physically, was psychically--they couldn't be themselves, NAME themselves, even to one another.
The bullet holes were like small black caves against the white kitchen wall. I stared at them without blinking. I was not afraid. Some part of us that had been the same way forever was gone. The holes in the walls proved it... p. 54
tanita: You mentioned that danger wasn't what the book focused on -- but in a way, in many ways, it's what's underneath, as we see later in the story.
This is a short novel -only 180 pages in hardback - and so it's taken me a very short time to read it, yet it's taken a much longer time to take it in emotionally. This is... a kind of huge book. It's about identity and race and the limits of friendship and family -- all terribly personal and painful, yet beautiful. It brings you in, with the language, but I kept flinching away from and circling back to the... reality.
aquafortis: Yes, I've been reading it in slow sips, because I need the time in between to let the story sink in and...sort of expand inside my mind. Like the TARDIS, it's bigger on the inside. There is so much here.
tanita: Final thought: Two things stand out to me - one, that adults can have these losses of self, too, which can actually be pretty vital information to teens, since it's easy to get caught up in your own drama and forget that everyone is fighting a battle. Both of Evie's parents fall short, in their own ways. Two, the truth of that lovely quote from A Farewell to Arms - "The world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong in the broken places." I can see this so appealing to teens finding out about those first breaks - and giving them a peculiar kind of comfort, that everyone fractures, and that those fractures heal. I look at Evie - and Anna - and I know, I just know, that to be true. And more than that, it reminds me that this can be true of all of us, too.
aquafortis: Yes. It CAN be true of all of is, and it so often is, whether we're young or adult. Having that hope that our wounds will heal, even if we aren't the same afterward--is so important. We all need to remind ourselves that the fact of not being the same, the fact of growth and change and metamorphosis, doesn't mean that we are negating ourselves in the process.
Thanks again for reading another of our Tandem Reviews! There will be more...
April 20, 2015
Themed Cybils Reading Lists!
Robot Stories for Elementary Readers
Read Aloud Fiction Picture Books
Fun and Funny Fantasy Read Alouds for the Whole Family
Ten Cybils Poetry Books
Young Adult High Fantasy
This is the Cybils Awards crew's latest addition to their wonderful and growing collection of children's and young adult book resources. The books aren't limited to this year's contest, so you'll find a wide range of titles from the contest's inception in 2006 through the 2014 awards. I was happy to see that I'd read ALL the YA High Fantasy books on the list, EXCEPT ONE! :) One book that will now immediately go on my Want-To-Read list...
April 17, 2015
TURNING PAGES: THE LUMBERJANES Vol 1, by Noelle Stevenson, Grace Ellis, Brooke Allen, and Shannon Watters
It's a truth acknowledged universally &tc. that I am not the artsy person in this blogging duo. A.F. - she draws, she's Cybil'd, she has the degree, etc. - so she has the relationships with the graphic novel companies and the graphic novels are her schtick. I... don't know from graphic novels really, and as I've said before, when I was a kid, the only comic books we got were, like, someone's horrible version of the New Testament in graphic form. It was pretty guy-centric, which ironically is probably why (in addition to the muddy artwork and cheap paper) it wasn't something I wanted to read at all. But this comic book series I really wanted to read - not because Leila pretty well rolled around and squealed about it when it first came out, and not only because it was written by a bunch of ladies but mainly because it was about a bunch of lady-types at a kind of scout-y style summer camp. I did scout-y style summer camp for six years - it wasn't just for hardcore lady-types, and we sadly did not have a Pungeon Master patch, but it represented the kind of hands-on fun that makes summers memorable.
Summary: Five good friends - Jo, April, Molly, Mal and Ripley, and we have no idea how they know each other, but they are apparently friends - are together at the Miss Quinzella Thiskwin Penniquiqul Thistle Crumpet's Camp for
Girls Hardcore Lady Types. They're just trying to hang out and have a summer, but Things keep happening - first, Things happen in the woods. Then, Things happen down a hole and in a tunnel. Things keep the girls out of "normal" camp activities (whatever those are), make their counselor, Jen, snippy with them, and get them the wink and the nod from camp director Rosie, a Lumberjane lady-type who herself is fond of the odd adventure - and knows what's behind the Things in the woods, possibly.
Each of the girls has particular (and peculiar) strengths to offer the group - super strength at one point, higher math skills, puzzles and punning, no particular fear of weird glowing eyes/rocks/river monsters, etc. - and in an action-packed story arc that is kind of like a Choose Your Own Adventure novel if someone chose the wrong action almost every time, they lurch from one near-disaster to the next - in an endearing way, with a little bickering and plenty of lady-centric exclamations along the way ("Oh, my Bessie Coleman" has got to be the most ladylike exclamation ever.)
Peaks: I love the layout of the books, which place pictures, scrapbook style, atop open pages of Miss Thiskwin's somewhat rambling handbook narratives on the things which a Lumberjane should be able to do to conquer the natural world (not live in harmony with it, no, no, no, subdue that troublesome puppy). The drawings vary by artist, but the girls are always identifiable by their own particular quirks - a splash of blue hair dye, a coonskin cap, etc. Even the paper on which the book is printed has a really nice feel, which is more important that one might realize.
The next obvious positive is the characters. These girls are completely different from each other - but manage to fit. I would have probably tried to drown Ripley once or twice for her completely heedless, hyperactive plunging into -- everything -- but the girls simply hold onto her and redirect her rather than complain. Which is pretty cool of them. Because there are five girls, one of them sometimes feels like the literal fifth wheel - but no lady-type is left behind here, unlike camp in real life, and the girls are always there for each other, in a non-cheesy, and sometimes somewhat wordless way, which is really nice.
Valleys: There aren't really valleys with this book, per se -- because I'm not really a comic book person, I have little quibbles and objections to things that may just be part of the comic book experience - for instance, I want to know where the girls come from, and if they met at camp. I want to witness them getting to know each other. I want to see more girls and to compare them to the girls in our cabin - is it only Roanoke where things are completely bizarre? Are the girls trying to keep that a secret from everyone else?
Sooo, mainly, the biggest drawback here is that there isn't more story IMMEDIATELY. *sigh* Reader greed, when it's a serial story, is an ongoing problem, which is why I'm likely to continue to buy the books as they come out, instead of getting the weekly comic -- I can't take not knowing NOW.
Conclusion: For my first-ever purchase of a comic book, I feel this was a pretty successful series with which to begin. The fact that these are five girls in a cabin called "Roanoke" gave me a grin - scouting camp in the Bermuda Triangle of lost colonies explains the Three-Eyed Things in the Woods fairly well for me. I love that Rosie is a camp director who enjoys woodwork and looks like a refugee from the 1950's. I love that each girl is allowed to be herself. Whimsical and quirky, this adventure left space for the reader to relate to both storyline and characters (though I really think my camp should rethink not having a pun honor) and included boys, but didn't let them be the center-stage in either campcraft or adventures. It's a happy thought to know the series is ongoing, and I'm ready for the next volume in October.
I purchased my copy of this book. You can find THE LUMBERJANES Vol 1 by Noelle Stevenson, Grace Ellis, Brooke Allen, Shannon Watters at an online e-tailer, or at a real life, independent comic book store near you!
April 16, 2015
Bits, Bobs, and Blurbs
The upshot is, I'm trying to craft something that's enticing, that is specific to the story at hand rather than generic. I also keep reminding myself that I'm not writing a review...which is what I'm more used to doing...
In the process of my neurotic googling over the past few days, I also ran across this article in the New York Times on self-doubt and its pernicious ability to cripple writerly creativity. We writers have a unique relationship to our inner critics--as the article's author points out, "the problem with my inner critic is that it’s inseparable from my outer critic, which is the means by which I earn a fair proportion of what for rhetorical purposes I will call 'my living.'" We are forever faced with the dilemma of having to compartmentalize our capacity for self-criticism, harness it for productive purposes when it's expedient and necessary, and ignoring it when we need to. I'm still struggling with that dilemma, myself, but it is reassuring, sort of, to remind myself it's all a part of the writer's process.
National Poetry Month continues with the Poetically Speaking series over on Miss Print--today's post features fellow YA author Justina Chen interviewing poets Janet S. Wong and Sylvia Vardell about their poetry anthologies. Go forth and be poetic!
April 14, 2015
TURNING PAGES: COLD BURN OF MAGIC by JENNIFER ESTEP
I'm always intrigued when authors I've read in adult fiction turn their attention to the YA realm. I've only read one other Estep YA and felt like I had a lot of catching up to do with this novel. The protag was so familiar - if you've read Estep's ELEMENTAL ASSASSIN series, this is Teen Gin, I kid you not - but what is kind of shrug-worthy/acceptable in an adult character like Gin is sometimes off-putting in a young adult character - which is weird. I guess in my head, the adults have years of reasons for bitterness and snark; the teens... seem to need more explanation, which is totally unfair, because they don't, it's not as if young feelings aren't real, but I like what I like and I didn't like Lila Merriweather at first. It took me awhile to get into this novel, but once in, the fast-paced action made it fly by.
Summary: Lila is slick-like-Teflon, hard-nosed and deft and all of those things work to her advantage, living as a thief in a city full of rubes like Cloudburst Falls, "the most magical place in America," "Where fairy tales are real." Due to the bloodiron mines there, it's full of magic, sure, thus the tourists Lila fleeces for a living. There's a zoo full of carefully penned scary creatures, a gigantic midway, ice cream and boardwalks and it's all a perfect place for a fantastic summer vacation, 'til the tourists see the monsters aren't always carefully caged ... but they always come back. Rubes, right? Lila only has a little magic, but it's enough for her to eke out a living on the very bottom of society. Her fence, Mo, helps her negotiate the crazy-complicated world of Cloudburst Falls - run entirely by a magical Mob. If you're not Family, you're not anybody. The Draconi, Sinclair and Ito families are the cream-of-the-top. And Lila hates them all. They are responsible for her mother's death, and she'd just as happily see them fight each other to bloody extinction -- but when a fight truly comes her way, she's in before her heart can say no. She's saved a guy's life -- and in return, she's pressed into serving his family as a bodyguard. It's not the type of job where people live very long -- and Lila doesn't want it to begin with. But, there's more to this job - and to this Family - than Lila expected.
Peaks: The novel is fast-paced, has a smidgen of diversity and the hope for more, and the myriad "new things per page" which make a novel sing. I like the creatures, especially. I mean, tree trolls and a lochness seem like something from a really fun video game. Add dialogue and characters to my game, and color me happy.
The secondary characters are really well built -- there are no wallpaper people, despite the fact that there's a long and ridiculous history of "the Mob" in the entertainment media, and the Family in this book stays close to type, especially Victor Draconi. But, thanks to Lila's extra senses, we get more than we expected from the characters - even the Pixies have personalities.
Valleys: Lila, as previously mentioned, is kind of a hardcase. It may be difficult to like her - but don't let that stop you from reading. The novel echoes much of the author's style, and you may find yourself thinking you're reading a novel you've read before, in terms of the tough-but-tender protagonist characterization, etc. Hopefully, Lila will continue to differentiate herself.
Don't be surprised if you guess the major villain in the novel - it's basically child's play, but I think that's nothing we need to worry about - because he's only the tip of the iceberg, and this is a first book in a series.
Conclusion: This is gigantic-tub-of-buttered-popcorn type of a book - just that slightest bit addictive, fast-moving, and you'll crunch through 'til the end and find yourself groping around for more. Hopefully, the wait won't be too long!
I received my copy of this book courtesy of Kensington Teens via NetGalley. After April 28th, you can find COLD BURN OF MAGIC by Jennifer Estep at an online e-tailer, or at a real life, independent bookstore near you!
April 13, 2015
Poetry Month Roundup: Novels in Verse
|Roz Chast's Poetry Month poster - request it here!|
In any case, I rounded up what we do have in terms of reviews of novels in verse or heavily featuring verse in the storytelling:
Hesse, Karen: Witness
Koertge, Ron: Coaltown Jesus and Shakespeare Bats Cleanup
Koyczan, Shane: To This Day
McCormick, Patricia: Sold
Sandell, Lisa: The Weight of the Sky
Venkatraman, Padma: A Time to Dance
Wein, Elizabeth: Rose Under Fire
Wolff, Virginia Euwer: Make Lemonade
This was a useful exercise for me because I really need to make more of an effort to read the occasional novel in verse. I know there are fantastic ones out there, and when I do read them I generally enjoy them, but for some reason I'm often reluctant to pick them up in the first place. I guess I usually prefer stand-alone poems. Ah, well, it is what it is...
April 09, 2015
In Tandem: PINNED, by Sharon G. Flake
Pinned is a great fit for us here in Wonderland, with its two complex and indomitable main characters, both of whom expand and redefine the boundaries of ability and disability. It's also a book featuring characters of color who defy stereotypes in all kinds of ways--Autumn is strong, sure, and the only girl on her school's wrestling team, while Adonis is in a wheelchair, yes, but also prides himself (and I mean PRIDE) on being the smartest guy in the room. And being Mr. Brainy means he does NOT have time for underachieving jocks like Autumn--even if she has a crush on him the size of Mt. Everest. We found a lot to talk about with this one, needless to say.
& Two readers,
With one book.
Tanita S. Davis (TSD): The first thing I noticed about this book is that it's not written entirely in SAE, and I know how much "nonstandard" English bugged people in grad school - we talked a lot about patois and all of that. It has nothing to do with the storyline, on the one hand - but on the other hand, it's indicative of who Autumn is, so I think it's a great choice. Readers might have to work to find her state of mind within her tersely truncated speech, I think writers need to write the voices they hear - because it makes the story. Sure, they will get pushback from editors -- because editors edit, and they even will edit BAE, which can be touchy, since it's only somewhat standardized within itself -- but I think that EVERYONE needs that realism in voice. It can make the difference between a good story and a great one, and allow the writer to get the correct distance from the narrative.
Sarah J. Stevenson (SJS): I really think the voice strikes a good balance, where it's easy to read AND to hear, and uses nonstandard English but not to an extreme. (I was just reading a different book in which a character had just WAY too many street-urchin apostrophes for my liking...) I think it IS possible to strike that balance. And I also think it's really important to portray characters like Autumn, for whom school is not easy because reading itself is not easy. It happens so often, I suspect it underlies a lot of academic issues for a lot of people, but it's kind of like a "hidden epidemic" because many just muddle through. I like and appreciate that her parents are taking a certain level of responsibility not only for her difficulties but also for helping her through them.
TSD: I really appreciate that there's talk with and about Autumn's parents in this book. Educational deficits are often generational... and how many of the teens reading this would know that? I can imagine some of them having an "Ohhhhhhhhh..." moment reading that her parents struggled too -- and the biggest drawback from not having that high school diploma is new jobs and moving and new jobs and moving and tearing down and building up over and over, never with enough time to really get anywhere or anything. This novel has that bit of realism that really expands the mind... Certainly if I were a rigid and perfect ...twerp like Adonis, it would enlighten me.
My man Adonis doesn't ask enough questions, methinks.
|The no-holds-barred back cover|
on Tanita's copy.
SJS: Agreed--although I have a different cover (it just has a girl on it, in front of a background with two concentric circles that suggest a wrestling ring and kind of also wheelchair wheels, but otherwise no reference to Mr. Adonis. Boo.). But then--I think to myself, who names their kid Adonis Einstein and doesn't think it's going to give him some kind of complex? So in certain ways it doesn't surprise me that he not only isn't weak, he won't even admit weakness in any way. Even connecting with others on a human level, for him, is out of bounds.
|This was the back cover on my copy.|
SJS: Meanwhile, Autumn is someone who wears her heart on her sleeve and can't help but try to connect, because it's inconceivable not to. She TRIES, lord how she tries, except, like Adonis, she has this one critical problem: Why would I put an effort into something I'm not good at? They are both hard on themselves; in different ways, with very different manifestations, but neither one can truly accept failure. Adonis, in particular, has trapped himself before others can do the same to him. Problem is, Adonis won't even recognize the possibility he might ever fail, and Autumn gives her failures too MUCH power over her.
TSD: Oh, AUTUMN is KILLING ME. I've crushed on a boy who doesn't like me before, but this girl is, like, teflon-coated and a super-hero. SHe never lets him get her. He hurts her, she's momentarily wounded, and then she bounces back up. Words don't ever not hurt -- but if you don't understand them as well as you could, I think that can help insulate you... ALthough Adonis' attitude is clear enough -- ugh. Snobby punk.
SJS: TOTAL agreement on that so far. Adonis. Puh-lease. Total punk. Autumn is definitely a superhero here. How much punishment can one girl take? It's his contempt that really infuriates me, and yet that also makes him very human and very much a teenage boy of a particular type.
TSD: I keep wanting her to give up!!!! I ask myself, "is her persistence... normal?" But, then I can imagine JUST this kind of girl; I had a girl who wanted to be friends with me in high school kind of friend-stalk me like that. She was just... so... enthused. And I was just as much of a punk as Adonis, almost. At least I had such nasty thoughts, I hope I wasn't that rude, but... meh. There was a lot of not answering so I couldn't be called on my attitude. But, honestly, she kind of scared me. She looked up to me and thought I was AWESOME! with exclamation points and sprinkles. I just... wanted her to ... tone it down. To ignoring me.
Annoying that I have more in common with Mr... twerp... than I thought.
SJS: I think a lot of us have been in the situation of not-quite reciprocating the enthusiasm of someone else, whether it's a friendship or a crush. That's going to be familiar for plenty of readers; I know I've been there (and quite possibly I've also been the person on the opposite end doing the annoying, as well).
TSD: I find their observations and interactions with their teachers fairly telling, too. Mr. E, always on a diet makes me a bit sad -- I hope none of my students knew that about me, but I'm pretty sure they picked up on that. Adonis saying that "so what if he's fat, he's smart and nice," is HUGE. I like that Adonis accepts himself, he is very - well, except for being a full on punk at times - he's very well-rounded.
|Photo courtesy of the author's website|
TSD: Ah, yes. Everyone in this book is their own worst enemy - which seems to be the natural state of human beings. *sigh*
So, Autumn as a wrestler - wow. I wanted to spend more time in that place, in her head. She doesn't seem to think anything of being a wrestler. That's not a huge "I'm out of my gender role" thing for her - it seems to be for others, but not so much her. (How much do I love that she BAKES!!) She's full of being ...herself. No dichotomies there, just being ... Autumn. I wish the model on the cover would have reflected her body type more - not that she had to be huge, but wrestler girls look like they can take you down a bit! I love how the work it takes to be a wrestler is applied to other things...
SJS: Yes, I find myself really caring about Autumn and what happens to her--I don't want her to fail, and she is so enthusiastic and kindhearted so good at so many other things that I don't want this particular set of failures to set her back, to hold her down in that bad place where so many students go who are lost in the cracks. She is STRONG, and she is proud of her strength, and I want to see her claim that again and realize that the same things that make her a good person and a good wrestler and baker can be harnessed to help her in other ways.
As we see over the course of the book, both characters learn in critical ways to accept and be who they are, finding that inner core that means you can let go of the damaging notions about yourself that you thought were true and yet still be YOU. Getting yourself out of a rut doesn't mean you're fundamentally changing who you are. For Autumn, she realizes that her real strength is something she's had all along, and for Adonis--well, HE learns that resilience can be stronger than rigidity. In many ways this is a "quiet" story, in that there aren't any drastic melodramatic events that suddenly change the course of life forever. But that makes it a very REAL story.
TSD: I looked at the cover, and couldn't tell what kind of story it would be, going in. I like a lot that Adonis isn't always... er, praiseworthy. I was with my sister last week in Mendocino; she's in a wheelchair. And the number of people who spoke to us and smiled at us and gave her a lot of positive strokes - they had her grinding her teeth. People expect the physically-impaired to be founts of sweetness and kindness and somehow inspirational. My sister wanted to push everyone into the ocean for not just letting her be a girl with her sister, just hanging out... she doesn't like the attention, and for her sake, neither do I. Adonis was a jerk. Just like "regulars," as he calls them, are allowed to be. I like a lot that Sharon Flake didn't try to write Adonis into being any less of a stuck-up, weaselly terrified snob than he is - he's just a guy, wrestling his fears down, like everyone else.
Also? I wasn't sure at first, but the longer I thought about it, I'm glad Autumn got at least one thing she wanted. She couldn't explain to anyone's satisfaction why she wanted it? But... yeah. That was satisfying. There are definitely loose ends - no insta-friendship and just-add-water forgiveness spectacles - time may or may not heal all things, especially with no effort behind it. But those things worth wrestling for? Are achieved. I like this book. I'd give it to a quiet tween or a louder one - because there are two equally relatable characters within.
We both went Full Library on this one, but you can also find PINNED by Sharon G. Flake at an online e-tailer, or at a real life, independent bookstore near you!
April 08, 2015
TURNING PAGES: Arsenic for Tea by Robin Stevens
Awhile back we met Hazel and Daisy in Murder Most Unladylike - or, in clunky American titling, MURDER IS BAD MANNERS (I have a horrible suspicion that ARSENIC FOR TEA will be marketed to Americans as POISON FOR LUNCH or another equally pedestrian title. Argh). In that review, I spent a lot of time gushing on the books homage to the brilliance of Agatha Christie and others from the Golden Age of British Mysteries. I really think Robin Stevens, as a California-born British transplant, is the perfect voice for this series, as she's looking into a not just closed but hermetically sealed society as an outsider - she can be living in England for sixty years and still be considered "the new American visitor." (Whereas Americans seem to be pretty convinced that everyone wants some of our supreme wonderfulness, and assume everyone wants to come here to stay, the British are fairly certain you'd appreciate returning to your own country, thanks all the same.) Her dry observations and the repeated phrase, "I will never understand the English" make Hazel's voice ring all too true.
This is a wonderful mystery with another stylish silhouetted cover which will have its readers immediately thinking of the game Clue! More brilliantly, it is a stand alone - so no worries if you haven't yet read the first - and reads like a cozy mystery without the old ladies. From the moment the butler opens the heavy front doors, the game is afoot, so line up your cards, Cluesters, and let's play. A guest falls ill ...in the dining room, but unlike in Clue, there's motive to consider when locating the murderer: it could be the butler, the maids, the Lord, the Lady, the Aunt, the Uncle, or the governess... But... why?
Summary: Fallingford is the Wells family home, a gigantic pile of warmly golden stone where Daisy has once again invited Hazel for their term break - and to celebrate Daisy's fourteenth birthday. Nascent Anglophile Hazel continues to be fairly charmed by the very Englishness of the English country house, where priceless antiques and jewels are simply tossed around with the insouciant dismissive attitude of hereditary wealth. And yet, despite the perfectly correct servants (although her family has far more, in Hong Kong), the frumpy-but-intelligent governess, and the labyrinthine country estate reveal things are not at all Pemberly Hall almost immediately - Lady Hastings is snippish and glacial this time, and Lord Hastings, disorganized, bluff and hearty - is worse than usual. There is NOTHING worse than being a kid visiting another kid's home while there are parents fighting... nothing worse, and haven't we all been there? It's very relatable. Lord Hastings is clearly in the doghouse with his lady-wife for something, and keeps sending Lady Hastings flowers... which she heartlessly consigns to the kitchen maids. Even Bertie, Daisy's grumpy older brother and his best mate from Eton, Stephen, can tell: things are NOT okay, and not apt to be okay anytime soon.
And then the party guests begin to arrive on the heels of a storm - Kitty and Beanie from Deepdean School, the sticky-fingered and secretive Aunt Saskia, Daisy's monocled Uncle Felix, and a totally unexpected guest: the unctuous and smooth Denis Curtis, with his brilliantined hair and natty suit. Suddenly Lady Hastings warms up a great deal more than expected - far warmer than anyone married should be toward someone not her husband. Hazel and Stephen, understanding far sooner than the rest of the young guests, really just wish they could go home...back to their schools...anywhere not in the line of fire - and fire there will be.
Despite manners and reputation, things are already in a wobbly state by Daisy's party. When Mr. Curtis has a terrible spell right in the middle of things, suspicion runs rampant. Will everyone become ill? What was in the birthday cake? As the storm continues to rage and the roads wash out, Hazel is stuck in the house with the smug Kitty, the hysterical Beanie, and Daisy at her absolute bossiest and wild-eyed President-of-the-Detective-Society worst. Oh, and the murderer and the body, too. Not even the police can come out, so it's up to Hazel and Daisy to save the day. It's time to use the dollhouse to reenact the murder, and get to the bottom of this -- regardless of Daisy's utter inability to see that her family are the prime suspects.
Hong Kong is looking better to poor Hazel all the time.
Peaks: The tension begins on the first page of the novel and climbs steeply and precipitously. The twists and turns keep the reader hopping; many are the guesses and assumptions and rosy herrings, but many readers will be surprised at the denouement - and truly torn about how they should feel. The stakes are seriously high - and real - this is not soft-soaped because the book is marketed to middle graders. Readers will have to read and then think about ethics - which is just wonderful.
Hazel and Daisy's difficult relationship, complete with bad behavior on Daisy's part, and too much acceptance on Hazel's, continues to be ragged... and then, very realistically, unravels completely. Hazel describes it as feeling a button ping off and a constricting garment losening - realizing she cannot let Daisy's wrongheadedness ruin the investigation - and the relief of speaking up - which is indeed short-lived. Hazel gets her hair blown back as Daisy erupts and ends their friendship. But, I like that this isn't the true end, despite how huge the moment feels. I also like that there are hints of the direction in which the third book will go - Hazel will get her own back and be the star of the show - well, if her father gives her any breathing room. But, that's for next time...
Valleys: There is dubious adult behavior in these books - yes, quelle obvious, there's a murder, but if you're a part of the Behavior Police, you may feel that some of the adult behavior is something that shouldn't be in a children's book - though, in that case, reading murder mysteries is a strange choice. This is not a valley for me, but fair warning, all right? Oh, and those of you who aren't fond of end-of-the-book glossaries may find a moment of annoyance, but those are put there probably largely for American readers, and they go along with the clues-in-a-notebook thing Hazel does, so they work okay for me.
Conclusion: A fast-paced, tautly arresting and absolutely brilliant stand-alone sequel to the first Wells & Wong mystery, ARSENIC FOR TEA shines. I am absolutely looking forward to the next and the next - reading these books is like anticipating the flavor of a spectacular bittersweet salted caramel, eaten one at a time. I want to start over and read them both again.
I purchased my copy of this book from The Book Depository, which is a lovely company that will send you books published abroad with no problem. You can wait for the inevitable American version or find ARSENIC FOR TEA by Robin Stevens at an online e-tailer.
April 03, 2015
More Poetry Month!
It's lovely having a personal connection to poetry - and a poet. We've all known (for a given value of communicated-on-the-internet-met-in-person-only-once knowing) poet Kelly Ramsdell Fineman for quite a few years now, and though she's a less vocal part of the kidlitosphere on days when she's wrestling down her rheumatoid arthritis, she's one of our core members who has been blogging for probably as long as -- or longer -- than A.F. and I. An original member of Guys Lit Wire and a core contributor to the great Poetry Friday movement that swept the blogosphere, as well as a contributor on the lovely new Poetry Friday Anthology, Kelly has been published in Highlights for Children magazine, and has poems in Summer Shorts, Breaking Waves, and Mountain Magic: Spellbinding Tales of Appalachia (2006), and in the book Write Your Own Poetry by another kidlitosphere buddy, Laura Purdie Salas (2008). Kelly's first poetic picture book AT THE BOARDWALK, illustrated by Mónica Armiño, was released by Tiger Tales Books in 2012, and today we celebrate a new chapbook, The Universe Comes Knocking, out from Maverick Duck Press.
I've blogged personally about a gift of buttons I received (and am gluing to all sorts of things), and I have an affection for sidewalks and windowsills and common things - what I love is that Kelly doesn't just blog about them, she creates poetry around them - or below them, perhaps? - and elevates them. Chairs. Peas. Not even her goofy cat knocking things over escapes her poetic gaze.
This collection contains twenty poems of varying lengths, on various topics - some of which are immediately sticky, like a catchy song, others of which worm their way into your heart on a second reading, taking the place of those first, impulsive rushes of pleasure. Good poetry simply has a way of doing that... Wonderland waves jazz hands and does dubstep (okay, maybe not) and otherwise fizzes about in an irresponsible manner in celebration of Kelly's poetry and her general awesomeness (and wishes her a belated happy April birthday!).
I received my copy of this book courtesy of the universe. No, seriously. You, however, can find THE UNIVERSE COMES KNOCKING by Kelly Ramsdell Fineman at Maverick Duck Press!
April 02, 2015
Happy Poetry Month!
Poetically Speaking, and my post is scheduled for next Tuesday, April 7th. I wrote about my experiences as a member of our poetry center, helping to get it started as an organization, and slowly getting more involved with poetry in the community--including giving a poetry workshop to some middle school girls last month. (If you want to find out what the CHUPACABRA has to do with poetry, you'll have to read my post and find out...)
For an introduction to the series, and the full schedule, go check out this roundup on Miss Print, and don't miss the daily update! Today, Terra McVoy talks about one of my longtime favorite poets, Emily Dickinson:
"...for me, Emily’s life was a testament to the truth: that it’s the work that matters, and nothing else. Being a serious writer who is taken seriously means dedicating your life to shaping your writing into its highest, purest, most powerfully beautiful form, and all else is distraction."More here.