September 30, 2015


I remember M.E. Kerr. My sister had a book called DINKEY HOCKER SHOOTS SMACK, and I was in grade school and thought the title sounded awful. Who'd name their kid Dinky?

With books, though, curiosity traps me every time, and the fact that Dinky was a girl was even more enticing. Though the book was slightly dated and Dinky wasn't someone I entirely understood, there was something about her voice that seemed very real, and, being me, I simply read through the whole shelf of M.E. Kerr books in the library. Thematically, this collection of short stories -- and really, all of the work of M.E. Kerr -- is about identity and the teen protagonist. Teens are in the process of becoming, and Kerr celebrates that becoming in myriad books.

Marijane Meaker - the real surname from whence came M.E. Kerr - had other pseudonyms and wrote bestselling mysteries and suspense, articles for the Ladies Home Journal, and more. Her young adult books, though, remain the jewels in her crown.

"Strangers take a long time to be acquainted, particularly when they are from the same family." - We Might As Well Be Strangers, by M.E. Kerr

Summary: If you enjoy family stories as much as I do, you'll enjoy this book of shorts, set largely in the 1970 in New York and environs. M.E. Kerr writes about the teen as separate from the family through choice, interest, and the mere act of becoming a young adult. Themes of identity and being true to that emerging self beat strongly throughout. These fifteen short stories are drawn from various magazines and anthologies, published from the eighties through the early 2000's. Much of the time, it's not as clear that the stories are that old, but the descriptions of teens intent on marrying after high school, of having no ambition for after college but to be "college educated," and of them going to the hairdresser (!) or worrying about sitting by the phone (rather than carrying it with them) date a few of the stories, but only a little.

There aren't all happy endings - as a matter of fact, most of the stories meet the reader's regard in a way that is deeply enigmatic, not painted in distinct shades of happiness or unhappiness. One of the strengths of M.E. Kerr's writings is her ability to let ambiguity simply... sit there. Modern readers may be unused to the moment of discomfort when a story ends not with a jarring, abrupt note, severing you cleanly, but with a dying away that lingers in the mind. Kerr's stories stick with you.

Of the happier stories, "Sunny Days and Sunny Nights" was one of my favorites, as a girl learns to identify what she wants out of the man she loves, and to ignore what her father wants in a husband for her. My all-time favorite "Grace," is about a self-conscious minister's son who loves his boring old father, though his father embarrasses him by existing - until he doesn't. "Son of a One Eye" is a poignant story about a boy who never fits in with the fraternity he didn't want to join - but finds a world for himself in his imagination. Readers will be glad to see "We Might As Well Be Strangers" which was included in the 1995 AM I BLUE? anthology. In every story, the voice remains so very constant - there is a steady, singular I which informs, even from the third person, about alienation, outsider status, the Other, and being outside of the circle, looking in.

Conclusion: Before there was e.lockhart or Rachel Cohn or the surreal landscapes of A.S. King, there was M.E. Kerr, watching, recording the inner world, telling the true, and playing it back for us to hear.

I received my copy of this book courtesy of Open Road Media. You can find EDGE: COLLECTED STORIES by M.E. Kerr at Open Road or another online e-tailer near you!

September 29, 2015


There's a lot of information in the news on how female gamers aren't really thought about, or marketed to in the video game industry, so I was interested, reading the description of this book, in the female protagonist. The author didn't touch on any hot button issues particularly, but this quick-paced story will engage even non-gamers who love an adventure.

Summary: Phoenix "Nixy" Bauer is a gamer with a plan: play hard, work hard, make money, go to college, and someday, unlike her wage-slave parents, BE THE BOSS. With her buds Moose and Chang, Nixy is not terribly politically correct, a little aggressive, a lot straightforward, and really, really good at MEEP games, thus good at her job ... which is to gank unsuspecting kids out of the MeaParadisus, Inc. world known as MEEP. MEEP is a fully immersive virtual reality gaming world where people - especially teens - spend hours building and buying, fighting and flirting. They actually go under, leaving their bodies - and their ability to hear their scolding families - behind.

Nixy's parents both work for MeaParadisus, her father in programming, her mother in scripting - so in the spirit of entrepreneurship, Nixy creates a job for herself as a freelancer who benefits from the company. Retrieving MEEP playing kids who have bought a timer hack and stayed in their own little worlds longer than the allotted four hours is a great gig, and Nixy does it for a much lower price than the official "Safe Return Specialists" from MeaParadisus. "Nixy Bauer, Home in an Hour" is her tagline, and kids -- she only works with kids now, not scary loser adults -- hate to see her coming. Who would have ever thought that one of the kids who'd hate to see her show up would be Wyn Salvador, son of MeaParadisus gadzillionaire developer, Diego Salvador. But, he's been in the MEEP for four days, and Nixy's actually been hired to drag his rich, slacking backside back to reality - and a pretty cushy reality it is, at that. After all of her negotiation with the big boss for the big bucks, what with the sharks and all, it's too bad there's no way she's going to get her "home in an hour" bonus...

Peaks: For readers who appreciate a fast-paced plot, danger from a nebulous "them," confronting one's own fears and a character who goads others and battles herself into and out of trouble, this book will work well. It will appeal to guys as well as girls who have an interest in adventure - neither have to be gamers to enjoy this.

Nixy is somewhat unlikeable -- sarcastic, prickly, touchy and not really at home with her own emotions, and in her own skin. In YA fiction, there is often a surfeit of sweetness in teen girls, and a ridiculous level of mental balance and personal maturity, so Nixy is an antidote to that. She's confident to the point of swagger, believes that she can pretty well control every thing that comes across the net, and melts down completely when she can't. I loved that touch of realism. I thought it was interesting that for all of Nixy's aggression, Wyn is depicted as much more of a lover than a fighter, which I wondered at, and would have liked to see him remain aggressive and confident as well.

Valleys: While not necessarily a "valley," per se, there were things I wished had been more thoroughly explored in the novel, things which would have created greater emotional resonance for the reader. For instance, it seemed that the author may have deliberately diminished opportunities to explore Nixy's emotions. I wanted to know whether or not Nixy was proud of, or ashamed of being a gamer, whether or not she knew any other girls who gamed, whether or not she was ever given guff for it from the boys of her acquaintance, other than Moose and Chang. As Nixy and Wyn become close, we wonder if this is her first relationship? Does she wonder what her guy friends will think of this? Does she worry about what happens in MEEP-land crossing the consciousness barrier and coming into the Real World at all? Though not crucial to the adventure, these touches would have grounded the book in the here and now a bit more, and given more depth and emotional resonance.

Nixy is sarcastic and makes cracks about people's appearance, most notably women's appearances - and she and her father seem to glory in the chaos they cause, ignoring Nixy's mother, Jill, as some kind of order-bringing killjoy. And yet, Nixy learns to respect her mother's work a bit. I wish there'd been more exploration of that - Nixy feels briefly and vaguely guilty about realizing her mother is Somebody and she's ignored her - but we don't see the aftermath of this, and her character doesn't necessarily change and grow because of her revelation that her mother's work is important.

For me, the novel ended a little abruptly - Nixy has had a MAJOR wrench in her belief system and her loyalties - and I would have liked to know how it affected her emotionally. What happened was serious, and we are left hanging, wondering how it's going to affect everyone. Instead of a real conclusion, readers are given more of Nixy's nascent romance with Wyn, which felt inevitable instead of intriguing.

Conclusion: A fast-paced adventure for lovers of mystery and suspense, this book will appeal to gamers and non-gamers of whatever gender who need that one last book to escape to before school starts in earnest.

I received my copy of this book courtesy of the public library. You can find THIS BOOK by This Author at an online e-tailer, or at a real life, independent bookstore near you!

September 28, 2015

My Semicolon Soul Mate

Sorry for the long radio silence. But I promise I will make it worth your while with PICTURES! The hubs and I were in Washington, DC for about 10 days and got back on Saturday night, and of course the trip was a whirlwind of food, fun, and lots and lots of ART. While talking to the front desk staff at the Baltimore Museum of Art (where we got to have lunch with longtime blog bud and Cybils tech guru Sheila) I also found out that September 24th was National Punctuation Day. NATIONAL PUNCTUATION DAY how did I not know about you? The front desk girls were discussing which punctuation mark should be their chosen punctuation soul mate, and I had to think...if it were me? I had a good long relationship with the semicolon, but lately I've been more of an ellipsis/em dash kind of girl. How about youse guys?

Anyway, appropriately enough, while at the same museum, I saw this painting entitled The Allegory of Grammar (1650, Laurent de la Hyre):

Who knew Grammar was so purty? And, um, apparently is not a great gardener? Those flowers look a little sad...

Anyway, one more cool writing-related picture for you. We went to the Smithsonian Museum of American History, which ended up being much more fascinating and amazing than we had expected (who couldn't get a little teary looking at the original Kermit the Frog? seriously.). One of the objects they had on display was Lawrence Ferlinghetti's typewriter. How cool is this?

LOOK! + THINK! I'll leave you with that, and promises to catch up on reviews soonest.

September 25, 2015


I have a tiny addiction to Joseph Bruchac's KILLER OF ENEMIES books, as you'll note from my original review, the review of the ROSE EAGLE novella, and the fact that I do cover reveals for the KILLERS series - which I don't often even notice are going on, with other books. In between books in this series, I generally make a nuisance of myself, poking around Tu Books and pressing my face to the glass. (Metaphorically.) Where other post-apocalyptic books are literally the stuff of nightmares, and I find myself depressed by them, or rushing through the awful parts, the characterization in these novels make the nightmare-monster-filled desert a place that seems ...kinda homey. In a terrible way. Like, I could do without the flying monkeys...

Unlike many books which bridge the first and last bits of a trilogy, there is important story happening here - with the action slowed (but not by much - still plenty of varmints that need killin'), we get to know a different Lozen, one who is still struggling with newly discovered powers and trying to learn to rely on them like she would her own five senses, we see her weaknesses and challenges and we're introduced to a terrifying, soulless evil that always returns...

I'm happy to have read this sequel, and while you're waiting to get yours (October 1, 2015), you might go back and start at the beginning of the series while you wait. It's worth your while.

Summary: Lozen keeps waiting to feel like there's been... victory. Everyone is standing upright. Nobody's dead. Even some long-lost people she respected have caught up to she and her newly reunited family. Hussein is still right beside her, and together, they're on the way to the Valley where the rest of the Chiricahua in their group was left behind -- so why does she feel like the bottom is about to drop out of the universe? And, why does she feel so... dark? So empty? The nightmares are the worst, and she keeps listening, looking, calling silently for Hally - but he's nowhere to be found, now.

Everyone looks to Lozen like she's the girl with the plan, but how did she end up in charge of this ragtag bunch of survivors? And, what is she supposed to do, when it turns out that the Valley on which she pinned all her hopes isn't a safe place at all? Her finger's are twitchy on her guns - and she's hurting beings who doesn't deserve it. Coyote isn't to be trusted - yet he's lurking, and there are hostile eyes, all around them. Lozen feels brittle -- like she's going to break -- and the feeling of being stalked increases. Something's got to give, but they're running out of time.

Peaks: There are ...pop culture references in this novel that Lozen doesn't understand, but which are little gifts for the reader, spoken by The Dreamer and Hally. Sometimes it's other books which pop up and wave, and there was a Robert Burns reference that gave me a little twinge of unexpected poignant loveliness. There's a very funny battle of wits with Coyote that I enjoyed especially - and I think the odd bits of comic relief put in when Lozen can hardly smile are important because she cannot smile. She cannot laugh. She cannot lay the battle down and pick up hope -- because Warrior Mind - or PTSD - makes it feel like you're going to be fighting a war forever.

The feeling of utter defeat after having to kill not just monsters but people? Is one that shouldn't be downplayed. This is why Lozen isn't characterized as just some noble-profiled superheroine, but a real person. All of the running around and leadership and powers-having GETS OLD. All of the people who have lost because of her, have been hurt, because others were gunning for her, or manipulating her - all of this weighs on her soul. I also appreciated that while Lozen may be struggling, when she finds help, it's not Insta-Help. The relief is immediate, but Lozen acknowledges immediately that one cannot live on a mountaintop, nor stay in a place of healing - warriors have to go down again and take up the fight, but the trick is carrying the place of peace and healing along with them.

Cover Chatter: I love that the model for the first and second books remains the same, and I can't wait to see what the final looks like.

Conclusion: Slightly slowing to let us see a bit more of Lozen's world, her soul, and her struggles, this second volume in this KILLER trilogy gives us more Chiricahua stories - and a Bedu one, too - more enemies to worry over, and more to love to in this crazy post-apocalyptic version of America. Your readers will want to finish this and then go right back to the first one like I did.

I received my copy of this book courtesy of Tu Books. After October 1, you can find TRAIL OF THE DEAD by Joseph Bruchac at an online e-tailer, or at a real life, independent bookstore near you!

September 22, 2015


I am a big old sucker for girl-disguised-as-boy novels; give me a tough girl with a sword in addition to a disguise and I'm in don't-bother-me-I'm-reading mode for hours. Add to this the fact that I'd read an article this author had written on Huffington Post and you'll know why I was so intrigued -- and in the end, entertained.

"Imagine Game of Thrones with less blood and more gender confusion and you get a taste of this knightly epic."
— The Guardian

Summary: Lady Samantha knows her duty as an aristocrat of the kingdom of Thule - to marry well, produce an heir, carry on the lineage of her father, the Duke of Haywood. Lady Samantha's father is a politician before all else, and he knows the ways of power -- and if her marriage can be used as an alliance to increase his power, purchase, pull or potential, she knows he'll marry her not for her heart, but for her value. It's not fair, really - it's not what he got to do; everyone knows how he and Lady Samantha's mother married to follow their hearts - but at her mother's bidding, Lady Samantha is prepared to do what must be done -- until her mother is killed in an attack near their home. Though her life is preserved by the timely arrival of a gorgeous and heroic Paladin, Samantha's life at home is destroyed, and her father, in his grief, turns colder than ever. Left with nothing but duty the detested duty to marry well, Sam hacks off her hair, and becomes who she feels she's meant to be -- Sam of Haywood, a trainee Paladin.

It's not that easy to shed who you are, even if you can fight okay with a sword -- As Samantha or Sam she is still impatient, impetuous, and brash. She manages okay, getting along with the other trainees, but then she befriends the "wrong" type of trainee - an odd boy with silvery hair and catlike eyes that react to the light, and bizarre tattoos on his shoulder and chest. He's half-demon, half the monsters that killed her mother. As, as it turns out, he's keeping secrets, too...

Peaks: Fast paced adventure with a strong-minded protagonist and secondary characters who are just as intriguing - that's a major plus for this type of book, which has a dual hero/ine's journey going on -- inasmuch as Sam is the main character, her two partners are on their own journeys as well.

Sam - as either gender - is as subtle as a chainsaw. She opens her mouth and sticks in her foot more often than not. Accustomed to apologizing before she gets yelled at, poor Sam is constantly being yelled at - because the behavior of a Lady of Thule does not come easily to her - good thing she can at least excel in swordplay. The girl-disguised-as-boy thing isn't played for laughs; Sam is very well disguised until she has to tell one person the truth. Though she is smaller, she is muscular and quick - but not supernaturally so; she has a lot to learn. I liked the reality of that. Of course, she works with men and boys all the time, and inevitably notices them a little more than she ought - and then to suppress her natural inclinations to touch familiarly the people she likes becomes harder - but not impossible. It's nice that the author doesn't depict males and females as so far apart in behavior that they're creatures from differing planets.

And I'd also like to congratulate the publisher for allowing the character to look tough on the cover. While it's clear here the character is Lady Samantha and not her alter, Sam, the boots and the sword and the rocks give us a good preview into what's ahead in the novel.

Valleys: This isn't a "valley," but the reader should be aware that this is the beginning of a series, and there's no guarantee of when the sequel is going to be out - however, as this is a durably written adventure, rereading it will keep you sated for a little while.

I had questions as I read through the novel - not alarming, can't-keep-going ones by any means, but I wondered where the monsters in the kingdom of Thule had come from, why they were there, whether other kingdoms suffered from them, how it was that they were variously shaped, and not all one kind, and basically just the origin story of that world. When a novel is fast-paced and has a lot of action going on, these are the types of things that can be missed - not to the detriment of the story, but reading this made me want to KNOW.

Though I may have misread or generalized, this novel reads as that sort of Fairytale Landscape that mimics old Europe, and the characters seem to default to having no ethnic diversity, which I hope is merely oversight in reading on my part, but I'm afraid not.

Conclusion:I can strongly recommend this fast-paced adventure with a stroppy female wielding a sword - and if this is your particular catnip, grab a copy of PALADIN for an afternoon of reading that will leave you hoping for more - soon!

I received my copy of this book courtesy of the indie publisher. You can find THIS BOOK by This Author at an online e-tailer, or at a real life, independent bookstore near you!

September 18, 2015


While this adventure isn't technically YA nor marketed as such, the protagonist is a young man in a magical "university," but given the sort of Olde English wording in some spots and the kind of feel of the story, I think "university" might be a catch-all word for "boarding school;" Veranix certainly doesn't seem much older than maybe seventeen and perfectly relate-able for most teens.

Summary: A student by day, Veranix Calbert is a Robinhood-style hustler by night, out to shut down the drug trade in the neighborhood of Dentonhill, and utterly ruin the crime lord who runs it. It's not a minor goal, and it's one which would be made a lot easier if a.) he could inform the Constabulary of his plans, and b.) they would take him seriously, and c.) work with him, but he's a student, young and impulsive - and some of the Law is pretty crooked. No matter - Veranix has his gang lieutenant cousin to watch his back, his friend Kaiana to sew him up and shake her head at his stupidity - and an information source in his roommate Delrin - and that's all he really needs. He also has the loot from an intercepted forty-thousand crown drug deal that turns out to be a rope... and a cloak. He has no idea what a drug lord was doing with them, nor does Veranix have any intention of giving them back - and soon, he realizes it would be dangerous to do so. Veranix, with a handful of magic and a head full of revenge, soon becomes as notorious as legend, and soon the street gangs, and even mages from outside the University all want a piece of his hide. He's used to scrapes, going without sleep, burning the candle on both ends, but it's all been worth it, to be a thorn in one man's side... But it's a lot harder than you'd think to be a thorn and not get yanked out.

Peaks: I could read about magic schools all day, and students who are meant to be studying, but who are doing EVERYTHING else instead - that's a cross-cultural, cross-genre trope that always plays well. The setting in the novel, a kind of Renaissance-era, quasi-familiar, somewhat "olde worlde" magical universe seems also to be where we've been before, but this Maradine has an underlying structure which intrigues - gangs fight for territorial holds on various streets, street kids below, block captains above - some of whom operate hand and glove with the crooked Constabulary, which in some neighborhoods can be bribed to look the other way. The "hoods" are about difference - the walled University, the respectable working folk of Aventil, the Waterstreet Bridge which crosses into the scrabbling underclass of Dentonhill - and what makes them the same. Interestingly, the gang life isn't glossed over as "bad people" who live on the underbelly; we get a real sense of the family ties and loyalties and pride which hold them together - and the anxieties of living on the edge of violence and hunger, in a crooked city where wealth and magic might just go hand and glove - and fist. With no real justice coming from above, an anti-hero like Veranix can rise from the ranks into greatness - if he's allowed to do so, and if he's supported by the people. I like that he has a legitimate grievance against the drug lord of his neighborhood -- this isn't some idealistic "people shouldn't do drugs" campaign, but a quest for justice which holds Veranix by the throat. He isn't going to give up. Though he is young and distracted by food and dodging authority as most students, his single-minded focus makes him unlike many fictional guys his age, and makes a refreshing change in a main character. The pacing is fast, the action is sometimes harrowing, and there is so much going on that the reader is plunged in, and really has to sink or swim.

Valleys: This is an adventure novel with a strong protagonist, supported by a strong female friend, yet I was disappointed that more time isn't spent on the positive depiction of female characters in this novel. Veranix has a mother - but she's not present in the novel. One of his best friends is female, Kaiana, but because she's a "Napa" girl - dark-skinned, and the only female on the groundskeeping staff at the university - (no reason given why she's not a student, but maybe the magical university only takes boys, or numina only comes to boys? - this is not sufficiently explored) she's discounted in many ways, even by her alleged friend Veranix. Unhappily, all the other women in the novel are drug using prostitutes or poverty-stricken former prostitutes... Women don't seem very smart, nor do they seem to have agency - they must either be protected or rescued, or, as in the case of Kaiana, they make incredible sacrifices to rescue Veranix by playing to the stereotypes about them, and are subsequently abused for it. Eventually, through zero effort on Veranix's part, Kai's sacrifice is "rewarded," -- and her "reward" is that nothing changes for her - she's still brown-skinned, still sleeping in a carriage house and working for a bigot within a sexist system, still without justice for her story or any audience for it (we are never told details, but learn Veranix's ad nauseum, so why is she helping him? How is that fixing things for her?), living on the edges and fringes and ...yay? I wanted more for her, and from Veranix, and from the world -- but I also realize that this book has sequel(s) and maybe there will be more depth, but I'm also aware that people don't necessarily demand gender and ethnic parity of their fiction, so maybe not.

Also, I found it ...maybe not surprising, but wearying that in this vibrant new universe the author created, prejudice is still based on skin pigment. Disappointing.

Conclusion: With a fast-paced plot and a driven protagonist, we're introduced to a magical world with a lot of familiarity but with a lot of "new things per page" to keep readers engaged. Readers will be glad they read this, and eager for the companion novel/sequel, which is already out from DAW.

I received my copy of this book through my own purchase. You can find THE THORN OF DENTONHILL by Marshall Ryan Maresca at an online e-tailer, or at a real life, independent bookstore near you!

September 15, 2015


But if it had to perish twice,
I think I know enough of hate
To say that for destruction ice
Is also great
And would suffice.
~ "Fire and Ice," by Robert Frost

I was so impressed with newcomer Charlie N. Holmberg's Magician series last year that I immediately snapped up this book on name recognition alone... only to find that the books are, for the most part, nothing alike. The heroines are both hard-headed and exasperating (Holmberg does that well), and the towns are both kind of an industrial-revolution era small town with industry and a single school, but magic is something scary that Other People do in towns far away, and marrying well seems to be the goal for a young girl, rather than having a career of one's own - or maybe that's only the way it seems because the main character only thinks in terms of what people think of her. Anyway, it was a transition to get into this book, with such a self-absorbed protagonist. Remember Nellie Olsen from the Little House TV series? This novel is a logical progression of a "what would happen if someone acted like that all the time" novel, because the comeuppance is hardcore. This is also a deeper look at emptying out oneself for someone else -- even when you'll get nothing back, and you know it, and it hurts -- and a pretty heartfelt exploration of loving life enough to cling to it, and falling in love, too. Prepare to "Aww" at the smiley, happy ending.

Summary: Smitha: A girl so cold, she'll give you freezer burn...

Smitha's house is the second largest in the village, and the prettiest. Smitha's friends are the smartest, and the best liked around. Smitha is the prettiest in her family. Smitha is ... pretty central to Smitha. Which is to say that she's kind of a self-centered, tiresome little git. When she's avoiding the attentions of her father's hired man, she does so in the most callous, cold, and cutting way possible -- just because. I mean, shouldn't he know better than to try for someone as perfect and awesome as she? Humility in the face of such perfection is obviously impossible -- and comes back to kick her right in her padded derriere, because the guy her father hired, and whom she just so humiliatingly blew off is a wizard who had run away from the wizarding wars... and he has just enough nasty magic left to curse Smitha to be as cold as her heart.

This becomes rather literal - because Smitha's heart is sub-zero - and it's very clear that she's the author of her own destruction. But, it's still hideous - not only are her tears icicles, her spit frozen and her blood sluggish, perpetual winter follows her everywhere. People in her village sicken and die, and Smitha is cast out -- forever. There follows a tale of horror and despair, of fury and resentment, of deception and slyness, personified by Death (who is called Sabriel), of a handsome Prince and his noble cohort, an exotic desert kingdom, a survivor who learns to give up everything -- and an improbable and heart-warming happily ever after. It's the perfect fairytale.

Peaks: There's a lot to like about this book - the descriptiveness and storytelling are all-consuming, as always. This slows the pacing, but there's a thoroughness to the telling that draws the reader in -- sometimes with the horrified curiosity of watching a car wreck, but we're brought along nonetheless.

Smitha is perfect. I loathed her. Thus, the author did her job, in creating an absolutely abhorrent character whom readers nonetheless will want to continue reading anyway. If you kind of hated Nellie Olsen or the girls in "Mean Girls" but watched them with a sneer - not looking away, but still sneering - you know what I mean.

We get so many interesting and nuanced personifications of Death - I think of Martine Leavitt's Keturah and Lord Death, wherein Keturah puts him off with stories whilst he courts her, of Robin LeFevers' Assasin series living in the shadow of Saint Mortain, and of course, Sir Terry Pratchett's Death, who loves kittens and rides a noble steed called... Binky. I kind of liked that of all the Deaths in fiction, this one was... insidious. And awful. And kept. coming. back. He was scary by his mere seductiveness. Which is really awful and true to life, and is possibly a portrayal of death as something which seems desirable sometimes, for people in severe depression, as Smitha was. Fortunately, Smitha's basic nosiness about what the next day holds, and her insistence that things have got to get better turns out to be stronger than her need to lie down and give up - and she keeps getting up, as we all must do.

There are people in this book who are not Eurocentric, and while their country and its people are entirely foreign to Smitha, and she clearly is blonde and golden to their brunette and bronzed, I appreciate that they're not simply there for exotic effect, and that Smitha attempts to become a part of their community and take them as her people, too.

Valleys: I really didn't find any valleys, although some readers will find the pacing in the beginning and throughout a little slower than they would like. Smitha is, initially, excruciating -- I wanted to get away from her, badly. However, the action soon takes the reader's mind away from the general awfulness of her character, and once things start happening, the novel moves along reasonably enough. While there still is a lot of thinking and a lot of time spent in Smitha's inner mind, things speed up a bit. While this may not work for some, others will eat it up with a spoon.

Conclusion: We're privileged to have another book from this author, and I'm happily expectant that the next will be just as fun. This book is wildly different from her last series, and shows her range.

I received my copy of this book courtesy of 47North. After September 22, you can find FOLLOWED BY FROST by Charlie M. Holmberg at an online e-tailer, or at a real life, independent bookstore near you!

September 14, 2015

Monday Review: MAGISTERIUM: THE COPPER GAUNTLET by Holly Black and Cassandra Clare

Summary: Just out this month is the second volume of the middle-grade fantasy Magisterium series by the extremely talented Holly Black and Cassandra Clare. The Copper Gauntlet is that book, and it is not only a very satisfying second installment but will leave you eager for the next book—that is, if you loved the first book as much as I did. A magical school, the fight against evil forces, the often-stubborn bonds of friendship and the fear of having family and allies turn against you—all good stuff. Oh, and a Chaos-ridden wolf. But he's really just a big old softie.

Peaks: This second book really ramps up the tension in main character Callum Hunt's life. Call has now spent a year at the secret school of magic known as the Magisterium. He's made friends, he's acquired a rather unusual pet, and he's found out some rather alarming secrets about his own identity (minor spoilers, if you haven't read book one)—he's supposedly harboring the reborn soul of the evil Chaos magician Constantine Madden. So he's constantly on the lookout for signs he might be turning into an Evil Overlord, which is both hilarious and sad.

As if that isn't enough, Call comes home one day to find that his wolf, Havoc—whom his father was never really comfortable with—has been locked up in the basement, possibly for the purposes of some awful ritual. And he finds incriminating evidence of something scary going on: the plot to steal a powerful magical object (the copper gauntlet of the title). Is his father trying to kill Havoc? Or worse, is he trying to kill Call? For their own safety, Call and Havoc decide that Back to School should happen just a tad bit early this year…but of course, even being back with his friends Aaron and Tamara and their teacher Master Rufus is no guarantee of safety.

I love how the friendships (and even the frenemies, like Jasper) are portrayed in this book. There is a strong message of loving your friends for the people they ARE, rather than fearing them because of what others say they're supposed to be. And there is another important take-away, which is that you can be allies with someone even if you aren't friends with them…and even if you don't particularly like them.

Valleys: I guess this is one of those where I have to say the only drawback is the next book isn't out yet.

Conclusion: This is another action-packed read which should appeal to fantasy readers of any gender (boys and girls alike get to do cool and exciting things), and particularly to fans of the early Harry Potter books and Tamora Pierce's novels for younger readers. It's a wonderful blend of fantasy and humor, is both fun AND just a bit scary, and it plays off both authors' strengths in terms of infusing magic into a contemporary setting.

I received my copy of this book courtesy of the publisher at ALA 2015; all comments are based on the uncorrected review copy. You can find THE COPPER GAUNTLET by Holly Black and Cassandra Clare at an online e-tailer, or at a real life, independent bookstore near you!

September 07, 2015

A Little Bittersweet

With excitement and more than a little sadness, the last Sir Terry Pratchett novel--featuring my favorite character arc with Tiffany Aching--has joined my TBR pile, loaned by a friend who said he cried during the very first scene. I predict some sniffles on this end as well. 

And yes, if you were wondering, that is a Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay character sheet. What are YOU doing on Labor Day? (I also wrote another new page of my novel-in-progress, causing my poor protagonist to get very drunk and wake up in dire straits. But that's all I'm going to say about that!)

September 02, 2015

...pretty much what we feel like every time we finish an AMAZING book and realize that it's the beginning of a series... and the next book ISN'T OUT YET...


I'm a big, big fan of novels in which Girls Have Adventures. I love a girl with swash in her buckle and plenty of impetus to find answers for herself and not depend on anyone else. Unfortunately, a lot of the time, adventure novels only meet this desire halfway. This novel has plenty of spectacular gadgets, and a seriously mysterious world, but I could have used a little more grounding in the "what" and the "why" behind the device, thus the novel left me with a few questions which may or may not be cleared up in resultant sequels - and the book very clearly is going to have sequels, as (NB:) the ending is a cliffhanger. The first two books will be available at the same time, however, so no fear!

Further NB: Though all of my reviews are meant to be spoiler-free, I do mention a great many of the more original elements of the novel after the summary, so reader beware.

Summary: Eyelet Elsworth is eight years old when the sun... goes out. Some massive electromagnetic aftershock from an invention her father made - and subsequently had stolen from him - somehow did something unexpected and has blocked out the sun with clouds, dust, and vapor, producing eternal twilight. Eyelet's bizarre parallel universe England is led by a grim governing body called The Brethren who have Byzantine rules for Behavior and Comportment, imprison the Mad and dip in wax and hang those who they accuse of practicing Wickedry. The Brethren's world blends a type of early American Puritanism and its witchcraft trials and the Georgian preoccupation with asylums for those who don't follow societal mores, accusing them of insanity. The Brethren seem nuts, but theirs is the safer society, protecting its residents from real world dangers - semi-sentient, asphyxiating fog which and ghostly apparitions which allegedly suck out the brains. Eyelet becomes orphaned and endangered, for she has a secret and terrifying affliction of epilepsy -- a disorder entirely misunderstood and treated as incipient Madness, punishable by arrest, asylum, and possibly shortly thereafter, scientific experiments and death. When Professor Smrt, her villainous teacher, accuses her of Madness and Wickedry like her mother's, she escapes into Gears, seeking her father's invention, which she's convinced will fix her as he promised.

Unfortunately, her escape is on the wagon of a Gears resident who has already stolen the invention - which he's convinced will save him. Eighteen year old Urlick Babbit has white skin, white hair, a port wine birthmark on his face, and pink eyes, which aren't the scariest thing Eyelet has seen, but it's close. Ulrick has heard that this invention called The Illuminator will cure him, and allow him to move about in society without a mask. But, he can't make the Illuminator work -- and Eyelet can't stay on his good side long enough to get him to trust her with the information of where it is, much less what he's working on, who he is, and why he lives where he does. Working at cross purposes, bickering and sniping at each other, the two nevertheless fall headlong in love, and risk everything for something that they're not sure will do anything - but regardless means everything.

Peaks: This novel begins unquestionably well, with intriguing details, unusual world-building and a seriously disadvantaged heroine who finds the world magical and wants nothing more than to take it all in. We, too, share that curiosity and move quickly through the first scenes. Eyelet has a strong voice, strong opinions and a great deal of energy to poke into things which sometimes surprise her, sometimes hurt her, and most of the time prod her on to the next discovery. Her indefatigable curiosity keeps the pace of the novel moving. The gadgetry in the novel is curious and the descriptions are detailed and unique. I initially felt like there was a lot to like about this novel, and a lot I'd not seen before which was intriguing. The beginning adventures are harrowing enough that all the near escapes are riveting, and Eyelet's advantageous meeting with reminded me of the beginning of INCARCERON, by Catherine Fisher. Additionally, the descriptions of Eyelet's epilepsy were original and creative and showed a lot of skill.

Valleys: Ulrick has white hair, white skin... and pink eyes. Without using the name, he's depicted as a person with albinism, living at the edge of society, seeking a fix from this terrible, terrible, awful, unfortunate, crippling... You get the picture. This panicky hysteria is a cliché, and an unnecessarily negative depiction. A quote from Wikipedia, offered without further comment: The depiction of albinism in popular culture, especially the portrayal of people with albinism in film and fiction, has been asserted by albinism organizations and others to be largely negative and has raised concerns that it reinforces, or even engenders, societal prejudice and discrimination against such people. This trend is sometimes referred to as the "evil albino" plot device or albino bias.

Like INCARCERON, there are a lot of murky details and dark doings in this book which eluded explanation; unfortunately, the reader isn't anchored securely into the What Is and the Why in the end, which may leave some readers irretrievably adrift.

I struggled to understand a technologically advanced Georgian-parallel-England which promotes science, learning, and gadget-y inventions like mechanical ravens yet still misunderstands training actual live birds as pets... and calls it witchcraft, which actually shouldn't exist within their belief system. How could a misogynistic world in which a challenge to male authority by any woman, considered a "break in temperament," and the first diagnoseable sign of Madness -- be the preferred place to live? Women seem universally reviled - but no reason is given why, though to be fair, men of science in the historical Georgian era, well into the Victorian age were considered to be feeble-minded and good mainly for childbearing. Still, I wondered if attitudes were always as patriarchal before the sun went dark, and if so, how Eyelet's mother provided for them at all after her father's death...

Readers may be frustrated with the emotional inconsistencies in this novel - Eyelet's parents have died in horrifying ways, yet this seems to be something only briefly lingered on in the novel. Eyelet's reactive flailing produces a great many misunderstandings which could be solved quickly and easily by just honest, straightforward, non-hysterical conversation. Eyelet is frequently at odds with Ulrick - who is by turns pathetic, unpleasant, creepy, and a sympathetic character. They find almost immediate attraction to each other, which the reader might find baffling, as their behavior is entirely inconsistent with tolerant affection, much less love, but it seems to be mostly physical - which may also seem odd, given the emphasis on Ulrick's bizarre appearance.

Central to the story is The Illuminator, which both Eyelet and Ulrick believe will do myriad things for them. Eyelet insists to Ulrick that it's meant to be an x-ray machine, and yet, is still determined to go out and steal her father's instructions on how to make it work, with the idea that it will somehow be worth it, in the end, because she, at least, will be fixed. There's a strong idea that if this one thing is gained, ALL ELSE will be made perfect, but that seems a very small foundation on which to build an entire plot. Eyelet seems to count death as just an inconvenience in the way of getting this One True Device, this Illuminator which everyone - even the single-dimensional bad guy, Prof. Smrt - is ready to risk everything to get their hands on. Nobody knows what it does, nobody explains HOW it will improve their lot so clearly, but the reader is asked to suspend disbelief as the characters ready themselves to Risk It All...

Conclusion: There are a lot of amazing ideas in this adventure, but this reader found it harder to trust that the plot would wrap things up for me in a way that made sense. Having to wait for the sequel to do that might work better for readers with more patience.

I received my copy of this book courtesy of NetGalley. You can find LUMIÉRE by Jacqueline Garlick at an online e-tailer, or at a real life, independent bookstore near you!