November 30, 2015

Happy Monday, Guerrilla Girls Style

I don't have a new review for you yet, but I do have this photo that I took while in Australia, at the Art Gallery of New South Wales in Sydney. Enjoy your wry yet biting art-world commentary:

For more great stuff by the Guerrilla Girls, check out the Gallery of NSW.

November 27, 2015


This book is a gem and a gift, and in order to avoid spoilers I'll say up front: Parker is blind. The dots on the cover are Braille. And now you know ...except, it's not a big secret. Really, Parker would be the first to say, "So? And get over yourself." It is Parker's voracious desire to be sure of EVERYTHING in her life - from your reaction to her intelligence - that makes this novel ring so terribly true for me. Tight friendships, believable middle school angst that spills over into high school, and some deep truths which might make you cry - this eminently readable book is that "YA type" that does well and gets the movie deals. You'll see this story somewhere again.

NB: This novel has a secondary storyline about suicide which isn't exhaustively dealt with, but it's there.

Summary: Parker treats her blindness like more of an inconvenience than a disability, her limitations like suggestions, and her friends like the chosen family that they are. Without them, she'd have nothing, now that her father has died. The accident which claimed her sight as a little girl also claimed her mother's life, and the aunt and uncle and cousins now reluctantly inhabiting her house - and haunting her life - are just strangers preventing her from being who she is. And, her relatives, like the whole load of newcomers to Parker's high school from the one that closed across town, don't know The Rules. Don't take advantage of her blindness, trick or, or treat her like a joke. Don't help, unless she asks for it. Don't touch her unexpectedly. Don't be weird, and treat her like she's damaged. Don't expect to EVER be forgiven if you screw up: you get ONE chance. All Parker wants people to understand is that she's brilliant and capable - that blindness doesn't change that. But the world has just a long, long way to go - except for a few people. Coach Underhill even thinks she can take her morning jogging habit - a thing she started with her dad years ago - and take on track meets at school. If Parker can get over feeling exposed and find a decent running partner who understands The Rules, it might just work out. Meanwhile, she and her bestie, Sarah, have ridiculous high school romances to sort out and a lot of newbies to inform about The Rules. It's necessary that everyone learn them.

The Rules came to life in junior high after her trust was shattered by someone Parker considered her best friend. To Parker's horror, she discovers not long after school begins that this ...enemy has transferred back to her school. He actually tries to speak to her - and Parker shuts THAT noise down quick - she's not stupid or forgetful, just blind, all right? But it scares her -- and she can't keep her brain from returning to the hurtful scene over and over and over again. And then Parker discovers that she doesn't know everything about what happened that terrible day when her friend Scott tricked her -- nor does she know all that happened the day that her father died. Finding out is both terrifying, gut-wrenchingly painful and disorienting, as Parker's True North for a long time has been first her best friends, and next... Parker herself. And Sarah's acting funny, and as for herself... if she can't believe in what she doesn't see - if she no longer can plumb the depths of her own heart - what CAN she believe? The truth has never been harder to see.

Peaks: This is a differently abled person who is a BIG SARDONIC JERK. And she doesn't do it to be "refreshing" to your perceptions of the differently abled, but thanks for playing. She does it because she's frankly kind of cynical and disillusioned and afraid to acknowledge that, so yeah snark is easier. I get that. I am that. You might be, too.

The voice in this novel is compelling, sharp, and witty; Parker has a ferociously lively, biting wit -- a is a character whose friendships ring true (I want an entire other novel about Molly, Mr. Lindstrom. Just putting that out there). The diverse cast of characters seems to have evolved to surround Parker organically, and even the hapless D.B. fits.

Parker's insistent belief in the infallibility of her own brain makes the novel's characterization achingly real life, and makes the out-to-sea-with-no-horizon feeling she suffers when she's wrong sharply realized - and terrifying to the reader as well. In this poignant and sharply bittersweet novel, you may find yourself and your best friend -- ugly cry hard enough to lose all your gold stars for the month - and hopefully be heartened to find that true believers in the gift of friendship, if they hold true to it, receive strength and love reflected back to them a thousandfold.

Valleys: These may be a valley to no one other than me, but I'm cynical enough that my mind struggles with characters in YA novels who are more cinematic than real. Parker is larger than life, and her dialogue reflects a mind that can craft the perfect comeback with 99% accuracy - readers may find themselves wishing to be her, except for That One Thing. Scott is also amazingly good, quite a bit too-good-to-be-true, both as an 8th grader and as a high school sophomore. The drama may be exhausting for some readers, and the situations at Parker's high school - also larger-than-life, give this novel moments of being a high-stakes, high-emo romance - but fans of John Green and novels of that contemporary type may take to this like catnip for a kittybeast. As always, your mileage may vary. /p>

Conclusion: I snort-laughed, and teared up repeatedly; this novel is full of all the raw, edge-of-the-blade feelings that make a year of high school, intense bravado hiding insecurity, fearlessness hiding abject terror. Less of an issue novel about blindness than a reminder that jumping to conclusions is sucky exercise, the smart-mouth Parker and her cohort provide a roaring start for this debut novelist, and I'm sure we'll hear more from him soon.

Edited to add: Disability in Kidlit co-founder Kody Keplinger reviewed the book and then and interviewed the author.

Enter to win a copy of this book! You have until November 30th, 2016. Check out the giveaway on Goodreads!

I received my copy of this book courtesy of Little, Brown & Co's Poppy imprint. After December 1 - the first holiday gift to yourself? - you can find NOT IF I SEE YOU FIRST by Eric Lindstrom at an online e-tailer, or at a real life, independent bookstore near you!

November 23, 2015

A Turkey Everyone Can Love

Vegetarian or vegan, kosher or carnivore, this is one turkey we can all get behind, especially book lovers and paper fetishists such as myself. Thanks to Reading With Scissors for this one:

Happy Thanksgiving, all! See you next week. In the meantime, check out my book review posts over at the Cybils blog, posted every MWF.

November 20, 2015


Full disclosure: I've served any number of times with Gwenda Bond on Cybils panels and consider her a sharp cookie as well as a friend. As we've never had a slumber party or a trapeze act together, I'm fairly certain that I can review Gwenda's novel without undue bias.

The whole superhero thing during childhood was ubiquitous and inescapable - from The Greatest American Hero, that weird Automan series (what was THAT about, ABC?!) and endless Superman films on the big screen and rerun on the small, my entire childhood was informed by caped crusaders... which is why I was easily able to abandon all of that as baby stuff, and move on. Then Smallville came on, and ... well. *cough* Those are some hours I won't get back. But, it was all to the good, because all that teen angst sparked more imaginations than mine. So, we know the trope of The Chosen One from our hero-centric narratives, but what is The Chosen One like as a teen? The best gift we received to explore that, of course, was Harry Potter - and now, we've got Lois Lane. The not-exactly-chosen-one. The one who volunteers.

Summary: If she can just stick to the plan, Army brat Lois Lane will manage to blend in at Metropolis High. If she can keep from pointing out the fallacies in the principal's attitude toward bullying. If she can keep her nose out of what's going on with her new job at The Daily Planet's teen newsmagazine, "The Scoop." If she can steer clear of this troubling gang of... gamer nerds? If, if, if. Two little letters that mean failure, because nope, Lois can't do it. She's nosy, but it's because a good soldier always needs to know the lay of the land -- which is important if you're always The New Girl. Lois also knows what it's like to be alone - and lonely - and can't stand seeing anyone bullied, so it's pretty disturbing to see someone begging the principal for intervention on her first day... and seeing her not get it, and the bullying continue. Ugh. Since Lois will be in Metropolis for the foreseeable future -- unless The General puts her in military school, as he often threatens -- at the very least she's going to make sure Metropolis High is a decent place. With her online buddy-maybe-more friend SmallvilleGuy and the new friends at "The Scoop" behind her, not hackers, conspiracy theorists, VR games, barefoot elves or even a five-headed monster can stop her -- she hopes.

Peaks: I cringe to hear characters described as "snarky" or "wisecracking," because most of the time the dialogue that goes with those words seems staged to resemble air-brushed Movie Kid speech. However Lois doesn't JUST snark, she also deadpans, she quips, she digs, and she's really, really good at it. Lois shoots off her mouth like anyone does, and though she occasionally puts her foot in it, that just makes her sound like a normal, incisively honest teen saying the things everyone is THINKING. Since Lois isn't accustomed to having to worry about the fallout from speaking her mind ...she doesn't. Not a lot, anyway. She's a good faker, at the very least.

The appearance of Nerdfighters in this novel - slightly myopically immersed and either weeping or laughing at their books, phones at the ready to record their latest reactions via vlog - made me laugh out loud. The representations of "type" of persons is closely matched by a diversity of class and ethnicity - the teens seem to organically and naturally to transcend the "American Standard," which is nice.

And can we talk about the covers??? Both the hardback and the paperback have bags of style, and are just amazing, not only reflecting the colors of Metropolis High, but... well, our Kansas boy in a cape as well. Swoon!

Especially Apt For...: People who loved Smallville and Lois & Clark, people who are fans of the teen sleuth, a la Nancy Drew and Veronica Mars; people who love stories of intrepid reporters a la Fitzhugh's Harriet or Pratchett's William de Worde, and also for everyone who loves books about do-gooder sidekicks like Hermione Grainger and Wendy Watson, aka "Dub-Dub" from The Middleman.

Conclusion: This was such fun - more fun than even I expected. With over-the-top, truly scary villains, a conspiracy theory site, this series debut is fast-paced, tautly written, absolutely immersive yet imminently re-readable, and will leave readers greedily impatient for May 2016 when we'll get the next one.

I sourced my own copy of this book. You can find FALLOUT by Gwenda Bond at an online e-tailer, or at a real life, independent bookstore near you!

November 19, 2015

Thursday Review: THE DIVINE by A. Hanuka, T. Hanuka, and B. Lavie

Summary: This story of ancient spirits in a war-torn Southeast Asian country—the fictional land of Quanlom—is a fast read, saturated with the brutality of war's aftermath and its effects on children who no longer are given the luxury of a real childhood. I'd deem it a crossover title in terms of content and characters both; the story's protagonist here is Mark, an explosives expert with a pregnant wife and a solid job, a steady life. That is, until his old buddy Jason offers him a top-secret military contract in Quanlom, rigging up some explosives. The money sounds too good to be true…and then Mark discovers that not only does he have to contend with the moral and ethical horror of child soldiers, he also must face a land imbued with—and protected by—ancient spirits… and then decide whose side he is really on.

A quick disclaimer for adult language with this one—there are a few instances of strong language, because one of the main characters is a military-type guy with a monster attitude. That's the main reason why I'd consider this a crossover title, good for YA and above but certainly not below unless you want kids to ask uncomfortable questions about the C-word (the female one). As a story of war, it's also got its share of violence.

Photo by Apichart Weerawong. Source: NY Times
Peaks: I love the fact that this story was actually inspired by a real-life photograph of two twelve-year-old twins from East Burma who had fought to defend their land by leading an army of refugees. Their story was surrounded by legends, but the kids were (and are) real, and the photo exists (it's reprinted at the end of the book). It's kind of a what-if-the-legends-were-real story, and it's also a painful reminder of the realities of what went on in Southeast Asia, the ground still seeded with land mines and permeated with past violence. It's a history that's easy to forget or ignore, and stories like this help us remember.

Click to embiggen
Valleys: As mentioned above, this one isn't for every reader, due to violent content and language. That aside, I found myself wanting to know more about the mythology—there's a dragon-like creature, his soldiers that look like Buddhist tomb guardian figures, but not much in the way of background culture. Nevertheless, the art in those sections is atmospherically rendered, and does reward those with some existing understanding of the visual references.

Conclusion: This is a great one for guy readers, and particularly, I think, reluctant guy readers. It's fast-paced and action-packed, with cool supernatural elements and video-game violence. From a moral standpoint, the ending was also quite satisfying. And if it gets readers interested in the story behind the story, so much the better.

I received my copy of this book courtesy of the publisher, First Second. You can find THE DIVINE by Asaf Hanuka, Tomer Hanuka, and Boaz Lavie at an online e-tailer, or at a real life, independent bookstore near you!

November 17, 2015


A YA novel with an adventurous (note I did not say "strong") female protag in an unusual place is most often fun. That same YA novel written by a man is intriguing for the simple fact that there aren't as many of those. I didn't know the author's gender before finding this book - I just thought the premise sounded a lot like the early Mike Shepherd Kris Longknife books (or a much improved teen David Weber-esque Honor Harrington type) before the character (and in Weber's case, the moralizing) started to annoy me - more space opera than science fiction, more sea adventure (kind of) than steampunk: Young girl runs away (not exactly) to the (not really) sea - that sounded adventurous enough for me. Now I know that this is a debut from an author who has already put out three books in this series, so no waiting!

Summary: At fifteen, Alexis is a driven, hard-working and beloved granddaughter of a prosperous colony settler, but she knows the truth about her life -- that is, it's amazing, but she can't have it for much longer. The only way to have her grandfather's land and her easy relationship with the workers and the business for keeps is if she marries someone who will let her keep it. "Let her" is a particularly bitter pill to swallow, as Alexis IS the family business, having worked with her grandfather since she was tiny. And in a way, it's his fault that she can't have the land; as one of the original settlers of the space colony, he, too, feared the youth and vitality of the settlement walking away with its women as they married, and so agreed that only men can inherit. That was then and years later, as her grandfather ages and is terrified of the land reverting to the colony upon his death, Alexis is treated to a noxious parade of the greedy and the shallow who salivate at the thought of digging into what her grandfather has fought so hard to build - and who want to plow Alexis under, too, as part of the bargain. In a hated, frilly dress her grandfather bought her, Alexis tries to show up and play her part, but she's not stupid, and she's not going to put up with stupidity. When she sees her chance to make a life for herself - she jumps at it. There aren't any rules against women joining the Royal Navy; in the outer worlds, there are plenty of women! But not on the prosperous and originally settled core planets... never mind. Alexis didn't expect easy - she just expects to earn a future another way. And she's determined that she's going to do it...

Peaks: There's a very classic feel to this novel, possibly putting readers in mind of other books they've read from the 19th century that are Ye Olde Tales of the Sea. There's the desperate young person, yearning to break free of the Old Country, there's the limitless horizon beckoning... there's uniforms and discipline and being burned up in the fire of an institution, to emerge as one of the tall, shining, and proud. Yep, this is a story we know, and its very familiarity is lovely - and a bit deceptive.

Despite the old, old familiarity of a book set in a patriarchal society, this novel still has lots of new things per page - a whole new world, which has, surprisingly, gone backwards toward kind of the late 19th century in terms of technology (and ideology), Dark Space, which creates a need for ships far forward technologically, ships which sail with solar sails; Naval terms and Naval discipline which is a lot like the 16th - 19th century maritime obsessed British who were always running away to sea -- and the absorbing characterizations really make the pages pass quickly. Alexis isn't a whiner, nor is she particularly plucky or feisty or anything outrageously sexist. She is not ugly or beautiful, nor genetically gifted or magical; she is shorter than her thirteen-year-old bunkmate, but that doesn't bother her too much. She struggles, but none of her struggles are overly painful or dwelt on for too long. She does have a disproportionate sense of the universe needing to be fair - and it isn't - but this doesn't embitter her too much.

Science fiction typically has a bit of science in it and there is less hard science in this novel than many readers might expect. However, there are solar sails on the space ship Alexis sails on - and she has to learn to understand that technology, which was first introduced in science fiction by Jules Verne. It's completely fantastical and really complicated and I didn't get it -- but was tickled to remember Bill Nye's solar sails experiment this past summer. It's that wonderful "what if" in science fiction that keeps me coming back. Adding to that an interesting female protagonist who is sometimes lonely, sometimes terrified, and sometimes overwhelmed -- new planets and the romance of the (kind of) sea, and you have a winner of a book.

I also thought it was a positive that Alexis notices that she's a girl, surrounded by boys. It would have been ludicrous if she didn't have a tiny, brief frisson of interest in someone!

Valleys: While these aren't true valleys, there are some spots where emotional resonance is missing for me; Alexis is assaulted early in her Naval career, and later in a maneuver has to kill someone - she is able to engage in violence and do what needs to be done, but I expected it to affect her more emotionally, as it would anyone, male or female, and felt that the author let her off with artificial ease.

While Alexis is thoroughly run off her feet, in other ways, she is not very challenged by the Navy; her first time on ship, while difficult in terms of what she's required to know mathematically (and I really felt for her there!), is largely a job she can push through by being her usual focused self and seems not much harder than the work she's been doing on her grandfather's tree farm. For instance, she doesn't witness her fellow troops being particularly gross, they're not that interested in her femininity, they limit their slurs and sexism to manageable, unsubtle confrontations. No one seems to be trying to pack her in cotton and protect her, people doubt her ability, but are shown in brilliant fashion that They Are Wrong. Fortunately, I cheated and read the jacket copy for the next book and know that this is actually lulling the reader into a false sense of security, which is all to the good!

I'll be interested to see if a richer diversity of background is included in subsequent volumes; I'm thinking back and can't really remember if the characters in this are anything other than American Standard characters, which would usually take me out of a story a bit, but didn't this time. I'll make note of that for next time.

Conclusion: A fast-paced, tautly written capital 'A' Adventure, this is another independently published gem I'm happy to discover.

I picked up my copy of this book on Amazon. You can find INTO THE DARK by J.A. Sutherland at an online retailer, e-tailer, or check out the audio version.

November 13, 2015


The second "episode" in the Nicki Haddon mysteries continues Chinese-born heroine Yu Fin's adventures with MI6, the FBI, and other super secret agencies that this sixteen-year-old manages to infiltrate and outthink.

Summary: Since her involvement in the Ming vase case crossed her path with law enforcement agencies in Canada, Nicki's been recruited and sent to London for training. Her not-a-butler friend, Fenwick, has set her up to live outside of London with his sister, Emma -- a middle aged punk rocker with a band who pretty much hates her on sight. He can't go with her - Fenwick is on the trail of a theft from Buckingham Palace, and looking for a book that's missing... about a certain golden flower.

Nicki's in an uncomfortable situation that gets worse -- at the airport she was photographed and followed. The guy who followed her turns out to be a gang member who peers into Emma's windows. And the spy school Nicki was looking forward to turns out to be odd as well -- Nicki runs into one of her suspicious-acting instructors at a museum where a docent preparing to speak on the history of the opium trade is found poisoned. Nicki fears her teacher has been compromised by drug dealers... and maybe it all ties to that book no one can find. It's time to pull out her Fu Yin persona and get to work.

Peaks: Nicki Haddon's wealthy upbringing gives her a great many advantages, and though she doesn't know a great deal, she's flexible and finds out. She is also always finding ways to help the people she sees as overlooked; this time it's a punk rock band. Nicki's merely supposed to be a student in this book, but is dragged away on a fast-paced, over-the-top adventure which includes Buckingham Palace, Balmoral Castle, a stuffy butler, opium poppies, East End London rhyming slang, and general comic-book style insanity. This series is like popcorn, and readers seeking diversion will return for another quick read.

I had a little trouble suspending disbelief about some of the plot elements in the novel, but I can see this being enjoyable for kids looking for wish-fulfillment reading. Adults may find it unlikely that a sixteen-year-old girl, even a smart one, would be taken seriously by various international spy agencies to the point of impressing them and being the only one on hand to save the day!

Valleys: The difficulties of plotting a mystery include suspicious adults, but Nicki meets few, since her caretaker is in a punk band and she fends largely for herself. Nicki even without her Fu Yin persona is incompletely characterized and remains mildly mysterious. Readers may find it hard to warm up to her, as the narrative voice explains a lot of her actions and emotions but the novel lacks emotional resonance. Some of the relationships in the novel seemed rushed and underdeveloped, and Nicki's search for her birth parents, which should be personal enough for her to keep close to her heart, and to endear her to the reader, she seems afraid to tackle. Readers may wonder why she isn't more direct, talks to her parents about what she wants and needs, and uses their prodigious money and reach to find out what she can. While the transracial adoption element keeps the novel interesting, emotional development is shortchanged in favor of action in the plot, as we are told and not shown who Nicki is, what she cares about, and what drives her.

Conclusion: Like a compact Chinese superhero, Nicki outthinks, outfights and outsmarts the villains around her in this over-the-top standalone sequel.

I received my copy of this book courtesy of the publisher. You can find THE SECRET OF THE GOLDEN FLOWER by Caroline Stellings at an online e-tailer, or at a real life, independent bookstore near you!

November 12, 2015

Thursday Review: THE WAY BACK FROM BROKEN by Amber J. Keyser

Summary: Full disclosure: Amber Keyser is an author I met at a past KidLitCon; her editor Andrew Karre at Carolrhoda Lab I also know from KidLitCon (a different one) and I'm in contact with both of them online. They sent me my review copy of The Way Back from Broken.

OK, business now out of the way.

When I sat down to think about it, there really aren't that many "guy books" that deal with emotional issues. There are general "issue books" with male protagonists, but compared to the number of books with female protags that place emotional recovery front and center? The guy books aren't as numerous, that's for sure. The Way Back from Broken is one of those rare books with a male main character that foregrounds grief and recovery, friendship and love, and does it in an authentic and believable way, because yes, teenage boys deal with their emotions differently, but that doesn't mean they don't HAVE them.

Rakmen Cannon, the protagonist, is a good kid who's had bad things happen to him. He's still recovering from the grief of his baby sister's accidental death, his parents' marriage is crumbling before his very eyes, and he has to suffer the indignity of going to art therapy in a basement with a bunch of other grieving kids while his mom goes to the mother's support group upstairs. Things get even worse when ten-year-old Jacey, the new girl at art therapy, latches onto him and seems to think he can help her somehow. Oh, and Jacey's mom is one of Rakmen's teachers at school.

Rakmen has no idea what he could possibly do to help. He doesn't even want to talk about his own feelings; what can he do for a ten-year-old girl? And yet…she seems to look up to him. Almost like a brother. He hasn't had that feeling in a long time, but he's forced to confront it when his mom sends him along with Jacey and her mother on a summer wilderness trip. It's when the three of them leave the cabin and go au large--French Canadian for "on walkabout"—with just their packs and canoes, that they are forced to really start depending on one another…and that's when the walls start coming down.

Peaks: Besides what I already mentioned about how it's great to have another book for boys (and girls) that delves into the inevitability of both grief and recovery, another thing I found noteworthy about this book is that the protagonist Rakmen is of mixed race—he has a black father and Latina mother—and it's clearly portrayed but also just as clearly Not An Issue. It just is, and Rakmen is who he is, and there are a few ramifications there, but this isn't the central plot point by any means. (Did you hear that? His race doesn't define him! He is a Complex Individual!) That was really well done, in my opinion. And the girl he kind of likes, Molly—a girl in his support group—happens to be white, but that isn't a Thing. What hangs over them isn't race, but sadness.

Ironically, it's what they share that keeps them isolated. Being able to open up can't just be done on command, though, and in this case, it takes an experience that gets Rakmen outside his own head. I've seen this to be true so often, and I like that it happens in this story. I also like that everything isn't tied up in a neat bow at the end, but is realistically a bit messy. Progress is made, there is hope, but you can't bring back the dead, and some things can't ever be quite healed.

Valleys: I have to admit, I wanted this to be a bit more of a survival story, when they got to their journey au large in the Canadian wilderness. There are scary moments and physical danger, but I never quite felt that life-threatening terror that I was, for some reason, expecting. I don't know that it's a problem with the book so much as with my expectations, though. And there's certainly enough emotional tribulation to go around without having to take their physical endurance to its limits.

Conclusion: This is the kind of story I'd put in the hands of a Chris Crutcher fan—because that's whose books this reminds me of. It's about love and loss and that elusive "learning to be a man" that can be so difficult and confusing, especially when you feel like you're supposed to control or hide your emotions. It's a really heartfelt story, with believably flawed characters, including the adults. This was a debut, and I look forward to reading more of the author's books in the future.

I received my copy of this book courtesy of the author and publisher. You can find THE WAY BACK FROM BROKEN by Amber J. Keyser at an online e-tailer, or at a real life, independent bookstore near you!

November 11, 2015


Since a "cozy" is a subgenre of crime fiction where the mysterious doings (murder/mayhem) are off-screen and the sleuth is usually funny (either amusing or odd), this novel straddles the line between being cozy and being plain YA - because the sleuth is neither amusing nor strange, only an average over-achieving teen -- but neither is she warmly personable nor cozy. The main character is lightly drawn - so lightly sometimes that we don't get a sense for her personality, but the detail and setting are vivid. This is a first novel in a series with a bit of potential. It's kind of Hawaii 5-0 - the original "book 'em, Danny" one, not the recent makeover - meets Nancy Drew -- again, the 1940's original, not the new one. By that I mean the adults are kind of slow, and the teen runs rings around them, of course.

This novel also has a transracial adoption subplot, as the Chinese-born protagonist was adopted by North Americans.

Summary: Sixteen-year-old Nicki Haddon isn't Hawaiian, but lives there - when she isn't competing in martial arts around the country. A child of very wealthy property owners - wealthy and clueless, as they call all of their butlers by the same name - Nicki has all that she wants but their attention. At the moment, she's in Toronto on her way to train with one of the premier kung fu masters in the country at Fire Dragon Academy. But bored and alone in Hawaii, she's arrived early - and finds she's arrived just minutes after the Master has been stabbed. Her timely call for help saves his life, but his incoherent mumbling about a Ming vase has her worried and intrigued. First, what Ming vase? And, why is it up to her to get it? Through a fast-paced series of slightly improbable events, Nicki, who was born Fu Yin, tracks down the whereabouts of a fake vase, a real vase, and the culprits behind its theft and the attempted murder.

Peaks: This is a mostly bloodless mystery, fast-paced and appropriate for older middle graders to young adult readers. As in most cozies, it's easy to tell who the suspicious folk are, but less easy to tell why we should suspect them. Nicki is young and Asian and has a lot of agency, and we learn a bit about the Chinese dynasties, Ming vases, and the emporium.

Valleys: I found the characterization very light in this novel. The narrative is well-plotted, but there's not a lot of emotional resonance with the character for me. I want to like Nicki much more than I do; I want to feel she's genuinely lonely and bewildered by her absent parents. I want to feel these things for myself, rather than having the facts handed to me. Nonetheless, the pacing being quick glosses over the fact that we don't know the character, and pulls the reader through the story, but if readers are looking for a relatable and warmly drawn character, they will instead find a sketch.

Conclusion: I think there need to be more YA mysteries and am always on the lookout for books which include characters of color so I'm glad I ran across this one. Despite some unevenness, the detailed setting, fast pace and over-the-top plot made this a light, quick read.

I received my copy of this book courtesy of the publisher. You can find THE SCRATCH ON THE MING VASE by Caroline Stellings at an online e-tailer, or at a real life, independent bookstore near you!

November 10, 2015


The best thing about reading is the opportunity to observe, discover, and reflect about somewhere else, and someone else, and maybe begin to imagine yourself in someplace else, with another situation. Some of the very best "old-school" YA novels from 1970's and 80's like A DAY NO PIGS WOULD DIE, by Robert Newton Peck, or Beverley Naidoo's THE OTHER SIDE OF THE TRUTH, or MY SIDE OF THE MOUNTAIN, by Jean Craighead George, these books gave me this kind of informational vibe, told me about things I had no idea about, and just showed me... a piece of the world. TIMBER CREEK STATION reminds me of those slice-of-life first person narratives. Unusual for a contemporary YA novel, this novel is all narrative, a tunnel vision, first person point-of-view - which means that we're treated to the protagonist's opinions on everything, with little deconstruction. Deeper questions about what any of it means are simply not answered, for good or for ill.

This book was first published in 2011 as EVERYBODY JAM (that flavor of jam that "everybody" likes, which is apparently a bizarre way to refer to apricot), and was shortlisted for the Carnegie Medal.

Summary:First his fifteen-year-old brother, Jonny, had a fall from the roof. Six months later, his fourteen-year-old sister falls pregnant - and won't tell anyone how. Thirteen-year-old Danny Dawson is stuck with his sister Emily, who is seven and "useless," and a lot of disturbed, angry, confused feelings about how life is falling apart. Too young to really be of much use to his tough guy, cattleman father, still torn up about his brother's death, conflicted and confused about a new baby, Danny is a ragey, adolescent mess. Add to that the fact that a drought has parched the desert and dried the cattle's watering holes, everyone is stressed, including his parents, who are having major blueys - or fights, and even though they don't have the money to hire more help, really, Mum hires a "house girl" to help out with things while she tries to hold down her job at the clinic, deal with her angry son, and help her too-young and pregnant young daughter to cope. Danny doesn't think he needs a minder, like useless Emily. According to Danny's father, Pommies are useless, too, and Danny wants not one more new person in his life. But Liz, with her "Pommie" - English - ways, her twiggy thin legs and weak arms and her vegetarian diet seems is the only one who talks about Jonny, the only one who asks questions and thinks thoughts that no one else on the station thinks. Danny's not really sure he likes Liz... but sometimes, you just need someone to listen.

The Scoop: Danny is a clear reflection of his rural roots. He has a name for everyone - the English people "Pommies," (a name derived from the joke that they're "Prisoners Of Mother England) the Aboriginal people, or "gins" are, to his mind, always into the grog, bumming, or begging. Sometimes he refers to them as "blackfellas." Danny is an echo of the thoughts and opinions of the menfolk around him and while he attends school with his siblings and a county teacher, he hasn't yet learned to think. Danny's racism and nascent sexism is countered by the presence of the house girl, Liz, an English backpacker who is helping out at the cattle station during the muster, or when the cattle are brought in from the open desert to the market. Though Liz mostly just observes Danny's world with shock, she additionally asks endless questions for clarification - and this allows the reader second thoughts on Danny's problematic version of the world.

The action in the novel is a series of subplots which revolve around getting through the muster and Sissy giving birth. Danny wants to prove himself man enough to fill his brother's shoes, and help his father, but his general immaturity gets in the way. What Sissy wants is unclear. As all things must end, the muster ends and the baby comes, and the English girl goes back to England, and it's just another day in the life of a cattle station, and a growing boy.

NB: While I'm not a fan of glossaries in children's books, nor of the Americanizing of British Commonwealth English, I do think that a fair to say that readers may flail a bit with the Australian slang. There is a great deal of it, and it's only partially explained, as Danny impatiently relates things to Liz. This will call for patient reading.

Readers should know going in that this book has a bit of violent death, a very teen pregnancy, underage drinking, and a very different feel from the sanitized suburban lives most YA novels depict. There are offensive moments which would be disheartening to an Aboriginal person.

Conclusion: This is a difficult book to characterize - it's an absorbing, masterfully written bildungsroman, which depicts a moment in time in the life of a grieving family. It's also a painful, angry story of recovery told from the point of view of an ignorant, racist boy.

The novel shines a light on how each one member of the Dawson family with grief and hard times - Mum and Dad withdraw then blame each other, Sissy finds comfort in a friend, Emily seems too young to do anything but she carefully names each of the orphaned calves and worries about them. Danny makes a shrine of his brother's things until that shrine is lost. Questions like, "Is this family going to recover? Is Danny going to ever be anything but a small-minded racist?" or "Is this junior high education and this cattle station going to be Sissy's whole life?" and "What happens if babies don't really fix everything?" don't really get space in the narrative. Because of this, I suspect this book would be best for older readers, as it will be fodder for a lot of discussion.

I received my copy of this book courtesy of Lerner Books. You can find TIMBER CREEK STATION by Ali Lewis at an online e-tailer, or at a real life, independent bookstore near you!

November 03, 2015


Mid-autumn might seem like a weird time to start reading about baseball again, but since the World Series victories are still echoing in our ears, I think it's a fine time to start thinking about spring training again. One of the first books my brother got as an audio book to support his reading was BASEBALL SAVED US, by Ken Mochizuki, published by Lee & Low. That book was a big deal to ME because it reminded me of other books I'd read about life in Japanese internment camps during WWII, and tied baseball's popularity to both historical and contemporary Japan. I was pleased to find a book about a female baseball fan - I'm all about the sports books for girls - and even happier that it's a Canadian book - but was shocked to learn a piece of history that I'd discounted. I was unaware that Canadian citizens of the Japanese race were interned from 1941-1945 and some were deported after the war.

This is a quiet and slow-paced but vivid and absorbing slice of life for a girl called Michiko - or Millie, depending on who you are - who lived when the world was in flux, Italians and Japanese people weren't trusted in the Western world, and baseball was the one thing you could count on.

Summary: Michiko hasn't had a portrait of herself for years - because it's illegal for the Japanese to own cameras. The rowboat her Uncle George made? Has to be hidden, and eventually given away to a friend. From their normal lives in gorgeous, coastal Vancouver, the Minigawa’s have been pushed further and further inland -- until their only choice is to live West of the Rockies - or go back to a Japan that Michiko has never even seen.

Ontario is freezing, and worse, not filled with the familiar sighs and smells of Japanese-Canadian families. Here Michiko stands out so much that she takes refuge in being quiet Millie, doing her best to just fit... but the siren song of baseball urges her to break out of her shell. In time, her successes remind her family that success can still be had, and there are reasons still to be proud.

Peaks: Like most of my favorite historical fiction stories, this is an intergenerational tale. Though Michiko's entire family doesn't live together, the neighboring Italian woman, a serviceman uncle with whom she corresponds and the other adults in the small farming community color her perspective and inform bits of the story, filling in history and culture in ways the author might otherwise have found onerous. Michiko relies on her aunt's fashion sense to help her be the best-dressed girl at a party where she's mostly ignored while the Italian neighbor introduces her to lasagna and shares with her a pair of trainers which enable her to play baseball. I also love that this is multicultural -- the Italians and the Japanese are unlikely survivors, thrown together, and in this story that makes them tentative, then strong friends.

Though some of the adults in the novel are bitter and everyone is grieved, there are a variety of responses to being interned and Michiko is able to observe the adults in her life acting and reacting, and draws her own conclusions on how best to behave in the small but painful interactions she struggles with in her own life.

Valleys: I felt that there were no valleys, but would like to offer this book to a child with its companion volume, WHEN THE CHERRY BLOSSOMS FELL, to get the whole scope of Michiko's story.

Conclusion: We need diverse books which allow reader to compare and contrast experiences of the world war in various nations. I love that this book is about a girl who plays baseball against the odds, who tries to take pride in her culture when others would rip it away, and who does her best to keep faith with what she believes in.

I received my copy of this book courtesy of Dundurn Press. After December 15th, you can find CHERRY BLOSSOM BASEBALL by Jennifer Maruno at an online e-tailer, or at a real life, independent bookstore near you!