January 29, 2016

Turning Pages Reads: THE ABYSS SURROUNDS US, by Emily Skrutskie

Welcome to another session of Turning Pages!

Synopsis: Cassandra Leung is a Reckoner trainer-in-training, which means she knows her place -- as far less important than the giant beasts she trains, and apt to get benched in disgrace if she screws things up. She's been given her first job -- taking Durga, the genetically engineered five-ton behemoth - part sea turtle, part iguana, all dangerous - into the NeoPacific to the cruise ship on which Durga has imprinted, to oversee the animal as it guards against pirates. Durga is a killer, and Cas has worked hard to handle her. All is well, until Durga becomes ill with nothing she's ever seen before. Calling home would be only helpful if her mother in the lab had answers - she doesn't. Cas is on her own, and has known this from the moment her father handed her the EpiTas pill tucked into the collar of her uniform. EpiTas is half of the Spartan phrase E tan e epi tas - "with your shield, or on it." When the pirates strike, instead of being gunned down with the rest of the crew trying frantically to protect the passengers on the boat, Cas is taken hostage and her suicide pill slapped from her hand. Her job? To train a tiny new replacement for Durga, who died so horribly - and to give the pirates of Santa Elena's ship a fighting chance to claw their sovereignty from the major corporations who now own the waves and the sea. Despite herself, Cas falls in love with the murderous Reckoner despite herself - and finds the camaraderie of the ship a world away from the lonely world she inhabited. A prisoner held captive has only one duty - but can Cas do her duty? And what exactly, in this case, is it?

Observation: Cas views herself as unimportant - to her family, and to the industry which supplies their livelihood. It's a little ironic that with all of her resentment she never seems to twig to the fact that she was hand-picked for her abduction, which meant that someone saw her value, even if for the wrong reasons. Readers accustomed to being able to easily determine for whom to root in a narrative will struggle to find their feet in this novel in a good way. Cas is eager and nervous at the novel's beginning, then morphs into a girl furious, resentful, and -- reasonably cowed by the swaggeringly tough Santa Elena and her hand-picked crew. There is literally nothing she can do to save her help herself, and small rebellions are punished with incredible prejudice aboard the Minnow. The captain is slightly deranged and cruel, and Cas herself is no fighter, not really. And yet -- somehow she begins to like the crew.

The novel spends little time on the genetic engineering as a science which creates the behemoths with with Cas works, which is unfortunate, as it's easy to see that her family is fairly well-off for a post-apocalyptic civilization. The story hints at social injustice and political maneuvering which has left populations both vastly rich and vastly poor. There is brief mention that after the waters rose and the country boundary lines changed, some flotsam of former nations were left with no recourse but to come together in gigantic flotilla villages and turn to piracy and salvage in order to survive. Teen readers accustomed to reading critically about social inequality and financial injustice will pick this up. Unfortunately, there's not much more than a hint and readers may feel a need to fill out the details and help it to make sense. Much is implied and obscured, less is explained, which nevertheless won't prevent readers from being riveted by the action and tension.

There is a romance -- and while no one jumps into lust, which is a nice change from insta-love -- it troubles me, as romances rooted in inequality always do. For a change, all parties acknowledge that there can be no relationship when both parties are not on equal footing, however, in the usual blissfully dumb romantic way, choices and sacrifices are still made favoring a relationship. It's not quite clear to me why, and I guess that's because for all that I'm intrigued I'm never quite sold on the romance, or on a non-pirate falling in with the cutthroat ways of pirates aboard ship. If the novel had spent more time "before" with Cas in her natural environment, it would have been easier to see what type of person she was, to observe her place in the world, and make sense of why she and piracy would be a good fit, but we have to trust the author for a great deal, which, since the narrative is at times light on detail, is sometimes hard to do. Readers are left wondering at the novel's conclusion whether Cas has won or not -- a clever hook left by the author to reel readers back for the doubtless action-filled sequel.

Conclusion: The first in a planned - and apparently already penned - duology, THE ABYSS SURROUNDS US is a slightly uneven, unsettling, and unexpected book featuring hard-as-titanium lady pirates, a romance which doesn't quite get off the ground as far as it could, a hardcore series of deep loves and deep betrayals, and a twist at the end. Readers looking for queer fiction with a believable love story will be all in favor; readers in favor of tough girls who draw blood and take no prisoners (except one) will take savage joy in this as well. I'll be interested to see how the whole thing ends, and what the larger issues of right/wrong turn out to be.

I received my copy of this book courtesy of Flux. After February 8th, you can find THE ABYSS SURROUNDS US by Emily Skrutskie at an online e-tailer, or at a real life, independent bookstore near you!

January 27, 2016


Hey everyone! It's Multicultural Children's Book Day, and in honor of that, I will be posting what I think is my FIRST EVER picture book review. First, though, I'd like to sincerely thank all the organizers of MCCBD, especially Mia Wenjen (Pragmatic Mom) and Becky Flansburg. This has been a fun and well-organized online event, and it is a GREAT cause—promoting multicultural books for kids. I also want to thank Author Sponsor for MCCBD2016 and co-founder of GIFT Family Services, Gayle Swift, the author of ABC, Adoption & Me: A Multicultural Picture Book for kindly providing me with an ebook review copy.

Summary: Cross-cultural and transracial adoption is a great topic for a children's book, and families who have chosen to be open about adoption from the very beginning will be pleased to see an addition to the small but growing shelf of books for young children that address this topic. It's something that we as a society are increasingly aware of—and yet there is shockingly little statistical information available. According to ChildWelfare.gov, a program of the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services:

"There are no national statistics on the number of children who are living in transracial adoptions; that is, children who are living in an adoptive family in which they differ from at least one of their adoptive parents in terms of racial/ethnic characteristics. In statistics drawn from FY 2000–2004, about 28 percent of the children placed with public agency involvement were placed transracially, as defined above. Many intercountry adoptions are also transracial adoptions."

I was floored to read this, considering how many people I have known throughout my life from families with transracial or transnational adoptees. As we know, though, kids need books in which they can see their own situation reflected. ABC, Adoption & Me provides families with very young children that mirror in which they can see their own family as part of the varied spectrum of happy, loving families.

Peaks: The cute, happy cartoon illustrations by Paul Griffin put a smile on my face. There is a wonderful variety of families and children depicted in this book, in various permutations of race and ethnicity. At the same time that it shows adoptive families as normal, happy families, though, the great thing about this title is that it also gives kids and parents the opportunity to talk about adoption and encourages kids to ask questions and feel whatever it is they feel, positive or negative. For instance: "Q is for questions. It's OK to have questions about what being adopted means." Some pages have simple and clearly worded facts about adoption and adoption-related terminology (e.g., birth parents, open adoptions) while others provide affirmations that it's OK to miss your birth parents or wonder about who you will look like when you grow up.

Valleys: I had a few quibbles with the design/layout of some of the pages, but the fact is, the strength of this book lies in the chance it provides families to talk and laugh together, and address a topic that can be very difficult to bring up. Adoption in general can be an uncomfortable discussion for families, let alone the specific questions that come up in regard to transracial or cross-cultural adoption. This book addresses many of these questions, and provides helpful strategies for parents who are wondering how they might use the book as a discussion tool and a way to bring their family together.

Conclusion: It's no surprise this book has won various awards and accolades (see the author's website here). You can find it on Amazon, where it has earned an impressive 5 stars, and you can view the rest of the wonderful MCCBD blog reviews over at the #ReadYourWorld linky.

January 26, 2016

What I'm Doing Besides Reading for Cybils, Catching Up on Reviewing and Stuff...

Skyway Drive 335

I'm told the candy does NOT, in fact, taste like peas or carrots. Bummer.

People expecting copies of PEAS AND CARROTS, those are going out this week. People who want a chance to win a copy, along with a lunch bag and a little magnet -- please stay tuned to the February 9 release date --

February is not just when the groundhog emerges (albeit with a LOT of help from people pulling it) from its hole to find its shadow - it's apparently the month when introverts Make An Effort (also with a LOT of help from people... pulling). I'll be booktalking, and being visible this February here and there - first, I'm presenting a webinar February 2nd for The National WWII Museum on Mare's War as part of their WWII emphasis this year. Teachers and families who do homeschooling, you'll want to jump on this! The week following, I'll be on the blog STACKED and then the tumblr Size Acceptance in YA; at BN Teen Blog's Open Mic project sometime next month, and on John Scalzi's WHATEVER blog's Big Idea project on February 9th, which is the same day that PEAS AND CARROTS has its book birthday.

I'm grateful to everyone who asked me to show up and hang out next month, and given me the opportunity to talk about what I do and how I do it.

Skyway Drive 336

X-posted from {fiction, instead of lies}

January 21, 2016

Toon Thursday Redux: Writerly Daydreams

During this early part of the year, there have been a lot of conversations about writing goals, and what we all plan to accomplish by hook or by crook (or, in some cases, by copious amounts of caffeine and/or wine). Often, though, despite our best efforts we spend time dawdling and dreaming...something I drew a cartoon about a while back:

One of my many writing-related goals this year is to whip up a few more brand-new Toon Thursday cartoons here and there--we'll see how I manage. And I'll have some new book reviews commencing next week, and picking up again after this year's Cybils Round 2 is done. In the meantime, enjoy Tanita's reviews and have a creativity-filled weekend, replete with writing, daydreaming, and possibly donuts. (Or pie. Pie's good, too...)

January 19, 2016

Turning Pages Reads: SERPENTINE (Kingdom of Xia: Second Series #1), by Cindy Pon

Welcome to another session of Turning Pages!

Synopsis: SERPENTINE begins with a familiar feel -- a mistress and a handmaiden, brought up as close friends, often playing games and once spying on the monastery - and a cute monk - which was utterly forbidden. Skybright would do anything for Zhen Ni, but spoiled Zhen Ni often makes thoughtless comments, as if there's no real difference between the two. Skybright, however, can never forget the gulf that lies between them. At least Skybright can dream about the handsome monk she met in the woods, Kai Sen, even though nothing will ever come of that relationship. When Zhen Ni finds love and Skybright's place within her household seems threatened. In time, a secret is revealed: it turns out that all along motherless Skybright was the daughter of someone very important -- except her legacy is not in the human world, but of the mythical Underworld. Now that Skybright knows she's a daughter of the Underworld -- and that her mother was a queen of temptresses - she's not sure who she's supposed to be, and Zhen Ni is discovered to have secrets of her own. As demons and discovery threaten everything Skybright knows, she's backed into a corner of evasions, half-truths, and outright lies, trying to protect herself, and her mistress. Are there any right choices left?

Observations: Readers who enjoy retellings and new spins on mythological tales from other cultures will enjoy this novel. The setting is rich in detail and meaty with diversity. Like many fairytales, there is, from both Skybright and her mistress, a deep longing for something, but instead of that longing being to find a handsome prince or whatnot, their desire is for nothing to change -- to go on as they are, as close as they are. Of course, this doesn't happen - and as a metaphor for growing up, what happens to Skybright seems both monstrous and terrifying but also exciting and freeing - she seems at her most alive and engaged in the novel when she is in the forest, less passive and accepting, and more master of her own fate, which is something which will resonate with American readers. The sensuous language describing Skybright moving through the forest at night also spoke of the potential pleasures to be had when one accepts change and stops fearing it as The End of All Things, which is a great little secondary meaning whether the author intended this to show up in the narrative or not.

I was glad to see that this novel is the first in this series, because there were a lot of unanswered questions for me. SERPENTINE felt short - almost a blur of detail, worldbuilding, set-up and setting with a few teasers waved in front of the reader about the contents of the next book. Readers will easily root for Skybright, worry for Zhen Ni, and wonder what their future holds. Skybright's romantic choices felt a little hurried to me, and readers may not understand her choices. Skybright's tremendous sacrifice at the novel's end, because the ending is a little abrupt, doesn't have quite the sense of momentousness it should have, and we don't get her feelings about her choice - but that just means that readers can't predict, even a little bit, what happens next. Thus we curiously await the sequel...

Conclusion: Though I wasn't as pulled in as I could have been by the passive main character or her romance, there is so much richness that I wanted more time to linger in the fantastic and mythical, mystical world. If you enjoy retellings featuring ancient mythology, gods and demons and want a fresh take on a fantasy tale, you may enjoy this first book in the Kingdom of Xia series.

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

January 16, 2016

Turning Pages Reads: UNDER THE DUSTY MOON, by Suzanne Sutherland

Welcome to another session of Turning Pages!

Synopsis: Sixteen-year-old Victoria Mahler is the reluctant daughter of a has-been star, one Micky Wayne, who once fronted the band rising indie rock band, Dusty Moon. That was a long time ago, now, as the band broke up shortly after Victoria was born. Micky now works at a bar and does gigs every once in awhile, but their lives are pretty much hand to mouth as Micky has recently moved them back to the big city as she waits for her next big break. Victoria's well aware that she was great, once - it's kind of inescapable since she still has fans who show her their Dusty Moon tattoos, talk to her in grocery store aisles about how that one song of hers gave their lives total meaning, and post rumors and gossip - even all these years later - of Dennis, the one who walked away from the band, the one who no one knows is dead or alive. The one who might -- maybe -- be Vic's father. At sixteen, though, Victoria's too tired of the hoopla to care much. She just wants a life where her mom is her mother, and not a star, where she has a boyfriend she's not terrified to talk to, where she has a friend who actually likes her - just a life that is...normal. Is that too much to ask?

Observations: The addition of diversity of all kinds might have added additional depth and interest to the novel, though I did note that Victoria's crush did not have a stereotypically muscular male body, being described as having a soft belly and a round, full face. Readers interested in being band groupies or what it might be like to be the kid of a rock star will find this book interesting if not entirely realistic. I was initially sympathetic to Victoria, who is frustrated with Micky to the point of hiding the truth even from herself, and lying about who she is to new friends. However, Victoria is at times outright mean and whiny with her unhappiness - granted, as anyone would be, playing second fiddle to a Great Talent - but I felt unable to relate to her deliberate and disastrous choices. She continually ran down her mother for doing what she set out to do - moving them to a larger city, getting noticed, going on tour, and getting her musical career back on track. While Victoria may not have agreed to this plan, she was tacitly on-board until it started to happen.

Victoria's father - maybe - is brought out in the beginning of the novel as a possible mystery. I expected her to use the prodigious digital resources most teens can access to try and find him - if not at home, then at a public library, at least. Instead, she simply wonders if he's dead or alive, resents that he's not there and resists her mother taking up with another man. He never reappears in the narrative, unfortunately. Victoria doesn't seem to have a lot of reasons behind her behavior which makes her hard to understand. In the end, there isn't much change or growth in Victoria's life - but she's coping, and she and her mother are speaking again, which, after all the self-induced chaos, feels a little like a victory.

Conclusion: For readers deeply interested in celebrity novels, and behind-the-scenes tales of the real and fictitious in rock music, this novel may be a winner. There's a little bit in the novel about girls designing games, which is a bonus, it's got a nice cover, which is another bonus.

I received my copy of this book courtesy of the Publisher. After February 16th, can find UNDER THE DUSTY MOON by Suzanne Sutherland at an online e-tailer, or at a real life, independent bookstore near you!

January 14, 2016

January 27th is Multicultural Children's Book Day!

At Finding Wonderland, we have always been committed to reviewing a wide range of diverse and multicultural books, which is why we're very excited to see that this year the folks at Multicultural Children's Book Day are making a supreme effort to get the word out and provide all kinds of opportunities for bloggers, authors, teachers, and parents to do so as well.

Bloggers can sign up to review a book, donated by publishers eager to support this effort--go read more about it here.

Authors, and other interested individuals, can donate to the cause via sponsorship and get a little love in return--here's that info.

Lastly, don't miss the TRULY MASSIVE amount of information and links to diversity book lists for kids and other resources.

And, of course, stay tuned for the upcoming celebration! In the meantime, did you know you can check out all of our multicultural and diverse book reviews in one place (well, two places)? Thanks to the magic of tagging, you can read all of our reviews tagged with Multicultural Fiction or with Diversity just by clicking those links right there.

January 05, 2016


This is my favorite book so far this year. Seriously.

Though this novel isn't marketed to YA or as YA, this is a crossover I need you to read. If you like Regency novels, tales of the fey, Jane Austen, or 19th century anything, you want this. Buy it online, visit a bookstore, reserve it at your public library. Go on, I'll wait.

Now. Check out The Book Smugglers guest blog post with author Zen Cho wherein she talks about the influences that shaped this book. It is, and she is, sixty kinds of genius. I read this book slowly at first, trying so hard to roll the situations over my tongue and savor them... and then I looked up and I'd finished it already. Drat. I wanted to start over and read it again, but I equally wanted to thrust it into Tech Boy's hands and stand over him until he started it. Sadly, my selfishness ruled the day.

This is SUCH an excellent story. It's ostensibly about magic in England -- but a half step deeper into the narrative, it becomes about such very real things as microaggressions and this relentless, "hail fellow, well met" community racism that just dissolves the soul. At times I snickered aloud, other moments made me feel like I had to clutch my chest and recover from a punch to the solar plexus. The author shapes her characters with a charming affection and they charm the reader in return. This is a BUY series, which for me, eternal haunter of the library, woman of far too many books and far too many book boxes (and veteran of far too many moves), is rare and special. But, don't take my word for it...! Read it, read it, read it, read it.

This has been a public service announcement.

Summary: At eighteen, Prunella Gentleman has run out of classwork, the options of her class, and out of time. Her future as a mixed race Englishwoman of gentle breeding and no antecedents means staying at the boarding school for gentlewitches that she's been at since she was tiny and trying to find a way to fit... while being groomed for a life of staying in the background, hiding her magic, stopping the younger girls from dueling with theirs, miding her "betters" and doing all the work. It is a decidedly unpalatable future for someone so brilliant and sassy, and she's not having it. It's a rare stroke of luck that brings the Royal Sorcerer to her school. He's high up in government and must be quite well connected. If she can just get him to help her, she could escape the hand that Fate has dealt...

In a stroke of incredibly poor timing, Zacharias Wythe's mentor has died, leaving him in he unwanted post of Sorcerer Royale. To complicate things, Zacharias has been enjoined to do his bit for the English government in a matter touching on another country's political conundrum - just when it's being noised about that he killed his predecessor and adoptive father, Sir Stephen, in order to take the magical staff of The Royal Society of Unnatural Philosophers and succeed him in his position. It would be wonderful if Zacharias could do what the government is asking him to do - but it's against his conscience and his ethics, and also, it's potentially impossible. Then there's the matter of Sir Stephen's missing familiar -- and the fact that England seems to be leaking magic like a vast and shiny sieve. There are major problems afoot in the Unnatural Society, and the old guard is certain that it must be the fault of that upstart African who thought to set himself above the sorcerers of English blood that the country has come into so much difficulty, right? It is unjust - and cruel - to blame Zacharias for being elevated to a position he doesn't want, on the grave of someone with whom he had a complicated and obligatory relationship -- but silence and obligation are a part of Zacharias' life, and a part of the duty he's embraced for years. He suffers the outrageously cruel remarks people make in silence... because that's how it is, after all. One doesn't make a fuss, or at least, one doesn't directly confront one's accusers -- what accusers, after all, and of what could he be accused? His crime, such as it is, is obvious - once a slave, now a sorcerer, and the color of his skin has indicted him. Despite the tenuousness of his position as the King's magician, Zacharias is a brilliant sorcerer and a very stubborn and ethical -- and, deep down, very hurt, lonely, and angry -- man. And one headstrong young woman, a Fairyland full of stubborn fey, witches in revolt, and a bunch of racist English magicians can't stop him from doing right, and making things right, no matter the cost.

Peaks: Both characters are Other within their society; a gentlewoman with magic when women are not meant to show any vulgar knowledge of the aforementioned; slightly brown when the flower of English womanhood is milk white, a woman of no family when England rises and falls on family trees. Zacharias' troubles, as a former slave, are numerous, and the cruel kindness of being saved from that world - and thrust into another on which there is a brightly lit stage, expectations, and a magician's staff -- he, too, is Other and resented for it.

The political issues are squarely about the rights of women. I won't say anymore but -- go, women!

I mentioned Jane Austen -- Zen Cho is a Malaysian write and not an Englishwoman from the 18th and 19th century, but by golly if she hasn't reanimated an Austen hero. Zacharias Whyte is ... so ... constipated with duty and hemmed in with rules and chained to obligation. He's perfectly Darcy, only he's too realistic to have any overweening pride. Instead, he knows what he owe. And he owes, and he owes, and he owes, and he takes what he isn't owed right in the teeth and never loses his composure - just his sleep and his sense of peace. Zacharias holds up such a perfect mask of civility that when he's insulted to his face, people can't tell that the barbs hit, and that he bleeds. As a character, and an example to Prunella, he's larger than life.

Meanwhile, Prunella is zany and delightful - and privileged and completely blind to it, which may cause a few eye rolls in some readers at first. Watching her learn her own mind, as well as come into a better understanding of the world around her is a lot of fun, because as much as Zacharias accepts -- she does not. She asks questions, she makes observations, she throws herself wholeheartedly against the strictures the world puts up to bind her -- and does not mind a little disorder in the cause of freedom. She's a burden and a pest and a trouble to Zacharias from the moment they meet. What I enjoy is that in the end, Zacharias actually learns something from her, and empowers her to do more and be more.

Valleys: These are observations, not valleys: the action is sometimes a little quick, and readers may find themselves rereading to figure out what just happened. As mentioned, the language is Regency, so readers may need to read carefully until they catch the cadences. This is also the first in a trilogy, I believe - and we've no way of knowing how long until the second book emerges, though this one was published in September. However this is a fully told story - beginning, middle, end and no cliffhanger - so read away.

Conclusion: This is a brilliantly-written book featuring a half-Indian heroine, and African hero, and it is written by a Malay woman. Were you seeking in 2016 to up your diversity in reading, this might be one to pick up. If you're just looking for a brilliant story to lose yourself in with a pot of tea and a duvet, this is what you want, for sure. Happiest of reading New Year's.

I devoured my copy of this book courtesy of the public library. You can find SORCERER TO THE CROWN by Zen Cho at an online e-tailer, or at a real life, independent bookstore near you!

January 04, 2016

Congrats, Mr. Ambassador! Celebrating Gene Luen Yang

Photo courtesy of the author and First Second
From the press release: The Children’s Book Council (CBC), Every Child a Reader (ECAR), and the Center for the Book in the Library of Congress (CFB) have announced the appointment of Gene Luen Yang, Printz Award winner and two-time National Book Award finalist, as National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature.

The Kidlitosphere's own Betsy Bird was part of the selection committee, and having met Gene on a few occasions, I know it couldn't have happened to a nicer guy. We're longtime fans, and we've featured his books here on Finding Wonderland several times (with a review of his latest, Secret Coders, still upcoming); we've hosted him for interviews, too. In honor of his appointment as the 5th Ambassador, here's a roundup of our posts featuring Gene and his books:


Kids Comics Q&A Blog Tour: Interview with Gene Luen Yang  - 5/11/2015

Diversity in YA Kicks Off Tour at SFPL - 5/9/2011

Summer Blog Blast Tour Kick-Off: Gene Yang - 6/16/2007

Reviews and such:

Reviews in Tandem: THE SHADOW HERO by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew - 6/30/2014

Waiting on Wednesday: Some GENE LUEN YANG Love - 2/13/2013

Thursday Review: LEVEL UP by Gene Luen Yang - 5/26/2011

May Graphic Novels Roundup, Part Two: Prime Baby, Mercury, and Stitches - 6/6/2010

Two from :01 (The Eternal Smile) - 6/26/2009

Learning Your ABCs (American Born Chinese) - 2/1/2007