April 29, 2016

Turning Pages Reads: EVERY HEART A DOORWAY by Seanan McGuire

Welcome to another session of Turning Pages!

Synopsis: The story of children vanishing isn't new; they slip between worlds even when they're safely at home. Mostly girls, because they're quieter, and not as quickly missed when they're taken Underhill. At times, a changeling is left, made of mud and sticks... and, not much hue and cry is made. But when they're sucked into Fairyland, or dropped down a rabbit hole into Nonsense, or emerge into the Moors, or end up via the wardrobe in some Virtuous world where all is sunshine and unicorn and rainbows, it's not the disappearing that matters... The worst thing on earth is the bump when you land coming back.

And, what then?

Then you end up at Eleanor West's Home for Wayward Children. On the surface of things, it's a reform school where your parents send you when you need straightening up. Once the front door closes, and they're safely back at home, there you find your tribe.

Nancy was the Princess-in-Waiting to the Lord of Death. Her black-and-white hair, habit of stillness, and grayscale color scheme bespeak her the world in which she once lived in a state of cool, bloodless peace with no haste. But, the world she's landed back in is colorful, cacophonous, and her parents don't know her anymore. Desperate, they steal her black clothes and send her away with a dreadful pink suitcase stuffed with rainbow-brights. Nancy's desperate with longing to find her door, and go back to where she feels she belongs. But, there is no going back. That's what the child-sized psychologist at her new school, Dr. Lundy, says. Restless, tree-climbing Sumi, Nancy's new roommate, agrees, stating that hope is the worst of the four-letter-words no one should say. Eleanor, the sixty-ish woman who runs the home, says that's not true - that some doors reappear for some kids. She knows exactly where her door is located, after all. She's only waiting to go home when it's the right time.

But, for some of the children, it won't ever be the right time. Tragedy stalks this tiny boarding school-cum-sanitarium and strikes just after Nancy's arrival. Suddenly all eyes are on her - the new girls who's ruined everything. Others are suspected in their turn -- but accusations and panic are spinning them all in tightening circles. She doesn't know anyone well enough to suspect them, but Nancy decides that no one has the right to determine who she is -- and battling suspicion, her fears, and a load of loss and near paralyzing grief, she and her newfound friends in this awful, beautiful world have to get to the heart of what's going on, before it's too late.

Observations: Readers who enjoyed MISS PEREGRINES HOME FOR PECULIAR CHILDREN may find a sympathetic echo in this novel, but Ransom Riggs wrote more of a straightforward adventure story -- crossing into the Weird, and going home safely to familiarity at night, and returning at will. This is a darker, sadder story. The slim volume is one hundred, sixty-nine pages long and yet manages to get its claws into your heart.

Like Nancy, readers come into the world confused - without benefit of the orientation which takes place after her first night's sleep at the Home. We live, at first, in the expectation that all the quirky characters are going to be spontaneously entertaining - poof off somewhere, do something fun - but they don't. They grieve, and soon we become accustomed to that -- and then everything changes again.

The tension heightens, the screws tighten, and then All Is Revealed. The little revelations continue to spill along until the final one, which surprised me a bit. I had to think whether I wanted things to conclude in the way that they did, or not. I'm still not quite decided.

Conclusion: A gorgeous depth and stillness inhabits Seanan McGuire's prose in this brief literary fantasy. There is a diversity of age in this novel which allows it to cross over beautifully, and will be of interest to older teens who may find themselves jaded with fantasy novels of evil fey, or are searching for an offbeat novel about acceptance and finding one's tribe. There are some surprising moments - and attitudes in this novel, but the surprises make sense from the characters. I found this work seamless, and found myself tearing up a bit just from ...a gentle nostalgia for places that don't exist, to which I'm sure I ought to be going home. In two words, disturbingly beautiful.

I WON my copy of this book via a Tor.com contest which never, ever happens. You can find EVERY HEART A DOORWAY by Seanan McGuire at an online e-tailer, or at a real life, independent bookstore near you!

April 28, 2016

Thursday Review: HUMAN BODY THEATER by Maris Wicks

Synopsis: Iiiiiit's—a kids' comics extravaganza! Featuring The All-Singing, All-Dancing Anatomy Extravaganza, Human Body Theater: A Nonfiction Revue by Maris Wicks! With a name like Human Body Theater, if you're of a certain generation like myself, you might first (unfortunately, and inaccurately) think of the Jim Rose Circus Sideshow. NO, no. Clear all those thoughts out of your head. (If you can. My one experience with the Jim Rose Circus is indelibly imprinted on my gray matter and involves a lot of going "EEWWW" and "UGGGHHH".) If you're squeamish, don't even Google it.

No, what we've got here is another wonderful science comic by the very talented Maris Wicks, author of the graphic novels Coral Reefs (reviewed here) and Primates (reviewed here), among others. This fact-packed book provides an entertaining introduction to all the various systems of the body, how they work, what their components are, and their roles in our everyday lives, from the tiniest cells to our complicated superstar brains. Each "Act" of the performance that our astounding bodies perform every day focuses on a different bodily system, such as the Digestive System.

Click to embiggen. Courtesy of Macmillan.
As with Wicks' other science comics, all the organs and cells and whatnot are adorably brought to life with expressive little faces, and described by our intrepid and knowledgeable narrator the Skeleton. There are cartoon diagrams, pictures of organs, fun (and funny) yucky stuff, and if you're still confused at the end, there's even a glossary for you. But you won't be, because it's all so seamlessly put together, and even talks about how various systems work in concert to enable us to do things like see, hear, walk, talk, burp, and sneeze.

Observations: I know I would have enjoyed this one a lot as a kid, and gone back to flip through it over and over, because I really liked illustrated science books. I think I've mentioned that I had numerous volumes of Charlie Brown's Super Book of Questions and Answers; this fits that sort of niche. Kids (and older readers) have all kinds of questions about how their own bodies work, and this is the perfect book to answer those questions, especially if, like me, you've reached adulthood and information has started falling out of your brain

It's clear, informative, and the drawings invariably put a smile on my face. My only caveat with this one is that it is rather exhaustive. It's not a book to be (necessarily) read in a single sitting, and younger kids might find it a bit information-heavy, depending of course on the reader. On the other hand, the level of detail in this book makes it a good one for anyone who might need a refresher on their anatomy and physiology, or anyone who simply enjoys reading about science.
Click to embiggen. Courtesy of Macmillan.

Conclusion: I am a big fan of well-done educational comics. For kids who are visual learners or who respond well to multiple learning modalities, comics are a great way to introduce material that might otherwise feel discouragingly complex. Human Body Theater turns what could easily be a dry subject into a lively, personified look at the amazing human body. Stay tuned later this month for an interview with the author!

I received my copy of this book courtesy of the publisher, First Second / Macmillan. You can find HUMAN BODY THEATER by Maris Wicks at an online e-tailer, or at a real life, independent bookstore near you!

April 26, 2016

Surveying Stories: Observing adults in Kwame Alexander's THE CROSSOVER and BOOKED

Children's literature trends toward patterns or themes which repeat -- sometimes because that's just what happens to hit the market at a given time, and other times it's an active interest which people are seeking to promote. Occasionally, I observe these themes or topics in a certain author's work, and try to work through the ideas of what I find intriguing. This is an occasional series which proposes to study these elements in children and young adult fiction from a writer's perspective.

Let's survey a story!

Today's books are both by Kwame Alexander; THE CROSSOVER and BOOKED; companion novels which are both sports-centric novels in verse with male protagonists. Both books briefly feature the complexities of children's relationships with the adults in their lives - both parents and others.

Observations: Poet Kwame Alexander came to my attention with the snap-crackling dialogue in HE SAID, SHE SAID (2013). Adults - parents - weren't as largely featured in that book, possibly because he wrote the story around characters he met in leading a writing workshop. This gives the novel immediacy and authenticity -- but not a lot of adult input. (And there wouldn't have been room for a whole lot, as Omar's ego takes up 90% of the room.) This was also clearly a YA novel, with a frankness about sex which sort of... precluded adult interaction. Not entirely, but enough that the adults didn't, for me, really register.

However, in THE CROSSOVER, the 2015 John Newbery Medal for the Most Distinguished Contribution to American literature for Children, the Coretta Scott King Author Award Honor, etc. etc. etc., and winner of allll the stars -- parents are very visible. THE CROSSOVER is clearly a middle grade novel, with all the complications therein. Josh and Jordan, at almost thirteen, still rely heavily on their parents for support -- and in this novel, entertainment. One of the things I really loved in THE CROSSOVER is the boys' tender relationship with their mother and their father. I like the way they were challenged and gently buffeted in the storm of adult ability until they upped their game. Their father was a font of unchallenged ridiculousness - and bits of wisdom thrown in, too. And, Mom and Dad have ... a life. Even a private life. (Ewwww.) When so many novels do the lazy thing and merely sketch in adults as the narrative version of Charlie Brown's cartoon teachers, fully realized human beings with their own stories - stories which have an affect on the narrative arc - it adjusts the perception of adulthood in children's stories, and maybe in child readers' eyes.

BOOKED, which is a sport-centric companion novel to THE CROSSOVER, though not a sequel, depicts an only child, which necessarily positions the adults in his life more centrally. Nick Hall places soccer at the center of his world - but, he learns, it is not central to his parents' world. As circumstances stretch and challenge their family, he has to reframe his relationship to mother. He is forced to see her not just his pancake-provider, and forehead kisser, but as a person occasionally solely allied with other adults - as all parents sometimes are - but then, Nick also realizes his mother is a person who occasionally allies with just... herself. Mothers as individuals separate from their children isn't something which gets delved into a lot in children's lit, especially in the middle grades, and this is fantastic to see here.

Two more characters from BOOKED intrigued me; Mr. "Mac" McDonald and Ms. Hardwick. Both adults are unmarried and childfree in the novel. Historically, childfree adults in middle grade or children's literature have been either elderly, odd, or sort of neutered caretakers (too many teachers to count, including Miss Honey in MATILDA; Heidi's grandfather in HEIDI; Miss Spink and Miss Forcible in CORALINE) or less dimensional characters with sort of walk-on roles or few lines at a time (the Magician Uncle in THE MAGICIAN'S NEPHEW; Hagrid in the Potter books). Having interests not child-centric or a life outside of the classroom/home where they interact with the child seems to be a relatively new development for childfree adults in middle grade literature. Having someone like your school librarian be a former rapper -- with a scar -- makes for a character who is intensely interesting. Having him be whimsical and unpredictable makes him a well-rounded, real human adult as well (and, wisely, Alexander never satisfies our curiosity about him... which leads me to believe [hope? cross fingers?] we'll be seeing him again).

Ms. Hardwick, Nick's frowning 8th grade English teacher, is distinguished from being just another figure in the long blurry ranks of "adult" by being seen out of context: first smiling, understanding who he is, and then by jarring him entirely by wearing red shoes, and being someone's... date. (Oh, the horror!) It's kind of terrifying to poor Nick, but it makes her real, if not rather amusing - and reassuring. Childfree adults do exist without being The Crazed Crone in the Woods, and without being a faceless teacher, droning - human wallpaper.

Which leaves me to wonder whether we're changing our perception of childhood, as writers, or our perception of adults. Maybe we are, at last, giving some respect to the middle graders and not believing them totally oblivious. Maybe we're giving some respect to the mentors and the relationships that adults have with children, not just as their jailers and their providers, but including the relationships they have with those who are also their guides and friends.

I read my copy of these books courtesy of the Public Library. You can find THE CROSSOVER and You can find BOOKED by Kwame Alexander at an online e-tailer, or at a real life, independent bookstore near you!

April 25, 2016

Monday Review: THE GIRL WHO COULD NOT DREAM by Sarah Beth Durst

Synopsis: I'm catching up on some long-overdue reviews this week, and one of those is Sarah Beth Durst's latest middle-grade fantasy The Girl Who Could Not Dream. Sophie, the twelve-year-old main character, is the girl in question—and how strange and awful it is to be a person who is unable to dream when one's parents are, in fact, dream-sellers. Oh, ostensibly they own a bookshop, but there's a SECRET shop in the basement where all the dreams are stored in bottles; where they are distilled from dreamcatchers and readied for those special clients in the know.

Though she herself does not have dreams, she knows their seductive and sometimes frightening power…because one time, as a child, she stole a dream in a bottle. And she discovered that, while she cannot dream, she can undeniably experience someone else's dream…and even bring things out. That's how she ended up with a pet monster. Named Monster. He's furry, like a cat….only with sharp teeth. Oh, and tentacles. And he's very protective of her, though he is always very careful never to be seen by the outside world.

One day, Sophie's parents are away and a dream client comes by, and the client accidentally sees Monster. A creature who should not exist. Sophie has to explain it away, and hope that the client doesn't report her (or Monster) to the Night Watchmen. Unfortunately, this is only the first sign that things are about to go awry in Sophie's world. She may not be able to dream while sleeping, but soon, her waking world becomes all too nightmarish…

Observations: As with all of Durst's books, this one is undeniably fun, quirky, charming, magical, and really unlike anything else out there. Actually, if I had to compare it to anything, it would be the worlds created by Diana Wynne Jones, where magic exists in a kind of parallel, tangential plane but still alongside our own, visible to those with the ability to see it. Similarly, while there is gentle humor and a loving family portrayed here, there is also fear and danger lurking in the corner of one's eye, and plenty of excitement, as Sophie and Monster must spring into action to save Sophie's parents--and their livelihood.

Durst's books always charm me with their imaginativeness, and this one is no exception. How wonderful, to bring all sorts of dream monsters and fears and mythical beasts to life, from frighteningly surreal Dali-esque creatures to good old flying unicorns. But, hands down, Monster is the best monster. I'll leave it to you to read the book and find out why.

Conclusion: I'd recommend this one heartily to all readers of middle-grade fantasy, especially fans of Diana Wynne Jones's Christopher Chant books. It's just an all-around enjoyable story, and the author creates one of those worlds very like our own that you'll end up wishing you, too, could inhabit, nightmares and all.

I received my review copy of this book courtesy of the author/publisher. You can find THE GIRL WHO COULD NOT DREAM by Sarah Beth Durst at an online e-tailer, or at a real life, independent bookstore near you!

April 22, 2016


Welcome to another session of Turning Pages!

Synopsis: Maya has lived her life as a pariah in her father, the Raja's, court. Her horoscope is dire, promising a marriage of death and destruction, and as the stars are not in her favor, she remains un-betrothed. Nerdy and knowledgeable; always with her head in a book, she's never had the attention, affection, and respect of her father's many wives, nor her servants or tutors, either. Only her baby sister loves her, and for her, Maya imagines ...worlds.

When her marriage is arranged to create the peace among warring neighbors her father desperately needs, Maya is horrified - but resigned. She's always wanted to mean something to her father, hasn't she? Prepared to sacrifice herself for the greater good, Maya is whisked up into a magical place as the queen of Akaran and wife of Amar. The worlds she's imagined are wider than she's ever dreamed... but there are things she can't know, doors closed against her, and voices, just on the edge of hearing... trying to tell her something it must be important to know. Choosing who to trust in her new situation is vital -- knowing who to listen to is impossible. Maya must learn to choose herself - and in this choice, she finds all the knowledge - freedom - and power she's ever believed she needed.

Observations: Often books talk about being steeped in various folklores; this one isn't just a few names tossed in, but a rich and romantic and very detailed fairytale set in an ancient parallel South Asia. The writing is, in a word, lush. Succulent. Detailed and descriptive, it is easy to get lost in it. In fact, I did - in the middle of the novel, I found the pacing was a little cluttered with the beauty of the writing. The plot was all but obscured, and I found the novel something I could set aside easily enough, because the urgency was, for me, a bit obscured with meandering, decorative prose. I was just about to give up, when, abruptly, the novel took a left turn and the gear re-engaged. Stuff Happened - urgency was re-introduced, and readers were hit with a lot of crazy, magical doings which fit in with the setting and the characterization of this as a world of layers where anything could happen - at least in a story.

Conclusion: With a whimsical world reflected in a beautiful cover, this standalone novel has a clear beginning, middle, and end, and though there will be a companion novel, once this narrative is finished, it's done. I'm reading the Odyssey just now, and ruminating about some of the earmarks of a mythological story, which this feels like, because of the magical realism and weird occurrences layered in amongst the mundane. This story has a lot of the feel of Persephone and Hades to it, with a rich South Asian type setting, and though it is not for everyone, it will satisfy readers who are fond of a lot of imaginative, deeply romantic writing.

I received my copy of this book courtesy of the publisher. You can find THE STAR-TOUCHED QUEEN by Roshani Chokshi at an online e-tailer, or at a real life, independent bookstore near you!

April 21, 2016

Toon Thursday: Never Gonna Happen

It's nice being back on a semi-regular schedule of Toon Thursdays. (Psst! Did you know I've also started posting my toons over on Tumblr?) Let's see how long it lasts this time...

April 19, 2016


Welcome to another session of Turning Pages!

Synopsis: Grace Mae has lost everything - her home, her lovely clothes, her voice - even her last name. Shoved into the faceless void of the late 19the century insane asylum, hers is a life of violence, assault, degradation, starvation, cold, and fear. And, Grace is perfectly sane. Just pregnant... which, for a single young lady of 19th century Boston obviously means wildly licentious behavior, ergo, she is deemed mad. Just until the baby is born, however. All will be mended when her belly is flat again. But, Grace would rather die than go back home - and has decided to stay in the asylum forever. Except, there are worse things at the asylum; there's the asylum cellar, where the truly mad are kept in unrelieved darkness. When Grace finds herself there, the discovery of unexpected light changes everything. A visiting doctor trained in phrenology and is just beginning a study of criminal psychology sees someone worth saving. Grace is removed to an ethical asylum where her heart begins to heal. Grateful and relived, Grace works hard to help the doctor solve murders - but while his clinical interest and maturity has prepared him for his work, Grace is still young, and still idealistic... What happens when a young girl continues to gaze into the abyss? Eventually, the abyss gazes back...

"It's a madness so discreet that it can walk the streets and be applauded in some circles, but it is madness nonetheless."

NB: As with other reviews on this blog for books in the mystery or suspense genre, the synopsis fails to provide detail, to prevent spoilers. Nevertheless, I feel compelled to state that this book should definitely be only for mature readers. Violence against women, the loss of a childhood, the loss of a child, and murder are pretty common for 19th century asylums, and may trigger negative emotional reactions in some readers.

Observations:Months ago, there was a list passed around on Twitter of reasons someone could be - and had been - admitted to an insane asylum in the mid-1800's. We laughed about it, but it was... creepy. Fits? Desertion of husband? Desertion by husband? Business nerves? NOVEL READING?????? Off you to to the mental institution, and may God help you. Despite the word "asylum" meaning "protection," the line for any woman between the protection of home, and the loss of all self and all right to leave in peace in this manner was dangerously thin.

"Simply using the words sane and insane is a way for the population to draw a safe line through humanity, and then place themselves squarely on the side of the healthy."

This Edgar Allan Poe Award Nominee is simply... dark. It isn't scary in the gasp-and-jerk way, it isn't spine-tingling horror, and doesn't leave one breathless with suspense, it's simply grim. This novel depicts the most common, garden-variety evil, which means it grinds both reader and characters into a paste by the end. The emotion I felt most from this novel was great weariness, and a sense that the conclusion was meant to be cathartic. It was not, for me; it might not be for you. It presented moral conundrums which troubled the adults in the novel; teen readers may feel differently.

The history of America's treatment of the mental ill is deeply toxic. (America's present treatment leaves much to be desired, as the stigma still remains.) The topic is somewhat leavened by Grace beginning to enjoy her life and using her prodigious wits to examine crime scenes, but moving into the realm of being a 19th century detective is also somewhat dark - there are those murders, after all. Still, unlike most novels about young women before the idea of equal rights and parity, Grace is not powerless. The novel underscores that, if one is willing to cross the boundaries of societally acceptable behavior, no young woman is. But, are you willing? And, if you're willing... then, are you sane?

That is the question Grace has to grapple with.

Is justice something which can be meted out by the average person? Is revenge justice? Is there justice in revenge? How much does it matter?

Conclusion: Though some readers may find this painstakingly told story slow, this novel is well-research, well written, refreshingly free of romance, and while it lacks much diversity, it does portray strong female friendships. While I can't say I liked the novel, as it seems difficult for me to fully embrace provocatively writing about the horrors of the past while many writers consistently ignore violence the horrors of the present, the subject matter is thought-provoking, and the questions of moral relativism it brings will resonate. Do two wrongs ever make things right? But, are you convinced there has been two wrongs...? Each reader must answer for themselves...

I received my copy of this book courtesy of the public library, through the review of my friend Liz who is serving on the Edgar Award panel. You can find A MADNESS SO DISCREET by Mindy McGinnis at an online e-tailer, or at a real life, independent bookstore near you!

April 15, 2016

Turning Pages Reads: SAVING MONTGOMERY SOLE, by Mariko Tamaki

Welcome to another session of Turning Pages!

Synopsis: Montgomery Sole would be the sole sign of intelligent life in Aunty, California if it weren't for her best friends Thomas and Naoki. Everyone else in Aunty is pretty scary-stupid, including her eleven-year-old sister, Tesla, at least in Monty's eyes. If it isn't biology killing Monty's soul, it's Matt Truitt, her five-minute crush tormenting Thomas for being gay, and calling Monty a dyke, or it's the SorBetties, the carb-obsessed frozen yogurt queens who seem to only ever worry about being skinny and the right shade of lipstick. The California cliché is alive at Jefferson High where Monty attends - lots of bleached hair, fit bodies and jocks. All of which is both boring and baffling to the overall-clad Montgomery, who wears Momma Jo's oversized, cast-off clothing, and is just satisfied to be dressed. Seen at best as a curiosity, and at worst, as an affront to those of slender and well dressed sensibilities, slapdash, shaggy Monty is kind of a pariah. Luckily, Montgomery and her friends have the Mystery Club, a place to explore the impossible, the curious, the unexplained.

Naoki might be open to everything, but Thomas is the Mystery Club cynic. Regardless, the Mystery Club helps Monty make sense of her life - and so far has given her The Eye of Knowing, a maybe onxy, maybe glass, maybe powerful stone tablet thingy which is supposed to let her see into the future. It hasn't really, so far. But, she's determined to keep trying to look.

When a Christian crusader rolls into town, not much makes sense anymore, even with the Eye helping her see. Touting his power to "save the American Family," Reverend White - with his white hair, white suit, and bright white poster-ready smile - embeds a sliver of fear into Monty's heart that she can't ignore. All she loves and wants to keep safe is already at odds with a town that is ridiculous, repressive, oppressive and homophobic. Monty can't deal with anything as bad as Christians on top of everything else. As a girl with two moms, she already feels like she's half a step from being an alien. It's not fair that everyone always gets to hassle the underdogs. All the indignity she feels at such a lopsided world eats at Monty. She just wants to find a way to stop people from hurting her and those she loves -- and to regain a little of her power. And, if she's found a way, she's going to use it.

Observations: This big-hearted - yet angry! - novel wins on myriad levels for me. Biracial Native Canadian-Japanese girl, Naoki Bigtree is very much her own, enchanting self - enchanting in a good way, of course. Thomas is wise and witty, but the wisdom is hard-won through pain and resignation. Montgomery is droll, observant, and dry-humored. She is also, in her heart-of-hearts, crouched over, gasping, grasping, and very much afraid. She is like us, so much like us that readers will tune in to her frequency with the little twinges in their heart that say, "Oh, yeah. That happened to me." She is afraid and brave and bold and pushing everyone away and holding on with all she has. The contradictory Montgomery Sole may be my favorite character yet for 2016.

I'm always curious at the depiction of family in YA novels. As a genre which routinely offed parents for so many years, or made them stupid or unimportant, it's refreshing to see adults who matter, and I would have loved to see more about the people who inhabit Montgomery's universe. Mama Kate and Momma Jo are funny and human. Naoki's family inhabits its own unique space, with an artistic father who travels frequently, and a enigmatic mother. Thomas seems removed from his family and so Monty and Naoki make up that difference for him. The relationships in the novel resonate.

Conclusion: This novel begins in an understated fashion, quietly. Montgomery can come off initially as smug and comfortable in her we're-too-smart-for-everyone tiny, tight circle of friends. But the fear and the anger - and later, the terrified guilt - covered by this smugness is what resonated with me, and I encourage readers to hang in there through that. Montgomery hates the way the world treats her, and clearly sees its unfairness. She wants to take action -- but really, there's no action to take, but to ...live well. Live loudly. Live. And that's the whole "lesson" or moral, if there is such a thing. I think you'll enjoy this book.

I received my copy of this book courtesy of our friends at First Second. After April 19th, 2016,can find SAVING MONTGOMERY SOLE by Mariko Tamaki at an online e-tailer, or at a real life, independent bookstore near you!

April 14, 2016

Post Something. Anything!

I have to remind myself now and then that it's actually OK if I don't put up a substantial, pre-planned post every single time; that sometimes I can just sit down and write something. Putting down words of some kind is almost always good, even if I'm not geysering out brilliant insights every which way.

The other thing I can do is post a PICTURE to entertain you, because I have a lot of those. My household has been traveling a lot over the past couple of years, and there's more travel impending. More travel has meant a bit less writing, but I like to think I'm storing up writing fodder for some future, less hectic, more productive time (a time which may possibly be mythical).

Anyway, I hereby present you with a picture of an Australian penguin:

Day 13 Melbourne - 45 Penguins-St Kilda Pier

April 13, 2016

Wicked Cool Overlooked Books: Non-Pink Jean

Welcome to the first Monday of the month, and another episode of Wicked Cool Overlooked Books! I completely missed September somehow -- but I'm back! In honor of Beverly Cleary's 36,526th day on Earth (we have to count the Leap Years, people, come on), I'm reprising my review from 2008, showcasing my VERY favorite Cleary book... and no, it's not a Quimby book. This is one of Cleary's working-class girl novels, portraying a white, middle-class family as "ordinary Americans." It's charming.

Even now, if I sit down and just read the first few pages of a Beverly Cleary book, I'm hard pressed to set the book down. There is something about the tone and setting that make even the most dated of her books seem as alive and real as they must have been when the first readers opened them ages ago. So, when I saw an old copy of a Cleary I'd never read at a used book sale, I immediately picked it up.

I wish you could see my copy of the book. Harper Collins has done a reissue, and so all of the new editions are bound either in sort of girly-pink with party dresses or sort of random pink with hamburgers and telephones and other stereotypical sixties teen era detailing. Now I love the pink and I love the sixties, don't get me wrong, but this is an atypical YA romance, and I prefer my cover. My library bound, 1965 edition of Jean and Johnny, which was first published in 1959, is a distinct brick red and has a beige and black drawing on the front of a boy in a plaid shirt walking with a shy-looking girl with horn-rimmed glasses and a realistically slightly terrified expression. It's adorable.

And so is the story. Jean Jarrett is fifteen, and enjoying the first day of a two week Christmas break. She's a terrible dreamer sometimes, which shows up in her work -- though she's made her own skirt, it's plaid, and none of the lines match because she forgot to leave enough material for the skirt to gather, which is kind of a disaster. She's a decent girl who admires her older sister, Sue, as being the smart one and the pretty one -- though it's worth noting that she admires her without angst, which is refreshing. Both girls wish for something exciting to happen, to maybe meet a nice boy. When Jean, wearing her horrible skirt, goes down the street to her friend Elaine Mundy's house to write to her pen pal, they take an unexpected trip to Mrs. Mundy's club, to drop off some Christmas decorations. A holiday party is in progress, where gorgeously attired dancers spin in a room of candlelight and flowers. The girls stop to watch the dancers -- and Jean gets asked to dance.

In her hideous skirt.

It's both deeply embarrassing, and completely magical, as Jean realizes that dreaming about a boy is vastly different from the reality of trying to dance with one, and make small talk. Jean is quickly obsessed with finding out more about this boy, Johnny. He's a senior at her own high school. Why did he even notice her?

The late fifties setting of this novel gives it a really fun feel. The television commercials are described with Cleary's drolly sardonic touch. Jean's contest entering mother, competing for appliances by writing why she likes specific products (in twenty-five words or less), and her newspaper-rattling sarcastic father who makes disparaging comments about Jean's choice of television shows, are perfect. At school, the band kids and the dramatics of the modern dance girls give a humorous, realistic touch and remind the reader how little high school has changed in some ways in the last fifty years.

The Jarretts are definitely working class, and certainly aren't rich -- the sisters sew and only splurge occasionally on Cokes because they know the value of a dime (which is what a bottle - glass, of course - cost back then). However, the girls also know when to buy a store-bought dress, and their father knows when to give them a little spending money. In subtle ways, Beverly Cleary has constructed a loving, functional, balanced, frugal family, who sometimes quarrel but always make up. They're not perfect, but they're real.

I read this book the first time, expecting Mrs. Cleary to have written a traditional girl-crushes-on-boy YA romance -- and to have earned that pink cover -- but it in fact, this story isn't routine or predictable, especially for its time period; Jeans likes Johnny, sure, but once she figures out why... you'll be surprised at her thought processes, which is why I am so glad I took a gamble and bought this book. Jean learns a thing or two about relating to boys which are still relevant to this time, and more than that, Jean learns a thing or three about thinking for and relating to herself -- and comes out definitely ahead of the game. This is one wicked cool book, and should you see it in your library, by all means, pick it up!

More Wicked Cool Overlooked Books today at Chasing Ray! Read more about Cleary's YA novels at Slate.com

April 12, 2016

Reading In Tandem: A.S. King's I CRAWL THROUGH IT

Welcome to another edition of In Tandem, the read-and-review blog series where both A.F. and I give on-the-spot commentary as we read and blog a book together. (You can feel free to guess which of us is the yellow owl and which of us is purple ...we're not telling!)

We were excited when our blog buddy, Melissa @The Book Nut, volunteered to head up the team to organize the Kansas City KidlitCon for this autumn. She's interested in local authors, and capably got on the ball to secure A.S. King as one of our keynote speakers as soon as possible. Since through the years we've been working our way through various A.S. King books, including THE DUST OF 100 DOGS, PLEASE IGNORE VERA DIETZ, and most recently, GLORY O'BRIEN'S HISTORY OF THE FUTURE, we thought we'd grab a new one, in celebration of A.S. King being our keynote. We'd heard a lot about this book. I CRAWL THROUGH IT has been described as one of the author's more "surrealistic" landscapes.

Two writers,
& Two readers,
With one book.

In Tandem.

Four talented teenagers are traumatized-coping with grief, surviving trauma, facing the anxiety of standardized tests and the neglect of self-absorbed adults—and they'll do anything to escape the pressure. They'll even build an invisible helicopter, to fly far away to a place where everyone will understand them... until they learn the only way to escape reality is to fly right into it.
We read library copies of this book in the treehouse. You can find I CRAWL THROUGH IT by A.S. King at an online e-tailer, or at a real life, independent bookstore near you.

tanita: Welcome to another edition of Tandem Reads! Our last Tandem was, uh...June of last year, where we reviewed a Stephanie Kuehn scary book. Our irregular little series is a lot of fun for us, despite the fact that we don't seem to do it too often. Today, spoilers kind of abound -- in an oblique way - for this book, so be forewarned: it was just hard to discuss without getting a bit specific, but we hope it's not too much. You'll certainly still need to read the book. Well, okay then! Let's just jump in - a very offbeat novel with a beginning that required ... a little concentration to figure out what was going on.

Aquafortis: This book actually took me a long time to get into--I'd say about a quarter of the way into the book before I really felt connected to the characters and what was happening...or not happening. I think the trouble for me was that there was not as much in the way of action in the first part, and more character development. And because the characters were so enigmatic and their world so strange, I was never entirely sure WHAT was happening. I have had trouble in the past connecting to magical realism, so it could well just be me...maybe that's part of it.

tanita: ... you are not alone. I feel you on the novel's beginning. I kept thinking, Okay, the helicopter: is this an existent thing, or a non-existent thing?? Only on Tuesdays? WHAT!?
I expected to flail in this novel - and possibly fail and drown - but because of more recent of King's works, I didn't expect it to go too badly. I mean, I struggle with magical realism, period. I remember reading The Dust of 100 Dogs, my first of A.S. King's novel for YA, and not knowing if I'd properly followed the narrative. I jumped in and was like, "Wait, Pirates??? Wha??? DOGS!?" It was... kind of a shock! And yet: there's an entertainment factor in just letting go and letting her tell the story. Kind of like letting a child sweep you into their narrative where there are some inconsistencies, but it's not your job to point them out or to define reality for that kid. (NOT that I think A.S. King writes at all childishly. Just a par example.)

Aquafortis: Yes, the helicopter was a snag for me. I kept going back and forth, thinking, it is REAL--no, wait--it's not real--it's invisible--no it isn't... I might just be one of those people who isn't comfortable with not knowing. (And you might already know this about me...) I still don't know what the heck the Place of Arrivals was, though. I guess my problem there is literalness, and the desire to try to interpret things in light of the real world. It's hard for me to take this kind of thing at face value, because my tendency is to analyze and assign meaning...

I did notice something interesting, which is that the parts of the book that seemed...REAL...were heightened for me. The closer we get to the end, the more of these flashes of reality there were, and so I connected with the story more as it progressed. I started to feel for the characters more when they seemed to be doing real things in the real world, after spending so long in a place of randomness and imagination, a place of questionable believability.

tanita: I believe that maybe The Place of Arrivals... doesn't matter. I mean, it's not a place you have to go by helicopter, but it's more the place where the characters, uh, arrived? It was Away. They wanted to go Away, and they did. And, as often happens when you go Away and don't have a serious plan about it -- but you carry some stuff on you, and you're vulnerable and a teen, someone can take your crap. You have to hide it. You have to pretend. And, maybe they met some artists. Maybe those artists were... not as cool a commune/collective place as they had once been, and it had become scary. Maybe a real adult woman - fearing for their safety - thought, "to heck with this, they need to go home and I'm taking them." Or, maybe the adults were incidental and imaginary. SO hard to tell. And, at the end of the day, it's not the adults' story, really.

Aquafortis: It reminds me of the "other minds" problem--how do we ever truly know ANYONE is really there or if they're figments of our imagination? And on some level, everything IS filtered through our own minds, and so the story at hand at any given moment IS what is real for the person telling it.

tanita: That sounds both wonderful... and terrible. Kind of life life...

Aquafortis: In the end, bizarrely enough, the character who seemed to exist most in the real world for me was China's dominatrix mother--also the news reporters, who seem to kind of come from some "outside world" and serve to remind us of what appears to be people's interior, imaginative lives spilling out all over the place.

tanita: The character with whom I connected all along was China Knowles. Poetry... it's supposed to be ineffable anyway, so the sort of cryptic, disconnected characterization from the others allowed me to sort of snag onto her earlier. I also felt like the Unspeakable Thing made her cryptic nature make sense: SOMETHING happened with Irenic (& wth kind of name is that, anyway? she should have mocked him in her mind for it) Brown, and it was A Thing that could not be spoken of: again, making China's obliqueness easier to take. (and I agree about her mother -- the swirling sense of shame in China that her mother and father have alternative lifestyles coupled with their horror to find out that ... they thought they were doing Parenting okay, and that pain and shame had snuck in on their watch.)

Aquafortis: I liked her too. Not only because China is the writer, the observer, but her way of dealing with her past traumas felt more familiar, I suppose. Not in a literal sense, but swallowing one's self in order to not-think about certain things, in order to keep the world at bay--I think most of us know how that feels. And so China, and the things that happened to her, felt more real to me.

tanita: The one I couldn't deal with was Lying Lansdale. I just... argh. Her character by turns scared and worried me. The Man Behind the Bush - forces her to take a kiss and a letter. What was that!? I was ...upset. The question seems to swirl around - including with China - is she trampy, or is she in trouble? Hard to tell. (Also, the letters...? I want to assign meaning to those, but...)

Aquafortis: I know!! Lansdale. She was the character I understood the least, felt most distant from--maybe she was less developed as a character, or maybe I simply wasn't clear on what was driving her. I just kind of wanted...more...something. I wanted to know her more, but she seemed like, at most, a side player in the lives of Stanzi and China. And yet she's also the one who connects most directly with the "outside world" in a way, with the news man. I'm not sure what it all means.

And yes, the letters! I kept wondering, if I go back through the book and write down all the letters that the Bush Man gave them, would it spell out a secret message? But I was too lazy.

tanita: HAHAHA! Talk about assigning meaning. I think it would spell the same gibberish Stanzi wrote on her test papers...

I want to talk about the student test thing. ALL OF THIS is supposed to have taken place because of test stress. I just didn't relate to that. I went to a ridiculously laid back little school - which was private, yes, but which never put undue stress on those tests because, well, we weren't expected to go to any college but a private Christian liberal arts college or somewhere else private and small, and most of those are ... easier to get into, if you cough out a wad of change. So, I didn't get test pressure in the same way that kids who are a.) super smart like you or b.) who went to big state schools like you did/do. So, tell me how realistic the school pressure thing felt to you?

Author photo courtesy of the author's website.
Aquafortis: can't help but say obviously there IS something to the idea of test stress. And it's something you and I did not have to deal with because we did not go to school in the No Child Left Behind days. So I'm hesitant to look to my own personal experiences for insight--also because I was one of the weirdos who kind of liked taking tests because I was generally good at it.

In thinking about this, though, I remembered that my AP/IB Biology teacher my senior year showed us a video about Harvard Med School and how kids were constantly under pressure and committing suicide from stress and so forth. And, in looking back, I feel like I had a lot of teachers like Mr. Carroll who really cared about their students and about the learning experience.

...but this is all simply to say that my experience may not shed much light on the pressure felt by the kids in the book. I actually wanted that aspect of the story to be explored more--I wanted to SEE why it was a thing, who was exerting the pressure and why exactly, because it can be something that is extremely politicized...and yet it is not universal to feel this sort of pressure--I would venture to say that's true even now with tests taking a much larger role.

tanita: Okay. So, in the end, I CRAWL THROUGH IT was weirdly enjoyable, but my enjoyment isn't the question, really: I wondered how and if Actual Teens (TM) would relate. Teen Me... aka "Me From the Past" would have been confused by this, but would probably have stuck with it because a.) A.S. King a "cool kids" author, b.) I personally enjoyed reading things no one else had read, in hopes it was obscure enough to make ME cool.

Aquafortis: I'm honestly not sure what Teen Me would have done with this one. I was decidedly less interested in literary fiction, but...maybe, depending on who handed it to me, or if I'd already read/enjoyed her other work. I CAN think of teens who would, though, connect with it. And maybe there is something generational, something having to do with living in a world of school shootings and test pressure that makes the old fears, like an eccentric naked man behind a bush, seem familiar and old hat and even comforting in a way. Maybe when the world seems to make less and less sense, a story in which reality is amorphous is just...the way things are.

Conclusion: A challenging, plot, a surrealist narrative, filled with relatable yet deeply quirky people whose choices - or lack of them - will leave you thoughtful or provoked. Disturbing, enigmatic, ambiguous - this has all the earmarks of a good Tandem Read. Thanks for joining us as we reviewed this notable and memorable book from A.S. King.

April 07, 2016

Toon Thursday: Return of the Inner Critic

I suggest clicking to embiggen this one, since I had to reduce the size to fit the width of our center column. 

April 04, 2016

Happy National Poetry Month 2016!

Hey, everyone, it's...
You can grab that logo there, and find tons of cool ideas for celebrating poetry, on the Academy of American Poets website. Memorize a poem! Create your own anthology on Poets.org! Watch a poetry movie! Most of all (sez me), get involved in local poetry events in your community. I've been a member of our local, relatively new Modesto-Stanislaus Poetry Center and we are holding our third annual benefit gala this month on the 17th, along with our usual monthly poetry reading/open mic on the second Tuesday.

In honor of National Poetry Month, one of my favorite poems:

The Second Coming
by William Butler Yeats

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again; but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

April 01, 2016

Turning Pages Reads: UPDRAFT by FRAN WILDE

Welcome to another session of Turning Pages!

Synopsis: Kirit Densira lives with her Trader mother in the Towers - skyscrapers made of live, organic bone, which pulse and grow. The City is alive, and the Traders are some of the most powerful and free of its denizens, below only the Singers, whose word is final, and whose wings, songs, and glass knives keep the City safe from the invisible sky-monsters which hunt its citizens. Densira Tower, once thought unlucky, has grown two tiers higher since Kirit's mother, Ezarit, has brought it prosperity through her daring flights and trades between other towers. There is safety in height - and in keeping to one's own Tower. Ezarit is well spoken of, for trading necessary medicines between the Towers and changing the way things are done, and Kirit longs to be just like her.

Kirit wants nothing more than this - just to walk her mother's path as a flyer and a trader. Once she passes her wing-test, she, too, will contribute to the luck and prosperity of their tower. But, days before her wingtest, her mother leaves on an urgent mission, and Kirit, loathe to see her go, bends the Tower Law and stays to watch her go. In a moment of inattention, everything changes -- one of the monsters the Towers all fear attacks. Kirit's screams of terror change everything. Suddenly her life is no longer the straight line planned, from wing-tested apprentice to Trader, partner at her mother's side. Suddenly, she's pulled between the tower and the Spire; between the bright world of sky and air, and the closed-in world, gray world of the Singers. Losing everything, Kirit decides to save herself -- and finds truths about her family, the City's past, and the secretive and terrifying Singers that change the way she sees everything. But those truths aren't hers to tell - and those secrets may destroy everything.

Observations: This is, in basic, surface ways, a huge adventure story of a Chosen One who finds out Big Secrets and with the help of the underdogs and the overlooked, saves her city and those she loves. It's a familiar story, easy to lose oneself in and stay happy. It's also a deep and complex story of power brokering, trades and betrayal - a story about secrets, and the lengths to which we sometimes go to keep them, about power and absolute power. It's also a story about loving one's family, in spite of everything, and that's a story we know very well. So, on the surface, despite its being a new story entirely, UPDRAFT has plenty that will feel familiar to the reader.

The worldbuilding in this story is superbly detailed and thought out, which makes sense, since more than one book will hang on this framework. Though the novel spent a lot of time setting this world in place, I found myself with more questions than the book answered: what were the bones made of? Why were people going blind from the sun, or having breathing problems - what is inimical in the atmosphere that affects humans so? Are the people in the City entirely human? The protagonist is, from the cornrowed hair she sports on both covers, a person of color, but there's not detail about this in the book, at all. Where did her people come from? How did they get into the bones? And, the bones of ...what? If the bones are organic and still growing... where's the rest of the body? What is it, down below on the planet surface (Earth? Or what planet is it?) that's worse than what's above the people, the invisible monsters? I found myself with more prosaic questions, too - the people ate mostly birds and what they could grow from small gardens - but I wondered where they got their water, and how. Details like this (mainly because I've been playing a simulation video game called Cities: Skylines and have started to dream about water pipes and adequate power plants) tend to distract me a little - but not too much.

Conclusion: UPDRAFT is Fran Wilde's first whole novel, after plenty of short story writing in the speculative fiction universe. Her characters are unique and apparently diverse; her writing chops are strong. The characterization in the novel has an air of familiarity to it which provides an absorbing and comfortable narrative, - as comforting as most Heroine's Journey books tend to be. It is adventurous and exciting, and there were so many more details I wished to have! I hope to find more answers in the sequel (CLOUDBOUND, 9/2016) to come. As it stands, UPDRAFT had a sufficiently satisfying beginning, middle, and end, and despite the sequel, reads well as a standalone. Still - the good news is, there's more to anticipate.

I received my copy of this book courtesy of the library! You can find UPDRAFT by FRAN WILDE at an online e-tailer, or at a real life, independent bookstore near you!