July 31, 2017

Monday Review: ONCE AND FOR ALL by Sarah Dessen

Synopsis: Sarah Dessen writes books that make wonderful summer reads, and by that, I don't mean they're "beach books" or chick lit. Rather, they have a dreamlike and immersive quality, delving deeply into relationships and emotions that might otherwise remain fleeting and obscure. They bring us, the readers, out of ourselves, and into someone else's life—into some perhaps relatively brief but still critical defining moment. They are in some ways "quiet" stories, but thought about another way, a moment that defines us is never really quiet. It takes up psychic space and causes internal noise.

In Dessen's latest novel, Once and for All, narrator Louna is in her last summer before starting college, and she's trying to stay busy enough to keep her internal noise at bay. She works for her mother's wedding planner business, along with her mother's best friend William. William serves as a father figure for Louna, since Louna's own father died when she was too young to remember him. Being exposed to the nitty-gritty behind-the-scenes chaos of weddings week after week has given Louna a cynical outlook on love and romance. What's more, her own first love the preceding fall came to a shocking and devastating end, and she's not ready to try again.

Still, life sometimes presents us with opportunities when we least expect them—and in ways we might not immediately recognize. When handsome but incredibly cheeky and annoying Ambrose begins working for her mother over the summer, she sees him as a disruption to her routine. But his laid-back, seemingly careless outlook on life is intriguing, and she realizes that taking a few chances might be just what she needs to move on from her past.

Observations: I always end up reading Sarah Dessen books with no small amount of wistfulness. Her characters seem to have a lot more freedom than I had as a teenager, even an older teenager—an adult sort of freedom that allows them to roam with few consequences, to take part in the working world, to have experiences that I didn't have until I was in college and living on my own.

And yet, what seems like freedom from my perspective is often just a different type of entrapment to her characters. We might envy Louna's ability to party until all hours with her best friend and date with impunity (and certainly, she seems to be 18 and technically an adult, so it isn't out of the realm of believability), but at the same time, sometimes freedom just leads to us making our own traps for ourselves. Like Louna, we can voluntarily put on blinders, making it hard to realize that what we think we are searching for is not what we really need.

Conclusion: Fans of Sarah Dessen will eat up this latest novel, and anyone who is a fan of realistic romance fiction and/or family and coming-of-age stories will want to check this one out, too. It would also make a good crossover or new adult book, due to the age of the protagonist.

I received my copy of this book courtesy of my library's ebook collection. You can find Once and for All by Sarah Dessen at an online e-tailer, or at a real life, independent bookstore near you!

July 25, 2017


Welcome to another session of Turning Pages!

If you ever wanted to read Jane Austen's books with a male lead... you might have to pick up this book. Austen's books are quiet routs of Victorian era manners; this is a rather noisier affair poking holes in the idea of the staid or wholesome English boy, making his way in the big world via The Grand Tour...

Synopsis: Henry Montague is a hot mess, really. He's privileged and the son of the Lord of Standards and Manners practically - frequently lectured, with fierce physical punishments to back up the cutting words - but this only spreads out the veneer of rakishness further and thicker. Henry is a good time boy, always laughing, drinking, smirking, and hitting on anyone with a pulse. It's his last hurrah, however; his bestie, Percy is off to law school after this Grand Tour they're embarking on. Felicity, Henry's sister, will be "finished" and ladyfied at her school, and Henry himself will be working side-by-side with his father, running the estate... all of which sounds like a living death, frankly. So, it's time to have fun, fun, fun 'til Papa takes his freedom away.

Henry is reckless - and sometimes stupid - with drink, with terror, with pain. He makes the worst choices, about people about money, and about his various vices. With some deliberate nudging, soon their Grand Tour goes grandly off the rails. They lose the minder Papa Montague sends along with them... and then the trip really begins. Unfortunately, this is still Henry we're talking about, so it's not all fun and games - highwaymen, robbery, dodgy conveyances and dodgier people mean their trip careens from bad to worse. As a manhunt gets underway across the continent for them, Henry has one more awful, heart-stopping surprise. Percy, Henry's darling best friend, reveals a truth and Henry realizes he doesn't know him that well after all.

Broken-heartd, terrified, and determined to wrest something good from this journey before his life ends, Henry pushes onward. Persistence - and a whole lot of pigheaded stubbornness has this gamer gambling at last to find the best answers to the biggest questions in his life, to help a friend, and to find his happy ending.

Observations: I delighted in my first introduction to The Grand Tour years ago in Sorcery and Cecelia by Caroline Stevemer and Patricia Wrede, followed by The sequel, The Grand Tour: Or, The Purloined Coronation Regalia. It was a story of two closely sheltered young ladies discovering the large grand world, and it was a lot of Regency with pixie dust.

This is not that book.

... rather than a sheltered Englishman seeing the world for the first time, Henry is a jaded... jade. The boy is a tightly wrapped bundle of neuroses and emotions pinging all over the place, a boiling stew of hormones and appetites. He's likely rather a more realistic illustration of young manhood (READ: rakishness), but I found his privilege and ignorance somewhat exhausting. If you love Regency novels and adore the reformed rake trope, this will work out well for you. Henry's vices sometimes overwhelm his virtues, but there is truly a tender love story going on, true diamonds amongst the glitter and the paste... which is a good thing, or many readers would have drop-kicked him.

Henry is queer as well as being young, so his confusion is multiplied. Percy is half Barbadian, and I found it interesting that he's described as having skin the color of sandalwood and ungovernable hair, but that's it - he seems to face no prejudice or scrutiny on the continent - at least not for being browner than is fashionable. As there were quite a few persons of African ancestry wandering the British Isles and the Continent all the way from Medieval times, this is wholly accurate, but I did wonder what Henry thought of his being different, since he had an opinion on EVERYTHING. Even Percy seemed rather quiet about himself; I found myself wondering if he ever wondered about the family his father took him away from when he brought him to England then up and died...

With his self-centered, narcissistic, shallow hedonism covering his wounds and poor self-esteem, Henry's a lot of work, and you've got to dig before you get to anything worthwhile with him. Which is true of us all, I guess. But, his sister and his friend don't give up on him, even though he takes them straight into trouble. With combined ingenuity, they take themselves back again - so there's an 'ever after' to look forward to - maybe a hard one, but the right one.

Conclusion:Henry is like a male Emma in Jane Austen's world - frivolous, silly, privileged, very attractive and charismatic, and sometimes dangerously ignorant of the true harm he can cause. But, like Emma, Henry is redeemed through the love - tough and merciful love - of a good friend.

I received my copy of this book courtesy of the public library. You can find all 528 pages of THE GENTLEMAN'S GUIDE TO VICE AND VIRTUE by Mackenzi Lee at an online e-tailer, or at a real life, independent bookstore near you!

July 18, 2017


Welcome to another session of Turning Pages!

Synopsis: Fifteen-year-old Aya has lived in hiding for as long as she can recall - because not to hide is to be caught by the Trackers, to be owned and bred. The census keeps track of girls, polishing and preparing them to be someone's forever wife, as fecundity is a valuable thing. Not every woman can bear children, and not every family is in favor of that kind of life, thus Aya's family are resistors. It doesn't last forever, however. One day, the hunters come and take her, and she is dragged away to the Garden, to be polished as a bride for the Magnates and Merchants. Aya continue her defiance alone -- with a ridiculous flower name the Governess gives her, with scanty outfits and with eyes always on her - weighing, judging, comparing, competing eyes. Aya's not competing to "win" a man, though - she has a sort-of maybe-kind-of friend, but the rest of the girls are sheep she wants nothing to do with. Her noncompliance gets her starved and roughly handled, left out of doors in all weather - but mostly free. She's made a real friend - a wolf pup - and has caught the attention of one of the mute beast handlers who work with the horses. He's trying to help - but Aya knows she can't depend on a man, even one outcaste and mute, even one who is all but invisible to the people at the Garden. Aya can depend on no one but herself... right?

Observations: One of this author's strengths is her worldbuilding; though there's a familiar feeling with this dystopian setting, the level of detail and ...logic in the cause and effect of the politics of the world is strongly plotted. This is one of the author's definitely strengths, and what will make this book a pulse-pounder for dystopian fans.

This book is marketed as THE HANDMAID'S TALE meets BLOOD RED ROAD, and I agree at least on the HANDMAID'S TALE portion, anyway. The commodification of women and the pitched battle of control over their bodies is something which has hovered outside the real of fiction since Margaret Atwood wrote her startling work -- and YA lit has frequently revisited the concept of a lack of control over the young female body. Simmons takes it a step further with the idea of fertility being controlled corporately, and being sold to the highest bidder.

The immediacy of the writing, and the fast pace of the scenes make it a little difficult for the reader to get a grip on details such as the size of the world or how far flung this insanity is with control over women - is it just the equivalent of North America, or the whole world? Are there other places where women have learned how to deal with this madness, or have overturned it? Because Aya grew up free, she never, ever, ever stops fighting for a return to that freedom. Sure, soft beds are nice; sure, good food you don't have to prepare is great -- but nothing extinguishes her desire to be on her own again, and one imagines that surely there are other girls who are so determined. I found myself wishing for a little more from the author on that score.

While there was subtle diversity in the novel, I wished that there could have been more - which is another question which returned me to 'where is this happening, and how widespread?' It seems this is set in a mostly white pseudo-America.

Conclusion:I found it ironic that there is a mythos in this culture that all their troubles began with a bad love triangle. I find myself wondering if the author isn't having a private laugh at the prevalence of love triangles in YA fiction, and this is a warning that they'll bring ruin upon us all! Likely not. ☺ For readers who enjoy the oft-clich├ęd "strong female character" who is digging in and being brave, finding love in unexpected places (There's no insta-love here, which readers will appreciate), and making fast-paced, life-or-death decisions, this book is for you. With strength of conviction Aya digs in to create the future she wants out of the present within her hands - something we could all learn better to do.

I received my copy of this book courtesy of the publisher. After August 2, you can find THE GLASS ARROW by Kristen Simmons at an online e-tailer, or at a real life, independent bookstore near you!

July 17, 2017

Monday Review: DREAMER'S POOL by Juliet Marillier

Synopsis: The Blackthorn & Grim trilogy by Juliet Marillier, which starts with the novel Dreamer's Pool, is not technically a YA trilogy, but readers who already enjoy her books that were specifically written for young adults (such as the Shadowfell trilogy, reviewed here) will definitely enjoy this one. It's got slightly more mature moments, but it makes a great crossover series. Set in a version of medieval Ireland, it's got hints of Celtic mythology and a dash of the fey—but, as always, it's the author's ability to weave a fascinating plot around compelling characters that makes these books truly shine.

When Dreamer's Pool starts, we are plunged into a rather gritty scene as we are introduced to the primary narrator: a young woman who has been imprisoned for the past year in the lockup of sadistic chieftain Mathuin of Laois. At first, we know her only as Lady—the nickname given to her by her fellow prisoner, Grim, who resides in the cell across from hers. And then something miraculous happens: the prison is destroyed, the roof partly collapsed, and she and Grim find themselves…free.

Sort of. The newly released Blackthorn—the new name she gives herself for a new life—is subject to a bargain. A mysterious fey named Conmael has decided to give her another chance, but only on the condition that she defer her desire for murderous revenge on Mathuin for at least seven years. Why, she doesn't know—and Conmael has also forbidden her to go anywhere near Mathuin. Instead, he bids her go to the settlement of Winterfalls and set herself up as a wise woman there, healing the residents, and never refusing to help anyone who asks. The first needy person who shows up in her life happens to be Grim, and so the two become somewhat reluctant companions…and soon, partners in solving the mystery of a bizarre occurrence at an uncanny spot called Dreamer's Pool.

Observations: Throughout the trilogy, we not only see the story through Blackthorn's eyes, we also get the perspective of quiet, stoic Grim, who has a traumatic past of his own. In fact, both Blackthorn and Grim are broken, recovering—something that the author not only gives due attention to but has also researched in terms of PTSD and recovery from trauma. This invests both characters with a wrenching, believable realism, and it makes the whole trilogy stand out from the "fantasy Ireland" genre.

There is also something of the detective duo about Blackthorn and Grim—in each novel, there is a mystery of sorts to be solved, one which our two narrators are uniquely able to address. And, of course, one of my favorite things about having read this trilogy in one big gulp (all three books are currently out and available!) was the ability to follow the character development of both Blackthorn and Grim throughout the three books, which reach a very satisfying conclusion in the final volume, Den of Wolves.

Conclusion: Highly recommended for fans of historical fantasy and stories about British lore—these have some violence and trauma but should be fine for more mature YA readers. Fun fact: the author is an actual member of a Druidic Order! How cool is that?

I received my copy of this book courtesy of my library's ebook collection (book 1) and Amazon.com (books 2 and 3). You can find DREAMER'S POOL, TOWER OF THORNS, and DEN OF WOLVES by Juliet Marillier at an online e-tailer, or at a real life, independent bookstore near you!

July 10, 2017

Monday Review: THE RELUCTANT QUEEN by Sarah Beth Durst

Synopsis: Book 2 in Sarah Beth Durst's Queens of Renthia series is out--The Reluctant Queen--and it's a wonderfully bingeworthy summer read and a highly enjoyable sequel to the first book, The Queen of Blood (reviewed here). If you haven't read that yet, note that this review contains some minor spoilers…also, if you're a fantasy fan, do yourself a favor and go read it!

Okay, then. The Reluctant Queen picks up the story of Daleina after she has become queen of Aratay. Now she is the one tasked with keep the land's bloodthirsty elemental spirits under control. But there's a complication: Queen Daleina is deathly ill, and must find a successor to take her place or the spirits will go on a deadly rampage and destroy her people.

Queen Daleina sends her trusted champions out to find a likely candidate to be her heir, and after a long search they find someone powerful enough to be worthy of training. The problem is, Naelin is married, has two young children, and has NO interest in being anybody's heir or even in using her power at all…

Observations: This is a somewhat unusual and refreshing approach to a fantasy heroine: not someone who is young and untested, ready and willing to prove herself, but instead someone who is older, ornery, and has neither the need nor desire to go off questing. She has to be goaded, coerced, tricked, and even forced into taking on the role, and even when she decides to go for it, she has misgivings. I liked that about this book—it was surprising from the beginning, and there were new surprises at every turn. All of it, of course, takes place in a wondrous setting full of magic and danger of the sort that Durst is so good at.

Conclusion: I am really getting back into my fantasy reading these days, but gravitating toward books with strong, prickly heroines who know their own minds—and this is an excellent example. Highly recommended for older YA and adult readers alike.

I received my copy of this book courtesy of the author/publisher (Thank you!!!). You can find THE RELUCTANT QUEEN by Sarah Beth Durst at an online e-tailer, or at a real life, independent bookstore near you!

July 03, 2017

Call for Presenters: KidLitCon 2017, Hershey, PA

Just popping my head up from my imminent deadline to remind you that the Kidlitosphere Conference has released its official Call for Presenters!

You don't have to put together anything too formal (unless you want to), and any topics related to children's/YA literature, and/or blogging about said literature, are welcome. From the official post:
Repeat visits to past topics are welcome alongside new ideas. A few thoughts—we’ve never talked specifically about historical fiction (is there such a thing as “getting it right?”) or religion (books written for a specific audience, books specifically addressing social and cultural topics related to religion). There’s always room for conversations about class, race, disability, sex. gender, politics, and pictures!
Contact the organizers by August 1 with your ideas, and check out this post for more details. 


Welcome to another session of Turning Pages!

Synopsis:Sophia's moved to Montego Drive in LA with her lawyer father and her gorgeous mother, and her elder sister, Lily, who is going to college. With Montego Drive comes a new housekeeper, the disapproving Mrs. Baylor, and her handsome and much bragged-on son, Nathan. Sophie, going on thirteen next October, is trying to clutch every last day of her and Lily's last summer at home together. Beautiful, brave Lily is going to Spelman in the fall, but before then, she's trying to find her own feet, and branch out a bit from the family. She insists that Sophie branch out, too -- after all, she's going into a new high school, and it's time for her to quit being so odd and bookish, and to get more friends than the little white girl across the street. But, Sophie's happy being Jennifer's best friend, and following where Jennifer leads. It's easier than putting herself forward - after all, there are so many tiny pitfalls to actually admitting to herself that she wants things like to play with the other girls in the neighborhood, the ones who are quick to judge her, and turn their backs, because Sophie is Colored.

This is the rockiest summer in Sophie's memory. Sophie's parents are fighting -- really fighting. Lily wants to go to UC Berkeley, even though the historically Black women's college Spelman is her mother's dream for her. Sophie wants to write a novel, or take the lead in a play, but it doesn't seem like anyone else believes that she can do these things, not even her best friend. But her parents rocky marriage and Sophie's own disappointments abruptly take a backseat to the happenings in downtown Los Angeles. An interaction with the police takes a turn for the violent, and suddenly a neighborhood called Watts is full of rioting, angry Colored people, burning trash and throwing bricks through windows. Racism has landed with an ugly growl into the American conversation, and Sophie's world is unraveling. Is this how things will be, from now on? What does it mean, to be black and American? Is it possible to be those things, and a writer, and a regular girl, too?

Karen English leaves her readers with no easy answers, but takes an honest, heartfelt look at the complex realities of blackness in America.

Observations: IT ALL COMES DOWN TO THIS has an old-fashioned feel to it; English comes across stylistically like the greats from YA's golden age; Paula Danziger, Norma Fox Mazer or Carson McCullers. The book is crammed with details from the time period and Sophie's familial details are also almost overwhelming - which is par for the course for a slice-of-life novel from the golden age of YA lit. Sophie is like any other straight-speaking tween from the 1960's, seriously observing her life and the lives of everyone around her, eavesdropping, listening on phone extensions, snooping through her father's desk and her mother's briefcase, and finding out waaaaay more dirt on everyone than she expected. The vaguely romanticized view of life Sophie is getting comes face to face with baseline microagressions and racism, and she is baffled and vaguely hurt and then slowly but surely learns what real hurt, institutionalized racism, and denial of basic human rights is all about. It is an awakening for both Sophie's and the neighborhoods of Los Angeles; both personal and universal, and part of growing up as a young woman, and, in a broader sense, as a country.

Conclusion: While many YA books portray the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960's as a neatly monolithic lock-stepped march through history and on Washington, the reality is that it was a messy, intensely personal awakening, as black people realigned what they'd been taught about themselves and their place in American society with a new reality of greater visibility and potential equality. While for some, this brave new world seemed suffused with opportunity, for others whose greater privilege had all along afforded them broader respectability among white Americans, this "movement" seemed foolish, dangerous and disturbing. Seen through a twelve-year-old's unflinching point of view, IT ALL COMES DOWN TO THIS tells the story of the jagged truths which break in on one Los Angeles family's smoothly suburban existence the summer of 1965, and strip away the lies about who they believe themselves to be.

I received my copy of this book courtesy of my agent, who thought I'd enjoy it. He was right. After July 11th, you can find IT ALL COMES DOWN TO THIS by Karen English at an online e-tailer, or at a real life, independent bookstore near you!