February 26, 2015

Review: Listen, Slowly

Listen, Slowly By Thanhhà Lại
Available now from HarperCollins
Review copy

Thanhhà Lại's second novel is also her first novel in prose.  INSIDE OUT & BACK AGAIN announced her presence on the children's lit scene in a big way, winning both a National Book Award and a Newbery Honor.  LISTEN, SLOWLY makes it clear that her debut was no fluke.

Mai is eagerly anticipating her summer with her best friend and crush, excited that at twelve, she's almost a teenager.  But when a detective brings news that her Ong (grandfather) might be alive, she finds herself accompanying her grandmother to a small village in Vietnam for the summer.  Mai is a bit of a whiner at this point, but no more than any kid giving up summer in the beach for summer with access to dial-up if you go to the local cafe.  Worse, she only kinda sorta speaks the language.

I loved Mai's gentle growth throughout the novel.  The first real connection she makes is easy, with a teen guy who is an exchange student in Houston during the school year and who can speak English with her.  As she opens up, she makes more friends and learns more about the lives of the people around her.  (And gets some good advice regarding using sunscreen not made for your face on your face.)  She also becomes interested in the mystery of her grandfather, tracking just what happened to him after he escaped capture during the Vietnam War.

Thanhhà Lại develops her scenes sensually, with both pleasant and unpleasant details.  There are itchy bug bites and glowing frogs and squelching mud.  Mai makes visits to major cities as well, finding that life there is very different and she's equally unprepared for getting around.  I also liked how she dealt with Mai's frustration that her family wants her to know more about her roots, but refuses to talk about why and how they emigrated.  Mai's connections to her specific and unspecific roots both feel authentic.

LISTEN, SLOWLY is a book that makes you want to listen, slowly.  It has family secrets and cross-cultural barriers and female friendship and all sorts of good stuff.  It has a focus on language, getting it right, translating for others, and learning how to speak it so those less proficient can understand.  Most of all, it has great writing.  It's not a long read, aimed at fourth grade or so, but it is one that has enough depth for older readers too.

February 25, 2015

Review: Mark of the Thief

Mark of the Thief Book one of the Praetor War
By Jennifer A. Nielsen
Available now from Scholastic Press
Review copy
Read my Jennifer A. Nielsen tag

I loved the Ascendance trilogy, so I was eager to read MARK OF THE THIEF, the first book in Jennifer A. Nielsen's new Praetor War series.  The story follows Nicolas Calva, known as Nic, a young slave in the Roman Empire.  When his master discovers a cave full of Caesar's treasures, Nic is tasked with finding a bulla.  However, he ends up possessing the bulla himself, which leads him down the path of adventure and potentially being a pawn for either side of a brewing war.

MARK OF THE THIEF is a very easy read.  The action is fast and furious, and the cast is reasonably sized so that it is easy to remember who everyone is.  I do wish there were more female characters.  Aurelia, a mercenary, becomes Nic's ally, and one of his major motivations is reuniting with his sister.  However, both of the girls are great characters.  You do have to pay attention to the characters, because they change sides easily.

I think the combination of the Roman Empire and magic is very appealing.  There's some actual history about the subjugation of conquered people and class in Roman times in addition to a fantastical adventure that pits magic user against magic user.  Given the presences of gods and griffins, however, don't expect too much actual history.

I flew through this novel with much enjoyment, aside from one major flaw: I don't understand Nic.  He's a Gaul who was forced into hiding and then kidnapped into slavery.  When he gets a little power and can make choices for himself, he firmly opposes the man who wants to destroy the Roman Empire and works to preserve it with all he has.  Why does he care about Rome?  Why is he so loyal to the force that enslaved him?  Why doesn't he want to bring it crashing down or help his fellow slaves rebel or anything but be a good subject of the emperor?  I have no idea, and it bothers me every time I think about it.

MARK OF THE THIEF showcases Nielsen's addictive writing, which has much to entice adults as well as the target child audience.  She's got an ear for action and a flair with magic.  But this series just might fall apart if she can't make sense of why Nic does what he does with such determination on the page.

February 24, 2015

Review: Princess Academy: The Forgotten Sisters

The Forgotten Sisters Book three of the Princess Academy trilogy
By Shannon Hale
Available now from Bloomsbury
Review copy
Read my review of Princess Academy: Palace of Stone

Shannon Hale returns to Miri and the world of the Princess Academy novels for a final time.  War is on the horizon, and the only way to stop it is a royal marriage.  Therefore, Miri is sent to the swamps to teach three of the king's cousins how to be princesses.  The catch?  Miri can't tell them she's grooming them to be offered to marriage to a neighboring, elderly king.  But if the king does marry one of them, ownership of Mount Eskel will be given to the girls of the princess academy.  And Miri would do anything to keep her home from being sold off to greedy merchants.

In many ways, THE FORGOTTEN SISTERS is a lighter read than PALACE OF STONE.  There's quite a bit of fish-out-of-water comedy at first, and the rural cousins resisting the efforts of their citified tutor.  However, that doesn't mean darkness isn't lurking.  There are a large number of lives at stake, especially as the war begins to break out before Miri, Astrid, Felissa, and Sus can leave the swamp.

For those who are eager to see the other characters, such as Britta and Peder, again, they have pretty minor roles in this adventure.  Most of the story is Miri and the three princesses, which does make THE FORGOTTEN SISTERS welcoming to new readers.  However, the reoccuring characters do appear enough to tie off lingering story lines, including the question of whether Miri and Peder will get there own happily ever after.

The Princess Academy trilogy is a real treat.  I particularly love the subtle feminism Hale weaves throughout.  We see women from all walks of life, and women who are fighters and women who are political and women who work hard at whatever their job is.  We see Miri, who is clever and determined, but whose greatest wish is to complete her duty so that she can go home and get married.  And that's fine because it is what she wants.  THE FORGOTTEN SISTERS is a funny and thrilling conclusion to an excellent middle-grade series.

February 23, 2015

Event Report: Montgomery County Book Festival

This Saturday I drove up to Conroe to attend the Montgomery County Book Festival.  Unfortunately, I'm an adult and had to miss the writing workshop and opening keynote to do some weekend chores.  But I was able to attend three panels and the closing keynote.

The Alex Crow One awesome thing about this festival was that bookstore sponsor Murder By the Book got permission to sell several books early, including SALT & STONE by Victoria Scott and UNLEASHED by Sophie Jordan.  I bought myself a copy of THE ALEX CROW by keynote speaker Andrew Smith, which comes out officially on March 10.  I also bought ENSNARED by A.G. Howard, because I can't wait to find out how everything gets resolved!  I already waited a month because I knew I was going to this event.

from Montgomery Council Book Festival site
"I've Got the Magic in Me" started with Victoria Scott reading a little from THE COLLECTOR and A.G. Howard reading from SPLINTERED.  This was a good move, because Scott has a great, low voice and Howard is awesome at doing voices for different characters.  She learned it from reading Harry Potter to her kid.  (Say it with me: Aw.)

Scott spoke quite a bit about how she managed to get Dante's voice down.  She asked a male, teenage neighbor, who kindly let her know that no one says swagger anymore.  ("It's swag now.")  She also cut any lines that her mom liked, because they were obviously too nice.  Meanwhile, Scott kept any that offended her even as she wrote them. 

Howard did something similar - she made sure to keep any lines of Morpheus's that made her blush when she wrote them.  She also said that his voice changed from how she heard it in her head to the final version, because her editor suggested codifying it as a Cockney accent.

Both agreed that the key to an anti-hero is reminding the audience of his redeemable qualities!

As for what's coming next, Scott is planning to slow down on her writing and publishing schedule.  However, if SALT & STONE does well there might be a third book in the series.  Howard and her agent are shopping some manuscripts around, including an adult Victorian romance about a young deaf girl who finds a flower in a cemetery and ends up haunted by a ghost and trying to solve his murder.

Funniest fact learned: Scott named the Pandoras as she did (magical animal companions in the FIRE & FLOOD series) because she was listening to Pandora radio at the time.

from Montgomery Council Book Festival site
Ellen Hopkins and Andrew Smith, the keynote speakers, spoke together in "Our Lips Are (Not) Sealed" about censorship, something both of them have experienced due to the content of their novels. In fact, a bookstore Smith is visiting asked him to speak at local schools, but said that they wouldn't provide books at the events due to their content.  Smith decided to attend the schools anyway after they reached out personally to him.

Hopkins has a quiet voice, but she can still command a room.  She's very passionate about her novels and the readers who tell her how much they've helped.  Hopkins was inspired by her own daughter's drug use, so the content of her stories hits close to home for her as well.

Smith is actually still uncomfortable with people reading his writing, and sensitive about some of the things people who want to censor his books have said.  He was going to quit publishing, and wrote GRASSHOPPER JUNGLE for himself.  (I think we're all glad he ended up getting it published!)

Both agree that they're very lucky with their editors, who never censor them, but instead push them to add more.  Hopkins emphasized that a good editor will always push you to add more, to be honest and not censor yourself before someone else can do it.

The session ended beautifully:
Hopkins: "Live bravely.  Write bravely; read bravely; live bravely."
Smith: "That's my next tattoo."

from Montgomery Council Book Festival site
The final panel I attended was "Nuthin' But A 'G' Thang" about graphic novels, but writer and artist George O'Connor and writer Mariko Tamaki.  Tamaki has streaks of the perfect shade of green in her hair and O'Connor is ridiculously good-looking in real life, so this was a rather pulchritudinous panel.  It also had an interesting vibe compared to the others, because it was their third event of the day together so they were really in sync.

Tamaki started out as an English major because she didn't know what to do.  (She now has a Bachelor's in English and a Masters in Women's Studies.)  Her advice is to write for any opportunities that come your way, from plays to advertisements to whatever.  You'll figure out how to go with the story with whatever medium works.  Also, you should trap someone into collaborating with you before they know how much work it is.

O'Connor likes the control of doing both the art and the writing, although it means he has only himself to blame when he has to draw crowd scene after crowd scene.  He started on the art side of things, and still finds it easier to get the art on the page right than the words.  Thus, he's more proud of when he really nails the writing.  He wrote POSEIDON in the Olympians series three times, and the final result is still his favorite.

Both talked about some recent comics and graphic novels they recommend.  I'm going to have to look up BEAUTIFUL DARKNESS, which O'Connor raved about.  I hadn't heard of it, but it sounds awesome.  Both recommended that aspiring writers read a lot of what interests you and some of what isn't in your wheelhouse, so that you can bring in outside influences and create a new, unique voice for yourself.  They also recommended re-reading your faves so that you can tear them apart and see why they work.

O'Connor and Tamaki always carry sketchbooks to keep and remember ideas.  O'Connor emphasized not being precious about it, that the sketches and such inside will mostly be garbage, but you've got to get the idea down so that you can remember it later.  He's still kicking himself for forgetting the better name that he came up with for one of his characters (that he no longer writes) twenty years ago.

Finally, I went to the closing keynote, during which Smith talked about THE ALEX CROW, the importance of poetry, and why high school kids don't need to worry about their careers just yet.  I had to write down his response to his question about "What do you wish you could change?": "I wish that Beyonce would write a children's book, and that when she doesn't win the Newbery, Kanye attends the ALA meeting."  Unfortunately, he then had to admit that he's not that familiar with Beyonce's music.

It was a very fun event, with easy-to-find parking, a cheap and delicious bake sale (plus concessions upstairs), and a wide range of authors.  I'm sad that I wasn't able to see all of the panels, even though I enjoyed the ones I attended.  It was a good size, with a decent audience but not a crushed crowd. Next year I'll budget to buy the T-shirt ($15) so that I have something all of the authors can sign!

February 20, 2015

Review: Debunk It!: How to Stay Sane in a World of Misinformation

Debunk It! By John Grant
Available February 24 from Zest Books
Review copy

DEBUNK IT!: HOW TO STAY SANE IN A WORLD OF MISINFORMATION is pitched to teens, but contains useful information for anyone in the modern world.  Hoaxes can travel faster than ever, and having a tool kit for separating fact from fiction is essential.

I wish that chapter four ("Building Your Own Bullshitometer") came first, because it contains some of the most useful information.  It does build some on the first three chapters, but not so much that it couldn't be arranged to be first.  John Grant tackles common logical fallacies, weasel words, and how to track down sources to check for context, veracity, and authority.  He also tackles some of the subjects that are subject to a great deal of misinformation; for instance, medical fads, climate change, and woo.

DEBUNK IT! is very accessible.  Grant's firm stances on various subjects might turn some readers off, but that's part of the point of the book.  It's important to know why you shouldn't be worried about mercury and formaldehyde in vaccines.  Namely, vaccines contained a small dose of a mercury compound that is no longer used, and now contian a smaller dose of formaldehyde than can be found in an apple.

It's tempting when you read a click-bait article to copy and paste the link to your Tumblr without thinking, to spout back what you half remember reading to family and friends.  But it is important to remember to stop and think, to question where the information came from and why.  There's lots of good, hard facts out there, but sorting fact from fiction is a skill.  Unfortunately, not every lie is obviously crazy.

DEBUNK IT! is a fun and informative read that should entertain far beyond the expected teenage audience.  It may be nonfiction, but it is far from dry.

Thanks to Zest Books, I have one copy to give away.

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