October 31, 2012

Review: Touching the Surface

Touching the Surface By Kimberly Sabatini
Available now from Simon Pulse (Simon & Schuster)
Review copy

There's something particularly fascinating about books set in the afterlife.  It's a purely unknowable world, yet at the same time one that might actually exist.  In Kimberly Sabatini's afterlife - the Obmil - you get three chances to examine your past and complete your life's journey next time.  Elliot Turner is a Third Timer and knows this is her last chance to get it right.  It's time to go past the surface.

Elliot's journey to self-discovery is complicated by two things.  One, her best friend (who she's shared every life with) has suddenly decided to stay away from her.  Two, there are two guys with whom she feels an instant connection - one intense and broody, the other cheerful and loving.  As it turns out, both boys were pivotal to Elliot's most recent life.

I found the beginning of TOUCHING THE SURFACE somewhat confusing.  The characters Delve into their memories and the first several Delves were rather abrupt.  The content of the Delves was supposed to be somewhat mysterious, considering Elliot doesn't entirely remember what happened, but it took me awhile to get into the rhythm of when she'd switch between past and present.

But once I got into TOUCHING THE SURFACE, I loved it.  Sabatini sets up some predictable elements, but she managed to make them play out in an unpredictable way.  I particularly enjoyed TOUCHING THE SURFACE's treatment of love.  Sabatini doesn't give short shrift to any of its forms.  It can be romantic, platonic, familial, or friendly.  And love in all its forms is important to living.

TOUCHING THE SURFACE is a terrific debut.  Sabatini has shown that she can handle big ideas in an individual, human manner.  I also liked the little glimpses into the journeys other people are making at the Obmil.  This is Elliot's story, but she's in a world where everyone is struggling with their own story.  It's an intriguing take on life after death.  TOUCHING THE SURFACE might be a good novel to introduce contemporary fans to something more fantastical.  It's also a good choice for speculative fiction fans tired of monsters and dystopias and looking for something a little quieter, if no less dramatic.

Review: The Flying Beaver Brothers and the Evil Penguin Plan

The Evil Penguin Plan By Maxwell Eaton III
Available now from Alfred A. Knopf (Random House)

Ace and Bub, the beaver brothers, are practicing for the surf competition when their board is stolen by a couple of penguins (or puffins).  But when they go to get it back, they discover that the penguins are  up to no good!  Can they thwart the penguins and win the competition against bullying beaver Bruce?

Maxwell Eaton III's art is more detailed than that of Jennifer L. and Matthew Holm, although he uses a similar three-color scheme.  Eaton is terrific at drawing action, which is good since there's a lot of it in THE FLYING BEAVER BROTHERS AND THE EVIL PENGUIN PLAN.  In particular, there is one really cool two-page spread of the brothers swimming through a tunnel in the penguins' lair.  (Hilariously, their submarine is a giant refrigerator.)

I felt sort of uneasy about the plot.  The penguins are motivated by the loss of their home due to global warming.  Now, obviously their plan isn't good for the beavers, but I felt weird about them being labeled "evil."  This hang up is silly, I know, especially since Eaton does show that not all of the penguins are bad guys.

THE FLYING BEAVER BROTHERS AND THE EVIL PENGUIN plan is a cute, funny comic that will appeal to action fans and children who like animals.

October 30, 2012

Review: Venom

Venom Book One of the Secrets of the Eternal Rose trilogy
By Fiona Paul
Available now from Philomel (Penguin)
Review copy
Part of the Fall 2012 Breathless Reads

VENOM endeared itself to me immediately.  The plot is set into motion when Cassandra Caravello's best friend dies.  She goes to her mausoleum and finds that her body is gone, replaced by that of a murdered prostitute.  In the graveyard, she also runs into a boy named Falco, who perhaps helps her escape the murderer.

Oh, but back the immediate endearment.  Cass's dead friend is Liviana, which is one of the names I based my pseudonym on.   How could I not love this book?  It's set in Venice, which is one of real cities that makes a great fictional setting.  Clandestine meetings on boats are clearly better than clandestine meeting in dirty alleys that probably stink of human waste.  And Fiona Paul pays attention to her setting.  Cass, living in Renaissance Italy, isn't as free as many heroines.  She must maintain her reputation and marry the fiance her late parents chose for her.  Her romance with Falco and desire to find the murderer lead her to risk ending up on the streets.  The stakes are high for Cass even if the murderer doesn't catch on to her investigation.

I'm most amazed that Paul managed to make me like Falco.  Let's face it, Cass met him in a graveyard shortly after finding a recently dumped body.  That's suspicious.  I was suspicious of him, and thankfully Cass was too.  As Cass came to believe his explanation for his presence, I came to believe he was at least not a killer.  (Hey, he was still clearly up to something.)

The only real weakness I can think of in VENOM is that there isn't much about the Eternal Rose society.  The series name is "Secrets of the Eternal Rose," but there aren't many secrets on display in VENOM.  The society doesn't even come into play until very late in the novel.  But I can deal with the fact that VENOM is just setting up the main plot for the trilogy since the mystery plot is very involving.

Cass doesn't forget that she's in danger, or that other women are in danger.  She keeps her focus on finding clues.  And she is useful to the investigation - she finds out information that the more street-savvy Falco fails to obtain.  Although there were romantic interludes, they didn't overwhelm the mystery.  Cass doesn't spend two hundred pages mooning over Falco and her fiance while forgetting that there's a serial killer on the loose.  (Not that she uses the term serial killer due to the setting.)

VENOM is lush and absorbing.  It certainly kept me distracted while I read it.  I expected it to take a couple of days since it was slightly thick and I was very busy, but I devoured VENOM in a single sitting. I would read more historical fiction if it were all like this.

October 29, 2012

Movie Monday: Hocus Pocus

Hocus Pocus"It's just a bunch of hocus pocus!"

The first time I saw Hocus Pocus,  I was just a little kid (maybe five or six) and my sister and I saw it somewhere.  We watched a VHS copy, because I grew up in the Dark Ages, and loved the movie.  There was music, adventure, a talking cat, and all sorts of craziness.  But then, I didn't know the movie's name.  I didn't know anyone else who'd seen it.  I thought my sister and I had dreamed it up and it didn't actually exist.  Then we saw it at my cousin's house.  It existed.

I absolutely, unequivocally love this movie.  I'm glad that it's found a cult audience despite bombing in theaters.  And yes, it has stood the test of time.  I recently showed it to my niece and nephew and they enjoyed it.  My niece, who is almost five, rarely sits still for an entire episode of Spongebob Squarepants, which is only twenty-five minutes long and her favorite television show.  Hocus Pocus held her spellbound for an hour and a half.  (Okay, her attention did waver a little until the witches showed up.)  After she made sure to tell me how much she liked it.

Hocus Pocus isn't your standard Disney film.  For one thing, most Disney films don't make multiple jokes about a teenage boy's virginity.  (Parents, don't worry.  They went over my head and my sister's when we were kids, and recently they went over my niece's head.)  There's even a scene, watching as an adult, that I realized was a G-rated version of masturbation.  And the Sanderson sisters are much scarier than most Disney villains.  Hocus Pocus opens with the death of a young child and another tortured before being cursed.  But that's part of what makes Hocus Pocus so much fun.  It trusts it's audience.  It's more funny than scary, but there's a real sense of darkness that sells the scary parts.

Plus, the cast is fantastic.  Bette Midler, Sarah Jessica Parker, and Kathy Najimy are pitch perfect as the Sanderson sisters.  Bette is menacing, vain, and gets to exhibit her amazing pipes.  Sarah Jessica Parker is sexy, daffy, and absently vicious.  Kathy Najimy's face is a wonder to behold.  Omri Katz was familiar to me from Eerie, Indiana, one of my favorite childhood TV shows.  He anchors the child actors, which included the cute-but-not-too-cute Thora Birch.  And I still can't believe Thackery Binx (Sean Murray) is the guy from NCIS.

If you haven't seen this Halloween classic yet, watch it.  Buy it for your kids.  (Or your sibling's kids, whatever.)  Watch it on Halloween.  You can use it to start off a scary movie night, or as a break between two intense films.  For the kids, pair it with films like The Nightmare Before Christmas or Coraline.  I know lots of people watch it with Halloweentown.  You really can't go wrong as long as you watch it.

Review: The Shark King

The Shark King By R. Kikuo Johnson
Available now from Toon Books (Candlewick)

Candlewick's Toon Books line is extremely cool.  They're easy-to-read comics made by artists who normally write for adults.  It's a great way to introduce little kids to some great art.  Plus, I think the comic format makes them even easier for beginning readers, because the pictures provide even more context than a standard picture book.

I love R. Kikuo Johnson's art and he does a great job with THE SHARK KING.  The colors are bold but not overwhelming.  The images are simple and clean.  There's a nice mix of definite and indefinite panels, allowing the action to move smoothly.  And I love the way Johnson draws expressions!  Some of protagonist Nanaue's more mischievous looks remind me of my nephew.

THE SHARK KING is an adaptation of a traditional Hawaiian folktale.  Kalei has a child with the Shark King, who has to return to the ocean after their son is born.  Nanaue grows to be a quick, clever boy who steals fish from the fisherman to keep his belly full.  But as much as he loves his mother, he also misses his father.

It's a sweet, simple story.  It's a bit of a bittersweet ending, but nothing that would upset children.  It's probably to simple to hold the attention of older kids although they might enjoy Johnson's art.

October 28, 2012

Get a free story and donate to charity!

Neil Gaiman and Audible.com paired together to create a promotion for All Hallows' Read that would also benefit charity.  Between now and Halloween, you can download "Click-Clack the Rattlebag" written and performed by Gaiman from the Scare Us US or UK page.  Every FREE download triggers a donation from Audible.  US downloads provide donations to Donors Choose; UK downloads to BookTrust.

In Gaiman's words:
DonorsChoose.org engages the public in public schools by giving people a simple, accountable and personal way to address educational inequity. We envision a nation where children in every community have the tools and experiences needed for an excellent education.

Booktrust is an independent reading and writing charity that makes a nationwide impact on individuals, families and communities, and culture in the UK. We make a significant positive contribution to the educational outcomes of children from the earliest age. We work to empower people of all ages and abilities by giving them confidence and choices about reading. And we want individuals of all backgrounds to benefit from the wellbeing that a rich and positive engagement in reading and writing can bring.

Our work supports children and young people, parents and carers and indeed anyone who would benefit from the positive impact that books, reading and writing can have on their lives.

Review: Cornered: 14 Stories of Bullying and Defiance

Cornered Edited by Rhoda Belleza
Foreword by Chris Crutcher
Stories by Jaime Adoff, Josh Berk, Jennifer Brown, Mayra Lazara Dole, Zetta Elliott, Kate Ellison, Brendan Halpin, Sheba Karim, James Lecesne, Lish McBride, Elizabeth Miles, Kirsten Miller, Matthue Roth, and David Yoo
Available now from Running Press
Review copy

I recommend reading CORNERED: 14 Stories of Bullying and Defiance in small doses, one or two stories at a time.  This anthology is an intense, brutal experience.  Bullying is covered from every angle, from the eyes of the bully to the follower to the bullied.  There are many differences between the characters and their situations, but each story showcases some of humanity's worst behavior.  I am sure those being bullied will find comfort in many of these stories, but I would like to warn in advance, for those with triggers, that many stories involved suicide, transphobia, and - despite there only being one protagonist who is a lesbian - a great deal of homophobia.  (Because it is sadly easy to go from, "It is okay to hate and hurt people who are gay" to "It is okay to hate and hurt people who might be gay.")

Editor Rhoda Belleza wisely begins and ends CORNERED with the stories of Kirsten Miller and Lish McBride respectively.  I am a fan of both Miller and McBride, and both of them wrote two of the most hopeful stories in the collection.  They ease you in and out of the experience.  McBride's story features characters from her popular Necromancer series, so her fans might want to read CORNERED just for "We Should Get Jerseys 'Cause We Make a Good Team."

I suspect the stand-out stories will vary for each reader.  I particularly liked Zetta Elliott's "Sweet Sixteen," in which the bullies don't make a personal appearance in the story.  But their actions still affect the two girls who meet in the custody of social services.  Another good one is "The Shift Sticks" by Josh Berk, in which a boy runs into a girl he used to bully in elementary and is attracted to her.  The only story I didn't really like was "Inside the Inside" by Mayra Lazara Dole.  It had one of my favorite characters and some of my favorite scenes - the story always lit up when it focused on Alyssa.  But it didn't really work.  The magical realist elements (possibly imagined due to the guilt of the protagonist, rather than actually happening) were incoherent.

CORNERED is a read that will get you thinking.  It might be a good book to read with other people and discuss how you felt about each story.  And it's a great anthology to read in October, since this is Anti-Bullying Month.  Hopefully these stories can inspire at least one person to end the cycle of violence.  It's a tough thing to do, but these authors show the cost of perpetuating the status quo.

And a change in our culture regarding bullying is needed.  Between when I wrote this review and when it will be posted, fifteen-year-old Felicia Garcia killed herself.  During the time period that I read the stories, fifteen-year-old Amanda Todd killed herself.

October 27, 2012

Review: The Opposite of Hallelujah

The Opposite of Hallelujah By Anna Jarzab
Available now from Delacorte (Random House)
Review copy

Anna Jarzab's sophomore novel is a contemporary that doesn't resemble most of the others I've been reading lately.  For one thing, the romantic plotline isn't the focus.  Protagonist Caro Mitchell's relationship with her sister and her parents is much more important to the story.  But it's also about Caro and her relationship to herself, who she wants to be and what she believes.

Caro isn't always the most likeable character.  She lies, a lot, and like most habitual liars she does it for stupid reasons.  She can also be very self centered.  But inside her head it's easy to see how confused she is and how she can barely articulate why she doesn't want to talk to people about the reality of her sister.  THE OPPOSITE OF HALLELUJAH kicks off when Caro's much older sister Hannah, now in her late twenties, returns home from the convent where she failed as a novitiate.  Caro barely knows her sister and doesn't know how to relate to someone who is quite a bit older, obviously in some kind of pain, and whom she's expected to immediately treat like a close relative.  I did like how Hannah's story trickled out in bits and pieces.

Caro's parents were intriguing characters.  Few young adult novels really bring the parents to the forefront like THE OPPOSITE OF HALLELUJAH.  I thought they were weirdly strict at first, although they seemed somewhat more mellow by the end of the novel.  But they were realistic parents, making mistakes but trying to do their best for their daughter.

Although it's nice to read a book that isn't all about the romance, I could've used more Pawel.  He's the new kid in school and exactly who Caro needs in her life after a bad break up.  He's a great guy who isn't afraid to call Caro out on her behavior when she treats him badly.  The final important character is Father Bob, the priest Caro likes to talk to despite her personal lack of religion.  Religion is one of the themes of THE OPPOSITE OF HALLELUJAH, and Bob and Caro's conversations are very interesting.  (Readers need not be afraid of being preached at.)

THE OPPOSITE OF HALLELUJAH is a wonderful novel that stands out nicely from the crowd.  It made me want to track down Jarzab's first novel, ALL UNQUIET THINGS.  THE OPPOSITE OF HALLELUJAH is an intelligent coming-of-age novel that will appeal to lovers of character-driven stories.

October 26, 2012

Review: Best Shot in the West: The Adventures of Nat Love

Best Shot in the West By Patricia C. McKissack and Fredrick L. McKissack Jr. (no author websites found)
Illustrated by Randy DuBurke
Available now from Chronicle Books

BEST SHOT IN THE WEST: The Adventures of Nat Love is a comic book based on Nat Love's autobiography and framed by letters sent to his publisher.  And Love certainly has a story to tell.  He grew up in slavery and then became one of the Wild West's most famous cowboys  - and the most famous black cowboy - due to his tremendous talents with horses and guns.

I grew up on tales of cowboys and enjoyed reading once more about the hard life those men lived.  (There is one particularly memorable scene involving an unfortunate stampede.)  Love's life was further complicated by the color of his skin.  Patricia C. McKissack and Fredrick L. McKissack Jr. don't sugarcoat the truth of history, but they do keep it appropriate for kids as young as elementary.

To me, what ages BEST SHOT IN THE WEST up is the sophistication of the art style.  Randy DuBurke's illustrations reminded me of Dave McKean.  Humans are often grayscale against full color landscapes.  It's great art, but the people are muted, with little emphasis on their expressions.  I did like that most of BEST SHOT IN THE WEST's action scenes allowed the art to carry the narrative, making good use of the medium.  At the same time, the action wasn't always easy to follow.  DuBurke tends to cut to different scenes instead of letting a single one play out over several panels.

BEST SHOT IN THE WEST will appeal to those looking to learn more about African-American (or just plain American) history as well as fans of action-adventure tales.  Nat Love's story sometimes seems like fiction rather than fact, which is the appeal of a larger-than-life historical figure.

Review: This is Not a Drill

This is Not a Drill By Beck McDowell
Available now from Nancy Paulsen Books (Penguin)
Review copy

Beck McDowell doesn't shy away from big subjects in her debut.  In THIS IS NOT A DRILL, an armed veteran comes to an elementary classroom looking to take his kid out of school early.  The completely awesome teacher tells him he needs to follow procedure and refuses to just let Brian Sutton take his son away - leading to Sutton taking the class hostage.

THIS IS NOT A DRILL is told through the alternating points of view of Emery and Jake, high school seniors who tutor the class part time.  They've very clearly got a past - Emery dislikes working with Jake and is mad at him for some reason.  The exact details unfold as the two work together to protect the kids.  Jake, I would say, has a more dynamic character arc than Emery, but both are fairly stock characters.  But THIS IS NOT A DRILL isn't about their character growth, so it doesn't matter that they're pretty thinly drawn.  It's a thriller with a decent-sized helping of political commentary.

McDowell puts little kids in danger, which both ups and lessens the tension.  It's scarier because no one wants little kids to get hurt and the kids are terrible at behaving and not angering the upset gunman.  They need to go to the bathroom, they can't sit for too long, they get into fights.  They're kids.  But it's less scary because I never felt that McDowell would actually transgress convention and kill one of the kids.  Only the older characters felt like they were in danger.  (McDowell also gives the death count at the beginning, which definitely makes it seem like the kids will be fine.)

As for Sutton, he's suffering from PTSD and clearly didn't integrate well into civilian life after his tour and Iraq.  His wife definitely has grounds to divorce him and go for full custody, and he definitely overreacts, but McDowell still makes a decent point.  Soldiers not getting the psychological support they need after spending time fighting a war is a real problem.  At the same time, the message of THIS IS NOT A DRILL is delivered in such a ham-fisted manner that I literally cringed while reading.

THIS IS NOT A DRILL is a surprisingly quick and easy read, given that it's about a school shooting.  There are some really clever moments, as the teacher, Emery, and Jake try to get help without Sutton noticing and hurting someone.  And I did hope than none of them would be included in the final body count, no matter how unlikely that seemed.  But what could have been a taut thriller went off the rails every time it started to harp on PTSD and the government's responsibility to soldiers.  It's even a point I agree with, but it just kept killing momentum instead of being folded into the action.  THIS IS NOT A DRILL is an okay read, but ends up being more forgettable than hard hitting.

October 25, 2012

Review: Burning Blue

Burning Blue By Paul Griffin
Available now from Dial (Penguin)
Review copy

This is one of the books I picked up at TLA.  The publicist told me she was excited about the new Paul Griffin, "of course," and I admitted I'd never heard of him.  She handed me an ARC of BURNING BLUE so that I could rectify my mistake.  I am very happy she did, because BURNING BLUE is a terrific book.

Now, don't confuse BURNING BLUE with MY LIFE IN BLACK & WHITE.  Both feature beautiful girls being disfigured, have color titles, and were published by one of Penguin's young adult imprints, but have little else in common.  BURNING BLUE is a thrilling mystery, not an introspective character study.  Someone threw acid in Nicole Castro's face, and Jay Nazarro wants to know who.  That's right - despite the girl on the cover, the narrator is a boy.

Jay is returning to public school after two years of being homeschooled after a video of one of his epileptic fits went viral.  He meets Nicole in the school psychologist's office - they're in a swanky school district - shortly after the attack.  The two become friends, after a rocky start, initially attracted by someone else who has issues being looked at in public.  I absolutely loved their relationship.  It's a little sexy, as there is obviously something between them, but it stays platonic.  Above all else they become friends.  Friends with the potential for more, yes, but it's a very sweet friendship and feels more authentic than an actual romance would.

Jay is pretty compelling on his own, as any good detective should be.  I'd read a series about hacker detective Jay Navarro.  He's good looking, but too socially awkward to notice or do anything about it if he did.  He's willing to stand up to bullies, even if it means his own reputation takes a dive.  But he isn't perfect.  He's got little respect for privacy and interferes sometimes when he'd be better off trusting (or helping) the police.  He might be good at helping Nicole recover, but he can still say thoughtless things that hurt her. 

As for the crime itself - wow.  Griffin does not back away from the darkness.  BURNING BLUE is a book driven by violence, and the many motives violence.  Despite that, BURNING BLUE isn't a dark book.  It's quite often funny and the characters are more often good people than bad, no matter that they might seem sinister at first.  The only way to discover who attacked Nicole is to treat everyone as a suspect, but the truth is the vast majority of people wish her nothing but the best.  I liked that BURNING BLUE delved into tough issues without being cynical.  It's a book with heart.

BURNING BLUE will appeal to both genders.  Fans of mysteries and contemporaries will both enjoy the story within its pages.  And I nominate Jay one of the most swoon-worthy heroes of the year, even if he isn't a werewolf/vampire/merman/other-tortured-creature-of-the-night.

October 24, 2012

Review: Friends With Boys

Friends With Boys By Faith Erin Hicks
Available now from First Second (Macmillan)
Read a 20-page preview

Maggie McKay was homeschooled her entire life, but now it's her first day of high school.  Her dad's just become the police chief, her mother has run off, and her three older brothers have their own lives.  The oldest, Daniel, is particularly busy with the school play.  She makes a couple of friends, but the woman haunting her has been becoming more actively lately and it's bothering Maggie.

Faith Erin Hicks' newest graphic novel, originally serialized online, is terrific.  The paranormal touches don't overwhelm the story, so I think readers who pick this title up thinking it's a straightforward contemporary won't be too put off.  The contemporary story really is the heart of this title.  In addition to dealing with her changing relationship to her family, Maggie wants to figure out what's up with her new friend Alistair.  He's got some sort of feud going on with the head jock and Maggie is curious about what's up with that. 

Hicks' art is extremely appealing.  Her characters have very expressive faces and their designs are easy to tell apart even in an entirely black and white book.  Although her style is very different, the way Hicks draws action reminds me of her fellow Canadian cartoonist Bryan Lee O'Malley.  (I like Scott Pilgrim, so I consider this a good thing.)  (Also, what do they put in the water in Canada that produces so many great cartoonists?)  I finished FRIENDS WITH BOYS wanting to read more of Hicks' work.  Yay for backlists!

As a bonus, I think the style of FRIENDS WITH BOYS will appeal to fans of American and Japanese comics.  And don't let the title fool you - there is a female friendship at the heart of the story.  FRIENDS WITH BOYS is very girl friendly.  It's a terrific title and I almost wish it were the start of a series instead of a standalone.  I say "almost" because there is joy in titles that know how to tell a story and let it end.

Review: Velveteen

Velveteen By Daniel Marks
Available now from Delacorte (Random House)
Review copy

Velveteen (usually called Velvet) did not die easily.  She was tortured to death by a serial killer she calls Bonesaw.  And, well, it's left her a little cranky.  Her job in the afterlife is to retrieve lost souls and help prevent the destabilization of the City of the Dead.  But she can't help breaking the number one rule: no haunting.  Because she can help his future victims . . . and help Bonesaw to his own grave.

I'll point out the same thing almost every other reviewer has pointed out:  VELVETEEN is much more about the City of the Dead and the potential revolution brewing than it is about Bonesaw.  I, for one, was relieved.  The few details Daniel Marks gave about Bonesaw have stayed with me and I'm perfectly happy not knowing more.  Plus, the city was really interesting.  Marks worldbuilding is very well done.  He sets up a bunch of questions to be answered in the sequel, but still delivers a complete story in VELVETEEN.

While I may have some issues with the blurb, the title is perfect.  VELVETEEN really is Velvet's show.  She is not nice.  She's angry, defensive, and has a biting wit.  (Understandable.)  At the same time, she's very responsible and a decent leader.  She's motivated to do well at her job and she takes care of her crew.  She's capable of caring for people, but she doesn't let anyone in easy.  Her coworkers are her new family.  But she does pretty well by them, even if she's still pretty mean.

I liked Velvet's relationship with Nick, the new guy.  They're instantly attracted, but not instantly in love.  The relationship is further complicated when Velvet becomes Nick's boss, making him firmly off limits.  And as responsible as Velvet is, she does have trouble with the rules.

VELVETEEN is a morbidly entertaining read with a fabulous protagonist.  I'm certainly going to read the sequel, because I love Velvet in all her prickly, flawed glory.  I'm quite fond of the bureaucratic afterlife as well and I'm interested to see the consequences of the events of VELVETEEN on the current system in the sequel.

October 23, 2012

Review: Ask the Passengers

Ask the Passengers By A.S. King
Available now from Little, Brown
Review copy courtesy of Mrs. Yingling Reads
Read Amy's guest blog

A.S. King is one of the best young adult authors writing today.  Every single one of her books is a gem.  I'd say the only truly comparable author is John Green, although their books don't much resemble each other aside from being contemporary YA.

King's newest book, ASK THE PASSENGERS, is about Astrid Jones.  Astrid's a pretty normal teen - she has a mom, a dad, and a younger sister, she hangs out with her best friends who are dating, and has a job with a local caterer.  But her mom has a special bond with her sister, leaving Astrid left out, plus she dominates the whole family.  Her best friends aren't actually dating - Justin and Kristina are both gay and use each other as a beard.  And Astrid is dating Dee, who works with her.  But Astrid isn't sure that she wants to go any farther than making out, especially since she isn't sure that she's a lesbian.

Astrid is a wonderful character with a powerful voice.  She isn't just questioning her sexuality - she's a teenager; she's questioning a lot of things.  She even finds comfort in her philosophy class.  The title comes from her habit of lying behind her house, watching the planes go by.  She sends out her love to the planes' passengers.  Often the chapters end with a scene of someone on the plane feeling Astrid's love and gaining the courage to do something important for their life.  These scenes can be heavy, but they're beautiful, and an excellent demonstration of King's inventive storytelling.

ASK THE PASSENGERS is a story full of love and King tells it with love.  Astrid's story will appeal to a wide audience - you don't have to belong to the LGBT alphabet soup to find it compelling.  (But young lesbians and bisexual girls will definitely enjoy the make-out scenes.)  And I could just be saying that because I want everyone to read ASK THE PASSENGERS.  But then again, I want everyone to read it because it's a great book.

October 22, 2012

Movie Monday: Kiss Me Deadly

Kiss Me Deadly Kiss Me Deadly, based on one of Mickey Spillane's Mike Hammer novels, is classic noir.  It's brutal, somewhat surreal, and visually stimulating.  Director Robert Aldrich knew how to use a camera angle or tiles to make an image stranger and more lingering.

Mike Hammer, as played by Ralph Meeker, is good looking, friends with black people (notable for the time), and always willing to banter with a beautiful woman.  But he's also a sadist, incredibly stupid, and trades on his mistress's body for information and money.

Gif from http://show-me-moonlight-on-the-sunrise.tumblr.com
The film begins when Christina Bailey (Cloris Leachman, billed as her first role) runs in front of Hammer's car wearing nothing but a trench coat.  He quickly discovers that she's escaped from an insane asylum, but doesn't manage to get her to the bus stop as she wanted before they're ambushed and she's tortured to death.  It's an opening that perfectly encapsulates the movie.  The credits scroll backwards, a real visual trick.  They're accompanied by Leachman's panting, brought on by desperation, fear, exertion - violence - but it sounds sexual.  And the violence is offscreen - the only thing we see of Christina during the torture is her legs - but still intense.

Screen cap from http://deathisastar.tumblr.com
Kiss Me Deadly is a great film.  The plot is strange and sometimes incoherent, but that doesn't dampen the power of the whole.  (Particularly because the movie doesn't really linger over scenes - it's quite fast paced.)  I'm quite fond of the film's femme fatale.  I won't give away which woman it is, but it's a great performance.  Strange, but that fits Kiss Me Deadly.  It's also fun to watch Kiss Me Deadly because of its influence on film.  I loved spotting familiar elements in their original incarnation.  Two more modern movies that obviously pay homage to it are Repo Man and Pulp Fiction, both of which I love.

I double-billed Kiss Me Deadly with Brick, Rian Johnson's high school detective movie that wore its noir influence on its sleeve.  Made for a fun night, but my double bill recommendation would be pairing Kiss Me Deadly with Repo Man.

Review: The Power of the Parasite

Squish #3Book 3 of the Squish series
By Jennifer L. Holm and Matthew Holm
Available now from Random House

I've been hearing about Jennifer L. Holm and Matthew Holm's work in comics for kids for years, but I never read anything by them until the Cybils pushed me into it.  I'm happy my panelist duties pushed me into it, because I absolutely love the Squish series.

In THE POWER OF THE PARASITE, our intrepid hero - the amoeba Squish - is forced to go to swim camp by his mom.  (The other choice was ballet camp.  While Squish makes several jokes about it, the text and other characters point out that ballet is pretty cool.)  There he meets Basil, a hydra.  (Hydras get their name from the fact that they can grow back body parts - also pretty cool.)  Meanwhile, the latest issue of Super Amoeba - Squish's favorite comic - has the eponymous superhero making friends with fellow crime fighter Paralyzer.  But both new friends might be bullies!

I enjoy the dual structure of the Squish books.  The Super Amoeba comics are funny and reinforce the themes of the main story.  Both parts are excellently drawn.  The lines are bold and expressive and the character design is well done, even with a blob for the protagonist.  I can see why people have been talking about the Holms for years!

THE POWER OF THE PARASITE is a terrific choice for kids who are into graphic novels.  Older science geeks might enjoy it as well.  Obviously the science isn't very complicated, but I know a ton of biology majors who would get a kick out of books starring amoebas.

October 21, 2012

Review: Breaking the Circle

Breaking the Circle Book Two of The Maya Brown Missions
By S. M. Hall (no author website found)
Available now from Frances Lincoln Children's Books
Review copy

BREAKING THE CIRCLE is the second book of The Maya Brown Missions and an improvement over CIRCLE OF FIRE.  It can stand on its own, so you can go ahead and start the series here if you're sufficiently intrigued by my review.

Maya Brown is a fifteen-year-old Muslim teenager raised by an intelligence agent who rescued her from the fire that killed her family in Kosovo.  She's a proactive young woman who doesn't like to sit and wait for problems to be solved.  If she sees a chance to act, she's going to take it, whether the police or Drug Unit or whoever is ready - which isn't always the best plan.

BREAKING THE CIRCLE begins when Maya is robbed by a young woman named Kay and a boy named Gerard.  When she runs into Kay later, she learns that Kay is an illegal immigrant working as a prostitute for the men who brought her into the country and Gerard is a drug dealer.  Maya gets revved up to save Kay and get Gerard arrested.  But she quickly learns that Gerard is but a small cog in a large cartel and that it's very hard to save a drug addict, because the thing they care about most in the world is their next fix.

The Maya Brown Missions have a more realistic feel than many other kid spy books I've read, such as the Alex Rider series.  Maya's not working for an organization or armed with cool gadgets.  She's bumbling around on her own.  While her plans are often terrible, she is good at thinking on her feet and managing to keep her cool in tough situations.

BREAKING THE CIRCLE is written a little simpler than it needs to be.  To me, it read like a middle grade novel, but I feel like sex slavery is more of a young adult topic.  (Appropriately to a younger age group, Maya slips pretty easily out of any danger of being violated herself.  Which I am thankful for, because I don't want to read about a plucky fifteen-year-old heroine being raped.)  I just feel like the book's subject matter calls for slightly more complex writing.

But BREAKING THE CIRCLE is pretty fun, with lots of action, and it's nice to have a book series featuring a girl spy.  This series isn't my favorite, but there's definitely an audience for it.

October 20, 2012

Review: Shadow of the Hawk

Shadow of the Hawk Book Three of the Wereworld series
By Curtis Jobling
Available now from Viking (Penguin)
Review copy

While I prefer to read series in order, I did skip the second book in the Wereworld series.  I caught on to what was happening pretty fast, although I did miss one or two important instances of character development.  I do think it's best to at least read the first book (RISE OF THE WOLF) before jumping into SHADOW OF THE HAWK, because it lays out the groundwork for how the world works and introduces many of the characters.  (This is a series with a gigantic cast.  Forgive me if I get any names wrong.)

Drew, our protagonist, is the last of the Gray Wolves and has a claim to the throne of Lyssia.  His half-brother Prince Lucas wants to keep the throne in Werelion hands.  They each have their supporters, although Drew begins SHADOW OF THE HAWK cut off from his and stuck in slavery, serving as a gladiator.  (I'll give you three guesses as to whether he incites a rebellion, first two don't count.)  Meanwhile, his staunchest allies are sailing to a prospective safe haven and the two coolest female characters from the first book are MIA.  (Gretchen and Whitley, you are missed.)

The rightful king who will bring peace to the land is not a new plot in children's fantasy.  But Curtis Jobling's take is appealing.  There's lots of different societies to be navigated, all sorts of monsters, and you'll probably like at least one of the main characters.  At times, SHADOW OF THE HAWK does feel a bit too sprawling.  Drew's fortunes change several times and his brother Trent makes a meaningful journey, but most of the other plotlines have less direction.  (And I can't even talk about Hector, oh my.)

I've enjoyed the two Wereworld books I've read, and they're surprisingly quick reads.  (Each book is rather thick.)  But the quickness might be because they're often shallow.  SHADOW OF THE HAWK has a high body count, but I wasn't all that affected by the deaths.  Some of them were certainly horrible, but there was none of that horrible wrenching feeling that occurs when a character you empathize with dies.

But, as you can probably guess from the covers, this is a series for young boys.  I suspect that they eat it up - even if their parents might be unhappy about some of the violence.  But SHADOW OF THE HAWK is well suited to its intended audience and a pleasant enough diversion to older fantasy fans.

October 19, 2012

Review: Explorer: The Mystery Boxes

Explorer The Mystery Boxes Edited by Kazu Kibuishi
Available now from Amulet (Abrams)

EXPLORER: THE MYSTERY BOXES is the spiritual successor of the beloved and critically acclaimed FLIGHT anthologies, with a shorter page count and more emphasis on adventure.  The seven short comics within are fantastic introductions to some really great cartoonists and all of the stories have their charms, although there are some standouts.

"Under the Floorboards"  by Emily Carroll

The anthology starts with a deliciously creepy story, wherein a young girl finds a box containing a doll under the floorboards and the doll starts taking over her life.  I'm not the biggest fan of Emily Carroll's art style, but I love how often she lets her images speak for themselves.

"Spring Cleaning" by Dave Roman and Raina Telgemeier

Married cartoon powerhouse Dave Roman and Raina Telgemeier unite for a tale of a young boy who finds a box that many wizards want, as he discovers after listing it for sale on the internet.  It's very funny and made me want to read more stories about Oliver and his neighbor getting into strange sorts of trouble.  The art is clean and bright; the characters are diverse.

"The Keeper's Treasure" by Jason Caffoe

So, this one is a story with a lesson, but it's subtly and hilariously told so that it doesn't feel preachy.  Honestly, it was one of my favorites in the anthology.  "The Keeper's Treasure" is about the meeting of an explorer and a troll who have very different ideas about the worth of things.  (If you read it, pay attention to the troll's expression when he says, "Oh. How interesting."  It's still cracking me up as I write this review.)

"The Butter Thief" by Rad Sechrist

Okay, I usually talk about the art second, but Rad Sechrist's style is adorable - simple but expressive - and I love the mint palette he chose for this story.  "The Butter Thief" might contain the best action sequence of the anthology, as a girl tries to steal butter for a spirit who cursed her.  This one is a very sweet, domestic tale.

"The Soldier's Daughter" by Stuart Livingston with Stephanie Ramirez

"The Soldier's Daughter" was slightly preachy in a way I didn't like.  The story is very pointedly about the evils of war and the poison of hatred.  I did like that it was the girl who had anger issues rather than her brother.  The art is sharp and nicely colored.

"Whatzit" by Johane Matte with Saymone Phanekham

"Whatzit" is about a little spaceman who gets into some trouble when he opens the wrong box.  It's a dynamic story and Saymone Phanekham's colors are a great asset to Johane Matte's art.  I particularly liked the little twist at the end of this story.

"The Escape Option" by Kazu Kibuishi

Kazu Kibuishi's art is beautiful.  He puts bold, distinct characters in front of lush backgrounds.  It's a perfect style for a story warning that humans may not survive many thousands of years more if they don't live a more sustainable lifestyle.  There is, once more, a message, but I liked that it wasn't what it first seemed to be.  The last spread is gorgeous and a fitting end to this anthology.

EXPLORER: THE MYSTERY BOXES will appeal to a wide range of readers.  The authors all interpreted the boxes very differently, so the stories span many genres and provide a little something for everyone.

Review: Crewel

Crewel Book One of the Crewel World trilogy
By Gennifer Albin
Available now from Farrar Strauss Giroux (Macmillan)
Review copy

Adelice Lewys lives in a world where girls and boys are segregated until they're sixteen.  Sixteen is when they test to find the Spinsters, and only virgins retain the ability.  Spinsters weave time and space to keep the world of Arras peaceful, under the control of the Guild.  Adelice knows she's a Spinster but has no intention of living her life away from her family and under the Guild's thumb.  But she can't hide her talent and so she is taken away to live in a tower and spin as the men want her to.

CREWEL is possibly the best dystopian I've read since the trend started.  Arras seems like a wonderful place to live - everyone has a place to live and food to eat and there are never wars.  But it comes at a price.  Rebellions never happen because traitors are cleaned or ripped by the Spinsters.  And the only Spinster with any real power is Loricel, the Creweller, who is loyal.  Along comes her successor Adelice, who the Guild knows they can't trust.  They're scrambling to find a way to contain her and keep her potential under their firm guidance.

I loved the way CREWEL's world unfolded, piece-by-piece.  Some of Arras's secrets were surprising; others less so.  But they all added up to a coherent and frightening whole.  While CREWEL ends on a cliffhanger, this is the type of cliffhanger that works.  Adelice and her allies take the logical step for people who question the Guild and there's certainly another novel in where they're going.

Gennifer Albin doesn't shun the tropes of the dystopian trend in her debut novel.  There is a love triangle between Adelice, outspoken valet Jost, and pretty boy guard Erik.  Like most love triangles, it feels pretty silly since Adelice spends most of her time thinking about and seeking out Jost and only considers Erik when they happen to cross paths.  Fortunately, I think the love triangle might die quickly in the second book of the Crewel World trilogy since Adelice figures out the obvious at the climax.  Also fortunately, I didn't hate either guy.  Jost gets more character development and seems like a more sympathetic guy, but I never hated Erik.

CREWEL will appeal to dystopian fans, particularly those who feel let down by most of the genre's worldbuilding, and mythology fans - at least those who enjoy reading about the fates.  There's also a little bit of science fiction going on to explain how the Spinsters can weave space and time.

I can see why Macmillan choose CREWEL to be part of their Fierce Reads line-up.   In a world where you can be killed with a snip of the thread and your entire existence scrubbed from the memories of everyone who ever knew you, there are still those who refuse to sit back and do nothing.  That's textbook fierce.

October 18, 2012

Review: Second Chance

Second Chance Book Two of The Slayer Chronicles
By Heather Brewer
Available now from Dial (Penguin)
Review copy
Read my reviews of SOULBOUND and ELEVENTH GRADE BURNS and read an event report

Heather Brewer decided to expanded on her popular series The Chronicles of Vladimir Tod with a series of novels about Joss the Slayer that occur between events in the main continuity.  In other words, it's summer in the city.

In this case the city is New York City and it happens to be infested by a group of four serial-killing vampire brothers.  Joss is on the outs with his slayer brethren since he took a private job.  (See NINTH GRADE SLAYS.)  This is his chance to prove himself.  But his budding friendship with Vlad and the non-serial-killing vampires he meets on his hunt are causing him to question his indoctrination by the Slayers.  To top things off, he's getting creepy pasta texts from Kat, who wants revenge for the death of her father.

Brewer pulls off a neat trick in The Slayer Chronicles.  Her fans have spent five books getting to know and love several vampires.  Now, she gives them reason to empathize with a group on the other side of the battle for the night.  She could just focus on Joss, but she gives him a group that treat him like a little brother and a respected ally.  It's hard to believe that most of these people are capable of killing an entire town just to dust a few vamps.

Luckily, she doesn't try to redeem Joss's Uncle Abraham, who pushes his young nephew to his limits because of his own issues.  TWELFTH GRADE KILLS revealed that he was acquainted with Em, Vlad's grandmother.  SECOND CHANCES hints that their past will be revealed in The Slayer Chronicles.  I'm certainly looking forward to that.

SECOND CHANCES is a good choice for those who want a quick read with lots of action.  The blurb promises that The Slayer Chronicles can be read alone as well as with The Chronicles of Vladimir Tod, but I think you'd be best served reading both series.  Brewer isn't interested in rehashing events, so you'll miss chunks of Joss's life (that contain vital character developments) between books.  Penguin does appear to be putting out bind-ups that contain the relevant entries of both series, so you might want to wait for that edition if you aren't familiar with the Vlad Tod books.

Heather Brewer will be at Stonebriar Center Mall in Plano tonight; I may or may not attend.  (Probably not, because it's a long, tolled drive and I think I have a family thing anyway.)  But that Barnes and Noble is fab so you should go if you can.  Her presentation will tie into October's new role as Anti-Bullying Month.

October 17, 2012

Sirens: Teaser Trailer and Contest

Sirens I've been a fan of Janet Fox since her first novel, FAITHFUL, came out in 2010.  (As proved by the fact that I interviewed her.)  She returned to that setting for a companion novel, FORGIVEN, but now Janet's taking on the Roaring Twenties in a tale of gangsters, jazz, and deadly secrets. 

Interested?  Then watch this teaser trailer (all about flappers!), take a look at the possible prizes (winner will get an ARC, a bookmark, a postcard, and one accessory chosen at random), then enter the contest!  US only, no PO Boxes, ends on Halloween.

a Rafflecopter giveaway

Review: The Innocents

The Innocents Book One of The Innocents series
By Lili Peloquin
Available now from Razorbill (Penguin)
Review copy
Part of the Fall 2012 Breathless Reads

 I had an issue with THE INNOCENTS that I don't think I've ever had before.  Basically, Lili Peloquin did one thing so well that it left me wanting too much.

Sisters Alice and Charlie (Alice being slightly older) move to Serenity Point in New England when their mother marries Richard Flood the III shortly after divorcing their father.  The girls' middle class upbringing didn't exactly prepare them for living in a town where everyone is a member of the country club.  Charlie has the social skills to carve out a place for herself, but she honestly finds it easier to hang out with one of the waiters.

I absolutely loved the atmosphere of THE INNOCENTS.  Although there are no science fiction elements, there's a bit of that Stepford Wives feel - there has to be something nasty beneath the glossy surface of their new life.  Their new stepfather is touchy about the oddest things and has removed all pictures of his late daughter Camilla from his home.  His late daughter who looks amazing like Alice.  (Dun dun dun.)  It's a great setting and feel for soap opera-type shenanigans.

And a soap opera is basically what happens.  But at the same time, I felt kind of disappointed at the reveal.  It's clearly something that will affect Alice and Charlie deeply, but . . .  it isn't super crazy.  I mean, as I think about it, it isn't normal, but . . . there isn't, for instance, anyone who contracts amnesia and is mistaken for a princess and marries another royal before remembering her husband back home who meanwhile thinks she's dead and has been seduced by her archenemy.  (I cut my eyeteeth on soap operas.)  Basically, it would've been a great reveal in a normal contemporary, but the atmosphere of THE INNOCENTS was so creepy and exaggerated that I was expecting something less mundane.  Perhaps Peloquin is saving the true craziness for future installments?  (Book two, THIS SIDE OF JEALOUSY, comes out this summer.)

Both sisters get a romance.  I'm hoping their romances will be fleshed out more.  There's obviously something hinky about Alice's, considering she's dating Camilla's ex.  Tommy acts like there's nothing odd about the resemblance, but dating someone almost identical to your tragically departed girlfriend is strange.  Charlie's romance didn't interest me much, mainly because I didn't get the appeal of Jude.  He may be super hot, but he's an alcoholic.  And not a charming, hiding it alcoholic, but a vomit-on-yourself-and-pass-out alcoholic.  Maybe that's hot when you're a teenager and don't have experience herding drunks as the designated walker?  (Herding cats is easier.)

I know I sound like I'm complaining a lot, but I'm definitely going to read THIS SIDE OF JEALOUSY.  I'm just hoping Peloquin takes the series off a simmer and turns the crazy up to eleven.

October 16, 2012

Review: Beta

Beta Book One
By Rachel Cohn
Available now from Hyperion
Review copy courtesy of Krystal of Live to Read

Elysia is a clone.  A teenage Beta, to be exact.  One of the first of her kind and thus likely to have several bugs.  But unlike the other teenage Beta, she's absolutely gorgeous.  Thus, she gets taken into a household fast and becomes a companion, replacing a daughter away at college.

Thus begins Rachel Cohn's foray into science fiction.  Cohn might be known for her (masterful) contemporaries, but BETA doesn't read like she's stretching out of her comfort zone.  Cohn feels familiar with science fiction and the questions raised by the big cloning books like HOUSE OF THE RED SCORPION and NEVER LET ME GO.  Her futuristic world seems probable, if unsustainable.

I loved how the world expanded as Elysia experienced the world and became more curious and rebellious.  When she first wakes, she doesn't know much aside from what the computer chip in her head tells her.  But she's good at observing and events soon make her realize that life as a clone is even more nasty, brutish, and short than life as a human.  And no, that does not endear her to the rich people who populate their island with clones so that they don't have to interact with paid servants.

This also means that the dark side of life on Demesnse, the island, gets revealed at a nice pace.  Readers will catch on to some nasty implications before Elysia, but it gets worse.  (It, in fact, reaches a scene that I feel was unnecessary, but I may be alone in that.)  But this is not to say BETA is all secret clone rebellion and mad science all the time.

There is, of course, a romance plot as well.  Elysia has some of the memories of the girl whose organs were harvested to create her, and she feels for Z's boyfriend.  She also meets a boy on the island who doesn't fit in so well since his almost-fatal accident and falls for him pretty quickly.  Cohn does know how to write a good romance.  The sparks flying are crazy bright.

I like the world and characters Cohn created in BETA.  The plot felt a little bare bones, but there's some nice set up for the other three books in the series.  I, for one, can't wait to see what happens next.  Believe me, I did not see that ending coming.

October 15, 2012

Movie Monday: The Cabin in the Woods

Cabin in the Woods I wanted to see The Cabin in the Woods back when it was in theaters.  But every time I went to the movies during that time period I was with someone else.  And they never wanted to see a horror movie, either because horror was too scary or because they considered it a dumb and predictable genre.  (And let's face it, I'm not about to accuse slasher films of being smart.  Their feelings were not invalid.)  But The Cabin in the Woods is not a horror film.  There's about 45 minutes of a slasher film in it, but it isn't really scary and I don't think it's meant to be.  It's mostly a horror parody, with a pinch of satire thrown in for flavor.

The Cabin in the Woods is the product of Joss Whedon (Buffy the Vampire Slayer) and Drew Goddard (Cloverfield).  They both wrote the script and Goddard directed.  I can definitely see Whedon's mark on the story, so if you don't like his style, The Cabin in the Woods probably won't work for you.  I am totally unfamiliar with Goddard, but this film was a great first impression.  There's one scene, where a character goes out into the woods and looks over his shoulder, because it is a little creepy outside.  The audience can see the monster weaving in and out of the shadows, but the character just misses her.  It's beautifully framed.  And I can say that for several scenes in this movie - the way things move in and out of frame is very well done.

One thing The Cabin in the Woods does very well is that it doesn't fight the cast's charisma.  In too many horror films you just don't care if everyone dies or if anyone escapes the monster.  Chris Hemsworth is the movie's only big name (though he wasn't when the movie was filmed), and anyone whose seen Thor and The Avengers knows he's a pretty jovial presence.  He's the alpha male of the group and a football player, but he's also shown to be smart, both well read and a good problem solver.  After all, the boxes horror movies put people into are ridiculous.  The Cabin in the Woods shatters those stereotypes.  At the same time, it offers a reason for them.

Fran Kranz as Marty, gif by http://crowdedwithangelstonight.tumblr.com/
The Cabin in the Woods pokes behind the scenes of horror movies, teasing out totally ridiculous reasons for why horror characters act the way they do.  One of the pleasures of The Cabin in the Woods is how it flings the silly, the mundane, and the brutal together.  I know lots of people who were disappointed by the third act and others who thought it was brilliant.  I veer towards brilliant.  It's slower paced than the rest of the movie, but it's different and exciting.  I think most people don't like it because it's where the film totally leaves traditional American horror behind.

And, that's about as much as I can say without giving anything away.  Now, I actually think some of the "spoiler" arguments around this movie are dumb.  It would be just as fun if you know what's coming.  But at the same time, there's a pleasure in keeping mum.  I'll leave it at this: it's a fun movie and I've been enjoying thinking through the layers.

My final word is to those who don't like gore.  The Cabin in the Woods is definitely not torture porn, and while there's quite a bit of gore, most of it is shot in a discretionary way.  If you don't like any blood, this isn't the film for you.  But there are no over-the-top gross gore scenes, in my opinion.

October 14, 2012

Review: Almost Home

Almost Home By Joan Bauer
Available now from Viking (Penguin)
Review copy

Let's all take a moment to appreciate the cover of ALMOST HOME.  First, and most importantly, the adorable puppy.  But it's appropriate for the intended audience without alienating crossover audiences.  It could be the cover of a women's fiction or chick-lit novel as easily as a middle-grade one.  Classy.

Now, the blurb and press release had me running for the hills.  A girl named Sugar Mae Cole becomes homeless and goes into foster care with her rescue dog Shush?  It sounds like a recipe for a treacly after-school special.  Luckily for ALMOST HOME, I adore Joan Bauer.  HOPE WAS HERE and RULES OF THE ROAD are two old favorites.  I was willing to give ALMOST HOME a chance because I trust Bauer.

Anyone else who has read Bauer will recognize her stamp on ALMOST HOME.  The cheerful heroine who excels at surviving her unprivileged environment - check.  A heroine who works despite her youth - check.   A colorful and encouraging supporting cast - check.  Sugar and her mother are going through a tough time, but they manage to get the help they need and encounter mostly friends.  It works because the book is intended for a younger audience and Bauer has the characters acknowledge that things could be much worse (ending up dead on the streets worse) and that Sugar has it pretty good despite her homelessness.

Sugar is a touch more precious than Bauer's other heroines.  She mails people thank you notes, for instance.  She also believes that Shush was put on Earth to help people . . . which I'll give her, since that's obviously the purpose of dogs.  I'll also admit to skipping over some of the poetry she writes exploring her feelings.  It's a good outlet for a twelve-year-old girl, but the sentiments are almost too raw.  (Bauer does nail a voice for the poetry that sounds like a talented young girl rather than an experienced author.)

Despite the age neutrality of the cover, I felt a little too old for ALMOST HOME.  But I think it's a great way to introduce kids to the reality that some of their classmates might be facing or to comfort other children that there are people in the system who care and they will find a home eventually.  It's a sweet, optimistic novel tackling a tough subject. 

October 13, 2012

Review: Judging a Book by Its Lover: A Field Guide to the Hearts and Minds of Readers Everywhere

Judging a Book by Its Lover By Lauren Leto
Available now from Harper Perennial (HarperCollins)
Review copy
JudgingaBookbyItsLover.com (click-through text excerpt)

I know lots of people who enjoy reading Texts from Last Night, but who view it as a hive of scum and villainy.  Co-founder Lauren Leto proves that she might get her Faulkner on, but she's still a witty, well-read woman and any bookworm will recognize her insight into our lives as the truth.

I'm tempted just to quote the entire book in order to convince you to read it.  Here's a bit from the first chapter, Commercial Confessions, in which Leto admits her love of Janet Evanovich:
I make this distinction because most of this book is about avoiding bad books, and I don’t want a reader to think I’m being an elitist snob. Considering yourself a serious reader doesn’t mean you can’t read light books. Loving to read means you sometimes like to turn your head off. Reading is not about being able to recite passages of Camus from memory. Loving young adult novels well past adolescence isn’t a sign of stunted maturity or intelligence. The most important thing about reading is not the level of sophistication of the books on your shelf. There is no prerequisite reading regimen for being a bookworm.
JUDGING A BOOK BY ITS LOVER will teach you how to make a bookstore hook-up, how to pretend to have read an author, and how to properly participate in a book club.  It will even teach you how to stereotype people by their favorite author, but it won't teach you to look down on them.  Leto's definitely critical of certain books, authors, and techniques, but she's writing with a true passion for reading. 

I laughed through the entirety of JUDGING A BOOK BY ITS LOVER.  But as much as I enjoyed it, I am not passing this one on.  Leto's book is staying on my shelf and my friends can get their own copies.  I hate for this one to never be returned.  I might need to know how to spell 'spaghetti.'

While Leto focuses on literary fiction, I think any book love will find something to enjoy in this chic green volume.  So pick up a copy and give it to one of your fellow bookworms for the winter holidays, before they buy a copy for themselves.  (Oh yeah, buy your own copy first.)

October 12, 2012

Review: Eve and Adam

Eve and Adam By Katherine Applegate and Michael Grant
Available now from Feiwel & Friends (Macmillan)
Review copy

I read EVE AND ADAM under the worst circumstances possible: on a plane, sitting directly in front of a screeching child who was way to be old to be screeching.  (Her baby sister and older brother were well behaved, thankfully.)  But I still enjoyed the first young adult novel spouses Katherine Applegate and Michael Grant collaborated on, years after working on the Animorphs.

Evening Spiker lives a pretty normal life, albeit a rich one, until she's hit by a car while contemplating an apple at a fruit stand.  She loses her leg in the accident and her mother spirits her away to her clinic for a special treatment.  There she meets Solo - her mother's ward, who she never knew about.  He starts hinting that there's lots of things she doesn't know about.  Plus, she has to keep breaking out to help her best friend Aislin with her druggie boyfriend.  Meanwhile, she plays around with an in-development kid's computer game to create the perfect boy.

EVE AND ADAM is extremely fast paced, with Dan Brown or James Patterson-style short chapters that keep you turning the pages.  I'm a science fiction fan and absolutely nuts for any stories involving genetic manipulation, so EVE AND ADAM was also pinging a bunch of my favorite tropes.

Now, a lot of the early twists are easy to see coming.  (In fiction, you can't put a big group of scientists together without mad science happening, as you know.)  But there are some later twists that are more surprising.  I kept wishing for less of Aislin's druggie boyfriend, but it looks like he's not going to be in the picture for sequel ADAM AND EVE.  (Thank goodness.)

If you read the Animorphs, you know what you're in for.  Banter, moral dilemmas, and lots of action.  Honestly, it's the sort of read that works perfectly on a plane, even if you have to read it through the screams of an uncouth child.

October 11, 2012

Review: Lucid

Lucid By Adrienne Stoltz and Ron Bass (no website found)
Available now from Razorbill (Penguin)
Review copy

Adrienne Stoltz and Ron Bass are debut authors, but they are neither new to writing nor collaborating.  They've been writing screenplays together for years.  Their time in the business definitely adds authenticity to Maggie's experiences as a young, talented actress trying to get a breakout part.

Maggie is only one of the narrators of LUCID.  The other is Sloane.  Only one of the girls is real, and both girls belief themselves to be the real one.  Whenever they go to sleep, they dream the other girl's life.  Maggie lives in New York with her often absent mother and younger sister.  She doesn't go to school, instead opting for a GED so she can focus on her career.  Her life changes when she meets two guys: talent agent Thomas and film student Andrew.  Sloane is a normal girl, living in Connecticut.  Bill, her best friend, died the year before and she's still recovering from his death.  The hot new guy might help her escape her funk, but it means further denying the feelings she has for other best friend Gordy.

As I'm not a fan of love triangles, I wasn't overjoyed to get two for the price of one.  But I was intrigued enough by the rest of LUCID to give that aspect of the story a pass.  It's not obvious which girl is fake.  (There was one scene that gave it away for me, and I'm curious to find out what gives it away for other readers.)  Both Maggie and Sloane's lives are pretty fully realized.  They have family, friends, hobbies, post-high school goals - neither is one dimensional.

It makes reading LUCID sort of painful, because you know one of the girls has to go away in the end.  (Living a second life in your dreams, to the point where you can't believe it isn't real, is sort of crazy.)  Both girls have their bad sides, but I didn't want either girl to disappear just because of a few character faults.

LUCID is the perfect read for anyone looking for a good psychological, character-driven tale.  It's full of good and bad boys, cute and ugly dogs, grief, anger, and hope for the future.  I had fun reading it and hope Stoltz and Bass decided to collaborate on a young adult novel again.

October 10, 2012

Review: Samurai Awakening

Samurai Awakening By Benjamin Martin
Available now from Tuttle
Review copy
Semi-finalist in 2011 Amazon Breakthrough Novel Awards

I found the synopsis of SAMURAI AWAKENING somewhat troubling.  Exchange student David Matthews gets possessed by a Japanese god, gets powers, and must rescue his host sister.  That's definitely a set up with lots of room for cultural appropriation.  But I wanted to give it a chance since Tuttle Publishing is the largest publisher of books on Asia.  I didn't even know they published young adult novels.  They're mostly a publisher of nonfiction.  But Tuttle's reputation made me want to take a chance.

SAMURAI AWAKENING does avoid some of the worst pitfalls.  When David bonds with a kami, it might allow him to speak and understand Japanese, but he doesn't have the accompanying social and cultural knowledge he needs to be truly fluent.  He's not sure of when to be formal or informal and doesn't know when to bow or make other physical gestures, among other issues.  It does solve several of his problems, but not all of them.  David must also train with Kou, the kami, if he is going to use his abilities effectively.  After several months of training he's still not as good with a sword as the other characters who have been practicing for years.  That's nicely realistic.

Mythology fans will probably get a kick out of SAMURAI AWAKENING.  David fights Japanese monsters and he needs to learn the lore.  Debut author Benjamin Martin does a good job of marking when he's making up a legend for the novel and when an actual myth is being discussed.  Those less interested in monsters might find the passages relating to them a bit of an infodump.

There are a bunch of characters to keep track of.  Some people who seem important at first just fade out of the narrative.  Natsuki, who seems like a generic mean girl, turns out to be very important.  In fact, she's the secondary hero.  But generally, the characters drifting in and out of the frame is just one of the ways SAMURAI AWAKENING lacks polish.

The whole story told a bit too dryly.  David suffers some major changes to his life, but gets over them almost instantly.  He gets one major bomb dropped on him that he worries about for maybe a day.  The editing could have been better as well.  Chul Moo and Chul Soon's names are often swapped and there are several tense errors.  (Other sentences, there are no tense errors, but they're phrased in a way that's easy to parse incorrectly.)

I still found SAMURAI AWAKENING fun.  It's full of lots of things I like, including lots of sword fights and a girl character who isn't about to change to make a guy happy.  There is some awkwardness in how the Koreans are handled, which is unfortunately very Japanese of Martin.  I think it could be the start of a series, and while there's room for improvement, I'd probably read the next novel.  Manga and anime fans looking for a non-graphic novel will probably devour SAMURAI AWAKENING pretty eagerly.

October 9, 2012

Review: Through to You

Through to You By Emily Hainsworth
Available now from Balzer + Bray (HarperCollins)
Review copy

Camden Pike's life hasn't been the best lately.  His dad left his mother.  An injury destroyed his future as a football player.  Worst of all, his girlfriend Viv died in a car accident that he blames himself for.  He's in therapy, but not willing to talk to his doctor about Viv.  Then, one day, he finds a transparent girl named Nina at the site of the accident.  They can cross into each other's world.

And in Nina's world, Viv didn't die.

Emily Hainsworth's debut novel, at 272 pages, is one of the shorter books I've read recently.  But she uses her page count well.  Cam goes on an emotional journey as much as a journey through parallel universes.  The people on the other side aren't exactly like their counterparts, but there are enough similarities to make him look at his past in a new way.

But the tight focus on Cam and his emotions means the girls sometimes aren't as fleshed out.  Viv, despite her pivotal role in the plot, is pretty cartoonish.  And Nina's like a Dour Pixie Dream Girl, more there to make Cam think twice about his life rather than a character in her own right.  We know that she's responsible and loves her family, but that's a rather thin description.

I really did enjoy reading THROUGH TO YOU.  I wish more authors played around with parallel universes.  For some reason I find them more exciting than time travel.  And I am a big fan of character-driven stories, and Cam is an interesting narrator.  Considering that he isn't totally sane, it even casts some unreliability on all the science fiction shenanigans he gets up to.  But more importantly, he does grow as a character.  His path to moving on may be very different than the usual, but THROUGH TO YOU is still an interesting portrait of grief.

I think THROUGH TO YOU is a wonderful start to Hainsworth's career.  It's an unusual and affecting novel.  I just hope her sophomore effort has beefier female characters.

October 8, 2012

Movie Monday: Dark Shadows Giveaway!

Dark Shadows Do you want to see Dark Shadows?  I do.  I'm a fan of Tim Burton movies, even if he tends to go back to the same well several times.  As for the cast - Johnny Depp, Michelle Pfieffer, Helena Bonham Carter, and Chloe Grace Moretz . . . I'm a fan of them all.  Although I'm too young to have seen the original television show, my cousin has fond memories of it and told me the movie was a good modernization.

Anyway, have fun playing with the widget and enter the contest below!

Courtesy of Warner Bros., I have one DVD of Dark Shadows to give away.  To enter you must be older than 13, a resident of the US, and have an address that is not a P.O. Box.  (Basically, standard giveaway rules.)  The contest will run through next Monday and the winner will have 48 hours to give me their address after I contact him or her.

a Rafflecopter giveaway

October 7, 2012

Ballou Sr High School Book Fair

Guys Lit Wire is running another one of their book fairs, this one for Ballou Sr High School.  The book fair runs through October 14th and it's quite simple to help out.  Simply buy a book from this wishlist (vetted by librarian Melissa Jackson) and have it shipped to:

Melissa Jackson, LIBRARIAN
Ballou Senior High School
3401 Fourth Street SE
Washington DC 20032
(202) 645-3400

You can find out more information about the book fair and why Ballou Sr High School needs books at the Guys Lit Wire post.

October 6, 2012

Ebook Sales, Some Today Only!

Normally I don't post Kindle Daily Deals, but today you can get several Mary Downing Hahn ghost stories for $1.99.  I adore Hahn, and all of these books are perfect October reads.

American Gods Hairstyles of the Damned The Sisters Brothers The Killing Moon Ruby Red

Other books on sale I recommend:

  • AMERICAN GODS by Neil Gaiman:  An old favorite, this tenth-anniversary edition includes video and audio.  (Hilarious companion novel ANANSI BOYS is only $6.99.)
  • ZOMBIE by Joyce Carol Oates: Novellas are making a comeback and this creepy read is a good place to start exploring the form.
  • COLD CEREAL by Adam Rex: Read my review.
  • HAIRSTYLES OF THE DAMNED by Joe Meno: A bildungsroman for Stephanie Kuehnert fans.
  • FEED by Mira Grant (aka Seanan McGuire):  Zombies!  This one is a Hugo nominee, as is its sequel.  I haven't read them yet, but love Grant's books as McGuire.
  • SOULLESS by Gail Carriger: I have some issues with this series, but notable for steampunk fans.
  • SANDMAN SLIM by Richard Kadrey: The second (KILL THE DEAD) and third (ALOHA FROM HELL) books of this urban fantasy series are on sale too, plus there's a free short story ("Devil in the Dollhouse").
  • BLADE SONG by J.C. Daniels (Shiloh Walker): Haven't read this one yet, but the reviews are great.
  • THE SISTERS BROTHERS by Patrick deWitt: This comic Western made big waves in the literary community last year.
  • AU REVOIR, CRAZY EUROPEAN CHICK by Joe Schreiber: I am reviewing the sequel (PERRY'S KILLER PLAYLIST) to this contemporary action-comedy next month.
  • THE KILLING MOON by N. K. Jemisin:  This one was frequently recommended during the A More Diverse Universe Tour.
  • BILLY LYNN'S LONG HALFTIME WALK by Ben Fountain: I've recommended this one several times already.  Please buy it if you haven't.
  • DEAR BULLY edited by Megan Kelley Hall and Carrie Jones: October is anti-bullying month and a great time to read this collection by seventy young adult authors.
  • GUYS READ: FUNNY BUSINESS edited by Jon Scieszka: A good anthology for reluctant readers of any gender.
  • RUBY RED by Kerstin Geir (translated by Anthea Bell): I don't know whether I want to read this YA time travel romance or not, but I love the cover.


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