November 29, 2013

Review: Far Far Away

Far Far Away By Tom McNeal
Available now from Knopf BFYR (Penguin Random House)
Review copy

At KidLitCon, I briefly spoke with Leila Roy of Bookshelves of Doom about the fact that I was struggling with my review of this book.  That led me to look up her review, which is brilliant.  You should read it after reading mine, so that mine won't pale so much in comparison.

I was wary of reading FAR FAR AWAY because the narrative conceit seemed so strange, almost arbitrary.  It is told by the ghost of Jacob Grimm, who can only be heard by a boy named Jeremy Johnson Johnson.  But it works.  Jacob is a part of the story, which is both like and unlike the fairytales he collected.  He is the one able to take action at the end of the story, the one who makes the plot work.  It's an odd technique, yes, but one that makes the book better.

I have made it clear in my reviews of the Raven Cycle books by Maggie Stiefvater that I love an atmosphere of doom.  FAR FAR AWAY has that in spades.  Nothing really bad happens to Jeremy for a long time.  I mean, he becomes an outcast and is in danger of losing his home, but nothing that it doesn't seem like your average protagonist can't escape.  And then that doom so long promised is brought, by the Finder of Occasions that Jacob set out to thwart.  FAR FAR AWAY is dark.

Another KidLitCon discussion was where to draw the line between middle grade and young adult.  I brought up this book, because there is no sex and the violence isn't of the punching, bullets flying sort.  But when FAR FAR AWAY gets intense, it is drawn out, scary, and leaves innocents helpless before a monster.  For the average reader, 14 and up is the best bet for age appropriateness.

For the readers who are up for a truly scary read, FAR FAR AWAY is a hugely rewarding read.  It draws disparate elements together in an interesting way, contains several satisfying emotional journeys, and is populated by characters that will grab your heart.  I very much understand why it's in the running for the National Book Award.

November 28, 2013

Mini-review and Haiku-off: My Sort of Fairy Tale Ending

My Sort of Fairy Tale Ending Final book in the My Very UnFairy Tale Life
By Anna Staniszewski
Available now from Sourcebooks
Review copy

Jenny the Adventurer travels to Fairy Land to rescue her parents, but discovers that things are going very wrong.  The population's magic is rationed, the laws are arbitrary, and travelers aren't allowed to leave.

I thought MY SORT OF FAIRY TALE ENDING was a fun, quick read for younger fantasy fans.  I thought it played well with various familiar fairy tale tropes, and loved that Jenny didn't have a love interest.  It's nothing overly different or edgy, but perfectly likeable.  It will, of course, have the most impact if you've read the first two books.  However, I haven't and thought it was still easy to follow along.

Today I'm happy to share a guest blog and challenge from author Anna Staniszewki:

One of the things I love about fairy tales is how easily they adapt to any format. No wonder we keep telling and retelling familiar tales when we can play with character, setting, and even format. So today, I thought we’d embrace this idea and have some fun with a fairy tale haiku-off.

What on earth is a fairy tale haiku-off and how does it work? It’s easy. Just think of your favorite tale, start counting syllables (the usual format is 5-7-5), and get haiku-ing!

Here’s my attempt:

First foot doesn’t fit.
Second foot, even tighter.
Third foot—smooth as glass.

It’s not likely to win any awards, but hey, I had fun. Now it’s your turn. Ready? Set. Haiku!

Bio:
Born in Poland and raised in the United States, Anna Staniszewski grew up loving stories in both Polish and English. When she’s not writing, Anna spends her time teaching, reading, and challenging unicorns to games of hopscotch. She is the author of My Very UnFairy Tale Life and its sequels, My Epic Fairy Tale Fail and My Sort Of Fairy Tale Ending, all published by Sourcebooks Jabberwocky. Look for the first book in Anna’s next tween series, The Dirt Diary, in January 2014, and visit her at www.annastan.com.

November 27, 2013

Interview with Regina Brooks

I posted a little over a month ago about the YA Novel Discovery Contest.  There are a few more days to enter, so get cracking if you've written a YA novel!  I interviewed literary agent Regina Brooks of the Serendipity Literary Agency about the contest, her job, and the importance of diversity in YA.

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1.    Since some of my readers might not know, what does a literary agent do?

An agent is a person who is essentially a manager for an author. They negotiate contracts, help authors understand trends, shop the book and prepare the project to entice editors or publishers. They are also responsible for ensuring you get royalty statements and mediating issues between the author and publisher such as during cover art disputes.

2.    Everyone I know in publishing has at least one book they love that never found its audience. What are some underrated gems from your career?

The Making of Dr. TrueloveThe Making of Dr. Truelove by Derrick Barnes. His book came out well before publishers, librarians, and teachers accepted edgy YA.

3.    A contest on the scale of the YA Novel Discovery Contest clearly takes a lot of time and effort to run.  Why did the Serendipity Literary Agency decide to start this contest?  What are some of the benefits of running the contest?

One huge benefit is that it’s a service to the YA author community.  Authors typically get really nervous about pitching whether it’s at a conference or through an online query letter. This contest allows an author’s idea to get in front of an agent without having to pitch.

The reason we only want to see the fist 250 words is because an author should be able to get an agents attention quickly and most agents who have been editing or ageing for years can tell very quickly whether it’s a project that so would be of interest.  Serendipity Literary Agency LLC., since its inception, has always been a place for the YA author to feel at home and it a great way to let more people know about our mission.

4. What are some of the other ways you find new writers to represent?

Besides queries, I find new authors at conferences, by referrals from other authors, through Twitter, and in classes that I teach.

5. There's a growing call online for diversity in literature.  You've represented Coretta Scott King, Stonewall, and LAMBDA award winners.  What makes diversity important to you?

Everyone should have a voice and whatever I can do to help bring as many voices into the marketplace as possible I’m excited to be able to do that. While diversity among young adult authors is growing, there still remains a critical need for more, especially given the changing demographics in the US. I am thrilled to have the opportunity to work with stories that challenge and inspire an interest in diversity.

November 26, 2013

Review: Broken

Broken By CJ Lyons
Available now from Sourcebooks Fire
Review copy
Read my interviews (old) and (new) with CJ and my review of Lifelines

Sheltered Scarlet Killian wants a chance at the life of a normal high-school girl.  But she's barely convinced her overprotective parents that she'll be alright, especially her nurse stepmom.  But Scarlet has spent her life in the hospital due to a rare heart disease, and she wants to live.


I loved the depiction of Scarlet's high-school life.  It was a nice balance of the better parts of high school and the bad parts.  She gets bullied by some jocks due to her portable defibrillator, which she carries in a wheelie backpack, and her mother frequently popping in to make sure she's taking her vitamins.  (Did I mention her mom is the school nurse?)  At the same time, she makes some friends in her support group and biology class.  Two of them are cute boys, of course.  But Scarlet talks about her attractions to a friend and decides to pursue only one of the boys.

My main complaint is that the thriller elements take a bit too long to come into play.  It makes since on a character level, since Scarlet is quite naive.  But when the tension ratchets up in the last quarter, any less naive reader already has a good idea about what's going on.  Most of the actual suspense comes from whether Scarlet will reach the police in time.

I enjoyed BROKEN quite a bit, and didn't mind the shift in tone to a thriller too much because I knew it was coming.  Just go into the book aware that much of it reads like a straight contemporary.  And that's fine, because Scarlet's journey to independence is a good story.

Interview with CJ Lyons

I'd like to welcome author CJ Lyons back to the blog!  This New York Times bestselling author is making her YA debut with BROKEN, about a young girl with a heart condition beginning to attend high school after years in hospitals.  Stay tuned for my review later today.

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1. Hi CJ!  You were the first author I interviewed for my blog, about your first book.  What has changed for you as an author since then?

CJ: I remember, hi again! LIFELINES was such a fun book to chat about. Hmm…what’s changed since that first book? I’ve written over twenty more (in fact, book #21, AFTER SHOCK, is being released January 7th), won a bunch of awards, hit #2 on the NYT Bestseller list, and am having the time of my life!

Perhaps most importantly was finding my YA voice—so much fun! I’m so looking forward to adding YA to my repertoire of Thrillers with Heart.

Broken 2. BROKEN is your first YA novel.  Did you know you were writing for a YA audience when you started writing, in the middle, or after you finished?

CJ: I’ve always loved reading YA and everyone kept telling me that as a pediatrician, I should write it. But honestly, I never found a story that I thought was worthy of my kids—my patients—until BROKEN, so I knew it was YA as soon as I began.


Writing for kids is tons tougher than writing for adults. Most grownups read for entertainment, but kids read for so much more. They want to vicariously experience the world and the choices they’ll be expected to make as adults as well as learn who they are and how they can fit into that larger universe once they’re the ones in charge.

3. Do you think you'll write more YA novels now that you've dipped your toes in the pool?

CJ: I just turned in my second YA Thriller and this one was so hard to write! It deals with two kids, Jesse and Miranda, being black mailed by a cyber-predator using capping (screen capture images) and how they find the courage to stand up to him (with the help of their parents). They go through hell and some of the things that happen to them were so painful to write that I was weeping as I typed—but then I was crying again when I wrote the ending as they rose above it all and triumphed.

Despite how difficult that book was to write, I loved it! Unlike my adult thrillers, I actually find that I can go deeper and darker emotionally with YA, which is a lot of fun—just goes to show that you can still have the thriller pacing and adrenalin rush without it all being car chases and explosions.

4. You have personal experience with Scarlet's rare disease, Long QT, through your niece.  Was it more difficult to write about a tough subject you're so close to?

CJ: Not the medical aspects, no. But waiting for my niece’s seal of approval before sending it to my editor—that was murder! Thankfully, she loved the book and really felt I’d nailed that whole first week of a new school vibe. Of course, she made me promise to tell everyone that she’s nothing like Scarlet, the main character of BROKEN. Scarlet is very sheltered and na├»ve, while the best adjectives to describe my niece are “fiercely independent.”

5. Now that you have a number of books available, do you have a favorite?

CJ: Actually, it’s DAMAGED, the second YA I mentioned above.  It’s honestly the best book I’ve ever written and as a pediatrician, the one I’m most proud of as I think it might actually save lives.

I thought it would be a stand alone, but after I finished it I realized there aren’t many books out there that tell you the rest of the story, the price to be paid for defeating the bad guys, so I’d love to tackle another book with Jesse and Miranda and show how their courage, strength, and relationship continue to evolve.

About CJ:
New York Times and USA Today bestselling author of twenty-one novels, former pediatric ER doctor CJ Lyons has lived the life she writes about in her cutting edge Thrillers with Heart.

Winner of the International Thriller Writers’ coveted Thriller Award, CJ has been called a "master within the genre" (Pittsburgh Magazine) and her work has been praised as "breathtakingly fast-paced" and "riveting" (Publishers Weekly) with "characters with beating hearts and three dimensions" (Newsday).

Learn more about CJ's Thrillers with Heart at www.CJLyons.net.




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I don't know about ya'll, but I'm already excited about DAMAGED and its sequel!  I love books that explore consequences.

November 25, 2013

Review: These Broken Stars

These Broken Stars First in the Starbound series
By Amie Kaufman and Megan Spooner
Available December 10th from Disney-Hyperion
Review copy

I misspoke in my intro to the fun fact I shared for the THESE BROKEN STARS tour.  I poked around Amie Kaufman and Megan Spooner's sites today and realized that two more books are coming.  I'm not sure how I feel about this.  THESE BROKEN STARS is a complete adventure.  I'd enjoy spending more time with these characters, sure, but I'm not sure what story those future books will tell.

THESE BROKEN STARS is the story of Lilac LaRoux, the richest girl in the universe, and Tarver Merendsen, a war hero from a modest family.  When they first meet, they are instantly attracted, but Lilac must spurn Tarver or risk him coming to her father's attention in a very bad way.  This makes things super awkward when the survive the wreck of the Icarus together, the only two people in their escape pod.  Possibly the only survivors, period.

I loved how THESE BROKEN STARS develops.  There's the characters, first.  Lilac is more resourceful than she first seems, and I just adored her growth.  She's been repressed by her father for too long, and this is her chance to discover who she really is.  Tarver has the training to keep going and ensure their survival, but their journey forces him to face his weaknesses.  And it's just so lovely as Lilac and Tarver come to the point where they can talk about their initial understanding.  I adore communication as a key to romance.

I also loved how the science fiction elements are used.  The planet the Icarus crashes on seems innocuous at first, but as Lilac and Tarver soldier on, things start to get weird.  Hearing voices, hallucinating, things appearing out of thin air weird.  Figuring out what's up with the strange planet could be the key to Lilac and Tarver getting rescued.

I also liked that each chapter ends with Tarver debriefing his superiors.  It hints at the twists to come, but also shows that the official story he's giving varies greatly from what actually happened.  Why would he lie?  And when I say twists, I mean twists.  I'm still not sure I can believe that THESE BROKEN STARS went as far as it did.  I had to briefly stop and go, "Wait, that's not what really happened is it?  Oh my word, what happens next?"

I was enchanted by THESE BROKEN STARS.  It's been described as Titanic in space, but it's even better than that sounds.

THESE BROKEN STARS tour: Fun Fact!

These Broken Stars I'm happy to be participating in the tour for THESE BROKEN STARS by Amie Kaufman and Megan Spooner.  I don't do promo stops often, but as you'll see in my review later today, I loved THESE BROKEN STARS.  It's a standalone science fiction young adult novel that combines disaster, romance, and mad science.  How could I not love it?

As part of the tour, I have a fun fact to share with you all:

When Lilac and Tarver’s escape pod crash lands, they decide to hike for the main crash site of the Icarus, in the hope rescue craft will head there. This particular decision was inspired by a piece of sailing lore -- you never leave your boat until you have absolutely no choice, as a boat is easier to spot from the air -- even if it’s underwater -- than a tiny liferaft bobbing in the ocean. We thought the same wisdom would apply: rescuers would head for the big crash site, rather than trying to guess which of the tiny pieces of wreckage might hold humans.

You can also enter to win here!  You can win a hardcover or the grand prize of a marked-up galley, necklace, and other swag.  Full schedule here for more chances to win.
a Rafflecopter giveaway
Bonus: If you pre-order from Malaprop's Bookstore, you can get a signed poster of the mondo gorgeous cover!  Don't wait, because THESE BROKEN STARS comes out December 10th.

November 22, 2013

Review: Tandem

Tandem Book One of the Many-Worlds trilogy
By Anna Jarzab
Available now from Delacorte Press (Penguin Random House)
Review copy
Read my review of The Opposite of Hallelujah

Sasha is an ordinary high school student until she's taken across worlds to impersonate a kidnapped princess.  She's none too thrilled about this, given that she wasn't asked and didn't even know that there were parallel worlds.

I thoroughly enjoyed TANDEM, Anna Jarzab's third novel and her first foray into science fiction/fantasy.  I liked that it built slowly.  The action is confined to Earth and Aurora, but Jarzab doesn't forget that her story is based on infinite possible worlds.  Despite the fairly straightforward nature of TANDEM, Jarzab has set up excellent potential for future hijinks in the sequels.  I trust her to do it well because she does it so neatly in TANDEM.  Jarzab pulled off my favorite trick: having the plot answer a question niggling in the back of my mind.

I liked Sasha, who is uncertain about what college she wants to go to or what she wants to study.  She's intelligent, but not driven.  In some ways, she responds well to having a set role as Princess Juliana, even if she hates the public, controlled life.  There is a love triangle, although not the worst sort.  Sasha and Thomas, Juliana's bodyguard who kidnapped Sasha,  have a mutual attraction.  Meanwhile, Juliana has a fiance who begins to fall for Sasha who he thinks is Juliana.  It's a little Shakespearean, with the layers of identities, which keeps it from feeling too route.

But really, the reason to read TANDEM is the cool plot and worldbuilding.  Jarzab doesn't forget character, but it doesn't drive everything to the point where the world is window dressing.  The politics are complicated and the dimensional disturbances are disturbing.  At times TANDEM felt like it was just moving pieces into place for later, but I find it hard to complain too much when it seems like the book is setting up something really fun.  My only complaint is with the villains, who go unnoticed by the heroes for quite awhile despite the fact they might as well have villain tattooed on their foreheads.

TANDEM is fun YA sci-fi.  It's on the softer edge, but it does offer some scientific explanations that show Jarzab did research quantum mechanics.  I liked that it had that scientific grounding even though the book felt like a fantasy.  It's that sort of genre blending that YA does so well.  There's even a bit of contemporary with the first part of the novel, which is a touch slow.  But by the end, TANDEM really rocks.

November 21, 2013

Review: Bloodstone

Bloodstone Book Two of the Rebel Angels series
By Gillian Philip
Available now from Tor (Macmillan)
Review copy
Read my review of Firebrand

When I read FIREBRAND, I had no expectations.  But when I read BLOODSTONE, I had high expectations because FIREBRAND was so good.  For the most part, it lived up to my expectations.

BLOODSTONE is set several hundred years after FIREBRAND ends.  Seth McGregor, his older brother Conal, and their allies have been living out their exile in the human world.  But as Conal's mother gets older, the time nears for them to return to the world of the Sithe and face their old enemy, Queen Kate NicNiven, again.

Several new characters are introduced in BLOODSTONE, including two who share narration duties with Seth.  There's Finn, Conal's niece, who doesn't know that she isn't human.  Then there's Jed, a thief, who is surprisingly good at seeing through the Veil and noticing the Sithe.  Unfortunately, that's a dangerous talent for humans.  I thought the changing views was a nice touch.  I like Seth quite a bit, but it's interesting to see his actions from a perspective that doesn't know what he's thinking.  Jed also adds a nice touch of humanity to the mix, since Gillian Philip's Sithe remain very inhuman.

The plot takes a little while to get going.  There is lots of maneuvering to get the characters into the right places.  Once it does get going, some of the characters make horrendous decisions.  Yes, they're getting played, but maybe if they didn't make it so easy . . . BLOODSTONE is beautifully written, exciting, and it's wonderful to spend time with these characters again.  But it did suffer a bit from second book syndrome.

That being said, quite a bit happens, from the surprising to the sad to the triumphant.  There's not an actual shortage of plot, it just meanders sometimes.  The main characters are left in a very interesting position at the end of BLOODSTONE, and I can't wait to see what happens next!  I hope the US edition of WOLFSBANE comes soon.  (I'm contenting myself with the fact that UK readers don't have the fourth and final book yet.)

I think this series has become one of my favorites.  It's got a tortured hero who doesn't love easily, fairies, thieves, loyalty, betrayal, murderous frog people . . . what more does a story need?

November 20, 2013

Mini Reviews: Some Cybils Reading

Anton and Cecil Anton and Cecil: Cats at Sea
By Lisa Martin and Valerie Martin
Illustrated by Kelly Murphy
Available now from Algonquin BFYR (Workman)
Review copy

Written by veteran adult author Valerie Martin and her niece Lisa Martin, ANTON AND CECIL: CATS AT SEA is a charming tale of two brothers who both end up traversing the sea.  Cecil is an avid sailor, but Anton is press ganged to catch rats, and Cecil must find him.

Animal fantasy can be done in several ways, and I liked how it was employed in ANTON AND CECIL.  The cats are sentient and can talk amongst themselves and with other animals, but can't actually talk to humans.  I thought this one was a fun little read, and given that there is a subtitle, suspect that it might be the beginning of a series.  I'd welcome more books about these brothers.

Last Enchanter The Last Enchanter
Book Two of the Celestine Chronicles
By Laurisa White Reyes
Available now from Tanglewood Press
Review copy

THE LAST ENCHANTER is the sequel to THE ROCK OF IVANORE, and I definitely wished that I had read that first.  I picked up most of the details, but I was confused about some bits, like why Marcus wasn't invited to court with his brother Kelvin, since he should be in line for the throne as well.

However, I still enjoyed THE LAST ENCHANTER.  I wish the storyline about Lael, a childhood friend who tags along with Marcus when he sets out to warn his brother about an assassination threat, was better incorporated.  It seemed like an attempt to shoehorn in a female character and a romance.  I'm always up for more female characters, but it could've been a touch smoother.

THE LAST ENCHANTER is a good pick for young fans of traditional fantasy, with the caveat that the series should be read in order.

Mickey Price Mickey Price: Journey to Oblivion
By John P. Stanley
Available now from Tanglewood Press
Review copy

Mickey Price and several kids under thirteen, each with their own talent, are suddenly recruited for a space camp.  There is, of course, something else going on - the reader will enjoy being suspicious with Jonah, one of Mickey's fellow campers.

Perhaps the biggest flaw in MICKEY PRICE: JOURNEY TO OBLIVION is the unnecessary frame story, where a grown-up Mickey tells the book to his kids.  It's awkward when the book switches back to the frame, and makes little sense, because the story changes point of view fairly frequently.

 Kids into space will probably enjoy this one.  There's lots of information about the space program, somewhat outdated since the book is set in 1977.

The Alchemist War The Alchemist War
Book One of the Time-Tripping Faradays
By John Seven
Illustrated by Craig Phillips
Available now from Capstone
Review copy

I'll admit to being very disappointed that there wasn't an actual war between alchemists in THE ALCHEMIST WAR.  The title and cover promise more action than the book delivers.  The beginning, with Dawk and Hype causing accidental mayhem, is fairly lively.  Then it settles into a simple mystery about alchemy, with several time jumps that don't last long enough to actually add interest.

THE ALCHEMIST WAR isn't terrible, but it's very much aimed at beginning readers.  I think the subject would've been better served with a bit more depth.  Author John Seven does set up a villain for future entries in the series, which might add more conflict to the story.

(Side note: I found it very out that the chat-type communication the future people engage in has identifying names at the end.)

November 19, 2013

Review: World After

World After Book Two of Penryn & the End of Days
By Susan Ee
Available now from Skyscape (Amazon Publishing)
Review copy

I kept hearing good things about ANGELFALL, so I bought myself a copy.  Then I let it molder on my Kindle for awhile because I didn't really know what it was about or anything. That was only a good decision inasmuch as it meant when I read ANGELFALL I didn't have long to wait before reading WORLD AFTER.

Penryn & the End of Days is set in the world were an angelic apocalypse is happening.  The humans are majorly outclassed and dying out fast.  But, as Penryn discovered, the angels don't have much more clue what's going on.  But Penryn's real focus is on her family - crazy mom who is out of meds, sister who has been experimented on - and Raffe, her unlikely ally.  Penryn's just one of my absolute favorite characters.  She uses her head, but let's herself be guided by her heart.  And I love the way Susan Ee writes her fights - always thinking, always analyzing how she might be able to take down a bigger, stronger opponent.

I also love Raffe, so I was a little sad that there's less of him in WORLD AFTER.  Ee does come up with an ingenious way to involve him in the action and help Penryn gain the abilities she needs to reach her goals at the same time.  And when Raffe and Penryn reunite, it is so delicious and worth it.  The tension between the two of them catches fire and keeps smoldering.

But really, the focus of WORLD AFTER isn't romance.  It's horror, what with all the crazy monsters running around and the humans sometimes not acting much better than the monsters.  It's a survival story, and sometimes the people who survive are the hardest and coldest.  But it's also a tale of connection, and how the bonds people make with each other inspire heroism and offer the ability for humans to thrive.

I enjoyed the continued, slow build of just what is happening.  Penryn stumbles upon bits and pieces of angelic plans, and the more she learns, the more the enormity of what's going on falls into place.  At the same time, it offers hope.  If Penryn knows what she's up against, maybe she can stop it.  Her, Paige, her mom, and Raffe, possibly the most rag-tag army ever.

ANGELFALL and WORLD AFTER are just sheer fun, despite their dark subject matter.  There's something about this series that makes me giddy and excited.  I can't wait for book three - I sure hope it comes faster than WORLD AFTER did!  (ANGELFALL came out in 2011.  I mean, two years isn't that long, but it seems like most series release a book a year nowadays.)

November 18, 2013

Review: Dear Life, You Suck

Dear Life, You Suck By Scott Blagden
Available now from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt BFYR
Review copy

If the title isn't enough to convince you to pick this book up, then this might not be the book for you.  But trust me: you're missing out on a real gem.  Scott Blagden's debut novel DEAR LIFE, YOU SUCK is the story of Cricket, who is about to age out of the boys' home he lives in.

Cricket is an amazing narrator.  His voice is absolutely absorbing, and plot relevant!  He's definitely a teenager, and shoots himself in the foot sometimes.  (I absolutely adored one scene where he realizes his actions caused him to miss out on an opportunity.)  He has anger issues, and is perhaps a bit too laid back about drug dealing.  At the same time, Cricket's got a lot of positives in his personality too, and he grows as a character throughout the story.  The first thing that really drew him to me as a reader is also what endears Cricket to his crush Wynona: he totally loves and cares for the younger kids in the home.  Aww.

Honestly, I don't have much to say about DEAR LIFE, YOU SUCK.  It fits into the vein of books like Dale Peck's SPROUT, Michael Hassan's CRASH AND BURN, and Andrew Smith's WINGER.  It's a realistic contemporary that deals with some of the harsher facts of life (and being a teen), as told through the eyes of a witty, talented young man.  But I really liked it.  There's so much personality in this novel, from the unconventional family to the sweet romance to the slightly melodramatic but fitting ending.

Therefore: love, love, love.

November 15, 2013

Review: Chasing Shadows (A More Diverse Universe)

Chasing Shadows By Swati Avasthi
Graphics by Craig Phillips
Available now from Knopf BFYR (Penguin Random House)
Review copy
Read my review from last year's Diversiverse

Today is the first day of the second annual A More Diverse Universe.  It lasts from November 15-17, and all you have to do to participate is write about a speculative fiction book by an author of color.

I've had CHASING SHADOWS in my to-read-and-review pile for about a month.  Charlotte reminded me about it in her reminder about this event.  Now, CHASING SHADOWS isn't straight-up speculative fiction.  It's a contemporary novel that incorporates elements of superhero comics and Hinduism in a very visceral way, which gives some passages the feeling of speculative fiction.

CHASING SHADOWS begins with Holly, Savitri, and Corey running across rooftops.  It's a tight-knit group: Holly and Sav are best friends, Sav and Corey are dating, and Holly and Corey are twins.  But it's when they get in their cars to go home that tragedy strikes - Corey is shot and killed and Holly ends up in a coma.  CHASING SHADOWS alternates between Sav and Holly's points of view, and Holly's point of view alternates between prose and graphic novel panels.  It's a wonderful effect that demonstrates her breaks from reality quite well.

I wasn't expecting to ugly cry throughout this book, but I did.  Both girls are extremely traumatized and CHASING SHADOWS is about Holly and Sav reclaiming their lives, their futures, and eventually their friendship.  Because yes, their relationship is under quite a bit of strain.  I particularly liked the way Swati Avasthi wove the cops' search for Corey's murderer into the girls' story.  Because Holly was shot and Sav got a better look at the guy, they are defined as only a victim and only a witness respectively.  But both girls are victims and witnesses, and those labels are important to their internal story, even if it doesn't help the case.

(Side note: I loved that Sav can't give a great physical description - white, not tall - but notices exactly how the guy walks because that's what is important to her as an athlete.)

Two graphic novels shape the girls' stories.  One is a series about the Leopardess, a heroine Holly admires.  The other is a telling of the legend that gave Sav her name.  The girls are both inspired by these comics and shamed by them, feeling guilty because they weren't fast or clever or something enough to save Corey.  Holly's reality is distorted by them, the imagery and iconography bleeding into her waking world.  It's a very interesting look at the way that fiction can shape lives.  And, in the case of Sav, it's very clear how important her collection of comics starring Indians is to her and the ways it shaped her childhood.

CHASING SHADOWS is a real gut-punch of a novel.  It's dark, and heartbreaking, and the triumphs are tempered by tragedy.  It's also, I think, the book I wanted when I read WHAT WE SAW AT NIGHT.  The freerunning and the mystery are incorporated better into the characters' story, as is the Chicago setting.  I don't think I've ever read a book quite like CHASING SHADOWS, and it's more than just the inventive format that makes me say that.  This is a book well worth reading.

November 14, 2013

Review: The Naturals

The Naturals By Jennifer Lynn Barnes
Available now from Miramax (Disney Hyperion)
Review copy
Read my review of Raised by Wolves

Jennifer Lynn Barnes is one of those authors that routinely has interesting new books coming out but has never found mainstream success.  Personally, I'm very fond of her work.  She's not someone who comes to mind when I'm making favorites lists, but I've never been disappointed by one of her books.

THE NATURALS is the story of Cassie, a seventeen-year-old girl who is a natural at profiling, who joins a group of teens at the FBI who have their own natural special abilities that can be used to solve crimes.  They each have their own reason for wanting to spend their days studying serial killers, statistics, and other related topics.  Cassie is driven by the unsolved murder of her mother, whose body was never found.

Obviously, that becomes relevant to the case the teens find themselves pursuing.

What really makes THE NATURALS work is the characters.  Cassie falls into a love triangle with Michael and Dean, but it doesn't seem forced.  They're attractive, intelligent guys and while they're both a bit standoffish at first, they explain their reasons and are generally perfectly nice to her.  The other girls, Lia and Sloane, both develop on their own.  Cassie becomes closer to Sloane, and not just because they're roommates.  All five teens have their own personalities.  It made me kind of sad that THE NATURALS is a standalone, because I'd like to see how their relationships would develop.

I'm totally not sad it's a standalone.  More standalones!

As for the detecting, it could use a little work.  THE NATURALS has a villain POV, a trope I'm not hugely fond of.  In this case, I don't think it really added or detracted from the story.  There are a few gory moments in those passages that might turn off more sensitive readers.  The kids aren't experts, of course, despite their abilities, but I wished they'd contributed more to finding out who the killer is.  The identity is a plot twist instead of a mystery solved by the characters.  That keeps things exciting, but I found it left satisfying after I finished.

THE NATURALS is a quick, fun read that will appeal to fans of ensemble procedurals.  I like that it doesn't resolve absolutely everything and that while there is a love triangle, it comes in a distant second to catching murderers.  The premise is a little silly, but I like bought into it, especially since a large part of the book is the characters training to use their talents effectively.  This isn't Barnes' strongest book, but it probably has the broadest appeal.

November 13, 2013

Authors and Illustrators for the Philippines!

By now, we all know that Haiyan/Yolanda has devastated part of the Philippines.  (It went through the two biggest islands.)  There are many groups offering aid that you can donate to; I suggest that you do your research before giving your money.

Today, I'm highlighting two charity auctions relevant to this blog.  One, Authors for the Philippines, is auctioning off books, swag, critiques, and more.  The authors involved span all age groups, so there's something for everyone.  A few things I highly recommend:
The other, art for Haiyan, is selling art - and not just illustrations.  I see at least one pair of awesome heels.

Warning: These auctions might be expensive.

(Thanks to Tarie of Asia in the Heart for bringing these to my attention!)

Review: The Iliad

The Iliad Companion to The Odyssey
By Homer
Translation by Barry B. Powell
Foreward by Ian Morris
Available now from Oxford UP
Review copy

How do you review a new translation of a classic?  What do you focus on?  I've really struggled with this review, which I thought would be simple.

First, the story of THE ILIAD is as good as ever.  If you've never read it before, you might not know exactly where the story begins and ends since so many episodes (some told in THE ODYSSEY) have become associated with THE ILIAD.  If you've never read any version before, Barry B. Powell's translation is a good one.  The language is modern, although it doesn't try too hard to be modern.  There are plenty of footnotes giving insight into the meanings of certain lines, which helps alleviate the imperfections of translation.

I definitely feel that the introduction, where a new edition can really stand out, is aimed at new readers.  It covers the geography, history of Greek writing, and other historical tidbits that contextualize THE ILIAD and are helpful to understanding the story and the style.  There's nothing too deep, and Powell makes a baffling reference to the Dark Ages.  There is also a brief history of Homeric scholarship, covering such things as the Homeric question and the proof that THE ILIAD was composed orally.  It's a decent overview of the most important bits.

Powell also explains his choices about the translation, which is nice.  His goal was to hew as closely to the Greek as possible, but he left some of the familiar Latin names because it would be too distracting to change them.  It's definitely information that would help a student out.  I think the balance between faithfulness and modernization was well done, but your mileage may vary.  

I am a fan of the Robert Fagles' translation (1990), which still sounds contemporary and has a nice emphasis on action.  I know some people feel that Fagles takes too many liberties, but I like it.  The other modern translation people are likely to be familiar with, Robert Fitzgerald (1974), I don't like.  I find it way too stiff.  I felt that Powell's was closer to Fagles' in readability, which is a good thing.  But no two people translate THE ILIAD the same way, and there are plenty of differences.  I think it would be fun to read both simultaneously and compare their interpretations, but I personally don't have the time.

I though Powell's version of Homer's THE ILIAD was fresh and easy to read.  The introductory matter will have the most appeal to readers who are totally unfamiliar with THE ILIAD, but hey, it is just an introduction.  The footnotes are nice and the prose flows easily.  I'm sure many classes will adopt this text, especially after Powell's translation of THE ODYSSEY comes out next year.

November 12, 2013

Review: Bad Houses

Bad Houses By Sara Ryan
Art by Carla Speed McNeil
Available now from Dark Horse
Review copies

The two main characters of BAD HOUSES are Anne and Lewis, who both appear on the cover.  But there are a number of other important characters, many of whom have bits and pieces of their stories told, all living in Fallin, Ohio.

Lewis helps his somewhat overbearing mother out with her estate sale business, selling people's possessions after their deaths.  It is at one of those sales that he meets Anne, who longs to escape her mother's hoarding, which encroaches on her space after her mother meets a new man.  Their issues with their mothers and possessions are very different, but they drive both characters.  I liked the romance between Lewis and Anne, which is low key and helps both of them grow.

I also love how many stories are entwined throughout BAD HOUSES.  Often, the stories play out through possessions left behind.  We imbue the things we own with meaning.  There are bits about the history of the town, bits about Lewis's father (who he's never met), bits about the man who haggles for treasures at the estate sales and sells them for more in his shop.  It's all very easy to follow along, and if it ties together a bit too neatly, well, that makes for a better story.

YA readers might be familiar with Sara Ryan from her perennially popular book THE EMPRESS OF THE WORLD, one of the lesbian novels.  BAD HOUSES is her first graphic novel, but she's written shorter comics before and seems to understand the medium well.  Webcomics readers might be familiar with Carla Speed McNeil through the aboriginal SF graphic novel FINDER.  McNeil's art is a good fit for the book, managing the transitions between point of view well.  I like her clear, strong style, which reminds me of last year's Cybils winner Faith Erin Hicks.

BAD HOUSES is short but powerful.  It's a wonderful story about life, relationships, and stories left behind.  I think it's a particularly good choice for older teens who are working out their own relationships with their parents and what they'll do when they move out and make their own home.

KidLitCon, briefly

I attended KidLitCon this weekend, in beautiful Austin, TX.  I arrived to the precon a little late on Friday because I got to gabbing with a friend, but after that my weekend was all about the con.

I grabbed several books, dumped a bag of books I brought to pass on, and got to talking to people!  Then, on Saturday, I attended panels on topics such as critical reviewing, diversity, burnout, and middle grade books.  I've been thinking a lot of thoughts since then, about what changes I can implement on IBWB.  I'm definitely going to start maintaining more lists, per Lee Wind and Charlotte.

And honestly, it was just nice to meet people.  Jennifer Donovan, as it turns out, lives close to where I work.  Molly Blaisdell has a book coming out in 2014, PLUMB CRAZY, that sounds right up my alley.

Plus, there's nothing like a group of people that knows each other's blog names better than their real names.

If you have the opportunity to go next year, I highly recommend it.

November 11, 2013

Review: Flora & Ulysses: The Illuminated Adventures

Flora and Ulysses By Kate DiCamillo
Illustrated by K.G. Campbell
Available now from Candlewick
Review copy

I bumped up FLORA & ULYSSES: The Illuminated Adventures on my reading list when it was long-listed for the National Book Award.  The shortlist has since been announced and FLORA & ULYSSES is not on it, but it is worth reading.

I've loved Kate DiCamillo's work since her breakout hit, BECAUSE OF WINN DIXIE.  She's a tremendous author, with beautiful but accessible prose.  I liked that FLORA & ULYSSES used a graphic novel format for the illustrations instead of just static images.  It gives the novel a chance to play with point of view, and can also be used to entice readers to try a graphic novel or to try a prose novel.

However, I don't think the story is DiCamillo's best.  I'm quite fond of the central characters.  Flora is the sort of child to believe in strange things when they happen and a huge comic book fan.  When she sees Ulysses the squirrel gain superpowers by being sucked into a vacuum, she's ready to take him in and be friends.  I also liked her neighbors, the "temporarily blind" William Spiver, who is Flora's age and quite verbose, and his aunt Tootie, who takes a little while longer than the children to warm up to a poetry-writing squirrel.

But the story fell apart around Flora's parents.  Her relationship with her mother could be powerful, but her mother spends too long acting like a cartoon villain.  Meanwhile, her father compulsively introduces himself for no apparent reason.  I kept waiting for someone to  mention it within the story, but no one ever did.  To top it off, the plot is a little thin.  FLORA & ULYSSES feels like an origin story.  Although it would be a wonderful series, I think it is a standalone.

I thought FLORA & ULYSSES was wonderfully written and that the story was playful and exciting.  But it's not DiCamillo's best.  And to be fair to FLORA & ULYSSES, I have high expectations of her work.  I must add, however, that Ulysses' poetry is a highlight.  It's beautiful without being esoteric.

November 8, 2013

Review: The Fury

The Fury The Fury by Alexander Gordon Smith
Available now from Farrar, Straus and Giroux BFYR (Macmillan)
Review copy
Read more on the Alexander Gordon Smith tag

I enjoyed Alexander Gordon Smith's Escape from Furnace series and looked forward to THE FURY.  But then, I almost put it down immediately because I had a major Do Not Want in the first couple of passages.  Daisy, one of the main characters, mentions that she's almost thirteen.

I know I'm getting old when that's enough to make me hesitant to keep reading.  I mean, I knew I was signing up to read a novel where teens faced a great deal of violence, but almost thirteen?!

I'm quite happy that I stuck with it, however.  THE FURY is not a conventional horror novel at all, and it almost becomes an outright fantasy adventure at the end.  It takes several unconventional turns that keep things interesting and fresh throughout the many pages.  This book is an absolute brick, but it reads surprisingly fast.  I finished the last five hundred pages in half a day.

There are a lot of characters.  The main three, initially, are Daisy, Cal, and Brick.  They have very different temperaments, and readers are likely to identify with at least one of them.  The characters, minor, major, likeable, unlikeable, multiply quickly after that.  I didn't find it too hard to keep track, but I warn you not to become too attached to anyone.  I did like how Smith managed to develop a variety of characters amongst all the plot.  Everyone with a scene through their point of view has a personality and independent motivation.

I quite liked THE FURY.  It's fast, thrilling, and ultimately optimistic.  I don't think I could take all the scares and brutality if the book weren't kind in the end.  And Cal and Daisy's budding brother/sister relationship is absolutely adorable.  It's a different sort of read, and I suspect it will attract reluctant readers despite its hefty size.


November 7, 2013

Review: The In-Between

The In-Between By Barbara Stewart
Available now from St. Martin's Griffin (Macmillan)
Review copy

Sometimes I'm just not sure how I feel about a book.  Barbara Stewart's debut THE IN-BETWEEN is one of those rare books.  Elanor Moss, her mother, and father were in a car wreck on their way to their new home.  Ellie and one of her parents survived.  But ever since the accident, Ellie's been seeing this girl, Madeline, around - her other half, who has a plan for her.

I liked the unreliability of the narrator.  There's a question of whether the things happening are supernatural, all in Ellie's head, or some combination of both.  Ellie has a family history of depression and a recent tragic event, on top of a friendship that went horribly awry and led to a suicide attempt in her old hometown.  Ellie needs help, but it's hard to know what kind of help she needs.

The writing is wonderfully poetic and creates a terrific atmosphere.  THE IN-BETWEEN is well suited to more elaborate prose, reflecting the chaos in Ellie's head and the confusing atmosphere.  It's a nice atmosphere, one that portends bad things coming, but also offers hope for Ellie.

But did I enjoy THE IN-BETWEEN?  Not that much.  I read it quite quickly because I didn't feel an urge to linger over the words, no matter how pretty they are.  I had my ideas about what was real and what wasn't fairly early, and I cared more about what would happen next than deciphering the veracity of Ellie's journals.  At the same time, I felt there was a lot to enjoy about THE IN-BETWEEN.

This book didn't work for me.  But I'm glad I read it, because I always enjoy books that take chances.  THE IN-BETWEEN is a strange book.  I think that makes it less suited to wide audiences, but at the same time will make it more meaningful for the people it clicks with.  I'm not sure I've read another YA novel that approached (probable) mental illness quite like this.  And I just want to love books that are ambitious, even if they fall short.

If THE IN-BETWEEN sounds like your kind of thing, give it a read.  If not, it isn't essential.

November 6, 2013

Review: Sorrow's Knot

Sorrow's Knot By Erin Bow
Available now from Arthur A. Levine Books (Scholastic)
Review copy

Sometimes I wonder about myself.  Somehow I was surprised that a book named SORROW'S KNOT, a book about a young woman who binds the restless dead, was often creepy and sad.  I read it right after finishing two cute books about magic kids who have adventures, and I think I was just expecting more of the same.  SORROW'S KNOT is the best kind of different.

Otter, Kestrel, and Cricket are best friends on the cusp of adulthood.  Something is going wrong, however.  Otter's mother Willow, one of the tribe's two binders, is going mad.  Otter always knew she would grow up to be a binder, but her future is beginning to look uncertain.  Otter's journey to find her place and master her power is but one of the journeys in this book, however.

I find that I don't want to say too much.  SORROW'S KNOT is a lovely book, and I think my confused expectations made it even better.  I could often see Erin Bow setting the pieces up, but it was so lovely to see them fall into place.  I fell headfirst into SORROW'S KNOT and let it tug on my heartstrings willy-nilly.

I will say that I particularly liked the romance in SORROW'S KNOT.  For one thing, there are three best friends and no love triangle!  Kestrel and Cricket love each other, and Otter is totally cool with that.  (In fact, she finds it a little odd, because there are few married couples in their community.  Men often move on because they have no binding power and are vulnerable to the dead.)  When Otter does meet someone, they grow close due to desperate circumstance, but I didn't feel that the relationship proceeded too quickly.

I also loved the setting.  There are not that many novels that draw on American Indian folklore.  I thought Bow did a good job creating a fantasyland not entirely based on European culture.  I liked that the main tribe was imperfect, but that they were trying to do their best to keep everyone safe.  I liked that the matriarchal society Bow set up allowed her to focus on many different relationships between women.  I like that there were other tribes who had very little in common with Otter's tribe.

I also loved the emphasis on story.  I love stories about story, and SORROW'S KNOT is no exception.  It's unsurprising that stories become important, given that Cricket is a storyteller, but they're used in such wonderful ways.  And it meshes so well with the theme about secrets.  After all, secrets are stories we don't tell.

SORROW'S KNOT is a wonderful book.  And despite the darkness and sadness, it remains appropriate for kids.  I might not hand it to a particularly sensitive or easily scared reader, but it is suitable for both middle grade and YA audiences.  I'm sure it will show up in next year's Cybils race.

November 5, 2013

Review: Crabtree

Crabtree By Jon and Tucker Nichols
Signed and personalized copy available from McSweeney's McMullens
Available elsewhere Nov 19, 2013
Review copy

CRABTREE is the story of Alfred Crabtree, a man who has lost his teeth and much find them among the many things he owns.  The summary reminded me of HARRY HOYLE'S GIANT JUMPING BEAN, one of my niece and nephew's favorites.

I'm glad I gave it a chance, because I loved CRABTREE and think it's perfect for the niece and nephew.  The art took a few pages to grow on me, but it actually reminds me of children's drawings.  The simplicity is somewhat deceptive, but it looks like line art slightly messily colored in by markers, which is very approachable.  And I love how much there is to look at on every page.  I'm sure after having to go through the book discussing what everything is multiple times I'll love it less.

One of the best touches is the labels marking what each object is.  Some are straightforward, like a gold hat labeled "golf."  Others are more whimsical, like the chef's hat labeled "I cook only scrambled eggs in this hat."  It adds a lot of extra interest.  Plus, the dustcover unfolds into a giant poster.  A giant poster chock full of objects to find and name.  It's a little bit of I SPY with an actual narrative.

And the story, while simple, does have a decent lesson.  I mean, children's books don't have to have lessons, but it's got some decent basic life advice.  When you lose things, go through your belongings bit by bit, organizing and putting away things that aren't the object you're looking for.  You'll find it eventually.

I think CRABTREE is a book many adults will enjoy reading with kids.  It's a format that's appealing to kids and provides new excitement and discoveries upon rereads.  (It's also good for counting and colors!)  I think there's enough humor to keep the adults entertained through several readings.  I really like this one.

November 4, 2013

Review: Fractured

Fractured Book Two of the Guards of the Shadowlands
By Sarah Fine
Available now from Skyscape (Amazon Publishing)
Review copy

When tons of bloggers I trust, like Wendy Darling, were going crazy over SANCTUM last year, I knew I had to read it.  I agreed that it was one to love.  The writing was excellent and the plot a roller coaster.  Lela Santos was a fantastic heroine, devoted to her best friend and willing to go to great lengths to achieve her goals.  And the world was fantastic, an utterly believable afterlife.  FRACTURED takes the action back to our world, where the villainous Mazikin have started to recruit.

Lela's now in charge and trying to get used to setting the strategy.  She and her beau Malachi are joined by two new guards who were in a different afterlife.  All three of the boys are having trouble adjusting.  Malachi, for instance, has a great deal of fighting Mazikin, but not in the real world.  He's never had to worry about cops or killing people who weren't already dead.  Meanwhile Lela has to get back into the swing of being a regular high school student.  Due to the events of SANCTUM, she's a bit more popular now and unused to interacting that much with other people.  At the same time she's making friends - friends who can be used against her.

I thought I knew what to expect when I picked up FRACTURED, but I was wrong.  Sarah Fine takes the sequel in several unexpected directions.  Of course, the characters don't anticipate what's going to happen to them either, and it's terrific.  There was one twist I really didn't like that thankfully resolved before the novel was over.  Unfortunately, I think Fine was buttering me up for the shocking ending.  Lela's journey definitely isn't over.

I absolutely cannot wait for the third book.  I have no idea how Fine is going to resolve the mess her characters are in, but I have no doubt she's going to do it with flair.  I just adore her characters, and I really hope Lela and Malachi somehow manage to live happily ever after.  SANCTUM and FRACTURED are true underrated gems.  I know most bookstores don't carry Amazon Publishing books, but this is one worth asking to get special ordered.

November 1, 2013

Review: The City of Death

The City of Death Book Two of the Ash Mistry series
By Sarwat Chadda
Available now from Arthur A. Levine Books (Scholastic)
Review copy

I was super excited when I heard about Sarwat Chadda's debut novel; unfortunately, I found it disappointing.  However, I heard so many good things about his Ash Mistry series that I had to give it a try.  The first book got me hooked, with a fun take on Indian mythology and a central sibling relationship.

(I'm going to try to be vague about the events of the first book in this review.)

The second book, THE CITY OF DEATH, starts out with Ash having returned home to England and going back to school.  His adventures have left him fitter (due to a great excess of energy) and more confident, but that's not enough to solve his bullying problem.  In fact, it's worse in some ways, because if Ash fought back he could kill another kid - and he doesn't want that on his conscience.  Ash thinks he has his new abilities under control, but he really doesn't.

Soon enough he's caught up in another adventure, and once more headed to England.  There's been another tragedy in his life, which leaves Ash feeling guilty and determined to right things.  But some things cannot be changed, as Ash must learn.  The Ash Mistry books are middle grade, but I think they're aimed more at the ten and up crowd.  They deal quite a bit with the realities of death, including grief, culpability, and empathy.  Ash's adventures are changing him, and if he's not careful, they could turn him into a monster like Lord Savage.

I loved Parvati's role in THE CITY OF DEATH.  She's a half-rakshasa (demon), half-human warrior that helped protect Ash during the first book, THE SAVAGE FORTRESS.  She and Ash are becoming closer, but he keeps putting his foot in his mouth when it comes to her heritage.  And I loved the way THE CITY OF DEATH made the rakshasa more complicated.  They aren't human and they don't feel emotions like humans, but it's still not meaningless when they die.  They are living, thinking beings capable of forming connections.  They don't always agree with each other and can take opposite sides in a fight.  At the same time, they are very dangerous to humans.  Ash has to make difficult decisions when he fights the rakshasa, even if it doesn't seem that way at first.

I really enjoyed THE CITY OF DEATH.  There's lots of adventure and action, the kind filled with magic and crazy puzzles and sudden betrayals and secret plans.  Underneath the fun is an exploration of morality and mortality.  I think the Ash Mistry series will especially appeal to readers looking for something similar to Percy Jackson, with a modern take on mythology.  THE SAVAGE FORTRESS and THE CITY OF DEATH have much of the same appeal, but their different source material keeps them from feeling like any sort of imitation.

For those participating in Diversiverse this year (November 15-17), this book and its predecessor would be excellent reading choices.

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