December 23, 2014

Last Minute Gifts

I've been enjoying my Christmas vacation and scrambling to buy last-minute finishing touches and wrapping material, so I haven't gotten much written up for the blog.  Sorry not sorry!

But that doesn't mean I don't have gift ideas!

Out of Print has an amazing sale going on.  Using code EGIFT30, you get 30% off any of their egift cards.  That means I just bought a $50 gift card for $35.  That's some mighty nice savings.  If you aren't familiar with Out of Print, they sale shirts, totes, jewelry, and more inspired by book cover designs.  (Officially licensed, don't worry.)  In addition, they partner with Books for Africa to send books to those in need for every item sold.

ETA: eGift cards are 20% at Litographs.  Just use code GIFTCARD20. You can give them a gift card for the exact amount to buy a specific product.  Litographs also sends books to communities in need for each product sold.

You can also pick up an Amazon gift card if you don't want to stick to egift cards.  They offer free one-day shipping on the physical gift cards, so you've got a little bit more time to buy one in time for the holidays.  I recommend using the http://smile.amazon.com address so that 10% of the profits from your purchase go to your choice of charity.

If you don't want to support Amazon, there's always a gift card to the independent bookstore near your gift recipient.  Or perhaps a gift card to DTFBA for the John Green-loving reader in your life.

You can also go personal.  Pick out one of your favorite books and include a personal note about what it means to you and why you're passing it on.  You can buy a new copy or give them a copy straight from you, clearly loved.

Got any other last minute gift ideas for the readers in your life?

December 17, 2014

Review: Captain Underpants and the Tyrannical Retaliation of the Turbo Toilet 2000

Captain Underpants Book eleven in the Captain Underpants series
By Dav Pilkey
Available now from Scholastic
Review copy

The Captain Underpants novels have been a perennial favorite of kids since the first one came out in 1997.  Dav Pilkey writes and illustrates these tales of two fourth graders, their principal cum Captain Underpants, and various fiendish foes.

CAPTAIN UNDERPANTS AND THE TYRANNICAL RETALIATION OF THE TURBO TOILET 2000 showcases, obviously, the return of the Turbo Toilet 2000.  The first couple of chapters make light of the fact that this series now has a fairly complicated mythology and consequences that stretch out between several books.  But there is a decent amount of recapping for forgetful readers or for those who pick up a book in the series at random.

The illustrations are as simply charming as ever, and the text is quite funny.  (I particularly like the joke about a "flush wound.")  The flip-o-rama action is terrific low-budget, self-powered animation.  If you're not afraid of a little potty humor, this is a great series for kids.  (Who, let's face it, will love the potty humor.)

I must admit, I did find part of CAPTAIN UNDERPANTS AND THE TYRANNICAL RETALIATION OF THE TURBO TOILET 2000 not funny.  Some of the antics get the principal put in a mental hospital.  It isn't quite mental illness played for laughs, but it's close.  However, it could be a chance to talk to your children about why resources for mental health are important.

This silly series is still going strong eleven books in.

December 16, 2014

Review: Glory O'Brien's History of the Future

Glory O'Brien By A.S. King
Available now from Little, Brown BFYR (Hachette)
Review copy
See my A.S. King tag

A.S. King has frequently dabbled in magical realism, and GLORY O'BRIEN'S HISTORY OF THE FUTURE brings that aspect of her style to the fore.  When Glory and her 'best friend' Ellie drink a petrified bat (long story), they start seeing visions when they look at people.  Ellie mostly sees domestic histories, but Glory sees a war coming in fifty years - a war over women's right to work, among some other women's rights.

Her work with character is as on point as ever.  Glory has just graduated high school and intends to take a gap year.  Already unsure of what she wants to do next, the fact that she doesn't see anything about her own future deepens her worries about her path in life.  She becomes obsessed with a journal that her mother left behind after committing suicide, a tome full of musings and (haunting) photos and family secrets.  The past, the present, and the future intermingle as Glory discovers all sorts of new connections between the people in her town.

Back to those scare quotes around best friend.  Ellie is a member of a commune run by her mother.  She and Glory haven't truly been close since she left to be homeschooled, but Ellie clings to Glory as her connection to life outside.  Glory is uncomfortable with the divide between them, especially Ellie's greater experience with boys.  I really liked how King explored the fraught relationship between the girls, and what the way they related to each other and their powers meant about them as people.

I didn't always find the future sections convincing.  I mean, the leader of the conservative side of the Second Civil War calls himself Nedrick the Sanctimonious.  Maybe if his enemies called him that ...  I can see the roots in current events, but still thought it was too extreme.  However, the various implications about the length and outcome of the war made it work a little better for me.  It still felt a bit far-fetched and sketchy.  At the same time, it is supposed to be sketchy since Glory only sees the future in intimate flashes.

GLORY O'BRIEN'S HISTORY OF THE FUTURE will satisfy A.S. King fans, and perhaps draw in some more who are intrigued by the stronger speculative element.  King's agenda is pretty obvious, but tempered by the nuanced way she writes Glory's present-day feminism.

December 15, 2014

Review: A New Beginning: My Journey with Addy

Click here to read some of my thoughts on this series as a whole.

A New Beginning By Denise Lewis Patrick
Available now from American Girl
Review copy

Of all the Beforever books I read, A NEW BEGINNING was by far the best.  It takes you back to 1864, where Addy is a former slave living in the North.  Your character is also a little black girl.  So unlike most of the books, some of the stories in A NEW BEGINNING have actual stakes.

To wit, I really enjoyed the story where the girls are chased by slave catchers.  It demonstrates the danger of the time while still being appropriate for a younger reader.  Most of the other storylines are less harrowing, although they do contain interesting historical information.  There are less storylines than most of the other books, but the focus is on quality over quantity.

If you're looking to pick up one of the American Girl CYOA books, this is the one I recommend.

December 12, 2014

Review: Illusive

Illusive By Emily Lloyd-Jones
Available now from Little, Brown BFYR (Hachette)
Review copy

Ciere is a great thief, and not just because of her ability to create illusions.  (She's not that good at it really.)  But her last heist of $40,000 put her in trouble with the mob, and her next heist is being eyed by the Feds.  It'll take quick thinking and good friends to get her out of this trouble.

I love books about superheroes, so ILLUSIVE had one point in its favor when I started.  I'm not big on dystopias, especially ones based on plague, so that was a point against it.  In the world of ILLUSIVE, a small percentage of people developed powers after being given the vaccine for the plague.  For some reason, the vaccine was outlawed and the formula destroyed instead of everyone trying their hardest to get superpowers.  (I mean, c'mon?  Good health and a chance of superpowers? Go for it.)  Those that are superpowered are mostly snatched up by the government.  The ones that aren't are mostly criminals who hide their abilities.  In a way, it is a similar setup to Holly Black's WHITE CAT.

ILLUSIVE switches between two points of view: Ciere and her fellow crew member Daniel, who has been captured by a very dangerous man.  They're good friends, but circumstances are pitting them against each other.  I really liked and sympathized with both characters.  Honestly, you'd think the plot would be the highlight of a book centered around a superpowered heist, but I adored the character actions.

However, that meant I was let down by the ending.  I think two characters in particular were badly served by their comrades for no reason.  Ciere leaps into danger to save someone she's known for days, while dismissing two friends from her life.  One gets a rather cutting farewell and the other is left to be a virtual slave. Characters I'd gotten to know and care about were shoved aside in favor of the new guy.

That being said, I'll be there with bells on for a sequel.  ILLUSIVE was fun, fast paced, and offered some genuinely thrilling twists.  Plus, superheroes.

December 11, 2014

Review: Princess of Thorns

Princess of Thorns By Stacey Jay
Available now from Delacorte Press (Penguin Random House)
Review copy

PRINCESS OF THORNS takes the Sleeping Beauty story and runs with it.  Aurora and her brother are the twin children of the Sleeping Beauty of legend, whose fate went awry when she was awakened early.  Aurora is key to stopping the trolls, including her evil stepmother, from taking over.  But she must face the trolls because they're holding her brother hostage.

PRINCESS OF THORNS involves so many things I like.  It has a character in disguise (Aurora pretending to be her brother), a romance that blooms slowly, and an emphasis on redemption over revenge.  Aurora's companion on her quest is Niklaas, a prince from a neighboring kingdom who is desperate to marry her (which is awkward, since he thinks she's her brother).  He's living out the story of the seven swans, and only has a short time left as a human.  However, he's not willing to just give up his secrets, which makes his life more difficult.  Niklaas and Aurora deserve each other's stubbornness.

What amazes me about PRINCESS OF THORNS is that Stacey Jay made me enjoy a villain point of view.  I often find villain points of view useless, telling the reader too much and wallowing perversely in murder, torture, and other such delights.  Yet Jay uses the stepmother's point of view to flesh out troll culture and further the themes of the novel.  She manages to make the stepmother a sympathetic character despite her hateful actions at the beginning of the story.

PRINCESS OF THORNS is a compelling read for any fairytale fan.  It stitches several together (including Little Red Riding Hood) while still managing to do its own thing.  Jay isn't so devoted to nodding to tales that she forgets the story she wants to tell.  It helps that her characters are not the half-sketched things of fairytales.  Aurora, Niklaas, and the Ogre Queen are all forceful characters.

I devoured this book (and possibly spent a bit longer out at lunch than I should have) because I had so much fun reading it.  I definitely need to read that Jay book I bought last year but never got around to!

December 9, 2014

Review: Martyr

Martyr Book one of The Hunted
By A.R. Kahler
Available now from Spencer Hill Press
Review copy

I've heard good things about A.R. Kahler's Immortal Circus series.  (After all, what isn't to like about books set in circuses where strange things happen?)  But I have so much to read that it's hard to go back and catch up on a series.  So when I saw that he had a new book out in a different series, I decided to give it a try.

MARTYR is set in a post-apocalyptic war.  Some people have magic powers granted through the use of spheres.  Some of these people worship a dark goddess and managed to unleash a plague of various types of zombies on humanity.  Tenn is a Hunter, one of the people with magic left to fight the monsters.  The Hunters aren't widely liked, since they're viewed as somewhat responsible.  (And, oh yes, it's the magic people who can turn into monsters or create more.)

Still, Tenn and the other Hunters do their best.  But when Tenn's magic acts up on a routine patrol, he finds himself being pursued by Tom├ís, an incubus, and other members of the Kin (that is, the people who unleashed the monsters).  Between the pursuit and his suddenly out of control powers, Tenn is in way over his head.  The only people he has to rely on are his boyfriend and the twins (two other Hunters), but they might not be powerful enough to survive Tenn's new enemies.

I found MARTYR very thrilling.  It's a chase story, which keeps up the momentum.  I thought that Tenn's emotional state was well conveyed.  He's in a time of turmoil and grief, and his powers force him to dwell on his most unpleasant memories.  I did find the worldbuilding a bit confusing at times, since it was very similar to our world except for the spheres.  Where the spheres always a thing?  When were they discovered?  What is going on outside of the US?  How far do the monsters spread?

MARTYR is a fun dark YA story, with potential to become something better as the sequels deepen the world.  I liked the main characters quite a bit, so I'm eager to see their future adventures.  There's also plenty of answers to be found about why Tenn is so important.

December 8, 2014

Review: The Lilac Tunnel: My Journey with Samantha and The Glow of the Spotlight: My Journey with Rebecca

Click here to read some of my thoughts on this series as a whole.

The Lilac TunnelBy Erin Falligant
Available now from American Girl
Review copy

My favorite American Girl was always Kirsten, but I knew so many girls who adored Samantha.  This book takes the reader to 1904, in the persona of a girl dealing with her relationship with her stepmother and stepsister.

The stakes are pretty low in all of the possible Choose Your Own Adventure paths.  There's a pretty simple message about staying true to your beliefs, and I do like how it is exemplified by Samantha's aunt, a suffragette.  I do wish there had been some deeper or more exciting storylines.  Nellie, my favorite character from the Samantha books, only gets a few mentions.

This is a good read for Samantha fans, but not essential, even for fans of the other American Girls.

The Glow of the Spotlight By Jacqueline Greene
Available now from American Girl
Review copy

This book takes you to 1914, ten years after Samatha's time, to explore life as a Russian Jewish immigrant in New York City.  Rebecca Rubin dreams of becoming part of a vaudeville show, and thinks you're in experienced member of a troupe -- that is, in some of the stories.  In others, you're escaping illness.

The stakes are pretty low in all of these storylines, but I found them high in interest.   I think most of the illness storylines are more interesting, although I can see more kids picking the way that leads to performances.  Either way, every path is so short you can go through several before getting bored.

I recommend THE GLOW OF THE SPOTLIGHT for children who like to dance and perform (aka my niece).  It's got a lot of information for them about a certain type of performance, and offers other bits of history as well.  Because of Rebecca's background, there's also a decent amount of cultural information.

November 28, 2014

Review: God'll Cut You Down: The Tangled Tale of a White Supremacist, a Black Hustler, a Murder, and How I Lost a Year in Mississippi

God'll Cut You Down By John Safran
Available now from Riverhead (Penguin Random House)
Review copy

GOD'LL CUT YOU DOWN is not the gritty true crime tale you might expect from the title.  John Safran is an Australian documentarian who specializes in fairly juvenile pranks.  He takes a fairly light approach to murder.  I enjoyed seeing an outsider's approach to Mississippi and US racial tensions, and appreciated that Safran was pretty open about his various biases.  But I often found him pretty annoying, the sort of guy who isn't half as funny as he thinks he is.  I kept reading, however, because he does have a clear and engaging style, and the details of the crime itself are fascinating in their murkiness.

In 2010, Vincent McGee murdered Richard Barrett.  Barrett was an infamous racist, the founder of the Nationalist Movement.  Vincent McGee was a young black man, in and out of prison, who Barrett hired to do yard work and then stiffed him on the payment.  McGee's story about the murder changed several times.  It might've been about money, it might've been about Barrett making a sexual pass at him.  The media got excited - it was about race, it was about sex - but then the story fizzled.

Safran got interested because he'd played a prank on Barrett years before, getting a DNA sample and announcing in public that Barrett was part black.  (It's not the triumph it might seem - Safran admits to switching the sample.)  He's also not popular at the time, so he heads off to Mississippi and talks to anyone who will talk to him about the case, and tries to find anyone who knows anything real about what happened.  This leads to GOD'LL CUT YOU DOWN having a meandering but roughly chronological order.  The first half seems to focus more on Barrett, the second half more on McGee.  Personally, I think things really start moving after Safran talks to McGee's cousin Michael Dent, who ended up in prison as an accessory.

Sometimes, the interesting parts of the story are about the culture around the murder.  Safran finds that on a day-to-day basis, gayness is preferable to blackness, because it can be hidden.  Yet most people he talks to would prefer it to be about race, that that would be less shameful to Vincent.  Either way or neither way, it's an ugly side of our culture.

If you can stand the narrator, GOD'LL CUT YOU DOWN is a pretty fascinating read.  It isn't a neat one, but it is a fascinating attempt at trying to track down the truth of what happened between two men one night, that resulted in a death.

November 26, 2014

Review: Catch the Wind: My Journey with Caroline

Catch the Wind An American Girl Beforever Journey
By Kathleen Ernst
Available now from American Girl
Review copy

I used to get the Pleasant Company catalogs for American Girl and would page through them, wanting each and every one of the dolls.  I never got one, but I could go to the library and check out the American Girl books.  Since Mattel bought American Girl, they've played around with the focus and product offerings.  The latest is a line of choose your own adventure American Girl books.  As a fan of both, I couldn't resist giving them a whirl.

The actual CYOA element could be deployed much better.  You don't get to make many choices.  Most of the time a section tells you to flip to the next page (or to another specific page).  It's maybe one in six sections that you actually get to make a choice.  Some of the storylines end very quickly, and one per book requires you to go online to read the ending.  I really didn't like that element -- I had to stop and boot up my computer to read maybe six pages.  It's a good idea but needs some tweaking.

I do like that each book includes a short introduction to the history of the time at the back.  Caroline's story takes place during the War of 1812, near the Canadian border.  It's a war I wouldn't expect the elementary-school-age audience to be very (if at all) familiar with. 

In this story, you take the place of a young girl with a Navy mom who is about to be deployed and younger twin sisters.  You travel back to Caroline's time using a compass.  There, by Lake Ontario, you meet Caroline, whose father is a prisoner of war.  Caroline is one of the American Girls who was after my time, so her story was new to me, but easy to pick up.  There's lots of exciting storylines, including one involving a naval battle.

I like that CATCH THE WIND was very easy to read.  I think my eight-year-old niece could manage, especially since it is divided it to short sections.  This one is a good choice for a girl who is interested in war history or who has a parent in the military.  Or, perhaps, for a girl who has to stick with the books because a doll is out of le parent's budget.

November 25, 2014

Review: Chaos

Chaos Book three of the Guards of the Shadowlands trilogy
By Sarah Fine
Available now from
Review copy
Read more at my Sarah Fine tag

I really enjoyed FRACTURED and SANCTUM, the first two books in the Guards of the Shadowlands trilogy.  I picked up CHAOS eagerly, wanting to know how the Mazikin would be defeated forever and Malachai and Lela would find a way to be together again.  (Plus, there was that whole cliffhanger ending to SANCTUM.)  CHAOS satisfied those questions, although it took a bit longer to do so than I would've liked.

The main problem with CHAOS is that the meat of the plot ends about halfway through the book, and multiple twists are required to sustain the rest.  Plus, as wonderful as Malachai and Lela are, I got tired of them sacrificing themselves to save each other.  At some point heroic death comes cheap.  By the third time, it's definitely cheap.

I absolutely love the series as a whole.  Sarah Fine is a great writer, and the Guards of the Shadowland series is filled with both dynamic action and convincing romance.  There's also an exploration of different kinds of love; mother-daughter relationships are particularly important in CHAOS.  The afterworld Fine invented is clever, compelling, and unlike most anything else I've read.

In fact, I think I'm only complaining about CHAOS because the first two books in this series were so strong.  It had a tough act to follow.  I think it would've made it with one or two less extraneous subplots.  At the same time, it's much better than many books I've read lately.

If you're looking for a series with a fierce and determined Latin-American heroine, a romance that spans life and death (several times), a desperate fight against body snatchers, and battles against impossible odds, give Guards of the Shadowlands a try.  It's terrific fun.

November 24, 2014

Review: Disney Princess Hairstyles: 40 Amazing Princess Hairstyles With Step by Step Instructions

Disney Princess Hairstyles By Theodora Mjoll Skuladottir Jack
Photos by Gassi.is
Available now from Edda USA
Review copy

I remember my mom buying Klutz hairstyle books in order to properly do my sister's and my hair for ice skating competitions and ballet recitals.  As I helped her out and learned how to do the styles myself, I started finding more complicated things to do with my hair.  It is a fun way to pass the time, and now I enjoy doing my niece's hair.  (She enjoys doing mine in return, which often leads to giant rat's nests.)

I really liked the idea of a book of hairstyles inspired by Disney Princesses.  It's a great hook for young girls.  Most of the forty styles assigned to various princesses don't have much to do with the actual princess, but there is a wide variety.  I am not sure about the other styles, but the three Tiana styles will work with natural black hair.  Also, there are more than forty styles total thanks to an overview of how to do a variety of basic braids at the beginning.

Each step for each hairstyle is accompanied by a small photo, along with a large photo of the finished hairstyle.  The large photos aren't always helpful.  Sometimes the angle doesn't show the full hairstyle, or the photo is too dark to see.  One Aurora style has a plant shadowed in front of the girl, leaving her hair practically invisible.  The small photos, however, are helpful.  Moreso than many line-art illustrations I've seen in similar books.  The instructions could be a little clearer, but they're good enough with the photos.

I don't think any of the hairstyles are too hard for a beginner, especially not the curling techniques.  Once you get the braids in the front down, these should be simple.  Some do require special equipment, like bun fillers.  Also, most of these styles are best done with hair that is longer than shoulder length.

This is a beautifully photographed hairstyle book with a lot of appeal for young girls.  If you're looking for ideas for your daughter or niece's hair, or just want to learn to braid, this is a good choice.

November 21, 2014

Celebrating Jacqueline Woodson, and matching donations to #weneeddiversebooks

Jacqueline Woodson won the National Book Award for BROWN GIRL DREAMING, a memoir in verse.  I'm not a memoir fan, but I've heard nothing but good things and intend to read it after the Cybils are over.

However, her win was overshadowed by remarks made by the presenter, Daniel Handler.  (Also known as Lemony Snicket.)

His first apology acknowledged that he'd taken the moment away from her.

This morning he made a second apology acknowledging that his remarks were racist.  He again acknowledged that the conversation about the National Book Awards should be about the books.

Therefore, he is donating $10,000 to #weneeddiverse books and matching donations up to $100,000 made in the next 24 hours since his tweet.

Let’s donate to to . I’m in for $10,000, and matching your money for 24 hours up to $100,000. -DH [3/4[

He closed by reiterating Jacqueline Woodson's achievement, as he should.

So let's celebrate Jacqueline Woodson's win for BROWN GIRL DREAMING and help support diversifying the publishing industry and texts in classrooms by donating to We Need Diverse Books.  You can donate to their IndieGogo here.  For $75, you can #CelebrateJackie and get a signed copy of BROWN GIRL DREAMING.

Review: Chasing Before

Chasing Before Book two of the Memory Chronicles
By Lenore Appelhans
Available now from Simon & Schuster BFYR
Review copy
Read my review of The Memory of After

Note: I know Lenore Appelhans.

It's been awhile since I read THE MEMORY OF AFTER (published in hardcover as LEVEL 2), so it took several chapters before I readjusted to the mythology of the series and remembered what had happened before.  Felicia and her boyfriend Neil have both moved on to Level 3, the second level of the afterlife.  Unfortunately, the Morati (a group of rogue angels) have moved into Level 3 too. 

There were several things I liked about CHASING BEFORE and several things that frustrated me.  I liked that we got to meet Felicia's best friend Autumn, who had been murdered before the events of THE MEMORY OF AFTER.  Autumn is still working through her afterlife, and though she says she's forgiven Felicia for stealing her boyfriend, there is still an obvious friction between the girls.  They also run into Neil's older brother Nate, which felt like a bit much.  Maybe if he'd died many years after, but it sure feels like a lot of their peer group conveniently died off.  Nate, however, does provide one big revelation: Felicia and Neil didn't die in the car crash like they thought.  They're both missing months of memories.

CHASING BEFORE is full of neat twists like that, and they keep coming though the climax of the book.  The end of CHASING BEFORE can serve as a conclusion, but I'm excited to see Level 4 and find out what's next.  Unfortunately, the exciting twists and things blowing up keep getting bogged down by relationship drama.  The issues between Felicia and Neil are very realistic.  She wants to have sex; he still wants to keep to his ideal of no sex before marriage.  She's prone to jealousy and he's stubborn.  But their fights didn't endear me to Neil, who I've never found that swoonworthy.

Level 3 itself is also a mix of good and bad.  I liked the character development Felicia goes through as she learns to let go of her life on Earth, even as she's desperate to recover her lost memories and the whole of herself.  At the same time, Level 3 is apparently where you learn your afterlife career.  Thankfully we don't have to spend too much time in class.  There are less flashbacks in CHASING BEFORE than in THE MEMORY OF AFTER, if you're one of the readers that was bothered by those.  The past continues to be helpful to discovering what's happening, but it is no longer a focus.

CHASING BEFORE is a breezy read with an intriguing take on the afterlife and a heroine who is both brave and determined.  There is a love triangle, for those who hate that, but it is very much in the background.  It's probably best if you read THE MEMORY OF AFTER first, but I think CHASING BEFORE can stand on its own.

November 20, 2014

Review: Gracefully Grayson

Gracefully Grayson By Ami Polonsky
Available now from Disney-Hyperion
Review copy

Note: I am using male pronouns throughout this review.  The book is unambiguous that Grayson is a girl, but she is identified as male throughout the story.

First of all, GRACEFULLY GRAYSON is notable from being a middle grade (or tween) novel that deals with trans* issues.  There aren't stories that deal with this issue for that age group filling the shelves, so this fills a very important gap.

I was a bit disappointed at first.  There seemed to be nothing happening in the novel except for Grayson's discomfort with his gender role, and then a tentative relationship with a new girl.  I felt rather sorry for the kid as he seemed to think that becoming a girl would be all skirts, dresses, and princesses.

Things really pick up when Grayson tries out for the school play -- as the female lead.  It's an important step in Grayson stepping out of his shell and reaching for the person that he wants to be, but not all of the adults around him recognize it as such.  I liked that there were no true villains.  Some of the adults come close, but only because they're trying to protect Grayson from bullying (that reaches the extent of bodily harm).  Yes, sometimes adults have to overrule a child's wishes to keep them safe.  It's a difficult conundrum, even if Grayson much prefers one side of the battle.

GRACEFULLY GRAYSON is a fairly slight story that leans a bit too heavily on the issue and too light on plot, especially at first.  However, that doesn't make it a dull issue novel of the eighties.  Ami Polonsky's writing is quite sweet, and she has a good knack for character.  I particularly liked the various girls who reach out and become friends with Grayson.  There's also a brief appearance by a progressive mom that I really enjoyed.

One day, LGBTQ books will be widely available for all age groups, and kids will be able to find themselves and their troubles reflected in the stories around them.  GRACEFULLY GRAYSON is a good step in the right direction.  Grayson's struggle is sympathetically drawn and very suitable for younger readers.

November 18, 2014

Review: Love Is the Drug

Love Is the Drug By Alaya Dawn Johnson
Available now from Arthur A. Levine (Scholastic)
Review copy
Read my review of The Summer Prince

Emily Bird - Emily to most, Bird to the best - is a senior at one of the most prestigious high schools in the country.  She doesn't entirely fit in, being one of the few black kids.  She also doesn't fit in because she might be going along with her mother's plan to go to college (and thinking of Stanford for herself), but her real goal is to run a small shop.  (Not that having a business degree wouldn't help with that, but it never comes up.)

When LOVE IS THE DRUG opens, Bird is at a party with her boyfriend.  She meets a man who works with her parents and drops the name of a lab she once saw in the trash.  What follows is a nightmare as the man stalks her, threatens her friends and family, and messes with her life in an attempt to get her to confess what she knows.  It just makes Bird determined to find the truth, and to discover whether she really did find out a national secret that night.

This thriller plays out against a widespread plague, the worst since the Spanish flu.  The v-flu, as it is known, is being held back by a quarantine.  Bird is as safe as can be in her high-class school full of politician's kids.  But how is the country ensuring that those kids stay so safe?  And, of course, does the flu have anything to do with what Bird might know?  Unrealistic diseases are a pet peeve of mine, so I like that this flu plays out like a real disease.  There's no killing everyone over 25 or anything silly like that.

I loved the paranoid atmosphere of LOVE IS THE DRUG, although I felt the plot faltered at the end.  There were a lot of ideas but nowhere for them to go.  And the romance dragged the whole thing down.  Bird falls for Coffee, the one guy who really gets her.  He's also a drug dealer, and the story never really convinced me to get over it.  He's just the cliche soulful, smart bad boy.  Now, Marella, Blue's lesbian friend, is where it's at.  Their friendship blooms throughout the pages, starting warily and growing as they're stuck in quarantine together.  I think they spend more time together than Blue and Coffee, and honestly have better chemistry.  I wished I were reading a more inventive lesbian romance instead of what the book actually was.

LOVE IS THE DRUG has its high points.  I loved Bird's relationship with her uncle, the disappointment of her family.  I loved the way LOVE IS THE DRUG tackled social issues, from being black to being foreign to being LGBTQ.  Alaya Dawn Johnson really brought the diversity of DC to life.  There are strong characters, a compelling atmosphere, and beautiful writing, but a boring romance and a plot that never has any steam.  Johnson has written better.

November 17, 2014

Review: Wild Rover No More: Being the Last Recorded Account of the Life & Times of Jacky Faber

Wild Rover No More Book twelve of the Bloody Jack Adventures
By L.A. Meyer
Available now from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt BFYR
Review copy
Read my Bloody Jack tag

When I read BOSTON JACKY, I noted that it felt like the "same old, same old, and the new elements introduced never go as far as they might."  When I saw that WILD ROVER NO MORE was going to be the final book in the Bloody Jack Adventures, I felt relief.  It was a fun ride, but it ran out of new ideas a few books ago.

(Then I learned that author L.A. Meyer died in July and was quite sad, but I am happy he managed to finish this series as he wanted.)

WILD ROVER NO MORE follows the usual pattern.  Jacky gets in trouble, Jacky runs and hides in a new identity, flirts with a new man, eventually reunites with old friends just as the danger is greatest.  I did particularly enjoy the stretch where Jacky hides as a governess since it required her to use more of her respectable skills, too often unemployed.  I was very confused by the section where she disguises herself as a red-haired Russian named Natasha Romanoff.  Was that a deliberate reference to The Avengers or did everyone involved in the book somehow miss that?

I enjoyed WILD ROVER NO MORE much more than BOSTON JACKY.  The early reunion didn't entirely reconcile me to Jaimy, but I accepted that it worked for Jacky.  I do always enjoy spending time with Jacky as she wreaks havoc through nineteenth century history.

If you've been following this series, do yourself a favor and pick up the conclusion.  Meyer concludes most of the major strands of the story and provides a finish that does Bloody Jack Faber proud.  If you haven't read this series, give it a whirl if you're into adventurous girls, age of sail, and hijinks in wacky disguises.

November 13, 2014

Review: Off Pointe

Off Pointe By Leanne Lieberman
Available now from Orca Limelights
Review copy

Ocra Limelights are a series of hi-lo books from Orca Books.  Hi-lo books are books that are high in interest and low in effort.  They're especially good for struggling readers.  As such, OFF POINTE is short, to the point, and very easy to read.

Meg is a ballerina.  She lives and breathes ballet, and hopes to do it professionally.  However, there is something holding her back.  So when her ballet camp plans fall through, her teacher advises her to go to a different dance camp, one that will expose her to other disciplines.  Meg decides to focus on contemporary thanks to Nio, the boy she set next to on the bus.  But she's deeply unhappy to not be doing ballet, and finds contemporary somewhat embarrassing.  She doesn't like improving dancing like a tree and such.

There's two storylines.  One is about Meg's dance, learning to stretch herself and develop a comfortable stage presences.  The second has to do with her rivalry with Logan, the star of the contemporary class and Nio's usual partner.  The two girls are jealous of each other and the other's friendship with Nio.  It's all very platonic as the book dances around the fact that Nio is probably gay.  (Obviously, not all male dancers are gay, but Nio certainly doesn't seem interested in the girls around him, even when they are having catfights over his attention.)

The brief page count means there isn't time for OFF POINTE to go off into unpredictable directions.  But that's fine.  Sometimes a standard plot executed well is enough.  OFF POINTE is well suited to the targeted group, and it is perfect for dance-crazy young readers.

November 12, 2014

"Waiting On" Wednesday: The Weight of Stars

The Weight of Stars "Waiting On" Wednesday is hosted by Jill of Breaking the Spine.

I love Tessa Gratton's United States of Asgard series, so I was quite surprised that I almost missed that she has three novellas coming out next week, on November 17.  They will be available individually, or in a collected volume called THE WEIGHT OF STARS.  I'm going to by the anthology myself, although the individual ebooks are tempting given their pretty covers.

Blurb:

“This infinitely exciting tale’s twist and turns highlight the characters’ missions as they decide which identity to choose: hero, martyr, or villain. Readers looking for a sophisticated fantasy that shows a raw, rowdy, and rough side of life will be utterly satisfied. For fans of Robin LaFevers’s His Fair Assassins series.” —School Library Journal

The United States of Asgard is a nation of poets and warriors, of rock bands and evangelical preachers, of gods and their children. The media tracks troll sightings and reality TV is about dragon slaying and teen prophets. The president rules the country alongside a council of Valkyrie, and the military has a special battalion dedicated to eradicating the threat of Greater Mountain Trolls.

Welcome to the United States of Asgard: Be sure to watch for troll-sign!

GOLD RUNNER tells the story of Amon Thorson, bastard son of Thor Thunderer, a rebel who specializes in illegal troll artifacts and elf gold. Someone has stolen Loki’s Mask of Changing, and Amon is the prime suspect, putting a famous hunter and a mysterious stranger on his tail.

LADY BERSERK is about Vider, the first female berserker warrior in generations, who is loved by Loki Changer but determined to stand on her own. One of six celebrities invited to participate in a televised dragon hunt, she knows things are not as they seem—which is usually a sign Loki is up to his old tricks.

GLORY’S TEETH offers a glimpse into the wild heart of the Fenris Wolf, also called Glory, trapped in the shape of a teenaged girl for hundreds of years so she cannot grow large enough to devour the sun and begin the end of the world. But Glory’s seen signs that now is time she’s fated to hunt Baldur the Sun down and eat him.

With evocative writing and lush world building, Tessa Gratton once again captivates readers with her inventive reimagining of Norse mythology and American life in this collection of novellas based on her United States of Asgard series.

“With razor-sharp prose and bone-deep emotions, Tessa Gratton doesn’t just tell a story. She invites readers into another world-- one we hate to leave when the last page is turned.” —Saundra Mitchell, author of Mistwalker and The Vespertine

November 11, 2014

Review: The Walled City

The Walled City By Ryan Graudin
Available now from Little, Brown BFYR (Hachette)
Review copy

THE WALLED CITY seems like so many dystopians when it opens.  Yet, it quickly becomes clear that the world outside the city is pretty darn normal and that the law is waiting just outside the walls.  This is not a dystopian at all, but instead a more realistic story based on the history of 1980s Kowloon, a former military fort turned no man's land.

There are three points of view: Jin, Dai, and Mei Yee.  Jin and Dai become drug-running partners as part of the secretive Dai's plan to do something.  Jin agrees because he'll get her access to the final brothel she needs to search.  Mei Yee is the sister Jin is looking for, who Dai meets unknowingly.  The countdown that starts the book lets you know that as these three are drawn together, they only have eighteen days to achieve their goals before something big happens.

THE WALLED CITY is a rough read.  Mei Yee's passages are particularly difficult, because she's been sold into sexual slavery.  As a favored girl at the nicest brothel in town, she has it better than some others.  But that's about the only good thing you can say about it.  Jin is hiding as a boy and roughing it out on the streets, but one of her last thefts earned her the enmity of a gang and there's not many safe places left for her.  Dai has dark secrets that drove him to the Walled City.  Ryan Graudin does not shy away from depicting the dangers her young protagonists face.

This is Graudin's second book to release this year.  Her debut, ALL THAT GLOWS, was a fairly standard urban fantasy with insta-love and a protagonist whose competence all too often relied on telling instead of showing.  I bounced off of it.  I wish THE WALLED CITY had been her debut instead, because this book says that Graudin is one to watch.  It's not quite like anything else I've read this year.  It's tense, deftly plotted, and well characterized, with an unpleasantly vibrant setting.

I'm not quite sure how to classify THE WALLED CITY.  I think it will please fans of historical fiction, dystopian fiction, and thrillers.  It has elements of all three genres, blended smoothly together.  It's a real nail biter, right down to the cathartic epilogue.

November 10, 2014

Review: White Space

White Space Book one of the Dark Passages
By Ilsa J. Bick
Available now from EgmontUSA
Review copy

WHITE SPACE does not have a quick beginning.  It opens with Lizzie, a precocious child, observing a conflict between her parents play out.  This bit is filled with odd vocabulary and a strange magic, and just as soon as you think you've figured out the rules, a girl named Emma wakes up from her reverie about being Lizzie to recall how she came to be driving through the mountains.  And so on, flashing though narrators and their stories and the way they come together.

WHITE SPACE is a disorienting experience.  It keeps almost coming together into something nice and neat when Ilsa J. Bick throws another curveball in the story's rules.  This wouldn't work for most books, but WHITE SPACE is a horror novel.  The shifts in the text keep the readers as off balance as the characters.  Plus, it is metafictional horror.  The characters are, in many ways, threatened by potential monsters fueled by their own fears.  The deceptive looseness of the structure makes the amorphous more frightening.

I was thrilled by WHITE SPACE.  This is a disturbing book, full of imagery that gets beneath your skin, like a shirt wearing a person or crawling through tunnels (filled with things I'll leave to you to discover).  It's a book that trusts the reader's intelligence, to remember the details and fit them together, to be able to readjust whenever there is a paradigm shift.  It's also populated with strangely likeable characters for a horror novel.

I will say that WHITE SPACE goes on a touch too long.  It's the beginning of a series, and stands fairly well on its own, although the ending chapters clearly lead-in to the next book.  But there is a bit of fatigue before then, because this is one fat novel.  I loved the rising tension of the opening, things ever so slightly not right.  But once things go crazy, a few incidents could've been cut.  At the same time, that's really my only complaint.  This is a genuinely scary horror novel, which is something I appreciate.

November 7, 2014

Review: Personal

Personal Book nineteen of the Jack Reacher series
By Lee Child
Available now from Delacorte (Penguin Random House)
Review copy

My grandfather gave me a copy of PERSUADER, telling me that it was a good airplane novel and Jack Reacher was "a good man to know and a bad man to have for an enemy."  My family has always loved sharing their favorite novels with me, since they know I'll read anything and talk about it after.  PERSUADER was the last book my grandfather ever gave me.  As such, I have a special soft spot for the Jack Reacher series.

Now, this series isn't one you think of when you think of a soft spot.  It's almost hypermasculine, with a retired military police hero who has no home or real possessions, and who always happens to be in the wrong place at the right time.  In this case, he's lured there by an ad in a paper meant just for him.  An assassination attempt was made on the French president, and it appears to have been an audition for an assassination at the upcoming G8 or G20 summit.  One of the suspects is a man Reacher put in jail almost two decades ago.  (He kept up his sniper skills through yoga, as one does.)  And so he's on the case, his only companion a young CIA agent with anxiety issues.

Casey Nice is young, pretty, and reminds Reacher of Dominique Kohl, one of his proteges who was tortured and murdered when she went to arrest a suspect.  It's ground the series has covered before, although Lee Child thankfully doesn't make us witness any flirtation between the twenty-something Casey and the reaching-true-retirement-age Reacher.  However, their relationship is one of the highlights of the book.  The plot, such as it is, is a bit ridiculous even for a macho thriller.  Child's attention to research and detail just helps highlight how goofy elements like the yoga sniper and the giant man with fingers larger than sausages and a house 150% as big as a normal house are.

It didn't take me long at all to read PERSONAL, because Lee Child does know how to keep the pages turning.  But at nineteen books, the Jack Reacher series seems to be churning a bit of water.  There's a high level of silliness to the proceedings.  It doesn't, however, erase the memories of the tight earlier books or discussing them with my grandfather.  I like to think that if he was still alive, he'd have fun reading the newest book in his favorite series.

November 6, 2014

Review: Waistcoats & Weaponry

Waistcoats and Weaponry Book three of the Finishing School series
By Gail Carriger
Available now from Little, Brown BFYR (Hachette)
Review copy
Read my review of Curtsies & Conspiracies

The penultimate book in the Finishing School series is witty and exuberant.  I love spending time with these characters, and Gail Carriger finds a way to trap all of the best ones in a small space together (wearing terrible disguises).  At the same time, while it has the best character interaction yet, the plot is a let down.  There are some vague intimations as to the ongoing supernatural struggles, but very little is actually figured out.  WAISTCOATS & WEAPONRY felt like filler before the end, aside from one major development.

I don't necessarily think focusing more on the characters is a bad thing.  Because the Finishing School series is set 25 years before the Parasol Protectorate series, there isn't much mystery as to how the power struggle works out.  What Sophronia chooses to do with her life, and who she chooses to live it with, is a mystery.  On that level, WAISTCOATS & WEAPONRY more than delivers.

It is always hard to review one of the latter books in a series, especially in a series that revolves around secrets.  Needless to say, if you are a Finishing School fan, you won't be disappointed.  If you aren't a fan, I recommend starting at book one (ETIQUETTE & ESPIONAGE) or at least book two (CURSIES & CONSPIRACIES).  In a book with this much character payoff, you need the setup.  I do recommend starting this series if you enjoy spies, steampunk, ridiculous disguises, convoluted plans, and girls determined to make the best of their options in life.  This series is excellent frothy fun.

November 5, 2014

Review: Trust Me, I'm Lying

Trust Me, I'm Lying By Mary Elizabeth Summer
Available now from Delacorte (Penguin Random House)
Review copy

TRUST ME, I'M LYING is the tale of a teenage grifter, a type of con artist that sells people things that don't exist.  When her father disappears, Julep Dupree isn't worried.  That is, until her apartment is ransacked, leaving her with little but a cryptic note and a gun.  Finding out that her father somehow got involved with the mob is the cherry on top of the something-is-wrong sundae.

There is a heightened reality to the novel.  Julep is running several large-scale scams at her school, almost everyone she comes in contact with is somehow involved, and there is an incredibly elaborate scavenger hunt that took a lot of work to set up in likely very little time.  It's the sort of crazy plot that is fun to read but falls apart after you start to think about it.  You've just got to suspend your disbelief and go with it.  It's also slightly hurt in story by the inclusion of a sex slavery ring.  TRUST ME, I'M LYING is too much of a breezy read about a teen criminal in over her head to really incorporate such a heavy issue in a meaningful way.  The emotional payoff felt unearned.

Julep has an appealing, witty voice and conflicting goals.  On one hand, she wants to leave the life and go to Yale.  On the other hand, she's desperate to know what happened to her father and rescue him if she can.  If that means breaking the law and getting into trouble, so be it.  She also has two love interests, as is de rigueur.  One is Sam, her best friend and partner in crime, who needs to gather up the courage to tell her.  Despite being talented at reading people, Julep misses the obvious.  The other is Tyler, the cool kid who is suddenly interested in helping her out and following along.  Despite being talented at reading people, Julep misses the obvious. (In this case, it bears repeating.)

I found both relationships vaguely tedious.  They were nothing new, and standard romantic drama is boring compared to trying to outwit the mob.  The romance, however, did have the stronger emotional payoff. 

TRUST ME, I'M LYING is Mary Elizabeth Summer's debut novel.  It certainly shows promise for future endeavors.  Summer could take a page from her heroine and do things a little less by the book next time.

November 4, 2014

Review: Mortal Heart

Mortal Heart Book three of the His Fair Assassin trilogy
By Robin LaFevers
Available now from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt BFYR
Review copy
Read my reviews of Grave Mercy and Dark Triumph

I didn't start to read MORTAL HEART as soon as I got it because I didn't want to say goodbye to the His Fair Assassin trilogy.  The first two were darkly beautiful historical fantasy novels featuring two very different, but equally compelling heroines, and their genuine chemistry with their heroic counterparts.  But I couldn't hold off for long.  Amazingly, I think MORTAL HEART might be my favorite of the three.

MORTAL HEART is actually more forgiving to new readers than DARK TRIUMPH.  It winds time back a bit, to shortly after Sybella is sent on her mission (in DARK TRIUMPH) and re-establishes the rhythm of convent life and what is at risk in the War of Breton Succession.  There's been something fishy at the heart of the convent, and it comes to a head as Annith realizes the abbess's orders can't come from their patron saint Mortain (the saint of Death).  The abbess thinks Annith is docile and biddable, when really Annith is helpful and doesn't see the point of making waves.  When she does, she reveals the steel beneath.

I loved Annith's appearances and Ismae and Sybella's books, and she does not disappoint when handed center stage.  She's confident in her skills and her knowledge, but unsure of her heart.  She's never been able to see the marque (which is how Mortain's handmaidens know who to assassinate), and so she's less confident in her kills, even when they save people.  She doesn't know if she's cut out to be an assassin, but she knows she isn't destined to be a seer, locked in a little room, the destiny the abbess is trying to force upon her.

Annith, of course, gets her own romance.  Balthazar is a hellequin, sort of a member of a Wild Hunt.  He and Annith instantly spark - some good ways, some bad ways.  Love certainly doesn't turn Annith into a swooning damsel.
"What was your intent with this sparring of yours?  To entice them?  To entice me?"
...
"If that is the case, then it is their fault and not mine.  I wished only to keep my own skills honed." - p. 141, ARC
I think DARK TRIUMPH had the strongest love story of the three books, although I enjoyed the other two.  Annith and Balthazar's relationship frequently takes a backseat to the action plot, and I am not going to complain about that.

I love how Robin LaFevers wove real history and fantasy together in this series.  She makes the political maneuvering between battles just as vivid and high stakes as the battles themselves.  The Duchess of Breton is in a bad place: the princess is dying, her husband-by-proxy has his own wars to fight, she can't pay her mercenaries, and it's just bad all around.  The struggle to save Brittany from destruction holds equal weight to Annith's personal journey, and both are dealt with together in a satisfactory ending.

His Fair Assassin is one of the best trilogies in recent years.  It starts strong and just keeps going - no sagging middle, no lagging finish.  I highly recommend all three of these books.  They're exciting and insightful, and a wonderful exploration of feminine strength in a time when women were regarded as little more than property.

November 3, 2014

Review: Curtsies & Conspiracies

Curtsies & Conspiracies Book two of the Finishing School series
By Gail Carriger
Available now from Little, Brown BFYR (Hachette)
Review copy

I found the idea of Gail Carriger's Soulless series intriguing, but the execution was lacking for me.  Especially after the first two books.  However, I kept hearing that her Finishing School series was much better.  Thus, I gave it a try.  I have to agree.

The second book, CURTSIES & CONSPIRACIES, finds Sophronia being ostracized after she scores the highest on their spy skills and etiquette test.  Determined not to let it get to her, she keeps spying on her own time to discover what's really going on at her school, beyond the whole training-young-women-secret-skills thing.  She's particularly intrigued by an apparent plot against her best friend, Dimity.

 Another ripple comes when the school takes a trip to London, accompanied by the boys of Bunson's (a school for mad geniuses).  It's highly unusual, and Sophronia is determined to get to the bottom of things, all while flirting politely with Lord Mersey.  I feel that the love triangle is overused in YA, but I do like both points of this triangle.  Soap is of lower social status, but Sophronia respects his skills and he respects hers.  Lord Mersey is to be a duke, which makes him act rather entitled, but his attraction to Sophronia is honest and he has no desire to squash her eccentricities.

At the same time, Sophronia's focus really isn't boys.  It's putting the pieces together.  Doing so also makes her think more about what her future means.  Who will she work for?  How will she know she's doing good?  She's being made into a tool, and if she's not careful, she could be wielded in ways she does not approve of.  Carriger doesn't flinch from depicting the darker side of spycraft.

If you're looking for a steampunk series with humor, adventure, and romance, give the Finishing School a chance.  The third book, WAISTCOATS & WEAPONRY, comes out tomorrow.

October 31, 2014

Review: Amity

Amity By Micol Ostow
Available by now from EgmontUSA
Review copy
Read my Micol Ostow tag

I've read several books by Micol Ostow, many of them quite sweet and cute.  Her recent books, FAMILY and AMITY, have been a change of pace.  AMITY plays off of the Amityville Horror legend, with a strange house and disturbed kids.

The narraction switches back and forth between Connor (ten years ago) and Gwen (present).  Each has their own issues.  Connor is a sociopath, and Gwen sees things that aren't there.  The only person Connor loves is his twin sister, so he doesn't resist the sinister house much.  Gwen, on the other hand, fights hard because the house can't quite infect her brain chemistry.  I thought the combination of real-world mental issues with paranormal horror was an intriguing touch.

The thing is, I just didn't find AMITY scary.  In a book, there's no creepy music or jump scares for cheap thrills.  The tone and imagery have to carry it.  I remember one image, of a ghostly figure outside the window and Connor reaching to touch it, to welcome it instead of being afraid.  But the images that were meant to be scary just faded from my mind.

AMITY is an extremely quick read.  It is a little under 400 pages long, but took me less than an hour to read.  (I'm fast, but not usually that fast.)  It's a good enough way to pass the time, but don't go in expecting to be very scared.  The juxtaposition of time and point of view is interesting, and the plot offers a few twists.  Overall, Ostow has done better before.

October 30, 2014

Review: The Brothers Cabal (and giveaway)

The Fear Institute Book four of the Johannes Cabal series
By Jonathon L. Howard
Available now from Thomas Dunne Books (Macmillan)
Review copy
Read my review of The Fear Institute

THE FEAR INSTITUTE ended with the surprising revelation that Horst Cabal was once again alive.  (In a sense, given that he is once again risen as a vampire, and technically he's just undead again.)  For the first two thirds of THE BROTHERS CABAL, the focus is on Horst's resurrection and his adventures before reuniting with Johannes.

While I missed Johannes' dry impatience, I did relish getting the chance to see this world through a different point of view.  Horst is more social and affable, if inhuman in his own way.  He certainly makes friends and allies easier, including monster hunters and a barnstormer circus.  Once more Leonie Barrow doesn't make an appearance, but a wide range of female characters are introduced.  It's an aspect I appreciated.

The plot starts simply, with a supernatural society that wants to take over the world.  There is a long chase, and a big battle, but it's just big set pieces illuminating that Johannes Cabal's enemies are starting to work together for a bit of revenge.  I liked that there turned out to be a personal motive behind everything and that the bad guys were much smarter than they first appeared.

Some of the action was a bit hard to follow.  There are a lot of people with different powers on the scene, which means sometimes there are giant, fierce bugs with little explanation of how that happened.  The humor, however, is more than intact.  I can turn to almost any page and find a gem that made me laugh.  Let me try it right now.

"Does my little brother have a crush?"
Cabal started to deny it, but then instead blushed a little, and a small, perhaps even shy smile appeared on his own face.  He leaned towards Horst and said in a lowered voice, "She told me where to find the fifth volume of Darian's Ocusculus." - ARC, pg. 58-9

The humor is best whenever Horst and Johannes banter with each other, but really, many of Jonathon L. Howard's characters give good banter.  Thanks to the multitude of new characters and POV change, THE BROTHERS CABAL is fairly welcoming to new comers.  The climax slightly less so, although the old connections between the characters are explained.

This is one of my favorite series, and I dread the wait for the next book. 
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October 29, 2014

Review: The Heart Does Not Grow Back (and Giveaway!)

The Heart Does Not Grow Back By Fred Venturini
Available November 4 from Picador (Macmillan)
Review copy

(A version was previously published as THE SAMARITAN by Blank Slate Press.)

Dale Sampson, through a fortuitous game of Blind Man's Bluff becomes Mack Tucker's best friend.  Before that, Dale was a lonely, ignored boy.  But together, he and Mack have big dreams.  That is, until a horrific tragedy at the end of their junior year.  A tragedy that leads to Dale discovering that he can regenerate.

THE HEART DOES NOT GROW BACK begins much like a YA novel, full of young love and sports triumph.  It becomes something much more bleak, although it always retains a dark humor and eventually finds hope.  Dale is a broken, pitiable man, and I often just wanted for him to get a good therapist.  At the same time, even at his lowest point, he retained the ability to think and plan that made him once so promising.

Over the course of its pages, THE HEART DOES NOT GROW BACK takes on ethics, reality television, and domestic abuse.  But its heart is always the characters, who are all dealing with trauma in their own ways. 

I often disliked Dale.  In fact, none of the characters are written to be particularly likeable.  They're deeply flawed people.  As Dale is the protagonist, we get to know him in particular.  He's obsessive about women, has a bit of a savior complex, and is pretty confrontational.  It works because author Fred Venturini understands that these things are flaws and that Dale needs to work on them.

THE HEART DOES NOT GROW BACK is an intense reading experience.  As Dale cuts away more and more of himself, I feared the promise of the title coming true.  From coming-of-age tale, to reality TV satire and slice-of-life superhero, to nailbiter, this is a memorable book.

I have one copy to giveaway to someone with a US or Canada mailing address.

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October 28, 2014

Redeemed: Excerpt and Giveaway

Redeemed Today I have an excerpt from REDEEMED to share with you.  This is the twelfth and final House of Night novel by P.C. Cast and Kristin Cast.

To celebrate the launch of REDEEMED, P.C. and Kristin Cast teamed up with some great companies, like Sinful Colors, 21 Drops, Jamberry, Chrislie, Baby Blue Designs, and For Strange Women to put together “Goddess Gifts” filled with goodies that represent main characters in the books.

--

Excerpt #1 

…Neferet beamed a smile at her Dark minions that was both exquisitely beautiful and terrifying. “I have an answer to our dilemma, children! The cage we created to hold Redbird was a weak, pathetic attempt at imprisonment. I have learned so much since that night. I have gained so much power—we have gained so much power. We will not cage people, as if I am a gaoler instead of a goddess. My children, we are going to blanket the very walls of my Temple with your magickal, unbreachable threads so that my new supplicants will be able to worship me unhindered. And that will only be the beginning. As I absorb more and more power, why not encase the entire city? I know it now—I know my destiny. I begin my reign as Goddess of Darkness by making Tulsa my Olympus! Only this is not a weak myth passed down as trite stories from schoolchildren to schoolchildren. This will be reality—a Dark Otherworld come to earth! And in my Dark Otherworld, there will be no innocents being abused by predators. All will be under my protection. I hold their fates in my hands—they have only to look to my welfare to be fulfilled. Ah, how they will worship me!”

Around her, the tendrils writhed in response to her excitement. She smiled and stroked those nearest to her. “Yes, yes, I know. It will be glorious!”


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October 27, 2014

Review: Stitching Snow

Stitching Snow By R.C. Lewis
Available now from Disney-Hyperion
Review copy

It will be of little surprise to anyone that I jumped on the chance to read a sci-fi retelling of Snow White.  STITCHING SNOW opens on the remote mining planet of Thanda, where young Essie makes her living as a mechanic and cage fighter.  It's definitely not the traditional Snow White beginning.

I really enjoyed getting to see the rhythm of Essie's life.  She's clever, tough, and resilient.  She's managed to keep herself safe (and profitable) in a place with few women, much less single women.  Then, a spaceship crashes and brings Dane into her life.  I'm of mixed feelings about Dane.  Essie did need someone to remind her that there was a world beyond Thanda, and I found their relationship built believably, and even included some natural setbacks.  But the opening goes to such lengths to establish Essie as a tough, worthy opponent when fighting.  Yet, of course, Dane is infinitely better than her and she has to learn from him.

After Essie repairs Dane's ship, events lead them to travel to the planets of the galaxy.  I was fascinated by the different economies, politics, and ways of life, but felt that there wasn't enough time to devote to each.  It definitely meant that the climax was rushed and mostly devoid of emotional turmoil.  There was one particularly nasty late-game reveal that had little impact because there were no previous signs of it.  I liked Essie and Dane, but by the end they felt flat, just going through the predictable motions.

I think STITCHING SNOW had a fascinating setup and a good sense of humor.  Essie's droids, which take the place of the dwarves, are real highlights.  But somewhere everything takes a turn for the generic.  This is a find tale for fairytale fans, but nothing truly exciting.  It is a good choice for readers waiting for the next book in the Lunar Chronicles.

October 24, 2014

Review: (Don't You) Forget About Me

(Don't You) Forget About Me By Kate Karyus Quinn
Available now from HarperTeen (HarperCollins)
Review copy

Kate Karyus Quinn's sophomore novel is an unsettling fable about a town called Gardnerville, where no one dies of illness but strange things happen, getting worse every fourth year.  Last fourth year, Skylar's older sister Piper killed sixteen other teenagers in revenge for getting dumped.  Now, it is a fourth year again.

Skylar is one of the last of the Gardners, the founding family.  Her greatest pursuit is the forget-me-nots, a drug that leaves her forgetful.  But Skylar needs to remember if she's going to prevent this year's tragedy.  She needs to remember her sister, who no one else in the town wants to remember.  She needs to remember her family's shadowy history.  She needs to remember who she can trust.

(DON'T YOU) FORGET ABOUT ME is an interesting beast.  Every other chapter is a tape from Skylar's childhood, recording her memories with Piper from various points in their lives.  The present chapters cut in and out, sometimes coming back to a Skylar who doesn't remember what happened last chapter -- or even what happened between chapters.  And the story just gets stranger the more Gardnerville reveals its secrets.

I liked the romance between Skylar and Foote, who has is own secrets.  It's very subtle, which is what saves it from its predictability.  The rest of the novel is too surreal for a rote romance.

If you're looking for a disorienting read that requires you to put together the pieces, I suggest giving (DON'T YOU) FORGET ABOUT ME a try.  It's a little bit fairy tale, a little bit magical realism, and a lot bizarre.  It's certainly a memorable reading experience.

October 23, 2014

Review: Liesmith

Liesmith First book of the Wyrd
By Alis Franklin
Available now from Hydra (Penguin Random House)
Review copy

I was first drawn to LIESMITH by the cover.  You don't see many black guys on the cover of urban fantasy novels.  Then there was the blurb, which promised Norse mythology meets IT.  That made me think of the SpellCrash series by Kelly McCullough, which I love.

Alis Franklin's debut novel is about Sigmund Sussman, a low-level IT nerd who just humiliated himself by not recognizing his boss when he meets Lain Laufeyjarson, the new guy in the department.  The two hit it off, leading Sigmund to question himself - and Lain's attraction to him.  But soon he has even more to question than his new relationship, because strange things are happening.  Strange, dangerous things.

I enjoyed Franklin's writing style quite a bit, although I expect it might not be for everyone.  It can tend a bit toward the labyrinthine, like the plot.  There are lots of characters trying to pull of long-term master plans, which means their is a bit of a pileup of complicated events at the end.  At the same time, I appreciate that ambition and that Franklin managed to pull off a few brilliant twists grounded in mythology.

Obviously, no one even slightly familiar with Norse mythology (and who isn't, in the age of Marvel?) will fail to ascertain Lain's real identity even before it is revealed to the reader.  (Thankfully, not too long.  Both Lain and Sigmund narrate.)  But it might be more complicated than it first seems.  I also liked that the cast wasn't entirely male.  Sigmund's two best friends are both women, and both play an active role in the climax.

There are lots of rough edges to LIESMITH.  The romance is a touch cliche and sometimes it is hard to follow what is happening.  But LIESMITH shows a lot of promise.  It's sweet, but tough, much like many of its characters.  I look forward to the next book of the Wyrd.

October 22, 2014

Review: Rose and the Magician's Mask

Rose and the Magician's Mask Book three of the Rose series
By Holly Webb
Available now from Sourcebooks Jabberwocky
Review copy
Read my reviews of Rose and Rose and the Lost Princess

ROSE AND THE MAGICIAN'S MASK can be read alone, although it is best if you have read the first two books about maid and nascent magician Rose.  This book reveals more of her personal history, and delivers a thrilling plot.

Fans of the series know what to expect.  For those who are new, expect a practical heroine, friendship, and magicians versus magicians.  Gus, the talking cat, will be funny.  The adult-in-charge will be useless, leaving saving the day to Rose and her friends.  In this story, Venetian thieves who have stolen a mask of great power that must be retrieved.

This series reaches the point that so many series featuring magical kids (such as Harry Potter and Avatar: The Last Airbender) must reach.  As Rose becomes more powerful, and faces more dangerous enemies, she can potentially use lethal force.  This lends a bit more darkness to the final confrontation.

It's hard to say something new about the third book in a series.  But it is easy to repeat something old.  If you have a young reader in your life who enjoys fantastical adventures, I highly recommend this series.  Yes, even to the boys.

October 21, 2014

Review: Blue Lily, Lily Blue

Blue Lily, Lily Blue Book three of the Raven Cycle
By Maggie Stiefvater
Available now from Scholastic Press
Review copy
Read my Maggie Stiefvater tag

Ever since I finished this book, I've been discussing it with fellow fans.  It's been a little hard since the book wasn't out yet and we had to keep the discussion quiet, so as not to spoil new developments for others.

But that is my number one reaction to this book, and this series as a whole.  I need to talk about it.  I need to pour over the details and make crazy theories about what I think is going to happen next.  I ponder each detail: Is that a clue? A red herring?  Just a bit of flavor?  It's hard to believe that there is only one book to go.

The Raven Cycle has a notably slow, meandering pace.  BLUE LILY, LILY BLUE picks up the pace.  I thought that it didn't go so fast as to be jarring compared to the previous two books, but one person I talked to thought it moved a hair to quick in the beginning.  It's very clear that things are getting serious.  One of Blue's greatest secrets is revealed (to some people), there are deaths, and the book ends with one very shocking revelation.

BLUE LILY, LILY BLUE adds several characters to the already crowded ensemble.  My favorite was Piper, wife to the apparent villain of the story.  (He comes on strong, but finishes weak.)  The banter between Piper and Greenmantle is hilarious, a wonderfully conscienceless counterpoint to the banter between the raven boys and Blue.  There is still time to develop the existing characters further.  This is really Blue's book, with a strong assist from Adam.  I particularly liked the focus on Blue's abilities and finding ways to be more than just a battery.  I also liked that it seems like Blue and Gansey's budding relationship might not explode into irrevocable drama with Adam.  Maybe Maggie Stiefvater could pull it off, but I am afraid of standard teen drama bogging the final book down.

So far, however, this series hasn't let me down yet.  I am in love with the characters, the tone, the unexplained magic of it all.  Okay, one development in particular strikes me as coming out of the blue, but I enjoyed it enough to roll with it.  (Plus, it led to an adorable scene of Ronan and Adam racing shopping carts in a parking lot.  Those boys.)  I can't wait for the inevitable doom that is sure to come with the end of the cycle, because I have enjoyed the lead up so much.




October 20, 2014

Review: The Dark Defiles

The Dark Defiles Book three of Land Fit for Heroes
By Richard K. Morgan
Available now from Del Rey (Penguin Random House)
Review copy

I'll be the first to say that I'm not a big grimdark fantasy fan.  I like more optimistic worlds.  And yet, I adore the Land Fit for Heroes trilogy.  It follows the adventures of Ringil, Egar Dragonbane, and Archteth, old war hero friends who get drawn back through a long and winding road for one last quest.

When THE DARK DEFILES opens, right after THE COLD COMMANDS ends, they are being separated again thanks to a sudden war and an ambush.  It's the final push for what the various greater powers in play have put into motion.

Richard K. Morgan doesn't give all the answers to his world, but he does give enough to satisfy me.  Nor does he give all of the endings.  However, it is clear enough where the characters are going for me.  Ringil, Egar, and Archteth are all sharply drawn characters, even if their world has deliberately shaded edges.  All of them meet ends that they can be content with.

I don't recommend this series to everyone.  The heroes, such as they are, commit almost as many crimes as the villains.  They are cruel, vengeful people.  At the same time, they aren't fans of slavery or mass murder or the extinction of the humans, which is something most readers can get behind.  It isn't a series with many happy endings, either.  Do not expect your favorite characters to escape unscathed.

But if you like intelligent fantasy that asks you to put the pieces together yourself, characters who are loyal to their friends even in desperate circumstances, and small snatches of love piercing the hardest hearts, then I recommend this trilogy.  The ending did not let me down.  I only wish I had time to re-read the trilogy and savor it altogether.

October 18, 2014

Why book bloggers use pseudonyms

Last January, I read NO ONE ELSE CAN HAVE YOU and thought it was a funny little mystery, just falling onto the right side of the twee line.  Yesterday, author Kathleen Hale published a piece for the Guardian, "Am I being catfished?" that reveals that a) she has no idea what catfishing is and b) stalked a book blogger without realizing she was doing anything wrong.

It is a horrifying article.  She finds the woman's address and work address.  I sometimes consider just going by my real name here, since it is a bit of an open secret.  But then I read this.

So yes authors, many of the book bloggers you interact with are using fake names.  Maybe lying about their personal details to muddy the waters.  Obviously, this is one incident with one disturbed person.  (See another article by Hale where she throws hydrogen peroxide in a girl's face and stalks her for two years and yet still makes herself out to be the victim.  Wow.)  Still, I think I'll keep my pseudonym. 

Also, kudos to HarperTeen for backing away from this mess.

October 17, 2014

Review: Avalon

Avalon First in the Avalon series
By Mindee Arnett
Available now from Balzer + Bray (HarperCollins)
Review copy

I love YA science fiction, and I love Joss Whedon's short-lived space western Firefly.   Thus, I couldn't resist a YA sci-fi novel inspired by Firefly.  AVALON definitely wears its inspiration on its sleeve, which is sometimes a detriment.  (Every time there was a paraphrased Firefly quote I was jolted out of AVALON.)

At the same time quite a bit of the influence is good.  There's the obvious, like a close-knit crew and young girls with mysterious powers.  Then there's the less obvious tropes that Mindee Arnett cultivates, like being stranded in nothing and strange horrors at the edge of the universe.  It's all stuff I like and was eager to read about.

Jeth is a young captain working for a crime lord known as Hammer Defoe.  He and his crew take advantage of the fact that children aren't suspicious.  When a new job comes up that can only be performed by the Avalon, Jeth takes advantage of the chance to win back his ship and his freedom.  At the same time, he knows escaping Hammer won't be that easy, because Hammer has his own plans for Jeth's future.

Things quickly get complicated, and horrifying.  Worst of all, Jeth's crew is stuck with three survivors who aren't supposed to exist and who are being hunted from all sides.  It was fun to watch the characters come up with a plan, and then come up with another, and another, always adjusting to try to survive.  Not every step is brilliant, but there's some good problem solving going on.

I did feel like quite a bit of AVALON was set up for future books in the series.  There is plenty of action in the novel, but very little payoff for the secrets that are revealed.  I'm more curious about what the protagonists will do with what they've learned than satisfied with what they did in the immediate aftermath.  I also felt like Hammer's interest in Jeth was a bit overplayed.  Some of his other crew members had more unique skills, for instance.

Still, AVALON is a promising start to a new series that should satisfy science fiction fans.  I don't think it will be of much interest to readers outside of the genre, however.

October 16, 2014

Review: Damsel Distressed

Damsel Distressed By Kelsey Macke
Available now from Spencer Hill Contemporary
Review copy

Imogen Keegan knows she's the ugly stepsister.  Heck, her stepsister is named Ella Cinder.  But her stepsister moving in is just another thing going wrong in her life.  There's her mother's death, her weight gain, her hopeless crush on her best friend, and her depression.

Imogen is not an easy heroine to like.  She's unhappy with herself, and tends to think badly of others in return.  She has very little empathy.  Debut author Kelsey Macke, however, understands that her heroine is no angel.  Throughout the book, people tell Imogen when she goes to far, or she eventually realizes that for herself.  Often, she judged people harshly before they could judge her, and she learns that maybe she should get to know people a bit more before making such decisions.  Macke also maintains a careful balance with Imogen's depression.  It colors how Imogen sees the world and her struggle is very sympathetic, but it is also not a free pass to treat other people badly.

DAMSEL DISTRESSED will appeal strongly to artsy YA fans.  Imogen is in charge of the sound booth for the school musical, Once Upon a Mattress.  All of her close friends are involved in the crew in some way.  There is art before each chapter, and Macke recorded an album with her duo (Wedding Day Rain) to accompany the book.  It adds some nice layers to the whole package.

DAMSEL DISTRESSED also has a lot of appeal for fans of contemporary YA retellings and books that deal with serious issues with humor.  Imogen's difficulties are definitely lightened by her own humor and that of her closest friends.  The Cinderella angle is a nice hook, but DAMSEL DISTRESSED diverges quite a bit to be its own story.  There is a Prince Charming, but he's no distant, half drawn figure.  In addition to depression, bullying figures prominently, as does Imogen's acceptance of her weight.  There's quite a bit going on, but it all gels.

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