May 30, 2014

Armchair BEA: Young Adult Science Fiction

Logo by Amber
Today is a combination of free day and talking about middle grade and YA fiction.  I decided to split the difference and talk about YA science fiction!  I think YA is well suited to science fiction.  Teens tend to be early adopters of technology, and they might be a bit more culturally flexible when running into aliens.

Here are some upcoming (or recent) titles I'm excited about:

Catalyst Otherbound Scan

CATALYST by S.J. Kincaid
This is the final book in the Insignia trilogy, which is one of my favorite things ever.  Main character Tom is a smart mouth, a bit of a con man, and very talented with video games.  He's training to be a child soldier, but his personality is holding him back.  Plus he falls for Medusa, a talented girl fighting for the other side.  Kincaid knows just when to twist the knife, too.

OTHERBOUND by Corinne Duyvis
I won a copy of this from Duyvis on Tumblr, and I'm saving it for 48HBC.  The summary, about a boy named Nolan who closes his eyes and sees the life of a girl named Amara, reminds me of the classic BEING OF TWO MINDS by Pamela F. Service.  That alone is enough to make me pick it up.

SCAN by Walter Jury and Sarah Fine
This book actually came out earlier this month; I just haven't read it yet.  This book promises lots of suspense, with aliens that have infiltrated the human race and an invention everybody once.  I love stories where anybody could be the enemy.  It really ratchets up the tension.

Love is the DrugGolden Son Take Back the Skies

LOVE IS THE DRUG by Alaya Dawn Johnson
Honestly, I tend to hate books about viruses because the biology is always so, so bad.  (Alexandra Bracken's THE DARKEST MINDS is a rare one that I like, even if the disease doesn't make any sense.)  At the same time, I really liked THE SUMMER PRINCE and lots of other things Johnson has written.  Therefore, it all add up to me being excited.

GOLDEN SON by Pierce Brown
RED RISING is one of my favorite reads of the year.  It sets the stage for an epic series, and I am eager to see where Brown takes his protagonist Darrow next.  Darrow has successfully hidden himself among the elite he once slaved for, and now it is time for him to start taking them down.  But he'll have to be careful in a brutal society that sacrifices their own children to rise to the top.

This book has a cross-dressing heroine and smugglers on an air ship.  I don't care about anything else, I want to read it.  It is the first in a planned six-book series, so Bloomsbury must have some confidence in debut author Lucy Saxon.

Check out the YA science fiction novels I recommend.

Review: Love and Other Foreign Words

Love and Other Foreign Words By Erin McCahan
Available now from Dial (Penguin Random House)
Review copy

Josie Sheridan is very analytical, a bit distant from her own life.  She dissects people's words, the way the same phrase can mean two totally different things depending on tone, speaker, audience, and other context.  She's pretty good at responding to people the way they expect, since she's so good at breaking down communication.  But she's missing a deeper, natural feel for interaction.

Josie's need to understand love comes to a head when her sister introduces her fiance to the family.  Geoff is pretentious and awkward and Josie just knows she can't let Kate marry him.  I liked that we were clearly getting a biased view of Geoff (and Kate), although Geoff did make a genuinely bad first impression.  At the same time, Josie's biases muddled some of Kate's character progression.  Geoff stays about the same, but Kate becomes needlessly cruel.  It's a fairly abrupt character change and I didn't really buy the resolution.  It wasn't earned.

I did think Josie's relationships with boys worked well.  Josie has many sort of love interests, but there is no love triangle.  Author Erin McCahan does a good job of capturing such things as that guy you really like but just don't love and that embarrassing crush on someone older who is basically who you want to be when you grow up.  She also describes Josie's relationships with other girls pretty well.  It brought back memories of all those high school friends who were basically friends because you were in the same extracurricular activity.

I suspect that precocious teen girls will devour LOVE AND OTHER FOREIGN WORDS.  I think Josie's story is very relateable, struggling to find your place when you almost but don't quite fit in.  The family shenanigans will entertain anyone who has been at odds with their siblings.  As a bonus, the romantic plotlines never take over the story despite "love" being the first word in the title.  McCahan get high marks for realism in her latest contemporary novel.

May 29, 2014

Review: The Swift Boys & Me

The Swift Boys & Me By Kody Keplinger
Available now from Scholastic Press
Review copy

When I was in the third or fourth grade, we read THE CAT ATE MY GYMSUIT by Paula Danziger.  I enjoyed the book, but was happy that I didn't have to worry about my parents divorcing.  It seemed like such a terrible thing, especially since I didn't know anyone with divorced parents.  By the time I was twelve, my parents were divorced and I lived in a new city where most of my friends had single parents for one reason or another.   It was a whole new world, but one that was easier with other people who had experienced the same thing and the memory of reading that one book in school.

It is not divorce that breaks the Swift family apart.  (Not initially, anyway.)  It is the father leaving in the night without even a goodbye.  The mother sinks into depression and the three boys react in different ways.  Brian, the oldest, tries to be responsible even though it is too much to handle alone for a boy.  Kevin, the youngest, goes silent.  Canaan, the middle child and Nola's best friend, gets angry.  The fact that their turbulence is viewed through Nola's eyes allows THE SWIFT BOYS & ME to be much lighter than it might have been through one of the boy's eyes.

Nola has lived next door to the Swift boys her entire life.  This is the first summer she hasn't spent palling around with them, and it leaves her a bit adrift.  I really, really loved how Kody Keplinger tackled the friendship between Nola and Canaan.  I wish I'd been exposed to more stories about friendships that become toxic.  Nola makes allowances for Canaan's behavior, which is completely reasonable, but she also determines where she draws the line about how mean he can be, especially if he doesn't apologize.  And, as Nola ventures out on her own, she starts to discover opportunities for friendship and other connections that she was previously closed off to.

I thoroughly enjoy Keplinger's YA books, but I was worried about how her voice would work in an MG novel.  He previous works are very much upper YA.  THE SWIFT BOYS & ME has a cadence that's very Southern and comforting, a cross between Kathi Appelt and Joan Bauer.  It keeps Keplinger's humor and directness, but softens it for the audience.  (I will mention that one scene that might have encouraged my mind to leap to Appelt involves animal abuse.  The animal survives without serious injury.)

I do with that the cover of THE SWIFT BOYS & ME had a chubby girl on the cover, since that is how Nola is routinely described.  Based on the way different characters describe her, I assume that she isn't that chubby, but she's definitely not the skinny girl on the cover.  That's sad, because I feel like Nola is the type of bigger heroine many readers are looking for - one who doesn't lose weight over the course of the novel.

THE SWIFT BOYS & ME is a summer read that tackles growing up, growing apart, and growing together with sympathy and delight.  There are some dark moments, but Nola always fights her way back to the light.  She's a strong little girl, and it's easy to imagine her growing up to have a wonderful life after the book ends.

Armchair BEA: Beyond the Borders

#WeNeedDiverseBooks has been gaining traction across the 'net, and Armchair BEA is no exception.

Logo by Amber
Over the years I've blogged, I've become more aware of what I'm reading.  Who is the author?  Who were the main characters?  Are they just like me, or are they different?  Were they based on a real culture?  Was that culture researched and treated respectfully?

I've found resources like Diversity in YA and American Indians in Children's Literature.  I've tried to maintain my own resource through my QUILTBAG YA list.

Probably the biggest change is that I've imposed a quota on myself.  I try to review at least one book a week by a diverse author or with a diverse main character.  I don't always manage it, but it's been a much easier goal to meet than I first expected.

Some diverse reviews this month include:

It has been an extremely rewarding project.  I try to be an attentive reader, and doing this has not only made me more attentive, but more knowledgeable.  I don't always get it right, but with practice I'm getting it better.

Please note that next weekend, June 6-8, is the 48 Hour Book Challenge, hosted by Mother Reader.  This readathon is so much fun, and this year the focus is diverse books.  You read at least 12 hours in a 48 hour period, raise money for charity, and get the chance to win prizes!  Check out my posts from the two times I've participated.

May 28, 2014

Review: One Man Guy

One Man Guy By Michael Barakiva
Available now from Farrar, Straus and Giroux BFYR (Macmillan)
Review copy

I read ONE MAN GUY this weekend while I was resting in bed, sick.  It was the perfect sort of book to read in those circumstances, light and cute and sweet and so optimistic that I could forget that there is an emergency room bill on the way.

Alek Khederian is stuck in summer school, retaking English and Algebra to make it into the Honors track.  His Armenian parents have high standards that are hard for Alek to live up to, especially when his brother Nic makes it look so easy.  At summer school he gets to know Ethan, who runs with the DOs (dropouts).  He's a relaxed guy, in sharp contrast to the uptight Alek.  Of course, opposites attract.

I liked that ONE MAN GUY wasn't just about the relationship between Alek and Ethan, but that the relationship does affect many things going on in Alek's life.  At fourteen, Alek is really just starting to blossom into his own person, especially given his strict parents.  When the story begins, he's not even consciously aware that he likes guys.  The slightly older Ethan helps him gain another perspective on life.  At the same time, Alek definitely doesn't need to change everything about himself.  He's got qualities that Ethan can learn from too.

Alek's home life is drawn with exquisite detail.  There is food, church, celebrities, history marking Alek and his family as Armenian.  There is dedication to never buying Turkish, due to the fact the Armenian genocide isn't recognized.  It was a wonderful introduction to a culture I know little about.  (And you know I am going to use the recipe for salmas in the back of the book.)

The descriptions of New York City are also top notch.  Ethan is an expert at navigating the city, and he sets out to show Alek the sights.  The use of real places adds to the verisimilitude of the novel and the boys' dates/not dates.  They're certainly more revealing of each boy than simple dinner and a movie.

ONE MAN GUY is a great choice for romance fans.  Unlike a true romance, the main focus is on Alek and his growth as he comes to terms with his sexuality and the difference between his ambitions and his parents' ambitions for him.  (That does not mean Ethan is underdeveloped.)  And I haven't even gone into some of the other great aspects of the novel, like Alek's classic movie and rollerblading-obsessed best friend Becky.  ONE MAN GUY is a great pick for fans of romantic, contemporary YA novels.

Armchair BEA: Expanding Blogging Horizons and Short Stories/Novellas

Welcome to day three of Armchair BEA.  There are two more great topics to discuss.

Logo by Amber

Expanding Blogging Horizons

This one isn't really me.  I mean, I've redesigned my blog periodically, but not expertly (as you can probably tell).  No freelance writing based on the blog, nor podcasting.  I suppose you might count the judging I've done for the CYBILS as branching out . . . I don't, not really.  But honestly, I like sticking to my blog.  What about you?  Have you ventured out?  Do you want to venture out?

Short Stories/Novellas

I think short stories and novellas are great.  (You can also check out my anthologies tag.)  I like that the internet has led to more support of publishers specializing in shorter fiction, like Nouvella and Shebooks.  It's also led to Harlequin and and such selling short stories designed to capture lunch break readers and such.  It's a real boon to me.  A good short story or novella is all killer, no filler.  You get all the satisfaction of a completed character arc and/or resolved conflict, and you can read it in a shorter time.  They're the perfect form for the busy reader.

Speaking of Shebooks, they've just launched a Kickstarter for their Equal Writes Campaign.

May 27, 2014

Armchair BEA: Author Interaction & More Than Just Words

Armchair BEA, Day Two

Logo by Amber

Author Interaction

My number one tip for author interaction through your blog is to not seek an author out if you're giving their book a bad review.  For example, if you tweet every review you write, don't automatically tag the author.  I don't think of this as a malicious mistake, but avoiding it makes everything work easier.

As for real life, I love going to book readings and signings.  I've never failed to be entertained and to learn something new about the work.  Some authors are better oral readers than others, of course.  Some, like Kathi Appelt, will even sing a song for you.  And every single author I've met has been very nice about even the most ridiculously fannish things I've said.  (R.L. Stine was simply excited to see someone carrying around THE BEAST, one of his older works.)  My pieces of advice don't have much to do with the actual interaction.

1) Buy one of the author's books from the store hosting the event.  It supports everyone involved and helps guarantee that there will be future similar events in your area.

2) Be mindful of the audience.  For instance, I've been to events geared toward teens and events geared toward librarians, of which I am neither.  In that case, it's polite to take a step back.  Ask a question if things are getting quiet, but don't ask the first question.

Also, if you live in Texas, Jen Bigheart keeps a great list of YA and MG author events.

More Than Just Words

I love graphic novels.  I've served on the CYBILS Graphic Novels panel, and it was great fun.  You can check out my graphic novels tag for specific reviews and a few manga primers.

I've been enjoying the new trend of hybrid graphic and prose novels, such as IN THE SHADOWS by Jim Di Bartolo and Kiersten White and CHASING SHADOWS by Swati Avasthi and Craig Phillips.  They provide the best of both worlds!  Stacked has a great primer on these hybrids.

But I've pretty much always been a fan of comics, from days of picking up Sabrina the Teenage Witch at the local newsstand.  What I am new too, thanks to blogging, is audiobooks.  I originally didn't like them because they took so much longer than just reading the book.  But other bloggers have convinced me to give them another chance. 

I listened to THE DUFF while I had an hour commute to and from work, and it was pretty entertaining.  Listening to audiobooks on my drive also helped me get through my CYBILS MG Speculative Fiction reading faster! 

If you want to give audiobooks a try yourself, Sync is giving away two free audiobooks a week for the rest of the summer.  Today is the last day to get CRUEL BEAUTY and OEDIPUS THE KING.

Review: The Dirty Book Mystery

The Dirty Book Murder By Thomas Shawver
Available now from Alibi (Penguin Random House)
Review copy

THE DIRTY BOOK MURDER is an interesting blend of cozy mystery and something more hard hitting.  The murders are mercifully briefly described, but there is sex and drugs and sexualized torture. It's set in a close-knit part of Kansas City, with an unlikely detective: the local used and antiquarian bookstore owner.  Of course, he's also a former Marine and lawyer with past alcohol and drug problems who still likes going out to the pub and getting a bit rowdy.  It's an unusual mix that I suspect will greatly appeal to readers who have been looking for something like it.

The plot kicks off when Michael Bevan goes to an auction that advertised some rare erotica.  It soon turns into a heated battle between him, two known dealers, and a strange man clearly there on behalf of someone else.  While the lot goes for tens of thousands of dollars, one of the dealers steals two of the most valuable books.  He's dead by the next day, and Michael is the most likely suspect.  He sets off to clear his name and finds that there is much more at stake than two rare books.

This is a fairly short mystery, only a little over 200 pages, so things happen fast in THE DIRTY BOOK MURDER.  There is still a lot of character setup, putting people into place (such as former and future loves) for the inevitable sequels.  I think some of the character work went too quickly, leading to some of Michael's most important relationships coming off very shallowly and strange.  And, well, I found most of the characters unlikeable.  I really found the way that Michael intrudes on his daughter's personal life to be uncomfortable, even if she is dating a much older man.  It didn't help the other descriptions of women that make Michael come off as pretty sexist.

I don't, however, need the characters to be likeable in a murder mystery.  Most of the characters are people capable of murder, after all.  But it was definitely a point away from the "cozy" side of the equation.

THE DIRTY BOOK MURDER does draw quite a bit from debut author Thomas Shawver's life experience, and it shows.  I particularly liked the scenes about valuing books and running the shops.  It's an intriguing look into the ongoing life of books.  (And there's a mention of the Ransom Center at my alma mater, guaranteed to make me smile.)  Michael's career is more than just set dressing, and the book is better for it.

If you're looking for a fast-paced mystery that's darker than it seems at first, you might pick up THE DIRTY BOOK MURDER.  Thanks to TLC Book Tours and the publisher, there is a giveaway with multiple prizes.  Just fill out the Rafflecopter below.

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May 26, 2014

Armchair BEA: Introductions and Literature

Logo by Amber
It's that time of year again!  Those of us who can't make it to the Javits Center celebrate BEA from the comfort of our own homes.  This is my third year participating in Armchair BEA, and it is loads of fun.  Today is a get-to-know-you day, along with some discussion of literature.
1. Describe your blog in just one sentence. Then, list your social details -- Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, etc. -- so we can connect more online. 
My blog has changed over the years, but its a nice capsule of my reading tastes.  I am on Twitter as @wearedevilcow, Instagram as @wearedevilcow, Facebook, and Tumblr.  If you want to follow me on social media, I recommend my Tumblr.
2. What genre do you read the most? I love to read because ___________________ . 
I read fantasy the most, I believe. I love to read because I like stories and the way they unlock my imagination.
3. What was your favorite book read last year? What’s your favorite book so far this year? 
My favorite book last year was probably JINX by Sage Blackwood.  This year, so far, it is BLACK DOG by Rachel Neumeier.  

4. What is your favorite blogging resource? 
Other bloggers.  If I don't know how to do something, there's probably someone else who has done it before and has either written a tutorial or will talk about it.  Plus, bloggers have their ears to the ground about all the best books.
5. What book would you love to see as a movie? 
I would love to see a SCORPIO RACES movie, especially one done with mostly practical special effects.
Let's discuss the literature questions in the comments!
What do you think of when you think of literature? Classics, contemporary, genre, or something else entirely? We are leaving this one up to you to come up with and share the literature that you want to chat about the most. Feel free to share a list of your favorites, break down your favorite genre, feature your favorite authors, and be creative about all things literature in general. 

May 22, 2014

Review: V is for Villain

V is for Villain By Peter Moore
Available now from Disney Hyperion
Review copy

I am a huge sucker for superhero books.  When I heard about V IS FOR VILLAIN, I knew that I had to read it.  And it definitely scratched some of my superhero itches, like a complicated relationship between the protagonist and his arch-nemesis.   At the same time, I was never quite convinced of the world.

Brad Baron lives in a world shaped by superheroes and their battles with Phaetons.  The superheroes were all created decades ago, and the newest ones are generally legacies.  Both Brad's father and brother are famous heroes.  Phaetons are created when people try to mutate their genes themselves -- it often goes wrong.  Brad has super genes, but only for intelligence.  That means he can't keep up in the Academy, which focuses on physical powers.  He gets shunted off to the A-track.  (A is for alternative.)

The Academy, and by extension the world's, focus on certain powers just never quite worked for me.  What can I say, some of my favorite superheroes are the ones without powers.  And Brad, in his rise to villainy, shows pretty thoroughly just how dangerous someone can be without physical powers.  Surely there were others before him?  Decades of people with powers, why no supervillains that aren't Phaetons?  Plus, quite a bit of worldbuilding is done through expository footnotes that quickly get boring.

At the same time, I found the characters very believable.  Brad and his friends have pretty radical ideas about what it means to be a hero -- albeit radical for their society.  They're in favor of things like bringing people to trial instead of killing them on the spot.  But Brad also has a nasty streak of entitlement.  Layla, the head of the alternative kids, may or may not be interested in Brad.  Either way, she definitely has her own agenda, which I appreciated.  I also liked Brad's meat-head hero brother, Blake.  Brad and Blake care about each other, because they're brothers, yet they deeply irritate each other as well.

I thought the characters' feelings, motivations, and relationships were terrific and wish the world had worked as well for me.  Although, since I'm talking about character, Brad came off as very average in intelligence to me.  I might have bought him as a little smarter than the other characters, but not as a super genius.  Luckily, he had other qualities to make up for it.

This tale of a boy's rise to villainy has some moments that shine, but it's a bit too didactic to give the through-the-eyes-of-the-villain premise much weight.  Superhero and dystopian fans might find things to enjoy about this novel, but I'd just check this one out from the library instead of buying it.

May 21, 2014

Review: The Secrets of Lily Graves

The Secrets of Lily Graves By Sarah Strohmeyer
Available now from Balzer + Bray (HarperCollins)
Review copy
Read my review of Smart Girls Get What They Want

Lily Graves is a mortician's daughter, and she lives up to potential stereotypes with her love of fancy black dresses.  She's also tutoring a local football star, Matt, for instance.  Then, when she's cleaning up in the cemetery (her mom makes her volunteer), Matt's girlfriend Erin swings by and attacks Lily for breaking them up.  By the end of the day, Erin is dead.  It's up to Lily to prove that she and Matt had nothing to do with it.

THE SECRETS OF LILY GRAVES is Sarah Stohmeyer's first foray into mystery, and she does a good job of it.  There is a dark tone to this book, which only increases as Erin's secrets come out.  There are many more potential suspects than there seems to be at first, and I know I found the resolution surprising.  I guessed a little of it, and it made sense, but I still didn't see it coming.  Nor does Lily, who gets most of her clues through the policeman her mother is dating.

The romantic plotline, between Lily and Matt, wasn't quite as good as the mystery for me.  It was very nice that Lily trusted Matt, but I still couldn't believe she would go off with him alone so often while he was suspected of murder.  (Especially after he proves to be somewhat less than honest.  And even if she does take a scalpel with her.)  I did appreciate that, as they both said, nothing happened before Erin's death.  I'm not big on cheating plotlines.

I also appreciated that Stohmeyer didn't forgo her roots entirely.  THE SECRETS OF LILY GRAVES is frequently funny.  There's also lots of delicious irony from the contrast of Erin's post-death sainthood and the truths that Lily uncovers.  This book might be dark, but it's not depressing.

So throw THE SECRETS OF LILY GRAVES into your bag this summer, to add a little shade to your beach reading.

May 20, 2014

Review: The True Lives of the Fabulous Killjoys

True Lives of the Fabulous Killjoys By Gerard Way and Shaun Simon
Art by Becky Cloonan
Available now from Dark Horse Comics
Review copy

I really enjoy concept albums.  I first became aware of the My Chemical Romance album Danger Days: True Lives of the Fabulous Killjoys when I caught the music video for "Na Na Na" on late night television.  I was caught up in the world, so it was pretty exciting when I saw that MCR front-man Gerard Way had teamed up with comics writer Shaun Simon to explore what happened after the album and the videos.  I think only the "Na Na Na" and "Sing" videos are absolutely necessary, but I'd still recommend watching those and listening to the album before picking up THE TRUE LIVES OF THE FABULOUS KILLJOYS.

The Girl, the sole surviving member of the Killjoys, joins up with a new group at the beginning of the comic.  But this group's leader might be a little off his hinges.  Meanwhile, back in Battery City, Korse is starting to no longer perfectly follow orders for Better Living Industries and a droid is desperately trying to save her older-model-droid girlfriend.  There are a lot of characters to follow in six issues, but things come together by the end.

The focus really is one the Girl and her coming into her own.  One of the questions raised by the music videos is why the Killjoys were protecting her.  It's something she's wondered herself.  But she can find and forge her own path even as she discovers the answer to that question.  It's paralleled by company-man Korse questioning the path that he's followed for so long.

I liked seeing this world fleshed out farther and getting some answers to lingering questions.  I thought Becky Cloonan's art did a wonderful job of capturing the look of the videos and translating it to a 2D medium.  At the same time, if you aren't already a fan of the world, there is a lot to pick up.  There is very little time spent rehashing information from the album.  I'd say this is a yes for fans of Danger Days, but a pass for everyone else.

May 19, 2014

Review: The Quick (and giveaway!)

The Quick By Lauren Owen
Available June 17 from Random House
Review copy

The cover of THE QUICK is ridiculously boring: sepia-toned man leaning on the edge, most of the cover taken up by a table.  But I was quite intrigued by the blurb, which promised both magic and terror.  I'm glad I paid little attention to the cover, because I thoroughly enjoyed THE QUICK.

The action begins when siblings James and Charlotte Norbury are children, just long enough to establish their relationship.  James is sensitive; Charlotte is practically his mother.  The time then jumps to James deciding to leave Oxford and go to London to be a writer.  That's where he meets and lets rooms with Christopher Paige, the black sheep of an aristocratic family.  The opening quarter of the book is all about getting to know James and Christopher, as well as the social strictures that govern their lives in Victorian England.  Then something very bad happens to them.

Unfortunately, the book doesn't quite kick into gear at that point.  THE QUICK delves into several of the characters' points of view, and unfortunately the next one is a lengthy section of exposition that I don't think added that much to the story.   THE QUICK does blend genre and literary fiction, so I can see these passages being of use to literary fans, perhaps.  I've seen it called a Gothic horror story, but I think that's inaccurate.  Once the fantastical enters the story, the book instantly tells the reader what happened.  But it is nice to go in with the exact details of the genre shift from historical fiction to historical fantasy being a surprise.

I liked the plurality of characters.  They represent many different factions, and even the ones on the same side come at things in a different manner.  I thoroughly enjoyed that almost all of them were driven by love.  It's a strong motivation, and one that can lead to a desire for revenge just as much as compassion.  It also enforces the need for that mundane first quarter, to show why James and Charlotte would never just go into hiding.

I think THE QUICK will appeal to someone looking for story where early Anne Rice meets Oscar Wilde.  Not the best comparison, but the best I can come up with.  It has wonderfully drawn characters, bursts of action, and a human villain who might be more terrifying than the inhuman ones.

Giveaway courtesy of TLC Book Tours. Limited to US only; must be 13 years of age or older.
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May 14, 2014

Review: Millhouse

Millhouse By Natale Ghent
Available now from Tundra Books
Review copy

I kept guinea pigs as a kid.  (One of mine even lived longer than a decade.)  You can bet I read all of the Dick King Smith books I could get my hands on, because those books had guinea pigs in them.  Even now, at twenty five, I picked up Natale Ghent's MILLHOUSE in an instant, just because the main character is a guinea pig.

Set in a pet shop (run mostly by the innattentive Weekend Boy), MILLHOUSE is the story of a guinea pig raised by a thespian who just wants to get back to the stage.  He'll have to survive a hungry ferret, befriend a strange rat, and endear himself to the other animals despite his lack of a fur coat before then.  Ghent's illustrations fit the book perfectly - they're cute and ever-so-slightly old fashioned.  MILLHOUSE is brand new, but you could almost believe it came out twenty years ago.

As I write this review, I find myself influenced by Charlotte's recently posted questions for "mouse" fantasies:
1. If all the mice and other animal characters were people, would the plot be appreciably different?  Would my emotional response be any different? 

2. And following from that, is there any "mousiness" to the main character?   If I were never told he or she was a mouse, would I suspect that there was something not-human going on?  Does the fact that the rodents wear clothes and fight with swords distract me?
I think MILLHOUSE passes.  The pet shop, with its potential owners and cages, informs the actions, desires, and fears of the characters.  Certainly nothing you'd expect in a story about humans.  Millhouse's acting aspirations are rather more human than anything the other animals express, but he's still clearly a guinea pig.  For one thing, his reaction to danger is to freeze and faint.  And there isn't much clothes wearing, aside from a few props.

I thought MILLHOUSE was quite charming and perfect for the child who loves animals.  It's a very quick read, suitable for reading aloud or beginning readers.  (I'd say it's about the length of Beverly Cleary's THE MOUSE AND THE MOTORCYCLE.)  The themes of appreciating misfits and pursuing your talent aren't pushed overly hard, and they're certainly fitting for a children's book even if they aren't revelatory. 

May 13, 2014

Review: The Summer I Wasn't Me

The Summer I Wasn't Me By Jessica Verdi
Available now from Sourcebooks Fire
Review copy

Ex-gay camps are a controversial topic.  It's been long proven that they aren't effective and that they often hurt people, but for some reason they still exist and have their supporters.  THE SUMMER I WASN'T ME takes a surprisingly balanced take on a gay conversion camp, although it does take a turn for the melodramatic toward the end.

Lexi is a lesbian, and has known it for a long time.  However, her mom just found out and didn't take it well.  Lexi agrees to go to a conversion camp because her mother has been very fragile since her dad died and she wants to make her mother happy.  The other campers all have their own reasons.  Some genuinely want to become straight.  Some were forced there.  They've also got a wide range of views on whether the camp will do anything and how ridiculous the exercises are.

The gay conversion camp certainly provides an interesting setting.  The campers are forced into rigid gender roles; fortunately, Lexi's wry narration points out how stupid that it.  A straight woman who never marries is perfectly alright, and more still straight than a lesbian who marries a man because that's what women do.  Gender presentation is a whole 'nother beast.

I also really liked and felt for the characters.  Lexi and her small group - Carolyn, Matthew, and Daniel - are all endearing, and stuck in a tough spot.  Of course, Lexi falls for Carolyn the moment she sees her.  (Ah, the problem of sticking a bunch of lesbians in one dorm and gay boys in the other.)  It's rough though, since Carolyn definitely wants the whole "straight" thing to work, for very valid reasons.

For the most part, I enjoyed THE SUMMER I WASN'T ME.  It was a sweet romance that showcased an unpleasant reality, but in a non-sensational manner.  Then things took a turn for the sensational.  I'm not sure how I feel about it.  Certainly such abuses do take place at ex-gay camps, and it's one reason they should be closed.  At the same time, it took the focus away from Lexi and her growing confidence in herself.  Worse, it felt like shock value.  It just went a touch over the top in a book that underplayed the sensational nature of the topics tacked.

I recommend THE SUMMER I WASN'T ME to fans of quiet contemporary fiction, difficult love stories, and teen issues.  It's a story that really reaffirms the power and courage of love.

May 12, 2014

Review: Since You've Been Gone

Since You've Been Gone By Morgan Matson
Available now from Simon & Schuster BFYR
Review copy

Morgan Matson, the author of AMY AND ROGER'S EPIC DETOUR, is back with another perfect slice of summer.  Best friends Emily and Sloane have been planning an epic summer.  But Sloane and her family are gone, packed up and left with nary a forwarding address, and Emily is left on her own.  All she has is a list from Sloane of things to do.  Maybe if she does them, she'll find Sloane.

The setup of SINCE YOU'VE BEEN GONE is a little far-fetched when you think about it.  Emily, in the age of Twitter and Facebook, can't find a way to contact Sloane?  But it's best just to go with it, because this book is so much fun.  Emily is a bit uptight and reserved, and accomplishing the list pushes her out of her comfort zone.  Yet, as she stretches her limits, her comfort zone stretches too.  She also manages to make new friends and figure out who she is when she isn't overshadowed by her more dynamic friend.

I liked that SINCE YOU'VE BEEN GONE offers flashbacks to when Emily and Sloane were together.  It shows just how far Emily's come.  At the same time, it shows just how deep their friendship was and why Sloane meant so much to Emily.  She doesn't seem like the best friend at the beginning of the book; however, the flashbacks show just how much Sloane trusted Emily.  At the same time, Emily really needed the shove that came from being suddenly on her own.

There is a very slow-burning romance, but the main focus of SINCE YOU'VE BEEN GONE is friendships.  Good ones, bad ones, old ones, new ones.  I loved the people Emily bonded with: Frank, Collins, and Dawn.  I also liked Emily's family - playwright mom and dad, daredevil brother.  They're sometimes frustrating to her, but she realizes how good she has it as she gets to see some more of her new friends' parents.  Also, SINCE YOU'VE BEEN GONE has one of the most hilarious post-makeout scenes I've ever read.

If you're looking for a funny contemporary that puts friendship - especially female friendship - front and center, then pick up a copy of SINCE YOU'VE BEEN GONE.  If you like it, do yourself a favor and pick up Matson's short but terrific backlist.

May 9, 2014

Review: Casebook

Casebook By Mona Simpson
Available now from Knopf (Penguin Random House)
Review copy

Miles Adler-Rich is a privileged child of divorce and a burgeoning snoop.  He likes to listen to his mother's conversations on the phone.  When she starts dating a man named Eli, Miles likes him at first.  But as the years pass by, little things don't add up and Miles gets serious about uncovering the truth.

The parts of CASEBOOK I liked, I really liked, but it was an uneven read.  The beginning and ending both go on for too long.  I would admire the dedication to unraveling the consequences to Miles' actions if they weren't mostly mundane and boring.  (Hint: It makes his mother sad.)  I never found Miles' voice quite convincing either.  He's privileged, yes, but he felt so naive to me for a fourteen-year-old boy.  And it was just a touch off how he was so much more into his mom's life than his own.

There are many things I liked.  I did enjoy Miles relationship with his mom, loving her and wanting the best for her.  I liked his relationship with his best friend Hector, which ebbs and flows throughout the novel, sometimes strong enough to be mistaken for dating.  It's a nice examination of the lengths friends will go to for each other and the underlying tensions that can exist in the best relationships.  I like Miles' younger twin sisters, who are slowly revealed to have their own personalities and interests as their brother opens up to them.  I liked the detective who helps the boys and chides their stupider impulses.

CASEBOOK, like many novels I've read lately, isn't well-served by it's blurb.  The blurb promises the boys confronting the existence of evil, which makes CASEBOOK sound much darker than it is.  It mostly deals with standard literary-fiction ennui, just through the eyes of a fourteen-year-old boy.  There is one revelation of stunning evil that stands out in the fact that it is buried and never mentioned again and I wish it was left out because it was jarringly nasty and really didn't add anything to the story.

I think CASEBOOK will appeal to fans of stories about dysfunctional families.   The characters are all wonderfully drawn, and there's some brilliant insights into the different ways people love each other and how they treat people they love.  Don't, however, go in expecting a juicy mystery.

May 8, 2014

Review: This One Summer

This One Summer By Mariko Tamaki
Art by Jillian Tamaki
Available now from First Second Books (Macmillan)
Review copy

Cousins Mariko Tamaki and Jillian Tamaki brilliantly capture the liminal time between being a teenager and being a child in their new graphic novel, THIS ONE SUMMER.  Rose and Windy are friends who hang out every summer when their families visit Awago Beach. They like swimming and buying candy and renting R-rated videos, which they can get away with since the teenage clerk doesn't really care.

They're at the age where they're starting to clue into things like sex jokes, but don't really understand them.  Their hormones are starting to go a bit wild, causing both crushes and anger.  They're still kids, but their actions are starting to carry deeper consequences.

Although Rose and Windy are young, THIS ONE SUMMER is best enjoyed by a reader who is at least slightly older.  The real treat is putting together what Rose and Windy notice into the whole story.  Some is gathered through Mariko's script, and other clues are only in Jillian's art, such as Rose's mom's defensive, hunched in body language.

There are some genuinely disturbing moments, of the mundanely disturbing type.  A family friend violates Rose's mom's boundaries, and Rose doesn't get it because she just wants her mom to have fun and her mom is refusing to.  She doesn't understand her mom's motives and isn't old enough to suss them out.  Meanwhile, Rose also shows that she's picked up a real misogynistic streak from the teenage boys hanging around the corner store, which drives a wedge between her and Windy.  It's painfully real, that difficultly of growing into being a teenage girl while being taught to hate those other girls who aren't like you.

There's a beautiful, and beautifully complicated thread of family running through THIS ONE SUMMER. Rose and Windy are like sisters.  Rose's parents tried for another child, but didn't have one. Windy is adopted.  A local teenage girl is pregnant, and only has a few people offering her any support.  The relationships are as complicated as enjoying a swim on the beautiful beach is easy, and Rose and Windy are caught between those worlds.

THIS ONE SUMMER is a lovely slice of life novel that perfectly captures the wonders of summer and a transitional time of life.

May 7, 2014

Review: Fat Boy vs. the Cheerleaders

Fat Boy vs. the Cheerleaders By Geoff Herbach
Available now from Sourcebooks Fire
Review copy
Read my reviews of Nothing Special and I'm With Stupid

Although FAT BOY VS. THE CHEERLEADERS is Geoff Herbach's fourth novel, it is his first that isn't about Felton Reinstein.  There are similarities: new narrator Gabe is also a teen boy from a single parent household who finds himself developing new relationships and a new devotion to his interests. There's a similar stream-of-consciousness style.  But while FAT BOY VS. THE CHEERLEADERS doesn't find Herbach stepping completely outside of its wheelhouse, it isn't a retread of Herbach's debut trilogy.

Gabe drinks lots of sodas from the machine in the cafeteria - they're cheap, delicious, and the money supports the band.  Gabe is a band member, and it's probably his favorite thing about school.  He and his friends notice a link between the biggest kids in school, the poorest kids in school, and the kids who drink the most soda in school, but they money goes to support the band, so it all works out.  At the end of the school year, there's a sudden soda price hike, the announcement of a new dance team, and band camp is cancelled.  Gabe can put two and two together.

I was in band in high school, along with probably a fourth to a third of the school.  It kind of amazes me that there aren't more band geek stories in YA.  Herbach, through Gabe, really expresses what's great about band.  That element added a special bit of appeal to me.  I think the title and cover are punchy, but wish there had been a way for the band element to be apparent without reading the blurb.

FAT BOY VS. THE CHEERLEADERS is framed as Gabe's confession to the police for stealing $14 from the infamous soda machine.  Thus, from the start readers know things are set to go awry.  Gabe's rambling confession is not all that plausible, but it is entertaining.  I loved seeing him grow into himself throughout the story and make changes to be a better person.  I also liked seeing him receive a kick to the ass whenever he needed one.  Gabe may have a good cause, but he's not always in the right.

I know that when it comes to fat characters, people always wonder whether they lose weight and whether weight loss is equated with goodness.  Yes, Gabe loses (some) weight.  (The story covers a fairly short period of time; I got the impression Gabe was still fat at the end of the story, just slightly less fat.)  It worked for me because Gabe's weight came from a combination of unhealthy places: eating crappy food (because his dad never provided anything else), never being physical (except for grudgingly making it through marching band for the glory of concert band), and emotional eating.

FAT BOY VS. THE CHEERLEADERS is a short, snappy read with lots of positive, sly messages.  It allows the issues it tackles to be complex, even when they're mined for outsized comedy set pieces.  (For instance, despite the title, the book explores why it is wrong to demonize the cheerleaders for profiting from something that adults did.)  Herbach continues to be one of my favorite contemporary authors. 

If you feel inspired by Gabe and want to help provide funding to musical education, consider a donation to VH1's Save the Music Foundation.

May 6, 2014

Review: Deep Blue

Deep Blue Book one of the Waterfire Saga
By Jennifer Donnelly
Available now from Disney-Hyperion
Review copy

Jennifer Donnelly burst onto the literary YA scene with A NORTHERN LIGHT, a critically acclaimed darling.  Her next YA novel, REVOLUTION, was also well received.  I was super excited to see that her newest novel, DEEP BLUE, would tackle current genre trend mermaids.  Mermaids + Donnelly's lush writing = how could it go wrong?

The opening chapters supported my excitement.  The witchy opening reminded me of Macbeth, and set up a portentous mood.  Then the action shifted to main character Serafina getting reading for her coming-of-age ceremony and betrothal.  The little details of language, clothing, objects, and culture showed that Donnelly had really thought out how her undersea world worked.  I really appreciated that it wasn't just Earth, but wet.

But at some point, that started to grate on me.  Serafina and her best friend's language just sounds so teeny-bopper.  There's dark danger and epic destiny lurking around the edges, but the tone is insistently light and preteen.  Plus, that beginning section about getting ready goes on forever - it takes a full third of the book to reach the ceremony, which is when things get really started.  That leads into the ending being majorly rushed.  Three major characters are introduced in the last part of the book, which leaves no time to get to know or care about them.  (Two of their names started with an "A," which did not help me tell them apart.)

There are good things about DEEP BLUE.  Serafina and her best friend Neela are well developed characters.  Both are princesses, which means that they've been raised to rule in addition to appreciating a nice dress.  They have their own strengths and fears, which help and hinder their quest through the ocean.  Ling, who they meet part of the way through, is a great addition to the group.  I latched on to her practicality pretty hard.  I also have to give Donnelly props for making her central characters a diverse group of girls. I can't say that I've ever read a book with a blind mermaid who uses a guide fish before.

At the same time, the character beats are pretty predictable.  I expect exactly zero older readers won't tune up to what's really going on with Mahdi, Serafina's loving fiance who suddenly turned into a party boy.  (I think the fact that this twist is obvious wouldn't be notable except for the fact that the resolution is delayed for the next book in the series.)

I don't think DEEP BLUE is bad, it's just not what I expected from Donnelly.  (Nor is it what I expected from the cover and blurb.)  Her prose is hampered by the cutesy undersea-speak ("currensea") and the characters seem very young.  I expected a dark, literary fantasy aimed at the older YA crowd.  DEEP BLUE is a mermaid adventure that I would feel pretty safe giving to most middle grade readers.  (There is violence, but it is on-par with last year's middle grade undersea adventure THE NEPTUNE PROJECT.)  Likewise, the politics are detailed, but grasping the finer points isn't necessary at all to the plot, which is standard go to this place, pick up these MacGuffins, defeat the bad guys fare.  The environmental message is commendable, but simply presented.

Perhaps DEEP BLUE will mature in future outings.  But as is, Disney is doing the book a major disservice packaging it this way.  Do pick it up if you're into cute, diverse mermaids banding together to save the ocean.

May 5, 2014

Review: This Side of Salvation

This Side of Salvation By Jeri Smith-Ready
Available now from Simon Pulse (Simon & Schuster)
Review copy
Read my interview with the hero of the WVMP series and my review of Grim

I've been a fan of Jeri Smith-Ready since WICKED GAME, the first book in her WVMP series, came out.  It was smart, funny, and an inventive take on vampires.  I was quite excited to read THIS SIDE OF SALVATION, her first foray into contemporary fiction.

David was a baseball star with a girlfriend he loved, but he gave it up because of the Rush. He didn't believe in the Rush, but he still prepared for it.  Now his parents believed.  They believed their priest, Sofia Visser, that they would be taken to heaven that night.  David and his sister decided to go to prom. When they came home, their parents were gone and their pajamas left in bed.  They still don't believe in the Rush, but they do believe they need to find their parents - especially before the bills are due.

THIS SIDE OF SALVATION moves back and forth in time, showing David and Mara's quest for the truth as well as the past that brought their parents to believe in a cult.  David's own journey to a true faith is a contrast to his father's strange denial of reality.  There's also a love story, showing how David and Bailey first came together and how they got back together once Bailey forgives him.  I liked putting the pieces of the past and present together.  Sometimes I'd gotten the entirely wrong impression about what happened in the past based on how characters spoke of it in the present.

I know some readers are reluctant to read books with religious themes.  But THIS SIDE OF SALVATION is a true gem.  It explores faith and loss in a powerful, nonjudgmental way.  I felt that David's faith was moving and true, but didn't think it was alienating.  Mercy and love are more important than being right.  (There's some very interesting biblical debate and knowledge involving David's long-time best friend Kane, who comes out during the novel's past sections.)

I thoroughly enjoyed THIS SIDE OF SALVATION.  Smith-Ready takes on contemporary issues with the same clear, funny writing she brought to urban fantasy.  THIS SIDE OF SALVATION also has a hint of mystery that keeps the plot moving along instead of navel gazing.  It would make an interesting reading companion to YA classic ARMAGEDDON SUMMER by Jane Yolen and Bruce Coville, which is also about teens whose lives are affected by their parents' belief in an upcoming apocalypse.

May 3, 2014

Free Comic Book Day

It's Free Comic Book Day!  Go on down to your local comic book store to pick up some free comics.  I know I'm excited about this year's selections.

Half Price Books is also getting in on the action by offering a free comic with purchase.

You can pick up the Guardians of the Galaxy FCBD issue if you go see The Amazing Spider-Man 2 at the Alamo Drafthouse, courtesy of 8th Dimension Comics.

In the Houston area, Ian Doescher will be at Space Cadets Collection.

May 2, 2014

Review: Undone

Undone By Cat Clarke
Available May 6, 2014 from Sourcebooks Fire
Review copy

British author Cat Clarke's latest novel is about Jem Halliday, who has been in love with her gay best friend for awhile.  Even if she didn't have that crush, he's the most important person in her life.  They've been friends through thick and then, and his sunny disposition helps her keep her chin up.  Of course, that's how things were.

Kai killed himself after someone emailed a pornographic video to the whole school, outing him in the worst way possible.  (I felt kind of weird about the fact that this storyline was clearly inspired by the real-life suicide of Tyler Clementi, but there was no author's note or afterward talking about the real case.)  Jem doesn't know how she's going to survive without him, when Kai's sister gives her twelve letters: one per month, written by Kai before he killed himself.  That's when Jem decides to track down whoever made the video and uploaded it and get revenge.

The first half of UNDONE flew by.  Clarke has a compulsively readable style, and Jem's emotions were raw and real.  She was angry, hurt, and confused by the things that started making her feel happy.  But then the book slowed down and the conclusion went totally off the rails.  (For those who read it: I'm not mad about the ending.  It's the climax that's really messy.)

The revenge storyline should drive UNDONE, but it feels half baked.  None of Jem's schemes are particularly clever, nor are they particularly brutal.  (I like to see people get their revenge thoroughly.)  Then there's the fact that she decides to base her entire course of revenge on an anonymous note. That's . . . convenient.  There is literally no investigation into who did the crime, she just believes this note.

It's sad that the plot is such a shaggy mess, because Jem is the best kind of unlikeable character.  She's lashing out, and she has an impressive steely reserve.  She has an interesting emotional arc.  She's confused by her own instincts and ignores the ways she's grown and changes on her own.  And her grief is pitch perfect.  There's also some interesting commentary on popularity.

There are seeds of a good story in UNDONE, but I can't really recommend it.  The climax makes me want to bang my head into a table until I pass out.  I'll stick to Clarke's other books.

If you are LGBTQ* and struggling with thoughts of suicide, please contact the Trevor Project at 1-866-488-7386.

May 1, 2014


The We Need Diverse Books campaign has started.  Why do you think we need diverse books?

Here's my reason:
We all have stories to tell.

We all deserve stories that speak to us.

Review: Adaptation

Adaptation By Malinda Lo
Available now from Little, Brown BFYR (Hachette) (US) and Hodder (UK)
Review copy

Reese Holloway and David Li are on their way home from a debate competition when things start to go really wrong.  Like, they wake up in a military hospital a month later wrong.  When they wake up, they aren't the same as they were.  For one thing, they can read minds.

I never quite got into Malinda Lo's first two books, even though I'd been especially excited by ASH, since I love fairytale retellings.  I found her style a bit stiff and cold.  They were good enough, but nothing I was over the moon about.  ADAPTATION, on the other hand, sucked me in and forced me to go to the library and borrow a copy of INHERITANCE so that I could read it immediately.

ADAPTATION is a science fiction novel with some thriller and romance elements.  Like many other science fiction novels, it is preoccupied with what makes us human.  Unlike many science fiction novels, Reese is also questioning her identity because she falls for a girl.  (Although Reese dates both David and Amber in the book, there is no cheating. One relationship clearly ends before another begins.)  It's a lovely mishmash between the philosophy of reality and of the imagination.  But it's not ponderous - there's lots of crazy, creepy stuff happening, including stalking by men in black.

A highlight for me, in both books, were Reese and David's family and friends.  Something strange has happened to them, but they have a loving, fierce support group backing them up.  Reese's mom might be one of my favorite parents in YA fiction.  Lo does a great job of showing that competent adults don't have to ruin the plot of a teen-oriented book.

If you're into science fiction, I highly recommend ADAPTATION and INHERITANCE.  I would say more about specific sci-fi elements that might entice you, but I'm afraid to give anything away.  Lo doesn't employ the most shocking twists, but it's still a fun journey.  (Side note: I thoroughly enjoyed how the love triangle resolved in INHERITANCE.)


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