May 30, 2015

Armchair BEA 2015: Giveaway

It is the fourth and final day of Armchair BEA.  The themes are Giveaways and Book-to-Movie Adaptations.  I am choosing to host a giveaway.

One of the major themes of Armchair BEA is experiencing an event and a community online, since we aren't able to do it in person.  That inspired my giveaway.

A few weeks ago, I went to a Fierce Reads Spring Fling tour event at Blue Willow Bookshop.  (You'll note that the second leg of the tour starts tomorrow, at BookCon.)

It was a great event - they had a photo area with a backdrop and lots of props, bingo with custom cards, and the store provided a raffle.  Katie Finn, Lynne Matson, Marie Rutkoski, and Lindsay Smith were all promoting the second books in their series, so they were all a bit handicapped about what they could talk about.  I was familiar with most of their books, but understood that it was likely not everyone in the audience had read them.

My reviews of:
The Winner's Curse by Marie Rutkoski
The Winner's Crime by Marie Rutkoski
Broken Hearts, Fences, and Other Things to Mend by Katie Finn
Sekret by Lindsay Smith

They could talk odd coincidences, like how Finn and Matson's books both start in a Target.  (Finn did that because she strangely seems to always wear her one red shirt to Target.)  The authors also talked about worldbuilding and how it can drive plot.  Rutkoski first decided that her more martial culture would carry knives and then that they would allow duels.  At that point, she knew that there had to be a duel in THE WINNER'S CURSE.  It seems like most of them were pantsers, which is a big problem when you're writing the second book in a trilogy!

Anyway, part of the fun of an event like this is all the swag.  So I'm giving away a swag pack!  There is a Fierce Reads tour poster signed by Finn, Matson, Rutkoski, and Smith, plus a Fierce Reads pen.  There are two bookmarks and a pin for Nil and Nil Unlocked by Matson.  There is a watermelon soy chapstick for Finn's series.  There are two bookmarks for Rutkoski, plus two bookmarks from Smith - one for her upcoming novel Dreamstrider.

BONUS ROUND!  For every ten entries, I'll add more swag to the swag pack.  And believe me, I have all sorts of cool stuff - including more posters.

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May 29, 2015

Review: The Eternity Key

The Eternity Key Book two of Into the Dark
By Bree Despain
Available now from Egmont USA
Review copy
Read my review of The Shadow Prince and my interview with Bree

I enjoyed THE SHADOW PRINCE, so it's no surprise that I would pick up THE ETERNITY KEY.  I appreciated that there was some recapping of events since it had been awhile since I read the first book.  I think that will also be a boon to readers who leap ahead and skip book one for whatever reason.

THE ETERNITY KEY continues to switch between Daphne and Haden's POVs, and adds Tobin's POV to the mix.  I'm not entirely sure Tobin's POV added that much to the story, aside from reminders that they do need to find Abbie/CeCe.  (Okay, his romance with Lexie is cute.)  The main plot of the story is trying to figure out where the Compass and Key are so that Haden and friends can get into the Underworld and kill the Keres, while not letting anyone else get the Key and prompting more undesirable outcomes.  (If that sentence was gibberish, read book one.)

I liked the way the romance between Daphne and Haden developed at first in THE ETERNITY KEY.  Haden is working up the courage to say the words, and Daphne is working to prove to Haden that they can be equals (instead of her being the damsel in distress).  And then Daphne rebuffs Haden for a reason that barely made sense.  I sure hope the third book has a better explanation, like magical interference.

THE ETERNITY KEY ends with all three narrators in peril.  Bree Despain is a cruel author, torturing her readers like that.  I hope Lerner acquiring titles from Egmont USA means that book three won't be delayed, because I need the conclusion to this trilogy.

Armchair BEA 2015: Blogging Q&A

It is the third day of Armchair BEA and today's topics are Character Chatter and Blogging Q&A.

I've been blogging about books since March 2008, so I definitely have some ideas about what works and what doesn't.

My number one tip is to schedule posts.  It makes me so much less stressed when I don't have to scramble to write tomorrow's post that night.  (You might laugh, but it took me quite awhile to get the hang of scheduling.)

Google Calendar is also your friend, for keeping track of releases and when you've agreed to do blog tours, interviews, guest blogs, or absolutely anything.  There will still be times you look at it and go, "Wait, what?  I didn't read that THE SKY IS FALLING DOWN," but in general you will be more on top of things.

But I've never been great about handing out tips cold.  Feel free to ask any blogging questions you might have!

May 28, 2015

Review: The Winner's Crime

The Winner's Crime Book two of The Winner's Trilogy
By Marie Rutkoski
Available now from Farrar, Straus and Giroux BFYR (Macmillan)
Review copy
Read my review of The Winner's Crime

 Marie Rutkoski knows how to keep you on your toes.  THE WINNER'S CRIME is a tale of entwining intrigues that ends in a cliffhanger that will make you wish you had THE WINNER'S KISS on hand.  (People reading this review at least a year in the future, I envy you for your ability to do just that.)

Kestrel is promised to marry Prince Verex and become the next empress, even though she loves Arin.  Arin is now the governor of Herran, but that doesn't mean his country is instantly set back to rights.  His country has been looted and stripped of much of his resources, yet they must still tithe the emperor.  Arin is reeling from the knowledge that Kestrel betrayed him and never loved him, whereas Kestrel is reeling from all she gave up is order to keep everyone she loved alive.

I normally don't like it when miscommunication propels the plot of a novel, particularly one with romantic elements, but it works here.  Rutkoski has created a situation where it isn't safe for the characters to just say the truth.  There are spies everywhere, and one wrong word will get both Arin and Kestrel killed (and more people along with them).  I also think it worked for me because they need some time where neither of them are the other's slave.

I enjoyed that the romance took a backseat to the politics.  The court is complicated, and Herran isn't the only source of conflict.  The country to the east is still fighting back, unconquered.  Their biggest weakness is the queen's sister, a hostage at the capital.  I cannot wait to see how that plot develops further in THE WINNER'S KISS.

Now, THE WINNER'S CRIME is a second book.  There's lots of establishing a new status quo and setting up all the exciting things to happen in the final book of the trilogy.  But it still works on its own, particularly a wrenching confrontation towards the middle of the book.  It's an exciting book to read and a rough one, because the characters keep making mistakes that are so them.  I can only hope that they get it right by the end.

Armchair BEA 2015: Visual Expressions

It is day two of Armchair BEA!  Participants will be posting about either or both of the following topics: Visual Expressions and Social Media.

I am going to stick to Visual Expressions.  I will be following Social Media conversations, because I know I could be working harder in that arena.

I love graphic novels and other formats that use illustrations to enhance and expand upon the text.  You can check out my tag for all graphic novel reviews and more.  (I also have a manga tag.)

If you check out those tags, you'll find some highlights.  To me, those include:

Currently, I'm fascinated by hybrid novels like Chasing Shadows by Swati Avasthi with graphic sections by Craig Phillips and In the Shadows by Kiersten White with graphic sections by Jim Di Bartolo.  These books are both regular prose novels and graphic novels, telling two stories that intertwine in two mediums.  (The word "shadows" in the title is optional.)

I also really dig the imprint TOON Books right now.  This imprint publishes books at three reading levels to help children increase their literacy proficiency using more and more sophisticated graphic novel techniques.  The layouts help them follow changes in setting (both time and place) and the pictures help give context and expression to characters and their actions.  Plus, they're just good kid's books.

I'm still reading manga, although I don't post about it much.  My favorite series currently being serialized is Gekkan Shoujo Nozaki-kun (that is, Girls' Monthly Nozaki-kun).  It is a 4-koma comic about a girl, her crush Nozaki who writes a popular monthly manga, and their friends who help make and inspire the manga story.  It is absolutely hilarious.  The simple structure allows for a ridiculous density of jokes.

So why do you love graphic novels?  What new and innovative titles or imprints are catching your eye?

May 27, 2015

Armchair BEA 2015: Introductions

It is the first day of Armchair BEA!  That means it is time to get to know everyone.  This is my third year, so I am an old hand at this.

What is your theme song?

My theme song is "Devil's Spoke" by Laura Marling.

Many trains and many miles,
Brought you to me on this sunny isle
And what of which you wish to speak,
Have you come here to rescue me?

What does diversity mean to you? 

This is a trickier question than it seems!  But to me diversity is plurality of voices, an environment not only consisting of different people but actively encouraging those people to speak.

What is one book everyone should read?

Watership Down by Richard Adams

What is your favorite genre and why? 

Lately, I've been loving political fantasy.  I like seeing intricate worlds built with a focus on how people interact and what makes (or breaks) power.  Go Goblin Emperor for the Hugo!

What book are you reading right now?

The Nest by Kenneth Oppel and illustrated by Jon Klassen (a real dream team!)

Take a picture of your bookshelf and share it with us! :) (#ABEAShelfie)

I actually just bought new shelves to replace those destroyed in a flood.*  Check out the tops of the shelves (and some odds n' ends) on my Instagram.

*Knock on wood, because the other parts of the shelves are being stored near a part of Houston that is currently flooding.

May 26, 2015

Review: The Lizard War

The Lizard War Battle Bugs, Book One
By Jack Patton
Illustrated by Brett Bean
Available now from Scholastic
Review copy

Max falls into a strange book to find himself on an island inhabited by bugs - giant ones, since he shrunk when he fell.  The bugs are under attack by the reptiles, and Max's knowledge of biology might help them win their next fight.

I liked that THE LIZARD WAR, the first book in the new Battle Bugs series, takes a positive stance on bugs.  Max absolutely loves them, and the book points out some of the cooler facts.  It's a great way for young readers to learn about the world around them.  There is also interesting info about the lizards.  However, education is not the focus of the story.  There's lots of action - scorpion vs. lizard, spider vs. lizard, and more.  Max comes up with some clever tactics to help the bugs out.

THE LIZARD WAR is an easy reader chapter book.  It is a little simple for my first-grader niece, but not so simple that it didn't engage her.  The illustrations, about one per chapter, have a boldly appealing cartoon style.  I really liked that the illustrations give Max darker skin, a detail not mentioned in the text.

So far three Battle Bugs books are listed on Amazon.  The ebook versions are especially affordable.  At 128 pages they're longer than some other easy reader chapter books, providing plenty of story for readers with a long enough attention span for the challenge.

May 25, 2015

Review: Love and Miss Communication

Love and Miss Communication By Elyssa Friedland
Available now from William Morrow (HarperCollins)
Review copy

LOVE AND MISS COMMUNICATION looked super cute.  It's the story of Evie Rosen, who gets fired for sending too many personal emails and discovers that her commitment-phobe ex got married six months after their breakup on Facebook, and decides to stay off the Internet for a year.  I spent the first half of the book wanting to shake Evie out of her self-absorbed funk.

I wasn't surprised by the zeal she brings to her decision to leave the Internet behind; there's nothing like the converted to disdain they were before.  I did think her characterization needed work.  Debut author Elyssa Friedland describes her as always having her Blackberry in her hand and constantly Facebook stalking people.  Yet, for instance, she's surprised when one of her stepsisters has already made friends at the college she's going to in the fall through Facebook.  It's not like she'd never used the Internet.

Then there's the way she is with her family and friends.  She's weirdly contemptuous of her stepsisters and has inappropriate boundaries with a student at her new job.  For talk of using actual phone calls to get closer to people, she never reaches out to her friends but waits for them to reach out to her.  However, LOVE AND MISS COMMUNICATION did start clicking into place for me once Evie's mother snaps at her that everyone tries to matchmake for her because she's so desperately and obviously unhappy being single.  The characters finally get tired of Evie and start talking to her and helping her realize that she needs to change her attitude.

Thus, the second half did work better for me.  Evie does have a journey to go on and a coherent character arc.  There is room in the world for grating characters.  And throughout the book I thought the romance worked well.  Now, it shows how much Evie idolizes marriage and how bad she is at communication that she never thinks to just ask the guy if she's divorced, but I did like that she holds back from actually making a move until she knows he isn't attached.  I also just thought their flirting was cute.  I also liked the parts about Evie's ex, Jack.  She's still reeling from the bad breakup, and Friedman captures the way you never really forget the people you loved.

I loved the premise of LOVE AND MISS COMMUNICATION.  I feel like it could've been explored more to its full potential with a character who was interested in actually connecting with people instead of being content to just complain about another missed evite.  The romance was cute and I liked Evie's grandmother and mother.  I also enjoyed every time someone pointed out to Evie how self-absorbed she was.  It made for an uneven reading experience, but not a wasted one.

May 21, 2015

Review: Uprooted

Uprooted By Naomi Novik
Available now from Del Rey (Penguin Random House)
Review copy

Naomi Novik has created a lovely fantasy rooted in a strong female friendship.  UPROOTED feels both traditional and fresh, with roots in folklore but a strong perspective of its own.  Agnieszka is a teenage girl in a village where one girl is taken by the Dragon once every ten years.  The girls are released, but always go on to leave the village.  To her surprise, Agnieszka is chosen instead of her lovely best friend Kasia.  (By the way, Agnieszka is the Polish version of Agnes, if you're confused about how to say it.)

Agnieszka's early days with the Dragon are miserable: he is rude and belittling.  But she soon discovers that she was picked because she has magic, and the Dragon must train her.  Unfortunately, Agnieszka is a lackadaisical student.  The Dragon is fastidious and fussy, and clashes strongly with Agnieszka's casual-to-slovenly manner.  Yet when Agnieszka's village and Kasia turn out to be in grave danger, she suddenly has a reason to pay attention to her magic and develop her gift.

UPROOTED is wonderfully creepy.  The antagonist is the Wood, a strange place that has been there as long as anyone can remember.  It is trying to overtake human settlements; being corrupted by the Wood is a horrible fate.  It requires constant vigilance by the strongest magicians to keep the Wood at bay.  It is a canny force indeed.  The horror of the wood contrasts with the warmth of Agnieszka's personality.

Magicians are long lived, and few of the ones living have many ties to other people left.  Agnieszka still cares, still has the optimism that she can save people and make a lasting difference.  She especially has her tie to Kasia, the childhood friend she loved and envied so long.  I love how complicated their relationship is.  Novik doesn't make it all sweet.  She develops the ways the girls resent each other, the secret frictions that happen between even the best of friends.

I don't have much to say about the romance between Agnieszka and the Dragon, which seems a rather obligatory hook up between the hero and heroine.  (It left a bit of a sour taste in my mouth, how awful he was to her in the beginning.  I was also disappointed he wasn't actually a dragon.)  I will say that I love how much relationships between women propel the plot.  UPROOTED is a great novel for female heroes and villains.

If you enjoy fantasy novels with a fairytale feel and a genuinely scary adversary, then read UPROOTED.  It is a novel sure to delight fans of Robin McKinley and Patricia C. Wrede.  While an adult novel, it has a lot of young adult appeal too.

May 20, 2015

Review: Feet, Go To Sleep

Feet, Go to Sleep By Barbara Bottner
Illustrated by Maggie Smith
Available now from Knopf (Penguin Random House)
Review copy

When I saw the cover of FEET, GO TO SLEEP, I knew my niece would enjoy the book.  The little girl wearing glasses and doing a headstand would definitely appeal to her.  (My niece is currently working on her aerial and generally terrifying any adult in her vicinity.)  It's also aimed right at my nephew's age group.

Barbara Bottner's text walks that little girl, Fiona, through going to sleep, body part by body part.  Maggie Smith's images work well with the text.  The book has a dual-image layout, where Fiona going to sleep is in a small box and the bigger image shows just how she used that body part on her seaside vacation.  The text and illustrations work very well together.

One touch I particularly loved is that Fiona's cousins (who she chases with her legs) are black.  It's a small detail that isn't commented on, but is appreciated.  Children are great at picking over the details in picture books through multiple readings.

I'm sure any adult who reads kids to sleep is used to the cry of "One more book!"  FEET, GO TO SLEEP makes for a good finish to bedtime reading.  Fiona's method of going to sleep, bit by bit, is very helpful and soothing.  (The details about how Fiona gets up to mischief during the day do keep the book from being a snore.)  FEET, GO TO SLEEP is a good nighttime read.

Be sure to visit the other tour stops:

Feet, Go to Sleep by Barbara Bottner
Blog Tour Schedule

May 19, 2015

Review: The Orphan Army

The Orphan Army First book of the Nightsiders series
By Jonathan Maberry
Available now from Simon & Schuster BFYR
Review copy

I know Jonathan Maberry's Rot and Ruin series is hugely popular, and I might've read the first book of the Nightsiders series for that alone.  But I was truly drawn in by the illustrated cover.  I love how detailed it is.  The swampy background, Milo throwing a stone, Evangelyne using magic, and the shadow of a menacing claw - all pretty accurate to the book contents.  (I cared so much about that sort of thing when I was in the proper age range.)

I do thing THE ORPHAN ARMY starts slow for a book aimed at the middle grade market.  There is lots to set up: this Earth is being attack by Bugs and the humans are losing.  Even the children are fighting in the war.  (This is the justification to make eleven-year-old Milo part of the action, which is likely only believable to younger readers.)  Milo has had strange dreams all his life, but his waking days get even weirder when he runs into a wolf and a girl while on patrol.  However, it takes almost a hundred pages to get to the real action.  The pace is helped along by the short chapters.

THE ORPHAN ARMY combines science fiction (the attacking aliens) with fantasy (the Nightsiders).  As Milo finds out, many of the creatures humans tell stories about are real, and they're coming out of hiding to help fight the Bugs.  Maberry knows how to create a high-stakes situation.  Milo doesn't feel like he's a hero, but his dreams have been preparing him for this.  He not only has to fight the Bugs, but also convince the Nightsiders that humans are worth working with and saving.

THE ORPHAN ARMY ends with a few tantalizing hints about what is to come.  I'm sure those who enjoy the book will be eager to pick up the second volume in the Nightsiders series.  I don't think this one is for me.  It's very middle grade, with little crossover interest for adult readers.  It is written on a simple level, and I just found the age of the protagonist too unbelievable.  I'm getting old.  I do have some younger relatives I think will love it.  Scifi/fantasy with lots of action and no romance is right up their alley.

May 18, 2015

Spotlight on The Predictions

The Predictions By Bianca Zander
Available now from William Morrow (HarperCollins)
Review copy

There was a bit of a shipping mix-up, so I'm still reading THE PREDICTIONS.  But I like what I've read so far.  It starts with a literal bang when Shakti wrecks her car arriving at Gaialand's, the commune where Poppy was raised.

Shakti isn't the only other change in their lives.  Poppy and the other six kids on the commune were raised equally by all the adults, not knowing who their birth parents were.  But when hormones started flying, the adults realized they had to step in and tell.  Shakti reveals more of the cracks between the commune's ideals and reality, but that was the first for the kids.  And as Poppy puts it, "I didn't say any of this to Shakti, but in my opinion if the adults didn't like the way we had turned out, it wasn't our fault. It was theirs (page 58)."

THE PREDICTIONS is a very swift read.  I was interested in it because I thought it would stretch my horizons.  I haven't read much literature from New Zealand, so that peaked my interest.  I also like the idea of a book that spanned both a commune and the fading 80s punk rock scene in London.  The very original settings help this bildungsroman stand apart, and Zander's writing keeps it all from seeming too crazy.  I'm looking forward to finishing the second half of the book!

About The Predictions

Gaialands, a bucolic vegan commune in the New Zealand wilderness, is the only home fifteen-year-old Poppy has ever known. It's the epitome of 1970s counterculture—a place of free love, hard work, and high ideals . . . at least in theory. But Gaialands's strict principles are shaken when new arrival Shakti claims the commune's energy needs to be healed and harnesses her divination powers in a ceremony called the Predictions. Poppy is predicted to find her true love overseas, so when her boyfriend, Lukas, leaves Gaialands to fulfill his dream of starting a punk rock band in London, she follows him. In London, Poppy falls into a life that looks very like the one her prediction promised, but is it the one she truly wants?

The Predictions is a mesmerizing, magical novel of fate, love, mistakes, and finding your place in the world.

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About Bianca Zander

Bianca ZanderBianca Zander is British-born but has lived in New Zealand for the past two decades. Her first novel, The Girl Below, was a finalist for the VCU Cabell First Novelist Award, and she is the recipient of the Creative New Zealand Louis Johnson New Writers' Bursary and the Grimshaw Sargeson Fellowship, recognizing her as one of New Zealand's eminent writers. She is a lecturer in creative writing at the Auckland University of Technology.

Check out Bianca's website, and connect with her on Facebook and Twitter.

May 15, 2015

Spotlight on Spelled

Spelled I recently finished reading SPELLED, the first book in a new series by Betsy Schow.  It is a rather cracked take on THE WIZARD OF OZ (both the book and the movie - note the princess's ruby and silver heels.)  I look forward to sharing my review of it with you in June.

Until then, you can enjoy this bonus content on Schow's website, read the excerpt below, and enter to win a SPELLED gift basket.


Most of the crowd had dispersed. The final few stragglers looked at me with the all­too-common look of fear mixed with trepidation. Pix ’em. They were just servants. It wasn’t like their opinion mattered.

Only one remained, watching me with open curiosity. He looked to be in his late teens or was magically enhanced to appear so. He could have been a hundred for all I knew. I’d never seen him before in my life. He was handsome enough, for a commoner, even in his worn leather pants and cracked work boots. A foreigner, his hair was unruly and dark auburn, which complemented his tanned but dirt-smudged complexion, though the tall, dark stranger vibe was ruined by his piercing pale blue eyes.

Well, I’d had enough of being a sideshow for the day. “If you’re the new gardener, the hedges are overgrown and in need of a trim.” I pointed in the direction of my father. “While you’re there, you can help the king with the wisps.”

The young man’s expression clouded over, but he didn’t move.

I stamped my foot and pointed more forcefully. “Off with you. Courtyard’s that way. Be sure to clean those awful boots before coming back in.”

“Someone told me I’d find a princess of great worth here. One with the strength to be the hero this realm needs.” He stared at me with those unsettling blue eyes. They were cold, like ice water—made me shiver from head to toe. Then his gaze seemed to search even deeper. Finally, he looked through me, like I was nothing.

In brisk steps, he strode across the marble to the courtyard. But before crossing the threshold, he turned back to glare at me with his lip curled ever so slightly. “It seems she was mistaken.”

Just like that, I had been sifted, weighed, and found wanting.

I felt my own lip curl in response. How rude! Who the Grimm was this peasant to judge me? I was wearing a Glenda original. Original! Not some fairy-godmother knockoff worn by those servant girls turned royal. I was a crown princess, for the love of fairy, and no one dismissed me.

Before I could put the boy in his place—down in the dirt, where he belonged—a clatter came from behind, making me nearly jump out of my shoes. I checked and was relieved that Sterling had simply dropped his sword. By the time I looked back, the gardener was gone.

After stowing his blade, Sterling held up his shield, not in defense of the entrance but so he could look at his reflection. “Clearly he’s blind and doesn’t know what he’s talking about.”

I didn’t ask for Sterling’s opinion, but it made me feel better.

Until he opened his mouth again. “Worth, pffft. I mean, look around at all the jewels. Your palace has everything you could ever want. Honestly, I don’t know what you’re fussing about. Why would anyone want to leave?”

Because a cage is still a cage, no matter how big or glittering the bars are. And I would find a way free, no matter the cost.

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May 14, 2015

Review: The Hunted

The Hunted Sequel to The Living
By Matt de la Peña
Available now from Delacorte (Penguin Random House)
Review copy

I have wanted to read THE HUNTED since the moment I finished THE LIVING, and hearing Matt de la Peña read the first chapter at a book signing only whetted my appetite.  THE HUNTED starts about a month later, when Shy, Carmen, Marcus, and Shoeshine finally make it to California.

In THE LIVING, they had to mainly survive a fight against nature.  Now, they have to mainly escape people.  A biker gang is killing travelers to keep them from spreading the Romero virus.  And a certain entity wants to kill Shy and his friends because they know too much about the virus.  Their only hope is to hike across a picked-over post-apocalyptic California to Arizona.  It is a brutal journey.

I don't think THE HUNTED can truly be enjoyed without THE LIVING.  De la Peña recaps the bare minimum, particularly when it comes to character relationships.  I certainly don't think the passages involving Addie have much meaning if you haven't read the first book.  Fortunately, both books in the duology are quick reads.  The chapters are short of full of action, which keeps the pages turning.

I felt that Shoeshine was more of a plot mechanism than a character in THE LIVING, so I like that he's a little more fleshed out in THE HUNTED.  A former soldier is still an incredibly lucky person to have by your side in a survival situation, but THE HUNTED gives hints of his hobbies and of his past. 

I'm also truly thankful that rape isn't used as a threat in THE HUNTED.  It is overplayed in dystopian/post-apocalyptic books, like everybody - not just rapists - couldn't resist the urge if civilization collapsed.  People are too busy being awful to each other in other ways.  (To be fair, a virus with a 100% death rate is scary.)

THE HUNTED is a great survival against the odds story.  The protagonist, Shy, is hugely likeable.  I could read many more books featuring him.  I'm happy to leave it at two, although there are some unanswered questions that de la Peña could answer in a third book.  Be sure to read THE LIVING and THE HUNTED if you like quick books about intense journeys and noble causes featuring diverse casts.

May 13, 2015

Review: Unusual Chickens for the Exceptional Poultry Farmer

Unusual Chickens for the Exceptional Poultry Farmer By Kelly Jones
Illustrated by Katie Kath
Available now from Knopf BFYR (Penguin Random House)
Review copy

The back of UNUSUAL CHICKENS FOR THE EXCEPTIONAL POULTRY FARMER recommends the book to fans of Roald Dahl, which is a good call.  It doesn't have his particularly wicked humor or sense of real menace, but it does have his matter-of-fact magic and a young protagonist who succeeds through a mixture of cleverness and goodness.  It also has ink illustrations by Katie Kath that will remind readers of Quentin Blake.

Sophie Brown and her parents move to a farm in a small town that they inherited from Sophie's great-uncle Jim.  They're new to farm life, but her dad is still searching for a new job and her mom is making do selling articles and they needed somewhere to live.  Things start to change for Sophie once she finds a catalog for unusual chickens - and then starts finding unusual chickens.  The story is pretty predictable, but it is told with a light hand and strong characterization.

Sophie tells her story through letters to her deceased abuelita, her uncle Jim, and Agnes (who owns the chicken farm).  There are also newspaper clippings, lists, and lessons on poultry farming interspersed throughout.  The drawings by Kath help tell other parts in the story in addition to illustrating some of the memorable parts of the letters.  There are even a few letters from Agnes, poorly typed and brief.  I like how actual facts about the work that goes into raising chickens are woven into this tale of unique chickens and the girl who is determined to protect them from a pernicious chicken thief (and anyone else who might use their strange qualities for unsavory means).

Also wonderful is how smoothly Sophie's heritage is woven into UNUSUAL CHICKENS FOR THE EXCEPTIONAL POULTRY FARMER.  Sophie, her mother, and her abuelita are all Latina.  There's Spanish phrases in her letters to her grandma, the inclusion of a migas recipe, references to the family dancing to Celia Cruz.  It's a small but pertinent detail of her life.  (Especially in her new town, where pretty much everyone but the mailman is white.)

UNUSUAL CHICKENS FOR THE EXCEPTIONAL POULTRY FARMER is an excellent choice for the younger reader who likes their books flavored with a hint of the exotic.  It mostly reads like a contemporary tale of a girl going to a new place, making friends, and finding a hobby.  But the subtle strangeness around the edges is ever present and pervades the entire story.  It's definitely a fantastical book.  A debut worth clucking about.

May 12, 2015

Review: Dark Screams: Volume Three

Dark Screams Volume three of the Dark Screams anthologies
Edited by Brian James Freeman and Richard Chizmar
Stories by Peter Straub, Jack Ketchum, Darynda Jones, Jacquelyn Frank, and Brian Hodge
Available now from Hydra (Penguin Random House)
Review copy

I have to give this anthology props for size.  It fit perfectly into my thirty-minute lunch break.  Sometimes these shorter works aren't quite long enough or are just a bit too long, which can be slightly unsatisfying.  Unfortunately, everyone's reading speed differs so that aspect might not work quite as well for other people.

"The Collected Short Stories of Freddie Prothero" by Peter Straub

The biggest name in DARK SCREAMS: VOLUME THREE leads off the anthology.  I mostly skimmed this story.  I love pseudo academia, so I liked the introduction to the stories of Freddie, analyzing what certain terms might mean and such.  But the barely literate or coherent style of the stories themselves just isn't my thing.  I gave it a quick shot, but nothing drew me in so I didn't force it. 

"Group of Thirty" by Jack Ketchum

"Group of Thirty" was my favorite story in the anthology.  A local horror writer goes to speak to a writer's group, who start getting aggressive and interrogating him about the heinous acts he writes about.  The story felt timely and I enjoyed the unexpected turn the climax took.  The narrator's weariness not only set the tone but also worked well with the plot.

"Nancy" by Darynda Jones

This is the story that drew me to the anthology.  I really enjoy Jones' grim reaper novels, which are laugh-out-loud funny paranormal romance/fantasy.  I was quite curious about how she would approach horror.  "Nancy" isn't edge-of-your-seat scary, but it does explore some of the worst aspects of human nature.  It also has a refreshingly nice popular girl character, which isn't something I expect to find in a horror anthology.

"I Love You, Charlie Pearson" by Jacquelyn Frank

Frank is another author not known for horror, so it is interesting that she wrote the most typical horror story in DARK SCREAMS: VOLUME THREE.  Charlie Pearson, the narrator, is a twisted stalker, and the story contrasts human and supernatural monstrousness.  It isn't a revelatory theme, but the final paragraph is creepy enough to carry it.

"The Lone and Level Strands Stretch Far Away" by Brian Hodge

The anthology closes with the uneven "The Lone and Level Strands Stretch Far Away."  The descriptions of urban exploration, exploring abandoned buildings, are top notch, especially when the parkour group disturbs a building perhaps left best alone.  Meanwhile, narrator Aiden's boredom with his wife Tara and growing attraction to new next door neighbor Marni (of course growing because of Tara's unfounded suspicions of an affair hounding him) is so boring and predictable.  I wanted more horror and less lame-o relationship drama featuring an unsympathetic dude.

I mostly enjoyed the stories in DARK SCREAMS: VOLUME THREE, but don't go in expecting intense horror.  These stories are rather gentle and tame.  You'll be able to sleep with no problem after reading them.

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May 11, 2015

Review: Undertow

Undertow First in a series
By Michael Buckley
Available now from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt BFYR
Review copy

Michael Buckley, author of the popular middle-grade series NERDS and Sisters Grimm, makes the transition to YA with UNDERTOW.  The first in the series, it could be described as District 9 meets mermaids set in Coney Island.

The Alpha, a group of aquatic species resembling the legendary mermaids, selkies, nixies, and more, first appeared on the shore a few years ago.  They've lived in a shanty town on the beach, but now they're going to integrate more, including the prince and some others attending the local high school.  (There is a clear allegory of the Little Rock Nine and desegregation.)  Lyric Walker doesn't want them to integrate because it puts more attention on her high school, and possibly her.  She's half-Alpha; her mother was part of a first wave that spied on and lived with humans.  All but one of the other half-Alpha families have been disappeared by the government and the Walkers don't want to be next.

The complicated politics Buckley sets up in UNDERTOW are fantastic.  Different branches of the US government want different things.  The people of Coney Island want different things.  The Alpha want different things from each other too.  I also liked the development of the differences in Alpha culture.  They're more prone to fighting to prove their point, and not treating their wounds to prove their honor and toughness.  (It's all a little ridiculous, as Lyric points out.)  There are parallels to real-world racial politics, but I liked that Buckley doesn't hammer to hard at them or make them the focus of the book, since treating people who can grow swords out of their arms as dangerous is a good idea.  The focus is more on how people can react to differences, how some people reach out and others seek to divide.

No one will be surprised that Lyric and the prince, Fathom, fall in love.  I did like that Lyric wasn't divided between two boys.  However, UNDERTOW isn't love triangle free since the prince already has a fiancee.  I did like that Lyric doesn't forget her other concerns for love.  Keeping her parents and friends safe are always her top priority.  (I did rather dislike one plot point that felt designed for cheap tragedy, rather than proving that anyone could die.)

The ending to UNDERTOW felt rather abrupt, with lots of information coming at once followed by a big confrontation and a cliffhanger.  It's pretty par for the course for the opening of a YA trilogy, but I did expect more because Buckley did manage to skillfully work past many cliches.  I'm still looking forward to the next novel, especially since it looks like it will dive even deeper into the world of the Alpha.

May 10, 2015

Guest Blog: 10 Most Memorable Moms in New Fiction

By Andrea Lochen

What better time of year than Mother’s Day to showcase some of the most memorable fictional mothers in some of the best new novels? From loving, supportive mothers to complex, trailblazing mothers to selfish, vindictive mothers, this list has it all!

The Perfect Son 1) The Perfect Son by Barbara Claypole White (Lake Union, July 2015)

Ella Fitzwilliam, the mom in THE PERFECT SON, quit a successful career in jewelry design to be full-time parent, mental health coach, and advocate for her son, Harry, who has a soup of issues that include Tourette syndrome. She has devoted 17 years of her life to his therapy, to educating teachers, to being Harry’s emotional rock and giving him the confidence he needs to be Harry. Thanks to her, Harry is comfortable in his own skin, even when people stare. After Ella has a major heart attack in the opening chapter, her love for Harry tethers her to life. But as she recovers, she discovers the hardest parenting lesson of all: to let go.

Rodin's Lover 2) Rodin’s Lover by Heather Webb (Plume, January 2015)

In RODIN’S LOVER, Camille’s mother, Louise Claudel, is spiteful, jealous, and disapproving of Camille’s pursuit to become a female sculptor in the 1880s. She also shows signs of mental illness. Because of this relationship, Camille struggles with all of her female relationships the rest of her life, and ultimately, to prove to her mother that she’s truly talented.

Imaginary Things 3) Imaginary Things by Andrea Lochen (Ed: our guest blogger) (Astor + Blue Editions, April 2015)

 In IMAGINARY THINGS, young single mother Anna Jennings has a unique power that most parents only dream of—the ability to see her four-year-old son’s imagination come to life. But when David’s imaginary friends turn dark and threatening, Anna must learn the rules of this bizarre phenomenon, what his friends truly represent, and how best to protect him.

The Magician's Lie 4) The Magician’s Lie by Greer Macallister (Sourcebooks, January 2015)

 In THE MAGICIAN'S LIE, Arden's mother is remarkable both for what she does and what she doesn't do. As a young woman, she bears a child out of wedlock and runs away with her music teacher, never fearing the consequences. But later in life, her nerve fails her—just when her daughter needs her most.

Five Days Left 5) Five Days Left by Julie Lawson Timmer (Putnam, 2014)

 In FIVE DAYS LEFT, Mara Nichols is, in some ways, a typical mother: she loves her daughter fiercely, thinks about her constantly and goes to great lengths to balance her high-stress legal career with her daughter’s needs. But there are two ways in which Mara isn't typical at all. First, she adopted her daughter from India, making good on a lifelong promise to rescue a baby from the same orphanage where Mara herself lived decades ago. And second, when Mara is diagnosed with a fatal, incurable illness that will render her unable to walk, talk or even feed herself, she has to make the kind of parenting choice none of us wants to consider—would my child be better off if I were no longer alive?

House Broken 6) House Broken by Sonja Yoerg (Penguin/NAL, January 2015)

 In HOUSE BROKEN, Helen Riley has a habit of leaving her grown children to cope with her vodka-fueled disasters. She has her reasons, but they’re buried deep, and stem from secrets too painful to remember and, perhaps, too terrible to forgive.

You Were Meant For Me 7) You Were Meant for Me by Yona Zeldis McDonough (Penguin/NAL, 2014)

 In YOU WERE MEANT FOR ME, having a baby is the furthest thing from Miranda Berenzweig’s mind. She’s newly single after a bad break up, and focused on her promotion at work, her friends and getting her life back on track. Then one frigid March night she finds a newborn infant in a NYC subway and even after taking the baby to the police, can’t get the baby out of her mind. At the suggestion of the family court judge assigned to the case, Miranda begins adoption proceedings. But her plans—as well as her hopes and dreams—are derailed when the baby’s biological father surfaces, wanting to claim his child. The way she handles this unforeseen turn of events is what makes Miranda a truly memorable mother.

The Far End of Happy 8) The Far End of Happy by Kathryn Craft (Sourcebooks Landmark, May 2015)

In THE FAR END OF HAPPY, Ronnie has hung in there as long as she can during her husband's decline into depression, spending issues, and alcoholism and he will not accept her attempts to get him professional help. She is not a leaver, but can't bear for her sons to witness the further deterioration of the marriage. She determines to divorce—and on the day he has promised to move out, he instead arms himself, holes up inside a building on the property, and stands off against police. When late in the day the police ask Ronnie if she’ll appeal to him one last time over the bullhorn, she must decide: with the stakes so high, will she try one last time to save her husband’s life? Or will her need to protect her sons and her own growing sense of self win out?

Your Perfect Life 9) Your Perfect Life by Liz Fenton and Lisa Steinke (Washington Square Press, 2014)

In YOUR PERFECT LIFE, long-time friends, Rachel and Casey wake up the morning after their twenty year high school reunion to discover they’ve switched bodies. Casey is single with no children before becoming an instant mom to Rachel’s two teenagers and baby. Despite her lack of experience as a parent, and her often comedic missteps with the baby in particular (think: diaper blow outs and sudden sleep deprivation) Casey’s fresh perspective on her new role helps her connect with each of the children in a very different way than Rachel. And when the oldest, Audrey, is almost date raped at her prom, it is Casey’s strength that she draws from an experience in her own past that ultimately pulls Audrey through. Although it is hard for Rachel to watch her best friend take care of Audrey when she so desperately wants to, she realizes that Casey can help her daughter in a way she can’t. And Casey discovers she might have what it takes to be a mom to her own children someday.

The Life List 10) The Life List by Lori Nelson Spielman (Bantam, 2013)

Elizabeth Bohlinger, the mother in THE LIFE LIST, is actually deceased. But she still has a big presence in her daughter's life—some may say too big! With heartfelt letters, Elizabeth guides her daughter, Brett, on a journey to complete the life list of wishes Brett made when she was just a teen. Like many mothers, Elizabeth has an uncanny ability to see into her daughter's heart, exposing buried desires Brett has long forgotten.

Andrea Lochen is a University of Michigan MFA graduate. Her first novel, The Repeat Year (Berkley, 2013), won a Hopwood Award for the Novel prior to its publication. She has served as fiction editor of The Madison Review and taught writing at the University of Michigan. She currently teaches at the University of Wisconsin-Waukesha, where she was recently awarded UW Colleges Chancellor's Award for Excellence in Teaching. Her second novel, Imaginary Things (Astor + Blue Editions, 2015) is recently released and has garnered wonderful praise. With features on Barnes &, Huffington Post, and Brit + Co., her work is being introduced to thousands of new readers. Andrea currently lives in Madison with her husband and daughter and is at work on her third novel. For more information visit

May 8, 2015

Kneehigh's Tristan & Yseult @ Alley Theatre

Kneehigh, a British theatre company, are touring the US with their production of Tristan & Yseult.  They premiered this play in 2003 and designed it for two outdoor spaces.  It put the company on the map, which led to adapting it to be performed indoors.  I'm thrilled that I got to see this innovative tragic romance since it is currently being performed by Kneehigh at the Alley Theatre.

Press release
Buy tickets

Tristan & Yseult is a wonderfully stagey production.  The special effects are mostly blatantly artificial, finding delight in a red scarf acting as a flood of blood or stagehands walking around flapping the wings of plastic birds and making cooing sounds.  There are no attempts at realism, just a submersion into a heightened world where a love potion can hasten lust and hands can heal and heartbreak can kill.

The center stage is a ring that separates into two pieces, overlooked by some catwalk and a smaller stage where the band sits.  Music is almost constant in Tristan & Yseult (sometimes drowning out the words).  There are some covers of popular songs (notably "Get Lucky" transitioning from the intermission), snippets of classics ("O Fortuna" and most notably Wagner's Tristan und Isolde), and the score by Stu Barker.  It involves everything from guitar to dulcimer and flute (played by Yseult herself).

The cast is wonderful.  Everyone does double-duty as the Unloved, a hooded and rainslickered chorus that serves as stage hands and background comedy.  Dominic Marsh plays the French Tristan with an accent and rock star attitude.  Hannah Vassallo plays the Irish Yseult with passion, and makes good use of her background in dance.  However, I can't decide if the standout actor is Damon Duanno or Niall Ashdown.  Duanno plays Frocin, the servant determined to reveal the affair since Tristan took his place in King Mark's court.  He can sing, he can dance, he can bark like a dog.  He's energetic and hilarious and owns the stage on the long scenes that cede him control of it.

Ashdown, meanwhile, plays too very different roles.  Morholt is a thug and Yseult's loving brother - killed by Tristan.  Brangian is Yseult's comical maid who helps her hide her tryst with Tristan.  The crossdressing is somewhat comedic in itself (there are no attempts to make Ashdown actually pass as a woman), but Branigan's departure from the play is beautiful and tragic.  He makes you forget what a figure of fun Branigan has been.  It's an encapsulation of the whole play in one biting, short speech.

The end of Tristan & Yseult didn't quite work for me.  It pushes the comedy so much, and is just so fun and high energy, that there is no real way for the turn to tragedy not to be somewhat jarring.  It is foreshadowed well, but could be smoother.  I also feel like the play transcends the language.  Carl Grose and Anna Maria wrote most of it in rhyming couplets.  This sometimes veers twee, especially between the eponymous lovers.  There's also lots of repetition, some of it not so effective.  But the performances and stages more than make up for these weaknesses.

Tristan & Yseult runs through May 24 at the Alley Theatre.  I highly recommend going to see it if you can.  If it isn't playing near you, hopefully Kneehigh will come your way eventually with a cast and band at least half this good.

May 7, 2015

Review: The Novice

The Novice The Summoner Trilogy, Book One
By Taran Matharu
Available now from Feiwel & Friends (Macmillan)
Review copy

Taran Matharu's THE NOVICE, the first book in the Summoner trilogy, was a hit on Wattpad.  Between that and the generic cover - it looks rather like a Sarah J. Maas book - I didn't have high hopes for anything but a reasonably entertaining fantasy read.

To my surprise, I really liked THE NOVICE.  Protagonist Fletcher is an orphan raised by a blacksmith.  He defends himself against a deadly attack, but goes on the run because it is his word against a rich boy's.  He ends up in the school for summoners because he has the talent to bond himself to demons.  THE NOVICE is great for anyone who loves magic school stories, because there is lots of detail about how a person's magic works, how a demon's works, and what they know of where the demons live.  I also appreciated that Fletcher wasn't ridiculously gifted.  He's got more natural skill than some of the others, but he has to study hard and think fast to keep up.

Probably why I really loved it is all the fantasy politics.  I love some good fantasy politics.  There are four main races in the story: humans, dwarves, elves, and orcs.  Dwarves live peacefully with the humans, but are denied many of their rights.  Many desire to rebel again.  The elven front is where old warriors go to retire; it is naught but a cold war.  However, negotiations are opening for peace.  Meanwhile, a bitter war is being fought (and lost) against the orcs (who can also use magic).  Humans don't think much of the dwarves or elves, but they're being allowed to learn summoning because the army needs all the mages it can get.  The summoners are also divided between those of noble blood and those who are commoners.

THE NOVICE dives deeper into the dwarf culture than the elf culture.  Matharu bases much of it on South and Middle Eastern customs rather than Western customs.  It is a refreshing change, and done with much sympathy.  Fletcher is a bit too good at times, so much less racist than all the other humans despite not having exposure to any of the sympathetic political movements growing up.  But he does have his blind spots, including attaching himself to the more talented commoner students while ignoring the others.

I'm not going to pretend THE NOVICE isn't derivative or that it isn't predictable.  But it uses those standard trappings well.  The themes of class and racial inequality run deep, and the politics plot adds more interest and action to the school story.  I'm not even that mad about the cliffhanger ending. 

May 6, 2015

Scholastic Summer Reading Challenge

The Scholastic Summer Reading Challenge started yesterday and runs through September 4th.  This free program, sponsored by Scholastic and Energizer, includes twelve stories by popular authors that kids can unlock.  There's even a read aloud function!

Blue Balliett, Patrik Henry Bass, Varian Johnson, Gordon Korman, Michael Northtrop, Maggie Stiefvater and Jackson Pierce, Roland Smith, R.L. Stine, Tui T. Sutherland, Lauren Tarshis, Wendy Wan-Long Shang and Jude Watson

Each story is fully illustrated by Moonsub Shin and starts with the same sentence:
“I glanced over my shoulder to make sure that no one had followed me into the shadowy library, then took a deep breath and opened the glowing book…” 
In addition, the middle school with the most reading minutes will win a visit from Varian Johnson and the elementary school likewise will win a visit from Michael Northrup.

There's also a creative writing game available on the site.

Kids can start by reading "A Kick in the Teeth" by Wendy Wan-Long Shang.

Parents, meanwhile, can enter to win Power Up & Read prize packs every week.  There are also resources for librarians and teachers on the site.

May 5, 2015

Review: The Friendship Riddle

The Friendship Riddle By Megan Frazer Blakemore
Available now from Bloomsbury
Review copy

I first became aware of Megan Frazer Blakemore through THE WATER CASTLE, which was a Cybils Awards Finalist.  I am a huge fan of her books.  They're big on the power of friendship and the importance of finding answers, with casual diversity and stories the slowly come together into a surprisingly fantastic whole.

Her books, including THE FRIENDSHIP RIDDLE, do have one big flaw: they tend to have very slow starts.  You have to push through to be rewarded.  It might be harder for someone in the target age group (about late elementary) to keep reading even though the start isn't instantly gripping.

Ruth is a sixth grader and a bit of a loner since her best friend Charlotte ditched her for popular Melinda.  But that's okay; she's find being alone like her favorite book character (or so she tells herself).  When she finds a riddle, she starts having to reach out to others to find the answers leading to the next clue.  She also befriends Coco, a boy who offers to help her study for the spelling bee.  Making friends is something many middle school students struggle with (because middle school is a terrible time of life), so it's a very sympathetic plotline.  So is Ruth's frustration with her mothers, one who is away for work and another who keeps embarrassing her by setting up playdates or campaigning to improve some aspect of the school.

I thought Ruth was a great main character.  I'm sure many readers will connect to her bookishness and her surety that she's not ready for romance yet.  I quite liked many of the supporting characters too, especially the friendly Coco and gregarious Lena.  I liked that Blakemore even found a way to show likeable aspects of Lucas, an extremely competitive nerd.

I think THE FRIENDSHIP RIDDLE is a wonderful book.  The story ties together in a way I would role my eyes at in an adult novel, but that is perfect for middle grade.  I do wish it started with more momentum, but that's a small complaint.

I do have to note that the kids play Fuzzy Bunny in THE FRIENDSHIP RIDDLE.  (That is, seeing who can stuff the most marshmallows in their mouth.)  You might want to advise any young readers in your life not to copy this behavior, since the game has resulted in choking deaths.

May 4, 2015

Movie Monday: Avengers: Age of Ultron

Age of Ultron soundtrackI thought that Avengers: Age of Ultron was a ridiculously fun movie.  There were some parts that fell flat, but the highs were so high and it gelled so strongly in the end that I loved it.  I will have to see it again; my theatre was excited enough that I missed some lines due to laughing, cheering, or other boisterous reactions.

The movie opens with the Avengers on a mission to find Loki's scepter.  (Those of us watching Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. could enjoy the tie-in.)  I thought the opening looked super fake - maybe it was all that snow?  But soon enough Tony Stark was getting excited by a secret entrance and I was absorbed into the movie.

As much happens in Age of Ultron, there is room for a few quieter scenes.  I really enjoyed the party, where characters from throughout the franchise (and Stan Lee) came together.  Tony and Thor getting into a verbal fight about who has the most impressive girlfriend was ridiculously adorable.  I also enjoyed Natasha putting on her best noir dame attitude to romance Bruce Banner.  The romance ended up getting short shrift, but I still might have feelings about Natasha and the Hulk, which I did not expect.

I also find myself really liking the new characters, Wanda and Pietro.  One of the advantages of Marvel's Avengers was that it didn't have to waste time on character introductions, since they'd all had origins in other films (mostly).  But the way the twins came into the Avengers world really worked.  I first loved them when they failed at intimidation, and then when they both had cute moments with Hawkeye.  And if you were sad Hawkeye barely had anything to do in the first film, you'll be happy with Age of Ultron.  He gets the line reading of the movie with one pep talk.

I find the way the Marvel Cinematic Universe is shaped so pleasing.  Getting to revisit these characters each year is a treat.  Age of Ultron can't please everybody, but it did please me.  Bring on Phase III!

May 2, 2015

A Great Day For Books

The first Saturday in May is Free Comic Book Day, as everyone who is a giant dork like me knows.  You can use this handy Store Locator to find a participating shop near you.

If you live in Houston, I recommend the Bedrock City chain of stores.  Especially since they almost always have special events for FCBD (even if they aren't listed on the FCBD site).

Today is also the first Independent Bookstore Day, expanding from the previous California Bookstore Days.  (I think it was bad planning to have both of these things on the same day, because now I have a ton of bookstores to hit!)

You can locate a participating store near you here.  In Houston, Brazos Bookstore, Blue Willow Bookshop, and Katy Budget Books are all participating.  I've never been to Brazos, but KBB is the bookstore of my childhood and Blue Willow is a fantastic little place.  So check 'em out!

May 1, 2015

Review: The Girl at Midnight

The Girl at Midnight By Melissa Grey
Available now from Delacorte Press (Penguin Random House)
Review copy

I was drawn in by the name and cover of THE GIRL AT MIDNIGHT.  Both are just this side of generic, but with a spark of personality.  That's a pretty good summation of the book too.  If you're looking for a plot with lots of twists and turns (or even just a small surprise), this is not the book for you.

Debut author Melissa Grey writes with a lot of charm, which will serve her well as she grows further into her voice and starts to take her plot and characters in their own direction.  THE GIRL AT MIDNIGHT is a perfectly likeable book.  It's an easy read that will probably take most readers a single afternoon.  There's some action, some magic, some romance.  It's got all the ingredients for a good time even if it doesn't break the mold.  Homemade chocolate chip cookies might be the best, but there's a place for Chips Ahoy! too.

Echo is a seventeen-year-old thief who lives in magic-hidden cove of a public library with the Ala, both of them working for the Avicen, a race of bird-like people.  They're at war with the Drakharin, a race of dragon-like people.  Then Echo comes across the means to find the Firebird, a prophesied being that can end the war.  Echo shares narrating duties with Caius, the Dragon Prince; Dorian, his captain of the guard; and Ivy, her friend.  I wish the narration had been more focused.  It seems strange for some of the characters to take over for one or two chapters before fading back into the background.  It also might've given the book a bit more surprise if we were getting detailed points of view from both sides of the conflict.

I think Echo was the weakest point of the main characters.  She's got a dark past, a quirk of collecting words, and is an impossibly good thief.  She's mostly motivated by a desire to belong with the Avicen, to prove her place despite being a human.  But she just didn't have as much personality as the others.  She's a quirky YA fantasy heroine.  Caius is a leader, seeking what is best for his people even at cost to himself.  (And we'll just go with that whole wants peace thing and ignore that he tortures and kills Avicen in his first appearance.)  Dorian makes a moral mistake at the beginning of the book that haunts him, as do his unrequited feelings for Caius.  Ivy pays the price for being at the wrong place at the wrong time, but stays firm to her beliefs.  Jasper, who shows up late in the story, is mostly after something pretty and shiny.

I feel like the world of THE GIRL AT MIDNIGHT needed a lot more development.  Why are the Avicen and Drakharin at war?  What rift is so great that requires centuries of fighting and can only be ended through magical intervention?  Not even Caius, leader of one of the armies, knows.  (I did like Echo pointing out that peace talks hadn't even been attempted.)  I felt like Grey got away with the reveal of the firebird because it was obvious what was coming more than it actually making any sense.  It also adds a somewhat creepy dimension to the main romance.  (Speaking of the romance, Echo's boyfriend basically disappears from her thoughts halfway through, which I guess counts as a breakup.)

THE GIRL AT MIDNIGHT is the start of a trilogy.  I honestly think it stood fine as a story, and I doubt I'll read the sequels.  The war and romance were adequately resolved for me.  I had fun reading THE GIRL AT MIDNIGHT, but it just never differentiated itself from the pack.

Review: Swagger

Swagger By Carl Deuker
Available now from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt BFYR
Review copy

I don't often read sports books, but I found myself surprisingly impressed by Carl Deuker's SWAGGER after I picked it up on a recommendation.  It's told in simple but compelling language.  I think boys like the main characters Jonas Dolan and Levi Rawdon who aren't big on school and studying would enjoy reading it.

Jonas is a good basketball player.  He's never gonna be a pro, but his coach thinks that he could get a scholarship for a Division II team.  And he's right - Jonas has a real chance at Monitor College if he can bring his grades up.  But then he has to move to a new school.  Coach Knecht has a totally different style and his lab science (chemistry) teacher is so tough that Jonas will be lucky to get a D.  He needs to get playtime during games and he needs to make a B to get the scholarship.  The new Coach Hartwell is a dream come true for Jonas, since he plays a more up-tempo game and promises to help Jonas (and his friend Levi) with their grades.

I found the basketball parts of SWAGGER surprisingly enjoyable.  Deuker does a good job of explaining how different positions on the team work together and how different plays can suit different players' styles better.  I'll never be interested in watching basketball, but I felt like I was following the descriptions of the games.  I also liked the realism of Jonas being talented, but not one of the incredibly few players who can make it as a professional.  His dedication to studying to get the scholarship leading into some genuine interest in his education was also an interesting storyline.

But the heart of SWAGGER is the reveal that the likeable Coach Hartwell is a predator.  The hints of it start early, particularly the way he finds ways to make each of the boys on the team indebted to him so that they'll keep his secrets.  Levi is also understandably reluctant to come forward and tell everyone what happened to him.  He can barely tell Jonas, his best friend.  SWAGGER remains realistic here too, as Jonas fails to read all of Levi's signals and respond absolutely perfectly to the truth.  Hartwell is always at fault for what happens, but that doesn't make everybody else in the story perfect.

SWAGGER has lots of appeal for reluctant readers and fans of Chris Crutcher.  It also reads somewhat younger than Chris Crutcher's books.  I can see this in a middle school library.  The abuse is not graphic. 


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