June 30, 2015

Interview with Miranda Kenneally

Jesse's Girl Miranda Kenneally is the author of JESSE'S GIRL, which comes out next Tuesday, July 7th.  I loved JESSE'S GIRL (my review), so I'm happy to share this brief interview with you.


1. Your heroes and heroines all have varied, detailed interests. JESSE'S GIRL is set in the music industry, for instance. How much research do you do to get these aspects of your characters' lives right?

Breathe, Annie, Breathe Depends on the book. For RACING SAVANNAH, which is about horse racing, I did 3 months of intensive research before I even started writing the book. I spent time in Kentucky and read a ton of books about horse racing. I hung out in barns with horses and went to races. With JESSE'S GIRL, I felt like I knew enough about music to go ahead and start writing, but as I got more into the story, I consulted with a guitar expert and a girl who has her own band (like Maya) to confirm details. For BREATHE, ANNIE, BREATHE, about a girl training to run a marathon, I didn't do any research on running because I had already run one before. Research all depends on how much I already know.

2. The Hundred Oaks books are all loosely connected, so characters tend to reappear when it is logical to do something. How far in advance do you plan out their lives? For example, Sam and Jordan appear at age 24 in JESSE'S GIRL. Did you know where they'd end up when you finished CATCHING JORDAN?

Catching Jordan No, I haven't made any effort to plan their lives. I'm just keeping things loose and seeing who shows up and what they are up to. It's kind of fun to be in the dark. :) Teaser: I will say that I mention a character about 2 times in RACING SAVANNAH. Now I am writing a book about that random character's sister. i definitely didn't plan it. Just happened! This new book is coming out in 2016 and is loosely related to Racing Savannah.

3. With six books under your belt, you have a bit of experience. Which was the hardest novel to write? 

Racing SavannahJESSE'S GIRL! I seriously rewrote this book like 6 times. Considering I was doing the "girl meets famous guy" trope, I wanted to make sure Jesse and Maya were realistic and I had to make my story different from everything else out there. Also, writing a book where most of the action takes place on one day is super hard!

4. You've talked quite a bit on your blog about how much revision goes into your novels. Are there any bits you're particularly happy that you cut?

Yeah, actually. In the first draft of JESSE'S GIRL, I could tell Maya and Jesse had sizzling chemistry. It was hot! I actually had to tone it down so it wouldn't be too racy! Unfortunately, though, my first beta reader said, "This book will never sell because it's so cliche. Girl falls for famous boy: it's been done. So I did a draft in which Maya gets together with another dude, and she and Jesse just become best friends. It felt really forced, so I ended up going back to the version in which they are a couple.

5. If you could shadow a famous musician for a day, who would you pick? 

Justin Timberlake. Because duh!

June 29, 2015

Review: Trouble is a Friend of Mine

Trouble is a Friend of Mine By Stephanie Tromly
Available now from Kathy Dawson Books (Penguin Random House)
Review copy

TROUBLE IS A FRIEND OF MINE is an incredibly fitting title.  When Zoe Webster's parents divorce and she moves to a new town and school, her first new friend is the enigmatic Digby.  Digby gets her into all sorts of trouble, including the sort that convinces her to run back into an exploding building (and that ends up on her permanent record).

TROUBLE IS A FRIEND OF MINE is a very over-the-top book.  The personalities are large, the plot is fast paced, and the interweaving tales of sordid crime are told as a slapstick comedy.  It was perfect reading for waiting to get on a plane.  It was quick and funny and didn't take itself seriously, but the subject matter still got under my skin.

It helped that I really liked the characters.  Zoe is struggling to define who she is, especially now that she's living farther from her overbearing father and starting to realize that her spacey mother maybe isn't so oblivious.  (Hint to most teenagers: your parents probably are less oblivious than you think.)  Digby is the sort of person who only exists in books, but he works here.  I like how as the truth is uncovered, more and more of his actions make sense.  I also liked his former/current best friend Henry, who gets wrapped up into helping them and getting into trouble with them.  He makes for a nice contrast with Digby as the second male lead.  I thought the supporting cast worked well too, including the mean girl who goes along for the ride during the climax.

Zoe and Digby's search for a missing girl throws them into the path of a pervert, local (and not-so-local) drug dealers, rogue cops, a cult, and a flat-out bully.  It also livens up their night at the school dance quite a bit.  Pretty much all the trouble the teens get into is preposterous, but the characterization and neat plotting keep TROUBLE IS A FRIEND OF MINE clicking along.

I hope that Stephanie Tromly plans to write more of these three characters, although she does leave them in a good place.  Even if she doesn't, I'm sure her next book will also be a riot.

June 26, 2015

Review: Daughter of Deep Silence

Daughter of Deep Silence By Carrie Ryan
Available now from Dutton BFYR (Penguin Random House)
Review copy

Much like the Count of Monte Cristo, Frances Mace sweeps back into town under a new identity to get revenge on those who wronged her, including her lover.  (Okay, just a boyfriend in this case.)  Frances is one of four people who got off of the doomed Persephone and one of three who survived.  The fourth, Libby, would've survived too if the other survivors hadn't lied about what happened.

Frances assumed Libby's identity at the request of her rich, connected father.  He could protect Frances from those who destroyed the ship.  She waited out of respect to him, but now it is time for Frances/Libby to get revenge on Senator Wells and his son Grayer.  The main obstacle: Shepherd, Libby's first love and the boy who knew her better than anyone.

I absolutely loved Frances/Libby.  She knows that what she's doing is ruthless and cruel and awful.  She knows that Libby wouldn't have wanted this as a memorial, nor would the girl she was before the ship went down.  And she doesn't care.  She's going to make everyone who ruined her life rue the day.  No one would believe her if she went through legal channels, so she isn't.  What it takes matters to her less than the result.  I love a good revenge story, and I appreciate that Carrie Ryan establishes that what Libby is doing is destructive (and she knows it), but it doesn't destroy her delight in serving some just deserts.

I liked the way the romantic elements were handled as well.  Gray is attracted to Libby, partly because of their past and because she's deliberately playing to what she knows he likes.  But also because they have a genuine connection and enjoy talking and spending time together.  Obviously, there's a lot for him to overcome if he's going to redeem himself, but that's an issue for Frances/Libby to by the end of the novel.

DAUGHTER OF DEEP SILENCE is a pleasurable read for anyone who enjoys a well-executed revenge, morally ambiguous female characters, and an interesting supporting cast.  I've seen some confusion about the genre; DAUGHTER OF DEEP SILENCE is science fiction in that it takes place twenty minutes into the future, but there are no fantasy elements or strange tech in play.  Ryan makes liberal use of flashbacks, but they don't slow the book down or cause confusion about what's happening when.  Her writing is smooth and goes down like a nice bourbon.  I expected to enjoy this book, and I liked it even more than I thought I would.

June 25, 2015

Review: The Rise and Fall of a Theater Geek

The Rise and Fall of a Theater Geek By Seth Rudetsky
Available now from Random House BFYR (Penguin Random House)
Review copy

I haven't read MY AWESOME/AWFUL POPULARITY PLAN, the first book about Justin by veteran Broadway pianist Seth Rudetsky.  However, I was able to follow THE RISE AND FALL OF A THEATER GEEK just fine without it.  Justin is a rather abrasive narrator.  His mind is a little like a hamster running constantly around a wheel, and he thinks he knows best for everyone.  I still liked him.

Justin makes several mistakes at the beginning of THE RISE AND FALL OF A THEATER GEEK.  He pushes his boyfriend Spencer and best friend Becky too hard, and ends up alienating them.  He also lies to the woman who lined up an internship for him to get out of it because he got a better internship working directly for a heartthrob making his Broadway debut.  I found the second particularly naive of Justin, since most people understand you giving up one opportunity for another that fits your goals better.  Lying, however, is less understandable.

THE RISE AND FALL OF A THEATER GEEK weaves together Justin's personal growth over his internship in New York with a mystery about why his employer is making such terrible acting decisions and what his agent is up to.  The mystery is pretty obvious, so it's good that Justin's character growth is done with more nuance to balance it.  Although Spencer and Becky aren't seen much in the novel due to the fight, I liked that they're shown to have gone on their own journeys.  I like supporting characters with their own lives.

You might try reading a sample of THE RISE AND FALL OF A THEATER GEEK first, because Justin's voice might not work for you.  If it does, this is a fairly cute bildungsroman with some nice details about how a Broadway show comes to be.  It's pretty predictable, but I can see theater kids loving this one.

June 24, 2015

Review: Jesse's Girl

Jesse's Girl Hundred Oaks series
By Miranda Kenneally
Available now from Sourcebooks
Review copy
Read an excerpt

I have thoroughly enjoyed all the books in the Hundred Oaks series that I've read.  The books don't share many characters, but what they do share is a setting and a sensibility.  Hundred Oaks is a fictional small town in Tennessee.  This does allow old characters to show up when needed, but often they aren't since the books more forward in close to real time.

Jordan Woods and Sam Henry from Miranda Kenneally's first book CATCHING JORDAN do make several appearances in JESSE'S GIRL.  They're now in their twenties and working, but they are relevant because Maya Henry is Sam's little sister.  Maya wants to be a professional musician, even though the band she started just kicked her out.  She's in for a major stroke of luck, because her principal's nephew is country music star Jesse Scott.

I liked the way Kenneally wrote the beginning of their relationship.  Jesse makes a bad first impression with Maya, but she doesn't take it too much to heart.  It's not instant love, but it's not instant hate either.  It's a believable progression of two people getting to know each other and trusting each other once their initial confidences aren't betrayed. 

I did think that JESSE'S GIRL has a pacing issue.  The first part mostly covers one madcap, Ferris Bueller's Day Out-style day where Jesse and Maya break free of their responsibilities and instead pursue the things that make them happy.  Then there's some fairly shallow ups and downs covering a decent chunk of time until the dramatic climax and denouement, which is again quick.  That slow section in the middle slows what is otherwise a ridiculously charming romance.

I was a little wary of reading a high-school romance between a famous teen and a normal girl, but Kenneally pulls it off wonderfully.  Maya and Jesse share a love of music and performance, and only find more common ground from there.  Both of them are good at drawing their own boundaries in the relationship, and I believed in the ways Kenneally showed them working through their problems. 

JESSE'S GIRL was a fun read, and I think many will enjoy it, both new fans and old.  I will have an interview with Kenneally posted sometime in the future; there was an unavoidable delay which is why it is not posting today as promised.

June 23, 2015

Review: Circus Mirandus

Circus Mirandus By Cassie Beasley
Available now from Dial (Penguin Random House)
Review copy

I suspected I would like CIRCUS MIRANDUS from the moment I picked it up.  Magical circuses are hard to resist, after all.  And it's such a beautiful book - the stepback image of two children inside a flying woman and a parrot and a white tiger is lovely.  I was delighted that it is an accurate promise of what was inside.  The child inside me adores an accurate cover.

Micah Tuttle is in fifth grade and still believes in magic.  His grandfather, who he lives with, has told him about the Circus Mirandus his whole life, and how the Lightbender owes him a miracle.  Micah knows just want his Grandpa Ephraim should ask for: a cure for the disease that's killing him.  He believes that is why his Grandpa Ephraim has finally sent a message to the Lightbender.  But the circus will be everything Micah imagined while still being quite different.

Debut author Cassie Beasley exerts an admirable amount of control over her story.  It weaves back and forth, telling of Grandpa Ephraim's encounter with the Circus Mirandus and the story of the Amazonian Bird Woman while also moving along the present day story of Micah and his best friend Jenny Mendoza.  There are many stories layered on top of each other, but I never felt lost.

The magic did falter for me at one point.  I realized that the realistic and the fantastical villains were both women.  At the same time I was realizing that, Jenny was embarrassing herself with her refusal to believe in magic.  Now, Aunt Gertrudis did become more understandable to me as more of her story was revealed, but both she and the Amazonian Bird Woman were rather stock villains in an otherwise wondrous story.  Jenny, however, is a great character.  I liked how her and Micah's friendship developed, and that they both taught each other to see a new perspective.

CIRCUS MIRANDUS is yet another story about believing in magic, being good to others, and taking a chance for what you believe in.  And it works, because it does it all beautifully.  Come and be entertained by a magical circus like no other.  Beasley's debut is a middle grade story that all ages can enjoy.

June 22, 2015

Review: I Text Dead People

I Text Dead People First in the Dead Serious series
By Rose Cooper
Available now from Delacorte BFYR (Penguin Random House)
Review copy

I TEXT DEAD PEOPLE looked adorable, from the title to Rose Cooper's cartoonish illustrations.  The morbid cuteness reminds me of the ghostgirl series by Tonya Hurley, but for kids instead of teens.  I have a cousin that I know will love this one.

Annabel Craven, known as Anna, didn't want to move to a new town.  Her first day gets off to a bad start when a weird guy accosts her because he just knows she has something of his.  But things start to look up as she makes friends (even though some of them want her to do their homework) and finds a cell phone.  Then someone strange starts texting her.

Part of the book is told through the point of view of Lucy, who is a stalker.  I TEXT DEAD PEOPLE never uses the word stalker, but that's what she's doing.  I think her sections are meant to be over the top in a humorous way, but I mostly found it sad, creepy, and actionable.  Unfortunately, when Lucy dies she just keeps stalking the boy - and Anna, since she can talk to her.

I TEXT THE DEAD has a good combination of fish out of water and cozy murder mystery stories.  There's definitely a lot of legs for the premise in future installments in the Dead Serious series.  I thought Lucy was a bum note, but she's a one-book character.  Anna herself is interesting, and not stalking anyone.

June 18, 2015

Powerless: Excerpt and Giveaway

Powerless POWERLESS is the first book of The Hero Agenda series by Tera Lynn Childs and Tracy Deebs.  Read my review here.

How did they come to write together? One fateful summer, Tera Lynn Childs and Tracy Deebs embarked on a nine hour (each way!) road trip to Santa Fe that ended with a flaming samurai, an enduring friendship, and the kernel of an idea that would eventually become POWERLESS. On their own, they have written YA tales about mermaids (Forgive My Fins, Tempest Rising), mythology (Doomed, Oh. My Gods., Sweet Venom), smooching (International Kissing Club), and fae princes (When Magic Sleeps). Between them, they have three boys (all Tracy), three dogs (mostly TLC), and almost fifty published books. Find TLC and the #TeamHillain headquarters at teralynnchilds.com. Check out Tracy and the #TeamVero lair at tracydeebs.com. Hang out with all the heroes, villains, ordinaries, and none-of-the-aboves at heroagenda.com.


 Kenna is tired of being "normal."

The only thing special about her is that she isn't special at all. Which is frustrating when you're constantly surrounded by superheroes. Her best friend, her ex-boyfriend, practically everyone she knows has some talent or power. Sure, Kenna's smart and independent, but as an ordinary girl in an extraordinary world, it's hard not to feel inferior.

So when three villains break into the lab where she interns, Kenna refuses to be a victim. She's not about to let criminals steal the research that will make her extraordinary too.

But in the heat of battle, secrets are spilled and one of the villains saves her life. Twice. Suddenly, everything Kenna thought she knew about good and evil, heroes and villains is upended. And to protect her life and those she loves, she must team up with her sworn enemies on a mission that will redefine what it means to be powerful and powerless...


“You never answered my question. What are you doing down here so late?”

Those bright blue eyes sear into me as he takes a step back. “I have to go.”

His sudden evasiveness makes me suspicious, so when he starts to move past me, I sidestep into his path. “Excuse me,” I say, “but this is a secure level. Are you even authorized to be down here?”

“My dad,” he says, scowling at me. “He’s a security guard.”

A security guard? The facility might be so big that I can’t keep track of everyone who works in every lab, but I know all the guards by name. Especially the night guards, since I’m usually the last one here.

Travis and Luther are on duty tonight. Travis and his wife just had their first baby, a girl named Tia. Luther is old enough to be my great-grandfather and he never married.

I take half a step back as my suspicions turn to concern. “Who’s your dad?” I demand.

This guy definitely has the look of a villain.

What if he really is one?

June 17, 2015

Review: The Astrologer's Daughter

The Astrologer's Daughter By Rebecca Lim
Available now from Text Publishing
Review copy

Rebecca Lim, author of the popular Mercy series, has written a thrilling contemporary mystery with coming-of-age elements and a hint of the paranormal.  Avicenna Crowe will always stick out in a crowd.  She's half Chinese with a large chest and a burn scar that covers half of her face and one of her ears.  Mostly she's a regular (smart) high school student.  Her mom, the astrologer, is the special one.

And then her mom goes missing.

Avicenna is thrown by the loss of her remaining parent.  (Her father died in the fire that scarred her.)  She's just eighteen, so basically stuck to fend for herself.  Strangely, there's thousands more in their band account than there should be.  There are also three clients left unfinished who want Avicenna to do their horary reading when they learn she knows how.  And Avicenna knows not to leave business unfinished, although these might be the very answers that got her mother into trouble.  Meanwhile, Simon Thorn is a thorn in her side about that school project they have to complete.

Lim writes beautifully.  She brings this pocket of Australia and the outsized characters who inhabit it to life.  I particularly like the sympathetic policeman who tries to keep Avicenna on an even keel and make sure that she's all right, beyond keeping her informed about the ongoing investigation.  I liked Avicenna herself, who seems like a mostly practical girl who is still too young to totally handle the convoluted mess she's landed in.

I'm not into New Age stuff at all, but I like how the horoscopes were handle.  It's just something Avicenna knows how to do, and her family has a knack for it.  It's treated more as something dangerous to live your live by than a good idea.

The ending is a bit messy, and a few threads are left unfinished.  I'm not sure if Lim intends to write more about these characters, but I could see it being a series.  As is, it is a wonderfully emotional mystery that shows the strange ways people can be tied together.

June 16, 2015

Katie McGarry: Meet Oz

Katie McGarry, author of the critically acclaimed Pushing the Limits series has gone all in with the Thunder Road series, imbedding herself with a motorcycle club in Kentucky, and using that experience to make Reign of Terror as realistic as possible. Oz rises up as one of the new literary hunks to watch out for – teens will be swooning for him as soon as they meet him. And Katie, known for her realistic portrayal of teen troubles and romance, hits it out of the park with NOWHERE BUT HERE – making her approachable and open to teens when she does school visits across the US.

Be sure to register your purchase of NOWHERE BUT HERE by June 28 to get CHASING IMPOSSIBLE for free.  CHASING IMPOSSIBLE is about Abby from PUSHING THE LIMITS and only available through this offer.

“Run as fast as you can, Emily.” Violet eyes me in a way that suggests she knows more than she should. “From what I’ve heard, some members of Oz’s club are okay with homicide.”
Emily stiffens beside me and my fingers flex on the steering wheel. I should have let Violet rot in the summer sun. She’s lying, but Emily isn’t aware of that. “You know that’s not true.”
Violet’s been hanging with those full-of-themselves snob kids at school who think the Terror is the devil’s playground. Can’t stop haters from hating, but it hurts like hell when one of our own begins to spew the lies.

Nowhere But Here Oz, an eighteen-year-old main character from my newest young adult novel, NOWHERE BUT HERE, is definitely a bad boy.

He’s a child of the Reign of Terror Motorcycle Club. He rides a motorcycle, wears a black leather riding jacket and combat boots, carries a knife on his hip, doesn’t mind getting into a fight when the moment calls for someone to step in and he has a tendency to be a jerk when provoked, but he’s so much more than that.

But Oz has a hard time convincing people outside the club of this. Even though he’s a lifeguard during the summer, a referee for a little kids’ flag football team, and sits night after night at the bedside of the woman who is stricken with cancer, Oz is seen as a menace.

Oz fights the same perception that other members of the Reign of Terror Motorcycle Club face. The assumption that being a member of an MC makes one a thug, a gangster, a criminal.

What the world doesn’t understand? The majority of motorcycle clubs are legit clubs—meaning they don’t participate in illegal activities. They may play by their own rules, but they do their best to be law- abiding citizens.

How do I know this? I hung out with a motorcycle club to gain inspiration for my new Thunder Road series. I knew I couldn’t write books about teens being raised in this world unless I had firsthand understanding of what their lives might be like. And I learned that, yes, MCs are definitely rough and tumble and not for the faint of heart. With the club I hung out with, the parties are wild, their jokes and language often crude, but they are not the criminals that most people believe them to be.

One of the first things I was told by the president of the club’s chapter was that they don’t run guns, drugs or woman (translation: they don’t illegally sell guns, don’t deal drugs and aren’t involved in prostitution)— the three big illegal activities people assume MCs take part in. During the course of my research, I met many of the club’s members. They were great guys who work normal jobs like the rest of us. I met mechanics and people in finance and factory workers and yes, I met people who were high up in the food chain in corporations. And a lot of the guys I met? They were veterans. They fought on foreign soil for the United States of America.

These men were fascinating and fun and had great, kind souls. They were rough and strong and loyal. They were a brotherhood and I respected them for that. I also respected them when they asked for anonymity. They asked me not to name their club or use their real names. Because of the perception outsiders have of MCs, some members knew their jobs could be at risk if their membership became public knowledge. They knew that people would treat them differently. I heard stories of how someone’s decision to be in a legit MC had torn families apart and this made me terribly sad.

Oz, like the men I met over the course of my research, is so much more than the sum of people’s assumptions. Like the men I met, he is strong, loyal and loving. But don’t take my word for it. Read NOWHERE BUT HERE and meet Oz for yourself. I hope you’ll fall for him every bit as much as I did.

June 15, 2015

Movie Monday: Spy

Paul Feig and Melissa McCarthy had both been in the business for years when Bridesmaids (2011) made them household names.  Now they're back together for their third movie, following The HeatSpy stars McCarthy as Susan Cooper, a CIA employee who keeps Agent Bradley Fine (Jude Law) in running shape while watching his back.  When a criminal uncovers the identities of all the top agents, Susan is the only one qualified to stop her.

Spy is a fine vehicle for all of McCarthy's talents.  She plays sweet and vulnerable as well as inventively foul mouthed.  She's also surrounded by a great cast to play off of.  Jason Statham, as Agent Rick Ford, gives increasingly surreal and delightful monologues.  British comedienne Miranda Hart gets a meaty role as Susan's best friend and fellow CIA analyst.  (There could be an entire movie about their office, which appears to be infested by all manner of creatures.)  You might know Hart from gifs on Tumblr.

Practically stealing the show is Rose Byrne (also in Bridesmaids) as prospective arms dealer Rayna Boyanov.  Her hair is ridiculous, she can't shoot a gun, and yet she still manages to continually thwart the CIA.  Rayna and Susan don't like each other when they meet, but they end up playing surprisingly well together.  McCarthy and Byrne trade the most ridiculous insults while remaining in character, which is quite the feat.

Spy is a send-up of spy thrillers, of course, but you don't have to be familiar with the genre to enjoy this one.  The shape of the genre does help Feig stay in line; his movies can get a little shaggy.  But most of the time the story is an excuse for a game cast to trade some crazy lines.  Not all of the jokes land.  Some are incredibly lame and others are too gross for me.  But enough are absolutely hilarious enough to cover the clunkers.  The terrific ending also helps lift the movie as a whole.

I was worried about whether I'd enjoy Spy because the outfits McCarthy dons in the trailer look pretty dire.  But the joke is really how badly those frumpy cat-lady disguises suit Susan.  The jokes don't come at the expense of McCarthy's size.  She's a capable woman and a desirable one, even when she dresses like a flautist in a wedding band.  (Just see the movie.)

June 12, 2015

Review Update: Surf Mules

Surf Mules On August 30, 2009, I named SURF MULES by G. Neri one of my seven books of summer.  It recently came to my attention that Carolrhoda LAB (a Lerner imprint) put out a new paperback edition with a minimalist graphic cover.  This is an all-new chance to pick up this seriously underrated novel.  (Okay, if you still live at home you might have to hide *this* cover from your parents due to the marijuana leaf.  I still like the streamlined design and cool movie-poster-worthy title treatment.)

My original recommendation:

Summer's almost over, but the Books of Summer list is yet to be completed! Here's another hardcover for the list - one that's far better than it ought to be. I picked this one up expecting it to be so-so, an impression enforced by the prologue that recounts one of Logan and Z-boy's dumber exploits. But SURF MULES quickly becomes an emotional novel that will appeal to boys.

Logan's smart for a surfer, but it takes more than brains to go to college. And when his former best friend dies on the wave he spent his whole life wanting to ride, Logan is thrown for a loop. So when his other pal Z-boy hooks him up with the local drug dealer for an easy job, he takes it. And of course, things go terrible wrong.

(Everything I know about drug muling I learned from this book and Maria eres llena de gracia, neither of which make it an attractive job despite explaining very well why people would do it.)

SURF MULES combines comedy, adventure, and poignancy to create a book that is far less silly than it seems on the surface. Reading about Logan's last summer before college is a good way to cap off your own summer.

June 11, 2015

Review: Delicate Monsters

Delicate Monsters By Stephanie Kuehn
Available now from St. Martin's Griffin
Review copy

DELICATE MONSTERS is a singular experience.  It's dark as hell, a look into some very twisted minds.  Sadie Su has just come back to town.  She's a vicious girl who likes people who do bad things, who seriously injured a boy to make him not like her.  Emerson Tate, her much poorer neighbor, dislikes that she has come back since she knows that he's a psychopath.  Meanwhile, his younger brother Miles is suffering homophobic bullying and the effects of an idiopathic illness.  All three exchange narration duties, their pasts, presents, and futures intertwined.

Plenty of DELICATE MONSTERS is hard to read because of the accurate depiction of human viciousness.  There's homophobic language, as previously mentioned, that escalates.  There are references to past racist statements made by Emerson, thrown in his face by Sadie when he starts dating a black girl.  There's violence inflicted on animals and children.  There's sexual assault.  This is not a novel for the delicate.

I'm sure many will dislike the characters.  Emerson appears to be the golden boy, but he does some awful things.  At the same time, his thoughts are fascinating.  I particularly liked Sadie, who is just plain strange.  She doesn't do the things most people would do, but her actions make sense for who she is.  Miles contrasts them both as the innocent one who doesn't deserve what's happening to him.  At the same time, he has a dark side too.  All three narrators are capable of violence.

DELICATE MONSTERS is one of those books where it is hard to categorize your reaction.  It's the sort of story most authors don't tackle.  Stephanie Kuehn has the talent to pull it off, but most authors don't.  I was slightly disappointed by the end, which could use a touch more resolution.  There's a moment of catharsis, but I felt that only Sadie's story was complete.

June 10, 2015

Review: Alive

Alive By Chandler Baker
Available now from Disney Hyperion
Review copy

Person receives a transplant organ that turns out to be ~evil is quite the cliche, so I appreciated that Chandler Baker didn't go for the obvious in her debut novel ALIVE.  Stella Cross just got a new heart, and the surgery was a success in everyone's point of view but her own.  Every day at 5:08 she's struck by intense pain.

Then she meets Levi Zin.

When Levi is close, the pain is gone.  It doesn't hurt that he's handsome and charming.  Stella doesn't just fall hard; she's totally obsessed.  Her relationships with her best friend Brynn and it's complicated Henry fall to the wayside.  She ignores everyone who tells her that this relationship is unhealthy, and that there's something off about Levi.  That he's controlling and always around.  She wants him to be always around.  Until she doesn't.

ALIVE is an excellent horror story about obsession, ownership, and life after death.  Stella's visions and pain are quite horrifying and liven up the more romantic first half of the novel.  I particularly liked the combination of the paranormal creepiness revolving around the donated heart and the human creepiness of stalking and other forms of obsessive love.  It was a one-two punch of horror and both strands worked together.

I also liked how much detail was given to Stella's friends.  Brynn isn't as important to the story, but she clearly has a life off the page.  Henry and Stella's complicated relationship is a nice counterpoint to how easily things go with Levi (at first).  They're the best friends who kind of have a thing for each other but always admit it at the wrong point.  It was easy to see that they could work it out if they gave a romantic relationship a chance, but that they could also manage to maintain a friendship if they didn't.

ALIVE is an assured debut.  It does take awhile to pick up, but if you stick with it, it is a fun little horror story.  There's even some nifty bits of mythology explaining how everything is happening.  I look forward to Baker's High School Horror series, which will start in February 2016.

June 9, 2015

Review: Hello, I Love You

Hello, I Love You By Katie M. Stout
Available now from St. Martin's Griffin
Review copy

Thanks to a Kdrama addiction, I couldn't imagine not reading HELLO, I LOVE YOU.  It is the story of Grace Wilde who goes to an international school in South Korea to get away from family drama and ends up falling for Kpop star Jason (who is her roommate Sophie's twin brother).

The romance between Grace and Jason is the kind where he's a total dick to her but she can't resist because he's so hot.  I thought HELLO, I LOVE YOU's Kdrama inspiration was fitting since it suffers from the same ailment as most Kdramas: Second Lead Syndrome.  For those not familiar with the genre, the second lead is the love interest that doesn't get the girl.  He's generally the guy who approaches romance like a normal person instead of going hot and cold without explanation.  In this case, it is the drummer of Eden, Yoon Jae.

Jason's angst is about the fact that he's making manufactured pop instead of real music, and had a band member from the idol system (Yoon Jae again) forced on him.  The fame bothers him sometimes, but those are the two that get the focus.  I felt like his issues were given disproportionate weight compared to Grace's.  She tries her best to help him, but I felt like only the end had him acknowledging the pain that drove her to Korea.  Admittedly, Jason's unhappiness is driving him to drink and impending alcoholism is a present danger.  One that is familiar to Grace, since her older brother was an alcoholic.  She interferes, but mostly on behalf of her roommate.  She has surprisingly little compunction about getting involved with another alcoholic after everything that went down in her life.

Look: HELLO, I LOVE YOU is a cute novel.  However, it doesn't make half as much use of the Korean setting as it could.  (Most of the book takes place at the school so that there isn't much reason to delve deeply into culture clashes.)  Also, I never warmed up to Jason as the romantic lead.  I did like Grace's journey to forgiving herself and liked it well enough as a beach read.

I think I'm just disappointed because I had really high hopes for HELLO, I LOVE YOU.  I liked part of it, like Sophie and Tae Hwa's background romance and Yoon Jae's desire to be a dancer instead of a drummer.  I'd read the Yoon Jae spinoff.  HELLO, I LOVE YOU just didn't deliver my kind of froth.  It also needed a car crash.

June 8, 2015

Review: Love is Red

Love is Red Book on of the Night Song trilogy
By Sophie Jaff
Available now from Harper (HarperCollins)
Review copy

The comparisons to NIGHT FILM and THE SHINING GIRLS drew me in.  Both were creepy literary gems, and if LOVE IS RED was half as good I was sure to love it.  I'm not sure that I do.

LOVE IS RED opens with a rape scene, which was not the best first impression.  Half the novel (maybe a little over half) is told through the killer's point of view using the second person.  The second person point of view was an interesting choice of literary technique and I thought it worked well to add a bit of tension to his sections, that such a killer could be watching you.  However, his sections were hard for me to read.  I liked that he focused on his victims' emotions over his bodies, but that aspect was still there.  And unlike THE SHINING GIRLS, I never really felt we got to see the victims as people in their own right.  They remain the archetypes the killer has marked them as.

The other narrator is Katherine Emerson, a young woman living with a roommate and her roommate's son.  She's recently met and started dating David, a perfectly nice man, but she's also started sleeping with his best friend Sael after a sexually charged encounter where they didn't realize they had any acquaintances in common.  LOVE IS RED does not hide that one of these men is the killer and that Katherine is his ultimate planned victim.  I thought which was the killer was obvious, which does mean Sophie Jaff was good at characterizing them clearly.  At the same time, it meant the book was jumping through some unnecessary hoops.

The fantastic elements of LOVE IS RED are rather quiet at first.  The killer describes emotions in synesthetic ways and believes he is reliving a grand purpose, but it takes awhile for the narrative to start showing that he isn't just delusional.  Ghosts start to show up, and more of the past is revealed (mostly through the device of excerpts from a manuscript between chapters).  I definitely felt like a lot of the worldbuilding was left for future books in the Night Song trilogy.  I had an idea of the concepts that were in play, but not specifics.  I'm unsure what the stakes of the story were, beyond Katherine's life.  If you're going to hint at a battle through the centuries, then I at least need some idea of what will happen if either side wins.

I did like that LOVE IS RED wrapped up the serial killer plot and left the romance at a reasonable ending point.  There are a lot of threads left dangling for the next book, but this one can stand alone.  I also liked the way the theme of motherhood became increasingly important through the story.  It is seeded at the beginning, so it doesn't feel unnatural when it takes a larger part in LOVE IS RED. 

Jaff's writing is often lovely, but it left me dry.  LOVE IS RED approaches feminist themes, the way women are discarded in particular, but never seems to have a coherent point of view to express about them.  The serial killer passages actively turned me off most of the time, and Katherine wasn't a much more compelling narrator.  The first moment between her and Sael is incredibly charged, but their chemistry throughout the book leans to hard on that single interaction to carry it all.  The relationship with David never has a moment half as magnetic.  Her job as a critic might as well never have been mentioned.  Her relationship with Lucas, her roommate's son, is cute.

But I kept waiting for Katherine to seize control of her narrative and stop being a victim in waiting and waffling between two not particularly compelling dudes.  I'm not sure that ever quite happened.

June 5, 2015

Review: Spelled

Spelled First in a series
By Betsy Schow
Available now from Sourcebooks Fire
Review copy
Read an excerpt

When you see the cover, you might think SPELLED is a Cinderella story; however, it is a fractured fairytale version of The Wizard of Oz.  It draws from both the original novel and the movie adaptation, down to Dorthea wearing a pair of ruby and silver heels.  She's a rather spoiled princess who makes an unwise wish that banishes her parents and starts unraveling the magic of her land.  Together with the prince she's been betrothed to against her will and a servant girl, she must defeat the evil witch and restore the land's magic.

Oz fans will enjoy seeing familiar situations twisted into something new, particularly when it comes to the ways water might defeat someone.  I did feel that Betsy Schow never came up with something quite as twisted for her telling as L. Frank Baum.  For all their whimsy, the original Oz books were chock-full of the stuff from nightmares.

I liked how Dorthea, Kato, and Rexi grew throughout the story.  All three of them rise to the challenges they face (often from the sidelines for the practical Rexi).  I also liked that SPELLED didn't make it all about Dorthea needing to be less spoiled and Kato and Rexi's first impression being right.  Dorthea is definitely spoiled, but she also has good instincts and cares about people.  She's not someone who writes others off as collateral damage.  Nor is she someone who kills easily, even when given reason and power to do so.  It was fun to watch her grow into more of the best person she could be.

SPELLED is a fast-paced book with one adventure happening after another.  True to the source, that.  It reaches a mostly satisfying conclusion, until you read the epilogue setting up the next book.  They've still got a long way to go to save the world, and I look forward to seeing how this rag-tag trio does it.

SPELLED will appeal to fans of modern fairytale retellings and other modern takes on classic literature like the Splintered series by A.G. Howard.  It's a book with a nice balance of plot, character development, and romance.  Schow's debut young adult novel is a good 'un.

June 4, 2015

Review: More Happy Than Not

More Happy Than Not By Adam Silvera
Available now from Soho Teen
Review copy

Set in a near-future version of the Bronx, MORE HAPPY THAN NOT starts out like a contemporary coming-of-age tale.  Aaron Soto is even poorer than most of the other kids living in the projects, but he's happy.  He loves his girlfriend Genevieve and his great new friend Thomas.   But when he starts to think that he likes Thomas as more than a friend, things get complicated.

So what makes this a near-future story?  The Leteo Institute.  The Leteo procedure can remove those memories that have been plaguing you.  It's mentioned so frequently throughout the first half that you just know someone is going to get one.  It made me want to bite my nails, wondering what would happen to drive Aaron to get the procedure.  And then it came, and MORE HAPPY THAN NOT shifted.

I liked how debut author Adam Silvera sprinkled hints about what was to come throughout the first half of the book.  There are glimpses of people who seem off, for instance.  He sets up what is to come very well.  I also liked that he doesn't rely on one big twist, especially since many readers will probably sense what is coming.  The second half of MORE HAPPY THAN NOT unfolds in increasingly heartbreaking ways.

I felt immersed in this novel.  For all that Silvera resists setting MORE HAPPY THAN NOT at a specific time, the setting is very grounded.  You get a great sense of the life Aaron and his sort of friends lead.  Even though he doesn't quite fit in, he's still got a real sense of community with them.  (Okay, one touch I was bothered by: the mention of a new Avengers movie in December.  Those are summer blockbusters!)  I also liked the reality of the ways they hang out, going to comic shops, relaxing on the roof, playing made up games just outside the building.  The sci-fi premise makes the story go, but it is strongly grounded in realism.  This helps strike a good balance between the fantastical and the personal difficulties Aaron faces in his life.

MORE HAPPY THAN NOT is a striking debut.  The tech is similar to Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, but the questions the story asks are different.  Silvera ripped out my heart and stomped on it, yet I am already ready for his next book.  If he's this good now, what will he write next?

June 3, 2015

Review: Charlie, Presumed Dead

Charlie, Presumed Dead By Anne Hetzel
Available now from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt BFYR
Review copy

Charlie Price was not a perfect boyfriend.   At his funeral, his girlfriend finds that more true than ever - when she meets his girlfriend.  Aubrey Boroughs was a young American swept off her feet by the rich and worldly Charlie.  Lena Whitney was the girl from the same circle of privilege who thought she knew all of his friends and family.

But both girls have one thing in common beyond their boyfriend: they want to track down what happened during Charlie's final days.  Both girls have very different motives, however.  Lena even thinks he's still alive. I really liked that Aubrey and Lena kept secrets from each other.  They turn out to be fairly fast friends, but there isn't a reason to trust someone with your deepest secrets instantly, even if it causes trouble.

CHARLIE, PRESUMED DEAD alternates between Aubrey and Lena, with some passages from Charlie illuminating what he was thinking.  I hate to do this, but I have to compare it to GONE GIRL.  A person disappeared and presumed dead under suspicious circumstances, manipulating their significant other from beyond the grave.  As such, CHARLIE, PRESUMED DEAD does rely on a fairly preposterous plan with one last-minute twist that makes particularly little sense.  But the journey to the extremely open ending is fun.  (Is a sequel coming?  I think it must be.)

I thought the girls had distinct voices and perspectives.  My sympathies shifted between them, sometimes empathizing more with one girl than the other.  Charlie's passages are an insight into the method to his madness, his strange desire to not just have two girlfriends but also to be a totally different person for each of them.  It's fun to watch the girls put together all these pieces that don't quite make sense, and travel the world doing it.

CHARLIE, PRESUMED DEAD is a preposterous and surprising dark thriller.  I thought it was a great ride, and I'll definitely be there for a sequel if Anne Hetzel writes one.

June 2, 2015

Review: The Witch Hunter

The Witch Hunter First in a series
By Virginia Boecker
Available now from Little, Brown BFYR (Hachette)
Review copy

When I finished the first few chapters of THE WITCH HUNTER, I was very worried about how I would ever convince myself to finish this novel.  Elizabeth Grey is supposedly one of the king's best witch hunters, despite being a young girl, but the book opens with her completely messing up a mission.  Apparently she's missed up several missions in a row.  Also, she can't stop thinking about how much she's into her friend Caleb.  It's pretty dire.

Things shortly improve with a very dark reveal (minor spoilers): Elizabeth is distracted because she's the king's unwilling mistress.  This comes out because her herbs to prevent birth control are found, which means she gets sentenced as a witch: one of the very people she hunted.  Fortunately, she gets rescued because an actual group of people with magic received a prophecy that she's the only one who can help him.

There are parts of THE WITCH HUNTER that I really enjoyed.  The crew that Elizabeth falls in with have a variety of unique, interesting personalities.  I particularly liked Fifer, the apprentice witch who clashes with Elizabeth and has an incredibly creepy yet fascinating romance of her own.  I liked that Elizabeth did have something to help them out, but that she didn't turn out to have some super special awesome power.

I thought the romance element was a bit weak.  The love triangle fortunately dies an ignominious death, but that doesn't make the new romance that much more convincing.  Elizabeth falls for John, a healer.  The two of them can't keep their eyes off of each other.  It wasn't terrible, but I didn't feel any depth or spark to it.

I also had some issues with Elizabeth's changing view on witches.  As she comes to spend more time with them, she starts to see them as real people and understand that Blackwell, her master, had his own agenda and maybe she wasn't doing what was best for her country.  It's a believable character arc.  Yet she never really expresses any remorse that she helped lead innocent people to their deaths.  I would expect that to carry a heavy toll.

THE WITCH HUNTER was much better than I expected from the opening.  It has a brisk plot, a complex protagonist, and subverted some of my expectations from years of reading paranormal YA.  But it definitely felt like a debut novel, and didn't explore some of the darker implications of the setting as thoroughly as it could.  Hopefully Virginia Boecker will become a stronger author with the sequels.

June 1, 2015

Review: Powerless

Powerless Book one of The Hero Agenda

By Tera Lynn Childs and Tracy Deebs
Available June 2 from Sourcebooks Fire
Review copy

I couldn't resist reading POWERLESS.  I like Tera Lynn Childs' Greek mythology-inspired series and Tracy Deebs' romance novels as Tracy Wolff.  Plus, novels featuring superheroes are one of my favorite things.  A topic I like by authors I enjoy?  Yep, no way I could resist.

I'm glad I didn't.  POWERLESS is a propulsive read that both tells an exciting story and sets up several future plotlines for a series.  It all starts in a lab, where Kenna Swift is working late.  Kenna is powerless, but she's also immune to powers thanks to a serum her mother secretly cooked up.  Hero or villain, it doesn't matter - although Kenna can still be hurt by collateral damage.  That's why she remembers the three villains who invaded the lab looking for a friend, even though one of them thought he wiped her mind.  Kenna knows who the heroes and the villains are, but she can't help thinking that they didn't seem that evil.  So she goes snooping.

If you like stories about family secrets, people banding together to do the right thing, and creative uses of chapstick, you'll enjoy POWERLESS.  I liked that there was an interesting mix of relationships in the main group.  There's Kenna, her best friend Rebel, and her ex-boyfriend Jeremy representing the heroes.  Then Draven (who Kenna is attracted to), Dante, and Nitro representing the villains.  There are romantic, sibling, and friend relationships within the group, in addition to some tensions between people who used to be enemies.  This mix means that even though it is a larger ensemble, there's a lot to define each character and how they react to the others.

I liked that Childs and Deebs didn't spend too long building up to the heroes-are-the-villains reveal.  (In fact, the prologue basically gives it away.)  It's where the story is obviously heading, so why save it for the climax?  When we get it at the beginning of the book we get to see more of how Kenna reacts.  (To be fair, it is mostly denial at first.)

POWERLESS did feel like the beginning of a series.  There's several action scenes, but they're mostly set up for events in future books.  At the same time, I feel like Childs and Deebs still managed to tell a complete story about Kenna and her friends.  I'm definitely curious about how things will play out in the second book.

Be sure to visit on Thursday, 6/18 for an extended excerpt of POWERLESS and a jewelry giveaway.


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