January 27, 2016

Q&A with Lee Kelly

A Criminal Magic Yesterday I reviewed A CRIMINAL MAGIC.  Today I have a Q&A with author Lee Kelly to share, courtesy of BookSparks PR.


1. When naming your characters, do you give any thought to the actual meaning?

I do! Well, maybe not the literal meaning of the name, but definitely the “feel” and popularity of the name at the time period of the novel. For example, in A Criminal Magic, Joan and Alex were both popular names in the 1920s. I also thought that “Joan” sounded tough, no-nonsense, and powerful, while “Alex” sounded like the name of someone a little softer, maybe even more complicated (at least to me). In my first book, City of Savages, I named the mother in the novel Sarah, what I consider to be a strong but also sort of “everywoman” name, while the sisters were named Sky (a dreamer, soulful, contemplative) and “Phee” for Phoenix (strong-willed, brave, and a girl literally born during the end of the world).

2. What is your main character’s favorite song?

Joan and Alex both love jazz, but I think Joan would be more into female blues singers (like Bessie Smith) and Alex would prefer the traditionally popular numbers from Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong.

3. Any recent works that you admire? 

I’d love to mention a team of female authors called the Freshman Fifteens – it’s an incredible group of writers and an awesome list of 2015 young adult debuts: check out our website at http://freshmanfifteens.com. In the adult fiction sphere, I absolutely positively loved Liane Moriarty’s Big Little Lies – the characters felt like friends by the end.

4. If you could co-write a book with any author, who would it be? 

While it would be seriously intimidating, I might pick someone prolific in the young adult realm, like Judy Blume, or in the fantasy realm, like Neil Gaiman – I just think it would be such an awesome opportunity to learn from them.

Lee Kelly
5. How have your personal experiences affected your writing? 

I think I’m one of those people that “write what they know,” but I take what I know and try to disguise it really well J. For instance, when I started my first novel City of Savages, I had just moved back to New York from LA, and I was working at a large law firm, with tight deadlines, demanding bosses, and long hours. I found myself needing a way to channel all of my frustration, and soon I began daydreaming about a very different version of New York: a Central Park that actually was a prison, life-or-death subway rides, city rituals that were extremely cutthroat and savage… a couple of months later, I had the beginnings of City of Savages.

During my writing of A Criminal Magic, I was at a very different place in my life, and this time the stress was more internal and subtle. I had gotten a two-book deal with Simon & Schuster, which I was thrilled about, but I was terrified over not being able to write more than one novel, over being a hack, over not measuring up in the writing world . . . and slowly but surely, the “magic” in the story became a loose analogy for writing, and I found ways to use that metaphor to explore the amazing (as well as dangerous and debilitating) aspects of the writing and publishing world. I think the exercise ended up making the magic system in the novel more textured, and personally ended up being really cathartic!

January 26, 2016

Review: A Criminal Magic

A Criminal Magic By Lee Kelly
Available February 2 from Saga Press (Simon & Schuster)
Review copy

In the world of A CRIMINAL MAGIC, prohibition as we know it isn't a thing.  Instead, sorcerer's shine is the forbidden drink being trafficked by organized crime.  Joan Kendrick's uncle has been increasingly drunk on his own product, and she and her family can barely survive on his shows any more.  When a stranger offers her money to use her magic in an experiment, she leaps at the chance. 

Meanwhile, Alex Danfrey joined the feds after his father was busted for magic smuggling.  His supervisor blackmails him into going undercover with a gang that seems to have a big racket in the works.

A CRIMINAL MAGIC is Lee Kelly's second book, and I sure hope there are sequels to come.  It ends in a surprising and satisfying manner, but I'd still love to see more of what happens to Joan and Alex after the last cover closes.

I thought Kelly's alternate twenties were well thought out.  I do find it a bit hard to believe that alcohol doesn't seem to exist, given that sorcerer's shine can only be made in small, localized batches with no shelf life.  (Not to mention for much of human history, alcohol was safe to drink when the water wasn't.)  At the same time, I think the way criminal elements control the restricted magic is very believable.

Most of all, I liked the characters.  Joan and Alex are both people who are in a hard place, trying to do their best to survive.  Joan starts out naive and Alex jaded, but that doesn't necessarily mean that Alex is the harder person.  (And, to be fair, Joan has plenty of darkness in her past.)  I was entertained the way both of them used their magic.  Some days it seems hard to find a character who delights in having magic and comes up with cool ways to use it, much less two.  (In fact, more than two!)

A CRIMINAL MAGIC is a sweet romance and wondrous exploration of magic revels.  It's also a look at a seamy criminal underbelly and the way people will backstab each other for their own gain.  It definitely has a strain of noir in its blood.  I found myself sucked in, and enjoyed it down to the unconventional ending that suits the characters perfectly.

January 25, 2016

Movie Monday: Tangerine

Tangerine When I first heard of Tangerine, I wondered if it was a movie adaptation of Edward Bloor's classic middle-grade novel TANGERINE. It isn't.  In fact, Tangerine is wholly original.

Tangerine's technical claim to fame is that it was shot entirely on the iPhone 5S.  I certainly can't make movies this good with my cell phone, so bravo.  It doesn't look like Roger Deakins shot it, but it looks perfectly respectable for an indie movie.  You wouldn't know if someone didn't tell you.

Tangerine is set in sun-drenched Los Angeles on Christmas Eve.  It's a land of bright colors and intersecting cultures.  One of those cultures is that of transgender sex workers.  Sin-Dee (Kitana Kiki Rodriguez) just got out of jail and is enjoying a holiday donut with her best friend, Alexandra (Mya Taylor).  Unfortunately, Alexandra lets it slip that Sin-Dee's boyfriend cheated on her - even though she's been gone less than a month.  Sin-Dee instantly marches off in a rage, ready to make her boyfriend and the girl he cheated on her with pay.

Meanwhile, cabdriver Razmik (Karren Karagulian) ferries an odd assortment of fares around the city.

The acting in Tangerine is very natural, but also full of passion and fire.  This is no mumblecore film.  These characters are loud, because they've learned that's how they have to be to make their voices heard.  Almost all of them do awful things during the course of the film, but they also expose their vulnerable underbellies.  They can't survive without their communities, but their community ties are fragile.

I also have to give props to the soundtrack.  A climatic Christmas song is beautifully chosen.  The pounding synths that accompany Sin-Dee tearing down the streets of Los Angeles are infectious and riotous.  The soundtrack sets the tone, and the story rises to it.

Tangerine is a hilarious film, and a touching one.  It's a slice of life that runs through the full gamut of human emotions, finding bitter humor in the darkest spots.  When the credits begin, that silence is a welcome space to release yourself from the entrenching world of the film.

January 18, 2016

Review: For the Record

For the Record By Charlotte Huang
Available now from Delacorte  (Penguin Random House)
Review copy

Chelsea has been shunned at her high school ever since her first relationship went horribly awry.  Not even going on a musical talent reality show helped, even though she placed high.  But she's just become the new lead singer of hit rock band Melbourne, and she's going on tour with them this summer.

I loved all the details of the tour, from the rules of the tour bus to the hassle of last minute guest requests.  It hangs together without breaking the point of view, since Chelsea is just learning the ropes too.  In the back of FOR THE RECORD, debut author Charlotte Huang thanks her music agent husband and various bands she was able to talk to for helping her get the details right.  It really does add to atmosphere of the first summer of the best years of Chelsea's life.

In addition to learning the ropes, Chelsea is trying to convince the band members that she's in this for the long haul.  The shadow of their previous singer hangs long over their relationships, particularly with the standoffish Pem.  Beckett is the nicest one to her, but Chelsea struggles with her attraction to him versus the rule of no relationships within the band and crew.  It's much easier to date Lucas Rivers, the teen heartthrob movie star who is into her.

I thought Chelsea's struggles with her self-esteem where realistic.  She knows she's a great singer, and she's comfortable with her body (even if it isn't Hollywood skinny).  Chelsea's fine with herself.  What she isn't fine with is with making new relationships.  She still has trouble with romance and trusting friends due to those high school scars.  Her one friend, Mandy, is along for the ride as a merch girl, and Chelsea worries about the guys clueing in that Mandy really is her only friend.  I thought Huang imbued her heroine with a believable and readable balance of confidence and insecurity.

FOR THE RECORD is one of those books that sucked me in once I started reading it.  I had to see Chelsea succeed.  And, okay, I did wonder if she would end up with any of the guys.  I still appreciated that Chelsea put her career first.  This is one fabulous summer read.

(Why do they tour Texas Houston - Dallas - Austin instead of Austin in the middle?  I don't know.)

January 14, 2016

Review: Honor Girl: A Graphic Memoir

Honor Girl By Maggie Thrash
Available now from Candlewick
Review copy

Maggie Thrash, a writer for online teen mag Rookie, writes about the summer of 2000 in her debut work, an autobiographical graphic novel.  That summer she went to Bellflower Camp, a Christian girls' camp in Georgia, as she did every summer.  She also came to realize that she was a lesbian due to her (requited) crush on one of the counselors.

Thrash does a wonderful job of capturing the time and place.  Backsteet Boys' Millenium is still on top, and everyone is passing around their copies of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. For Thrash, coming out is about as easy as you would expect at a Christian girls' camp in Georgia.  The title HONOR GIRL refers to the girl chosen at the end of each year who embodies the ideals of the camp.  It is an honor Thrash become less and less interested in pursuing as she struggles with her identity.

I thought the daily life at the camp was well represented.  More people than Thrash expects take her sexuality in stride.  She suffers from the attention of a bully, but more due to her skill on the range.  However, homophobia still rears its ugly head.  Tammy, one of the camp authorities, is right that letting a nineteen year old and a fifteen year old have a romantic relationship would be irresponsible of the camp no matter their genders.  Unfortunately, not much else about how she handles the situation is right.

HONOR GIRL is drawn in watercolors, a medium that suits the subject matter well.  The soft colors look nostalgic, and reminiscent of projects one might make at camp.  Thrash is better at drawing objects than people.  I thought the art was amateurish.  Everyone has pupil-less eyes and sloping noses.  It gets the story across, but isn't particularly engaging.

Thrash's story is one of first love, friendship, and alienation.  It's a little choppy and messy, with a somewhat unsatisfying ending, which reflects its autobiographical nature.  I thought it was well told, even if I wasn't enamored with the art.

January 13, 2016

Review: Cam Girl

Cam Girl By Leah Raeder
Available now from
Review copy

CAM GIRL starts with a crash on an icy road.  Vada is the only one who remembers what happened.  Her girlfriend, in the car with her, was drunk and can't remember the accident.  The other driver, a teen boy, was also drunk and died on the scene.  Everyone knows Vada is lying about how the accident happened, but not exactly what her lies are.

This is one of those books that I picked up to read and then forgot about for awhile.  It wasn't what I expected from the cover and description at all.  There are no real thriller elements, although every once in awhile the book convinced me that something sinister would happen.  It's much more of a character-driven story.

Although the crash is the final nail in Vada and Ellis's relationship, it soon becomes clear they had other problems.  Between losing her drawing hand and her relationship going horribly awry, Vada's self-esteem is low.  She's upset and carrying a lot of guilt.  She finds her way to working as a cam girl, for a new site that promises to pay better and be less predatory, but one that carves its market niche by taking things farther to the edge.  Vada is consenting to be exploited, but she's still be exploited.

At times, CAM GIRL felt like it was edgy just to be edgy.  Vada's specialty is breathplay, or auto-erotic asphyxiation.  The book eventually manages to ground it in Vada's character and past, but at first it seems like Vada is practicing hardcore BDSM with no buildup.  Surely it happens, but it was rather jarring.

Vada's life as a cam girl gets shaken up by several events: she starts falling for a big spender client, Ellis re-enters her life, and she finds out the driver of the other car might have been committing suicide.  Her complicated romantic life and search for answers about Ryan tangle together.  I felt everything was a bit too obvious and got frustrated with Vada quite a bit for not realizing what was right in front of her face.

Leah Raeder's CAM GIRL tackles many issues of gender and sexuality that society is really just beginning to discuss.  She's drawn a convincing portrait of a flawed character surrounded by equally flawed people.  (Including Brandt, Ellis's cousin who feels like he wandered in from the thriller I expected.)  It was a book I ultimately failed to connect to, but I expect its messages will connect to many other readers. 

January 11, 2016

Review: Ghosting

Ghosting By Edith Pattou
Available now from Skyscape (Amazon)
Review copy

I love Edith Pattou's young adult fantasy novels and I'm a big fan of novels in verse, so I couldn't resist giving GHOSTING a try.  It is a contemporary novel about the last night of summer before school starts again.  A group of (semi-) friends heads out: Emma, Maxie, Felix, Brendan, Chloe, and Anil.  There are also two more narrators: Emma's younger sister and a strange boy with a shotgun.

(Okay, and a few poems from the police chief.)

It's very obvious from the beginning of GHOSTING that something is going to go awry.  There's a building tension, right up to the point where it all explodes.  But there's also lots of little human moments between the six teens who are mostly just trying to have a little fun.  Even the cruel Brendan is very humanized.

Some might be put off by the free-verse format, but I think it is well done.  Most of the voices are pretty distinct, and the directness of the address works.  There's a clear logic to how a series of not-that-bad decisions lead to tragedy.  I will admit though that I felt the authorial strings at time.  The way Faith (the little sister) arrives on scene felt blatantly artificial.  And Walter (the boy with the shotgun) felt like a caricature, which was a shame given how deeply the other teens were drawn.

I think GHOSTING will appeal to fans of Ellen Hopkins and Laurie Halse Anderson.  It has a similar feel, both realistic and concerned with social issues.  I'd recommend GHOSTING for the upper YA range, given some of the violence in the novel.

January 6, 2016

Review: The Night Parade

The Night Parade By Kathryn Tanquary
Available now from Sourcebooks Jabberwocky
Review copy

Saki Yamamoto has the three nights of the night parade to put things right after she accidentally calls down a death curse.  Not properly finishing a game of Kokkuri-san might be the best thing that's happened to her, because each night one of the three spirits (all tricksters) she's called comes to guide her.

THE NIGHT PARADE draws heavily on Japanese folklore and Shinto beliefs to tell both a mythical quest and one girl's dawning maturity.  At the beginning of the story, Saki can be quite trying.  She rejects genuine friendship to pursue the acceptance of bullies and grumbles about chores and listening to her grandmother's stories.  She's a city girl in the boonies and wants everyone to know she's not happy about it.

Of course, it is her bad attitude, laziness, and lack of care during the Obon preparations that helps invite an evil spirit in.

She shapes up almost inordinately fast, but I can't complain too much since it made THE NIGHT PARADE a more enjoyable experience for me.  I enjoyed seeing Saki come up with clever solutions to her problems and learn to truly listen and empathize with others.  It did help that she was learning these things through fantastical interactions with the spirit world.

THE NIGHT PARADE is a thrilling tale about the power of tradition and the value of respect.  I particularly liked the touch of Saki growing closer to her grandmother.  If you'd like to read THE NIGHT PARADE to coincide with Obon, it occurs either July 13 through 15 or August 13 through 15 depending on which calendar you follow.

January 4, 2016

Cybils Finalists and My Runner-Ups: YA Speculative Fiction 2015

Another year, another Cybils list.  You can see the full list of finalists at the Cybils website.  I was a member of the panel that decided the YA Speculative Fiction list.  This was quite a strong year!  Our finalists is below.  Please follow the link to see all the blurbs explaining why these are books to read.

An Inheritance of Ashes AN INHERITANCE OF ASHES by Lisa Bobet
Hallie did not go to war, to that horrible field where a god was slain and old friends were crippled. She stayed home and worked the fields. But in this novel that blurs the lines between fantasy and science fiction, home is a dangerous place full of secrets and festering anger, where the world next door just might come knocking. An Inheritance of Ashes asks us what makes a hero, a community, a family. Leah Bobet’s deftly written sophomore novel will linger in your mind long after there are no more pages to turn.

BONE GAP by Laura Ruby
MORTAL HEART by Robin LaFevers (full review)
THE WALLS AROUND US by Nova Ren Suma (full review)
SLASHER GIRLS & MONSTER BOYS by April Genevieve Tucholke
SHADOWSHAPER by Daniel José Older
THE SIX by Mark Alpert

Here are my runner-ups to our list, including what I personally consider to be the best YA Speculative Fiction book of the year:

A History of Glitter and Blood A HISTORY OF GLITTER AND BLOOD by Hannah Moscowitz (full review)
"Missing body parts was nothing to cry about and nothing to take too seriously" is said of the first page of A History of Glitter and Blood, setting the tone for the whole novel.  Purported to be the in-progress memoir of one of the few fairies who survived the war between the fairies and the gnomes, this is a story of trauma, horror, and enduring love and friendship.  Its characters are both numb and fiercely wounded, survivors of haunting violence and mutilated bodies living out a teenage disco fever dream.  The story purposefully struggles to find its rhythm at first as the narrator struggles with facing the truth of what happened, much less telling it.  This richly rewarding novel offers even more pleasures upon re-reading.

DUPLICITY by N.K. Traver
This is a fast-paced book about a hacker who discovers that his mirror image is the good twin and wants a chance to live his life.  The character development shines.

PRAIRIE FIRE by E.K. Johnston (full review)
This book is beautifully written, with a rhythm and a pulse that tangled me up in the story.  The ending was unexpected and tragic, yet fit the book's themes perfectly.

Much like THE SIX, THE SCORPION RULES asks us what it means to be human.  It's a bit heavy on the needless torture, but it is a surprisingly thoughtful book with a subtle love story.

FALLOUT by Gwenda Bond
Teenage Lois Lane is on the case, and she goes after with tenacity.  This start to a series that reimagines Lois Lane's origins is a lot of fun and written on a level that can work for a range of readers.


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