November 30, 2012

Review: Secrets and Lies

Secrets and Lies Book Two of the Capital Girls series
By Ella Monroe
Available now from St. Martin's Griffin
Review copy
Read my review of CAPITAL GIRLS

The Capital Girls are back!  Jackie is dealing with a stalker, Lettie is threatened with deportation, Laura Beth's boyfriend's parents are accused of being terrorists, and Whitney just wants to return to LA.  Just another day on the Hill.

I liked that SECRETS AND LIES called out a few of its sillier aspects in this entry.  It's pointed out that gossip about the president and her generation matters a lot more than whatever their kids are doing.  One of her classmates calls her out for continuing to hate DC unreasonably after several months.  Jackie rolls her eyes about Laura Beth worrying about a guy when one of her best friends might have to leave the country.  SECRETS AND LIES is still soapy fun, but it has a bit of perspective.

I liked Whitney's machinations in the first Capital Girls book, but she's wearing out her welcome.  She's a lame, ineffectual villain.  (Also, calling them the Crapital Girls isn't that clever.  Please stop.)  Luckily the extremely creepy stalker and aspiring kidnapper is on the scene to pick up the slack.  I think I know who it is, but whoever it is does add a bit of a chill factor, mostly due to one scene near the end of SECRETS AND LIES.

There's also some new romantic developments, of course.  There might be a love triangle on the horizon, unfortunately, but hopefully it will get cut off at the knees.  The girl involved, Jackie, isn't particularly pleased when the guys show signs of fighting over her.  She leaves both of them alone in a maneuver that I applaud.

I continue to be entertained by the Capital Girls.  SECRETS AND LIES had some interesting new twists, so I'll probably be back for the third book in the series.  I recommend these books to anyone looking for a slightly more clever, slightly more political Gossip Girl.

November 29, 2012

Review: Fables: Werewolves of the Heartland

Werewolves of the Heartland By Bill Willingham
Art by Craig Hamilton, Jim Fern, Ray Snyder, and Mark Farmer
Cover by Daniel Dos Santos
Available now from Vertigo (DC)
Review copy

WEREWOLVES OF THE HEARTLAND is the second standalone trade in Bill Willingham's Fables series.  I preferred the first (1001 NIGHTS OF SNOWFALL), but that may be because I loved its structure so much.

WEREWOLVES OF THE HEARTLAND finds Bigby Wolf (the Big Bad Wolf to those who haven't read a Fables book before), arriving in Story City, Iowa.  He's searching for a new location for Fabletown and did not expect to find a community of werewolves - especially not one containing a few familiar faces.

Vertigo promises that WEREWOLVES OF THE HEARTLAND is a good place to start Fables as well as entertaining adventure for old fans of the mythos.  As someone who has read several Fables books but not even close to half of what is available, I'll endorse that statement.  There's nothing going on in the novel that requires knowledge of the main story arc, and plenty of hints about what has gone on to intrigue new readers.  (At least, it will intrigue new readers who want to see Prince Charming duel Bluebeard.)

Art is, of course, a big part of any successful graphic novel.  For the most part I like the art in WEREWOLVES OF THE HEARTLAND.  The colors are soft, the lines are clean, and there are plenty of backgrounds but the panels aren't cluttered.  The shading feels rather old school to me, which I liked.  It fits a tale involving a long flashback to WWII.  But some panels just didn't work for me.  Some of the close ups just have such dead eyes that it is both creepy and distracting.

The story is pretty simple.  I wish Oda, the girl passed out on the cover, had more to do.  She might be precognitive and she certainly gets a portentous last line, but she disappears during the climax . . . passed out.  (Before that she gets the cliche woman trying to seduce a guy to her purposes scene.)  Bigby Wolf, meanwhile, gets to show off his sense of law and justice on the frontier.  Unsurprisingly, it's swift and brutal.  It's nice to see a bit of Bigby's past, but it's a bit boring to see him put up against a group of werewolves who are so outclassed.  (And I don't think the whole "Bigby-as-the-werewolf-God" thing was every fully explained.)

WEREWOLVES OF THE HEARTLAND is an entertaining adventure and will definitely appeal to those looking to read a standalone graphic novel in addition to fans of the Fables series.  Fairytale fans might pursue an entry in the series more based in folklore, however.  And yes, this book is rated for mature readers including violence and full-frontal nudity of both genders, mostly nonsexual.  Probably nothing an older teen can't handle, but not the best choice of reading for your morning commute depending on how nosy your fellow passengers are.

November 28, 2012

Review: Darkwater

Darkwater By Catherine Fisher
Available now from Dial (Penguin)
Review copy

Welsh fantasist extraordinaire Catherine Fisher takes on the familiar tale of someone who sells their soul and regrets it.  But she does it in her own style, leading to an ending most readers won't expect unless they're really up on their mythology and/or folklore.

The young girl who sells her soul is Sarah Trevelyan, the last of the once-proud Trevelyan family.  I take that back; they're still proud, they've just lost everything.  But she sells her soul to regain Darkwater Hall from its new lord, giving her a hundred years as the landowner.  When payment comes due, Sarah must prevent fifteen-year-old Tom from making her mistake.

DARKWATER was a pretty quick read.  It's not that long, and it's comforting familiar, a moral fable in new guise.  As mentioned before, however, Fisher does it in her style and she has the chops to flesh out a basic tale.  The text explores both Sarah and Tom's motives, letting their inner psychology be observed and judged.  After all, you don't get devils coming after your soul unless you have some sort of fatal flaw.

I liked that DARKWATER was creepy, but not too creepy, since I wasn't in the mood for horror when I read it.  (I was a little wary due to the awesome cover.)  I mean, I never get nightmares from books, but I needed something that wouldn't make me shriek whenever my niece interrupted me.  (I tend to get absorbed in books.)

I quite enjoyed DARKWATER and think fellow Fisher fans will like it too.  I suggest it for fans of ANOTHER FAUST by Daniel and Dina Nayeri too - perhaps even fans of an older version of Faust, be it Goethe or Marlowe.

November 27, 2012

Why I Love Serialized Fiction by Melissa de la Cruz

Wolf Pact
Today's guest is Melissa de la Cruz, author of the Blue Bloods series.  Her new release is WOLF PACT, a serialized novel of which the last part comes out next week, on December 4th.  I reviewed the first part earlier today.  The action in WOLF PACT leads up to GATES OF PARADISE (Jan 15, 2013), the final book in the Blue Bloods series.  Read on to find out why Melissa decided to publish WOLF PACT as an eBook original serial.


I'm a huge fan of serialized fiction.  To me they're like little TV episodes for a book -- tune in next week for the next installment! I actually started my fiction career by writing serial fiction. I wrote "Cat's Meow" which became my first novel as a weekly column for a fashion website called my friends and I started. I collected them into a proposal and then Simon and Schuster bought it as my first novel. After the book was published, Gotham magazine asked if I wanted to write a weekly serial for them, so I wrote "The Fortune Hunters" for a year. I sold it as a novel to Random House but I actually got too busy and wasn't able to publish it. (Maybe I still will one day, who knows!)  

So to me, going back to serial fiction is like coming home. Wolf Pact was not originally intended to be a serial or an e-book, but as I began to write it, I knew how IMPORTANT it was to publish it before the final Blue Bloods book came out, and how much of a richer reading experience Gates of Paradise would be with the wolves' back story. We decided to go the e-book route in order to bring Wolf Pact to the fans first. I wrote the novel as a novel, and when we made this decision, I had to figure out how to restructure it so it would fit the serial format. It worked out pretty well, because I'd laid out the book in four parts anyway, and from two POVs—Lawson and Bliss. 
Wolf Pact was years in the making, but writing isn't a machine-like process, it took a long time for the story to gel and to discover how the wolves' story related to the vampires. Once you unearth it though, it always amazes me how well it fits, as if it was there all along. I always forget a writer's job is to hunt for the gem of the story in the idea. You have to keep chiseling away to find it. When you do, your work is done, and you turn it in. :)

Review: Wolf Pact: Part One

Wolf Pact Part One of Four
Companion to the Blue Bloods series
By Melissa de la Cruz
Available now from Disney Hyperion
Review copy
Read my review of THE VAN ALEN LEGACY and my interview with Melissa

WOLF PACT is a serial novel by Melissa de la Cruz exploring the wolves of the Blue Bloods' world and their relationship to Bliss Llewellyn.  The fourth and final part comes out next week on December 4th.  I am only reviewing the first part, which may seem a touch pricey at sixty-ish pages for $1.99.  But in the end that's a whole book for $7.96, which is below market price.  Plus, I think serials are fun and I'm happy major publishers are playing around with the model.

WOLF PACT begins in Hell, where Lawson and his pack escape from their masters before they can be turned into hellhounds.  But their escape comes at a price, and they are pursued by the hounds because they can still be converted as long as they're recaptured before they turn seventeen.  Meanwhile, Bliss and her Aunt Jane search for the wolves in order to ally with them to fight the Silver Bloods.

While WOLF PACT deals with a society that's not explored in the main Blue Bloods continuity, it's not really friendly to new readers.  Since Lawson and the pack are new to Earth, they are briefly caught up on the various factions.  But de la Cruz's world is too involved to be explained so quickly.  I can't be sure since I've read the Blue Bloods novels, but I suspect WOLF PACT will appeal more to fans than newbies.

Now, the Blue Bloods series is one that I once loved, but I've been disappointed by later installments.  I think WOLF PACT gets back to what made the first books more appealing.  There's action, a sense of fate, and what seems to be the set up for a neatly woven plot.  I'm intrigued enough to read Part Two.

Come back later today for a guest blog from Melissa!

November 26, 2012

Movie Monday: Reservoir Dogs

Book Cover I haven't seen Reservoir Dogs since I was a teenager. A young teenager, in fact. I remember liking the film, but think I never watched it again because I was uncomfortable with the language and violence.

Rewatching it as an adult was a very different experience.  For one thing, it looks cheaper to my eyes now.  Quentin Tarantino did an amazing job for a first-time director, but he wasn't able to entirely conceal his budget.  For another, I realized Michael Madsen is very attractive.

I mean, I've read lots of articles wondering why he isn't a big star.  And I always sat there thinking, "Uh, because he's greasy and gross?"  Turns out I remembered him that way because Mr. Blond is so loathsome.  Madsen is actually a decent looking guy with amazing blue eyes.

And, probably most importantly, I noticed how Tarantino uses language to great effect in Reservoir Dogs.  The n-word is frequently thrown around.  Misogynist things are said.  But the robbers, no matter how cool and sometimes sympathetic they might seem, are not nice people.  The undercover cop - do I need to be wary of spoilers for a twenty-year old movie? - doesn't use the n-word, however.  He also has a black boss who he respects.  The cops in Reservoir Dogs aren't much better than the criminals, but there is are differences between them.

Overall, it's a great film.  I am happy I saw it young, before I saw all the films it influenced, so that it still felt fresh and innovative.  But I'm happy I watched it again, because I have a different perspective now.

Are there any movies that seem very different to you now than they did when you were young?

November 23, 2012

Review: Colin Fischer

Colin Fisher By Ashley Edward Miller and Zack Stentz
Available now from Razorbill (Penguin)
Review copy

Colin Fischer is just looking to get through high school.  But one day someone brings a gun to school, and bully Wayne Connelly is blamed.  Colin knows Wayne didn't do it, but that means he has to find the real culprit to prove Wayne's innocence.  Colin may have trouble putting together a facial expression with what people are thinking and feeling, but he has other powers of perception.

I loved the format of COLIN FISCHER.  There are excerpts from Colin's journal and lots of footnotes in addition to the third-person narration.  Emotions are always mentioned in skinny capital letters.  These bits of flair give insight into the way Colin thinks.  He has Asperger's Syndrome, giving him a different point of view on what happened in the cafeteria than the rest of his classmates who are perfectly content to believe the disliked and low class Wayne Connelly did it.

There's a nice balance between Colin's school and home life and the mystery.  COLIN FISCHER sets up a series, so there have to be some elements that will carry through future entries.  There's a love interest, a new friendship, and Colin's fledgling basketball skills.  He's also got a complicated relationship with his younger brother, who resents the fact that Colin isn't "normal."  As for the mystery, I liked that Colin doesn't quite understand the danger he puts himself in.  He just wants to solve the puzzle, but there are people who don't want the puzzle solved.  It made a bit more sense than some protagonists who through themselves knowingly into danger.

I think COLIN FISCHER could be the start of a very fun mystery series.  There's always room for more idiosyncratic, determined detectives, at least in my opinion.  I also enjoyed the factoids sprinkled throughout the text, courtesy of Colin, because I love trivia.  I like that Ashley Edward Miller and Zack Stentz did their research and make an effort to portray Colin's social issues accurately.  Overall, I liked COLIN FISCHER quite a bit and I'll be back for the sequel.

November 22, 2012

Review: Enchanted by Starlight

Enchanted by Starlight By Tina L. Hook
Review copy

I don't normally review self-published books, but I asked to review ENCHANTED BY STARLIGHT by a PR company through which I've reviewed several fun chick lit novels.  So I decided to give Tina L. Hook's debut a chance.  Thankfully, ENCHANTED BY STARLIGHT doesn't suffer from bad copy editing, also known as my number-one gripe with self-publishing.

ENCHANTED BY STARLIGHT follows the lives of three women who gained a superpower through each of their encounters with a comet.  Grace, my favorite, can make men fall in love with her.  But she quickly realizes that she prefers relationships that don't involve her power.  Skylar can make people like her.  Skylar could've been a really cool character, but she had less to do than the other two.  Most of her growth happens in the chapter where she decides to stop being a kept woman and get a job she likes.  Aside from that, she's mostly there because the other two women know her and she's part of their stories.  Alina's power is that she can influence people based on their thoughts.  And Alina is a real piece of work, driven by jealousy and hate.  She doesn't deserve the abusive relationship she ends up in during ENCHANTED BY STARLIGHT, certainly, but she's not a nice person.  Her chapters made my skin crawl.

ENCHANTED BY STARLIGHT opens with the three women meeting in one place for the first time, on a night when another comet will pass by.  Aside from their powers, they're united through one man, Liam.  ENCHANTED BY STARLIGHT then goes back to their teen years to show how they ended up at that point.  It's a good basic structure, but sometimes the chapters jump back or forth in time with little reason for being suddenly nonlinear.  As for Liam, as we get to know him, it diffuses some of the tension of the upcoming fight between the women because he's a total jerk and loser.

Really, the main parts of ENCHANTED BY STARLIGHT that I liked were Grace's growth as a character and her friendship with Skylar.  Too much of the book was about women scheming to tear each other down, often because of a man.  It's certainly something that happens, but it isn't a plot that I find compelling.

The ebook of ENCHANTED BY STARLIGHT is only 99 cents, which is very reasonable.  For that price, it's a reasonably entertaining story with no annoying formatting errors.  But I wouldn't recommend paying for the paperback.

November 21, 2012

Review: Elemental

Elemental By Antony John
Available now from Dial (Penguin)
Review copy

Thomas lives on an island of fifteen people.  Everyone has a power, known as an element, aside from Thomas.  Then the Guardians are kidnapped during a sudden storm, leaving Thomas and the other kids to escape the pirates on their own.  As they struggle to keep themselves safe, they begin to discover all the secrets the adults kept.

It took me awhile to figure out ELEMENTAL was set in the future, despite that being mentioned in the very first line printed on the back of my ARC.  Clearly I didn't read what the book was about before diving in.  I enjoyed trying to piece together what happened to the world, curious about the plague that left behind only a few people who had magical powers.

Some of ELEMENTAL was pretty predictable.  Obviously Thomas actually does have a special ability.  (I'll admit to not entirely understanding how his ability worked, but that might be because Thomas didn't entirely get it himself.)  I found the love triangle tolerable, mostly because both Alice and Rose are sixteen too, and their only other romantic option is Thomas's older brother who is also a bit of an outcast because he predicts people's deaths.  There just aren't enough available guys to prevent the love triangle.  It's also pretty low key.  The kids' focus is on getting their families back and getting away from the pirates, not making out.  Rose and Alice's competition just provides a bit of tension within the group.

I thought ELEMENTAL was a standalone fantasy, so I was a bit disappointed by the obvious lead in to a sequel at the end.  ELEMENTAL does contain a complete adventure, but many of the big questions remain unanswered at the end of the book.  That's fine if there are going to be more books, but it wasn't what I expected when I started.

I found ELEMENTAL mildly diverting, but I was never absorbed into the world Antony John has created.  It was fun enough, but I'm not driven to read the possible sequel to get answers and see what Thomas and the others do now that they know more about their world.  I think the novel just felt kind of shallow.  There was no spark that made me love these characters or this world.

November 20, 2012

Review: Will Sparrow's Road

Will Sparrow's Road By Karen Cushman
Available now from Clarion Books (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)
Review copy

Newberry Award medalist Karen Cushman's newest novel is also her first featuring a male protagonist.  Will Sparrow's father sold him to an innkeeper for ale, but now Will is striking out on his own, determined to lie, steal, and cheat his way to a better life.  Unfortunately for Will, he isn't half as hard as he thinks he is.

I think even less experienced readers (aka the kiddos this book is aimed at) will realize that Will isn't the most perceptive spyglass on the binocular shelf.  (I really wanted to go for a metaphor there, but it just isn't working.  Please suggestion what I should have said in the comments.)  He's often cheated by others, and when he falls in with a couple of oddities and their leader, their actions show their true character long before Will catches on.  Plus, most modern readers won't assume, as Will does, that dwarfism is some punishment for sin.

But while Will manages to get into trouble due to his inability to read people and situations, he also gets into trouble because he's not cut out to be a thief.  He can justify some of the things he steals, but overall he doesn't have the desperation or the cruelty to survive on stolen goods.  He's young and still has time to learn which people he can trust, befriend, and model himself upon.

I love how fully Cushman can bring Elizabethan England to life in so few pages.  Her characters are not modern people dropped into the past.  Their mindset is very different than our own, though they hope for so many of the same things.  (Freedom, shelter, friends, comfort - the basics.)  Perhaps the most modern is Grace Wyse, but she's developed as an outcast from society due to her appearance.

Reading WILL SPARROW'S ROAD took me back to read CATHERINE, CALLED BIRDY and THE MIDWIFE'S APPRENTICE back in elementary school.  Cushman knows her niche, even when she changes it up a little.  Her historical novels are very human and give interesting insight into history.

November 19, 2012

Movie Monday: Zatoichi

I am completely out of it due to 24/7 babysitting, so I'll stick to pointing out that the Zatoichi: The Blind Swordsman series is free to watch on Hulu.

November 18, 2012

Scholastic Holiday Campaign (Press Release)

Call to action for families to read books to and with their kids, and Scholastic will donate books to children in need –with a minimum of 50,000 books committed
New York, NY – November 15, 2012 –Scholastic (NASDAQ: SCHL), the global children’s publishing, education and media company, The UPS Store and Marine Toys for Tots Foundation are launching a READ EVERY DAY holiday campaign to promote the love of reading and encourage all families to help give books to kids who need them most, including those who lost books due to Hurricane Sandy.  This holiday literacy drive is part of Scholastic’s global literacy campaign, Read Every Day. Lead a Better Life, an effort to help all children experience the love of reading and owning a book.
Here is how families can help to contribute books to kids in need this holiday season:
1)      Download Storia®, Scholastic’s new teacher-recommended children’s ereading app, and help pass on the reading to kids in need. Upon downloading Storia, families will receive five free children’s ebooks to start a home digital library. For every additional ebook purchased on Storia now through Dec. 31, 2012, Scholastic will donate a children’s book to a child in need through the Toys for Tots Literacy Program (with a minimum of 50,000 books committed).                                                                                                                                      
2)      Visit a participating The UPS Store location across the U.S. now through Dec. 31, 2012 to purchase a donation card to benefit the Toys for Tots Literacy Program, a year-round initiative of the Marine Toys for Tots Foundation. Every dollar donated helps provide new books from Scholastic for less fortunate children in local communities throughout the U.S. Customers can also donate online at The UPS Store Facebook page.  As part of the longstanding collaboration with Scholastic Literacy Partners, The UPS Store location that raises the most money during the holidays will receive 500 books to share with families in their local community.                        

“Thanks to our partners Scholastic and The UPS Store, Toys for Tots delivers millions of books to less fortunate children every year,” said retired Marine Corps LtGen. Pete Osman, President and CEO of Marine Toys for Tots Foundation.  “By including books with the other toys we’ll deliver this Christmas season, Toys for Tots will help deserving children develop a passion for reading and will start them on a pathway to a brighter future.”
“Regardless of whether kids read digitally or in print, we want ALL children to have the opportunity to read every day and to read books they love,” said Francie Alexander, Chief Academic Officer at Scholastic. “This holiday, together with The UPS Store and Toys for Tots, we can encourage families and communities to join in giving the gift of reading to their children and to children in need.”
Available for free download on PC and iPad, and on select Android tablets, the Storia eReading app is designed to captivate kids while helping them become better readers. Storia offers thousands of curated titles for kids from toddlers through teens, of which many are enriched with vocabulary and comprehension activities and video. Storia has been recognized by Warren Buckleitner with the Editor’s Choice Award for children’s eBook apps in Children’s Technology Review, awarded 2012 Best Toy of the Year award by Dr. Toy and received glowing reviews in The New York Times and School Library Journal.
“Education is one of the keys to helping children become successful in life. During the holidays, The UPS Store hopes to make a positive impact by helping children break the cycle of poverty through literacy and education,” said Tim Davis, president of The UPS Store, Inc.

November 17, 2012

Miss Fortune Cookie Book Blitz

Miss Fortune Cookie I'd already written my review of MISS FORTUNE COOKIE by Lauren Bjorkman when I was invited to participate in the book blast.  Since I'd read and enjoyed the book, I thought it would be fun to participate!  Best of all, it's the second time I get to share an excerpt with ya'll this week.

About Lauren Bjorkman:

I am the author of two YA novels, MY INVENTED LIFE and MISS FORTUNE COOKIE. I also contributed a short story to the anthology THE FIRST TIME.

Though I grew up on a sail boat and loved traveling the world as a kid, I'm still afraid of the ocean. I much prefer other modes of transportation these days--plane, train, or car. Walking is best.

I love books with multi-faceted, intriguing characters. The best one make me laugh, cry, and turn the pages long past my bed time.

When I'm not reading or writing, I spend time with family and friends, talking about everything under the sun. Add in some good food to the mix, top it off with chocolate, and I'm truly happy.


Meet Erin. Smart student, great daughter, better friend. Secretly the mastermind behind the popular advice blog Miss Fortune Cookie. Totally unaware that her carefully constructed life is about to get crazy. 

It all begins when her ex-best friend sends a letter to her blog—and then acts on her advice. Erin’s efforts to undo the mess will plunge her into adventure, minor felonies, and possibly her very first romance. 

What’s a likely fortune for someone no longer completely in control of her fate? Hopefully nothing like: You will become a crispy noodle in the salad of life.

BB Book Tours


You will have much luck and little hardship.
Or the other way around.


My friends and I were riding home from school on Muni, clinging to an assortment of slippery handholds, when Linny almost blew my secret identity. Intentionally.
“Listen to this one,” she said, reading off her iPhone, a faint but smirky glint in her eyes. “‘Dear Miss Fortune Cookie. My cousin thinks I’m chasing her boyfriend. Her boyfriend and I never flirt, but sometimes we text. What can I do to make her believe me? Just Friends.’”
In fact, I—Erin Kavanagh, alias Miss Fortune Cookie—had posted this very letter on my anonymous advice blog, and Linny happened to be the only person in San Francisco to know that, the only person in the whole world, except for some random administrator at WordPress. She takes every opportunity to harass me about keeping my blog a secret. “What advice would you give, Erin?” she asked, winking this time.
I kept my face as neutral as possible. Luckily Darren and Mei were only paying attention each other. As usual.
Personally speaking, I think nano-deceptions are a good thing. I regularly use them to protect my friends from unpleasant truths. Should I tell Linny that her favorite knit hat makes her head look like a furry meatball? Or nudge Mei whenever Darren winces at her hyena laugh? Should I have cautioned Darren that taking AP physics would wreck his grade-point average? Absolutely not. Sincere lies keep everyone happy.
I blew the hair out of my eyes. “The cousin will never stop suspecting the two of them,” I said to Linny, “so Just Friends has to stop the texting. She could get her own boyfriend. Or move to somewhere far away like Moldavia.”
Muni, a sort of bus powered by electric wires overhead, jerked to a halt. A seat opened up, and Linny took it. “Exactly!” She had the happiest smile ever, so big it barely fit on her face. Metaphorically speaking. “Mei, don’t you think Erin is a natural at giving advice?”
“Hmm?” Mei said. She was somewhat entwined with Darren and therefore distracted.
“Nothing.” I jabbed Linny in the ribs to get her to stop talking. Gently of course. The three of us—Mei, Linny, and me—made an enviable friendship trio. I was the lesser third, maybe because Mei and Linny were gorgeously Chinese-American, while I was just Boring-American. A Person of Irish.
Mei knew nothing about my connection to Miss Fortune Cookie. We used to be best friends, and by best friends I mean we spent every afternoon and weekend together until eighth grade, when things fell apart between us. The truth is, Mei dumped me. Then Linny brought us together again during freshman year, inviting us both to eat lunch with her, forming a little group. A few months later, I mustered the courage to bring up the dumping incident with Mei, except she didn’t want to talk about it. So we became friends again without dealing with the past. Pretty much.
Except I didn’t trust her like I used to.
And she didn’t share as many intimate details about herself with me.
Linny beckoned me closer to whisper in my ear. “I have a question for Miss Fortune Cookie. A very personal one. But you can’t tell Mei.”
“Why not?”
She lowered her voice more. “You just can’t, ’kay?”
I nodded. Linny usually let both of us in on every detail about her life, although lately she’d been secretive about her new boyfriend. Whatever it was, it wouldn’t be boring. I turned my back toward Mei and said in my quietest voice, “Go ahead. I’m listening. What is it?”
Linny shook her head. “Not now.”
Just then, the Muni driver made the sharp turn into Chinatown, and three things happened almost simultaneously: a bicyclist veered into the road, the driver slammed on the brakes, and I fell into another passenger. We came to a halt fifty feet from the stop, and the bicyclist escaped unscathed. I could tell by the vigorous way he flipped off the driver. Then I caught sight of Mrs. Liu, bundled against the fog, among the passengers waiting to board.
“Your mom!” I whispered to Mei. “She’s getting on!”
Mei’s eyes widened. “What the what?”
Which demonstrates a problem with sincere lies—in this case, Mei’s lie to her mom about not having a boyfriend. They can be found out. Darren dropped his arm from around Mei’s waist and grabbed his backpack. “Bye,” he mouthed before zipping to the back and catapulting out the rear door. He’s considerate like that.
Mrs. Liu’s grocery bags thumped against the handrail as she marched up the steps. She has sharp, high cheekbones and is tall like her daughter. She and Mei both have blunt-cut hair that reaches their shoulders. Our favorite salon in Chinatown sometimes offers two-for-one specials.
Mei hurried to the front to take the two largest bags. “Ma, let me.”
Mrs. Liu stretched her swan neck toward the window. “Who is that with you?”
Mei shook her head nervously. “No one. Just Erin and Linny. I invited them to help with the turnip cakes.”
“No. I see boy before.” Mrs. Liu believed with every sinew in her heart that a boyfriend would distract Mei from her schoolwork, ruining her chances of getting into the number one university in the country, Harvard. So when Mei fell in love with Darren last spring, she kept it a secret from her mom. For thirteen whole months. Which showed amazing ingenuity and skill on her part, but once you start a lie, it’s hard to escape it.
“Who is boy?”
“Oh, him,” Mei said. “Someone from AP chem. We were discussing the homework. Chemical reactions.” She blinked fast. “And stuff like that.”
To be fair, most people have trouble lying to Mrs. Liu. Her eyes bore right through your skull and read your thoughts as if you accidentally uploaded them onto Facebook. It’s her superpower.
Linny stood up to offer her seat to Mrs. Liu. “Mr. F assigned loads of homework over the weekend. He wants us in top shape for the AP test.”
Mrs. Liu ignored the seat. She had just turned forty and didn’t appreciate the senior-citizen treatment. “Very good. Homework make you smart.”
“Ma, please sit down. Ni shi lao.” That means you are the elder, a show of respect. It also means you are old.
“I am comfortable,” Mrs. Liu said.
Mei continued arguing politely. Though most Chinese immigrants to San Francisco speak Cantonese, a dialect common in the south of China, Mrs. Liu emigrated from the north, where they speak Mandarin. I was fluent enough to follow their conversation.
Ma, ni zuo.” Ma, just sit.
Gaosu wo ta de mingzi.Tell me his name.
Before they resolved anything, the driver pulled into the stop by Mrs. Liu’s restaurant, and we all got off. Hay Fat occupies a prominent street corner in Chinatown. Mrs. Liu’s heightened culinary sensibility has turned it into a legend, luring in the more adventurous tourists and fussy locals. She serves authentic dishes with ingredients such as fermented bean paste, whole fish with eyeballs intact, and lotus. Her menu also includes beef broccoli in case people with less sophisticated palates wander in by mistake.
We entered the kitchen through the alley. The dinner rush had yet to begin, which meant we had the place to ourselves. After setting me up with the grater and Mei with the bacon to steam, Mrs. Liu tossed a handful of sesame seeds into sizzling oil at the bottom of the wok. I closed my eyes to better appreciate the scrumptious smell.
“What should I do?” Linny asked. I looked at her appraisingly, wondering about her secret. Not that we could talk here in the kitchen.
Mrs. Liu handed her a bowl. “Cut mushrooms. Very small pieces.”
I consider Hay Fat my second home. Mom and Mrs. Liu met when Mei and I were in preschool and have been good friends ever since. We live one floor below them in an apartment a few blocks from here in a quieter part of Chinatown. Mrs. Liu has always welcomed me into her kitchen, even during that black year when Mei and I barely spoke.
What I know of her life before America comes through Mom. Twenty-three years ago, Mrs. Liu studied cooking at a special school in China that trains workers for American restaurants. After finishing the program, she immigrated to San Francisco, where she met Mei’s dad. He soon left her, and she has remained single ever since. Which could explain some of her gruffness.
“No lollygagging,” Mrs. Liu said. The cloth she wore over her hair fell askew, and my fingers itched to straighten it. I didn’t stop grating for a second, though, because sometimes when I slack off from a job she’s given me, she’ll pinch my arm. Not hard, but still.
Linny held out her cutting board for inspection. “Are these pieces small enough?”
Mrs. Liu took the board and tossed the mushrooms into the wok. “Almost. Watch. This is secret part. Very important. Not in recipe.”
Smoke rose from the hot metal. While Mrs. Liu stirred up a storm, I took the chance to rest my aching muscles. As I was standing there, I noticed that the photographs hanging over the sink had been dusted recently. One showed four-year-old Mei holding a pen and scroll, a minischolar. Next to it hung a picture of me dressed as a sunflower for our preschool play.
The turnip cakes were for a party next week, an event to celebrate Mei’s acceptance into Harvard. Mrs. Liu had planned it out a long time ago. I think she decided on which dishes to serve before Mei started high school. Last July, she bought boxes of scarlet and black decorations. She mailed the invitations a month ago. Harvard’s acceptance emails, though, wouldn’t go out until tomorrow, April 1, at 5:00 p.m. Eastern Daylight Time.
Now Mei just had to get in.
The three of us attend Lowell, a high school for academic types—nerds in the best sense—a rare public school that students compete to get into. At Lowell, we have a popular crowd, hipsters, and partiers like everywhere else, but we worry more about SAT percentiles and college choices than our counterparts. For us, the first of April is bigger than the Academy Awards. Tomorrow, hopes would be mangled and dreams decapitated.
Mrs. Liu spun around to face Mei. “Meihua! That boy on bus. Shi bu shi boyfriend?”
Meihua blinked. “He’s not, Ma.”
Linny and I exchanged glances.
full denial = a lie of omission × 10 3
Mei’s sincere lie had gone bad, turned slimy and evil smelling like leftovers jammed to the back of the fridge behind the sauce jars.
“The stove!” Linny yelled.
Flames shot upward. Mrs. Liu calmly fetched a small broom and beat out the fire in three precise strokes. She’s efficient like that. “You are young. You cannot know love.”
Except Romeo and Juliet were young, and though Darren had not declared his devotion publicly from the alley or climbed a trellis to the window leading to Mei’s bedchamber, Romeo had nothing on him when it came to passion. I’d seen more of that than I cared to, in fact.
Mei laid the steamed bacon on a clean bamboo chopping block and commenced mincing it into molecule-sized bits. Mrs. Liu waved her spatula. “Harvard most important thing. Future more valuable than useless boy. You tell me, Erin. Who is boy?”
My hand flew across the grater, and the mound of turnips grew. “The boy on Muni?”
Mrs. Liu growled with exasperation. “The Master say give elder no reason for anxiety.”
Mei ducked her head. “You’re right, Ma.”
“I am not right,” Mrs. Liu barked. “The Master is right.” By the Master, she meant Confucius, the spiritual grandfather of China, born more than five hundred years before Jesus. Arguing against the Master would be futile. The main dinner chef arrived, and Mrs. Liu dismissed us. “Skedaddle. Do homework. Good-bye.”
Grateful for the reprieve, I slipped out of my apron. Mei planted her feet by the stove and lifted her chin. She looked exactly like she used to long ago when we shoved cooked rice and fruit under the stove to feed the hungry ghost that lived there: scared but determined. She turned to Linny and me. “I’m staying to help Ma. Wait for me.”
Which meant Linny and I would get a little time alone and she could finally tell me what she started to say on Muni.

November 16, 2012

Review: Black City

Black City Book One of the Black City Chronicles
By Elizabeth Richards
Available now from Putnam (Penguin)
Review copy
Part of the Fall 2012 Breathless Reads Campaign

I watch True Blood an entire season at a time.  My dad Tivos the episodes for me, then I watch them all when I go to visit him. Thus instead of watching season five this summer, I watched it shortly before reading BLACK CITY.  One of the points made repeatedly was the humans outnumbered vampires enough to destroy them all if it came to war, even though the vampires are stronger and faster.  Then I read BLACK CITY, where the vampires (called Darklings) are all living in a ghetto, having been defeated and quarantined by the humans. 

How do you keep the Darklings to stay quietly behind a wall?  How do you keep them fed, since it wouldn't be well received to let a defeated people starve to death?  What do you do about the plague racing through the population?  What do you do about the children of half-human, half-Darkling heritage?  These are all questions the heavily religion-influenced government would prefer the population not think about.

Ash Fisher has to think about it because he's a twin blood, living with his human father and letting humans get high on the drug that is his blood because there's no other way he can make money.  Natalie Buchanan has to think about it because she's the daughter of the Emissary, the head of the local government who is struggling for control with Purian Rose, local religious leader.  They also have to think about it because they fall in love - and human and Darkling relationships are illegal.

I must praise Elizabeth Richards for putting both vampires and a love triangle in her debut and doing something very different with them.  Seriously, this is one very inventive twist on the love triangle and I can't wait to see how it plays out in PHOENIX and other subsequent installments of the Black City Chronicles.  And her vampires have an interesting mythology.  They have their own legends, funeral rites, and other culture.  They're willing to do tough things in order to endure and eventually overcome.  Richards also throws in some genetic manipulation via mad science, and ya'll know I'm always up for mad science.

BLACK CITY is a fast-paced, and indeed breathless, read.  I fell in love with the story from the first chapter, where Ash's meeting with a client goes very wrong.  And I didn't fall out of love at any point.  I'm intrigued by the world Richards has created and want Ash and Natalie to make it, even if I do have to laugh at some of their more dramatic gestures of love.  BLACK CITY is an intense, original novel and I cannot wait to get my hands on the sequel.  I have to know what happens!


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