April 30, 2013

Review: Sketchy

Sketchy Book One of the Bea Catcher Chronicles
By Olivia Samms
Available now from Amazon Children's
Review copy

Olivia Samms' debut novel is an interesting blend of paranormal, mystery, and contemporary issue novels.  Bea Washington is an addict who has been clean for a little more than three months.  She's trying to regain her balance after getting out of rehab and starting over in a public school.  But she has a secret ability - when she sketches, she can draw images from peoples' minds.  There's a serial rapist murderer on a spree, and local cheerleader Willa Pressman survived.  Bea quickly realizes Willa knows more than she's telling police.

SKETCHY has a dynamic premise and interesting characters.  Bea got hooked on drugs pretty young, and it's hard for her to stay clean.  The temptation is pretty constant.  But she is resisting.  Throwing herself into the mystery helps her have something to focus on.  There's also a great deal of personal guilt driving her to find the perpetrator.   Bea is well aware of many of her faults and mistakes, but she doesn't let them define her.  And sometimes she is blind to them - she's a teenager, perfect self awareness would be unreal.  Most hilariously, she wonders why her parents don't trust her again after three whole months of sobriety.

The side characters are well done too.  Willa must have a reason for not telling the truth, so there's a mystery to unravel there.  And Bea reconnects with an old friend from art camp, Chris.  He listens to Bea and helps out, but he's got his own goals too.  He's a photographer who has her model for him in return.  There are also two police detectives who keep running into Bea, one of whom is much more willing to listen to her when she tells them things she couldn't possibly know.

The mystery isn't the strongest aspect of SKETCHY.  I guessed who the killer was pretty easily.  But there are some nice touches.  I enjoyed how involved the cops were.  Bea can't just solve the case through mystical means.  Evidence is needed to arrest people and take them to trial.  Finding out who the killer is is important, but so is proving it.  (But Bea could make things easier on herself by making more of an effort to be civil to the cops.  At least the one that doesn't flirt with her.)

I think SKETCHY is a brilliant start to a series.  The characters are flawed people, but they have many good qualities.  There's also some interesting social dynamics at play.  (For instance, Bea is biracial.  Her father is black and her mother is white.)  Plus, SKETCHY ends with a massive hook for the next book in the Bea Catcher Chronicles.  Be warned, SKETCHY is upper YA - if the drug addiction, rape, and murder didn't give it away.

April 29, 2013

Movie Monday: I want to see Monsters University

Monsters, Inc. is my favorite Pixar movie.  I almost didn't see it in theaters.  Right before it went away, my mom and I decided to go see it because we had a spare night.  We loved it.  Will I risk missing Monsters University in theaters?  Definitely not.  Plus, early word is fantastic.

Monsters University opens June 21st.

April 27, 2013

Review: The Lightning Dreamer: Cuba's Greatest Abolitionist

The Lightning Dreamer By Margarita Engle
Available now from Harcourt (Houghton Mifflin)
Review copy

THE LIGHTNING DREAMER: Cuba's Greatest Abolitionist is the story of Gertrudis Gómez de Avellaneda, called Tula.  She grows up to be a poet, novelist, and playwright who combined abolitionist and feminist views in her writing.  As Margarita Engle wrote in her historical note, Tula "helped readers question the way they viewed slavery, interracial marriage, and the broader issue of voluntary marriage" (171, ARC).  Engle's novel in verse goes back to when Tula was a child to explore how she became interested in storytelling and radical subjects.

Using poetry to tell the story of a poet is a terrific choice.  The poems alternate between character's voices and the verse feels like the rhythm of internal thoughts.  It lends immediacy and potency to the emotions felt by the narrators.  It's also a good way to bring many points of view to the story without the head hopping becoming too confusing.  And the subjects addressed are full of nuance.  Tula's immediate concern is her impending marriage.  She's fourteen, old enough.  Marriage means giving up her freedom.  She isn't even supposed to be literate, but her brother and nuns helped her.

Tula's Mamá is one of villains of the novel.  She wants Tula to marry an old, rich man and will likely use the money from the marriage to buy slaves.  But the marriage is what she thinks is best for her daughter.  "Tula needs a wealthy husband/now,/right now,/before she tries to choose her own,/the way I did, without any regard/for her family's/finances" (79, ARC).

Engle, a Newbury Honor recipient, has strong control of the language.  Look at the excerpt above - the emphasis on time, on family versus family finances.  But it's not distracting language.  They're easy to read and clear, delivering a complex history in bites perfect for a young audience.

I found THE LIGHTNING DREAMER fascinating, even though I had never heard of Gertrudis Gómez de Avellaneda before.  Her story is sometimes harrowing and often inspiring.  I looked up some of her work as soon as I finished THE LIGHTNING DREAMER, eager to read her poetry.  I think the weakest part of the novel was a love triangle with a boy named Sab who was already in love with a girl named Carlota, which comes into play near the end of the novel.  Turns out they where made up based on speculation that the characters in Tula's first novel Sab where based on real people she'd met while exiled to a country estate.  It's not a terrible bit, but somewhat sappy compared to the rest.

THE LIGHTNING DREAMER is a lyrical, poignant look at an influential woman and artist.  This is the sort of book that could be broccoli (as in, "Eat your vegetables!"), but the style makes it quite palatable.  (Note: I actually love broccoli, but you know what I mean.)

Be sure to check out Clear Eyes, Full Shelves' Novel in Verse Week.

April 26, 2013

Interview with Brent Hartinger

Brent with actress Nikki Blonsky (Hairspray)
Today I have a special treat for you guys!  An interview with Brent Hartinger, the author of THE ELEPHANT OF SURPRISE, which I reviewed earlier today.  I previously reviewed his novel PROJECT SWEET LIFE.  Brent is most well known for writing GEOGRAPHY CLUB about a group of kids who start a club for LGBTQ teens under a boring name to keep people away.  (And this interview will have pictures once I convince Blogger it doesn't hate me.)


1.  LGBTQ-themed YA novels have come a long way since GEOGRAPHY CLUB's publication ten years ago.  Where do you hope the genre will be ten years from now?
This is a great question! The fact is, the genre has changed sooooo much from ten years ago that's it's probably impossible to answer what it'll be like in ten years.

But I know what I *hope* it will be: I hope gay characters and LGBT themes will be a complete non-issue. They'll be lots of different LGBT characters -- especially different races, different classes, and different cultures. They'll be leading LGBT characters in not just literary fiction, but also humor books and genre stuff and popular fiction -- true bestsellers, I mean, like The Hunger Games or Harry Potter or Twilight.

Oh, and when I say "LGBT," I definitely mean "lesbian" and "bisexual" too. Those two groups especially are still way under-represented in YA, relative to their numbers. I hope people will look back and say, "Gay characters used to be controversial? Why?!"

All this said, I hope LGBT surprises me in some way too. I hope some of the books takes some incredible turn that no one, including me, ever expected.
2.  Was it hard to write in Russel's voice again after several years?

The Elephant of SurpriseHonestly, Russel came back to me pretty quickly. That was the least difficult part of THE ELEPHANT OF SURPRISE.

The hard part was probably the subject matter. The story in a nutshell?  Russel is bored and wants more adventure in his life. So he begins a wildly passionate romance with a mysterious guy he first meets scrounging food in a Dumpster. The guy's a "freegan," someone who's voluntarily choosing to be homeless. He and his friends eat roadkill and squat in houses and explore abandoned buildings. He's got this whole, fantastic philosophy worked out. Okay, so "romance" and "Dumpster diving" are not themes you usually see associated together, right? And that was exactly the point! I wanted to do something really unusual and attention-getting and *different* -- not like a thousand other YA books you've read before.

But I knew two things from the very beginning: First, that my readers would "get it." I think they know that when you read a "Brent Hartinger" book, things won't necessarily be "normal." Russel's last big romance was with a burn survivor who has a huge scar covering half of his face. And my readers totally love Otto (I do too). But with this new book, I also knew it might be something of a hard sell to the larger world. It's not about a girl who turns out to be a princess. I would have to work hard to make the case that a guy who eats out of Dumpsters and breaks into abandoned buildings can be a figure of great mystery and romance.

I think/hope I pulled it off -- I tried to do it with humor. You can get away with a lot if your main character is funny. But I had to give this all a lot of thought, to figure out how to get the casual reader to come along on this journey with me.

Brent with Cameron Deane Stewart in character as Russel
3.  GEOGRAPHY CLUB has been made into a movie, coming out soon.  Once you knew it was really going to happen, what was your greatest fear about your work being adapted?  Your greatest hope?
I never worried too much about whether or not it was faithful to the book (and the resulting movie is in some ways, and it also isn't at all in others). I've been in this business for a long time, and I know how movie adaptations work. I was just thrilled it finally happened, because it took a long time -- it was once almost a big-budget movie, then a micro-budget indie movie, then a TV series. In the end, it's a modestly budgeted indie film, which is probably what it should have been all along.

Anyway, I wanted it to at least be "good," and I wanted it to be a success, because the more of a success the movie is, the more interest there is in my books (which don't change whether the movie is faithful or not). I already know the movie's good -- I saw it a couple of weeks ago -- but I still don't know how successful it will be.

4.  You self-published THE ELEPHANT OF SURPRISE along with reprints of the second two Russel Middlebrook novels, originally published by an imprint of HarperCollins. What are some of the challenges of self-publishing?
You know, I didn't really want to self-publish. But I'd been frustrated with HarperCollins -- I'd had six different editors in six years. So I left. But I kept getting all these emails from people who wanted the books available (two were out-of-print). But I knew no other publisher would be interested, since HarperCollins still had the rights to the first book.

So I self-published new ebook and paperback editions of those two books. I didn't get rich, but they did surprisingly well. That's when I decided to do a fourth book as a self-published original. I hired my first editor and my first copy-editor. So the process wasn't *that* different than being traditionally published ... except I didn't get paid in advance, and I did a lot more of the work myself.

First of all, there are all the technical challenges, which are legion. You have to learn typesetting, coding, graphic design, copy-editing, proof-reading, book promotion, and on and on. But probably the biggest challenge is just getting attention for your book. People mock traditional publishing, but they act as "quality control." There are now hundreds of thousands of self-published titles out there, and let's face it: a lot of them are very bad. Traditional publishers tell bookstores and the media: "we think this book is so good we were willing to spend tens of thousands of dollars publishing it!" And the media listen.

So I don't know if I would have done this if I didn't have something of a name and a following, and if one of the books in the series wasn't being turned into a movie. I think that made it a little easier to get the word out. But it was still a lot harder than when HarperCollins was doing it.

The good news is that I paid for my production costs (which were $3000) a week before the book's official release date, just in advance orders. So now I think I'll probably make at least as much off THE ELEPHANT OF SURPRISE than I did from most of those books published by HarperCollins. I hope so, because I killed myself putting this thing together.

5.  Do you have any other books coming out soon? 

A few years back, I co-founded a website (AfterElton.com, now called TheBacklot.com). My partners and I sold the website to MTV a few years later, and then I worked there until about 2010. Which was great for me financially. But unfortunately, it really got in the way of my writing.

But I've been really productive since then. I have a movie that I wrote that (I think) will go into production this spring -- that should be out in 2014. I have a sci-fi book that I'm about half finished with and that I'm hoping to place with Kindle Serials. And I have a fantasy series that just went out to publishers from my agent. Plus, I have a couple of other screenplays that I've been actively pitching.

The fact is, there is *nothing* I'd rather be doing than writing books and screenplays.

Review: The Elephant of Surprise

The Elephant of Surprise Book Four in the Russel Middlebrook series
By Brent Hartinger
Available now from Buddha Kitty Books
Review copy

Russel, Min, and Gunnar are back in their first outing since 2007's SPLIT SCREEN (now known as DOUBLE FEATURE).  I haven't read DOUBLE FEATURE since 2007 so I was afraid I wouldn't remember anything.  Luckily, THE ELEPHANT OF SURPRISE begins with a "Previously" reintroducing the characters and their dilemmas.  With that brief reminder, diving into the book was quite easy.

Russel thinks that he's finally over Kevin.  But he keeps spotting things that make him think Kevin might not be such a bad guy.  Min thinks her girlfriend, Leah, is keeping secrets and enlists Russel and Gunnar to help her find out the truth.  Gunnar, meanwhile, has started a strange photoblog that he's quite devoted to.  Then the friends meet a group of freegans - people who only live off of what they can get for free.   Russel is instantly attracted to Wade, one of the groups leaders.

I liked that each of the friends got their own storyline, even though Russel's is the primary one and takes up the majority of the book.  I also liked that THE ELEPHANT OF SURPRISE brings on of the series' main storylines to a close.  I didn't like where Min's story went, however.  I felt like her plot got dropped part of the way through the novel, which makes me sad because I love her and her sharp sense of humor.

The freegans where an interesting touch to the story.  I certainly don't find their lifestyle appealing, but there are some valid points in their philosophy and it's easy to see why Russel is interested in learning more - beyond impressing the cute boy.  It also pays off in ways I didn't expect, giving THE ELEPHANT OF SURPRISE the biggest and most exciting climax of the four novels.

THE ELEPHANT OF SURPRISE fits in well with the rest of the Russel Middlebrook series, almost as if there wasn't a large gap between the release of books three and four.  It's a cute story and an easy read.  There's a diverse cast and the side characters have a nice amount of development.  I love how important Gunnar is now, the little weirdo.  He's come a long way from the kid who though he was actually joining a Geography Club.  GEOGRAPHY CLUB will always be the standout entry in the series, but I don't think THE ELEPHANT OF SURPRISE will be a disappointment to fans.

April 25, 2013

Review: Taken

Taken First in a series
By Erin Bowman
Available now from HarperTeen
Review copy

Gray Weathersby best friend is his older brother Blaine.  But it's Blaine's eighteenth birthday, which means he'll disappear at midnight.  Next year it's Gray's turn.  But Gray refuses to accept the Heist, starts poking around, and decides to cross the wall surrounding Claysoot even though everyone else who tried died.

Erin Bowman does a great job of setting up the world in TAKEN.  In just a few chapters you know how Claysoot works and how they've managed to survive when the boys vanish at eighteen.  When Gray, and his new girlfriend Emma, run away they find a city, something they never expected.  How things work in Taem unfolds at an easily understood pace, the reader finding out what's going on with Gray.  Of course, he's soon ready to run away from Taem too.

There are lots of twists and turns in TAKEN.  Nothing is as it initially seems, not even death.  The ending left me excited about picking up the next book, to see where the characters will go next and what they'll manage there.  There's a nice blend of science fiction and thriller elements freshening up the dystopian setting.  (It reminds me of ARCLIGHT in genre, although the two books are otherwise completely different.)

The love triangle is a weakness.  I like both points.  Emma is a healer and falls fast for Gray once she sees past his facade.  She's willing to stick by him through grave danger.  Bree is fierce and independent.  It's nice to see a female love interest who is more physical than the male hero.  But the way Gray handled his romances made me come to dislike him.  He feels that Emma betrayed him, which is an understandable emotional reaction.  But he treats her badly because of it.  Meanwhile, he's getting flirty with Bree and never really worries about the fact that he has a girlfriend.

Otherwise, though, I did like Gray.  He's unwilling to accept things at face value.  He does his own research and makes up his mind based on what he observes rather than what he's told.  He does his best to protect the people he cares about.  He's a decent person, but if he doesn't stop being unpleasant to Emma I may not be able to make it through TAKEN's sequel.

TAKEN is an exciting debut.  I look forward to reading Erin Bowman's future novels.  In TAKEN she's created an interesting world, populated it with sympathetic characters (aside from the villain), and delivered an intriguing, twisty plot.  I'm sure she'll be even better as she gains experience as an author.

April 24, 2013

White Lines by Jennifer Banash Trailer Premiere!

White Lines WHITE LINES was released April 4th.  You may recall my review - I said that it was "was an intense read.  It'll suck you into the 1980's New York club scene and make you feel like you're living it even if, like me, you weren't born until it was over.  I kept my fingers crossed that somehow, someway there would be a happy ending.  Somehow, someway.  And the ending of WHITE LINES was a relief, a release of all the tension of the novel, healing.  Cat had a tough past, lives a rough present, but she's still got a future.  And a future is the essence of Young Adult."

The author, Jennifer Banash, generously shared a little about how WHITE LINES came about.  After all, it is a noticeable departure from her earlier YA novels!
White Lines was a story I wanted to tell for a long, long time. Partially based on my own adolescence as a club kid in Manhattan, I worked on a draft of this novel in what felt like secrecy. At the time of its conception, I was finishing up a three-book series called The Elite that detailed the lives of a group of rich kids on NYC's Upper East Side, and a girl from a small town who infiltrates their circle. Although that world was one that I knew something about, it wasn't the story I wanted to tell anymore. I was restless, the way all writers are when there's a story trapped inside us, yearning to get out. So I worked on White LInes late at night, in the early mornings before I would get up to go to my day job as a high school English teacher, on weekends when the sun shone brightly outside my window. Slowly, over the course of three years, Cat's own story emerged from the seeds of my misguided youth, caught fire, and took over, the intensity of her world burning my hands as I tore the pages from the printer one by one. I didn't know if the book would sell, if it would ever make it out into the world to see the light of day. All I knew was that I was writing something that felt true to me, that felt right. And that, for once, was enough.

Without any further ado, here's the trailer! You might want to come up with something to say about it, because I have two signed hardcovers to giveaway!

To win, just comment below letting me know why you want to read WHITE LINES or what you liked best about the trailer. Make sure to leave an email address so I can contact you if you're the winner. US and Canada only; must be older than 13 to win. Contest ends in two weeks.

Review: Allegra

Allegra By Shelley Hrdlitschka
Available now from Orca Books
Review copy

I was drawn to ALLEGRA by the summary, which promised both music and dance.  Allegra Whitman transferred to a performing-arts high school to focus on dance -- her parents are both musicians, but she doesn't want to follow in their footsteps.  But the school requirements mean she has to take music theory.

ALLEGRA deals with several thorny subjects.  One subplot involves her parents' unhappy marriage.  But the biggest thorny subject is that of student-teacher relationships.  Allegra develops a crush on her music theory teacher Mr. Rochelli.  He's young, attractive, challenges her, and respects her abilities.  It's no wonder she crushes.  When they start working on a composition together, he does act unprofessionally by treating her as a fellow professional rather than a student.  They meet after school, use first names, et al.  But I think Shelley Hrdlitschka does draw a clear line between Mr. Rochelli being a bit too chummy and actually returning Allegra's affections.

Part of the reason Allegra is drawn to her teacher is that she's quite introverted and has trouble making friends.  Some kids at her new school do reach out, most notably fellow music theory student Spencer.  Still, a few friendly overtures don't make it simple for Allegra to develop lasting friendships.  My problem with the friends plotline is that all her prospective friends drop out of the story completely after one of them brings Mr. Rochelli and Allegra's relationship to the attention of the administration.  They're totally demonized.  I get that Allegra would feel that way, but . . . I just felt like they weren't the worst.  Trying to help someone you think is in a bad situation is a good thing.

The few dance scenes in ALLEGRA are beautifully described, but this is mostly a music book.  Allegra's composition consumes her life and her relationships.  It is very wish fulfillment that her composition is brilliant, but the book does try to ground it by first establishing that she's very familiar with music theory and performance.  And some of my favorite musicians started writing wonderful songs even younger than seventeen.  What really crosses it over into unbelievable territory is that she's also talented enough as a dancer to consider going professional.

ALLEGRA is a quick read despite the difficult subjects it tackles.  I think it will be of most interest to readers who enjoy books about musicians and dancers.  Hrdlitschka does a wonderful job of writing about a teacher-student relationship in a realistic, rational way.  There is drama in ALLEGRA, but little hysteria and no fear-mongering.  Allegra can be frustration, but that's pretty average for a seventeen-year-old girl.  ALLEGRA isn't, however, the best choice for someone looking for a really exciting read.  It's fairly low key.

April 23, 2013

Review: Arclight

Book Cover First in a series
By Josin L. McQuein
Available now from Greenwillow (HarperCollins)
Review copy

I am loving the current crop of dystopias.  They're moving away from aping THE HUNGER GAMES and towards incorporating more science fiction and thriller elements.  Stories about despotic governments are okay, but not really what I'm into.  Stories about crazy future technology and uncovering the truth?  I'm there.

Marina lives in the Arclight, now.  The people in the Arclight are protected by constant light preventing the Fade from getting in.  But Marina came from outside the Arclight.  She has no idea how she managed to survive because she doesn't remember anything before she was rescued.  But fitting in is hard, especially because several people died retrieving her.

The Fade are very different from humans in how they think, how they're organized, their goals.  There may be similarities, but it's hard to know since the only contact between the humans and the Fade is hostile.  Marina wants answers, however, and she's willing to put herself in danger to get them.  I enjoyed the thought debut author Josin L. McQuein put into the conflict between the two communities, as well as the communities themselves.  The Fade are scary since they're so alien.  It's no wonder the humans fought.  At the same time, that doesn't mean the humans are always on the side of the angels.  ARCLIGHT raises many complicated questions about identity and ethics.

There is a love triangle, which I could live without.  There's enough conflict in ARCLIGHT without adding in a romantic dilemma.  I did appreciate that it didn't overwhelm the novel.  Marina is pretty clueless that Tobin is into her.  And why wouldn't she be?  She's preoccupied with figuring out where she came from and not dying.  Dating is a distant concern.

ARCLIGHT will satisfy science fiction fans looking for a fast-paced tale of culture clash, war crimes, and hidden truth.  The action starts on page one and just keeps going.  There's a lot of plot packed in these pages.  It's a fun ride and I'll be back for MERIDIAN, the forthcoming sequel.

April 22, 2013

Guest Post: Kim Askew and Amy Helmes Offering Tuckerization!

Tempestuous In honor of William Shakespeare’s birthday (celebrated on April 23), authors Kim Askew and Amy Helmes, have dropped by with a guest blog post to announce a special contest!

Get A “Twisted Lit” Character Named After You!

We reimagined William Shakespeare’s “The Tempest” and “Macbeth,” with our “compulsively readable” YA books, Tempestuous (my review) and Exposure (my review). Ever since the novels were published a few months ago through Merit Press we’ve encountered a frequent question: Which of Shakespeare’s plays will inspire your next books in the Twisted Lit series?

Exposure While we’re currently hard at work putting our own spin on the Bard’s “Romeo and Juliet” we thought we’d look to you, the readers, to help us pick the fourth Shakespeare play that will inspire our next book in the series. Got a hankering for a new spin on “Hamlet?” Love to see “King Lear” get a YA update? Would you make much ado over our take on “Much Ado About Nothing?”

Go to our Facebook page (Facebook.com/Twistedlitnovels) and write on our wall to weigh in on which Shakespeare play you’d like us to revamp next. In doing so, you’ll be entered to have your very own name mentioned in one of our upcoming books (either as a character or some other fun reference). If you’ve always wanted to see your name in print — in a YA novel, no less — now’s your chance! The winner will also receive autographed copies of our first two novels, Tempestuous and Exposure.

We’re looking forward to hearing your suggestions! (And don’t forget to follow us on twitter at @kaskew and @amyhelmes.)

* Winner will not be compensated for use of his or her name, and publication is not guaranteed. Details of plot and character used in connection with the name as it appears in the book are up to the sole discretion of the authors. Contest ends June 1.

Kim & Amy


Personally, I vote for As You Like It!  It's my favorite Shakespeare play.  For more information on the Twisted Lit series, check out my interview with Kim and Amy.

Movie Monday: Treasure Planet

Treasure Planet Until last week, I had never seen Treasure Planet.  I'd read TREASURE ISLAND by Robert Louis Stevenson and loved it, even if I prefer KIDNAPPED and think it is criminally underrated compared to its more famous sibling.  But my personal collection of children's movies tends slightly to the girlier side of the spectrum.  (And I did see Titan A.E. in theaters, which came out about the same time, I think.)

But I bought Treasure Planet when I saw it for a good price because I thought it would be a good movie for my nephew.  He comes from a family of women so basically all the pop culture that gets passed on - books, movies, toys - is more geared to little girls.  I think he's getting a great deal of exposure to female role models and won't grow up to think being a girl is bad.  Heck, his favorite movie is Beauty and the Beast.

There are some excellent female characters in Treasure Planet.  Jim's mom is only in the movie for the beginning and end.  She's pretty cool though - a single mother running her own business.  And Captain Amelia is fantastic.  She's professional, but caring.  She's competent and willing to listen to other people when they know what they're talking about.  She doesn't put up with false flattery.

Jim is pretty similar to Lilo (from Lilo and Stitch) in temperament.  A little angry and wild, hurt and frustrated by the loss of a parent.  But Jim is older than Lilo and starting to face real consequences for his youthful indiscretions of trespassing.  When he finds the map to Treasure Planet, it's a real opportunity for him to get some experience and discipline.

If you're familiar with TREASURE ISLAND (or even the Muppets' version), then you know the basic plot of Treasure Planet already.  It's a good plot, filled with adventure, betrayal, and redemption.  I do like how Disney animated it.  The blend of computer and traditional animation doesn't always work.  Some parts really pop due to clearly being made with a computer, but I'm not sure that effect works for me.  (I'm looking at you, space whales.)  But other bits, like John Silver's automaton arm, work beautifully.

I think Treasure Planet is a fun movie.  It's rated PG and skews slightly old for my nephew, who just turned three.  There's an upsetting death of a sympathetic character, but I knew he could handle it due to his reaction to Mufasa's death in The Lion King.  Some kids might be upset by the song sequence that reveals Jim's father walked out on his family.  On the other hand, I think Treasure Planet is a great choice for kids growing up outside of the nuclear family structure.  (And it would make a great double bill with Lilo and Stitch.)

April 20, 2013

Giveaway: RandomBuzzers Codes!

Strands of Bronze and Gold I am giving away five codes to sign up for Random House's RandomBuzzers.  One of the fun things about the site is that as you participate you earn "Buzz Bucks" that you can spend on books.  Each of these codes comes with enough Buzz Books to get a free book.  One lucky winner will also receive an ARC of STRANDS OF BRONZE AND GOLD by Jane Nickerson (my review).

This is US only, but since I'll be sending you the code electronically, it doesn't matter whether you have a PO Box or not.  Codes are first come first served and I'll randomly pick one of the five to receive STRANDS OF BRONZE AND GOLD using Random.org.

April 19, 2013

Review: P.K. Pinkerton and the Petrified Man

P.K. Pinkerton and the Petrified Man Published in the UK as THE CASE OF THE GOOD-LOOKING CORPSE
Book Two in the P.K. Pinkerton Mysteries
By Caroline Lawrence
Available now from G.P. Putnam's Sons (Penguin)
Review copy

The random books Penguin sends me makes me happy.  None of the other publishers tend to send me off the wall stuff.  But Penguin does and I've found some real gems that way.  Let's be honest, a middle grade western mystery?  Pfft.

But P.K. PINKERTON AND THE PETRIFIED MAN was terrific.  Let's face it, mystery series live and die based on the personalities of their detectives.  P.K. is most definitely a personality.  He's twelve years old and recently orphaned.  He's started a detective agency where he uses his skills with disguise, language, and tracking.  However, he has a Thorn - he's bad at reading faces and detecting lies, both important skills for a detective. 

P.K. is autistic, but it's described in period terms.  An older reader will figure it out, but for a younger reader he'll just be a little different.  Caroline Lawrence did an excellent job with the period language.  She uses words that are easy to understand and a little fun, never ones that feel overly archaic or pretentious.  The haphazard capitalization also feels like how a twelve year old might write.

Honestly, all the period stuff is cool.  Lawrence really brings the American West to life without romanticizing it.  P.K. is half Lakota and thus not welcome everywhere.  The girl who likes him treats him differently after learning his heritage.  Entertainers put on shows in blackface.  The murder P.K. investigates isn't a priority with the law since the victim was a Soiled Dove.  (The references to prostitution are fairly circumspect.)  P.K.'s client is a former slave.  (The Civil War is raging, although P.K. is mostly oblivious.)  At the same time, Lawrence doesn't make it seem like a terrible time and place to live.  Just a tough one.

One of the characters is Sam Clemens, before he was Mark Twain.  I liked that he was used sparingly.  Readers familiar with Mark Twain will have much to chuckle about in his appearances and the joke doesn't wear out its welcome.  If any of the other characters were historical figures, I didn't notice them.

P.K. PINKERTON AND THE PETRIFIED MAN is a page-turning, character-driven mystery.  I liked how all the clues came together and P.K. came up with a plan to bring the murderer to justice.  Lawrence never gets too bogged down in the historical and character detail to remember she's telling a mystery - a clever one at that.  THE PETRIFIED MAN is a genuine gem.

April 18, 2013

Review: Breath

Breath Book Three of the Riders of the Apocalypse
By Jackie Morse Kessler
Available now from Graphia (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)
Review copy
Read my reviews of HUNGER, RAGE, and LOSS and my two interviews with Jackie

I have enjoyed the Riders of the Apocalypse story more with each book.  Jackie Morse Kessler has brought her series to a fitting, stirring conclusion, albeit one that won't make sense to readers who haven't read the three previous books in the series.  BREATH is not only the story of Death, but also the end of the stories of each of the Horsemen.

Death is not like the other Horsemen and never has been.  He is older and more powerful and never human.  But that doesn't mean he can't become suicidal.  And if Death commits suicide, then the world dies with him.  The world's only chance is Xander Atwood.  Death owes him a boon and can't end the world until he repays it.  Xander, who can barely face his own issues, is thrust into the position of confidant and therapist.

I loved how the stories of Tammy, Missy, and Billy weaved into the stories of Death and Xander.  BREATH could have easily felt overstuffed, but I thought all of the elements worked together.  And I was especially happy to get more of Tammy's story, considering I mentioned long ago in my 2010 review of HUNGER, "Tammy's story has no resolution."  Turns out I was wrong.  Kessler also addresses the issues I had with Missy and Death's relationship, and briefly touches again on her sister.  Billy's connection to his predecessors continues to be important to the story, just as he continues to be my favorite Horseman.  Leaving threads hanging can make stories seem more realistic, but I'm happy that Kessler finished her tapestry neatly.

I have been fascinated by the figure of Death through HUNGER, RAGE, and LOSS.  I wondered how Kessler could ever reveal more about him without ruining everything, but I think she managed.  Death's tale contains love, betrayal, creation, despair, the whole of our universe.  It's an intriguing origin and makes him no less interesting.

I enjoyed Xander's story too.  I felt it was a bit easy to figure out what happened to him, but I'm  not sure it was supposed to be a huge mystery.  Kessler certainly wasn't leery of giving clues.  But I loved his personality, very giving and compassionate.  He was the right character at the right time, albeit one with a life punctuated by inopportune moments.

I highly recommend the Riders of the Apocalypse series as a whole.  They're a unique blend of urban fantasy and issue novels and each piece comes together so wonderfully.  Kessler's afterword tells how much of the story was unplanned, which is amazing given how wonderfully constructed the series is.

April 17, 2013

Review: The Sweetest Dark

Book Cover By Shana Abé
Available now from Bantam Books (Random House)
Review copy

I bought THE SMOKE THIEF a few years ago for about a dollar based on a vague recollection of someone complimenting Shana Abé's style.  It just rocketed up my to read list because her young adult debut THE SWEETEST DARK blew me away.  (I just have to find it, first.)

First of, Abé's style does deserve being complimented on its own.  She has a smooth, almost poetic, way of writing that draws you into the magical atmosphere of her drákon-inhabited England.  The majority of THE SWEETEST DARK's action takes place at the Iverson School for Girls, on the coast of England during World War II.  It's all very gothic, aside from the lack of moors.

Eleanore "Lora" Jones grew up in an orphanage and spent much of her childhood in a mental institution due to the music she heard running through objects all around her.  Now seemingly cured, she is chosen to be a scholarship student supported by Duke Idylling.  There she encounters Jesse, the supposedly mute gardener who speaks to her, and Armand, the duke's discontented son.  And there the music begins to return.  Jesse knows what it means and helps Lora discover her power.

I liked how Abé handled the love triangle.  Armand is clearly into Lora, but she turns him down cleanly and clearly because she prefers Jesse.  There's no dithering about when she's obviously more into one of the choices.  I also liked that it wasn't the center of everything.  Although there's nothing magical about the girls in the school, Lora does have to live with them.  Thus learning to navigate their company takes some of her attention.  I liked that not all of the girls were horribly stuck-up and that some were more friendly than they first appeared.

The way history interweaves with the paranormal plot also works well.  London-born Lora is quite conscious of the threat posed by German bombs.  And, inevitably, the war does reach her doorstep.  Even with dragons on your side, war leaves devastation in its wake.

THE SWEETEST DARK made me forget the paranormal fatigue I've been feeling.  It's a swoony book that I'll probably read multiple times before the promised sequel comes out in summer 2013.  If you've ever enjoyed a paranormal romance, then read THE SWEETEST DARK.  It's one of the best books of the year.

April 16, 2013

Review and Giveaway: The Tale of Raw Head and Bloody Bones

The Tale of Raw Head and Bloody Bones By Jack Wolf
Available now from Penguin
Review copy

I was eager to read THE TALE OF RAW HEAD AND BLOODY BONES.  If there's one thing I love, it's a fairy story.  And the bogeyman Raw Head may not be well known on this side of the pond, but I have heard of him because I am just that much of a geek.  (Okay, so he was in the latest Dresden Files novel.)  Throw in a genius young man who might be mad and I'm there.

Then I started the book and worried about what I'd gotten into by signing up for the TLC book tour.  There was the capitalization of every noun, the archaic spellings - I despaired.  I get going for atmosphere, honestly, but it's pretentious and unauthentic.  After all, the words are misspelled the same way every time in a modern text.  And it doesn't start with Tristan Hart going off to be a physician and studying pain.  Oh no, it starts when he's a little kid with a best friend, Nathaniel Ravenscroft, who is a little jerk obviously going to grow into a bigger jerk.

Then when Tristan gets older and finally goes off to London, he stays with Henry Fielding.  The Henry Fielding.  It was an odd intrusion of reality that I wasn't into.  And well, I was struggling with Tristan's fantasies.  The guy has some mental health issues, although those around him are more aware of it than he is.  (Animal lovers: beware.)  But I'd promised to read this book!  And about 200 pages in, it started clicking.  It was his first surgery - a scene that's gruesome, but the physical action is overwhelmed by both Tristan's lust and his competence as a doctor.  I loved the duality of his talent and his sadism.

As THE TALE OF RAW HEAD AND BLOODY BONES goes on, people and places from the long beginning start showing up again.  But it's hard to know if they're really there, because Tristan is the narrator and Tristan is crazy.  The text is channeled through his psychosis and it's hard to know what's really happening because Tristan doesn't know.  Then things really get interesting when it turns out Tristan might not be as nutty as he seems.  (He definitely takes his sadism beyond safe, sane, and consensual, but still, less nutty.)  It's one thing to know he's an unreliable narrator - to think that he might have been reliable at certain points in the novel is rather startling.

By the climax I was utterly enthralled.  I had no idea what Tristan might do, how he might react, how he might save himself.  I was impressed by his humanity, the goodness he managed to cultivate despite believing himself a Monster.  I liked how the book explored many types of desire, and showed how there can be benefit in even the darkest kinds.  I liked his relationship with Katherine Montague, Nathaniel's cousin, a young girl betrayed by her family and suffering emotionally, but undaunted and irrepressible.  It was the fairy story I was promised.

In addition to the intriguing, perhaps nonexistent, paranormal elements, I enjoyed the historical aspect of THE TALE OF RAW HEAD AND BLOODY BONES.  Tristan is interested in both philosophy and medicine.  His questioning of religion is quite radical, as are his insights into the source of strokes.  It's exciting to see a character puzzle out something that we know based on what he can observe.  I also liked that Tristan was well-to-do, the son of a country squire, but not well-liked or received because his mother was a Jew and he took after her in looks.  He's aware of certain injustices of the time that another squire's son would not be.

I'm not going to lie; the beginning of THE TALE OF RAW HEAD AND BLOODY BONES is rough.  I found the style artificial and felt the book wasn't delivering the creepiness promised.  Then the style started disappearing into the background and I fell completely into Tristan's worldview.  THE TALE OF RAW HEAD AND BLOODY BONES is a rewarding, cathartic novel if you're willing to give it a chance.  I'm very happy I stuck with it.  

I have one copy of THE TALE OF RAW HEAD AND BLOODY BONES to give away courtesy of TLC Book Tours and Penguin.  US and Canada only.

a Rafflecopter giveaway

April 15, 2013

Movie Monday: Iron Man 3 is coming!

I haven't been going to movies as much lately, but there's one I can promise I'm going to make time to see: Iron Man 3. Robert Downey Jr., Gwyneth Paltrow, and Don Cheadle are all back, I like director Shane Black's work, and it's superheroes! Ya'll know I love superheroes.

What movies are you looking forward to as blockbuster season starts?

April 12, 2013

Review: Emilie and the Hollow World

Emilie and the Hollow World By Martha Wells
Available now from Strange Chemistry (Angry Robot)
Review copy

Prolific fantasy author Martha Wells ventures into young adult territory with EMILIE & THE HOLLOW WORLD, a steampunk adventure inspired by Jules Verne's JOURNEY TO THE CENTER OF THE EARTH.  When Emilie runs away from home, she ends up having to stow aboard a different ship - one headed to the world inside the world to save Lady Marlende's father.

Lady Marelende's father is an inventor and explorer, but he's fallen afoul of another scientific-minded lord who wants to be the first to journey to the hollow world and back.  Her only hope is Lord Engal, another rival of her father's.  Oh those scientists, always wanting to be the first to publish.  Of course, things go awry and the explorers must accomplish their quest before they're able to return home safely.

I loved the way Wells described the strange people and places Emilie and the others discover.  She's not besmirching the legacy of Verne by any means.  In fact, I'm surprised there hasn't been more steampunk that ventures into his territory.  Character-wise, Kenar, a Cirathi from the hollow world, is one of my favorites.  I was a little disappointed that he was already in a happy relationship and not a love interest for Emilie.  Not too disappointed, however, because Emilie is supposedly sixteen but reads younger.  (And her actual love interest is perfectly nice.)

Emilie was a touch underdeveloped.  She's definitely the character the reader is supposed to identify with, a complete outsider who knows less than everybody else.  What the reader does learn about her is positive.  She stands up for herself, she knows when to keep quiet and be sneaky, and she's good at coming up with a plan on the fly.  But this is an adventure story and character development is secondary.  Most of the characters are exactly who they appear to be on the surface. 

It works because EMILIE AND THE HOLLOW WORLD is quite an adventure.  I loved learning about the different societies of the hollow world along with Emilie and watching her attempt to prevent a war.  (Or, at the very least, avoid being personally involved with the war.)  The second novel, EMILIE AND THE SKY WORLD, should be available from Strange Chemistry in 2014.  I'm excited to follow along with Emilie's future exploits.

April 11, 2013

Review: The Abandoned

The Abandoned Known as JENNIE in the UK
By Paul Gallico
Available now from New York Review Children's Collection
Review copy

I never read THE ABANDONED as a child.  I'd never even heard of it.  But I trust the NYRB to reprint only the best of the best, and that trust paid off.  I felt nostalgic as I read THE ABANDONED, because it has that timeless quality of the other great books of children's literature.  I knew the rhythm of it.  And honestly, I can't wait to read this one to my niece and nephew when they're a year or two older.  The text was just begging for me to read it aloud.

THE ABANDONED is the story of Peter, a young boy who wakes up as a cat after being hit by a truck.  Thrust into a life on the streets, he survives because he meets Jennie, a street smart cat who may hate humans but is willing to mentor the boy.  Peter and Jennie travel from England to Scotland and back, exploring all the options open to cats.  I was reminded of the Little Golden Book FOUR LITTLE KITTENS by Kathleen N. Daly.  In fact, THE ABANDONED is a great choice for kids who have outgrown FOUR LITTLE KITTENS.

Fortunately, there is nothing saccharine about THE ABANDONED.  Paul Gallico truly explores what it would be like to be a cat living in the wild, with no guaranteed source of food or shelter.  The fantastic is needed to make the book work, but it's muted.  The ending is quite wrenching and bittersweet, perhaps even moreso than THE VELVETEEN RABBIT.  But I think all but the most sensitive kids can handle it.  And any kid who loves stories about animals will devour THE ABANDONED.  Even at twenty three, I loved it.

Amazingly, Gallico was born in America and spent most of his life there.  He did travel, and lived outside the US from 1950 until his death in 1976, but still.  He's got the Queen's English down pat and his London is authentic enough to fool an Englishman.  I assumed he was English until I finished the book and looked up information about its history.

I highly recommend THE ABANDONED to anyone with children or an interest in children's literature.  It's a good choice for THE MOUSE AND THE MOTORCYCLE set.

April 10, 2013

Review: Open the Door: How to Excite Young People about Poetry

Open the Door Edited by Dorothea Lasky, Dominic Luxford, and Jesse Nathan
"Poets in the World" series editor Ilya Kaminsky, director of the Harriet Monroe Poetry Institute
Contributions by Jim Trelease, Matthea Harvey, Jack Collom, James Kass, Kenneth Koch, Ron Padgett, Theodore Roethke, Eileen Myles, Phillip Lopate, Jesse Nathan, Jordan Davis, William Stafford, Jimmy Santiago Baca, Karen Volkman, Dorothea Lasky, Dave Eggers, Bertha Rogers, Michael Cirelli, Amy Swauger, Martin Farawell, Terry Blackhawk, Megan McNamer, Terri Glass, Pamela Michael, Kevin Coval, Jeff Kass, Matt Mason and Andrew Ek,  Patrick Oliver, Bob Holman, Robin Reagler, Susan Grigsby, Mimi Herman, Michael Dickman, Elizabeth Bradfield, Yusef Komunyakaa, Meghan and Liam O'Rourke, Eric Baus, Valzhyna Mort, Alex Dimitrov, Anthony McCann, Michael McGriff, Katie Ford, Matthew Zapruder, Debora Landau, Christina Davis, Dara Wier, Travis Nichols, Laura Solomon, CAConrad, Vicki Vértiz, Adam O'Riordan, Qurayash Ali Lansana and Georgia A. Popoff, Rebecca Lindenberg, Harriet Levin, Emilie Coulson, Stephen Burt
Available April 23, 2013 from McSweeney's and The Poetry Foundation
Ebook available here
Review copy

"How wonderful the struggle with language is." - Theodore Roethke

April, as you may know, is National Poetry Month.  You might follow Savvy Verse & Wit's blog tour and keep an eye out for Clear Eyes, Full Shelves Novel in Verse Week starting April 21.  This month two books are being released in a partnership between McSweeney's Books and The Poetry Foundation.  OPEN THE DOOR: How to Excite Young People about Poetry is the one that first caught my eye.  The blurb promises that it will be "useful for first-time and veteran teachers, as well as parents, babysitters, MFAs with no job, and anyone else with an interest in poetry's place in the lives of our younger citizens."  I count myself in a few of those groups and decided to give it a chance.

OPEN THE DOOR is divided into three sections:  essays, roundtable discussion, and lesson plans.  The essays are a mix of new and reprinted material about experiences working with children focusing on what worked and what didn't.  This section comes first and is the best place to start - it's very motivating.  One idea that came up more than once and made quite a bit of sense to me is to not force children to focus on spelling or grammar when writing poetry.  Get them to write and then help them to revise after.  Focusing too much on rules limits them.  Plus, there's value in revision.

The second section, the roundtable discussion, is a question and answer session with several people working in nonprofits providing poetry programs for children and teens.  The advice within will be most useful for people looking to start poetry programs, but I found it surprisingly interesting.  I particularly liked one answer that refutes OPEN THE DOOR's subtitle:
I'm not interested in exciting students about poetry so much as I am in giving them experiences of genuine substance and in helping them investigate the emotional turmoil of adolescence, which will allow them to mature into adults whose inner lives are rich enough to endure difficulties, challenges, and even tragedies . . . They have plenty of diversions in their lives . . . They have enough excitement . . . What they need is something that helps them not to turn away, but rather to turn toward the conflicts they face in their everyday lives.  This is what art, what poetry, does.  - 237, ARC, Amy Swauger
The third section is self explanatory.  The lesson plans included are short but sweet.  The majority provide a reading and a writing portion, although some suggest pieces of music or such instead of readings.  I think this section is of more use to teachers than the layman, although some guardians who want to bring poetry to their kids might prefer such clear guides.  All in all I think that OPEN THE DOOR will appeal most to teachers, but I don't think the blurb is wrong.  There is wide appeal here.

OPEN THE DOOR presents a wide range of perspectives.  Most of the contributors are American, but not all.  They are women and men of many sexualities, races, and social classes.  It's nice to hear a range of voices in a discussion of how to empower others to use their voice.

I also like that OPEN THE DOOR provides clear answers to what to do next.  There are suggestions of other books and poets to read and organizations to investigate in addition to the exercises provided within the pages.  It's a terrific starting point for anyone who wants to share poetry with the young.  I think OPEN THE DOOR does a wonderful job of accomplishing its goals.

April 9, 2013

Review: Moonset

Moonset First book in The Legacy of Moonset series
By Scott Tracey
Available now from Flux (Llewellyn)
Review copy

I like Scott Tracey's WITCH EYES, so I wanted to read the start of his new series.  It is chock full of things I love like small towns with secrets, people with secrets, a closely bound found family, black magic, and a protagonist who has a lot to learn.  (That applies to both his magic skills and talking to girls.)  As soon as I finished this book, I had to express my happiness with it on Tumblr.  I don't do that for every book.

Each chapter begins with a short quote revealing more of the history of Moonset.  The Moonset coven was talented and respected until one day they turned to terrorism.  All that is left of them now is five children and rumors of member Cullen Bridger's survival.  Those five children - Justin, Jenna, Malcolm, Cole, and Bailey - are bound together.  They literally cannot separate.  They travel together across the country, moved from school to school when they reveal their powers and risk exposure.  It happens pretty often since Jenna likes to act out.  After all, they're left untrained and discriminated against because of something that happened when they were babies.  Things change when the kids are sent to Carrow Mill.  Unlike other places they've lived, many of the residents are witches themselves.  And there are even more sore feelings because Carrow Mill is where Moonset started.

Now, MOONSET is not a perfect novel.  There may be five siblings but the book is all about Justin.  It's about his growth as a leader and growing disillusionment with the witches in power.  I'm fine with the book having focus and not being overstuffed, but it doesn't give the siblings much of a chance to show how important to each other they are.  Cole in particular drops out of the story quite often.  It's a bit more tell than show.  And given that part of the mystery of Moonset has to do with how the coven's history is perceived, it would be nice to see the siblings' perception of the various reveals throughout the novel.  But this is the start of a series, so perhaps subsequent books will focus more on Jenna, Malcolm, Cole, and Bailey.

There is more development given to Ash, the one and only love interest.  She starts off very typical - the assertive, quirky girl to Justin's socially awkward boy.  But by the end of MOONSET I liked the relationship.  They go on several dates, and I always love when the romance plotline shows the characters getting to know each other, and they also reassess each other as they learn more.  Some of the revelations about Ash are obvious, but she still ended up being more than she seemed in her introduction.

What really drives MOONSET is the plot rather than the characters.  There's a warlock lose in Carrow Mill and he (or she) is probably after Moonset 2.0.  Then there's the mystery of just why the original Moonset went bad.  If Justin can figure out what happened, maybe he can prevent it from happening again.  (Because of course, even though they try not to believe it, the siblings have spent their lives absorbing that their guardians thing they're inherently evil.)  Yet he tends to discover more questions than answers.  There is definitely a lot to uncover as the series unfolds.

Basically, I found MOONSET to be a really fun read.  I was excited to read the next book when I finished, no matter that it won't be out for a year.  I liked Justin quite a bit and would like to spend more time reading about him (and his siblings) doing things.  I want to unravel the secrets of Moonset.  Tracey pulled off a few real surprising revelations, so I think he continue to pull off a plot-driven series.  Paranormal fans looking for something without vampires or love triangles should enjoy MOONSET.

April 8, 2013

Movie Monday: The Lizzie Bennet Diaries Kickstarter

If you enjoyed The Lizzie Bennet Diaries, then you have two more weeks to donate to the Kickstarter to produce a DVD set of the series.  It's more than fully funded, so there's very little risk you won't get your reward.  To actually get the 8-disc DVD set you have to donate $55, which is a little pricey in my opinion.  But if you do have money to burn, lots of the more expensive limited awards are still available.

I thought the series fizzled out towards the end, so I'm happy just rewatching the early videos on YouTube.  But for those who want a hard copy, this is your chance to also get your name in the liner notes!  Can't do that once it's already produced.

Unrelated Texas Sidenote:  The Dallas International Film Festival (DIFF) is in full swing.  I recommend checking it out if you're in the area.  Tonight I recommend the Pit Stop showing at 10:15 PM at the Landmark Magnolia.

April 7, 2013

Review: What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank: Stories

What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank By Nathan Englander
Available now from Knopf in hardcover and Vintage in paperback (Random House)
Review copy

I have a friend who is crazy about Nathan Englander's short stories.  WHAT WE TALK ABOUT WHEN WE TALK ABOUT ANNE FRANK is his first collection since his debut FOR THE RELIEF OF UNBEARABLE URGES in 1999, but he's already considered a master of the form, a peer of Raymond Carver.  No wonder the eponymous story references Carver's famous "What We Talk About When We Talk About Love."

I'm not sure it was the best choice to lead the collection, no matter how wonderful the title.  It's the story of two couples, the wives best friends in school now reunited for the first time.  One lives in Israel, now converted to Hasidic Judaism with her husband.  The other is more secular and lives with her husband, the narrator, in Florida.  Yet for all the story pushes their differences, there's a sameness to the characters.  It lacks the punch of the better stories in the collection.

My two favorites are "Sister Hills" and "Everything I Know About My Family on My Mother's Side."  "Sister Hills" is a series of snapshots from 1973 to 2011 of two hills not far outside of Jerusalem and the families who live on them.  There's tension between the colonizing Israelis and the Arabs, but the biggest bitterness comes from within the community, building to a funnily nasty conclusion.  And it's all held together by the intense portrait of Rena.  The story did briefly lose me in a scene showcasing truly devilish wit on Rena's part that delved too deeply into Jewish law and tradition for me to follow.

"Everything I Know About My Family on My Mother's Side" is a brilliant, clever title and the story lives up to it.  I liked how it moved from a very broad opening to sharp focus, vignettes moving back and forth in time.  Even when broad, the understanding of human nature is keen.  "The wife faces the husband, and the point she argues is so large, it's as if the wife believes traffic will stop for it when the light changes, as if, should the cars roll on, it's worth being run down to see the point made (115, ARC)."  But it's even tighter when it moves into focus and examines family stories, and how they develop and how two cousins might tell the same family story completely differently.  It's a very personal look at the past and how much it can mean once you know it, even if it is subjective.  I was slightly bothered by the meta in the story, the narrator being a writer named Nathan.  I'm not sure the flourish added to the tale.

I quite liked "Peep Show," "The Reader," and "Camp Sundown," but they were more uneven reads.  "Peep Show" forgoes realism for a dreamlike logic that's compelling once you go with it.  "The Reader" has a couple of nice shifts in tone.  As for "Camp Sundown," I really enjoyed the beginning but the story lost me about half to three quarters of the way through.  It was darkly comic, but then the strings showed too much - I had to roll my eyes at some of the reversed symbolism.

I think Englander is an exciting writer and can see why my friend is so enamored.  He has smooth, readable prose and his stories are nicely observed with a bit of humor to alleviate their darkness.  But I found him thematically repetitive and some of the questions he asks just don't resonate with me.  There is much discussion of what it means to be Jewish, and I found some of the stories to be strangely contradictory.  For me, this is more of a borrow-from-the-library than buy book.

April 6, 2013

Follow me on Tumblr!

Via http://fyspringfield.tumblr.com/
Are you following me on Tumblr yet?  (I'm inbedwithbooks there, just like here.)  If not, you're missing out on links to cool articles, updates on book sales, pictures of nifty things, poetry, comics, quotes, and other fun stuff.  I love the Tumblr format - it's very playful (and I can be bookish in ever increasingly nerdy ways).  And I have it on good authority (AKA Twitter) that my Tumblr is hilarious. 

April 5, 2013

Review: In the Shadow of Blackbirds

In the Shadow of Blackbirds In the Shadow of Blackbirds
By Cat Winters
Available now Amulet Books (ABRAMS)
Review copy

I wanted to read IN THE SHADOW OF BLACKBIRDS because of the creepy cover and evocative title.  I didn't really know anything about the story when I began.  But wow, what a story it is.

Mary Shelley Black travels to live with her Aunt Eva in San Diego after her father is imprisoned.  The First World War is in full swing, the young men going off to war and many never returning, or only returning in pieces.  But not all is peaceful at home, because in 1918 there was a major influenza outbreak.  People are wearing masks, bathing in onions, anything to stay healthy.

Mary Shelley briefly reunites with her childhood friend and potential boyfriend Stephen before he goes off to war.  They were forcibly parted before, due to Stephen's older half brother lying about their relationship.  And now Mary Shelley is forced to interact with that villainous brother because he is a talented spiritual photographer and Aunt Eva believes in his abilities.

Debut author Cat Winters clearly did her research.  She brings the anxieties and dreams of the time to vivid life, channeled through Mary Shelley's rather extraordinary story.  Because things take a turn for the paranormal when, after a series of unfortunate events, Mary Shelley begins to have dreams of Stephen being tortured by blackbirds.  She has to find a way to save him, even as she tries to figure out how to live her life as an independent woman.

IN THE SHADOW OF BLACKBIRDS is both terrifying and heartbreaking.  Dread pervades every aspect of the novel.  It's contrasted by the sweetness of Mary Shelley and Stephen's love.  Their romance is a lovely, gentle thing.  That only serves to make the novels many twists and turns more heartrending.  IN THE SHADOW OF BLACKBIRDS is a story to read when you're in the mood to submerge yourself completely in a character's story.  Mary Shelley's chilling tale demands attention.

Winters' debut is brilliant, showcasing incredible talent and imagination.  I can't wait to see what she writes next.  Historical photographs and facts blend with deft characterization and intricate plotting to create a haunting story.  IN THE SHADOW OF BLACKBIRDS questions the meaning of war, tells a tender love story, crescendos into a genuinely frightening ghost story, and it's all held together by an extraordinary heroine.  It's a little early, but I think I can safely say this is one of the best books of 2013.

April 4, 2013

Review: White Lines

White Lines By Jennifer Banash
Available now from Putnam Juvenile (Penguin)
Review copy
Read my interview with Jennifer and her guest blogs

I haven't read a novel this fierce since Stephanie Kuehnert burst onto the scene with I WANNA BE YOUR JOEY RAMONE.  WHITE LINES will be a revelation to anyone familiar with Jennifer Banash from The Elite series.  The rich kids remain, but all soap opera antics are banished.  WHITE LINES is raw, a real bleeding wound of a story.

Cat lives by herself on the Lower East Side even though she's only seventeen years old.  She could no longer live with her abusive mother - the State agrees - but her father lives with a younger woman who doesn't like her.  So he pays for her to have an apartment.  Few teenagers, given free reign of their lives, would make the best decisions.  Especially not in 1980s New York.  Especially not when working the door to a club to make a little extra money.  Especially not when the drug dealers are willing to offer a rock of cocaine to get in.  Especially not when the music and the dancing and the personalities and the drugs are so much better than being alone in an apartment, remembering.

There are people who care about Cat.  There's her friend Sara, who first convinced her to get a fake ID and go to a club and didn't follow her deeper.  There's Giovanni, fabulous and Puerto Rican, who dresses Cat like a doll and forgets his own problems with her.  There's Julian, the new kid in school, someone she could see herself with if she can stop herself from giving him the cold shoulder.  There's Alexa, the coolest girl in school, who sees something in Cat - although it might just be a way to get herself closer to the top.  But they're all flawed people and some of them are druggies too.  Her interactions with them show what a beautiful person Cat is.  She has trouble reaching out, real panic, but she doesn't give into that internal voice every time.  She struggles against it and makes connections, risking the pain.

Drug addiction isn't pretty.  Some people are functional addicts.  Cat manages to hold down a job and manages to go to school enough not to get kicked out (even if it is a school for "special" kids).  She's sort of in the best case scenario, but there are dangers lurking around the edges of her life.  I was so afraid of the turns WHITE LINES could take, of the awful things that could happen to Cat.  WHITE LINES is gritty in the best way.  It doesn't heap humiliation or degradation upon its heroine to show the evils of her way of life.  Her life is risky, and sometimes unpleasant, but not gratuitously so.

And, well, drug addiction tends to bring out the worst in people and it would be a shame to lose the best parts of Cat.  There's so much potential in Cat.  She's got a big voice, one that absorbs you in her life.  She can be witty and clever when she's functional.
"Oh my God," I drawl, staring at Giovanni's face in the mirror.  I begin to smile in spite of my annoyance.  "I'm only seventeen!  How old could I possibly look?" - ARC, 36
WHITE LINES was an intense read.  It'll suck you into the 1980's New York club scene and make you feel like you're living it even if, like me, you weren't born until it was over.  I kept my fingers crossed that somehow, someway there would be a happy ending.  Somehow, someway.  And the ending of WHITE LINES was a relief, a release of all the tension of the novel, healing.  Cat had a tough past, lives a rough present, but she's still got a future.  And a future is the essence of Young Adult.

April 3, 2013

Review: Fearless

Fearless Book two of the Mirrorworld series
By Cornelia Funke
Story found and told by Cornelia Funke and Lionel Wigram
Translated by Oliver Latsch
Available now from Little, Brown
Review copy

Jacob Reckless found a mirror in his missing father's study that allows him to travel to another world, a world full of magic.  In the first Mirrorworld novel, RECKLESS, Jacob's brother followed him and was nearly turned into a Goyl - a creature of stone.  Jacob saved him but is now under a curse himself, one that will kill him within the year.  There is one last artifact that could save his life, but it will be a struggle to find it in time - especially since there is another searching for it.

FEARLESS is a fast-paced adventure that will appeal to fantasy lovers of all ages.  Cornelia Funke has developed a world that runs on objects of fairytale legend, a world in crisis because the Goyl are conquering all the human kingdoms and humans are used to being the dominant species.  It's a world were a person can make a career of hunting for objects of legend and lore, like Jacob, his companion Fox, and their competitor the Bastard.   (Er, there is that drawback if you're going to pass FEARLESS on to a younger reader.  At least, I remember my mom disliking the world "bastard" being at the beginning of Diablo when my sister and I played it way back when.)

There is a romantic storyline is FEARLESS and it is very important to the novel.  Fox's feelings for Jacob are part of what make her so loyal to him, even when he's a jerk or acting stupid, and it isn't easy for her to know his death is imminent.  But the romance rarely takes priority because it would slow the novel down and above all else FEARLESS is a race against time.

I liked that the Bastard, Nerron, wasn't as evil as the epithet he's known by might suggest.  It's a very literal name, and while he makes many threats, he tends not to follow through.  (Even the bad bad guys notice he's not as bloodthirsty as he wants to be.)  It is one of the aspects of the Mirrorworld series that I really like, that the Goyl aren't plain evil.  They're often less treacherous than their human counterparts and they're given individual motivations and goals.  I would've liked to have learned more about Nerron, but FEARLESS is Jacob's story in the end.

There is a massive hook at the end of FEARLESS for the next book in the series.  I'm excited to see what adventure Jacob and Fox will embark upon next.  The Mirrorworld is a very interesting place and I love learning more about it as Jacob and Fox quest.  These books aren't complex, but they are wonderful stories.

April 2, 2013

Review: Dark Triumph

Dark Triumph His Fair Assassin (Book 2)
By Robin LaFevers
Available now from Houghton Mifflin (HMH)
Review copy
Read my review of GRAVE MERCY

GRAVE MERCY was one of my favorite books of 2012 so DARK TRIUMPH, the second book in the His Fair Assassin trilogy, had a lot to live up to.  Robin LaFevers does not try to repeat GRAVE MERCY, giving Sybella her own story.

Sybella is a very different person from Ismae.  She's more wild and vicious.  At the same time, she is more self contained, careful not to let others close, because she grew up in a home full of betrayal.  She can trust herself and herself alone.  She never trusted the abbess and knows she was right not to when she's sent back to her home in order to spy.  Her father, d'Albret, is a monster and she longs for the order to kill him.  In the meantime she enjoys assassinating his underlings.

DARK TRIUMPH begins with Sybella warning Ismae and the duchess, risking the exposure of her true loyalties.  It is not an inviting beginning for new readers.  Who the characters are, their relationships to each other, who is important and why is not explained.  The religion of LaFevers alternate Brittany is not explained either, thus new readers must puzzle out who Mortain is and how is handmaidens work for themselves.  I even found myself wishing for a small refresher on the world since it's been awhile since I last read GRAVE MERCY.

I soon fell back into the swing of things.  The scope of DARK TRIUMPH is smaller.  Sybella's focus is moving past her family's history rather than the duchess and the future of Brittany.  She cares about what happens, but it isn't her priority.  I loved the politics of GRAVE MERCY and yet, I didn't miss them.  LaFevers progresses the overarching plot of the trilogy, but she doesn't force Sybella places she doesn't belong.  Some might be disappointed by how different the two books are, though I think more readers will appreciate the detail given to Sybella's character.  I can't wait to see what LaFevers does with Annith in MORTAL HEART.

In addition to espionage, murder, and sabotage, DARK TRIUMPH features a daring rescue and perilous flight across the countryside.  Sybella finds herself accompanying the Beast of Waroch, a berserker imprisoned by her father.  He's not handsome, but he is ridiculously noble and tough.  He's very similar to Sybella, but different from her in ways that provide for perfect balance.  DARK TRIUMPH is less steamy than GRAVE MERCY, but I found myself swooning more.  Although he would not believe it, the Beast is as much a fairytale hero as his name would imply.

Anyone intrigued by Sybella and her secrets in GRAVE MERCY will devour DARK TRIUMPH with relish.  Her family is truly horrifying, and she deserves to find healing and absolution.  LaFevers continues to make history and fantasy collide in the most delightful way.  DARK TRIUMPH delivers all the action and romance His Fair Assassin fans could hope for.


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...