August 31, 2014

Weekend Cooking: Sweet: Our Best Cupcakes, Cookies, Candy, and More

Weekend Cooking is hosted by Beth Fish.

Sweet SWEET: OUR BEST CUPCAKES, COOKIES, CANDY, AND MORE is a new dessert cookbook from The Food Network. It is aimed at the beginner baker, although some recipes require more skill.  (See the Fake Out Cakes, which you make to look like other things.)  Some specialized tools like candy thermometers are needed for many recipes.  For the most part, however, the tools and ingredients needed are simpleeci and common.

It is also a super pretty cookbook.  Almost all of the recipes have a full-page photo of what it should look like.  This means that there aren't a ton of recipes actually in the book, but they are done in large print, which is handy when you're trying to read and bake and the same time.

I particularly liked the little sections giving ideas on how to modify and jazz up recipes (such as brownies and whoopie pies).  It's nice to have a little guidance on how to make the recipes your own.

The first recipe I tried was the Salted Caramel Thumbprints.  These are basically a sugar cookie with some pretzels and dulce de leche for flair.

Yeah, I ate a few.

The resulting cookies were quite delicious.  I found the base cookie a bit floury, but that is easy to adjust.  I did cut the amount of pretzels the recipe called for, and I'm glad I made that decision - 1 c total was more than enough.  I also added a touch less salt to the dough than called for out of respect to my family members with high blood pressure.  The salt in the pretzels was plenty.  I also didn't use a mixer, as the recipe calls for, because I don't own one.  My arm strength did just fine.

I'm also impressed that the recipe made 24 cookies, just as it said it would.  I find that recipes often overestimate how many cookies will be produced.

I'm excited to try some other recipes from this very pretty cookbook!

August 30, 2014

My dog ate my review copy!

Some publishers are still sending books to my mom's house, even though I moved out awhile ago.  When I arrived today for a Labor Day weekend visit, it turns out her puppy ate a review copy that arrived just the day before.

Paisley didn't want her picture taken with it. Nor did Patton (in the background).
Reluctantly RoyalSo, I'm sorry RELUCTANTLY ROYAL by Nicole Chase, for your gruesome fate.  (Back cover gone, front cover mostly gone, edges very trimmed.)  Let's just consider this a good review for your fiber content.

When I sat it down to try to get a better picture, Paisley tried to take another bite out of it.

August 29, 2014

Review: Game

Game Book two of the I Hunt Killers trilogy
By Barry Lyga
Available now from Little, Brown BFYR (Hachette)
Review copy
Read my review of I Hunt Killers

GAME, the sequel to I HUNT KILLERS, takes the action to NYC, where the Hat-Dog Killer is becoming increasingly bold.  The police think Jazz might be able to offer some useful insights, so they fly him out.  His girlfriend Connie follows.  (Howie stays home to help watch Jazz's grandma.)

The climax of GAME is stunning.  Lots of strange pieces fall into place, and our trio of good guys are left in mortal peril.  The trip to that point isn't quite as good as I HUNT KILLERS, but it is still thrilling.  The main problem with it is that it causes some of the characters (mostly Connie) to act in very dumb ways.  At the same time, I liked that the teen characters aren't quite as smart and savvy as they think they are.  They might know more about serial killers than the average teen, but that doesn't make them trained law enforcement officials.

There's also a lot of interpersonal drama between Connie and Jazz.  She wants to have sex; he wants to have sex but it is afraid it might unlock something dark inside him.  His father, serial killer Billy Dent, mixed rape with his killing and Jazz is extremely concerned about that legacy.  His dreams don't help.  Finding a killer does.

If you're looking for intense, dark YA, look no father than this trilogy.  GAME ups the stakes from I HUNT KILLERS (now that Dent is free), and ends spectacularly.  You might want to wait until BLOOD OF MY BLOOD comes out on September 9, or you might decide this is the perfect moment to start reading the series.

August 28, 2014

Review: Monkey Beach

Monkey Beach By Eden Robinson
Available now from Open Road Media
Review copy

In the comments of my review of GREAT SHORT STORIES BY CONTEMPORARY NATIVE AMERICAN WRITERS, Aarti (of BookLust) asked me if I had read MONKEY BEACH by Eden Robinson.  I actually hadn't even heard of it (it comes from Canada), but just a few days later the American edition popped up on NetGalley.  Clearly, I needed to read this book.

MONKEY BEACH is one of those books were I am honestly unsure about how I feel about it.  I suspect Robinson prefers it that way.  MONKEY BEACH slips and slides between the past and the presents, tying the disparate parts of heroine Lisamarie's life together in unexpected ways.  The nominal driving force of the novel is the disappearance of Lisamarie's older brother, Jimmy.  He was on a fishing boat that disappeared; however, he is a great swimmer and there are tons of islands, so there's a small chance he died.  At first it seems odd that Lisamarie would disgress so much, pondering her uncle Mick (for example) instead of focusing on Jimmy.  But it all works together, in a rough sort of way.

This is a hard novel to describe, because nothing much happens in MONKEY BEACH, yet it is a very tumultuous novel.  Life is enough to provide humor and tragedy without big events.  MONKEY BEACH is also a very dark novel.  Education in boarding schools looms over the heads of the previous generation.  Other injustices against the Haisla and other First Nations people continue.  The heroine is date raped, in a thankfully non-explicit scene.  Secrets bubble out of every corner.  Death, drugs, alcohol, sex - they're never far.  At the same time, Lisamarie has an incredible, loving family, a real shot at the future, and a few good friends.

I really loved Lisamarie.  She's angry, prickly, and too foolhardy for her own good.  She also sees things - a little man who fortells deaths, for instance.  Lisamarie never has much hope of Jimmy's survival.  It's a power she seeks to learn more about, but she's still not the type to bear it with grace.

I may not entirely know how I feel about the novel, but MONKEY BEACH was an absorbing reading experience.  I felt a little like I was in Kitamaat, especially when Lisamarie described fish grease in detail.

Eden Robinson is a member of the Haisla and Heiltsuk First Nations, which makes her a wonderful writer for you to give a chance during A More Diverse Universe, hosted by Aarti.  This will be my third year participating, and I highly recommend it.  I always find new authors that fit my interests among the many reviews it generates.

August 27, 2014

Review: How to Fall

How to Fall First in the Jess Tennant mysteries
By Jane Casey
Available now from St. Martin's Griffin
Review copy

Jess moves, with her mother, back to her mother's childhood town.  It's a real two-horse town, and Jess doesn't just stick out because she's new, but because she looks just like her cousin who died last summer.  No one knows if Freya fell, jumped, or was pushed.  But Jess becomes determined to find out.

HOW TO FALL is filled with suspicious characters.  Freya's former best friends, former romantic rivals, and former suitors are all potential murderers.  (If, that is, someone murdered her.)  But even as Jess suspects everyone, she can't help being drawn to Will, the cute boy next door (who no one in town likes). 

The mystery of Freya's death develops fairly predictably.  (Although the actual resolution surprised me.)  At the same time, Jane Casey seeds intrigue for future books.  Jess's mother burned some bridges when she left, including leaving behind a former beau.  A former, very creepy beau.

If you like mysteries set in secretly sinister small towns, give HOW TO FALL a try.  It has some neat character work, making Freya feel developed even though she is dead the whole time.  She's very distinct from Jess.  Jess is a more realistic, tougher sort.  She fights fire with fire.

HOW TO FALL isn't the most complicated mystery, but it's full of interesting characters and a few intriguing twists.  The preview of the next book in the Jess Tennant mysteries has me eager to learn what happens next in Port Sentinel.

August 26, 2014

Review: Sisters

Sisters Companion to Smile
By Raina Telgemeier
Color by Braden Lamb
Available now from Scholastic Graphix
Review copy

Raina Telgemeier's SMILE is hugely successful, critically acclaimed, and basically everyone was excited when news of a companion graphic memoir broke.  SISTERS is about (surprise surprise) Raina's relationship with her sister Amara.  Raina wished for a sister, but the reality wasn't quite what she hoped.

SISTERS moves smoothly back and forth in time, the borders of the panels helping mark flashbacks.  The bulk of the action takes place on a family road trip to Colorado.  Raina, Amara, their mother, and brother are all in a car (kind of old and broken down), while their father is flying.  Between each "present" section is a flashback to the family growing - sister, brother, pets, and all that comes with.

Some of the darker developments might surprise younger readers, but the astute ones will catch on to some of the underlying family tensions.  At the same time, SISTERS is just as charming and cheerful as expected.  Raina and Amara's combative relationship will be familiar to anyone with a sibling -  as will their moment(s) of detente.
From SMILE by Raina Telgemeier
As always, Telgemeier's art is expressive, albeit deceptively simple.  It's very easy to follow and well laid out, perfect for readers new to or familiar with graphic novels.  There have been no radical changes in style; why change what works?

SISTERS is a slightly looser work than SMILE in addition to being slightly more mature.  It is an excellent companion.  I enjoy Telgemeier's fiction too, but she does a terrific job of mining her own life for story.  The events of sisters are mundane, but the telling is funny and affecting.  SISTERS is sure to please Telgemeier's many fans.

August 25, 2014

Review: Girls' Night Out and Devil Doll

I reviewed five Shebooks back in January, and I mostly enjoyed them.  I've read a few since, including the two I am reviewing in this most.  I must say that they continue to be high quality, but priced a bit high for me.  I know Amazon gives greater royalties at the $2.99 price point, but it took me one lunch break to read both of these stories.  That's not much reading for $6.  It might be a better option for slower readers.

Girls' Night Out Girls' Night Out: a mystery by Kate Flora
Available now from Shebooks
Review copy

The blurb for the novelette is simple and enticing: When the man who date-raped a friend is found not guilty, the women in her book group decide to take matters into their own hands.  The story opens with the friends moving a body, letting the reader know the plan has gone wrong.

I selected "Girls' Night Out" because the blurb reminded me of Fern Michael's Sisterhood series.  I must have good instincts, because that is exactly what I was reminded of.  Local district attorney Jay Hanrahan date raped Ellen Corso - and was found innocent.  Ellen's book club decides to take matters into their own hands and give Jay a taste of his own medicine.

"Girls' Night Out" is a fun bit of black comedy.  It's pretty slight, but it is a fun bit of comeuppance.  I'd certainly try a full-length novel by Kate Flora based on this work.  She's got a nice, wry humor.

Devil Doll Devil Doll: a friendship gone awry by Bonnie Friedman
Available now from Shebooks
Review copy

"Devil Doll" reminded me of one reason why I don't usually read memoirs.  I really felt for Catherine (name changed?) who has quite a bit of her personal life exposed in this memoir, in addition to author Bonnie Friedman's generally low opinion of her.  It can't be nice to have yourself immortalized negatively in a true story.

Bonnie and Catherine were fast friends when they studied abroad, but years later Bonnie dropped her without a word.  "Devil Doll" explores why.  Their relationship had strange ups and downs, including Bonnie sleeping with Catherine's husband, with her permission.  Neither woman comes off very well.  Catherine has a bit of a superiority complex, while Bonnie is judgmental and capricious.  It's well written, but not that enjoyable.

August 22, 2014

Review: I Hunt Killers

I Hunt Killers Book one of the I Hunt Killers trilogy
By Barry Lyga
Available now from Little, Brown BFYR (Hachette)
Review copy

Jasper "Jazz" Dent is the son of the world's most notorious serial killer, Billy Dent.  He had a rather unconventional childhood, one that left him able to read blood spatters, manipulate people, and dream of cutting flesh.  But he's determined not to follow in his father's footsteps.

I HUNT KILLERS is a truly magnetic book.  Jazz's voice is absorbing, haunted and cold and vulnerable.  His best friend, Howie, is hilarious and a true pal, even though his hemophilia doesn't make him the best choice to be a serial killer-hunting sidekick.  His girlfriend, Connie, has a presence and strength of will that reassures Jazz that he would never hurt her.  And he needs his friends, stuck as he his with his crazy grandmother.  I liked the adults too, from a social worker who really could help Jazz to G. William Tanner, the hick sheriff who managed what the FBI couldn't.

I HUNT KILLERS opens with a dead girl in a field.  A serial killer has come to the tiny town of Lobo's Nod again, and it's up to the police to catch them.  Jazz believes he can help due to his special insight.  I really liked the balance Barry Lyga pulled off of Jazz having helpful insights vs. the police being actually competent.  I also liked that he didn't spend too long in the killer's head - there's no lingering over the perverse details, although there is plenty of violence.  This is on the upper end of YA.

The plot and characterization in I HUNT KILLERS are both strong.  The hunt for the Impressionist is twisty and genuinely thrilling.  The nature vs. nurture debate that Jazz struggles with is compelling, particularly because Lyga doesn't pull punches.  Jazz has a genuine capacity for darkness, as shown by his reoccurring nightmares of repressed memories.

This is the best book in the trilogy and can stand alone.  I think GAME and BLOOD OF MY BLOOD are worth reading, but I HUNT KILLERS is the gem of the trilogy.

August 21, 2014

Texas Teen Book Fest announces lineup [press release]

Full author lineup, schedule announced
for Texas Teen Book Festival, Oct. 18

AUSTIN—The full lineup of 29 authors appearing at the Texas Teen Book Festival this October has been unveiled, and it represents some of the most popular and critically acclaimed authors in the booming Young Adult genre.

Two of the most-anticipated headliners are James Dashner, author of the Maze Runner series; and Lauren Oliver, creator of the bestselling Delirium series and Before I Fall.

Dashner’s latest novel is The Eye of Minds, a novel set in a world of hyper-advanced technology, cyberterrorists, and gaming. A movie based on Maze Runner debuts next month. Oliver’s YA book Panic has been optioned by Universal Pictures in a major movie deal, and her first novel for adults, Rooms, comes out this fall.

Other headlining authors include Scott Westerfeld, Marie Lu, A.S. King, and Andrew Smith. The full list and schedule are available at

The one-day Festival takes place Saturday, Oct. 18, from 8:30 a.m. until 5:30 p.m. on the campus of St. Edward’s University, 3001 South Congress Avenue. Organizers believe that the location on the beautiful college campus, along with free parking, will be another big hit of this year’s Festival and its expected 4,000-plus attendees.

“This year's festival is THE one to attend,” says librarian and Fest founder Heather Schubert. “You'll find amazing keynotes, interactive events, writing workshops, a hilarious game show, and much, much more. Expect to leave with a list of new favorite authors and a stack of books you can't wait to read!”

The popular Game Show feature is a high-energy competition with teams of authors led by Marie Lu (the Legend trilogy) and Paolo Bacigalupi (Shipbreaker). 

“This year’s Game Show will take the competition to a new, ridiculous level with challenges ranging from the awesome to the zany,” says show host Sarah Pitre.  “I’m looking forward to hijinks with some of my favorite authors, all of whom are good sports. I promise that they will walk away with at least some remnant of their pride,” Pitre says.

The Texas Teen Book Festival is presented by the Texas Book Festival in conjunction with the Austin Public Library Friends Foundation, in partnership with BookPeople and venue sponsor St. Edward’s University. The program is also made possible in part by a grant from Humanities Texas, the state affiliate of the National Endowment for the Humanities.

The Texas Teen Book Festival will “bookend” the Texas Book Festival, which features books for all ages and takes place Oct. 25 and 26 in and around the state capitol building. Both Festivals are free and open to the public thanks to generous donors, sponsors, and volunteers.

Click to see schedule full size

About the Texas Book Festival

The Texas Book Festival celebrates authors and their contributions to the culture of literacy, ideas, and imagination. Founded in 1995 by first lady Laura Bush, Mary Margaret Farabee, and a group of volunteers, the nonprofit Texas Book Festival promotes the joys of reading and writing through its annual Festival weekend, the one-day Texas Teen Book Festival, the Reading Rock Stars program, grants to Texas libraries, youth fiction writing contest, and year-round literary programming. The Festival is held on the grounds of the Texas capitol each fall and features more than 250 renowned authors, panels, book signings, live music, cooking demonstrations, and children’s activities. Thanks to generous donors, sponsors, and nearly 1,000 volunteers, the Festival remains free and open to the public., #txbookfest; and www.texasteenbookfestival.org, #ttbf14.

August 20, 2014

"Waiting On" Wednesday: El Deafo

El Deafo"Waiting On" Wednesday is hosted by Jill of Breaking the Spine.

I read a brief preview of EL DEAFO on NetGalley, and it whetted my appetite for the whole thing.  This graphic memoir is the story of Cece Bell's hearing loss and how she dealt with it as a kid.  You might know Bell from her illustration work, including the Sock Monkey series. 

Here's the publisher blurb for EL DEAFO:

Going to school and making new friends can be tough. But going to school and making new friends while wearing a bulky hearing aid strapped to your chest? That requires superpowers! In this funny, poignant graphic novel memoir, author/illustrator Cece Bell chronicles her hearing loss at a young age and her subsequent experiences with the Phonic Ear, a very powerful—and very awkward—hearing aid.
The Phonic Ear gives Cece the ability to hear—sometimes things she shouldn’t—but also isolates her from her classmates. She really just wants to fit in and find a true friend, someone who appreciates her as she is. After some trouble, she is finally able to harness the power of the Phonic Ear and become “El Deafo, Listener for All.” And more importantly, declare a place for herself in the world and find the friend she’s longed for.

The art is pretty cute, with everyone being represented by animals (kind of like Arthur). It's a cute style that's totally appropriate for the age group.

From EL DEAFO by Cece Bell
I look forward to reading the whole book on September 2, 2014!

August 19, 2014

Review: Everything Leads to You

Everything Leads to You By Nina LaCour
Available now from Dutton Juvenile (Penguin Random House)
Review copy

EVERYTHING LEADS TO YOU is a sweet, gentle love story propelled by genuine emotion and a surprisingly in depth look at movie making.   (Author Nina LaCour has experience in the industry.)  Emi Price is working as a production intern during her last semester before college.  She's finally broken up with her ex-girlfriend for good (probably), but that same ex is helping her get a new job on an indie movie that she can't turn down.  At the same time, an unlikely discovery at an estate sale is leading her to track down the illegitimate granddaughter of Hollywood's most famous cowboy.

I liked that EVERYTHING LEADS TO YOU includes difficult topics without focusing on them to the exclusion of all else.  Emi is mixed race and a lesbian (except for that one guy), which affects but doesn't define her life.  Ava and her best friend live in a homeless shelter, and Ava can't go home even to the brother she loves because her mother kicked her out.

Things happen a bit too simply in EVERYTHING LEADS TO YOU.  They're slightly tempered, but not much.  Emi is ridiculously good at her job for an 18-year-old intern, although she does make some mistakes and cop an attitude.  Ava doesn't entirely adjust to suddenly having a ton of money well.  At the same time, it works for the novel.  This is a sun-drenched, lazy read, perfect for reading on the place on the way to a trip to LA.

LaCour is a talented author who knows how to keep emotions running high.  This romance/coming-of-age story will have high appeal with teen readers, no matter their sexuality.  The matter-of-fact friendship between Emi and Charlotte adds extra girl appeal.

August 18, 2014

Review: The Great Greene Heist

The Great Greene Heist By Varian Johnson
Available now from Arthur A. Levine (Scholastic)
Review copy

Varian Johnson is a local Austin author, so I saw him speak several times back when I lived there.  He's been talking the talk and walking the walk about diversity in children's books since before it was trendy.  I'm happy to see him make the jump to middle grade and reach a new group of readers.

THE GREAT GREENE HEIST throws the reader right into the deep end with a varied cast of characters and a flurry of references to past escapades.  This book is clearly positioned to be the start of a series, but it doesn't waste time.  At first I felt like I'd missed a book, but then I caught on.  There's very little talking down to the reader.

Jackson Greene is known around school for getting things done, but he's decided to stop interfering ever since his last caper ended up destroying his relationship with his best friend, Gaby. But now his rival and the richest kid in school, Frank Sinclair, is running against Gaby for Student Council President, and Jackson just knows he isn't going to play fair.

THE GREAT GREENE HEIST is one of those books where everyone actually cares about Student Council.  If you just go with it, it's fun.  It's very much a homage to OCEAN'S 11 and other heist films, with a crackerjack team of nerds who each have their own specialties.  The technology is fake, but the cleverness and scheming are real.

This quick-paced novel will appeal to readers looking for an adventure set in the present day.  Everything is kept on an age appropriate level, from kissing (just a peck!) to racial tension.  Most of the characters a broad types, but Jackson himself is well rounded.  THE GREAT GREENE HEIST stands well on its own, but I do hope it gets sequels.  It's a fun book.

August 13, 2014

Review: The Unfinished Life of Addison Stone

The Unfinished Life of Addison Stone By Adele Griffin
Available now from Soho Teen
Review copy

THE UNFINISHED LIFE OF ADDISON STONE positions author Adele Griffin as a woman who taught Addison Stone for a single class, and is inspired by that encounter and the artist's mysterious death to search out people who knew them and recount their stories.

The book is laid out in vaguely chronological order, from when Addison starts making art at six or seven to when she dies at eighteen, falling off the Manhattan Bridge and drowning in the East River.  (Or jumping off, or being pushed off.)  From the start the reader knows there were two men in her life: Zach Frat and London Reed.  However, they take awhile to enter the picture.

I loved the piecemeal nature of the book.  The accounts all conflict with each other: Addison's parents, Addison's art teachers, Addison's childhood best friend, Addison's early rival, Addison's platonic soulmate, Addison's stoner friend, Addison's boyfriend, and more.  Sometimes they agree, but often each character has pretty different opinions about what Addison's actual thoughts were.  And the bits in Addison's voice don't help much.  They're interviews or emails, tailored for a specific audience.  All one can do is piece together a truth, which is all that's left behind by any life.  The book includes photographs of Addison and her friends, but they aren't much more concrete.  Everyone agrees that Addison has black hair, but the photos show her having dark brown hair.  Is it just that the publisher cast a model as close as possible, or that her gothy looks are exaggerated after her death?

Now, THE UNFINISHED LIFE OF ADDISON STONE does position Addison as a great artist.  She can do oils, she can sculpt, she can script performance art.  Addison's art, included in the novel, reminds me somewhat of George Condo.  It doesn't entirely convince me that she was a great artist, but it does convince me that her star would rise after her death.  She is that bright talented that never quite reaches its height because it is cut down.

Mental illness, supernatural haunting, vengeful boyfriend, broken heart - no one quite knows how Addison dies.  But everyone can speculate, shoulder blame (or cast it).  I found that the various voices sometimes blended into each other - they sound similar despite their differing opinions.  But the story was quite compelling, and the novel format served it well. THE UNFINISHED LIFE OF ADDISON STONE is a terrific choice for fans of mysteries and experimental fiction.

Blog Tour: The Unfinished Life of Addison Stone

The Unfinished Life of Addison Stone Soho Press is doing something different for the blog tour of THE UNFINISHED LIFE OF ADDISON STONE by Adele Griffin.  The book is told through oral interviews about Addison, as well as a few of her own interviews/emails, and illustrated with photos of her, her friends, and insets of her art.

Thus, bloggers are writing in the voices of characters or creating their own art inspired by Addison.

I thought of the early description of her failed sketches, quick and with a pithy saying beneath.  And then I was inspired by a specific piece of art, Don't Even Think (About It).  It is pretty much her first piece of public art, which she becomes known for.
"She planted two "trees" made out of bent wire and wash buckets, and then she strung a web of threads and thin cords and tiny blinking Christmas-tree lights between them. The branches of the Contest Tree were taped with hundreds of fluttering Monopoly bills. The Addison Tree was knotted in a snarl of shoelaces and frayed purple ribbons, and she'd used a pocketknife to nick into the wire, creating them to look just like her wrist scars."
Thus, I imagined an early failed sketch during her planning of this installation:

You can find more art inspired by the novel at the Official Addison Stone Tumblr.

August 12, 2014

Review: Fool's Assassin

Fool's Assassin Book one of the Fitz and the Fool trilogy
By Robin Hobb
Available now from Del Rey (Penguin Random House)
Review copy

I love the way Robin Hobb writes.  I dived right into FOOL'S ASSASSIN, devouring it in a single Saturday.  I was so happy to spend more time with Fitz, to see his continued happiness with Molly and contentment with life.  Returning to this character and setting was like a reunion with old friends, even though I knew bad things would have to happen in order to set a new trilogy in motion.  But once I finished FOOL'S ASSASSIN, I had to face the facts.  I might've enjoyed it, but it was a terrible book.

The pacing is super slow.  The opening tells of a messenger who is murdered before she can deliver her message, with Fitz ominously intoning that it would be years before he understood that it was the Fool trying to reach him.  The book then proceeds to detail the decade plus before Fitz gets the message, and then spend some more time detailing quotidian stuff while Fitz dithers.  I'm used to Hobb's books being filled with action and adventure followed by a long denouement, not this long build up.  Nothing really happens.  Even worse, nothing unpredictable happens.  I put together every twists approximately 500 pages before Fitz did.  Not good when Fitz is supposed to be clever.

FOOL'S ASSASSIN introduces several new characters, including a new narrator, Bee.  Her voice was distinct from Fitz's, and it was easy to tell their chapters apart even though they weren't labeled.  I liked several of the other new characters too, more fool me since something like 90% of them were dead by the end of the novel.  Before the ending, I at least hoped all of the elements being built up (including the new characters) were going somewhere.

If you are a fan of the Farseer and the Tawny Man trilogies, I do recommend FOOL'S ASSASSIN.  The Six Duchies world is as immersive as ever, and there is the promise of trouble on the horizon.  It seems that peacetime will end soon for Fitz and his country.  If you aren't familiar with the previous novels featuring Fitz and the Fool, then I don't recommend starting here.  FOOL'S ASSASSIN is too meandering to appeal to anyone but fans.

(And despite the title, you should be prepared for the Fool to take a very long time to show up.)

August 11, 2014

Review: Great Short Stories by Contemporary Native American Writers

Great Short Stories by Contemporary Native American Authors By Pauline Johnson, Zitkala-Sa, John M. Oskison, D'Arcy McNickle, Leslie Marmon Silko, Joseph Bruchac III, Jack D. Forbes, Rayna Green, Mary TallMountain, Duane Niatum, Thomas King, Eli Funaro, Beth H. Piatote, Sherman Alexie
Edited by Bob Blaisdell
Available now from Dover Thrift Editions
Review copy

GREAT SHORT STORIES BY CONTEMPORARY NATIVE AMERICAN WRITERS is an extremely affordable and accessible anthology from Dover Publications that delivers exactly what the title promises. The fourteen stories included range from 1893 (Pauline Johnson) to 2009 (Sherman Alexie).  I was familiar with two of the authors, Alexie and Joseph Bruchac III, but the others were all new to me.  I really appreciated the biographical notes by editor Bob Blaisdell that preceded each story.  These notes tell of the authors' tribal backgrounds and provide some context for the stories.

The stories tend toward the shorter side - "War Dances" by Sherman Alexie is the longest story included.  It is a standout story, however.  I've read quite a bit of Alexie, but I think I enjoyed one of his stories even more when it was surrounded by different authors.  It felt like I was coming into his (morbid, funny) voice fresh.

As for the other authors, I loved that both men and women were included.  I find that survey anthologies such as GREAT SHORT STORIES BY CONTEMPORARY NATIVE AMERICAN WRITERS tend to lose women's voices along the way, so I was happy to see them included.  In fact, a woman kicks the anthology, which is organized chronologically, off.  "A Red Girl's Reasoning" is a terrific tale of pride and rage and a relationship destroyed by a difference in culture.

Editor Bob Blaisdell stretches the word "contemporary" to the breaking point, but I enjoyed seeing the progression through time.  D'Arcy McNickle uses a white narrator for "Train Time," imagining the regrets of someone who thinks he's doing the right thing, but can't find the words to explain himself.  Many of the stories, such as Jack D. Forbes's very brief "Only Approved Indians Can Play Made in USA," are utterly hilarious in a funny not funny way.

If you're looking for stories of the life of some modern Native Americans, this is a terrific anthology.  I'm certainly planning to pick up some more work by many of these authors in the future, and none of the stories were duds.  Nor did anything in GREAT SHORT STORIES BY CONTEMPORARY NATIVE AMERICAN WRITERS feel like a lecture.  This is pure good writing, just with some extra cultural interest.

August 8, 2014

Review: The Sunbird

The Sunbird Book three of the Lion Hunters
By Elizabeth Wein
Available now from Open Road Media
Review copy
Read my review of The Winter Prince

The first three books of the Lion Hunters series switch focus between three members of a family: Medraut, then his legitimate half-sister Goewin, and then his son Telemekos.  This means that although the books build on each other, they also stand fairly well on their own.  (The last two books focus on Telemekos and should be read as a duology.)

Hosted by Angie
THE SUNBIRD first came out in 2004, and in some ways feels dated despite only being ten years old.  It is very short compared to most current YA novels, although it cannot be confused with an MG novel despite Telemekos's youth.  (He's eleven.)  The Lion Hunters novels address some very dark themes, including torture and dehuminization in this entry.

The start of the series plays with Arthurian mythology, but the series does not stick to a traditional path.  THE SUNBIRD takes place in Aksum, now known as Ethiopia.  Telemekos is half-British and half-Aksumite, but he is still accomplished at hiding in plain sight despite his distinctive pale hair.  It is that skill that causes the Emperor to recruit him.  Plague is spreading through Europe, and quarantine has been instituted to protect Aksum.  But there are those who would take this as a chance to make money on the black market, no matter the risk of spreading disease.

In THE SUNBIRD, Elizabeth Wein skillfully weaves together an espionage adventure with a coming of age and the story of a broken but loving family.  Medraut does not speak, and Goewin is a princess of Britain first, grooming her nephew (who is unknowingly the heir apparent).  Fans of her breakout novels CODE NAME VERITY and ROSE UNDER FIRE will not be surprised at the depth of emotion in THE SUNBIRD nor the exploration of darker themes.

This historical fantasy will appeal to fans of Megan Whalen Turner and Jennifer A. Nielsen, which also feature clever and secretive young boys having adventures with consequences for entire nations.  I do recommend reading THE WINTER PRINCE and A COALITION OF LIONS first.  It is not necessary to understand THE SUNBIRD, but it makes the experience richer.  Plus, they're also terrific novels.  This series is criminally underrated.

August 7, 2014

Review: Deadly Little Sins

Deadly Little Sins Book three of the Prep School Confidential trilogy
By Kara Taylor
Available now from St. Martin's Griffin
Review copy
Read my reviews of Prep School Confidential and Wicked Little Secrets

Anne Dowling is back at Wheatley Prep for her senior year and one final mystery.  She is determined to find her teacher Ms. Cross, who suddenly disappeared last year. Anne's determination is increased when Ms. Cross's ex-boyfriend is killed in an apparent robbery gone bad.  Anne doesn't trust appearances, especially not when they tie into more secrets about Wheatley's past.

Honestly, the mystery was a bit weak in DEADLY LITTLE SINS.  In this one, it's Anne who wants to pretty up the truth, allowing her to miss something very important.  What is good about DEADLY LITTLE SINS is the character development.  Anne is not the same girl who came to Wheatley in PREP SCHOOL CONFIDENTIAL.  She's suffering nightmares from WICKED LITTLE SECRETS, and while she doesn't regret interfering, the consequences are lingering.  She's also reached a conclusion about her romantic dilemma, partially because people change.

While the reoccuring characters are well done, I thought it was a bit strange that Kara Taylor introduced several new characters.  A new freshman girl and vice principal are treated like important newcomers, but they don't really serve a purpose in the story.  There could've been more focus about familiar characters in their place, such as Anne's roommate and best friend who has her own relationship issues.

Overall, DEADLY LITTLE SINS was a little weaker than its predecessors, but a fine conclusion to Anne's story.  I love this little mystery trilogy because of Anne.  She's one of my favorite heroines in recent memory, and I think the path Taylor sets her down is one she's well suited for. 

August 6, 2014

Review: The Girl from the Well

The Girl from the Well By Rin Chupeco
Available now from Sourcebooks Fire
Review copy

Rin Chupeco's debut novel THE GIRL FROM THE WELL brings a Japanese ghost story into the present.  Chupeco has clearly paid attention to the success of J-horror, because the atmosphere is dead on.

Much of the book is told through the point of view of Okiku, a spirit who travels upside down because that is how she died and doesn't like the number nine.  She travels about punishing men who hurt children.  Then she is drawn to Tarquin, called Tark, a boy on the cusp of manhood with rather strange tattoos.  It turns out that those tattoos imprison another spirit, a darker spirit, and Okiku's attention might be all that can save Tark.

THE GIRL FROM THE WELL does quite a bit of head hopping, which can be slightly disorienting.  It works in the book's favor, however; this is a story where strange things happen and putting together the pieces opens the characters up to the darkness in the world.  There are many unpleasant deaths in THE GIRL FROM THE WELL, and some of them are deserved.

There are three main characters: Okiku, Tark, and Callie (his cousin).  I liked Callie's growing importance in the novel, because her point of view is very down to earth even when she starts to see spirits.  And I loved the relationship between Okiku and Tark, two people who can barely communicate but still come to understand each other.  It's intense, not quite a romance nor a friendship, and an intriguing counterpoint to the straightforward designated love interest relationships found in many horror novels.

I devoured THE GIRL IN THE WELL.  The plot is somewhat vague at times, but the atmosphere always carries it through.  There are some genuine moments of horror, which I always appreciate in a scary story.  And I absolutely loved the ending.  It wrapped things up in a bow I would love to unravel.  If this is Chupeco's debut, I look forward to what she does next.

August 5, 2014

Review: Charlie Glass's Slippers

Charlie's Glass Slippers By Holly McQueen
Available now from Atria (Simon & Schuster)
Review copy

This modern update of Cinderella positions Charlie Glass as the inheritor of a luxury women's shoe company with multiple desirable suitors.  Charlie's life didn't always go so well.  She left school and her dreams in order to care for her terminally ill father.  She was overweight, and struggled with being positive about her body.  Her stepmother was cruel and her half sisters selfish.

I am a sucker for retold fairytales, and I liked the way Holly McQueen updated Cinderella in CHARLIE GLASS'S SLIPPERS.  Charlie's struggle with her body and appearance was more compelling than an effortlessly beautiful heroine.  Her sudden windfall is her chance to become thinner and blonder (with an intensive fat camp), but her new attention to everything she eats and intense exercise doesn't really make her that much happier.  I liked her half sisters quite a bit.  The younger one is a model, quite silly in a bit of a sad way, but mostly tries to be sweet to her sister when she isn't jealous.  The older one has her own family and is dedicated to her career, without much use for Charlie until she comes to respect her.  The sisters aren't the nicest, but they aren't totally awful and they have feelings about family.

As for the two men in Charlie's life, I liked that McQueen didn't make it as simple as Prince Charming just happening to hold a ball.  Both men have their good points and bad points.  In fact, I didn't like her old crush Freddie at first because of how he failed to communicate with Charlie, but he grew on me.  Her new boyfriend is sexy, generous, and really into her, but a bit shallow.  I believed I knew which way things were going, but I was a bit surprised.

McQueen also throws a cold case murder mystery into the mix, which seemed a bit much at times.  It tied into Charlie's past, her recent grief over her father's death and her mixed emotions since he mostly left her alone after her mother's death.  Her mother died in a hit and run, and Charlie and the lead detective (Freddie's father) never give up hope of finding her killer.  It added a darkness to the frothy tone of CHARLIE GLASS'S SLIPPERS.

If you're looking for chicklit with a fairytale bent, you might try CHARLIE GLASS'S SLIPPERS.  It's characters have surprising dimension, and it tackles some surprisingly tough topics (if with a light touch).  I really liked Charlie, with her struggles to maintain her closest friendship amidst change, find true love, and rejuvenate her company.

August 4, 2014

Review: Knockout Games

Knockout Games By G. Neri
Available now from Carolrhoda Lab (Lerner)
Review copy
Read my review of Surf Mules

G. Neri first came to my attention with the ridiculously titled SURF MULES.  I gave it a chance because it was summer and I was bored, and I loved it.  I've kept an eye out for his name since.  His latest novel, KNOCKOUT GAMES, is ripped from the headlines.  The Knockout Game sounded like some fad made up by the media, and to some degree it is.  But where it is played, people have ended up in the hospital.

Neri has the good sense not to sensationalize the story, but to humanize it.  He gets into the bones of why someone might play such a stupid, hateful game.  Some of it comes from the young age of most of the players, still in middle school and eager to seem impressive.  Some is the high from the violence.  It's a combination of factors.

Erica Asher, unlike most of the players in her town, is white.  But she has her own camera and a pretty good eye, and the players like having their knockouts filmed.  As she gets more involved with the game, she also becomes more involved with the Knockout King, Kalvin.  He's charismatic, genuinely talented, and kind and sensitive when he talks to Erica alone.  But the sweet boy she falls in love with is also capable of great cruelty, some of it directed at Erica.

Just as Neri builds up the reasons why, he tears it down with a realistic description of the consequences.  KNOCKOUT GAMES is not preachy - in fact, some people get away with more than they should and some get away with less, and both sides are a tragedy.  The racial implications of the Knockout Game are also explored.  (Although the real-life trend of Jews being targeted is avoided.)

KNOCKOUT GAMES is a tough read.  It's violent, and the sex (which the heroine wants) leads to unfortunate consequences (as it is filmed without her consent).  The characters are complex and sympathetic, but many times quite unlikeable.  It is a story about finding the courage to speak up, but it's a hard journey for Erica.  I highly recommend this book for older teens, but I doubt I'll revisit it.  It would be a hard one to reread.


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