February 27, 2015

Some Fine Day launch giveaway!

Some Fine Day You could win a Kindle Paperwhite with a custom cover, preloaded with SOME FINE DAY by Kat Ross. I own a Paperwhite myself, and I absolutely love it.  I use it every day during my lunch break.  There's also a second place prize (two winners) of a signed copy of SOME FINE DAY and a third place prize (two winners) of the audiobook on CD.  The contest runs through March 7th.

You might be familiar with SOME FINE DAY as it was originally slated to be released from Strange Chemistry before Angry Robot closed the imprint.  Skyscape subsequently acquired it.

A generation ago, continent-sized storms called hypercanes caused the Earth to flood. The survivors were forced to retreat deep underground and build a new society.

This is the story that sixteen-year-old Jansin Nordqvist has heard all of her life.

Jansin grew up in a civilization far below the Earth’s surface. She’s spent the last eight years in military intelligence training. So when her parents surprise her with a coveted yet treacherous trip above ground, she’s prepared for anything. She’s especially thrilled to feel the fresh air, see the sun, and view the wide-open skies and the ocean for herself.

But when raiders attack Jansin’s camp and take her prisoner, she is forced to question everything she’s been taught. What do her captors want? How will she get back underground? And if she ever does, will she want to stay after learning the truth?

Some Fine Day is available for purchase on Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

About the author:

Kat Ross was born and raised in New York City and worked several jobs before turning to journalism and creative writing. An avid traveler and adventurer, she now lives with her family - along with a beagle, a ginger cat, and six fish - far enough outside the city that skunks and deer wander through her backyard. 

You can find Kat on Twitter and her website.

You can enter the giveaway below or on Kat's website.

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February 26, 2015

Review: Listen, Slowly

Listen, Slowly By Thanhhà Lại
Available now from HarperCollins
Review copy

Thanhhà Lại's second novel is also her first novel in prose.  INSIDE OUT & BACK AGAIN announced her presence on the children's lit scene in a big way, winning both a National Book Award and a Newbery Honor.  LISTEN, SLOWLY makes it clear that her debut was no fluke.

Mai is eagerly anticipating her summer with her best friend and crush, excited that at twelve, she's almost a teenager.  But when a detective brings news that her Ong (grandfather) might be alive, she finds herself accompanying her grandmother to a small village in Vietnam for the summer.  Mai is a bit of a whiner at this point, but no more than any kid giving up summer in the beach for summer with access to dial-up if you go to the local cafe.  Worse, she only kinda sorta speaks the language.

I loved Mai's gentle growth throughout the novel.  The first real connection she makes is easy, with a teen guy who is an exchange student in Houston during the school year and who can speak English with her.  As she opens up, she makes more friends and learns more about the lives of the people around her.  (And gets some good advice regarding using sunscreen not made for your face on your face.)  She also becomes interested in the mystery of her grandfather, tracking just what happened to him after he escaped capture during the Vietnam War.

Thanhhà Lại develops her scenes sensually, with both pleasant and unpleasant details.  There are itchy bug bites and glowing frogs and squelching mud.  Mai makes visits to major cities as well, finding that life there is very different and she's equally unprepared for getting around.  I also liked how she dealt with Mai's frustration that her family wants her to know more about her roots, but refuses to talk about why and how they emigrated.  Mai's connections to her specific and unspecific roots both feel authentic.

LISTEN, SLOWLY is a book that makes you want to listen, slowly.  It has family secrets and cross-cultural barriers and female friendship and all sorts of good stuff.  It has a focus on language, getting it right, translating for others, and learning how to speak it so those less proficient can understand.  Most of all, it has great writing.  It's not a long read, aimed at fourth grade or so, but it is one that has enough depth for older readers too.

February 25, 2015

Review: Mark of the Thief

Mark of the Thief Book one of the Praetor War
By Jennifer A. Nielsen
Available now from Scholastic Press
Review copy
Read my Jennifer A. Nielsen tag

I loved the Ascendance trilogy, so I was eager to read MARK OF THE THIEF, the first book in Jennifer A. Nielsen's new Praetor War series.  The story follows Nicolas Calva, known as Nic, a young slave in the Roman Empire.  When his master discovers a cave full of Caesar's treasures, Nic is tasked with finding a bulla.  However, he ends up possessing the bulla himself, which leads him down the path of adventure and potentially being a pawn for either side of a brewing war.

MARK OF THE THIEF is a very easy read.  The action is fast and furious, and the cast is reasonably sized so that it is easy to remember who everyone is.  I do wish there were more female characters.  Aurelia, a mercenary, becomes Nic's ally, and one of his major motivations is reuniting with his sister.  However, both of the girls are great characters.  You do have to pay attention to the characters, because they change sides easily.

I think the combination of the Roman Empire and magic is very appealing.  There's some actual history about the subjugation of conquered people and class in Roman times in addition to a fantastical adventure that pits magic user against magic user.  Given the presences of gods and griffins, however, don't expect too much actual history.

I flew through this novel with much enjoyment, aside from one major flaw: I don't understand Nic.  He's a Gaul who was forced into hiding and then kidnapped into slavery.  When he gets a little power and can make choices for himself, he firmly opposes the man who wants to destroy the Roman Empire and works to preserve it with all he has.  Why does he care about Rome?  Why is he so loyal to the force that enslaved him?  Why doesn't he want to bring it crashing down or help his fellow slaves rebel or anything but be a good subject of the emperor?  I have no idea, and it bothers me every time I think about it.

MARK OF THE THIEF showcases Nielsen's addictive writing, which has much to entice adults as well as the target child audience.  She's got an ear for action and a flair with magic.  But this series just might fall apart if she can't make sense of why Nic does what he does with such determination on the page.

February 24, 2015

Review: Princess Academy: The Forgotten Sisters

The Forgotten Sisters Book three of the Princess Academy trilogy
By Shannon Hale
Available now from Bloomsbury
Review copy
Read my review of Princess Academy: Palace of Stone

Shannon Hale returns to Miri and the world of the Princess Academy novels for a final time.  War is on the horizon, and the only way to stop it is a royal marriage.  Therefore, Miri is sent to the swamps to teach three of the king's cousins how to be princesses.  The catch?  Miri can't tell them she's grooming them to be offered to marriage to a neighboring, elderly king.  But if the king does marry one of them, ownership of Mount Eskel will be given to the girls of the princess academy.  And Miri would do anything to keep her home from being sold off to greedy merchants.

In many ways, THE FORGOTTEN SISTERS is a lighter read than PALACE OF STONE.  There's quite a bit of fish-out-of-water comedy at first, and the rural cousins resisting the efforts of their citified tutor.  However, that doesn't mean darkness isn't lurking.  There are a large number of lives at stake, especially as the war begins to break out before Miri, Astrid, Felissa, and Sus can leave the swamp.

For those who are eager to see the other characters, such as Britta and Peder, again, they have pretty minor roles in this adventure.  Most of the story is Miri and the three princesses, which does make THE FORGOTTEN SISTERS welcoming to new readers.  However, the reoccuring characters do appear enough to tie off lingering story lines, including the question of whether Miri and Peder will get there own happily ever after.

The Princess Academy trilogy is a real treat.  I particularly love the subtle feminism Hale weaves throughout.  We see women from all walks of life, and women who are fighters and women who are political and women who work hard at whatever their job is.  We see Miri, who is clever and determined, but whose greatest wish is to complete her duty so that she can go home and get married.  And that's fine because it is what she wants.  THE FORGOTTEN SISTERS is a funny and thrilling conclusion to an excellent middle-grade series.

February 23, 2015

Event Report: Montgomery County Book Festival

This Saturday I drove up to Conroe to attend the Montgomery County Book Festival.  Unfortunately, I'm an adult and had to miss the writing workshop and opening keynote to do some weekend chores.  But I was able to attend three panels and the closing keynote.

The Alex Crow One awesome thing about this festival was that bookstore sponsor Murder By the Book got permission to sell several books early, including SALT & STONE by Victoria Scott and UNLEASHED by Sophie Jordan.  I bought myself a copy of THE ALEX CROW by keynote speaker Andrew Smith, which comes out officially on March 10.  I also bought ENSNARED by A.G. Howard, because I can't wait to find out how everything gets resolved!  I already waited a month because I knew I was going to this event.

from Montgomery Council Book Festival site
"I've Got the Magic in Me" started with Victoria Scott reading a little from THE COLLECTOR and A.G. Howard reading from SPLINTERED.  This was a good move, because Scott has a great, low voice and Howard is awesome at doing voices for different characters.  She learned it from reading Harry Potter to her kid.  (Say it with me: Aw.)

Scott spoke quite a bit about how she managed to get Dante's voice down.  She asked a male, teenage neighbor, who kindly let her know that no one says swagger anymore.  ("It's swag now.")  She also cut any lines that her mom liked, because they were obviously too nice.  Meanwhile, Scott kept any that offended her even as she wrote them. 

Howard did something similar - she made sure to keep any lines of Morpheus's that made her blush when she wrote them.  She also said that his voice changed from how she heard it in her head to the final version, because her editor suggested codifying it as a Cockney accent.

Both agreed that the key to an anti-hero is reminding the audience of his redeemable qualities!

As for what's coming next, Scott is planning to slow down on her writing and publishing schedule.  However, if SALT & STONE does well there might be a third book in the series.  Howard and her agent are shopping some manuscripts around, including an adult Victorian romance about a young deaf girl who finds a flower in a cemetery and ends up haunted by a ghost and trying to solve his murder.

Funniest fact learned: Scott named the Pandoras as she did (magical animal companions in the FIRE & FLOOD series) because she was listening to Pandora radio at the time.

from Montgomery Council Book Festival site
Ellen Hopkins and Andrew Smith, the keynote speakers, spoke together in "Our Lips Are (Not) Sealed" about censorship, something both of them have experienced due to the content of their novels. In fact, a bookstore Smith is visiting asked him to speak at local schools, but said that they wouldn't provide books at the events due to their content.  Smith decided to attend the schools anyway after they reached out personally to him.

Hopkins has a quiet voice, but she can still command a room.  She's very passionate about her novels and the readers who tell her how much they've helped.  Hopkins was inspired by her own daughter's drug use, so the content of her stories hits close to home for her as well.

Smith is actually still uncomfortable with people reading his writing, and sensitive about some of the things people who want to censor his books have said.  He was going to quit publishing, and wrote GRASSHOPPER JUNGLE for himself.  (I think we're all glad he ended up getting it published!)

Both agree that they're very lucky with their editors, who never censor them, but instead push them to add more.  Hopkins emphasized that a good editor will always push you to add more, to be honest and not censor yourself before someone else can do it.

The session ended beautifully:
Hopkins: "Live bravely.  Write bravely; read bravely; live bravely."
Smith: "That's my next tattoo."

from Montgomery Council Book Festival site
The final panel I attended was "Nuthin' But A 'G' Thang" about graphic novels, but writer and artist George O'Connor and writer Mariko Tamaki.  Tamaki has streaks of the perfect shade of green in her hair and O'Connor is ridiculously good-looking in real life, so this was a rather pulchritudinous panel.  It also had an interesting vibe compared to the others, because it was their third event of the day together so they were really in sync.

Tamaki started out as an English major because she didn't know what to do.  (She now has a Bachelor's in English and a Masters in Women's Studies.)  Her advice is to write for any opportunities that come your way, from plays to advertisements to whatever.  You'll figure out how to go with the story with whatever medium works.  Also, you should trap someone into collaborating with you before they know how much work it is.

O'Connor likes the control of doing both the art and the writing, although it means he has only himself to blame when he has to draw crowd scene after crowd scene.  He started on the art side of things, and still finds it easier to get the art on the page right than the words.  Thus, he's more proud of when he really nails the writing.  He wrote POSEIDON in the Olympians series three times, and the final result is still his favorite.

Both talked about some recent comics and graphic novels they recommend.  I'm going to have to look up BEAUTIFUL DARKNESS, which O'Connor raved about.  I hadn't heard of it, but it sounds awesome.  Both recommended that aspiring writers read a lot of what interests you and some of what isn't in your wheelhouse, so that you can bring in outside influences and create a new, unique voice for yourself.  They also recommended re-reading your faves so that you can tear them apart and see why they work.

O'Connor and Tamaki always carry sketchbooks to keep and remember ideas.  O'Connor emphasized not being precious about it, that the sketches and such inside will mostly be garbage, but you've got to get the idea down so that you can remember it later.  He's still kicking himself for forgetting the better name that he came up with for one of his characters (that he no longer writes) twenty years ago.

Finally, I went to the closing keynote, during which Smith talked about THE ALEX CROW, the importance of poetry, and why high school kids don't need to worry about their careers just yet.  I had to write down his response to his question about "What do you wish you could change?": "I wish that Beyonce would write a children's book, and that when she doesn't win the Newbery, Kanye attends the ALA meeting."  Unfortunately, he then had to admit that he's not that familiar with Beyonce's music.

It was a very fun event, with easy-to-find parking, a cheap and delicious bake sale (plus concessions upstairs), and a wide range of authors.  I'm sad that I wasn't able to see all of the panels, even though I enjoyed the ones I attended.  It was a good size, with a decent audience but not a crushed crowd. Next year I'll budget to buy the T-shirt ($15) so that I have something all of the authors can sign!

February 20, 2015

Review: Debunk It!: How to Stay Sane in a World of Misinformation

Debunk It! By John Grant
Available February 24 from Zest Books
Review copy

DEBUNK IT!: HOW TO STAY SANE IN A WORLD OF MISINFORMATION is pitched to teens, but contains useful information for anyone in the modern world.  Hoaxes can travel faster than ever, and having a tool kit for separating fact from fiction is essential.

I wish that chapter four ("Building Your Own Bullshitometer") came first, because it contains some of the most useful information.  It does build some on the first three chapters, but not so much that it couldn't be arranged to be first.  John Grant tackles common logical fallacies, weasel words, and how to track down sources to check for context, veracity, and authority.  He also tackles some of the subjects that are subject to a great deal of misinformation; for instance, medical fads, climate change, and woo.

DEBUNK IT! is very accessible.  Grant's firm stances on various subjects might turn some readers off, but that's part of the point of the book.  It's important to know why you shouldn't be worried about mercury and formaldehyde in vaccines.  Namely, vaccines contained a small dose of a mercury compound that is no longer used, and now contian a smaller dose of formaldehyde than can be found in an apple.

It's tempting when you read a click-bait article to copy and paste the link to your Tumblr without thinking, to spout back what you half remember reading to family and friends.  But it is important to remember to stop and think, to question where the information came from and why.  There's lots of good, hard facts out there, but sorting fact from fiction is a skill.  Unfortunately, not every lie is obviously crazy.

DEBUNK IT! is a fun and informative read that should entertain far beyond the expected teenage audience.  It may be nonfiction, but it is far from dry.

Thanks to Zest Books, I have one copy to give away.

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Interview with John Grant

As part of the Zest Books Rockin' Blog Tour, I'm reviewing the book DEBUNK IT!, giving a copy away, and interviewing the author John Grant.  Come back later today for the review!  On March 16, I'll be covering ROCKIN' THE BOAT by Jeff Fleischer.

John Grant has written approximately seventy books and has won both the Hugo Award and the World Fantasy Award.  He used to run Paper Tiger, a publishing company specializing in fantasy art books.  He's previously written nonfiction books, but DEBUNK IT! is his first nonfiction novel specifically for teens.


1. DEBUNK IT! makes the point that we're all fallible. What's one bit of misinformation that you can't believe you fell for?

One thing I know I was definitely wrong about until a couple of years ago was the protein content of mushrooms. Abstruse, huh? For some reason I’d got it into my head that, pound for pound, mushrooms had about the same protein content as meat or poultry. I said this in front of a friend at some point, and he told me (very politely) that I was talking absolute and complete twaddle – although, him being a good friend, that wasn’t precisely the term he used. I looked it up and he was of course right.

At a rather more significant level of false knowledge, I can remember many years ago clinging onto the steady-state theory of the universe far longer than I should have after the big-bang theory had become firmly established. This was really for sentimental reasons, because it was a prettier and more comforting theory, and also because I had enormous respect for one of the main steady-state proponents, Fred Hoyle. Once I finally realized that my brain was saying one thing and my heart another, I straightened my ideas out a bit.

2. How did you come to be interested in science?

Funny you should ask that, because it ties in perfectly with what I’ve just said! My dad was a biochemist, my mom a geographer and my (very much older) brother a mathematician, so I guess you could say that I had no way of escaping an interest in science. But what really did it for me was picking up my brother’s copy of Fred Hoyle’s book Frontiers of Astronomy. That book absolutely blew me away. Of course, I now know that much of the information in it was wrong – the steady-state theory, for example! – but what it did was stir my imagination and my emotions; it woke me up to the idea that the universe, though hostile, was a far wilder and more wonderful place than I’d ever realized, and that it was open to me in my lifetime to conquer that universe in the sense of finding out more about it, trying to understand it better.

Debunk It! 3. You've written science fiction (and several other genres) in addition to nonfiction. Do you approach science differently depending on the genre you are writing in?

The fiction that I write tends to be more fantasy than SF, although sometimes the fantasy is based on science-y ideas, or has science-y ideas chucked in. A new collection of my stories, Tell No Lies, was published a few weeks ago, just before Christmas, and I was intrigued that one reviewer, when talking about the collection, mentioned genres. This was almost puzzling to me, because I didn’t feel that difference when I was writing the stories!

So the answer I’m groping toward is that when I’m writing about science for real I try to keep my feet fairly firmly on the ground. I do like writing about speculative scientific ideas (assuming I can understand them!), but I take care to label them as speculative. When I’m writing fiction, though, all that reserve goes out the window. Sometimes I’ll base any science-y parts on actual science, but more often it’ll be loopy ideas that have popped into my mind and that I’ve liked the look of. Like the story of mine that was published in the science journal Nature (brag, brag) about the little boy who wanted a universe for his birthday . . .

4. Your book CORRUPTED SCIENCE dealt with misinformation for adults. Did you change your approach when writing for teens in DEBUNK IT!?

Not a great deal, to be honest. I think teens are actually brighter and faster-witted than adults tend to be, and they’re also mentally far more flexible; they’re just as likely to harbor false notions, but those false notions haven’t had decades to root themselves almost inextricably into the mind. So I kind of took that for granted as I was writing Debunk It! – that I was speaking to a smarter audience. It made the book a lot of fun for me to write, and a challenge, too.

5. Why should DEBUNK IT! readers trust you?

Well, as I keep telling my wife and daughter, they should trust what I say because I’m always right about everything . . .

Oh, you don’t believe me either? Well, let me put it another way:

If I were sounding off with my own pet theories in Debunk It! then I’d encourage readers to distrust me. However, the stuff I’m defending in the book is firmly established knowledge, so, if you disagree with it, it’s not me you’re disagreeing with but thousands and thousands of the best and most informed minds that humanity has to offer.

Golly – that makes me sound a little hidebound, which I assure you I’m not! I also do try to make plain in the book where science (in particular) is still working on a problem, so that there are valid rival ideas around as to how something works. My target for debunkery, though, is ideas that aren’t so much rival as nonsensical – that have been comprehensively refuted time and time again, such as (to choose one that’s much in the news at the moment) the idea that vaccines can cause autism. We have truly massive evidence that this cannot be true, and yet you still have showbiz personalities and unscrupulous politicians casting doubt on the matter. I mean, if you’d be happy to have a showbiz personality or a politician perform brain surgery on you, then it’d be reasonable to trust them on other medical matters. Me, I prefer to get my medical advice from the medical profession.

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February 19, 2015

Review: Amnesia

Amnesia By Peter Carey
Available now from Knopf (Penguin Random House)
Review copy

Two-time Man Booker Award winner Peter Carey has written some amazingly beautiful books.  AMNESIA is not one of them.  It starts promisingly, with a young woman (Gaby Baillieux) using a computer virus to release Australian prisoners - and accidentally unleashing the virus on American prisons too.  I couldn't wait to read Carey's literary take on a sci-fi thriller premise.

Unfortunately, the actual main character is Felix Moore, a disgraced journalist who kisses basically every woman in the story despite being old, in debt, nationally regarded as a liar, and otherwise devoid of any personal magnetism.  The blurb describes him as 'known to himself as “our sole remaining left-wing journalist,”' which says basically everything you need to know about his self-aggrandizing asshole tendencies.  This is pretty typical of his thought process:

"I wasn't really a creep.  I was a good person. I had been secretly in love with her.  I had lost her to another man.  Now was not the time for that discussion." - page 62, ARC

The plot is a meandering thing, weaving back and forth in the past for multiple generations, tying obscure Australian history to Felix's romantic woes to Gaby acting like a twenty year old when she was supposedly born in 1975.  Not to mention Gaby herself doesn't really come into play until a third to halfway through the book, and then mostly through rambling tapes that get filtered to Felix.  Felix, whose only interesting quality is being an unreliable narrator.

I thought AMNESIA was a total, nigh impenetrable slog.  I kept having to look at the cover to confirm that yes, this wasn't some random other Peter Carey.  I don't even think this is essential for fans.

February 18, 2015

Review: The Cottage in the Woods

The Cottage in the Woods By Katherine Coville
Available now from Knopf BFYR (Penguin Random House)
Review copy

I love fairytale retellings, and was familiar with Katherine Coville's art from the work she did on her husband Bruce Coville's novels.  I was quite curious to see what she would do with the story of "Goldilocks and the Three Bears."  It turns out that she would marry it to Victorian romance and social issues in an engrossing pastiche.

Ursula travels to the Vaughn home to be a governess to Teddy, an unusually well-behaved child.  She soon discovers that the house holds a secret, a young blonde human.  Meanwhile, she finds herself drawn to Mr. Bentley, a fellow employee of the house, despite a disastrous first meeting.  She also finds herself involved in local politics, as the Enchanted of the town work to live with the humans as equals, not lessers. 

I loved how the fairytale story weaved together with a Pride-and-Prejudice-esque plotline for Ursula and the tensions between the Anthropological Society and the men's choir (as the pro-humans and equality factions are known).  What I'm not so sure is that the middle grade audience will enjoy it.  It's a long story, and the style is somewhat old fashioned.  I think it's a treat, but would a ten year old?

I think it is worth a try for any fan of fairytales.  The twists on Goldilocks are clever, as are the references to other stories such as "The Musicians of Bremen."  At the very least, it might make a good read-aloud book.  But I think the main audience is older, the sort who enjoy classic literature as well as a bit of whimsy.

February 17, 2015

Review: Half the World

Half the World Book two of the Shattered Sea series
By Joe Abercrombie
Available now from Del Rey (Penguin Random House)
Review copy
Read my review of Half a King

Joe Abercrombie returns to the world of the Shattered Sea for another globe-trotting adventure.  This time the heroes are Thorn, a prickly young woman who wants to be a warrior like his father, and Brand, a young man who wants to be a warrior to secure a life for himself and his sister.  Both of them are from Gettland, and their lives become entwined when Thorn accidentally kills another warrior-in-training during an exercise.

Gettland's growing power does not sit easily with the High King.  Therefore, Father Yarvi needs to gather up a crew to go find allies for Gettland, if only to prevent his country from being easily subjugated.  Thorn and Brand, of course, become two of them members of his crew.

I preferred HALF THE WORLD to HALF A KING.  Some of it might be as simple as the fact that the world is more established and less time can be spent building it up.  Some of it is the prickly relationship between Thorn and Brand, which I loved.  Some of it was getting to see an outside view of Yarvi, who is a few years older and now a minister.  From the outside, his ongoing quest for vengeance is a bit more oblique.  Other characters from HALF A KING also make an appearance, but the fact that HALF THE WORLD focuses on new protagonists means that it can be read without knowledge of the first book.

I loved getting to see more of the politics of the Shattered Sea.  The alliances between countries are delicate things, honor less of a binding promise than gold.  I also liked that there was plenty of action to liven up passages between the negotiations.  The pace of HALF THE WORLD is very solid, and made me forget just how long the book was as I read.

Thorn's growth as a character appealed to me too.  At the beginning of the novel, she's impulsive, rude, and expects combat to be rule-bound and fair.  She has to learn self control and improve her skills to be an effective fighter, because a small girl can't take on a large man if she tries to beat him with brute strength.  Brand has some lessons to learn too, although the changes in his character are less drastic.

HALF THE WORLD is a fun novel for fantasy fans, full of swashbucking and double-crossing and a mix of personal and political triumphs.  I am looking forward to the third book and hope that the Shattered Sea series keeps improving.

February 16, 2015

Review: Books for Me

Books for Me By Sue Fliess
Illustrated by Mike Laughead
Available now from Two Lions (Amazon)
Review copy

This picture book celebrates going to the library.  A young hippo girl and her dad go to their local library, where she tries to decide which stories to take home.  The visuals are quite clever, especially the covers that refer to classic children's books and previous books with the same character.

One thing I loved is that her interests in stories aren't restricted to "girl" stories.  She wants to read about pirates and trucks and superheroes too.  It's a nice introduction for younger kids to the types of stories that are available, and they might enjoy seeing one of their favorites pop up on the page.

I think BOOKS FOR ME is best for younger kids before their first trip to the library.  It might help them to know what to expect when they go.  It might also be a fun choice for older little kids who really like to go to the library (like my niece and nephew).  Since the focus is on the library, and not just books, it might've been nice to introduce storytime and crafts and other programs libraries offer for their younger patrons.

BOOKS FOR ME! is a fun rhyming book with bright illustrations.  I doubt it will be one of those favorites that gets read over and over, but it is cute.

February 13, 2015

As You Like It @ Alley Theatre

As You Like It is my favorite Shakespeare play, and until this past Tuesday it had been almost five years since I'd seen a performance of it.  When I saw it was being performed at the Alley Theatre, I had to see it.  And picking a Tuesday was a no-brainer, since they had both bargain tickets and a TalkBack with the cast and crew.

Press release
Houston Press article
Interview with Elizabeth Bunch

Buy tickets

Now, it wasn't the best As You Like It I've ever seen.  That honor still belongs to the 2010 version at the Globe, which starred Naomi Frederick as Rosalind (link to DVD).

It was, however, the second-best I've ever seen.  (Even if they did cut the priest scene, which I love.)

As You Like It lives and dies by its Rosalind, and Elizabeth Bunch puts on a physically comedic, near manic performance.  She's quite the overwhelming force.  Emily Trask makes her Alley debut as Rosalind's cousin Celia and proves to have talents for comedy, song, and dance.  She and Elizabeth bounce off of each other beautifully.  As for Chris Hutchinson as Orlando ... he gets to deliver some good lines.  I felt like he was at max intensity all the time, perhaps in an attempt to match Rosalind and hide that he was too old for the part.

The other parts were quite well done, especially Jay Sullivan (Le Beau; Silveus), Melissa Pritchett (Phebe), Nicole Rodenburg (Audrey), and James Black as Jacques.  At the TalkBack the cast said they weren't aiming for a naturalistic style, but I found that they fell into it sometimes.  It does happen in As You Like It, which makes far more use of prose than most of Shakespeare's plays (especially for Rosalind).  As for one decision I really liked, they made Audrey a bit of a fool-apprentice to Touchstone at the end, which takes some of the sting out of him duping her into marriage to take her virginity.

The set design, music, and choreography were all fantastic.  There are a lot of big entrances, a Brechtian half curtain, booming percussion, song interludes, and movement that fits each character.  The costumes for the court are amazing - black, white, and silver dresses, doublets, and hose evoking 1599 Spain.  The costumes for the Forest of Arden are more that of a modern hipster, which instantly shows the divide between the two settings.  I did feel that Rosalind's costume as Ganymede was a bit baffling.  I loved that she removed layers, scene by scene, as she came closer to unveiling her disguise.  But I was bemused that every single piece seemed to be of feminine cut.

There are, of course, scenes cut to fit the play into a two-hour running time.  There is also some rearrangement of scenes so that all of the Arden scenes come after the court scenes.  There was one move that bothered me, because I think it messed with the directorial vision that the play is dark until Rosalind enters the forest.  But I do think it probably made the play easier to follow for those in the audience unfamiliar with the story.

If you're looking for a humorous and romantic night on the town in Houston, look no farther than As You Like It at the Alley Theatre, featuring their resident company.  It runs through February 22nd.

February 12, 2015

Review: Rebellion

Rebellion Second in a trilogy
By Stephanie Diaz
Available now from
Review copy
Read my review of Extraction

REBELLION starts a week after EXTRACTION ends.  Clementine keeps flashing back to Oliver's death and the other terrible things she's been through.  Her mind is still sharp, but she's not exactly up to taking part in space battles. 

But time is ticking down for the rebels to foil Commander Charlie's plans, and she and her boyfriend Logan go undercover in a work camp while the other rebels infiltrate other places.  Clementine's mission: sow dissent and prevent the workers from being injected with a mind-control serum.  (It all makes sense if you've read the first book.)

Clementine and Logan's relationship was a highlight of REBELLION for me, so I liked getting to see them interact more.  They each make the other feel more safe, but their dedication to each other can be used against them.  However, much of the cast is new as Clementine is sent to a new location.  There are some reoccurring characters, including an antagonist from Clementine's childhood who proves to be more than a senseless bully.

Unfortunately, REBELLION did feel like the middle book in a trilogy.  EXTRACTION promised aliens, but they aren't quite there during the time period of REBELLION.  There's a new setting, but it's pretty similar to the Surface of the first book, and the differences aren't explored in depth.  There's a greater focus on internal conflict until the antagonist shows up.  (Oddly, the conflict remains mostly internal, but for a very external cause.)

I'm excited to see how Stephanie Diaz will finish her debut trilogy.  She knows how to write a fun sci-fi yarn, and she ended REBELLION with one hell of a hook.

February 11, 2015

Review: Deadeye

Deadeye Book one of the Mutant Files
By William C. Dietz
Available now from Ace (Penguin Random House)
Review copy

I picked up this book because of the awesome cover and because Ace is one of those imprints that tends to put out my sort of books.  I loved the beginning, wherein Detective Bruce Conti begins his partnership with Cassandra Lee.  I liked that it was a reversal of the usual setup.  The guy is the younger, less experienced one trying to prove himself to the squad and she's the world-weary one who has seen too many partners come and go.

But I started to suspect that DEADEYE wasn't for me when Conti died in chapter two of stupidity.  That is, running out in front of nine armed men without a bulletproof vest for reasons that are never adequately explained.  Lee's narration later suggests that he loved her, which ... they knew each other for about a week, and he was attracted to her but they were still standoffish.  Of course, Lee's partner falls in love with her in about the same span of time, so it's that kind of book.

And it turned out the Lee that those first chapters sold me on was a mirage.  She's not a hyper-competent cop with an aim to put everyone else to shame.  Her competence comes and goes as the plot requires.  This includes getting into a lockable cage just because a nice man asks her to.  Her aim gets worse as the book goes on.  As for her detective skills, she starts to suspect that the high-profile girl whose bodyguards were paid off was kidnapped specifically and not just snatched randomly by human traffickers after she tracks the traffickers down and they've already passed her off to the buyer.  It's present like another obstacle in the plot instead of a flashing sign that all the detectives involved need to learn to stop and think before leaping in guns a-blazing.

But why is it called the Mutant Files, you might ask?  Because a virus spread through the human race, killing some and mutating others.  Now the norms and the mutants live separately, wearing face masks and other gear when they cross the border into the others' territory.  After all, the virus is still highly contagious.  Which is why Lee worries about eating too close to her partner but still has sex with him.  As if a virus with a variety of wildly different symptoms didn't strain my disbelief enough.

This book is a mess.  The main character is unbelievable, the world makes no sense, and the plot is basically an excuse for one shootout after another.  There's almost no weight to the climax because it's just one more gun battle of many.  It does have a woman as the lone-wolf detective with a guarded heart, which is about all it has going for it.

February 10, 2015

Review: The Oathbreaker's Shadow

The Oathbreaker's Shadow By Amy McCulloch
Available now from Flux (Llewellyn)
Review copy

In THE OATHBREAKER'S SHADOW, Amy McCulloch develops a fascinating land where promises are bound with string and breaking them makes you an exile, followed by an angry shadow. Raim has had a promise string around his wrist since he was born, and the day he comes of age, he breaks that promise. How can he be forgiven if he does not know who he wronged? Why is his shadow different?

These two questions are a fraction of what drives the plot. There is a lot happening in THE OATHBREAKER'S SHADOW, from culture clash to dawning romance to magic lessons to the rise of a tyrant.  It makes for a complex, layered reading experience, but also means that THE OATHBREAKER'S SHADOW ends without finishing much of what it began. There is a cliffhanger, meaning that we must wait for THE SHADOW'S CURSE for resolution (unless we're willing to special order it from the UK.)

Some things will be far more obvious to the reader than they are to Raim, who doesn't have a devious bone in his body. That straightforward loyalty gets him into trouble, even as it sometimes saves him. At the same time, it makes him a very likeable protagonist. He's a sweet boy, one who takes a lot of guilt on himself even as he tries to clear his name. I also liked that despite his martial training, his fighting prowess is overshadowed by Wadi, a girl from the desert tribes he meets in exile.

This is a fascinating fantasy debut. It has a slower pace, really delving into the different locations and the people there. I enjoyed it, because there worldbuilding is there to back the style up and make it interesting. At the same time, it does seem a little strange sometimes that Raim doesn't have more drive, particularly when it comes to the secrets of his oath. I look forward to reading THE SHADOW'S CURSE for the second half of the story. I hope McCulloch ends things as strong as she started them.

February 9, 2015

Movie Monday: Kingsman: The Secret Service

I wasn't impressed by the ads for Kingsman: The Secret Service, but I couldn't resist going to a promo screening at the Alamo Drafthouse.  I'm so happy that I can't resist the lure of free things, because I loved this movie.

It is pretty much an in-name-only adaptation of Mark Millar's comic, which is good, because Millar is terrible in oh so many ways.  There's some lingering crassness that suggest the origins, but I can ignore those few bits I didn't like in favor of an exuberantly fun and stylish film.

With great musical cues
The cast is fantastic.  Colin Firth (Harry/Galahad) does not look like an action hero, which is of course part of Kingsman's humor.  His quiet dignity and subtle expressions breathe life into his gentleman spy.  Newcomers Taron Egerton (Eggsy) and Sophie Cookson (Roxy) are charismatic and hold their own against more experienced actors.  Mark Strong (Merlin) finally gets to play a good guy.  I'm not so sure how I feel about Samuel L. Jackson's (Valentine) choice of using a lisp, but liked that it isn't mined for humor in movie aside from an ironic line about how he finds the English difficult to understand.

How does Eggsy afford a Jeremy Scott jacket? I dunno.
Kingsman focuses on Eggsy, a young man who has never been able to escape where he came from, partly because he needs to be there to protect his mom and sister from his abusive stepfather.  But after a joyride (full of amazing car stunts), he finds himself calling in a favor from an old friend of his dad's - and then he finds himself competing against a bunch of blue bloods for a spot on a very secret service.  Meanwhile, an evil plot is brewing and the snobs vs. slobs war is turning genocidal.

By the climax, Kingsman is an exuberant ride with beautifully surreal imagery to make spy canons such as The Prisoner just as proud as James Bond.  It's a spoof that understands what made the goofy spy films of the sixties so much fun - and it's not just the gadgets.  (Although they do help.)  You've got to have a stomach for violence to watch this one, but if you do, it's quite rewarding.

Kingsman opens everywhere February 13th.

February 5, 2015

Review: Bon Appétempt: A Coming-of-Age Story (with Recipes!)

Bon Appetempt By Amelia Morris
Available now from Grand Central Publishing (Hachette)
Review copy

I avoid memoirs as a rule of thumb, but I was intrigued by BON APPETEMPT because it promised cooking misadventures and author Amelia Morris's "ill-fated twenty-something job at the School of Rock in Los Angeles."  I think I shall continue avoiding memoirs, because they make me feel like I'm judging someone's life in a bad way.

If you came for the School of Rock story, it lasts about a chapter and can be summed up thusly: Aging musicians rarely show up to work on time, bum money from people, and eventually Morris was fired for someone with the administrative and accounting experience to keep people in line.  Fascinating.  As for the cooking, Morris doesn't reach that life interest until halfway through the memoir.  I can't even imaging that fans of her book-turned-blog Bon Appétempt are that interested in a litany of jobs she worked for a bit in her twenties while she and her boyfriend to find something steady to make ends meet.

It doesn't help that BON APPETEMPT is so very dry.  Morris is find at expressing when she's angry at someone, like her mother and grandmother for not immediately supporting her impending marriage.  She's less good at other emotions, which lends little vibrancy to the central relationship of the memoir, that of her and her husband.  She's led a fairly normal life, which doesn't give the memoir much color, and doesn't have the voice or perspective to make that life compelling. 

The recipes are awesome, and their connection to the chapters goes stronger and better integrated as BON APPETEMPT goes on.  However, she sometimes doesn't even say if a recipe turned out well.  Why describe how you made something if you're not going to include the best part, the delightful food porn of flavors and texture and deliciousness that made this recipe a must have in your life story?  Maybe I should just look it up on the blog?

This one if for die-hard fans of Amelia Morris's blog.  For everyone else, just check it out from the library and photocopy the recipes that appeal to you.  I do like the book trailer (shot and edited by her husband Matt), and it makes me wish I liked the book more:

February 4, 2015

Review: Beastkeeper

Beastkeeper By Cat Hellisen
Available now from Henry Holt & Co. (Macmillan)
Review copy

I was instantly drawn to BEASTKEEPER by the beautiful cover.  The stark silhouettes were foreboding, but the peachy glow invited me in.  This short modern fable is a multi-generational "Beauty and the Beast" that explores the consequences of the revenge and just how difficult it is to achieve unconditional love.

The beginning of the story starts when Sarah's mom leaves.  Her mom has never liked the winter, and leaves her husband and daughter when the winter catches up with her for the last time.  Her father sinks into depression, leaving Sarah to explore the tiny patch of "woods" by their house and meet a strange boy.  When he realizes he can no longer parent Sarah himself, he takes her to live with her grandmother, deep in an actual, wild wood.

I loved Sarah's optimism, the sort of faith that only a younger child has that they can make things right if they cross their t's, dot their i's, and just try hard enough.  She also has a young, happy child's ease of bestowing trust, even though lately her life has gone quite awry.  And I loved that it wasn't enough.  Decades of hatred are not undone simply, nor painlessly.

Everything in BEASTKEEPER ties together rather neatly, each layer of the story unfolding to explain how disparate things slot together in unexpected ways.  It's a tightly structured novel, which helps it get away with the fairytale logic that fuels the plot.  Cat Hellisen's writing is lush but not purple, perfect for a harsh fairytale atmosphere.

It did not take me long to devour BEASTKEEPER; this is a true bite-sized delight for the adult reader.  It's the perfect length for the middle grade audience, particularly those who are looking for another darker book to read after finishing CORALINE.

February 3, 2015

Review: This Side of Home

This Side of Home By Renée Watson
Available now from Bloomsbury Children's
Review copy

Renée Watson's debut novel THIS SIDE OF HOME is the story of Maya's senior year at high school.  It starts with a big change, when her best friend is evicted from the house across the street and has to move across town.  The new family that moves in is white, just like most of the families moving into the historically black neighborhood.

Maya is passionate about her town, about the history of her neighborhood and school and the people who have lived there.  She's angered by the gentrification, by the opportunities given to business owners moving that were denied to the black people who already live there and tried to get loans and backers.  She's angered that when her school tries to present a better side to the press, something she supports as student council president, the principal forces them to tone down the blackness and present a multicultural lens that focuses on making sure the white students don't feel left out.

Maya is also confused.  She and her twin sister, Nikki, and her best friend, Essence, have always planned to go to a historically black college.  But now Nikki is friends with the new girl and looking at different schools.  Essence isn't looking at college at all, but beauty school.  And Maya finds herself falling for the boy across the street, instead of the nice boy she's been dating for ages.  Can she stand up for her culture if she's dating a white boy?

I loved THIS SIDE OF HOME.  Gentrification is a pressing issue in many cities, and Watson presents it in an understandable way.  Like Nikki, many people appreciate new shops and restaurants and other nice things moving into a neighborhood.  Like Maya, many people dislike it because they see the people who get forced out of their homes because they can no longer afford them.  Like Essence, some are too busy figuring out how to make ends meet to care about the bigger picture.  Watson presents a variety of voices and a variety of perceptions.  Maya tries to do the right thing, but THIS SIDE OF HOME makes it clear that she isn't always right.

THIS SIDE OF HOME is a great novel for readers who like narrators with a strong voice and contemporaries that treat romance and friendship with equal importance.  It's a multifaceted look at a community through the eyes of a teenage girl on the verge of a bright future.  And I can only assume that Watson has a bright future as an author ahead of her.

February 2, 2015

An Appetite for Violets Giveaway

Today I am giving away a copy of AN APPETITE FOR VIOLETS, the debut novel by Martine Bailey.

One special feature of this novel is that it contains a variety of 18th century recipes that were researched and transcribed by Martine.  Sounds delicious, no?

An Appetite for Violets“That’s how it is for us servants. No one pays you much heed; mostly you're invisible as furniture. Yet you overhear a conversation here, and add a little gossip there. Then you find something, something you should not have found.”Irrepressible Biddy Leigh, under-cook at forbidding Mawton Hall, only wants to marry her childhood sweetheart and set up her own tavern. But when her elderly master marries young Lady Carinna, Biddy is unwittingly swept up in a world of scheming, secrets, and lies. Forced to accompany her new mistress to Italy, she documents her adventures and culinary discoveries in an old household book of recipes, The Cook’s Jewel. Biddy grows intrigued by her fellow travelers, but her secretive and unconventional mistress is the most intriguing of all.

In London, Biddy finds herself attracted to her mistress’s younger brother. In France, she discovers her mistress’s dark secret. At last in Italy, Biddy becomes embroiled in a murderous conspiracy, knowing the secrets she holds could be a key to a better life, or her downfall.

Inspired by eighteenth-century household books of recipes and set at the time of the invention of the first restaurants, An Appetite for Violets is a literary feast for lovers of historical fiction. Martine Bailey's novel opens a window into the fascinating lives of servants, while also delivering a suspenseful tale of obsession and betrayal.

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