March 31, 2015

Review: Girl Underwater

Girl Underwater By Claire Kells
Available now from Dutton (Penguin Random House)
Review copy

GIRL UNDERWATER has some unfortunate timing.  Books come out on a long-set schedule, and no one can control current events.  But GIRL UNDERWATER starts with a plane crash, which probably isn't what most people want to read right now. 

(I will admit that this fictional crash mostly bothered me because the dangling oxygen masks are repeatedly mentioned, but no one puts one on.  The oxygen masks drop when cabin pressure drops, and you should put yours on immediately and then assist nearby children and other people who can't get their own on.  The bag may not inflate, but oxygen is still flowing.  Hasn't Claire Kells listened to the safety demonstration?)

Avery Delacorte is a college freshman, a swimmer, and one of five survivors of a plane crash into a lake.  Her teammate Colin survived, as did three little boys.  GIRL UNDERWATER alternates between the past, with the five working to survive their wounds and their lack of food sources in the increasingly hostile winter, and the present, where Avery struggles to readjust to normal life.  She's clearly traumatized by her experience, and she's internalizing everything.  She won't even talk to Colin or the boys, the only people who know what she's been through.

I found Avery fascinating.  I didn't always understand her decisions, but I did understand why she was making them.  She's horrified by what she did and didn't do to survive and she's terrified of the media scrutiny.  She wants to be forgotten, not remembered as a hero.  She feels a lot of shame.  The past narrative contradicts a lot of her feelings of inadequacy, showing that her cool head, first aid skills, and other talents were vital in their survival.  She's blaming herself for no good reason, but at the same time it is a believable reaction to the awful things she went through.

GIRL UNDERWATER weaves together a survival story, a recovery story, and a romance in a compelling mix.  This is Kells' first novel, but it feels quite polished.  I couldn't wait to find out how Colin and Avery saved themselves and the kids, nor how Avery would manage to get her feet under her again.  She found reserves of strength in the wilderness, but that doesn't mean she automatically knows what to do with them.

GIRL UNDERWATER will appeal to fans of HATCHET and other classic survival stories.  I liked that GIRL UNDERWATER also encompassed what happened to the survivors after they went home.  It's a sharply realized little book.

March 30, 2015

Movie Monday Giveaway: The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies Blu-ray Combo Pack

The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies Last week,  I got to give away a digital download of The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies.  This week, I get to give away a Blu-ray combo pack.  This combo pack includes Blu-ray, DVD, and digital copies of the movie in addition to the following bonus features:
  • New Zealand: Home of Middle-earth Part 3 
  • Recruiting the Five Armies 
  • Completing Middle-earth: A Six-Part Saga 
  • Completing Middle-earth: A Seventeen-Year Journey 
  • The Last Goodbye: Behind the Scenes Music Video 
  • Trailers
So watch the behind-the-scenes videos below, play with the app, and then enter to win!

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March 27, 2015

Review: Things I'll Never Say: Stories About Our Secret Selves

Things I'll Never Say Edited by Ann Angel
Stories by Ann Angel, Kerry Cohen, Louise Hawes, Varian Johnson, erica l. kaufman, Ron Koertge, E. M. Kokie, Chris Lynch, Kekla Magoon, Zoë Marriott, Katy Moran, J. L. Powers, Mary Ann Rodman, Cynthia Leitich Smith, Ellen Wittlinger
Available now from Candlewick
Review copy

Ann Angel's first outing editing an anthology is an impressive venture.  She's gathered a wonderful mix of authors, from established award winners like Chris Lynch and Ellen Wittlinger to talented up to a debut author.  The authors aren't just diverse in their name recognition either.  THINGS I'LL NEVER SAY: STORIES ABOUT OUR SECRET SELVES dwells in those experiences that are hard to talk about, that people like to never think about.

It's fitting that it is a very diverse anthology, not only the authors, but also the main characters, who are black and white and Asian and gay and bisexual and transgender and suffering from mental illness.  Although not all of the stories are realistic, they do strive for a realism about the teen experience, and the multiplicity of points of view represented help support that anthology-wide tone.

I'll admit that the anthology started a little slow for me.  The usually reliable Ellen Wittlinger didn't knock it out of the park with "The We-Are-Like-Everybody-Else Game," the story of a girl with a mom who hoards and a friend who might not deserve the title (but one who does).  "Cupid's Beaux" by Cynthia Leitich Smith is charming, and a definite delight to me as a fan of her Tantalize series.  Will anthology readers who haven't read that series be a little lost?

"When We Were Wild" by Louise Hawes and "Call Me!" by Ron Koertge are both delightfully loose stories, slightly naughty and shaggy with narrators who struggle with their knowledge of their own cruelty.  Of the sadder stories, I think I liked "Easter" by Mary Ann Rodman best, for the way it captured loss and teenage confusion and dashed hopes.

"Quick Change" by E.M. Kokie is a little gem about a con artist in a family of con artists, and I want an entire novel about what happens next.  (Short stories have been made into novels before!  I can hope!)  "Storm Clouds Fleeing From the Wind" by Zoë Marriott is the standout of the collection.  It's an achingly lovely story set in a kingdom that isn't, about a dancer who cannot be matched, especially when furious.  Her bio in the back of THINGS I'LL NEVER SAY says that it is related to her novel SHADOWS ON THE MOON, which is now a must-read for me.

Honestly, I could tell you good things about almost all of the stories in the collection.  There were a handful that I didn't care for, but there were also two excellent stories and more than half of the stories were good-to-great.  I think that's a good ratio for an anthology.  With THINGS I'LL NEVER SAY, Ann Angel shows great promise as an anthologist as well as an author.

March 26, 2015

Review: Honey Girl

Honey Girl By Lisa Freeman
Available now from Sky Pony Press (Skyhorse)
Review copy

For a book from a small publisher, HONEY GIRL has been getting some strong word of mouth.  It came up in two totally unrelated forums that I frequent and I just knew that I had to read it.  Lesbian surfer girl?  Sign me up!  Of course, the problem with word of mouth is that the message can get a little garbled on the way.

I was sad when I started HONEY GIRL to discover that Nani Nuuhiwa doesn't surf.  She knows how to, but she doesn't, because she wants to be cool.  (And the consequences for being a girl that surfs can be way worse than a little social ostracism.)  I would've thought that the 1970s were more open to girl surfers; after all, Gidget was almost twenty years earlier!  But I do know progress can be slow.  Plus, the setting is so wonderfully done.

Lisa Freeman nails the setting.  HONEY GIRL takes place in a different time and place, one that doesn't exist any more.  It takes place on State Beach, whose denizens must follow any number of unspoken rules in order to be accepted.  Nani, moving to California from Hawaii, takes all the knowledge she learned from the coolest girl at her beach and puts it toward getting in with the locals at State.  It's historical Mean Girls.  Nani can be frustrating, with her dedication to a bunch of rules made mostly to keep girls in line, but it is such a true process.  Sometimes you have to color within the lines to gain social capital.

Nani is afraid of coloring outside the lines, not the least because she likes girls (as well as boys).  She's cool with who she is, but she knows what will happen to her if she comes out.  And maybe it's a moot point, since she falls pretty hard for one of the surfers.  (Even if she falls pretty hard for one of the girls on the beach too.)  She's got enough trouble from being mixed race, especially since her mother wants her to just be white since her father's death.

Nani, in other words, is dealing with a lot.  Her summer is something to behold, as she both comes closer to her original goal and to realizing who she really wants to be.  HONEY GIRL is a coming of age story with an immersive sense of place and a heroine caught between her strong sense of self and the knowledge that who she is inside will never quite fit in.

March 25, 2015

Review: Smek for President!

Smek for President! Sequel to The True Meaning of Smekday (my review)
 By Adam Rex
Available now from Disney-Hyperion
Review copy

SMEK FOR PRESIDENT! is a belated sequel to the much-beloved THE TRUE MEANING OF SMEKDAY.  I don't mind Adam Rex waiting until he had a good idea to write a sequel, although I suspect SMEK FOR PRESIDENT! was partially prompted by the imminent release of Home, Dreamworks' animated adaptation of THE TRUE MEANING OF SMEKDAY.  The movie is mentioned within the book itself as a fictionalized version of Tip's adventures, much like what was done in Meg Cabot's Princess Diaries novels after the release of the movie starring Anne Hathaway.

SMEK FOR PRESIDENT! isn't quite as sharp on the social commentary as the original, although it is the perfect time for an election parody as the US presidential election starts to kick into gear.  The story starts when Tip and J.Lo (a little human girl and her alien friend) head out to New Boovworld for a holiday - without letting Tip's mom know.  What follows is an adventure with the cutest billboard ever (I wish all advertising were so friendly and helpful), time travel, and some rather inept presidential candidates.  One of those candidates is Dan Landry, the man who took credit for Tip's accomplishments.

I loved spending time with Tip, J.Lo, and the rest of the returning cast again.  Rex knows how to write a hilarious adventure that incorporates real-world issues at a perfect level for the rather young audience.  I particularly liked Tip's struggle with the fact that know one knows she saved the Earth.  Yeah, she would've saved it anyway, but who doesn't want a little credit?

If you enjoyed THE TRUE MEANING OF SMEKDAY, don't miss SMEK FOR PRESIDENT!  And definitely don't forget to read the book before going to see the movie.

March 24, 2015

Review: Get in Trouble: Stories

Get in Trouble By Kelly Link
Available now from (Penguin) Random House
Review copy

GET IN TROUBLE: STORIES is a collection of nine stories by Kelly Link, who is perhaps best known for her short stories (beyond even her skills as an anthologist and small publisher).  I'd read two of the stories: "The New Boyfriend" in MONSTROUS AFFECTIONS and "Secret Identity" in Geektastic.  Neither were my favorite story in either anthology.

I feel like GET IN TROUBLE leans hard on the Kelly Link formula.  Her mix of the ordinary and fantastic is nearly unmatched, but much of this collection feels like she's resting on her laurels.  GET IN TROUBLE opens promisingly with "The Summer People," a sharply drawn tale that carefully breaks down both an Appalachian town and an aging estate full of fae.  It hints at danger and dark fates while also focusing on the blooming friendship between two teen girls. 

The second story, "I Can See Right Through You," killed all momentum to me.  It is set through the point of view of the demon lover, an aging movie star who once played a vampire going to see the woman who played his love again.  There's hints of good stuff in the story, but the conceit of calling him the demon lover through the whole story drove me nuts.  Although the story has a pretty juicy payoff, it's not as good as an actual incubus showing up to make the repetitive epithet worth it.

My two favorite stories after "The Summer People" were the final two in the collection.  "Two Houses" takes the classic plot of a bunch of people telling ghost stories to each other and takes it to a predictably meta but chilling place.  I love a good creepy intelligent computer.  "Light" is a story that takes place in a world where most people have a normal shadow, but some have no or two.  It focuses on the main character Lindsey, recently divorced and a recovering alcoholic, and her gay brother who has moved back in with her.  The setting of the story keeps revealing new strange details of this world (perhaps too much for one short story), but it goes down smooth and with no lingering unpleasantness.

I like Link's worth, but GET IN TROUBLE is not an essential collection.  If you're a fan, go ahead and get this one from the library.  Otherwise, stick to the first story (and maybe the last two).

March 23, 2015

Movie Monday Giveaway: Digital Download of The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies

Battle of the Five Armies I don't know about you, but I went to see The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies in theatres.  I'm not sure breaking it into three movies was successful; it felt like there was very little to happen in this movie except for a big battle.  It's action all the time, no rise and fall.

However, it might work better when you watch all three movies together.  And with your own download of the last movie in the trilogy, you can do just that!

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March 20, 2015

Review: Glamourpuss

Glamourpuss By Sarah Weeks
Illustrated by David Small
Available now from Scholastic Press
Review copy

Glamourpuss lives a live of luxury with her doting owners, Mr. and Mrs. Highhorsen.  But when a relative visits with her dog Bluebelle, a chihuahua who does tricks, Glamourpuss starts to doubt that she really knows what glamor is.  After all, the humans seem to like Bluebelle better.

David Small's art, with its stylized lines and watercolors, echoes old-fashioned illustrations that perfectly suit the glamorous feel.  Sarah Weeks' text contains fairly advanced vocabulary, such as devoted and unbridled and descended.  It was too difficult for my niece to read on her own (at least when it was bedtime and she was tired), but the illustrations help show what the words mean.  The book has a lovely rhythm, and I love that it uses a more sophisticated vocabulary.  I prefer that my niece and nephew ask me what words mean instead of not getting exposed to new ones.

The use of a picture of Theda Bara as Cleopatra on the Highhorsens' television works with Small's art to give the setting a vaguely historical feel.  Like Amelia-Bedelia era.
As for the story itself, GLAMOURPUSS has some nice messages about making friends and standing up for who you want to be.  As a Houstonite, I liked that there was a reference to Houston, Texas.  (Hilariously, my nephew asked me if that meant this was a true story.)  I am a bit concerned about the message it sends about class.  The Highhorsens are clearly rich, and Bluebelle is described as "tacky," which definitely has low class/common connotations.  Bluebelle only becomes acceptable once she adopts Glamourpuss's upper-class behavior.  I did emphasize to my niece and nephew that Bluebelle changed because she wanted to, not because Glamourpuss wanted her too.

GLAMOURPUSS is a pretty quick read.  It does have reread value.  There's lots of little details in the art, including Bluebelle joining Glamourpuss on the end papers at the back of the book.  It might be a hard sell to little boys given the pink and glittery cover, but my nephew liked it well enough.  You don't have to be a specific gender to like cats and dogs!

March 19, 2015

Blog Tour Review and Interview: The Infinite by Lori M. Lee

The Infinite Book two of Gates of Thread and Stone series
By Lori M. Lee
Available now from Skyscape (Amazon)
Review copy
Read my review of Gates of Thread and Stone

Last year, I fell in love with GATES OF THREAD AND STONE, the debut novel from Lori M. Lee.  This year I get the privilege of reviewing the sequel, THE INFINITE, and interviewing Lori for the official blog tour.  I loved that THE INFINITE expanded the world of the first book, which consisted of not much more than a single city.  When a messenger visits from across the Wastelands, from a city no one in Ninurta realized existed, Kai's world gets bigger.  Especially as she's one of the envoys sent to help rescue the other city from a monster lizard invasion.

Reev and Avan are really only present at the beginning and end of the book, but their relationships are still very important to Kai and the changes within them hang over the whole of THE INFINITE.  Reev and Kai love each other unconditionally, but she suspects that her brother is hiding something from her.  He also has a tendency to be overprotective, and Kai now knows that she can protect herself.  Avan, meanwhile, is no longer quite himself due to the events at the end of GATES OF THREAD AND STONE.  Kai loves Avan, but neither she nor Avan know whether he is actually the boy she loves.

Lanathrill, the new city, gives Kai some new perspective.  She discovers options she didn't know she had, discovers things she might not've with Reev and Avan hovering over her.  Since the end of the last book, she's lost the ability to use her powers.  I found her surprisingly nonchalant about this, upset but not actively doing anything to regain an integral part of herself.  Especially when it would come in handy on her trip.

I must give Lori props for one of the most horrifying scenes I remember reading lately.  It was visceral, upsetting, and I kept hoping it would turn out to not be as bad as it seemed.  Yet it was.  It's a real turning point in the book, one that made it even easier to get swept into Kai's turbulent world.  THE INFINITE is a pulse-pounding sequel, and I can't wait for the series to grow even more depth in the third book.


Lori M. Lee1. Much of GATES OF THREAD AND STONE and THE INFINITE take place within a single, labyrinthine city: Ninurta. What were some of your inspirations for this city?

Well, the city itself isn’t very labyrinthine. It’s just the East Quarter, the slums of Ninurta, that’s earned that description. The East Quarter is made up of an enormous cube of stacked freight containers that the inhabitants have slowly converted into living spaces, which they’ve dubbed the Labyrinth. That’s where Kai lives. The Labyrinth was inspired by the Walled City in Hong Kong. It was once the most densely populated place in the world until it was demolished some decades ago.

Once I’d established the Labyrinth, the rest of the city came easily, because I asked myself, “In what kind of city would this place exist?”

2. There's been a rising demand for more diversity in children's and YA fiction. What is the importance of diversity in fiction for you?

Diversity is necessary in everything I write, and I’d love to see it more in what I’m reading. Stories should reflect the world around us, which is filled with so many different people and cultures. I also want my children to see themselves reflected in the books they read and the shows they watch. It’s a sign that we’re not nearly where we need to be that my daughter still delightedly goes, “Hey, she’s Asian!” whenever there’s an Asian person on a book cover because it’s so rare.

Gates of Thread and Stone 3. How does it feel to have your second book coming out? Is it more or less nerve-wracking than your debut?

It’s less nerve-wracking in that I know what to expect now. And it’s more nerve-wracking in that I’m worried about disappointing fans of the first book. It’s a haze of anxiety, chocolate, and hot cocoa basically lol. (Yes, I pair chocolate with... more chocolate.)

4. Is there anything you wish you could change about GATES OF THREAD AND STONE after writing the sequel?

I try not to think about things like that lol. Once the book is published, there’s no going back and changing things, so if I do sometimes wish I’d done things differently, I don’t linger on it for long because it doesn’t do me any good. I’m pleased with how the book and the sequel came out, and I hope readers are too.

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March 18, 2015

Review: Trust the Focus

Trust the focus Book one of the In Focus series
By Megan Erickson
Available now from InterMix (Penguin Random House)
Review copy

Justin just graduated from college.  He's going to start working for his mom's political campaign in September, but until then he's going on a road trip with his best friend Landry.  It's not all happy: they're going to spread Justin's father ashes on twelve sites that were important to him.  There's also a catch: Justin has been in love with Landry since high school, but he's still in the closet.

I feel like the closeted story has been fading away as marriage equality and other movements for equal rights for LGBTQ people gain more steam.  But it is still a reality many people face, especially if they don't have supportive families.  Justin planned to tell his parents, but then his dad died, and that was the parent he trusted to be supportive.  His mother is a conservative, and already upset that her divorce affects her family values image.  He's afraid of how she'll react when she learns the truth.  It is a reasonable fear, even if he is a grown up.  He lives with her and is relying on her for a job, after all.  (And sadly, those don't grow on trees.)  TRUST THE FOCUS is a very modern take on a familiar story.

One thing I absolutely love: Justin's interest in photography.  His dad was a father, and always told him to "Trust the focus."  (Title drop!)  Throughout the book Justin takes shots to memorialize the trip and his relationship with Landry.  Too often books tell you that a character has a passion and never shows it.  Justin's photography runs throughout the whole books, and is used to advance the plot in multiple ways.  It also gives a chance for Landry to get a little of his side of the story in, through excerpted blog posts that he writes to go with the photos.

I believed that Landry and Justin felt deeply for each other.  I love that everything initially happens fast after the truth comes out, since they've pined for so long, but that the brakes come on soon after because Landry is understandably upset about being lied to by a friend (when he clearly would've been supportive) and he's not content to be with someone still in the closet.  There's also the issue of Justin's temper, which becomes more and more of an issue.  I liked that Landry didn't put up with Justin saying mean things whenever he got angry.  I also liked that Justin knew he needed to work on a lot of the things making their relationship difficult whether the relationship ended up working out or not.  Being comfortable with himself, not being angry with himself and turning that anger outward, those things are important.

TRUST THE FOCUS is a cute friends-to-lovers story with a touch of angst and many spicy scenes.  New Adult author Megan Erickson does a good job with her first gay romance.  She manages to incorporate the issues gay couples face into the story without making them all that the story is about.  I did wish for a little more Landry sometimes.  Since Justin narrates, he's the more vibrant character.  I did still believe in their happily ever after.

March 17, 2015

Event Report: Lauren Oliver at Blue Willow Bookshop

Lauren Oliver
Last Thursday I had the opportunity to see Lauren Oliver at Blue Willow Bookshop on her tour for VANISHING GIRLS (my review).  Even better, her publicist arranged for me to have a short Q&A with Lauren after her talk and signing.  I'd like to thank Lauren and her driver for working with me on a busy, rainy day!

Much of Lauren's talk was advice to aspiring writers.  She particularly emphasized stretching and exercising one's imagination.  She also shared her struggles with trying to write a narrative where something happens.

I wrote down some of my favorite tidbits:
  • She started writing VANISHING GIRLS right after BEFORE I FALL.
  • When she reads, she gets immersed in the story and can feel like a door slams in her face when it ends.  She tries to keep the doors open when she ends her own books, never finishing off all of the ends.
  • The first novel she tried to finish was basically a Jane Austen retelling set in her high school. 
  • Her lowest moment was considering going to law school.
  • VANISHING GIRLS was partially inspired by the way an element of mystery always remains, even in the most intimate relationships.
  • The structure of VANISHING GIRLS (bringing in photos and blog posts) was inspired by Marisha Pessl's NIGHT FILM (my review).
  • The skinny-dipping incident in VANISHING GIRLS (which she read aloud) was based on her sister doing the same thing.
Vanishing Girls Then Lauren opened it up for the audience to ask questions!  (Although, the night actually opened up with audience interaction.  One of the girls wanted to let Lauren know she was even prettier in person.)
  • The Delirium pilot did not get picked up.  However, Lauren just turned in the Panic screenplay and there's a director interested in Before I Fall.
  • She thinks writer's block comes from two sources: our own mental blocks against doing painful and difficult things and the times when some aspect of a book really needs to change to make it work.
  • She always at least writes bullet points, but her time spent outlining varies.  The longest took her eight months.
  •  Lauren does think love is a disease in some ways, and prefers a stable, happy relationship to infatuation.
  • The ultimate point of life is not being happy.
  • Her next project is a middle-grade series called Curiosity House; the co-creator and illustrator is rather eccentric.
Then I got to ask her some questions on my own!  Now, I grew up at just the right time to be a major Olsen twins fangirl, so I asked her a little more about that, since she mentioned working with them in her note preceding VANISHING GIRLS.  She was an editor on one of their books, and thanked with a big contributor picture in the back.  Once, Ashley showed her her prom dresses.

How it relates, though is the way the twins divided traits between them.  It happens a little in every family, but the Olsen twins were raised in a bubble, with almost constant supervision.  Lauren saw how they really divided the bubble between them.

She feels like she learned structure through editing, and learned to love books in a different way.  It taught her to see the seamless mechanical bits that are embedded within stories.

Before I Fall Since VANISHING GIRLS has a major twist toward the end, one that casts the story in a completely different light, I asked her how she managed to keep it all straight.  She brought her answer back to earlier in the night, when she mentioned she's been writing VANISHING GIRLS since immediately after she finished BEFORE I FALL.  It took a long time, and required her to trust other readers.  However, it wasn't too difficult since she knew what would happen.  The biggest issue was making it a surprise without cheating.  Her early drafts were too obvious.

She thinks all of the genres she writes in and age groups she writes for have their own pleasures and challenges.  Lauren wouldn't write them all if she didn't!  When she gets an idea, the main way she knows whether it is an idea for her or for Paper Lantern Lit is if she hears the character speak about the idea.  With PLL, she knows the idea but not the voice.  However, she has been wrong once.

Lauren works a little on everything every day to write and edit her own stuff, co-run Paper Latern Lit, go on tour, and whatever else she has going on.  It's sometimes hard and overwhelming, but little by little the books get written and the books get edited.  She is endless indebted to her business partner, Lexa Hillyer.

I also got a small peek into the Curiosity House series!  I can't tell you much about H.C. Chester, Lauren's curio-collecting co-creator.  His collection partially inspired the series, so that's a concrete fact that I can share.  But Chester is unfortunately unlisted and unavailable to talk to bloggers, so I can't confirm the crazy things Lauren told me.  I'm sure the end result will be absolutely fascinating.  The first book, THE SHRUNKEN HEAD, comes out later this year on September 29.

March 16, 2015

Interview with Jeff Fleischer (+Contest)

As part of the Zest Books Rockin' Blog Tour, I'm reviewing the book ROCKIN' THE BOAT, giving a copy away, and interviewing the author Jeff Fleischer.  I previously covered author John Grant.

Jeff Fleischer is an author, journalist, and editor who is currently working on a book on climate change that he researched as an Alicia Patterson Fellow in New Zealand.  He's written over two hundred articles for publications such as Mother Jones and Mental_Floss.  ROCKIN' THE BOAT is his first book of nonfiction for teens.


1. Have any revolutionaries inspired you personally?

Several of the people in the book are revolutionaries I always found inspirational. Nelson Mandela's the most obvious one because I remember watching him leave prison and followed his whole second act in life, but also Martin Luther King Jr., Cesar Chavez, Gandhi, Kate Sheppard, and a few of the others.

2. Who did you most regret not getting to include in the book?

If I have to pick just one, I'll say George Johnston, who led the Rum Rebellion in Australia. There were also a lot of people I regret having to leave out who were more influential, but his story would have been fun to write about, and I'm unusually interested in Australian history.  

3. Were you unfamiliar with any of the revolutionaries before researching for ROCKIN' THE BOAT? 

I was at least reasonably familiar with everyone in the book, but there were a few I had to learn a lot more about before writing. For some, like Garibaldi or Arminius, I knew about their revolutionary actions, but didn't know much about their early lives.  

Rockin' the Boat4. The revolutionary profiles are accompanied by terrific pictures. How were those images found? 
The publisher did some research found a round of images we were allowed to use in terms of royalties. I went through them and found a few replacements and made a few suggestions, but the vast majority of the credit goes to the publisher for finding great photos we were able to use.

5. What do you suggest inspired readers of ROCKIN' THE BOAT read (or do) next? 

Hopefully they'll find a few favorites -- or at least a few who are their favorites to read about -- and go read more about them. One of the hardest things about writing a book like this is trying to condense the lives of such accomplished people into a few pages each.
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Blog Tour Review: Rockin' the Boat: 50 Iconic Revolutionaries from Joan of Arc to Malcolm X

Rocking' the Boat By Jeff Fleischer
Available now from Zest Books
Review copy

ROCKIN' THE BOAT: 50 ICONIC REVOLUTIONARIES FROM JOAN OF ARC TO MALCOM X wisely focuses on political revolutionaries.  Or, as the introduction puts it, "everyone here made their biggest impact by influencing (or trying to influence) who was in charge of their homeland or how those in charge treated their people."  Even when you eliminate art, science, and other revolutionaries, it is still a large field to cover.

The fifty people covered in ROCKIN' THE BOAT are profiled in chronological order (from birth year), from Hannibal Barca to Martin Luther King, Jr. The revolutionaries cover all six inhabited continents, and many women are represented, from Cleopatra to Emma Goldman.  Fans of Maggie Stiefvater's The Raven Cycle will get a kick out of the inclusion of Owain Glyndwr.

Each revolutionary is covered in about four pages, with an illustration and a couple of sidebars with interesting facts.  Given that ROCKIN' THE BOAT is a fairly slim volume (224 pages), it would have been nice for one or two more pages on each figure.  (Six pages each would've still been barely over three-hundred pages, fairly modest for most books aimed at teens nowadays.)

I may be an adult, but I still found that some of these iconic revolutionaries were new to me, such as Hone Heke, a Maori leader.  I know very little about New Zealand, aside from some vague knowledge about its colonization.  Those four pages gave me much more detail than I already had, plus names of wars, battles, people, and places to let me search for more.

I think ROCKIN' THE BOAT is a decent introduction to a variety of historical figures.  I like that journalist and author Jeff Fleischer included people regarded by history as villains as well as those regarded as heroes.  It helps provide a more balanced view, and invites us to question the division between the perceptions.  I wish it had a bit more depth, but the variety of the people profiles helps make up for it.  It might not have anything new for fans of revolts through the ages, but I'm not sure there are a ton of those hanging around.

Thanks to Zest Books, I have one copy to give away. Come back later today for an interview with the author.
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March 13, 2015

Blog Tour Review: Shadow Scale

Shadow Scale Sequel to Seraphina (my review)
By Rachel Hartman
Available now from Random House BFYR (Penguin Random House)
Review copy

It has been almost three years since I read SERAPHINA.  Rachel Hartman makes the wait for the sequel worth it, but I sure wish that I had had time to reread SERAPHINA before diving into SHADOW SCALE.  I found myself a bit lost at the beginning as I struggled to remember who the characters beyond Orma, Glissenda, Kiggs, Abdo, and Seraphina were. 

SERAPHINA was a mystery with a pretty tight focus.  SHADOW SCALE is a globe-trotting epic adventure.  It dives deeper into who Seraphina is and what her potential could be, while sending her on a journey to find the other half dragons, who might be key to achieving peace in the dragon civil war.  However, an old and powerful enemy is lurking.  I found that the new characters came pretty fast and furious and the book didn't spend as much time with old favorites as I would've liked.  (Orma, for instance, makes little more than a cameo appearance.) 

At the same time, I'm glad SHADOW SCALE wasn't just a retread or indulgence for fans of the first novel.  It goes forth and explores new territory, figuratively as well as literally.  The depth of Hartman's worldbuilding is something to behold.  There's a large range of cultures (including language and religion), which presents issues to Seraphina's ambassadorial mission.  There's also the history of all the countries, illuminated slowly through old manuscripts and the different ways the countries tell the stories of the Saints.

If you want more scheming and plotting than you can shake a stick at, pick up SHADOW SCALE.  (After reading SERAPHINA, natch.)  So many characters after different agendas, and so often with very different ways of seeing the world.  Also, after you read the book, leave a comment so we can discuss just how hard are jaws hit the floor after the romantic revelations.  The romance takes a backseat to the action plot in SHADOW SCALE, but Hartman makes the romantic bits count. 

SHADOW SCALE is a sequel that builds off of the original brilliantly.  Seraphina is friendly and kind, but she still makes missteps when approaching new people.  She's also still learning, and frustrated by, her powers.  She's an absolutely delightful character, and the world around her is a treat to explore.  SERAPHINA and SHADOW SCALE exemplify everything YA fantasy can be. 

March 12, 2015

Review: Vanishing Girls

Vanishing Girls By Lauren Oliver
Available now from HarperCollins
Review copy

Nick and Dara are sisters.  Dara is younger, prettier, and likes to party.  Nick is older, more buttoned up.  But they were still the best of friends until things started getting between them, especially the ways they reacted to their parents' acrimonious divorce and Dara's relationship with the boy next door (and Nick's best friend) Parker.

And then, of course, there was the accident.  The accident that Nick can't remember, and has led to Dara avoiding her.

VANISHING GIRLS has a slow start.  It moves back and forth in time, through direct narration and diary entries, as well as snippets of news blogs.  It can be disorienting (which is quite on purpose, as the climax of the novel proves).  I want to reread VANISHING GIRLS knowing the ending so that I can spot the pieces moving into place, but it didn't entirely grab me at first.

The central mystery brews in the background for a long time.  The biggest news story in the town is the disappearance of Madeline Snow.   Dara and Nick pay about as much attention to it as you would to any big news story, when the pieces start to fall together and Madeline's disappearance turns out to be very pertinent to their lives.  VANISHING GIRLS best trick is hiding the true mystery from the reader until secrets start bursting forth.  It's a terrific use of point of view.

I expect that Lauren Oliver's fans will be thrilled with VANISHING GIRLS.  It's a clever, feminist mystery with a central sister relationship that feels wrenchingly real.  As her author's note says, she's really exploring the way siblings can define themselves in opposition to each other in order to carve out their own space.  I think she succeeded.

While the beginning is a bit rough, I'm glad I kept reading.  Once Dara disappears, the story kicks into full gear and the revelations just keep coming.  The surprisingly bittersweet ending was quite satisfying, and as I said, tempted me to start right back over and see what more I would notice the second time around.

Lauren Oliver will be speaking and signing at Blue Willow Bookshop tonight.

March 10, 2015

Review: Read Between the Lines

Read Between the Lines By Jo Knowles
Available now from Candlewick
Review copy

Each chapter in READ BETWEEN THE LINES follows a different person.  Most of the narrators are in an elective lit class at the high school, but some are more tangential - neighbors, friends, siblings.  The stories aren't in chronological order, although they mostly take place on the same day.  The cast of characters quickly becomes familiar, providing a connection point.

Jo Knowles does a wonderful job of differentiating her large cast of narrators.  Some are foul mouthed and some are embarrassed by how far they go to avoid even thinking bad words.  Some are angry, some are confused, and most of them are hurting in some ways.  I didn't like all of the narrators, but Knowles did a wonderful job of making each of them the star when it was their turn to speak.  I did sometimes regret that READ BETWEEN THE LINES never returned to some narrators, because I wanted to know what happens next. 

READ BETWEEN THE LINES is a very quick read, as well as one that is easy to pick up and put down as needed due to its nature as a series of vignettes.  At the same time, Knowles manages to find impressive depths to her characters during those scenes.  Almost all of them are at flashpoints, trying to figure out who they are and where they're going.  It doesn't feel unnatural that a large group of teenagers are preoccupied with those questions.  It also helps that there's a lot going on besides inner reflection - heart attacks, scams, hit and runs, sexual assault, hoarding, parental abandonment, abuse, sexuality crises, and more are all factors in various stories.

While READ BETWEEN THE LINES feels fairly light, there is quite a bit of heavy content, as the list in the preceding paragraph shows.  I think it is appropriate for younger readers, but there's plenty there for an adult to start a conversation with them about after.  The variety of narrators means that there's someone for almost every reader to identify with, although there could be more diversity.  (There is a gay storyline and a "fat" girl who is clearly no more than ten pounds overweight, but still being shamed for it and struggling with her self image and confidence.)

I enjoyed READ BETWEEN THE LINES.  It is clearly written and smoothly told.  It is fun to put the pieces of different stories together, especially since all of them are entertaining on their own merits.

March 9, 2015

Review: I'm Glad I Did

I'm Glad I Did By Cynthia Weil
Available now from Soho Teen
Review copy

Songwriter Cynthia Weil drew from her own life for her debut novel I'M GLAD I DID.  JJ Green is an aspiring songwriter who gets a job as an assistant at a music publishing company, where she comes to find love, a mystery, and personal success.  The summer of 1963 setting is used well, and the racism of the time is definitely a factor in how the story plays out.

The mystery in I'M GLAD I DID takes awhile to show up.  I knew there was a mystery, so I kept being afraid of who would die.  I was right to be afraid, because it did wrench my heart.  But this is not a dark murder mystery, if you can't tell by the bright colors on the cover.  Much of it is just about tracking down the truth of the victim's life, honoring who they were and how much they'd managed to overcome and how sad it was that their hopes for the future could no longer be accomplished.

I didn't know there would be a romance at all, but I liked it.  JJ is a strong personality, steadily pursuing her dreams despite her parents' disapproval.  She's young, but she knows what she wants from life and how to work for it.  She's dazzled by her love interest's green eyes, but their relationship really takes off because it is about more than looks, or even their shared interest in music.  Both of them have a passion for doing the right thing, for doing the difficult thing if it is what they believe in.

And the music side of the story gets plenty of attention too.  There's lots of interesting detail about how the music publishing and recording companies worked (and how writers often got screwed out of royalties).  There are references to contemporary artists, including the recently deceased Leslie Gore, and to past giants, especially in the jazz and blues genres.  Weil deftly gives Rosetta Tharpe, Bessie Smith, and other often forgotten women their due.

I'M GLAD I DID is sure to delight music and mystery fans alike.  The historical detail isn't overwhelming, but it is never forgotten.  The story works wonderfully with the setting.  I can see I'M GLAD I DID having a strong appeal for Nancy Drew fans looking for something more complex.

March 6, 2015

Review: Bones and All

Bones and All By Camille DeAngelis
Available March 10 from St. Martin's Press (Macmillan)
Review copy

This is not a just one chapter book; it is a one more chapter book.

I picked it up, meaning to read a couple of chapters before I went out since I was ready early enough that the stores weren't open yet.  And then I just kept reading, because I had been sucked into Maren's world.

Maren's world is just like ours - almost.  But it contains people like Maren in it who eat.  People who eat people, when the right situation presents itself.  Maren eats people who fall for her, who get just a bit too close.  It's why she's moved from place to place with her mother, leaving a wake of missing persons. Her mom, however, has had enough, and now sixteen-year-old Maren is on her own.  The only thing she can think of is to find her father.  Along the way she discovers that she is not the only one, but it's not entirely a relief.  Because many of them are a danger to her, and she to them.

BONES AND ALL is not quite magical realism, because Maren and the others question why they are the way they are and don't accept it as normal.  But it often has that feel, instead of outright fantasy.  The premise is outlandish, and Camille DeAngelis makes no attempts to explain it.  (Nor do I think she should.)  It isn't meant to be realistic though; it is strange and grotesque and downright fascinating, the way DeAngelis writes it.  This is a very sensual sort of horror, unbelievable yet visceral.  The litany of boys Maren has eaten is quite affecting.

What I particularly loved about BONES AND ALL is the way it immersed me in Maren's story, her journey to find a place for someone like her.  I felt for her as she feared what might happen to her if people found out.  I never stopped to think that she deserves to be incarcerated, that she knows what a danger she is to others and takes only the most flimsy of precautions.  (In true fictional monster fashion, she does tend to warn her victims that if they keep going she won't be able to stop.)  I don't mind at all that BONES AND ALL forced me to pay attention to the story and not get hung up on other ways it could have gone.

The ending of BONES AND ALL feels a touch unfinished, but I liked it.  I'm free to imagine what happens next, which is quite good, because it is the sort of story that invites the reader to ponder what it meant, how we're supposed to interpret the shocking things that happen.  (I'll ignore the author's note that says she's a vegan and it means we should think more about what we eat, because seriously?  Way to bring down my good book high.)  BONES AND ALL is a macabre and strangely beautiful read, one that I hope is found by the many readers out there who are inclined to that sort of thing.

March 5, 2015

Review: Infandous

Infandous By Elana K. Arnold
Available now from Carolrhoda (Lerner)
Review copy

INFANDOUS is frustrating to me because it is almost a great book.  It has a terrific narrator, Sephora Golding, who is unaware of just how unreliable she is.  She's preoccupied with fairytales and myths, stories of women and sexuality and the terrible things that can happen.  She's preoccupied with her mother's sexuality.  She claims to be totally cool with her mom being gorgeous and desired and dating, but she's uncomfortable with her mom's newest beau, who is only twenty five and closer to Sephora's age.

Part of her preoccupation is something that happened not long ago.  This is revealed early in the book, but you may want to skip it if you hate knowing any details.  Sephora was picked up on the beach by a fortysomething man named Felix.  She told him she was nineteen and in college and she thought he was amazing in bed, better than anyone else she'd ever slept with.  But there's a reason for statutory rape laws.  Sephora isn't really sure how she feels about what happened.  She's only sixteen in reality, and Felix keeps calling even though she's never answered in months.  It's a complex, thorny situation that Sephora can only think about indirectly.  And then there is a ludicrous soap opera reveal that Sephora never really reacts to with any strong emotion.

But INFANDOUS isn't all sex.  There's also Sephora's art, mostly sculptures she makes out of found objects and then photographs with interesting shadows.  There's her relationship with Jeremy, her mom's boyfriend, who gets her a job and is pretty supportive, all things being said.  There's also a detour with her richer aunt and cousins.  (Sephora calls her and her mother broke and poor, but it's fairly obvious that they're just lower middle class.)

I liked the tales Elana K. Arnold retold between chapters of INFANDOUS.  I like how the different strands of the story wove together, all held together by the things Sephora doesn't say and how she's too young to know that she's got a big blindspot about her own insight.  But I felt like the story just got goofy and ended.  I think it needed to cook a little longer.

March 4, 2015

Review: Rose and the Silver Ghost

Rose and the Silver Ghost Book four of the Rose series (my reviews)
By Holly Webb
Available now from Sourcebooks Jabberwocky
Review copy

In the final novel of the Rose series, Holly Webb brings Rose's parentage to light through a mysterious mirror, a dangerous gang, and two loyal women.  There's still war brewing on the horizon, but it is mostly an afterthought, something the grown-ups are focusing on while Rose and her friends chase the truth and run straight into danger.  But the kids will be drawn back in before the end.

I thought ROSE AND THE SILVER GHOST was a wonderful end to the series.  It stays true to the lessons Rose has learned about magic and responsibility.  The events of the novel also force Rose to face the ways she's changed, and that she can never go back to just being a maid.  I'm not entirely happy with the way she was forced to give up the last bits of her earlier identity, but she really isn't that little girl anymore.  ROSE AND THE SILVER GHOST also continues the darker direction that started in the third book, although the story is still appropriate for younger children.  There are some things they might find scary.

I will miss Rose, Freddie, Bella, and Bill.  All four children had distinct, memorable personalities and worked so well together.  Then there was Gus.  I can think of very few books that wouldn't be improved with the addition of a talking cat.  It's just common sense.

I doubt ROSE AND THE SILVER GHOST would be that exciting for anyone who hasn't read the first three books on gone on this journey with Rose.  But these books are short and delightful, so there's no reason not to catch up now that the entire series is available in the US.

March 3, 2015

Review: The Bunker Diary

The Bunker Diary By Kevin Brooks
Available now from Carolrhoda Books (Lerner, USA) and Penguin (UK)
Review copy
Carnegie Medal Award 2014

It's no secret that I prefer books with happy endings.  But Kevin Brooks has written many books with unhappy endings that I've loved, most especially MARTYN PIG, which I first read way back as a teensy little sixth grader.

THE BUNKER DIARY makes the rest of his books look happy.

At the same time, I find it strangely optimistic.

Linus Weems is a sixteen-year-old runaway who has been on the street for almost half a year when he falls for the oldest trick in the book: helping a disabled man get something into the back of a van.  He wakes up in a bunker with six rooms, six notebooks, six plates, and six cups.  There's water, but no food.  And there are cameras everywhere.  Eventually, there are five other people too.  They don't know why they've been taking or what their captor wants, but they have to try to get out.

What's interesting to me is that as bleak as THE BUNKER DIARY is, there's hints of worse things around the edges.  Linus is the one writing the narrative, but he mostly dismisses the odd interplay he hears between one of the men and the woman who are trapped in the bunker is well.  He focuses mostly on Jenny, the second captive who is a little girl, and Russell, the final captive who is dying without his medication.

It's also interesting that Brooks doesn't have things simply devolve to THE LORD OF THE FLIES level.  Most of the captives don't like each other, but they aren't leaping at the opportunity to hurt each other either.  Perhaps it is because they're being hurt enough by their captor, who sometimes turns off the heat or turns it way up or withholds food or blasts noise through the bunker.  Seriously, this is a dark book about people struggling in a very unpleasant situation.

I'm not surprised that THE BUNKER DIARY winning the Carnegie was controversial.  It has an ending that makes you question whether the book was worth it, whether it was worth reading something so unrelentingly bleak.  I'm leaning toward yes, but I'm not sure I have the answer.

March 2, 2015

Review: Red Queen

Red Queen First in a series
By Victoria Aveyard
Available now from HarperTeen (HarperCollins)
Review copy

RED QUEEN is not a good book, if I'm going to tell the truth.  It's also true that I thought it was insanely fun to read and I want the sequel right now.  The plot basically runs on convenient things happening and the world isn't explored half as much as it could be, but the characters sell it.

The setup of RED QUEEN is fairly simple and familiar.  Mare Barrow is a Red, who are basically normal humans.  When they turn eighteen, if they don't have jobs, they're conscripted to join the army.  Mare steals to survive because she wants her family as well off as they can be before she has to join the army in a few months.  It's fairly believable.  Plenty of countries have mandatory conscription, and the exception for people with jobs offers the populace just enough hope. 

The Silvers, implied to be a different species who invaded (but this is never explored), are on top and each has a superpower of a specific type.  It's also believable that an equal population of people with superpowers could rule over a population of normal people.  It's also believable that the people who are on the bottom still wouldn't be happy about this and would seize chances to rebel.  There's not much depth there, but it's plausible enough that you can go with it.  RED QUEEN is silly, but not stupid.

Mare's life changes when she turns out to have a power despite being a Red.  She finds herself proclaimed a lost princess and engaged to the younger prince, Maven.  Enter the surprisingly tolerable love triangle.  Mare has a best friend back home she'll do anything to save (who is equally loyal to her), but there's no indication that it's romantic.  Hooray for platonic male-female friendships!  Mare is attracted to Cal, the perfect older prince.  She also finds herself falling for Maven as he becomes her ally in the palace - and further. 

Mare does not forget where she came from, or that her people will always be in danger if things stay the way they are.  She sets out to act, to blend in so that she doesn't die needlessly but to still help the rebellion.  She doesn't spend her time swooning over boys' attractiveness, although she might notice them in the moment.  And she romantically favors one option over the other because he seems more sympathetic to her cause, and that's the way to her heart.

RED QUEEN ponders terrorism and propaganda at times, although it generally remains shallow instead of really digging into the ideological costs.  But Mare's voice is appealing and the story moves along at a good pace.  I cared about what happened next to these characters.  It's cliche YA fantasy, but debut author Victoria Aveyard does it well.  I hope that in the sequels she continues to play to her strengths and gather the courage to depart from form more.  I'll definitely read them, especially after that ending.


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