August 21, 2017

Just For Fun: An Eclipse Reading List

Solar corona of 1893 eclipse from Popular Science Vol. 60
Honestly, there really is no running theme to these books other than they feature astronomical bodies in the titles, but is there ever a bad time for a book list? I don't think so. They also happen to be books Tanita and/or I enjoyed and reviewed here on the blog. If you're looking for some eclipse-worthy reading, put on your special dork, I mean dark, glasses and check these out! Meanwhile, I'll be in a car, probably stuck in traffic, driving up through Oregon hoping to witness the real deal...

In no particular order:

Every Soul a Star by Wendy Mass (MG fiction; this one is actually about a solar eclipse!)
Black Hole Sun, Invisible Sun, and Shadow on the Sun by David Macinnis Gill (action-packed sci-fi)
I'll Give You the Sun by Jandy Nelson (nothing whatsoever to do with eclipses that I remember)
The Midnighters trilogy by Scott Westerfeld (a good, scary read)
Horizon by Patti Larsen (more sci-fi)
Sunbolt by Intisar Khanani (wonderful indie fantasy)
The Cloud Roads by Martha Wells (cool YA shapeshifting fantasy)
Jumping Off the Planet by David Gerrold (wicked cool overlooked sci-fi)
Under the Dusty Moon by Suzanne Sutherland (girl's mom in a band)
The Shade of the Moon by Susan Beth Pfeffer (4th book of Life As We Knew It)
Shadows on the Moon by Zoe Marriott (Asian-American themed fantasy)
Under a Blood Red Moon by Lu Sylvan (pirate apprentices novella)
Moon Over Manifest by Clare Vanderpool (MG historical fiction)
The White Road of the Moon by Rachel Neumeier (fantasy and friendship)
Tiger Moon by Antonia Michaelis (South Asian fairytale themes)
The Chaos of Stars by Kiersten White (modern-day Egyptian gods)
Mirror in the Sky by Aditi Khorana (a message from space!)
Airborn by Kenneth Oppel (airships)

August 16, 2017


SFF is ...changing. Long the bastion of men, especially white men, the genre's stories and boundaries are at last making room for a greater variety of voices and points of view. 2017 has been a particular great year for that in our corner of the woods with FIYAH Lit Magazine, showcasing African American SFF; Comic Con this summer celebrated more diverse characters in comic books and films, including a superb Muslim crimefighter; the Star Trek TV series franchise is being resurrected with black and Asian female crew members, as well as the usual undefined aliens; and of course, everyone is still vibrating over the Star Wars beloved General Leia and the new strong female leads in that world. All of this means that when we had the opportunity to read the New Voices in Fantasy Anthology, we both jumped at the chance.

New Voices is not a YA anthology, although there are contributors who write for YA and MG lit included, but we wanted to look it over anyway, because we strongly support diverse voices in science fiction and fantasy. So, without further ado:

Welcome to another edition of In Tandem, the read-and-review blog series where both A.F. and I give on-the-spot commentary as we read and blog a book together. (Feel free to guess which of us is the yellow owl and which of us is purple ...who's driving this bike??)
We are...
Two writers,
     & Two readers,
            Exploring one book...

In Tandem.

What would you do if a tornado wanted you to be its Valentine? Or if a haunted spacesuit banged on your door? When is the ideal time to turn into a tiger? Would you post a supernatural portal on Craigslist? In these nineteen stories, the enfants terribles of fantasy have entered the building—in this case, a love-starved, ambulatory skyscraper. The New Voices of Fantasy tethers some of the fastest-rising talents of the last five years, including Sofia Samatar, Maria Dahvana Headley, Max Gladstone, Alyssa Wong, Usman T. Malik, Brooke Bolander, E. Lily Yu, Ben Loory, Ursula Vernon, and more. Their tales were hand-picked by the legendary Peter S. Beagle (The Last Unicorn) and genre expert Jacob Weisman (The Treasury of the Fantastic). So go ahead, join the Communist revolution of the honeybees. The new kids got your back.

“This anthology represents some of the most exciting and interesting work in the fantasy field today, and anyone interested in the genre should read it immediately.” —Booklist ♦ “...a valuable snapshot of SF/F’s newest generation of writers.” —Publishers Weekly ♦ “A stellar anthology that proves not only that fantasy is alive and well, but that it will be for years to come.” —Kirkus
We received copies of this book courtesy of the publishing company, via NetGalley. You can find THE NEW VOICES OF FANTASY edited by Peter S. Beagle & Jacob Weisman at an online e-tailer, or at a real life, independent bookstore near you!

tanita: I don't know why, but I love, love, love anthologies. Maybe it's the little snippets of someone's work, which gives me a jumping-off point to getting to know them as a writer. Maybe it's the reality that sometimes, I don't have mental bandwidth for a long novel, but there's always time for a story. Maybe it's just that I have attention deficits. I enjoy how some stories turn out to be favorites, and others, not so much, which is always my experience - which makes even reading something I'm not sure I like A Good Thing. You were remarking the other day how hard it is to read them sometimes, though. I agree... this was both fun, and really hard!

sarah: I guess any "new voices" type of thing is going to be highly varied. It's hard for me to do more than a few stories a day... Is it weird that I find short stories require more stamina in a way than novels?
tanita: No, no - not at all. I had to put this down and come back to it repeatedly. For me, the issue with anthologies, where there are rich, fully realized stories is that I can't change lanes that fast. The finned Chevy of my imagination is hurtling down the dark freeway, weird sights blurring as I fly by... and then the story ...ends. I have to find where the car went and turn it around before I can start something new.

The stories featured in this collection were were fully realized, fully populated little worlds we spent time in. Which one was your favorite? Or, which two, probably, that you're having a hard time picking between?
sarah: I have to admit, I'm kind of a sucker for selkie stories--for anything based on myth, really--and so I think my favorite of the bunch is Sofia Samatar's "Selkie Stories Are for Losers." It also is a YA-friendly story, and was nominated for several awards. It does such an amazing job of doing what myths do best--they teach us something about ourselves, show us what already exists in our all-too-human hearts that has existed through history and across time. In the same way, the selkie has both a literal and a metaphorical role in Samatar's story.
tanita: Funny - for the selfsame reason, I kind of hate selkie stories; I find them tragically sad, which is why I loved the Samatar's story -- because her character, too, came from a place of where the story of selkies and sentient sea creatures IS traditionally tragic, and so she decided to reject those stories, in a show of bravado, despite that story being HER story. Similar in themes of loss of wildness and freedom was the story of the anarchist bees - and well done to that person for being able to portray a hivemind in a story - and of course, the Jackalope Wives... I am SO here for any Vernon story, anytime. While I had read this particular story before (which kind of detracts from the "new" voices in the title), I'm glad to see her non-kid work find a larger audience.
sarah: I also liked Ursula Vernon's "Jackalope Wives"--not surprisingly. I'm already a fan of her work for young readers (e.g. the Dragonbreath graphic novels). 

Other stories I enjoyed were "Tornado's Siren" by Brooke Bolander for sheer uniqueness of concept; "Left the Century to Sit Unmoved" by Sarah Pinsker for being YA-friendly, very literary, and leaving the reader with intriguing questions; and "Here Be Dragons" by Chris Tarry for having an interesting new take on dragons and dragonslayers.
tanita: There were echoes, in "The One They Took Before," by Kelly Sandoval, of Seanan McGuire's EVERY HEART A DOORWAY trilogy that was really haunting, in combination with the weirdness of Craigslist. But, my favorite of the new-to-me pieces was Max Gladstone's "A Kiss With Teeth," which started off with me feeling pretty unsure of things... In a novel filled with pieces which will appeal to adults and teens alike, this is definitely an adult story. Parents looking back at their lives before becoming part of the Upright Citizens Brigade and remembering when once they were vampire and vampire hunter, when the night was filled with menace and promise and dangerous, obsessive romance... I adored it. I love that story because it's about maturing - and maturity is something you just don't read a whole lot about in speculative fiction, despite the thousand-year-lived vampires and the like that you get in urban fantasy. More often, you get the angst and drama of what happens when people live nearly forever and don't mature, but just... roll into later adulthood, still acting a fool. It was partly side-eyeing those types of stories, and partially celebrating settled, selfless, mature relationships. Which is super rare. Having read that, I'm very much open to finding Gladstone's other work for adults, in a way I wasn't prior to now (although, not going to lie - I have been struck by the wonderful representation on the covers of his books. I mean, look at this!).

sarah: Yes, I enjoyed the "but what happens AFTER?" approach of Gladstone's story--that was something I liked about "Here Be Dragons," too. There are so many tropes in fantasy, and that's not inherently bad, but fantastical creatures like dragons and vampires and werebeasts and whatnot have been done in the same way so many times (hence the trope, I suppose). Bringing a new approach to existing tropes is something that was well done in this anthology as a whole.

tanita: What else stood out to you about this collection in terms of theme or stylistic choices, or anything, really?
sarah: I wanted to just mention how much I enjoyed the variety and risk-taking in terms of form and storytelling approach--there were surprises at every turn, from unusual characters like bees, buildings, and ducks, to unique conceits of form like the how-to guide, Craigslist ad, and anthropological study. I really enjoyed "The Pauper Prince and the Eucalyptus Jinn" by Usman T. Malik for its sweeping, epic, multigenerational look at jinn mythology--great to see something that's not from the well-used Western mold. I'm already a fan of Rushdie, who similarly draws on the history and myth of the Indian Subcontinent, and I'm glad to see more writing in that vein.
tanita: Oh, yes! My main interest in choosing this anthology is that it is aimed at "new voices;" the overarching meaning, in this particular, is not solely stories I haven't yet read from "new" to the field authors, but additionally, nonwhite voices in fantasy, which brings that new vibe to the entire genre. Usman T. Malik allowed us to glimpse both old Lahore, new, busy Lahore, and the mental and physical and spiritual space in between, bridged by the character's life in the West. It was enchanting, in part because the story was about family stories, and how they stretch the truth and what we understand of truth through time. Wouldn't it be lovely, if an aging relative could remember themselves in another time, in their dementia -- and it would all be real? That... in a way would redeem old age and remakes it into something beautiful.

And, in a way, that's what the whole anthology does. Familiar bits of ephemera from our imaginations, from our urban myths and legends, from our cultures and our worlds have been transmuted into something both less familiar and more knowable, both more off-puttingly gross and horrible (and there are some prime bits of horror in this collection - eek), and more charmingly disturbing. This collection runs a good gamut. It's meaty stuff, and could easily be taken along to ease the pain of airports and train rides. It's absorbing and invites the reader to a feast of a thousand different senses. It's not our usual fare here at the Treehouse, but I'm glad we read it.

sarah: Me, too! It definitely fulfills our goal to read widely and diversely, something that we both try to do as much as possible--just not usually at the same time...  In this case, though, a tandem review seemed like a good way to survey the gamut of stories in the anthology--we each responded to different ones, and as a result, hopefully, we were able to do it justice as a collection...and tempt you into picking it up, perhaps.

Thanks for joining us on our latest tandem review journey!

August 14, 2017

Welcome to the 2017 Cybils Awards!

A new Cybils year is already ramping up and getting ready to launch! And with a new year comes a new (well, refreshed) logo with nifty new color scheme. This year I decided to go with a sort of dark-magenta-and-orange, fall-ish look. I'll be helping out again as co-blogger with Melissa Fox of Book Nut, and both Tanita and I will most likely be applying to be judges again as well. It's a lot of work, but it's fun to be able to read a wide variety of worthy titles and try to bring some attention to them via our little corner of the blogiverse.

Stay tuned for the call for judges, and if you want to download the new logo, check this Cybils blog post for various shapes and sizes!

August 10, 2017

Toon Thursday Blast from the Past! Social Media Edition

Social media continues to find new ways of invading our time and brain space and making our lives more complicated and annoying, so I thought I'd bring this old chestnut out of the archives. This really IS never gonna happen!

Have a happy and hopefully productive writing week, everyone!

August 09, 2017


Welcome to another session of Turning Pages!

It is the best of times... it is the worst of times. It is the time of unremitting nonsense. It is the time of sobering reality. It is a time of despair, it is a time for hope. Which means it's a perfect time for this gorgeous, gorgeous book.

Synopsis: Bengali sisters Tara and Sonia Das both want different things - Tara, to finally fit in to her place, Sonia, to have a moment -- a moment -- to herself to breathe, and write and think. With the help of their indulgent father and traditional mother, Tara fulfills her need to blend, first in London, then in the U.S. by calling on her vivid acting skills to inhabit and embody someone else. Sonia escapes to the fire escape with her notebook. Each girl's way of coping and acclimating to being an immigrant means stepping away from what they knew in London, and becoming someone new, even as they defend, in each other, what makes them who they are. Tara relies on her acting skills, as Sonia loses herself in her gifted classes. Family, even one as closely knit as the immigrant Das family has to be, is a sometimes fragile boat, and the expectations and stresses of the desire for a "good life" begin to feel like they're going to swamp it -- but finally as things work out, life in America seems sweeter. They finally live out their nicknames of "Sunny and Star" and have learned from living in Flatbush, have gained experiences and lost prejudices and gone where their parents cannot follow. Meanwhile, after tough times, their parents experience a renewal of their love - and Dad receives the promotion of which he spoke. The family ship remains upright and watertight -- and then, capsizes.

As Sonia and Tara leave home, each trying to rediscover her equilibrium, college brings more challenges and changes. There, they still grapple with who they are, and how they present themselves as both South Asians and Americans, as young woman and feminists. Each girls takes a a different track, which leads them into vastly different directions - one to small stages, then larger ones, then finally, to Mumbai; one straight back to Flatbush. Generations follow, each looking at their culture, language, and traditions with different eyes. When we are old, and when we are young, we are still challenged by how the world sees us, and must grapple with the questions of who we are, and who we want to be. What do we keep, that our families give us? What do we let fade away? What do we change to better suit ourselves? These are the heartfelt, crucial questions and observations the reader is confronted with, through three generations of shared sisterhood, culture, faith, and friendships.

Observations: With a shiny four starred reviews so far, we're very, very pleased to have had a chance to read and review our friend Mitali Perkins' latest book. (Also, Tanita is SUPER STOKED to have won it in a Goodreads giveaway - because THAT NEVER HAPPENS.) The beauty of having a hard copy of this book is the ability to pass it on. It could be given to a young adult -- but also to an older reader; the generational saga is beautifully inclusive. The jacket copy of this book uses the word "timeless," and though the eras and continents are distinctly laid out on the page, there is an element of "everyone"-ness that could make this story about any time, any lineage of women in any culture. It's a gifted rendering of what could be a very personal story - because there seem to be hints of autobiographical storytelling included - into something deeply universal.

I got choked up, laughed aloud, and became vexed with and for various characters at various times. Many teens will relate, both biracial and not -- to feeling pressure from family matriarchs who want their grand babies to be juuuust like them, despite the passage of time and eras. Questions of what beauty is, what womanhood means in feminist contexts and who best embodies these roles are things which the young and old women in this book encounter repeatedly. When Chantal's grandmothers join forces, they become TRULY their best selves. When the American cousin and the Mumbai cousins stop trying to change each other into being more or less immigrant or American, and truly see each other as they are - both, - the Das family remains unstoppable - strong, beautiful, and full of love that radiates to the world. Nosy aunties, scolding mothers, tsking uncles; Catholics, Hindus, atheists and all -- you'll want three generations of Das women to be your family, too.

Conclusion: This, more than anything, is a love story. How we love our sisters. How we love our families. How we love our cultures. How we hold each - and ourselves - lovingly, to a standard that says, 'we must improve. We must expand. We must be better than we were.' This is a love story about how we love those who are like us, and can come to loves those who are unlike us. It is a love story to hope, and the belief that, though we came from some distant then, now that we are here, we can choose to bring the old into the new, and love will ground and equal out the equation. We each of us inherits prejudices and circumstances; through our generations, we each can choose to leave those behind, and walk into a new world.

And I cannot articulate to you just how much I needed to have this book in my hand today.

It is lyrical, poetically beautiful writing, with realistic teen voices. It is a feminist book, about equal rights and inclusiveness without feeling like you're being schooled. Full stop: this is just a really great book, and I hope you have a chance to pick it up. It's worth it.

I received my copy of this book courtesy of the Goodreads Giveaway. You can find YOU BRING THE DISTANT NEAR by Mitali Perkins at an online e-tailer, or at a real life, independent bookstore near you!

August 03, 2017

Thursday Review: THE SPECIAL ONES by Em Bailey

Synopsis: A few years ago I read Em Bailey's earlier novel, Shift (reviewed here), and found it to be a suspenseful page-turning thriller, so I was interested to check out her newest novel: The Special Ones. This one's also a psychological thriller, with a lot of intriguing surprises and plot twists as well as a scary, unhinged villain.

When the story starts, we are immediately plunged into the rather unusual life of narrator Esther. Esther lives in a farmhouse with a younger girl, Felicity, and a slightly older boy, Harry, where their self-sufficient lifestyle has earned them the admiration and, dare I say, worship, of countless internet followers. They are the Special Ones. The only problem is, they can't leave. They can't even do anything outside of their prescribed roles, because he will punish them if they stray. I won't say much more, in order to avoid spoiling the suspense, but as the story unfolds, we find out the answers to critical questions like why are they there? How did they arrive? And, of course, who is he?

Observations: The Special Ones provides an interesting twist on the stuck-in-a-cult type of story; in fact, it is so much more than simply a cult, but I can't give you any more information than that. The suspense is well crafted here: As the author slowly reveals more and more details about the situation Esther is in, the ominous feeling continues to grow until we find out the true danger that she and her companions are in, and it is just as horrible as our imaginations feared it would be. AND THEN IT GETS WORSE! Of course it does.

There was a disorienting narrator switch well into the book that momentarily had me think, no! I don't want to leave Esther's POV now! But rather than being a book of two halves/two narrators, the switch was to introduce alternating viewpoints between Esther and another character, so ultimately the change of perspective wasn't too much of a jolt.

Conclusion: Overall, this book is a very gripping thriller with lots of psychological tension in the first half that translates into action toward the end of the story. It's also got well-rounded, interesting characters who are developed enough to make us care about what happens to them—a trait that is sometimes missing in more plot-driven suspense stories. The characters add a lot of dimension to this one, which is important in a story that asks WHY people make certain choices, and why they do the inexplicable and sometimes terrifying things that they do.

I received my copy of this book courtesy of my library's ebook collection. You can find THE SPECIAL ONES by Em Bailey at an online e-tailer, or at a real life, independent bookstore near you!

July 31, 2017

Monday Review: ONCE AND FOR ALL by Sarah Dessen

Synopsis: Sarah Dessen writes books that make wonderful summer reads, and by that, I don't mean they're "beach books" or chick lit. Rather, they have a dreamlike and immersive quality, delving deeply into relationships and emotions that might otherwise remain fleeting and obscure. They bring us, the readers, out of ourselves, and into someone else's life—into some perhaps relatively brief but still critical defining moment. They are in some ways "quiet" stories, but thought about another way, a moment that defines us is never really quiet. It takes up psychic space and causes internal noise.

In Dessen's latest novel, Once and for All, narrator Louna is in her last summer before starting college, and she's trying to stay busy enough to keep her internal noise at bay. She works for her mother's wedding planner business, along with her mother's best friend William. William serves as a father figure for Louna, since Louna's own father died when she was too young to remember him. Being exposed to the nitty-gritty behind-the-scenes chaos of weddings week after week has given Louna a cynical outlook on love and romance. What's more, her own first love the preceding fall came to a shocking and devastating end, and she's not ready to try again.

Still, life sometimes presents us with opportunities when we least expect them—and in ways we might not immediately recognize. When handsome but incredibly cheeky and annoying Ambrose begins working for her mother over the summer, she sees him as a disruption to her routine. But his laid-back, seemingly careless outlook on life is intriguing, and she realizes that taking a few chances might be just what she needs to move on from her past.

Observations: I always end up reading Sarah Dessen books with no small amount of wistfulness. Her characters seem to have a lot more freedom than I had as a teenager, even an older teenager—an adult sort of freedom that allows them to roam with few consequences, to take part in the working world, to have experiences that I didn't have until I was in college and living on my own.

And yet, what seems like freedom from my perspective is often just a different type of entrapment to her characters. We might envy Louna's ability to party until all hours with her best friend and date with impunity (and certainly, she seems to be 18 and technically an adult, so it isn't out of the realm of believability), but at the same time, sometimes freedom just leads to us making our own traps for ourselves. Like Louna, we can voluntarily put on blinders, making it hard to realize that what we think we are searching for is not what we really need.

Conclusion: Fans of Sarah Dessen will eat up this latest novel, and anyone who is a fan of realistic romance fiction and/or family and coming-of-age stories will want to check this one out, too. It would also make a good crossover or new adult book, due to the age of the protagonist.

I received my copy of this book courtesy of my library's ebook collection. You can find Once and for All by Sarah Dessen at an online e-tailer, or at a real life, independent bookstore near you!

July 25, 2017


Welcome to another session of Turning Pages!

If you ever wanted to read Jane Austen's books with a male lead... you might have to pick up this book. Austen's books are quiet routs of Victorian era manners; this is a rather noisier affair poking holes in the idea of the staid or wholesome English boy, making his way in the big world via The Grand Tour...

Synopsis: Henry Montague is a hot mess, really. He's privileged and the son of the Lord of Standards and Manners practically - frequently lectured, with fierce physical punishments to back up the cutting words - but this only spreads out the veneer of rakishness further and thicker. Henry is a good time boy, always laughing, drinking, smirking, and hitting on anyone with a pulse. It's his last hurrah, however; his bestie, Percy is off to law school after this Grand Tour they're embarking on. Felicity, Henry's sister, will be "finished" and ladyfied at her school, and Henry himself will be working side-by-side with his father, running the estate... all of which sounds like a living death, frankly. So, it's time to have fun, fun, fun 'til Papa takes his freedom away.

Henry is reckless - and sometimes stupid - with drink, with terror, with pain. He makes the worst choices, about people about money, and about his various vices. With some deliberate nudging, soon their Grand Tour goes grandly off the rails. They lose the minder Papa Montague sends along with them... and then the trip really begins. Unfortunately, this is still Henry we're talking about, so it's not all fun and games - highwaymen, robbery, dodgy conveyances and dodgier people mean their trip careens from bad to worse. As a manhunt gets underway across the continent for them, Henry has one more awful, heart-stopping surprise. Percy, Henry's darling best friend, reveals a truth and Henry realizes he doesn't know him that well after all.

Broken-heartd, terrified, and determined to wrest something good from this journey before his life ends, Henry pushes onward. Persistence - and a whole lot of pigheaded stubbornness has this gamer gambling at last to find the best answers to the biggest questions in his life, to help a friend, and to find his happy ending.

Observations: I delighted in my first introduction to The Grand Tour years ago in Sorcery and Cecelia by Caroline Stevemer and Patricia Wrede, followed by The sequel, The Grand Tour: Or, The Purloined Coronation Regalia. It was a story of two closely sheltered young ladies discovering the large grand world, and it was a lot of Regency with pixie dust.

This is not that book.

... rather than a sheltered Englishman seeing the world for the first time, Henry is a jaded... jade. The boy is a tightly wrapped bundle of neuroses and emotions pinging all over the place, a boiling stew of hormones and appetites. He's likely rather a more realistic illustration of young manhood (READ: rakishness), but I found his privilege and ignorance somewhat exhausting. If you love Regency novels and adore the reformed rake trope, this will work out well for you. Henry's vices sometimes overwhelm his virtues, but there is truly a tender love story going on, true diamonds amongst the glitter and the paste... which is a good thing, or many readers would have drop-kicked him.

Henry is queer as well as being young, so his confusion is multiplied. Percy is half Barbadian, and I found it interesting that he's described as having skin the color of sandalwood and ungovernable hair, but that's it - he seems to face no prejudice or scrutiny on the continent - at least not for being browner than is fashionable. As there were quite a few persons of African ancestry wandering the British Isles and the Continent all the way from Medieval times, this is wholly accurate, but I did wonder what Henry thought of his being different, since he had an opinion on EVERYTHING. Even Percy seemed rather quiet about himself; I found myself wondering if he ever wondered about the family his father took him away from when he brought him to England then up and died...

With his self-centered, narcissistic, shallow hedonism covering his wounds and poor self-esteem, Henry's a lot of work, and you've got to dig before you get to anything worthwhile with him. Which is true of us all, I guess. But, his sister and his friend don't give up on him, even though he takes them straight into trouble. With combined ingenuity, they take themselves back again - so there's an 'ever after' to look forward to - maybe a hard one, but the right one.

Conclusion:Henry is like a male Emma in Jane Austen's world - frivolous, silly, privileged, very attractive and charismatic, and sometimes dangerously ignorant of the true harm he can cause. But, like Emma, Henry is redeemed through the love - tough and merciful love - of a good friend.

I received my copy of this book courtesy of the public library. You can find all 528 pages of THE GENTLEMAN'S GUIDE TO VICE AND VIRTUE by Mackenzi Lee at an online e-tailer, or at a real life, independent bookstore near you!

July 18, 2017


Welcome to another session of Turning Pages!

Synopsis: Fifteen-year-old Aya has lived in hiding for as long as she can recall - because not to hide is to be caught by the Trackers, to be owned and bred. The census keeps track of girls, polishing and preparing them to be someone's forever wife, as fecundity is a valuable thing. Not every woman can bear children, and not every family is in favor of that kind of life, thus Aya's family are resistors. It doesn't last forever, however. One day, the hunters come and take her, and she is dragged away to the Garden, to be polished as a bride for the Magnates and Merchants. Aya continue her defiance alone -- with a ridiculous flower name the Governess gives her, with scanty outfits and with eyes always on her - weighing, judging, comparing, competing eyes. Aya's not competing to "win" a man, though - she has a sort-of maybe-kind-of friend, but the rest of the girls are sheep she wants nothing to do with. Her noncompliance gets her starved and roughly handled, left out of doors in all weather - but mostly free. She's made a real friend - a wolf pup - and has caught the attention of one of the mute beast handlers who work with the horses. He's trying to help - but Aya knows she can't depend on a man, even one outcaste and mute, even one who is all but invisible to the people at the Garden. Aya can depend on no one but herself... right?

Observations: One of this author's strengths is her worldbuilding; though there's a familiar feeling with this dystopian setting, the level of detail and ...logic in the cause and effect of the politics of the world is strongly plotted. This is one of the author's definitely strengths, and what will make this book a pulse-pounder for dystopian fans.

This book is marketed as THE HANDMAID'S TALE meets BLOOD RED ROAD, and I agree at least on the HANDMAID'S TALE portion, anyway. The commodification of women and the pitched battle of control over their bodies is something which has hovered outside the real of fiction since Margaret Atwood wrote her startling work -- and YA lit has frequently revisited the concept of a lack of control over the young female body. Simmons takes it a step further with the idea of fertility being controlled corporately, and being sold to the highest bidder.

The immediacy of the writing, and the fast pace of the scenes make it a little difficult for the reader to get a grip on details such as the size of the world or how far flung this insanity is with control over women - is it just the equivalent of North America, or the whole world? Are there other places where women have learned how to deal with this madness, or have overturned it? Because Aya grew up free, she never, ever, ever stops fighting for a return to that freedom. Sure, soft beds are nice; sure, good food you don't have to prepare is great -- but nothing extinguishes her desire to be on her own again, and one imagines that surely there are other girls who are so determined. I found myself wishing for a little more from the author on that score.

While there was subtle diversity in the novel, I wished that there could have been more - which is another question which returned me to 'where is this happening, and how widespread?' It seems this is set in a mostly white pseudo-America.

Conclusion:I found it ironic that there is a mythos in this culture that all their troubles began with a bad love triangle. I find myself wondering if the author isn't having a private laugh at the prevalence of love triangles in YA fiction, and this is a warning that they'll bring ruin upon us all! Likely not. ☺ For readers who enjoy the oft-clich├ęd "strong female character" who is digging in and being brave, finding love in unexpected places (There's no insta-love here, which readers will appreciate), and making fast-paced, life-or-death decisions, this book is for you. With strength of conviction Aya digs in to create the future she wants out of the present within her hands - something we could all learn better to do.

I received my copy of this book courtesy of the publisher. After August 2, you can find THE GLASS ARROW by Kristen Simmons at an online e-tailer, or at a real life, independent bookstore near you!

July 17, 2017

Monday Review: DREAMER'S POOL by Juliet Marillier

Synopsis: The Blackthorn & Grim trilogy by Juliet Marillier, which starts with the novel Dreamer's Pool, is not technically a YA trilogy, but readers who already enjoy her books that were specifically written for young adults (such as the Shadowfell trilogy, reviewed here) will definitely enjoy this one. It's got slightly more mature moments, but it makes a great crossover series. Set in a version of medieval Ireland, it's got hints of Celtic mythology and a dash of the fey—but, as always, it's the author's ability to weave a fascinating plot around compelling characters that makes these books truly shine.

When Dreamer's Pool starts, we are plunged into a rather gritty scene as we are introduced to the primary narrator: a young woman who has been imprisoned for the past year in the lockup of sadistic chieftain Mathuin of Laois. At first, we know her only as Lady—the nickname given to her by her fellow prisoner, Grim, who resides in the cell across from hers. And then something miraculous happens: the prison is destroyed, the roof partly collapsed, and she and Grim find themselves…free.

Sort of. The newly released Blackthorn—the new name she gives herself for a new life—is subject to a bargain. A mysterious fey named Conmael has decided to give her another chance, but only on the condition that she defer her desire for murderous revenge on Mathuin for at least seven years. Why, she doesn't know—and Conmael has also forbidden her to go anywhere near Mathuin. Instead, he bids her go to the settlement of Winterfalls and set herself up as a wise woman there, healing the residents, and never refusing to help anyone who asks. The first needy person who shows up in her life happens to be Grim, and so the two become somewhat reluctant companions…and soon, partners in solving the mystery of a bizarre occurrence at an uncanny spot called Dreamer's Pool.

Observations: Throughout the trilogy, we not only see the story through Blackthorn's eyes, we also get the perspective of quiet, stoic Grim, who has a traumatic past of his own. In fact, both Blackthorn and Grim are broken, recovering—something that the author not only gives due attention to but has also researched in terms of PTSD and recovery from trauma. This invests both characters with a wrenching, believable realism, and it makes the whole trilogy stand out from the "fantasy Ireland" genre.

There is also something of the detective duo about Blackthorn and Grim—in each novel, there is a mystery of sorts to be solved, one which our two narrators are uniquely able to address. And, of course, one of my favorite things about having read this trilogy in one big gulp (all three books are currently out and available!) was the ability to follow the character development of both Blackthorn and Grim throughout the three books, which reach a very satisfying conclusion in the final volume, Den of Wolves.

Conclusion: Highly recommended for fans of historical fantasy and stories about British lore—these have some violence and trauma but should be fine for more mature YA readers. Fun fact: the author is an actual member of a Druidic Order! How cool is that?

I received my copy of this book courtesy of my library's ebook collection (book 1) and (books 2 and 3). You can find DREAMER'S POOL, TOWER OF THORNS, and DEN OF WOLVES by Juliet Marillier at an online e-tailer, or at a real life, independent bookstore near you!

July 10, 2017

Monday Review: THE RELUCTANT QUEEN by Sarah Beth Durst

Synopsis: Book 2 in Sarah Beth Durst's Queens of Renthia series is out--The Reluctant Queen--and it's a wonderfully bingeworthy summer read and a highly enjoyable sequel to the first book, The Queen of Blood (reviewed here). If you haven't read that yet, note that this review contains some minor spoilers…also, if you're a fantasy fan, do yourself a favor and go read it!

Okay, then. The Reluctant Queen picks up the story of Daleina after she has become queen of Aratay. Now she is the one tasked with keep the land's bloodthirsty elemental spirits under control. But there's a complication: Queen Daleina is deathly ill, and must find a successor to take her place or the spirits will go on a deadly rampage and destroy her people.

Queen Daleina sends her trusted champions out to find a likely candidate to be her heir, and after a long search they find someone powerful enough to be worthy of training. The problem is, Naelin is married, has two young children, and has NO interest in being anybody's heir or even in using her power at all…

Observations: This is a somewhat unusual and refreshing approach to a fantasy heroine: not someone who is young and untested, ready and willing to prove herself, but instead someone who is older, ornery, and has neither the need nor desire to go off questing. She has to be goaded, coerced, tricked, and even forced into taking on the role, and even when she decides to go for it, she has misgivings. I liked that about this book—it was surprising from the beginning, and there were new surprises at every turn. All of it, of course, takes place in a wondrous setting full of magic and danger of the sort that Durst is so good at.

Conclusion: I am really getting back into my fantasy reading these days, but gravitating toward books with strong, prickly heroines who know their own minds—and this is an excellent example. Highly recommended for older YA and adult readers alike.

I received my copy of this book courtesy of the author/publisher (Thank you!!!). You can find THE RELUCTANT QUEEN by Sarah Beth Durst at an online e-tailer, or at a real life, independent bookstore near you!

July 03, 2017

Call for Presenters: KidLitCon 2017, Hershey, PA

Just popping my head up from my imminent deadline to remind you that the Kidlitosphere Conference has released its official Call for Presenters!

You don't have to put together anything too formal (unless you want to), and any topics related to children's/YA literature, and/or blogging about said literature, are welcome. From the official post:
Repeat visits to past topics are welcome alongside new ideas. A few thoughts—we’ve never talked specifically about historical fiction (is there such a thing as “getting it right?”) or religion (books written for a specific audience, books specifically addressing social and cultural topics related to religion). There’s always room for conversations about class, race, disability, sex. gender, politics, and pictures!
Contact the organizers by August 1 with your ideas, and check out this post for more details. 


Welcome to another session of Turning Pages!

Synopsis:Sophia's moved to Montego Drive in LA with her lawyer father and her gorgeous mother, and her elder sister, Lily, who is going to college. With Montego Drive comes a new housekeeper, the disapproving Mrs. Baylor, and her handsome and much bragged-on son, Nathan. Sophie, going on thirteen next October, is trying to clutch every last day of her and Lily's last summer at home together. Beautiful, brave Lily is going to Spelman in the fall, but before then, she's trying to find her own feet, and branch out a bit from the family. She insists that Sophie branch out, too -- after all, she's going into a new high school, and it's time for her to quit being so odd and bookish, and to get more friends than the little white girl across the street. But, Sophie's happy being Jennifer's best friend, and following where Jennifer leads. It's easier than putting herself forward - after all, there are so many tiny pitfalls to actually admitting to herself that she wants things like to play with the other girls in the neighborhood, the ones who are quick to judge her, and turn their backs, because Sophie is Colored.

This is the rockiest summer in Sophie's memory. Sophie's parents are fighting -- really fighting. Lily wants to go to UC Berkeley, even though the historically Black women's college Spelman is her mother's dream for her. Sophie wants to write a novel, or take the lead in a play, but it doesn't seem like anyone else believes that she can do these things, not even her best friend. But her parents rocky marriage and Sophie's own disappointments abruptly take a backseat to the happenings in downtown Los Angeles. An interaction with the police takes a turn for the violent, and suddenly a neighborhood called Watts is full of rioting, angry Colored people, burning trash and throwing bricks through windows. Racism has landed with an ugly growl into the American conversation, and Sophie's world is unraveling. Is this how things will be, from now on? What does it mean, to be black and American? Is it possible to be those things, and a writer, and a regular girl, too?

Karen English leaves her readers with no easy answers, but takes an honest, heartfelt look at the complex realities of blackness in America.

Observations: IT ALL COMES DOWN TO THIS has an old-fashioned feel to it; English comes across stylistically like the greats from YA's golden age; Paula Danziger, Norma Fox Mazer or Carson McCullers. The book is crammed with details from the time period and Sophie's familial details are also almost overwhelming - which is par for the course for a slice-of-life novel from the golden age of YA lit. Sophie is like any other straight-speaking tween from the 1960's, seriously observing her life and the lives of everyone around her, eavesdropping, listening on phone extensions, snooping through her father's desk and her mother's briefcase, and finding out waaaaay more dirt on everyone than she expected. The vaguely romanticized view of life Sophie is getting comes face to face with baseline microagressions and racism, and she is baffled and vaguely hurt and then slowly but surely learns what real hurt, institutionalized racism, and denial of basic human rights is all about. It is an awakening for both Sophie's and the neighborhoods of Los Angeles; both personal and universal, and part of growing up as a young woman, and, in a broader sense, as a country.

Conclusion: While many YA books portray the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960's as a neatly monolithic lock-stepped march through history and on Washington, the reality is that it was a messy, intensely personal awakening, as black people realigned what they'd been taught about themselves and their place in American society with a new reality of greater visibility and potential equality. While for some, this brave new world seemed suffused with opportunity, for others whose greater privilege had all along afforded them broader respectability among white Americans, this "movement" seemed foolish, dangerous and disturbing. Seen through a twelve-year-old's unflinching point of view, IT ALL COMES DOWN TO THIS tells the story of the jagged truths which break in on one Los Angeles family's smoothly suburban existence the summer of 1965, and strip away the lies about who they believe themselves to be.

I received my copy of this book courtesy of my agent, who thought I'd enjoy it. He was right. After July 11th, you can find IT ALL COMES DOWN TO THIS by Karen English at an online e-tailer, or at a real life, independent bookstore near you!

June 30, 2017


Welcome to another session of Turning Pages!

This bright, cute cover was just one of the reasons I picked up this book; another reason is the author, who is a friend of the blog, and a pretty sterling human being. Solidly in the category of a problem/solution novel for younger middle graders, this book is one of my favorite impulse-picks so far this summer.

Synopsis: Chloe Cho has lived in a very boring small town for most of her elementary school experience. Her father's pet store and her mother's work as an astrophysicist, Chloe feels could have happened anywhere but no, they choose to live in the dullest, most white-bread town, ever. There are no other Asians in their town. Certainly, no other Koreans. It's tiresome to be the only anything - and when Chloe's school gets a new teacher whose last name is Lee, Chloe is beyond excited. Finally, another Korean! Even better, Ms. Lee is open to Chloe exploring her Korean background and doing a Model UN project about South Korea.

Unfortunately, Ms. Lee is the only one who's excited about it. Chloe's parents are not. They would really prefer she concentrate on being American. It's what the Chos are now, right? Americans?

Chloe is desperate not to feel like a fish-out-of-water anymore, and does all she can to learn, on her own, about who she is... but what do you do when you really are nothing like the people around you? How do you cope?

Observations: Okay, I did not see the plot twist in this novel coming. At all. Well done to the people who did the advertising. I was reading along, and said, "Wait, what? WHAT!?" So, that was excellent. Second, I wish that I'd had this novel when I was teaching the fifth grade, because we often talked about the deeper meanings behind the friendships we had, and the identities we had as human beings: as people of color or white people, as child people who were younger or older siblings or adult teachers and friends. This is a book about multiple identities - about having and losing and choosing them. Chloe is trying very hard to align the identity she has inhabited unknowingly with the identity she discovers, and this allows readers to consider the question, how much of who we are is simply who we choose to be?

All of us, school aged or elsewhere in life, have felt stupidly out of step with our peers, but not everyone weathers the realization that they're a square peg, and still comes out a ...shape on the other side, to really drag the metaphor out. ☺ Chloe, as she comes through this difficult time, fails to do so gracefully -- arguing with teachers, feuding with her best friend, and screaming at her parents as she struggles to balance being the Only in her community, and wondering if the love and support and position she's found for herself within the community is entirely false. The very realness of her reaction makes this story relatable to everyone, but I think it's especially relatable to kids who have been adopted or who are of mixed race in an environment where they are in the minority. Sometimes a minority person can wonder, "do people like me because they think that X - whatever is different about me - is cool? or is it truly me in which they're interested?" Chloe struggles with why her best friend actually likes her -- and her best friend has to explicitly explain to her why by leading her back through the situations they've been through together. This is the proof that an unbeliever needs to see that they are loved. More than that, Chloe and Shelley also model strong communication techniques that are the basis of what keep a relationship strong.

Conclusion: There so much I can't tell you about the narrative behind this book because that takes all the fun out of reading the story and discovering it for oneself - but this quiet, snarky, fun little book is a gateway and a bridge to some deeper conversations between adults and kids that a quiet summer afternoon seems the perfect time to delve into.

I received my copy of this book courtesy of the public library. You can find UNIDENTIFIED SUBURBAN OBJECT by Mike Jung at an online e-tailer, or at a real life, independent bookstore near you!

June 27, 2017


Welcome to another session of Turning Pages!

Spin-offs, sequels, retellings. Love it or hate it, there's never a moment when a Jane Austen novel isn't getting some play somewhere, whether with text messages, zombies, or space ships. Funnily, I don't recall who suggested this book (Book Smugglers? Smart B's?) and by the time I came to it in my TBR pile, I'd forgotten why it was suggested... I figured dragons? I was halfway through the book before I recognized it - I blame the sinus infection. If you enjoy novels of repressive Victorian society, manners, and mores; if you adore costume and courting ...if you love Our Jane, this one's for you.

Synopsis: Aliza's grief at the loss of her sister to the vicious talons of gryphons, underscores the reasons Lord Merybourne strained his slender resources to hire a troop of Riders to eradicate them. The farmers and craftspeople of Hart's Run have suffered bitter losses from the Tekari, the Oldkind which are enemies of mankind. Aliza's father's way of dealing with his grief is to immerse himself in Lord Merybourne's estates, and in their management, remaining a loving yet vague presence in the lives of his daughters. Aliza's mother's way of dealing with her grief is to get her children away from Merybourne Manor by any means necessary. The Bentaine purse doesn't stretch to sending all the girls away to finishing school and none of them show a particular bent to be apprenticed in any art, but they're girls, after all. They can marry out. Riders must have noble blood, and the ability to communicate with their Shani - or friends of mankind - Oldkind mounts - some of which are dragons - and their work pays them well and takes them far. Since they're already in Hart's Run to eradicate the nest of gryphons...

Aliza, and her older sister, Angelina, are both amused and troubled by their mother's single-mindedness in marrying off one of her daughters, but at least one of the Riders, Lord Brysney has caught Anjey's fancy. The other Riders are either indifferent or, in the case of the dragon-riding Daired Lord, horrible snobs. Aliza isn't too fussed about one distasteful man. She's a competent herbologist and healer, and there's always something going on in the garden, or with her hobgoblin friends who live there. There also was an Oldkind at Lord Merybourne's party, threatening someone... who? Brysney's sister, Lady Charis, whose loss of her wyvern mount causes her great grief, seems quite willing to be Aliza's friend... sometimes. As Anjey and Brysney become closer, it becomes clear that there is more to the Riders than meets the eye. But, all of the household drama pales in comparison to the earthquakes and oddities going on. The Tekari are rising -- something truly wicked is coming for Hart's Run... and there's nowhere to hide. The Shani, with their Riders are going to have to work their magic, supported by the commoners the Riders may have scorned for any of them to survive.

Observations: I was amused to see this book listed as an historical fantasy... and while I know that it is, and what that means, I also laugh since there's been no time in OUR history, anyway, that people have ridden dragons...! Despite sounding like its set in Victorian times, with the costumes, social stratification, and Lord-ing/Lady-ing, the decision to include green-haired hobgoblins did not extend to human author people of color in this non-noble farming and crafting community. As there were doubtless persons of Asian, South Asian and African ancestry in the Victorian England in which Austen set her original series, it is an unfortunate erasure.

The addition of dragons (and the odd wyvern and bearlike beoryn)to any Austen novel has the potential to enliven it! I won't say "improve," since Austen novels don't really need "improvement," per se. While an examination of the manners and mores of Victorian times doesn't necessarily translate into this fantasy retelling, the observant snark and humor of the narrative find their place in this novel. Aliza doesn't take her mother's machinations very seriously, nor does she suffer unduly from the dislike of the Daried lord. He's just a donkey's bum, no big deal. Mari, rather than being obnoxious, is simply introverted and much more amused by time to herself with a book than dressing and going into society - and the author makes clear that there's nothing wrong with it. Readers will appreciate Aliza's relationship with the lesser Oldkind, as it makes plain the kindness of her personality, that no Shani creature is too small for her consideration, and that muddy hems are a small price to pay for friendship. Her no nonsense dealings with the care of her sister during illness, and her bravery in turning down the offer to learn to kill more Tekari also speak to a girl who knows her own mind, and regardless of what others might believe she should be doing, or how they believe she should be reacting, she will go her own way.

Conclusion: You might indeed be well over Austen retellings, or find the original tale tedious and frustrating. And yes, Aliza's mother still needs a brisk slap, but at least the reasons for her behavior make much more sense this time, and you'll appreciate that Leyda is redeemed and doesn't have to live with her mistake for very long. This novel's brimstone of dragonfire and slash of wyvern's talons breathes adventure into a familiar story, making it more accessible to certain audiences. Magic, adventure, war, and romance, this is one to tuck into your bag to make airport delays something you don't even notice.

I received my copy of this book courtesy of the public library. You can find HEART STONE by Ella Katharine White at an online e-tailer, or at a real life, independent bookstore near you!

June 23, 2017


Welcome to another session of Turning Pages!

Summer 'flu is the pits, the absolute pits, so I'm lucky that, along with my cough drops and wads of tissues, I have a stack of great books.

I was introduced to the work of Rachel Neumeier during the 2016 Cybils, where I was a first-round judge for YA speculative fiction. I was so impressed with her left-of-center tale of a hidden princess, and made a quiet note to myself to seek out more of her work. I was expecting a similar tone to this book, but the feel is entirely different. It starts quietly and then the plot thickens like a good stew. There's a lot going on, as in traditional high fantasy, a journey, a quest, a cast of characters to keep track of, but if you could come to grips with Patrick Rothfuss, Kristin Britain, Brian Sanderson, C.S. Lewis or Tolkien, you'll be in fine shape for this.

Synopsis: Meridy Turiyn was eleven when her mother took the White Road of the Moon into death, and now, at fifteen, her cold, practical Aunt Tarana has apprenticed her to a soap-making washerwoman and is happy to be rid of her. Meridy, with her dark hair and eyes, is the village outcast. Dark-eyed Southerners like Meridy can see the quick dead - ghosts who remained in the real, anchored to the living whose love or hatred keeps them close, and the small, fair and blue-eyed villagers are terrified of them. Perhaps worse, Meridy is educated. She's memorized the classic tales of the God, and poetry; her mind is stuffed with literature and art and all kinds of bits of history. Meridy has always wanted to travel, to see the world, to know, things which her practical aunt deems pointless, and her cousins mock as stupid. Staying in the tiny village where her mother is buried, where she is reviled and feared, was never going to be an option, but now that she's expected to be a washerwoman, it's impossible.

At the prompting of an storytelling ghost, Meridy leaves the tiny village and goes to seek her own way. When a ghost of a boy with a gorgeous ghost-dog directs her to an injured man, Meridy is prickly at their assumption that she can do anything for them, but she does what she can. It turns out to be just enough to embroil her in a mystery. The man and the boy need her for something - but neither will quite explain what, and Meridy doesn't have time to fuss with figuring it out. She's a girl alone on the road, and things are treacherous enough. But the mystery pursues her, putting her in the way of witch kings, ancient sorceries and a 200 year old injustice that is gathering momentum from the past. She's just an over-educated village girl with dark eyes and a tendency to collect ghosts. How is she supposed to save a kingdom?

Observations: This novel stays true to the trope of the "unexceptional loner with hidden depths." Meridy is full of unexpected depths -- really unexpected depths, but her lack of confidence and the chip on her shoulder at first hinder her from fulfilling her role in a game bigger than she can imagine, as forces from long-dead empires rise again. There are the equivalent of cryptic sages and romantically poetic knights -- and Meridy's irritation with the poetic speech and vague hints is a bit of fun. At one point she shrieks, "Can't you speak like a normal person?" Well... actually, no. Welcome to high fantasy, lovey.

High fantasy is not always terribly accessible; the worlds of C.S. Lewis and Tolkien are full of swords and sorcery, but also full of Arthurian Eurocentricism with its talk of white witches and impossibly ectomorphic fey in varying shades of blonde with violet eyes. While a reader doesn't require lookalike protagonists to enjoy a work, consistent erasure of diversity throughout the traditional high fantasy canon has created imaginary worlds which seem to murmur Whites Only. Many times nonwhite readers can feel unwelcome in high fantasy, but Neumeier invites readers to identify with the main character - a black haired, dark-skinned, dark-eyed Southerner. Slightly scrappy, not especially pretty, Meridy has wild dark curls and a vast education that I'd imagine might provoke people to exclaim, "Wow, you're so articulate! The assumption of her ignorance based on her class and coloring is just as insulting to Meridy as it is to those of us in the real world. In a subtle twist, it is only when Meridy sets aside her prickly pride and expectation of rejection and embraces her dark eyes and Southern heritage, it is only then that she can actually help anyone else.

I love the inclusion of faith in this novel. It is not a recognizable denominational faith, necessarily, but much of what Meridy accomplishes is based on faith - in herself, in the purposes of the God, and in those around her.

Conclusion: NB: This is a friendship novel, and does not contain romance.

This novel starts quietly and builds - as all quest/journey novels do. The scene is set very early in the book, with the rules of the world and its magical drawbacks in terms of ghosts, etc., and then, with those concerns taken care of, Meridy begins her evolution as a character Doing Things. Don't give up reading those quiet, detailed beginnings! Especially with this novel, you will be rewarded.

I received my copy of this book courtesy of the public library, our greatest resource. You can find THE WHITE ROAD OF THE MOON by Rachel Neumeier at an online e-tailer, or at a real life, independent bookstore near you!

June 22, 2017

Have You Saved the Date for KidLitCon 2017?

Attention, bloggers! The 2017 Kidlitosphere Conference is going to be held November 3rd and 4th in Hershey, PA! The Land of Chocolate! Who would want to miss that? I don't want to miss it, although I might have to, due to some unforeseen travel this summer that has cleaned out my conference savings. (Don't feel too sorry for me...I'm visiting my husband while he attends a fellowship in Hawaii.)

The call for session proposals is going to be open any day now on the Kidlitosphere website, so start brainstorming. Sessions on diversity are always welcome, along with other topics of interest to kidlit bloggers and blogging writers. And, as always, we'll have some special author guests--see flyer at right!

June 20, 2017


Welcome to another session of Turning Pages!

Happy Summer! It's the bright, shiny time of year when you're supposed to have lots of time to do nothing but read. Bring back those lazy, hazy, crazy school vacation days, right?! Well, if you can't get time off of school - or work - the least you can do is pick up a book that brings you joy, right? This one will. Guaranteed.

Synopsis: Stephen Lawson's life isn't particularly interesting. Back home in Chicago, school, while okay, is just one of those things to put up with. Stephen's been a loner, really; his Mom left them when he was a little guy, and his Dad is a busy chef. Stephan might be alone a lot, but he isn't unloved. He and his Dad are buds, and the frequent letters from his "Chef Nana" prove that. Like most of the Lawson family, Stephen's Nana is indeed a cooking genius who works at a hotel in New York. Her entertaining letters to Stephan are filled with funny stories about the colorful "monsters" for whom she cooks and caters. When Nana dies, Stephan's life changes drastically. First, he and his father attend the service in New York... where he and his father will now be moving, now that Dad is taking over Nana's job. Next, it turns out Dad's part of some kind of knighthood...? Weirdest of all, Stephen learns that Nana hasn't just been amusing him, with her funny stories of fauns and ghouls and vampires and stuff. She's been telling him the truth. There are monsters - really "supernormals" in New York, a hotel full of them, in the New Harmonia Hotel... now Stephen's new home.

But, not everyone is happy for Stephen to settle in...

Stephen's second shock is to discover that his long-lost mother's family is also staying at the hotel. The Baroness - he's related to a baroness!! - has invited him to move in with them, but Stephen is a bit unsettled by that whole family -- and later, by the fact that they're not taking rejection well.

There's a whole lot of Stephen's life that's suddenly much more interesting than he thought!

Observations: Because this thick and juicy novel (a full 407 pages) is a beginner's mystery, I'm not going to be able to talk about it much except in the most general of terms, because readers will want to come to this spoiler-and-clue free. Like the very best of the Harry Potter novels - the first two, in my opinion - there are tons of new-things-per-page, the sorts of amazingly fun details that keep you turning pages, even when you're supposed to a.) be going to bed, b.) be going to work. And while this book is marketed to middle graders, it's an all-ages bit of fun -- great for reading aloud before bedtime, and for sharing. I can imagine the audio version of this will be a hoot as well. This is authors Bond and Rowe's first published attempt at writing together, and they have that rare magic in spades. I foresee this series really going some fun places.

Stephen Lawson is a kid who asks questions, which stands him in good stead. Instead of jumping to anger when an awkward person asks him an awkward question, he asks, "Did you just insult me?" Instead of accepting things the way they are, he asks, "How can I change this?" Stephen is always looking for loopholes, which is a great character trait for someone who is going to end up being a detective. Of course, Stephen didn't know he was going to be a detective, but his loophole sense, his friend Ivan's meticulous observations and preparedness and Sofia's knowledge of social mores and hotel etiquette area all necessary things to make them the best junior supernormal sleuths in the hotel... second only to Ivan's parents, of course. What all three of them possess is the ability to own their mistakes and keep moving. This will, in the long run, keep them friends, and help them solve the mystery.

Conclusion: With charm and humor, this sweet story of a boy embarking on a move -- and discovering some truths about the world he's never known -- begins as comfortably and familiarly as a well-loved blanket. This blanket covers some strange bedfellows, however, and readers will be pleased by the diverse and genuine friendships, odd sidekicks, and amusing inanimates discovered therein - and they'll be waiting eagerly for the additional adventures, too!

I received my copy of this book courtesy of the public library. You can find THE SUPERNORMAL SLEUTHING SERVICE by Gwenda Bond & Christopher Rowe at an online e-tailer, or at a real life, independent bookstore near you!

June 19, 2017

Monday Review: JOURNEY ACROSS THE HIDDEN ISLANDS by Sarah Beth Durst

Synopsis: There are stories that, when they unfold, turn out to be quite different from what you thought when you started reading. Not only does this book qualify as one of those stories—it didn't unfold in quite the way I expected—the journey that the story is about takes twin princesses Ji-Lin and Seika along a very different path than the one they thought they were setting out on.

Raised together for their first eleven years, they have been apart for the past year: Seika in the palace learning how to be the next ruler of the Hidden Islands, and Ji-Lin at the Temple of the Sun, training to be a warrior and her sister's champion. Soon after the story starts, the two sisters are tasked with undertaking the Emperor's Journey in order to renew the bargain between the islanders and their dragon guardian. If they don't, the magical barrier hiding the islands will fail, and they'll be beset by monsters.

When they set off on their flying lion, Alejan, at first everything seems to be going according to plan. They're met by celebratory villagers, and they witness the wonders of their kingdom for the first time ever. But, not long afterward, things start to go awry, and the two-hundred-year-old traditions of their people might not be enough to save them…

Observations: The characters in this are charming, funny, and most of all, they kick butt—especially the princesses. (That's the kind of princess I prefer!) Seika and Ji-Lin each have their own set of distinct strengths—which means they complement one another when they work together, but after a year apart, working together is something they have to work at. I love it that there's room for both swashbuckling and clever diplomacy in this story; what's more, I love it that there are flying lions. Alejan is a character in his own right, and adds a lot of humor, bravery, and delight to their adventure. As always, Durst is amazing at creating unique settings populated by creatures that go beyond the usual fantasy suspects, infused with both whimsy and darkness.

Conclusion: This was a fast-paced adventure that I had trouble putting down—I'm consistently impressed at how well Durst writes for a wide range of ages.

I received my copy of this book courtesy of the author (Thanks, Sarah!!). You can find JOURNEY ACROSS THE HIDDEN ISLANDS by Sarah Beth Durst at an online e-tailer, or at a real life, independent bookstore near you!

June 16, 2017

Turning Pages Reads: PROMISE OF SHADOWS by Justina Ireland

Welcome to another session of Turning Pages!

It's weird to come cold to a book written by someone you know, but this one has been on my list for a long time, and I decided to stop waiting for my turn with the library copy. It's difficult to detail too much about this novel without including spoilers, so this is a bit... vague in some spots, but hopefully this will just encourage you to pick up and give this underrated novel a read.

Synopsis: Zephyr is vaettir - a half-godling, and used to being on the fringes of things. She's not quite human and not quite Harpy. She's familiar enough with the mortal realm to like TV and snacks, and is awful at wielding aether magic and doing any kind of fierce fighting, like a real Aethereal. A total disappointment to her mother, Zephyr has long relied on beloved sister, Whisper to make things work out but that reliance has had its consequences -- for one, their mother's anger, and for another, the disgust of the Harpy Matriarch, who, once Zephyr has failed her Harpy trials once and for all, has no further use for her in the Aerie. Zephry is fine playing human until she finds Whisper dead at the hands of one of the Hera's minor god minions. Whisper dared to love the high Aethereal god, Hermes, and has died for it -- and now Zephry is nearly murdered as well. Instead, she draws on an unknown power to kill... but, how? She's barely a Harpy, and no mere mortal can kill the gods. Though some of the bright gods cried for her immediate death, Zephyr is instead cast down to the Underworld, under the limited "protection" of Hermes, who has sent her to a ditch-digging detail in "crap" weather, while the gods above in the Aethereal High Council plot and stew ...and worry.

Tartarus isn't bad... for an Underworld prison guarded by trigger-happy minotaurs and filled with round-the-clock, pointless ditch-digging and daily literal showers of crap. Worse, even in the pits of Tartarus, Zephyr isn't safe. She's been wise to keep mum about how she pulled off the murder - especially since it was mostly an accident - but an opportunity to escape leads her to more difficult questions: questions as to why a childhood friend has appeared to help her, why some of the major players in the panoply of the gods are interested her, and finally, questions as to why Whisper isn't peacefully waiting for Zephyr in the Elysian Fields as she expected. Even her sister's Afterlife is being manipulated by the gods, and Zephyr is over it. She's is determined to set things right, to save the sister in Afterlife which she could not in mortal life. This, Zephyr feels, will give her life some purpose.

But, Zephyr soon discovers that her life has more purpose than she could have imagined. She's part of a prophesy, the hope of millions... and is meant to save the world.

Observations: As a vaettir outsider, Zephyr contains contradictions. Harpy and human, god and mortal. She both wants, and does not want anything to do with the bright Aethereal high gods; she both wants and doesn't really want the moral life which seems the only course open to her. When she finds out that she has a connection to other power, she both longs to use it, to settle scores and become feared, and she prefers not to use it, because who really wants to sign up to be the hope of the world? What makes Zephyr the most interesting is that she's not all one thing. She's both snarky and sweet, trying desperately to be an ideal Harpy while being a fairly good example of a normal human teen.

In the real world, you can just be how you are. But in the vaettir world you are what your lineage says you are. Gorgon? Well, then you must have snakes for hair and a quick temper. Harpy? You must love killing and hate men. There really isn't a whole lot of room for the truth, just stereotypes.

It's exhausting, always caring about that kind of thing.

And this is probably the most telling bit of inner mind we get from Zephyr which explains the drawbacks of her world. She's a brown-skinned, blue-haired winged beast, which means her limitations and label is shown on her body. But, that's not all there is to Zephyr, to the hated "shadow vaettir" and that's not all there is to anyone. This makes Zephyr such a relatable character, this underrated little moment which looks out at the reader and says, "Yes, I see the world has labelled and underestimated you, too. Zephyr has to change her understanding of who she sees herself to be, as she declares herself the hero her sister needs, and her vaettir need to save them. That kind of image shift doesn't come without work and pain.

There's romance in this novel, but it doesn't overwhelm the storyline by any means. For me, Tallon was someone I wanted to kick a great deal, and amusingly, so does Zephyr. Her hormones are there, but she doesn't let them lead her into stupidity, and it's nice to find a character with a relationship that can wait for better timing.

Conclusion: Fans of Xena and warrior princesses/Wonder Woman in general will find this underrated YA fantasy truly enjoyable. Even if you're not really in the know on Greek mythology - and I am not, thanks to a parochial education - you'll find the action, drama, and emotional development of the characters a fun ride.

I received my copy of this book courtesy of my own purchase. You can find PROMISE OF SHADOWS by Justina Ireland at an online e-tailer, or at a real life, independent bookstore near you!