Thursday, August 30, 2018

Off Book: A BLADE SO BLACK


Summary (via Amazon):


"The first time the Nightmares came, it nearly cost Alice her life. Now she's trained to battle monstrous creatures in the dark dream realm known as Wonderland with magic weapons and hardcore fighting skills. Yet even warriors have a curfew.
Life in real-world Atlanta isn't always so simple, as Alice juggles an overprotective mom, a high-maintenance best friend, and a slipping GPA. Keeping the Nightmares at bay is turning into a full-time job. But when Alice's handsome and mysterious mentor is poisoned, she has to find the antidote by venturing deeper into Wonderland than she’s ever gone before. And she'll need to use everything she's learned in both worlds to keep from losing her head . . . literally.
Debut author L.L. McKinney delivers an action-packed twist on an old classic, full of romance and otherworldly intrigue."

Review:

This is an engaging reimagining of the Alice story, chock-full of fun (and, yes, heartbreaking) elements. There are several wonderful characters to meet, and McKinney smartly introduces the greatly appealing Hatta right from the start, who pulls both Alice and the reader into the adventure of the book. I have soft spots for the book's version of the Dormouse and Alice's friend, whose costume choice for a birthday party, handled subtly by McKinney, KILLED ME. (I don't want to give anything more away, but THE SWEETNESS. IT BREAKS ME.) But in Wonderland, the fierce female characters we meet (and the love stories among them!!! Yes, f/f rep!) take this to the next level. Add in a strong, highly-relatable voice, the Buffy-style issues Alice deals with with her mom and friends, and the final twist, and this is an exciting debut lovers of all things Wonderland will enjoy. Moreover, the connections McKinney makes between the threats in Wonderland and very real threats in our world add a layer of meaning to this book that will make it all the more important to get into the hands of teen readers. And as someone who enjoyed Alice as a child and Buffy as a teen, I can only imagine what this story will mean to young Black readers today. It's an unbirthday present for everyone (unless your birthday is September 25th, then sorry!).


Sunday, May 20, 2018

Off Book: SADIE by Courtney Summers


SUMMARY: (from CourtneySummers.ca)
Sadie hasn't had an easy life. Growing up on her own, she's been raising her sister Mattie in an isolated small town, trying her best to provide a normal life and keep their heads above water. But when Mattie is found dead, Sadie's entire world crumbles. After a somewhat botched police investigation, Sadie is determined to bring her sister's killer to justice and hits the road following a few meager clues to find him. When West McCray―a radio personality working on a segment about forgotten towns in America―overhears Sadie's story at a local gas station, he becomes obsessed with finding the missing girl. He starts his own podcast as he tracks Sadie's journey, trying to figure out what happened, hoping to find her before it's too late. Poised to be the next book you won't be able to stop talking about, Courtney Summers has written the breakout book of her career. Sadie will keep you riveted until the last page.

REVIEW:
I was so excited when I spotted the woman in the red hoodie at YALLWEST. I took a picture with her and therefore earned an ARC from Wednesday Books. (They ran out of copies at the booth and instead mailed me one right away, which was above and beyond!)

Kiersten White (who will always talk up others' books at events, one reason she's amazing) mentioned at the YALLWEST "Thrillers" panel that SADIE is so brilliant. I was looking forward to reading, but also dreading it a little. I'd heard how devastating Summers could be. But she always makes it more than worth it.

The structure of this book is innovative, and impressively pulled off. The podcast is presented as a script, in mostly alternating chapters with regular prose from Sadie's point of view. The format highlights themes of knowing, exploring how people understand and impact each other, and don't, from those they hear about in the news to their closest family. The writing completely drew me in, even as the reality it described was hard to look at. Summers so wholly realizes the world of Sadie, primarily poor Midwestern communities, and never sounds like someone looking in this world from the outside--or looking down at it. The book unflinchingly addresses the truth of girls' lives, but manages to never diminish them into something simply lurid or sensational. The humanity of Sadie and the other girls is a force.

The title character is someone the world ignores but who has a galaxy of love and hate and desire and repression inside her. Sadie says, "I'm dangerous," and that line resonates as you get to know her better and better. I don't even really know how to talk about this book, because Sadie feels so real. I made myself savor the book, holding off on finishing so I could have something to read at the park with my kids, but I still finished in a couple days and her voice just keeps living on inside my head.

This book will hurt, but also remind you of the power of women, which despite all the ways men and the world try to destroy it, is still out there, somewhere, hopefully.

Off Book: CROSSTALK



SUMMARY: (from Penguin Random House)
In the not-too-distant future, a simple outpatient procedure to increase empathy between romantic partners has become all the rage. And Briddey Flannigan is delighted when her boyfriend, Trent, suggests undergoing the operation prior to a marriage proposal—to enjoy better emotional connection and a perfect relationship with complete communication and understanding. But things don’t quite work out as planned, and Briddey finds herself connected to someone else entirely—in a way far beyond what she signed up for.

It is almost more than she can handle—especially when the stress of managing her all-too-eager-to-communicate-at-all-times family is already burdening her brain. But that’s only the beginning. As things go from bad to worse, she begins to see the dark side of too much information, and to realize that love—and communication—are far more complicated than she ever imagined.

REVIEW:
I know I'm a couple years behind, but I really enjoyed this book. When I discovered Willis as a young teacher, I couldn't put her books down and learned to save them for breaks. Willis' books will either delight or destroy you, and I was waiting to savor this one because I knew it would delight me. A week when I had a bad cold seemed the perfect chance to lose myself in her latest romantic comedy.

This book features one of my favorite book covers of all time and a hero who so closely resembles my husband, right down to the name, I was a little spooked. So I may be biased about enjoying this book! But it delivers all the classic overwhelming zaniness of modern life Willis is so adept at, features a satisfying romantic duo, and brings the experience of telepathy to life in vivid detail. If you loved BELLWETHER, TSNOTD, or Willis' lighter short stories, you'll enjoy CROSSTALK.

Off Book: GRIM LOVELIES


SUMMARY: (from Goodreads)
Seventeen-year-old Anouk envies the human world, where people known as Pretties lavish themselves in fast cars, high fashion, and have the freedom to fall in love. But Anouk can never have those things, because she is not really human. Enchanted from animal to human girl and forbidden to venture beyond her familiar Parisian prison, Anouk is a Beastie: destined for a life surrounded by dust bunnies and cinders serving Mada Vittora, the evil witch who spelled her into existence. That is, until one day she finds her mistress murdered in a pool of blood—and Anouk is accused of the crime.

Now, the world she always dreamed of is rife with danger. Pursued through Paris by the underground magical society known as the Haute, Anouk and her fellow Beasties only have three days to find the real killer before the spell keeping them human fades away. If they fail, they will lose the only lives they’ve ever known…but if they succeed, they could be more powerful than anyone ever bargained for.

From New York Times bestselling author Megan Shepherd, Grim Lovelies is an epic and glittering YA fantasy. Prepare to be spellbound by the world of Grim Lovelies, where secrets have been long buried, friends can become enemies, and everything—especially humanity—comes at a price.


REVIEW:
I picked up an ARC of GRIM LOVELIES with a friend at YALLWEST. We'd been eating lunch and chatting with our writing group, and a huge long line had grown on a path nearby. My friend decided she wanted to try to get a copy, as the drop was just about to happen, and we lucked out. We did NOT manage to get a macaron--those ran out just before we reached the front of the line--but did get some nice GRIM LOVELIES swag (lip balm) and some fizzy apple cider in fancy gold cups. 

We had a feeling right away that we had scored a special book. The cover was stunning, and the blurb on the back was enticing. But when I dove into the book a couple days after the festival, I found myself completely swept up by the writing. Megan Shepherd has said the story was somewhat inspired by the idea of the animals turned into a coachman and horses for Cinderella, and there are nice little hints of that in the story, but her book manages to be something completely original while drawing upon and remixing the power of fairy tales.

The stakes are through the roof nearly right away, and the book fully explores the duality of its characters and setting--balancing the magical, less modern world with contemporary Paris and France, following the "Beasties" who struggle to maintain their human forms, and observing the fine yet important line between loving and using someone. Respecting and empowering oneself while navigating relationships among friends and the greater world will appeal to teen readers. 

There were several specific elements I really enjoyed. The goblins which ended up playing an important part were fun and I loved how their fashion sense played into the human world. I want a teacup on a chain like a pocket watch! The found family ended up being highly satisfying, each character offering fun personality. What I was impressed by was how no one character fell into a stereotype--it took time for each to develop. And the main character had a most satisfying arc. Anouk starts out so young and unworldly, and watching her develop and begin to get a taste of her power was wonderful. While the ending of this first book of a duology was dark, as Shepherd is known for, I didn't find it frustrating. I was swept up in the stunning conclusion that is, like the gargoyle Anouk comes across early on in the book, beautiful and ugly all at once. 

Monday, May 7, 2018

Off Book: CITY OF GHOSTS by Victoria Schwab



Summary: (from Scholastic)

Cassidy Blake's parents are The Inspecters, a (somewhat inept) ghost-hunting team. But Cass herself can really see ghosts. In fact, her best friend, Jacob, just happens to be one.

When The Inspecters head to ultra-haunted Edinburgh, Scotland, for their new TV show, Cass and Jacob come along. In Scotland, Cass is surrounded by ghosts, not all of them friendly. Then she meets Lara, a girl who can also see the dead. But Lara tells Cassidy that as an In-betweener, their job is to send ghosts permanently beyond the Veil.

Cass isn't sure about her new mission, but she does know the sinister Red Raven haunting the city doesn't belong in her world. Cassidy's powers will draw her into an epic fight that stretches through the worlds of the living and the dead, in order to save herself.


Review:

I can't BELIEVE I was lucky enough to get a copy of Victoria Schwab's latest, her first middle grade book! Thank you, YALLWEST (I'll also have an ARC review of GRIM LOVELIES coming soon).

I read this the day after YALLWEST and really enjoyed it. I haven't read much middle grade since my daughter started reading too much and too fast for me to keep up reading ahead/with her, but CITY OF GHOSTS reminded me of some of my favorite middle grade from my own childhood. It made me think of my daughter's cousin Sid Fleischman, and his spooky, engaging stories, like The Ghost on Saturday Night.

The story starts off with exciting elements, particularly the ghost best friend, and keeps adding to them, exploring the system of ghost rules Schwab has established, all the while keeping it compelling to the main character, the relatable Cassidy. The book has a satisfying puzzle, but leaves things open for further books in the series, which I think kids will be eager for.

Schwab opens the ARC with a letter and says she likes scary stories, but is afraid of them. I don't think this book is too scary for most kids, but thrilling as it dips into different spooky locales (never with overwhelming description) and rises to a cinematic climax. I think CITY OF GHOSTS will meet the demand of my students who are always looking for more spooky stories.

Young readers will likely also enjoy the references to Harry Potter and explanations of American versus British vocabulary. And the exploration of supportive, if complicated, friendship is stellar. I also liked how the parents are present and a part of the story, something that I've seen readers asking for, rather than another orphaned main character.

The excitement for this ARC being handed out was great, the line very long, and I don't think that those who scored a copy, nor those who read the book when it comes out in August, will be disappointed.

Off Book: ISLAND OF THE MAD by Laurie R King



Summary (from LaurieRKing.com)
A June summer’s evening, on the Sussex Downs, in 1925.  Mary Russell and Sherlock Holmes are strolling across their orchard when the telephone rings: an old friend’s beloved aunt has failed to return following a supervised outing from Bedlam.  After the previous few weeks—with a bloody murder, a terrible loss, and startling revelations about Holmes—Russell is feeling a bit unbalanced herself.  The last thing she wants is to deal with the mad, and yet, she can’t say no.
The Lady Vivian Beaconsfield has spent most of her adult life in one asylum after another, yet she seemed to be improving—or at least, finding a point of balance in her madness.  So why did she disappear?  Did she take the family’s jewels with her, or did someone else?  The Bedlam nurse, perhaps?
The trail leads Russell and Holmes through Bedlam’s stony halls to the warm Venice lagoon, where ethereal beauty is jarred by Mussolini’s Blackshirts, where the gilded Lido set may be tempting a madwoman, and where Cole Porter sits at a piano, playing with ideas…
Review:

I'd just finished another (modern, high school-aged) Holmes adaptation when I received an e-ARC of ISLAND OF THE MAD, so I happily dove into the latest in the series I had discovered as a high schooler myself.

I read the first Russell and Holmes book as a teenager, over a winter break when a personal tragedy had struck my life. Going with Mary Russell on her adventures, the greatest starting over her winter break at Oxford, was a lifeline. Mary was better than me, but similar in ways not many girls were in the few teen girl protagonist books I got my hands on were. Going to see Laurie King at a book signing was the first author event I attended outside of school author visits. These books, therefore, have always held a special place in my heart. I've also enjoyed King's other series, some of which cross over with her Sherlockian exploits.

Each book offers clearly copious historical research, arch humor, and a certain twist, whether it's exploring the romance of Russell and Holmes, shining a light on the darker dealings of the British Empire, or digging into the psychological damage of trauma and addiction. ISLAND OF THE MAD seems to give a vacation to the poor Russell and Holmes, who have been on one grueling adventure after another in the last several books. During their efforts to ascertain the safety of a friend's aunt, they get to enjoy themselves, helping to invent water skiing and Cole Porter lyrics. (In this way it's more in the vein of THE PIRATE KING than some of their darker adventures, though there are heftier themes present as well.)

King's writing is always engaging and utterly readable. I noted down several lines that had me bursting out laughing, as Russell contemplates attacking her boorish dinner companion with a fork and runs through her own feminist thoughts to herself. The dinner with the awful lord is like Facebook with your parents' cousins, except you're hoping the lord will be a murder victim, rather than just blocking the distant family members.

The book delves into downright chilling discussions of fascism taking hold in democratic nations and thugs succeeding and taking power, and the very real implications this has on people's lives, especially queer people and women. In this way King makes this historical book relevant to today's unfortunate political situation as well as providing a cathartic response in the success of Russell and Holmes' and the friends they enlist to help.

I attended a panel at a book festival this weekend and at the "Thrillers" panel someone mentioned Laurie King's method of using a spreadsheet to ensure clues are dropped at a good pace and the characters' lives are fully worked out. The care she takes is evident in the clear presentation of her plots. This book has the bonus fun of (often short) chapters from Holmes' (third person limited) POV, which, ultimately, delightfully intersects with Russell's efforts on the behalf of her friend's relative.

I can't speak specifically to the representation of mental illness--it appears respectful--but as always King brings in positive viewpoints on the reality of life for queer characters living in a less accepting time. This makes King's books some of my favorite historical mysteries. If you haven't read any of King, I do recommend starting with THE BEEKEEPER'S APPRENTICE, but when you do make it through the first few you could skip ahead to ISLAND OF THE MAD for a fun adventure.












Sunday, May 6, 2018

Off Book: BLOOD WATER PAINT



Summary (from Penguin Random House):
Her mother died when she was twelve, and suddenly Artemisia Gentileschi had a stark choice: a life as a nun in a convent or a life grinding pigment for her father’s paint.

She chose paint.

By the time she was seventeen, Artemisia did more than grind pigment. She was one of Rome’s most talented painters, even if no one knew her name. But Rome in 1610 was a city where men took what they wanted from women, and in the aftermath of rape Artemisia faced another terrible choice: a life of silence or a life of truth, no matter the cost. 

He will not consume
my every thought.
I am a painter.
I will paint.

Joy McCullough’s bold novel in verse is a portrait of an artist as a young woman, filled with the soaring highs of creative inspiration and the devastating setbacks of a system built to break her. McCullough weaves Artemisia’s heartbreaking story with the stories of the ancient heroines, Susanna and Judith, who become not only the subjects of two of Artemisia’s most famous paintings but sources of strength as she battles to paint a woman’s timeless truth in the face of unspeakable and all-too-familiar violence. 

I will show you
what a woman can do.

Review: 
Listen: just read this book. You must read this one. (TW for sexual assault is the exception.)
This book truly makes you feel. You feel the messy, misleading, confusing, elating life of the artist. A friend of mine, when I recommended it, balked at reading a novel in verse, but the poetry is simple, sweeping you up in the mind and life of Artemisia. The chapters where Artemisia's mother tells her stories, in prose, seem slower at first, but the mother teaching her daughter how to face this world is so compelling, I found myself enjoying them just as much. Enjoying may the wrong word. Craving perhaps--as I imagined and mourned how women must help each other face the reality of our world, as I anticipated the triumph of the biblical women's stories. This book is searing. I meant to read it all at once but I had to put it down, as my dread grew. For the entire second half I was tearing up. 
The author told this story as a play originally, and I could imagine how powerful the story would be enacted on stage. It holds that kind of magic as a book, the feeling you are witnessing a story, hearing the testimony of women's voices. It's wonderful that as a book so many more can experience Artemisia's story.