Friday, January 30, 2015

Death Coming Up the Hill

Death Coming Up the Hill Chris Crowe's Death Coming Up the Hill has the potential to be gimmicky: after all, it's written entirely in haiku (976 stanzas--one syllable for each of them 16,592 American soldiers who died in Vietnam), it deals with a boy coming of age in 1968, at the height of the Vietnam war, and his parent's imploding marriage--both of which have the potential for heavy clichés.

Surprisingly enough, despite the format, the book is compulsively readable (I read the entire thing in less than an hour). The haiku is almost effortless--after the first couple of pages, I stopped noticing that the story was in haiku and was drawn, instead, to Ashe's life, to his obsession with the mounting casualties in Vietnam, his growing relationship with his girlfriend, and the truce he tries to negotiate between his parents, an unlikely couple who married only because he was on the way.

In fact, it might be the haiku itself that lends a kind of sparseness and elegance to the prose. I found the story thought-provoking and poignant, and I think it would probably work great in a high school English classroom (or history, for that matter). There were a few places where the sparseness lent itself more to telling than showing--we get a lot more of what's in Ashe's head than fleshed out scenes from his life, though that isn't always a bad thing. And the alignments between his parents' war and the war in Vietnam were sometimes a little too heavily drawn. All told, these are pretty minor critiques for a book that deserves credit for taking an unusual form and crafting it into a powerful story.

Thursday, January 29, 2015

I'll Give You the Sun

I'll Give You the Sun I'd heard a lot of hype about Jandy Nelson's newest book, I'll Give you the Sun, before I picked up a copy, so while I was looking forward to reading it, I was also a little hesitant. I've read too many books that didn't live up to the hype.

But Nelson's book does: it's vivid, powerful, beautifully written.

The story is told from the point of view of two twins, on two different timelines: Noah, at 13, and Jude, three years later. When the story starts in Noah's timeline, Noah is fretting about his increasing distance from Jude, obsessing about getting into the nearby arts academy, and falling in love with the boy next door.

Three years later, when Jude picks up the story, everything has changed. It's Jude, not Noah, who's at the fancy art school. Gone is the pretty, popular girl of the early narrative: Jude hides herself in baggy clothes, stuffs her hair under a hat, and does her best to be invisible. Noah is equally unrecognizable: he no longer creates art, he runs track, and the boy who fiercely resisted any kind of homogeneous impulse now blends in with the crowd. It's clear something has unmade their family, and that mystery is part of what drives the heart of the story.

But what I fell in love with here were the characters, not the plotline. Nelson has the twins so vividly realized that they jump off the page: Noah with his tendency to think of his own life in terms of artistic portraits, his sensitivity to color and emotional resonance. Jude and her adorable collection of superstitions and tendency to talk to her grandmother's ghost. While I didn't love everything the twins did (they both screwed up some pretty major things), I did love them, and it's to Nelson's credit that while the end wraps up fairly neatly, it doesn't feel too simplistic or clichéd--in fact, I was particularly impressed with the emotional wallop of the ending. I don't cry at a lot of books, but this one did it for me.

That said, there's a fair amount of language, sex (some action but lots of talking/thinking about it) and drug use, so it's definitely for more mature teen readers.

Some favorite lines:

"Love does as it undoes. It goes after, with equal tenacity: joy and heartbreak."

"Because who knows? Who knows anything? Who knows who's pulling the strings? Or what is? Or how? Who knows if destiny is just how you tell yourself the story of your life? Another son might not have heard his mother's last words as a prophecy but drug-induced gibberish, forgotten soon after. Another girl might not have told herself a love story about a drawing her brother made. Who knows if Grandma really thought the first daffodils of spring were lucky or if she just wanted to go on walks with me through the woods? Who knows if she even believed in her bible at all or if she just preferred a world where hope and creativity and faith trump reason? Who knows if there are ghosts (sorry, Grandma) or just the living, breathing memories of your loved ones inside you, speaking to you, trying to get your attention by any means necessary? Who knows where the hell Ralph is? (Sorry, Oscar). No one knows.

"So we grapple with the mysteries, each in our own way."

Tuesday, January 27, 2015


Forbidden (Forbidden, #1) Kimberley Griffiths Little's newest novel, Forbidden, is an unusual, evocative historical YA novel. Set in ancient Mesopotamia, the story follows 16-year-old Jayden as her family attempts to cross the desert to their winter oasis after a family tragedy. Still reeling from her loss and  anxious about the dangers of the crossing (particularly as they've been separated from the rest of their tribe), Jayden meets an unusual stranger who needs her family's help. Of course, Jayden is intrigued by the newcomer.

There's just one problem. Jayden is already betrothed. To Horeb, set to become their tribe's leader after his father's death. But Jayden doesn't like or trust Horeb, who has become increasingly shifty and cruel. Adding to this complication is her sister's growing fascination with the goddess temple to Ashtoreth, which goes against everything Jayden's mother and grandmother have taught them. As the novel progresses, Jayden has to figure out what truths are most important to her--and what she will have to sacrifice to stay true to herself.

For me, the setting (cultural and physical) of the novel was one of my favorite parts. I loved The Red Tent back when it came out, and I enjoyed revisiting a world where the women of a tribe had such a lovely, close-knit bond. Looking at some of the history behind belly dancing was also fascinating to me. Little does a nice job evoking the setting--at once harsh and beautiful. I liked, too, that Jayden's issues with her sister were realistic and complicated, how Jayden both loves her sister but struggles to understand her choices. There were a few places in the last half of the novel where the plot swirled quite quickly, and sometimes I struggled to keep pace with the twists, but I'm not sure that is a bad thing! I'm definitely looking forward to seeing how Jayden's story resolves in the rest of the series.

Monday, January 19, 2015

Time of the Fireflies

The Time of the Fireflies Kimberley Griffiths Little's Time of the Fireflies is a charming middle grade story that combines creepy (a weird voodoo doll) with a lovely family saga.

Twelve year old Larissa is struggling with life in the town where her family lived for generations, but where she is a relative newcomer. Sensitive about the scar on her face and worried about her mother's pregnancy (past ones haven't gone well), Larissa is just trying to get through the summer, spending her days helping her parents at the family antique shop. But then a strange girl calls on one of the antique phones in the store (one without a functional wire), and tells her to follow the fireflies.

When a swarm of fireflies surrounds her near the bayou, Larissa follows them across the broken bridge where she got her scar and finds herself miraculously transported into the past, to a time when her great-grandmother was a girl.

But there's a reason she's been drawn to the past, and a family secret that Larissa will have to uncover and heal to save herself, her mother, and her unborn baby sister.

Although I guessed the identity of the unknown caller pretty early on, other elements of the story surprised and charmed me. I particularly liked the glimpses of the past and the way they helped inform Larissa's growing understanding of herself and her place in the world.

Now I need to go check out the companion novels to this!

Friday, January 16, 2015

Cinder and Ella

Cinder & Ella I read Kelly Oram's Cinder and Ella purely for fun, in about two days. It was a quick read and a lot of fun, but after reading I have a few hesitations about the story.

Ella (short for Ellamara, for the heroine of a fictional fantasy series that plays a big role in the novel) has a great relationship with Cinder, a playboy with some connection to Hollywood entertainment industry--but their relationship is purely online. They've never met.

When Ella is horribly injured in a car wreck that kills her mother, she spends eight months recovering before being sent to LA to live with the father who abandoned her, his new wife, and twin step-daughters. Of course by this point, Cinder is pretty sure she's dead, and no one in her father's family is excited to have her. In fact, the step-sisters make her life a living hell at the snotty new prep school she goes to.

But then she reaches out to Cinder and they reestablish their friendship. Unbeknownst to her, Cinder is really actor Brian Oliver, who's been cast to play Cinder in the new theatrical release of the book that made them friends in the first place. Cinder wants to meet her--but things are complicated by a truly witchy girlfriend, who threatens Cinder, his father, and most of all Ella if he doesn't maintain their relationship.

My favorite part was probably Ella's evolving relationship with her father and step-sisters (I actually cried at one point). And I liked that the family issues and Ella's struggle to accept her newly-scarred body added some gravitas to the book--but ultimately, there were some issues I had a hard time accepting.

First, I didn't love Cinder. By the end, his support of Ella made me like him more, but at the beginning, he comes across as a pretty convincing jerk. The love triangle that's introduced felt a little unrealistic--I liked that a nice guy gave Ella confidence, but his open acceptance of her love for someone else felt a little too much. And the conclusion seemed just a little too pat. I also struggled a little with the fact that, while Ella had all these horrible scars, her face was still undamaged and she was clearly very pretty. I would have loved to see Cinder (and everyone else) love a girl whose face was also scarred.

I will say, though, that none of these hesitations kept me from whizzing through the book.

I'm not sure how to categorize this genre-wise. I've seen some NA, since Cinder is 22, but since most of the characters (including Ella) are in high school, it also works as YA.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Signed, Skye Harper

Signed, Skye Harper There are lots of things I loved about Carol Lynch Williams' newest YA novel, Signed, Skye Harper, starting with the voice of the fifteen-year-old protagonist, Winston (a girl, by the way), who loves swimming and a boy  named Steve and her grandmother and trashy Harlequin romances (with titles that made me laugh).

She felt realistic to me as someone still trying to figure out her place in the world--and because of the way the YA/MG division works out, it doesn't feel like we have enough characters in that weird in-between stage. Winston fills this beautifully.

The story, set in the 1970s, begins with a bombshell--a letter from Winston's Mama (who goes by the stage name Skye Harper), who wants Winston and her Nanny to come get her in Las Vegas. The problem: they live in Florida and don't have the money for a cross country trip. But then Nanny gets the wild idea to steal an old friend (and boss)'s brand new motor home, and they set off, oblivious to the stowaway on board (Steve, who coincidentally happens to be Winston's local crush).

I liked Winston's relationship with her Nanny and found her conflicted feelings towards her  mother (who abandoned her at four) to be utterly believable. The plot itself is pretty thin--aside from the basic premise, a lot of the action is more emotional than plot-driven. I didn't mind so much, because I enjoyed Winston's point of view, and the short chapters kept things moving.

Things I didn't love: I'm still not sure about the ending, and I didn't love Steve. I had a hard time buying his appeal--I wasn't ever convinced that his affection for Winston was more than physical attraction (here's a fifteen-year-old boy who's had three serious girlfriends, appears to be somewhat experienced sexually, and is smoking marijuana the first time we meet him). I guess I wanted someone with a little more sweetness and naivety to match Winston's inexperience.

Monday, January 12, 2015

The Scandalous Sisterhood of Prickwillow Place

The Scandalous Sisterhood of Prickwillow Place Julie Berry's newest novel, The Scandalous Sisterhood of Prickwillow Place, is nothing like her previous, All the Truth that's In Me (excepting a historical setting)--which may be a good thing. As moving as that book was, I found this one utterly delightful. It mixes so many of the things I love: a good mystery, Victorian manners, clever girl heroines, and humor.

The seven students at Prickwillow Place, Mrs. Plackett's boarding school for young ladies, are horrified one night at Sunday dinner when their mistress and her ne'er-do-well brother suddenly drop dead at the table of apparent poison. Instead of doing the expected thing--notify the police--the girls decide (at the suggestion of Smooth Kitty) to bury the bodies in the garden and keep up the pretense of their existence so that they don't have to return to their various unhappy home situations. From this point, of course, a wild romp ensues, beginning almost at once when the  neighborhood descends for the surprise birthday party Mrs. Plackett planned for her brother. As the girls try to maintain the façade that their mistress still exists, keep house, negotiate suitors (the older girls appear to be 16-17ish), and solve a mystery, the plot continues to escalate. The premise is wildly implausible, but Berry executes it with such panache that I didn't mind at all.

While some reviewers have complained about the adjectives preceding the girls' names, I found them funny (and a fairly Victorian touch). Smooth Kitty is the clear leader, but I also loved Stout Alice, who was stout of both form and heart, Pocked Louise (a clever young scientist)--even Dour Elinor, with her fascination for all things macabre, had her charm.

The dialogue was witty, the characters interesting (if not always likeable), the situations funny, the bits of romance sweet, and the writing clever. Overall, a terrific middle grade novel. I'm not honestly sure how this appeals to the target 10-14 year old demographic, but I loved it.

Thursday, January 8, 2015

Newt's Emerald

Newt's Emerald For fans of Regency romance--especially Regency with some magic thrown in, ala Caroline Stevermer and Patricia Wrede's Sorcery and Cecilia--this is a fun little romp of a book. However, Newt's Emerald is very different from Garth Nix's other books, so I think it's important to know that going in!

Truthful Newington is looking forward to her upcoming season in London, when the heirloom Newtington Emerald is stolen from her home. Desperate to get it back, Truthful finds herself in London earlier as expected, and forced to disguise herself as a boy (with some magical help from her great-aunt), since many of the places she needs to go in search of the emerald are closed to her as a boy.

There wasn't a whole lot of substance to the story, or to Truthful's growing romance (with, of course, the gentleman who disapproves of her female self but is helping her, disguised as a boy, to recover the emerald). But it was a lot of fun, and it's clear to see Nix's fondness for Georgette Heyer's books in this story. A quick, enjoyable read for fans of Heyer and other magical regencies.

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

IWSG Wednesday: On the Brink

Since the IWSG moderators have asked us to introduce ourselves, here's a little about me: I grew up in Montana and Utah, and after a stint in Pennsylvania, I'm back in southern Utah with my family. I teach English at a local university (my specialization is nineteenth-century women's rhetoric, though I mostly teach composition), and in my spare time I write, read, dream, walk, and generally avoid housework. My husband and I have three kids, ranging from 2-9. I have a pretty good life!

I missed last month's post for a fairly good reason: I was in the middle of trying to decide which offer of representation to accept, and pretty much everything that wasn't agent or family or work related got shunted completely out of my head.

Now, standing at the edge of a new year, I'm both elated and terrified. I decided a long time ago I wanted to do traditional publishing, but one of the downsides is the sometimes lack of control over things. My agent currently has my revised MS and is putting together a submission list--sometime in the next week or so I should be on submission for the first time.

And I have no idea what will happen.

For someone like me, who's a planner and doesn't really like surprises, this kind of not-knowing can be horrifying. But I'm trying to see it less as walking blind and more as an adventure. Anything could happen.

Царський курган 007.jpg

Hopefully "anything" will be something good--a book contract at some point this year. But if not, I've got a shiny new MS that I'm excited about.

And really, I do this for the writing.

Here's to a New Year, new writing goals, and new successes (and profitable failures) for all of us!

Queen of the Tearling

The Queen of the Tearling (The Queen of the Tearling, #1) Erika Johansen's The Queen of the Tearling came highly recommended by someone whose judgment I trust, so I was looking forward to reading it. And while I'm still sorting through my response, I think I liked it more than I loved it.

Kelsea Raleigh has been raised her entire life in a secluded backwoods, preparing for her eventual ascent to the throne. As both her uncle, the Regent, and the neighboring queen of Mortmesne want her dead, she's kept in hiding until she's old enough to assume the throne herself. But first, she has to survive a)getting to the castle and b) her coronation. And though she's surrounded by her queen's guard, both of these objectives are in question for much of the story. Then, if she survives, she faces the monumental task of rebuilding a broke kingdom, all while under the threat of a Mort invasion.

I thought the premise was interesting--though Kelsea's world reads more like high fantasy, it's actually apocalyptic, set several hundred years in the future after The Crossing (I'm still not entirely sure what that was), in New Europe, a world that has largely lost the technology and medical advances of our present time. I would have loved to see more about the premise explained in the book, since I'm still fuzzy on what the Crossing was, and where New Europe is in reference to today's world.

And while it took me a while to like Kelsea (initially, she didn't seem to have much personality), I found I appreciated her quiet confidence, even her insecurities. It's no easy thing to assume a throne that you've been woefully ill-prepared for. Kelsea has lots of book knowledge, but little knowledge of people and no experience with corruption. She reminded me quite a bit of Elysa, in Rae Carson's Girl of Fire and Thorn series (down to the  mystic blue gem that is her heritage).

The pacing of the first part of the book was slow, but I stayed up way too late finishing the last 1/3 or so of the book.

I don't think the book is perfect--there are some logical inconsistencies that other reviewers have pointed out, and I kept being distracted by some of the extraordinary ways blood behaved--but I think it's a good story, full of interesting and complex stakes. I'd like to see where Johansen takes this in the sequel.

Note: I've seen this book categorized as YA, but though Kelsea is 19 in the book, I would only give this to the most mature YA readers--there's a fair amount of language and violence in the book.

Monday, January 5, 2015

The Unhappening of Genesis Lee

 Shallee McArthur's debut novel, The Unhappening of Genesis Lee is a phenomenal book. Well written, fast-paced, intriguing characters, but best of all, a smart world view.

The Unhappening of Genesis LeeIn this near-future society, a group of people with genetically modified memories (the Mementi) have formed their own colony, which is slowly being infiltrated by regular people (Populace). Genesis Lee is Mementi, and stories all of her memories in beads. She's pretty content with her life, hanging out with friends and practicing her dance, until her best friend's memories are stolen by the Link thief who is terrorizing the Mementi population. When Gena runs into a cute Populace boy who claims to know her, but who she doesn't remember, things get serious. Because Gena has never forgotten anything. Ever. But to stop the thief, she's going to need his help.

I thought the book had a nice balance of Gena's own internal conflicts with forgetting and the external tension rising between the Mementi and Populace. The story had some cool twists, but my favorite parts were the relationships. I liked how things were complicated: her relationship with Kalan and other Populace, her relationship with her best friend (who's forgotten the last two years of their relationship), and with her family. And I was so impressed with how smart the book was--I've done some research in memory studies (mostly in terms of collective memory, rather than physiological memory), and it was clear to me that McArthur knows her stuff.

A great read for fans of light sci-fi.