Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Cybils Nominations

Tomorrow is the day nominations open for the 2015 Cybils. I am a Round One Panelist this year in the category of MG Realistic Fiction. I thought I would make a list of books I would love to see nominated in my category in case you are looking for inspiration.

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Orbiting Jupiter

I was very much looking forward to Orbiting Jupiter by Gary Schmidt because I generally really enjoy Gary Scmidt's books. After reading the first chapter, I was certain that this one would wreck me emotionally. Possibly more than any other. I wasn't wrong. But I also wasn't right. I was expecting a good sort of emotionally destroyed. A Code Name Verity type of emotionally destroyed. That's not what I got.

Jack lives a quiet sheltered life on his parents' farm in Maine until his family takes in a 14 year old foster kid named Joseph. Joseph became a father at 13 and was sent to a Juvenile Detention Center. Broken and sad, Joseph's one dream is to be reunited with his infant daughter, Jupiter. Jack's life is changed by seeing his school, town, and life in general through Joseph's eyes.

The harsh events of Joseph's life is all too realistic. He is an abused child who was screwed over by the system on pretty much every level imaginable. He is incredibly smart particularly when it comes to Math. He really and truly loved Jupiter's mom and only wants to take care of his baby.

Jack is greatly impacted by the tragedy in Joseph's life. He wants to be his friend and have his back. He stands up for him at school and tries to keep him from getting hurt. He is haunted by the words Joseph speaks during his nightmares at night. The relationship that develops between the two of them is an interesting one. Joseph is not really sure what to do with Jack at first, but he begins to share parts of his life with him and give him advice.

While I found all of the events of Orbiting Jupiter to be incredibly realistic, I can not say the same for the characters. There are far too many perfect people inhabiting this book. And the characters who aren't perfect are horribly cliché in their awfulness. Jack and his parents are amazing, and there are truly amazing foster families in this world. I know. I'm friends with many of  them, but no one is perfect. Everyone has their breaking points and resentments in these situations. That none of them ever came out made it hard to swallow. Then there is Joseph himself who is not responsible for pretty much any of the terrible that has befallen him. He got a girl pregnant. Her parents were displeased. Everything else is not on him. The book goes out of its way to make him a helpless innocent victim of the system. This is particularly annoying given the conclusion of the book. I would say more about why this bothers me, but can't due to spoilers. In the end I found the book to be emotionally manipulative rather than emotive.

I read an ARC provided by the publisher, Clarion Books, via Edelweiss. Orbiting Jupiter goes on sale  October 6th.

Monday, September 28, 2015

Two Books About Teens Used as Pawns in War

Reading the covers for The Scorpion Rules by Erin Bow and The Unquiet by Mikaela Everett, you might not think they would have that much in common. I read them back to back and was surprised to find as many similarities as I did. Both have incredibly different premises and main characters, but there is quite a lot in terms of thematic development that the books share. Given this and that I wasn't motivated to write full reviews on either one of them, I decided to combine them.

The Scorpion Rules takes place in a future world where a climatic shifts caused the world governments to sink into chaos and war over food and water supplies. A clever AI named Talis stepped into this chaos and took over the UN. Now the world lives under the rules Talis has created and each nation's leader must send a Child of Peace to basically be held hostage until they are old enough to rule. If a nation goes to war, the child is executed. The book follows Greta Gustafsen of the Pan-Polar Confederation, the country that controls North America's greatest supply of fresh water. Her country is on the brink of war, and she knows what this means. Greta is prepared to go to her death with questioning dignity until a new hostage named Elián arrives and refuses to cooperate with the established order of things.

My favorite part of The Scorpion Rules were the parts when we got to hear from Talis. I loved his snarky rules and explanations for things. I didn't like the reality of him quite as much his musings though. Greta is a clever, stubborn heroine, and she is laudable. The relationships between all of the children of peace in their cohort are interesting, but there were huge parts of the book that just dragged for me where I wished it would get to where it was going faster. I can't put my finger on exactly why. It may just be that despite loving Erin Bow's writing, this is just not the sort of book I enjoy regularly no matter who is writing it.

The Unquiet is an interesting twist on inter-dimensional science fiction. There are two Earths and on each Earth there is an exact copy of every city, every nation, every person. Each person does not live the exact same life as their counterpart. This is known because contact has been made and for years people regularly video conferenced with their counterpart on the other Earth. But it became known that two of the same thing can not exist forever, and one Earth begins to lose people and crumble. The two Earths disconnect from each other while each tries to figure out what to do next. The Earth on the brink of destruction is only pretending. They have a solution. Slowly they begin infiltrating the other Earth with sleeper soldiers who kill and replace their counterparts and will be in place when the war to see which Earth survives begins. Lira was taken from an orphanage in Paris as a child and moved into the cottages to train to be a sleeper with a large group of other children. After passing a series of tests to prove her ability to problem solve and take another's life, Lira moves into the place of her counterpart and waits the call to go to war.

Lira's voice and story are truly fascinating. She captured my attention and admiration from the start. The relationships among the training Sleepers and how they carry on after leaving the cottages is fascinating. Part of their training is to form no attachments. They are pitted against each other and separated regularly. It is isolating and grueling and yet there are bonds that survive. The one great weakness of this book's narrative is that it is completely devoid of humor. It is a heavy story. Lira has to do some truly terrible things. It could have used something in there to break up the bleakness. And this is how I found myself getting bored with this one, though, again, I think this is more of a problem with me and the genre than the book itself which is eery and captivating.

In both  books teens are being used as pawns in wars and global politics that are beyond their control. They have absolutely no choice in this. All of their choices have been removed and failure to comply with the established order results in horrifying punishments. It was interesting to see how both books look at the inevitable community that results from young people being forced into these situations. There are alliances, wary friendships, some true enduring friendships, and some sex. I really liked the way both novels dealt with the ideas of sexual exploration in these scenarios. Bow's story is a bit more detailed in this as Greta experiences a sexual awakening over the course of her story. Lira is an observer of this in her story, though she does eventually get a romantic element in her story too. Interestingly in both books sex is used as an escape, a small rebellion, one of the few little choices the teens have. Yet the lack of choices the characters are allowed to make extends in to this realm as well. In both books the reproductive rights of the characters are also stolen from them, albeit in different ways.

The Scorpion Rules and The Unquiet have many tropes in common with popular dystopian novels, yet neither are truly dystopias. I keep seeing The Scorpion Rules  described as one, but would argue it's actually post-dystopia. The world has been righted. For the majority of the citizens the system works great. It only sucks if you're the kid of a world leader. There is the same sense of unfairness in both books that we see in dystopias though, and a desire that rises up in the characters to change things and fix it. There is a very realistic look at this though in that in neither book are the characters powerful enough to be the downfall of the systems they're trapped in. They have to actually sort out what their places in their societies will be and look like. They have to figure out how to deal with the hands they've been dealt. I appreciated this, but at the same time it left both stories ending rather hopelessly. For me anyway. Everything was just so bleak at the end of both stories. I did feel as though Lira would get some peace at least. I have mixed up feelings about Greta's ending.

Goodreads now has The Scorpion Rules listed as the first in a series, and I'm kind of disappointed in this because I think it worked well as a stand alone. Why does everything have to be a series????? The Unquiet is definitely a stand-alone. It was stated in the Goodreads synopsis and was a motivating factor in my reading it in the first place.

Both books are excellently well written and explore interesting topics even if I was unable to love either of them wholeheartedly.

I read a copy of The Scorpion Rules provided by the publisher, Margaret McElderry Books, via Edelweiss.

I read a copy of The Unquiet provided by the publisher, Greenwillow Books, via Edelweiss.

Both books are now available for purchase.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

TTT: Books on My Fall TBR

This week's TTT topic: Books on Fall TBR

Books Not Yet Released:

 Books Already Released:

Hopefully I can get all of these in with the reading I'll be doing for Cybils as well!

What are you looking forward to reading this Fall?

Friday, September 18, 2015

I'm a Cybils Judge!

The judges for the 2015 Cybils Awards were announced yesterday. You can see all the judges for every category on the blog here

I will be serving as a Round One judge in MG Realistic Fiction this year. I love being a Round One judge because I get to read so many books. I've found a lot of favorites that I might not have read otherwise this way. This is my first year with MG Realistic and am looking forward to the switch in genres. 

My fellow team members are:

Michael Gettel-Gilmartin from Middle Grade Mafioso

Pamela Groseclose from Tween You & Me

Sarah Sammis from Puss Reboots

Debbie Tanner from TheBook Search

Libertad Thomas from Twinja Book Reviews

Julie Williams from Reading by the Pond

I'm looking forward to working with and getting to know all of these bloggers.

The next big step in the Cybils process is nominations. Start making your list of favorite reads of the past year and get ready to nominate starting October 1! 

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Walk on Earth a Stranger

I loved The Girl of Fire and Thorns trilogy by Rae Carson. There was no way I could pass up a chance to read an ARC of her new book Walk on Earth a Stranger. This is an incredibly different sort of fantasy from her first trilogy. I wasn't really sure if I would like it as much going in as I've never been a huge fan of Gold Rush/Oregon Trail novels, but I LOVED this. Loved loved loved it. Yesterday it was included on the longlist of books for National Book Award for Young People's Literature. It most assuredly deserves to be there.

Lee Westfall has a special ability that must remain a secret. She can sense the whereabouts of gold. If this were discovered, she knows people would want to use and exploit her for their own gain. Lee is content finding what gold she can on her father's claim in Georgia and living a quiet life with her parents. Everything changes when her parents are shot dead by someone they trusted, someone they told her secret to. Knowing she needs to escape, Lee disguises herself as a boy and heads for Independence Missouri where her best friend Jefferson has already gone to join a trip to the California gold mines. As Lee makes her way across the country, she faces harsh conditions and fears for her safety, but she also discovers that the family you choose can be just as special as the family your born with.

Lee is a gold seer which makes this a fantasy yes, but more importantly it is an amazing work of historical fiction. Rae Carson did her research well and pulls absolutely no punches about the difficulties of the journey west. The book is gruesome is some places. There is sickness, there is death, there are unpleasant situations for Lee and her traveling companions around every corner. The harsh realities of the time period are shown. It is in no way glorified or looked at through rose colored glasses. I appreciated how Carson also showed many people's problematic attitudes towards those who were different from them. She had people demonstrate racist attitudes toward Native Americans and slaves, but they were demonstrated as problematic by other characters on the very same page. That is how you do historical authenticity with balance. It is done simply too. By having a diverse cast of characters and showing their reactions and discomfort in these situations, Carson was able to achieve exactly the right tone with this. This is, without a doubt, the best westward expansion novel I've ever read. Part of my dislike for them as a whole is that they never satisfy what I want from one. This one completely satisfied me in every way.

EDITED TO ADD: Following a close reading of the book, Debbie Reese at American Indians in Children's Literature posted a review of the book where she enumerates several ways in which the portrayal of Native Americans is highly problematic. While I was reading, I interpreted some of the instances she discusses very differently BUT my assumptions that I brought to those interpretations were all things implied. Debbie is absolutely right on about how the text presents, and brings more insight to how Native readers will read the text. I'm saddened by the things she points out because it has lowered my opinion of the book as a whole substantially. I think it's important to read her thoughts before you decide to read or purchase this book. End Addition

The plot of the story is mostly the journey itself. The book gets off to a thrilling start with the murders of Lee's parents, and there are several places in her journey west where major events take place. For the most part this is a story of a journey though. There is a lot of traveling. Maps are looked at. Plans are discussed. I loved the authentic feel this lent to the book, but see how it might be frustrating for a plot driven reader. I think the pacing is perfect for the story it is telling, which is that of a girl traveling across the country and the community that she finds amongst her fellow travelers.

My favorite part of the book is the characters and the relationships that are developed on the journey across the country. Lee is young and impulsive, but she is clever and works hard to think her plans through and stay several steps ahead of those who may be pursuing her. She meets a diverse and interesting mix of people on her journey and slowly comes to realize the world has all sorts of people in it. She has always kept herself distant from people outside of her parents and her best friend, Jeff, but she slowly learns to trust and open up to others. That is the heart of this book. Lee finds community, friendship, and family in places she least expects it, and it is a beautiful story. I adored all the characters who became an essential part of Lee's core group and the slow way each one's story was revealed through their journey. (This may be slightly spoilery, but this especially applies to Becky Joyner who is my favorite secondary character. I LOVE her.) The way this community and self-made family comes together through tragedy and challenge is just so wonderful.

I definitely will be pre-ordering the second book as soon as I can.

I read an ARC made available by the publisher, Greenwillow, via Edelweiss. Walk on Earth a Stranger goes on sale September 22nd.

Wednesday, September 9, 2015


Crenshaw is Katherine Applegate's most recent novel since winning the Newbery for The One and Only Ivan. It is, understandably, highly anticipated by many. It has also been greatly lauded even prior to its release. It's possible I'm just having a grumpy really off year, but the MG novels of 2015 that are getting the most acclaim and hype are leaving me cold. Crenshaw is another in a long line of these. There are a lot of good points to it, but I was mostly underwhelmed. I do think it tells a story that we need to see in children's literature more often though.

Jackson is stressed out. His parents are selling their things. There are late night conversations that turn to arguments between them. The landlord has been visiting often. There is little food in the house and the power was turned off for a few days. Jackson knows what all of this means because he has been down this road with his parents before. The last time it meant living in their van for a month and eating of road stop vending machines. He doesn't want to go back to that. And just like last time, Jackson is being visited by his imaginary friend, a giant cat named Crenshaw. Jackson feels he is way too old for an imaginary friend and old enough to be told the truth by his parents.

Showing the struggles of families who don't have enough to eat or are in danger of losing their homes is rare in MG fiction. I love that Applegate chose to tackle that with this book. There are kids who will see themselves in Jackson that have never seen themselves reflected in a book before. There are kids who may realize for the first time just how hard some of their peers may have it and learn a little empathy. Those are tremendous things, and I really loved this part of the story. I loved Jackson and his obsession with logic, his dry humor, and his love for his little sister. At times, the message seemed a little heavy handed to me, but at the core Jackson's story of struggling to love and understand his parents while he is angry at them for not doing better is a very real and poignant one.

Why am I not more excited for this book then? Unfortunately the premise itself didn't work for me. At all. I would've liked this so much better without Crenshaw. Not because I think imaginary friends are not something that will also speak to a lot of kids. I know they will. It was just awkwardly executed here. Every time Crenshaw showed up it felt so forced, and these are the parts of the book that come across as the most didactic too. It detracted from my being able to throw myself wholeheartedly into the story. There were also times I felt the humor was more for the adult audience reading it than the child audience.

This is also another in a long line of hyped books this year where I've wanted to smack the adult characters upside the head.

It's definitely a book whose cover will call to kids, and it's a good one to have around.

I read an ARC provided by the publisher, Feiwel and Friends, via NetGalley. Crenshaw goes on sale September 22nd.

Monday, September 7, 2015

A Thousand Nights

The story of Scheherazade is one that is tricky to do as a retelling. There's so much potential for the problematic. E.K. Johnston is one of the few authors I would name as one who could tackle this and do it well if I were asked. And in A Thousand Nights she did just that.

Lo-Melkhiin has wed-and killed-300 different girls. The first few caused unease but went generally unremarked by the nobles. When the numbers started to pile up, a law was passed. One girl from each village in turn and then he could start over again. One girl has the courage to make herself the target of his eye in order to spare the life of her sister. After she survives the first night and then another she begins to realize she has a power her predecessors did not have fed by her sister's prayers and rites that have made her into a small god. The demon who inhabits the body of the once great king is intrigued by this new wife. When he realizes the power she has, he becomes greedy to share it and use it for his own bent purposes. Unfortunately for him, he never bothered to understand the power of the small gods or the strength of the women who who tend them.

A Thousand Nights is as beautifully written as I've come to expect from a book written by E.K. Johnston. The prose pulled me right into the rich desert world and oppressive palace where Lo-Melkhiin makes his home. The richness of the world is in the details Johnston includes and her beautiful imagery which calls to all of the senses. Not every aspect of the world is explained. She leaves a lot to conjecture, but it works well for the story she is telling. In another type of book this might irritate me, but here I preferred it to the alternative.

Discussing the characters is a little difficult as none of them save the possessed king have a name that is mentioned. This is another thing that might be irritating in another type of story but works incredibly well here. The heroine is in no way lacking despite only being referred to by the various titles she holds to those who love her. Her act of sacrifice for her sister makes her courageous and laudable, but she is also clever and industrious. She is being fed power by the rites her sister and the women in her village are performing, but she is the one whose keen mind and willing hands figure out how to manipulate it and negotiate the dangerous life she lives in the palace. The heroine's sister, though we get to see less of her, is also possessed of industrious heart and keen mind. It is through them working together though they are miles apart that great things are accomplished and I truly truly loved this aspect of the novel.  It demonstrated the power and strength and contributions that women make by doing whatever it is they excel at. It also showed how easy it is for those things to be overlooked and for their power to go unappreciated and underestimated.

The aspect of this retelling I enjoyed the most was that there is no attempt to turn this into a story about romantic love. It is, first and foremost, a story about sisterly love, but there are all other sorts of relationships celebrated as well. And it is a story about women: their friendships, their alliances, their arts, and their bonds with each other.

I read an ARC provided by a friend who had finished with it. A Thousand Nights goes on sale October 6th.

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

A Nearer Moon

The cover of A Nearer Moon captured me the moment I saw it. That the book is written by Melanie Crowder whose release, Audacity, earlier this year completely captivated me guaranteed that I would want to read it. It is a brilliant work of fantasy with an amazing heart.

Luna lives in a village on stilts in a swamp. Luna has grown up on her grandmother's stories of the time when she was a child before the great trees fell creating the dam that turned their beautiful river into a swamp with foul water. Even one mouthful of the swamp's water brings on a wasting sickness with no cure. Three weeks to the day the unfortunate person swallows the water they die. When Luna's sister, who is the joy and spirit of her family, gets a mouthful of the water one day, Luna is determined to do anything to save her. Luna has never believed in magic or curses, but when the doctor in the floating city says she can do nothing to help an illness caused by magic, Luna becomes even more desperate and is willing to consider everything and offer anything for the life of her sister.

A Nearer Moon has so many aspects I adore in a good fantasy: faerie lore, strong determined characters, a community working to overcome harsh odds. At its heart and core, A Nearer Moon is a story about sisterhood. It's strength, bond, and love. Interwoven with the story of Luna and her sister is the story of  twin water sprites, Perdita and Pergia. The sprites are part of the story of Luna's village too, the magical history she doesn't believe in. Sibling stories are a favorite of mine no matter what, but I particularly enjoy stories of sisters. In each case here, the sister are very different from each other, but they balance each other out. The thought of or reality of one losing the other is impossible to bear. It is a fantastical window onto a very real grief and sadness that so many experience. Luna's story in particular is a very real look at what grief can do to a family.

Luna is a brave and determined heroine. She is stubborn and unwilling to back down from a challenge. She is deeply frustrated by her mother's resignation to the situation. Many of her ideas and actions are reckless, but her motivation is so heartfelt. The sacrifices she is willing to make for Willow show a courage and devotion that is beautiful in every way. In contrast, Perdita's story is almost a cautionary tale in what can happen if you allow grief, anger, and rage to consume you. It shows how interconnected the world and everyone in it is.

I really enjoyed the way Crowder wove the two stories together and how the histories of the two sets of sisters are all tangled up together as is their hope for the future. The prose Crowder uses are perfect for the story she is telling. With few words she builds and creates a complex layered world with a fascinating history and interesting characters. The story is beautifully told and the language lyrical. The contents match the gorgeous cover. This is one of my favorite reads of the year.

I read an ARC made available by the publisher, Atheneum Books for Young Readers, via Edelweiss. A Nearer Moon goes on sale September 8th.