June 23, 2017

Turning Pages Reads: THE WHITE ROAD OF THE MOON by RACHEL NEUMEIER

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

Turning Pages Reads: THE SUPERNORMAL SLEUTHING SERVICE by GWENDA BOND & CHRISTOPHER ROWE

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!

June 15, 2017

Thursday Review: ROLLER GIRL by Victoria Jamieson

Synopsis: As Tanita and I have observed on multiple occasions, it's hard to write up a review of a book knowing that all you want to do is gush about it. That's how I feel having (finally) read Roller Girl, a delightful middle grade graphic novel by Victoria Jamieson. Not only was it a Newbery Honor Book, it was also a 2015 Cybils Award Winner, so I knew I had a good chance of enjoying it. Turns out I also want to hug it. Also, how much do I wish roller derby had been a thing (or, anyway, a reasonably popular thing) while I was growing up? It would've been better than hanging out at the roller rink, skating in circles, and hoping cute guys from my school would randomly talk to me.

My parents would almost certainly have put the kibosh on it, though—unlike Astrid's mom, who is the one to suggest they check out a derby bout in the first place. The amazing jammer Rainbow Bite (I LOVE EVERYONE'S DERBY NAMES) quickly becomes Astrid's hero, so when her mom suggests summer roller derby camp, Astrid is so there. Unfortunately, there's just one thing making it less awesome than she'd hoped—the fact that she's a total beginner and can barely skate. Okay, maybe two things—her best friend Nicole, instead of going to derby camp with her, wants to go to ballet camp instead…with her new friend Rachel, who Astrid can't stand.

Observations: Astrid is twelve, and this book is a perfect portrayal of the changes and realizations that happen when you're twelve. Astrid is figuring out who she is, and so is Nicole, but that also involves coming to terms with the fact that you aren't exactly alike and might have different interests. Whether or not that's a deal-breaker for the entire friendship is something that has to be muddled through sometimes. Astrid's story shows the ups and downs of friendship—and of learning a new sport—with humor, heart, and pitch-perfect art. If and when I ever write and illustrate my own graphic novel, this is one I'd love to emulate and learn from.

click to embiggen

I also got a kick out of the inside look at roller derby in Portland. I have friends who have done roller derby (props to Malice Sanchez of the DC Rollergirls' Majority Whips!), and I even have a friend who is IN OREGON (not Portland, though) who is a derby referee. Thanks to this book, though, I have a much better understanding of what is actually happening, not to mention a realization that I probably wouldn't be able to channel sufficient aggro to ever be good at it. Plus our local derby team wears way too much pink. But it sure was fun to read about.

Conclusion: I can't resist saying that this is one "jammin'" adventure that will "roll" right into your heart. (Derby puns! You're welcome.)


I received my copy of this book thanks to a kindly gift. You can find ROLLER GIRL by Victoria Jamieson at an online e-tailer, or at a real life, independent bookstore near you!

June 13, 2017

SURVEYING STORIES: Historical Without History, in REAL FRIENDS by Shannon Hale

While May is indeed National Mental Health month, I'm... behind. I'm choosing to ignore that and the fact that Sarah did the actual review of this book weeks ago. Part of good mental health is accepting our... limitations.

*cough*

This book is actually a 'twofer' for things I don't see often in MG lit: one, it's an American narrative memoir, and two, it's a graphic novel which has a clear depiction of a mental health issue, in this case, anxiety. This is an occasional series which proposes to study elements of children and young adult fiction from a writer's perspective.

Let's survey a story!


Shannon and Adrienne have been best friends ever since they were little. But, on day, Adrienne starts hanging out with Jen, the most popular girl in class, and the leader of a circle of friends called The Group. Everyone in it wants to be Jen's #1, and some girls would do anything to stay on top... even if it means bullying the others.

Now every day is like a roller coaster for Shannon. Will she and Adrienne stay friends? Can she stand up for herself? And is she in The Group - or out?

There's been a lot of praise for this books already, so I'll spare you my recap of the storyline - and how much I cried reading it. (Plus, Sarah already did that. Not the crying, the recap.) Instead, I want to focus on genre.

Memoir can be tricky. In this day and age, we're all amateur memoirists, constantly Instagramming and Pintersting our lives into scrapbooks of who we are, and what we did and what we wanted in our life and times. When a writer doesn't have a historical incident or a larger-than-life world to outline, memoir can seem self-involved and narcissistic. At least, that's how the New York Times criticizes most memoirists. However, memoir is actually a really good way to write for middle grade readers. It's a fun way to come to grips with the talking points of history, and I know that I read a metric TON of memoir in elementary school, as "acceptable" reading in the eyes of my parents. Told generally in the first person, memoir is truthful, without being totally factual. It takes giant bites of history and masticates them into digestible slivers, often taking readers back to a child's-eye-view of incidents, including historical incidents. The fact that memoir is more about episodes in someone's life than the day-to-day details of it make it good for younger readers as well, to read an episode, and set the book aside and think about it, or react to it. There are plenty of middle grade memoir books, but very few of them are quite so painfully personal, wherein the failures of parents, teachers, family, and friends are so clearly displayed. Rather than that casting shadow on the main character, however, or making her the most important character, it sheds life on how other people are living within the moment the main character feels is of utmost importance. More importantly, it turns the question around to the reader: Has this ever happened to you? What would YOU do? These are relatable questions, especially to younger folk.

As I've mentioned, memoir for me meant capital-H-history. It does seem like most of the memoir I've read for middle graders is from both the past, and is international. I've read books about growing up with rice paddies, the Communist Revolution, and the Holocaust. American memoir hasn't had too many huge historical incidents to grapple with in the past seventy years (although I distinctly remember reading We Were There books about the Normandy invasion in the fifth grade). Hale's book is rare in that it's recent history - just a slice-of-life from 1980's Utah. No big historical incidents happened there during that time: just life in elementary and middle school.

And, especially because both the writing and illustrations are brilliant? That's enough.

That's enough to let a kid know that their life has historical context. That's enough to remind them that "now" is not all there is, that someday, they will be 'looking back.'

The best memoir holds, once again, two ideas in tension. One, that life is a big-picture forest, and two, that this one, tiny ant is toiling along through this forest, trying to hang onto its load and keep in line behind its fellows. This keeps the characterization vivid. While this is both a story about one version of ant-Shannon growing up with anxiety and loneliness, it is also a story about the forest of imagination, and how ant-Shannon's lonesomeness was both cause and fuel for her imagination. Would she have had one without the other?

It's something to consider, while you're, as Dame Yolen puts it, telling your true.

Kelly Jensen put together a list of YA/MG non-fiction titles during the Cybils last year, of excellent narrative non-fiction. There's more great memoir out there, writers and readers.



I received my copy of this book courtesy of the public library. You can find REAL FRIENDS by Shannon Hale & LeUyen Pham at an online e-tailer, or at a real life, independent bookstore near you!