Review: The Kingdom Of Little Wounds

The Kingdom of Little Wounds by Susann Cokal. Candlewick Press. 2013. Reviewed from ARC.

The Plot: 1572. The royal city of Skyggehavn in Scandinavia. The stories of royalty, nobility, and servants are woven together, creating a tapestry of a time, a place, and a crisis.

King Christian V and his French wife, Isabel, have produced over a half dozen children, securing the future of the country. The eldest, twelve year old Princess Sophia, is being married to Duke Magnus of Sweden, promising peace.

It sounds just like a fairy tale!

Except this is no fairy tale. The children are all sickly. Sophie dies in her marriage bed. Isabel, pregnant again, seems to be going mad. Christian is ill. And while the voices of the royals occasionally join in the telling, the true story of The Kingdom of Little Wounds is about two teenagers on the edges of the royal story, a servant, Ava Bingen, and a slave, Midi Sorte.

The Good: I picked this up because I saw it being discussed at Someday My Printz Will Come, and was intrigued.

The Kingdom of Little Woods is not a quick read. It’s a dense, complicated book that plunges the reader into the story, into 1572, and the world of Skyggehaven. Isabel’s story, her marriage and children and unborn child, are important, yes, but — unlike many a fairy tale about a princess — the two strongest voices, the two stories most important to the reader, are those of Ava and Midi. Isabel’s story matters because of how it affects Ava and Midi.

Ava is one of the needlewoman for Queen Isabel; she is the youngest, the newest, the most insignificant, but she has dreams of something more. Ava wants to make up for the disgrace she brought upon her family, when she was abandoned by her fiance and miscarried on the church steps. Instead of working her way up the rank of royal servants, a mistake means that she moves downward and finds herself embroiled in the politics of the country, asked to spy by Nicolas Bullen on the queen and the children.

Nicolas Bullen of Bon is a steward of the Queen’s household with great ambitions. He will use anyone, and anything, including a disgraced servant, to get what we wants; for those below him, he manipulates, threatens, and uses physical and sexual abuse to get his way. For those above, he manipulates, flatters, flirts.

Midi Sorte was kidnapped from Africa as a child, sold and given away. Her tongue was cut, silencing her voice but not her thoughts and words. Her love, the court historian Arthur, has taught her read. She watches and observes. As someone with so little power, she takes what she can.

Midi and Ava do not become friends; they are people who know each other. Who see each other as vague threats. That only increases when Arthur starts paying attention to Ava. Neither Midi nor Ava have many options or power. They are constrained by being female, by being a slave, by being a servant with no connections, by being poor. Each in her own way struggles against her place in the world, and sometimes, because of that, they do things that aren’t nice. Or kind. But, theirs is not a world that has been nice or kind to them.

Personally? I loved The Kingdom of Little Wounds. I loved the layered storytelling with few answers. I loved the complexity of Ava and Midi, and even of Isabel. I liked the historical accuracy and truthfulness: the casual cruelty, the concerns of court life, the fears. I like how Ava and Midi try to create their own lives within the constraints of their time and society. One of the questions raised over at Someday My Printz Will Come was whether this is, indeed, a young adult book; aren’t Midi and Ava considered adults in their world? Not really; while both may be working, neither is free to pursue their own interests or desires. Like some teens today, they have to answer to others, they have to follow the paths other decide, they make poor choices, they take anger and frustration out on the wrong people, their actions have unintended consequences.

The author has described her book as “a fairy tale about syphilis.” Syphilis, also called the French Fire and the Italian Fire, is running through the story as a threat. Nicolas takes a rather unique step in protecting himself from the Italian Fire. Sex and sexual relationships is treated both matter of factly (an upperclass woman entertaining a lover in front of a servant, because servants are invisible) and also spoken about as a sin. Being a sin doesn’t stop someone like Nicolas from forcing and blackmailing Ava and Midi, and neither have any recourse to his actions.

The court politics, loyalties, and actions are not always clear, because — much like history — The Kingdom of Little Wounds offers various perspectives. No one person has all knowledge. Some things are left unclear and unknown. Ava and Midi suffer small gains and large set backs, managing to do what they can while living under the power of others. For most of the book Ava and Midi are reacting, characters on another’s chessboard. As the final chapters approach, that changes. Ava and Midi take central stage, taking control of their own narratives.

The Kingdom of Little Wounds is, as I mentioned, a demanding read. It isn’t short and easy, there are many people speaking, and the time and place (sixteenth century Scandinavia) is unfamiliar. Confession: at first I thought this was an entirely made up fantasy world, due to my unfamiliarity with the time and place. Demanding, yes; but ultimately rewarding, by becoming immersed in the world of Ava and Midi.

A second confession: I read this as I was watching Reign, the CW’s series about the life of Mary, Queen of Scots while she is a teenager at the French court. Reign is a fun TV show to watch, but it’s so full of historical inaccuracy that one has to just sit back and enjoy the ride. If historical accuracy is what you want? Then The Kingdom of Little Wounds is the perfect antidote for Reign. (And, it’s also interesting to read a book that is so about the impact of syphilis while watching a TV show that has quite the bit of bed hopping without any worrying about it, even though they are both in the same time period, give or take 20 years. And, to read a book about the hard work and overlooked lives of the servants while watching a show all about the pretty, rich and privileged.)

End result for me? Yes, a Favorite Book Read in 2013.

Other reviews: Locker Combinations with Jill Ratzan at BookPage; Librarian of Snark; Monkey Poop; GenreFluent; Miss Literati.


Review: Picture Me Gone

Picture Me Gone by Meg Rosoff. G. P. Putnam’s Sons, an imprint of Penguin. 2013. Library copy. National Book Award short list.

The Plot: Twelve year old Mila and her father, Gil, are in New York, visiting her father’s friend and his family.

Or, rather, were supposed to be. Matthew has disappeared, and Mila and her father came anyway, and it is beyond awkward being in the house with Matthew’s wife, Suzanne, and baby son. Suzanne suggests that Matthew may be hiding at his cabin in upstate New York, so these two Londoners set off to see if they can find Matthew.

Mila learns a lot on this impromptu road trip with her father — about Matthew. About her father. About herself.

The Good: OK. Heads up. Two things.

First: I loved this book.

Second: The only way to talk about this book is to talk about the book in its entirety. So, yes, massive spoilers. I feel a bit guilty about that, because part of what I loved about the book is how it is told. Mila tells the story, and she boasts about how clear eyed and observant she is — and she is — but she shares certain information on her own schedule, as she deems it important. And, for all her powers of observation, she can also only tells us what she knows when she knows it.

Matthew’s disappearance is a mystery, and it’s a mystery that Mila solves, but I wouldn’t call Picture Me Gone a mystery. I wouldn’t add that little label to the spine. Instead, I’d say this is a book about secrets. Secrets kept and told, and what that means. And it’s about the biggest secret of all, that mysterious thing called “growing up.”

So, for me to get into the why I loved this, I want to talk about those secrets and what Mila tells us and when and what Mila discovers.

Mila is twelve. She’s a cherished only child. Her parents have their own lives and own love, so it’s not that she is made too important in their lives. Rather, it’s just important enough. I won’t say she’s spoiled, but she has the self confidence and self assurance that such a child has. And she is observant, and part of that may be because of who her parents are: both over 40 when she was born, her father is now close to sixty. He is a translator, so words and intent matter to him. A mother is a musician. Here, an early look at how Mila thinks: “This picture [of her father’s childhood dog] fills me with a deep sense of longing. Saudade, Gil would say. Portuguese. The longing for something loved and lost, something gone or unattainable.

Or Mila thinking about how Matthew has disappeared on his family: “The actual running away does not strike me as particularly strange. Most of us are held in place by a kind of centrifugal force. If for some reason the force stopped, we might all fly off in different directions. But what about the not coming back? Staying away is frightening and painful. And who would leave a baby? Even to me this seems extreme, a failure of love.

Up until the past year, she and her best friend Cat played involved make believe games involving spies and secrets. As Picture Me Gone starts, Cat is no longer her best friend, and instead is hanging out with other, older kids. It’s the start of Mila no longer being a child; and also the start of her beginning her journey out of childhood.

Here is the example of Mila saying what she thinks is important when she thinks it’s important. She mentions Matthew’s disappearance; she talks about Suzanne and the new baby and another son, Owen, who Mila met the last time she was in New York. That first night, Mila is given Owen’s room to sleep in, with all his things around her. At first, given the ages — Owen is a few years older than Mila — I think there is some story of a second marriage.

No. Owen is dead; had died three years before, when he was twelve. Mila says this so matter of fact, as if we knew. But, of course, the reader doesn’t. How Owen dies is also told on Mila’s timeline. It’s not that she was keeping secrets from the reader.

Talking about secrets — Mila and her father go to Matthew’s remote cabin and discover another secret. An old friend of both Matthew and Gil. A woman, Lynda. Not just any woman: a woman who, for a time, came between the two men. Lynda is with her fifteen year old son, Jake. A woman who Matthew is letting stay in his cabin, someone he sends money to. Mila, observant, quickly picks up on the reality that Jake is Matthew’s son; and that, since Jake is the age Owen would have been, Matthew had gotten both his girlfriend and his wife pregnant at the same time.

And then Mila finds out that it’s not the first time Matthew has disappeared. He disappeared after Owen’s death. In a car accident. Matthew was driving. Secrets and secrets, but so far, they are all other people’s secrets that Mila is discovering. Oh, she sees her father look at Lynda and realizes there was something once, between them. And seeing them, and meeting them, Mila begins to think of herself as someday not being a child. “Who will I grow up to be like? I wonder at what point a child becomes a person. . . . I can’t imagine living a real life, or how I’ll ever be an adult. . . . I cannot picture me grown up. I cannot picture me any different from the me I am now. I cannot picture me old or married or dead.

Mila discovers another secret, and it shatters her. And the secret — well, basically, it’s a lie. A lie both her parents have told her. A lie that, in all honesty, I don’t see as that big of a deal but to Mila, Mila who is twelve and believes in her parents, Mila who has been so privileged in her type of family: that there is even a lie shakes her faith in everything. Picture Me Gone is about that moment, of realization, of parents not being perfect; of things being bigger than oneself; of not being the center of the universe; and of growing up. “We are all woven together, like a piece of cloth, and we all support each other, for better or worse. Gabriel is just a baby but eventually he will see the world and his father as they are: imperfect, dangerous, peppered with betrayals and also with love.” And it’s not just about seeing the world: it’s Mila realizing that what she does or doesn’t do matters. “I will not always be happy, but perhaps, if I’m lucky, I will be spared the agony of adding pain to the world.” And it’s that realization, as the book ends, that marks Mila leaving childhood.

So, yes. A Favorite Book Read in 2013. It’s amazing, I love Mila, I love the language, I love how and when we are told things. (I wish there were punctuation to be clearer about dialogue, but that’s a minor point.) But, it’s not going to be easy to booktalk this one. Any suggestions?

Other reviews: Teen Librarian Toolbox; Things Mean a Lot; The New York Times.


Review: The True Blue Scouts of Sugar Man Swamp

The True Blue Scouts of Sugar Man Swamp by Kathi Appelt. Atheneum Books for Young Readers, an imprint of Simon & Schuster. 2013. Library copy. NBA Shortlist.

The Plot: Raccoons Bingo and J’miah are the two newest True Blue Scouts of the Sugar Man Swamp, charged to watch over the swamp and in case of emergency, wake the sleeping Sugar Man.

They’ll have to figure out how to wake him, when they realize the Swamp is threatened. Bingo and J’miah think the only threat is the dangerous Farrow Gang, wild pigs who eat and destroy everything in front of them.

Twelve year old Chap Brayburn knows about the other threat: Sonny Boy Beacoup, owner of the Swamp who doesn’t believe in the Sugar Man. Sonny Boy is joining forces with alligator wrestler Jaeger Stitch to build a Gator World Wrestling Arena and Theme Park. Sonny Boy doesn’t care it will destroy the swamp, or that Chap and his mother will be left without a home or a business, or the impact on the sugar that Chap’s mother uses to make her delicious pies. Sonny Boy doesn’t care he’s doing this just after Chap lost his grandfather. Give me a boat load of money, Sonny Boy laughs, and he’ll stop the development.

Grandpa Audie knew the swamp and its creatures better than Sonny Boy ever did. Grandpa Audie even believed in the mysterious, mythical Sugar Man. But Audie is gone, and Chap’s just twelve.

What can do raccoons do? What can a twelve year old do? You’re about to find out.

The Good: I read The True Blue Scouts of Sugar Man Swamp for one reason, and one reason alone: it was on the National Book Awards shortlist. I read primarily young adult or adult books these days; and I’m not a fan of books about animals.

I am really, really glad that the NBA “made” me read this. (I also wish I had the audiobook version read by Lyle Lovett! I KNOW.)

I quickly fell in love with the raccoons. Appelt creates a whole world and mythology for them that I believed in and enjoyed. And Chap! He’s a great twelve year old. He’s trying his best to do what he can in a really tough situation. One of the things he does? Starts drinking coffee (or rather, trying) and I had to laugh at Chap’s not liking it but feeling he “had” to. Oh, and he takes the “boat load” of money literally by wanting to fill up a small boat with the money he and his mother make off of their fresh sugar pies.

But, what really won me over was the plotting. While the main stories are those of Bingo, J’miah, and Chap, the other characters and their stories are also fully fleshed out. And — eventually — all those various threads come together in one momentous event. When I went back to the start and began rereading, I was delighted to see how some of that was foreshadowed. This is a book I would love to mark up with highlighters and sticky notes, to be able to get a firmer understanding of the genius behind it. It was delightful to see how an event in Bingo’s story overlapped with Chap’s. One example, without being spoilery: as a young man, Audie spent a lot of time in the swamp. He loved the wildlife, taking photos and drawing pictures. He was especially intrigued by the maybe-extinct ivory bill woodpecker. Due to a very bad storm, Audie’s car was lost within the swamp, along with his photos.

Guess what is the home of Bingo and J’miah? If you guessed the car, you’d be right!

Chap’s mother makes her pies out of a very special type of sugar, muscovado sugar, “sweeter than honey, sweeter than maple syrup, sweeter than candied apples.” Do you want to know how badly I want a pie? And do you know how much I love that muscovado sugar is a real live thing? Because, yes, raccoons aren’t really true blue scouts and there is no such thing as a Sugar Man (he’s like Sasquatch or the Yeti), but aside from that, the history and nature in The True Blue Scouts of Sugar Man Swamp is true. And interesting. (Like the part about wild pigs!)

And the language! Appelt is telling us a story, and it’s written as if someone is indeed telling me a story and there was something that just felt so right about that. Comforting or safe — no, those aren’t the right words. Rather, it was the coziness of feeling as if someone was sitting next to me, sharing. It made the story seem personal; it made it seem mine.

It was tough to pull quotes to fully give the flavor, but here are some I liked:

[The two raccoons] both cracked open their eyes, they both robbed their bellies, they both noticed that the dark was growing thinner, they both reminded themselves that they were, in fact, nocturnal and morning was upon them. They both went right back to sleep. And there you have it, sports fans: two hungry raccoons with hours to go before they ate.

And this, from Chap’s cat: “then again, there was the whole hair ball thing. Humans. They had such weak stomachs.”

That tone! That voice! That humor!

I should point out at this point that while animals are point of view characters, they are always animals. Chap’s cat doesn’t “speak” to him, even though we know it’s thoughts.

This is a Favorite Book of 2013. And friends, since it’s about animals – -that tells you something.

Other reviews: BookEnds, a Booklist blog; The New York Times; Author Interview at SharpRead; Nerdy Book Club.


Review: The Dream Thieves

The Dream Thieves by Maggie Stiefvater. Book II of the Raven Cycle. Sequel to Book I – The Raven Boys. Scholastic. 2013. Reviewed from ARC.

The Plot: In Book I, Blue Sargent became friends with the “Raven Boys” — Richard Campbell Gansey III, Ronan Lynch, Adam Parrish, and Noah Czarny. All had become involved in Gansey’s quest to discover in the Virginia countryside the last resting place of the fifteenth century Welsh king, Owen Glendower. A significant step had been made in awaking the ley lines (lines of energy.) It had not been without cost, but all had been excited about the next step.

In The Dream Thieves, they discover that things aren’t as simple as they had hoped. Dangers come from both the outside and the inside. Ronan had confessed to a specific power at the end of The Raven Boys: the ability to bring things out of dreams. What are the limits of this power? Where did it come from? And will it help, or hurt, their quest?

The Good: As a quick recap on our crew: Blue is the local girl from a family of psychics, raised with the prediction that she would kill her true love with a kiss. Gansey is brilliant, rich, and driven is his search for Glendower. He’s the natural leader, but he doesn’t always see what is around him. Ronan’s father is dead and the family in a shambles. Adam, like Blue, is a local; he’s on scholarship at the elite (i.e., expensive) school that Gansey and Ronan attend. And, Noah — well. Noah is a ghost, killed years ago.

Ronan’s story drives The Dream Thieves, as the title tells. After his father’s brutal murder, the terms of his will were a bit — well, strange. “All of the money was theirs, but on one condition: [the three Lynch brothers] were never to set foot on the property again. They were to disturb neither the house nor its contents. Including their mother.” Their father is lost through death; their mother retreats into a type of depression/sadness; and the boys literally cannot return home. Ronan may have money like Gansey, but without family he’s lost. But, wait, three brothers? He has some family then, right? Not quite. His older brother is bossy, his youngest is, well, young.

Ronan’s created family are his friends. They are what matter to him. Gansey wants to find Glendower? Ronan is in. And, as it turns out, Ronan has his own gift that brings him to the search for Glendower. The ability to bring things out of dreams. If that sounds wonderful to you, remember your last nightmare. Would you want to bring that out of your dreams? It also turns out that Gansey’s quest isn’t enough. Ronan wants more excitement in his life, and he gets it from racing cars. Being as I’m not a car person, what I liked about this turn of plot wasn’t the racing itself. It was seeing another side of Ronan; it was seeing Ronan independent of Gansey; and it was seeing how what seemed a distraction turned out to be something significant.

In many ways, Ronan is my favorite.

But Gansey — Gansey is not so much my favorite, as the brightest light. The one who takes all the attention when he’s in the room and doesn’t even know it. The one who doesn’t always realize that he’s sometimes being an arrogant SOB. “Gansey could persuade even the sun to pause and give him the time.” Even with Ronan being my favorite, and Adam being the one I root for, Gansey — Gansey overpowers them both. He’s on the page and no one else matters.

Ronan, as I said, deals with that with his dreams and his racing. Adam, well, Adam already feels inferior because of his family and his poverty so doesn’t deal with it very well. Instead he fights it. Adam is so busy trying to prove his worth and earn his place that he lets some things slip away. (How can one not want Adam to succeed? If Gansey and Ronan were born on third base, walking confidently towards home base, Adam was born ten miles from the baseball field.)

In The Raven Boys, Blue and Adam were attracted to each other, and for part of The Dream Thieves they are sort-of a couple. As much a couple as they can be, given that Blue is going to avoid kissing. Blue’s avoidance, Adam’s own insecurities, leads to — well. Let me just say I loved how realistic this was, and all the feelings! And emotions! Of Blue and Adam.

Which brings me back to Blue. I loved, loved, loved how The Dream Thieves gives a deeper glimpse look into Blue’s family of psychics. I’m still not sure how all these women are related, and what would happen if one of them had a son, but I enjoyed them all. Which brings me to another favorite. (I do have a lot of favorite things in this book, don’t I?)

And that’s Maura and Norman Reedus. Um, OK, not Norman Reedus. But “Mr. Gray” is introduced in The Dream Thieves, in a particularly violent way, beating up Ronan’s older brother. The Gray Man — Mr. Gray — is an educated hit man. He works for hire, and right now is searching for something called the Greywaren. He ends up visiting the psychics and meeting Blue’s mother, Maura. Does the fact that I think of him as Norman Reedus give away that he is a bad guy who is really good, or a good guy who does bad things, or, I’m not quite sure but wowza the chemistry between Maura and Mr. Gray knocked my socks off. And, it led another layer to the story, to the quest.

Because, remember, there is the quest for Glendower. And amongst the car racing and dreams, the not kissing and the Greywaren, family obligations and jobs, there is still the quest. Yes, our intrepid band gets even closer to finding Glendower.

Needless to say: a Favorite Book Read in 2013, and when is the next book coming?

Other reviews: Forever Young Adult; Clear Eyes, Full Shelves; Teen Librarian Toolbox.

Review: Engines of the Broken World

Engines of the Broken World by Jason Vanhee. Henry Holt & Co. Books for Young Readers, an imprint of Macmillan Children’s Publishing Group. 2013. Reviewed from ARC.

The Plot: Merciful Truth’s mother is dead. She and her brother don’t quite know what to do, so they put her under the kitchen table.

Each year there are fewer and fewer people, so there aren’t even that many they can turn to for help. It’s just Merciful and Gospel and the Minister. The Minister shares the words of righteousness: so a lot of nosy advice but not much by way of practicalities.

Merciful doesn’t know what to do. And that’s before she starts hearing something from the kitchen. Before she starts hearing her dead mother’s voice.

The Good: “It snowed the day our mother died, snow so hard and so soft at the same time that we could neither bury her nor take her out to the barn.”

Let me be very, very clear: this is the strangest, weirdest, most original book I’ve read all year.

Let me think twice about that…..

Nope, right the first time.

At first I thought — from her name and manner of speech — that Merciful and her brother lived in some type of religious settlement, one that has rejected modern conveniences, set slightly in the future. A place where most of those had left.

That’s a bit right. When Merciful talks about her world shrinking and people disappearing and the continuing sense of isolation, I thought it was a metaphor. A exaggeration. Instead — it’s real.

For the rest, that was all our animals gone, and winter only just beginning, and that was a bad thing. Though if the fog was really coming, and the end of everything with it, I didn’t guess it much mattered.

Merciful’s world is slowly ending, it is indeed a broken place, and somehow, for some reason, the small cabin that Merciful and Gospel shared with their mother and the strange Minister is hanging on. The Minister — what is the Minister? It’s always been a part of their lives. It’s like the table in the kitchen.

I didn’t guess it much mattered.” If the world is ending, if everything is going, dying or disappearing into a fog, does anything matter?

As I read this, I kept thinking — really? A book about the world ending, not with a bang but a whimper, as fog slowly creeps in, as the cold descends, as the dead don’t stay dead, as the Minister warns and preaches and cautions and threatens. And the horror of Engines of the Broken World is not gore or slash or monsters. It’s the voice coming from her dead mother’s body, it’s the cold and fog, it’s the dwindling resources, it’s the growing sense that there may be no way out.

The voice coming from Merciful’s dead mother slowly begins to make sense. To call to Merciful. To make some sort of sense. It cautions Merciful about the “machine,” and the reader quickly realizes what the “machine” is. Merciful herself has never heard the term before. And the Minister, in it’s animal shape — and pay attention to that form — speaks. “I am a Minister of Grace, shaping the world to make it better, holier, more suited for the Lord.”

And Merciful looks at the Minister, and thinks, “It sounded like normal Minister talk, but I had never heard this line before, never in all the days of my life. I wondered if this was what Auntie had been talking about, because these words made it sound like the Minister was certainly changing things, making the world different. Destroying it, but maybe to save it?

What is the nature of Merciful’s world? Is it, indeed, our world? Or is there something else going on?

Engines of the Broken World is about the end of the world, and what one young girl does as that world ends. It’s about discovering the origins of the world. It’s about God and faith and religion and belief. It’s about learning that the world may be destroyed — or saved — or both — and a decision having to be made, a decision only Merciful can make.

As I said — the strangest, weirdest, most original book I’ve read all year.

So, of course, it’s one of my Favorite Books Read in 2013.

Other reviews: Stacked; Jenna Does Books.





Review: The Coldest Girl in Coldtown

The Coldest Girl in Coldtown by Holly Black. Little, Brown. 2013. Review copy from publisher.

The Plot: Tana wakes up after a party to a house filled with the dead.

She is one of three survivors: the others are her ex-boyfriend, Aidan, and strange vampire, Gavriel. As the sun slowly sets, the vampires who killed everyone else, bit Aidan, and tied up Gavriel, crawl out of the basement.

Tana makes a quick decision:  no one gets left behind. She escapes, taking Aidan and Gavriel with her.

Aidan is infected. If he drinks blood, he’ll become a vampire. Tana decides the only logical thing to do is to take Aidan and Gavriel to the nearest Coldtown, a place where vampires and the infected – and those humans unfortunate enough to be trapped behind the walls.

All Tana has to do is drive a hungry infected teen and a hungry vampire to the nearest Coldtown and get them safely inside. She’s also going to go inside with them: Aidan may be an ex, but he’s still her friend, and she’ll do everything in her power to stop him from drinking human blood. So she’ll go in to make sure he stays human. And Gavriel — there are a lot of questions there, but she figures, if the other vampires are after him, there has to be something there worth saving.

The problem is, Coldtown is a lawless place run by vampires. It’s dark and dangerous. Once you get in, it’s almost impossible to leave.

Almost. They haven’t met Tana yet. She’s determined to do the impossible: save Aidan, help Gavriel, and return to her father and sister.

The Good: Holly Black has created a wonderful vampire world in The Coldest Girl in Coldtown. Vampires used to be hidden, remaining the subject of myth and legend, until one vampire broke the rules. The result wasn’t only the loss of secrecy, it was also the spread of vampirism. People were bit and infected. Once they drank human blood, they became vampires themselves. Very few were able to withstand the compulsion and remain human. Locking the infected in basements and hospitals didn’t work, so a handful to towns were designated “coldtowns” — towns just for vampires. The vampires were locked in, along with any humans unfortunate enough to be stuck in the towns when the walls wents up.

Everyone loves a vampire — the darkness, the danger, the eternal youth, the power. The vampires of Coldtown realize that, and realize that they need blood, and realize that all they need to do is convince humans to enter the Coldtowns willingly. Reality TV shows, live from Coldtown, making it all seem sexy and glamorous and exciting. The vampires are stars — safely behind walls, except for those few so swept out by the wonder of it that they believe they are different and unique enough to enter a Coldtown a human and become one of those stars. As I read about the parties being shown and the clothes worn, about the whole odd society of humans, vampires, and infecteds within Coldtown, I wondered — how much had the vampires created out of the myths of vampires? How much would they have done anyway? Did the vampires allow human stories to influence how they portray themselves?

Tana doesn’t see the wonder of it all, probably because as a child she saw what vampires were really like. Her mother became infected; her father locked his beloved wife up, thinking if they only kept her from drinking blood all would be well. It didn’t end well. Tana’s sister, Pearl, was too young to know her mother or remember the details of her death. Pearl watches the reality shows, online and on TV, entranced. The power and pull of the vampires is also shown by two siblings Tana meets, “Midnight” and “Winter” who are entering Coldtown in the hopes of becoming vampires. (Because of the food supply issues, this is actually not a very likely thing to happen. The last thing the existing vampires want is losing a source of food AND having another hungry mouth within the Coldtown.)

Tana is one of those characters who — well, let me put it this way. If I had been Tana, this would have been an entirely different story because I would have run as fast as I could once I woke up in a house full of my dead friends. I’d have saved myself first, sending help. So yes, I kept on yelling at the book “don’t do that, that’s too dangerous, it’s not worth it.” Except, of course, it was. Tana is simply braver than me. And more forgiving because I really couldn’t stand her ex, Aidan. Or, perhaps, not so much forgiving as someone who has lost people — her mother and a house full of dead friends — so will do anything to save the few survivors, no matter how annoying and self centered and selfish they are. It’s perhaps even a bit selfish of Tana, how she holds close those she wants to save. Selfish, because she doesn’t want to lose people, and selfish because it’s driven by the guilt from her lost mother. Selfish, because she’s not asking what it is that Aidan wants.

The Coldest Girl in Coldtown also has terrific plotting: how things fit together is, at times, almost like a layered puzzle box. How the people and things fit together, how it all works out. It’s not just that Tana helping Gavriel turns out to be more significant than anyone could guess. (Well, except the reader of course, who realizes that a vampire being hunted by other vampires has to have a pretty unique backstory). It’s not just what ends up happening with Winter and Midnight and Aidan and even Pearl. It’s how all that works together as a whole. Brilliant.

This is a Favorite Book Read in 2013. Because while I’ll never be the heroine in Coldtown, I love visiting in the safe pages of a book. Because The Coldest Girl in Coldtown starts with a mass murder of a roomful of teens, and those are not the last deaths we’ll see. I love a book where the stakes are real!

Other reviews: The Book Smugglers; Slatebreakers; YA Bibliophile.






Review: Sex and Violence

Sex and Violence by Carrie Mesrobian. Carolrhoda LAB. 2013. Reviewed from ARC from publisher. Morris Award shortlist.

The Plot: Evan Carter is at yet another school. He’s been to six schools since he was 13, traveling frequently because of his father’s job. At his latest boarding school he’s doing what he usually does. Not really making friends, because he know he won’t stay long. But you know what he does, and does well? Scoring with the ladies, planning temporary hookups.

Until the day that some of his classmates don’t like who he’s hooking up with and beat him up so badly he is hospitalized. And what they do to the girl is worse.

Broken and crushed in body and spirit, Evan’s father takes him to the family cabin in Minnesota.

Slowly, Evan begins to heal physically and emotionally.

The Good: Evan! Evan! Evan! I just adored this teenage boy, with his rough edges and his emotional pain, his physical scars, his inability to truly connect with anyone.

Evan, who so wants contact but he cannot articulate that need; so, instead of real relationships engages in numerous superficial physical relationships. Sex and Violence is about both Evan healing, but also about examining his own life. Not to say that it was his fault what happened, no; but to realize that how he was living his life wasn’t healthy to begin with, and to figure out what to change. And why. Part of it is his dead mother, emotionally unavailable father, and lack of any type of roots or community. Part of it is something else — and if you’ve read the book, I’d love to talk in the comments about it.

Part of the reason I loved the character of Evan is his attitude towards girls. “But girls are weird. I’m always amazed at the shit they put up with for a little attention.” It’s horrible, and he’s clearly a player. BUT. BUT. Sex and Violence is about someone who is a player but not quite a user; he isn’t about the seduction, in part because that will take too much time. He doesn’t want a girlfriend. He doesn’t want to invest in getting a girl to say “yes.” Instead, he’s about figuring out which girls will say yes. It’s shallow and it’s not nice, true, but there is a certain level of honesty in his selfishness. And, as Evan’s story unfolds, it turns out that he has reasons to look at sex as a valid way of connecting with people, as a short cut to intimacy. Evan himself looks back at this stage of his life with disgust: “Dirtbag Evan Carter, who lived for that whole game.”

Evan gets the crap beat out of him by a jealous ex. It’s brutal, and part of what I loved about Sex and Violence is that it doesn’t shy away from the impact of that violence on Evan. Sex and Violence takes place over a year: and that’s the reality of recovery. It’s not quick and simple. It’s not about snapping out of it. Sex and Violence has some of the best therapist/therapy scenes I’ve seen in a book, not because it fixes everything for Evan, but because it gives Evan the tools and language he needs to understand himself. It treats therapy not as a cure all, but as part of the process.

Evan’s problems are not his problems alone. His mother died when he was young, and his father is distant and unemotional at best. Evan’s recovery forces the two together and into a relationship, perhaps for the first time ever. So, then, part of Evan’s emotional make up at the start is in part because his only surviving parent models the same type of isolation that Evan lives. The family cabin — a small house by the lake — is not just a physical place where the two can safely retreat. It is also a part of a deep rooted community, and one that includes Evan and his father because it’s where Evan’s father grew up, even if it’s a place and people that is new to Evan. Evan is accepted into the group of teens and, perhaps for the first time, begins making friends.

I realize I am saying very little about the plot, after the first few brutal acts. That is mainly because — while none of it falls into twists and turns surprises — it is not just Evan’s journey to becoming a whole person, it is also the reader’s journey to understanding Evan and his father.

Evan is also funny. Not in a “here is a sentence I can show you” way, but in the way he observes and snarks and comments.

This is a Favorite Book for 2013 because I love Evan, and I love his journey. I love that he calls himself a dirtbag and then makes cupcakes for a little boy’s birthday. I love that he worries about the girl who was attacked. I love how he makes friends, and the people he makes friends with. I love that he decides to learn how to fight. I love the realistic portrayal of a victim of violence. I even grew to love his father.

And I feel weird saying “love” because Evan and the others in the book are so flawed and real. And that “love” may be mistaken for “like.” I don’t like what happened to Evan; I don’t like the place he is in at the start of the book; I don’t like the journey he has to go through. I want to reach into the pages and fix it for him and make it better. No, I don’t like the violence or how Evan treats women. But I love how real and true Evan is, and the things that happen to him, and the people around him.

My only quibble: the jacket copy/ description of the book includes the sentence “Until he hooks up with the wrong girl and finds himself in the wrong place at very much the wrong time.” In my never to be humble opinion, there is nothing “wrong” about the girl Evan hooks up with at school. Wrong place, wrong time, yes. She is someone’s ex, yes. But she is not “wrong.”

Other reviews: Stacked Books; Smexy Books; Between The Lines.

Review: The Waking Dark

The Waking Dark by Robin Wasserman. Knopf. 2013. Review copy from publisher.

The Plot: One day, a small town: Oleander, Kansas. Like so many other small towns, where everyone thinks they know everyone. Where everyone has secrets. Some secrets they don’t even know about.

A handful of people, with no connections to each other, go on murder sprees. Each murder ends in a suicide; or, in the case of one person, an attempted suicide. There are five survivors, who have to live with the horror they saw. Or, in the case of one, the horror they inflicted.

One year later, just as the town looks like it has recovered, or, at least, forgotten, a series of tornadoes descends. In the chaos that follows, the town is quarantined, sealed off from the outside world.

How much can one town take?

The darkness and horror has barely begun.

The Good: I loved this book so, so much!

I’m not the first to say “Stephen King” when describing The Waking Dark. First, because of the horror: The first chapter starts out with murder after murder, with people of all ages being killed by their neighbors and friends for no reason. And here’s the thing: these murders are not what make The Waking Dark horror. Rather, the horror is the worse that will come. It’s what people will do and will think. Neighbor turns on neighbor, and it soon likes almost as if the people who died the year before were the lucky ones.

Why did these handful of people become killers? The answer may be hidden in the history of the town, or it may be something else. After the tornadoes destroy part of the town, it’s not just the phones and Internet not working, it’s the military blockades around the town preventing anyone from leaving, or entering. Is it the isolation that makes those in the town of Oleander turn on each other? Or is it something more? Is the reason behind the destruction of Oleander and its people supernatural? Scientific in origin? Or something else entirely?

Second, because of the setting: a small town, who, even before the murders and tornadoes, was dying. Dying because of the loss of work, dying because of the rise of meth and drug use, dying because of just the general meanness of people. The portrait of Oleander, and those who live there, is sad and specific and full; Wasserman, like King, has created a world that appears to really exist. I’m sure that somewhere, Oleander is on a map and its inhabitants are flesh and blood.

There are five narratives running through The Waking Dark, overlapping and entwining upon occasion. Daniel Ghent, whose normal life ended years ago with the death of his mother and her father’s losing touch with reality. Julie Prevette, whose trailer trash family is notorious for their violence and crimes and meth. Ellie King, a Christian girl who needs to believe in God. Jeremiah West, high school football player and all around popular kid. And, finally, Cassandra Porter, who doesn’t remember what she did in the baby nursery but who is paying for it now.

Here is an early scene with Daniel: “Daniel flipped through the wrinkled page [of the comic book], past caped heroes who never arrived too late and punches that never left a bruise. He couldn’t remember ever being young enough to believe in that kind of world; he didn’t want to imagine his little brother ever being old enough to stop.” It tells so much about Daniel, and his life, and his childhood, and his brother, and their relationship, in just a handful of words.

Five people do not a town make. The Waking Dark includes many other characters, and this is another area where Wasserman is like King, because even with a few lines and a handful of scenes, she creates memorable, believable characters.

This is not a book about good-hearted people pulling together. When things go back in Oleander, they go really, really bad. What happens when people let the darkness in their heart out? When the meanness that you keep in check to be polite doesn’t have to be kept in check anymore?

The Waking Dark is also not about a handful of strangers banding together to fight back. The main characters know each other the way that teens in a small town would know each other. It takes a while for the five main characters to connect in a more meaningful way, and since all five are teenagers, for most part, they are without any real power to fight anything. This is a town where, within less than two weeks of the quarantine, people believe that a public execution by fire is a good thing. What can teens do to fight that? Not much; they best they can hope for is escape.

Towards the end, there is a line, almost a throwaway — “They had all deserved better.

And this is perhaps the true genius of The Waking Dark, and why this is horror. Because, yes, these five deserve better. But so does everyone in Oleander, whether they’re the young girl whose baby brother was murdered, destroying her family, or the local meth dealer who loves and wants to protect his niece. They all deserve better. We all deserve better than what life gives us: but that’s life. What happens, happens, and is neither punishment nor reward. Life doesn’t care what we deserve. It doesn’t care in Oleander, and it doesn’t care outside Oleander.

One last thing: Oleander is quarantined. And here is another example of why I love The Waking Dark. Even before the military closed the town off, it was a town that trapped people. Using teens as the main characters underscores how trapped people are: make someone a high school graduate and a reader may say, “oh they can always leave,” ignoring the ties of blood and family and friendship, ignoring that leaving a place, any place, requires someplace new to go and the resources to get there. And, not to give too much away about the ending, just because one is stuck somewhere doesn’t mean that isn’t home.

By this point, I’m sure you’ve all figured out that this is a Favorite Book Read in 2013.

The only thing I’d like to add is the diversity that Wasserman includes in The Waking Dark. One character is part Hispanic; another is gay.

Other reviews: The Book Smugglers; Librarian of Snark; Rachel’s Reading Timbits; and author interview at Entertainment Weekly.


Review: The Little Woods

The Little Woods by McCormick Templeman. Schwartz & Wade Books, an imprint of Random House. 2012. Review copy from publisher.

The Plot: Cally Wood, sixteen, is a transfer student at the exclusive St. Bede’s Academy. She’s starting the middle of junior year.

Cally has a secret, one she doesn’t want her new friends to know. Ten years ago, her sister Clare disappeared. The loss devastated the family: her father died, her mother drinks, and Cally became “that girl,” the girl whose sister went missing. Cally doesn’t want to be “that girl.” Especially at St. Bede’s. Because it was at St. Bede’s that Clare went missing from her bed, the night of a terrible fire. Clare was visiting a friend, and both she and the other girl were never seen again. Everyone believes they died in that fire.

At St. Bede’s, Cally struggles to find her place among groups of friends that have already formed. It’s hard to be a new girl, especially one that has started mid-year. Along the way, she keeps hearing about Iris, a girl who ran away in the fall. The girl who used to sleep in her dorm room.

Cally suspects that Iris didn’t run away. There are campus rumors that Iris was murdered. As Cally realizes that the rumors may be true, she also begins to wonder — could what happened to Iris be connected to what happened to Clare?

It’s Good: I love mysteries. This is a great dual mystery (what happened to Iris? what happened to Clare?) as well as the additional question of whether these two disappearances are linked. St. Bede’s is physically remote; it also bans cell phones and has very limited Internet. In addition to putting certain limitations on how and when people discover information (for example, Cally can’t just do an Internet search on Iris or Clare or other things), it means The Little Woods is a variation of the country house mystery, where the physical location of a crime creates a very closed pool of suspects. An assumption that somehow Clare’s and Iris’s disappearances are linked closes that circle even more. For me, at least, that meant that The Little Woods became not so much a who-done-it but a why-did-they-do-it.

I love boarding school stories — love, love, love. One thing I like about Cally at Boarding School is she is such a slacker. She repeatedly shares how lazy she is. She tests well without studying much and likes it that way. Why, then, St. Bede’s? Bluntly, it’s an escape, more a running away than a running to something. Yes, Cally realizes that she it also means the chance to get into a better college, and perhaps find out more about Clare’s disappearance, but her primary motivation is that she’s not at home. This motivation (and lack of motivation about other things) explains why Cally seems to be such a slacker once she is actually at St. Bede’s. And it explains why she doesn’t hit St. Bede’s running, either as a student or as detective. Cally is not Veronica Mars at Boarding School.

That Cally is not Veronica Mars is part of the reason I really liked her. Yes, she’s smart. Yes, she’s curious about what happened to Iris. Yes, she wants to know what really happened to Clare, torn between believing Clare died in the fire or that something else happened. But she’s also trying to get along with her roommate, making friends, maybe even a boyfriend. Cally’s investigation doesn’t really begin until a body is found in the woods near the school (the “little woods of the title”)

I loved how Clare was her own person, with a combination of not caring what other people think and not thinking about other people. Part of it is being shy; part of it is not knowing the social codes at her new school.

Here’s what I mean: Cally’s first day of her new school. “I brushed my teeth, pulled on a black T-shirt and my shorts even thought I knew it was too cold for them. Somehow I’d already managed to lose my brush.” Or, here when a bunch of her friends are headed to the local town on a free Saturday: “It wasn’t exactly like I’d been excluded, but I hadn’t been invited either. Did everyone need an invitation, or was that just me? Was I socially reticent to the point of phobia? Would a different girl simply have invited herself along?

One last thing: while there is a whisper that the disappearances may have an “other” explanation — the book jacket reads, “unexplained disappearances. suspicious deaths. there’s something wrong with the woods behind St. Bede’s Academy” this is not a “the fairies did it” book. Sorry if that’s a spoiler, but much as I enjoy a good mash-up, I like a mystery to be a mystery with the answer not to be fairies or ghosts or time loops. Usually (but not always) that is a short cut to a logical explanation.

Ok, now the really last thing. I loved the language in The Little Woods. The writing just, well, made me happy. Funny and observant and smart. A bit selfish, because she is sixteen. “I didn’t have tons of experience with team sports. I enjoyed watching them on TV with [my cousin] Danny, and i wasn’t exactly bad at them, but my phenomenal laziness had prevented me from excelling at any.” “The awful thing was that despite the genuine horror in the auditorium that morning, an overwhelming atmosphere of excitement accompanied it. A few girls started crying, but it was immediately clear that they were not supposed to, and they worked to staunch the flow. There was danger in unrestrained outbursts of emotion.”

Bottom line? It’s a Favorite Book Read in 2013.

Other reviews and interviews: Attack the Stacks; Interviews: With Camille DeAngelis; With Nova Ren Suma.

Review: Dare You To

Dare You To by Katie McGarry. Harlequin Teen. 2013. Reviewed from ARC from publisher.

The Plot: Ryan Stone is looking forward to his senior year, and why not? He’s the star baseball player, getting scouted by colleges and teams; he has great friends; and an ex-girlfriend that may be more than an ex.

One of his friends dares him to get the phone number of a girl: the girl selected? She’s got black hair, torn clothes, a hardcore Skater Girl.

Needless to say, good boy Ryan doesn’t get the girl’s number. She won’t be played.

The girl is Beth Risk. After an incident with her mother and her mother’s boyfriend, her long lost uncle swoops in to save the day, taking Beth back to his perfect little town.

Beth doesn’t want to be saved. She wants to go back to her mother and her friends.

Oh, and guess who else is in this perfect town? That’s right, Ryan.

What starts as a dare turns out to be something more.

The Good: I adored Dare You To. Just loved it.

Why? Because Beth. Her voice is terrific: she’s tough on the outside, yes, because life has made her tough. She’s the child of teenage parents who didn’t get their act together when they had a kid. Drug and alcohol abuse and neglect means that often Beth is the caretaker in the family. Because she has been let down, over and over, she has defenses up. Trusting anyone, getting close to anyone, is a risk she doesn’t take. Also? Beth is funny and wry and smart in her observations. So many times reading this, I started laughing out loud, because of what Beth said.

Ryan — Ryan, Ryan, Ryan. Yes, the popular jock, but his life isn’t quite as perfect as it looks. Being from a good family in a small town means that the family lives it’s life by “what will the neighbors think.” They practice what they preach; and think a lot about whether their neighbors are doing the right thing.

Take Beth’s family. People like Ryan’s parents hold her background against her. It’s all judgment based on her parents’ actions, not her own. Bonus to that, it’s shown it’s mighty hard to overcome that. Beth’s uncle is Mr Respectable, but only because he’s spent the last ten or so years working hard to make something of himself. Do Ryan’s parents care about the fine home he now has? The nice wife he has? The over ten years playing professional baseball? No, because what matters is who his parents were, who is brother was.

Luckily, not everyone is like Ryan’s parents. As for Ryan himself, part of his growth in Dare You To is realizing that his parents’ attitudes are wrong and even hurtful. Yes, it’s in part because he starts to fall for Beth and his parents are “no no no.” But even more important is Ryan’s older brother, Mark. When Mark, now in college, came out to his family they reacted in full “but the neighbors” mode and cut Mark out of their lives. Even Ryan has, thinking “if Mark cared about us, he wouldn’t be doing this. He’d keep it a secret.” (Another reason I like Dare You To? Because the treatment of Mark, and Ryan’s reactions, is all too real for some teens. It’s still tough out there for GLBT teens. Dare You To is being honest in showing what happens for some teens.)

While Beth was my favorite, I also liked Ryan. Good thing, because for a romance you want to root for both! Ryan is a jock, yes, and I love how Dare You To showed the work that goes into playing baseball, as well as the love of the sport, and what it means to practice. Ryan is also a senior and is torn between turning professional or going to college. It turns out, Ryan has a talent for writing. His father is bewildered why there is any choice to be made: turn professional, right? But it’s not that easy.

Beth views her uncle leaving to play baseball as an abandonment. It makes sense; her father also left. But here’s the thing: Scott left to play professional ball right out of high school. Yes, high school. So his leaving her, to her neglectful parents? Was something an eighteen year old kid did.  I understood how he needed to take care of himself before being able to return to help Beth. I’m not saying Scott is always right; he comes across a bit too controlling, a bit to “do everything my way right now,” wanting to be the hero and not listening to what Beth really needs or wants. Even with that, though, keep in mind: Scott is not yet thirty. Not yet thirty, with a teenage niece he loves, who he knows needs help, and he’s not quite sure what to do.

See that complexity in the family and friendships? Delicious!

I hope this next bit is not too spoilery for you. Beth is tough because she has had a tough life. Abandonment, neglect, abuse. But, that does not include sexual assault. Dare You To was refreshing to me because of that, because I’ve read one too many stories where childhood sexual assault is used more to create a backstory than to address such assault. Also, Ryan’s own family secrets did not include physical abuse. Yes, his parents are controlling but they aren’t abusive. Again, refreshing, because I’ve read one too many stories where to illustrate a person’s family problems the issues are heaped up, one after the other. It is, indeed, enough to have a father who drives his son too hard on the baseball field; and for that “too hard” to include the father’s own dreams rather than the son’s.

This is the part where I have to stop myself, because I find myself wanting to say “and what was great was…. and what was terrific was…. and I laughed when….”

After I finished Dare You To, I realized that this is part of a series. And, not even the first book in the series. So, no, they don’t have to be read in order. I’d say more than series, they are books with overlapping characters but no overlapping plot. The other two books, Pushing the Limits (2012) and Crash Into You (2014) are about two of Beth’s friends.

One funny thing. Let me say, I loved Dare You To, loved Beth, and yes, this is a Favorite Book Read in 2013. That said? I have never seen the appeal of the “dare you’ games that Ryan and his friends play. Why? Because it’s playing with people’s feelings. From the start, with the dare being about getting girl’s phone numbers, I thought “this isn’t cute or funny, it’s mean to these girls who have no idea.” I loved that Beth had Ryan’s number on this from the start, figuring out what was going on, and how then this fear (is it just a dare?) appeared every now and then even after the dares had ended. I just wanted to point out that I loved this book, even with the dares! Probably because Beth figures it out early on; and, at least one other character also is all “don’t play with people like that.”

Other reviews: Fikt Shun; Dear Author; plus, an interesting analysis from Romance Novels for Feminists.