BONE GAP by Laura Ruby

bgThere’s a slogan in London regarding their mass transit system that has become something of a rallying cry for various causes: Mind the Gap.  In London’s Underground this means make sure you pay attention when you’re disembarking.  It is this slogan that kept running through my mind when reading Laura Ruby’s masterful young adult novel Bone Gap. It wasn’t just the title that made me think of this slogan, it was the idea that at any time, this book could sweep me away.  That is the kind of book Bone Gap is: full of evocative imagery, innovative characters, and big questions.  I was always minding the craft Laura Ruby put into Bone Gap because it is my favorite kind of narrative: the more attention I paid to it, the more the story revealed.

Bone Gap tells several stories at once.  It is the story of a place – Bone Gap – where everyone knows each other but it doesn’t always mean they like each other.  It is also, on the surface, the story of how Finn sees his brother’s girlfriend Roza being kidnapped by a man he can’t quite describe and thus no one can quite believe him.  But, deeper than that, Bone Gap Roza’s story – between the gaps of here and there – of how she is learning to stand up for herself and not let the world define her.  Bone Gap is Finn’s story of growing up and falling into an intense, slow-burn romance with a girl named Petey.  Finn also has a disability – to say more would be to spoil some of the wonderful reveals of the story – and how this informs his character is also a small marvel of storytelling. Bone Gap is also Petey’s story and, just like everyone else in Bone Gap, Petey must figure out who she is outside of who everyone keeps TELLING her she is.

This is one of Bone Gap’s biggest strengths, and one of the things I think will draw teen readers to it the most: this is a story about defining yourself and not letting other people define you.  In a way, this is the ultimate struggle of adolescence and Ruby weaves this theme throughout every story.  Will you let people know you only as the ugly girl, the awkward weirdo?  Will you define yourself as the little brother who gets picked on, does everything wrong, and can’t take action?  Will you be only pretty, a beautiful girl who is only your face?  Or will you – can you – be more than those things?  Bone Gap asks the question I think almost all teens are asking in one form or another: who I am I really?

Bone Gap does that trickiest of all things: it is both literary fiction and has, I think, very high teen appeal.  As to the literary fiction part: Ruby’s writing is a punch in the gut.  It is perfectly crafted and well-calibrated for deliberate effect.  But I want to emphasize both the literary quality and the teen appeal because many reviews of Bone Gap might make it seem like it is the kind of thing only your high achieving non reluctant readers will pick up.  Now, while those readers will certainly love the craft and the writing in Bone Gap, I also think emergent readers will be drawn to the mystery of the story, the intense romance between Petey and Finn, and the undeniably creepy and downright scary horror world Roza is trapped in by a character who is pure evil. These things keep the pages turning even as you’re marveling at the way Ruby brought them all together. I’ve been telling people this is a horror story meets John Green and it just FITS.  Petey and Finn are a great YA couple – pulled together even when everyone says they have nothing in common and then thrown into the mix is the through-the-looking glass horror that traps Roza.  What a combo!

Bone Gap is also all about the male gaze.  It’s about how people think of Finn for being dreamy and different – how their assumptions of what masculinity are trap him in ways he can’t fully comprehend until he decides to disregard other’s opinions.  It’s about how what traps Roza (and even Petey) the most are men’s ideas of what she should look like and think like and be.  The biggest monster in this story is the patriarchy and oh, oh, the moment Roza decides to fight back!

I long for awards chatter to start over Bone Gap. It should, because this is a lyrical, haunting, meticulously crafted book.  That also means there will soon be chatter of “I just didn’t get it.” and “Teens won’t read this.”  While I can’t speak to the former – not every book is for every reader, after all – I think I can speak to the latter.  Teens WILL be drawn to this story and we, as educators and librarians, can promote and advocate for it, for everything original and exciting about it, by speaking about all the mysteries and wonder in this book.

Bone Gap is highly recommended for high school readers and as a first purchase for all libraries.  It is challenging and compelling and isn’t afraid to tackle head on hard issues of bodily autonomy, feminism, and self-perception.  Bone Gap is about seeing yourself as more than a face, more than what people say you are.  It’s empowering and exciting for teen readers and, y’all, there was a moment that literally made me punch my fist in the air with glee.  Bone Gap is also a great introduction to magical realism –as the worlds of plausible and impossible bleed into each other – this is the perfect way to introduce teens to a new genre. Though I am a public librarian, I think this would be an amazing book to do with a class or in a book group.  It is teachable and has lots of material to analyze.

Bone Gap is my choice for the 2016 Printz Award.  It is masterfully constructed and crafted and with off-the charts  literary merit that holds up on a re-read.  (And another re-read, just to be sure.)  My Printz pick last year was Grasshopper Jungle and there is plenty in Bone Gap that reminds me of that book – particularly the way they skirt the edge of real and not real and ask teen readers to really sit with how the world looks at them and what they can do about that.

Bone Gap is out now. You can pick up a copy at your favorite local indie bookstore or online. You can also check out a copy from your local library. If they don’t have one, suggest they purchase it.

You won’t soon forget your visit to Bone Gap and the people you meet there.  Their journeys and growth will stick with you. Like me, I think you’ll find yourself “minding the gap” long after you have turned the last page.

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LOCK & MORI by Heather W. Petty

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Yes.  Yes, it’s exactly what you’re thinking right now.  Yes.  It’s a broody, brilliant teenage Sherlock Holmes solving mysteries and sharing kisses alongside the troubled teenage genius Miss James “Mori” Moriarty.  I am guessing that your reaction is probably similar to mine the first time I heard about this book and then saw the delightful cover –

I must agree.  I tore through this book when I got my hands on the ARC and it fulfilled all my Sherlock/mystery/messed up YA romance needs.  I think teens are going to LOVE this book. When I was asked to be part of the book tour, I couldn’t say yes fast enough. SO this week I will be bringing you all the reasons you should pre-order this book (it comes out on September 15) and NEXT week I’m hosting an interview with author Heather W. Petty and Simon & Schuster is hosting a giveaway for one lucky reader.  Whooo-hooo!  So what’s so special about Lock & Mori? Let me count the ways …

THE MYSTERY

I am always glad to find a new mystery for my teen readers that is not historical or paranormal.  Not that there’s anything wrong with mixing up genres like that – but I have some teen readers that ONLY want contemporary action/thriller/mysteries and there’s NEVER enough for them.  More often than not, they’re also reading from the adult section because…well, there’s just not enough YA with contemporary, hard-edge mysteries with NO magic just clever, contemporary mystery solving with some ass-kicking and dangerous twists. Lock and Mori totally fills that gap – yes there’s romance, there’s personal/family trauma and drama, but at heart, it’s a crackerjack mystery with real villains and real stakes.

THE CANON

Yo – are your teens as into BBC’s Sherlock as mine are?  Yeah, I thought so. My teens won’t stop talking about Sherlock.  Is part of this due to Benedict Cumberbatch’s cheekbones?  WELL SURE.  But another part is that the BBC’s Sherlock does a great job making Sherlock of the here and now.  Lock & Mori has that same vibe.  Sherlock is still his same old disdainful, unbearably clever self … but he’s also very much a teenage boy in London in the here and now.  It does a great job, just like the BBC show, of weaving in the same old story with something very contemporary.  I think teens will be drawn to that mix and find it a good match with the show.  And, like the show, Lock & Mori isn’t afraid to invent new ideas and new interpretations of Sherlock and the world he lives in – another thing teens who eat up fanfic and AUs will be surely drawn to.

MORI!

Yes, this story is narrated by Mori, not Lock and it’s fantastic to see him develop as a character through the eyes of someone other than John Watson.  BUT EVEN WITHOUT ALL THAT, THERE IS MORI.  She is fierce, smart, sad, dangerous, and on the precipice of … of … something very dark and alluring indeed.  It makes it nerve-wracking to read about her and her voice keeps the pages turning. (did I mention I tore through this book?) Lock and Mori have a steamy, passionate connection which adds some dimension to the mystery and makes everyone who knows how canon says their story will end wiggle their toes with anticipation.  It’s a smart move on Petty’s part as a writer, because it gives Mori some fallibility that still has you rooting for her and it gives the reader a delicious frisson of angst and suspense in a story that’s hundreds of years old and told over and over.

Mori is an absolute delight as a narrator and a YA treasure of a character.  She is female heroine who the text foreshadows will become an anti-heroine, oh my goodness what’s not to love!

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I think teens are going to love this book!  I’ve already started telling my most passionate fandom teens about it and they nod their heads with vigorous approval and anticipation.  I think you’ll be doing the same thing! I recommend Lock & Mori as a first purchase for libraries where mysteries, books with slightly amoral protagonists, and fandom followings are big draws.

And make sure you come back next week for my interview with Heather W. Petty and a GIVEAWAY!!

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The Ghosts of Heaven by Marcus Sedgwick – an interview & a giveaway!

ghosts of heaven

I honestly can’t think of anyone in YA who does what Marcus Sedgwick does.  Perhaps this is why I am so entranced by everything he’s ever written.  Sedgwick won the Printz Award last year (that is the highest honor in young adult literature) for Midwinterblood, which remains one of the most atmospheric and overwhelming YA books I’ve ever read.  Since then he also wrote an amazing book about a blind girl who is not defined by her disability but by her will (She is Not Invisible) and created this week’s new release – The Ghosts of Heaven.

ThenGhosts of Heaven is one of my favorite books of 2015.  I know, it’s early.  But I also know that this book is special. I could give you a summary of The Ghosts of Heaven, I suppose.  It’s four stories told in four different styles that can be read in any order or not even necessarily together at all. (But once you read one, you’ll want to read them all, I promise.)  The one thing they have in common is Sedgwick’s unbelievable sense of pacing – this man can wind a story like no one else around. The second story, The Witch in the Water, reminded me of Nathaniel Hawthorne. It is about a witch hunt and much more and the sense of impending malice and tension in it was so perfectly created that I honestly had to put it down a few times to take a breather from it. The last section, The Song of Destiny is a mystery set on a spaceship sent out to colonize a planet and it was so beautifully crafted it made me cry with joy. Now THAT is some writing.

These Ghost of Heaven is also united by the image of a spiral, which is found through-out all the stories and weaves them together in the smallest and yet also most significant ways. It’s haunting and subtle and just a little brilliant to wind a story around a spiral.  And the use of the spiral is a great narrative device that makes it easy to step into any of the four stories and follow the thread of them.  The spiral is a little creepy, yeah, but also totally beguiling – which is the perfect combination in a book for teens.

Teens – yes, there’s that question you’re dying to ask.  Sure, Sedgwick’s books are smart and LITERARY~~ but, I mean do teens like them?  Yeah, they sure would.  Look, I’m not telling you every reader is going to be on board with Sedgwick’s books – but there’s NO book that “every” reader is on board with, no matter what you’ve heard.  But I don’t even think his writing is just for the NON reluctant reader (one of my favorite concepts) I think there’s something haunting, creepy, compelling, and ENTICING about Marcus Sedgwick’s books.  They whisper of things just out of sight, things in shadows, things you feel dance across your skin in the quiet.  C’mon now – that’s perfect for teens. And for that teen that just keeps BEGGING for something new, something else, something different, something more (you know the one) … Marcus Sedgwick is perfect.

With that, this is highly recommended as a first purchase for libraries. It will appeal to a wide section of teen readers, from those looking for a challenging read to those looking for a quick short story, especially if you give it the kind of booktalk that highlights the mystery and original atmosphere through-out time.

When I had the chance to participate in the book tour for this title, I jumped up faster than Katniss at the Reaping. ESPECIALLY when I was told that I’d have a chance to ask Marcus Sedgwick some questions about the book.  One of the best things about Ghosts of Heaven is that it’s simply meant to be talked about – there’s so much to be discussed!

Not only that, the awesome publishers are giving away a copy – perfect for adding to your library!  All you have to do to enter is leave a comment on this entry by January 19. (US residents only)

The whole tour is pretty cool: there are reviews, more giveaways, and more interviews so you should check out the whole schedule to find out more about the book. You can also read a summary and the first forty pages.

BUT WHAT ABOUT THE QUESTIONS I ASKED MARCUS SEDGWICK THAT HE ANSWERED IN THE BEST WAYS POSSIBLE THAT MADE ME JUST WANT TO RE-READ THE WHOLE BOOK OVER AGAIN BECAUSE THEY WERE JUST THAT FASCINATING?! Read on!

BLOGTOUR

 

Like Midwinterblood, The Ghosts of Heaven is a book of intertwined stories that COULD be read alone but work together to create a fuller picture. What draws you to writing this kind of narrative?

If it’s a truism to say that all writing is trying to work out what it is to be human, then there are perhaps broadly two ways of doing that – by working from the individual to speak of the universal, or by working from the universal to speak about the individual, because both are part of being human. With these two books I was attempting to look at things on a larger scale than the individual, to talk about large and eternal subjects, and yet, the paradox of that is, as I just said, that the way to do that was by using the individual. By using stories about several individuals across different times, I was hoping to convey a large feeling, an eternal atmosphere.

Can you talk about the specifics of how you wrote this narrative? Did you write it “in order” or create the order after the individual pieces were written?

I planned the four stories (and planning for me is half way towards the finished writing anyway) in bits and pieces, flitting backwards and forwards between the four ideas in my head as I felt like it, or as I found a particularly interesting thing in what I call research, or as something randomly pushed me in one direction or another. Once I had finalized things (as far as I was going to finalize things, at least) in my head, I wrote the stories in the order in which they appear in the book – a physical book being limited in this way of course, and though this order is important, there is another one that I feel is of equal importance, but I’m keeping what that is to myself. I would like each reader to feel for themselves how the story might alter if the four parts were taken in a different order.

I am fascinated by the different narrative forms in the book – including verse to diary entries. Was this a deliberate choice to make each section have an even more unique voice?

Yes, partly, but it also stemmed from a very conscious choice about the section called Whispers in the Dark. Having decided that I wanted to set a story in a Neolithic period, in which we are witness to the very earliest origin of writing, I felt I had a problem. I cringe when I think of certain books and films that try to be authentic with stories set in prehistory. I’m thinking of films like One Million Years BC and so on, where cave men ‘ugg’ and ‘agg’ at each other and all have names with at least one K in them. The view of this stage of our history seems to require that we spoke in harsh and guttural tones. For all we know, we spoke in a mellifluous and beautifully lyrical language. But I would have had no more reason to create a language or accompanying atmosphere in that fashion either. The solution I felt was to write that part in free verse, to distance us somewhat from the world, and give it a remote and foreign feel. It meant I could basically avoid dialogue and direct narrative thought, which I felt would have been inauthentic, no matter what I did. So having one part in verse, I thought I should give each quarter a distinct narrative approach.

What are some literary inspirations for this work? Tonally, the third part, The Easiest Room in Hell, reminded me of Lovecraft and the second section, The Witch in the Water, reminded me of Hawthorne. (Maybe I’m totally off-base, but I loved the way each section seemed to allude to other classic works of literature.)

You’re spot on! Lovecraft was a big influence on the feel of Easiest Room – I’d been making some road-trips through New England, and it brought back memories of reading Lovecraft as a teenager. As an Englishman, I love seeing all the English place names transposed to New England – we have such a shared history and I feel fond of it. Lovecraft of course then did his own thing on top of that, and my character Charles Dexter is a direct reference (for those who know) to Lovecraft’s The Case of Charles Dexter Ward. That meant I got to write some poetry in the style that Lovecraft might have done, which was great fun. Witch in the Water has a feel of Hawthorne, I see what you mean, but that wasn’t conscious, though may have come through. I was trying to recreate the tone of classic accounts of witch trials – although I set my story in England, Diane Starkey’s fantastic book, The Devil in Massachusetts, captures what is scariest about all witch trials – the combination of claustrophobia and violence that propels their inevitability. I was also driven for this section by an obscure 60s thriller called Ritual, by David Pinner, from which the classic British horror film The Wicker Man was derived (and no, I’m not talking about the Nicholas Cage version!)

You never seem to write the same book twice! Even this book, which shares traits with Midwinterblood is different in pacing, setting, tone, and even theme. Are you consciously trying to innovate in your writing? Do you just get bored easily? 🙂 Where does the constant innovation come from?

Yes, yes, and I don’t know. Perhaps I should elaborate on that a little bit. Yes, I am consciously trying to innovate, and yes, I do get bored easily. That’s a direct way of saying that I’ve been writing for a reasonably long time now and I nearly stopped two or three times because I didn’t know where to go next. I don’t want to write the same book every time, but that makes things hard because there must be a finite number of times that I can do that. But that’s what I really want to do, and it’s important because to keep on doing things this way means I have to continually find something new to be excited about, and some new way of working. But I’m not complaining, I love a challenge when I’m writing and this makes sure that I keep setting myself new challenges. Where does the innovation come from? I’m not really sure, I think the only thing is that I try to be influenced by as wide a range of books, films and ideas in general in order to keep things fresh. So I don’t know what’s coming next. If I can’t set myself a new challenge, there may be no new books at all, but if there are, I can promise they will offer something new, or something new to me, at least.

Here’s me after reading Marcus Sedgwick’s answers and feeling like I understood the book so much more/wanted to read it again/got the literary moods and references right:

Actually, those are just my faces in general when it comes to Marcus Sedgwick’s books. (I could talk for a thousand years about Midwinterblood – perfect choice, my Printz friends.  What a stunner.) If you haven’t read a Sedgwick book, The Ghosts of Heaven is the perfect place to start.  Buy a copy, check it out from your library or recommend they buy a copy or …. leave a comment to enter to win one!

In any case: read it as soon as possible so we can discuss it and you can share it with your teen patrons!

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Stray by Elissa Sussman – a review, an interview and a giveaway!

Stray Cover
I think there’s something primal about fairy tale re-tellings.  I really do.  And I think that they are a staple of YA because of this very thing, because they say to teen readers: you can pull the sword from the stone, you can evade the evil step-parent, you can save the day.  And, yes, you can wear a beautiful dress and fall in love while doing it.  That’s a message worth hearing, and it’s one that I understand teens are drawn to time after time.  So!  If it’s a fairy tale re-telling, IU am on board.  But even if this weren’t a favorite genre of mine, I would have still absolutely adored Elissa Sussman’s magnificent debut Stray.

I love everything about Stray.  I love the fully realized magical world where women have strong magic that their patriarchal society has turned into a tool to shame and control them. I love the blending of fairy tales in a subtle and dark way – there’s a kingdom tangled in thorns and plenty of fairy godmothers but they are not what you remember and they are most certainly not what you expect.  (This is maybe the part I love the best – I am sick of fairy tale re-tellings where it’s a gentle tweak on the story or a happy kind of twist – Stray is unafraid to put sharper, darker edges on things and that makes it not just stand out from the pack but twice as readable as you rush to find out what happens next and HOW.) I love Aislynn the main character, who is not perfect, who makes stupid mistakes. She has more magic than she can manage and lives in a world that tells her that this is her fault and she must be punished for it. What I love the most about Stray is that it asks teenagers to consider if they agree.  It asks teen readers to actually sit down and think about how magic would be handled and who would try to control it and what a society would do to keep it under control.  What I love most about Stray is that it takes these questions about magic and turns them into questions about our world – about female autonomy, about class inequalities, about justice and love.  It makes the magic, it makes the stakes, real.

That’s what the very best fairy tales, re-tellings or not, do.  And that’s what Stray is.

Stray is on-sale now and I recommend it as a first purchase for public and high school libraries. Your fairy-tale fans will love it but I think it also has high appeal to fans of stories with darker edges.  If you can’t afford to buy a copy, recommend your library purchase one.  ALSO…I’M GIVING ONE AWAY! Aw yes!

I was more than excited when Elissa asked me to be part of Stray’s book tour!  “YES, A THOUSAND TIMES YES,” I instantly replied.  She agreed to answer some of my burning questions about the larger themes and genesis of Stray and they just made me love it more.

She’s also going to give away a copy of Stray AND a very cool tote bag (tote bag with a fairy tale slogan on it, bestill my heart!) to one lucky reader.  All you have to do is leave a comment on this post by October 15th and I will choose a random winner. (US only, please.)

Onto the questions … but first a picture of what you have a chance to win!!

stray and tote

1. The fairy tale influences in Stray are, of course, obvious. But I felt a real Margaret Atwood Handmaid’s Tale vibe, particularly about the subjugation of women, in it. And I loved what you did with the undeniably feminist underpinnings of the story. Am I totally off-base or was this deliberate?

Thank you! I love it when people can see my feminist underpinnings (that sounded dirty). But seriously, yes, it was quite deliberate. I’m a huge fan of THE HANDMAID’S TALE. I think it’s a testament to how little things have changed that so many writers (because there have been several recent, excellent YA books dealing with similar topics) still feel that these are issues that still need to be addressed.

2. But back to those obvious fairy tale elements … there’s a blend of fairy tales and fairy-tale-like elements happening here. What inspired you to weave these particular elements/stories together in this way?

There’s that saying “write what you know”, but I really think it’s “write what you like”. And I really like fairy tales. And feminism. And food. I basically let those things simmer in my brain pot for a few years, occasionally tossing in bits of familiar fairy tales until it turned into the stew that is now STRAY.

3. I know you have a history in animation. Parts of Stray felt, in the very best of ways, like a darker, deeper version of not just classic fairy tales but of the Disney/pop culture variants most teens will be familiar with. Was this intentional? An inevitable byproduct of your work and our culture?

The very first inkling of STRAY was born out of my love for animated movies, and my attempt to reconcile my feminist leanings with my love for a genre that historically has not been very welcoming or respectful of women. I wanted to write a story that addressed the problems I had with most princess movies, while still paying homage to them.

One of the wonderful things about fairy tales is how layered they are. Each new version builds off of the old one. And for me, someone who grew up with Disney films, it made perfect sense to construct STRAY with those pop culture elements.

4. Besides being a genuine pleasure to read – a fairy tale yarn full of action, surprises, strong characters, twists, and a dash of romance – what do you hope teen readers will take from Stray?

I’m a big fan of fantasy and fairy tale retellings, and I find there’s a particular type of heroine that is very popular in these stories. From page one, she has a fully formed feminist identity. She doesn’t want to follow cultural guidelines because she knows they’re restrictive and outdated.

I love those characters and when I was sixteen, I desperately wanted to be them. But I wasn’t. It took a long time for me to understand, let alone verbalize how restrictive the world can be to women, especially ones in their teens. And I’d look at the characters I idolize and wonder “how did they get there?”

There’s a learning curve when you’re that age. You’re just beginning to sort through all the bullshit, trying to figure out who you are and what you believe. Society works really hard to convince young women that sexism is over and that women’s right’s activists are humorless, sexless shrews. Did I prefer to (inaccurately) call myself a “humanist” over a “feminist” when I was in high school? You bet I did.

We expect a lot of young women, both fictionalized and real. I wanted Aislynn to be someone who’s at the very beginning of her journey. I wanted her to be naive, who believes things that maybe she shouldn’t, someone who makes mistakes. Because not all of us have the answer on day one. Or on page one.

5. Can you touch, ever so briefly, on the awesomeness of the title and the levels it works on? What’s the genesis of the title? Also – does this series have a larger name yet and when might we expect the next book? (note how I am politely not asking for any plot details though I crave them wildly!)

The title, as well as the concept of the Path, are inspired by the story of Little Red Riding Hood, and especially by the song “I Know Things Know” from the musical INTO THE WOODS. It’s also where a lot of the wolf imagery originates from – this idea that leaving the path, straying from it, will only lead to bad things.

STRAY and BURN are both Four Sisters Novels, because although each book exists in the same world and often has appearances from familiar characters, each will follow a new protagonist, or in BURN’s case, two new protagonists. It doesn’t have a release date yet, but I am having a really fun time working on it.

(I Know Things Know – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RK81Rv65fgQ)

Thank you SO MUCH, Elissa!  You can find out more about Elissa (including more about her history in animation and with Disney, which I alluded to in the interview) at her website.  Also, I follow her on Twitter and she’s just delightful so you should follow her on Twitter!  Comment for a chance to win this awesome book (and awesome tote, screenprinted by Elissa herself, what!) and hurry up and read it so I can discuss it with the world!

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Far From You by Tess Sharpe – a review & giveaways!

far fromA few weeks ago there was a longform article in the New York Times about scientific studies being done with the goal of proving that bisexuality exists.  I suppose it was interesting enough, reading about the motivations of the researchers, hearing about the history behind studies like this.  And yet.  And yet at the same time … it also felt brutally dehumanizing.

How demeaning – how beyond demeaning – to have your identity up for “scientific debate” like this.  Studies like this?  Real, academic studies and articles about them in a paper as significant as the NY Times?  They are the embodiment of WHY REPRESENTATION MATTERS.

When you see portraits of yourself – your life, your feelings, your struggles – when you see those in the world around you, in popular culture, in mass media: that matters.  It tells you that you are not alone, that you have a right to exist, that people before you have felt this very same thing.

Those of us who work with books for children and teens – we can NEVER forget this.  We can never get tired of sounding like a broken record, of buying and promoting and discussing these books and demanding more. Never, ever, ever.  Because they bring the truth to light.

The truth in Tess Sharp’s masterful debut Far From You is a slippery thing and that is part of what makes this story so very compelling.  What’s true is that Sophie, our main character, used to be an addict.  She got hooked on pain pills after a bad accident and has only recently been clean.  What’s true is that Sophie’s life-long best friend Mina was gunned down right in front of her in shattering, traumatic event.  What’s true is that everyone, even Sophie’s own mother, believes Mina was killed during a drug deal gone bad when she went with Sophie to score. What’s true is that Sophie has just returned home after Mina’s murder and after another stint in rehab.

But everything else, well, that’s not as clear.  Sophie knows the truth is that she was clean and she and Mina were following up on a lead in a story Mina was writing for the paper, which means that Mina was the target not the collateral. But Sophie doesn’t know who attacked them and doesn’t know the lead Mina was chasing And Sophie also knows that, no matter the cost, she is going to get to the bottom of what happened to Mina, no matter what anyone else believes.

One of the things I love the very best about this book (and I love so much about it) is that while there are multiple threads happening at once, it never feels overstuffed or distracted.  Instead, everything comes together to tell the singular story of Sophie finding her own path in the world.  Of course, this is a classic YA narrative and that’s part of what makes Far From You so satisfying – it is familiar and yet very fresh.

Far From You is a mystery: what happened to Mina and why?  How is all connected to the story Mina was digging into?  Sophie knows the scariest thing of all: whoever committed the crime is from their town and knows their stories because they planted drugs on her to throw the investigation off. Far From You is a story of recovery and addiction.  Sophie became addicted to painkillers after she was in a terrible accident that left her in agonizing pain and left her disabled.  How she copes with this and how it changes the person she was is fundamental to the larger elements of the story and her character development.

And I truly believe that beyond all that – Far From You is a love story. It’s a love story about the deep love between friends, between someone you have known for a long time and who has held your hand through the worst of your life.  Definitely.  And it’s also a love story between two teenage girls who have been friends for a long time but are on the cusp of finding themselves drawn to each other in a whole new way.  Yes, Far From You is a bisexual teen romance – one that is tender, tragic, a little swoony in parts, and, yes, very, very real.

I had to literally set the book down to blink back my tears at the moment Sharpe makes it clear that Sophie is bisexual. She doesn’t just like girls and she doesn’t just like boys.  She doesn’t like “only Mina” but then totally boys!  She is drawn to, romantically and physically, both sexes.  This realization is not dismissed, not disbelieved, not over-explained.  It just is.  It’s just part of who Sophie is.  And while it’s an important part of who Sophie is, it’s not the only defining one.  Just as important is the fact she’s a recovering addict, a girl who wrestles with chronic pain, a person mourning loss and trying to get to the bottom of a mystery.  I know it seems like so little but that moment, the moment when it all clears in Sophie’s head that she likes boy and she likes girls – she just doesn’t like this one particular boy … it just took my heart with all it meant. Being bisexual doesn’t mean you’re attracted to everyone.  Being bisexual doesn’t meant you’re attracted to just anyone.  It just means you’re attracted to members of both sexes.  In Far From You it is that simple and that simplicity is beyond. powerful. 

I think teen readers will LOVE Far From You.  The timelines shift between the “now” of Sophie’s life and investigation and the “then” of everything that brought her and Mina to their fateful final night, which creates natural cliff-hangers that keep you turning the pages.  And Sophie is a great lead character: her faults make her feel real and her determination to chart her own course makes her both sympathetic and someone you root for. It’s also the just right mix of sad and mysterious and romantic, with no one element overshadowing the others, giving it wide appeal across readers.

But more than that – I think teen readers NEED Far From You.  It’s a book we’ve been asking for. It’s a book that brings the truth to light, that gives faces and hearts and loves and losses and real damn life to bisexual girls and lesbians.  These are portrayals teens need.  This is a book that matters.

Far From You is out today!  You can pick up a copy at your favorite local indie bookstore or online. You can also check out a copy from your local library.  If they don’t have one, suggest they purchase it. Far From You is highly recommended as a first purchase for public libraries and high school libraries.  It’s a book that should be widely shared and widely known. And that’s why I’m giving two away.

How To Win A Copy of Far From You

I know not all library budgets might have the cash in them they deserve.  So since I want YOUR library to have this book on the shelves, I’m giving one away JUST FOR LIBRARIES.  To enter THIS drawing you must be working in a library and you must make sure your copy ends up on your library’s shelves for circulation.  Far From You should be in as many teen hands as possible and the goal of this drawing is to make sure it ends up in your library.

BUT WAIT THERE’S MORE!  I’m giving away another copy … that’s signed by Tess Sharpe!  Tess has awesomely agreed to sign a copy for my other winner.  You can keep this one, share it with a lucky teen, give it away as a drawing prize, whatever you’d like.  THIS drawing is open to everyone.

All you have to do is comment on this post (with a working way to contact you) and mention which drawing you are entering.  I’ll choose two random winners on Tuesday, April 14, so make sure you’ve entered by then..  Sorry, no international entries.

I am so glad I had the experience of Far From You.  It was an amazing read that was also a humanizing moment of recognition.  Far From You is the truth and, more than that, it’s the way into the light.


Also worth your reading time: this awesome interview with Tess on Diversity in YA

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Wise Young Fool by Sean Beaudoin – review & a SIGNED GIVEAWAY!

“Give me some genuine emotion. Challenge yourself to be honest instead of merely clever.”

Wise-Young-FoolI read Wise Young Fool for the first time months and months ago.  I have read many and many books since now and then.  And yet.  And yet Wise Young Fool has stuck with me through all that. And yet Wise Young Fool is a book I can’t get away from when I start thinking about not just my “favorites” of 2013 but the books I read in 2013 that I admired, deeply, on a craft level and was, to no small degree, awed by.  Wise Young Fool is a work of art – no really – that is about the power of art, it’s a book that is profoundly sarcastic and mean but also deeply moving.  All these months and months later I am still thinking about how all the pieces of it fit together. THAT is the kind of book Wise Young Fool is.

In a simple summary: Wise Young Fool is the story of how Ritchie Sudden ended up serving 90 days in a juvenile detention facility and, more specifically, the 90 entries in the “diary” he is forced to keep inside said facility, detailing how it is he ended up there.  So, it’s a frame story: the frame of the juvenile detention facility journal revealing the larger story of Ritchie’s life leading up to it.  It is also a frame story about how the completed journal has, ostensibly, ended up at Little, Brown and is now being published.  I know, that feels gimmicky, but Wise Young Fool is really about performances, both the deliberate observed on a stage kind and the deeper, sadder kind we sometimes do to keep people at a distance, and so this second frame story – the idea that Ritchie’s journal, not Sean Beaudoin’s novel, is now being published by Little, Brown – is actually essential to the story Beaudoin is telling about art and performance.  I do not at all think that Beaudoin believes he is “tricking” his teen readers into believing this is “all true” – that’s lazy.  I think, instead, he is asking something bigger of them; he is asking them to observe a story about performance as performance and to believe in the legends we tell.  And he is asking them to step outside the story and consider it as story.  This is ambitious and clever and it really works because it makes you, the reader, believe in Ritchie Sudden as a whisper and a possibility; a kid you might know and a song you might be humming.

Wise Young Fool, then, is a frame story inside a frame story – the journal from the juvenile detention facility framing the story of the year that got Ritchie there and then the larger frame of the manuscript making it to Little, Brown.  I love this kind of daring, I love this kind of craft. Beaudoin’s intricacy and care with the narrative is one of the things I admire most about the book.  But, oh, there are many others.

For instance: I love that this book is all about relationships … but not in the way you think.  This is a book about an extraordinarily close friendship between two slightly off-kilter guys, Ritchie and his bandmate and best friend El Hella. (Elliot to you) I love a friendship in YA done right: not perfect, but about how a real friend is there through all the mess of your life.  This is a book about the relationship Ritchie has with Looper, the woman who is his mother’s new girlfriend. (Looper showed up when Ritchie’s dad left.) Looper doesn’t cut Ritchie any shit and, better still, she talks to him not like an adult but like an adult talks to a teenager that they respect and care for.  It’s a really fully realized relationship and a great example of an adult who is present and there in a teen’s life – can never get enough of that in YA, after all.

And of all the great relationships in this book, best of all, this is also a book about the relationships between Ritchie and two girls: Ravenna and Lacey. Ravenna is the girl Ritchie has always loved from afar and Lacey is the girl that likes him more than he likes her.  And in a lesser book these girls would be lesser characters.  Yet in Wise Young Fool, Ritchie learns how wrong he was about both Ravenna and Lacey and, more than that, they are completely realized characters with their own agency and with their own selfish wants.  Ravenna isn’t just the luscious, sex-bomb dreamgirl Ritchie has lusted over.   Lacey isn’t just the complacent nice girl who pines for Ritchie.  They have their own wants and they make their own mistakes – they connect with Ritchie and even change him in some ways but they do not revolve around him. He is not their whole story and, by that same token, they are not his whole story either.  Ravenna and Lacey are fully realized characters who make the narrator richer and more complicated and they just happen to be girls that he is involved with, drawn to, and compelled to know. Ain’t that a kick in the head?!

Wise Young Fool is exceptionally clever and exceedingly funny.  Ritchie has a smart mouth that never quits and Beaudoin has a particular gift for the kind of high school boy shenanigans that make you wince and grin at the same time.  There are genuine laugh out loud moments laced through a book that is also about serious pain and loss. Ritchie’s loss and pain are great and not so easily escaped.  When Ritchie finds himself in the juvenile detention facility, he thinks that all he needs to do is keep his head down but the brilliance of Wise Young Fool is that it’s really a book about finally taking action in your life and finally confronting the grief and pain you’ve just been trying to keep your head down about.  Ritchie’s journal, his time in the juvenile detention facility; that’s all part of his song and all part of the way Ritchie learns it’s time for him to become active in his life again, to start healing and start coping and, yeah, start living.

There is darkness, grief, and loss in Wise Young Fool but also such damn resilience. It’s a book about how we survive and how we tell our stories through art and creation. And maybe more than anything, Wise Young Fool is a book about finding the right sounds for YOUR life and YOUR family and friends and YOUR story.

Without a doubt, it’s one of my favorite books of 2013.  All these months and months later and I am still thinking about it.  And I feel sure that if you give it a try, you will be too. It’s highly recommended as a first purchase for public libraries and as the exactly perfect book to suggest for your teens that love music, art, sad stories, funny stories, and something so real and true it aches. It’s on sale now and if you can’t buy a copy, go check one out from your local library.  If they don’t have copy, suggest they purchase it.

BUT ALSO!  Because he is the best (and possibly because one night I fangirl’ed over him so hard I scared him a little?)

the awesome and amazing Sean Beaudoin has agreed to give away A SIGNED COPY of Wise Young Fool to one lucky reader.

All you have to do to be entered is leave a comment and I’ll select a random winner. (Recent winners include Lauren of The Raucous Librarian, who won the Meg Medina books and  Karen from Yorkville, IL, who won the Anne Ursu book.  You could be next!)

Wise Young Fool and Ritchie Sudden – the way he gets lost in his pain but pulled back into the world through the strength of the people who believe in him and the power of the music he hears and strums out – they are the song.  I know, if you hear it, you’ll sing along.

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The Fifth Wave by Rick Yancey

the 5th waveThey’re coming for us.  All of us.

“You’re going to keep reading that book even though it gave you a nightmare last night?” My boyfriend teased as I rolled over and reached out for The Fifth Wave.

I’d just finished briefing him on the intense, very scary nightmare I’d had thanks to The Fifth Wave, the book I’d reluctantly put down the night before as sleep swept me away.

I pulled out my bookmark and dove right back into the book.  “No,” I answered, smiling slyly at him.  “I am going to keep reading this book because it gave me a nightmare last night.

THAT’S how good Rick Yancey’s The Fifth Wave is – it gives you nightmares but you just don’t wanna stop.

Longtime readers of the blog will know that I am one of Yancey’s biggest fans – I did a series of posts about his fantastic Monstrumologist series, including an interview with him. I love the way he mixes both literary and genre elements in his work – if there was ever a YA writer who proves you can have your cake (write challenging, interesting literary fiction) and eat it too (that also manages to incorporate elements of genre fiction like horror and sci-fi) it’s Yancey.

Imagine my delight when Yancey’s The Fifth Wave was not just announced but given a full-out media, promotional blitz in the face of the book being optioned as a movie.  Now, don’t get me wrong.  Promotional blitzes usually make ME break out in hives too.  But this book?  This book deserves all the buzz.  Is it because it’s well-written and gripping and an exciting foray into a rarer genre (not just end of the world – ALIENS!) of YA?  Sure, that’s part of it.  But it’s also that The Fifth Wave has something that no amount of publicity blitzes can buy – this is one of “those” books – the kind you just want to talk about, the kind you want to share.

So, the plot is straight-forward enough: aliens attack and, quickly and efficiently start wiping humanity off the map.  There’s plagues and disasters and no attempt at communication.  It’s an honestly upsetting and scary set-up precisely because there’s no in-depth discussion of how it all happens.  It just happens and you, as a reader, feel as powerless as the rest of the world.  We begin in the woods with a single human survivor, a teenage girl named Cassie who fears she might be the last person in the whole world and, to some degree, is afraid of how much she wishes she was.  Cassie is afraid of humanity, you see, because she doesn’t know who she can trust and because everyone she loves and known has been ripped violently away from her.  For Cassie, human connection is almost as scary as whatever the aliens are up to.

Everything about this works as an opening: you feel Cassie’s ultimate desperation, which really motivates you to keep turning the pages and see how she makes it.  And Yancey excels at the details that bring Cassie’s harsh existence to life – when she talks about going into down to get bottled water because she can’t drink from the stream as it might be contaminated from human bodies somewhere upstream – that’s one of those moments that squeezes your stomach with dread and anticipation and the desire to keep burning through pages.  The book is full of details and moments like this.

Cassie is a wonderful character.  She feels like a real teenage girl who has survived unimaginable things and is now going to keep living and keep surviving no matter what because she just has a very, well, human will to survive.  I think teen readers will love this about her – she pushes past all emotional devastation and just keeps surviving.  This is compelling in a realistic, relatable way.  No matter what, Cassie just keeps on going – a lovely, subtle metaphor for what adolescence can sometimes feel like.  As she sets out to find the single family member she thinks might still be alive, Cassie crosses paths with Evan Walker.  They forge a tenuous bond that, like Cassie, the reader isn’t sure can be trusted.

Cassie and Evan’s story is just one part of The Fifth Wave.  The other major action takes place in a government facility where children and teens are being trained up to be the next generation of remorseless killing machines, sent to wipe out, well, the aliens of course.  Yancey creates a whole other world inside the narrative here and it’s just as brutal and unforgiving as the woods where Cassie finds herself.  And, naturally, inside this supposedly safe and alien-free government zone there is more going on than it first appears.  Here, again, is Yancey’s gift for creating tension that makes it impossible to put a book down.  Something is off here, so off … but what and how and why?  You just have to keep reading to find out the next brutal twist.

I really couldn’t stop reading The Fifth Wave – even as it was giving me nightmares.  It was so detailed and rich that reading it was a pleasure.  Not only can I not wait for the next one, but I totally understand why people can’t stop talking about it, even without a giant publicity push, it feels familiar and yet totally new.  There are twists but they make sense within the story and they motivate you to keep looking at the narrative from new angles.  It’s a story that’s genuinely scary; an end-of-the-world book where I actually felt like the world was ending for the first time in a long time and it filled me with a delicious sense of dread and sorrow.  It has characters to care about and invest in and trust.

This book IS going to be the next big thing.  The Fifth Wave is available today!  If you’re a public library, I recommend you order multiple copies because it’s going to circulate and circulate well. If you’re a reader?  I’d be prepared for sleepless nights you won’t soon regret.

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[a note about Middle Grade Mondays: this project really is starting this week!  Only I’ve decided that instead of Mondays, I’ll be posting on Tuesdays so I can link up with my amazing friend Sarah, aka GreenBeanTeenQueen, weekly middle-grade posts/reviews called Tween Tuesdays.  Yes, I loathe the word tween too, but no need to use it with your patrons, just use all our reviews/recommendations!  And if there’s anyone else interested in joining us, please feel free  to blog/tweet/comment/link along.]

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When We Wake by Karen Healey

when we wake karen healey“You are not the future I wanted. I can’t believe the same stupid shit is still happening. I wanted you to be better!  Be better!”

I wait for it, you know.  I wait for that minute, that second, when I will become tired of dystopias.  And sometimes it comes to me in a flash.  Sometimes I am in the middle of a book or am scanning the summaries of that month’s new releases and I am stuck in the middle of the same old thing for the thousandth time – it’s the end of the world and it’s all so obvious yet the science has no explanation and look there’s some middling, predictable love triangle and one of the guys SEEMS like the “bad” boy but PROBABLY he’s not and OH SURPRISE everyone’s corrupt and somehow this totalitarian government with complete control over everything has just been easily overthrown by a 15 year old, sure! I just can’t read another word.  I am bored and, worse, I am worn out of the entire genre beyond belief. “NO MORE DYSTOPIAS!” I say to myself.  “I’ll read summaries and reviews and skim so I can be up-to-date for booktalking to teens, but no more!” (because, and this part is SO important for me to always keep in mind, my teens still clamor for dystopias.  They are easy sells, they fly off the shelves, they are constantly requested.  I’ve got to buy them and I’ve got to know them. My HIGH-FALUTIN’ ~FEELS do not enter into the reader’s advisory part of my job.) And I mean it!

But then … then there’s one I have to give a shot.  Someone I trust promises me this one is worth it.  It’s a summary I can’t resist.  So, I give just this one a shot and … I am reminded all over again why I love this genre – these dystopias, the post-apocalyptic worlds where teenagers are fighting for survival and figuring out their identities all at the same time. I picked up When We Wake by Karen Healey for a simple reason: she’s one of my Morris authors.  Karen’s debut Guardian of the Dead was one of the five finalists for the 2011 Morris, the year I was a member of the committee.  So, her books are always meaningful to me and, of course, always instant-reads. But still!  Even loving Karen Healey, I was not prepared for the wonderfulness of When We Wake.

When We Wake begins in 2027 on the last day of Tegan Oglietti’s life.  It begins again when Tegan awakes 100 years in the future, the first person to be successfully revived from cryogenic freezing.  Now Tegan must find out who she is 100 years later, the entirety of her world swept away from her in the blink of an eye, and she must also figure out what kind of world she’s now living in and what her part in it all is.

What I Love About This Book

Where to begin with all I love about When We Wake?  How about here: what a loving, wonderful portrayal of teen activists.  What a glorious thing to find in a YA book, a YA fantasy book at that: teenagers who aren’t just in a story to fall in love, who don’t just topple governments with a single flashy action, but who are there, on the streets, doing the every day work of protesting and organizing for change.  That is true both in 2027 and 2127, the teens we meet are interested in the world, in politics, in issues like immigration reform and justice.  These are teenagers I know and have known, smart and passionate and curious.  And this is a real strength of the book – a future world, yes, but with grounding in the here and now, with sympathetic and realistic characters.

I love that when Tegan awakes she finds herself, yes, in a totally foreign world.  It is, after all, 100 years in the future.  And yet.  And yet it’s still a recognizable world.  That’s another thing that wears me out about round after round of dystopias – it’s 150 years in the future but we’ve lost all previous human language and all live in a complete totalitarian  regime in a landscape almost ruined by plagues and natural disasters but, really, everything’s mostly recovered, well the grass is longer.  Uhhh … well that time table seems slightly off to me. The world Tegan finds in 2127 is different, of course, it has different technology and slang and great strides have been made in a lot of social issues. Yet in many ways, the world is still recognizable to Tegan.  People still play guitar and love music, there are still cliques at high schools, there’s still a voracious media and online world to sink into and be wary of.  Because this is a world where things seem real and familiar it’s a world where it’s much easier to feel the stakes, the real costs and risks of Tegan’s choices.  Again, this is a frankly brilliant take on the futuristic novel and the dystopia.

In fact, note my use of the word dystopia.  There’s plenty right in the world of 2127 – and Tegan, from a time when the world seemed to be tearing apart, can’t help but see all that.  What’s amazing and rich and nuanced about Healey’s work is that, within all of this, within Tegan knowing all of this – there’s still things wrong, very wrong,  in the world Tegan finds herself in.  A lot of what makes the novel IMPOSSIBLE to put down (I ripped through it) is how Healey ratchets up the stakes and the suspense to reveal just how deep this wrongness goes.  Usually in a typical dystopia the bad is so bad and the good is so good that very rarely do readers have a chance to look around at the world the author has built for them and, without having to side with a genocidal lunatic, think  “But, really, is it all bad?” But that’s a real choice Tegan faces, a real puzzle she must untangle.  How bad is the bad and what exactly will I, Tegan Ogiletti, do about it?  What a question!  And, thanks to Healey’s amazing prose, what an answer we are given!

When We Wake is available to purchase now. If you can’t purchase one, go check out a copy from your local library and if they don’t have one, request they add it to their collection!  It is highly recommended for readers aged 13-18 and as a first purchase for public libraries, especially if you have a crowd who eats up end of the world books but also hungers for something new.

I return to the title – this isn’t just a story of When I Wake.  The WE is there for a reason.  This is a story of awakening, coming of age, and, most moving to me, of choosing to pick up the fight when something is unjust.  We are called awake and into this world with great passion and clarity thanks to Healey’s writing.  In a crowded field of books I thought I was all burned out on, When We Wake is special indeed.  It helped reignite my passion for dystopias and, best of all, it gave me something to think about.

(Here’s a Tor review of When We Wake that I absolutely loved and a fantastic Twitterview with Healey by Kim at Stacked.)

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Laini Taylor’s DAUGHTER OF SMOKE AND BONE: a review, an interview, a GIVEAWAY!

Lush.

If I had to pick just one word to describe Laini Taylor’s startlingly original new novel Daughter of Smoke and Bone that word would be:  lush.

Lush in every definition of the word – full of sensory detail, a world that you can sink right into and be totally immersed.

If you follow YA lit, you’ve probably heard the buzz around Daughter of Smoke and Bone.  Besides the rapturous professional reviews (four starred reviews and counting) it currently has a perfect 5 star  “average customer review” on Amazon and 63% perfect 5 star review rate on GoodReads.  So, basically, what you’ve been hearing has probably been pretty damn positive.

But I’m here to tell you that whatever you’ve heard about Daughter of Smoke and Bone,  which was released here in the USA this Tuesday, no matter how glowing and positive it might have been, it just doesn’t do justice to the lush surreality, the almost painful beauty of this book.  I’ve never read anything like it, YA fiction or not, and it’s exciting that something this challenging, this haunting, this complicated is being published for young adults.

Daughter of Smoke and Bone is the story of Karou, a beautiful, mysterious art student who lives in Prague.  Karou has a secret, a secret even she doesn’t fully understand.  While she lives in our world, she also has a life in “elsewhere”, a world beyond our sight full of magic Karou doesn’t quite understand.  She runs errands, dangerous errands that span the globe, for a chimaera named Brimstone, a creature who raised her and just might know the secrets that Karou longs for, namely who she is. When Karou and Akvia, a beautiful creature with wings, meet and engage in a bloody fight in Marrakesh, it’s the beginning of Karou’s story unfolding and changing in a way she couldn’t predict.  Karou is about to discover the truth about the world she thinks she’s always understood and find out who she really is.

Daughter of Smoke and Bone is a violent, passionate, complicated novel.  When I gave to 16 year old Xian, one of my most avid readers and reviewers,  I told her, “This one is unlike anything you’ve read before.”  She rolled her eyes and smiled.  The next day, already in the middle of the book, she came back to tell me, wonder in her voice, “This is like nothing I’ve read before.”

What works best about this book is that sense of wonder, the way Karou and her world spring off the page: full of sensory detail and an ominous, precarious sense of something wrong – something hidden lurking just around the corner.  When Taylor unravels the plot of just what’s hidden (and why!) you can’t help but marvel at the brutal perfection of it, to gasp at everything you haven’t known about the story.  It’s stunning and shocking and terribly perfect and unfair and wonderful, all at once.  It’s the kind of plot reveal that makes you go back and read the whole book over again, so you can revel in the details and spot even more the second time around.

So, yeah, you’re reading another YA book about demons and angels and star-crossed lovers … but with Taylor’s masterful use of form and craft, with all the twists that squeeze your heart until you think it might burst, with every complicated moral question that sends your head spinning, with every passage you want to read out-loud just so you can savor the way the words feel on your tongue: you’ve never read anything like this before.

Since this post is part of the official blog tour for Daughter of Smoke and Bone, now YOU have a chance to win your very own copy!  Little & Brown is giving away one finished copy to a US resident.  (Thanks, LBYR, you’re the best!) All you have to do is leave a comment on this blog no later than Friday October 7 and I’ll choose one random winner.

If you want more info about Daughter of Smoke and Bone, Little & Brown and Laini have an amazing online presence for the book, from book trailers to excerpts and more.  Check it out at the following places (the official website is pretty much the best ever):

If you want other chances to win a copy or to just read more of Laini’s awesome Q&A (there’s great questions and, OMFG, sketches of Karou!) please visit the other blogs that are part of the tour: Presenting Lenore, The Story Siren, Books Complete Me, and (as of Friday) The Compulsive Reader.
Being part of the official tour also means I got to ask Laini some questions about Daughter of Smoke and Bone, which was really the most exciting part of all.  She gave awesome, intriguing answers.  You must, must, must read her responses!

Laini Taylor Interview

ME: From the beginning, I was struck with what a great feminist text this is!  There are such strongly realized the female characters in this book.  Karou and Zuzana have a great friendship full of support for each other and Karou, herself, is fully-formed, assertive, curious, and determined.  It’s sometimes hard to find such fully realized female friendships and characters in fantasies or paranormal titles.  Did you specifically approach writing this relationship and writing Karou with this in mind?

LT: Well, I knew I wanted to have a strong character and that she would be a girl. Before any considerations of theme or ideas, I’m always thinking of story first, and relatability, and wish-fulfillment. I want to write stories that readers will want to climb inside of and live in, characters that people will want to inhabit for a time. I have spent some time trying to figure out what it is that does that, what creates that magic, but I’m not sure I could articulate it. Mainly, I am targeting myself as a reader and hoping that if I write the book that *I* want to live in, that others will too.

Karou has a lot of fantastical qualities. In so many ways, she’s who I wish I could have been as a teenager: talented, resourceful, quirky, unique, mysterious, tough, and oh yeah, beautiful. But she’s also nice, and she’s a little dark, a little sad. She has the same longing to be loved that any girl has, the conflicting impulses: to be strong and independent, but also to seek love and acceptance from possibly undeserving boys. I hope that in spite of her fantasy elements, she has a true emotional core.

Where Zuzana comes into things is, on the one hand, a practical matter. A main character must have someone to talk to, someone to reveal to. Dialogue and interaction are the lifeblood of a book. Zuzana stands in for the reader in discovering Karou’s secrets. But she’s more than a device, of course. She’s a lifeline for Karou.

Having just one good friend can get a person through a terrible time, and Zuzana is Karou’s one good friend. She was so much fun to write. Some characters immediately take over, and she was one of them. And when I go back to her, even to write a tweet for her (@rabidfairy; Karou is @bluekarou) she comes back instantly. It makes me love her, she feels so real and immediate to me.

ME: You and your husband Jim Di Bartolo are both artists and your last title Lips Touch, Three Times had illustrations by Jim.  In this book, Karou herself is an art student who is constantly sketching the world around her.  Did you consider including some of her fantastical illustrations or did you want to leave that more to your reader’s imagination?  Did you make character sketches to help you with the design and, in my perfect dreamworld, is there a chance we might get to see them someday?

LT: Ha ha! I did originally imagine this book looking like Karou’s sketchbook, embellished with some of the art that’s mentioned in the text. I think that would be amazing, but I do also think there’s a lot to be said for leaving the visualizing entirely up to the reader. I’m always so bummed when a cover image depicts a character in a way I don’t agree with. It can affect the reading experience profoundly. So I was happy that the cover is obscure. As for interior art, it would be so fun to work with Jim to create some of Karou’s sketchbook some day, in some capacity.

ME: Without giving away too many spoilers, it’s safe to say chimaeras are a big part of this story!  I was struck with what a resonant metaphor this is for adolescence, which not only makes the plot stronger but really makes this story especially relevant and interesting to teen readers.  Did you think about those connections while you were writing?  Was there something in particular that drew you to writing about chimaeras?

LT: Hm. I think you’d have to tell me what you mean about the adolescence metaphor. It wasn’t conscious. I don’t tend to think of those things consciously while writing, but I am always fascinated to find them “in the lint trap” after the fact! I learn a lot about myself by what sorts of themes recur in my writing.

Why chimaera?

They’re visually intriguing, they’re not vampires or werewolves (not that I don’t love vampires or werewolves), and they stand in well for “devils.” I have a fascination for world folklore, and I love playing with the notion that it could be based on real sightings. This has cropped up in my other books too. In my Dreamdark books, djinn feature prominently, but they aren’t what humans think they are. The idea is that humans see just enough to get the story all wrong. In the case of chimaera, sightings throughout history could conceivably account for all devil and monster lore—even gods and goddesses. Issa’s tribe, the Naja, could have been the inspiration for serpent goddesses that are fairly prevalent in mythology.

And because they defy our standards of beauty, chimaera would naturally be classed as evil, while beautiful angels would be presumed good and godly.

But really, everything in the book is an outgrowth of one freewrite. Giving myself permission to write anything at all just for fun, what emerged was a scene in which a blue-haired teenage girl argued with her monstrous father figure. Brimstone came into being that day, ram horns and all, and all the chimaera grew from him.

Thank you, Laini for such amazing answers! (and yes, the chimaera are a great metaphor for adolescence: Who am I?  How can I feel like so many things at once?  Why do I sometimes feel monstrous and sometimes feel beautiful, why am I a little bit of both all at the same time?  Good stuff!)

Daughter of Smoke and Bone is highly recommended as a first purchase for all public and school libraries – it has HUGE appeal for a wide swath of readers: those looking for a new fantasy series to fall in love with, those who want something different than the same book they’ve read a hundred times, those who want to challenge themselves, and those who just love a good, old-fashioned, heart-stopping, star-crossed lovers love story.  This book will fly off your shelves and start discussion with your teens.  And, of course, it will leave you in agony for the next volume in the series.  As for me, I’m already counting down and, believe me, the minute you turn the last page … you will be too.

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Leviathan and Behemoth by Scott Westerfeld (or: perfect books are perfect)

There comes a moment when you’re reading Harry Potter when you stop thinking about Quidditch, about quaffles and beaters and chasers and bludgers, and you just know it.  Which is not to say that, suddenly, you have every single rule figured out and know exactly what’s happening in every second.  It’s that you just accept Quidditch – you know enough to know enough and then, like that, you’re sailing along in a match.

I think this is the moment when you well and truly fall in love with Harry Potter – when you become fully immersed in Rowling’s universe in a way that you never really shake after that.

I thought of that moment when I stopped trying to figure out every single scientific and anatomical detail about how the giant, genetically created flying airship/animal known as the Leviathan works or was created.  At some point, and I don’t remember exactly when it was because it never works like that, not really, at some point, I stopped concentrating and worrying about all that and was, instead, just aboard the Leviathan.  I just knew.

And that’s the moment I fell well and truly and permanently in love with Scott Westerfeld’s Leviathan trilogy, a steampunk, historical alternative universe set in 1914, and the richly dense fictional world he’s created: a world filled with fantastical beasties and brave girls disguised as boys and labyrinth political intrigue and revolutions and exiled princes on the run and danger and adventure and huge, elaborate mechanical devices and, of course, true love.

Sure, I’m still waiting for my letter from Hogwarts.  But now?  Just as much?  I’m waiting for my recruitment papers from the Royal Air Service.

I’ve talked a little about how hard I tried to love Leviathan and how, time and again, it just didn’t work for me.  (and how it was the superb audiobook versions that really pulled me in) But my teens?  They have loved Leviathan from the beginning and the love it, passionately, across every reading demographic you can imagine: boys who are into steampunk, girls who love romance, reluctant readers, advanced readers, readers who hate sci-fi, readers who’d never try historical fiction.  And while that made me very happy, it still wasn’t doing for me.  Too much jargon,  too hard to really get into.  But I kept trying, because my teens kept insisting.  They would entreat me time and again:  “Please, we need to discuss it!”  So this is the series, above all other I have encountered in my 4 years working with teens, that the teens had to sell me on first, simply because they had to talk about it.

And that, I think, speaks to the key of the appeal of the Leviathan series.  There’s all this complicated world building, advanced machinery, behind the scenes political machinations, and feats of great derring-do and adventure.  Not only are those things that get teens turning pages, those are things that get teens talking.  Those are the things that make Westerfeld’s Leviathan universe one that feels lived in and the things that make you want to live there.

I don’t particularly want to spend this whole post going over the minutiae of the plot.  For one thing, no explanation really does the rich plot justice; it really is the kind of book that unfolds in the best ways like a puzzle with each detail weaving a larger picture.  For another thing,  because of the complexity of this universe, you’d just get caught up in a boring plot-point recitation.  “And then she, but then he, but also don’t forget in this universe that …”

But I do want to talk, briefly, about our two lead characters: Deryn “Dylan” Sharp and Prince Aleksandar Ferdinand of Hohenberg.  And what utterly lovely lead characters they are!  How fully rounded, how realistically flawed, they are!  How easy it is to care for them, to root for them, to feel for them!  Deryn, the common girl who pretends every day to be something she isn’t, who changed her name and joined up with the Royal Air Service so she could fly.  Deryn, who is an excellent midshipman, always up for dangerous missions and routine duties. Deryn, who must learn to rely on others, to temper her recklessness with thoughtfulness, who like so many teens struggles with who she is and who everyone thinks she is.  Deryn, who finds herself immediately drawn to Alek from the moment they meet, who becomes his best friend and fierce ally because it’s the right thing to do as she also finds herself, much to her great surprise, falling in love with him.  And who wouldn’t love Alek?  Alek, who is brave and loyal and good in the best sense of the word.  Alek, who opens his mind to the new world of the Darwinists and wants justice and right to prevail.  Alek, who has no idea that his best friend is a girl in love with him.  Alek, the Prince on the run who is learning that whatever his destiny might be, he has control over it, he doesn’t just have to sit passively and let the world happen around him.  (again, another plot line that is particularly resonant to teens.)

These are great characters, the kind you feel like you truly know, the kind that feel real.  Deryn and Alek take alternating chapters to tell their stories and this is another brilliant move on Westerfeld’s part.  Besides the fact it’s yet another element that keeps the pages turning, it also gives their stories and characterization freedom to grow independently and gives readers a chance to really live inside each of their perspectives.

Today is the publication date of Goliath, the final volume in the trilogy.  I was lucky enough to get my hands on an ARC back in June (there might have been crying and flailing involved…) but I won’t spoil the ending here except to say that it’s a fitting conclusion: full of everything that makes the series great, as well as new characters, a particularly salient “big” question for teens to ponder, and a few surprises too.  In case it wasn’t clear enough, this series is highly recommended as a first purchase for all public libraries.

And now it’s YOUR chance to dive into this world for the first time and I hope you’ll feel the same immersion and exhilaration I did, that same love.  Go to your library or local bookstore and pick up a copy of Leviathan  today – now the series is complete, so you have no excuse to jump right in.  You won’t regret it.

While it’s true that I might not be able to tell you everything about how the Leviathan works as an airship, I know how it works as a story, as a fictional universe that springs to life and lives in your heart.

I know that it flies.

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