Anne Ursu’s The Real Boy – artwork reveal and SIGNED book give away!

Where to begin?  Where even to begin with a book this finely crafted, this breathtakingly realized, this clever, this full of love and aches and metaphors and, yes, magic? (but not the magic you’re thinking of – not the easy kind, not the kind that comes without consequences.)

The Real Boy is the story of Oscar, a shop’s boy for a magician in a land where magic and charms are bought by the very rich for their every little whim.  Oscar is no apprentice, mind you, he’s a boy who doesn’t know how to interact with people – who stays in the shadows and quiet to feel safe.  The “real” world, the world outside his plants and his companionship with his cats, is sometimes so scary and overwhelming to him that Oscar sometimes wonders if there’s something wrong with him.  But he doesn’t have to think of this much, not as long as he stays safe and tucked away, not as long as the magic works and the kingdom where he lives, the lovely Aletheia, stays protected and blessed by this magic.  It’s only when things start going wrong, very wrong, with the magic, with Aletheia, with everyone around Oscar that he is tasked with finding out the truth about the world he has taken for granted and the truth about what makes him so different. 

The best stories, the ones we tell over and over again, the ones we hug close, the ones that connect with something deep inside us, the best stories weave magic without ever once showing you where the seams are.  To be more precise and less florid about it – the best stories never show you their tricks and they never make their metaphors obvious.  This is what I love about Anne Ursu’s The Real Boy and *this* is what makes it one of the best stories: she takes what is such a thudding obvious metaphor (a boy who feels “wrong” and “not real” learns that he is in charge of his own identity and even destiny) and uses the magic of craft – rich language, fully-rounded characters, a well-paced, well-realized plot, to never once let you see it showing.  Instead, when all the pieces of The Real Boy click into place, you suddenly understand what story you’ve been hearing all along, and in that moment it all hits in the right places.

I’ve read The Real Boy three times since I received my first advance copy from the publisher months ago.  Every time, I have found some new detail in the way the story is put together.  Every time, I have found another passage of simple, clear, evocative writing. And every time I have admired the way it all clicks: the coming of age elements, the subtle jabs at using “magic” to escape the hard work of living, the way lies so often go unspoken by those in power because they make it easier to live with selfish actions and retain their control.

Since my first read of The Real Boy I was in love with the geographic reality of Aletheia.  Great fantasies have great fictional worlds and that’s what Ursu creates here.  Aletheia has magic forests, a vast terrain of mountains and rivers, blighted Plaguelands, and a city ringed with magic.  After much begging, the kind people at Walden Pond Press agreed to let me be part of the artwork reveal for The Real Boy.  In an instant, I asked if I could feature the map of Aletheia because, to me, it’s the perfect invitation to the wonder of this world. They agreed!  So, today, I am so happy to be able to bring you a glimpse at Aletheia.

Aletheia

All artwork copyright © 2013 by Erin McGuire

The Real Boy is a not always a nice, safe story.  Characters, characters central to the story, are killed.  Adults do terrible, selfish things and let children down.  In fact, in many ways this story reminded me of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials series – where children are used and disguarded by the powerful adults in their universe; specifically by adults who are grasping at some kind of ephemeral magic.  And The Real Boy is scary in other ways too; ways about how frightening it is to know there’s something different about you, ways about how hard it is to step out of the safety of your childhood and into the wide, often harsh world.  These are themes that will resonate with children even if they aren’t fully conscious of why and how.

Really, there are so many elements of The Real Boy that are resonant with childhood’s struggles and triumphs: that’s one of the reasons I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it for months and months.  The Real Boy asks children BIG questions: how do we know who we are?  How do we “fit in” if we’re different?  What price would you pay for the simplicity of magic … and would you still pay it if you discovered that simplicity wasn’t so simple and cost more than you’d ever imagined?  There are no easy answers to these questions and this book doesn’t pretend to offer them.  To do so would betray the very things Ursu works so hard to create in this narrative.

What power there is in this story, what painful beauty. As Oscar unravels the very unpleasant secrets that live in the very soil of his country, of the shining city on a hill that he thinks he understands, he comes, through learning, challenging himself, and creating a support network, to discover the best of truths:

it is being different that makes us real.

The Real Boy is one of my favorite books of 2013 – heck, one of my favorite books of ever.  It’s currently longlisted for the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature and it is my dearest wish that it’s in serious discussion for the Newbery.  It’s out now and you can buy it!  If you can’t buy it, check it out from your local library.  If they don’t have it, request they purchase it.

AND because Walden Pond Press is so completely amazing, they not only let me share some art from the book but they’re giving away a signed copy to one blog reader.  All you have to do is leave a comment on this post before October 18th.

The Real Boy is highly recommended for readers aged 7-12 who like fairy tales with deep thoughts, heroes and heroines who step up and stand up, and, well, for any children you know who are different.  It will help them to know that their life, their real life, is theirs to experience on their own terms.

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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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An Open Letter to US Publishers: PLEASE Publish Kirsty Eagar

It started back in November.

At the 2012 YALSA YA Lit Symposium (another fine year at the Sympoisum, let me add!  I’ve been to all three. I’ve loved, learned, and networked at all three more than any other professional event I’ve ever attended.  Oh, and I’ve presented at every one too! I am double plus excited it’s happening every year now.  Rock on, YALSA.) the very first program I attended was Globalize Me! Young Adult Literature from Outside the U.S.  presented by Catherine M. Andronik and Adele Walsh.  The first time I heard the title, I thought it was going to be about all global literature for teen (which I am totally interested in, by the way.  Do teens in Japan also read paranormal books?  Does YA lit exist in other countries the way it does here?  And long-time readers know of my deep affection for Canadian YA/middle grade.) but reading the description I saw a specific mention of Australia as the focus which was ALSO interesting to me, since there seems to be so many amazing YA books coming out of Australia.

LITTLE DID I KNOW THE AMAZINGNESS THIS PROGRAM WOULD BRING INTO MY LIFE.

Catherine Andronik spoke first.  She had a break-down of Australian (and foreign) winners of the Printz Medal/Honor.  Frankly, until I’d seen it all laid out in her post, I hadn’t really thought about the percentages that way.  (It also reminded me about the wonder that is One Whole and Perfect Day by Judith Clarke.  Well done, 2008 Printz committee!)  It was an interesting stat to think about and to really marvel that the Printz allows for international submissions – I’ve discovered some wonderful writers that way.  Andronik is an academic doing research about this and I hope it gets published, I’d love to read it. After Adronik was Adele Walsh.  Adele is the program coordinator for The Centre for Youth Literature at the State Library of Victoria. Adele had come all the way from Australia to talk to us about the Australian publishing industry and, specifically, some of the authors being published in Australia who aren’t widely read or even published in America and the UK.  How could I have known the amount of money Adele was going to cost me in Australian shipping costs?  HOW COULD I HAVE KNOWN!

Adele talked primarily about four authors: Gabrielle Williams, Vikki Wakefield, Leanne Hall, and Kirsty Eagar.  Gabrielle has one book published in the US (Beatle Meets Destiny, 2009) and Vikki has one forthcoming. (Friday Brown, Simon & Schuster, 2013).  Leanne Hall and Kirsty Eagar don’t currently have US publishing deals. Adele talked about the books that hadn’t been published in the US.  Each one sounded fascinating to me. She booktalked:

  • Vikki Wakefield’s All I Ever Wanted – an  intense contemporary about a girl living with a drug dealing mother and trying not to become her.
  • Leanne Hall’s This is Shyness – magical realism infused with urban fantasy and something unnameable, a truly disquieting and original book that takes big risks with form.
  • Gabrielle William’s The Reluctant Hallelujah  – about a girl who discovers family secrets she never imagined and falls in love while defending on a wild and dangerous cross-country road trip taken to protect an important religious icon that just happens to be… no, I just can’t say any more.
  • Kirsty Eagar’s Raw Blue – the story of a young woman recovering from intense trauma through her love of surfing.

Adele talked about other titles and authors too, as well as the literary awards these authors had received.  By the time Adele was done with her presentation I had a list a mile long of books I planned to order from Australia.  (Thanks, Fishpond!)  The plan was to start with the four she had booktalked … until I discovered Kirsty Eagar had a paranormal book called SALTWATER VAMPIRES.  My friends, I am only human.  No human can resist SALTWATER VAMPIRES.  So, I ordered that one instead and before I’d even left the symposium, four books were on their way to me from Australia.  Meanwhile, Adele insisted I also had to read Raw Blue, so I found it used on Amazon and it to my pile.

Now, I really liked all of the books Adele recommended.  Honestly and truly.  US Publishers, you need to hop on them right away.  This is Shyness – I don’t even know WHAT that book was.  I’ve never read ANYTHING like it.  But it was awesome.   All I Ever Wanted?  You wouldn’t be able to booktalk it fast enough for your reluctant readers and fans of Ellen Hopkins.   The Reluctant Hallelujah – is the soul-twin of Going Bovine and is perfect for your teens who love literary fiction with a little twist.  I liked these books to the point where I’d buy them for my library and recommend them to my teens.  But when it comes to Kirsty Eagar … I love Kirsty Eagar. saltwater

Saltwater Vampires is unlike any vampire book, any paranormal book period, I’ve ever read.  Saltwater Vampires makes the brilliant and dark choice to use the wreck of the Batavia (a horrific true-life tragedy wherein survivors of a mutinied shipwreck descended into utter savagery and madness) as the centerpiece for its dark happenings.  ONE reason this really works is because it imbues its villains with some genuine, deep-seeded menace.

Saltwater Vampires, through a sea of vampire books (teehee), managed to remind me why there is something elemental about horror, particularly YA horror.  There is some bad shit out there, YA horror says, and the adults in this world might help or they might be behind it and this bad shit?  It’s got fucking claws and it’s coming after you – and it can look just like the person you’ve been best friends with your whole life.  It can look just like you. 

Saltwater Vampires is a dark, violent, twisty horror novel full of surprises and boy, is it FUN.  Yes, there are some more complicated, literary elements of it (the historical elements, lots of evocative descriptions of surfing, an Eagar hallmark) but make no mistake, it’s a page-turner that’s handily packed with blood, sex, raves, violence, and VAMPIRE SLAYING.  Believe me, American teens would read that even if it uses slang and is set on the Western coast of Australia.

The second I was done tearing through Saltwater Vampires I started Raw Blue.  Yet again, I had no idea what I was in for, because this book blew. me. away. Raw Blue  Raw Blue is the story of Carly, who has dropped out of university, left her hometown and is “wasting her potential” by surfing all day and working at a restaurant.  Readers know there’s something truly traumatic in Carly’s background and Eagar, in an unbelievably delicate and well-crafted way, lets readers into the full story of this trauma much in the way Carly might recall it; slowly and with no small measure of agony.  This is not an easy book to read.  But, God, it’s a rewarding one, an unforgettable one.  This is a book that will stay for me for always, that makes me so glad I do what I do.

Look, Raw Blue needs to be published in America if for no other reason than I can shove it in the face of all those NEW ADULT people. Raw Blue, featuring a character who is out of high school, working a full-time job, healing after an intense trauma and, eventually, establishing a real relationship, is… STILL A YA NOVEL.  It does not need another label, a NEW ADULT label, because it is a YA book – a YA book for mature and older teen readers, yes.  A YA book with adult appeal, yes. But this book is a YA book in every way, the themes are YA themes: negotiating a relationship with your parents, taking shaky steps into a new kind of romantic relationship, and learning to define your identity on your own terms.  Through and through, this is a YA book, a helluva YA book, an original and daring YA book,  about a 20 year old and that’s that.

Kirsty Eagar has one other book, Night Beach.  I have it all loaded up on my Kindle and ready to read and I’m sure it’s going to be just as stunning, ethereal, and original as her other two books.  Yes, that’s the good news, Kristy Eagar’s three books are now all available for Kindle.

This is a good start, America!   BUT US PUBLISHERS, YOU CAN DO SO MUCH MORE.  Publish Kirsty Eagar’s books.  Take a chance on them with US audiences.  You want to find the next big thing in YA?  Try looking a little farther afield.  These books are something different, I won’t lie.  But that doesn’t mean they don’t have teen appeal, that doesn’t mean they aren’t readable and awesome.  They are different and that is glorious.  Something different (something different that is also something GOOD) is how you avoid a glut in the market and declining reader interest. US PUBLISHERS, IT IS TIME: PUBLISH KIRSTY EAGAR’S BOOKS!  Just pick one up and give it a read and I KNOW you’ll see in her work what I saw and, like I did, you’ll want to share her work with a wide American audience of readers.

As for me, Night Beach is my next to be read then it’s off to plot for a way to visit Australia and load up on books in person. . .

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“Movies really can make it better.” Dani Noir by Nova Ren Suma

Welcome to 2012!!  The blog lives!  Sorry for the absence – I just went through one of those periods when I couldn’t quite get a blog to come out the way I wanted.  I was still reading and tweeting away, but blog just wasn’t happening.  One of the things I love the most about my site is that I never feel pressure to write anything but what I want when I want.  If it’s not right, it’s not right.  I hope there’s still a few people around and reading though!  🙂  I do hope all of you will bear with me through these periods.  And you can follow me on twitter: @misskubelik, where you can always finding me throwing out opinions and reviews.  Anyhow, I’m back and ready to rock 2012 with lots of blogs I’ve had in mind:  reviews of all sorts of stuff I’ve loved, some programming info, basically just things to get me motivated and writing again.

I also have a few announcements!  I want to start by thanking everyone for entering my last two contests and let you know who the randomly selected winners were.  Jasmine, who blogs at A Room With Books, won the copy of Daughter of Smoke and Bone generously provided by Little, Brown.  (have you read Daughter of Smoke and Bone yet??  What are you waiting on?!) and Jennifer won a copy of Rick Yancey’s The Monstrumologist.  YAY…and thanks to all for commenting and entering.  I like spreading the word about awesome books with people.  Share the good news forward, peeps!

Aaaand … I won something too!  I am super-excited to share that I won the Diversity in YA reading/blogging challenge.  Whooo!  The Diversity in YA challenge was a true challenge for me.  I learned a lot from having the chance to really reflect on what books can do and why they matter.  I was happy just to participate and grateful to Cindy Pon and Malinda Lo for hosting the challenge and consistently promoting Diversity in YA.  WINNING the challenge was even more amazing and exciting.  Thanks to all the publishers and authors for donating their books – the ones that my library doesn’t already own will go right on our shelves and the ones we have will find good homes, either with other librarians or my teen patrons.

Now onto the actual blog being alive part!

Movies can do that: make people forget everything that’s bad about their lives, and bad about the world, even make them ignore the fact that they’ve already run out of popcorn. All that matters is what’s on-screen, that world in black-and-white or bright color, the story that’s got its hold on you.  Movies really can make it better.

I read Nova Ren Suma’s middle grade masterpiece Dani Noir a few months ago, but only recently has the true resonance and loveliness of it hit me.  Dani Noir is lots of things.  It’s a story about a teenager dealing with pain and repercussions stemming from the messy breakup of her parents’ marriage.  It’s a story about that awkward summer when a friend has moved away, everything is changing, and you’re not quite sure what your life is going to be like.  It’s a story about a girl growing up and making mistakes and learning that you can survive your own mistakes, even when they are thoughtless and hurtful.  It’s all that.  And all that is lovely and smart and sharp and well-written.  But Dani Noir is something else too.

Dani Noir is a book about how loving art can not just enrich your life but make it easier too.  More than that though: Dani Noir is a book about being a fan, a book about how being a fan can be an important, productive identity in your life.

Now how cool is that?

Dani is a cinephile.  In fact, this is central to the plot of the novel and her character.  Dani loves film, particularly old films, particularly films starring Rita Hayworth, and particularly the genre of film noir.  (see title.)  During her confusing, lonely summer Dani will find comfort and solace in film.  She will see her story in film, though not always in the most positive way, and she will try to use film to make sense of her life.  This is what we cinephiles do, you see, this is what we look to the big screen for.  In this summer of growth and pain, Dani will come to understand that film, that art, can be a tether to what’s good in life and a way to find like-minded friends and conspirators, people who speak your language and want in on the conversation.

I can’t remember the last time I read a YA/MG novel that was so sharply accurate about the power of that connection.  Maybe, frankly, never.  I kept waiting for the other shoe to drop: for an overwrought scene where someone shouts at Dani that “LIFE ISN’T LIKE THE MOVIES, WAKE UP ALREADY!” In this scene, the character would completely misunderstand what it means to take refuge in art, what it means to let movies take you into another world.  Dani would eventually come to see how wrong she was about everything, how real life is so much more satisfying than anything you could ever see on some old screen!  And yet that scene never came.  No, not at all.

In fact, the opposite happened.  Dani came to understand that her mistakes, her thoughtlessness and single-minded fixations, were her own.   Dani learned that life was not a film noir movie that she could act as director of regardless of anyone else’s feelings.  And yet she retained her love for film, her ability to see her life in it, her true kinship and connection with the medium. And that’s part of what makes Suma’s characterization of Dani so rich and true: here is a character who changes and grows, makes mistakes and pushes people away, yet retains her passions and interests, is the same character we met at the beginning but a more realized, more mature character at the end.

Even if I didn’t already love everything else about Dani Noir, from the unflinchingly honest way it looks at the emotional impact of divorce and remarriage to the feather-light but still consequential mystery at the core of Dani’s puzzle-solving, I would love this book for one simple reason.  Dani doesn’t have to “give up” film, because film is part of who Dani is.  In fact, Dani gets to share film with the people her world has now expanded to include.  She gets to try new films, new actresses, maybe even new genres.  This love opens her life up, helps her share her fandom and start conversations.  That is what it means to be a fan, the very best, most true parts of it.  Dani Noir and Nova Ren Suma get that and that makes this book truly unique and truly special.

Dani Noir is highly recommended for all middle-grade audiences, it’s particularly suited for middle grade readers who are looking for something truly different and worth their time. The novel takes place over the summer before Dani’s eighth grade year, but there’s definitely lots of early teen appeal here – ages 11-15 are the sweet spot for this book, especially if you know any curious, bright, passionate kids who are fans and fans-in-the-making.  You should buy a copy or go check it out from your local library today.  If your library doesn’t have a copy, request they add it.

Dani is so right: in those moments when you feel alone, on those days when you just need to escape, movies really can make it better.  And so can books as good as Dani Noir.

(Dani Noir will be re-released as Fade Out in June, 2012.  Personally, I’m not exactly crazy about the new title or cover but if it gets more people reading the book – hooray!)

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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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Fiction As A Lifeline -“The Piper’s Son” by Melina Marchetta

I use fiction as a way to interpret my life and survive my hurts

I was going to try to get to that, like, eventually.  I was going to make a bunch of big grand allusions and metaphors and then, ta-dah, I would reveal it all cryptic-like.  Ooooh, everyone would marvel I see what she did there!  So clever! But really, what’s the point?  Let’s just go ahead and say it: I use fiction as a way to see myself and my life.   I think the best fiction not only does that, not only helps us see ourselves, but helps us see beyond that, see more than ourselves.

And this is maybe what I love the most:  when I connect with a piece of fiction I connect with the world.

I was reading Melina Marchetta’s new novel The Piper’s Son in a restaurant and when the waitress came over to my table to ask if I needed a refill she was startled when I looked up and had tears rolling down my face.  I wanted to tell her, “Hey, it’s OK, don’t worry, I’m just here with my friend Tom and he’s going through a hard time and I really relate and -”

Because Tom Mackee, the main character in The Piper’s Son feels like a friend to me.  More than a friend, he is so real to me as a character that he is not a character any more – he’s just a guy I know.

Except now he doesn’t know what kind of family they are.  What word would define them?  What would they call his family in the textbooks?  Broken?  He comes from a broken home.  The Mackees can’t be put back together again.  There are too many pieces of them missing.

To be succinct: The Piper’s Son is a story about a family dealing with grief.  That’s that.  Someone died unexpectedly and it tore a hole in their family and no one quite knows how to recover.  And, of course, anyone reading that sentence knows how that might sound simple but real grief is the opposite of simple and thus so is this text.  Real grief sneaks up on you, grabs you around the throat when you’re least expecting it, real grief finds you on sunny days in the middle of joy, real grief rearranges everything good in your life and makes you feel stranded.

Tom’s uncle died and his close-knit family couldn’t quite bear the strain of it.  His parents became estranged, his father fell into a bottle, and his extended family, including his aunt Georgie, came unglued too.  Where the story gets particularly interesting, especially for teen readers, is that Tom himself unravels everything good in his life.

Tom had a great group of friends, a band he played with, a girl he was absolutely crazy about and finally going to be with.  But grief, bone deep grief, has pulled Tom away from all that.  (Tom doesn’t know it but his grief, as grief sometimes does, has made him think he’s not worthy of anything good, anything joyful.  Marchetta is such a skillful writer that she never expressly states this, she just lets the reader feel how wrong Tom is –  feel that and want, so madly, for him to realize how wrong he is.)  He shuts out his friends, quits the  band, drives away the girl.  He is alone in a sea of hurt and loss and anger because, of course, this is a book smart enough to know that grief makes you so damn angry sometimes.

This is a book about grief, yes, and how grief blows your life apart.  But this is also a book about how you pick up the pieces from that, how the tidal wave of grief can knock you over but how we find our way back to life again.  At the end of the book one of the characters realizes “I need happiness.  I deserve it.” This seemingly simple statement is, instead, a profound declaration

We begin with everything in Tom’s life in shambles.  The Piper’s Son isn’t the story about how all of this fixes itself and Tom stops feeling bad and he gets the girl.   It is the story of how life goes on, about how your best friends will always come for you and never give up on you, about how grief doesn’t stop but it can lessen enough to let joy in, about how when you love the right girl and she loves you back, well, that can get you through a lot of shit.

I feel like … no matter what I do, I’m not doing this story justice.  Because besides all these ~BIG PLOT POINTS WITH EMOTIONAL LESSONS~ this is just a book that grabs you and doesn’t let go.  It’s funny (Tom is sarcastic and smart and mean and charming too) and real and romantic and passionate.  People in this book  care so much and Marchetta makes you care too.  There’s not a single wasted line in this book, it’s all brilliantly constructed, from the metaphor of Tom losing his interest in creating music to the very subtle and strongly drawn story about fathers and sons that runs through the entire narrative.  Tom’s father, a gregarious fellow everyone loved, lost himself in his grief and we learn the story of his family, how his father went off to fight in Vietnam and never came home and he was raised by his father’s best friend, the man who became his step-father.  All of this becomes part of Tom’s family legend, the grandfather whose body never made it back from war, and it haunts Tom’s relationship with his father.

This is very much a story about family – about how our families shape us and hold us up and even, sometimes, let us down when we think we can’t bear it.  Tom is taken in by his aunt Georgie, who narrates some parts of the book.  I know there might be some concern that teen readers won’t find themselves as interested in Georgie’s story as Tom’s, but I think that the two are inseparable.  It’s important to Marchetta’s larger story about grief to show how it’s an equal opportunity monster: adults, like Georgie, don’t have magical coping skills that make them more able to handle bad things.  And not just grief, Marchetta uses this Georgie’s story to let teens in on the great secret.  We adults don’t have all the answers, you know. We fuck up too.  This is an important point for teens and it’s resonant – we’re all figuring this out, we’re all doing the best we can and making mistakes and trying to go on with it.

This is also a love story.  A big, romantic, heart-stopping love story.  First, it’s a love story between a group of friends who won’t give up on each other, even when things are hard, a group of friends who stick together.  (I think teens are going to love that element.)  But it’s also the love story of Tom and Tara Finke, the girl he pushed away as he slipped into sorrow, the girl he can’t forget.  Tom and Tara are inexorably drawn to each other, through the hurts, through the miles that now separate them.  They reconnect through electronic communications and their stumbling, often acerbic reconnection is awkward and sharp and sweet all at once.  Tom loved Tara Finke but even before grief laid him low he was afraid of his feelings for her – because they were BIG and scary and new.  Now he has to decide what to do with all those feelings, if it’s too late to face up to what they mean to him, to what she means to him.  And Tara, because she is a fully-realized character all on her own, has to see if she can find a way to forgive how badly Tom has hurt her.  Of course, I don’t want to spoil it but I will say the scene between the two of them in the airport is one of the most breathtakingly true and heartachingly awesome things I’ve simply ever read.

Who is the target audience for this book?  Tom and his friends are high school graduates, in their early 20s.  Some parts of the story are narrated by 42 year old Georgie.  Adults could easily read (and enjoy) this title.  So is this a YA book?  Absolutely, without a doubt.  This is a story with lots of teen appeal: a story about figuring out your parents aren’t perfect but you can love them anyway, a story about friends that like you even when they see the worst in you, a story about how being an adult doesn’t mean you have all the answers, it just means you get to get an equal chance at trying to figure it all out.  This is a quintessential YA novel, an exemplary example of what the genre can do when it really tries.

The Piper’s Son is a highly recommended first purchase for all public and high school libraries.  You should go purchase one for yourself today.  And if your library doesn’t have a copy, request they buy one.

Maybe strangers enter your heart first and then you spend the rest of your life searching for them.

Tom Mackee was a stranger to me at first.  But by the end of the book, I’d found him and, better still – he’d found me.  He connected me to the world, he let me cry out some deep hurts, and he reminded me that sadness isn’t the end of the story.  The best fiction shows you the truth of the world and The Piper’s Son is that kind of story.

[must read: Liz’s review of The Piper’s Son.
Reviewed from a copy generously provided by the publisher]

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Some Girls Are by Courtney Summers,

“We’re the kind of popular that parents like to pretend doesn’t exist so they can sleep at night, and we’re the kind of popular that makes our peers unable to sleep at night.  Everyone hates us, but they’re afraid of us too.”

At least, that’s the kind of popular Regina Afton used to be.  But this?  This is a freeze-out.

I was a mean girl in high school.  (yes, a mean fat girl.  I know, a head-spinner.) I know that term has kind of lost its sting after the movie, after Tina Fey turned it into a punchline.  Don’t get me wrong, I like that movie a lot too, but it’s a comedy, a good comedy, yeah, but it’s a haha look at “mean girls” in high school.  Ah, how quickly we forget.  There’s nothing haha about it.  The Booklist review suggested this book was good for libraries “where Gossip Girl maintains a loyal following” … but there’s nothing glossy, glamorous, or deliciously soap operatic about the betrayals and hurts in this book: that’s what makes them sting.

Courtney Summers’s Some Girls Are is a look at what mean girls are really like, what it REALLY takes to hang with the most popular and most ruthless girls in high school, the ones that make it impossible for their peers to sleep at night.  It is a raw, riveting, unforgettable look at what it means to suffer through high school hell and still have the courage and determination to not give up.  It’s an amazing book.

Regina is part of the clique that runs her school but after one party goes very wrong and she tells the wrong person about what happened, the group quickly turns on her.  Some Girls Are is the story of how Regina faces high school, and her own past sins, in the aftermath of this incident as her friends quickly go about making her life hell.

And make no mistakes: Regina has done wrong.  Kara, the girl in her group who betrays her, was previously humiliated and  ignored by Regina.  Interestingly, Summers suggests that Kara’s (serious) disordered eating was encouraged by Regina’s pressure.  (acting on behalf of Anna, the Queen of their clique.)

Everyone knows Kara used to be fat until the second half of tenth grade, when she learned to stick her fingers down her throat and started popping diet pills.  She had to wear a wig in her class photo because she was losing her hair; you can see it if you look really closely.  It was the pills or the purging.  And those were only suggestions, anyway.

It’s not like I told her she had to do that to herself. (pg. 28)

Wow.  This is an amazing passage that confronts the real-life consequences of all that supposedly harmless body snarking and constant peer pressure regarding weight and looks that happens all too frequently among teens.  Regina has other memories of how badly she treated Kara:

I stood next to her at Ford’s while she bought the over-the-counter diet pills.  And then, from that point on, I watched her melt.  It made Anna happy. (pg. 86)

Kara didn’t just “think she looked fat in these jeans!” – didn’t just say one or hear one negative thing about her weight: she realized that her standing in the group depended on how she looked and decided that standing was worth her health.  This happens more than we’d like to admit, as adults who work with teens, as adults who live in a culture that constantly tells us “just a few pounds more!” and it’s part of what I liked best about this book.

What I Love About This Book

The list could go on forever: The prose!  The characters!  The tension!  The messed up, compelling, utterly irresistible romance!  But, really, all of that comes down to one thing: IT TELLS THE TRUTH.

The truth, the truth I remember, is that high school can be a blood sport.  It was not a laughing matter.  The truth was that adults can look the other way, that the  people you think are your friends can turn on you in the blink of an eye if the “mood” goes against you, that all it takes is a few words to make someone’s life hell.  There’s no looking away from what happens to Regina OR what Regina, herself, did.

There are big questions with no easy answers in this narrative: Regina did terrible things (not the least of them how she pressures, shames, and guilts Kara when it comes to her weight) and now terrible things are being done to Regina.  What I love about this complication is that there’s not an easy answer to if this is fair…  it’s a question that doesn’t really have one answer, just the kind of question teens deserve to be asked more often.  (What else do I love?  Regina doesn’t remain a passive, helpless victim in this cycle: she remembers how the game is played and strikes back in anger and even physically.  Now the story is even more complicated: is it “right” or justified that she does this?  What are the consequences of this striking back?  Can this self-perpetuating cycle ever be broken?  Another big question!)

Summers makes everything happening to Regina feel so immediate, so helpless, so suffocating, that when Regina actually connects with someone else,  a boy named Michael she helped ostracize, their connection feels like a lifeline: urgent, confusing, and vital.  This makes their connection seem tangible and real and oh-so irresistible.  To me, this is 100x more dramatic than some 100 year old vampire.

Everything about this book feels so damn true.

Recommended for: All public libraries and all high school libraries, content and language make this definitely a high school level book.  Also recommended for reluctant readers and fans of realistic stories with a edge.

Comment for a Chance to WIN A COPY OF THIS BOOK!

I hope you can’t wait to read this book!  If you’ve already read it, I hope to hear your thoughts and opinions about it in the comments!   St. Martin’s Press generously provided me with this copy and my library already has a copy, so I’m going to use random.org to select a random winner from the comments.  It could be you!  And if you don’t win, why don’t you go into your local library today and see if they have a copy.  If they don’t, request they buy one.

As for me: I can’t wait to see what Courtney Summers writes next.

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