She can see emotions but she can’t feel them.

Cover artwork for Some Quiet Place

Title: Some Quiet Place

Author: Kelsey Sutton

Publisher & Release Date: Flux, July 2013

The Hook: Eye-catching cover art, a heroine who feels no emotion, and a stellar review from Kirkus, which listed it as one of the best teen novels of 2013.

The Lowdown (from author’s webpage): “Elizabeth Caldwell doesn’t feel emotions . . . she sees them. Longing, Shame, and Courage materialize around her classmates. Fury and Resentment appear in her dysfunctional home. They’ve all given up on Elizabeth because she doesn’t succumb to their touch. All, that is, save one—Fear. He’s intrigued by her, as desperate to understand the accident that changed Elizabeth’s life as she is herself.

“Elizabeth and Fear both sense that the key to her past is hidden in the dream paintings she hides in the family barn. But a shadowy menace has begun to stalk her, and try as she might, Elizabeth can barely avoid the brutality of her life long enough to uncover the truth about herself. When it matters most, will she be able to rely on Fear to save her?”

Overall Impressions:  An impressive debut! Sutton created a story that feels both dreamy and gritty – beautiful imagery of Emotions and Elements in human form, invisible to our eyes, an Other World twisted around being trapped in a small farming town in an abusive home. Elizabeth is a compelling character, and I became thoroughly wrapped up in the mystery of her and her quest to solve herself.

That said, I also have some qualms about the ways in which violence was used in this story. For example, in trying to make Elizabeth feel emotion, Fear puts in her scenarios that, if they took place on a TV show (and weren’t happening to the main character), it would be the teaser before the opening wherein some attractive nameless young woman dies horribly. But on the other hand, Fear is trying to make Elizabeth feel afraid and she always quickly realizes it’s him and not entirely real. It would be fascinating to have a conversation with the author about what she’s trying to say in these layers.

I remain wary of love triangles. I’m not sure if I can really say this book has one, because Elizabeth is kind of a non-participant, given her walled-off emotions, and Fear and Joshua can’t really interact. Either way, I respect the choices Elizabeth made.

The storyline about the dying friend was touching and I understood its purpose in the book, but it also felt the least … organic. I think that’s because while you see Elizabeth making the deliberate choice to interact with Joshua and in small ways with her family, Maggie and Elizabeth’s friendship dates back to when they were little girls and you don’t know why Elizabeth chose to keep interacting with Maggie.

Toward the end of the book one of the characters tells Elizabeth that people are drawn to her, yet the book shows her primarily as an outcast. She involves herself in very few people’s lives – everything is a pretend, she must always act the part of normal and her efforts to do so make many people uncomfortable, including her parents. They actually fear her.

The Highs: I really love the cover art – gorgeous and creepy. The story itself balanced dreamy and real and scary so well.

The mystery of Elizabeth and how it resolves, who she grows into in the course of the story. The gradual deepening of the Other World. That Elizabeth is the one who ultimately has to save herself.

Buzzkills: Everything’s handled really well, but this story does deal with a physically and verbally abusive father, nasty school bullying that turns vicious, and some very disturbing violence from the shadowy menace. The first real encounter with the SM happens right after the vicious bully attack and there were elements that made the power imbalance even more uncomfortable for me.

The Source: Ebook from awesome public library!

Disclaimer: Neither chocolate nor a gorgeous ballgown that looks like leaves was provided by the publisher in exchange for this review.

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Belief is in the Eye of the Beholder

Title: Boxers & Saintscovers

Author: Gene Luen Yang

Publisher & Release Date: First Second, September 2013

The Hook: If you haven’t heard of Yang’s American Born Chinese, welcome to the world of graphic novels! We have a lot of fun here. In November, Boxers & Saints was named a National Book Award Finalist. BoxersSignedYang is an advocate for comics in education and is just generally all kinds of awesome – check out how he signed my copy (eeee!):

The Lowdown (from jackets): “China, 1898. Bands of foreign missionaries and soldiers roam the countryside, bullying and robbing Chinese peasants. Little Bao has had enough. Harnessing the powers of ancient Chinese gods, he recruits an army of Boxers – commoners trained in kung fu – who fight to free China from “foreign devils.”

“An unwanted and unwelcome fourth daughter, Four-Girl isn’t even given a proper name by her family when she’s born. She finally finds friendship – and a name, Vibiana – in the most unlikely of places: Christianity.”

Overall Impressions:   Yang has tightly wrapped myth, belief and history around a very raw humanity. Before reading this, I only had a very vague idea of what happened in the Boxer Rebellion, and it was sad and maddening to see the human faults on both sides – roving lechers and looters, the greedy, the opium addicts, and people too blinded in their own faith to recognize the value in others‘.  Family obligation, pride and mercy drive the characters, too, though, in ways that will still resonate with a modern reader. This was a hard review to write, in fact, because I want so much to convey how much I love this set.
Little Bao steps from role to role as a little brother, a son, a leader, and a warrior. He has a boyish eagerness to prove himself, to claim the blessings of the gods and see justice done, and in the beginning his journey with the Society of the Righteous and Harmonious Fist (the eponymous ‘Boxers’) does seem to be blessed. As the fighting gets more serious, Little Bao exhibits a disturbing ruthless streak – the reader is still rooting for him, but now to find the right path to save his people without sinking into the dark vision of the brutal first Emperor.
Vibiana, as the scorned youngest daughter in a wildly biased societal system, channels her rage and frustration into her conversion to Christianity. Her initial choices are naturally childish and selfish, but she slowly finds her way after receiving visions of Joan of Arc. She never loses her prickliness and pride, but her actions during the attack of the Righteous Fist speak loudly to her growing compassion.
The collision of the two separate arcs give each other context beyond what Little Bao and Vibiana individually experience. Both struggle with their role in life, reaching for the idealistic vision presented to them initially and then left holding the often brutal consequences, where good and bad are found on both sides, sometimes even in the same person. 

The Highs: These are nuanced people, not cartoons (ironically) – there’s more emotional depth in seemingly simply drawings than other authors give characters with whole paragraphs of description backing them.

Learning aspects of Chinese society in snippets of conversation rather than being subjected to walls of explanatory text.

The parallels that are drawn between the journeys of Little Bao and Four-Girl/Vibiana as they struggle with society’s expectations and their own beliefs.

The art:   I’ve always liked Yang’s clean lines and expressive characters, and he achieves a wonderful balance here – the art being as much a part of the storytelling experience as the words. Colorist Lark Pien relies heavily on muted tones of brown and red for dull peasant life, with the effective use of color to highlight the supernatural visions of Little Bao and Vibiana. It’s really a pleasure just to hold.

And finally, the small piece of hope left even as everything is burning.

Buzzkills: It’s a grim time in history, and judgments aren’t clear or easy; if you want clearly defined heroes and villains, you’re not going to find them here.

The Source: Green Bean Books, Portland, during the Wordstock conference.

Disclaimer: Neither chocolate or visions of glory were provided by the publisher in exchange for this review.

What do you do when someone you’ve never met hates your guts?

Cover art for Yaqui Delgado Wants to Kick Your Ass

Title: Yaqui Delgado Wants to Kick Your Ass

Author: Meg Medina

Publisher & Release Date: Candlewick, March 2013

The Hook: I’ve been hearing awesome things about this book for months.

The Lowdown (from goodreads): “One morning before school, some girl tells Piddy Sanchez that Yaqui Delgado hates her and wants to kick her ass. Piddy doesn’t even know who Yaqui is, never mind what she’s done to piss her off. Word is that Yaqui thinks Piddy is stuck-up, shakes her stuff when she walks, and isn’t Latin enough with her white skin, good grades, and no accent. And Yaqui isn’t kidding around, so Piddy better watch her back. At first Piddy is more concerned with trying to find out more about the father she’s never met and how to balance honors courses with her weekend job at the neighborhood hair salon. But as the harassment escalates, avoiding Yaqui and her gang starts to take over Piddy’s life. Is there any way for Piddy to survive without closing herself off or running away?”

Overall Impressions:  Piddy is floundering when the novel opens – her best friend has moved away, her own mother decided they needed to get out their horrible apartment where the stairs crash, and she’s at a new school she hates with no real friends. She doesn’t need an enemy. She gets one anyway, and Yaqui is tough and implacable. Medina never lets us inside Yaqui’s head – in fact, the two girls hardly speak to each other at all – but she hints at the background that shaped her.

Piddy’s growing desperation to understand why Yaqui has targeted her leads her to try to make herself into Yaqui’s mold, to find an escape in a friend at the old apartment building who has family problems of his own, and to increasing tension with her mother. Piddy’s vulnerable and struggling and doesn’t know where to turn.

Medina doesn’t pull any punches, and the bullying is unrelenting and vicious. No one can offer a perfect solution. Piddy can’t get out by herself, but she is the one who has to decide the course of action.

The Highs: Lila, the family friend who’s effectively Piddy’s aunt. She has such a zest for life and is ferocious as a tiger!

Piddy and her mother have a realistic, prickly relationship. The forbidden subject of Piddy’s father, her mother’s desires for Piddy to have a proper life and Piddy’s own dreams for her future have led to understandable walls between them, not helped by Piddy’s desire to hide her school problems from her mother. The tension keeps ratcheting up between them until they’re finally honest with each other. And by being honest with Piddy, her mother also starts re-establishing community ties.

The various characters who realize that the solution for one person is not necessarily the correct solution for another. I know, vague, but I found that extremely satisfying and a sign of the characters maturing.

Medina’s description of the hair salon where Lila and Piddy work – I loved the buzz of the community hub, the ladies getting pampered, catching up (and commenting) on each others’ lives, and how they’re ready to stand with each other. It’s such a striking contrast to Yaqui and her gang of friends.

Buzzkills (possible triggers):  I am serious about Medina not pulling punches, and –  highlight to read the spoiler – there’s an ugly video that plays an important role in the story.

The Source: Public library ebook

Disclaimer: Neither chocolate nor a glamorous makeover was provided by the publisher in exchange for this review.

Antici……pation – 2014 edition

Last week we took a look back at our reading. This week, we’re anticipating our personal “big books” of 2014 – the sequels, stand-alones and favorite authors that we will gleefully acquire and add to the already enormous piles of books in every corner of our houses.  We may not know much about some of these titles yet, but we wants them, we does:

What: Cress by Marissa Meyer (February) Why: Fairy tales… in spaaaaaaaace! Another ally against the evil moon queen, Cress has put her imprisonment in a digital tower to good use as a hacker – but at what price will freedom come?

What: The Tyrant’s Daughter by J.C. Carleson (February) & Why: Because of the premise: the daughter of a deposed Middle Eastern dictator is forced to adapt to American society, while her mother is determined to sink their family back into international politics.

What: Tsarina by J Nelle Patrick (February) & Why: Because magical historical fiction is becoming a delightful subgenre of YA, and this blend of Russian history, magic and romance sounds like exactly the sort of book to snuggle up and read in one sitting.

What:Raising Steam by Terry Pratchett (March) & Why: because this latest in the beautifully dead-on satire of the Discworld stars Moist vonLipwig, AdoraBelle, and steam engines. It’s already out across the pond and man, is that frustrating.

What: Sekret by Lindsay Smith (April) & Why: Because it’s not your usual teen angst: a teen psychic Soviet spy must navigate the KGB. international espionage, and two opposing guys, each with their own agenda. You’d think reading minds would make that easier…

What: Dreams of Gods and Monsters by Laini Taylor (April) & Why: Because it’s high time that Katy read this series, and now that the third one is out there won’t be a wait between books. The cover is gorgeous, too!

What: We Were Liars by E. Lockhart (May) Why: Ms. Lockhart wrote “The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks,” possibly one of Julie’s three top favorite ever YA books, with a brilliant, indelible heroine who refuses to be underestimated. The early buzz sounds amazing.

What: Landline by Rainbow Rowell (July) & Why: We fell in love with Ms. Rowell’s books last year. And the idea of a phone line that goes through time – intriguing!

What: This is a bit of cheat, because Sarah Rees Brennan has two books coming out in 2014. “Unmade” (Lynburn Legacy #3), out in August, and “Tell The Wind and Fire,” out in November & Why: The no-doubt highly stressful and exhilarating conclusion to the Lynburn Legacy will reveal what happens to Kami and the Glass family, to Jared and Ash, to Angela, Rusty and Holly. “Tell the Wind and Fire” is a retelling of “A Tale of Two Cities,” and since one of Julie’s missions in life is to read everything SRB writes, it’s automatically exciting.

 What: Between the Spark and the Burn by April Tucholke (August) & Why: Because it’s the sequel to the delightfully gothic Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea, which left off with one of the main characters in danger, hunting a pyrokinetic psychopath.

What: Okay, so the actual title and publication date are unknown, but we want, want, want the next book in Maggie Stiefvater’s Raven Cycle & Why: Have you read them?! (In the meantime, apparently a companion novel to the Shiver trilogy is being released this year, which is also a fun world.)

What: Firebug by Lish McBride (this fall) & Why: Ms. McBride wrote the wonderful Necromancer books; this book is set in the same universe, but different part of the country. Here’s the description on her blog: it will “…feature a main character named Ava who is a firebug (she can start fires with her MIND). Because of what she is, she’s been forced to become an assassin for a mob family-style group. I know this doesn’t sound funny, but I promise you that it is still a humor-based storyline. Besides, there are werebunnies.”

What: Painting by Numbers by Jasper Fforde & Why: Book #1, Shades of Grey, was a brilliant, absurd foray in a dystopian future where color is caste, entertainment, medicine, and employment, all in one. It really has to be read to be believed (or listened to – the audiobook was fabulous). We’re not even sure that it’s coming out in 2014, but we’re crossing our fingers!