Monthly Archives: September 2014

Skink–No Surrender by Carl Hiaasen


skink14 year old Richard Sloan and his cousin, Malley, were born nine days apart and have always been close. So when she runs off with a guy she’s met on the Internet, who turns out not to be who he says he is, Richard sets out to track her down, accompanied by a wildly eccentric old man he has just met – Skink, a former governor of Florida, and an eco-crusader from previous Hiaasen adult novels.

Richard and Skink make an unlikely but effective duo – Skink is as resilient and resourceful as The Terminator, and Richard has local knowledge and dogged determination – and together they muddle through several madcap encounters with the local wildlife on the Florida Panhandle, including alligators and feral pigs.

As with his previous novels for middle graders, Hiaasen combines fast-paced adventure with ecological advocacy, and weaves in naturalist tidbits including using the possibly extinct Lord God Bird to provide a key clue to Malley’s whereabouts.

When they eventually find Malley, she is scared, though it appears she has held her own against the cardboard cutout abductor. Nonetheless, the idea of online predation sits a little uneasily with the signature slapstick absurdist humor and I’m not sure if teen readers will enjoy Skink (the character) quite as much as adults – he seems pretty ghastly and it’s not quite clear why either Richard or his mother trust him!

For reasons which I can’t quite fathom, this is being touted as Carl Hiaasen’s first YA novel. Yet to me, it doesn’t read differently to his previous kids’ books, like Hoot (2002) and Chomp (2012). Sure, some of the subject matter is more appropriate for teens, but then Tuna, in Chomp, was physically abused by her father, which also seems quite a mature topic. Anyway, whoever the publisher decides to pitch it to, kids that have enjoyed Hiaasen’s previous books are likely to enjoy this one too.

The Swap by Megan Shull


the swapEllie is a 7th grade girl who has not just been dropped by her best friend, but is now the target of her virulent meanness. The mother of 8th grader Jack, aka the Prince of Thatcher Middle School, died just over a year ago, and his father has turned into a machine since then. And on the first Friday afternoon of school they are both in the nurse’s office when, for no particular reason other than it’s a book, they swap into each other’s bodies. Lessons are learned, both about themselves and each other, until they are ready to swap back.

Walking a mile in someone else’s shoes – either metaphorically or literally – is not a particularly original theme for a book, and there’s even been at least one other book I can think of where this is signaled on the cover with two pairs of differing shoes. I’ve also read several books recently in which a middle grade girl is dropped socially by a friend who is growing up faster than she is. And a father who demands perfection from his kids – again not a world shattering idea.

But yet, the alternating narrators – Jack and Ellie – and their families are so well-crafted and such authentic characters that The Swap takes all these hackneyed ingredients and cooks up something surprisingly original and tasty. It lost me a little bit in schmaltzy goo at the end, but up until then I was rooting for both kids to find a way out of the holes they found themselves in and thrilled that, in their swapped personas, they were able to do so.

The Whispering Skull by Jonathan Stroud


whispering skullThere are definitely two types of sequels – those that don’t capture the magic of the first book and those that build on that magic. The Whispering Skull, the sequel to The Screaming Staircase (2013), in the Lockwood & Co. middle grade fantasy series, is definitely in the second category. With the heavy lifting of world building and main character establishment already achieved, there is time and space for a more intricate plot and more nuanced character development.

Despite their previous success at the most haunted house in Britain, the smallest and coolest psychic detective agency in London is still struggling. When a case arises that involves an evilly powerful artifact, the three operatives – debonair and charismatic Lockwood, nerdy George and our narrator Lucy – use all their different Talents in a pitched competition against the slick operatives of the establishment Fittes agency. Meanwhile, Lucy is finding a connection with a rare Type Three Visitor – a skull in a jar that actually talks to her.

The satisfying plot includes some thoroughly creepy moments, while bubbling along with the snarky humor that Bartimaeus fans will recognize. Stroud goes deeper into the lore, introducing new characters and fresh elements to enrich it and with a surprise twist ending, there are clearly more adventures forthcoming for the mavericks of Lockwood & Co.

The Cybils are coming, hurrah! hurrah!


Cybils-Logo-2014-Rnd2I am thrilled to be a second round judge for the Cybils – in the Elementary/Middle Grade Speculative Fiction category. This will be my third year judging this category and I can’t wait to see what the first round judges come up with as a shortlist!

In case you’re not familiar with the Cybils, it is a set of literary awards made by children and teen lit book bloggers. Unlike the more famous Newbery medal, the Cybils looks at both literary merit and reader appeal which, in my judgely opinion, makes it far more useful for librarians and parents looking for books for kids.

As well as my category, there are awards for fiction, nonfiction and speculative fiction for YA books, as well as middle grade books, and ones for poetry, graphic novels, easy reader/early chapter books and book apps. The awards have two rounds – in the first one, a panel of judges sifts through the numerous books nominated by book bloggers all over the country. They end up with a shortlist of seven books that go to the round two judges for more intense appraisal. The winners are announced around the middle of February.

I’ve found the past winners and shortlists really helpful when I’ve been looking for books to recommend as there are always titles I’ve never even heard of. And in my two previous stints as a second round judge, the shortlists were a terrifically well-balanced list of different types of fantasy and science fiction, with a good age spread.

So, hurrah for the Cybils and I’ll be getting ready to nominate my favorite books, starting on October 1.

This One Summer by Mariko Tamaki; illustrated by Jillian Tamaki


this one summerI don’t read a lot of graphic novels. I’m a word person not a particularly visual one, so I feel I don’t always get the best out of a graphic novel as I’m scanning the words not the images. However, even with my limited appreciation, I found this to be a truly evocative portrait of a girl growing up and moving into an adolescence that she is half attracted to and half appalled by.

Since she was five, Rose and her parents have been going to Awago Beach every summer. Now Rose is on the borders between childhood and young adulthood, and during this one summer she wavers between the two.

Her summer friend, Windy, is a year and a half younger and is still a child – brilliantly illustrated with all the comforting roundness of childhood compared to Rose’s twiggy adolescence. Rose is torn between building forts on the beach and peeking in at the teens hanging out at Brewster’s, the local store. On the one hand she and Windy work their way through Brewster’s oeuvre of horror movies, and discuss their latent breasts, on the other they collect rocks and ride their bikes.

Meanwhile all is not well between Rose’s parents and for the first time, Rose is not behind the protective obliviousness of childhood, and she now observes them with the self-centredness of a teen. The blue washed illustrations capture the thoughts behind the faces of the characters and the nuances of Rose’s tentative first steps into adulthood. Her crush on Dunc at Brewster’s, and his patent regard of her as a kid, ring painfully true.

The many images of the stars and the ocean serve as a reminder of the smallness of human concerns, but, of course, each character is immersed in his or her own experience. As the summer drifts to its end, no false conclusions are reached and no fake closure is made – instead life carries on, just as it does in reality.

Adaptation by Malinda Lo


adaptationNow, I’ve never been a teenager upon whom the fate of the world rests, but it seems to me that if I were, I would not spend my time wondering whether a cute boy (or girl) was attracted to me or not. But that might make for a pretty dull read.

And though Adaptation does follow that well-trodden path there are enough creative twists along the way to keep it interesting, if not believable.

This scifi thriller starts with flocks of birds bringing down numerous airplanes all over North America. Driving back from a competition, high school senior Reese Holloway and her debate partner, David Li, are involved in a bird-caused car accident and then taken to a mysterious medical facility. On their release, Reese starts noticing that her body seems to be able to heal itself rapidly and that she gets these strange feeling whenever she’s touching somebody.

Fortunately, Reese’s best friend is an expert on conspiracy theories, particularly those centering around Area 51, and has many online connections with people who dig deep into government secrets and find all sorts of crazy (or are they?) goings on.

There’s lots to like in Adaptation – Reese is a fresh-ish take on a scifi heroine and her burgeoning romance with Amber, a charismatic lesbian she literally bumps into, as well as her suppressed feelings for David, give a nice twist on the usual love triangle. And the author manages to keep the tension of what-exactly-is-happening-here going for a good long time before we get into reams of explication.

The big question, though, is do I want to read the sequel, Inheritance? I think there is enough intriguing questions left that I would, though I’m not feeling compelled to do it right now.

Thanks to Netgalley for a digital review copy.

The Clockwork Scarab by Colleen Gleason


clcokwork scarabIn this set up for a series, Mina Holmes, niece of Sherlock, and Evaline Stoker, sister of Bram, team up to investigate the death of several young society women in a steam punk 1889 London. Gleason has done an excellent job of establishing a cast of charismatic characters, a cohesive and inventive world, and a mystery-solving duo.

I really liked this odd couple pairing: prim and detail-oriented Mina and impetuous, action-oriented Evaline start off, as in all the best buddy movies, not really getting each other, though, of course, by the end they have a grudging appreciation for each other’s skills. The setting is brilliantly realized: The crowded multi-level streets of London hum with steam cycles, and air ships keep the tall buildings straight. The lack, indeed outlawing, of electricity requires all sorts of ingenious devices to keep life ticking along and there is some pretty intricate clothing detail too, which tells us both something about the way women are expected to behave as well as how our young ladies get around it.

However, though the mystery itself is intriguing, it doesn’t resolve satisfactorily. I appreciate the author wants to spread the chase over several more books, which is fine – but I do feel that each book needs to be complete, rather than just an inconclusive chapter in a longer story.

Even though this book should be a great girl power title, there’s quite a lot of dimwitted behavior from both young women, which can feel a little out of character and really only serves the plot. In addition, I felt there was waaay too much heart fluttering from both Mina and Evaline, though the arm wrestling match does pack a genuine erotic frisson. And don’t get me started on the accents!

For me, all the elements didn’t quite click together, but I suspect a second book (The Spiritglass Charade is due out in October) will be more coherent as the author works with established characters in an established world.

Secrets of the Terra-Cotta Solider by Ying Chang Compestine and Vinson Compestine


secrets of the terra-cotta soldierTaking off from the true story of how the famous terra-cotta army was discovered, and weaving in Ying Chang Compestine’s experiences as a child of an ‘intellectual’ during the Chinese Cultural Revolution, this is an unusual and intriguing setting for a fantasy novel.

In 1970s rural China, some farmers find a broken terra-cotta figure and bring it to the house of Ming and his father, an archaeologist. When the head starts to talk to Ming, it reveals itself to be Shi, a teenage soldier from over 2000 years ago, who fought in Emperor Qin’s army and is now one of thousands of terra-cotta soldiers guarding his tomb.

After Shi is re-assembled, he and Ming work together to outwit the villagers, led by the corrupt Political Officer, who want to ransack the tomb and discredit Ming’s father. There’s lots of fascinating information about how the tomb was protected with traps, and Shi’s multipart narrative of how he became one of the guardians adds more boy-appeal excitement.

However, I found the prose very stiff and unappealing (much like I do the prose of Margi Preus – and she’s been Newbery honored, so it’s obviously my problem not the writers’) and I found the inclusion of the murky black and white photos to be confusing – it feels like nonfiction layered uncomfortably on top of fiction.

Nonetheless, the parallels drawn between Emperor Qin and Mao, and the recreation of the crushing poverty and cruel social dynamics of the time and place, make this a worthwhile, if somewhat prosaic, read.

Review based on an ARC.

Loot: How to Steal a Fortune by Jude Watson


lootWith a flavor of the Thirty Nine Clues series, for which Watson wrote several books, this is a fast paced, high action, stylish and funny thriller.

March Quinn is the son of a jewel thief. When his father dies on a job, he leaves March a trail of clues that lead to a series of burglaries that he was planning and … March’s twin sister. March and Jules, with two new friends, set off on a series of daredevil robberies to get back together a set of cursed moonstones, competing against Alfie Quinn’s old partner, and an ex-cop who made the original arrest.

After a slow and somewhat confusing start, the action kicks in and doesn’t let up until the very end. Using slang and lore from a world familiar through movies, the four kids follow Alfie’s often cryptic allusions to notorious thefts of the past, to plan and execute ingenious heists to steal the jewels.

The four members of March’s gang are sympathetically portrayed and developed, in contrast to the untrustworthy and grasping adults. The stylized and quippy voice adds to the fun, and, as long as the reader skates along on the action, the holes in the plot don’t matter a jot.

Ten books that influenced me


There’s this thing going round on Facebook where you’re challenged to list the ten books that have influenced you, and someone did, indeed, challenge me. Normally I ignore this sort of thing as too much effort to do, but as I was showering this morning my list just popped into my mind. After getting dry, I jotted it down and here it is with explanations. It turns out to be a bit of a Desert Island Books list – broadly chronological in terms of my reading, not publication. You’ll probably notice that it’s more than ten books but I don’t want to edit any of these babies out. Plus I’ve cheated by including series and not just single books – my blog, my rules.

lone pineThe Lone Pine series by Malcolm Saville – a great adventure series set in the Stipperstones in Shropshire and Rye on the South Coast (I’ve never been to either place but they loomed very large in my childhood). My first literary crush was David, though I did thrill when he and Peter had their first kiss in a cave. (Peter is a girl – we weren’t that progressive in 60s England).

The Billy Bunter series by Frank Richards – I learned a lot of classical allusions from these deeply unsound books, as well as laughing like a drain. Plus I developed a taste for bad boys, with an affection for Herbert Vernon Smith, aka The Bounder.

Dr. No by Ian Fleming – when I was a teen there was no such thing as YA literature, so I slipped seamlessly from Enid Blyton’s Famous Five to James Bond. There is very much more sex and sadism in the latter.

Whom the Gods Would Destroy by Richard Powellwhom the gods would destroy – after working my way through Lillington Library’s mystery and thriller shelves, I moved up to randomly picking novels off the fiction shelves. I have an abiding affection for historical fiction and the first ‘real’ novel I recall reading is this story of the Trojan War. (I had to look this up to see who wrote it and discovered that you can get it for $2.99 for Kindle and that many people really enjoyed it).

The Rainbow by D. H. Lawrence – DHL is pretty unfashionable these days but this was the first book I really studied in depth, for English A’ Level. It is terribly overwrought, but I can still picture the characters in my mind and can remember the last line.

Far from the Madding Crowd by Thomas Hardy – after finishing high school, I started to read this, found it terrifically boring and gave up. Thus I learned that not only are many classics very dull, I also don’t have to read them.

blandingsBlandings Castle series by P. G. Wodehouse – the ultimate comfort reading when I was swotting for my finals at university. Also I scored a couple of points on a TV quiz show called Matchpoint by knowing what P. G. stands for.

Success by Martin Amis – this is the first novel I read after reading a review. We used to get the Sunday Times and I recall it getting a very positive review, so I went out and bought it. I have read most of Martin Amis’s oeuvre and use with some regularity the epigraph to Dead Babies (often called something deeply bland like Deep Secrets) “I don’t know much about science, but I know what I like.”

Mapp and Lucia by E. F. Benson – when we first moved to San Francisco I couldn’t work and had a lot of time on my hands. So I joined the local library and ploughed my way through the complete works of Sue Grafton, Marcia Muller, Sarah Paretsky and Charles Dickens. But the books that cheered me up when I was feeling lonely and rather useless were the Mapp and Lucia books – very English and very funny.

His Dark Materials by Philip PullmanGoldenCompass – I read this trilogy when my daughter was a baby and then again when I had my son. I can remember willing them to stay napping so I could read another chapter.

Harry Potter by J. K. Rowling – my daughter is of the fortunate generation who grew up as the HP books were being published. I set the rather selfish rule that she couldn’t read the books by herself until I’d read them to her. And the same for my son.

Tess’s Tree by Jess M. Brallier – the first book I wrote a review for. I spent hours laboring over my deathless prose for what is a rather mediocre book that is now out of print.

Double Fudge by Judy Blume – the magical first audiobook that captured my kids’ attention and meant that we could be in the car for more than 15 minutes without tears and tantrums.

Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen – it makes me very happy.