york: the shadow cipher

Deckle edges. If you're a book worm like I am, you've probably come across them before. The uncut, random-looking pages (instead of a smooth cut) give a book that certain "something." Deckle edges convinced me to purchase my own hard copy of Laura Ruby’s York, and I'm so glad they did. This book could be defined many different ways (spec fic, alternate history, diverse sci-fi, a cross between The Mysterious Benedict Society and Scott Westerfeld's Leviathan...), but the thing that stands out to me is that it is incredibly, unbelievably of the moment. I know how long it takes to make a book, but if I didn't I'd think it was written two weeks ago. York is important and empathetic along with being smart and entertaining, and I think it might just be the perfect book for this year, for everyone.

york by laura ruby book cover
It was 1798 when the Morningstarr twins arrived in New York with a vision for a magnificent city: towering skyscrapers, dazzling machines, and winding train lines, all running on technology no one had ever seen before. Fifty-seven years later, the enigmatic architects disappeared, leaving behind for the people of New York the Old York Cipher—a puzzle laid into the shining city they constructed, at the end of which was promised a treasure beyond all imagining. By the present day, however, the puzzle has never been solved, and the greatest mystery of the modern world is little more than a tourist attraction.

Tess and Theo Biedermann and their friend Jaime Cruz live in a Morningstarr apartment house—until a real estate developer announces that the city has agreed to sell him the five remaining Morningstarr buildings. Their likely destruction means the end of a dream long-held by the people of New York. And if Tess, Theo and Jaime want to save their home, they have to prove that the Old York Cipher is real. Which means they have to solve it.

From National Book Award Finalist Laura Ruby comes a visionary epic set in a New York City at once familiar and wholly unexpected.

Tess and Theo Biedermann and their neighbor Jaime Cruz live in a city that is like New York City, but not. In this version of York the famous Morningstarr twins started inventing and building a fantastical array of dwellings, transportation, and life-like machines in the late 18th century, and the present-day result is a steampunk-like mashup of technological wonder. When they left, the Morningstarrs also left a trail of clues to rumored treasure – the mysterious Old York Cipher. For Tess, Theo, and Jaime, solving the Cipher may be the only way to keep their home safe from an avaricious real estate developer – but the clock is ticking. Will they solve the Cipher and save their building in time?  

One of the things that this book did so well was establish the motivations of each of the main characters in an authentic way. Ruthless real estate developer Darnell Slant wants to make money, and doesn’t care who he displaces (sound familiar?) or whether he destroys history. His hirelings Stoop and Pinscher possibly want something even more sinister, and they’re the everyday ‘face of evil.’ The Biedermann twins want to keep their home and life, their parents want them to face reality, and the whole family is still reeling from the absence of grandfather Biedermann, the one-time occupant of the building penthouse and former president of the Cipher Society. Jaime wants his father in his life, good things for his Mima, and to draw superheroes. Six-year-old neighbor girl Cricket wants to be a spy. And what did the long-gone Morningstarrs want? Why did they set up this treasure hunt? It’s a question that Tess, Theo and Jaime keep asking themselves, and bits and pieces of answers emerge throughout the story. The grand themes? The line between technology and life, injustice (racial, gender, socioeconomic), the definition of family (in its different forms) and home, and erasing the past for the sake of the future.

Now on to the things that I liked particularly (a different kettle of fish from admiring a well-constructed plot & characters, or great writing!)(which this book has in spades): parents who are alive (how many times do you see that in a kidlit book?!)! A diverse main character and secondary characters! A main character with anxiety and a service animal. A cool map of alternate New York and great descriptions of that feeling of insignificance you get in big cities. Social justice (pro-immigrant, pro-education, pro-affordable housing) baked in. Added to that, this is just such a smart book, with believably smart characters. Author Ruby doesn’t hold back – her characters use big words and think big ideas because they are intelligent, and Ruby obviously believes her readers are as well. I love that trust in the reader, and I think readers will sense it immediately.

I cannot forget to mention Chapter 7 (and then later Chapter 27), or as I am calling it, “In which we find out that six-year old Cricket (real name: Zelda) is HILARE” (hilare = hilarious without those pesky final two syllables)(a made-up word for the modern age which I am probably too old to use, but whatever). I want to be Cricket when I grow up. WHAT A RIOT. One of my favorite lines from a York (it consistently made me laugh out loud, btw) is in Cricket’s voice, from page 122: “What would a deathmetalhead raccoon wear? A helmet of course. Probably one with antlers.” I die.

What did I dislike? One solitary thing, folks. And that is that it took until Chapter 2 (really Chapter 3 because there was a prologue) to get to the hook. Until then it’s a lot of set-up and I wasn’t sure why I should care. BUT ONCE THERE, well. I was on my way.

In all, York hit all of the sweet spots: it was a funny, intelligent, and exciting read, and it made me think, feel, and reflect. I hope you’ll give it a chance!

Recommended for: middle grade readers on up, and anyone who likes mystery, alternate cities, and clever speculative fiction.

book expo 2017 recap (+ a GIVEAWAY)

Tuesday, June 6, 2017 | | 2 comments
I went to BookExpo (for those not in the know, the biggest book conference in North America)(aka “BEA”) last week. I’ve been going every year since… oh… 2012? I’m insanely lucky and predictably nerdy, yes. I go for blogging, obvi, but I also manage the digital presence at my nonprofit, so this year I registered through work. I wasn’t sure how the “we’re cutting down on bloggers” direction the show was going would relate to me, an inconsistent small-timer, so I didn’t bother to try registering as press or as a blogger. If you saw me at the show, I was wearing a badge that said “Cecelia, Digital Content Strategist, [nonprofit name], NON-PROFIT.” Pretty VIP (but only on opposite day).

Let me recap: somehow I manage to attend a huge BOOK CONFERENCE every year and hang out with BOOK PEOPLE all day. It’s basically heaven!!!


Here’s what I saw and did, and also there’s a giveaway at the end if you’re into that kind of thing (yay!).

On Wednesday I worked a half-day and then took the bus up to NYC. I checked in to my friend Liza’s hotel room (thanks, dude!) and headed over to Blogbound Con for the evening. I attended Blogbound in July last year and had a fantastic time – it was free, had great programming, and a diverse audience. This time around it seemed a little less fabulous, but I definitely enjoyed the two panels I stayed for (Writing for 3rd Party Outlets & Tackling Problematic Books in Our Current Political Climate). Afterward, a non-blogging friend and I hit up Buvette, a tiny French cafe that I can’t recommend enough. Like, the food KILLED, they had a pop-up menu, and it was adorbs. Also $$$, but I like to splurge on good food once in a (long) while, so. And then I went back to the hotel and crashed, b/c I had to be up v. v. early the next morning.

Thursday morning started SO EARLY I CAN’T EVEN believe it in retrospect. I was out of the hotel room by 6:50am because…. I had a hair appointment! No, really, for real. When I checked out the hotel amenities online I noticed that they had a blow dry bar on site. And I’ve never been to one, but every time I get my hair done for anything (weddings) I request a braid, so I was like, why not? AND CAN I JUST TELL YOU, the braid was a *great* decision. Everyone complimented it and it still looked fabulous late that evening. Solid choices, past me.


I arrived at the Javits (the conference location) a little after 7:30 and lined up for a Maggie Stiefvater autograph ticket (which I got!) for her upcoming standalone All the Crooked Saints. And then I lined up for the show floor, which opened at 9, and met some lovely people and had a tote bag and ARC (advanced review copy) handed to me by an enthusiastic bride as promotion for a book that released today (the book is The People We Hate at the Wedding). When the show floor opened I wandered around a bit and ended up at the Macmillan booth, where the author of said book was hanging out with the Flatiron Books staff and the bride. The bride serenaded me, author Grant Ginder signed my book on the spot, and the whole thing basically made my morning.


And then… it was book after signing after panel after book, all in a big rush until lunch (with Emma & Nicole in the food court). My friend Sajda ended up with a last minute attendee badge, so we spent the rest of the day palling around together and taking ridiculous photos. And then after a healthy dinner at The Little Beet (veggie-friendly fast casual!) Liza and I met Sajda at the Big Honcho Media Stay Golden party, b/c of course. Afterward we headed home and fell into bed after having the same Uber driver on the way to AND from the party. Felix dropped some dating advice on us and we were like… o.O


Friday seemed crazier. Was it crazier in reality? Dunno. BUT. I didn’t really stop at all that day (minus a few fun photo opps). I met Leigh Bardugo and she told me my hair was so cute she wanted to punch it. She also signed a copy of Warbringer (the Wonder Woman YA novel!) for me. For a bit I was a booktubing group’s unofficial photographer. I also snagged Holly Black’s The Cruel Prince with some creative planning and line watching. It… was a lot. At the end of the show I shipped my books via UPS onsite, and then I sat down for like a half minute before heading off to the Fierce Reads author-blogger party. WHICH WAS GREAT. I chatted with Tomi Adeyemi (I added her book to Goodreads!) & Tillie Walden (comic artist I supported on Patreon!), some ladies from Forever Young Adult, and hugged author Emmy Laybourne twice (may have been tipsy by then). Publicist Gina from First Second gave me an amazing MCU fanfic rec. So, a successful party all-around.


AND THEN I TOOK THE BUS HOME.

Whew, I got tired writing that all out! I hope you can tell that it was the most fun. B/c it totes was.


And! To celebrate, I’m currently hosting my first ever Instagram book giveaway! Check it out. To enter you need to like & comment over on insta. Giveaway includes the items shown and ends tomorrow, June 7 at 11:59pm EST. Winner will be selected randomly and notified via the ‘gram.  Good luck!

shattered warrior

Today’s review is part of the blog tour for Sharon Shinn's new graphic novel, Shattered Warrior, illustrated by Molly Knox Ostertag. It’s sci-fi, with a resistance fight and a love story (sounds a lot like Star Wars, eh?)(read it and find out!).

shattered warrior by sharon shinn blog tour



Sharon Shinn! Oh man, talk about one of the greatest discoveries of my blogging life – I found Sharon Shinn’s books through a blog challenge, and now I keep a sharp eye out for everything she does. It may or may not hit all of my sweet spots, but her work is always emotion-inducing (by which I mean I usually cry AND want to throw her books across the room/hug them in equal measure). tl;dr Sharon Shinn makes me read books/plots/subgenres I didn’t know I wanted, and like it. Folks, when I heard she had a sci-fi graphic novel coming out with one of my favorite publishers, I was IN, 110%, YES PLEASE AND THANK YOU, and I was not disappointed.

shattered warrior by sharon shinn book cover
It is eight years after Colleen Cavanaugh's home world was invaded by the Derichets, a tyrannical alien race bent on exploiting the planet's mineral resources.

Most of her family died in the war, and she now lives alone in the city. Aside from her acquaintances at the factory where she toils for the Derichets, Colleen makes a single friend in Jann, a member of the violent group of rebels known as the Chromatti. One day Colleen receives shocking news: her niece Lucy is alive and in need of her help. Together, Colleen, Jann, and Lucy create their own tenuous family.

But Colleen must decide if it's worth risking all of their survival to join a growing underground revolution against the Derichets ... in Sharon Shinn and Molly Knox Ostertag's Shattered Warrior.

Not long ago, Colleen Cavenaugh was a beloved daughter of the great house of Avon, and she and her sister were showered with luxuries. Then the Derichets came and Colleen lost her whole family, and everyone on the planet lost their freedom. Now Colleen lives alone in her empty house and works in a factory sorting precious minerals for the Derichet overlords – and does not let anyone or anything touch her heart. That fragile cocoon is broken when a band of Chromatti threatens her safety, her lost niece is found, and the Valenchi resistance turns from rumor to real. Will she act, or will she try to preserve the status quo? The answer could change her planet’s future.

One of Sharon Shinn’s trademarks is delicious world- and character-building, and though the graphic novel format limits prose a bit, Molly Knox Ostertag’s art adds layers of history and meaning. Colleen’s world is restricted to places she can reach on foot, by bike, or by treadway (underground public transport on moving walkways), and so the scope of the book is narrow – this isn’t a grand starship journey. That said, there is plenty to explore on-planet – the opressive Derichet (who look like nothing so much as the Dark Elves from the 2nd Thor film!) pose an ever-present danger, but the Chromatti (ex-miners tattooed with phosphorous ink who roam about in bands) threaten as well, and Colleen is a particularly vulnerable target as a member of the former upper class, a woman, and a person with dependents.

Colleen herself is marked by loss. She lives one day at a time, trying to keep her head down, trying to stay safe and sane. But of course, it wouldn’t be a story if there weren’t things to knock her out of her comfort zone! One of those things is a Chromatti man named Jann, who both frightens and intrigues her in equal measure. It’s one of those “they would never have met if it weren’t for the ‘end of the world’” type of relationships. The delicate communication that Colleen and Jann cultivate ultimately leads to more, and it is one of the best parts of the book.

Colleen is also changed by her eventual involvement in the resistance. Though I didn’t love that it took a Derichet’s violence against a woman (this trope is still used to signal evil?! …yeah) to make up her mind, Colleen does get involved in a small way. Officially, the Valenchi “don’t exist,” they blow up transport a la French resistance fighters in WWII, and Colleen does her part but does not immediately become the leader – something that I’ve seen before in stories that always rings false. Subtlety = yesssss!

Other things I liked, because this review is getting really long: the stakes are high (plot could mean death!), gender equality in facing danger and putting everything on the line, old class system & wealth break down in the face of occupation (like Star Wars!), found family, diversity (seems like it was probably an artist decision more than an author one, but I’ll take it), and a bisexual love interest (heavily implied)(yay!).

Things I didn’t like: I wish there had been more page time for the legend the book title is based on, and I also wish there was more of this story, period. I think that further development of the Lucy-Colleen relationship would not have gone amiss. But. If my only complaint is that I wanted more, you know I liked the book!

So that brings us to the art, which is just fantastic. Molly Knox Ostertag really takes this story and makes it shine – the illustrations up the stakes, ground it in a place (make Avon & Comstock city come alive!), make you see and feel the characters’ changing emotions and attachments. The art is where the diversity in skin color, architecture, and clothing all tell their own stories – and come together to make the book something more, to show you a history that is unusual and interesting. I’ll be checking out everything Ostertag has ever done, and I usually don’t say that about art (I’ll say it once in a blue moon about an author, so this is a big thing).

In all, Shattered Warrior is a high-stakes rebellion/unexpected love story mash-up with to-die-for art. Read it!

Recommended for: fans of Princess Leia, the Saga graphic novels, and older teen and up audiences who enjoy science fiction with love stories and diverse characters.

Interested in more reviews of Shattered Warrior? Check out the rest of the blog tour:

May 15th – The Haunting of Orchid Forsythia 
May 16th – Writing My Own Fairytale
May 17th – The Novel Hermit
May 18th – Ageless Pages Review
May 19th –  Here's To Happy Endings
May 22nd – me
May 23rd – School Library Journal
May 24th – The Hollow Cupboards
May 26th – Bluestocking Thinking 

Fine print: I received a copy of this book for review consideration from the publisher. I did not accept any compensation for this post.

spill zone

Scott Westerfeld is a favorite author – an old favorite at this point. I read his YA just after I started blogging (so many years ago omg)! He remains a favorite partly because many of his stories are about girls doing things. The other part is that he writes reliably engaging science fiction (his Leviathan books are so my jam it isn’t even funny). When I found out that he had a graphic novel coming out (with Alex Puvilland illustrating), I couldn’t add it to the to-read list fast enough. Spill Zone is a mysterious, action-packed, creepy-weird story, and it is ELECTRIC.

spill zone by scott westerfeld and alex puvilland cover
Nobody's ever really explained the Spill. Was it an angelic visitation? A nanotech accident? A porthole opening from another world? Whatever it was, no one's allowed in the Spill Zone these days except government scientists and hazmat teams. But a few intrepid explorers know how to sneak through the patrols and steer clear of the dangers inside the Zone. Addison Merrick is one such explorer, dedicated to finding out what happened that night, and to unraveling the events that took her parents and left her little sister mute and disconnected from the world.

Addison’s world changed after the Spill. With her parents gone, her sister altered and mute, and her hometown irrevocably twisted, she had to rework her life to carry on. Officially, no one is allowed in the mysterious Spill Zone, and the authorities won’t say what happened there – but Addison explores it, and she has her own rules for survival. The only constant in the Zone is that things will get weird. When the terms change, Addison may be ready – or it might be more than she can handle.

Westerfeld sets up a story with a lot of unknowns (re: how the Spill happened, what it did to people, why some kids survived), family tragedy, a sisterly bond, weird, physics-defying phenomena, and art for survival’s sake. While main character Addison works to unravel some of those unknowns and keep her family together, there are other actors who have their own motivations, knowledge based hearsay, and less-than-ethical tactics. Combine that with a daredevil on a dirt bike, and you have the set-up for a thrilling graphic novel. And of course, Mr. Westerfeld delivers.

There were two bits of the story in particular that sold me on Spill Zone. The first was Addy’s initial trip into the Zone (that we see as readers, anyway), where she does a bit of a mini-tour with her rules for survival. This scene not only gives the reader the set-up they need to grasp the scope of the Spill, it also establishes danger, immediacy, and Addy’s motivations. And to be completely honest, it reminded me of my favorite part of the film Zombieland.

The second genius scene is one where *spoiler* Addy is having a one-sided (she thinks) conversation with her little sister, Lexa. Lexa is having her own telephathic conversation with her creepy and sarcastic doll, Vespertine. I had accepted the weird and threatening nature of the Spill Zone at that point, but I hadn’t gotten the sense of wrong Westerfeld was trying to evoke quite yet. That interaction sealed the deal.*end spoiler*

While the story gets a solid A, the art gets an A++++. No offense, Mr. Westerfeld, but the art is the BEST PART OF THE BOOK. That’s as it should be, since pictures are kind of the point with a graphic novel. Alex Puvilland’s illustrations and Hilary Sycamore’s colors bring the action, the eerie atmosphere, and the characters to life. I can’t imagine what the book would have been like in anyone else’s hands. The weirdness of the Zone seems neon, without actual neon burning the readers’ eyes, and the Zone’s unnatural creatures contrast with those untouched by the Spill (but not so much that you feel like you’ve left Earth).

Add to the art truly gorgeous book production, and you have a coffee-table-beautiful piece. I’m not kidding. The interior pages are black, the cover is blue metallic foil, and even the chapter pages are intricately detailed. For such an unnerving story, it’s quite pretty in places. To lure the unsuspecting reader in, I’m sure. :)

In the end, Spill Zone is beautiful, bizarre, and 100% readable. I can’t wait for book 2 (it’s a duology, did I mention?).

Recommended for: fans of young adult science fiction, adult science fiction, dark spec fic, and horror, and anyone who perks up at the mention of Scott Westerfeld and/or graphic novels.

Fine print: I received a final copy of this book for review consideration from the publisher. I did not accept any compensation for this post.

free books for the summer

Thursday, April 27, 2017 | | 1 comments
I love books (obviously). You probably love books. Can we agree that free books that you get to keep forever are a good idea? Okay, great. I’ve got a couple of tips for you: there are free books out there for the taking, all summer long. Let’s go.

audiofile sync program free audiobook
AudioFile’s SYNC program allows you to download TWO audiobooks per week over the course of the summer, starting today. The program pairs a young adult book with a “classic,” and this year’s titles include the just-optioned-for-TV Shadowshaper and award-winning bestseller Between Shades of Gray, among others.

Any individual may participate by downloading the OverDrive App to their device of choice and returning to the SYNC website each Thursday after 7am Eastern Time to download the new audiobook pair for the week. Each title is available for one week only, but once downloaded they can be kept forever, so the opportunity to listen can extend well beyond the term of the summer program.

Tor.com’s eBook of the Month Club allows you to download the selected ebook each month – you’ll get an email reminder to download the book when it becomes available. This offer is good for every month, not just the summer! Selections are drawn from the Tor/Macmillan list, and are a mix of adult science fiction and fantasy (usually really great SFF, at that!).

Barnes & Noble’s Summer Reading Program allows kids in grades 1-6 (ages 6-12) to claim a free book at a Barnes & Noble store between May 16th & September 5th.
Kids need to read any eight books and record them in a B&N-provided Summer Reading Journal, along with what their favorite part of each book was, and why. Once they present a completed journal at a B&N store during the claim period, they can select a free book from the list on the back of the journal.

Do you know of any other ways to claim free books? Let me know!

binti

Monday, April 24, 2017 | | 2 comments
I am not super conversant in the wider science fiction universe, but I read Tor.com regularly because they 1) have great (free) original short-form SFF content, 2) a lot of it is by diverse authors, and 3) they do a good job of reminding me to read their articles via Twitter. I saw the cover art for Nnedi Okorafor's Binti there when it was first released, and I put it on my to read list straightaway. I mean, LOOK AT THAT ART! It’s so beautiful and haunting and distinctive. I didn’t finish the novella until recently (one of my lovely secret sisters gifted me with the Kindle version, and it was the kick I needed), but guys, I can’t believe I waited to read this little book. It’s A+ feminist sci-fi entertainment.

binti by nnedi okorafor book cover
Her name is Binti, and she is the first of the Himba people ever to be offered a place at Oomza University, the finest institution of higher learning in the galaxy. But to accept the offer will mean giving up her place in her family to travel between the stars among strangers who do not share her ways or respect her customs.

Knowledge comes at a cost, one that Binti is willing to pay, but her journey will not be easy. The world she seeks to enter has long warred with the Meduse, an alien race that has become the stuff of nightmares. Oomza University has wronged the Meduse, and Binti's stellar travel will bring her within their deadly reach.

If Binti hopes to survive the legacy of a war not of her making, she will need both the gifts of her people and the wisdom enshrined within the University, itself - but first she has to make it there, alive.

Binti is a young woman from an insular and mathematically talented desert people. The Himba are known for wearing clay on their skin and in their hair, and they cherish this part of their identity, even as it marks them as different. As the heir to her family’s astrolabe-making legacy, no one expects Binti to leave home – it just isn’t done. But Binti has surprised herself by getting into the most prestigious university in the galaxy, and she longs break taboo, leave, and to meet like-minded fellow students. What Binti cannot know is that her fateful decision to step into the unknown will change her, and the course of history, forever.

This compact story (under 100 pages) packs a punch. The plot isn’t overly complex (how could it be in so few pages? especially with any attention to world-building), and neither are the descriptions of tech or mathematics (no matter that the main character is a math and tech prodigy). However, Binti has one of the best senses of place that I've read in a long while - maybe ever! Okorafor also engages the reader with visceral, immediate and vivid descriptions of her heroine and her standing in her culture, along with her sometimes-dark inner thoughts and feelings.

I’ve made an honest effort recently to note the themes in books I like, rather than just enjoy them (in hopes of refining my book taste, I suppose). What I noticed in Binti: transformation, cross-cultural understanding, racism/othering, isolation/loneliness, and bucking tradition. Okorafor also played with some standard SFF tropes: a school for the gifted in space (on another planet in this case), and reimagining "the chosen one."

While Binti is a quick read, the pace is a bit slow at the very start as the reader settles into the setting and Binti's head (there’s some repetition as she focuses/convinces herself to do something). Then it’s danger, action, and suspense to the very end. 

I loved this book to bits, and I thought it had just enough worldbuilding and character development, but I guess I’m used to over-exposition common in most science fiction and fantasy. Basically, I came away with questions about the world: What is an astrolabe? Why the Khoush are so dominant? Why did Binti’s people have to learn the history of the Meduse, even though it is not their fight? What is going on with the Meduse and how did their contact with the Khoush start? How did math become central to everything Binti's people do? With all of these unanswered questions, you can imagine how excited I was to find that there’s a whole series of Binti novellas in the works. I can’t wait to read more Nnedi Okorafor!

In all, a satisfying sci-fi novella with world class description, a healthy dose of originality, and first person characterization.

Recommended for: fans of character-driven sci-fi, anyone looking for a book with a smart, strong heroine, and fans of Sarah Beth Durst's Vessel

red rising

Friday, March 24, 2017 | | 1 comments
Talk about being late to the game! Look Ma, by the time I read book one in this series, the trilogy was already completed! (i didn't plan to read this book, tbh)(then my book club picked it!)(and i thought: YA SFF? worth a look) SoRed Rising by Pierce Brown: has a massive following and more than a passing likeness to favorites The Hunger Games and Ender's Game. It also kept me up all night reading. And then I stayed up even later to get all of my thoughts down on paper. Because this book is addictively readable and rage-inducing in equal measure. 

red rising by pierce brown cover
"I live for the dream that my children will be born free," she says. "That they will be what they like. That they will own the land their father gave them."

"I live for you," I say sadly.

Eo kisses my cheek. "Then you must live for more."

Darrow is a Red, a member of the lowest caste in the color-coded society of the future. Like his fellow Reds, he works all day, believing that he and his people are making the surface of Mars livable for future generations.

Yet he spends his life willingly, knowing that his blood and sweat will one day result in a better world for his children.

But Darrow and his kind have been betrayed. Soon he discovers that humanity already reached the surface generations ago. Vast cities and sprawling parks spread across the planet. Darrow—and Reds like him—are nothing more than slaves to a decadent ruling class.

Inspired by a longing for justice, and driven by the memory of lost love, Darrow sacrifices everything to infiltrate the legendary Institute, a proving ground for the dominant Gold caste, where the next generation of humanity's overlords struggle for power. He will be forced to compete for his life and the very future of civilization against the best and most brutal of Society's ruling class. There, he will stop at nothing to bring down his enemies... even if it means he has to become one of them to do so.

The life of a lowly Red mining deep beneath the surface of Mars is harsh. Darrow holds a prestigious position in his community (and finds purpose in his work for the future of humanity), but that isn't enough to feed his family when access to resources is rigged by the higher status Colors. When Darrow is offered a chance to upset the status quo and avenge his loved ones, he takes it - and encounters a ruthlessness and a world his people cannot imagine.

What was it about Red Rising that will draw the reader in and keep them reading through the night? Brown is a talented wordsmith, and he knows his genre. He built a world and a hero’s quest on an epic fantasy scale, with high stakes. The action and dynamism of the text will keep your blood pumping and your mind engaged. There’s also a sense of generational kinship between the target readership and the main character: they have been fed lies, told that adulthood means one thing, and then find out that it means another and the rules of the game have changed completely.

Unfortunately, that readability is paired with a lack of originality and straight-up erasure. Neither are a good look in science fiction. Let’s dive in.

Ender’s Game. The Hunger Games. Scott Westerfeld’s Uglies series. These books are mentioned as readalikes for Red Rising, in part because Brown has replicated some of their plot points wholesale. While it’s not plagiarism, it’s heavy inspiration, and if you’ve read the originals, you’ll see similarities ahead of every twist and around all corners. That lack of originality extends from the plot into the values system of Mars as well (and through the many different Color cultures on it). Honor, ritual, and sexism rule the Reds. For the privileged Golds, vanity and partying degrade their advanced humanity. Nowhere is there room for art for art’s sake. The closest you get are Red protest songs and dances, or Violet body “carving” for money and influence. One possible area of originality, the Color-coded hierarchy, is not examined at any length.

Of course, this hetero-masculine worldbuilding is nothing new, but that is THE POINT. There is nothing new. What we have instead is gratuitous, lethal violence that starts out sickening, but the reader must quickly become inured to it or put the book down. Sexual violence and attendant man-pain drive the male characters (yawn). Brown sets his epic on a distant planet, but brings the worst of the patriarchy with him into the future. CONSENT needs to file a missing persons report, because no one in this society cares that it’s not there, and that is not unpacked on the page.

Darrow at the start of Red Rising is a young man in love with no strategy except to stay under his oppressors’ radar. After losing his love, he pivots at 100 mph to a hardcore schemer and undercover fighter who catches up on a lifetime of another caste’s lived history in a matter of months. Though he supposedly goes through a set of lessons to help him “learn,” the reader doesn’t see much actual evolution on that front. Darrow had so much “natural genius” (which we know is a sexist idea, because men are overwhelmingly the ones who are labeled as natural talents/geniuses, not women) that when he makes mistakes (are they mistakes if they only grow his reputation?), he has a handy girl to help him out and recover. I firmly believe that the stereotype of a gifted boy-hero who outsmarts women or uses them only as useful arm candy or tools can be damaging to boys. It certainly doesn’t do anything to break down the story that they’re getting from contemporary society. To see this replicated 100% in a world supposedly hundreds of years in the future is decidedly depressing.

Let’s move on to erasure, and then I promise I’ll be done. Darrow is a Red, yes? Each mention of Reds is evocative of Scots-Irish miners/“Irish slave” in America myth, or of the folks who settled the Appalachian belt. Not only are the Reds literally redheaded, but they have a strong honor culture, they mine, they are poor, family is everything, they have a terrorist arm that “blow things up,” and song and dance are their escape from hunger. If you’re not seeing parallels there I recommend reading this or this.

While the Reds are “practically slaves” there is NO MENTION of African slavery (even as a historical anecdote) in Red Rising. NONE. This book describes a hierarchical society built by slave labor, but erases real Earth slavery (unless you count the Greek/Roman naming conventions as an allusion to Roman slavery). But really, the African slave trade lasted hundreds of years and enslaved nearly 13 million people. It was one of the biggest slavery systems in recorded human history. Convenient that it is missing and “Irish slavery” is not, eh? And if you’re going to come back with the excuse that there’s no room for it with the scope of the worldbuilding… why would students of the Institute be able to quote Plato and Cicero on demand, but not have had any reference to the African slave trade? The Golds might have rewritten history, but if a character can flippantly mention American presidents as an example of bad governance, it stands to reason that slavery would have been included in the curriculum. Rage = induced.

So, here’s where I’m at: friends who have read the whole series say that Brown addresses many of my issues in books 2 & 3. And I am quite curious about what happens next, but not enough to put in the hours to read those books. I don’t want to download two more books’ worth of violence into my brain if it isn’t going to make me a better person in some way or show me something new. And the first book didn’t hit enough originality points. It didn’t unpack a lot of things I thought worth unpacking. Pierce Brown has plenty of readers. While I can admire some things about his writing, I didn’t love it, and on a deeper look I found enough holes to sink the ship.

In the end, Red Rising is a flawed book that will appeal to casual fans of science fiction who want a quick, engaging read. I couldn’t like it, but I do recognize the genius of its compulsive readability.

Recommended for: occasional readers who liked The Hunger Games or Ender's Game, and fans of YA sci-fi who can't stand to leave one of the most popular books in the genre unread.

what does feminism mean to me?

Wednesday, March 15, 2017 | | 3 comments
For a lot of my life, feminism was a bad word. I grew up in a conservative religious home, was homeschooled from 3rd grade until I went to a private (religious) high school, and then I went to a conservative religious college for undergrad. You see the theme, right? I know now that there are people of faith who engage with feminism, but I didn’t know that growing up. I was a living stereotype.

So, feminism. A lot of voices in my life insisted that feminism was bad, and that it didn’t honor women. BUT I had (have!) a strong mother and grandmother. They were deeply committed to my education. They encouraged me to go abroad. They encouraged me to go to grad school. They encouraged me to read whatever I wanted, as much as I wanted. When I look back, I see how much that meant, and how much their support opened the world for me, and how it eventually led me to give feminism a chance (in spite of their intentions, possibly).

Giving feminism a chance meant listening to voices I wanted to dismiss out of hand. It meant reading books, meeting people from all over the world, and learning how to think critically. It meant unpacking my assumptions about how society worked, and examining my faith in a new light. I saw too often a lack of fairness, justice, and empathy from those who continued to insist that feminism was bad.

What feminism means to me now: I’ll admit that I don’t always have the words to describe my views. So I’ll steal a bit from Maya Angelou and say that I think being a feminist means embodying “qualities including strength, commitment,… and a profound understanding of gender equality.” It means understanding that inequality is a many-layered thing, and acknowledging my privilege. Feminism, for me, means that I have an obligation to fight for all people to have the right to be equally human, just as I believe that we’re all made in the image of God.



I wrote this post in conjunction with #HereWeAre. In honor of Women's History Month and in light of the ongoing need to continue talking about equality, #HereWeAre seeks to highlight the power of talking about feminism: what it means for us individually, what it means for us collectively, and why it's one of the most powerful and life-changing parties around.

star scouts

Monday, March 6, 2017 | | 1 comments
Middle grade science fiction graphic novel. Those six words = auto-read in my world. I love middle grade books, I love science fiction and fantasy, and when you put them together, in a graphic novel format? I am here for it. Add in a diverse girl as the main character, and Mike Lawrence’s solo graphic novel debut Star Scouts became a #1 priority in my to-be-read (TBR) pile.

star scouts by mike lawrence book cover
Avani is the new kid in town, and she’s not happy about it. Everyone in school thinks she’s weird, especially the girls in her Flower Scouts troop. Is it so weird to think scouting should be about fun and adventure, not about makeovers and boys, boys, boys?

But everything changes when Avani is “accidentally” abducted by a spunky alien named Mabel. Mabel is a scout too—a Star Scout. Collecting alien specimens (like Avani) goes with the territory, along with teleportation and jetpack racing. Avani might be weird, but in the Star Scouts she fits right in. If she can just survive Camp Andromeda, and keep her dad from discovering that she’s left planet Earth, she’s in for the adventure of a lifetime. 

Avani is struggling to fit in at her Flower Scouts troup and new school when she’s accidentally teleported to alien Mabel’s spaceship as part of a Star Scouts (the intergalactic version of scouting!) homework assignment. Soon, Avani has made new friends, each with different strengths and talents, including flying and advanced robotics engineering. When Avani makes it to Camp Andromeda (real space camp) with her new Star Scouts troup, the adventures get even more intense. Will she prove that humans belong at space camp? It’ll take teamwork, friendship, and a little inventiveness to stay with her new friends and win the day.

Star Scouts is sci-fi fun from page one. For most readers, it’ll remain just that. I think there are things to love about this book, but there are also areas for improvement. Let’s dive in.

First, things I liked: it’s a book featuring a diverse main character – Avani is a rodeo-loving, Hindi-speaking adventure-seeker. Avani can be abrasive and impatient at times, but her sense of wonder and fairness balance that. And it’s just plain awesome to see a person of color as the honorary human at space camp! Following on that… space camp! Lawrence sets the scene with lots of futuristic bells and whistles (and a sci-fi take on typical camp activities). I also appreciated that the camp challenges relied not only on intelligence and training, but teamwork. Another bright spot is Avani’s new alien best friend Mabel. Mabel is a bit of a klutz and not so great at the badge challenges, but her heart and loyalty are portrayed as important as talent, and that’s a great message for readers.

And I haven’t even covered the fun and inventive art yet! Yikes! Illustration is where Lawrence really shines. The colorful page spreads are full to the brim, and yet the sense of action and movement is palpable. I might not understand the rules of physics at Camp Andromeda, but I believed them!

On to the things that struck me as problematic: first, there’s an implication within the first few pages that a group of Earth girls together would only be interested in makeup and boys, and that these interests mean that girls are vapid/stupid/not worthy of friendship. Granted, this is Avani’s view and she ignores the one person reaching out to her, but her perspective/judgment is not challenged in the course of the story. Secondly, once at Camp Andromeda, most of the action focuses on a girl vs. (alien) girl grudge match. Seeing both of those scenarios in the same story gave the book an anti-girl feel that wasn’t completely mitigated by awesome alien bff Mabel or the new Earth friend Avani made at the very end.

There’s also a running fart joke (ah, middle grade lit!) at Camp Andromeda that is essentially identity-based name-calling. I get that it is included for humor’s sake, but the taunts are not addressed by those in authority or significantly challenged in the course of the story. So… yeahhhhh.

Finally, an editing preference: there were many characters/creatures/robots included in the story – too many to focus on with any depth. These, combined with constant action and new challenges, resulted in a confusing smorgasbord. Star Scouts is a visually appealing read, but a crowded one.

In all, Star Scouts is a beautifully illustrated space romp featuring a diverse main character. There’s some room for improvement in the empowering (all kinds of) girls department, but it should appeal to anyone who daydreams about adventure while stuck in the everyday.

Recommended for: fans of Ben Hatke’s Zita the Spacegirl series, and anyone who likes middle grade lit, science fiction, and graphic novels (especially in combination).

Star Scouts will be released by First Second (Macmillan) on March 21, 2017.

Fine print: I received a finished copy of this book from the publisher for review consideration. I did not receive any compensation for this review.

a study in charlotte

Do you like clever YA books? You'll like A Study in Charlotte, then. It's gender-swapped teenlock (teenlock = stories about Sherlock Holmes in his teen years...that's something I learned from fandom!), and an adventure and a half. I’ve been making my way through the BBC show Sherlock verrrrry slowly, and I’ve read and watched several other Sherlock Holmes adaptations over the years too. Brittany Cavallaro’s take on Sherlock Holmes is familiar in that it is smart and full of mystery and murder, but it has enough details turned sideways to make for a fresh, fun take on the world’s favorite detective. 

a study in charlotte by brittany cavallaro book cover
The last thing Jamie Watson wants is a rugby scholarship to Sherringford, a Connecticut prep school just an hour away from his estranged father. But that’s not the only complication: Sherringford is also home to Charlotte Holmes, the famous detective’s great-great-great-granddaughter, who has inherited not only Sherlock’s genius but also his volatile temperament. From everything Jamie has heard about Charlotte, it seems safer to admire her from afar.

From the moment they meet, there’s a tense energy between them, and they seem more destined to be rivals than anything else. But when a Sherringford student dies under suspicious circumstances, ripped straight from the most terrifying of the Sherlock Holmes stories, Jamie can no longer afford to keep his distance. Jamie and Charlotte are being framed for murder, and only Charlotte can clear their names. But danger is mounting and nowhere is safe—and the only people they can trust are each other.

When the descendents of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson meet at posh boarding school Sherringford in New England, it's a recipe for drama. But anger-prone Jamie Watson and mysterious Charlotte Holmes didn't expect a murder investigation to bring them together. Or did they? Their term at Sherringford will be one of late night rendezvous, alibis and danger as the modern heirs of the original Watson and Holmes are drawn to each other and into a web of deception.

Things I liked about this book: first, although Jamie is predisposed to like his Holmes counterpart, he doesn’t (in my reading) fall prey to instalove, which was a nice surprise. Instead, he gets to know Charlotte, and it’s clear that he considers and accepts everything about her – flaws and failings included – when he insists on being her friend. Second, I really appreciated Cavallaro’s thoughtful framing of consent or lack thereof in sexual situations. This, paired with characters’ conflicting responses to the sex they (or others) are having (running the gamut from slut-shaming to assigning importance where there was none to casual acceptance and so on) made for a school culture that felt authentic.

On that note, I think one of the things Cavallaro excelled at was not only writing a book that people wouldn’t be able to put down (probably goal #1 for any book, tbh), but also in making it very of-the-moment, and genuinely young adultA Study in Charlotte is a Sherlock Holmes mystery updated for both the modern world and its audience. Jamie’s obsession with a person he has never met in person mirrored the truth of my own teen experience. Charlotte's self-destructive choices and eventual emotional growth make total sense in context for a high school kid. The gender-swapped characters paid homage to the Sherlock Holmes of the past but were clearly their own. The result? A fun riff on Arthur Conan Doyle’s signature creation that will appeal to those familiar with Holmes AND those who are not.

In all: A Study in Charlotte is a quick, fun read, and a marvelous distraction. I can’t wait to see what’s next in the sequel The Last of August (out next week!).

Recommended for: anyone who has enjoyed BBC’s Sherlock (even the non-readers!), and for fans of clever contemporary YA.

the chimes

Friday, February 3, 2017 | | 1 comments
How did Anna Smaill’s The Chimes end up in my pile of books to read? That’s the question I’m asking myself after finishing it in one gulp yesterday. I stayed home sick from work and couldn’t bear to stare at a screen. The printed page worked though, so I read a really wonderful book in between naps and cups of tea. It’s the sort of book I thought would have been praised to the skies, the coverage unavoidable. If it was, I missed it. And my library only has two print copies in the system (and no ebooks), so they missed it too. My best guess is that I saw it mentioned in Book Riot’s Swords & Spaceships newsletter from November 4 (those lovely, simple days pre-election) – and I must have added it then to my library holds list. In any event, go find a copy for yourself and read it because it. is. fantastic.

the chimes by anna smaill book cover
After the end of a brutal civil war, London is divided, with slums standing next to a walled city of elites. Monk-like masters are selected for special schooling and shut away for decades, learning to write beautiful compositions for the chimes, played citywide morning and night, to mute memory and keep the citizens trapped in ignorance.

A young orphan named Simon arrives in London with nothing but the vague sense of a half-forgotten promise, to locate someone. What he finds is a new family--a gang of scavengers that patrols the underbelly of the city looking for valuable metal to sell. Drawn in by an enigmatic and charismatic leader, a blind young man named Lucien with a gift for song, Simon forgets entirely what originally brought him to the place he has now made his home.

In this alternate London, the past is a mystery, each new day feels the same as the last, and before is considered "blasphony." But Simon has a unique gift--the gift of retaining memories--that will lead him to discover a great injustice and take him far beyond the meager life as a member of Lucien's gang. Before long he will be engaged in an epic struggle for justice, love, and freedom.

In Simon’s world, the music of the Chimes at the end of the day wipes away memory, and the Onestory at the start of the day tells the story of humanity’s history. Since humans can’t hold on to memories, they hold on to bodymemory (repetitive actions mostly having to do with their trade) and objectmemory (imbuing specific objects with a memory they want to keep with them). But newly orphaned Simon has a gift – he can see memories and hold on to them longer than most. When he makes his way to London he falls in with a group of scavengers led by the ringleader Lucien and forgets about his past and his quest – for a time. Memory won’t leave him alone though, even in a world where that shouldn’t be possible.

Do you know that strange familiar feeling when a story is deeply original, but it somehow also reminds you of some thing, some touchstone in your memory? That is both the baseline story and the feeling evoked by this book. It is clear from the very start that something is deeply awry in Simon’s world, and that something has to do with music. Music is so pervasive it has replaced most speech, and the written word (code) has died out completely. From page 31 of The Chimes, “The words are simple, because words are not to be trusted. Music holds the meaning now.” The Onestory says that words were the thing that brought about the end of the world. And with no one who can remember yesterday, much less the past, all of London must accept that as fact.

The Chimes is chilling and poetic and original, and I loved it. Music permeates every page, every part of life in Simon’s London. Events occur subito or lento, not suddenly or slowly, and time is marked in musical notation. That said, you need not have a background in music to “get it” – everything can be picked up in context. And as you’d imagine with a story told in an amnesiac world, the truth comes to light only slowly, in fits and starts, as memory unravels. Meditations on the meaning and genius of music, truth, and the shape and fragility of human memory (and then what that means about the “essentials” of life) – these are the things that take a dystopian tale and marry it to literary fiction. The resulting story is just gorgeous.

Other marks in its favor: it’s fairly short, it has good cross-over potential (there’s nothing subject matter-wise that I’d hesitate to give to a mature twelve year old), and though it has the “tag” of literary fiction, it would fit just as well on a sci-fi and fantasy shelf. Also [spoiler: highlight to see text] the only romantic relationship is a gay one, so that’s happy-making [end spoiler].

So I’ve told you why I love it. But. This book will not work for everyone, as evidenced by its Goodreads rating. It doesn’t teem with a constant sense of danger, and there’s no villain to root against from the start.  Subtle, complex stories have to hit the right chord with the reader, and if you add up the heavily musical language, dystopian setting, and memory loss afflicting the characters, reader drop off is a given. It’s a book that takes a bit of patience, but it’s wildly inventive and unsettling and beautifully written once you’ve gotten inside and been swept away.

I happened to read The Chimes at the right time. I needed a story that was simultaneously beautiful and new, and that asked the age-old questions, “Do the ends justify the means?” and “What does it mean to be human?”

Recommended for: fans of the music of Patricia McKillip’s writing, the sincerity of Patrick Ness’ protagonists, and the subtlety of Leah Bobet’s worldbuilding, those looking for an adult readalike of Lois Lowry’s The Giver, and anyone who loves music, cleverly wrought dystopias, and/or literary fiction.

juana and lucas

Friday, January 20, 2017 | | 1 comments
It’s Inauguration Day here in Washington, DC. I have the day off of work because I live a couple of streets away from Arlington National Cemetery and my office is on Pennsylvania Avenue. It’s still a Friday, but the library is closed and I don’t want to turn on the TV. I do want to do something constructive – something that will make a difference and build up my spirits. So, I’m reviewing a book by a local author – by a Spanish-speaking immigrant, even. I want to share with you a book that is adorable, smart, different, and immensely readable. Let’s talk about Juana Medina’s Juana & Lucas.

juana and lucas by juana medina book cover
Fans of Judy Moody and Clarice Bean will love Juana, the spunky young Colombian girl who stars in this playful, abundantly illustrated new series.

Juana loves many things — drawing, eating Brussels sprouts, living in Bogot√°, Colombia, and especially her dog, Lucas, the best amigo ever. She does not love wearing her itchy school uniform, solving math problems, or going to dance class. And she especially does not love learning the English. Why is it so important to learn a language that makes so little sense? But when Juana’s abuelos tell her about a special trip they are planning—one that Juana will need to speak English to go on—Juana begins to wonder whether learning the English might be a good use of her time after all. Hilarious, energetic, and utterly relatable, Juana will win over los corazones — the hearts — of readers everywhere in her first adventure, presented by namesake Juana Medina.

Juana is a rambunctious girl who lives in Bogot√°, Colombia with her mother and her dog Lucas. Juana loves many things – her abuelos (grandparents), art, her best friend at school, her city (and of course her Mami and Lucas!)… but she does not love learning English. It’s difficult, it’s boring, and she wonders what the point is. When her grandfather tells her that the family will visit Florida, everything changes. Juana MUST learn English!

Juana & Lucas is an illustrated chapter book with a lot of heart. Juana has the same sort of thoughts and worries and dreams as any kid – she’s relatable, and she’s smart and fun. While Juana is hilariously lamenting how boring English is, she drops many little tidbits about life in Colombia, and the reader learns a bit of Spanish too – all Spanish words are italicized and understandable in the context of the story. Juana’s happy, functioning family (in a unique environment) is also important, as oftentimes parents in children’s lit are absent, dead, or worse.

Author Juana Medina both wrote and illustrated the text, and her art is a colorful mix of black lines and watercolor. The effect is cheery and vibrant, and the simplicity of the figures and outlines is likely to inspire her grade-school readers to imitate and carry on telling Juana’s future adventures. My favorite page spreads were the ones where Juana identifies every item by name.

In all, Juana & Lucas is a vibrant, fun early picture book for any kid or kid-at-heart.

Recommended for: early readers, reluctant readers, fans of comics and art, and… anyone, really!

Fine print: I picked up an advance copy of this title for review consideration from the publisher at Book Expo America.
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