Goodbye, blog!

Hello, all!

It’s been a while since my last post – over a year, in fact! – but that’s because I have been up to exciting things like writing a book (OMG IT’S FINALLY DONE!), editing all my husband’s books, and shifting a lot of my content over to our shared blog, HoloWriting.com. I also recently resigned from my beloved library position to pursue said publishing endeavors, so no more library programming blog posts will be forthcoming.

That said, as of this post, this blog is officially retired! I’m going to leave it up because the library programming posts still receive a reasonable number of hits, but henceforth all book reviews and other content will be posted to HoloWriting.com.

Thanks to all those who have followed me over the years! I hope to see you on the other side…er, blog.

In the meantime, LOOK AT MY BOOK ISN’T IT PRETTY? 😀

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Best,

h.p.hololol 🙂

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Book Review: Grave Mercy by Robin LaFevers

Nun assassins, y’all.

I’m not sure why the marketing didn’t just splash that all over the front of Grave Mercy, as once I heard that description, I was all over this book.

For those who need more, here is the description from the book itself:

Escaping from the brutality of an arranged marriage, seventeen-year-old Ismae finds sanctuary at the convent of St. Mortain, where the sisters still serve the gods of old. Here she learns that the god of Death himself has blessed her with dangerous gifts—and a violent destiny. If she chooses to stay at the convent, she will be trained as an assassin and serve as a handmaiden to Death. To claim her new life, she must be willing to take the lives of others.

Ismae’s most important assignment takes her straight into the high court of Brittany, where she must pose as mistress to the darkly mysterious Gavriel Duval, who has fallen under a cloud of suspicion. Once there, she finds herself woefully under prepared—not only for the deadly games of love and intrigue, but for the impossible choices she must make. For how can she deliver Death’s vengeance upon a target who, against her will, has stolen her heart?

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Grave Mercy by Robin LaFevers, the first in the His Fair Assassin trilogy, is possibly one of the finest kick-butt-girl-assassin books out there. It’s high on action, drama, strong-but-not-stereotypical heroines, and lack-of-love-triangles—and the one romance that it does develop emerges slowly and believably. Add it to your reading list now, but if you need more reasons why you should, read on:

Despite its length (a hefty 549 pages), Grave Mercy is an astonishingly quick read. The chapters are short and nearly always end with a cliffhanger or similarly intriguing bit of information. The plot itself, too, carefully balances the machinations of court drama with the violent clashes that readers expect of assassin books, so there’s literally never a slow moment.

For some readers, though, the opening will be slightly frustrating. Ismae herself doesn’t become an interesting character until she goes to court. Until then, she strikes me as someone who would be a real downer at parties. Pretty much every emotion she has is serious, begrudging, and usually made in relation to her abilities and position as an assassin for Saint Mortain. She also begins with a nasty man-hating streak that would make the most obnoxious feminists proud—but I suppose if my only interactions with men consisted of an abusive father and husband, I probably wouldn’t like men, either. Still, it does read like a tiny tumblr rant when she ponders using her finely honed Saint-given assassination skills to kill a man who groped her in a tavern.

Once she reaches court, however, she blossoms as a character. She finds that she’s not as equipped for the job as she thought she was, but even so, learns to handle her inadequacies with competence, and never lets her insecurities get the better of her. When faced with a problem, she never whines about it; she finds a way to overcome it, which is not only admirable but far less exhausting to read. Truly, she faces so many challenges in each chapter that she can’t risk stopping. I’m pretty sure that if she’d stopped to whine, she’d have missed pivotal plot information. The novel moves that quickly, and the stakes are that high.

Though I read the book for its assassin action, I was pleasantly surprised by the tension of the court scenes, too. There’s a whole ton of political mess going on in this setting—France is threatening invasion, the twelve-year-old Duchess of Brittany needs armies to defend the duchy, and the main way she’ll be able to secure those armies is accepting one of any number of marriage offers, the most militarily promising of which is to a total scumbag. She knows there are traitors about in the court, loyal to either the French or to the scumbag, but she doesn’t know who they are, and the novel is written so that nearly everyone’s allegiance is called into question at one point or another. Ismae is determined to weed out the traitors, but this is where her failings challenge her. She can spy, of course, but over half of spying at court is done through sneaky, clever interpersonal relations, and Ismae’s social skills sometimes risk jeopardizing her goals. She also doesn’t know if she can trust the people she’s chosen to ally with, which adds a further layer of tension—especially when she falls in love with one of them.

This brings me to another of the novel’s strong points. The romance that buds between Ismae and Duval is a refreshing one. Never does it become a focus of the novel—both characters acknowledge that they have more important things to do than be all lovey-dovey—but when it hits, it hits hard, to great suspenseful effect. The last quarter of the novel is intense anyway, but the tension introduced by the romance makes it better. That the romance is introduced gradually, and as a byproduct of the two working together to save the duchy makes it even better, as does the fact that it is largely a positive relationship, despite its politically-motivated bumps.

That romance actually reminded of the slow romances between Seraphina and Kiggs in Seraphina and Katsa and Po in Graceling. Similarly, Ismae’s relationship with the young duchess reminded me of Katsa’s with Bitterblue, and the mental sharpness of the duchess reminded me of Seraphina’s Princess Gliselda. And when a book can draw comparisons with not one, but two of my favorites, it’s an excellent thing.

***

Eyebrow Factor: A blurb on the back of the book bills Grave Mercy as “a trilogy readers of all ages will gobble up.” While it’s certainly a YA book with adult appeal, I’d hesitate to give it to very young readers. It opens with a scene that is literally a wedding night but basically an attempted rape; there is another similar assault on a young character; and given that Ismae is disguised as Duval’s mistress, there’s plenty of talk about things that go on between men and women. None of it is graphic, but some of it is definitely uncomfortable to read, which is something to keep in mind before recommending it to a young teen or reader who may be sensitive to the content.

Book Review: The Sons of Liberty by Alexander and Joseph Lagos

Two escaped slaves get superpowers, team up with Ben Franklin, and wreak havoc on their corrupt former owner. This tells you all you need to know about The Sons of Liberty.

sonsoflibertycoverThis graphic novel, penned by Alexander and Joseph Lagos, is more National Treasure than history class, which is probably why it’s one of the most fun comics that I’ve read in a while.* Graham and Brody begin as slaves under the cruel Jacob Sorenson. When Sorenson’s son attacks Brody, Graham’s act of defense puts them both on the run, where they encounter Benjamin Franklin’s crazypants son, who has been electrocuting animals and, increasingly, slaves in effort to see what effect it has on their bodies. In this case, superpowers! (DO NOT TRY THIS AT HOME.) The boys proceed to befriend Ben Franklin, who gives them work in his print shop, and Quaker abolitionist Benjamin Lay, who teaches them the African martial art of dambe and suggests that they use their newfound powers to right the wrongs slavery has inflicted upon the country.

Normally I’m irked by historical inaccuracy in books, but I make a gleeful exception for this one. After all, via Authors’ Note, the writers are pretty blatant about the historical inaccuracy (see again: superpowers), and most of the relevant inaccuracies are so ridiculous that they’re instantly noticeable. For example, while Benjamin Lay was truly eccentric and loudly anti-slavery (as depicted in the book) he also had a hunched back (as also depicted in the book), which logically seems like something that would interfere with the learning of most martial arts (not depicted in the book). William Franklin, too, is such an exaggeratedly despicable character that it’s hard to see anything that he does as historically-based (other than his strained relationship with his father, which was accurate). Such exaggerations permeate the book, from the fictional slave hunter who outfits his dog collars with foot-long spikes to a terrifyingly huge Hessian character who has no problem scalping a person with his bare hands. These are all the things of over-the-top action movies, which make it easier to suspend disbelief for this particular tale.

Graham and Brody, however, are decidedly non-exaggerated characters, which is what makes the story work so well. Most of the problems that they face in the story are problems that would be faced by any runaway slave—having to evade slave hunters, trying to find food without being conspicuous, worrying about the friends and family they left behind, etc.—and even once they acquire their powers, they react as one would expect teens in their situation to act—terrified at first, and then WHOA THESE POWERS ARE AWESOME. Surprisingly little of the story centers around their powers, too, but this is far from a flaw. Between Lay’s abolition efforts, Franklin’s conflict with William, William’s own several duplicities, and both of Graham and Brody’s conflicts (that is, hiding from Sorenson while learning to use their powers), there’s more than enough to keep the reader interested.

The writing itself zips between each storyline quickly, but never feels rushed. Dialogue is particularly well-handled, with several characters possessing their own unique styles of speaking. The art, too, is energetic, with smart use of color, expression, and character design, even if the lineart beneath the color occasionally looks too quickly-drawn. (It’s far from bad, but every now and then a character will look off-model. It’s not frequent enough to interfere with the reading experience, though.)

Ultimately, The Sons of Liberty is more concerned with entertainment than education. Considering that this was its goal in the first place, it does it with panache—so much so that it might even make readers interested in the true history behind the story! At its heart, it’s an exciting fantasy romp through pre-Revolutionary America, and highly recommended.

***

*No offense to history teachers. Mine were magnificent, but I’ve had several teens refuse historical fiction because they say their history teachers ruined it for them.

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Book Review: A Moment Comes by Jennifer Bradbury

In 1947, India is on the brink of division. The British Empire’s days in the country are numbered, and one of its final acts is to partition the country and its conflicting faiths into two separate religious states—the Islamic Republic of Pakistan and the primarily Hindu and Sikh Union of India. However, the transition is far from quiet. Tensions between the faiths cause violence to erupt at seeming random. Muslim mobs burn down Sikh places of worship while Sikh riots storm through Muslim markets, and once a person is swept into a riot, there’s no escaping. To run is to be chased, or to have one’s loyalty to the faith questioned, and neither have bloodless results.

Caught in this whirl are three teens whose lives will intertwine, even as India threatens to unravel. Tariq is a Muslim who seeks to study at Oxford, but as an Indian without British connections to get him there, he has little hope of doing so. However, his chance to earn a connection comes when he is hired as translator for Mr. Darnsley, one of the British cartographers responsible for drawing the boundary between India and Pakistan—and father of the pretty Margaret. Margaret was initially in India to bring aid to refugees, but, now confined to the house because of the dangers of going outside, is bored and looking for entertainment—entertainment that she can possibly find in Tariq. Also working in the house is Anupreet, a Sikh, and pretty despite a face that has been marred by Muslim violence. Their fates collide in A Moment Comes by Jennifer Bradbury.

momentcomescoverI consider historical fiction about Asian subjects important, especially for YA readers. This is because Asian history often gets shafted in the Western Civ bias of the US’ history curricula, so unless they voluntarily take a class about Eastern topics, most US students won’t encounter these pieces of history in any meaningful detail. Thus, it falls to curiosity and fiction to do the educating.

A Moment Comes is an excellent springboard for education about the Partition of India.

It’s not what you would consider a fun read. (I mean, in the first chapter, the primary character is merely walking to his job when he’s swept against his will into a Muslim mob, which then proceeds to burn down a Sikh gurdwara that is still full of people, and in the process of escaping, he is attacked by a Sikh acting in self-defense, whom he then possibly kills in his own act of self-defense, even though he didn’t want to be there in the first place. This is not the stuff of beach reads.) However, it does provide a fast-paced, emotional, and surprisingly efficient look at a very complex piece of history.

While its history is solid, the novel’s greatest strength lies in its characters and how they give a human face to an otherwise distant historical event. Their concerns are practical ones—Tariq wants to stay out of trouble, Margaret wants to be useful and not be bored, Anupreet wants to stay safe in the market—but they belie darker realities experienced by their cultures. Tariq can’t stay out of trouble when former friends and religious zealots drag him into it. Margaret can’t go outside because of the dangers presented by Indian anti-British sentiments. Anupreet fears the market because there might be another bomb inside another Sikh shop, and another Muslim ready to mar her face with the shop’s broken glass.

Though the characters are representative of larger problems, they are complex within themselves, too. Margaret, for example, first reads like an imperialist brat who finds hot, sticky India to be a nuisance, but she has a history of having aided wounded soldiers in World War II, and develops such a genuine fascination with Indian culture that she risks going native, much to her proud British family’s chagrin. Perhaps the least developed of the characters is Anupreet, whose experiences mostly make her a vehicle for showing how awful life is because of the religious tensions. Still, even though she is the least active of the characters, her situation reveals the dangers faced by the average Indian—the sufferings created by the misfortunes surrounding the Partition.

The story itself is not especially complicated, but in researching the history of the Partition, I began to consider this a mercy extended by the author. The Partition of India and related history is an enormously complicated subject, especially for Western readers who might have limited knowledge of Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs, or Indian history in general. There’s far more to the conflict than “Muslims and Hindus/Sikhs hate each other and so Britain gave the Muslims their own country.” When 15 million people are forced to leave their life-long homes and travel hundreds of miles in the midst of violence fueled by religious fervor, good things are not going to happen. People are going to go missing. Entire railways are going to be blocked by bandits so they can kill and loot every body of the opposing faith on board. The refugees who are lucky enough to reach their destination might not have a place to go once they get there, and so are funneled into crowded refugee camps where cholera spreads because people don’t have pots in which to boil the disease from their water. And that’s before one even considers Indian animosity toward the British presence in the country, and the fear that partition won’t actually solve anything. (Which—HISTORY SPOILER ALERT—it didn’t, seeing as how there have been four Indo-Pakistani wars since then, even as recently as 1999, and that many types of inter-faith violence depicted in the book continue even today.)

All this said, Bradbury aims to capture the tension inherent in these simultaneous problems, rather than weave a complex plot, and succeeds quite well at it. In fact, I was rather surprised when I reached the end of the book to find that it was less than 300 pages, as the level of information I’d gathered from it made it feel substantially longer—but not in a bad way. The short chapters and near-constant tension, even in the moments of calm, render it a surprisingly fast read.

Despite this efficiency (or perhaps because of it), the novel’s main flaws rest in details that the author left out. Outside of exclamations to Allah and other deities, the story pays minimal reference to the theological differences between each of the major faiths. While not necessary to the novel’s conflict—for the purpose of the story, all readers need to know is that Muslims and Hindus hate each other—the lack of anything but superficial religious references was disappointing, as was the lack of explanation as to why they hate each other in the first place. (At one point it is mentioned that the British had exacerbated the tensions to their advantage, but how they did so is never detailed.) Also, the novel’s glossary, though generally useful for major terms, does not contain all Indian terms used in the text of the story, and some of the present definitions are incomplete. For example, though the glossary definitions for “Muslim” and “Hindu” provide minor detail about the beliefs of the religions, “Sikh” is merely defined as “A follower of Sikhism,” with no detail about what Sikhism actually entails. This is particularly frustrating, considering that one of the main characters is Sikh, and that Sikhism and Hinduism, while related, are two separate faiths. However, considering that the religions are complex entities in themselves and that the conflict between Muslims and Hindus extends back more than 2000 years, there’s a lot of complexity to be captured there. Sufficient inclusion of relevant details could have doubled the size of the book—thus counteracting its efficiency—and ultimately, A Moment Comes is a book about the weeks leading up to the Partition, not about centuries of complicated conflict. This is why it’s best defined as a springboard.

Ultimately, A Moment Comes, introduces readers to engaging characters who give a much-needed face to a historical event not often chronicled in YA literature. The historical information that is necessary to the story is strong, and the information that is merely hinted at will raise questions that give curious readers paths to follow, should they decide to research the topic on their own. For that purpose, I recommend it highly.

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Book Review: 11 Doctors, 11 Stories by Various

The history of Doctor Who spans 50+ years of TV broadcast, radio plays, print publications, video games, and several spinoff series, which means that there are lots of places for newbies to dive in, and not all of them are easy starting points. For those first approaching Doctor Who through print, the short story collection 11 Doctors, 11 Stories is one of the best ways to do it (and is also a fine read even for established Whovians.)

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For the uninitiated, Doctor Who follows a Time Lord known as The Doctor as he travels through time and space, usually with one or more companions, but always with the aid of his trusty Sonic Screwdriver and intermittently trusty TARDIS (a.k.a. iconic-blue-police-box-slash-time-and-space-traveling-machine). As a Time Lord, he cannot die, but rather regenerates into a different form whenever death-like circumstances require it.

He might also be the most powerful being in any of the series’ universes, simply because he can speak total BS and use it to world-rendingly save the day: He’s been poisoned? No prob, he’ll just eat some walnuts and ginger beer and then burp it out in a cloud of magic Time Lord smoke. The day generally looks hopeless? Give him some complicated space-and-time-pseudo-science babble and a random mundane object and THAT MESS IS FIXED. The Doctor Who canon never formally acknowledges this superpower, just as it never acknowledges the fact that the time-traveling structure of the series renders every bit of tension that happens null and void when you even try to think about it. That said, its consistency is a hot mess, but it’s also a fun, whimsical, and refreshingly optimistic series, and that alone makes it worth a try.

As of this writing, the series has moved up to its Twelfth Doctor (well, Thirteenth, but that’s a tale for a decided Whovian), which is one reason why this anthology is such a good starting point. Each story in the collection follows a different one of the then-eleven Doctors and thus provides a good series primer. The stories themselves have impressive pedigrees for the YA sci-fi and fantasy crowd, coming from the pens of Neil Gaiman, Patrick Ness, Eoin Colfer, Philip Reeve, and others, which gives the anthology the added benefit of exposing readers to some of the finest writers in this genre, all in one place.

Unfortunately, this pedigree doesn’t always equal absolute goodness. The first two entries are easily the anthology’s weakest. Eoin Colfer’s First Doctor opener “A Big Hand for the Doctor” suffers from a bland, action-oriented plot. Action has never been one of Doctor Who’s strengths, considering that the Doctor’s favorite battle strategies consist of running or distracting enemies until he can drop a convenient plot bomb. There is no plot bomb in this story, either, which makes it seem like a huge waste of the infinite BS possibilities of the Doctor Who universe. The story also features a lot of random, misplaced elements that feel like they belong in another story, sometimes because they literally do; the Gnommish language from Colfer’s Artemis Fowl series makes an inexplicable appearance, and a late story twist credits the Doctor’s adventure with the creation of another classic, beloved story that, in the context of this adventure, is also inexplicable. Overall the entry reads like Colfer forgot that he was assigned to write the thing and so turned in the first draft that he scrawled out, which is disappointing because 1) when he’s writing in his own worlds, Colfer is one of my favorite writers, and 2) the story could have been pretty cool if fully developed. As for the Second Doctor, I literally remembered nothing about Michael Scott’s “The Nameless City” when I sat down to write this review (two days after reading it).

Fortunately, the rest of the anthology vworps in like the TARDIS on a good day and saves everything. BSery aside, the real strength of the Doctor Who series is its ability to craft clever, quirky storylines around whatever random props the BBC had lying around its lot at the time. Obviously, a book does not have the same type of budget limitations as a TV series, but the stories in this anthology are written in keeping with the series’ rag-and-bone spirit.

Marcus Sedgwick’s Third Doctor tale “The Spear of Destiny” is a prime example of the series’ strengths. I mean, it’s got museums, Vikings, uniquely Whovian explanations of how certain historical events really went down (you know, time magic and stuff), and plenty of well-placed twists. You can’t really go wrong with that, and it doesn’t.

Philip Reeve’s “The Roots of Evil” only adds to the momentum, setting its adventure on a space-station-that-is-really-an-enormous-complex-sentient-populated-tree-that-exists-solely-to-kill-The-Doctor (Fourth, in this case). It’s in this story and the previous that the collection begins to actually feel like a genuine entry into the Doctor Who canon, combining the series’ distinct eccentricity (All the alien names are elaborate commentaries on The Doctor’s intended fate) with a thoroughly fascinating, whimsical setting.

These elements all cumulate in Patrick Ness’ Fifth Doctor tale “Tip of the Tongue,” which may be the best entry in the anthology. In this tale, Truth Tellers have become all the rage in World War II-era Maine. These devices speak absolute truths about the people at whom the wearer directs them, which, predictably, leads to all sorts of unpleasantness. However, most of the entry’s conflict comes not from the fantastical elements, but the tensions that are inherent in its main characters being, respectively, biracial and a German Jew in a time period that was especially unfriendly to both. The story manages a delicate balance of quirk and respect for the darker elements of history (and those who suffered them), which is a mark shared with some of the finer episodes of the TV series.

Richelle Mead’s “Something Borrowed” gives readers a break from the serious, taking the Sixth Doctor on a romp through a planet modeled on the ridiculousness of Las Vegas. The fact that it involves an alien Las Vegas wedding and mini-pterodactyls tells you all you need to know about the colorful wackiness of this one.

Malorie Blackman takes readers back to the serious with the intriguing “The Ripple Effect,” in which the Seventh Doctor accidentally re-writes the universe (yep) and must decide whether to leave it as is or revert back to the original universe. This decision is complicated by the presence of the Daleks; in the original universe, the Daleks are an indiscriminately murderous race (which, after Classic Who, becomes partly responsible for the annihilation of the Time Lords and thus a whole lot of dramatic Last Time Lord angst). However, in this new universe, the Daleks are so docile and benevolent that they give lectures about bad manners! Most of the tension in this story comes from the Doctor himself, who can’t fathom a universe with such Daleks, and it’s interesting to watch his moral dilemma unfold.

After this, Alex Scarrow finishes up the Classic Who with his Eighth Doctor tale “Spore,” which is easily the creepiest piece in the collection. Much of what makes it cool can’t be revealed without revealing spoilers (and thus reducing the creep factor), but the twists behind all the creepiness rendered it another of my favorites.

The anthology enters the New Who timeline with Charlie Higson’s “The Beast of Babylon.” This story is notable for assigning the Ninth Doctor an unexpected sort of companion, and also for a clever twist that ends up setting it inside the first episode of the re-imagined TV show. Higson’s depiction of the Doctor is spot-on, too; the Ninth Doctor’s voice clicked effortlessly into my head the moment he first spoke in the story. (Not that the previous Doctors don’t sound like themselves; I’m simply not familiar enough with Classic Who to comment on the accuracy of those depictions.)

Derek Landy takes the Tenth Doctor into literary territory in “The Mystery of the Haunted Cottage,” plunging the Doctor into a mysterious world constructed around his companion’s favorite childhood book series, The Troubleseekers. Despite revolving around a fictional series of books, the story has the same charm as the TV series’ literature-related episodes (even if the reveals are a little underwhelming) and Landy’s writing style is well-matched to the Tenth Doctor’s personality.

Finally, Neil Gaiman finishes the anthology with the Eleventh Doctor story “Nothing O’Clock.” Here, a dangerous race known as The Kin has escaped from a defunct Time Lord prison and is up to no good on 1980s Earth. The story borrows from current showrunner Steven Moffat’s tendency to take mundane things and make them terrifying—in this case, people in amusing masks, innocent questions, and selling a house. Its twists and world building rank it among the best (i.e. most coherent) Eleventh Doctor tales, and the writing, being Neil Gaiman’s, is the most charming in the anthology (if you like Neil Gaiman, as I do).

As a whole, then, the anthology more than overcomes its underwhelming start. Whether you’re an established Whovian or a noob who still abbreviates the show as Dr. Who (DON’T), 11 Doctors, 11 Stories is definitely worth reading.

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Book Review: Remember Dippy by Shirley Reva Vernick

Summers are supposed to be awesome, but it’s hard to have an awesome summer in a town populated mostly by cows, and it’s even harder when you’re stuck taking care of your weird cousin. Thirteen-year-old Johnny has many things he’d rather do than hang out with Remember Dippy. When his mom leaves town for work, however, he has no choice but to stay with his eccentric aunt and her son. So begins the tale of an unexpectedly memorable summer.

rememberdippycoverShirley Reva Vernick’s Remember Dippy has been on my to-read shelf for a while, largely because of its delightfully Napoleon Dynamite-esque cover and the fact that its title is fun to say. It becomes slightly less fun to say when you realize that it continues the time-honored YA tradition of inexplicably weird character names. However, once you get over the fact that Remember Dippy is a character’s name and not a call to action, the novel becomes a charming look at a young teen’s relationship with his Autistic cousin and the summer adventures that ensue.

The best part of this book, indisputably, is its positive depiction of an Autistic character and interactions with that character. Though Johnny resents having to give up extra time with his friends (What thirteen-year-old wouldn’t?) and sometimes becomes annoyed with Remember (or Mem)’s mannerisms, his treatment of Mem is ultimately patient and understanding, providing a good example for readers who may know teens with similar exceptionalities. He also relates to Mem in positive ways; both love video games, and Mem is a whiz at them. Mem’s particular exceptionality is never mentioned by name in the book—to everyone, he’s just someone who’s different, who occasionally needs to be spoken to in a different way to aid his understanding—which, in turn, keeps the character from acquiring a stigmatizing label. Though the title character is Autistic, this is far from An Autism Book.

The plot surrounding Johnny and Mem is likewise a positive one. It consists primarily of small summertime misadventures that boil down to being awkward around girls and helping townspeople out. Several run-ins with a neighborhood bully also take a positive turn near the end. Through this and several other encounters, the book also encourages readers to walk in another’s shoes. Everyone who starts out as unlikable in the story becomes a friend (or at least sympathetic) once Johnny learns more about them. Ultimately, more than being a book about understanding Autism, it becomes a book about understanding others in general.

That said, the gentleness of the plot does render it a bit mild. There’s not a lot of tension in the story, even when one character’s life is in danger, even though there are some small “Oh no!” moments. Really, though, I think the mildness works for this story. Not every book about an exceptional character has to be an emotional hard-hitter. Sometimes you just want to read a book that leaves you smiling at the end, and Remember Dippy does that.

***

Eyebrow Factor: As stated above, Remember Dippy is a pretty tame read, with few if any eyebrow-raising elements.

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WriPro: Ktshy Characters

One of the artists that I follow on Deviant Art, Katie Shanahan (http://ktshy.deviantart.com/), produces fantastically cute and expressive character art.

Several years ago, she applied her talents to create some sample characters for use in an amateur voice acting panel at Anime North. The intent was to have participants (the amateur voice actors) make up voices for the featured characters–an exercise that, with a little bit of tweaking, translates well to a creative writing club!

For this Ktshy-inspired activity, I printed the below pictures* onto card stock, cut them out, and let each teen pick a few from the set. Here’s a printable PDF version, if you’d like to cut some out for your own program: Ktshy Characters

Ktshy Characters Sample

One big benefit of this exercise is that it is wonderfully low-prep. It’s literally print, cut, and go, so it’s a great activity for librarians who are short on time.

Afterward, I gave the teens several creative writing options:

1. Write a character sketch about each character you chose. Don’t know where to start? Pick out the details that make this character interesting, and think about why those details are there. What happened to the character that created those details?

2. Team up with someone else and write a short exchange in which your characters meet. How do the characters react to each other’s quirks? What happens next?

3. Ridiculous circumstances force three of these characters to team up and go on an adventure. Who teams up? What pulls the party together? What are they adventuring toward?

The inherent ridiculousness of the character options makes this a wonderful brain-loosening exercise. My teens, who are already hardcore goofballs even without the aid of funny writing prompts, all came up enough clever ideas that the exercise (originally planned to be a short warm-up) ended up taking up the entire program!

***

EXTRAS!

Shanahan has produced several of these sets, all linked below:

Anime North Characters 1: http://ktshy.deviantart.com/art/Anime-North-characters-33870763

Anime North Characters 2 (and the source of the above image): http://ktshy.deviantart.com/art/Amateur-Voice-Acting-Panel-II-56439305

Anime North Characters 4: http://ktshy.deviantart.com/art/Amateur-Voice-Acting-Exp-4-123352915

Anime North Characters 5: http://ktshy.deviantart.com/art/AN-Amateur-Voice-Acting-5-166929740

Note: According to her page, her third batch of Anime North Characters was simply a mix and match of characters from 1 and 2.

*Artwork reproduced with permission of the artist, btw.

Book Review: Thief’s Covenant by Ari Marmell

Once she was Adrienne Satti, an orphan with a rags-to-riches story. Now she is Widdershins, a thief with a sharp blade, a sharper wit, and help from a secret god living in her head. But now something horrid, something dark, is reaching out for her, a past that refuses to let her go…

So declares the back of Thief’s Covenant by Ari Marmell.

I first encountered this title when researching books that read like video games, and after reading it, am surprised that it took me the effort of research to actually find out about it. It’s a title that has appeal for a wide variety of audiences. Fans of historical adventure, low fantasy, kick-butt heroines, good old-fashioned sneakery, and playing stealth games solely to climb on things will all find something to like in this novel.

thiefscovenantcoverThe most perfect audience for Thief’s Covenant is the teen who just wants to play Assassin’s Creed but has a book report due tomorrow that hasn’t even been started yet. It’s quick, it’s witty, and its combination of stealth tactics, action, and political intrigue basically render it Assassin’s Creed with a girl. (Note: Assassin’s Creed references in this review refer primarily to the first four games, set in Renaissance Italy.)

Widdershins herself deserves to rank among fan-favorite heroines like Graceling’s Katsa and pretty much every Tamora Pierce heroine. She’s quick-witted, adaptable, determined, and in no way is she going to let the powers that be step all over her. When both the Davillon City Guard and Finders’ Guild (that is—ha—thieves’ guild) start harassing her for (mostly) unfounded reasons, she decides to show them both by stealing an item from a visiting dignitary—not because she actually wants the item, just to show that she won’t be so easily contained. Her very nickname suggests opposition, “widdershins” meaning “counterclockwise.” Of course, as exemplified by the aforementioned adventure, her determination sometimes (read: often) translates into headstrong recklessness. Widdershins frequently gets into trouble without the aid of any force but herself. For readers, this isn’t a bad thing. It’s fun to watch her fall into exponentially worsening trouble because it means she’ll have to do something equivalently clever to get out of it, which she frequently does.

She’s also too busy running from the City Guard, Finders’ Guild thugs, other people who generally want her dead, and oh, demons, to have time for a romance, which is a refreshing change from other heroines whose goals are complicated by the two hot guys vying for their attentions.

Her relationship with the god in her head, Olgun, is fascinating, too, as is the entire concept of religion in this setting. Davillon’s is a faith centered around a Pact of 147 acknowledged gods, from which families and organizations choose to take as household deities and official patrons. The gods are active in the city, visible through tangible boons granted to worshippers; Widdershins’ in particular helps her thievery in subtle ways. These gods also regulate the behavior of the city; organizations with patron gods of the Pact can’t openly attack one another without violating the Pact, which is why the City Guard can’t take on the Finder’s Guild without resorting to sneaky methods (or otherwise starting a war). The resulting tension, combined with a plot involving the history of Widdershins’ personal god, makes this religion one of the most interesting pieces of world-building in the book.

The writing itself is another strength of the novel. The prose is peppered with amusing, ironic wit, and the style balances the derring-do and drama quite well, never becoming too over-the-top or too melodramatic. Also, despite being the first book in a series, the story functions as a standalone, and thus is a welcome departure from the cliffhanger endings favored by other YA series starters.

For squeamish readers, it’s worth noting that the novel opens in the midst of carnage involving a ton of murdered bodies that have been hacked into such fine pieces that the characters can’t figure out which body parts belong to which victim. However, that is by far the worst of the violence in the book, and most that occurs is pretty standard for a book of this type.

Overall, Thief’s Covenant is a solid start to a promising series. I look forward to reading more!

***

Eyebrow Factor: As mentioned above, the book opens with some gruesome carnage that might turn some readers off immediately. It’s worth noting, though, that this carnage is uncharacteristic of the rest of the book. Readers who are already accustomed to the average action/adventure video game are not going to be bothered by the novel as a whole.

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Book Review: Department 19 by Will Hill

department19coverFrom book jacket: When Jamie Carpenter’s mother is kidnapped, he finds himself dragged into Department 19, the government’s most secret agency. Fortunately for Jamie, Department 19 can provide the tools he needs to find his mother, and to kill the vampires who want him dead. But unfortunately for everyone, something much older is stirring, something even Department 19 can’t stand up against…

I read Department 19 at the frequent recommendation of one of my regular teens at the library. His enthusiasm for the series, combined with the first entry’s shamelessly and splendidly Expendables-like cover, led me to expect the best in ridiculous action movie-style epicness. Unfortunately, the book never truly lives up to the anticipated epicness, but it’s still a pretty fun read for readers who are willing to put up with its flaws.

Department 19 follows the classic Teenager Discovers Dark and Awesome Family History and Suddenly Has An Important Coming of Age Adventure plot. In this case, unbeknownst to his family, Jamie’s father was secretly a member of the titular vampire-hunting organization, and his family’s relevance in the organization ensures him an eventual place in it, as is Department 19 tradition. First, though, he has to rescue his mom and earn that place.

The novel is basically an entertaining read. It’s rarely short on action, there are plenty of fun vampire-hunting gadgets and codenames for things (The series’ main weapon is called a T-Bone because it’s a big stake GET IT? xD ), and the story’s world is derived from classic monster literature (Department 19 itself was founded by the main characters in Bram Stoker’s Dracula, and Jamie’s partner/bodyguard is Frankenstein’s monster).

Its flaws are mainly found in its structure and characters. One would expect a novel with a cover like this to explode to a start and never really slow down; however, despite most chapters involving an action scene of some sort, the novel’s momentum takes a long time to build, and even then never hits a healthy stride. A lot of this is due to the fact that the novel is actually composed of several different stories taking place in different time periods—Jamie’s storyline, the founders’ and founders’ descendants’ storyline, Jamie’s father’s storyline, and a few random other storylines. None of the stories are necessarily uninteresting, but the way in which they’re interwoven slows the pace down a lot. Sometimes the amount of information gained from the non-Jamie chapters is so insignificant, too, that I wondered why the author chose to revolve a whole chapter and action scene around something that could have been conveyed in a single expository paragraph. A few chapters and even a few characters are introduced in detail only to have no impact on the story whatsoever! Also, most of the characters, while Action Movie Cool, are not very engaging on an individual level, and many of their decisions seem very noodly in logic. Characters switch allegiances and drop plot twist bombs out of nowhere, and near the end it happens so frequently that parts of the climax just make you go WHUT. But then vampires start attacking, and the high octane combined with the fact that these vampires explode gloriously (goriously?) when staked provides enough distraction to carry through the end of the novel.

Another major flaw is that the novel stretches suspension of disbelief a little far. One expects to suspend at least a little disbelief in stories like this, but Department 19 expects readers to believe that, despite his father being somewhat reviled in the organization, Jamie can sass and faux-tough-guy his way into getting Department 19 officers to give him the resources needed to help fight the vampires who kidnapped his mom. The organization does, but it’s in an “UGH, OKAY,” kind of way, which strikes me as highly unrealistic even in a setting like this. I can’t think of any functional government organization that would willingly, much less begrudgingly, bestow crazypants anti-vampire weaponry on a teenager who 1) didn’t even believe that vampires existed until yesterday, and 2) is not very good at acting tough or competent in the first place. Especially when he is stupid enough to run to the aid of a hot vampire girl and not expect her to try to tear out his throat (which also happens). Yet somehow, the novel also expects readers to believe that, after a mere 48 hours of training, Jamie can nearly ace a testing simulation that provides a challenge even to seasoned agents.

Pacing and believability flaws aside, though, Department 19 is ultimately an entertaining read. When taken as individual units, the chapters actually read pretty quickly, and though there were points when I became exasperated with Jamie’s silly heroics and the useless detail, I never stopped enjoying the book. I just wish that it had been written more efficiently.

***

Eyebrow Factor: Well, there are vampires being staked and exploding and ripping people’s throats out and things. The gore isn’t as over the top as the rest of the novel, but it’s still very present, so readers who can’t handle blood should probably beware.

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Book Review: Take the Reins by Jessica Burkhart

takethereinscoverIt’s Sasha Silver’s first day at the prestigious Canterwood Crest Academy, and she’s already making enemies. Not intentionally, of course; still, when her horse spooks Heather Fox’s horse, good feelings do not ensue. And once Heather finds out that Sasha is competition for her place on the advanced equestrian team, Sasha learns how much of a mean girl Heather can be. However, amidst this trouble, Sasha meets several new friends who make her feel welcome and help her define herself outside of Heather’s bullying.

I read Take the Reins by Jessica Burkhart as research for a potential library program and ended up liking it a lot more than I expected to, given my reading preferences. It’s a light, quick read that manages to cover a serious topic in the midst of its fun, and is highly recommended for teen and pre-teen girls who like horses and drama.

Usually, I like to avoid gender-categorizing books, but Take the Reins is unabashedly girly. The very first page introduces Sasha, a lip gloss fanatic, stressing over what flavor of lip gloss is seasonally appropriate for her first day at Canterwood Crest, and plenty of giggles are had later over cute celebrities and campus boys. The novel quickly overcomes this silliness, though, through its characters and surprising level-headedness. Despite the elite school setting, Sasha’s problems are grounded in realism. She’s a small-town equestrian intimidated by her upper-class surroundings. She worries about grades and faces angel-faced bullies. Yet, despite these insecurities, she reacts positively to her problems. She’s determined to do her best to excel in her new setting, and frequently pushes herself to overcome her insecurities. Most notably, rather than curling into a little ball of anxiety or plotting revenge on the bullying Heather, she confronts her several times and tries to make peace with her. Take the Reins is also quick to show Heather’s own insecurities (i.e. reasons for being a bully), even though she as a character doesn’t aim for anyone’s sympathy. The novel even goes out of its way to show that she does have a nice side—just not where Sasha is involved. This is perhaps the best part of the book: It does more than explore Sasha’s side of the story, and in turn, encourages readers to think about all sides of a bullying situation. Even Heather’s entourage is given some dimension; they join Heather in bullying some of the time, but don’t always support her hijinks, for their own reasons.

Still, all this said, the book is far from a Serious Book About Bullying. Though it handles the content well, it’s more interested in entertaining its readers, and accomplishes this through a storyline involving lots of equestrian competition, friend drama, and squealing over cute boys. Parts of this storyline aren’t handled as well as the bullying storyline—Sasha’s crush, for example, contributes nothing to the story other than being The Cute Boy, which is disappointing—but the parts that tackle competition and drama tend to be pretty strong. Either way, for young teen girls who love horses and drama, it’s a must-read. For readers who don’t, you’ll know what you think of it by the end of the first page, but it’s still worth that try.

***

Eyebrow Factor: Heather’s bullying is the worst thing that takes place in this novel, and though persistent, it’s somewhat tame. I consider this a safe read for all ages (though it does aim for a middle-to-junior high school crowd).

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