darkest fear

I think I just accidentally read my first New Adult book?  I ended the previous sentence with a question mark because I’m still unsure how to categorize Cate Tiernan’s Darkest Fear, the start of her new Birthright series.  It is a shapeshifter (paranormal) fantasy with a protagonist who is in that liminal time between high school and college. Usually I’d say that means it’s YA, but most of the other characters are older than the protagonist.  So.  I think I may have read a New Adult paranormal.  And… it was addictive reading.

darkest fear by cate tiernan book cover
Vivi’s animal instincts are her legacy—and maybe her downfall—in this start to a romantic fantasy series that will appeal to fans of The Nine Lives of Chloe King.

Vivi has known the truth about her family—and herself—since she was thirteen. But that doesn’t mean she’s accepted it. Being Haguari isn’t something she feels she’ll ever accept. How can she feel like anything but a freak knowing that it’s in her genes to turn into a jaguar?

Now eighteen, Vivi’s ready to break away from the traditions of her heritage. But all of that changes with the shocking, devastating deaths of her parents and the mysteries left behind. Vivi discovers family she never even knew she had, and a life open with possibility. New friends, new loyalties, and even romance all lay ahead—but so do dangers unlike anything Vivi ever could have imagined.

Vivi (short for Viviana) was perfectly happy being the normal, beloved daughter of a Brazilian immigrant couple on the Florida coast.  But she’s not.  Normal, that is.  Vivi is a Haguari, a member of a group of shapeshifters who turn into jaguars.  And she’s been dead set on denying that heritage from age thirteen onward.  When a terrifying attack occurs on her 18th birthday, Vivi can’t hide from what she is any longer.  Worse, she’s alone in facing the world.  In the aftermath, Vivi discovers a family connection she didn’t know about, and she takes a chance on a new life and new friends.  However, danger seems to be following her wherever she goes…

Darkest Fear was up on the Simon Pulse website as a free read this week (in case you were wondering how to hook me on a book I’ve never heard of before).  I started reading the first chapter on the strength of the words ‘shifter fantasy romance,’ and the cover art, which is pretty sweet.  From the beginning I felt like I was being towed into the story (and I went willingly!).  Tiernan is deft at writing strong emotion, and her portrayal of a scared, lonely and lost Vivi making a new life and dealing with the unknown was more than a touch mesmerizing.

That said, I experienced reader’s remorse upon finishing the book.  It’s packed with emotion throughout, yes.  However, the pace and action pick up in the second half, and by then it was too late for some of the details and world-building I wanted or for wrapping up certain plotlines.  *cough*WHAT WAS THAT ROMANCE*cough*  Actually, I have a bone to pick with the word ‘romance’ in connection with this book.  The actions/emotions having to do with the supposed romantic entanglement(s) never approached healthy, romantic, or even coherent.  I get that it’s the first in a series and the author can’t tip her hand on everything right away, but as a reader I have issues being supportive of or even excited about reading the continuation of that (whatever it was) in the next installment.

Actually, all of my confusion has to do with the second half of the book, and in particular the final episode.  Tiernan placed a completely different kind of action-movie-plot in the middle of what was a slow-moving but intense story of a girl finding herself and making peace with her heritage.  I didn’t stop reading, but I did expect an answer or two as to why that happened, and where the story would go in the future.  Unfortunately, nothing materialized.  I have reading whiplash in the worst way.

In all, Darkest Fear is an emotionally intense take on shifter mythology and tradition, but it suffers from uneven plotting and pacing and a weak/unfortunate romantic plotline.  I may try skimming book two to see if answers crop up, or I may not!

Recommended for: fans of paranormal fantasy and New Adult set in the South, and those who can’t keep their hands to themselves around shifter romance books.

Fine Print: I read a copy of this book for free on the Simon Pulse website.

waiting on wednesday (72)

Today I’m participating in "Waiting On" Wednesday, a weekly event hosted by Jill at Breaking the Spine. Its purpose is to spotlight upcoming book releases that we’re eagerly anticipating.

I'm trying, contemporary young adult (romance), I really am.  I want to start liking you as a genre again, so I'm going to read more of you in 2014.  I started off with Jennifer E. Smith's This Is What Happy Looks Like.  It didn't wow me, but I'll give the author another shot.  There's good news, though!  There's (at least) one contemporary YA book I'm unequivocally excited for this year: Claire LaZebnik’s The Last Best Kiss.  LaZebnik writes young adult retellings of Austen books, and I loved Epic Fail, her take on Pride and Prejudice.  The Last Best Kiss is based on Persuasion, which is one of my favorite books ever.  I. CAN'T. WAIT.  It will be released by HarperTeen on April 22, 2014.

the last best kiss by claire lazebnik book cover
Anna Eliot is tired of worrying about what other people think. After all, that was how she lost the only guy she ever really liked, Finn Westbrook.

Now, three years after she broke his heart, the one who got away is back in her life.

All Anna wants is a chance to relive their last kiss again (and again and again). But Finn obviously hasn’t forgotten how she treated him, and he’s made it clear he has no interest in having anything to do with her.

Anna keeps trying to persuade herself that she doesn’t care about Finn either, but even though they’ve both changed since they first met, deep down she knows he’s the guy for her. Now if only she can get him to believe that, too....

With her signature wit and expertly authentic teen voice, Claire LaZebnik (the author of fan favorites Epic Fail and The Trouble with Flirting) once again breathes new life into a perennially popular love story. Fans of Polly Shulman, Maureen Johnson, and, of course, Jane Austen will love this irresistibly funny and romantic tale of first loves and second chances.

What books are you waiting on?

this is what happy looks like

I’ve been in a self-proclaimed contemporary reading slump for what feels like AGES.  In fact, it has been 13 months (my last contemporary YA read was Marni Bates’ Decked with Holly, which I actively disliked).  BUT.  Jennifer E. Smith gets the most gorgeous book covers, and I pay attention to the Amazon Kindle deals each day.  Her famous-boy-meets-ordinary-girl romance This Is What Happy Looks Like was on sale earlier this month, so I bought a copy to read ‘someday.’  That day turned out to be last Thursday night.

this is what happy looks like by jennifer e. smith book cover
When teenage movie star Graham Larkin accidentally sends small town girl Ellie O'Neill an email about his pet pig, the two seventeen-year-olds strike up a witty and unforgettable correspondence, discussing everything under the sun, except for their names or backgrounds. 

Then Graham finds out that Ellie's Maine hometown is the perfect location for his latest film, and he decides to take their relationship from online to in-person. But can a star as famous as Graham really start a relationship with an ordinary girl like Ellie? And why does Ellie want to avoid the media's spotlight at all costs?

When two strangers accidentally end up in an email conversation about a pet pig named Wilbur, it’s serendipity for both parties.  Graham Larkin is an increasingly lonely film star on the edge of the big time.  Ellie O’Neill is a small-town girl with family secrets and a bright, impossible future.  When their relationship goes from virtual to in-person in a day, they’ll both need to reach outside of their comfort zones to discover if something this impractical can work in real life.

It’s been bitterly cold here in DC over the past couple of weeks, and I felt the need for a summery read.  This Is What Happy Looks Like is just that – a beach read with a little bit of depth, a lot of cute, set on the coast during the summer months.  Ellie is the daughter of a single mother, she's working in an ice cream shop, and she’s into poetry. Graham is a well-adjusted young film star (the most far-fetched part of the plot?!) who doesn’t know where he’s going yet, but he’s miles away from the person his parents want him to be.  They’re both endearing characters, and they both need something.  Smith just never convinced me that what they needed was each other, especially on such short acquaintance.

A portion of the trouble may be laid at the door of insufficient flirting.  I wanted to like the characters together, and I expected to swoon at their chemistry.  Unfortunately, the book is so brief that flirting (both in email message and in person) is given short shrift.  Smith hasn’t written a dawning romance so much as a novel about a girl and her mother negotiating life.  In summer.  In Maine.  With a cute boy on the side.

What I’m trying to say is that although it tried, This Is What Happy Looks Like didn’t have the emotional depth of Unbreak My Heart, or the swoon of a great romance.  Instead, it had more than a bit of wish fulfillment, a silly setup, and a pet pig that only makes appearances in conversation, not in person.  I whiled away a couple of hours with the book, but I was not as charmed as I hoped I’d be.  Maybe next time.

Recommended for fans of Rachel Hawthorne's Snowed In, Emily Franklin and Brendan Halpin's Jenna & Jonah’s Fauxmance and Claire LaZebnik’s Epic Fail, and those who like light contemporary romances.

top ten things on my reading wishlist

Tuesday, January 21, 2014 | | 13 comments
Top Ten Tuesday is a meme hosted by The Broke and the Bookish, where we all get to exercise our OCD tendencies and come up with bookish lists.  If you’d like to play along, check out this post.

top ten tuesday

I didn’t think I’d be able to come up with a list of ten things for a ‘reading wishlist.’ I didn't know I had this many preferences tucked away in my brain! But as I sat typing up this post, staring at my new bookshelves and all of my favorites arranged by author and shelf, things started bubbling up.  Lots of science fiction, apparently (and YA sci-fi at that!).  Fantasy, of course.  Retellings and standalones welcome.  If you have any suggestions of already-published books that fit my specifications, by all means mention them in the comments!  I wouldn't want to 'go without' out of ignorance...

Top Ten Things on My Reading Wishlist

1. Regency- and Edwardian-era historical fantasy romance – Patricia C. Wrede’s Mairelon duology and Mary Robinette Kowal’s Shades of Milk and Honey are perfect examples of what I’d love more of.  I’d swoon over it, I swear!

2. Funny, whimsical fantasy for kids, bonus points for parallel universes and worlds – Diana Wynne Jones wrote really hilarious (and not just slapstick or sarcastic) characters who had a habit of being in the wrong/right place at the wrong/right time.  I want the next DWJ, please.

3. Sci-fi retellings of Rilla of InglesideLittle Women and A Girl of the Limberlost – Okay, so this is a ridiculously specific request, but hear me out.  I’ve been lucky enough to read sci-fi versions of The Scarlet PimpernelPersuasion and Jane Eyre.  Why shouldn’t the rest of my favorite classics be retold in amazing sci-fi fashion as well?  I mean, WHY NOT?  I’d read the heck out of those books.

4. Young adult science fiction that really gets into the psyche of the characters – Ender’s Game succeeds in part because almost every reader can find bits of themselves in Ender or Valentine.  I want to see more complex, mind game-y sci-fi for the YA crowd.

5. Fantasy that incorporates Roman mythology – I’ve seen a lot of Greek mythology-influenced fantasy, and recently a nice upsurge of Norse mythology as well (Tessa Gratton’s The Lost Sun, anyone?).  Bring on the Romans next (but no gladiators, kthxbye)!

6. City-centric middle grade fantasy, but not set in New York or London – I don’t know if this request will make sense to anyone but me. ChangelingSo You Want to Be a Wizard, and other fantasies for the younger crowd feature adventures through a particular city, complete with landmarks and famous museums, almost to the point that the urban environment becomes a character on its own.  I want more of that, but I’d like a break from New York and London.  Please!

7. Standalone YA fantasy and sci-fi WITHOUT romantic plotlines – The fact that I can’t think of a book that meets this criteria off the top of my head is… unacceptable.

8. More standalone YA fantasy and sci-fi, period – So over series right now.

9. More Harry Potter? – I know it's basically a pipe dream, but it's MY pipe dream.

10. Surprises – This sounds silly, but I want more twists, more unexpected deaths (did I even just type that?!) and more... original plotlines.  Kill your darlings, authors!

Would any of these ‘wishes’ make your list?  If not, what would?

centennial molasses spice drops

My mother doesn’t own a KitchenAid (or any brand) stand mixer, so in those formative learn-to-bake years I never knew what I was missing.  Heavy cookie batter, mashed potatoes, whipped cream?  Just use a little extra ‘elbow grease,’ or an electric beater in a pinch.  Then I lived with a roommate who had her own KitchenAid, and my baking life suddenly became an interesting science!  It made everything easier.  When that roommate married and moved out, I mourned the KitchenAid (laugh if you must!), all the while dreaming of buying my own.  I could never quite justify the expense, though. 

My 30th birthday rolled around three weeks ago, and I asked some girlfriends to meet me at my favorite restaurant for dinner.  What I didn’t know was that my best friend had organized for all of them to pitch in for a KitchenAid.  They’d been planning it as a surprise for months.  I was not expecting it AT ALL, and I was so shocked and happy that I started crying – see the photos below for evidence.  After carefully perusing the instruction manual, I found a new recipe to try to break in the best birthday gift ever.  I don’t know if you can tell, but I’m still in awe.

Centennial Molasses Spice Drops (modified from recipe in Betty Crocker’s Cooky Book)


2/3 cup unsalted butter, room temperature
2/3 cup sugar
2 eggs
2/3 cup molasses
3 cups flour
3/4 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
3/4 teaspoon cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
1/4 cup apple cider vinegar


Preheat oven to 375 degrees F.  Line two baking sheets with parchment paper or foil and spray with baking spray.

Blend butter, sugar, eggs and molasses in a large bowl until thoroughly mixed. Sift together the dry ingredients in a separate bowl.  Add half of dry ingredient mixture to batter, then add vinegar, and finally add the rest of the dry mixture, mixing well after each addition.  If batter seems too moist, place in refrigerator for an hour to set the dough (I did it both ways and there wasn’t a noticeable difference in the end result).

Drop dough by teaspoonfuls onto baking sheets, leaving two inches between each cookie.  Bake cookies for 8-10 minutes (no imprint should remain when tapped lightly).  Remove from oven and then transfer to wire racks to finish cooling.  Makes 5-6 dozen cookies.

Note: I used the whisk attachment for the dough, and I'm pretty sure it helped the cookies turn out light and cake-y.  If I wanted something dense next time (approximating a gingersnap) I'd use the paddle or mix by hand.  Also, the original recipe called for shortening and I substituted butter.  That probably also had an effect.

Recommended for: those who like spice cookies and anyone who wants to experiment with an unusual cookie ingredient (apparently this recipe was created for the 1876 Centennial!).

Interested in other food-related posts?  Check out Beth Fish Reads' Weekend Cooking!

jenna starborn

It’s January, and one of the things I resolved to do in the New Year was participate in Long-Awaited Reads Month.  I’m sure any avid reader will agree with me – sometimes you buy a book that looks absolutely wonderful, and then for one reason or another, you don’t read it for YEARS.  It sits on the shelf (or e-reader) gathering dust, and though you know it’s probably wonderful, you keep putting it off.  Well, I’m finally reading a few of those books.  Sharon Shinn's Jenna Starborn was up first.  Shinn writes beautiful, deep, heart-wrecking books, including Archangel from the Samaria series, and Troubled Waters from the Elemental Blessings series.  Jenna Starborn is a sci-fi standalone, and perhaps even more relevant to a potential reader, it’s a retelling of Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre.

jenna starborn by sharon shinn book cover
Jenna Starborn was created out of frozen embryonic tissue, a child unloved and unwanted. Yet she has grown up with a singularly sharp mindand a heart that warms to those she sees as less fortunate than herself. This novel takes us into Jenna Starborn's life, to a planet called Fieldstar, and to a property called Thorrastonewhose enigmatic lord will test the strength of that tender and compassionate heart.

In this science fiction future, there are five levels of citizenship, and one’s place in the hierarchy determines everything (or almost everything) in life.  Jenna Starborn is a half-citizen – she was commissioned, ‘grown’ in a gen tank, harvested, and then raised by a citizen, but never formally adopted by her ‘creator.’  As a half-cit, her future is precarious at best.  In the beginning she must face it alone – but Jenna is quietly extraordinary, and she wins friends and family for herself.  While working at Thorrastone Park on the terraformed planet of Fieldstar she finds love, but there are mysteries, complications and machinations to maneuver before the tale comes to a (satisfying) conclusion.

The plot of Jenna Starborn is, of course, well-known to anyone who has read Jane Eyre, or seen the film versions (Michael Fassbender as Rochester in the latest incarnation = hello, dreamy!).  When I first read Brontë’s classic in the 9th grade I mooned over it for several months – reread it and identified with it and thought it enormously romantic.  I am a different person now, and I’ve had many years to consider whether or not I’d like a Mr. Rochester of my own.  The answer has changed to an emphatic ‘NO.’  I can still see the romance in the tale, but I would not want to live it… and I think that knowledge kept me from sinking completely into Shinn’s web of words.

Like the original Jane, Jenna is a private, quiet person.  She prefers quiet environments and smart, purposeful people.  She’s guided by strong moral principles and believes in justice, equality and kindness, though she knows that in practice the world around her is unfair.  Unlike in the original, she’s a highly proficient nuclear technician, and she is no one’s governess.  Jenna is also a member of the PanEquist belief system, and what one gathers of this religion and its adherents fits in nicely with her ideals and uprightness (and also makes for a satisfactory differentiation from the 19th century Christianity that was Jane Eyre’s faith).

The most interesting part of the book, for me, was seeing the ways in which Shinn was faithful to the original tale, but still made it her own, and made it sci-fi.  An unapologetically brilliant and scientific heroine is a lovely rarity in my reading life.  At the same time, Jenna doesn’t discard her feminine side or lack for emotion – she feels deeply, but organizes her hopes quite strictly according to her inner moral compass. This combination adds to generally practical, rational Jenna’s humanity and empathy.  She’s a character that the privileged modern reader can access. 

I’d say Shinn has done a marvelous job of evoking the classic in Jenna’s character.  I can also tell that Jane Eyre must be a huge influence on everything Shinn writes, because it contains her standards: a heroine who knows herself, and a hero who has made (or is still making) dubious choices, even though he means well.  Shinn writes the most beautiful, shattering romantic moments, and though I’m not as partial to Jenna Starborn as I am to other of her works, I can’t say I escaped unscathed – I cried! 

Jenna Starborn is a noteworthy tribute to a classic, and at the same time a delightfully deep sci-fi romance, with wrenching emotion and difficult choices that make up real life, and the requisite happy conclusion.

Recommended for: fans of Jane Eyre, and anyone looking for sci-fi, romance, or beautiful, emotion-filled writing.

best of 2013 (+ giveaway!)

Tuesday, January 14, 2014 | | 3 comments
It is on days like these, when I’m trying to put together a ‘Best of’ list, that I am beyond grateful for the written record I’ve kept of my favorite books.  Dear blog, You are the BEST!  Love, Me.  That didn’t sound strange, did it?!  Oh dear.  Anyway, this post is a celebration of the best books I read in 2013.  The books weren’t necessarily published in 2013, but that’s when I read them (and they’re ordered alphabetically).  Feel free to peruse my previous ‘Best of’ posts for 2009, 2010, 2011 and 2012.  You can also check out my list of the top ten best new-to-me authors of 2013.

a greyhound of a girl by roddy doyle book cover
A Greyhound of a Girl by Roddy Doyle – A lovely, haunting little book set in Ireland, about a girl who meets a family ghost.  Doyle’s slightly fantastical meditation on family featured the best dialogue I’ve read in a long time, possibly ever.

Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein – Why can I not think of this book without coming to the brink of tears?  Because it’s an emotional, beautiful, and harrowing story of female friendship, flying and spying (in WWII).

Lockwood & Co.: The Screaming Staircase by Jonathan Stroud – Scary, clever, and funny: three words that describe this ghostly investigative story.  It was also thrilling and can’t-put-it-down good.  In other words, close to perfection.

The Lost Sun by Tessa Gratton – In an alternate version of North America, the biggest celebrities are the Norse gods.  When one of them goes missing, two teens set out on an epic roadtrip.  On the way they discover their destiny.  Now what about that DOESN’T sound awesome?  You’re right, nothing.

mortal fire by elizabeth knox book cover
Mortal Fire by Elizabeth Knox – It took me two tries to get into this cerebral fantasy featuring math prodigy Canny, but once in I was absolutely amazed.  It was, quite simply, BRILLIANT.

Rose by Holly Webb – Orphan Rose’s story is funny and touching, and the heroine is clever and plucky.  Also, it’s set in Victorian England, and that’s always a draw for me.  Somehow, it avoids cliché and settles in at ‘just right.’

Saved by Cake by Marian Keyes – Novelist Marian Keyes’ first cookbook is a darkly funny meditation on cake, depression, and did I mention cake?  Laugh out loud fun AND delicious recipes…I really adore that combination.

Shards of Honor by Lois McMaster Bujold – This first book in the Vorkosigan saga is a compelling science fiction romance.  It’s swoony AND complex, with well-matched characters on a dangerous journey.  Heart it!

sidekicked by john david anderson book cover
Sidekicked by John David Anderson – Relatable, hyper-aware Drew stars in this nuanced tale of middle school problems, first crushes, and, oh yeah, advanced superhero sidekick training.  It’s perfect for young (and not so young) Marvel fans.

The Silvered by Tanya Huff – Fantastic world-building and an epic journey through a warring landscape seem to be two of my favorite story components.  Add in werewolves and a steampunk aesthetic, and you have one hooked reader, right here.

Tooth and Claw by Jo Walton – Think Jane Austen, with dragons.  Whatever you’re imagining isn’t even close to the awesome that is Tooth & Claw.  I adored it, and have reread it already.  Also, many thanks to the lovely Ruby Scarlett, who sent me a new copy to treasure.

under my hat edited by jonathan strahan book cover
Under My Hat edited by Jonathan Strahan – Short stories of witchy magic by some of my favorite authors, all gathered up in one volume?  YES.  Strahan put together one of the strongest anthologies I’ve ever read.

Written in Red by Anne Bishop – I’ve reread this book twice for a reason.  It’s crazy-compelling.  I love how Bishop plays with emotion and describes the worlds she writes.  Just fantastic.

Were any of these on your list (official or not) for the best of the year?

By random chance and coincidence, there were 13 titles on my list for 2013.  I did a bit of a breakdown that may appeal to anyone who is a closet numbers nerd like me.  I had 4 middle grade, 4 young adult, and 5 adult books on my list.  Twelve were fiction, one was nonfiction.  There were 9 female authors, 3 male authors, and one anthology (the editor was male).  I also figured out where each of the authors hails from, because I worry that I’m heavily biased towards North America.  This year my list included 5 books by Americans, 2 by Brits, 2 by Irish authors, 2 by Canadians, 1 by a Kiwi, and 1 various (the anthology again).  Fairly well-rounded, I’d say.  I need to get an Aussie on the list next year, though!


And now the fun part: a giveaway!  Two winners will receive their choice of any book from my Best of 2013 list (audiobook and/or ebook editions included, as available).  To enter, simply fill out the FORM. Giveaway is open internationally, will end on January 31st at 11:59pm EST.  Books will be shipped from Amazon or The Book Depository.  Winners will be selected randomly and notified via email.  Good luck!

the rithmatist

I had never read Brandon Sanderson before I picked up The Rithmatist for CYBILS award consideration.  I had heard of him as the author appointed to complete Robert Jordan’s epic Wheel of Time saga (by the by, i got to the sixth book in that series in college, looked up, and realized two weeks had flown by/my grades had slipped. put it down and never picked it up again…), and as such an almost constant presence on Tor.com (go there if you haven’t yet!).  I do love a beautifully crafted magical system and superior world-building, so it makes all sorts of sense that I’d fall in love with The Rithmatist and its Chalklings.  Which I did.  Smart, unique fantasies don’t grow on trees!

the rithmatist by brandon sanderson book cover
More than anything, Joel wants to be a Rithmatist. Chosen by the Master in a mysterious inception ceremony, Rithmatists have the power to infuse life into two-dimensional figures known as Chalklings. Rithmatists are humanity’s only defense against the Wild Chalklings — merciless creatures that leave mangled corpses in their wake. Having nearly overrun the territory of Nebrask, the Wild Chalklings now threaten all of the American Isles.

As the son of a lowly chalkmaker at Armedius Academy, Joel can only watch as Rithmatist students study the magical art that he would do anything to practice. Then students start disappearing — kidnapped from their rooms at night, leaving trails of blood. Assigned to help the professor who is investigating the crimes, Joel and his friend Melody find themselves on the trail of an unexpected discovery — one that will change Rithmatics — and their world — forever.

Bestselling author Brandon Sanderson brings his unique brand of epic storytelling to the teen audience with an engrossing tale of danger and suspense—the first of a series. With his trademark skills in world-building, Sanderson has created a magic system that is so inventive and detailed that that readers who appreciate games of strategy and tactics just may want to bring Rithmatics to life in our world.

The world of The Rithmatist is one where flat, 2-dimensional chalk drawings come to life and act on people and things.  Only a specific set of people have the power to draw these magical chalk lines, though – Rithmatists.  Joel is the son of a chalkmaker, and he always wanted to be a Rithmatist.  He even has the mind and skills for it.  But he wasn’t chosen.  He lives at Armedius, the best school in the American Isles, but he’s so obsessed with Rithmatics that he’s failing classes and headed nowhere fast.  Then Rithmatics students start disappearing, with suspected Wild Chalkling involvement.  Joel will have to use every ounce of his cleverness and ingenuity to help solve the mystery (and save the day, of course).

As mentioned above, the strongest part of this book, by far, is the Rithmatic magic/science system.  It’s a combination of geometry, chalk art, and religious experience, and no one is sure exactly how or why it works – or if they do, they’re not telling.  Joel is thirsty for knowledge, and it is through his inquisitiveness and academic bent (and location at a school for Rithmatists) that the reader learns about the world.  Lest you think that it’s all dry theory, there are exciting duels.  Duels with serious consequences for the combatants, as is only fitting for Rithmatists, who each have to complete a 10-year tour of duty in Nebrask (where Wild Chalklings threaten all of North American civilization).  It’s part logic, part keeping-cool-in-combat, part talent, and all of it is exhilarating reading.

Sanderson’s world-building is also fascinating.  He’s constructed an alternate world where the Americas are a collection of islands, only recently populated, and before that mysteriously (sinisterly?) empty.  The culture seems to be a mash-up of Asian, European and Egyptian influences, though the characters themselves aren’t particularly diverse. 

Aside from Rithmatics-mad Joel, the main characters are Melody, a very mediocre student Rithmatist, and the professors and president of Armedius.  Sanderson’s writing is strong on world-building, plot and magic, but the characters get shorter shrift.  It’s a murder mystery at a boarding school, with magic.  For most of the book, that was enough.  There were expected twists, and a few unexpected ones, and Joel learned a lesson or two.  However, the majority of characters remained static, and their dialogue felt stilted at times.  Not weak, but not emotion-packed (which the target audience may have come to expect? or not), either.  It was not something that made a difference in MY reading experience, but I noticed it, and other readers (less impressed by the shiny new magic!) may as well.

In all, The Rithmatist introduced an exceptional magical system, a smart hero, a nation rife with political tension, and a long-running war.  I can’t wait to see what happens next!

Recommended for: fans of school-set fantasies and marvelous world-building, those who enjoy(ed) geometry, and anyone interested in a great story with unique dangers and clever, courageous protagonists.

how to catch a bogle

Thursday, January 9, 2014 | | 2 comments
Historical fiction + fantasy + female main character = HAPPY CECELIA.  Oh the fun I’ve had reading (and re-reading!) Patricia C. Wrede’s A Matter of Magic and Scott Westerfeld’s steampunk adventure Leviathan!  More recently I’ve enjoyed Holly Webb’s Rose and Marie Brennan’s A Natural History of Dragons: A Memoir by Lady Trent.  There’s just some mysterious alchemy about that specific combination that makes my heart happy.  Catherine Jinks’ How to Catch a Bogle hit that sweet spot, and I (of course) ended up liking it.  A lot.

how to catch a bogle by catherine jinks book cover
If ever a chill entered her soul, or the hope suddenly drained from her heart, she knew a bogle was to blame. Birdie McAdam, a ten-year-old orphan, is tougher than she looks. She's proud of her job as apprentice to Alfred the Bogler, a man who catches monsters for a living. Birdie lures the bogles out of their lairs with her sweet songs, and Alfred kills them before they kill her. On the mean streets of Victorian England, hunting bogles is actually less dangerous work than mudlarking for scraps along the vile river Thames. Or so it seems—until the orphans of London start to disappear…

Young Birdie McAdam is an apprentice to Alfred Bunce, a bogler by trade.   Well, what does a bogler do?  He/she catches (and destroys) bogles for a living.  Bogles are nasty, magical, child-eating creatures, in case you were wondering.  Not that Birdie is doing any actual bogle-catching.  No, she’s bait.  Bait with a beautiful voice that’ll lure bogles out of their dark hidey-holes and into salt circles so they can be bound and disposed of.  Birdie’s job is to be alert, quick, and follow directions.  The only trouble is that the bogling business can be treacherous, on both supernatural and human fronts.  When local pickpockets go missing and a nosey folklorist gets involved, Birdie’s life will change, whether she wants it to or not.

Jinks’ novel is set in London, during (I presume) the Victorian Era.  The neighborhood Birdie and Alfred live and work in isn’t very nice, but they scrape by fairly well – bogling work is steady.  However, that doesn’t keep illiterate and clothes-mad Birdie from worrying about the future, about Alfred, and about being conscripted into Sarah Pickles’ pickpocketing gang.  It’s a hard life, even if there’s food and shelter on hand.  Then children start disappearing under mysterious circumstances, leading to a puzzle, an imprisonment and… I won’t spoil any more of it for you.  Suffice it to say that the plot is thick, the characters interesting, and the setting and vernacular pitch perfect.

Jinks’ moment of authorial genius (at least to my view) is the bogle.  Or bogleS, I should say, as there are many, and they are varied.  The creature isn’t just one type of thing, with one dangerous element.  Each bogle might have a different monster characteristic and therefore the methods of containing and destroying it might be different, depending on the circumstance.  Wondering whether the next bogle might have feathers, or breathe fire… that was interesting and kept the future of bogling open (creatively).  At the same time, bogles were supposed to be terrible beyond belief, but as a reader, I was not frightened.  There was only one scene that transmitted tension and hopelessness to me; otherwise the rest of the plot was easy to parse.

But back to good things: Birdie herself.  She’s enterprising, upstanding, honorable and loyal.  Add in brave, but that goes without saying.  Lest you think her insufferable, Birdie’s ‘goodness’ is tempered with practicality, and she serves as a perfect foil to Mr. Bunce, whose ethical waffling when money is involved make him slightly unpredictable (and realistically adult).  I could have done with a few more moments of humor, but I think that may be an adult reader complaint, like my earlier not-scared-of-monsters moment.  How to Catch a Bogle will appeal greatly to young readers with patience to wade through the vernacular in the early going and get absorbed in the story.

Recommended for: fans of historical fantasy for children (think Holly Webb’s Rose or Gail Carriger’s Etiquette & Espionage), those who prefer girl heroines with agency and an excellent sense of adventure, and anyone interested in fantasies set in London.

Fine print: I received a finished copy of this book for CYBILS consideration from the publisher (HMH Books for Young Readers).

waiting on wednesday (71)

Today I’m participating in "Waiting On" Wednesday, a weekly event hosted by Jill at Breaking the Spine. Its purpose is to spotlight upcoming book releases that we’re eagerly anticipating.

I was part of the Elementary/Middle Grade Speculative Fiction first round panel for the CYBILS awards this year, and I think the group picked a great shortlist.  One of the books that made the final list was Holly Webb’s Rose.  Honesty alert: I'm not sure I would have picked up Rose on my own.  It got great recommendations from readers I trust, but the cover art didn't immediately draw me in (and cover art is important!).  Missing Rose would have been a shame, though, because it was a lovely read.  Historical fiction mixed with fantasy, minus the usual clichés.  Also... it's the first of a series, and it turns out that I cannot wait to get my hands on the next one!  Absence of series fatigue is a wonderful, wonderful thing.  Book two (aka Rose and the Lost Princess) will be released by Sourcebooks Jabberwocky on April 1, 2014.

rose and the lost princess by holly webb book cover
Rose has just begun her magical trainingis she ready to rescue the missing princess?

Turning the worn pages of her spell book, Rose can't believe how much her life has changed. Once a poor orphan, and now an apprentice to the King's chief magician! But when the country's beloved Princess vanishes, everything changes. As rumors of dark magic fly through the city, the King asks Rose for help. She must find the missing Princess—before all is lost.

What books are you waiting on?

top ten bookish goals for 2014

Tuesday, January 7, 2014 | | 12 comments
Top Ten Tuesday is a meme hosted by The Broke and the Bookish, where we all get to exercise our OCD tendencies and come up with bookish lists.  If you’d like to play along, check out this post.

top ten tuesday

Each time the the New Year rolls around the internet is inundated with lists of resolutions.  Last year I tried to only set goals I thought I could meet.  Basically, I wanted a 'to do list' with easy-to-check-off items.  I did okay (i'm mailing myself those books from my parents' house TODAY).  2013 didn't see any huge changes in my reading or blogging habits, and I don't have any plans for world domination in 2014.  BUT.  Little changes and blog maintenance (and so on) are on the docket.  It should be an interesting year...

Top Ten Bookish Goals for 2014

1. Buy bookshelves – As mentioned above, I just sent an insane number of books to my apartment in the DC area.  My parents are happy because that means they aren't storing my crazy book hoard under the stairs anymore... but I need more shelf space.  January and February are going to be about trips to IKEA and rearranging the furniture.

2. Read long-awaited titles in January – Like many of you, I have great intentions when it comes to book acquisition.  I see a recommendation on a blog I trust and hare off immediately to an online retailer to purchase a copy.  Surely if I own a print copy I'll read it right away!  Right, no.  This January I'm participating in Long-Awaited Reads Month, and I hope to get to a few of the books that have been languishing on the shelf for far too long.

3. Focus on middle grade books in March – For two years running now I've been focusing on middle grade books in March.  Barring major injury or dismemberment, this year won't be any different (wow, that got violent quick!).

4. Be a regular at book club – I have a super fun group of reading friends at my local book club, so it's really a shame that I've been such a slacker about attending the monthly meet-ups and other events.  Granted I had a broken ankle as an excuse in November and December, but the New Year is a whole new ball game.  I'll step it up in 2014!

5. Finish series I've already started – True story: I am not good at finishing series.  Modus operandi: I read the first book, like it, even review it... and then I buy book two and it sits on my shelf for ages.  Not sustainable and not that enjoyable, either, now that I think of it.  

6. Improve my NetGalley review percentage – NetGalley is a great resource for bloggers, professional reviewers, librarians and booksellers.  AND IT IS ALSO ADDICTIVE.  I need to review the books I've requested in the past before I look at new ones.  In short, I want to be a better NetGalley user and improve the tool for myself and others.

7. Attend book events – My sister is planning to attend Book Expo America with me in May!  This calls for champagne!  No really, it does.  We're going to paint the town red and get way too excited about books.  Not necessarily in that order.  Other things I'd like to do: go to author signings and attend the Annapolis Book Festival and the National Book Festival.

8. Keep my library fines to a minimum – I love my local library (what up, Arlington County?!), but I'd like to be more conscious of my wallet and due dates in 2014.  I can't afford to let a $100+ library fine happen again.  Eeek!

9. Write/schedule reviews and posts ahead of time – I've never been the most organized blogger on the block.  If I go on vacation, the blog goes mostly silent.  I'd like to work on that this year, and have a couple of posts held in reserve for those weeks when posting seems like a chore.  It would also be wonderful to be more active, but I don't want to get ahead of myself.

10. Think about Wordpress or a new layout/design – I love the look of my blog, but functionality is slowly diminishing.  I keep wondering if I just need to work on the coding to update it all, or migrate it to another platform.  Food for thought in the New Year!

What are your bookish goals for 2014?

the true blue scouts of sugar man swamp

Eight years old was one of the best years of my life.  I was the oldest of my siblings (authority!) and I had just begun homeschooling.  That meant I could read anything I wanted (within the checkout limits at our local library) while my mother taught my little brother the basics.  All the same, I loved it when she read aloud to all of us in the mornings, and I couldn't get enough of animal stories.  I adored Jim Kjelgaard's Big Red, Wilson Rawls' Where the Red Fern Grows and anything Marguerite Henry. I'd beg and beg for just one more chapter, and it wasn't uncommon for my mother to accede and read until her voice grew hoarse.  I know my eight-year-old self would have loved Kathi Appelt's The True Blue Scouts of Sugar Man Swamp.

the true blue scouts of sugar man swamp by kathi appelt book cover
Raccoon brothers Bingo and J’miah are the newest recruits of the Official Sugar Man Swamp Scouts. The opportunity to serve the Sugar Man—the massive creature who delights in delicious sugar cane and magnanimously rules over the swamp—is an honor, and also a big responsibility, since the rest of the swamp critters rely heavily on the intel of these hardworking Scouts.

Twelve-year-old Chap Brayburn is not a member of any such organization. But he loves the swamp something fierce, and he’ll do anything to help protect it.

And help is surely needed, because world-class alligator wrestler Jaeger Stitch wants to turn Sugar Man swamp into an Alligator World Wrestling Arena and Theme Park, and the troubles don’t end there. There is also a gang of wild feral hogs on the march, headed straight toward them all.

The Scouts are ready. All they have to do is wake up the Sugar Man. Problem is, no one’s been able to wake that fellow up in a decade or four…

Newbery Honoree and National Book Award finalist Kathi Appelt’s story of care and conservation has received five starred reviews, was selected as a National Book Award finalist, and is funny as all get out and ripe for reading aloud.

Raccoon brothers J’miah and Bingo are official Sugar Man Swamp Scouts, and they know their duty: to be alert for trouble and to wake the legendary Sugar Man in case of emergencies.  Never mind that no one has seen him for nearly 60 years!  Nearby, 12 year-old (human) Chap Brayburn is mourning the death of his beloved grandfather Audie, and trying to figure out how to be the man of the house.  When trouble comes to the swamp, J’miah, Bingo and Chap must each use all of their ingenuity and courage to save it, and themselves.

J'miah and Bingo are raccoons, and raccoons are known for mischief.  However, these brothers have just been inducted as Official Scouts of the Sugar Man Swamp, and with that appointment comes responsibility.  They've got to listen to the Voice of Information, watch out for trouble, and most of all, be true to each other.  Their antics are by turns hilarious and heartwarming, and in the end the number of crawdads, dewberries and sugar pies they have eaten amount to an adventure all its own.

Appelt writes human emotion with just as much laughter and verve as the animal action, but with an extra dose of poignancy.  Chap's attempts to step into his grandfather's shoes are a little bit funny, a little bit doomed, and all the way sincere.  Chap's story could stumble into maudlin or contrived territory, but it doesn't - the author keeps just the right balance.  The fantastical element is included in a natural, organic way, so that the book rides somewhere between tall tale and a 'book about talking animals,' and makes you want to (for just a little while) visit the magical place that is the Sugar Man Swamp.

My favorite passages were those that talked about the flavors of the swamp and Paradise Pies, the tiny bakery that Chap's mother runs.  This excerpt from pages 68 and 69 of the hardcover version gives you a little taste of the book:

The huge coffee urn was full of dark, rich Community Coffee, roasted in Baton Rouge.  And even though there wasn’t a drop of coffee in the pies, Grandpa Audie always said, “The chicory in the coffee makes the pies taste better.”  He followed that with, “Besides, it puts hair on your chest.”

Right then Chap pulled the neck of his T-shirt out and looked down at his chest.  Not a single hair.  Didn’t he need a few chest hairs to be a man?  With that, he filled Audie’s mug, right up to the brim.

“You might want to put some cream and sugar in that,” his mom said.

Grandpa Audie had never used cream and sugar, had he?  “Blacker ’n dirt.”  That’s the way he had always drunk it.  That was the way Chap would drink it too.  He raised his grandpa’s mug to his lips and took a tiny sip.  It was hot hot hot.  It was bitter bitter bitter.  All at once, he understood how coffee would make the pies taste better.

The sweet of the pies would offset the hot and bitter.

The True Blue Scouts is a funny, beautifully written and environmentally friendly tale of familial love and the ways in which a specific spot in nature can become ‘home’ to the heart. J’miah, Bingo and Chap explore the swamp and discover some of its dangerous and wondrous secrets, and each tries to protect it in his own way.  I would imagine that it's especially charming when read aloud, so that the animal and human voices really come alive.

Recommended for: fans of Kate DiCamillo, those who enjoy animal stories on the order of Charlotte's Web or The Adventures of a South Pole Pig, and readers ages 8 and up who enjoy their stories with a light fantasy element.

Interested in other food-related posts?  Check out Beth Fish Reads' Weekend Cooking.

Fine print: I received a finished copy of this book from the publisher (Simon & Schuster) for honest review.

cybils 2013 finalists announced

Wednesday, January 1, 2014 | | 4 comments
The 2013 CYBILS (Children’s and Young Adult Bloggers’ Literary Awards) shortlists have been announced!  I was a first-time panelist for Elementary and Middle Grade Speculative Fiction this year.  I really enjoyed the opportunity to read some amazing fiction and witness what goes into making a great list.  I was also quite pleased to see a book I nominated make the final shortlist!

Elementary and Middle Grade Speculative Fiction 2013 CYBILS Finalists

Jinx by Sage Blackwood
Rose by Holly Webb
Sidekicked by John David Anderson
The Rithmatist by Brandon Sanderson
The Water Castle by Megan Frazer Blakemore

Now another panel has the job of selecting a winner from that list – I don’t envy them the job of narrowing it down!  The winner will be announced in February.  In the meantime, I encourage all of you to check out the blogs of my fellow panelists (they’re excellent writers as well as readers!): Charlotte of Charlotte’s Library (our valiant ringleader!), Liviania of In Bed With Books, Stephanie of Views from the Tesseract, Kristen of The Book Monsters, Melissa of The Book Nut, and Brandy of Random Musings of a Bibliophile.

Shortlists for all of the CYBILS categories are up on the website.  Go check them out for wonderful reading recommendations!
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