Monday, March 31, 2014

Hung Up by Kristen Tracy

Usually, when I get a call from a stranger who asks for someone else and I say, "Sorry, you have the wrong number," the person on the other end of the line just hangs up on me, showing off their excellent social skills and phone manners. I'd rather have the experience shared in Kristen Tracy's new novel Hung Up, where a wrong number leads to a really cool friendship.

Lucy calls what she thinks is a trophy place and leaves a brief message. She doesn't get a response. A few days later, she calls and leaves another message. No response. Another call. No response. Naturally, she grows increasingly frustrated with each call. Two weeks later, someone finally picks up when she calls - only it's not the engraver. It's James, a guy Lucy's age who got a recycled number from a phone company. He apologizes for the confusion and wishes her luck tracking down her order.

A week later, James calls Lucy and leaves her a message. Over the course of the next two months, the teenagers keep in touch. At first, they communicate solely over the phone, without meeting face-to-face. They become friends and share funny things that happened to them during the day as well as more personal anecdotes.

Sometimes, you just need to hear the voice of someone that cares about you - and sometimes, you just need to be heard.

Instead of using your typical narrative form, this story is told in a series of voicemails and phone conversations, making for a quick read. With only two characters speaking, you really see (and hear) the world through their words, because all you have to go on is what they say. The dialogue is great, very snappy and fun. There's serious stuff there, too. The book ends at the perfect moment. I'd compare that moment to a similar moment in another book I read recently, but that would give too much away.

I enjoy Kristen Tracy's books because they are always full of dramedy, and I love dramedies1 because that's what life is, a mix of comedy and drama - and that's what Hung Up is. And it's great. So you should read it, and we should talk about it, okay? Give me a call later when you're done.

1. Ask me about the TV show Leverage sometime. I really love that show.

Review originally published at Little Willow's blog, Bildungsroman.

Friday, March 28, 2014

Odd and the Frost Giants by Neil Gaiman and Ludo and the Star Horse by Mary Stewart

Writing for children is harder than it looks, so I especially appreciate it when an adult fiction author can also write successfully for kids. Take, for instance, Neil Gaiman. He writes epic fantasy for adults, he writes lushly illustrated abecedarians -- but his sweet spot, arguably, is spooky bildungsromans for the tween set (think Coraline and The Graveyard Book).

Include in that category his lesser-known 2008 book Odd and the Frost Giants.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Alif the Unseen - by G. Willow Wilson

Alif is a young hacker in an unnamed and repressive Arab oil emirate. He lives with his overworked single mom, making a meager living as a freelance coder. He's not political: he sells his skill to democracy activists, Islamic revolutionaries, artists, dissidents, and pornographers alike. He's in love with an aristocratic young woman whose parents have promised her to a prince. He's despised because of his biracial Arab-Indian parentage. All of which sounds pretty crummy, but Alif has managed to carve out an almost-happy life amid pretty sucky circumstances.

And then: everything breaks down.

He's targeted by "The Hand," the government's cybersecurity force, which might be a computer program and might be an actual person... and might be something else entirely. Desperate to help his clients and save himself, he turns to the disreputable gangster Vikram the Vampire (my own favorite character in the book, who is not, in fact, a vampire, but who is not, in fact, entirely human). Vikram takes him underground.

Well, underground might not be the right word for it. Alif and his devout, veiled friend Dina follow Vikram into the Empty Quarter, a strange and secret world that is not so much beneath our own, as beside it. The Empty Quarter is the domain of the jinn - monsters, spirits, genies, and demons. It's familiar - it even has Wifi - but it's also very very strange. And that's when the book gets really interesting.

Shenanigans ensue. Alif is betrayed. He is captured. He is tortured. He is imprisoned. He is liberated, by one of his democracy-activist clients - who happens to be a prince, 27th in line for the throne, who is disgusted by the injustice his privilege is built upon. He goes up against The Hand. He finds love. And his actions just might help catalyze a revolution.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

The President Has Been Shot! The Assassination of John F. Kennedy by James L. Swanson

A tragedy that stunned the nation. A terrible crime. The kind of event that when people are asked where they were or what they were doing when they found out, they remember for a lifetime. A president gunned down in the middle of the street.

Swanson introduces us to the Kennedy's and includes a number of details about what it was like to grow up as a Kennedy - their lifestyle, their dedication to the service of this country and  their efforts to be major players in U.S. politics. The author describes the political climate in which Kennedy was elected first as a member of the House of Representatives, then a Senator and ultimately, by the narrowest of margins, the of President of the United States.

Swanson also introduces us to the man that would kill Kennedy, Lee Harvey Oswald. We are given a glimpse of what Oswald's life was like as the author details his failed military career, his failed move to the Soviet Union and his failed marriage to his Soviet bride. As a result, we are shown the state of his mental well being in the years and days leading up to the assassination. His desire to be more than who he was. To be famous - or more maybe more appropriately infamous.

The book includes several pictures from the time including Kennedy family pictures, political and press photos and stills taken from a video shot during the assassination. The President Has Been Shot! is a really great nonfiction book, for late elementary school (and later) students, detailing a very difficult time in our nation's history.

Monday, March 24, 2014

Fake ID by Lamar Giles

Nick is used to being the new kid at school. After all, this is the fifth time in the past few years he's gone through this.

New school.

New town.

New identity.

Four years ago, back when Nick was still just a kid named Tony and living in Philadelphia, his father worked for a gangster, handling Kreso Maric's money. But his father snitched on Maric, who soon disappeared, and Nick's family has been in the Witness Protection program ever since. They've been relocated, again, this time to the rundown town of Stepton, where "[t]here was a chemical plant on the edge of town, its thick stacks sticking up over trees like a giant chain-smoker's cigarettes. They pumped storm clouds and gave the air a scent you could taste."

And in Stepton, it's not just the air that's polluted. Crimes don't seem to be taken seriously. Nick's dad gets caught up in some mysterious, secretive business--not for the first time--but this one's got him nervous. Spooked.

It's called Whispertown, this mysterious project that has Nick's dad--no stranger to furtive plots--so nervous. Eli, Nick's classmate and maybe his first friend in Stepton, is investigating Whispertown but refuses at first to tell Nick about it. Later, Nick realizes, "Of all the places I'd been, all the kids I met, [Eli] was the first to ever ask me to be a part of anything. Mostly, people were scared that I'd come to their school to take something from them. Their girl, or their spot on the team, or whatever attention they craved." But by then Eli is dead and it's left to Nick and Eli's sister to uncover the truth about what really happened to Eli.

Friday, March 21, 2014

Gates of Fire by Steven Pressfield

Gates of Fire: An Epic Novel of the Bat­tle of Ther­mopyla by Steven Press­field is a his­tor­i­cal novel that recounts the Bat­tle of Ther­mopy­lae. The book was pub­lished in 1998.

The Per­sian army, two mil­lion men strong, is march­ing onto Greece. The Greeks have deployed a small army, 4,000 — 7,000 men against the Per­sians and chose to make their stand at the geo­graph­i­cally advan­ta­geous Ther­mopy­lae. Lead­ing the Greeks are 300 Spar­tans who hope to delay the army enough for Greece to get together a defense plan.
They know that is a sui­cide mission.

Gates of Fire: An Epic Novel of the Bat­tle of Ther­mopylae by Steven Press­field is an epic book, the style is sharp, the story vivid, the his­tory pretty accu­rate, and the moral dilem­mas are still rel­e­vant in today's mil­i­tary units.

I loved to read about the prob­lems fac­ing the Spar­tan King and his army com­man­ders, the sol­diers and their ser­vants. The books is a fic­tional account of those who are about to die, know it, and still go for­ward con­tem­plat­ing life's big mys­ter­ies and gain­ing appre­ci­a­tion for their com­rades, and those they left behind.

I truly enjoyed the fact that the author pays atten­tion to his­tory and imag­ines what it would have been like for his pro­tag­o­nists to pre­pare for bat­tle and death. Mr. Press­field under­stands the notions of honor in the con­text of ancient Greece and writes about it in a mov­ing, seri­ous way.

The book does not glo­rify bat­tles,  in fact there is much mis­ery, stench and car­nage on the bat­tle­field. If any­thing, glory in bat­tle is rewarded after the fact, not during.

The close broth­er­hood of the Spar­tan sol­diers is some­thing the author focuses on through­out the novel. If you are, or were in a close knit com­bat unit, this book will bring back mem­o­ries. If you were not, but ever wan­dered what makes the men click, this one is for you

  • 442 pages
  • Pub­lisher: Bantam
  • Lan­guage: English
  • ISBN-10: 055358053
Buy this book in paper or in elec­tronic format*

Dis­claimer: I got bought this book
Originally published at:

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

The Last Wild by Piers Torday Plus Bonus Interview Questions with the Author!

Twelve year-old Kester Jaynes has a big problem, - he can’t speak. Even worse, he doesn’t know why he can’t speak. The only thing he knows is that he hasn’t been able to say a word since his mother’s death six years ago.  Not only that, he’s locked up in a home for troubled children for reasons also unknown to him. Oh, and just to throw another wrench in the gears, the outside world has all but completely fallen apart. It’s been ravaged by global warming and a disease called “the red-eye,” which has rendered all but a few animals extinct and threatens humans with the same fate.  
So, locked up, depressed, scared out of his wits, Kester is at the bottom of the barrel. Scratch that, he’s fallen through the bottom of the barrel into a pit of…well I was going to say poisonous snakes, but they’re all extinct.

Then one day while alone in his cell, Kester hears someone talking to him. It is then that he realizes it isn’t someone but something. Yes, Kester realizes that it is a cockroach that’s speaking to him and that they can communicate.  Not only that, Kester soon learns that he can “talk” to other animals in his cell.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Beyond Magenta: Transgender Teens Speak Out

Beyond Magenta is an incredible look into the minds, lives, and struggles of LGBTQ teens.

 Each chapter profiles a person who has struggled with gender identity, and ultimately is transgender. They were born as one "sex", but identified with the other, and so the gender they were expected to express was not the gender they were comfortable presenting. The chapters are about very different people.

 When I picked up the book I wasn't expecting just what I got. I was expecting the author's narrative on the lives of these people. I was expecting to hear from an outside observer what these kids' lives had been like.

 I was not expecting to hear their stories from the teens themselves.

A Song for Bijou by Josh Farrar

The transition from kid to teen is hard for some. Relationships change and you begin to relate differently to your parents and to your friends and for some this is cause for major stress. Alex is a regular seventh grader whose life changes the day he sees a vision from heaven in the form of a new Haitian student called Bijou.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

ANDRE THE GIANT: Life and Legend by Box Brown

I should start by saying that I had to wait my turn to read the advanced review copy of this graphic novel, because a certain 13-year old wrestling fan I know divested me of it just after it arrived. A non-reader, J finished it in one sitting and really didn't want to take a break for dinner, even. High praise indeed.

If you are a WWE wrestling fan, or seen the movie The Princess Bride, then you've probably heard of André the Giant. This graphic novel relates the story of his rise as a wrestler while dealing with debilitating physical issues. André never really stopped growing, thanks to the condition known as acromegaly, and he was told early on in his career that he'd be lucky to live to age 40.

The book is an unsentimental look at André's life, including some of the less pleasant aspects of it: how he was picked on or taunted throughout his life, how difficult travel was for him, how much he ate and drank (hint: a lot), and how he was sometimes a great friend, and sometimes fell short.

Monday, March 10, 2014

William Shakespeare's The Empire Striketh Back by Ian Doescher

Even if you think Iambic Pentameter is the name of an Imperial Stormtrooper (and it totally should be), you will still enjoy William Shakespeare’s The Empire Striketh Back, Ian Doescher’s second book in the Shakespearean Star Wars series. But the true measure of your enjoyment can be gauged by this two-item quiz:

Saturday, March 8, 2014

Under The Never Sky by Veronica Rossi

Back to my "comfort zone" with UNDER THE NEVER SKY by Veronica Rossi. This book was a complete and total surprise. I found the premise intriguing enough that I downloaded the book (I think it was an Amazon deal) but the execution was terrific. Rossi does a ton of stuff that I like as a reader and am insanely jealous of as a writer.

Thursday, March 6, 2014

All Our Yesterdays by Cristin Terrell

I think we must love to read about dystopian futures because they allow us to imagine the unimaginable and shiver in the dark while feeling grateful that things aren’t quite that bad. The thing I dislike most about dystopian literature is this way that our horrible future is so engrossing, we forget to ask how we ended up there. Cristin Terrell's All Our Yesterdays takes that dare and explores the possibility of using the past to change the future.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Red Rising by Pierce Brown

Pierce Brown's Red Rising is a little like Ender's Game in that it involves children's brutal training for war. It's also like the Percy Jackson series in its obsession with Greek and Roman myth and history. It's also like The Hunger Games in that it pits children against each other in deadly games and it's like Game of Thrones with its rivalries between powerful families and it's like Scott Westerfeld's Uglies series in its exploration of power and body modification. If someone accused Pierce Brown and his publisher of trying to capitalize on every trend in YA fiction this side of wizards and werewolves, you might just have to concede the point.

Yet, while the book is somewhat like all of these other books and is a bit jumbled as a result, it's not exactly like any of them. After a somewhat rough opening, the novel settles in and ultimately works better than expected. It also sets up a series that promises to be intriguing.