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October 28th, 2014


02:59 pm - New Release: Like Fortune’s Fool: Erotic Tales of Luck and Serendipity

Originally published at Schrodinger's Bookshelf. You can comment here or there.

like-fortune's-fool-cover-draft-3

It is with great joy and no small pride that I belatedly announce the release of my newest erotic anthology, Like Fortune&http://www.michaelmjones.com/#8217;s Fool, now out from Circlet Press and available in all the finest (and less finest) online stores.

In six sexy stories, gods and mortals alike “get lucky,” in more ways than one. Fortune favors the bold and people take a chance at love and lust. In Like Fortune’s Fool, Monique Poirer, Jaymi Noa, Eric del Carlo, Dame Bodacious, T.C. Mills and Kathleen Tudor reveal the playful, sensual, mind-blowing secrets of those who traffic in luck, fate, karma, and serendipity. From a card game that leads to a night of unbelievable pleasure, to a raven whose spate of “crow luck” leads him to a helpful witch, to a woman who acquires a “lucky” rabbit’s foot, these stories are surprising and satisfying.

You can find it at this places, among others:

Amazon

Barnes & Noble

Smashwords

iTunes

A limited number of electronic review copies are available as well. Please contact me at fortunesfoolantho@gmail.com if you&http://www.michaelmjones.com/#8217;re interested in receiving a free copy in exchange for an honest, unbiased review on Amazon, B&N, Goodreads, and/or your personal blog. First come, first served.

 


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October 24th, 2014


08:20 pm - A Quick Schoolbooks & Sorcery Update

Originally published at Schrodinger's Bookshelf. Please leave any comments there.

Please forgive the brevity of this update, but I wanted to give the curious and concerned a quick update regarding the Schoolbooks & Sorcery anthology.

At this time, I have read every story, and sent out many rejections. I still have another batch of rejections to write, and a number of stories which have either made it into the &http://www.michaelmjones.com/#8220;Definitely&http://www.michaelmjones.com/#8221; pile or the &http://www.michaelmjones.com/#8220;Final Round: Fight!&http://www.michaelmjones.com/#8221; pile. Everything in those latter two piles is currently in the hands of a second reader to help me make the hard decisions.

Why the slowness?

Because Yours Truly made the mistake of trying to juggle multiple jobs and an online grad school class, and as a result, sleep schedules, coherence, and spare time have suffered. This weekend, in fact, is a perfect storm of Things Which Will Either Kill Me or Make Me Stronger, and I&http://www.michaelmjones.com/#8217;m not sure which is more desirable at the moment.

I do anticipate finishing the first round of rejections in the next week (so by the end of October) and then it&http://www.michaelmjones.com/#8217;s just a case of figuring out what makes the final cut. Cue weeping, wailing, mad bargains with perverse trickster deities, cockamamie juggling of word count and synergistic themes, and so on. Trust me, folks, the inner nuts and bolts of the anthology business aren&http://www.michaelmjones.com/#8217;t pretty.

So if you haven&http://www.michaelmjones.com/#8217;t heard yet, it&http://www.michaelmjones.com/#8217;s either because I haven&http://www.michaelmjones.com/#8217;t written a rejection, or I haven&http://www.michaelmjones.com/#8217;t trapped my second reader in a corner and made them share their opinions&http://www.michaelmjones.com/#8230; or because I&http://www.michaelmjones.com/#8217;m hiding under the bed, weeping, mind melted from dealing with real life people.

Feel free to query in the meantime, but results may vary.

Thanks for your patience and understanding!

 


 

September 9th, 2014


03:10 pm - New Short Story Online – Sea of Strangers

Originally published at Schrodinger's Bookshelf. Please leave any comments there.

gideon3

I am absolutely thrilled to announce that I have a new short story available to read online, for free.

You can find &http://www.michaelmjones.com/#8220;Sea of Strangers&http://www.michaelmjones.com/#8221; over at Inscription Magazine. I&http://www.michaelmjones.com/#8217;m especially interested because this marks my very first Young Adult publication. (While one of my previous stories, &http://www.michaelmjones.com/#8220;Keys,&http://www.michaelmjones.com/#8221; which saw publication in A Chimerical World: Tales of the Seelie Court, can be considered YA, this is the first one marketed as such.)

&http://www.michaelmjones.com/#8220;Sea of Strangers&http://www.michaelmjones.com/#8221; is an urban fantasy story, and it takes place, as so many of my stories do, in the city of Puxhill. Strange things are afoot at Elijah Morrison High, and it&http://www.michaelmjones.com/#8217;s up to Aud Martinez and her girlfriend Charm to figure out the problem and save the day.

Please go read it. And if you like it, feel free to let me know. Definitely consider checking out Inscription&http://www.michaelmjones.com/#8217;s other fine YA offerings and leaving comments in their discussion threads as well.

I hope you like it&http://www.michaelmjones.com/#8230;.


 

August 11th, 2014


04:07 pm - The Black Fire Concerto by Mike Allen (Haunted Stars Publishing, 2013)

Originally published at Schrodinger's Bookshelf. Please leave any comments there.

black fire concerto

For several years now, twelve-year-old Erzelle has been the prisoner of the cannibal clan of the Red Empress, a riverboat full of death, misery, and degenerate ghouls, forced to play the harp during their infernal meals. This changes when the mysterious piper Olyssa comes aboard, in search of her long-missing sister. Olyssa and Erzelle leave a pile of corpses in their wake, the Famile decimated by terrible magic, and begin their journey together. As they quest for Olyssa’s sister, Erzelle becomes her apprentice in both music and magic.

But their travels are anything but quiet. They must fight cultists, charm the capricious vulpines (fox-people, basically), and invade the treacherous lair of the Grey Ones, who build terrible machines out of the walking dead. The more Erzelle learns of her new companion, the more she fears for their safety. For to find Olyssa’s sister is to delve into the origin of the Storms which ruined and transformed the planet, to unleash bizarre forces, and to go up against overwhelming odds.

In The Black Fire Concerto, Mike Allen (editor of Mythic Delirium magazine and the Clockwork Phoenix anthology series) invokes the weird pulp fantasy of old, spinning a series of inter-related adventures which would be right at home in old-school Weird Tales. His world is a very much changed post-apocalyptic Earth, full of magic and strange creatures, where danger lurks around every corner. This is dark fantasy, manifested in body horror and visceral imagery, flesh-eating ghouls and unsettling visions. His traveling duo, the seemingly ageless Olyssa and the young Erzelle, are a mismatched pair as fitting as those who once strode the pages of sword and sorcery novels and pulp magazines. It’s an almost refreshingly retro feel; though the modern sensibilities can be seen, this is the sort of eldritch nightmare H.P. Lovecraft, Robert E. Howard, or Clark Ashton Smith might have appreciated. Allen spins scenes of obscenely-repurposed mobile body parts, unholy constructions built of still-living flesh, armies of the shambling dead. He threads it all together with a musical motif that further pushes this away from the comfortable and familiar.

One of the things I appreciate about this book is that it lacks romance; the most powerful thread here is the love Olyssa has for her missing sister. Even after the enigmatic Lilla’s fate is discovered, that familial bond never wavers. It’s almost unsettling for something as pure and basic as family duty and connect to be the underlying core of such a bizarre story.

Honestly, this book isn’t my usual thing. While I’ve always been able to appreciate the Weird Tales mold of story, I’m not naturally drawn to such strange deviations. (For all that I love Simon R. Green, who gets pretty intensely weird at times). Were Mike Allen not a friend of mine (for full disclosure) I’d probably never have gotten too far into this. Dark fantasy isn’t my standard go-to genre. But I know a well-written tale when I spot one, and this is a strong effort, particularly for a first full-length book.  (Though split as it is into three sections, with the first having been written as a short story in its own right, there’s a slightly episodic feel to things.)

The main weakness is that Allen tends to overwhelm the reader with imagery and immaterial creations, leading to a certain lack of grounding. The opening sequence in the Red Empress is extremely strong, the battle scene in the town later on is likewise well-done, but once the characters head off into the wilds, things get nebulous. There’s not as strong a sense of place and time. Furthermore, there’s a lot left to be revealed about the post-apocalyptic world our heroes travel through. What technology remains? What people exist? How are things structured? How prevalent and reliable is magic? How much resemblance does the greater world have to what came before, and what was lost? These are all questions that arise as Olyssa and Erzelle fight their way through ghoul-infested caves and towards the final confrontation with their enemy.

If Allen continues to follow these characters, he has a ready-made hook, setting and all, for a modern revival of an old genre tradition that’s mostly fallen out of favor in recent years. Certainly, he’s laid the groundwork and delivered their inaugural adventure with style and appeal. If you’ve been craving dark fantasy, post-apocalyptic sword and sorcery with a female cast, weird stories that may or may not turn your stomach, then I have just the book for you.


 

July 11th, 2014


01:02 am - In Memoriam: Janeway Yowlin (1999-2014…or so)

Originally published at Schrodinger's Bookshelf. Please leave any comments there.

The queen hard at work.

The queen hard at work.

It's a trap.

It&http://www.michaelmjones.com/#8217;s a trap.

Jane and Stucco: a meeting of 2/3rds of the Elder Countil

Jane and Stucco: a meeting of 2/3rds of the Elder Countil. Now with LASER EYES.

It is with great sadness that I announce the permanent retirement of the senior member of the Feline Supervisory Committee, Jane, AKA Janeway Yowlin of Puxhill, AKA &http://www.michaelmjones.com/#8220;The Tabby.&http://www.michaelmjones.com/#8221; At the dignified age of 14 or 15 (a lady never tells her true age), Jane chose to move on to her next life, rather than hang around and put up with lymphosarcoma any longer. She is survived by the rest of the Feline Supervisory Committee, who have already announced their intention to uphold her tradition of sleeping on things, shedding, and looking faintly disapproving at whatever it is we did.

Jane came to us as little more than a kitten, via the local shelter, when we announced an opening for a tabby. She quickly proved ideal at the role, and soon settled into a life of leisure and doing cat things. As she gained seniority, she was promoted to the Elder Council, of which she was the surviving member, following last year&http://www.michaelmjones.com/#8217;s retirements of Stucco and Gabriel. (The Elder Council has been effectively disbanded, and a new grouping will be announced at a later date.) Also, with her passing, the informal &http://www.michaelmjones.com/#8220;Family Unit&http://www.michaelmjones.com/#8221; is likewise disbanded due to attrition; its only remaining member is Pepper, who has been promoted to Chief Shrieky-Beast.

Jane was born old&http://www.michaelmjones.com/#8211;she was always a little grumpy, enjoyed her solitude and deep thoughts, and became extremely prickly when picked up. She enjoyed singing jazz and the blues, and would have won numerous prizes for math and science if only she had the opposable thumbs to communicate her findings. We may never know exactly what she discovered during her many hours of contemplation.

She was greatly loved, and goes to her next life with the highest of recommendations and references. Should you encounter a grey/brown tabby with a slightly sour manner, a rusty motor purr, and deep thoughts, know that she served long, well, and honorably.

The Feline Supervisory Committee and her silly, sentimental owners, thank her for many years of excellent service, and wish her all the best. She will be missed immensely.

 

 


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May 7th, 2014


03:02 pm - Call for Submissions: Schoolbooks & Sorcery

Originally published at Schrodinger's Bookshelf. Please leave any comments there.

CALL FOR SUBMISSIONS

SCHOOLBOOKS & SORCERY: A YA URBAN FANTASY ANTHOLOGY

 

Take high school. It’s weird, confusing, complicated, and frustrating. It’s a time of growth and change, when teens start discovering what they’re made of and who they want to be. Now throw in magic. What happens? That’s the premise of this new YA anthology. Schoolbooks & Sorcery is what happens when you take all the normal ups and downs of high school, inject a healthy dose of magic, shake, stir, and serve.

Editor Michael M. Jones (Scheherazade’s Façade) is looking for YA urban fantasy stories which incorporate the themes of sorcery, magic, and enchantment. The magic can come from within, as an intrinsic ability or a family trait, or from without, in the form of talismans, training, or teaching. Protagonists can be wizards, witches, sorcerers, magicians, shamans, apprentices, or practitioners of more esoteric traditions. Whether they pick it up on their own (accidentally or on purpose), learn from a master, or go to school for institutionalized training, they’ll be involved with magic to some degree. Or, of course, the protagonist could be without magic, and stumble into a world beyond their immediate knowledge. If authors wish to set something in a magical school of their own devising, or in a previously-established setting, that’s perfectly fine. But it doesn’t necessarily need to be set at a school, magical or otherwise, so long as the main characters are of the right age set.

Just about every culture has some sort of tradition involving people who dabble in the supernatural to one end or another, and there’s a vast amount of potential left to be tapped in this genre, especially with teenage protagonists. Whether they’re wizards-in-training, voodoo princesses, the last descendant of an infamous historical figure, the newest apprentice in the family business, or just someone in the wrong place at the right time, the stories are endless.

Schoolbooks & Sorcery is also designed to be a queer-friendly YA anthology, embracing the full spectrum of sexuality and gender identification, while offering a wide selection of satisfying, entertaining, fascinating, powerful stories in which the mundane and the magical overlap and interact. Stories are encouraged to take place in the overlapping area between urban fantasy, high school, and LGBTQ issues and themes. Stories should send the message that it’s not just okay to be gay, it’s okay to be gay and to have the same crazy, wicked, scary, seductive, exciting, magical, strange, funny, romantic, dark adventures as everyone else. We’re looking for stories which are all-inclusive, with the characters writers have been dying to write and readers clearly want to see, diverse and interesting, with an underlying current of tolerance and acceptance. Obviously, we’re looking for a wide range of themes, tones, and voices.

 

TECHNICAL DETAILS:

All stories should be between 2000-7000 words.

All stories must involve magic, and those who practice magic. This covers wizards, witches, sorcerers, magicians, shamans, and other traditions not specifically mentioned. This covers self-taught characters, those whose power is intrinsic or passed down through a family, those who find objects of power or books of spells, those who study with a teacher, those who go to school for magic, and so on. Other paranormal elements, such as vampires, werewolves, ghosts, or fairies, are welcome, as long as they don’t overshadow the primary theme.

Paranormal romance elements are also welcome, but this is not specifically intended as a romance anthology. Romance is good, but not necessary.

All stories must be considered YA.

Stories should be set in modern times/on Earth, but authors are encouraged to use a variety of settings, cultures, and influences to flesh out their characters and world building. Again, one of the primary goals here is to explore diversity.

While LGBTQ elements are not required, they are highly encouraged, as are protagonists who defy traditional roles and labels. (As in “girls doing boy things” and “boys doing girl things”.) More importantly: no story will be turned away for containing LGBTQ characters or elements, unless it violates the other guidelines.

Stories will not be censored for language, drinking, drugs or sexual situations; however, such things must be in moderation, appropriate to the circumstances, and tastefully handled. In movie rating terms, stories would thus fall into the PG-13 range. (To be handled as necessary. We’re not afraid of some bad words now and again…)

All stories will maintain a positive atmosphere concerning sexuality, gender, race, religion, and so on. While individual characters (most likely antagonists) may express biased, prejudiced, or phobic sentiments, or characters may deal with negative situations, the ultimate goal is to promote tolerance, acceptance, and positivity.

PLEASE NOTE: I have already seen a number of stories which address bullying. While I’m still open to considering stories incorporating this theme, I’d like to see some more variety to help round things out.

DEADLINE: August 15, 2014

SUBMISSION ADDRESS: All submissions may be sent to Facadeantho@gmail.com. Please address any questions or queries to that address as well.Submissions should be sent as an attachment, as .rtf or .doc.

PAYMENT: Payment will start out at 2 cents a word. However, this is just the minimum. Once the anthology is completed and the Table of Contents either finalized or close to finalized, we will be running a Kickstarter campaign to boost sales, create pre-release buzz, attract pre-sales, and to acquire the funds to pay 5 cents a word. So while at this moment in time we can promise 2 cents a word, our end goal (one which is entirely within the realm of possibility) is 5 cents a word, or professional rate. If you have any questions about how this can work, or need more information on how Kickstarter works, please feel free to talk to the editor. Again: you are not being asked to do something for nothing. You’re not being asked for money or freebies. All we ask of you is a little patience and flexibility for this stage of the project, and the use of your name as a contributing author to attract fans and potential backers. Payment will be made after the end of the Kickstarter period, before the actual publication date. (Because the SFWA pro rate increases to 6 cents a word as of July 1, 2014, we may end up shooting for this goal instead. This has not been finalized.)

FORMATS: Schoolbooks & Sorcery will be released simultaneously as a trade paperback and an ebook, by Gressive Press, an imprint of Circlet Press.

ABOUT THE EDITOR

Michael M. Jones was the YA reviewer for Science Fiction Chronicle and Realms of Fantasy. These days, he reviews YA for Publishers Weekly and Tor.com. He is also the editor of Scheherazade’s Façade: Fantastical Tales of Gender Bending, Cross-Dressing, and Transformation (Gressive Press, 2012). His fiction has appeared in anthologies from DAW, Baen, Raven Electrick Ink, Norilana, Circlet, and Cleis Press. He can be found online at www.michaelmjones.com


 

December 13th, 2013


12:18 pm - Fine Young Gentlemen by C.W. Slater (C.W. Slater, 2013)

Originally published at Schrodinger's Bookshelf. Please leave any comments there.

fine young gentlemenThe first thing you should know is that despite the title, the three major protagonists of this book are neither fine, nor gentlemen. Young, sure, as all three are 16-year-olds who attend Percy College School, an elite Canadian academy.

Jacob Aberdeen is a sexual predator who prides himself on breaking virgins, a deviant who systematically stalks young women and who thinks nothing of window peeping, blackmail, and manipulation. In fact, he’s pretty much a psychopath.

Craig Osterman is a football hero with a sexy girlfriend and a dark secret. Who at PCS is trying to make his life miserable? What happens when his life starts to crumble? And then when he kills the teacher attempting to molest him, he becomes a strangely unrepentant, cold-blooded killer, determined to hide the evidence.

Matt Cutler is a frustrated virgin and compulsive masturbator. Obsessed with sex and his continuing quest to get laid, he’d do anything to make the score. He doesn’t even have football to distract him, ever since a back injury sidelined him.

Their paths cross and overlap as events spiral out of control, with everyone searching for the guy who murdered a beloved teacher, the administration desperate to cover up the fact that one of their own had abused his position for years, and Jacob determined to destroy Craig so he can have Craig’s girlfriend.  It doesn’t end well.

While in most sex comedies, the protagonists have some measure of sympathy to offset their hormonal antics, the so-called heroes of this book don’t have that redeeming factor, ranging instead from pathetic to despicable. Rude, crude, crass, shameless, manipulative, and reeking of entitlement, they’re not characters you want to see succeed. Honestly, this book is lacking in sympathetic characters in general, everyone possessing some dirty little secret or horrible trait. Misogyny, classism, even a touch of racism abound. The attitudes towards women and sex are simply horrible. Jacob and Matt may be prime examples of how women are primarily in this book to be sex objects or flawed authority figures, present for their amusement, ambition, or fantasies, but very few of the secondary characters are likable.

Honestly, I read this book as one might stare at a wreck on the side of the road, unable to look away. It lacks the humor of a comedy, the sophistication of a thriller, the innocence of a coming-of-age tale, and the charm of a slice-of-life story.  By the time it wrapped up, on a sour and bloody note, I had to wonder just what the author’s intention was. This is like the extremely awkward love child of Porky’s and American Psycho, with none of their respective appeal. If you’re looking for books that get into the mind of the teenage male, there are far better examples, including works by Don Calame, Andrew Smith, Barry Lyga, and Brent Crawford.


 

December 12th, 2013


08:49 pm - On Audio Versions of My Stories…

Originally published at Schrodinger's Bookshelf. You can comment here or there.

You know what’s even more amazing than seeing your story in print?
Hearing it read out loud as part of an audiobook.
Seriously. The knowledge that such a thing exists, that someone has brought your words and worlds to life, given them voice and substance, is simply amazing. I know it’s old hat to many of my writerly brethren, but I get a thrill every time I run into a new audio adaptation of something I’ve done.
To date, five anthologies I’ve been in have received such treatment. Of course, as my luck would have it, all five are erotica anthologies, but I’m not picky. If they want to turn my smut into porn for the ears, I’m game.

girl fever

The first of these is “The Long Night of Tanya McCray,” from Lustfully Ever After, edited by Kristina Wright, in which an intrepid photographer gets lost in Puxhill’s mysterious Gaslight District overnight. Sadly, the narrator for this volume is…underwhelming, and doesn’t really do the material justice, in my opinion. But hey, these things happen.

A better example is “In the Service of Hell,” from Seductress, edited by D.L. King, which features a succubus on a mission from her infernal masters. Kaylee West does a very nice job of bringing “Alice” and her target to life, adding a quiet nuance and complexity to their exploits.

Then there’s “Love on a Real Train,” from Girl Fever, edited by Sacchi Green, which sees a pair of lovers recreating an iconic scene from a classic ’80s movie. The narrator for this story (one of several who take on the Herculean task of reading the 69 stories) imbues my movie-obsessed characters with a sense of playfulness and sensuality. I can’t shake the sensation that the narrator is about ready to let a giggle slip free. It’s a quick, fun, listen.

geek-love

Kaylee West makes a second appearance to narrate “Thwarting the Spirits” in She-Shifters, edited by Delilah Devlin, which stars a werecobra and weremongoose as moon-crossed lovers and mortal enemies. Though her performance is a little shaky at times, I was absolutely delighted by the way she gave the characters distinct voices and accents. (Important when one’s Indian, another’s Pakistani, and assorted other folks pass through as needed.) Most importantly, she gets the attitudes and pronunciation just right, just the way I hear them in my head. In fact, I never even imagined wereraven Izzy Sparks with a bit of a country drawl, and now I’ll never be able to unhear it. Possibly my second favorite audio adaptation to date.

Lastly, there’s the incomparable Veronica Giguere, who narrates “The Secret Life of Ramona Lee” in Geek Love, edited by Shanna Germain and Janine Ashbless. Her interpretation of the story and the characters is almost transcendent in its awesomeness. The way she handles the titular Ramona and her new friend, the information sprite Irene, blows me away. There’s depth and complexity, playfulness and a certain breathy glee. I just about fell in love with my own characters after listening to them…awkward, right?

So there you have it. Not only can you read my stories, you can even listen to a few of them if you’re feeling adventurous.


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December 7th, 2013


11:55 pm - Spoils, by Tammar Stein (Random House, 2013)

Originally published at Schrodinger's Bookshelf. Please leave any comments there.

Money is truly the root of all evil in this somewhat imbalanced teen drama. Seven years ago, Leni Kohn’s family won the lottery–$22 million after taxes. Today, a week before Leni’s eighteenth birthday, the family is pretty much broke. Careless investments, wasteful spending, and too many generous “loans” have reduced their fortune to near-nothing. The family has one hope left: when Leni turns eighteen, her trust fund kicks in and she finally gets access to the million put aside just for her.  Everyone assumes that she’ll give it all to her parents, so the family doesn’t drown in debt. Even Leni assumes she’ll do what’s right for her family, no matter how much she dreams of using to pay for college or help the environment.

Then her older sister Natasha tells Leni that she made a deal with the devil for them to win the lottery, and the money is cursed, and Leni should get rid of it all. Leni’s about ready to laugh it all off as one of her sister’s odder quirks, until she starts getting visits from the archangel Michael, telling her to “fix it.” 

Now Leni is caught in a vaguely-defined struggle between good and evil, trying to find the right path. She suspects it has something to do with Gavin, a brilliant young man with a checkered past, who’s come back into her life at an unexpected time. But how can she fix something when she doesn’t even know what she’s fixing? How can she justify depriving her parents of the money they need?  With the days until her birthday ticking down, can she find a solution?

I wanted to like this book a lot. Part of it stems from a fascinating premise, one grounded in reality. After all, how many times do we read about lottery winners who go broke or come to a bad end? How often do we see stories about the accidental millionaires who can’t handle their newfound wealth? Stein’s portrayal of the Kohns as a family ruined by success is painful, riveting, and poignant. The parents who build a needlessly luxurious mansion and throw extravagant parties and throw their money at poor investments and risky ventures. The older brother who blows his money on parties and traveling, until he ends up back at home, dreaming of better days. The older sister who can’t let go of her ex-boyfriend, who sinks her money into a tea shop.  And Leni, the sensible, idealistic one, whose money has remained in trust all these years until she comes of age.  It’s a powerful look at people who simply weren’t prepared for their fortune, and how it undermines their sense of self and corrupts their priorities. 

So to put the story at the crucial point where Leni must decide what to do with her money? There’s the seed of a compelling, provocative tale. Her moral dilemma and internal struggle is really something to study. While money isn’t inherently bad, it’s clear that it’s an easily-misused resource. No wonder she’s conflicted about giving it to her parents, knowing it’s just a stopgap measure when they need to find a new way of handling things. And this is the story I wanted to read, in which Leni find a way to break the cycle and rescue her family from the pit of despair and debt. 

So when I realized that this book also had a paranormal element, I honestly wondered if it was necessary. Did the book actually need this subplot regarding a vaguely-described deal with the devil, and ambiguous communications from an archangel?  Is it any stronger for having the supernatural quality in the background?  I don’t think so.  In fact, it’s a little distracting, even a little insulting, to be able to ascribe outside influences to such purely human elements.  Money doesn’t need to be cursed in order to lead to bad results, simple foolishness and greed can accomplish the same thing.

I know, I’ve never exactly been one to shy away from the paranormal elements in what I like. Urban fantasy is one of my favorite genres, after all. But sometimes, that element of the fantastic does more harm than good, and Spoils is a good example of a story that would have been perfect as a mainstream book.  It has everything already in place: a family in crisis, a conflicted protagonist, a suitably compelling romantic interest, and a complex moral dilemma that speaks to its audience. Given the economy of the past few years, money is never far from anyone’s mind.  Almost everyone plays the “what if we won the lottery” game and this is a starkly compelling cautionary tale.

As it stands, it’s really quite a muddle. Is the money truly cursed? If so, is it only cursed when the Kohns use it for their own benefit? Or will all those people they loaned/gifted/donated it to suffer equally miserable fates somewhere down the line? Otherwise, why couldn’t Leni have kept a little for herself, to handle necessities as opposed to frivolities, or would paying for school be selfish somehow?  There’s too much left unexplained and unspecified where her mission is concerned, and I’m still not sure how the chain of logic led her to assume that she had to help redeem Gavin’s life.  More of the hand-wavy paranormal bits, I guess.

In the end, Spoils is a fantastic book undermined by a few too many extraneous elements, which is really a shame.


 

December 6th, 2013


06:53 pm - Another Update: Sales and Releases

Originally published at Schrodinger's Bookshelf. Please leave any comments there.

 

And look, I’m back again already, with more news fit to be shared.

NEW SALE! – This is actually one I forgot to mention last time. Shame on me! I sold my urban fantasy story, “Keys” to the anthology, A Chimerical World: Tales of the Seelie Court, edited by Scott Sandridge, to be released by Seventh Star Press, in 2014. I cannot even begin to tell you how awesome it is that this story finally has a home. When the time comes, I’ll devote a post to its long and strange history.

NEW PUBLICATION! – My short-short, “The ‘Tilly’ Crown Affair” appears in the Cleis anthology, xoxo: Sweet and Sexy Romance, edited by Kristina Wright. The release date for this collection bounced around somewhat, originally targeted for February 14th before being moved to January, but reports are in that the book is actually available from Amazon…now, in print, with ebook to come on December 16th. Another great stocking stuffer for those with a naughty side! For those of you who might possibly remember my story, “Love on a Real Train” from the Sacchi Green-edited Girl Fever, this story also features my movie-obsessed lesbian couple, Charlene and Tilly, as they sex up another classic movie scene…

NEW REVIEW! – My review of Ben Bova’s Mars, Inc.: The Billionaire’s Club, has gone live on Tor.com.

Hopefully, I’ll have more news for you soon. Hey, it could happen.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


 

October 6th, 2013


07:33 am - Red, by Alison Cherry (Delacorte, 2013)

Originally published at Schrodinger's Bookshelf. Please leave any comments there.

Scarletville, Iowa, bills itself as a National Redhead Sanctuary. Indeed, it’s a town where the vast majority of the populace are redheads.  A town where gingers are worshipped, and the redder the better. Where strawberry blondes are disparagingly referred to as “strawbies” and looked down on as “not red enough.” Where those who dye their hair to fit in are dubbed “arties” and outright ostracized for their false redness. It’s the town’s dirty little secret, that blondes and brunettes are shunned, mocked, discriminated, kept out of positions of importance.

Felicity St. John is one of the reddest of the red, and a beauty queen in the making.  Her mother, a former Miss Scarlet twenty-five years ago, has driven Felicity to compete all her life, with an eye towards making sure Felicity entered, and won, the Miss Scarlet pageant when she came of age. And now that time has come.

But Felicity’s not so sure she wants to be a beauty queen, to follow in her mother’s footsteps, to bring home the trophy her mother has craved for so long. She’d rather take art classes and follow her own dreams. But with the pageant fast approaching, it’s time to play dutiful daughter a little longer.

Only…there’s a problem. Someone has found out Felicity’s dark secret—that she’s dyed her hair ever since she was a toddler—and now they’re blackmailing her. If she gives in to their demands, it could ruin her social standing and her chances at Miss Scarlet. But if anyone finds out the truth, it could destroy her entire life. Caught between two impossible choices, can she find a way to break free?

At first, I looked at Red as a relatively run-of-the-mill YA drama. You know, slice-of-life, with teen angst, romance, a protagonist forced to make hard decisions and come of age, the usual. And one set against a comparatively lightweight premise. A town full of redheads? Where the heroine’s deepest, darkest secret is that she’s not a natural redhead? Yeah, good for some laughs, but hard to take seriously. It reminded me of Emma Pillsbury’s parents from Glee, on a larger scale.

Bu then I reconsidered.

This book is freaking brilliant. In creating her little town of redhead supremacy, Alison Cherry has taken an innocuous physical detail, and turned it into the perfect stand-in for a host of real issues. In discussing the way in which non-redheads are ostracized, bullied, and discriminated against, she’s bringing our attention to all forms of discrimination against the Other. Be it race, religion, gender, sexual orientation or what-have-you, it’s represented here. Felicity’s struggles to pass as a redhead, always worrying that she’ll be exposed for what she really is, terrified that even a little slip might drive away friends or destroy her social status, is representative of the worry and confusion many LGBTQ teens feel when trying to figure their lives out. (Admittedly, Felicity still doesn’t have to worry about many of the problems and risks many queer teens experience, up to and including physical abuse or death… but even as I acknowledge those awful truths, I don’t want to discount the message present here.)

Alison Cherry has taken all of the angst and emotional turmoil, all of the social upheaval and complexity, faced by minorities of every sort, and repackaged it with a cis white straight face. In the real world, a girl like Felicity, who’s beautiful, poised, confident, accomplished, in a steady relationship with a guy—in short, absolutely normal—would be accepted without reservation.  Her hair color wouldn’t even be a factor.  Only in this dysfunctional, intolerant, close-minded town of redhead supremacists would she be afraid of being destroyed by a single mistake.

As we see throughout the course of the book, there are distinct and real disadvantages of being anything but a redhead. They’re shoved out of line, informally barred from competing in the Miss Scarlet pageant, shut out of many high school clubs and student body positions, and so on. The rage and frustration brought on by this treatment leads to Felicity’s blackmail experience, and while I can’t exactly approve of the tactic, I can understand where the perpetrator comes from.

Alison Cherry’s tactic is brilliantly subversive. In crafting this tale of discrimination, hidden identities, self-determination, and prejudice against the Other, she’s quite possibly created a relatable, accessible allegory that doesn’t include anything dangerous. Yes, this story could very well be considered “Safe” since it doesn’t contain any major characters of color (there are a few minor ones running round, and as expected, they get the same treatment as all non-redheads) and hardly any queer ones. (Again, the one exception I could find, a flamboyant guy who wears a dress to prom, is accepted because his hair is the right color.) 

I’m honestly torn by this. On the one hand, I’m all about YA that encourages and features diversity, and this book has very little of it. On the other hand, the author tackles some pretty complex subjects in such a sideways, unexpected manner, that I pretty much have to tip my hat to her. It’s an unconventional method that manages to be both subtle and a little silly, and it works.

Of course, all of these deep thoughts have distracted me from the other aspects of the story, so let me tackle them in brief. Felicity’s internal turmoil is relatable and believable, and watching her participate, however unwillingly, in the downward spiral of her own social standing, is painful and yet strangely refreshing. As she strips away the trappings she didn’t even want, you can see the real Felicity, the one her own domineering mother can’t recognize, come out at last. Couple that emotional journey and character growth with a sweet (if somewhat predictable) romance, and you have the makings of a story that would be perfectly enjoyable even without the deeper message. 

Oh, and can I just say, I’m a huge fan of Felicity’s friend Ivy, the athletic tomboy who enters the Miss Scarlet pageant against her better will, doing it just to help out her friends, and who then does everything in her own indomitable style? For the bathing suit portion, she wears her swim team one-piece, cap, goggles, and flip-flops. WIN.

This is a surprisingly strong and satisfying debut for Alison Cherry, and I hope to see much more from her. She’s proven that she can deliver a sophisticated message in a deceptively innocuous wrapping, and I look forward to future offerings.


 

September 19th, 2013


09:48 pm - Introducing Gideon LeFluff

Originally published at Schrodinger's Bookshelf. Please leave any comments there.

 

 

As many of you may know, the ranks of the Feline Supervisory Committee were depleted earlier this year with the untimely retirements of Gabriel and Stucco, two of the original and longest-serving members.  With crucial vacancies to be filled, we set about looking for a cat who could properly take up neglected duties and add to the unstable, female-heavy dynamic.

After interviewing a great many candidates, we finally found what seems to be the perfect cat to fill the empty beds.  Allow me to introduce you to Gideon LeFluff, the Giant Ridiculous Cat. At just around a year old and somewhere in the neighborhood of 11-12 pounds, he shows every indication of indeed growing to become a giant fluffy cat of love.

Gideon passed all of the initial tests and probationary period with flying colors. He made himself at home from the second he stepped out of the carrier and into the kitchen. He discovered the joys of catnip toys, learned how to blend in with the tan blanket covering the loveseat, and has, apparently, never ever ever been fed in his life.  Ever. After a period of initial confusion and social upheaval, the others have learned to accept him as a new inevitability.

We are thrilled to welcome Gideon to the Feline Supervisory Committee, and we have every hope that he will serve long and well like his predecessors.

 

And yes, we call him the Giant Ridiculous Cat, with apologies to Elizabeth Bear and her Dog of the same title, for this cat is indeed something special. He sprawls magnificently, loves cuddles, purrs like a freight train, sleeps on feet, apparently has no bones whatsoever given some of his more absurd poses, and is amazingly relaxed most of the time. He makes us laugh. All thanks to the Franklin County Humane Society for apparently keeping him in their basement just in case we came along, for they found us a good cat.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


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August 25th, 2013


12:11 am - Severed Heads, Broken Hearts, by Robyn Schneider (Katherine Tegan Books, 2013)

Originally published at Schrodinger's Bookshelf. Please leave any comments there.

In one tragic night, high school tennis star Ezra Faulkner’s life is turned inside-out, when a car crash shatters his knee and destroys his athletic dreams. Now, as he enters his senior year, he’s forced to reinvent himself. His girlfriend broke up with him, his friends drifted away while he was recovering from the accident, and he’s lost his place in the school hierarchy. With no one expecting anything of him anymore, what’s he to do with himself?

First, he reconnects with his former best friend Toby Elliot, whose own fall from grace (involving a Disneyland ride and a tourist’s unexpectedly severed head) occurred years ago. Toby, captain of the school debate team, tries to lure Ezra into competing.  Second, he meets Cassidy Thorpe, a newcomer to the school.  She’s smart, attractive, quirky, independent, and fascinating. She’s also mercurial, capricious, and hiding some dark secret deep in her heart.

Still, the chemistry between Cassidy and Ezra is almost instantaneous, undeniable, and irresistible. They become fast friends, which evolves into something more over time, as they go on unconventional dates (flash mobs, auditing college courses, midnight picnics) and help each other as part of the debate team.  But it turns out that Cassidy used to be a debate team superstar for another school…until she unexpectedly retired, and she’s none too eager to get back on the competition circuit.

The closer they get, the happier they are, the more Ezra sheds his former golden boy status for something closer to his true nature, the more he wants to understand why Cassidy keeps pushing him away at random moments. But can their relationship survive the revelations that eventually come out?  And will Ezra succumb to temptation when his girlfriend Charlotte tries to lure him back into a social life of parties and privilege? 

In this emotionally rich teen drama, Schneider utterly turns the “manic pixie dream girl” trope on its side. Cassidy may fit the bill with her carefree ways, unpredictable behavior, convention-defying manner, and apparent goal of teaching Ezra how to overcome the past and be himself, but some of the revelations, the twists, the complex depths shown along the way, undermine and overturn expectations.

One part romance, two parts slice-of-life, this book has all the right elements going for it. A likeable protagonist, an eclectic group of friends, a convincing coming-of-age arc, a believable connection between characters, and a tongue-in-cheek look at the world of high school debate. Schneider takes all of the usual tropes, and subverts them gleefully. Charlotte and her crowd may be wealth, or entitled, careless and a little cruel, but it’s not the all-consuming pack of mean girls and alpha males that so often populate these books. While you can paint Ezra’s former friends as self-absorbed and shallow, they’re not necessarily bad people; indeed, there seems to be a sincere effort on their part to welcome him back into their midst, with bygones being bygones.  It’s not they who changed, after all, it was Ezra, who proves to have more depth and different desires than they do. (Think of them like cats: when he shows up after a summer away, a summer in which they pretty much forgot he existed, their reaction is sort of a “Oh, you were gone? It’s been a while. What, no, it’s not awkward at all that you can’t play tennis, I’m the new team captain, and I’m dating your ex-girlfriend.  Want to go to Taco Bell with us?”)

Moreover, while Ezra does find new companionship amongst the debate team, it’s not  automatically the noble group of quirky yet sympathetic outcasts and underdogs who teach him how to be a better person. Some are cool in their own way, some are still losers in their own way, and some are douchebags who like to argue, and there’s no reason why they all need to be friends. A refreshingly realistic take on group dynamics.

As for Cassidy? Her manic pixie dream girl act may be an illusion, hiding emotional wounds which can’t be healed through the magic of love and debate. (Should Schneider consider a sequel to this book, I deeply, profoundly, beg her to focus on Cassidy, a compelling and complex girl who deserves more exploration, with or without Ezra.)

Severed Heads, Broken Hearts, may suffer from a bizarre, even disconcerting title, but its contents are as sincere, authentic, and enjoyable as any you’ll find in the YA field. I really was blown away by the skillful manner in which Schneider plays with predictable characters and tropes, before yanking the rug out from under us. It’s a little bit heartbreaking, a whole lot uplifting, and has just the right blend of realism and positivity.  There’s also a great subplot regarding one character’s sexuality, where the result, never in question, is one of slightly amused acceptance. Again, the sort of thing one really likes to see. I was particularly struck by this quote:  “I’m not gay. I mean, I think I am, but I’ll figure it out in college. You have to really know to be out in high school.”  Schneider shows that she gets how hard it can be to find oneself in high school, no matter how sure you might be at the time.

Bottom line: a book I loved, and I can’t wait to see what the author has planned next.


 

July 8th, 2013


09:50 pm - In Memoriam: Stucco (1996-2013)

Originally published at Schrodinger's Bookshelf. Please leave any comments there.

 

It is with a heavy heart that I announce the passing of Stucco, our oldest cat.  He put up a long and valiant fight against cancer, but ultimately yielded with grace and dignity when the time was right.  He was 17, and is survived by the rest of the pride, and two loving but heartbroken owners.

Stucco was born on Mary’s chem homework. She’d found a pregnant cat while at school, and took it home to be cared for. he cat, thus named Mince, gave birth, stuck around for 6 weeks, and then vanished out of a bathroom window, never to be seen again. Mary and I kept the one kitten, which my sister named Stucco for the way he clung to my shirt (my sister’s weird, don’t judge!) and he became my starter cat, the first in what has become a long line of cats.  He waged a lengthy war of wills against Mary, before agreeing to a truce: I could keep her, as long as he got to sleep on the bed between us. Mary yielded to him on all terms, thus cementing his place as one of the family.

Stucco was a cat of grace and poise, a vocal cat who waxed philosophical, an excellent cuddler and a relentless armrest. He kept the others in line. He loved cheese, mushrooms, macaroni and cheese, meat of all kinds, and never missed a chance to lick my plate. He was a friend, a counselor, a furry tyrant, and occasionally a muse.

He will be missed.  But we’re happy that he’s free from pain and indignity. See you in the next go-around, Dude.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


 

July 7th, 2013


11:47 pm - In Too Deep, by Coert Voorhees (Disney Hyperion, 2013)

Originally published at Schrodinger's Bookshelf. Please leave any comments there.

High school freshman Annie Fleet has several great passions: scuba diving, the mysteries of the ocean, and a crush on her schoolmate, Josh Rebstock. She finally gets a chance to get his attention when the two of them head to Mexico as part of a school field trip, a combination humanitarian and treasure hunting expedition.  With her diving expertise, she’s perfect for teaching Josh how not to drown in new and embarrassing ways.

Only the “Good Deeds and Golden Doubloons” trip isn’t what it appears. The teacher running it, Mr. Alvarez, reveals that he’s still a treasure hunter on the side, and he has a line on a fabled treasure, found and lost centuries ago by Hernan Cortes. The Golden Jaguar, conservatively estimated at $100,000,000. With his original crew unavailable, Alvarez cons Annie and her companions into helping him dive for the first clue in uncovering the resting place of the Golden Jaguar.

When Annie’s success is followed immediately by someone trying to kill her, she realizes that she’s on the right path.  But unable to trust Alvarez or anyone besides Josh, what she’s to do? Easy: round up her friends, call in some favors, and use every bit of her own resourcefulness and expertise to find the Golden Jaguar before the bad guys do. In a jetsetting adventure that takes her from Mexico, to Hawaii, to California and more, she embarks on a thrilling series of diving escapades.  And along the way, she even finds a little time to romance Josh…

I absolutely loved In Too Deep. Annie is resourceful, clever, determined, geeky, and adorable. Her combination of book smarts and survival instincts makes her a plucky, admirable heroine, the sort who could totally front an ongoing series. Coert Voorhees likewise surrounds her with a cast of engaging, entertaining friends, avoiding all of the usual annoying stereotypes one might expect from a teen drama.  By setting Annie and her peers at a school for the Hollywood elite—the sons and daughters of the rich and famous—it opens up doors to all sorts of opportunities.  You end up with Mimi Soto, former child actress who remains relatively grounded despite her fame and fortune, and Gracia Berg, daughter of a producer, who, rather refreshingly, combines looks and a hidden talent for computer games and programming.  (Say what you want, but it’s nice to see a character who’s not afraid to be pretty –and- let her geek flag fly, or a character who’s rich and confident and not a total jerk.)  Josh, son of an award-winning actress, proves to be complex and interesting in his own right.

The plot itself has just the right mixture of mystery, action, and exotic settings, lending it a cinematic feel which would be perfect should Hollywood ever decide to reboot the National Treasure franchise to star teenagers instead of Nicholas Cage. It’s fast-paced, yet episodic as Annie and friends follow the clues from one location to the next, giving them the chance to delve into more history and up the tension.  The way they utilize all their resources turns out to be pretty darn clever.

I may not know much about scuba diving, but Voorhees certainly makes it feel authentic, bringing the details and atmosphere with each trip beneath the water’s surface.

I don’t know if Voorhees has any sequels in mind, but I’d love to see more of Annie Fleet and her intrepid band of treasure hunters.  The seeds for future installments were laid down in this story, so one can only hope.  But even if this is a standalone, it’s a damned fine one, and one well worth checking out.


 

June 2nd, 2013


01:12 am - You Look Different In Real Life, by Jennifer Castle (HarperTeen, 2013)

Originally published at Schrodinger's Bookshelf. Please leave any comments there.

Ten years ago, Justine was one of five six-year-olds chosen to star in a documentary, aptly titled Five at Six.  Five years ago, she and her costars returned for Five at Eleven. Lance and Leslie, the directors of the first two movies have just shown up, ready to put together Five at Sixteen.

 Only five years is a long time when you’re a teenager, and the six-year-olds that used to be friends once upon a time have grown up and gone in very different ways, some barely speaking to each other. They have new friends, new interests, and varying desire to put themselves in the spotlight yet again.

 Justine, the oddball, the funny one, who some called the breakout star, has turned out painfully average.

 Felix, talented yet always in the background, has embraced his dramatic side, and looks forward to being the center of attention.

 Keira, the confident, beautiful one, is hiding the pain of her family’s breakup.

 Nate, the quiet, down-to-Earth one, mostly keeps to himself.

 Rory, the weird one, has embraced her autism, and gotten over the way Justine abandoned their friendship.

 Despite initial reservations, the five agree to do this movie, but nothing goes according to plan.  As six and eleven-year-olds, they were easy to shepherd and inspire and push into interesting paths, perfect for a documentary designed to play off their differences and commonalities.  As teens, nothing comes easy, especially when it’s so hard to get them in the same room.  But as their paths cross more and more often, they find themselves having the awkward questions raised by five years of estrangement.  Can Lance and Leslie salvage a movie out of this rag-tag band of misfits?

 Well, things take a turn for the strange when Keira skips out on the film to find her mother, who left years ago.  Justine, Nate, Rory ad Felix follow her to New York City, and that’s when they get down to the business of being themselves, bridging gaps and healing old wounds.  At long last, they can talk to one another, and maybe even admit some of the hurts and secrets that have festered for so long.  And with a borrowed camera in hand to document their adventure, Justine may just find her own calling. 

 You Look Different In Real Life is a fascinating, wonderfully thoughtful, complex study of five different people who have grown up together, who know each other in intimate ways, and yet who don’t necessarily understand one another.  Jennifer Castle adeptly chronicles their stories through Justine’s point of view, providing a powerful look at the paths they’ve taken as they matured.  It’s also a nice look at how the spotlight affected them as kids and how they’ve dealt with it along the way.

Two character arcs really stood out for me.  The first, of course, was Justine’s.  As the “character” who stole the show in the first two films, she’s almost crushed under the weight of expectations this time around.  But she’s not sure she remembers how to be that kind of quirky, that sort of funny, that in-control.  She’s the one least likely to come back, and the one who does it for the sake of her friends.  But as she mends fences with Rory and gets closer to Nate, and reassures Felix when things seem bleak, as she discovers how good the camera feels in her hands, she visibly grows and matures.  She reminds me a lot of Mark, from Rent, the one who stands apart from the others with only his camera to keep him company, who ultimately finds his connection with his pseudo-family.

Rory is another character worth following. In her, Castle offers up a nuanced and sympathetic look at someone living with a form of autism.  What came off as quirky and cute as a kid turned into something more offputting and alienating as a teen.  However, Rory doesn’t let it define her, instead flourishing as she finds a passion in studying and recreating history.  When she challenges her own limitations and attempts to step outside her comfort zone, it’s both beautiful and painful.

This isn’t to say that Nate, Felix, and Keira don’t have their own stories, and their own roles to play.  On the contrary, they’re important pieces to the larger puzzle.  It’s just that Keira’s desire to reunite with her mother is easier to understand and less complicated than the other stories, while Nate’s story is quiet, less intrusive, more…well, understated.  And as for Felix, he goes through a lot of growth, forced to confront something he’s never really considered, and that takes its own courage.

The strength of these intertwined stories and the rich characterization drives this story, with Castle slowly revealing just what happened between eleven and sixteen to drive the five friends apart and send them on their separate orbits.  If you ask me, this book didn’t even need the mild romantic subplot that simmered through most of the story, only coming to a head at the very end.  It almost felt out of place, like something thrown in to appease those who expect every YA to include a romance of some sort.  If none of these characters had hooked up with anyone else, if they’d just continued to pursue their paths, that would have worked just as well.

Normally, I’m not a fan of sequels to stories like this.  You know when the story’s over and when it comes to move on.  I’m even less a fan of sequels that take place years later, because the characters are frozen in time and you don’t really want to think of them growing up and turning into adults with adult problems.  However, I’d happily pay to see a sequel that followed the Five at Twenty-One, just to see where these characters ended one last time. 

You Look Different In Real Life is a heck of a book, filled with awkward conversations and honest emotions.  Between the cast and some wonderfully-rendered supporting characters, it also offers up a fair amount of diversity, which is always welcome.  Frankly, this is the sort of book where I just can’t find anything worthwhile to complain about, and that makes me very happy indeed.


 

May 12th, 2013


01:01 am - The Rules For Disappearing, by Ashley Elston (Disney Hyperion, 2013)

Originally published at Schrodinger's Bookshelf. Please leave any comments there.

The girl currently known as Megan Jones has been through half a dozen identities in under a year, as have her parents and little sister.  Constantly uprooted, forced to live in obscurity, never daring to draw attention to themselves, they’re a family in hiding, a family on the run from killers and criminals.  They’re in Witness Protection, and Meg is sure she’ll never get her life back.

So sure, by this point, that she’s vowed to stop trying to make a new life.  Why bother with friends, relationships, putting down roots, when chances are good she’ll just leave it all behind again in a matter of weeks? She’s taken to carrying her “go bag” with her at all times, a duffel containing the essentials for staying sane from identity to identity, just in case the move comes as suddenly as it did previously.  All she wants is to know why her family is constantly being dragged from town to town, forced to adopt new names and backgrounds.  She knows her father must have done something, but he’s not talking. The constant change has taken its toll on her family as well: her mother’s drinking is out of control, and her little sister has withdrawn from the world.

When Meg and her family are reassigned to the small town of Natchitoches, Louisiana, she figures she’ll lay low and do her best to stay aloof from the locals, kill time until the next move.  She has her Rules. No clubs. No friends.  No teams. She’ll discover the truth no matter what. Instead, despite her best intentions, she finds reasons to get involved.  She picks up a part-time job at a local pizza parlor.  She makes enemies of the local mean girls. She develops a love/hate friendship with the handsome, infuriatingly charming Ethan.  And slowly, bit by bit, the mystery behind her family’s predicament reveals itself.

It wasn’t something her father did.  It was something Meg herself witnessed and blocked out of her conscious memory. It’s all her fault.  What’s worse, it seems as though the mere act of her digging for answers may have stirred up the wrong sort of interest, and put the bad guys on her trail once more.  With Ethan as her only true friend and confidant, and the mysterious Agent Thomas from Witness Protection to occasionally point her in the right direction, Meg uncovers the full truth.  The night when someone died.  The things she saw.  The things only she knows.  If she can get home to Phoenix, maybe she can fix everything before it’s too late. But with authorities and bad guys alike looking for her, it’s going to be one heck of an adventure.

Right from the start, I was drawn into Meg’s story.  The full truth of what’s happened, and just how much she’s already gone through, is revealed slowly throughout the course of the book; it’s not until late in the story when we grasp the full extent of the situation, when we actually learn her real name, and it makes for an interesting parallel to her slowly returning memory.  We see her and her family dropped into yet another unfamiliar situation and forced to memorize new names and backgrounds, and at first, it looks as though she’ll keep her head down and muddle through.  However, that quickly changes as she breaks several of her own self-imposed rules almost by accident.  Or rather, Ethan’s constant and intrusive presence in her new life convinces her to maybe, just maybe, take a chance, even though she knows it to be a bad idea.

It’s almost funny to watch her deal with the mean girls/cheerleaders, knowing that she’s already dealt with far worse, and that since she considers this to be a temporary assignment, she has little reason to play nice or care who likes or dislikes her.

Observant and well-informed readers will undoubtedly point at any number of things in this book and argue how the author got it wrong.  “That’s not precisely how Witness Protection works,” they’ll say.  “That’s not standard operating procedure for the U.S. Marshal Service,” they’ll claim. Well, I will note that this isn’t a case of the author not doing her research, but instead setting up some purposeful anomalies and incongruities which pay off along the way.  It helps that our point of view character, Meg, isn’t entirely familiar with standard procedure either, despite being part of the Witness Protection Program. Apparently, they don’t always bother to explain themselves to teenagers…

The Rules for Disappearing is an entertaining, well-layered story.  In Meg, Elston’s created a sympathetic and resourceful character who just wants to understand why her life is in a constant state of upheaval. She offers an accurate, if painful, vision of what such change might do to people unused to the rapid and unsettling change in circumstances, from the mother’s alcoholism to the sister’s own mental issues.  And when the story changes from something of a high school drama with elements of intrigue to a romantic-edged road trip, to a full-blown thriller, she makes the transitions fairly seamless.

Is it a perfect story?  No.  There are some fairly hard-to-swallow moments regarding Meg and Ethan’s quest for the truth and ultimate journey across country.  And one character definitely seems too good to be true, too competent and versatile, like a shadowy deus ex machina. (It’s honestly as though we’re reading the flip side of a spy novel, where some guy comes in, does his mysterious Bondian spy stuff and gets out, and we’re seeing everything from the viewpoint of the baffled bystanders.)  The very ending drops hints that we’re not done with this otherwise done-in-one story, and I’m not sure how I feel.  I do like Elston’s style and want to see more, but Meg’s story is brought to a satisfying stop point here. (Research indicates that this was a two book deal, so I guess we’ll get some answers in the sequel.) I guess time will tell.

As it stands, The Rules for Disappearing is a strong debut for Ashley Elston, and I look forward to her future offerings.


 

May 6th, 2013


12:53 am - Nantucket Blue, by Leila Howland (Disney Hyperion, 2013)

Originally published at Schrodinger's Bookshelf. Please leave any comments there.

Cricket Thompson is psyched when she gets invited to spend the summer on Nantucket Island with her best friend, Jules.  After all, ever since Cricket’s parents divorced and her mother sunk into a cloud of depression while her father found a girlfriend and adopted a kid, she’s pretty much adopted Jules’ family as her own.  It’s going to be a summer of parties, tanning, and maybe getting her crush, Jay Logan, to return the attraction. 

Everything changes when Jules’ mother, Nina, suddenly dies from an aneurysm. The grieving family goes to Nantucket, but Cricket is most definitely uninvited.  Looks like it’s a summer of hanging around home with her gloom-and-doom mother, babysitting for spending money, and no friends or Jay in sight.  Unless….

Cricket decides to go to Nantucket anyway, on her own.  Unfortunately, the job she originally lines up doesn’t pan out as intended.  Rather than head home with her tail between her legs, she finds a job as chambermaid for a small bed and breakfast, which offers her room and board.  It’s hard work, but it’s worth it.  But Jules doesn’t seem to want her around at all.  How did their friendship sour so quickly, when Cricket wasn’t even looking?  Fine.  Cricket finds other ways to distract herself…by accidentally falling for Jules’ brother, Zack, who, at sixteen, is two years younger and really, quite off-limits when you think about it from a friend-and-family point of view. 

But can hard work and a newfound, illicit relationship satisfy Cricket?  Will this be the best summer ever, or a crashing disaster?  Sooner or later, she’s going to find her breaking point.

I really enjoyed Nantucket Blue. It’s a beautifully-told tale of love and loss and trying to find one’s way in the world.  Cricket’s a great character—feisty, resourceful, and loyal to a fault.  Which is why Jules’ betrayal hits so hard.  Cricket’s done nothing but try to be there for her friend at one of the worst possible times of her life, only to experience a cruel, unworthy rejection…even though she’s hurting as well, having lost the woman she all but calls mother as well. 

I love that Cricket’s first thoughts are to help her friend, to be there for her, to support her even if it means taking a job she doesn’t like in a strange place.  I love that Cricket’s the sort of girl who stands up for herself and tackles rough jobs and doesn’t wilt under pressure.  I love that her name is Cricket.  She’s definitely not perfect; her emotional blowup when dealing with her family late in the book demonstrates that.  The fact that she’s hooking up with her best friend’s younger brother at a time when she’s supposed to be giving them space is likewise proof, as is the moment when she and her long-time crush Jay finally have a chance to act on those feelings.  Unwise decisions and rash moments, yes, but she’s understandably pushed to that point.

So why don’t I like this book more than I do?  I mean, it was a fun read, kind of breezy, packed with genuine emotions and a likeable heroine and an awkwardly real romance. There’s a terrific subplot where Cricket finds her mother’s diary and gains new and interesting insights into her mother’s own sordid teenage past, and uses it to try and spark new life and emotion.  There’s another fun subplot where Cricket makes friends with, and semi-interns for, a writer doing a piece on a local celebrity, which gives her a chance to see some interesting corners of the island and its inhabitants.

Maybe the book feels a little too breezy, a little too shallow and to-the-point.  While we can understand that Jules is hurting, her anger towards, and rejection of, Cricket just seems a little too sudden and sharp, even mean.  From the depth of the friendship they supposedly had, this development is hard to swallow, that Jules would shut her out so viciously and display a never-before-seen side.  But teenage girls are a strange and treacherous species, I’m told.

The ending feels somewhat abrupt.  While there’s the sensation that the book’s been moving towards a certain point all along, it arrives with a surprising quickness, and then it’s all over.  I daresay a little bit more cushion to soften the stop would have been nice.

But really, this is a lovely, well-written, highly-enjoyable story about finding love and healing, and finding that perfect, calming state of mind, the “Nantucket blue.”  This marks a strong debut for Leila Howland, and I look forward to seeing what else she can do, as I expect she’ll only get better.


 

April 28th, 2013


01:28 am - The Boyfriend App, by Katie Sise (Balzer + Bray, 2013)

Originally published at Schrodinger's Bookshelf. Please leave any comments there.

When Audrey McCarthy sees an opportunity to change her family’s fortunes and win a college scholarship for herself by developing the next great mobile app, she accidentally sets off a firestorm of confusion and not-so-wacky hijinks.

Her idea is simple: create an app which will find each user the perfect partner based on complicated algorithms and detailed profiles.  She enlists the aid of her fashion-obsessed cousin and her fellow tech geeks (collectively nicknamed the “troglodytes” by the popular clique) to put things into motion.  And for a while, things look promising.  A few early love matches, a celebrity tweet or two, and she’s on the fast track to winning the contest.

And then things go…wrong. Because love isn’t something you can guarantee just because a computer or smartphone or mobile app tells you so. Frustrated and desperate, Audrey takes advantage of a chance discovery to retool her app.  The Boyfriend App 2.0, now with guaranteed love.  That’s when it all blows up in her face.  Can she find a way to get out of this situation?

The Boyfriend App is a strange story, and one might well accuse it of multiple personalities.  It starts off as a fairly innocent romantic comedy, one of those slice-of-life teenage tales, where the plucky geek heroine uses her technological expertise to create the award-winning app which will win her the scholarship, the fame and fortune, and the boyfriend.  At last, she’ll show her ex-best friend and queen bee of the mean girls, her true worth.  Cue slow clap and maybe an speech at graduation.

Sise, however, puts some subtle clues into play along the way, and halfway through she yanks the rug out from under the readers with some strange and interesting twists.  The story goes from “romantic comedy for the technophile” to “evil corporation using technology just shy of science fiction to do nefarious things, and only our heroine is aware.”  It goes from awkward tale of redemption  to something reminiscent of Cory Doctorow’s YA work, with the clever hacker teens fighting the system.  Cue dirty secrets, blackmail, industrial espionage, revenge.

 Things I like about this story:  The cast is diverse and multi-dimensional.  One of Audrey’s friends is Indian, and pretty cool in his own geeky way.  (Kind of like a much more confident Raj from the Big Bang Theory, without the racial stereotyping.)  Another is Hispanic with a speech disorder, and she’s played straight, not for laughs or as an object of pity or derision (save by the mean girls, who hate everyone.)  When Audrey creates her app, she acknowledges that it can be for “girls wanting girlfriends, girls wanting boyfriends, boys wanting boyfriends, and boys wanting girlfriends.”  In short, everyone.  And later, we see the app bringing same-sex couples together.  It’s not even something to remark upon in the story, it’s accepted and they all move on. 

 I also like the oddly parallel nature of the setting to our own world.  Google and YouTube and Twitter all exist, but instead of Apple, we get the ubiquitous Public Corporation, with its social networking site (Public Party), music download platform (buyJams) media deice (buyPlayer) and smartphone (buyPhone). With the reach, versatility, and power of a vastly less ethical Apple, they pretty much rule the roost, with an especially strong presence in South Bend, Indiana, where the story is set (in the shadow of Notre Dame).  It grants the book an extra step of remove from our own world, which comes in handy when trying to swallow some of what goes down.

 I like that Sise doesn’t shy away from the nuts and bolts of the technological side of things.  Her protagonist and mainly of the secondary characters are computer experts, programmers, hackers, and geeks, and it shows.  The story as a whole treats them with a fair amount of respect and honesty, and it’s easy to root for the good guys.  This really is a book for the hackers and programmers and gadget lovers, the ones who’re comfortable with HTTP and backdoors and coding.  Sise either knows her stuff, or has at least done her research.  (A quick glance at her bio informs me that she’s a jewelry designer and television host, and a fashion consultant.  So she at least made a stab at making her techno babble sound realistic.)

 So far, I’ve said some very nice things about a book I rather enjoyed.  Now, however, I have to address the things I found problematic.  Beyond this point, there be spoilers, because one cannot speak of them otherwise.

 Audrey’s first app is designed so that everyone fills out a profile, and then the app uses GPS and other features to seek out all compatible profiles within five miles.  If a compatible profile is within a certain range, say one hundred yards, the app will play a sound and give the female user an arrow and GSP directions to their love match.  (No explanation on how it works if same sex couples are involved, or who gets designated the girl for the purposes at hand.) So theoretically, the power is in the hands of the girl to seek out their love match… the unsuspecting guy who may or may not want anything to do with the girl with whom he’s been matched. 

 I’m pretty sure there have been apps along those lines in the past.  Maybe not specifically dating apps, more like data aggregation programs for smartphones, but they all led to the exact same issue I have here, one that’s never addressed: the potential for stalking and abuse.  After all, these profiles rely on honest answers, and they allow you to surrender a lot of privacy without fully realizing the consequences. It’s almost a relief when this app goes down in flames.  For every genuine match, there had to have been dozens of misfires.  As Audrey herself realizes, you can’t necessarily trust technology where matters of the heart are concerned.  But the Stalker App is right out….

 The Boyfriend App 2.0 is downright terrifying.  Audrey develops it after learning that Public is using an inaudible sound frequency through their products to essentially control teenagers and get them to buy more stuff.  She reworks the technology to hijack the frequency and create an app that literally makes the target fall in love with the user.

 I’ll pause.  I’ll let that sink in. 

 Audrey creates an app that makes the target fall in love with the user.  And keys it to only work for female profiles. 

 And then she not only uses it, she releases it into the wild.

 Do I really need to explain why this is a spectacularly bad idea?  The only reason the idea isn’t both terrifying and repugnant is because it’s being fielded by a teenage girl in what’s supposed to be a semi-comic manner.  Because she wants to win a contest and save her family and get back at the big evil exploitive corporation which smeared her dead father’s reputation, it’s all hand waved as good fun.  I still think of this as the Rape App, and I started twitching the moment Audrey honestly thought it was a good idea.

 Now, perhaps I’m overdrinking things a little.  Who wouldn’t love an app that tells you when a potential love match is close by? Imagine how easy it would be to meet people if your phone could tell you when they’re in the vicinity?  (And how awkward it would be to find them in the restroom, or with their current girlfriend, or doing any one of a thousand private or embarrassing things…)  Who wouldn’t love an app that lets you control the emotions and desires of anyone you desire (provided they fulfill certain criteria as set out in the story).  Because teenagers can be trusted with that sort of power, right?  (I was a teenager.  The answer is Oh HELL No.)

 So there’s the problem.  Here we have a lively, entertaining, thoughtful comedy for the techies and geeks and trogs, and it’s wrapped around some profoundly disturbing issues that undermine a lot of the goodwill otherwise inspired by the colorful cast of characters and worthwhile plot.  I mean, I like Audrey and her friends.  I love how they interact with one another.  I like some of the couples that come together as a result of the story.  I wanted to root for Audrey and company to find happiness and success…and yet I was expecting the NSA to “vanish” her at the end of the book.

 Clearly, Sise has a lot of potential as a YA author.  There’s a measure of depth and complexity to what could have been a total fluff piece, and there was plenty to love here. I just hope that the themes and decisions made as part of the story spark some genuine discussion as well.

 


 

April 21st, 2013


12:47 am - How Zoe Made Her Dreams (Mostly) Come True, by Sarah Strohmeyer (Balzer+Bray, 2013)

Originally published at Schrodinger's Bookshelf. Please leave any comments there.

In this lively teen comedy, the Devil turns in her Prada for a crown and a magic mirror.

It was supposed to be the summer of awesomeness, the opportunity of a lifetime.  Zoe Kiefer and her cousin Jess have been selected as summer interns for Fairytale Kingdom, a New Jersey theme park.  As cast members, they’ll presumably get to play the role of princesses, flirt with their male opposite numbers, promote a certain Wow! spirit, and maybe have a shot at winning the Dream and Do grant, a prize consisting of $25,000 and a shot at moving up in the corporation.

Only, Jess is assigned to play Red Riding Hood #2, instead of the Cinderella she was born to portray. And Zoe isn’t even a cast member.  She’s been appointed lady-in-waiting to the Queen, the woman who runs the kingdom with a firm, fickle, unwavering, unforgiving hand. Now Zoe’s on call 24/7, required to follow every rule to the letter, forced to walk the Queen’s obnoxious dog, obligated to fulfill a thousand and one minor and exacting tasks.  She’s the Queen’s right hand minion, her mouthpiece, the harbinger of doom.  Instead of partying with the cast members, she’s on the fringes.

Things take a turn for the dramatic when Zoe ends up with the only evidence which can identify just which cast member took a midnight stroll into the so-called Forbidden Zone, a section of New Jersey swampland absolutely off-limits to unauthorized personnel. Now she has to find the prince in question…but is it to save him out of the goodness of her heart, or turn him in for a better chance at winning the Dream and Do?

As the summer progresses and the mysteries of Fairytale Kingdom deepen, Zoe’s life gets more and more complicated. Not only does she have a rule-breaking prince to track down, she has to watch out for disgruntled princesses, corporate espionage, the Queen’s mercurial moods, Jess’ own unhappy status as a second-rate character, and the overwhelming demands of a spoiled pop icon who’s come to visit for the day.  Oh, and she may be falling for Ian, a Puss In Boots who’s either a total scumbag or her own Prince Charming—she hasn’t decided yet.

There’s something undeniable cute and entertaining about this fast-paced romantic comedy. The Fairytale Kingdom, while clearly inspired by places like Disney, has a certain breath of life all its own, possessing that extra blend of kitschy and seedy which comes from being second or third place. It sounds like a fun, if slightly deranged, place to visit, with its eccentric cast of wannabes and opportunists.  It helps that the Queen rules over her kingdom with the tyrannical ruthlessness of a Miranda Priestly and the capricious whims of Alice’s Queen of Hearts…with all the charm and warm fuzziness that likewise implies.

Strohmeyer does a good job of infusing her point of view character, Zoe, with plenty of likeable qualities, and enough backbone and versatility to put up with her boss’s demands and the job’s ridiculous requirements.  Zoe’s a good person in what seems like a bad situation, determined to do what’s right, for her cousin and for herself…and she’s even willing to do what she can for those unlikely to notice or care, as when she tries to help out the cast members most likely to sab her in the back.

However, what could have been a fairly standard journal of personal growth becomes something even more amazing when we get to the end and Strohmeyer pulls back the wizard’s curtain to reveal the larger story that was taking place all along.  It’s a masterful reveal, one that adds an entire new dimension to the events of the summer, and that’s what bumps the book up a notch in my opinion.  All I can say is well-played.  Well-played indeed.

My only regret is that there doesn’t seem to be much room for diversity in Fairytale Kingdom.  One of the plot points is that there needs to be consistency between character portrayals, so no one gets confused by multiple Cinderellas, for instance, but it’s a shame nonetheless. 

So yeah, if you’ve ever wanted to read a mystery-laced romantic teen comedy set in a theme park that’s not The Mouse, I’ve got just the one for you.  


 

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