The Compulsive Reader: February 2016

Friday, February 26, 2016

Manners & Mutiny by Gail Carriger

Oh, the final Finishing School book at last! It's such a bittersweet feeling. I adore Sophronia, and I want to keep reading about her, but I was also so excited to see how Carriger would wrap up the series.

With a very tremendous bang, that's how.

Life at Madame Geraldine's has been ever so dull since Soap, the sootie sweet on Sophronia, became a werewolf and took up residency on land. But that doesn't mean Sophronia hasn't been ever-vigilant...she suspects the Picklemen of a very large-scale plot to take over the school for its incredible technology. Unfortunately for her, no one believes it. But when the social event of the year goes terribly awry, Sophronia is ready to put all of her hard-learned skills to the test.

Like all of Gail Carriger's books, Manners & Mutiny is stuffed with hilarity, daring plots, ingenious twists, and proper manners. This final book moves quite quickly as Carriger wraps up all of the burning questions the series raises and Sophronia cleverly acts to save the flying airship. There are twists and turns and dangerous encounters, unlikely alliances, and a fair number of explosions. But also romance! Since the romantic elements have been light in the past three books, it was easy to forget how well Carriger can write sweet and sexy scenes between two characters with excellent chemistry, and she puts those skills to work in this final installment!

Carriger also gives Sophronia's mission emotional depth as she must grapple with whom to trust amidst an ever shifting landscape of politics and personal loyalties, and put her faith in precisely the right people in order to save the British Empire. It's the sort of high-stakes, action-packed ending where (almost) all is finally revealed and of course Sophronia saves the day is spectacular fashion. Carriger also cleverly sets up readers for the next adventures in her world--the Parasol Protectorate--with a few (more) delightful cameos from the Alexia novels.

A friend recently asked for recommendations for "brain candy" books, and I immediately thought of the Finishing School series. There's nothing quite as sweet and fun, but just as likely to pack a very large punch, as a good Gail Carriger novel, and this book finished off the series perfectly.

Book received as a gift.

Thursday, February 25, 2016

Jack: The True Story of Jack and the Beanstalk by Liesl Shurtliff

Jack has always loved hearing the tales his papa tells him of giants who live in the sky, and his great-great grandfather Jack the Giant Killer, whom he is named for. Jack believes in the stories more than anyone, and when strange thefts occur, he's quick to point the finger at the giants. But no one believes him--not even when the giants come down and steal his paper in front of his very eyes. So it's up to Jack to plant and climb a magical beanstalk and go and rescue his papa himself.

Liesl Shurtliff's book is fun and full of adventure and danger. She draws upon two different stories, Jack and the Beanstalk and Jack the Giant Killer, to tell her own story. The two different inspiration texts also inspire get tension in her retelling. Are the giants inherently evil? Is Jack destined to be a giant killer like his ancestor, or a rescuer of his own kind? Jack grapples with these questions as his quest for his papa takes him all over the giant kingdom, where he discovers that other just like him (called elves by the giants) have been enslaved by the greedy giant king. In a fun twist, the giant king turns out to be the gold-loving king from Rump: The True Story of Rumpelstiltskin, and it's Jack who discovers a way to save the kingdom from ruin at the hands of the greedy king by his constant meddling and curiosity. This retelling is smart and fast-paced, with just the right balance of silly and sweet.

Book purchased at my indie.

Monday, February 22, 2016

The Smell of Other People's Houses by Bonnie-Sue Hitchcock

This book has a title that makes you stop and feel. As someone who has trouble titling things, I was intensely jealous when I first saw it. I knew I'd read the book before I even knew what it was about, but I'm happy to report that the story more than lives up to the amazing title. (Also, look at that BEAUTIFUL cover!)

The Smell of Other People's Houses is told from four different perspectives over the course of one year--1970--in Alaska. Ruth's storyline begins the novel, when her father dies in a tragic plane crash and her mother is unable to care for her and her little sister, sending them to live with their grandmother in Fairbanks. As a teen, Ruth seeks comfort from the sadness in her life wherever she can, unprepared for the consequences. Dora's own sad family history has sent her seeking shelter with her best friend's family, but she still doesn't feel safe, even when things go well for her. Alyce is terrified of change, and so she adheres to old routines and denies her own desires for a future outside of Alaska. Hank is prepared to do whatever it takes to keep his brothers safe, but when one of them goes missing, Hank must risk asking for help.

The mystery of other people's lives and the uncertainty of the future is the driving force behind this beautifully-written debut novel. Hitchcock digs deep into each character--their histories, their desires, and their emotions--to explore their individual stories of fear and hope. The power of this novel doesn't come from plot (which is pretty light), but from the characters and how their choices, both large and small, slowly bring them all together in the very end. They pay off isn't something grand and dramatic, but something more subtle, more realistic, and more poignant.

I also adored the Alaskan setting, partly because it's one that we don't often read about in YA, but mostly because Hitchcock does a brilliant job at making this particular time and place come to life on the page. The setting has just as much presence as any of the four POV characters, and I was completely entranced. By highlighting shared histories and memories, Hitchcock portrays a diverse community surviving and thriving on the edge of wilderness.

This is one book I feel as though I can confidently recommend to any reader, teen or adult. It has a timeless pull to it that transcends YA/adult categorization. It's one of my favorite reads of 2016 so far.

Review copy provided by publisher! Many thanks!

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

A Tyranny of Petticoats, ed. by Jessica Spotswood

If A Tyranny of Petticoats doesn't grab your attention by virtue of the title alone, then let me add that it is a new anthology of YA short stories that aims to highlight and celebrate girls in American history. And it's edited by Jessica Spotswood, whose Cahill Witch Chronicles trilogy I adored (Born Wicked review here). Contributors include Kekla Magoon, Beth Revis, Katherine Longshore, Y.S. Lee, Marie Lu, J. Anderson Coates, Lindsay Smith, Robin Talley, Leslye Walton, Caroline Richmond, Andrea Cremer, Marissa Meyer, Elizabeth Wein, and Saundra Mitchell!

This anthology cleverly arranges the short stories chronologically according to setting, so the stories span the early eighteenth century through the late twentieth century, from the British controlled seas near the shores of America to the far reaches of Alaska. The social, racial, cultural, and political diversity of these stories is refreshing and impressive.

Anthologies can be a tough sell because they vary widely in many ways, but that's what makes this anthology so appealing. I personally preferred the stories that stuck to realistic settings and premises, or whose magical elements corresponded with the specific culture or beliefs that the writer was exploring. But I was so impressed with how these authors imagined their characters alongside actual historical figures and specific events to give readers a new perspective on history.

My favorite stories were "El Destinos" by Leslye Walton, "Pearls" by Beth Revis, "The Legendary Garrett Girls" by Y.S. Lee, "Bonnie and Clyde" by Saundra Mitchell, and "The Pulse of the Panthers" by Kekla Magoon, but the fact is that I enjoyed this entire anthology so much. It's definitely worth purchasing and reading in chronological order, but I'm sure I'll return to so many of these stories (out of order) again and again.

A Tyranny of Petticoats will be out on March 8th! ARC provided by publisher.

Monday, February 15, 2016

The Scorpion Rules by Erin Bow

I haven't read a science fiction novel as fascinating as The Scorpion Rules in a very long time. This book has it all--a strong premise, a wonderful cast of characters, a compelling and unique antagonist, a really great romance, high stakes, and goats. Yes, goats are instrumental in taking down the bad guys in this book. You want to read it now, don't you?

The Scorpion Rules depicts a future where artificial intelligence has taken over the world--literally. His name is Talis and, sickened by the amount of killing over land grabs and water wars, he enforces a system where the children of world leaders are held hostage until they turn eighteen. If a world leader declares war, their kid dies--simple as that.

Greta and cohort of children of peace have grown up in the Precepture, a remote settlement where they work, take lessons, and watch world politics very closely. Surprisingly, Greta (a duchess and heir to a country formerly known as Canada) is happy there, even if she does live in fear that her country will go to war and her life will be forfeit. She's prepared to die with dignity. Then Elian shows up--defiant, strong-willed, and ready to challenge everything that Greta believes about her role as a child of peace.

First off, Erin Bow has done an incredible job with the world building. The strange world ruled by the snarky, scary, sharp-witted AI named Talis is downright eerie, and Bow brings the tense dynamic of world politics alive with excellent, tangible details. The characters are diverse and well-drawn, and also a bit emotionally scarred, something that Greta doesn't fully comprehend at the beginning of the novel because she's so firmly ensconced in her own sense of (tragic) purpose. Greta's awareness of her world and her place in it develops at a good pace, and her emotional arc is intensely believable.

From the summary of the book, you'd think that a romance between Greta and Elian might be inevitable, but I love that their relationship doesn't turn into anything more than eventual alliance and friendship. Instead, Elian's rebellion opens Greta's eyes to her cohorts' true feelings about being trapped in the Precepture, and she finds the possibility of romance with her roommate Da-Xia, which is such a refreshing deviation from the expected. The relationship between Greta and Da-Zia is realistically complicated, intense, and intimate. The emotions between them and the other members of their run deep and I believed in them.

The stakes in this story are incredibly high. "Make it personal" is Talis's method for keeping the world in line, and everything bad that happens to the characters feels intensely personal indeed, which forces the characters and readers to contemplate whether the ends justify the means in more than a few different scenarios. Violence, mental and physical torture, and emotional warfare make this book so hard to put down, and you can't help but admire Greta's strength throughout the story as she navigates the dramatic changes in the world she's always known and faces some pretty surprising twists. This book is smart, darkly humorous, and fast-paced, with a very hot romance and an OMG ending. I'm desperate for a sequel.

ARC provided by publisher.

Saturday, February 13, 2016

A Year in Review (Copies)

Hey everyone--I've thought long and hard about how to write this blog post without sounding like an entitled asshole. Many thanks to Kelly Jensen for assuring me I am not. I hope that's true, and that we can continue to have open discussion about review copies and how they can best be used in the online YA community.

In 2015 I did something that my organization-loving self had never before attempted: I recorded and kept track of every review copy that I received during the year. It was partly because I always say I receive more books than I can read, and I wanted hard numbers to back me up, and partly because I keep track of books I own, books I read, books I want, and books I have to read, so it just made sense that I'd take a stab at keeping track of the books I receive for review. (Also, Kelly gave me the idea. Thanks, Kelly, for a year's worth of excuses to procrastinate!)

First, I created a simple word document, and then I brainstormed every possible way I could organize this document. I wanted to keep it as simple as possible, but I also wanted to keep track of more than just the title, for purposes I'll get into later. I ended up dividing the document into two sections--solicited and unsolicited. This is the biggest divide when it comes to my book mail in general, and I should note a rather new development in the history of YA blogging--publishers have more recently started asking us what exactly we want to receive, which I personally think is awesome. At the beginning of 2015, I figured that 60% of the books I receive would be those that I request via response forms attached to catalogs, and the remaining 40% would be random books that get sent to me and show up like little surprises on my doorstep (which can also be good, because sometimes these surprises are books I never would have picked up otherwise, and I end up loving them).

Spoiler alert: Those percentages were actually reversed. That's right--40% solicited, 60& unsolicited.

I also color-coded the titles, to indicate finished copy vs. ARC or bound manuscript. I assumed most books came to me directly from their publisher, but I also annotated if they came to me via independent publicist, through my workplace, or if they were passed along "unofficially" by a friend or colleague. I had a little annotation to indicate if I received a book from the author, but I only used it once, when my close friend gave me an ARC of her new book--as most bloggers know, authors rarely have extra ARCs or review copies to pass along, so don't even bother asking. In parentheses after the title, I also recorded if the book arrived with any freebies/goodies/swag other than bookmarks or postcards.

So how did the numbers stack up?

In 2015, I received 138 different titles for review, and 139 books total (one title was accidentally duplicated).

Of those books, 86 were unsolicited and 52 were solicited or received in conjunction with a blog feature. Of those, 4 copies were unsolicited duplicates (finished copies following ARCs).

Of those books, 72 were ARCS, and 67 were new, finished copies. 

I received the majority of the books from the publishers directly, but 15 were received from independent publicists. I received 3 ARCs from friends/colleagues, 1 ARC via my workplace, and 1 bound manuscript from an agent for blurbing purposes.

Overall, 9 books arrived with swag or goodies. These goodies ranged from journals, luggage tags, tea, hot chocolate, travel mugs and cups, temporary tattoos, nail polish, magnetic poetry, cookies or candy, buttons, posters, calendars, and gift cards to coffee shops. Interestingly, the swag arrived with unsolicited books only--all part of a larger marketing plan, I'm sure. My favorite extra to receive this year was the magnetic poetry--it's on my fridge and it makes me smile every time I see it.

And here is the number that I think you will find most shocking: Of all of the books received this year, I only read 12 of them.

That's right, 12. I wish it were higher. I really, really do. And I only read 105 books in 2015, total. To be completely fair, something like 20 of those 138 books hit my mailbox in the month of December, and many are 2016 releases that I hope to/definitely plan on getting to. (And as of writing this, I have read 2 of them in 2016! Which is pretty good considering most of my January was eaten up by a Harry Potter re-read.) If it seems unfair that I received 138 books last year, but read less than 10% of them...well, I agree. Completely. I wish I could tell you that I plan on doing better in 2016, but "read more of the books I receive for review" isn't one of my New Year's resolutions, and I'm happy to share why that is.

When I started reviewing, I was (and still am) baffled and grateful to receive review copies. There were years when I had the energy (and the drive!) to read every single review copy I received, but it left room for absolutely nothing else. And while I still love getting in on the hype for new books and discovering upcoming releases, I've diversified my tastes. In the last three years, I discovered a love for middle grade, dark adult murder mysteries, and an appreciation for nonfiction. I currently have a modest TBR stack of adult books at all times. None of this is because I don't love YA, but because I've grown as a reader.

So what this all means is that something has got to give. (Cue Fleetwood Mac, "You Can Go Your Own Way.") And that means I've stopped trying to keep up with every single new YA release and write the sort of blog that always covers new, trending YA novels. If admitting this aloud means I get taken off some lists or don't get sent ARCs anymore, that's okay with me. Send the ARCs to people who will read them, and I am happy to buy, beg, or borrow (but never steal!) the books I really want to read when they come out. I am going to continue to do my best here on the blog, and I've even enjoyed some of the surprise ARCs this year! But sometime in the middle of 2015 I had a small panic attack when I fully realized how many books I don't end up getting to, and I had to remember that reading is something I do for me, not for the blog or anyone else. And that reminder has been really empowering--it led me to make time for a Harry Potter re-read, and inspired my to explore Emma Donoghue's backlist, both top notch reading decisions so far this year.

If you've managed to stick with the blog through the last two tumultuous years of erratic posts and weird ramblings about deadlines, then I'm sure this is cool by you. I could write a pretty speech about how blogging has changed in the past decade, but I'm not really nostalgic for the good 'ole days. I'm grateful for them, but insanely happy to be where I am now--which is catching up on a few of last year's releases, planning reviews of a few upcoming releases and backlist titles, and scheming about which backlist books I want to read (and re-read) to fill in the gaps! (Hint: I've decided that 2016 shall be the Year of the Re-read, and I've got two great series I loved in middle school on deck!)

Oh, and in case you're saying, "Okay, Tirzah, but what do you do with all those books you don't even read?!?!"--don't worry! The finished copies go to my under-funded local library, where they are loved by the community and where I can visit them frequently, and the ARCs get sent to my book industry colleagues and writer & teacher friends, where I know they'll be loved and talked about. I think this is the best solution for everyone.

And no, I'm not keeping track of my book mail in 2016. It was the most wonderful terrible I idea I ever had, and I'm never doing it again.

The War that Saved My Life by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley

Ada, unloved and deemed worthless by her mother because of her club foot, has never left her one-room flat in London. Her entire world consists of what she can see from her window, what her younger brother Jamie tells her of outside, and her mother's cruelty. But when the threat of German bombs sends the children of London to the countryside, Ada cleverly sneaks away with them, and discovers a big world that's full of all kinds of uncertainties, including love and heartbreak.

This novel reminded me a bit of Music of the Dolphins in the way that it is told from Ada's ignorant perspective. Her entire life has been constrained to one room, and when it suddenly opens up, Ada and the reader are both overwhelmed with details that most people would take for granted--the unevenness of a London street, or the shock of seeing one's own face in the mirror for the first time. The story is filtered through Ada's unique perspective, which presents its own challenges (such as Ada's inability to trust and her stubbornness when it comes to education), but also some beautiful moments of exploration as Ada learns to ride, and starts on a path towards emotional healing.

The emotional arc of this story is strong, and beautifully rendered. Ada and her brother Jamie both carry the effects of their mother's ill treatment, but they find love and refuge with Susan, a single woman who is still grieving from the loss of her best friend (and I presume partner) three years earlier. Despite Susan's many bumbles and Ada and Jamie's trauma, they create a life together amidst the uncertainty of wartime. The love they find may not be enough to stop the atrocities of war from reaching their lives, but it is enough to save their lives. This is a beautiful novel about hope and resilience through trauma, where the characters find fulfillment not in fixing their bodies or changing their stations, but in the relationships they create.

Book purchased from my indie! This is a Newbery Honor book, too--so well deserved.

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Harry Potter and the Cursed Child!

Brace yourselves.

We knew Harry Potter and the Cursed Child was opening as a play in London this summer, which is amazing and exciting and so very cool, but also...kind of sucky for those of us who cannot get themselves to London this summer. We hoped that the play would be recorded, broadcast in theaters, eventually made available for those of elsewhere, something, but it still kind of sucked. And even though I fully believe J.K. Rowling when she said this story had to be told on stage, I was just sad because books are uniquely portable magic, and we all want that Harry Potter magic.

And now this!

I'm delighted. I'm also ridiculously happy that I re-read all of the Harry Potter books last month. I've been thinking about another re-read, so maybe this release gives me another excuse? Now that I know I can get through them all in 23 days? July can just be Harry Potter month.

Now, off to work to figure out how soon I can pre-order my copy...

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Blog Tour: Where Futures End Character Boards

Perfect for fans of innovative storytelling, like Marcus Sedgwick's The Ghosts of Heavenand David Mitchell's The Bone Clocks, Where Futures End is a collection of five time-spanning, interconnected novellas that weave a subtly science-fictional web stretching out from the present into the future, presenting eerily plausible possibilities for social media, corporate sponsorship, and humanity, as our world collides with a mysterious alternate universe. 
Five teens, five futures. Dylan develops a sixth sense that allows him to glimpse another world. Brixney must escape a debtor colony by finding a way to increase the number of hits on her social media feed so she’ll attract corporate sponsorship. Epony goes “High Concept” and poses as an otherworldly being to recapture her boyfriend’s attention. Reef struggles to survive in a city turned virtual gameboard. And Quinn uncovers the alarming secret that links them all.

These are stories about a world that is destroying itself, and about the alternate world that might be its savior. Unless it’s just the opposite.

Welcome to the WHERE FUTURES END blog tour! For this stop, author Parker Peevyhouse has put together character image boards for each of her five protagonists, along with some other fun details...

Name: Dylan
Age: 16
Location: Seattle
Job: works in his mom’s pawnshop
Hobbies: reading fantasy novels (Narnia, Harry Potter) and watching science fiction movies (Blade Runner, Inception)
Special Skill: seeing things others can’t see, controlling what others see
Biggest Failure: getting kicked out of private school for cheating on a final exam
Biggest Secret: he’s falling for his brother’s girlfriend
Recently Found: a gold cuff that might be from another world (the Other Place)

Name: Brixney
Age: 17
Location: Washington State (10 years in the future)
Job: waits tables at Flavor Foam, a restaurant full of video cameras
Hobbies: trying to collect ad revenue from her online feed
Favorite food: banana flavor foam with crushed graham crackers
Worst Moment: getting dumped on-camera by her boyfriend
Best Friend: her brother, who’s trapped in a debtors’ colony
Recently found: a notebook full of stories about the Other Place, belonging to someone named Dylan

Name: Epony
Age: 17
Location: Iowa, Chicago, Los Angeles (30 years in the future)
Job: singer in a high-concept group
Hobbies: watching movies about the Other Place, dodging cameras
Special Skill: pretending to be from another world
Boyfriend: Cole, although it’s hard for Epony to tell whether that’s just part of their high-concept act
Biggest Secret: she once met someone who might have been from another world
Recently Found: a map with mysterious marks all over it

Name: Reef
Age: 18
Location: Seattle (60 years in the future)
Job: sells rare virtual items from a video game based on the Other Place
Hobbies: researching conspiracy theories about cyber war
Special Skill: cleaning up malware for a government bounty
Favorite Food: potato and tabasco soup
Best Friend: Olly, a fellow gamer
Recently Found: an ad for someone willing to help him get past the video game’s paywall—for a price

Name: Quinn
Age: ~16
Location: Southwest Canada (100+ years in the future)
Job: searches for passage to the Other Place
Hobbies: collecting bark and other ingredients for medicines
Special Skill: knows all the stories about the Other Place
Favorite Food: wild berries
Biggest Fear: failing her coming-of-age task

Recently Found: a scepter with dubious powers