Sunday, 22 January 2023

Short Story Spotlight 22nd January

Cool. Awkward. Black. edited by Karen Strong

I love the variety here - geeks of all sorts, and a wide range of genres. From contemporary, to sci-fi, to fantasy, we get to see a bunch of tremendous authors exploring the theme in a variety of ways. There's sweet romance from Elise Bryant, surely one of the most talented authors to debut over the last few years, the superb Leah Johnson and Julian Winters, who I need to read more of because I'm dazzled by everything I HAVE read of his. We have a couple of intriguing stories in which contemporary settings take a real twist, as K Arsenault Rivera's "Initiative Check" sees an RPG come to life, and Amanda Joy's "The Panel Shows The Girl" has a similar idea, but with the main character's sketches having a strange effect on her classmates. And there's sci-fi, most notably Ibi Zoboi's "Earth Is Ghetto" about an MC who's been contacted by aliens and is ready to leave with them once they appear.

There's lots here I'd like to see more of - in particular, Tracy Deonn's "Catalyst Rising" is stunning, but the ending seems to be begging for a follow-up, and while "Wolf Tracks" by Roseanne A. Brown worked perfectly as it was, the characters - a gay boy from a line of men who transform into wolves in the presence of the people they're in love with, his family, and his love interest, are so wonderful that I'd be intrigued by more.

Hugely recommended as a really awesome collection.

Personal favourites: 

"Our Joy, Our Power" by Julian Winters - waiting to go into a convention ball, a boy distracts himself from thinking of a loss in a cosplay contest - and the microaggressions in his feedback - by talking to another cute guy as they both wait for their chronically late best friends. This is a gorgeous read, with instant chemistry between the pair, and a perfect start to the anthology.

"Spirit-Filled" by Jordan Ifueko - A teenage girl, daughter of staunch Republican Christians, starts to question her family's viewpoints as she reads epic fantasies that she knows her parents wouldn't approve of, and finds support from an unlikely person. Lots of fun, Romily, the MC, is wonderful.

"Cole's Cruise Blues" by Isaac Fitzsimons - This was one of my most anticipated - I really loved Fitzsimmons's The Passing Playbook - and lived up to expectations. It's the story of Cole, a 14-year-old trans boy seeing his father for the first time in four years, going on a cruise with his 10-year-old stepsister and their parents. The two siblings connect, while Cole also meets a guy he likes. Really love the blossoming connection between Cole and Evan here, and the warmth of the family relationships. 

Friday, 20 January 2023

January MG Preview

 Not sure if it really counts as a 'preview' when we're two thirds of the way through the month, but I got busy, and it's taken longer than expected to write this...

As always, my main method of finding out about MG (and adult releases, for that matter) is Pop! Goes The Reader's superb Patreon, amazing value at $5 a month. If you want a much more comprehensive list of releases, rather than this - which is just some of the ones I'm particularly interested in - I would massively recommend subscribing, Jen is absolutely wonderful and does an incredible job with her monthly preview posts.

The one book I've read is published by HarperCollins, and I'm looking forward to sharing my thoughts on it - just as soon as the HarperCollins Union get a fair deal out of the publisher. For more on that situation, and how people can support the union, check out this Twitter thread and their links on Linktree.  

Trashed! by Martha Freeman (17th Jan, Simon & Schuster/Paula Wiseman Books), about Arthur, who goes from helping out in his family's junk store to trying to solve a crime, sounds fantastic - loving the mention of a motorcycle-riding grandma in this one! And Torrey Maldonado, who I've heard so many great things about, has a new book Hands (24th Jan, Nancy Paulsen Books) coming out, looking at a talented artist learning to box in order to protect his mom and sisters from their threatening stepdad.

Erin Bow's Simon Sort Of Says (31st Jan, Disney Hyperion) is about a 12-year-old boy who, two years after being the only survivor of a school shooting, moves with his family to the National Quiet Zone (where the internet is banned, and astronomers search for signs of life in space.) This sounds wonderful, and timely.

As mentioned previously on this blog, I'm trying to read more short stories, and collection My Selma by Willie Mae Brown (3rd Jan, Farrar, Straus and Giroux) - looking at her own coming of age against the backdrop of her hometown, with the civil rights movement unfolding there, sounds superb. For other books about the civil rights era, Rosa Parks and Claudette Colvin: Civil Rights Heroes by Tracey Baptiste and Shauna J Grant (3rd Jan, First Second), in the History Comics series, and We Are Your Children Too: Black Students, White Supremacists, and The Battle For America's Schools In Prince Edward County, Virginia by P O'Connell Pearson (10th Jan, Simon & Schuster), a non-fiction book about an all-White school board closing down all public schools in a county in south central Virginia rather than integrate, both sound excellent. So does A Mighty Long Way: My Journey To Justice At Little Rock Central High School (17th Jan, Delacorte Press) by Carlotta Walls LaNier, the youngest of the Little Rock Nine.

Described as a 'feel-good light romance about two 13-year-old cousins and their first solo attempts at creating enchanted love potions', Suitehearts #1: Harmony and Heartbreak by Claire Kann (3rd Jan, HarperCollins, see note above) sounds like a fun plot, but it's the author name which has me really interested in this one - Claire Kann's YA books The Marvelous and If It Makes You Happy were both superb, and I'm really intrigued to see her turning her considerable talents to MG.

And, finally, a fantasy book described as The Addams Family meets The Westing Game! The Carrefour Curse by Dianne K Salerni (31st Jan, Holiday House), which is about a 12-year-old girl whose mother is estranged from her 'cursed' family, and the dreadful secret she finds when she's summoned to their home, sounds utterly wonderful. 

What are you interested in, out of January's releases? Leave me a comment!    

Sunday, 15 January 2023

Short Story Spotlight 15th January


Fresh Ink edited by Lamar Giles 

A diverse collection - in the wonderfully wide representation, in the styles of the stories, with Walter Dean Myers's play script and Gene Luen Yang's graphic story, illustrated by Thien Pham, as well as the prose stories, and in the genres represented, with historical fiction, sci-fi, and contemporary all making an appearance here. This has a tremendous amount of superb authors, including a few absolute favourites of mine in Sara Farizan, Aminah Mae Safi and Jason Reynolds.

Personal favourites:

"Why I Learned To Cook" by Sara Farizan - Utterly gorgeous story about a young Iranian girl getting cooking lessons from the grandmother she adores, as she tries to build up the courage to introduce her to her girlfriend. Both the chemistry between the two girls here, and the sweet relationship the MC has with her grandmother, are beautifully done and it's an ultra-sweet read, one of my favourites for ages.

"Super Human" by Nicola Yoon - When the world's only superhero announces he would see humanity destroyed unless someone can convince him otherwise, Syrita - the first girl he ever saved - is given the task of pleading for mercy. There's something far more fascinating about heroes gone bad than about straight-up villains, for me, especially when their motivations for doing so are believable. In this story, Nicola Yoon gives us a thought-provoking meeting between the two characters which shows exactly why X, the hero, has lost his faith in people. The dialogue between the pair here is very strong, and it's an emotional read tackling topics of racism and police brutality.

"Catch, Pull, Drive" by Schuyler Bailar - The story of a transgender swimmer awaiting a mastectomy, swimming for the last time prior to the surgery, and looking forward to the future, but dealing with transphobia from a teammate. Bailar was the only author here I wasn't familiar with prior to reading the book; he's a transgender swimmer himself - the first openly trans competitive swimmer in the US, in fact. His story holds its own here with a bunch of renowned authors - quite an achievement for someone's first published work. Tommy is a wonderful main character and, despite the prejudice he was dealing with from one person in particular, I loved the support he got from his mom and from a fellow teammate. 


Up All Night edited by Laura Silverman

I love the variety here, going between a number of sweet love stories, attempts to rekindle friendships, or start new ones, a shocking discovery in a game of dares, and a chilling tale of a night in an abandoned asylum. This is one of the ones where I've found it incredibly hard to pin down my favourite three - in addition to the ones mentioned below, editor Laura Silverman's own "Creature Capture", a blossoming friendship story based around a Pokemon Go-type game, Amanda Joy's gorgeous romance "Kiss The Boy", and Nina LaCour's stepsibling bonding "A Place To Start" are all delightful, while Maurene Goo's "Like Before", in which a girl tries to heal a rift between her closest friends, came very close to making me cry at times.

Personal favourites:

"Old Rifts and Snowdrifts" by Kayla Whaley - very sweet 'ex-friends to lovers' story, as main character gets trapped in the florists' shop she works at along with her best friend's twin brother, who she used to be close to but hasn't spoken to for a year. Super romantic and lovely.

"When You Bring A Dog To Prom" by Anna Meriano - gorgeously sweet prom story, in which Noemi goes to prom with her best friend and her date, along with her best friend's brother (who she's seriously crushing on), his date, and their emotional support dog. Despite a momentary panic when the dog gets loose and runs away, this is a delightful read about an awesome friendship group and the dog, Suka, is super-cute.

"The Ghost of Goon Creek" by Francesca Zappia - another real charmer, as main character Sydney, who collects local ghost stories, is persuaded to let Grace, a reporter for the school newspaper, come with her as she follows her yearly tradition of looking for the Ghost of Goon Creek. Other people coming along definitely wasn't part of the plan - but as Sydney talks to them during the night, she starts to realize she may have been wrong about people in her class, and begins to form lasting friendships.

Sunday, 8 January 2023

Short Story Spotlight 8th January

Summer Love: An LGBTQ Collection, published by Duet Books

This book shows various aspects of love in a feel-good collection of nine stories. I just reread this for perhaps the third or fourth time and it never fails to make me happy. There's a delicious mix of characters, settings and stories here, ranging from 1930s England on the eve of war, to contemporary tales, via a carnival in the 1950s. In addition to the romances here, we also have a beautiful platonic love story - "My Best Friend" by HJ Coulter. All of the stories are happy ones overall, although a few are a little bittersweet, and it's great to see a lot of supportive parents here (I especially loved Ruth's mother in The Fire Eater's Daughter by Amy Stilgenbauer, and the parents of trans boy Carter in The Most Handsome.) Overall, really high recommendation as a superb collection for all fans of queer fiction.

Personal favourites:

"What The Heart Wants" by Naomi Tajedler

Noam and her best friend Charlie take a figure drawing class, both finding love. This is the story I've described on various occasions as my absolute favourite YA short of all time, and rereading it has done nothing to change my mind there. As well as an absolute delightful girl/girl romance between inexperienced Noam and the slightly older Amber, there's a super sweet side story as sexually confident Charlie falls for 'hyper-romantic, asexual' fellow artist Peter. I also adore how supportive Noam's mom is as she comes out to her here. 40 pages or so of pure joy and superbly-written characters.

"The Willow Weeps For Us" by Suzey Ingold

In the summer of 1939, as England waits for a seemingly inevitable war to break out, a greengrocer's son who expects to be called up soon falls for another young man in the same position. This is beautifully written, a rather slow and languid story in many ways - if it wasn't for the shadow of the war, and conscription, hanging over the lead duo, it would be an incredibly sweet story. The contrast of the looming war, though, is an element which puts everything into perspective, and really adds to it, as it builds to a touching and hopeful ending. 

"Beautiful Monsters" by Rachel Davidson Leigh 

A shy teen who volunteers for a political campaign is assigned to go and represent them at a Gay Pride Parade, where he meets the leader of the Gay Straight Alliance, and they open up to each other. There's amazingly great chemistry between the leads here and the contrast between them - Cody so timid, and Andre so forceful - and the way in which they care for other people, is gorgeously sweet. 



High Spirits by Camille Gomera-Tavarez, published by Levine Querido

I really enjoyed High Spirits by Camille Gomera-Tavarez, a debut author. In this collection of interconnected short stories, she looks at members of a family from the Dominican Republic, following their lives both in their home country and in the US.

The family tree at the start was great - it's really interesting to see how the characters in each story are connected - and I loved seeing characters I'd enjoyed reading about in one story pop up again in another, as well as the repeating themes of gender roles, legacy, and even a little magical realism. Each of the eleven stories here is short - the entire collection is under 125 pages - but they're all both thought-provoking and satisfying. Definite recommendation, and I'll be eagerly awaiting more from this lyrical author.

Favourite stories:

"Bárbaro" - Yoanson's rarely seen older brother visits him, taking him to the barber for the first time. I loved this one, with the argumentative way in which the men in the barber's shop talk about politics giving way to real empathy from Tony, the barber, as he realizes that Yoanson and his brother have different views on a suitable hairstyle, and backs up the younger boy.

"Skipping Stones" - New Yorker Ana returns to the Dominican Republic for a fuenral, and sees her friend Zahaira - but her feelings for the other girl aren't just that of friendship. This is gorgeously romantic, really impressive considering it's only about nine pages in total - it brings the two girls to life wonderfully despite its brief length.

"Domino" - Two girls desperate for money for travel to a free concert sign up for a dominoes tournament to try and win what they need. Loved how tense the final game was here!

Tuesday, 3 January 2023

January YA Preview

I thought I'd look ahead to January with some of the new releases I'm most excited for. This is a relatively small list compared to all the amazing books coming out, but I just wanted to mention a few that I'm anticipating particularly highly.

For a much more comprehensive list of what's coming, check out Pop Goes The Reader's Hot Off The Press, by the way! 

Also, just a heads-up, there are a couple of books published by HarperCollins on this list. As you may be aware, HarperCollins staff are currently on strike - the union are asking that people don't boycott buying books, but that reviewers and blurbers hold reviews etc until they have a fair contract. I'm fully supportive of the union and will be holding reviews and recommendations until a contract is settled on. For more details about the strike, and how people can support the union, check out this Twitter thread and their links on Linktree

First that I want to talk about, despite it coming out at the end of the month, is Tess Sharpe's Six Times We Almost Kissed (And One Time We Did.) (Out 24th Jan, Little, Brown Books for Young Readers) This is the only 2023 release I've been lucky enough to read already (thanks Netgalley, and Little, Brown!) And WOW I feel lucky to have read this one - it broke me out of a reading slump lasting months, captivating me from the first page. I absolutely loved Far From You and The Girls I've Been, but this might be my favourite yet from Tess Sharpe. It's about Penny and Tate - living together for a while as their moms recover from an operation which sees Penny's mother become a living liver donor to Tate's mom. Having spent the entire of their teenage years bickering, and nearly but not quite kissing, the two have to call a truce for the sake of their mothers. This is a gorgeous "frenemies to lovers" romance, with two absolutely wonderful leads, and it's structured beautifully, with flashbacks to the almost kisses adding rich character development to the present day story. Massively recommended, as is everything Tess Sharpe writes.

I'm in the mood for reading romance at the moment - something about the New Year seems to have that effect on me. I'm very excited for Take A Bow, Noah Mitchell, by Tobias Madden (out today, 3rd Jan, Page Street Kids). I'm a huge fan of musicals and this story about a gay gamer going far out of his comfort zone to join a community theatre show, believing that the online friend he's falling for will be taking part, sounds delightful. Also, it's published by Page Street Kids, who brought us Adiba Jaigirdar's The Henna Wars and Hani and Ishu's Guide to Fake Dating, along with Amparo Ortiz's Blazewrath Games - all favorites of mine - amongst other excellent YA books recently; they're an incredibly reliable publisher and I always look forward to their new releases.

Also for romance, the YA debut from acclaimed adult author Talia Hibbert - whose Brown sisters trilogy have been on my TBR for ages, and who's a real favorite of numerous of my friends - sounds wonderful. Highly Suspicious and Unfairly Cute (3rd Jan, Joy Revolution) is about childhood friends turned academic rivals - Celine, a conspiracy-theory obsessed content creator, and Brad, a star football player with OCD who Celine believes abandoned her for the popular crowd - who find themselves working together on a survival course to try and win a grand prize. Rivals-turned-lovers and childhood friends-turned-lovers are a couple of my favourite tropes, with Holly Green's In The Same Boat and Pintip Dunn's Dating Makes Perfect being two stellar examples of the latter in recent YA; I'm fully expecting this to be another superb one.

Priyanka Taslim's The Love Match (3rd Jan, Salaam Reads/Simon & Schuster) is another which sounds really fun. When Zahra Khan's mother sets her up with a wealthy boy, she's not interested - she's already found a connection with a new dishwasher at the tea shop she works at. But with Harun equally uninterested in being with her, the pair work together to sabotage their parents' plans. Billed as To All The Boys I've Loved Before meets Pride and Prejudice, this sounds awesome.

French Kissing In New York (3rd Jan, Delacorte Press) by Anne-Sophie Jouhanneau is about Margot - going to Manhattan a year after she met an American boy, Zack in Paris for a wonderful night. She' has plans to work in a restaurant, celebrate her father's wedding, and find Zack, and enlists the help of a sweet line cook, Ben, to do so. I've just finished a reread of Jean Estoril's classic ballet novels, the Drina series, in which the main character meets her love interest on the ship to New York, and they fall in love there before later meeting in Paris, and the chance to read more romance set in those two cities has me thrilled.

And from new-to-me authors to one I'm already a huge fan of, Camryn Garrett follows up Full Disclosure and Off The Record with her third novel, Friday I'm In Love (10th Jan, Knopf Books For Young Readers). Full Disclosure was an outstanding debut novel and Off The Record a superb sophomore book; both were hard-hitting and brilliantly written. This book, which follows Mahalia, who's trying to throw herself a coming out party, while getting new girl Siobhan to like her back, sounds like it'll be a lighter read, but an equally awesome one. It's billed as a "love letter to romantic comedies, sweet sixteen blowouts, Black joy, and queer pride", which is an awesome mix!

And sticking with authors I love, Emma Lord - whose You Have A Match and When You Get The Chance were utterly adorable - has a new release, Begin Again (24th Jan, Wednesday Books). A girl who wants to become an iconic self-help figure transfers from community college to hyper competitive Blue Ridge State, but is immediately beset by problems. She finds the power of her voice, though, becoming Squire on a legendary pirate radio station founded by her late mom at the school many years ago. Ever since watching Pump Up The Volume back in the 90s, I've loved books and films with radio stations, especially pirate radio stations, and this plot being taken on by an awesome author like Lord is utterly catnip to me.

Speaking of Emma Lord, debut novel Seven Percent of Ro Devereux (17th Jan, HarperTeen, see above note) by Ellen O'Clover is being described as a book which fans of Emma and Rachel Lynn Solomon (another fabulous author) will love, which has me extremely interested. It's about a girl who builds an app for a senior project which can predict someone's future with 93% accuracy, even matching users with their soulmates. When she gets the attention of tech investors, her dream of working in Silicon Valley seems within reach - until her childhood best friend, who she had a huge fight with three years ago, is picked out by the app as her soulmate, and she's forced into a fake dating scenario with him. The comparison authors are enough to get me into this one, but it's a really interesting idea for a plot as well.

Brighter By The Moon (10th Jan, Bloomsbury YA) by David Valdes is high on my TBR; last year's Spin Me Right Round put a really enjoyable spin on time travel and I've been eagerly anticipating more from him since reading it. This book, about Jonas and Shani, who fall for each other online, and Ash, Shani's best friend - who gets talked into finding out the truth about Jonas, only to also fall for him - sounds really thought-provoking and sweet.

I'm aiming to read more short stories this year, and anthology Cool. Awkward. Black. (10th Jan, Viking Books for Young Readers) edited by Karen Strong sounds amazing! A multi-genre anthology celebrating Black geeks, there's a stunning line-up of authors including several favourites of mine (Elise Bryant, whose gorgeous romances always make me smile, Tracy Deonn, whose Legendborn is one of the best King Arthur-inspired retellings I've ever read, and Ibi Zoboi, who is phenomenal at everything she writes.) 

Speaking of Elise Bryant, her new novel sounds absolutely amazing! Reggie and Delilah's Year of Falling (Balzer + Bray) is about a self-declared Blerd and a nervous punk singer who fall for the personas each other put on in public, after meeting on New Year's Eve, Valentine's Day, and St Patrick's Day. Elise Bryant writes utterly charming characters with superb chemistry and I'm so excited for another book from her.

This Is Not A Personal Statement (17th Jan, Quill Tree Books - HarperCollins imprint, see note above) by Tracy Badua is a YA contemporary with a premise which sounds fantastic. Graduating from Monte Verde High at the age of 16, "Perfect Perlie Perez" has stressed throughout her high school career at the thought of getting into Delmont University. When she doesn't get in, panicking at the thought of disappointing her parents, she forges an acceptance letter and heads there anyway. She plans to gather on-the-ground intel to reapply in spring, but is it really a plan she can pull off? Can't wait for this one!

The always-wonderful Julian Winters has a new release which sounds brilliant, as well. In As You Walk On By (17th Jan, Viking Books for Young Readers), Theo Wright screws up a promposal at a party, then seeks refuge in an empty bedroom. Various people join him, all trying to avoid the image people have of them. Described as The Breakfast Club meets Can't Hardly Wait - both of which I'm a big fan of - I'm super-excited for this.

Another new one from an established author - I've somehow only read one by Kekla Magoon, but Light It Up was a stunning book which packed a huge emotional punch. The Minus-One Club (24th Jan, Henry Holt and Co.), her new book, is about Kermit, who loses his sister in a tragic accident, and the group of schoolmates who are also grieving people they love. I can tell from the little I've read about it, and my experience with Light It Up, that this is going to be a hard read but no doubt a rewarding one. 

And a massively-anticipated sophomore book from M-E Girard, whose Girl Mans Up was a stunning debut. In Then Everything Happens At Once (31st Jan, HarperTeen, see above note) Baylee - fat and confident, and falling for Alex while crushing on best friend Freddie, has her life turned upside down when a virus stops the world in its tracks. I'm not sure how many books I want to read about the early days of the pandemic - despite really loving Unlucky in Lockdown by Julianne Benford, and enjoying anthology Together, Apart - but Girard is someone I trust to handle it well, and I'm intrigued to read this one.

One of the trends I'd love to see more of in YA is main characters changing their mind about college, and looking at other options - whether that's when they're still in the process of applying, or after starting their first year there. It's been tackled superbly in Dahlia Adler's Just Visiting, Alice Oseman's Radio Silence, and Sara Barnard's Something Certain, Maybe, amongst other books over the last decade, and I'm always looking for more. Amy Zhang's The Cartographers (31st Jan, Greenwillow Books) sounds like another brilliant read. In it, Ocean moves to NYC after being accepted to a prestigious university but, feeling emotionally raw after struggling with depression as a senior, she defers for a while, moving into an apartment and getting a job tutoring. She finds friends, and a boy, but everything goes downhill at Thanksgiving. This is supposed to be a great fit for fans of Daniel Nayeri's Everything Sad Is Untrue, one of the most stunning books I've read in the last few years.

I'm trying to read more consistently this year than I read in 2023, and I often find fast-paced thrillers the easiest books to really lose myself in. They're Watching You, by Chelsea Ichaso (3rd Jan, Sourcebooks Fire), sounds like just the kind of book that will have me totally hooked. Two weeks after Maren's best friend goes missing, Maren finds an invitation to the mysterious Gamesmaster's Society in Polly's things, and sets out to join - and she's offered the chance to compete in high stakes games for clues about Polly's whereabouts. Schools, mysterious societies, and life and death stakes are totally my jam - Alexa Donne's The Ivies, Kit Frick's Very Bad People, Jordyn Taylor's Don't Breathe A Word and Jesse Q Sutanto's The New Girl are all ones I've really enjoyed recently - and this sounds like an excellent addition to the genre.

Another trope I love in school-set thrillers is something bad happening at a major event. (On that note, Tiffany Jackson's Carrie-inspired The Weight Of Blood was an incredible read!) Rather than the prom setting of TWOB and Carrie, The Black Queen (31st Jan, Delacorte Press) by Jumata Emill sees the death of Lovett High's first Black homecoming queen, Nova, on the night of the ceremony. Nova's best friend Duchess, daughter of the town's first Black police captain, is convinced rich, beautiful, and white Tinsley McArthur killed the girl who beat her to the crown. Can Duchess do what she doesn't think her father will, and prove Tinsley's guilt? Described as "addicting and razor-sharp" by Kara Thomas, one of my favourite authors of this genre, I'm definitely looking forward to reading it.

And moving to speculative fiction, there's a new release from one of my absolute favourite authors! Frances Hardinge gives us Unraveller  (10th Jan, Amulet Books) a dark YA fantasy, about Kellen, a boy with the ability to unravel life-destroying curses, who needs to team with his constant companion Nettle to remove his own curse. There's not a ton of details about this, but I knew from a few chapters into The Lie Tree, the first book by Frances Hardinge that I read, that I'd be desperate to read anything else she released. Her gorgeously lyrical writing and brilliantly developed characters make her a must-read. 

From an author I've loved reading for years to one I've just discovered, Ann Dávila Cardinal's "Dismembered", as I mentioned in my review of anthology Our Shadows Have Claws, edited by Yamile Saied Méndez and Amparo Ortiz, was a stellar read which made me really interested in more from her. Breakup From Hell (3rd Jan, HarperTeen, see above note) sounds awesome. It's about Mica, who meets a mysterious hot boy who's new to her small town, and falls for him, only for strange things to start happening. She goes on to find out that his family's roots are seriously worrying, and her relationship is more like a horror novel than a typical love story. Can she break up with him without bringing an end to so many other things too? 

And for an intriguing-sounding mix of memoir and speculative fiction, I'm really interested in The Girl I Am, Was, and Never Will Be (10th Jan, Dutton Books) by Shannon Gibney. It's described as "a tale of two girls on two different timelines occasionally bridged by a mysterious portal and their shared search for a complete picture of their origins." I'm trying to describe what I know of this one, and I'm absolutely failing to do it justice, but it's definitely one of the most fascinating-sounding books of the month.

So, what's coming that you're interested in? I'd love to hear; leave me a comment! 

Sunday, 1 January 2023

Short Story Spotlight 1st January

Well, here we go again. After 2 years without touching this blog, I wanted to get it going once more. Not sure how frequent posts are going to be. But hey, here's hoping.

To start off with, I wanted to focus on some short stories I love. The last decade or so have been incredible for fans of YA and MG who like reading shorts; there've been so many outstanding collections published. Today, I'm taking a look at three of them, and sharing a few picks from each, as well as a novella I just reread for the second time.

One quick note - I'm limiting myself to three stories for 'personal favourites' for each book. They're not necessarily the three I think are the absolute best, simply because in many cases it would be nearly impossible to make a choice here. But in each case, they're three that really spoke to me, even above the rest.



Our Shadows Have Claws, edited by Yamile Saied Méndez and Amparo Ortiz. 

(Content warnings for body horror, death - including pet death - murder, racism and homophobia.)

I have to admit to being too easily scared to read stories about horrifying creatures too often, but the idea of an anthology focusing on "Latine mythology's most memorable monsters" was too intriguing to resist. (And even if I'd been on the fence, the fact that it was co-edited by the authors of Furia and Blazewrath Games, two recent favourites of mine, would definitely have been the deciding factor!)

From Chantel Acevado's opener, "The Nightingale and the Lark", which is a superb Romeo and Juliet story about a girl from a family of monster hunters, and a boy whose own family shelter the creatures they hunt, hoping to redeem them, certain themes recur. Among many of these tales, we see monsters who seem very much human - and sometimes humans who seem themselves to be monstrous, teenagers growing up entwined in family legacies, and the accompanying troubles they bring, racism, and gender issues, especially gender-based violence. With Ricardo Lopez Ortiz providing a black and white illustration for each story, it's not only a wonderfully well-written book, it's also a really stunning one. And despite all of the stories having the theme of monsters, there's a real variety in the moods here, from the creepily unsettling atmosphere of “¿Dónde Está El Duende?”, to the sparkling action-filled climax of "The Boy From Hell", via the anti-corporate activism of "Leave No Tracks".

Personal favourites:

"La Patasola" by Racquel Marie - Racquel Marie's Ophelia After All is one of my favourite contemporaries of recent times, and this story of a girl on a senior camping trip, whose boyfriend has distanced himself from her after she came out as queer, confirms her as a major talent. I love her narrator here, who tells the story she's learned from her father - about a woman who takes revenge on her husband after he and other men of the village accuse of cheating and leave her to die - in a way which gives a very different emphasis to it from when her father told it, leading to yet another conflict with the boy who claims to love her. Also, it has one of my favourite climaxes of all of the stories.

"The Boy from Hell" by Amparo Ortiz - The accomplished Amparo Ortiz gives us a superb vampire story with a memorable heroine, trained to kill vampires and hired by a boy to deal with the mysterious creature who left a white rose for his little sister, sixty years after a similar white rose being refused led to a family's slaughter. As Blazewrath Games fans will know, Ortiz is a stellar writer and her style works just as well in a short story as in a novel. The main character's voice here is outstanding, and from the first full page, in which she describes attacking numerous people "on the lookout for white hideousness" after being told that vampires always wear something white, and usually ugly, I was totally hooked.

"Dismembered" by Ann Dávila Cardinal - After her abuela dies in a car accident, an 18-year-old girl is left devastated, but the return of a friend she lost touch with long ago brightens things a little. Then, a mysterious knocking starts... Despite the grisly way in which the main character's abuela dies, as suggested by the title, this is a warm-hearted story and I loved the rekindling of the friendship between the two teens. I'll be eagerly seeking out more from Cardinal, who's a new to me author - starting with Breakup From Hell, which comes out in just a couple of days.


Ancestor Approved, edited by Cynthia Leitich-Smith

I love interconnected anthologies - one of my most anticipated of the year to come is Lauren Gibaldi and Eric Smith's First-Year Orientation, having adored their Battle of the Bands. It's really cool to see characters recur between stories, and different authors' takes on the same events. One of my favourites of this type of collection is MG anthology Ancestor Approved, edited by Cynthia Leitich-Smith, centered around a powwow, in which a variety of Native authors write about the event itself, and preparations for it. Opened and closed by two beautiful poems, by Kim Rogers and Carole Lindstrom, the stories start with Monique Gray Smith's "Fancy Dancer", which is a gorgeous opener - a warm and comforting narrative which encapsulates the book's main themes of celebration, heritage, resilience, and community perfectly. So many of these stories are superb, looking at the different ways in which people relate to the powwow, from first-timers, to established participants, from a wide variety of Native tribes. A really delightful read. 

Personal favourites:

"Rez Dog Rules" by Rebecca Roanhorse - Ozzie loves being a Rez dog, with no master and no leash. Just because he's free - 'majestic and untamed' - doesn't mean he can't have a soft spot for certain people, though, and when he realizes that Mrs Cruz, the best human he knows, may lose her house, he teams up with her grandson and his friend to sell T-shirts to raise money for repairs. Ozzie is a gorgeously-written character, utterly adorable, and it's so sweet to see the way that - despite minor setbacks such as being a dog who can't actually talk - he's able to help Marino and Eli with their sales. I've read this about six times since I first read the collection, and it's one of my all-time favourite shorts, always leaving me with a massive smile on my face when I finish it.

"Indian Price" by Eric Gansworth - A middle-schooler who lives on a Rez heads to the powwow with his family, staying with his uncle and 17-year-old cousin. He finds out that his cousin is a member of the Order of the Arrow, who many Natives have criticised for cultural appropriation of American Indian practices, but who his cousin feels are the only friends he can rely on. This feels a little jarring compared to most of the other stories, but in a good way - it's a thought-provoking look at microaggressions, trying to fit in, and friendship. 

"What We Know About Glaciers" by Christine Day - The younger sister of a girl who was homecoming queen, cheerleading captain, president of the Indigenous People's Club, and leader of a canoe family, tries to come to terms with the changes she sees in her sibling after some time at college. This stands out in some ways because it feels, to me at least, perhaps the least connected to the powwow. Despite this, it's a stellar story - it uses the setting as a backdrop for the girls to reconnect with each other, the main character trying to cope with what she sees as being somewhat abandoned by her sister Brooke, and Brooke helping her see how the glaciers she's 'obsessed' with fit in with their culture's traditions and beliefs. Despite the anger shining through from the MC at the start, it's a warm, sweet and tender read. 


Once Upon A Crime by Robin Stevens

As a long-time fan of school stories and detective books, any time I see a novel that's both, I'm excited - and back in 2014, I was thrilled to learn of Murder Most Unladylike. As much as I loved it when I read it, I could never have guessed it would give birth to quite such an outstanding series, but Robin Stevens's follow-ups - and recent spinoff The Ministry of Unladylike Activity, starting another set of stories - are some of my absolute favourite MG books of the last decade or so. 

When it comes to crime, I've always preferred reading short stories to novels. I don't know if it's because my first introduction to the genre was Sherlock Holmes, followed by many fantastic Poirot and Miss Marple stories, maybe? There's something so satisfying about a mystery which can be read in one sitting, letting me fully focus on solving it before the detectives I'm reading about do. (Even if I rarely manage to do so!) So, as good as the nine novels in the Murder Most Unladylike series are, in some ways the two short story collections are my absolute favourites.

The second of these collections, Once Upon A Crime, follows the Detective Society of Daisy and Hazel through four cases, set at various times during their school careers, and also gives us one story about their friends/rivals the Junior Pinkertons, and another about May Wong, Hazel's little sister (and star of the Ministry of Unladylike Activity series, which this is a precursor to.) Each and every one of them is a delightfully clever caper, which kept me guessing right the way through, but has a really satisfying solution. They also flesh out the novels nicely, adding even more depth to some of the central relationships. And, as much as I love Hazel as a narrator, it's great to read others here, with Daisy, Alexander, and May each telling the tale of one story, and Daisy and Hazel having alternating sections of another. 

Favourite stories: 

"The Case of the Missing Treasure" - Narrated by Daisy, this is about a treasure hunt which she, Hazel, George and Alexander are sent on by her Uncle Felix and Aunt Lucy for her 15th birthday. Initially, they're disgusted - especially Daisy - by the childish game, but they quickly get involved in a more serious mystery. I'm not sure that I'd enjoy reading Daisy's narration for an entire novel - I think the utter self-confidence which makes her such a wonderful character to read about might get the tiniest bit grating if she was writing at length - but for a short story, it's great to see the details of a case from her point of view rather than Hazel's.

"The Hound of Weston School" - The only one of the stories not to feature Daisy or Hazel at all in the action (Hazel plays a small part in the one May narrates), this is told as a letter from Alexander to Hazel. Bookended by a sweet start, in which Alexander tries to find the words to say something to Hazel, and an ending in which he finally gets some of those words out, the main part isn't a murder mystery - it's a story of how they try to track down and help the person who's hidden a dog near their school. The dog, who they name Baskerville - in tribute to a certain Sherlock Holmes story - is fabulously cute, and there's a fabulous cast of suspects here.

"May Wong and the Deadly Flat" - May, who appears in a couple of the earlier books as a minor character, makes a stunning debut as the narrator here. I originally read this before the Ministry of Unladylike Activity, and it's a wonderful introduction to May as a central character. She's an intriguing mix of Daisy and Hazel, in some ways, having Daisy's belief in herself and impatience with other people, but feeling just as out of place as Hazel does in England at times. The World War II setting, and the involvement of spies, makes it a perfect bridge between the interwar period crime novels of the first series, and the war stories of the new one. And the actual solution of the mystery is perhaps the most intriguingly plotted of all of the half dozen stories here.


Unlucky in Lockdown by Julianne Benford

A bonus, non-anthology, recommendation - adult contemporary novella Unlucky in Lockdown, by Julianne Benford. I will admit to being super-biased here, as Julianne is one of my closest friends, but I just read this story - written and published early in the pandemic - for the third time and find more to love about it each time I do. 

Flatmates Cora and Xandra, who've lived together for some time without really managing to become friendly, have to turn to each other for comfort as the UK goes into lockdown. Starting just prior to the announcement, and mostly taking place in the ten days immediately following it, the story admittedly brought back some painful memories of those early times for me. The pair try to stay close to their friends despite not being able to see them in person, deal with the changes in their jobs, and support each other, gradually growing closer.

I reread this immediately after reading a novel dealing with a pandemic - which was also interesting and enjoyable, and which I'll no doubt talk about at some point. I think it gave me a new appreciation for the skill with which Julianne brings the strangeness of the time to life and uses it to develop the central friendship between Cora and Xandra. Because - despite the pandemic being the backdrop, and the changes in both of their lives playing such a major part - it is the friendship between the two, who initially seem mismatched, which is the central focus. I loved seeing them go from uneasy around each other, to becoming supportive friends helping each other deal with their mental health issues, and with the impact lockdown has on them and the other people in their lives. And those people - particularly Cora's best friend, and family, and the elderly lady Xandra talks to after volunteering to provide companionship to lonely people - are delightful characters, even those who appear only briefly. A truly wonderful read and I'm excited for more from Julianne. 

(This book is actually available for free download, by the way - check out the links at the author's webpage.)


Wednesday, 23 December 2020

Indie Advent: Eldritch Soda on The Friends of the Library bookstore in Rockville, Maryland

I'm delighted to welcome my wife, the wonderful Eldritch Soda (I tried to get her to change her name to Eldritch Dean, but no luck, sadly) to talk about her former workplace, The Friends of the Library bookstore in Rockville, Maryland.


The front of the store is crowded with piles and carts of to-be-examined book, movie, and music donations. The aisles between bookcases are narrow, with even more carts full of books for sale that won't fit on the shelves. It's been about a year and a half since I've been there, but in my memory I swear some of those bookshelves are so tall they touch the ceiling. And every bookcase is absolutely groaning, heaving, full of books. To a certain type of reader, the Friends of the Library bookstore in Rockville, Maryland, is heaven, full of unexpected treasures and community connections. I both volunteered and worked at the store, shelving books as a volunteer and then sorting and pricing donations and helping customers find what they wanted as a paid employee.

The store was divided into many different sections, and because of the small space, some unexpected juxtapositions occurred, enough that when I was in library school I considered writing a final paper on the store. The store's unusual layout (like a Warfare subsection that only went up to the Middle Ages, with more recent warfare materials shelved with their respective wars, or a Religious Studies section that included everything but Judaism and then a separate section entirely on Judaism) also let us highlight very specific subgenres and emphasize connections, as well as putting some books in multiple areas (like The Diary of Anne Frank in the Memoir and Judaism sections),which made these cross-genre books easier to find. We had evolved. We had escaped the clutches of Melvil Dewey and the Library of Congress to form our own paradigm.

We were usually so pressed for space that new additions to each nonfiction shelf were just put where they could fit rather than wrestled into any sort of order. (The same was not true for fiction, by the way--I think customers might have mutinied if we'd tried that.) The lack of any required order also allowed for some whimsy--I still remember amusing myself one day by putting James Surowiecki's book The Wisdom of Crowds directly next to a book called The Folly of Crowds. (Google claims the second book doesn't exist, which just demonstrates even more the magic of used bookstores--you can find books that Google hasn't even noticed there.)

In addition to these juxtapositions, I loved how the store, more explicitly than the Barnes and Noble a few minutes' drive away, was able to reflect the community it served, on a very granular level. For example, this part of Maryland is home to a large Jewish population (hence the separate Judaism section), and Judaism wouldn't get anywhere near as much room in most other bookstores or in libraries. As expected from a used bookstore located just outside Washington, DC, the store also received many political books. I never spent much time at our sister store, now in Wheaton, Maryland, and currently closed due to the pandemic, but given the varying demographics in different parts of the county, I can only assume that similarly idiosyncratic sections, ones which differ from Rockville's, can also be found in the Wheaton store when it's open.

The primary function of this bookstore and its sister store is to raise money for Montgomery County Public Libraries, but many US library systems as well as some libraries in other countries have a similar group. If you're interested, see if there's anything you can do to work with your local group.


BIO: Eldritch Soda is a writer, pop culture critic, and poodle enthusiast. Find her at her blog or on Twitter at @eldritchsoda.