Archive Introduction

A brief note on how I’ve set up my reviews archive:

The tags represent where a review ran the first time around, whether online, or in print. This includes defunct magazines such as Absolute Magnitude, Science Fiction Chronicle, and Realms of Fantasy.  All reviews that appeared in those magazines can now be found here, with the exception of a very few that were lost along the way. Reviews originally posted at The Green Man Review (and its sister site, The Sleeping Hedgehog), SF Site, and Tor.com remain on those sites indefinitely.  They are uploaded here at irregular intervals after their original publication, and are reprinted for my archives with all due credit and permission.

The categories, obviously, represent where a particular item falls into the grand scheme of things. This is pretty obvious, but a few things bear a little further explanation. Historical means that the book is set in the past of a world either meant to be ours, or pretty darned close. I’ve applied the Fairy Tales/Folklore/Mythology label to anything which I feel takes inspiration or influence from those themes, and as such, this is both a specific and nebulous category, applied at my whim and discretion. The Zombies, Shapeshifters, Vampires and Superheroes are in place simply because it amuses me to do so. Lastly, I’ve also marked some books as being of greater than usual interest because of LGBTQ themes – featuring a gay or lesbian character, for instance, or dealing with gender issues, or addressing matters of alternate sexuality. In all cases, this is a work in progress, to be fine-tuned and adjusted until I’m satisfied…whenever that might be. More categories may appear, some may vanish. I welcome feedback, suggestions, and comments, especially if you feel a certain book deserves (or doesn’t!) a specific, existing, category that I’ve overlooked.

Enjoy.

Fine Young Gentlemen by C.W. Slater (C.W. Slater, 2013)

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.

On Audio Versions of My Stories…

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.

Spoils, by Tammar Stein (Random House, 2013)

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.

Another Update: Sales and Releases

 

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Update Smorgasbord!

Friends, Readers, Barbarians!

It’s been a while since I last used this space to deliver an official-like roundup of things I find interesting or important, and I do apologize for being such a slacker. You know how things get, though. One thing leads into another, and soon you’re up to your eyeballs in alligators and cats wearing funny costumes. So let’s get this show on the road.  What do I have to share with you?

 

UPCOMING CONVENTION APPEARANCE! – That’s right,  I’ll be appearing as a Guest at Mysticon, here in Roanoke, VA. February 21-23, 2014. Come and meet me for real. Get things signed. Tell me why I’m awesome. Tell me why I suck. I’m good either way. It’ll be fun.

NOW ON SALE! – I have two stories in Kristina Wright’s splendid new fiction/non-fiction/self-help/relationship guide, Bedded Bliss, which is aimed at helping folks who are happily married/in a long-term relationship keep things healthy and sexually satisfying. I’m proud to be part of this wonderfully-realized, well-received project.

NEW STORY SOLD! – I just signed the contract for “The Witch’s Servant” which will appear in A Princess Bound: Naughty Fairy Tales for Women, again edited by Kristina Wright, to be published by Cleis Press, out in June 2014. Yeah, Kristina’s one of the true visionaries, appreciating my work and all that. I’m nominating her for sainthood.

NEW INTERVIEWS ONLINE! – I’ve done several interviews lately for Publishers Weekly (aka “Those people who keep giving me money to read books for a living!”) and you can find them over on the PW site.   The first is with Robert Hofler, who wrote Sexplosion: How a Generation of Pop Culture Rebels Broke All the Taboos and it was fun to talk with him about the boundary pushing cinema and theatre of the late ’60s. The second is with Julie Cannon, a writer of lesbian romances, and we talk about her upcoming release, Smoke and Fire, in which two women involved in the dangerous business of oil well blowout suppression find each other and overcome their respective issues.  Both of these books will be available in the near future so put them on your wishlist now!

NEW REVIEWS ONLINE! - Sadly, not so many new ones to report here at the moment. But that’ll pick up again as the winds change. But for Tor.com, I have covered Tumble & Fall by Alexandra Coutts, My Totally Awkward Supernatural Crush by Laura Toffler-Corrie, When the World was Flat (and We Were in Love) by Ingrid Jonach, Conjured by Sarah Beth Durst, and Happy Hour in Hell by Tad Williams.  I promise I’ll have more reviews I can talk about soon. Cat at Green Man Review sent me the revised and updated Third Edition of the Christmas Encyclopedia, Alma Alexander sent me her fascinating recent release, Midnight at Spanish Gardens, and Mike Allen sent me a copy of his bizarre new book, The Black Fire Concerto. I’ll have links to those reviews in the very near future, and more.

PERFECT CHRISTMAS GIFTS! – Shameless promotion time! Remember, you can always pick up a copy or three of Scheherazade’s Facade: Fantastical Tales of Gender Bending, Cross-Dressing, and Transformation, for the fantasy readers on your gift-giving list. Or perhaps you’d like the beautifully perverted Geek Love, still available in hardcover.

That’s all for now, folks. I promise to be back soon with more news and holiday cheer. And by holiday cheer, I mean amaretto-spiked hot cocoa.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Red, by Alison Cherry (Delacorte, 2013)

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.

Introducing Gideon LeFluff

 

 

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Severed Heads, Broken Hearts, by Robyn Schneider (Katherine Tegan Books, 2013)

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.

In Memoriam: Stucco (1996-2013)

 

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In Too Deep, by Coert Voorhees (Disney Hyperion, 2013)

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.