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.

You Look Different In Real Life, by Jennifer Castle (HarperTeen, 2013)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Rules For Disappearing, by Ashley Elston (Disney Hyperion, 2013)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nantucket Blue, by Leila Howland (Disney Hyperion, 2013)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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