Tag Archives: debut novel

Esper Files (Esper Files #1)


In Victorian London, an experiment in controlling electromagnetic power goes horribly wrong, resulting in the Great Storm. This unnatural meteorological occurrence affects some of the population’s electromagnetic field, giving strange new abilities, which of course leads to the rest of the population turning against them in fear, and having the “Espers” live as outcasts.

But not all of them. The man responsible for the failed experiment, the Professor, starts up an Institute to train Espers to handle their abilities, and use them for good. Two of his top agents are James, who possesses the ability to teleport, and Nathan, who can mirror anyone’s ability through feeling their emotion. Together, they rescue Espers and fight against the Baron, a corrupt man and former partner of the Professor who controls an army of corrupt Espers, and wants to control the world. But the Baron has a controller as well…

And you know what would have taken me less time to type? Hey – do you like the X-Men? Then read this series. For the Professor, insert Xavier, for Espers Mutants, for Baron Magneto, for the Institute the School for Gifted Youngsters.

What we have here is a steampunk reimagining of the X-Men universe. But I’m not sure if you can call it a reimagining. It is the X-Men.  Eccentric professor saving youngsters with powers that the population fears and a powerful man with a link to the professor who has gone rogue and is bent on controlling the world.  Put it all in Victorian London, add the Parliament and an airship, and bingo.

What was good? Author Egan Brass writes fabulous action sequences and scenes. The story is well-paced and flows smoothly from one scene to the next. He doesn’t get caught up in over describing the scenes but gives enough detail to really draw the reader into the action. Reading it, I knew where every character was, their actions, and could picture each sequence.

The characters are a bit predictable but change and develop through the novel.  The Professor is horrified by the use of Esper powers for evil and fights for the good of all. *cough* Professor X *cough*. Nathan is a poor outcast with extraordinary powers who is a trouble maker and self-destructive but really has a heart of gold as he discovers how to control his impulses. *cough* Logan *cough*  James is the sidekick, shunned from society as an Esper and a person of colour . *cough* Storm *cough*  You can start to see a pattern… Freya is an orphan whose powers come out under duress as her adoptive parents are murdered and brother is abducted, and she must learn to control her power in order to rescue him.

But. There are problems with the book, besides the obvious inspiration behind it. As a fantasy, a certain amount of disbelief must be suspended anyway. But there is no explanation, scientific or otherwise, of why/how people got abilities through the Great Storm. Nor does it actually ever explain how the Great Storm came about. The failed experiment wasn’t the only factor.

Also, I was distracted throughout by typos and incorrect sentence structure (pot, meet kettle). It is difficult to be in the middle of an action-packed battle scene or tense situation and grind to a halt because of poor word choice or lack of proof-reading. The author has a good story-telling talent, but he needs an editor. (I just researched the publisher and discovered it is a self-publishing site.)  His sentences follow a certain pattern (it is always “he said” or “she ordered” or “the Baron yelled” or “Shadow snarled.”  Mix it up, please).

Show, don’t tell, please. Show me how Nathan learns his self-worth, instead of having me follow his every thought about his life and realizing he is a good person in the end. Show me how Freya comes to trust everyone instead of having read her thoughts as she looks upon her teammates and sees they are good people. And so on. And so on.

The last few chapters were obvious attempts to tie up loose ends and build suspense for the next book in the series, but suddenly certain characters were acting out of character, and I wish the book had ended three chapters earlier than it did.

After all that, you probably think I hated it.  I didn’t. Criticisms aside, this is a fun, fast-paced story. I read it in one sitting, and while it has some violent, fairly gruesome scenes (if excessive blood loss turns you off, or you don’t like the idea of snacking on someone’s brains, this book is not for you), it is a good story for a lazy afternoon.  It is the first in a series, so I am hoping the next book irons out some of the problems.

By the way.  I popped over to Goodreads after I wrote this and read the reviews of the book there.  I’m a DEFINITE minority in my criticisms, so take this review for what it’s worth.

Esper Files was published October 26th, 2016 by Inkitt.

Dreadnought (Nemesis #1)


Before I say anything else, I’m just going to oooh and aaah over this GORGEOUS cover for  awhile…

Danny Tozer is 15 years old and transgender. But no ones knows. Her family life centres around a father determined to make a man of her, and she has endured a lifetime of bullying already from the kids at school that see her as an easy target. But one day, as she crouches behind a concrete barrier outside the mall to secretly paint her toenails, the world’s greatest superhero fights an epic battle right in front of her and dies. And in keeping with tradition, his mantle of power transfers to the witness and transforms her into her true self. A gorgeous girl. But with superpowers. And she is not going back, no matter what.

Whether she likes it or not, Danny is the only one that can defeat the supervillain that killed Dreadnought. But in order to do so, she has to accept that she is worthy of the mantle, worthy of the respect.  And that might be harder to do than saving the world.

This is Danny’s origin story. As with most superhero origin stories, Danny comes of age in a world that wants to deny her existence, and even deny her the right to be herself and to have her powers. As a transgender queer girl, her coming of age is particularly difficult. Her parents deny her existence, her father hurling abuse while her mother insists that she wants her son back. Fellow superheroes are split on her right to become Dreadnought, with some supportive, and some angered by her insistence on being defined by her correct gender. Her best friend hurls insults when she refuses to date him and fractures their relationship irreparably.

I do think that Danny is the most fleshed out character in the novel, and rightly so. She is self-aware before her magical transition, and her growth is steady throughout the novel. She still calls herself trans after the world sees her as a girl, and she is proud of her identity. I like that even after becoming the world’s most powerful superhero, she still is afraid of falling behind in school. (Oh, if only my children were a 10th as responsible, and without superpowers…) I found her fear incredibly heartbreaking and realistic, her fear of her parents and the hold they have over her, her fear of accepting the mantle of Dreadnought, her fear of not being good enough.

But the supporting characters are a bit flat in places, and I am hoping that, as this is the first book in a series, they will become more rounded as the series continues.  With the exception of Calamity and Doc Impossible, the other superheroes are a bit two-dimensional. Both Calamity, who is so important to Danny (please let them get together!  Please!), and Doc Impossible develop nicely as the story progresses, and although I had suspicions that something wasn’t on the up and up with the Doc, I had NO idea of the twist at the end. This was NOT what I was expecting!

Danny’s parents are, sadly, what they appear to be.  And even though Danny has a certain amount of understanding and love for her mother and her situation, and I understand where it comes from, in the end, she does not choose her daughter and loses my sympathy.

The pace of the novel builds through the first half, setting up an explosive conclusion that is not only highlighted by the hero/villain climax, but also Danny’s confrontation with her parents. It isn’t it all rainbows and sunshine and bench-pressing rail cars, however; Danny’s freedom comes at great personal cost.

The world building in this novel isn’t front and centre, but rather steadily in the background, offering an incredible framework for the story to weave through. It is our world, but our world with superheroes who are tasked to keep us safe, our world where the government is still in charge, our world where politics still cover everything, from the ranks of the superheroes to the subtle class differences of those that have some abilities, to the normal people who just go about their daily lives.

Through the novel is a subtle humour with a message underneath. When Danny becomes her true self, that happens to be a girl with the looks and proportions of an airbrushed underwear model. Because that is what society has told her how a girl should look. But the messages are delivered with a nice wit and are not preachy.

The main character is brilliant. The world building is fabulous. The pacing is perfect. But another enemy approaches, and it will be the most terrifying one the world has ever faced.

This is a novel that anyone can read, it has humour, pain, strength, conflict, and triumph. And it is the first in a trilogy, so the love can only continue.

Dreadnought (Nemesis #1) was published January 24th, 2017 by Diversion Publishing.

Stalking Jack the Ripper


I have been waiting and waiting for this novel to come out, and was so afraid it wouldn’t live up to my expectations. Not only is the cover stunning, that incredible first sentence grabs you and won’t let go for the rest of the novel.

17-year-old Audrey Rose Wadsworth wants to be a scientist. Specifically, a forensic scientist, helping Scotland Yard solve murders and various crimes though post mortem examination of victims. The trouble is, Audrey Rose is the daughter of a lord in 1880’s London, and she should be attending teas and social outings, not cutting into dead bodies and searching for clues on the trail of vicious killers.

Her father has been teetering on the edge of insanity since the death of her mother five years before, while her brother flits from one area of interest to the next, all the while living the high life befitting that of a lord’s son. Her Uncle Jonathon, a forensics expert, does not see eye to eye with her father, and secretly tutors Audrey in the medical arts without her father’s knowledge.

And then Jack the Ripper begins his rampage through the underbelly of Whitechapel in London.

The actual identity of Jack the Ripper has never been discovered. There are theories galore about who the man might have been, but no one knows for sure. So he can be anybody. He tore through Whitechapel in 1888, preying on prostitutes, removing their internal organs after he slit their throats. One of the many thoughts were that he was a surgeon, or had some medical knowledge.

I loved the little touches throughout the novel like the period photos and blood splatter on the chapter headings. Talk about gruesome and evocative! What a way to set the tone.

Audrey Rose is an interesting character. She is willful and strong, and interested in more than teas and marriage. She wants to make a difference in the world, refusing to let society dictate her behaviour. Audrey is bi-racial, Indian and English, and I think not enough was made of that in the novel, beyond her enjoyment of traditional Indian snacks and the fact her Indian grandmother did not seem to approve of her English father.  Her mixed heritage seemed almost an afterthought thrown into the novel, with no real impact on the story.

Fellow forensics student Thomas Cresswell is witty and charming and intent of winning Audrey’s heart, regardless of the fact he is not a suitable match. I like him, although I was never quite sure through the story if the romance was believable out not. They never seemed to move beyond verbal sparring, despite the fact that Audrey did notice how handsome Thomas was almost every time they spoke. But then he would infuriate her, and she would back away. But he is an intelligent, enjoyable character, who kept me on my toes with the twists and turns of his backstory.

Uncle John and Lord Wadsworth are perfect sparring brothers, unable to see beyond past grievances to come together as a family. Aunt Amelia didn’t really have much impact on the story, despite her many appearances, but I did love Cousin Liza’s irreverent attitude and the obvious affection the two girls had for each other.

Debut author Kerri Maniscalco captures perfectly the tone and atmosphere of the time in her writing. Her use of language and description brings the reader right into the dark, damp streets of London, with fear lying as heavy as the ever-present fog.

The story is complex, and the pace quite slow and descriptive. Perhaps too slow and too descriptive. Every action, every outfit, every mood and every thought is described and attributed. Audrey never just stands, she stands proudly, or angrily, or regally. Thomas never just answers a question, he answers it haughtily or mysteriously or argumentatively. Uncle John never just speaks, he speaks thoughtfully or distractedly or moodily. Audrey smooths her intricately embroidered black dress, clenches her hands in the perfectly stitched gloves, and stumbles in her smooth blush silk slippers. Unfortunately, I got bogged down in all the description and found myself losing the thread of the story and having to re-read passages to get back on track.

As for the stalking that Thomas and Audrey do, I spent most of the novel waiting for it to actually occur.  I don’t think it ever did. The pair looked for him. They studied crime scene evidence and psychological journals. But they never actually stalked him.

The conclusion is wonderful. I loved the last chapter of the novel, how everything tied together, how relationships were resolved. Really well done.

This is a good start to a series. It is quite violent and gory, as a good Jack the Ripper story should be, so is not for the faint of heart. I found myself on the edge of my seat, despite any criticisms I have, and look forward to the follow-up books to see where Audrey Rose’s curiosity takes her next.

Stalking Jack the Ripper was published September 20th, 2016 by Jimmy Patterson.

Sekret (Sekret #1)


A YA political thriller set in 1963 Cold War Russia, with a paranormal slant. What’s not to love? (Well, a couple of things actually, but not enough to ruin my enjoyment of the novel).

Yulia is a ration rat, a teenager who lives by her wits in the black market, struggling to support and care for her family in Communist Russia. They live clandestinely with her aunt and cousin, stretching the two rations to feed five. Her brother has mental challenges, her mother is a scientist in hiding, and her father left the family years before. Yulia has a few secrets of her own, ones that can never be known. One, her family is former Party but is now on the run from the KGB. Two, she has psychic powers. She can read others’ thoughts just by touch, and she uses that to her advantage on the black market. But it would be dangerous if either secret was discovered.

Russia is in the middle of the space race with the Americans, and so far have beaten them every step of the way. But someone is selling the blueprints of their top-secret program to their adversaries, and they need to find out who and fast. The KGB has been working to develop a team of psychic spies since the Great Patriotic War and recruits a new company of powerful teens to track the traitor.

Yulia’s secrets have been discovered by those with powers stronger than her own. Can she play this new game long enough to escape with her family?

This is a book I enjoyed despite its issues.

As with any spy novel, I spent the entire story wondering which character can be trusted, and which are the deceivers. And this can include the main character, Yulia. Just because the story is told from her point of view, from inside her head, does not make her a trustworthy character. She herself wasn’t always sure what was going on in her own mind. And as the second generation of psychic spies, the mistrust is already well-ingrained in her team.

I quite like the cast of characters. Each has a specific power and personality and quirks, ranging from the handsome bad boy Sergei to twisted true believer Masha to evil mind-scrubbing Rostov. Lara can see the paths and choices in the future, while Valentin can cast a glamour and twist opinion, controlling his subject’s thoughts. And all had their own reasons for playing the game, whether it was for power or a better apartment, or the hope of freedom for themselves or their families.

The history presented is obviously well researched. Cold War Russia was almost a dystopian society in many ways, and Lindsay Smith does a fabulous job of presenting a stark dichotomy in the lives of the population. For most, it was a sparse existence, with rations, queues, harsh vodka and fear housed in cold grey concrete apartments, not far from the brightly coloured domes of St Peter’s Basilica, and the luxury of warm housing, silk and velvet, champagne and caviar. But even the elite live in fear and mistrust, always looking over shoulders and wondering who in their lives will be next to disappear.

This debut novel is not without inconsistencies and problems. The plot begins quite slowly and moves sporadically throughout. There are action-packed sequences and flashbacks, but then time skips by without explanation, making it a bit confusing at times. Along those same lines, the timeline seemed off sometimes. And I don’t think it was – a few quick google searches confirmed that songs were released and shots fired and moons orbited as written – but the feeling was one of cramming in too much in a short period of time. All that said, veiled hints are dropped throughout the story that seem inconsequential at the time until major events and twists happen and bring them all neatly together.

As for the training, too much is left unexplained. To me, the story reads as though Smith knew the teens had to train their minds to master their powers and in spy craft, but she had no idea how that would happen. She rushes through it all, teens are given a few textbooks and then sent into the field, with little to no explanation of the training or the mission itself. Spying has a long history, especially during the Cold War. There should be more to it. The training itself could fill a novel, and I think the background could only add to the mystery and suspense.

Smith also missed an opportunity to really analyse the psychic abilities of the various spies and how each worked. How did the music veil their thoughts to some, but not to others? Yulia thought escape 24 hours a day. Even with her musical defense, how did she prevent others from peeking into her head and discovering her thoughts? She lived in a house full of psychics. And the scrubbers cause pain, just by looking at them, or being in the same room? More explanation is needed, or at least someone needs to explain it to me. My brain hurt trying to figure it out.

So, all in all, a unique enjoyable YA novel, with room for improvement. Maybe the problems are ironed out in book two of the series, Skandal. I haven’t yet decided if I’ll read it. To me, Sekret can stand alone. It didn’t end with a cliff hanger, but just left the door open for more. Suitable for the entire YA age range.

Sekret was published April 1st, 2014 by Roaring Brook Press/Macmillan Children’s.

The Voyage to Magical North (Accidental Pirates #1)


The adorable cover captures the story inside perfectly. Who wouldn’t want to sail aboard a pirate ship and battle sea monsters to find endless magic and treasure? Especially on a charmed ship called The Onion? (Some pirates don’t spell so well).

12-year-old Brine Seaborne was found floating in a boat at sea when she was just a young girl. She has no memory of how she got there, or where she comes from. Claimed by a mediocre magician as his servant, she has grown up in a house of magic, serving the magician and his apprentice, Peter. Which is a bit of an issue, as she is allergic to magic.

One day, Brine and Peter overhear the magician making plans that will change their lives for the worse, so they steal the magician’s source of magic and flee in the middle of the night. Through one misstep after another, they get lost at sea and end up as crew of the great pirate ship The Onion, captained by none other than the beautiful and captivating (when she washes her hair) Cassie O’Pia. What follows is an adventure of a lifetime, as the crew searches for the legendary Magical North.

Oh, squeal of delight! (10 points to the sci-fi nerd who can tell me the obscure show that comes from. Without mocking me). What a completely delightful and surprising story. Love love LOVE the magic and pirates and library and bad-ass librarians and messenger gulls and sea monsters and evil bird-fish and giant octopi and ice that stalks its prey. Love all the plays on words and quips and puns. Love Brine and Peter and Tom and Ewan and Tim and Trudi and Cassie and their friendships.

The characters just leap off the page at you. Brine and Peter take a slow route to friendship, overcoming initial jealousy and dislike and mistrust to acceptance and mutual admiration. Tom comes later to the crew, but is open and eager for friends his age, something his isolated life has never allowed. And the pirates are fantastic! They are just what pirates should be – loud, dirty, distrustful, funny, scheming, with hearts of gold. If you don’t stand in the way of them getting gold. A ship full of colorful oddball individuals with quirks and personalities that had me howling with laughter. Add a sociopathic villain that strikes just the right balance between crazy and terrifying and you have the perfect cast of characters for a great adventure.

The world building is fabulous. Ships and star shells and mysterious lands and magical storms and land beneath ice and an island that holds all the world’s stories in a library that goes on and on and on. The ocean makes an endless, ever-changing backdrop that gives author Claire Fayers the opportunity to take the story in any direction. She takes full advantage, and the fast pace will keep you turning pages right to the end. And then wishing the sequel was already written!

I love how Fayers writes the novel around the idea of the stories we tell, and the ones we leave out. How stories define our lives and how others see us, how we sometimes try to manufacture the life we want others to believe. And how sometimes, we might want to erase the stories, and rewrite them. (If only… My teenage years, anyone? *cringes*)

This is an awesome middle-grade book for everyone who loves a fun adventure, with enough magic and mystery to keep it totally unpredictable. But still believable! I want to sail again on The Onion and explore the eight oceans with her crew, and cannot wait to read their next adventure.

The Voyage to Magical North was published July 5th, 2016 by Henry Holt and Co.



Possibly one of the most powerful books that I have read in a very long time. That it is written in verse just adds to its impact. Lyrical, beautiful, heartbreaking, poetic. Have a box of tissues handy.

Brendan Chase has it all: he is doing well in his senior year of school, hopes to go to the University of Chicago in the fall, is a star on the school wrestling team, has a good circle of friends and an athletic and beautiful girlfriend. But it feels wrong. Sometimes he feels like he fits in perfectly, sometimes he feels that he would be much happier if he had long smooth hair, soft skin and breasts.

Multiple POVs can be difficult to pull off successfully, but author Kristin Elizabeth Clark does it. She deftly gets into each of the teens’ heads and projects their voices wonderfully, often examining the same situation from the three very different viewpoints, while providing them each with a perfectly developed voice and unique storyline.

While Brendan is the main character, both Vanessa and Angel are given enough voice that they balance him out perfectly. Brendan is struggling to understand his sexual identity, Angel fights her inner demons, and Vanessa, who at first glance seems to be the most settled of the three, questions her own identity and what her relationship with Brendan ultimately means. 

Brendan is a fantastic character, authentic, intense, questioning, and understandably extremely self-absorbed.  His discovery of his transgender identity is realistic, and one I have not yet seen in LGBT YA literature. He loves his girlfriend, loves the feeling sex with her gives him, yet sometimes feels best when sitting alone in his room, dressed in woman’s clothing. I love that Clark doesn’t pin a stereotype on Brendan, but shows that the trans experience is as varied and dynamic as the straight.

Brendan doesn’t get the chance to figure it all out and accept himself before his best friend discovers his secret and outs him to the school. The consequences are horrible, with bullying and lost friends and a split with Vanessa and suicidal thoughts the result. Heartbreaking.

Vanessa questions her own identity throughout the novel. She is tall and athletic and wrestles on the team with Brendan, as the only girl. She is harassed and called a dyke and after she finds out about Brendan, she questions what it means for her own identity, that she could love a boy who sometimes believes he is supposed to be a girl.

Angel is a bit older than the two teens, and confident in her identity.  That doesn’t mean she doesn’t struggle; her father beat her and sent her away, no son of his would dress that way. It took her a number of years to find a place where she could be accepted and acknowledged for herself, and to find a group of friends with whom she was completely comfortable being herself. Her influence on Brendan is steady and supportive, even as she questions her own motives.

And the COVER. The cover is spectacular. It perfectly mirrors the turmoil and inner demons that all three characters face.

The ending is open and without a clear conclusion, something I am discovering in quite a few of the novels that I have read on the trans experience. And each time I find them to be perfect. Yes, I would love these teens to find their happily-ever-after, and hope they do in the future. But life rarely wraps up so neatly and quickly when you don’t have hurdles to jump, and I appreciate that the authors are making these stories so true to life.

If you want to read another (really good and much more coherent) review of this book, pop on over and visit Beth at betwixt-the-pages. Not only does she write fabulous reviews, she is also the princess of all thing penguin.

Again, another wonderfully unique story about the trans experience that is appropriate for the entire YA age range, and should be read by anyone who needs to learn more. I couldn’t put it down.

Freakboy was published October 22nd, 2013 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux (BYR).


If You Could Be Mine


Homosexuality and transgender. In Iran, one of these is illegal and punishable by beating, imprisonment, even death. The other is considered a medical condition, and can be corrected, legally and openly.

17-year-old Sahar dreams of being a doctor, and her best friend Nasrin dreams of marriage and wealth. One day, Nasrin’s parents announce that they have arranged her marriage to a kind and decent young doctor and Sahar’s heart stops.

When she was 6 years old, Sahar told her mother that she wanted to marry her best friend. Her mother told her to never speak of it again. The two girls have been in love for 11 long years of sharing stolen moments and secret touches and shy glances. But their relationship is illegal. And now their love may have to end, and Sahar can’t live with that.

Nasrin tries to believe that they can still carry on, but Sahar doesn’t want to share her with anyone. She wants to stop the marriage, end the secrecy. And she could. But only if she were a man.

So much happening in this novel. I had NO idea.

Sexual reassignment surgery is considered acceptable and also partially paid for by the Iranian government because there is nothing in the Koran that says it is sinful. A man trapped in a woman’s body (or vice versa) is to be pitied and helped, not scorned. Which is, obviously, for transgendered people, good. But that’s not to say it is an easy life for any of them; many are still abandoned and rejected by family and friends. And what it can lend itself to, on top of that, is some homosexuals having the surgery in order to avoid persecution. Which has to be as bad as the alternative.

This is the basis upon which this story is built.

Sahar sees only the possibility of a life with Nasrin but does not understand the cost. This naiveté is realistic, she does not live in a society where these important issues are discussed openly, especially with women, from what I understand. The fact that she first of all sees this as an alternative to her current predicament, believes that sex reassignment can happen quickly enough to stop the wedding, and never even discusses her idea with Nasrin serves to highlight not only her ignorance about what it means to be transgendered but also illustrates the oppressive life she already leads.

Both Nasrin and Sahar are difficult characters for me to like, even as I sympathize with their predicament. It is not a healthy relationship they share; hidden homosexuality aside, the balance of power is all with Nasrin and her beauty and charm, while Sahar is a shadow. Nasrin thinks of herself, how Sahar can make her happy, and Sahar thinks the same. Nasrin’s feelings are important, Sahar’s can be pushed aside. Her desire for Nasrin, the very depth of her love, never feels completely expressed or shared.

Ali is a fantastic example of a gay man living on the edge in Iran. He has a certain forced joie de vivre but recognizes the danger he lives in every step of the way. Author Sara Farizan has written a man that is in complete control, as much as he can be, who shows his personal side to very few, while living on the edge of terror.

Other family members such as Sahar’s father and Nasrin’s parents perfectly move the story along and offer insight into the conflict the girls and their families face.

Farizan offered a peek into the discussion of the trans experience in Iran, but I think missed the opportunity to go deeper. The support group had everyone from a family sanctioned post-op woman to a bitter, suicidal one who had the operation in order to fit in, but the conversation only ever touched the surface. But what a surface it disturbed.

While the pacing of the story was good overall, the ending felt a bit rushed with a convenient if not a happy conclusion to all of Sahar’s problems. While I wish it had been more complete, I’m not sure how else the story could end, unless tragically.

Finally, I couldn’t put this novel down. My heart broke for the two girls and the lie they were forced to live. It is a fascinating look into a hidden world that I had never even thought about. It is appropriate for everyone.

If You Could Be Mine was published August 20th, 2013 by Algonquin Young Readers.



A good re-telling honours the original, while adding something new and unexpected. Enter Ash, a light new look at Cinderella, with an LGBT twist.

Ash just lost her mother, a greenwitch in a kingdom that no longer believes in magic. Her father tries to comfort Ash and thinks a new mother will help. He remarries Lady Isobel then mysteriously falls ill and dies, leaving Ash to the mercy of her stepmother. Lady Isobel moves the family back to her own estate, takes advantage of Ash’s orphaned state and puts her to work.

Ash takes solace in a book of fairy tales that was a gift from her father, reading them nightly by the warm kitchen hearth. She dreams of the day that fairies will take her away, hoping the stories are more than just tales told to children. And they are real. Sidhean, an old and powerful fairy, stakes a claim for Ash, watches out for her and protects her.

On a day in the woods, escaping her stepmother for a brief period, Ash meets the King’s Huntress, Kaisa. And Ash begins to see that her heart did not die with her mother. But she must make a choice between fairy tale dreams and true love. She must choose between Sidhean and oblivion, and Kaisa and life.

I’m a bit torn about this story. On one hand, what a lovely new way to write Cinderella. On the other, I am not sure if the fairy tale is needed for the story.

So, the good:

Ash is a lovely character. She is romantic and heartbroken, she believes in the old ways of magic and feels her mother’s spirit around her. She cannot move on from her grief because she is unsure whether her mother is resting in peace. Sidhean becomes a powerful addiction for her, even as she becomes the same for him. He can offer her oblivion and maybe a chance to reunite with her mother.

Kaisa represents something more powerful than death. She is love and all the joy and agony that goes with it. She is kindhearted and compassionate and patient and recognizes Ash’s need to come to terms with her feelings more slowly.

The relationship between the two girls is natural and heartwarming. The initial meeting, the casual time spent getting to know one another, the bond that they form even when Ash cannot put a name to it, is beautifully written. I love that two women forming a relationship is not unusual or shocking.

And the world-building is fabulous. The magic of the Woods is clear and lyrical, and author Malinda Lo paints gorgeous pictures with her prose. As Ash wanders through the pathways, the reader can see the sun playing through the trees and sparkling off the stream, hearing the silence.

The not-quite-as-good (but not bad):

The plot moves very slowly, and it took awhile to grab me. The first half of the book is a cycle of sadness and escaping into the Wood, and even though there are many plot points that emerge during this time, it isn’t until the latter half of the story that they become clear, and the pacing picks up.

Sidhean. Unfortunately, I never really care about him, or his motivations, because I don’t find his character fully developed. With the choice Ash is facing, he should be a stronger presence. On the other hand, it was nice that his near invisibility gave more importance and weight to Kaisa and Ash’s relationship, even as I wondered who she would choose.

Speaking of irrelevant. The Prince. This is where the Cinderella story as a basis for the novel stumbles. He didn’t add to the story at all. Ash is never choosing between the Huntress and the Prince – she is oblivious to him. The masque ball at the end of the book feels a bit tacked on, as if to make the story fit better.

A few other factors make the Cinderella story feel a bit forced in places. Ash is in tune with the magic of the Woods and manages to find her way home through them in less than a day – a trip that took her a week on the road with her stepmother. And Sidhean finds her and takes her back to her stepmother’s house. But she was raised and loved in her Village – someone would have sheltered her, and she could have escaped her drudgery. So in order for Cinderella to work, Ash must return. But doing so didn’t really fit with her personality.

So. While I have listed a number of elements that don’t work for me in the story, I also cannot praise the book enough. My criticisms aside, it is a beautifully written debut novel, with lyrical prose and wonderful imagery. And I love that Ash does not rely on a prince for her happiness, but finds it herself, and shares it with a woman. It is a hard book to put down.

Ash was published September 1st, 2009 by Little, Brown Books for Young Readers.

The Miseducation of Cameron Post


This is not a fluffy contemporary romance. It is a beautiful coming-of-age story about discovering yourself and having the courage to be that person, no matter what.

Cameron Post is 12 years old, and in bed kissing her best friend when she gets word that her parents have been killed in a car crash. Although heartbroken and devastated, she is also relieved that they will never find out she’d been kissing a girl.

Living in any small town can be challenge enough for a typical teenager. But when Cam’s grandmother and aunt Ruth (a born-again Christian) move in to care for her, her life changes drastically. The freedom she felt as a child gives way to a cage made from her own guilt and her guardians’ narrow views.

Then in junior year of high school, Coley Taylor arrives. She is stunningly beautiful, smart, funny. And Cam falls in love with her. Coley likes boys. But she also likes Cam. And she is not prepared for the conflict that faces her.

Cameron is lovely. She is smart and charming and athletic and foul-mouthed and a thief. She smokes dope and drinks and is fiercely loyal to her friends. She is complicated and straight forward and sure of her feelings, but still hides them, acknowledging the uphill climb she faces in her conservative town. She grows throughout the story, from a nervous, curious, 12-year-old to a self-conscious then self-assured then devastated 16-year-old. I absolutely love her.

And what I love the most is her absolute authenticity. Gay or straight, teens struggle with their identities throughout those confusing and difficult years. Even with the most supportive parents and friends, figuring out who you are can be a trial for the most confident teen. Cameron’s loneliness and confusion during prom as she watches Coley dancing with her boyfriend are feelings every teen has experienced. She had me in tears more than once.

The novel deals with sexual encounters, drugs, and many other mature themes. While the graphic details are, for the most part, left out, the themes are handled with honesty and frankness, not circumvented or hidden behind euphemisms.

The secondary characters in the story are just as authentic as Cam. Irene, who grows apart from Cam, and never really understands the guilt either of them feels. Jamie, Cam’s best friend who understands her more than she wants him to, who has her back. Lindsey, the out-and-proud young lesbian who becomes a soulmate. Coley, who struggles with her feelings. Ruth and Grandma, who can only trust that God will “fix” her.

The teens at Promise, trying to change, living with the knowledge that everyone they love feels that they are broken and terrible human beings, that something is wrong with them. The struggle between faith and reality is heart wrenching to witness at times. But two residents, Jane and Adam, become confidants and partners-in-crime and Cam slowly learns to release her guilt and sadness.

The story is well paced, for the most part. There are a few places where it slows down, and takes time to get moving again, but that is a minor quibble for an otherwise excellent read.

Emily Danforth’s debut novel sneaks up on you. Her lovely writing and universal message hit you at the most unexpected times. It is appropriate for the mature YA reader.

The Miseducation of Cameron Post was published February 7th, 2012 by Balzer + Bray.

Hate List


Back in January, I read This Is Where It Ends and expected total devastation. That book didn’t deliver it, but this one does. Talk about heartbreak. Whereas the first book never really looked beyond good vs evil, Hate List looks at the shades of grey in between.

In the spring of their junior year, Valerie’s boyfriend, Nick, came to school with a plan. Make everyone who had bullied them and made their lives hell, pay. Pay for the years of abuse and degradation. Valerie had no idea that the “hate list” she had created would be used in the spree. Had no idea that Nick was serious every time he said he hoped one of their tormentors would die. Deserved to die. 

Trying to halt his murderous rampage, Valerie is shot in the leg and wakes in the hospital to find that her life is changed forever. Because of her list, the list she wrote and he used to pick his targets, she is a suspect in the shootings; was she trying to stop him, or egging him on? Did she help choose the targets? The witnesses, surveillance tapes, her own e-mails, the list, all tell different stories.

And now, senior year. What could possibly be worse?

Author Jennifer Brown focuses on the one person who is often pushed aside or forgotten in a tragedy, the one who is neither victim or perpetrator, the one who “should have known.” Valerie dated Nick for three years, how could she not have known he was serious?

Valerie is a sympathetic character, even when she isn’t being very likeable. She is swamped in pain and loneliness and anger and guilt and horror. Her private hatred and pain are displayed for everyone to see and judge and condemn, but no one thinks to question why she and Nick felt the need for such a list. She feels overwhelming guilt for mourning and missing the Nick she thought she knew.

That said, she is also selfish. Her life has been turned upside down, and she is understandably self-absorbed, but she also forgets that she has friends and family who have also been affected by Nick’s actions, some not as directly, but some even more harshly than she. Maybe they have questions and guilt and anger as well. Valerie can’t see beyond her own pain, at first. But she slowly begins to see the tragedy from more than her perspective.

What Brown also does beautifully is make Nick a person, full of pain and sadness and even selfishness, not just evil with a gun. Tired of constant bullying and derision for his differences, he breaks. The fine line between villains and victims switching places happens in a horrifying heartbeat.

It seems odd to call the multitude of secondary characters such a thing, as they were as central to the story as Valerie and Nick themselves. The varied personalities and reactions to the shooting were just as real.

The powerful second by second recounting of the shooting completely wrecked me. While I obviously have no experience with such a terrible event, every eerie millisecond dragged me in and left me speechless, and in tears. Time freezes then speeds up then slows again and sound vanishes.

School shootings are sadly a timely subject, one which is handled with utmost respect in this novel. Without blaming anyone, the author illustrates the extreme fallout from bullying, but also does not absolve the bullied from personal responsibility for their own actions.

Above all else, this book makes you think about yourself in high school and middle school.  And maybe even today. How often have you said in a moment of anger or frustration or hurt, “I could kill her/him?” Did you mean it?

Hate List was published September 1st, 2009 by Little, Brown Books for Young Readers.