Rachel Neumeier

Fantasy and Young Adult Fantasy Author

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KidLitCon: dangerous for your TBR pile

So, it turns out that a) all the authors attending KidLitCon had books for sale; and b) publishers had sent heaps of ARCs to be given away. Makes sense, given the number of attendees who are bloggers (probably the majority) and the percentage of attendees who are avid readers (undoubtedly 100%).

Let’s just take a look at the selection of fourteen new books that wound up coming home with me, first the five I bought and then the nine ARCs.

1. I’ve never read anything by AS King. Frankly, these contemporary YA novels that deal with difficult topics would have been on the bottom of my list when I was a teenager, and are not what I specifically seek out today. Still, from SarahZ’s comment on a recent post (below), I see that King has been tending to infuse her more recent novels with dark fantasy (or horror?) elements. Anyway, I picked up a copy of Still Life with Tornado, King’s most recently released title.

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Here’s how it starts:

Nothing ever really happens.

Or, more accurately, nothing new ever really happens.

My art teacher, Miss Smith, once said that there is no such thing as an original idea. We all think we’re having original ideas, but we aren’t. “You’re stuck on repeat. I’m stuck on repeat. We’re all stuck on repeat.” That’s what she said. Then she flipped her hair back over her shoulder like what she said didn’t mean anything and told us to spend the rest of the class sorting through all the broken shit she gets people to donate so we can make art. She held up half of a vinyl record. “Every single thing we think is original is like this. Just pieces of something else.”

What do you think? I think I would go on with this just to see where it’s going. In fact, I did. I read the first three or four pages, by which time I was in danger of being sucked in, so I stopped for now because I’m reading something else.

2. The Truth Against the World by Sarah Jamila Stevenson. This is a ghost story, I gather. Or something like a ghost story. Maybe time travel? It’s about a girl named Olwen Nia Evans, whose family moves from San Francisco to Wales, which of course is where they have family roots. Olwen starts having dreams about Wales, dreams which don’t make sense. Then she meets a Welsh boy who’s met a ghost named Olwen Nia Evans…. So you see why I picked this one to try. Stevenson’s first book was contemporary and doesn’t sound like my kind of thing at all, but a spooky ghost story might work better for me. Here’s how it starts:

”Right over there, behind the church.” Gareth’s mother pointed. “You used to love rolling down the hill. Over and over until you got dizzy.” She laughed, the wind blowing her pale hair out of its ponytail and whipping it around.

Gareth glanced up from his phone. The hill looked a lot smaller than it seemed in his memory. It soared gently upward, its grassy flanks covered in purple and yellow wildflowers. The trail they were on meandered gently past it, looping around picturesque ruins and mysterious heaps of stones before ending in a rocky cliff overlooking the sea.

Shortly thereafter Gareth sees Olwen’s grave marker. I presume the ghost follows. I wouldn’t say this beginning particularly strikes me one way or another. I’m perfectly willing to go on for a bit, but I don’t feel like dropping everything to read this story.

3. I also picked up three MG military-historical novels, each featuring a guy and a dog. I hope I like them, since I got all three. They’re by a guy named C. Alexander London. The first features a Marine and a Lab in a recent setting – Afghanistan. The second features a US soldier during WWII who finds a German dog, a Doberman. The third features a Confederate soldier and a hound – the back cover refers to raccoons, but the dog on the cover is a Bloodhound, so we’ll see. I was caught by the differing historical periods and (of course) by the dogs. Dobermans are one of my favorite breeds, so I’ll show you a tiny snippet of that one, which is called Dog Tags: Prisoners of War:

“Hey, Rivera,” Goldsmith whispered in my ear. His breath frosted the air between us. “Looks like some kind of fairy tale out there in the woods, doesn’t it?”

Crunchy new snow clung to the tree trunks like white fur. I pressed my fingers against the ground in front of me and the snow crackled. I stood up to my shoulders in the icy foxhole. Goldsmith stood beside me, shivering and talking too much.

And then there’s an attack and stuff happens and Rivera gets separated from his unit and stumbles across this abandoned Doberman and we go on from there. I will probably read this and its companion stories pretty soon because they are very short.

4. Okay, now for the ARCs. Some are obviously left over ARCs from recent years, not for this year’s releases. Let me arrange them in publication order . . . all right, the first one I have here is from 2013, The Boy on the Bridge, a title that immediately creates disinterest for me because Teen Romance Novel is not generally what I’m looking for. However, we have onion domes in the background. Ooh.

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I’m a sucker for setting, so I turn the book over . . . laudatory quote from Libba Bray, interesting. Starred review from Kirkus, okay. Also from Publishers Weekly and School Library Journal. Still a teen romance novel, but now I’m interested enough to take a copy. Here’s how it starts:

Laura and her roommate Karen tramped along the frozen mud road that led through the university, past a wall with OGNEOPASNO! painted on it in huge red letters. An icy wind blew off the Neva River. It was January in Leningrad.

“Flammable,” Karen mumbled, reflexively translating. Somewhere nearby, invisible to the naked eye, there was, apparently, a fire hazard.

Not bad! I like the understated wit in that line. This story is set in 1982, incidentally.

5. Here’s one I grabbed without hesitation. Sarah Beth Durst, The Lost, published in 2014. I liked Durst’s Vessel, and I think I’ve read others by her as well. This one has one of those annoying covers where you have to pause and translate the weird design so you can read the title; also just not an appealing cover overall.

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But the back cover copy sounds decidedly intriguing: “Once you arrive in Lost…well, it’s a place you really can’t leave. Not until you’re found.” Hmm. “Lauren is now trapped in the town where all lost things go – luggage, keys, dreams, lives.” Yeah, count me in for this one. Here’s the opening:

For the first hundred miles, I see only the road and my knuckles, skin tight across the bones, like my mother’s hands, as I clutch the steering wheel. For the second hundred miles, I read the highway signs without allowing the letters to compute in my brain. Exit numbers. Names of towns. Places that people call home, or not. After three hundred miles, I start to wonder what the hell I’m doing.

In front of me, the highway lies straight, a thick rope o asphalt that stretches to a pinprick on the horizon. On either side of the highway are barbed wire fences that hem in the few cows that wander through the scrub-brush desert. Cacti are clustered by the fence posts. Above, the sun has bleached the blue until the sun looks like fabric stretched so thin that it’s about to tear. There are zero clouds.

I should turn around.

Ooh, catchy. I hope the rest of the book lives up to that beginning, because I love it so far.

6. Another 2014 release, The Winter Guest by Pam Jenoff. A WWII setting, rural Poland during the Nazi occupation. Older kids trying to raise younger siblings. A stranded Allied (and Jewish) paratrooper. I like it so far. The back cover copy does finish with “… culminating in a singular act of betrayal that endangers them all…” Hmm. I detest most plot twists that involve betrayal. I’m willing to give this one a try, but that one line on the back does count against it. The book will tend to shuffle downward in the TBR pile. I guess it’s hard to know what will particularly catch readers or turn them away, but fwiw, do not stress betrayal plot twists if you’re trying to get me to read a book.

Anyway, I’m skipping the prologue right now (it’s a frame story that takes place much later, apparently). Here’s how chapter one starts:

The low rumbling did not rouse Helena from her sleep. She had been dreaming of makowiec, the poppy seed rolls Mama used to make, thick and warm with a dusting of sugar. So when the noise grew louder, intruding on her dream and causing her hands to tremble, she clung tighter to the bread, drawing it hurriedly to her mouth. But before she could take a bite, a crash rattled the house and a dish in the kitchen fell and shattered.

Ah, starting right in with the plane crash, I see. Yes, that sounds like a good choice. I expect we’ll get into the real story right away as soon as we’re past the (short) prologue.

7. Last ARC from before this year; I like this title, and I like the cover and the design. Like Water on Stone by Dana Walrath, which came out late in 2014.

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I read one line from the back cover (“It is 1914 and the Ottoman Empires is crumbling into violence”) and picked it up. The setting is grim but interesting: this story takes place against the backdrop of the Armenian genocide. Plus the story seems to have fantasy elements, or elements that may be ambiguously fantastic – the eagle’s feather and the eagle.

Now, opening the book for the first time, I find something unexpected: this story is told in verse form. My first impression was that it opened with a poem, but no. The whole thing is told as a series of poems. I’ve never seen a story like that before. I mean, other than classic epic poetry. What a different kind of thing. I’m dying to know this book’s publication story. It came out from a Random House imprint. I wonder how hard it was to place, what its critical reception was, how it sold. As a young reader . . . actually I might have been attracted to a poem in book form.

Let’s take a look:

Three young ones,
One black pot,
A single quill,
And a tuft of red wool
are enough to start
a new life
in a new land.
I know this is true
because I saw it.

We track our quills
when they fall.
Always.

This is the eagle speaking. Well, not sure when I’ll feel like reading epic poetry about the Armenian genocide. Still, I’m glad I picked this up.

8. Moving on to ARCs from this year, here is Everland by Wendy Spinale. It’s out – it came out this spring. Nice play on “Neverland,” and the cover is playing around with the Tinkerbell image, I’m pretty sure. “The only way to grow up is to survive.” Well, that’s generally the case, of course. Still, the tagline is also playing off Peter Pan. On the back it just says, “To die will be an awfully big adventure.” Hmm.

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Okay, looking at the inside flap, I see this is a kind of post-apocalyptic setting. “London has been destroyed in a blitz of bombs and disease. The only ones to survive the destruction and the outbreak of a deadly virus are children.” The conception is quite something: Captain Hook is a Nazi, Pete is the leader of a gang of boys, Bella is a sharpshooter, and the protagonist, Gwen, is determined to rescue her sister from Hook’s clutches before he can use her for experiments having to do with that virus. Here’s Gwen in the opening chapter:

Outside my window, plumes of gray smoke and steam rise from the decimated city into the polluted midnight sky. There they linger like ghosts of those who once walked the streets of London before the arrival of the Marauders. Pirates. I briefly wonder what life was like before the German monarch’s reign began and the world was without steam power.

Well, well. Not exactly Nazis, then. This history is even more alternate than I thought. Looks like quite an addition to the Peter Pan oeuvre.

9. Okay, this one — The Call by Peadar O’Guillin – looked possibly too dark for me given the cover. Horror, dark fantasy, hard to tell. But the back cover is catchy. “3 Minutes. You wake up alone in a horrible land. A horn sounds. The Call has begun. 2 Minutes. The sidhe are close. They’re the most beautiful and terrible people you’ve ever seen. And they’ve seen you. 1 Minute. Nessa will be Called soon. No one thinks she has any chance to survive. But she’s going to prove them wrong.”

What do you think? Maybe a Hunger Games kind of thing. But with sidhe.

This book came out this August. Here’s how it starts:

On her tenth birthday Nessa overhears an argument in her parents’ bedroom. She knows nothing about the Three Minutes yet. How could she? The whole of society is working to keep its children innocent. She plays with dolls. She believes the lies about her brother, and when her parents tuck her into bed at night – her grinning dad, her fussy mam – they show her only love.

But now, with ten candles on a cake in the kitchen behind her, that’s all supposed to change.

Dad can’t know his daughter is right outside the door and yet he whispers. “We don’t need to tell her,” he says. “She . . . she isn’t able to run anyway. She’s a special case. We could give her a few more years to be our baby.”

Interesting! Overall I’m glad I picked this up, though present tense is not my favorite. I don’t suppose any of you have read it? I’m wondering just where it falls in the spectrum of horror/dark fantasy. I may read reviews first. Or I may just go into it cold and see where it goes.

10. Now we finally get to the ARCs for books that aren’t out yet – though nearly. This one is coming out a week before my MOUNTAIN OF KEPT MEMORY, which I’m sure you’ve all pre-ordered, right?

Anyway, this is Hotel Ruby by Suzanne Young. It’s the one that has my favorite cover of all these books, I think.

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It’s a haunted hotel story, I think. Or maybe this is another glimpse of a perhaps creepy Faerie? A bit hard to tell.

The treetops curve above the road like an archway, blotting out the moon and stars. We’ve been driving through these woods for close to an hour, and our car headlights shine only a short distance in the thick fog. I glance into the backseat to check my older brother’s current state of annoyance, but Daniel hasn’t spoken to m since the rest stop near Vegas. He stiffens, aggressively ignoring me when he turns to face the dark outside the window.

“If we stay on this road,” my father says, “I think there’s a shortcut through the mountains. I remember taking it one time with your mother.”

Ah, shortcuts. Never a good idea when you’re possibly in a horror novel.

I see this is yet another present-tense story. Some authors can make this work, but I do prefer almost every other possible style to first-person-present-tense. I know it’s supposed to make the story feel more immediate. To me, until I adjust to it, this style just adds a layer of artifice on top of what may be a perfectly good story.

11. Out at the end of November, Bright Smoke Cold Fire by Rosamund Hodge. I didn’t look at this at all, just picked it up because I recognized the author’s name. I didn’t love Cruel Beauty, but I liked it quite a bit. Now let’s take a look at this new novel …

Ah ha. This is unexpected. A Romeo and Juliet retelling. I wonder if it ends with a pile of bodies or whether Hodge changes the ending? The complicated back cover copy leaves me with lots of questions. Not a play-by-play retelling, that’s for sure:

The heirs of the city’s most powerful—and warring—families, Mahyanai Romeo and Juliet Catresou share a love deeper than duty, honor, even life itself. But the magic laid on Juliet at birth compels her to punish the enemies of her clan—and Romeo has just killed her cousin Tybalt. Which means he must die.

Paris Catresou has always wanted to serve his family by guarding Juliet. But when his ward tries to escape her fate, magic goes terribly wrong—killing her and leaving Paris bound to Romeo. If he wants to discover the truth of what happened, Paris must delve deep into the city, ally with his worst enemy . . . and perhaps turn against his own clan.

Mahyanai Runajo just wants to protect her city—but she’s the only one who believes it’s in peril. In her desperate hunt for information, she accidentally pulls Juliet from the mouth of death—and finds herself bound to the bitter, angry girl. Runajo quickly discovers Juliet might be the one person who can help her recover the secret to saving Viyara.

Interesting, yes? Here’s how it starts:

If he does not come soon, she may not have the heart to kill him.

For an hour now she has sat at the foot of her bed, gripping her sword in its crimson scabbard. Over and over she whispers, “I am the sword of the Catresou. I was born to avenge the blood of my people.”

But her traitor throat aches and her coward eyes sting. Once upon a time she believed she was only a sword. Now she fears she is only a girl.

Plenty of craft in this opening. I’m not a great fan of Romeo and Juliet (I greatly prefer the comedies), and angsty romance doesn’t do much for me. Still, this looks like a really intriguing book.

12. Okay, this is the only ARC that looks obviously like a MG story. It’s also the ARC with the longest lead time: it’s not due out till January 2017. It’s called Me and Marvin Gardens, it’s by Amy Sarig King . . . oh ho. Amy Sarig, hmm? I bet . . . yes, checking, I see this is indeed A S King, author of those contemporary YAs such as Still Life with Tornado, the first book in this post. Well, how very appropriate to end with this MG by the same author. Totally did not intend that, but I certainly would have set it up that way if I’d realized.

Well, I picked it up off the freebie table not because I recognized the author’s name, but because the back cover says: “The track was part hoof and part paw. It was part dog and part pig. It made no sense, this track.” It goes on but that was when I picked it up and tucked it on the pile of books I was taking home. Looks like a story about a boy and his . . . weird animal.

Here’s how it actually starts:

There were mosquitoes. There were always mosquitoes at Devlin Creek this time of year. Every time I went inside I had twenty more bites than I had the last time, and Mom made a noise as if it was my fault. As if I created mosquitoes.

There was a bloody nose. It wasn’t my first. I didn’t have any tissues or napkins and I was in a good t-shirt, so I lay on my front with my head out over the bank and let the blood drip into the creek. I wondered if the fish would smell it or taste it or breath it. I knew by then that nosebleeds only lasted so long. I’d learned not to pinch my nose or tilt my head back six months ago. You just had to let it bleed until it was done.

Most people get nosebleeds because something happened. Like maybe they got hit with a baseball or walked into a door. I got nosebleeds for no reason.

Or there was a reason.

I just didn’t like to talk about it.

Okay, intriguing. Reading the rest of the page, I’m guessing this kid has gotten off on the wrong foot with some other boys and got this nosebleed via fighting. This beginning is fine, but without the reference to weird tracks on the back cover I’m not sure I would bother going on. Also, this looks like it’s going to have a Conserve The Environment Message overt enough to whap the reader upside the head. Still, AS King may well be a good enough writer to pull this story off without being too overt. Anyway, I will definitely read this one at the same time as the Tornado one; it’ll be fascinating to compare them.

Okay, that’s it (and this post is certainly long enough!). Any of the above stand out for you in a good way or a bad way? For me the two that are trying the hardest to draw me in are #5, The Lost by Sarah Beth Durst; and #8, Everland by Wendy Spinale. And, somewhat to my surprise, maybe #9, The Call by Peadar O’Guillin.

None of the books on this stack look like I made a mistake to pick them up (I tried to only take home books I had a good chance of liking). I have to say, my print TBR shelves are definitely overflowing, though. I may need to put away my Kindle for about a year (this won’t actually happen) and make a solid attempt to whittle the books on the print shelves back to the point all the books fit on the actual shelves. Right now I have three stacks of books on the floor in addition to the shelves.

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1 Comment KidLitCon: dangerous for your TBR pile

  1. Pete Mack

    Ooh just discovered Alis Rassmussen (aka Kate Elliott) has put her very first book on Amazon: The Labyrinth Gate. One of the best YA books I’ve ever read, and likely a tiny bit autobiographic. Finally can reread it after so many years. Then I can read Libba Bray Diviners II. Then I can read some of your recs. Speaking of TBR piles.

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