Shelf Control #82: My Lady Jane

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Welcome to Shelf Control — an original feature created and hosted by Bookshelf Fantasies.

Shelf Control is a weekly celebration of the unread books on our shelves. Pick a book you own but haven’t read, write a post about it (suggestions: include what it’s about, why you want to read it, and when you got it), and link up! Fore more info on what Shelf Control is all about, check out my introductory post, here.

Want to join in? Shelf Control posts go up every Wednesday. See the guidelines at the bottom of the post, and jump on board!

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My Shelf Control pick this week is:

Title: My Lady Jane
Author: Cynthia Hand, Brodi Ashton, and Jodi Meadows
Published: 2016
Length: 491 pages

What it’s about (synopsis via Goodreads):

The comical, fantastical, romantical, (not) entirely true story of Lady Jane Grey. In My Lady Jane, coauthors Cynthia Hand, Brodi Ashton, and Jodi Meadows have created a one-of-a-kind fantasy in the tradition of The Princess Bride, featuring a reluctant king, an even more reluctant queen, a noble steed, and only a passing resemblance to actual history—because sometimes history needs a little help.

At sixteen, Lady Jane Grey is about to be married off to a stranger and caught up in a conspiracy to rob her cousin, King Edward, of his throne. But those trifling problems aren’t for Jane to worry about. Jane is about to become the Queen of England.

How I got it:

Downloaded the Kindle version from Amazon.

When I got it:

Last summer.

Why I want to read it:

Well… I was attracted to this book once I heard it was about Lady Jane Grey… although I admit that I’m skeptical about Lady Jane being the subject of anything that could be considered comical. Still, people I know and trust have recommended it, so I’ll attempt to put my doubts aside and give it a fair try.

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Want to participate in Shelf Control? Here’s how:

  • Write a blog post about a book that you own that you haven’t read yet.
  • Add your link in the comments!
  • If you’d be so kind, I’d appreciate a link back from your own post.
  • Check out other posts, and…

Have fun!

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Book Review: The Pearl Thief

Before Verity…there was Julie.

When fifteen-year-old Julia Beaufort-Stuart wakes up in the hospital, she knows the lazy summer break she’d imagined won’t be exactly like she anticipated. And once she returns to her grandfather’s estate, a bit banged up but alive, she begins to realize that her injury might not have been an accident. One of her family’s employees is missing, and he disappeared on the very same day she landed in the hospital.

Desperate to figure out what happened, she befriends Euan McEwen, the Scottish Traveller boy who found her when she was injured, and his standoffish sister, Ellen. As Julie grows closer to this family, she experiences some of the prejudices they’ve grown used to firsthand, a stark contrast to her own upbringing, and finds herself exploring thrilling new experiences that have nothing to do with a missing-person investigation.

Her memory of that day returns to her in pieces, and when a body is discovered, her new friends are caught in the crosshairs of long-held biases about Travellers. Julie must get to the bottom of the mystery in order to keep them from being framed for the crime.

In this coming-of-age prequel to Code Name Verity, we meet a much younger Julie — a privileged daughter of an aristocratic Scottish family, home for the summer from her Swiss boarding school. Julie and her siblings are converging on their late grandfather’s estate one last time as the grounds, manor house, and belongings are being either sorted for auction or repurposed into a boys’ school.

At the beginning of the summer, Julie is free-spirited and ready for fun. When Julie arrives earlier than expected (and ahead of her luggage), she grabs an old kilt that belonged to her brother and sets off to explore along the river that runs through their property — where she’s konked on the head and knocked unconcious.

As Julie recovers, she develops a connection with the Traveller family who rescued her, and begins to dig through her foggy memories to figure out who knocked her out, and what’s going on with the ancient and priceless Scottish river pearls that were a beloved part of her grandfather’s treasure trove.

Through Julie’s eyes, we get to know the family of Scottish Travellers and see the prejudice and cruelty they’re so casually subjected to, even by people Julie otherwise had respected. Likewise, through Julie, we meet a reclusive, disfigured librarian and gain an understanding of what it truly means to look beyond the surface.

The adventure and mystery of the story are quite entertaining, and there’s nothing here that would earn anything more scandalous than a PG rating. That said, Julie does explore her sexuality through a series of important kisses, and discovers that her orientation may be more complicated than she’d been prepared for. At the same time, we see the great love and loyalty that Julie is capable of, whether directed toward her immediate family, long-time acquaintances, or fast friends.

This is important to note, because of course this is Julie from Code Name Verity, and while The Pearl Thief is set earlier than that stellar book, it’s an interesting look at the young woman Julie was before her life was changed forever by World War II. In The Pearl Thief, Julie is still a half-formed woman, but she’s already well on her way toward establishing her outsized bravery, talent for mimicry and pretending to be someone else, keen mind that zooms in on details, and of course, the absolute devotion to her friends.

It’s not essential to have read Code Name Verity before reading The Pearl Thief, but I think it does add a great deal of meaning. Without the context of CNV, The Pearl  Thief is an interesting and entertaining adventure story, with a beautiful setting and a very neat interweaving of Scottish history and folklore within the more contemporary mystery plot. But having read CNV, The Pearl Thief is all above the above, plus.

It’s a beautiful look into the life of a young woman who we know will go on to be remarkable. For that reason, while The Pearl Thief itself isn’t a highly emotional story, reading it manages to be a moving experience. Here is Julie —  Queenie — in her early days, and it’s easy to see the roots of who she will one day be.

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The details:

Title: The Pearl Thief
Author: Elizabeth Wein
Publisher: Disney-Hyperion
Publication date: May 2, 2017
Length: 326 pages
Genre: Young adult
Source: Purchased

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Book Review: Honestly Ben

Ben Carver is back to normal. He’s getting all As in his classes at the Natick School. He was just elected captain of the baseball team. He’s even won a big scholarship for college, if he can keep up his grades. All that foolishness with Rafe Goldberg last semester is over now, and he just needs to be a Carver, work hard, and stay focused.

Except…

There’s Hannah, a gorgeous girl who attracts him and distracts him. There’s his mother, whose quiet unhappiness he’s noticing for the first time. School is harder, the pressure higher, the scholarship almost slipping away. And there’s Rafe, funny, kind, dating someone else…and maybe the real normal that Ben needs.

If you’ve read my blog at all in the last couple of years, then you’ve probably seen me rave about Openly Straight (review), Bill Konigsberg’s amazing, touching, funny, sweet story of a gay teen trying to recreate his life on his own terms. In Openly Straight, we see the world through the eyes of Rafe, as he enters private school determined to shed his previous life as THE gay kid — completely out, giving talks, mother head of PFLAG, etc — and just see what it feels like to be one of the crowd. However, things get complicated when Rafe falls in love with his best friend Ben, who is startled to discover his own feelings for Rafe. In a nutshell, Ben doesn’t know Rafe is gay, so he believes that they’re exploring new ideas and options and feelings together, and feels completely betrayed when he learns what Rafe has been hiding from him. Seriously, this book made me laugh and broke my heart and was just so powerful!

But then we were left hanging… what happened next?

Well, thank you, thank you, thank you to the author for creating this beautiful sequel! Honestly Ben picks up just a few weeks after the events of Openly Straight. In Honestly Ben, Ben himself is the narrator, and we start to see more deeply into Ben’s life and world, and to understand what drives him and what scares him.

Ben grew up on a farm in New Hampshire, where working hard and not embarrassing the family are the values drilled into Ben and his brother from a young age. And when Ben starts to shine as a student, he’s not praised, but warned not to get a big head. For all that, Ben does succeed, and lands a scholarship to Natick, the poor boy among rich peers, striving to fit in and to do well enough to earn a scholarship to college. Ben keeps his head down, and tries to be what everyone wants him to be — a decent guy, a good baseball player, a top student — fitting in, but not one to call attention to himself.

Ben’s feelings for Rafe changed everything he understood about himself. In Honestly Ben, he digs deeper. Is he gay? The label doesn’t seem to fit. Bi? He doesn’t think so. He’s never been attracted to boys before, and his fantasies are generally about girls. Is he, as he puts it, just “gay-for-Rafe”? After the initial anger wears off, Ben and Rafe cautiously inch forward with their friendship. Ben is thrilled to reconnect with Rafe, but it’s a struggle for him to understand what this means. At the same time, he’s also facing pressure academically that threatens his scholarship, and he struggles with learning the truth about a former student whom the school idolizes — for all the wrong reasons, as Ben discovers.

The book’s exploration of labels is deftly handled. One of the Natick boys comes out as gender fluid, which takes much courage on  his part, as well as a lot of explaining — but he’s determined to start living his authentic life. As Ben tries to understand himself in the context of a relationship with Rafe, even well-meaners try to push him into claiming an identity he’s not comfortable with. Why does he need to put a label on what he is? He knows who he loves — why isn’t that sufficient?

Ben’s eyes are finally opened by a girl he briefly dates, who gets him to start to understand what he loses by hiding behind a front that doesn’t reveal the real him:

I’ve been doing some reading. This woman talks about vulnerability, and she says that it’s basically the key to everything. Vulnerability is allowing people to see you exactly as you are, which is really hard, because when you’re vulnerable you can get hurt. Most people armor up with bravado or something, but those people are missing out, because without allowing yourself to be vulnerable, it’s tough to have, like, any emotional experience at all.

The characters are just as wonderful as in the previous book. It’s touching to see Ben’s life through his own eyes and to understand the constant pressure he feels to be what he isn’t. The writing is outstanding, conveying both the challenges and the joys of Ben’s ongoing experiences and really capturing the sense of wonder that comes with sex in the context of love.

Obviously, I highly recommend this book! It’s a wonderful look at the inner lives of teens, and for those who read Openly Straight (which, really, you must do), it’s a terrific reunion with characters we absolutely love and care about. Check it out!

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The details:

Title: Honestly Ben
Author: Bill Konigsberg
Publisher: Arthur A. Levine
Publication date: March 28, 2017
Length: 304 pages
Genre: Young adult
Source: Library

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The Memory Wall: New release celebration and author Q&A!

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There’s a fine line between real life and video games in this engrossing novel that’s part Kathryn Erskine’s Mockingbird, part Patrick Ness’s A Monster Calls.

Severkin is an elf who slinks through the shadows of Wellhall’s spiraling stone towers, plundering ancient ruins and slaying mystical monstrosities with ease.

He’s also a character in a video game—a character that twelve-year-old Nick Reeves plays when he needs a break from the real world. And lately, Nick has really needed a break. His mother had an “incident” at school last year, and her health has taken a turn for the worse.

Nick is convinced his mother’s illness has been misdiagnosed, but no one believes him. His only escape is the online world of Wellhall, where, as the elf character Severkin, he can face any problem. But when Nick finds himself fighting alongside another elf who reminds him of someone he knows in real life, his worlds begin to collide. . . .

I’m so excited to share this sneak peak at The Memory Wall, the upcoming new release by Lev AC Rosen! The Memory Wall will be released September 13, 2016… and I encourage you all to stop right now, open up a new tab in your browser, hit up Amazon or your favorite online bookseller, and hit the preorder button. You can thank me later. (And now come back and finish reading my post!)

The Memory Wall is an unusual, surprising read — aimed at younger teens, but definitely appealing to grown-ups as well. Don’t be deceived by the cover. While the game and fantasy elements of this book are quite important, it’s the real-life Nick and his disintegrating family that are the heart and soul of the story.

For me personally, Nick’s family, school situation, and inner struggles are the most engrossing elements of The Memory Wall, but the in-game portions are equally well-written and have a propulsive energy all their own. As you’ll see from the Q&A below, it amazes me how well certain elements work together — elements that I never in a million years would have expected to fit into one book — but they really do come together in unexpected but really cool ways.

I’m really thrilled to be able to share this Q&A, but let me just add more note: Lev AC Rosen is an amazing writer who deserves much wider acclaim! Not only does he write great kids’ books (see my review of Woundabout here), but he’s also written two of my absolute favorite books for adults, All Men of Genius (which I read before I was a blogger, so no review… but maybe I’ll revisit in a future blog post) and Depth, which is just awesome (review here).

As a side note, I ended up asking Lev a bunch of questions that relate to the fact that I have a 14-year-old son who’s obsessed with video games. Just FYI.

Without further ado, I’m proud to present:

A Q&A with author Lev AC Rosen, author of The Memory Wall

Note: Mild (very mild) spoilers ahead…

Q:  I never would have guessed that Alzheimer’s, gaming, and the Berlin Wall could fit into a single book. Did you set out to write about all three of these elements from the start?

A: I’m a big believer in the idea that every book writes itself differently. Sometimes the whole idea comes to me fully formed, like a seed, and planting it lets that idea grow. Sometimes it’s more like assembling a puzzle from the pieces that are just floating around your mind.  For The Memory Wall, it was the latter – I knew I wanted to do a book about someone playing a video game, and use that as a story-with-a-story format, where the two stories could actually be pulled apart and still stand on their own. But the age group, the characters, the world, the Berlin Wall, Alzheimer’s – those all sort of snapped on, one by one, because they were already floating around in my head as things I wanted to write about.  Maybe puzzle pieces isn’t the right metaphor – maybe it’s more like trying on clothes. I had this body – video game, story-within-story – and I assembled an outfit on it from the clothes in the wardrobe of my brain – and that included Alzheimer’s and the Berlin Wall. The outfit just looked good. And I didn’t start writing until the outfit was assembled, because the outfit is the idea. Before that, it was just disconnected ideas. Once all the pieces were together, I had an idea, and then I started writing. So Alzheimer’s and the Berlin Wall were there from the moment I was typing. But the core was the video game, I guess.

Q: What was your inspiration for The Memory Wall?

A: Well, I just sort of answered the inspiration for the book part – I could talk more about my personal experiences with Alzheimer’s, or this great German film teacher I had in college, but I’m going to talk about those elsewhere and when I first read this question, I thought you were asking about the literal wall in the book, and I really want to answer that version of the question, because it’s not something I’ve been asked: This book is so much about history, and finding ways to preserve history – whether personal, or societal. Nick’s dad writes about Black history. His mom never talks about her own history in East Berlin. His mom is also losing her own history, and that means Nick feels he’s losing his history with her. So I was thinking about history, and the way we map it, and try to remember it – books, photos, dates, family trees. The ways we quantify history. And I wanted Nick, at some point, to (light spoilers) destroy that in some way. I wanted him to tear down the history he felt had been thrust upon him and realize that history – whether personal or societal – is something that changes all the time, depending on who you talk to, how you look at it. Sure, we can write down dates, map our great-great-grandmothers, but history lives in us. In stories, in memories. It’s not carved in stone. So the memory wall, in the book itself, is this sort of literally carved-in-stone family tree. And I’m trying to go spoiler-light here, so I’ll just say that it’s a history that is put upon Severkin, Nick’s in-game avatar. And when he realizes how his history – and everyone’s history, especially his mom’s – is more than names and dates, that it’s something more fluid than that, he gets to literally shatter the stone. That was satisfying. Plus, of course, calling it the memory wall ties into the Alzheimer’s and the Berlin Wall. But the original inspiration was that I wanted a family tree that could be destroyed in some way. Not to say that his history isn’t that, but to say it’s more than that.

Q: Race and identity are important elements for Nick and Nat, and this is also reflected in their in-game characters. What would you hope that kids reading the book would learn from this?

A: I don’t know if I’d say I want kids to learn anything, exactly. There was this article going around a while back, about a study saying that those who read fiction tend to have more empathy. Reading literally puts you in someone else’s head, so you learn how to do that with real people, too. I think of that whenever I’m writing, because that’s important. That books can change the world – and I don’t have many skills, so this is the thing I can do.  But to really expand that empathy, I need to have it, too. As an author, I can’t just write about people like me – I can’t just write about queer Jewish men from NYC. Besides being wildly limiting, it’s also boring, and isn’t what the world looks like. Authors have the responsibility to put themselves into the minds of different people from different backgrounds – and to do so respectfully. Because when we do that, our readers experience it as well. And that’s the important stuff. So, when I knew Nick had to have a background with strong historical elements, one mapped, one hidden, and I knew so much of the book was about duality – secret/exposed histories, game/real world – I decided Nick’s two sides of the family could be two races, as well. Luckily, I have multi-racial friends, and they were willing to talk to me, and give me books and essays to read so that I could explore that perspective as much as someone without it can. What I hope is that kids enjoy the book, and if they’re multi-racial, they see themselves in it, even if Nick isn’t really like them. And if they’re not multi-racial, hopefully they come out of it with a bit more understanding of the perspective of those who are. Which isn’t to say Nick represents all multi-racial people, but just that he is a fully fleshed out person who the kids can get behind.

Q: Were you at all tempted to have Nick’s mother not have Alzheimer’s, proving Nick right?

A: SPOILERS! This is a fantastic question, and yes. So much yes. I actually tried really hard to go in undecided. To be like “this could go either way.” But the more I realized how much Nick’s parents were keeping from him, the more I knew she had to have it. I did lots of research on Alzheimer’s, talked to doctors, and there are lots of things that look like Alzheimer’s – lots of things Nick could hold on to and say “it’s this, and this is so easily curable!” But the doctors can test for most of those. But I needed hope to be vibrant through the entire book. I needed to hope with Nick.

It’s interesting – people who have read it who have had personal experiences with Alzheimer’s – who have lost someone to it – never believe that Sophie has been misdiagnosed. They tell me they experienced so much of what Nick did, but as readers, they never doubt the diagnosis. Those readers who don’t have a personal experience with Alzheimer’s, though, think it’s possible Sophie has been misdiagnosed. So I feel like that’s a good balance to strike.

Q: As far as I know, most kids don’t play video games with their mothers. (Mine doesn’t!) I love this element of Nick’s relationship with his mom, and how their game connection was a part of their real-life connection. (Sorry, this isn’t really a question so far.)

A: I may be dating myself here, but my mom and I played Legend of Zelda on the original NES. I don’t know if she enjoyed it, or if she was just humoring her six year old, but I like to think she had fun. That being said, as I got older, and games got more complex, she didn’t play with me as much. But we both really liked Zelda. I think.

But Sophie, I think, besides wanting to humor her kid, took a real interest in this particular series because it’s supposed to have this background in myth and culture. And as an anthropologist, she could see those roots and point them out to her son, which I think, for her, gave the game more value. Plus, games are fun. I think she had fun, too – it’s just that her fun was colored by her academic background.

Q: I think most adults/parents these days automatically see video games as a waste of time or not healthy for their kids. The Memory Wall shows a lot of positives related to gaming. Do you think there’s a healthy balance? What are the positives you see in gaming for kids?

A: Well, everything in moderation. Sure, too much video gaming is bad. So is too much anything, really.  But do I think gaming is generally a good thing, or at least has the potential to be? Absolutely. When the printing press first made literature easily available, people freaked out about young people reading. It would make them imagine too much. They stopped doing what they were supposed to, like dueling and needlepoint and socializing, and instead had their noses in books all the time. THE  HORROR! Video games are another form of storytelling. Yes, it’s more interactive – button pressing, in game decision making, etc. Those choose your own adventure books had decisions, too, though. And, like with books, there are bad games out there. But generally speaking, games are great. There are stories told in games that can’t be told other ways, and some of those stories are truly beautiful. Can they be violent? Yes. So are movies. So are books. The thing I’d worry most about in video games is the treatment of women and sex. That can sometimes get a bit weird, I think. Women are sexualized (like in movies, TV), but when it becomes about pressing buttons to seduce a woman, that… is a little weird for me, especially if the player is a young man. Women don’t have buttons. Some games do it well. Some don’t. I think as long as you’re raising your kids to have a healthy respect for women and realize that like the violence in games, this “seduction” aspect is pure fantasy and sometimes dehumanizing, then it’s ok. And of course, watch for those game ratings.

But overall, I think games have the potential to have a really positive aspect on kids, by letting them explore worlds much larger than their own. Or just to solve puzzles or get good at button pressing – which isn’t a bad skill to have. For Nick, the game lets him essentially live out his fantasies and then deal with his reality. He gets to go on one last adventure with his mother – he gets to try to save her, and learn about her, and contextualize her in his fantasy world. And then (big spoilers), when it turns out he was living in a fantasy, he gets to punish someone for it. Because, I’d imagine Nick has a lot of anger at his mother by the end of the book. She lied to him. She kept her condition from him. She gave him hope when there wasn’t any. And Nick should feel angry about that, he should want to punish her in some way, but instead he gets to take it out on Reunne, who wasn’t trying to protect him, but was this malicious manipulator, feeding off his hope. And I think kids can do that with games. They can see symbols, see their own life, and in some way, express who they want to be. Sure, the chances of a kid today growing up to be a space marine are slim, but that kid gets to experience what that version of herself is. And hopefully, there are things she likes about that version of herself and can then work on bringing into her real self. Games can be empowering for kids in that way. And that goes for everything – space marines, or fashion designers on iPhone games.

Q: Do you feel the positives/negatives change based on the kind of game (i.e., role-playing fantasy vs first-person shooter games)?

A: It’s funny you use those two genres as examples because there’s such overlap between them now. I think genre does influence the scope of the game, and games with bigger scopes are often more interesting (though not always). Fighting games, for instance, give you one way of interacting in the world – you fight.  You push buttons, your avatar kicks, punches, etc. But the choice is always fight. A larger open world RPG, like the one Nick plays, or like Skyrim or Fallout, gives you more ways to interact – talk someone out of violence instead of fighting them, collecting items for someone so they won’t die, etc. So I think those games tend to have more positives because they offer a larger scope. Each genre has it’s own plusses and minuses, though. Japanese style RPGs, for example, which aren’t open world, and more streamlined, tend to play more like a movie with tactical fighting interludes – not many choices in those, either. And plenty of shooting games these days have massive online battle zones. That’s more like a big game of laser tag, to me. Other games are like really complex games of chess. But I do think that games with more choice and more things you can do within the world tend to have more value just because choice means more figuring out what you’d choose. And figuring out what you’d choose – being able to experiment with it and see the consequence, being able to do something really awful, just to experience it – that’s the good stuff in gaming, I think.

Q: Are you a gamer? Were you a gamer during your school years? And if so, any favorites? Anything that you particularly took from your gaming experiences as a kid?

A: Yes, and yes. When I was a kid, my favorite game was Final Fantasy 3 (6, really, but they called it 3 when they released it in the US).  I LOVED that game. It’s an amazing, epic story. My friend Liz and I wrote fan fiction about that game. Man I loved it. Still do. Great game. It was also one of my first experiences with Steampunk, so it was a big influence for All Men of Genius.

I think my modern favorite would be Bioshock, though. That is a brilliant story, too, beautifully done, so smart. It’s a shooter with RPG elements – and they’re remastering it for the PS4. Out soon, I think. If your son hasn’t played it, that would be a great one to get and be like “okay, I get to watch you play this because I hear it’s amazing.” That’s something parents are allowed to do, right? It’s just so smart, and has ties to US history and philosophy, like the game in The Memory Wall has ties to East Berlin. It was a game that really showed me how history can work in games, how games can relate to the real world and interact with them.

And Portal! While we’re on recommendations to watch your kid play, or even, in the case of Portal 2, play with them, I highly recommend Portal, which is a puzzle game that looks like a shooter. It’s really smart and funny. There are a lot of great games out these days. Lots of bad ones, too – that’s what happens when there’s more of anything, you get more bad, too, but lots of good ones. Plenty for tablets and phone, too. I loved Transistor. Beautiful piece of art. There’s so much good stuff out there. I could go on for ages.

Q: You’ve written books for adults and for kids. Do you prefer one or the other? What do you enjoy about each? Is your process different for adult vs kid books?

A: I don’t know. I don’t really think of them that way. I mean, I know the age of the kid I’m writing for, but I’m pretty much always writing for me.  Maybe 8 year old Lev, like for Woundabout, or 11 year old Lev, like Memory Wall, or 22 year old Lev, like All Men of Genius, or present-day Lev, like Depth, but I’m always writing for myself, somewhere on the spectrum. Like I said, I’m a big believer in the idea that every book writes itself differently, so it’s not so much about “writing for children” or “writing for adults” – it’s writing this book. That’s how I think about it. And the process, and what I enjoy varies depending on the sort of book it is.  For The Memory Wall I think I really enjoyed crafting the world of the game by using various influences based in East Berlin and Germanic myth. That was a fun. And I really liked being able to express Nick through Severkin. Using his avatar as a way to say things about him that maybe he couldn’t acknowledge about himself.

Q: Can you share a little about your next project or projects? Any chance we might still see a sequel to All Men of Genius or Depth? (I can’t get the images of a drowned New York out of my mind – please tell me there’s more coming set in this world!)

A: I’m a bit of a busy bee, flitting from flower to flower. I don’t stay in my lane long enough to do sequels much. All Men of Genius I had never intended one for, and then folks wanted one, and I tried my hand at it, but it didn’t feel right. Depth I’m more open to exploring sequels for because I had more of “mystery series” mindset going in. But sales aren’t really justifying it, plus my amazing editor left that imprint and I don’t know anyone else there. But I have been thinking of maybe writing a sequel and self-publishing it, just to see what that experience is like. But those are on the back burner. I have other projects right now – a too-long-to-be-a-short-story that’s sort of Greek Myth Noir. I’m trying to find a place for that, but it’s like “novelette” length, which is weird, and anything not a novel is outside my comfort zone, too. But I like it, and I need to do research on people who publish that length.  Or maybe that could be the self-publishing experiment. Then I have two finished drafts of books. Both YA. One is a fairy tale retelling, and a lot of fun, and the other is a contemporary sci-fi spy story about motherhood. We’re still putting together lists of editors to send those to. We’ll see what happens, but fingers crossed. And I’ve just started a period 1940s noir. That’s for adults. It’s… stranger than it sounds. Maybe? I’m sort of all over the place, like I said. Which I love about myself, even if it hurts my overall career. But sometimes I can get people to read something outside their usual zone, and that’s pretty awesome. That’s a good feeling.

Q: Are you sure I’m not a bad mother if I let my 14-year-old play Grand Theft Auto and Call of Duty?

A: Well, with no other evidence, it’s hard to say. But if you’re worrying about it, and talking to him about it, probably not.

But seriously, if he has a PS4, go get the Bioshock Collection remaster that’s coming out the same day as my book. Sit him down and be like “I’ve heard this is amazing, but I’m awful at video games. Want to help me experience it?” and see what happens. The first one in the collection is really fantastic. The other two are good, too, but that first one. Yeah. Play Bioshock with your kid. That’ll definitely make up for any bad parenting.  😉

I can’t thank Lev enough for taking the time to answer my loooong list of questions!! Thank you, Lev — it’s a pleasure to have you here as a guest at Bookshelf Fantasies. Wishing you the best of luck with the release of The Memory Wall.

The Memory Wall will be released September 13th. Go get yourself a copy!

Available at:

Amazon
Barnes & Noble

To learn more about author Lev AC Rosen, visit his website at www.levacrosen.com

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The details:

Title: The Memory Wall
Author: Lev AC Rosen
Publisher: Knopf Books for Young Readers
Publication date: September 13, 2016
Length: 368 pages
Genre: Middle grade/young adult
Source: Review copy courtesy of the author

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Take A Peek Book Review: Paper Towns

“Take a Peek” book reviews are short and (possibly) sweet, keeping the commentary brief and providing a little peek at what the book’s about and what I thought.

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Synopsis:

(via Goodreads)

Who is the real Margo?

Quentin Jacobsen has spent a lifetime loving the magnificently adventurous Margo Roth Spiegelman from afar. So when she cracks open a window and climbs into his life—dressed like a ninja and summoning him for an ingenious campaign of revenge—he follows. After their all-nighter ends, and a new day breaks, Q arrives at school to discover that Margo, always an enigma, has now become a mystery. But Q soon learns that there are clues—and they’re for him. Urged down a disconnected path, the closer he gets, the less Q sees the girl he thought he knew…

 

My Thoughts:

Oh, where to start? This was most decidedly a middle-of-the-road, “meh” sort of read for me. On the plus side, John Green is an indisputed talent when it comes to getting inside teen brains and portraying the shifting loyalties and tensions of teen friendships. On the negative side, I have very little tolerance for this type of tale, starring an every-boy main character — decent guy, not too remarkable, not part of the in-crowd — who is drawn to the oh-so-special wild girl, the one who can’t be pinned down, who acts out in crazy ways that are supposed to be a sign of just how special her specialness is.

I enjoyed the scenes of Quentin embarking on a crazy road trip with his best friends — a wild 24-hour drive up the coast on the trail of Margo’s confusing clues, with all sorts of escapades, close calls, and silly/manic rest stop shopping sprees. But… all this is in search of the elusive Margo, who, quite frankly, doesn’t seem to want to be found. And if she did want to be found, she made it next to impossible. I found it pretty hard to believe that the gang managed to decipher the obscure patterns that form a sort of roadmap to her — and further, I had a hard time seeing her all-night adventure with Quentin as something that he’d actually enjoy or go along with.

I loved The Fault in Our Stars and Will Grayson, Will Grayson — but Paper Towns had about the same effect on me as Looking For Alaska. Clearly, books about boy-next-door types falling under the spell of the elusive, magical, tormented, magnetic (etc, etc) wonder girl just don’t work for me.

Note: I picked up the e-book of Paper Towns a couple of years ago, and finally read it this month in preparation for a book group discussion. Who knows? Perhaps the amazing folks in my group will convince me that I missed something!

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The details:

Title: Paper Towns
Author: John Green
Publisher: Speak
Publication date: 2009
Length: 305 pages
Genre: Young adult
Source: Purchased

Book Review: The Truth About Us

Truth About Us17-year-old Jess has what might seem to be an ideal life: She lives in a huge house in an upscale neighborhood, drives an Audi, and is sent out shopping for whatever she likes, parents’ credit card in hand. She goes to the best parties, where she and her bestie Nance get over-the-top drunk and flirt (and then some) with the best boys. Jess’s party-girl persona is a cover, though — a way for Jess to escape the worries and sorrows that have plagued her ever since a family tragedy two years earlier.

That doesn’t stop her from going too far, and when Jess is busted for daytime drinking, topless sunbathing, and a ridiculously expensive impulse buy on EBay, she’s sentenced to a horrible fate: Jess’s dad forces her to commit to daily “volunteer” work at the local soup kitchen. But Daaaaaad… you can practically hear her whining. So unfair.

Little by little, Jess comes to see the value in what she’s doing. Sure, the shelter is in a seedy part of town, serving lunch to all sorts of homeless riff-raff. And yes, the rest of the shelter volunteer crew and staff look at her as a spoiled little rich girl who’ll never fit in, unable to even walk to the corner bus stop without an escort. But when Jess meets the gorgeous Flynn and his adorable little brother, who come regularly for lunch and then stay to lend a hand, Jess’s heart begins to melt. Not only is she falling for Flynn hard, but she’s also made friends with an old man named Wilf, a widower and the shelter’s benefactor whose grumpy exterior hides the soul of a true romantic… and Wilf can’t resist imparting his own words of wisdom to Jess, including the lesson that love is worth fighting for.

There’s a lot that gets in the way of Jess and Flynn’s exploding feelings. Jess’s dad may want her to learn a lesson by working at the shelter, but he certainly doesn’t want her socializing with a poor boy from a bad neighborhood. Jess’s friends don’t understand why she doesn’t want to drink, flirt, and hook up the way she used to. Flynn’s mother isn’t a fan of Jess, either; to her, Jess is slumming and will only hurt Flynn. But as the summer progresses, Jess and Flynn grow closer, and Jess finally starts to open up about the sadness that threatens to rip her own family apart.

The Truth About Us tackles the subjects of privilege and economic challenges in a thoughtful and sensitive manner. Jess does really seem to have it all — but as the book shows us, even a perfect exterior can hide fractures and difficulty. Granted, Jess never has to worry about the roof over her head or where her next meal is coming from, so I wouldn’t say that her struggles and Flynn’s are equivalent. Still, the story forces readers to acknowledge that pain comes in many forms, and people don’t just get handed happiness alongside their gold credit cards and expensive electronics.

There are moments when the subject becomes a bit clunky:

I use the computer in Dad’s office to go online, and most of the time end up googling things like poverty. My eyes are open to a lot of things I didn’t know about being poor. I always knew my family had money, but it always seemed like everyone else did too.

Googling poverty? It’s really that foreign a concept to her? It’s hard to keep rooting for Jess in certain moments, even though ultimately we know that her heart is in the right place.

The romance in The Truth About Us is perhaps meant to be more of a “forbidden love” than it really seems. Jess’s friends are horrified that she’d get involved with a poor boy. Both Jess’s dad and Flynn’s mother are opposed to the relationship, but they come around eventually. Flynn’s own sense of responsibility toward his mother and brother keep him away from Jess for a time, but we know that these two feel instantly connected and that they’re fated to be together. The obstacles never appear to be truly insurmountable, and it’s not really a surprise when they manage to work things out.

This review perhaps sounds less positive than I actually feel about the book. The writing is witty and sensitive, and I liked the cast of characters very much. The secondary characters, especially Wilf and Jess’s former best friend Penny, are good people with a lot of heart. The story of the disintegration of Jess’s family and their slow steps toward healing is terribly sad, and it’s easy to see how Jess’s life became such a mess. She’s clearly a decent person who means well, cares for others, and wants to make a difference — and once she fights her way out from under her rich girl persona, she starts to grow into the person she wants to be.

I did feel that the realities of homelessness and poverty were a little sugar-coated, and that Jess didn’t see the truth of just how bad things could really be. However, The Truth About Us does show that it’s possible for people from such drastically different worlds to connect in a meaningful way, once they get past their preconceptions and prejudices. I haven’t seen many YA books confronting these issues, and the author should be commended for tackling the topic of economic disadvantage and differences in a way that will hopefully open readers’ eyes.

For more by this author, check out my review of her terrific previous novel, 16 Things I Thought Were True.

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The details:

Title: The Truth About Us
Author: Janet Gurtler
Publisher: Sourcebooks Fire
Publication date: April 7, 2015
Length: 304 pages
Genre: Young adult fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of Sourcebooks Fire via NetGalley

Book Review: Better Off Friends

Book Review: Better Off Friends by Elizabeth Eulberg

Better off Friends

A little like When Harry Met Sally for teens, Better Off Friends asks the question, “Is it really possible for a boy and a girl to be just friends?”

Macallan (yes, she’s named for the whiskey) and Levi just click from the very start, when Levi moves from California to Wisconsin right at the start of 7th grade. He’s the new kid worried about fitting in and making friends. Macallan has troubles of her own, still recovering from her mother’s shocking death in a car accident the previous year. Yet somehow, these two get each other, moving quickly from the discovery of a shared loved for a (fictitious) BBC comedy to best friend status, finishing each others’ sentences, being relatively unsufferable to those trying to get a word in edgewise, fitting into each others’ families, and really connecting in the way only true friends can.

Their friendship continues, with its share of ups and downs, into high school. They manage to survive the awful fall-out from Levi dating Macallan’s best girl friend, as well as a variety of other awkward moments that might break up a less solid friendship. But Levi and Macallan are totally strong and inseparable — until things start to fall apart. As Levi finally gets what he always thought he wanted — guy friends, success in sports, a crowd to hang out with — he has less time and attention for Macallan. Meanwhile, she’s realizing that friendship with Levi isn’t quite as easy or comfortable as it was in their younger days.

For years, people have always assumed that these two were “together” — and they really can be quite frightful when they’re on a roll with their in-jokes, ignoring everyone else around them, completely oblivious to their other friends, or even their current boyfriend or girlfriend. An attempt at a double-date is never repeated, after it ends disastrously (and also somewhat hilariously).

But when Levi finally starts to wonder what it is that he feels for Macallan, their friendship enters rocky territory, to the point where it looks doubtful that they can survive it at all. Plagued by doubts and worries and serious miscommunication, Levi and Macallan each have to decide whether it’s worth pursuing something more… or whether they really are better off friends.

How many times have you seen a character in a book or movie use the excuse “I don’t want to ruin our friendship” as a reason for not going out with someone? Totally lame, right? Well, in Better Off Friends, not ruining the friendship is the crux of the problem, and it’s not at all lame. I loved seeing how much Levi and Macallan care about each other and how vital their friendship is for both of them. Neither of them can stand the idea of ruining it… but their inability to be honest and take a risk may destroy the friendship anyway.

Told in alternating voices, we get to hear in first-person perspective from both Macallan and Levi the history of their friendship and to see how it grows and changes over the years. Each chapter ends with a bit of banter between the two. It comes across like a recounting of their history, so that after Macallan tells the story of the first time she met Levi, we hear a few choice comments from Levi –usually snarky and funny — telling what he thinks of Macallan’s version of events. It’s a nice touch, and it lets the reader know that they’re in this together and enjoying the tales from their past. It does also remove a little element of suspense: Since the story is told as the two of them looking back on their shared history, there’s really no fear that they won’t end up at least as friends, if not more.

Insta-love seems to be all too common in YA fiction these days. They meet, they exchange five words, they looks into each others’ eyes — and BAM! It’s true, deep, soul-scorching love. (It definitely helps if one is from the wrong side of the tracks, or has a troubled past, or is hiding a deep, dark secret). Better Off Friends is like the antidote to insta-love: When romance finally becomes a possibility, it’s after years of friendship and a true, deep connection. We feel like the characters have earned it; love feels organic for these two, and not something forced on a pair of characters in order to fit a formula.

In fact, Better Off Friends is so far from formulaic that reading it feels like a breath of fresh air. Other than the fact that a main character has lost a parent at a young age, nothing in this book feels like a retread of what’s trendy in teen fiction at the moment. I enjoyed the originality of the characters and the care and detail devoted to letting us get to know them. Their struggles to pursue their own interests and passions, balance these with school and home demands, and figure out how to still be a good friend felt realistic and appropriate for their ages, and it was interesting to see how the two grow over the years from nervous middle school kids to confident high school juniors.

Last year, I read Revenge of the Girl With the Great Personality by Elizabeth Eulberg, and loved the honest way in which the author approached the problems and challenges of a terrific main character. (You can check out my review here.) After reading Better Off Friends, I’m adding Elizabeth Eulberg to my list of incredibly talented YA writers whose work I’ll always want to check out.

If you enjoy contemporary young adult fiction with main characters you can care about, definitely give Better Off Friends a try!

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The details:

Title: Better Off Friends
Author: Elizabeth Eulberg
Publisher: Scholastic
Publication date: February 25, 2014
Length: 288 pages
Genre: Young adult contemporary
Source: Review copy courtesy of Scholastic via NetGalley