Ender’s Game at Boarding School: Insignia

A review of Insignia (Insignia #1) by S.J. Kincaid

Katherine Tegan Books (Harper Collins), 2012

Insignia S.J. Kincaid

by REBECCA, May 29, 2013


Fourteen-year-old Tom Raines trails after his itinerant gambler father, hustling virtual reality game rooms to pay for their hotels. He wants to be important, to be respected, but even his school teacher thinks he’s going nowhere fast. That all changes, though, when a military higher-up recruits Tom to an elite military academy to train him as a strategist for the war (World War III). But in a world run by corporations and microcomputers, how will Tom know what he’s really fighting for?


Insignia is sort of an Ender’s Game meets Harry Potter meets The Secret Circle. Tom is plucked from obscurity to translate his video game skills into real military tactics in a new place where he finally makes friends. Don’t get me wrong: even though it’s a recognizable story, Insignia is really a lot of fun. It has just enough science (the classic neuro-chip) to feel science fiction-y, just enough worldbuilding to feel satisfying (although done in truly catastrophic infodumps that I don’t know how it got past an editor), and just enough boarding school hijinks to feel like you’re fourteen again. All in all, a really fun read.

The PentagonWhen Tom arrives at the Pentagonal Spire, he learns that in order to train to be an elite member of the Intrasolar Forces and fight in the war, he has to undergo a small alteration: a microchip will be inserted into his brain to give him perfect recall to all uploaded information (yes, there is an “I know kung fu” joke). Of course, this trips Tom’s my-dad-thinks-these-people-are-robots meter, and why shouldn’t it?; the “paranoid” gamblers are always right. Still, his desire to be extraordinary outweighs his suspicion of becoming controllable by the military, and he agrees. And this is the scary shit: people, I have read books before where people get computer chips in their freaking brains, but for some reason this one just terrified me! Since these are students, they all try and hack into each other’s brains, and of course, evil people try and manipulate their brain chips and it is like my worst nightmare. Hello Imperius curse!

what were this book’s intentions? did it live up to them?

11115434S.J. Kincaid has created a world that is sort of the logical extension of current political critiques: countries have formed alliances and their governments are run by corporations; World War III is being fought for purely capitalist gains and it’s being done in outer space with drones to avoid any human or environmental (on Earth) casualties—and, of course, to dismiss any possible resistance to the war. There is very little discussion of this world or its implications among the characters (except by Tom’s dad, who is a bit of a mouthpiece. You know, for sense). It’s their reality, and there seems to be no underground movement against this military-corporate complex; at least, not that these kids know about.

It’s so interesting: Insignia is one of the most political YA books I’ve read in a while—Tom’s father rails against corporate-run warfare, lambastes the military for taking advantage of its naïve recruits’ desire to play with toys and then disposing of them, and skewers the world’s obsession with looks, which is what dictates who is the face of the military. Yeah!!! Right? But, strangely, its politics have absolutely no stakes in the book. While Tom agrees with his father, for the most part, and is often guided by similar principles, there is no meat to these politics.

For me, this is a little unfortunate, since I think all the pieces are there to critique Insignia‘s world. It’s almost as if these politics (and I’m not saying they are the author’s politics, necessarily) lost out to the fourteen and fifteen year olds’ other desires: for friends, for revenge, and for cool gizmos. And if that’s the case, then I’m okay with it in this first book in the series. The critiques are intrinsic to the world itself, and I can only hope that, in later books (and as the characters mature) the politics and the action will merge.

Vortex (Insignia #2) S.J. KincaidThere are clear heroes and villains, here, which makes Insignia more romp than real science fiction; but neither is it totally lightweight. I was irritated by the knee-jerk gender essentialism (people, come on!) and the fact that the second Tom got a golden ticket he suddenly became handsome for no reason whatsoever (which has other implications near the end of the book). These are all signs, though, more of a sloppy book than of a bad one, I think. And, all that said, the book’s intention was clearly to be fun, entertaining, and action-packed, and it absolutely succeeded at all three. The characters are well-developed and the pace is good, merging all the best parts of boarding school novels with a lighter version of Ender’s Game. I am definitely excited to see where Kincaid goes in the sequel.


Ender's Game by Orson Scott Card

Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card (1985). Ender Wiggin is recruited by the military to attend Battle School as a child. Once there, he is immersed in the wonderful world of the battle room, and the terrible world of war. Hate Orson Scott Card’s douchebag politics with my whole heart, but love Ender’s Game so much.

Hero by Perry Moore Hero by Perry Moore

Hero by Perry Moore (2007). In a world where superheroes are real, Thom Creed is asked to join the League, full of others with powers, just like he has. But which will be harder: telling his dad that he’s joining the very group who spurned his dad, or telling his dad he’s gay? Great, great superhero book, that is also a book about finding friends and finding yourself.

procured from: the library


What Maisie Knew: Movie Review

A Review of What Maisie Knew, directed by Scott McGehee & David Siegel

What Maisie Knew

by REBECCA, May 27, 2013

In a cinematic landscape that lately seems to be 95% remakes, updates, sequels, and replicas of Swedish movies that were already awesome, What Maisie Knew, an update of Henry James’ 1897 serial novel, had great potential to be more of the same. Instead, McGehee and Siegel’s interpretation is utterly compelling.

What Maisie Knew Henry JamesMaisie’s mother, Susanna, (Julianne Moore as a rock star trying to keep her career alive) and father, Beale, (Steve Coogan as a slick art dealer) separate and get joint custody of Maisie, who bounces back and forth between them. Her father quickly marries her former nanny, Margo (Joanna Vanderham, with a charming Scottish accent and little else to recommend her), in an attempt to sue for full custody. Maisie’s mother retaliates by marrying Lincoln, a bartender who she pays for the privilege (Alexander Skarsgård, with just the right air of distracted sweetness). With these four yahoos trying to juggle Maisie and their own lives, snarls ensue: they miss pick-ups at school, drop Maisie off early,  try to buy her affection with gifts.

But this isn’t a farce, and there is nothing amusing about the mess the adults in Maisie’s life make. Susanna wants Maisie to love her best no matter what she does and is fiercely jealous of anyone else in her life; Beale wants to deprive Susanna of her, but has no time to take care of her himself. More and more, Maisie’s care shifts to Margo and Lincoln, who begin to know each other through Maisie, as well. Julianne Moore is great, as always, with a slightly unhinged, career-obsessed Susanna, who is just lovable enough to appeal. Steve Coogan is slimy as can be and trades women like the art he deals. Margo seems to genuinely care for Maisie, but is a total milquetoast. Lincoln, whose marriage to Susanna is sham enough not to disable him as Margo’s does, is the one who Maisie latches onto, and it’s that relationship that is most enjoyable to watch.

Alexander Skarsgard and Onata AprileThis isn’t a film with the message “isn’t it terrible when children don’t have nuclear families”; it isn’t trying to suggest that children are the most important thing in the world so we should drop everything and devote our lives to them. And that’s very much in its favor. It doesn’t need to point those fingers because the film isn’t about Maisie’s parents at all—the only access we get to them is through Maisie. What Maisie Knew is Maisie’s story, and we often see the world through her eyes, the camera at a child’s height. Onata Aprile is captivating and her performance makes the film. Against the backdrop of her parents’ chaos, screaming, and crying, she is understated and self-contained. What Maisie Knew is a quiet movie, so if you’re looking for a movie packed with grand passions and climaxes, this isn’t it. The film manages, though, to show us the things that Maisie knows—how to play with a toy horse, how to make a sandwich, how to wait, how to fall asleep—and make them beautiful and scary and heartbreaking for us.

Queer Young Adult Fiction To Curl Up With

How To Repair a Mechanical Heart by J.C. Lillis Santa Olivia by Jacqueline Carey http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/6567017-will-grayson-will-grayson

by REBECCA, May 15, 2013

Hey, folks, today I’m a guest over at the wonderful Housequeer, with a list of Queer Young Adult Fiction to Curl Up With. Come on over and say hello!

All I Really Need To Know I Learned From The Outsiders

The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton

by REBECCA, May 13, 2013

We all have our ethical coming out stories—the moment we came to knowledge about what we thought was wrong or right or necessary in the world; often we have many of them. For 11-year-old me, S.E. Hinton’s The Outsiders provided one such moment. But, really, if I look back at The Outsiders, it’s startling how many of the lessons I would need to learn (again and again) are there. Which makes me pat my 11-year-old self on the back and say, “oh, well-spotted, young squire.” (Yeah, sometimes I like to call myself “squire”; don’t make a big deal out of it.)


All I Really Need To Know I Learned From The Outsiders

The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton

1. “Things are rough all over.” Cherry Valance says this to Ponyboy in response to his notion that Socs all have perfect lives, and, while it is totally clear that things are not as rough for the Socs, this is something that I would do well to remember, both in moments of feeling like my own shit isn’t bad enough to deserve others’ attention, and in moments of feeling bitter about people complaining about things that seem not-so-bad to me. 

2. “I lie to myself all the time. But I never believe me.” Ponyboy is trying to convince himself that he doesn’t care if his brother hates him (which, of course, Darry doesn’t). Being able to be honest with yourself, even—perhaps especially if—you can’t be honest about yourself or to others is An Important Thing. Knowing what you want, even if you can’t have it right now; knowing who you are, even if you can’t show anyone quite yet; knowing how you feel, even if you won’t tell anyone yet: these pieces of self-honesty are the first steps to all the rest of it. (I like to think that I don’t lie to myself, but it’s probably not true; being overly harsh on yourself is just as much of a lie as being too easy, right?)

4. “It’s not just money.” When Ponyboy, Johnny, and Two-Bit are walking Cherry and Marcia home from the movies, they’re talking about what separates the Socs and the Greasers and, long story short, they realize that class divides aren’t just about money, but about the inextricable strands of taste, gender, race, prejudice, regionality, and culture that knot together to form group identities, and the material consequences thereof:

“‘It ain’t fair that we have all the rough breaks!’ I didn’t know exactly what I meant, but I was thinking about Johnny’s father being a drunk and his mother a selfish slob, and Two-Bit’s mother being a barmaid to support him and his kid sister after their father ran out on them, and Dally—wild, cunning Dally—turning into a hoodlum because he’d die if he didn’t, and Steve—his hatred for his father coming out in his soft, bitter voice and the violence of his temper. Sodapop . . . a dropout so he could get a job and keep me in school, and Darry, getting old before his time trying to run a family and hang on to two jobs and never having any fun—while the Socs had so much spare time and money that they jumped us and each other for kicks.”

5. “If you don’t stick up for them, stick together, make like brothers, it isn’t a gang anymore.” Loyalty is something that Ponyboy learns to complicate throughout The Outsiders: sometimes you should be loyal to a person even if you disagree with what they do; and sometimes you have to be loyal to yourself and your beliefs even if it means not sticking up for that person. Either way, a gang, be it friends, family, or chosen family, is wicked important. Brothers!

6. “Nothing gold can stay.” But that’s what makes it magical. That tenuous, liminal moment before something becomes something else wouldn’t have the same power if it were permanent, and learning to appreciate those moments instead of mourning their loss is one of those lessons that I’m still working on.

7. “By the fifth day I was so tired of baloney I nearly got sick every time I looked at it.” If you’re going to kill a Soc to keep him from drowning your friend and you’re going to go hide in an abandoned church on Jay Mountain and you’re going to go get supplies from the store to last you for the week, you should not buy all baloney; aka, food is important and so’s variety and you should take care to ensure both.

8. “Southern gentlemen had nothing on Johnny Cade.” Honor, bravery, and generosity have nothing to do with your station and everything to do with your choices. As Jerry tells Ponyboy in the ambulance, after Pony and Johnny have saved the kids from the burning church,

“‘I swear, you three are the bravest kids I’ve seen in a long time. . . . Mrs. O’Briant and I think you were sent straight from heaven. Or are you just professional heroes or something?’ Sent from heaven? Had he gotten a good look at Dallas? ‘No, we’re greasers,’ I said.”

But that also doesn’t mean being a hero, necessarily. There are a lot of ways to be brave.

9. “So even Dally has a breaking point.” Everyone, no matter how tough, cold, disciplined, or unfeeling they may seem, has something they care about and something that will push them over the edge. And the tougher, colder, more disciplined, and more unfeeling-seeming they are, the farther out they may have gotten before they hit it, and the harder it can be for them to come back from it.

10. “I decided could tell people.” Ponyboy can’t deal with the unfairness and loss that he’s feeling, so he decides to write it down and tell people, starting with his english teacher. Make art; tell the world!

Bonus wisdom 11. “All three of us like chocolate cake for breakfast . . . Sodapop always makes sure there’s [chocolate cake] in the icebox every night and if there isn’t he cooks one up real quick.” Nuff said.

So, what about you? What life lessons have you learned from The Outsiders?

Why Aren’t You Reading… The Tapestry Series by Henry H. Neff?


by Tessa

Maybe you’re already reading this series, about a boy named Max who finds out that he’s the son of an Irish mythological figure, and goes to magical boarding school in America (not in that order) and then the world irrevocably changes because the wrong book gets into the wrong allegedly-demonic hands,  in which case RAD, can we chat about it together?

BUT – I’m guessing that lots of people haven’t – at least it hasn’t been written up in the many places that I go to hear about books. Granted, there are way more places to go read about books that it’s just not possible for me to visit. There are a couple of reasons that may explain this – the series is older middle grade and the first two books read very much like American Harry Potter, so I feel as though it may have been dismissed as reductive in some people’s minds.

There are some very compelling reasons (I hope) to give The Tapestry series a second look if you weren’t into the first book or a first look, if you haven’t  yet heard of it.


– Irish mythology!

Ever since I read The Myths and Folk-Lore of Ireland, collected by Jeremiah Curtain, I’ve been into the meandering, tough, hyperbolic, funny stories from that country. Even though I know I’m mispronouncing all the names when I read it in my head. Max finds out (spoiler alert?) that he’s the sun of Lugh Lámhfhada, an Irish god associated with the sun and athleticism, which means he’s the half-brother of Cúchulainn, the Hound of Ulster, which is why he’s known as the Hound of Rowan (Rowan being the American Hogwarts stand-in here). Not that you have to know anything about Irish mythology to read the series, I just enjoy that Max has a grounding in a mythology that exists outside of the books.

Cuchulainn Slays the Hound of Culain via Wikipedia

Cuchulainn Slays the Hound of Culain via Wikipedia

This also means that Max is a real badass. He’s full of Old Magic and a member of the Red Branch (magical CIA type people) and although he wields the Gae Bolga, a sword/spear embedded with the terrifying bloodlust of Cúchulainn, he’s a pretty thoughtful kid thrust into a world where he has to make life or death decisions for, like, the entire human race.

Actually there are 3 children of Old Magic in this series. They all have their own strengths, and their own secrets. The magic is well spread out among the students and teachers and the political intrigue is well done.

– Totally epic, metal demons

Demons are a big part of this series. They are trying to infiltrate Rowan to steal a powerful book that can rewrite REALITY ITSELF… and they eventually do. But they don’t turn the world into a stereotypical hell. It becomes more feudal, and more pastoral. But still with tentacled horrors that live inside wells and terrorize families. As the present becomes the past… with demons, things are correspondingly more epic. It recalled the lyrics of metal bands such as the brutal (read:rad) Absu. This is from a song off of 2009’s Absu:

The old woman of Nippur
Instructs Ninlil to walk the banks of Idnunbirdu
She thrusts he magic (k)
To harvest the mind of the great
mountain-lord Enlil

The bright-eyed king will fall to your anguish
His soul lures the hexagonal room
He who decrees fates – his spirit is caught
His soul lured to the hexagonal room

A silk veil strewn over you
Your face is the cosmos
You hide it in shame

I admire an author who is not afraid to change the entire nature of the Earth. Neff does it and pulls it off without becoming too lost in the large canvas he’s created.

A new kind of adversary

Astaroth is the main antagonist, although the political intrigues of the demon world shift around during books 3 and 4. He’s firmly not in the Eye of Sauron all seeing all evil all the time camp. He’s an activist godlike figure. Like if NoFace from Spirited Away had all the powers of Old Testament God but not all the wrath – Astaroth pretends he’s a softy but really the world is just his plaything. He’s doing it for humanity’s own good. He thinks humanity is better without choices. His face is an always-smiling white mask.

an imagining of Astaroth from the Dictionnaire Infernal (1818) - via Wikipedia

an imagining of Astaroth from the Dictionnaire Infernal (1818) – via Wikipedia


– The first book is deceptively Harry Potter-like (with a dash of Riordan’s The Olympians)

I dunno, this isn’t a huge con for me, but it’s worth noting. Also, if you read the first book and were not into the Hag “humor”, it is much diminished in the others.

– The illustrations can take away from the story sometimes.

I hate saying this because Henry Neff is the writer AND illustrator, so these are the representations of the images that inspired the story that I enjoy reading so much… however, there have been times when seeing the illustrations takes the wind out of the much creepier thing I was thinking of in my brain, inspired by the prose.

– His website uses Papyrus as a title font.


Obviously the pros are much stronger than the cons, so what are you waiting for?

And My New Favorite Book Is: Winger!

A Review of Winger by Andrew Smith

Simon & Schuster, 2013

Winger by Andrew Smitha

by REBECCA, May 8, 2013


Ryan Dean (yes, that’s his first name): 14-year-old junior at a posh boarding school and winger on the rugby team, he’s in love with his best friend Annie and not sure he’ll live through the year rooming with Chas, the biggest bully on the team

Annie: thinks Ryan Dean is aces, but often calls him a “little boy,” activating his desire to kill everything

Joey: rugby captain and all around delightful human being, Joey dispenses sage advice and tries to discourage Ryan Dean from fucking up his life, all while dealing with the fact that being a gay rugby player makes some people pretty dang uncomfortable


As anyone who reads the blog knows, I am a huge Andrew Smith fan. I think he is one of the most consistently amazing authors working today, young-adultish or otherwise. (I review Stick HERE and The Marbury Lens HERE.) Thus, I’ve been looking forward to Winger since Smith first announced it on his blog because a.) it’s an Andrew Smith book, duh, and b.) it’s a boarding school book, a setting that lives at the heart of some of my all-time favorite books.

Well, Winger scores a solid five out of five snort-laughs on Rebecca’s goddammit-I-can’t-read-this-in-public-because-I-will-humiliate-myself-and-scare-the-parents-of-small-children index of reading reactions! (you’ll get it once you read the book). Note: “Catastrophic Fucking Penis Injury”—yes, that is a quote from the book—will be my new band name. We will be a death metal klezmer band and we will serve pastrami finger sandwiches at our concerts. Come early and come often.

Winger by Andrew Smith illustrated by Sam BosmaWinger manages to be both hysterically funny and gut-wrenchingly sad, and it has illustrations to boot (done by Sam Bosma, who also did the gorgeous back cover).

Ryan Dean’s humor is always paired with desperate humiliation or neurotic dread, making every paragraph a complicated portrait of a fascinating character. I loved getting to know him and I even (embarrassingly) found myself thinking, at one point, “hot damn, I can’t wait to see what an amazing grown up Ryan Dean is going to be.” For me, the true triumph of the character is in Smith’s willingness to risk his likability by doing things like exposing his feelings about how he thinks about Joey:

“I suddenly felt really awkward being here, in my bed, alone in my room, with a gay guy. And then I immediately got pissed off at myself for even thinking shit like that, for doing the same kind of crap to Joey that everyone else did, ’cause I knew what it felt like too, being so not-like-all-the-other-guys-here. And I don’t mean I know what it felt like to be gay, because I don’t, but I do know what it felt like to be the “only” one of something. Heck, as far as I know, there’s just got to be more gay eleventh graders than fourteen-year-old eleventh graders, anyway.

I wondered if it bothered Kevin Cantrell, though. Joey and Kevin had been roommates for two years, and no one ever talked shit about Kevin or wondered if he was gay, because everyone knew he just wasn’t.

I am such a loser.”

This kind of character detail is so difficult to pull off, even though Smith always makes it seem effortless. These are the details that make his characters—even the minor ones—so vivid. “Seanie slipped me a folded square of paper with flowers and hearts drawn on it, and said, ‘Here. Read this. I wrote you a haiku about how gay you are for sitting next to Joey for two classes in a row.’ . . . ‘Nice,’ I said. ‘In Lit class I’m going write you a sonnet about how nothing could possibly be gayer than writing your friend a haiku.'” Sean, incidentally, is one of my favorite characters, with his creepy sense of humor and the immense number of hours he pours into hacking other students’ facebook pages even when no one notices.

Annie shares Ryan Dean’s best friend card with Joey, and Ryan Dean is totally in love with her. The growth of their relationship wasn’t the most interesting element of the story for me, but Ryan Dean’s perspective on the feelings of first love (and his hilariously out-of-control hormones) make it more than appealing to read.

Winger by Andrew Smith, illustrated by Sam BosmaNo, for me the thing that Andrew Smith does best—and Winger is certainly representative of this—is think through the knotty cluster of questions about masculinity, sexuality, bravery, vulnerability, trauma, and hope. The questions about masculinity that Winger thinks through are particularly nuanced and interesting because of the friendship between Joey and Ryan Dean, the former the strong, handsome, respected captain of the rugby team who is also gay, and the latter a boy who is much younger and smaller than the other boys he goes to school with. It’s masterfully done.

The boarding school setting really lets all these issues marinate, and gives it a kind of un-modern feel (cell phones, facebook, et cetera, are not allowed on campus). Ryan Dean has been moved to a dorm for troublemakers this year because he stole a teacher’s cell phone to call Annie one weekend, so he’s rooming with Chas Becker, who he fears might kill him, and is separated from the friends he roomed with the year before, Sean and JP. This shift in Ryan Dean’s social circle encourages some changes for him and necessitates others, so the book finds him at a really dynamic moment.

what were this book’s intentions? did it live up to them?

Winger by Andrew SmithTo be totally honest, I feel like now I’m just kind of talking out of my ass, looking for something to say that will make you read Winger, but the truth is that I don’t have anything else to say that isn’t just gushy chatter or would spoil something, so I’m going to stop, and just quote you some more amazingness. The fact is: Winger lives up to and surpasses every expectation. Winger is fucking stellar; Andrew Smith has once again created something that has moved me immensely; reading Andrew Smith makes me embarrassed for every single one of us out there who isn’t as honest as his characters are, me included; I look forward to having a conversation about the ending after everyone’s read it; godspeed ye to the bookstore.

Here, Chas makes Ryan Dean play poker with him, Joey, and Kevin, and Ryan Dean has never had beer before:

“As Chas began dealing the cards out, all these things kind of occurred to me at once:

1. The taste. Who ever drinks this piss when they’re thirsty? Are you kidding me? Seriously . . . you’ve got to be kidding.

2. Little bit of vomit in the back of my throat. It gets into my nasal passages. It burns like hell, and now everything also smells exactly like barf. Nice. Real nice.

3. I am really scared. I am convinced something horrible is going to happen to me now. I picture my mom and dad and Annie (she is so smoking hot in black) at my funeral.

4. Mom and Dad? I feel so terrible that I let them down and became a dead virgin alcoholic at fourteen.

5. For some reason, Chas, Joey, and Kevin are all looking at me and laughing as quietly as they can manage.

6. Woo-hoo! Chas dealt me pocket Jacks.”

and this:

“I saw [Chas] turn his face over his shoulder and look at me once, and I’ll be honest, it scared me. I considered scrawling a makeshift will on the back of a napkin, but as I took mental inventory of my life’s possessions, I realized no one would want them anyway.

I was as good as dead now.

Images of my funeral again: both Annie and Megan looking so hot in black; Joey shaking his head woefully and thinking how he told me so; JP and Chas high-fiving each other in the back pew; Seanie installing a live-feed webcam in my undersize casket; and Mom and Dad disappointed, as always, that I left this world a loser alcoholic virgin with eighteen stitches over my left eye.”

Gaaaaaawwwwd! Read this book, y’all. Don’t make me step on your testicles and then write a haiku about it.


The Tragedy Paper by Elizabeth Laban

The Tragedy Paper by Elizabeth LaBan (2013). The Tragedy Paper is also a boarding school book that excavates the intricacies of friendships, growing up, and being different. My complete review is HERE.

King of the Screwups by K.L. Going

King of the Screwups by K.L. Going (2009). While the premises are totally different, Winger reminded me of K.L. Going’s tone in King of the Screwups. Ryan Dean and Liam share a kind of hilarious hopelessness when things go wrong. And, like Winger, King of the Screwups is both really funny and totally gutting. Read my full review HERE.

procured from: I received an ARC of Winger from the publisher (thank you!) in exchange for an honest review. Winger by Andrew Smith will be available May 14th. Which leaves you just enough time to go read ALL of Andrew Smith’s other books.

Where A-Words Fear To Tread: The Sweet Dead Life Review & Giveaway

A Review of The Sweet Dead Life by Joy Preble & a GIVEAWAY

SOHO Teen, 2013

The Sweet Dead Life by Joy Preble

by REBECCA, May 6, 2013

“I found out two things today: One, I think I’m dying. And two, my brother is a perv” (1). 14-year-old Jenna Samuels’ father left years ago, leaving nothing behind but a note and a gift certificate for a Mexican restaurant, she has been stricken by a mysterious illness, and her mother has turned into a zombie—no, not that kind of zombie. The kind that sleeps all day, has no appetite, and can’t even remember what day it is much less go to work in the morning. Her stoner brother, Casey, had to quit football and get two jobs when their mom started going zombie, and because his stoner friend messed up their car, Casey crashes the car when he drives her to the hospital and dies. Kind of. Because now he’s Jenna’s guardian A-word (she can’t bring herself to say angel), and they have to get to the bottom of all of it.

The Sweet Dead Life is the second Soho Teen book I’ve reviewed in a row, and it couldn’t be more different than Strangeletswhich I reviewed last week. Soho publishes mainly mysteries, so Soho Teen is putting out YA mysteries, and it’s really nice to see that they’re publishing a variety of types. I’ve been really excited lately at the surge of new YA imprints, so I’ve been excited to see what Soho Teen would do. In short, The Sweet Dead Life was a totally charming and fun read. Is the mystery mysterious and hard to solve? No. But it doesn’t really matter. Jenna’s voice is the real joy of The Sweet Dead Life. Plus, did I mention it’s set in Texas?

Joy Preble‘s writing is really funny and well-structured. Everything is wrapped up in a neat bow, but that’s part of the genre here, I think:  it’s equal parts absurdism, mystery, and good old-fashioned coming of age story. The Sweet Dead Life is written as Jenna’s diary entries, so it’s all in c62f2715cae38867_Pulp-Fiction-Uma-Thurmanher voice, which is really funny and feels very spot-on for an insightful 14 year old. The first few chapters are snappy and fun, and the tone of the whole thing is great. There are moments that drag, mostly because the reader has already figured out the mystery, but overall it’s well-paced and Jenna is super-likable. Best of all, as far as I’m concerned: it’s a book about angels that’s a comedy instead of a romance, a change that the subgenre needed like Mia Wallace needed a shot of adrenaline to the heart in Pulp Fiction. Cheers.

procured from: I received an ARC from the publisher at BEA. The Sweet Dead Life by Joy Preble will be available on May 13th.


But you can win a copy right now! Just fill in your info in the form below and, if you like. I’ll select a winner at random in one week and post the result here. Happy reading! 

This giveaway is now closed. Congratulations to Marie, who has won the copy of Joy Preble’s The Sweet Dead Life. Thanks you everyone who entered!

Six Teens From Around the Globe + One Locked Ward = a New SciFi Mystery

A Review of Strangelets by Michelle Gagnon

Soho Teen (2013)

Strangelets by Michelle Gagnon

by REBECCA, May 1, 2013


Sophie: California terminal cancer patient who doesn’t mind dying, she tells us, as she dies … or does she?

Declan: charismatic petty thief from Galway who rips off the wrong people and gets shot … or does he?

Anat: the fierce military trainee from Tel Aviv is risking it all for love … including her life


Sophie, Declan, and Anat would have died at the same moment. Instead, they (and several others) wake up in an unfamiliar deserted hospital. Where are they? Or when? And why them? In order to escape the hospital, and figure out how to get home, they have to work together. But some of them know more than they’re letting on. And some of them are not what they seem.


The Midnight Club by Christopher PikeFrom the blurb and the first, say, ten per cent of the book, I thought this was going to be a kind of supernatural tale about human experiments with death, or teens delving into the afterlife. You know, a kind of The Midnight Club meets Flatliners. And I was into itThe Midnight Club is like totally my fave Christopher Pike and stuff. Five terminally ill teens living in Rotterdam House meet (at midnight) to tell stories as a ward against the fear of death; they pledge that the first to die must send a sign to the rest of them . . . from the other side. The theme of trying to touch the afterlife is particularly poignant with teens since they’re, like, the opposite of death, so I had high hopes here, and loved the idea of death as a universal fear bringing together teens from all over the world. 

Well, anyway, that’s not really what Strangelets is about. But you should all read The Midnight Club in case you haven’t (since sixth grade).

Still, the first quarter of Strangelets is intriguing. We are introduced to Sophie, Declan, and Anat, each in the moments leading up to their almost-deaths. When they wake in the hospital, they meet Zain, the friendly boy from New Delhi, Yosh, the shy and soft-spoken girl from Kyoto, and Nico, the hale blondie from Switzerland. Together, they have to find a way out, determine where the hell they are, and figure out why the parking lot outside looks like the broken-down cars have sat there long enough to grow moss and amass inches of crud on them.  If they want answers, they’ll have to venture outside. But something is out there, and it’s not just the bears (oh my). There is genuine creepiness here (the creepiest of which I won’t spoil) and atmosphere that has some serious promise.

what were this book’s intentions? did it live up to them?

The first half-ish of Strangelets is a taut, well-paced mystery with sci-fi tendencies and I really enjoyed it. Gagnon doesn’t give too much away and her characters have distinct, recognizable personalities. It’s nothing particularly revolutionary, but it’s confidently done—more locked-room mystery than dystopia. But oh, holy jesus, the second half reads like someone took a wrecking ball to Jurassic ParkThe Island of Dr. Moreauand a few of the wackier Torchwood episodes, and then Mod Podged it all back together. That isn’t to say that Gagnon won’t attract fans of this mashup; it’s certainly not the dystopian fare many publishers have been rolling out lately.

Strangelets by Michelle GagnonAnd here’s the thing: if Strangelets’ only issues had been the grab-bag nature of its genre choices, I wouldn’t have thought much of it except, oh, ok, not really satisfying to me, but sure. It’s that this (unsatisfactory) science-inflected twist on a dystopia doesn’t mean anything. Where the conceit (no spoilers) might have shown true pathos or raised interesting questions about scientific ethics, or even—even!—taken a shot at saying something about how everything is connected, à la The Butterfly Effect, it would have been more interesting than what it did. Which is nothing. I love a good ole sci-fi romp, believe me, but what makes the best sci-fi delightful is how it expands our notions of the possible (or the impossible!), and how it shows us how deeply that which is most familiar to us resonates with that which is most alien, neither of which Strangelets even approaches. And I’m not going to even dignify the “romance” with a comment.

Equally frustrating was that while Strangelets held out a hope of being one of the very few YA novels—and even fewer sci-fi YA novels—to bring us an international cast of characters, it ended up reinscribing some pretty troubling conservative international and racial politics. Thea over at The Book Smugglers says it well: there is a “potentially worrisome, stigmatic portrayal of the characters of color (Anat, Zain, and Yosh) – one of these characters is the first to die, the other a villain, and the other meets a sad, cruel fate. Meanwhile for the white characters (Sophie, Declan, Nico), one holds the key to understanding everything, and two live happily ever after.” This is made worse for me because our happy couple are the least interesting characters. Sophie is totally boring in every way. Even the grace with which she accepts death after being ill for so long, which, ordinarily, I might find refreshing, smacks of  an annoying kind of Little Eva-esque woe-is-me-she’s-too-good-for-this-cruel-worldiness. And Declan is a pretty predictable collection of generic charisma and obligatory Irishisms. It’s Anat who I was most interested in, and who seemed to be the meatiest character in terms of the potential for a dynamic ending to her story. Alas, it isn’t to be.

procured from: I received an ARC of this book by the publisher (thank you!) in exchange for an honest review. Strangelets by Michelle Gagnon is available now.

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