Monday, June 29, 2015

Book Review: Survival Strategies of the Almost Brave by Jen White

Take away the gingerbread cottage, and there is nothing sweet about Hansel and Gretel. Two children are abandoned in the woods to die by their stepmother, then entrapped by a witch who plans to turn them into dinner. The children escape with wits and fingers intact, and the witch meets a gruesome end, roasted in her own oven. It's classic Grimm Brothers -- children's darkest fears expressed and then resolved, with a happy ending that's only happy for the deserving.

Survival Strategies of the Almost Brave by Jen White
(Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2014)
Jen White's debut middle-grade novel, Survival Strategies of the Almost Brave, is Hansel and Gretel set in the modern world. Hansel is now12-year-old Liberty, and her little sister is 8-year-old Billie, abandoned by their father in a grimy gas station in the middle of a desert. Liberty and Billie fear predators of the two-legged kind -- the drifters, long-distance travelers, and maladjusted overnight-shift workers of rest stops, interstates, and motels.

The girls have already lost their mother to a fatal traffic accident, and when their reluctant, unstable photographer father takes them in, his RV seems as a good as a gingerbread cottage. But when things go wrong, he abandons the girls, as he has once before, this time without even a pocketful of bread crumbs.

Liberty reassures herself with an endless trove of animal facts and survival strategies gleaned from Animal Planet and National Geographic and recorded in her notebook for just this kind of emergency.  Survival Strategy #8: Escape if you dare. Survival Strategy #35: Beware of Unexpected Gifts. She's more than almost-brave -- she's all the way there, resourceful even in fear and protective of her sister. Encountering people who might be dangerous and some who turn out to be helpful, Liberty invents new survival strategies based on her own experiences: Survival Strategy #41: Dr Pepper can ruin everything. Survival Strategy #48: Rescue yourself. These strategies are way beyond anything on Animal Planet.

Before I picked up Survival Strategies of the Almost Brave (my copy was provided by the publisher for an honest review), I read Sage Blackwood's Jinx, which opens with a Hansel and Gretel beginning: Young Jinx is lead into the vicious and dangerous Urwald by his step-father-many-times-removed to be abandoned to his inevitable death. His eventual triumphs take many more wrong turns than Liberty and Billie's -- he must battle trolls, ally with werewolves, defeat evil wizards, unite a kingdom, recover from his own death.

Yet Liberty and Billie's trials are more frightening. Survival Strategies of the Almost Brave is filled with heart, color, and good humor -- Liberty and Billie are vivid and appealing characters, and Liberty's first-person voice is authentic and convincing. But this is not a comic adventure -- the girls face loss and peril that is all the more real because of the realistic contemporary setting.

And this is when I remember that the Grimm Brothers didn't write of events that were remote, but of fears that were all too possible. Their stories were not just stories, and neither is White's.

Take away the rest stop Twinkies, Dr Pepper, and Nutter Butters, and there is nothing sweet about Survival Strategies of the Almost Brave. The losses and risks Liberty and Billie are the primal and darkest fears of modern children, and for many children they are too real. Liberty and Billie save themselves in the end, as surely as do Hansel and Gretel, but there is no witch, no gruesome justice enacted -- just survival strategies that Liberty and Billie take forward to the next time life takes them somewhere they don't want to go.

Thursday, June 25, 2015

BLAZING COURAGE, by Kelly Milner Halls - First Page and Cover Analysis, by Matthew MacNish

Kelly Milner Halls is the author many non-fiction children's books covering topics as diverse as Astronauts, Cryptids, Dinosaurs, and Saving the Baghdad Zoo. Blazing Courage is her first novel. I will be reviewing it next month, but today I wanted to announce its publication, and take a quick look at its cover and first page.

Here is the cover:

I love the look of it! There's a certain kinetic energy to the moment captured here, and with the human character rushing left, possibly toward the fire, and the terror in the horses eyes, it really sets up a tense situation, and entices this reader to want to know what happens inside the book.

Here is the full jacket and the jacket copy:

Since getting a job at Top Tier stables, Annie has had her mind set on just one thing: earning enough money to buy a horse of her own. When she reaches her savings goal, she bids on a horse at an auction and buys Poco, a four-year-old Buckskin mare that Annie couldn't love more. But someone is trying to sabotage Top Tier, and a terrible fire breaks out at the stable. Annie must summon all her courage to save her beloved horse as well as many others in an act of heroism she didn't know she was capable of doing.

Here is the first page:

I really like this opening. I like that that story is not only narrated in first person, but in present tense no less! I used to hate present tense, but after writing a manuscript or two in it myself, I have come to appreciate the immediacy it lends to a tale, and the sense of urgency that can be felt, especially when it comes to scenes of action, which is the kind of scene I'm sure a book like Blazing Courage is full of.

I also love that this first page really captures everything I hope to see in an opening. There is action, and even dialog from two characters whose relationship we can immediately understand, but it also vividly describes a scene in a way that allows me to clearly picture it, and ground myself in a setting that feels at once authentic and believable.

I can almost smell the horses and taste the dust in the air.

What do you think? Do you like stories about animals? Do you like adventures? If so, you may want to check out Kelly Milner Halls' Blazing Courage.

Blazing Courage, published by Darby Creek Publishing, a Lerner imprint, will be released on August 1, 2015, and is written by Kelly Milner Halls and illustrated by Phil Parks. It is the first in a series call Animal Rescues.

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Book Review: THE GIRL IN THE TORCH, by: Robert Sharenow

Image credit: HarperCollins website
Hi Mayhemers! Marissa Burt here. Today, I'm delighted to introduce you to Robert Sharenow's wonderful new MG historical THE GIRL IN THE TORCH. I received a copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. First, a bit about the novel from the promotional materials:

"THE GIRL IN THE TORCH tells the story of Sarah, a 12 year-old immigrant girl who is orphaned when her mother dies upon their arrival in America, escaping the pogroms of Czarist Russia. Everyone in their village dreamed of America after a tantalizing postcard of the Statue of Liberty featuring Emma Lazarus' poem circulated among them. But when no American relatives can be located to sponsor Sarah after her mother's death, her hopes are crushed as she is placed on a ship for deportation back to Russia.

In desperation, she makes a daring leap into New York Harbor and swims to the nearest land mass, Liberty Island, where she takes refuge inside the Stature of Liberty, the torch becoming her own private bedroom. To survive, she scavenges for food among the tourists during the day, evading capture by hiding amid the trees and retreating to Lady Liberty upon nightfall.

Eventually, she is discovered by a troubled night watchman named Maryk who takes her under his wing and brings her to his boardinghouse in Chinatown. There, Sarah is integrated into a very diverse and eccentric group of outsiders who become like family to her. As she struggles with her new life and identity, crackdowns on illegal immigrants sweep Chinatown, putting Sarah and her housemates at risk. Will she escape their wrath or be sent back to Russia to face what promises to be a tortured life?"

I was delighted to discover that THE GIRL IN THE TORCH is as rich with historical details and
Image credit: Wikimedia, public domain
well-fleshed out characters as the promotional materials promise. The obviously well-researched historical background created a vibrant setting that was full of life.

And Sarah! What a main character! It takes skill to create empathetic characters facing difficult situations with pluck and still keep them realistic. I liked Sarah's strength despite the direness of her circumstances and how she discovers a kind community in the midst of her own loneliness and loss.

I found the narrative to be a winsome blend of gratitude, optimism, and realism that seems relevant today. I left the story with a rekindled interest in the stories of past immigrants and, though not directly addressed in the book, with questions about how we deal with immigration today.

All that to say, I highly recommend that you add THE GIRL IN THE TORCH to your summer reading list! It is available in bookstores and libraries now. Happy reading, Mayhemers. :)

Monday, June 22, 2015

How To Care For Your Muse by Robert Lettrick

Let’s pretend that the moment we decide to become writers, our muse is born. Four inches tall, ten ounces, gossamer wings and all.

Great. Another mouth to feed. 

Then we find that our muse can be pretty helpful. They offer up imaginative ideas and ask little in return. You decide your muse is a keeper. But like all living things, a writer's muse needs tlc. Let’s talk about the care and feeding of our mini shoulder creatures.

Muses thrive on a strict diet of books, journals, blogs, magazines and other written material. And just like a human diet, the better the food quality the healthier your muse will be. It’s important to note that most television programming is the equivalent of fast food, and if you’ve ever watched Morgan Spurlock’s Super Size Me, you know that eating nothing but fast food day in and day out is a beeline to organ failure. Feed your muse a steady and varied diet of well-written stuff (FYI, I wrote a whole paragraph on inspecting your muse’s droppings to determine if it’s getting proper nutrition, but for the sake of brevity, I edited it out.)

(Cue Rocky montage music)
This one goes without saying, for a muse to be fit and healthy, you have to give it plenty of exercise. Muses don’t get ripped on Tai Bo, P90X or Zumba. If you want your mini writer-whisperer to have six-pack abs, you have to write every day. Even on Christmas. Read and write, read and write. That's how muses get buff. 

In today's age of cellphones, iPads, Nooks, Crannies, and white noise, we’re constantly bombarded by stimulation. Other than installing a sensory deprivation tank in your house, the best solution to “get away from it all” may be to simply go outside for a walk. Leave your house, take a stroll and think about your story. A little nature goes a long way toward lifting your muse’s spirit. 

To date I’ve written four books. I started each of them in a different city. Sometimes a jarring change is necessary to shake your muse out of its funk. Not everyone can relocate between books, but vacations, especially research and/or writing excursions, are a great way to wake up your hibernating muse (Caution: Do not let your muse hibernate too long as they may turn feral upon waking.) 

Muses are very social creatures. They find interaction with other writers' muses to be both stimulating and motivational. Critique groups are a great source of kinship, and you can find them by searching the regional pages of the website or through google, but if you don’t have one in your area you can always start one. And if the internet is more your thing, there are plenty of places online where your muse can connect with play pals. Twitter, for example, is basically a dog park for muses. 

The bottom line is take care of your muse and your muse will take care of you. 
And remember, have your muse spayed or neutered. 

Friday, June 19, 2015

Out of Hiding … Cover Reveal for The Morrigan’s Curse by Dianne K. Salerni

Like many authors, I spend a lot of time imagining what the covers of my books will look like before I see them. In the case of the Eighth Day series, my mental images were wrong every time, but the actual covers were so much better than anything I imagined!

The cover of The Morrigan’s Curse might be my favorite one of all. There are, of course, ties to the other two: The title is integrated into the design. Jax is still running. (Poor kid.) There are everyday items abandoned in one corner, symbolizing an ordinary life left behind. But this cover is also different from the first two. It’s the first to feature any characters other than Jax – and the first to illustrate a specific scene in the book.

So I asked Heather Daugherty, Senior Designer at HarperCollins, and Mike Heath, the cover artist, to join me in presenting this cover reveal, because I had questions for them both.

1. For Heather: This is the first time the cover depicts an actual scene from the book. Why this scene? What are the most important elements in this cover for attracting readers?

This particular action scene from the book stood out to me as a real attention grabber for readers, and I thought the description of the setting and the architectural features in this scene would be very dynamic on a book cover. I think the action happening on the cover with our "bad guys" and the blue fireballs Addie is throwing are lots of fun! Who doesn't love blue fireballs?! And I think the genius idea Mike had to turn the title letters into hanging lights is something any reader will notice right away, and find very different and pretty cool.

 2. For Mike: The geometric patterns are fascinating, from the tiled floor and the different levels of the staircase to the ceiling molding and the title hanging perpendicular. How do all these angles work to draw the eye where you want it to focus? 

When I was pitching ideas for this series, I thought it’d be unique to integrate the title into the artwork in a fun way—and fortunately, I was selected to help with these titles! The Morrigan’s Curse presented a new challenge because we wanted to use an indoor setting and that immediately meant we would have challenges fitting a long word like "Morrigan" in a small space. The last two books had the fortune of being in large spaces like tunnels or streets but this had to work on a staircase. That being said, I immediately thought of M.C. Escher as he has some very interesting use of space in his work. Additionally, Heather, the cover designer, was drawn to the "never-ending" staircase room from the Harry Potter series, so with those inspirations in mind I began designing the space.

I used white and black because of the book descriptions and this also gave the space a slightly creepy feel which was what we were after. Additionally, I was wanting to create a staircase that you couldn’t see the beginning or end to add to the mystery. Finally, I thought it’d be extra creepy to have portraits on the walls all staring at the viewer with cold expressions! After the space was designed to accommodate large title letters right in the middle of the composition, we began playing with how the title sat in the space. We did everything from hanging it like a chandelier with all letters at different angles and heights to laying it on the banister of the staircase etc. The final composition was the most readable to everyone reviewing the art. Once we had the space layed-out, it was time to light the scene. Lighting is VERY important to most artists and this cover was no exception. We used a mixture of cold outdoor light mixed with hints of warm incandescent lighting which gave a nice balance to the image. I also like using haze to separate elements and this again helped with readability to our title.

 3. For Mike: What is your favorite part of the design process — the conception for the cover as a whole or putting in all the details that make the image so rich (ex: the architectural details, the creepy artwork on the walls)? 

My favorite part of the illustration process is finding the space with which I’m telling my story in. My work is very much about characters IN a setting and these covers had so many fun elements to work into the final artwork. I usually build anywhere from 1-3 different designs and then spend a while tweaking the final location with color, lighting, and other little details like props that contribute to the mood or story moment. I spend most of my time building ‘virtual’ sets for my covers—meaning, I design the architecture in a 3D program and use a high-end render engine called Vray to help me create my composite images. I typically finish the image by conducting photo shoots with models and then create a final composite in Photoshop. Again, it’s about telling a story with great settings, characters, and action for me.

Thank you, Mike and Heather, for sharing this design process. Before I share the cover, I want to say that I’d really love to live in this house. Well, vacation there, at least. But I’d have to remove the wall art or I’d have nightmares.


Publication Date: January 26, 2016
The age-old battle between Kin and Transitioners is escalating and now the Kin have a new weapon: Evangeline’s younger sister, Addie. With magical Emrys blood flowing in her veins, Addie is the Kin’s best chance to break the Eighth Day spell, which will unleash chaos upon the world. Riley and the Crandalls are trying to get her back, but it might mean sacrificing thousands of lives in the meantime, which is an impossible decision to make. As Evangeline’s vassal—sworn to protect her and her people—Jax won’t accept letting Addie’s fate hang in the balance, so he puts it all on the line with a risky plan of his own.
            Addie isn’t aware of the war at her heels, or the threat that the Kin pose, but enjoys finally being allowed to use her magic. No longer in the shadow of her sister, Addie finds herself a key part of the Kin’s plan. But when Jax shows up, attempting to rescue her, the Kin pounce—making Addie realize that she’s been walking a fine line between control and utter oblivion.
            And that’s not all. The Morrigan is on the loose, pushing both sides of this fight toward annihilation. The conflict is raging, but on which side will Addie stand? With the stakes higher than they’ve ever been, Jax, Riley, and Evangeline must confront the possibility of losing Addie to save the world.