Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Wise Words from Karuna Riazi

The Gauntlet is one of my most highly anticipated reads and if you missed it, the fabulous book released last week. I have some encouraging and inspirational words from the author herself. Enjoy!

Tips on Writing a Middle Grade

Fun fact: The Gauntlet is the first middle grade I’ve ever written. In this life. I never thought that I would be able to write in that voice, be honest and true to it, and plow through an entire draft (and another one, and another one, and I know you’re reading that in DJ Khaled’s voice now, guys) without feeling like I was condescending to or disappointing the audience the book was addressed to.

So, every time someone tells me that I managed to get the atmosphere down pat, that they found Farah relatable or even that I convinced them to consider writing a middle grade too – in the words of my dear friend Heidi Schultz: ONE OF US ONE OF US ONE OF US – it’s nothing less than remarkable to me.

This is all a preamble to say: I am not sure if I am 100% qualified to give you advice on writing a middle grade, but at the same time, I do feel 100% qualified to talk you through the awkward and uncertainty of being a (or thinking that you are a) YA writer with a possible interest in a middle grade project.

Sit yourselves down, my little grasshoppers, and I’ll offer you a list of my top five tips to venture into the world of middle grades:

5. You’ve probably heard this before, but read middle grades! It is a sad and undeniable fact that middle grades are often…not as appreciated as their older YA siblings, which is a darn shame because there’s so much bounty out there on the shelves and middle grades can be just as profound, heartfelt and hard-hitting when tackling tough issues.

Some of my personal suggestions, if you’re new to testing the waters: Beastkeeper by Cat Hellisen (this is just…a master class in poetic, gorgeous fantasy that easily has YA appeal), Amina’s Voice from my Salaam Reads sister Hena Khan, Howl’s Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones, Breadcrumbs by Anne Ursu and anything at all from Mike Jung if you really want pure joy in your life.

4. Get to know the experts! Follow their blogs, check out what books they are recommending, read their books without cracking the spines out (that hurts) and pick up on what you love about their voices and what they do with their particular skills.

Disclaimer: If you’re on the fence about writing a middle grade and are not sure if you want to take a project on in the near future, I suggest treading carefully around Anne Ursu – she’s a middle grade whisperer, in that she will whisper in your ear about how wonderful it would be for you to write one until you, incredibly enough, have indeed written one and are about to announce the sale. (True story.)

3. Listen to what the kids are saying. I’m a big sister, babysitter, substitute teacher and a very nosy individual who likes to note down conversations, favorite flavors of bubble gum, opinions on currently airing cartoons and whose little brother likes to eat dirt whenever the opportunity allows. I recommend doing the same. You’ll get a lot of good material, probably some reminders about aspects of your middle grade life that you thought you had already been distanced from, and one or two belly laughs as well.

2. Your style will translate over. Trust me. One of the things I worried about the most in writing The Gauntlet was watering down, or attempting to, my fondness for lengthy descriptions, extended metaphors and a lot of introspective thought. I won’t lie and say that my editor allowed me free rein on that (and with good reason), but at the end of the day, I can still flip through the book and see the areas where those parts of me and my writing still shine through. Your voice is your voice, no matter what you write.

1. Finally, just have fun with this! One of the most marvelous things about middle grades is, to me, how much enjoyment they can pack into a few chapters and how they can keep you snickering hours after you turned the last page. Really indulge your sense of fun and maybe even make a list of all the cool stuff you wanted to see in books back when you were stuffing chapter books in your backpack or browsing the Scholastic Book Fair, and see how much of it you can bring to life now.

Dig deep, smile wide, and see what incredible adventures you can have – and create. Good luck!

The Gauntlet by Karuna Riazi

When twelve-year-old Farah and her two best friends get sucked into a mechanical board game called The Gauntlet of Blood and Sand—a puzzle game akin to a large Rubik’s cube—they know it’s up to them to defeat the game’s diabolical architect in order to save themselves and those who are trapped inside, including her baby brother Ahmed. But first they have to figure out how.

Under the tutelage of a lizard guide named Henrietta Peel and an aeronaut Vijay, the Farah and her friends battle camel spiders, red scorpions, grease monkeys, and sand cats as they prepare to face off with the maniacal Lord Amari, the man behind the machine. Can they defeat Amari at his own game…or will they, like the children who came before them, become cogs in the machine? - Goodreads

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Sunday, April 2, 2017

Dual Review: Long May She Reign by Rhiannon Thomas + You're Welcome, Universe by Whitney Gardner

Published: February 21st 2017
Publisher: HarperTeen
Purchase: Amazon / Barnes & Noble / Book Depository
Freya was never meant be queen. Twenty third in line to the throne, she never dreamed of a life in the palace, and would much rather research in her laboratory than participate in the intrigues of court. However, when an extravagant banquet turns deadly and the king and those closest to him are poisoned, Freya suddenly finds herself on the throne.

Freya may have escaped the massacre, but she is far from safe. The nobles don’t respect her, her councillors want to control her, and with the mystery of who killed the king still unsolved, Freya knows that a single mistake could cost her the kingdom – and her life.

Freya is determined to survive, and that means uncovering the murderers herself. Until then, she can’t trust anyone. Not her advisors. Not the king’s dashing and enigmatic illegitimate son. Not even her own father, who always wanted the best for her, but also wanted more power for himself.

As Freya’s enemies close in and her loyalties are tested, she must decide if she is ready to rule and, if so, how far she is willing to go to keep the crown. - Goodreads

I was so excited to read this book when I saw my request had been approved, especially because of how fantastic the premise sounded. Political turmoil, especially among royalty, is something I'm always intrigued by. On paper, this book should have worked for me, with its solid qualities, but I found myself only mildly impressed.

The book starts out promisingly with Freya, the heroine, attending the fateful banquet that seals her destiny. I was surprised to find out that she was a scientist, who participates in experiments in her free time. She's resourceful and smart, which I appreciated, and has a level head.

The supporting characters were all warm and likable, though none really stood out to me. First, there's Naomi, Freya's best friend and confidante. Loyal and supportive, the best friend any queen would be lucky to have. Fitzroy, the former king's bastard son. Charming and clever, but with a potential hidden agenda. Finally, there's Madeline, the beautiful perfect lady, next in line after Freya.

The plot was one of the high points and the author uses Freya's scientist nature in the search for what truly happened the night everyone was poisoned. There is also a political undercurrent with those who are unhappy about Freya, and the different agendas that crisscrossed about her were done well. There were a few solid twists to keep me guessing but I admit I wasn't completely surprised by the finale.

The latter third was a tad of a letdown after the promising start, but the ending was well-done and I liked that it was understated instead of cheesy. I almost wish this weren't a standalone, because I felt that this book could have used more fleshing out.

Overall, I liked this book, but not enough for it to have a lasting hold on my heart or memory. I do want to see more political royal drama type books in YA, and that I sincerely hope this is just the beginning.

Thank you to Edelweiss and HarperTeen for the review copy.

My Rating:★★★

Published: March 7th 2017
Publisher: Knopf
Purchase: Amazon / Barnes & Noble / Book Depository
When Julia finds a slur about her best friend scrawled across the back of the Kingston School for the Deaf, she covers it up with a beautiful (albeit illegal) graffiti mural.

Her supposed best friend snitches, the principal expels her, and her two mothers set Julia up with a one-way ticket to a “mainstream” school in the suburbs, where she’s treated like an outcast as the only deaf student. The last thing she has left is her art, and not even Banksy himself could convince her to give that up.

Out in the ’burbs, Julia paints anywhere she can, eager to claim some turf of her own. But Julia soon learns that she might not be the only vandal in town. Someone is adding to her tags, making them better, showing off—and showing Julia up in the process. She expected her art might get painted over by cops. But she never imagined getting dragged into a full-blown graffiti war. - Goodreads

Much angstier than I was expecting quite honestly and I hadn't realized (my fault) that the graffiti war would get so intense. Julia is an angry girl and I tend to shrink away from such characters, which is why it took more time for me to warm up to her personally, but I liked how strong she was in her convictions and passions, which was admirable.

Julia's blossoming friendship with YP is my favorite thing about this book, mostly because it's sweet and good, something Julia needs in the face of the lonely situation she's ended up in due to the unfortunate consequences of her actions. Julia is a hard shell to crack, but the way she slowly lets YP in was heartwarming, and I loved the girlfriend moments they had together. Friendships are such a valuable aspect of lives and I love that this book focuses on that, where it's the central relationship in the book, besides family. On a random side note, there's a scene where an apple pie shows up at YP's house and as an apple dessert connoisseur I died at the description.

I will admit I've never read a book that deals with deafness in such a visceral way, and it was an eye-opener. Gardner writes Julia's life so clearly and it definitely made me more aware of living as a deaf or Deaf person, such as the nuances between Julia and Jordyn. I cannot vouch for the rep of the Indian culture either, but from what I've seen from other #ownvoices reviews, it's well-rounded.

I also liked how there were some supportive and nice adults in this book, always good to see in YA. Julia may not get along with all of them, which is all too true of life as a teenager or anyone really, yet they play an active role, which is sometimes difficult to find in books. I particularly liked the way Julia's character growth is seen in her interactions with her interpreter Casey and her art teacher Mr. Katz.

The graffiti war is intense, and while I was intimidated by that, I could also sense the urgency and frustration that bled out of Julia every time she sees the mysterious art being added to her tags. Graffiti is her outlet, and having it hijacked is brutal, and I liked how the plot unraveled the mystery and tension surrounding them.

Also, the art/illustrations that go with this book are perfect. Even through reading an electronic copy, I can say the final hard copy will be so pretty. The art is as gritty and statement worthy as the rest of this book is and complements the writing quite well.

My Rating:★★★