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By Water and Blood

Melanie Rose. CreateSpace, $13.95 trade paper (306p) ISBN 978-1-4826-9590-8

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Rose (Violet Shadows) weaves a modern fantasy tale that manages to be equal parts fascinating and dull. Young Sophie Durrant abandons her present-day American life to tend bar on Unst, one of the Shetland Islands north of Britain. She’s drawn to its gruff Scottish natives, its ponies, and most of all the sea—and the seals that live in it. Sophie eventually discovers that she is the granddaughter of a Selkie, a shape-shifter who can remove her sealskin to become human. She also learns about hunters who steal Selkie skins and force them into the world of human trafficking. Rose’s core conceit is strong and sophisticated; her descriptions of the pain of slavery resonate with the weight of history, and the descriptions of Unst are incredible. Far less compelling are the subplots, such as Sophie’s friend’s quest to get her to move back home, and her inevitable romance with a Selkie man who is (naturally) tall, dark-haired, and dashing. Rose’s updated Selkie myth is far too interesting to be paired with such conventional tropes, and the result is a very uneven novel. (BookLife)

Reviewed on 09/26/2014 | Details & Permalink

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Fun & Games

David Michael Slater. Library Tales, $17.99 trade paper (226p) ISBN 978-0-615-77415-2

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Jon is a normal teenager about to start college, but in Slater’s novel he finds that he can’t move forward in life until he comes to terms with his family’s past. While his grandmother is a Holocaust survivor, his father vehemently avoids religion. Jon’s two older sisters are a handful: Nadia is a manipulator, with her fingers in everything the family does, and Olivia is toeing the line between virgin and professional soft-porn star. When an incident at Hebrew school sends the rabbi to Jon’s house, it precipitates a crisis of faith that causes their father to abandon them for Israel, where he is killed. As Jon departs for college, accompanied by two of his best friends, the lies and intrigues get deeper, and the more he learns about his family, the more he realizes he doesn’t know them. When he returns home for a wedding, tragedy strikes and forces the family to reach a reckoning with their lies. The characters manage to be both familiar and well-realized individuals, and beneath the banal suburban setting hide deep troubles. Slater finds a successful tone between comedy and pathos that carries readers through some of the less plausible twists, even making the violent ending work. While Jon’s best friends could be more clearly defined, Jon’s own progression is strong. Slater has painted an intimate and memorable family portrait. (BookLife)

Reviewed on 09/26/2014 | Details & Permalink

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What the Sleepy Animals Do at the Audubon Zoo

Grace Millsaps and Ryan Murphy, illus. by John Clark IV and Alyson Kilday. Sleepy Animals LLC (www.thesleepyanimals.com), $21.95 (44p) ISBN 978-0-9887603-0-1

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The husband-and-wife team of Millsaps and Murphy, along with Clark and Kilday of the Hop and Jaunt design firm, debut with a jaunty story whose publication was funded through crowdsourced contributions. In it, they tackle a question that has plagued zoo-goers as long as there have been zoos: Why are all the animals sleeping? A girl named Renee asks her father this question during their visit to New Orleans’s Audubon Zoo, triggering a long, inventive explanation on his part—namely that the animals were up all night throwing a wild shindig. While there are a few shaky moments in the meter and rhyme of Millsaps and Murphy’s verse, it provides amusing setups aplenty: “The sea lions sometimes will synchronize swim./ There’s a costume contest and everyone wins./ The best one at limbo is the white alligator,/ and when they get hungry, the pelicans cater” (directly from their bills, which are stuffed with jambalaya, gumbo, and more). Clark and Kilday’s polished cartoons are full of entertainingly goofy details—green hippos, purple seals, and other not-found-in-nature combos are in keeping with the silly, free-spirited mood. Ages 4–8. (BookLife)

Reviewed on 09/26/2014 | Details & Permalink

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Suee and the Shadow, Part 1

Ginger Ly, trans. from the Korean by Kay Lee, illus. by Molly Park. Bhive Comics (www.sueeandtheshadow.com), $2.99 e-book (112p) ASIN B00BIGI1XI

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Twelve-year-old Suee Lee’s first days at a new school take some strange turns in this eerie graphic novel from a Korean creative team. Suee isn’t happy about moving to Outskirtsville with her divorced father, and she’s determined to avoid “loser” status by staying as uninvolved as possible—Suee’s detached demeanor, cerebral narration, and the overall look of Park’s artwork are part Emily the Strange, part Daria Morgendorffer. (“Life in grade school. A series of tiresome events,” thinks Suee during a counseling session with her homeroom teacher.) But Suee’s school-day anonymity is threatened when her shadow inexplicably starts talking to her, and she realizes that there’s something fishy about a new after-school class. Park’s polished cartooning sticks to a palette of drab grays, spiked with pale reds, yellows, and blues—it’s very much in keeping with Suee’s outlook on life and a story in which shadows and bullying play key roles. The book ends with a major cliffhanger, but the sequel is already available, and the third and final installment is in the works. Ages 8–12. (BookLife)

Reviewed on 09/26/2014 | Details & Permalink

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A Balm in Gilead

Marie Green McKeon. White Bird, $4.95 e-book (254p) ISBN 978-0-9904338-1-1

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Vulnerability of heart, mind, and flesh resonates throughout this scathing, affecting thriller about a rape victim's struggle to salvage her identity as she endures social persecution and works to heal the emotional and physical scars of violation. McKeon doesn't blink at queasy themes of sexual victimization, degradation, and political corruption. After Quin Carlisle is raped on a Pennsylvania college campus by student Dennis Price, she faces unsympathetic police and college officials, a smothering family, and dangerously mounting self-disgust. Ten years later, Quin's hope for normalcy after meeting gentle Joe Armstrong in Chestertown, Md., is shattered by a murder reminiscent of her own attack. Local police ignore Quin's attempts to help, and, in her struggle, she crosses paths with Billy O'Brien, a man seeking justice for his murdered brother. Infusing outrage with sensitivity, McKeon injects moral ambiguity into a heartfelt (if structurally convoluted) plot, whose erratic interweaving of past and present occasionally dilutes suspense. Frailties of both victims and human monsters are laid bare, inviting immediate gut reactions ranging from sympathy to disgust. (BookLife)

Reviewed on 09/26/2014 | Details & Permalink

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