york: the shadow cipher

Deckle edges. If you're a book worm like I am, you've probably come across them before. The uncut, random-looking pages (instead of a smooth cut) give a book that certain "something." Deckle edges convinced me to purchase my own hard copy of Laura Ruby’s York, and I'm so glad they did. This book could be defined many different ways (spec fic, alternate history, diverse sci-fi, a cross between The Mysterious Benedict Society and Scott Westerfeld's Leviathan...), but the thing that stands out to me is that it is incredibly, unbelievably of the moment. I know how long it takes to make a book, but if I didn't I'd think it was written two weeks ago. York is important and empathetic along with being smart and entertaining, and I think it might just be the perfect book for this year, for everyone.

york by laura ruby book cover
It was 1798 when the Morningstarr twins arrived in New York with a vision for a magnificent city: towering skyscrapers, dazzling machines, and winding train lines, all running on technology no one had ever seen before. Fifty-seven years later, the enigmatic architects disappeared, leaving behind for the people of New York the Old York Cipher—a puzzle laid into the shining city they constructed, at the end of which was promised a treasure beyond all imagining. By the present day, however, the puzzle has never been solved, and the greatest mystery of the modern world is little more than a tourist attraction.

Tess and Theo Biedermann and their friend Jaime Cruz live in a Morningstarr apartment house—until a real estate developer announces that the city has agreed to sell him the five remaining Morningstarr buildings. Their likely destruction means the end of a dream long-held by the people of New York. And if Tess, Theo and Jaime want to save their home, they have to prove that the Old York Cipher is real. Which means they have to solve it.

From National Book Award Finalist Laura Ruby comes a visionary epic set in a New York City at once familiar and wholly unexpected.

Tess and Theo Biedermann and their neighbor Jaime Cruz live in a city that is like New York City, but not. In this version of York the famous Morningstarr twins started inventing and building a fantastical array of dwellings, transportation, and life-like machines in the late 18th century, and the present-day result is a steampunk-like mashup of technological wonder. When they left, the Morningstarrs also left a trail of clues to rumored treasure – the mysterious Old York Cipher. For Tess, Theo, and Jaime, solving the Cipher may be the only way to keep their home safe from an avaricious real estate developer – but the clock is ticking. Will they solve the Cipher and save their building in time?  

One of the things that this book did so well was establish the motivations of each of the main characters in an authentic way. Ruthless real estate developer Darnell Slant wants to make money, and doesn’t care who he displaces (sound familiar?) or whether he destroys history. His hirelings Stoop and Pinscher possibly want something even more sinister, and they’re the everyday ‘face of evil.’ The Biedermann twins want to keep their home and life, their parents want them to face reality, and the whole family is still reeling from the absence of grandfather Biedermann, the one-time occupant of the building penthouse and former president of the Cipher Society. Jaime wants his father in his life, good things for his Mima, and to draw superheroes. Six-year-old neighbor girl Cricket wants to be a spy. And what did the long-gone Morningstarrs want? Why did they set up this treasure hunt? It’s a question that Tess, Theo and Jaime keep asking themselves, and bits and pieces of answers emerge throughout the story. The grand themes? The line between technology and life, injustice (racial, gender, socioeconomic), the definition of family (in its different forms) and home, and erasing the past for the sake of the future.

Now on to the things that I liked particularly (a different kettle of fish from admiring a well-constructed plot & characters, or great writing!)(which this book has in spades): parents who are alive (how many times do you see that in a kidlit book?!)! A diverse main character and secondary characters! A main character with anxiety and a service animal. A cool map of alternate New York and great descriptions of that feeling of insignificance you get in big cities. Social justice (pro-immigrant, pro-education, pro-affordable housing) baked in. Added to that, this is just such a smart book, with believably smart characters. Author Ruby doesn’t hold back – her characters use big words and think big ideas because they are intelligent, and Ruby obviously believes her readers are as well. I love that trust in the reader, and I think readers will sense it immediately.

I cannot forget to mention Chapter 7 (and then later Chapter 27), or as I am calling it, “In which we find out that six-year old Cricket (real name: Zelda) is HILARE” (hilare = hilarious without those pesky final two syllables)(a made-up word for the modern age which I am probably too old to use, but whatever). I want to be Cricket when I grow up. WHAT A RIOT. One of my favorite lines from a York (it consistently made me laugh out loud, btw) is in Cricket’s voice, from page 122: “What would a deathmetalhead raccoon wear? A helmet of course. Probably one with antlers.” I die.

What did I dislike? One solitary thing, folks. And that is that it took until Chapter 2 (really Chapter 3 because there was a prologue) to get to the hook. Until then it’s a lot of set-up and I wasn’t sure why I should care. BUT ONCE THERE, well. I was on my way.

In all, York hit all of the sweet spots: it was a funny, intelligent, and exciting read, and it made me think, feel, and reflect. I hope you’ll give it a chance!

Recommended for: middle grade readers on up, and anyone who likes mystery, alternate cities, and clever speculative fiction.

book expo 2017 recap (+ a GIVEAWAY)

Tuesday, June 6, 2017 | | 2 comments
I went to BookExpo (for those not in the know, the biggest book conference in North America)(aka “BEA”) last week. I’ve been going every year since… oh… 2012? I’m insanely lucky and predictably nerdy, yes. I go for blogging, obvi, but I also manage the digital presence at my nonprofit, so this year I registered through work. I wasn’t sure how the “we’re cutting down on bloggers” direction the show was going would relate to me, an inconsistent small-timer, so I didn’t bother to try registering as press or as a blogger. If you saw me at the show, I was wearing a badge that said “Cecelia, Digital Content Strategist, [nonprofit name], NON-PROFIT.” Pretty VIP (but only on opposite day).

Let me recap: somehow I manage to attend a huge BOOK CONFERENCE every year and hang out with BOOK PEOPLE all day. It’s basically heaven!!!

Here’s what I saw and did, and also there’s a giveaway at the end if you’re into that kind of thing (yay!).

On Wednesday I worked a half-day and then took the bus up to NYC. I checked in to my friend Liza’s hotel room (thanks, dude!) and headed over to Blogbound Con for the evening. I attended Blogbound in July last year and had a fantastic time – it was free, had great programming, and a diverse audience. This time around it seemed a little less fabulous, but I definitely enjoyed the two panels I stayed for (Writing for 3rd Party Outlets & Tackling Problematic Books in Our Current Political Climate). Afterward, a non-blogging friend and I hit up Buvette, a tiny French cafe that I can’t recommend enough. Like, the food KILLED, they had a pop-up menu, and it was adorbs. Also $$$, but I like to splurge on good food once in a (long) while, so. And then I went back to the hotel and crashed, b/c I had to be up v. v. early the next morning.

Thursday morning started SO EARLY I CAN’T EVEN believe it in retrospect. I was out of the hotel room by 6:50am because…. I had a hair appointment! No, really, for real. When I checked out the hotel amenities online I noticed that they had a blow dry bar on site. And I’ve never been to one, but every time I get my hair done for anything (weddings) I request a braid, so I was like, why not? AND CAN I JUST TELL YOU, the braid was a *great* decision. Everyone complimented it and it still looked fabulous late that evening. Solid choices, past me.

I arrived at the Javits (the conference location) a little after 7:30 and lined up for a Maggie Stiefvater autograph ticket (which I got!) for her upcoming standalone All the Crooked Saints. And then I lined up for the show floor, which opened at 9, and met some lovely people and had a tote bag and ARC (advanced review copy) handed to me by an enthusiastic bride as promotion for a book that released today (the book is The People We Hate at the Wedding). When the show floor opened I wandered around a bit and ended up at the Macmillan booth, where the author of said book was hanging out with the Flatiron Books staff and the bride. The bride serenaded me, author Grant Ginder signed my book on the spot, and the whole thing basically made my morning.

And then… it was book after signing after panel after book, all in a big rush until lunch (with Emma & Nicole in the food court). My friend Sajda ended up with a last minute attendee badge, so we spent the rest of the day palling around together and taking ridiculous photos. And then after a healthy dinner at The Little Beet (veggie-friendly fast casual!) Liza and I met Sajda at the Big Honcho Media Stay Golden party, b/c of course. Afterward we headed home and fell into bed after having the same Uber driver on the way to AND from the party. Felix dropped some dating advice on us and we were like… o.O

Friday seemed crazier. Was it crazier in reality? Dunno. BUT. I didn’t really stop at all that day (minus a few fun photo opps). I met Leigh Bardugo and she told me my hair was so cute she wanted to punch it. She also signed a copy of Warbringer (the Wonder Woman YA novel!) for me. For a bit I was a booktubing group’s unofficial photographer. I also snagged Holly Black’s The Cruel Prince with some creative planning and line watching. It… was a lot. At the end of the show I shipped my books via UPS onsite, and then I sat down for like a half minute before heading off to the Fierce Reads author-blogger party. WHICH WAS GREAT. I chatted with Tomi Adeyemi (I added her book to Goodreads!) & Tillie Walden (comic artist I supported on Patreon!), some ladies from Forever Young Adult, and hugged author Emmy Laybourne twice (may have been tipsy by then). Publicist Gina from First Second gave me an amazing MCU fanfic rec. So, a successful party all-around.


Whew, I got tired writing that all out! I hope you can tell that it was the most fun. B/c it totes was.

And! To celebrate, I’m currently hosting my first ever Instagram book giveaway! Check it out. To enter you need to like & comment over on insta. Giveaway includes the items shown and ends tomorrow, June 7 at 11:59pm EST. Winner will be selected randomly and notified via the ‘gram.  Good luck!

shattered warrior

Today’s review is part of the blog tour for Sharon Shinn's new graphic novel, Shattered Warrior, illustrated by Molly Knox Ostertag. It’s sci-fi, with a resistance fight and a love story (sounds a lot like Star Wars, eh?)(read it and find out!).

shattered warrior by sharon shinn blog tour

Sharon Shinn! Oh man, talk about one of the greatest discoveries of my blogging life – I found Sharon Shinn’s books through a blog challenge, and now I keep a sharp eye out for everything she does. It may or may not hit all of my sweet spots, but her work is always emotion-inducing (by which I mean I usually cry AND want to throw her books across the room/hug them in equal measure). tl;dr Sharon Shinn makes me read books/plots/subgenres I didn’t know I wanted, and like it. Folks, when I heard she had a sci-fi graphic novel coming out with one of my favorite publishers, I was IN, 110%, YES PLEASE AND THANK YOU, and I was not disappointed.

shattered warrior by sharon shinn book cover
It is eight years after Colleen Cavanaugh's home world was invaded by the Derichets, a tyrannical alien race bent on exploiting the planet's mineral resources.

Most of her family died in the war, and she now lives alone in the city. Aside from her acquaintances at the factory where she toils for the Derichets, Colleen makes a single friend in Jann, a member of the violent group of rebels known as the Chromatti. One day Colleen receives shocking news: her niece Lucy is alive and in need of her help. Together, Colleen, Jann, and Lucy create their own tenuous family.

But Colleen must decide if it's worth risking all of their survival to join a growing underground revolution against the Derichets ... in Sharon Shinn and Molly Knox Ostertag's Shattered Warrior.

Not long ago, Colleen Cavenaugh was a beloved daughter of the great house of Avon, and she and her sister were showered with luxuries. Then the Derichets came and Colleen lost her whole family, and everyone on the planet lost their freedom. Now Colleen lives alone in her empty house and works in a factory sorting precious minerals for the Derichet overlords – and does not let anyone or anything touch her heart. That fragile cocoon is broken when a band of Chromatti threatens her safety, her lost niece is found, and the Valenchi resistance turns from rumor to real. Will she act, or will she try to preserve the status quo? The answer could change her planet’s future.

One of Sharon Shinn’s trademarks is delicious world- and character-building, and though the graphic novel format limits prose a bit, Molly Knox Ostertag’s art adds layers of history and meaning. Colleen’s world is restricted to places she can reach on foot, by bike, or by treadway (underground public transport on moving walkways), and so the scope of the book is narrow – this isn’t a grand starship journey. That said, there is plenty to explore on-planet – the opressive Derichet (who look like nothing so much as the Dark Elves from the 2nd Thor film!) pose an ever-present danger, but the Chromatti (ex-miners tattooed with phosphorous ink who roam about in bands) threaten as well, and Colleen is a particularly vulnerable target as a member of the former upper class, a woman, and a person with dependents.

Colleen herself is marked by loss. She lives one day at a time, trying to keep her head down, trying to stay safe and sane. But of course, it wouldn’t be a story if there weren’t things to knock her out of her comfort zone! One of those things is a Chromatti man named Jann, who both frightens and intrigues her in equal measure. It’s one of those “they would never have met if it weren’t for the ‘end of the world’” type of relationships. The delicate communication that Colleen and Jann cultivate ultimately leads to more, and it is one of the best parts of the book.

Colleen is also changed by her eventual involvement in the resistance. Though I didn’t love that it took a Derichet’s violence against a woman (this trope is still used to signal evil?! …yeah) to make up her mind, Colleen does get involved in a small way. Officially, the Valenchi “don’t exist,” they blow up transport a la French resistance fighters in WWII, and Colleen does her part but does not immediately become the leader – something that I’ve seen before in stories that always rings false. Subtlety = yesssss!

Other things I liked, because this review is getting really long: the stakes are high (plot could mean death!), gender equality in facing danger and putting everything on the line, old class system & wealth break down in the face of occupation (like Star Wars!), found family, diversity (seems like it was probably an artist decision more than an author one, but I’ll take it), and a bisexual love interest (heavily implied)(yay!).

Things I didn’t like: I wish there had been more page time for the legend the book title is based on, and I also wish there was more of this story, period. I think that further development of the Lucy-Colleen relationship would not have gone amiss. But. If my only complaint is that I wanted more, you know I liked the book!

So that brings us to the art, which is just fantastic. Molly Knox Ostertag really takes this story and makes it shine – the illustrations up the stakes, ground it in a place (make Avon & Comstock city come alive!), make you see and feel the characters’ changing emotions and attachments. The art is where the diversity in skin color, architecture, and clothing all tell their own stories – and come together to make the book something more, to show you a history that is unusual and interesting. I’ll be checking out everything Ostertag has ever done, and I usually don’t say that about art (I’ll say it once in a blue moon about an author, so this is a big thing).

In all, Shattered Warrior is a high-stakes rebellion/unexpected love story mash-up with to-die-for art. Read it!

Recommended for: fans of Princess Leia, the Saga graphic novels, and older teen and up audiences who enjoy science fiction with love stories and diverse characters.

Interested in more reviews of Shattered Warrior? Check out the rest of the blog tour:

May 15th – The Haunting of Orchid Forsythia 
May 16th – Writing My Own Fairytale
May 17th – The Novel Hermit
May 18th – Ageless Pages Review
May 19th –  Here's To Happy Endings
May 22nd – me
May 23rd – School Library Journal
May 24th – The Hollow Cupboards
May 26th – Bluestocking Thinking 

Fine print: I received a copy of this book for review consideration from the publisher. I did not accept any compensation for this post.

spill zone

Scott Westerfeld is a favorite author – an old favorite at this point. I read his YA just after I started blogging (so many years ago omg)! He remains a favorite partly because many of his stories are about girls doing things. The other part is that he writes reliably engaging science fiction (his Leviathan books are so my jam it isn’t even funny). When I found out that he had a graphic novel coming out (with Alex Puvilland illustrating), I couldn’t add it to the to-read list fast enough. Spill Zone is a mysterious, action-packed, creepy-weird story, and it is ELECTRIC.

spill zone by scott westerfeld and alex puvilland cover
Nobody's ever really explained the Spill. Was it an angelic visitation? A nanotech accident? A porthole opening from another world? Whatever it was, no one's allowed in the Spill Zone these days except government scientists and hazmat teams. But a few intrepid explorers know how to sneak through the patrols and steer clear of the dangers inside the Zone. Addison Merrick is one such explorer, dedicated to finding out what happened that night, and to unraveling the events that took her parents and left her little sister mute and disconnected from the world.

Addison’s world changed after the Spill. With her parents gone, her sister altered and mute, and her hometown irrevocably twisted, she had to rework her life to carry on. Officially, no one is allowed in the mysterious Spill Zone, and the authorities won’t say what happened there – but Addison explores it, and she has her own rules for survival. The only constant in the Zone is that things will get weird. When the terms change, Addison may be ready – or it might be more than she can handle.

Westerfeld sets up a story with a lot of unknowns (re: how the Spill happened, what it did to people, why some kids survived), family tragedy, a sisterly bond, weird, physics-defying phenomena, and art for survival’s sake. While main character Addison works to unravel some of those unknowns and keep her family together, there are other actors who have their own motivations, knowledge based hearsay, and less-than-ethical tactics. Combine that with a daredevil on a dirt bike, and you have the set-up for a thrilling graphic novel. And of course, Mr. Westerfeld delivers.

There were two bits of the story in particular that sold me on Spill Zone. The first was Addy’s initial trip into the Zone (that we see as readers, anyway), where she does a bit of a mini-tour with her rules for survival. This scene not only gives the reader the set-up they need to grasp the scope of the Spill, it also establishes danger, immediacy, and Addy’s motivations. And to be completely honest, it reminded me of my favorite part of the film Zombieland.

The second genius scene is one where *spoiler* Addy is having a one-sided (she thinks) conversation with her little sister, Lexa. Lexa is having her own telephathic conversation with her creepy and sarcastic doll, Vespertine. I had accepted the weird and threatening nature of the Spill Zone at that point, but I hadn’t gotten the sense of wrong Westerfeld was trying to evoke quite yet. That interaction sealed the deal.*end spoiler*

While the story gets a solid A, the art gets an A++++. No offense, Mr. Westerfeld, but the art is the BEST PART OF THE BOOK. That’s as it should be, since pictures are kind of the point with a graphic novel. Alex Puvilland’s illustrations and Hilary Sycamore’s colors bring the action, the eerie atmosphere, and the characters to life. I can’t imagine what the book would have been like in anyone else’s hands. The weirdness of the Zone seems neon, without actual neon burning the readers’ eyes, and the Zone’s unnatural creatures contrast with those untouched by the Spill (but not so much that you feel like you’ve left Earth).

Add to the art truly gorgeous book production, and you have a coffee-table-beautiful piece. I’m not kidding. The interior pages are black, the cover is blue metallic foil, and even the chapter pages are intricately detailed. For such an unnerving story, it’s quite pretty in places. To lure the unsuspecting reader in, I’m sure. :)

In the end, Spill Zone is beautiful, bizarre, and 100% readable. I can’t wait for book 2 (it’s a duology, did I mention?).

Recommended for: fans of young adult science fiction, adult science fiction, dark spec fic, and horror, and anyone who perks up at the mention of Scott Westerfeld and/or graphic novels.

Fine print: I received a final copy of this book for review consideration from the publisher. I did not accept any compensation for this post.
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