Interview with Justina Chen

Welcome Justina Chen, author of some of my favorite books growing up! She took the time to answer a few questions for us on her books.

nothingWhere did Patty Ho come from? How much has your own life influenced your writing of Nothing but the Truth? Imagine being surrounded by teens who are mocking you in pseudo-Chinese. That’s exactly what happened to me and my kids one day. The next morning, Patty introduced herself to me while I was running the morning. To be perfectly accurate, she started dumping on me three miles into my run. She ranted about not being able to get a date, ironic since her last name is Ho. Then she told me about being half-Asian, half-white, and all-American. I couldn’t resist writing her story.

As an Asian American, how much of your cultural heritage do you try to reflect in your writing? I drew on my cultural heritage to write my first three novels–North of Beautiful, Girl Overboard, and Nothing but the Truth (and a few white lies).

Why do you write YA lit? I have always loved YA! Let’s just say that I wrote my first YA novella when I was about ten. Teen years are exhilarating and bewildering and tumultuous and wonderful–and I adore exploring that important time in our lives.

What are you working on now? Talk about drawing from my past! If you can believe it, I went to 13 proms when I was in high school. And I drew hard on that experience to write my forthcoming novel, A BLIND SPOT FOR BOYS (August, 2014).

(And an obligatory silly question.) What’s the funniest thing that ever happened to you? How about a different obligatory silly question. What’s the strangest thing you’ve ever eaten? When I was Peru, guinea pig was on the menu. Couldn’t do it. That said, I must say alligator tastes a lot like chicken.

Justina Chen TreeJustina Chen is an award-winning novelist for young adults whose most recent book, Return to Me, was called an “uplifting story” by Publishers Weekly. North of Beautiful was named a Best Book of the Year by Kirkus and Barnes & Noble. Her other novels include Girl Overboard (a Junior Library Guild premiere selections) and Nothing but the Truth (and a few white lies), which won the Asian Pacific American Award for Literature. Additionally, she co-founded readergirlz, a cutting-edge literacy and social media project for teens, which won the National Book Foundation’s Prize for Innovations in Reading.

When she isn’t writing for teens, Justina is a communications strategist for executives and was the speechwriter and executive communications manager for a president of Microsoft. She conducts popular corporate storytelling workshops and has presented at prestigious organizations ranging from the Mayo Clinic to NASDAQ and AT+T to SAS.

New Releases

Rather, happy belated book birthday to two new-ish books released on June 25th!

the lost sunThe Lost Sun by Tessa Gratton
Random House Books for Young Reader

Seventeen-year-old Soren Bearskin is trying to escape the past. His father, a famed warrior, lost himself to the battle-frenzy and killed thirteen innocent people. Soren cannot deny that berserking is in his blood–the fevers, insomnia, and occasional feelings of uncontrollable rage haunt him. So he tries to remain calm and detached from everyone at Sanctus Sigurd’s Academy. But that’s hard to do when a popular, beautiful girl like Astrid Glyn tells Soren she dreams of him. That’s not all Astrid dreams of–the daughter of a renowned prophetess, Astrid is coming into her own inherited abilities.

When Baldur, son of Odin and one of the most popular gods in the country, goes missing, Astrid sees where he is and convinces Soren to join her on a road trip that will take them to find not only a lost god, but also who they are beyond the legacy of their parents and everything they’ve been told they have to be. [Image and summary via Goodreads]

paradoxParadox by A.J. Paquette
Random House Books for Young Readers

Ana only knows her name because of the tag she finds pinned to her jumpsuit. Waking in the featureless compartment of a rocket ship, she opens the hatch to discover that she has landed on a barren alien world. Instructions in her pocket tell her to observe and to survive, no doubt with help from the wicked-looking knives she carries on her belt. But to what purpose?

Meeting up with three other teens–one boy seems strangely familiar–Ana treks across the inhospitable landscape, occasionally encountering odd twists of light that carry glimpses of people back on Earth. They’re working on some sort of problem, and the situation is critical. What is the connection between Ana’s mission on this planet and the crisis back on Earth, and how is she supposed to figure out the answer when she can’t remember anything? [Image and summary via Goodreads]

Review: Charm & Strange

charm and strangeTitle: Charm & Strange
Author: Stephanie Kuehn
Genres: Contemporary
Pages: 216
Publisher: St. Martin’s Griffin
Review Copy: Purchased
Availability: On shelves now

Summary: When you’ve been kept caged in the dark, it’s impossible to see the forest for the trees. It’s impossible to see anything, really. Not without bars . . .

Andrew Winston Winters is at war with himself.

He’s part Win, the lonely teenager exiled to a remote Vermont boarding school in the wake of a family tragedy. The guy who shuts all his classmates out, no matter the cost.

He’s part Drew, the angry young boy with violent impulses that control him. The boy who spent a fateful, long-ago summer with his brother and teenage cousins, only to endure a secret so monstrous it led three children to do the unthinkable.

Over the course of one night, while stuck at a party deep in the New England woods, Andrew battles both the pain of his past and the isolation of his present.

Before the sun rises, he’ll either surrender his sanity to the wild darkness inside his mind or make peace with the most elemental of truths—that choosing to live can mean so much more than not dying. (Summary and image via Goodreads)

Review: Charm & Strange is a difficult, disturbing read. I can’t say much about it without spoiling the story, but I’ll do my best.

The bio on the dust jacket says that the author is working on a doctorate in clinical psychology, and it’s clear that Kuehn has used her education to her advantage in this book. Charm & Strange combines two narratives in alternating chapters: Drew’s traumatic childhood and Win’s reluctant party attendance, which eventually turns into a mental health crisis. Both narratives leave you with a mounting sense of dread the closer you get to unraveling the mystery of what happened to Drew/Win. There are enough clues that a discerning reader can figure out the key points of the trauma before the official reveal, but that won’t lessen the emotional impact of the events. I spent the time before the reveal desperately hoping that I was wrong and the time afterwards being extremely upset that I was right.

While the book remains tightly focused on Drew/Win, Lex (a former roommate) and Jordan (the new girl) are scene-stealers at school. The failure of Win and Lex’s pseudo friendship is a painful but necessary way of highlighting just how messed up Win is. Jordan’s attempts to befriend Win are equally hard to read, especially since I wanted Win to reach out to someone for help. Lex and Jordan are two decent people caught up in the life of a very broken person, and I admire them for how they deal with Win. They also keep the present narrative from being completely soul-crushing.

Unfortunately, the past narrative is completely soul-crushing. It’s clear from the start that some pretty terrible things had to have happened to Drew in order for him to grow up to be Win, and I had to mentally prep myself for every new chapter. These chapters are the most powerful, especially when the reader starts picking up clues about what is going on with Drew and his family. His brother, Keith, features prominently in this part of the story. The relationship between Keith and Drew (and to a lesser extent, their younger sister, Siobhan) is a heartbreaking one. Keith often acts as a parent for Drew, despite only being a few years older, and watching him struggle to be an adult when he shouldn’t have to be is emotionally draining.

Recommendation: Get it soon, but only if you think you can handle disturbing subject matter. Kuehn wrote an excellent book, but I honestly don’t think I’ll be able to reread it. The book is short and powerful, and it leaves you reeling.

Mini-Reviews: A Really Awesome Mess and The Counterfeit Family Tree of Vee Crawford-Wong

This month there are several contemporary novels coming to the shelves. Here are two you might want to grab. Both are available for pre-order or you can look for them on July 23rd.

really

Title: A Really Awesome Mess
Authors: Trish Cook and Brendan Halpin
Pages: 288
Genre: contemporary, issue
Publisher: EgmontUSA
Review Copy: NetGalley digital ARC
Availability: July 23, 2013

Summary: Two teenagers. Two very bumpy roads taken that lead to Heartland Academy.

Justin was just having fun, but when his dad walked in on him with a girl in a very compromising position, Justin’s summer took a quick turn for the worse. His parents’ divorce put Justin on rocky mental ground, and after a handful of Tylenol lands him in the hospital, he has really hit rock bottom.

Emmy never felt like part of her family. She was adopted from China. Her parents and sister tower over her and look like they came out of a Ralph Lauren catalog– and Emmy definitely doesn’t. After a scandalous photo of Emmy leads to vicious rumors around school, she threatens the boy who started it all on Facebook.

Justin and Emmy arrive at Heartland Academy, a reform school that will force them to deal with their issues, damaged souls with little patience for authority. But along the way they will find a ragtag group of teens who are just as broken, stubborn, and full of sarcasm as themselves. In the end, they might even call each other friends.

A funny, sad, and remarkable story, A Really Awesome Mess is a journey of friendship and self-discovery that teen readers will surely sign up for. — cover image and summary via Goodreads

My Thoughts: Lately there have been more and more co-authored books appearing on the young adult scene. It’s a trend that I appreciate. In A Really Awesome Mess, Trish Cook and Brendan Halpin have worked together to bring us two distinct and intriguing voices. The chapters alternate between an angry Emmy and the roller coaster ride that is Justin. There are some pretty intense issues that the characters are dealing with, but the authors have light hands. They also keep a lot hidden in the beginning so things snuck up on me to be honest. Little by little, I discovered what difficult issues Justin and Emma are working through. But just when I thought things were grim and overwhelming — pigs entered the picture. Seriously. A Really Awesome Mess is like that. Seemingly random bizarreness. That’s what made me smile. Also, the friends Emmy and Justin gather have unique personalities that help the story sparkle. While not everything is plausible, Cook and Halpin manage to provide many laughs in spite of the tough subject matter.

If you like issue books with a large dose of humor, you will want to get this one soon.

family

Title: The Counterfeit Family Tree of Vee Crawford-Wong
Author: L. Tam Holland
Pages: 368
Genre: contemporary
Publisher: Simon & Shuster
Review Copy: Edelweiss digital ARC
Availability: July 23, 2013

Summary: A hysterically funny debut novel about discovering where you come from—even if you have to lie to get there.

When Vee Crawford-Wong’s history teacher assigns an essay on his family history, Vee knows he’s in trouble. His parents—Chinese-born dad and Texas-bred Mom—are mysteriously and stubbornly close-lipped about his ancestors. So, he makes it all up and turns in the assignment. And then everything falls apart.

After a fistfight, getting cut from the basketball team, offending his best friend, and watching his grades plummet, one thing becomes abundantly clear to Vee: No one understands him! If only he knew where he came from… So Vee does what anyone in his situation would do: He forges a letter from his grandparents in China, asking his father to bring their grandson to visit. Astonishingly, Vee’s father agrees. But in the land of his ancestors, Vee learns that the answers he seeks are closer to home then he could have ever imagined. — cover image and summary via Goodreads

My thoughts: There was plenty to laugh at here. Vee gets himself into complicated and humorous situations over and over again. He makes choices that are cringe-worthy throughout the book. This, of course, is part of the charm. The reader is compelled to find out if Vee is truly going to go through with his next idea. Then, there is the wait for the train wreck that is sure to happen. The book is fairly lighthearted and entertaining most of the time. Vee is trying to figure out who he is and what he wants for himself so it isn’t only about the laughs.

I was uncomfortable with some of the terms that Vee used like retarded and lesbos, but these are certainly words that are tossed about in high schools and they fit the context. They were just a little jarring for me. I also found the speech patterns for Vee’s father a little stilted. He often sounds formal and maybe the purpose was to show that English wasn’t his first language or to emphasize how closed off he is to Vee, but it seemed awkward to me.

You will find humor, a bit of romance around the edges, basketball action, and plenty of high school and family drama in The Counterfeit Family Tree of Vee Crawford-Wong. If humorous contemporary books are your thing, get it soon.

L. Tam Holland did a reading of her book last week if you want a sneak peek.

New Releases

We’re officially halfway through 2013, my friends, and so far the year has released some terrific books featuring characters of color, and books written by authors of color.

July seems to be a slow month as we settle into lounging by the pool or the beach and go on our vacations. This week, we only have one new release, but it looks promising.

the night itselfBy Zoe Marriott
Walker Books Ltd

Ancient Japanese gods and monsters are unleashed on modern-day London in this epic trilogy from an acclaimed fantasy writer. When Mio steals the family’s katana – a priceless ancestral sword – from her parents’ attic, she just wants to spice up a fancy-dress costume. But the katana is much more than some dusty antique and her actions unleash a terrible, ancient evil onto the streets of unsuspecting London. Soon Shinobu, a fearless warrior boy, appears to protect Mio – and threatens to steal her heart. With the gods and monsters of Japanese myth stalking her and her friends, Mio realizes that if she cannot keep the sword safe, and learn to control its legendary powers, she will lose not only her own life…but the love of a lifetime.

Picture and summary via Amazon.com

And one we missed last week…

since you askedBy Maurene Goo

Scholastic Press

No, no one asked, but Holly Kim will tell you what she thinks anyway.

Fifteen-year-old Holly Kim is the copyeditor for her high school’s newspaper. When she accidentally submits an article that rips everyone to shreds, she gets her own column and rants her way through the school year. Can she survive homecoming, mean-girl cliques, jocks, secret admirers, Valentine’s Day, and other high school embarrassments, all while struggling to balance her family’s traditional Korean values?
In this hilarious debut, Maurene Goo takes a fresh look at trying to fit in without conforming to what’s considered “normal” in high school and how to manage parental expectations without losing one’s individuality…or being driven insane.

Picture and summary via Amazon.com

Review: Prophecy

prophecyTitle: Prophecy
Author: Ellen Oh
Pages: 312
Genre: fantasy
Publisher: HarperTeen
Review Copy: library
Availability: January 2, 2013

Summary: Kira’s the only female in the king’s army, and the prince’s bodyguard. She’s a demon slayer and an outcast, hated by nearly everyone in her home city of Hansong. And, she’s their only hope… Murdered kings and discovered traitors point to a demon invasion, sending Kira on the run with the young prince. He may be the savior predicted in the Dragon King Prophecy, but the missing treasure of myth may be the true key. With only the guidance of the cryptic prophecy, Kira must battle demon soldiers, evil shaman, and the Demon Lord himself to find what was once lost and raise a prince into a king. [Summary and image via Goodreads]

Review: When I read the little blurb on the cover (“One girl will save us all.”), I couldn’t help hearing Katara from Avatar: The Last Airbender’s voiceover. Prophecy, like Avatar, is pretty epic. And like Avatar, world-building is definitely one of its strengths.

The fantasy setting of Prophecy is a refreshing change from the usual dime-a-dozen medieval European setting. Prophecy is set in Hansong, which is inspired by ancient Korea. Hansong, as one of seven kingdoms, is drawn into conflict with other nations such as Yamato when the demons begin to invade. With the heroine Kira as cousin to the prince of Hansong, you get to see the royal court at work. The only issue I had was with the politics, which was a little overwhelming at first, but once I got into the story, I figured it out.  From the setting to the tone, Prophecy has a rock solid setting for Kira’s journey.

Kira herself is fantastic. It’s always great to see a heroine at the center of an epic fantasy. The plot — fulfill the prophecy! find magical treasures! — is nothing new, but Kira brings it to life with her spirit and determination as she fights to protect the prince and the kingdom. And I love the addition of the trusty dog Jindo. Every quest needs an adorable (and surprisingly clever) dog along for the ride.

With its tightly written fantasy setting and fierce heroine, Prophecy is a great addition to the fantasy genre. I look forward to reading the sequel next year.

Recommendation: Get it soon, especially if you love fantasy.