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Lockwood & Co. The Screaming Staircase by Jonathan Stroud

“I can claim to be tolerably detached on the subject of ghost stories. I do not depend upon them in any way; not even in the sordid professional way, in which I have at some periods depended on murder stories. I do not much mind whether they are true or not. I am not, like a Spiritualist, a man whose religion may said to consist entirely of ghosts. But I am not like a Materialist, a man whose whole philosophy is exploded and blasted and blown to pieces by the most feeble and timid intrusion of the most thin and third-rate ghost. I am quite ready to believe that a number of ghosts were merely turnip ghosts, elaborately prepared to deceive the village idiot. But I am not at all certain that they succeeded even in that; and I suspect that their greatest successes were elsewhere. For it is my experience that the village idiot is very much less credulous than the town lunatic. On the other hand, when the merely skeptical school asks us to believe that every sort of ghost has been a turnip ghost, I think such skeptics rather exaggerate the variety and vivacity and theatrical talent of turnips.” ~G.K. Chesterton: Illustrated London News, May 30, 1936.

So if GK (and Shakespeare) were willing to suspend disbelief and leave a little room for ghost stories, so can I. And Lockwood & Co. The Screaming Staircase is an entertaining sort of ghost story. I’m not saying Mr. Stroud’s middle grade ghost novel is a true ghost story, but it is, within its own rather odd universe, believable and amusing and maybe even thought-provoking.

Lucy Carlyle leaves her provincial village after a ghostly disaster to go to London to find a job with one of the prestigious Psychic Investigation agencies there. She ends up accepting a position with Lockwood & Co., an agency staffed and run entirely by children. The three investigators at Lockwood & Co. are Lockwood, the owner of the agency, George Cubbins, his sloppy and nerdy assistant, and the intrepid Lucy herself. The subject of their investigations is The Problem, an infestation throughout Britain of ghosts, haunts, spirits, ghouls, specters, and other psychic phenomena. Only young people have the ability to sense and possibly eradicate these hauntings, but everyone is endangered by their ghostly presence. In fact, being touched by a ghost is usually fatal.

A bit of mild cursing (h—, d—, and the like) mars the otherwise excellent writing and subtle humor woven throughout the story. Lucy is a versatile and insightful narrator, and Lockwood himself, while somewhat enigmatic, is an engaging character. Since this novel is Book One of a series, the author preserves some mysteries about both Lockwood and about The Problem itself, presumably to enliven other books in the series. In the meantime in this book, we are introduced to a London in which children use iron chains, silver seals, and salt-bombs to fight off malevolent spirits bent on righting old wrongs and harming the still-living.

The book ends with the following hint (from a captured ghost) about where the story might be headed in terms of plot and theme:

“I can tell you things, you see. Important things. Like this: Death’s coming. . . . It’s nothing personal. Death’s coming to you all. Why? Because everything’s upside down. Death’s in Life and Life’s in Death, and what was fixed is fluid. And it doesn’t matter what you try, Lucy, you’ll never be able to turn the tide—”

I am definitely curious enough to read the second book in this series, Lockwood and Co. The Whispering Skull, due for release in September, 2014. Lockwood and Co. The Screaming Staircase was the winner of the Cybils Award for Middle Grade Speculative Fiction for 2013.

Favorite Poets: Dante Gabriel Rossetti

“A Sonnet is a moment’s monument,—
Memorial from the Soul’s eternity
To one dead deathless hour.”

~Dante Grabriel Rossetti


Hidden Harmony

THE thoughts in me are very calm and high
That think upon your love: yet by your leave
You shall not greatly marvel that this eve
Or nightfall—yet scarce nightfall—the strong sky
Leaves me thus sad. Now if you ask me why,
I cannot teach you, dear; but I believe
It is that man will always interweave
Life with fresh want, with wish or fear to die.
It may be therefore,—though the matter touch
Nowise our love,—that I so often look
Sad in your presence, often feeling so.
And of the reason I can tell thus much:—
Man’s soul is like the music in a book
Which were not music but for high and low.

“The books or the music in which we thought the beauty was located will betray us if we trust to them; it was not in them, it only came through them, and what came through them was longing. These things—the beauty, the memory of our own past—are good images of what we really desire; but if they are mistaken for the thing itself they turn into dumb idols, breaking the hearts of their worshippers. For they are not the thing itself; they are only the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never yet visited.”
― C.S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory

Mary Lee Hahn is hosting the Poetry Friday Roundup at A Year of Reading.

Don’t Even Think About It by Sarah Mlynowski

The premise is cute: what if you got a flu shot, and the side effects were headache, purple coloring in your eyes, and ESP? So, now you and your classmates, who all got the same batch of vaccine, can read each other’s thoughts—and everyone else’s thoughts, all the time.

I thought it this light-hearted look into the minds of upper middle class teens was entertaining and funny. The only thing that prevents me from recommending it whole-heartedly is the language and some gratuitous sexual content. A few f-bombs, which aren’t really bombs anymore apparently, and some graphic kissing descriptions were as yucky and repellent to me as the scene in which one of ESPies “overhears” her parents’ thoughts as they’re having sex was to her.

Nothing deep here, just a silly story about a group of teenagers who are given a special ability and about what it does to them and how it changes their perceptions of each other and of the non-ESPies with whom they go to school. One of the kids, Pi, is the competitive, intelligent, bossy type. She tries to organize and control the group, but if everyone knows what you’re thinking, they’re sort of hard to control. Another one, Olivia, is a shy, hypochondriac–until she realizes that no one is really thinking about her at all most of the time. At that realization, Olivia is released from her own prison of uncertainty and self-doubt to be the person she really is inside.

Then there are the couples: Mackenzie and Cooper and Tess and Teddy. Their love lives are about to get really, really complicated. Would you want your boyfriend or girlfriend to know everything you are thinking all the time?

I liked this one, but if the previously referenced content bothers you or if you’re looking for something a little more intellectually challenging, it’s not for you.

Through the Ever Night by Veronica Rossi

For the second book in a trilogy, Through the Ever Night is not bad. It has a beginning that brings readers up to speed fairly quickly (although it would be better to have read the first book in the series, first and recently), and it has an ending, sort of.

As the novel opens Perry and Aria are reunited, but there are obstacles to their romance and threats to their survival. Aria is being blackmailed by Hess, the ruler of Reverie, which is the virtual reality home of her childhood. In the Real world, Perry is now Blood Lord of the Tides, but along with great power comes great responsibility (where have I heard that one before?). The Tides don’t like Dwellers from Reverie, like Aria. And Aria must find the Still Blue, a storied land of calm and safety, in order to free Perry’s nephew, Talon, from the clutches of the evil Hess. Perry also needs to find the possibly mythical Still Blue as a last refuge for his people from the Aether storms and the marauding bands of displaced people who will eventually destroy them.

By the end, they still haven’t found exactly what they’re looking for, some people have died, others have betrayed or been betrayed, and all is still not well under the never sky. But Perry and Aria are together, which is what most readers will have been rooting for all along. This fantasy adventure romance is mostly romance, with a touch of female empowerment and a brooding, wild man hero. Teens will love it, and I found it definitely readable and good enough to keep me on the hook for the third book in the series.

Semicolon review of Under the Never Sky, the first book in this series.

The Impossible Knife of Memory by Laurie Halse Anderson

This YA novel by well-known author Laurie Halse Anderson (Speak, Twisted, Wintergirls, Chains, and Forge) is what I call “an ABC after school special” work of fiction. For those of you who aren’t old enough to remember the after school special movies that were featured on the ABC network back in the day, they were usually dramas (sometimes comedy or documentary) aimed at middle school and young adult audiences about issues that the producers thought were relevant to teens: drug abuse, teen pregnancy, popularity, cancer, sexual harassment, blended families, racism, alcoholism, anorexia, etc. Each drama usually focused on one or more of these teen issues and gave guidance to viewers about how to handle the problem in the form of a story or parable or panel discussion.

Well, The Impossible Knife of Memory is a problem novel about the issue of having a parent who is a veteran suffering from PTSD, post-traumatic stress disorder. As the novel opens, Hayley Kincaid and her father, Andy, have been traveling the country for the past five years, running away from Andy’s recurring nightmares and violent outbursts in response to his time as a soldier in Iraq and Afghanistan. Andy is a mess, but he’s decided that Hayley needs a more stable life and a chance to graduate from a brick-and-mortar school. So, the two of them move back to Andy’s hometown.

For the rest of the book, Andy, the dad, messes up: marijuana, fights, alcoholism, suicide attempts, incoherent and dictatorial behavior, criminal associates, and general irresponsibility. Hayley tries to take care of her father and live a “normal” teen life at school at the same time. She acquires a boyfriend, Finn, who is cute and sweet, mostly, but has his own dysfunctional family. In fact, all of Hayley’s friends and acquaintances seem to come from seriously messed-up families. Does Ms. Anderson mean to indicate that all teens deal with some form of parental misbehavior and irresponsibility, or is it just that Hayley picks the ones with dysfunctional families to be friends with?

The title indicates that the book will be about the double-edged sword that is memory: how our memories can both strengthen us and capture us in a web of hopelessness, depending on how we see and process those memories. I’m not sure that the theme indicated in the title came through clearly; I was too distracted by “cute little puppy-dog-like” Finn and by Hayley’s need to get away from her borderline abusive dad. I couldn’t think about the larger themes and issues that the book was trying to illuminate. Maybe if ABC made it into an after-school special, the script writers would hone the focus. As it was, I felt sorry for Hayley, liked Finn, couldn’t stand Gracie (best friend) and her boyfriend, and wanted Andy to go a hospital and get some help.

And that’s about all I gleaned from this particular after-school special novel. I prefer Ms. Anderson’s historical fiction. The book, and maybe the TV special, would be rated PG for some language and “adult” situations and discussions, such as drug abuse, suicide, and adultery.

Dangerous by Shannon Hale

“Shannon Hale as you’ve never read her before!” screams the back cover of my ARC. I would concur. If you’re a fan of Shannon Hale’s Goose Girl and its sequels or her other fairytale-ish stories for middle graders or her take-off on Jane Austen for adult readers, Dangerous might feel a little, well, like new and dangerous territory for Ms. Hale and her readers.

Dangerous is very sci-fi and it’s very much a super-hero story, like Superman(Girl) or Batman or (fill-in-the-blank). The author makes use of lots of common super-hero tropes: a team of superheroes with different powers that work together, hero who dies but is not really dead, the love triangle, big business is evil, superhero needs to save the world from evil aliens. However, and this is where it gets interesting, some of the cliches Ms. Hale turns inside out. Our protagonist, Maisie Danger Brown, who ends up being the only one who can save the world, is a girl. She has loving parents who play a large role in the story. She quotes poetry to express her emotions; however, she’s really into science and math, but not geometry. The team turns out to be not very team-like, with traitors and brokenness abounding.

I read the ARC back in November of 2013, and I’ve found that the outlines of the story stuck with me. Ms. Hale is a skilled writer, with some solidly good ideas. I highly recommend her latest.

Publication date: March 4, 2014.

The Daphne Awards

This idea is genius! Jessica Crispin at Bookslut has come up with the idea of a book award that goes back in time to correct and adjust the mistakes of past years of book awards. As a beloved literature professor once told us, the definition of a classic (or a book that should be “award-winning”) is a book that stands the test of time. So, starting with 1963, fifty years ago, the Daphne Awards will be given to those books that have lasted and still speak to today’s readers.

If you look back at the books that won the Pulitzer or the National Book Award, it is always the wrong book. Book awards, for the most part, celebrate mediocrity. It takes decades for the reader to catch up to a genius book, it takes years away from hype, publicity teams, and favoritism to see that some books just aren’t that good.
Which is why we are starting a new book award, the Daphnes, that will celebrate the best books of 50 years ago. We will right the wrongs of the 1964 National Book Awards.

The Daphne awards have four categories: fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and children’s literature. Of course, I’m most interested in the last category. First, I thought I’d look to see what children’s books, published in 1963, won awards:

Caldecott Award: Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak.
Caldecott Honor Books: Swimmy by Leo Lionni.
All in the Morning Early by Evaline Ness.
Mother Goose and Nursery Rhymes by Phillip Reed.
It must be remembered that the Caldecott Medal is given for “most distinguished picture book,” majoring on the excellence of the illustrations in the book. I’m assuming that the Daphne Awards are more literary in nature.

Newbery Medal: It’s Like This, Cat by Emily Cheney Neville
Newbery Honor Books: Rascal by Sterling North and The Loner by Ester Wier.

Carnegie Medal: Time of Trial by Hester Burton. (Never heard of it or her)

Kate Greenaway Medal: Borka: The Adventures of a Goose With No Feathers by John Burningham. I have heard of Mr. Burningham and read some of his picture books, but not this one. Wikipedia says Borka was his debut book, and from the description, quoting Kirkus Reviews, it doesn’t hold up to the American offerings for the year 1963. “Borka is an ugly duckling who does not undergo a transformation; she is as bald as a goose as she was when a gosling. … The freely stylized illustrations in bold lines and appropriate, vivid colors are many and strong.”

The National Book Awards didn’t have a children’s literature category until 1969.

Other popular and distinguished children’s books published in 1963:
Amelia Bedelia by Peggy Parish. Excellent beginning reader that has stood the test of time.
Hop on Pop by Dr. Seuss. Not my favorite Dr. Seuss, but a popular entry.
Stormy, Misty’s Foal by marguerite Henry. Another book that is still popular among the horse-lovers.
I Am David by Ann Holm. A twelve year old boy escapes from prison camp in Eastern Europe. Cold War literature that I’d like to go back and re-read to see if it stands the test of time.
Time Cat by Lloyd Alexander. I’ve read this one, but I don’t remember it.
Curious George Learns the Alphabet by H.A. Rey.
Sister of the Bride by Beverly Cleary. What we would call YA romance nowadays without all the angst and sex.
The Winged Watchman by Hilda von Stockum. Excellent WW2 adventure fiction, written by a Dutch-American author and published by Farrar Strauss and Giroux in English in January, 1963.
The Bat-Poet by Randall Jarrell. I had forgotten about this one, a lovely little story with illustrations by Maurice Sendak. Mr. Sendak was rather busy in 1963 (see below).

Now the Daphne shortlist for Young People’s Literature published in 1963:

51CDZcP-cPL._SX258_PJlook-inside-v2,TopRight,1,0_SH20_BO1,204,203,200_Children’s Literature

The Dot and the Line by Norton Juster
Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak
Mr. Rabbit (and the Lovely Present) by Charlotte Zolotow. I don’t know why they left off the last four words in the title.
Harold’s ABC by Crockett Johnson
Lafcadio, the Lion Who Shot Back by Shel Silverstein
The Moon by Night by Madeline L’Engle
Encyclopedia Brown, Boy Detective by Donald J. Sobol
Gashlycrumb Tinies by Edward Gorey

If I were choosing from that list, I’d have to go with Mr. Rabbit and the Lovely Present or with Encyclopedia Brown, Boy Detective. Where the Wild Things Are is a wonderful story, but Mr. Rabbit and the Lovely Present (illustrated by who else but Maurice Sendak?) should have been at least honored, and Encyclopedia Brown still lives! I love Madeleine L’Engle’s books, all of them, but I’m not sure The Moon By Night was her best, just as Lafcadio wasn’t Shel Silverstein’s finest (see either. The two others are by authors I know, Edward Gorey and Norton Juster (The Phantom Tollbooth), but I don’t know the books.

WINNER (if I’m choosing): Mr. Rabbit and the Lovely Present by Charlotte Zolotow.

Merlin’s Blade by Robert Treskillard

Blurb from back cover: “When a meteorite crashes near a small village in fifth century Britain, it brings with it a mysterious black stone that bewitches anyone who comes in contact with its glow—a power the druids hope to use to destroy King Uther’s kingdom. The only person who seems immune is a young, shy, half-blind swordmith’s son named Merlin.”

This YA title in Zondervan’s new teen fiction imprint Blink joins my shortlist of favorite fantasy novels and series that play off the Arthurian legend of Merlin, King Arthur, and the Knights of the Round Table. Tereskillard’s Merlin is likable and easy to root for, and the minor characters are also well-realized and interesting. The fight between good and evil is engaging, and the ending is not a foregone conclusion. Even though Christ is greater than the old gods and the new magical stone of the druids, God’s ways are not always our ways and man’s sin and weakness are ever-present, making the story both suspenseful and satisfying.

I’ve read L’Morte d’Arthur, the long and sometimes repetitive compilation by Sir Thomas Mallory of fifteenth century stories about Arthur and his knights, and despite the repetition and the archaic language, I enjoyed Malory’s version of Arthur very much. I’ve also read several other novels, poems, and series that use these legends as a starting place. Here are some of my favorites:

The Once and Future King by T.H. White. White’s version of the Arthur legend is the source, in its turn, for Disney’s Sword in the Stone and for the musical Camelot. It’s light-hearted and rather fun.

Idylls of the King by Sir Alfred, Lord Tennyson. Arthurian legend in poetic form. Victorian Arthur.

The old order changeth, yielding place to new;
And we that fight for our fair father Christ,
Seeing that ye be grown too weak and old
To drive the heathen from your Roman wall,
No tribute will we pay: so those great lords
Drew back in wrath, and Arthur strove with Rome.

And Arthur and his knighthood for a space
Were all one will, and through that strength the King
Drew in the petty princedoms under him,
Fought, and in twelve great battles overcame
The heathen hordes, and made a realm and reigned.

*************

If thou shouldst never see my face again,
Pray for my soul. More things are wrought by prayer
Than this world dreams of. Wherefore, let thy voice
Rise like a fountain for me night and day.
For what are men better than sheep or goats
That nourish a blind life within the brain,
If, knowing God, they lift not hands of prayer
Both for themselves and those who call them friend?

'Glastonbury Abbey' photo (c) 2009, Elliott Brown - license: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/The Pendragon Cycle by Stephen R. Lawhead consists of six novels:
Taliesin (1987)
Merlin (1988)
Arthur (1989)
Pendragon (1994)
Grail (1997)
Avalon (1999)

Lawhead’s druids, as I remember it, were good guys, for the most part, worshipping the One True God, whereas Treskillard takes the opposite approach with the druidow, as he calls them, being the definite bad guys in the story, evil and pagan through and through. Nevertheless, Treskillard, in the author’s note at the end of Merlin’s Blade, thanks Lawhead for his “unique and expert critique” and for inspiring him. There’s apparently room for more than one vision of Arthur and Merlin and druids.

King Arthur and His Knights of The Round Table by Howard Pyle is a summary/re-telling of Mallory without much extraneous material or re-interpretation. Pyle does organize the story and leave out a lot of the repetition to condense it down to a more manageable length.

Rosemary Sutcliff wrote several books related to Arthurian legend and early medieval/Roman Britain: The Lantern Bearers (1959), Sword at Sunset (1963), Tristan and Iseult (1971), The Light Beyond the Forest (1979), The Sword and the Circle (1981), and The Road to Camlann (1981). Excellent stuff.

A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court by Mark Twain is mostly ridiculous, but not a bad read.

The last book in C.S. Lewis’s space trilogy, That Hideous Strength, is set in post-modern Britain, but it features the “return of the king” (Arthur) and of Merlin.

The Crystal Cave, The Hollow Hills and The Last Enchantment, all by Mary Stewart, are called together her Merlin Trilogy. Sh later wrote two more books based on Arthurian legend, The Wicked Day and The Prince and the Pilgrim but I have not read those.

Here There Be Dragons by James Owen, reviewed at Semicolon, has allusions to Arthurian legend: one of the islands in the story is Avalon, and King Arthur has some influence on events in the book.

The Sword in the Tree by Clyde Robert Bulla. Shan, son of Lord Weldon, hides a sword in the hollow of a tree. The events of this book take place during the time of King Arthur and his knights of the Round Table, and Shan eventually ends up in Camelot. This easy chapter book was a favorite of one of my daughters when she was younger.

The Defence of Guenevere by William Morris, with Semicolon commentary.

Of course, when talking about Arthurian farce and legend, one can’t forget the film, Monty Python and the Holy Grail. My friend in high school had the “hand grenade” monologue, and several other parts of the movie, memorized:

Cleric: And Saint Attila raised the hand grenade up on high, saying, “O Lord, bless this thy hand grenade, that with it thou mayst blow thine enemies to tiny bits, in thy mercy.” And the Lord did grin. And the people did feast upon the lambs and sloths, and carp and anchovies, and orangutans and breakfast cereals, and fruit-bats and large chu…
Brother Maynard: Skip a bit, Brother…
Cleric: And the Lord spake, saying, “First shalt thou take out the Holy Pin. Then shalt thou count to three, no more, no less. Three shall be the number thou shalt count, and the number of the counting shall be three. Four shalt thou not count, neither count thou two, excepting that thou then proceed to three. Five is right out. Once the number three, being the third number, be reached, then lobbest thou thy Holy Hand Grenade of Antioch towards thy foe, who, being naughty in my sight, shall snuff it.

I liked Merlin’s Blade well enough that I have the second book in the planned Merlin Spiral trilogy, Merlin’s Shadow, on hold at the library. What’s your favorite version of or allusion to Arthurian legend?

Yaqui Delgado Wants to Kick Your A–– by Meg Medina

When you have to delete a word from the title because you’re a middle-aged (old) lady who can’t bring herself to even type words that her mother taught her never to use, it’s probably a sign that this book is not for you (me). Yaqui Delgado, as I will dub this YA Cybils winner for the rest of this post, wasn’t written with old lady readers in mind. However, since I sometimes enjoy YA fiction, and since it’s a Cybils book and Ms. Medina is winner of the 2014 Pura Belpré Author Award, I struggled through.

Yaqui Delgado is a book about bullying. Along with gender identity confusion, bullying seems to be the topic du jour in middle grade and young adult fiction these days. Piddy Sanchez is new at her high school, and she gets a message that someone named Yaqui Delgado wants to beat her up. Why? Piddy (an unfortunate and distracting nickname for Piedad) never really knows, and she doesn’t even know know who Yaqui is at first. Various schoolmates speculate that the source of the enmity is because Yaqui’s boyfriend looks at Piedad’s rear end too much or because Piddy swings her hips and bottom when she walks. Whatever the reason Yaqui and her gang are out to get Piddy, and the harassment escalates as Piddy tries to figure out how to pacify her enemies without reporting them to the school authorities.

The school authorities are fairly helpless even when they do get wind of the bullying that’s going on, and the book ends with a resolution that doesn’t seem to me to be much of a solution to Piddy’s problem. At the very least, the solution is non-transferable to readers who may be dealing with the same issue; not everyone can move themselves to a magnet school and never see their tormentor again.

I wanted Piedad to fight back, tell Yaqui Delgado and her minions to take a flying leap, tell everybody, yell, scream, and generally make havoc until she got some real protection and help from the adults in her life who are supposed to be able to do something about such problems. Perhaps such character development would be unrealistic, but the plot as it was frustrated me. I’m an old lady, and I don’t believe in tolerating bullying or crude language. Zero tolerance for bullying takes more than a few signs to that effect posted around the school. It takes adults who will make sure the bullies don’t win.

Out of the Easy by Ruta Sepetys

My mother’s a prostitute. Not the filthy, streetwalking kind. She’s actually quite pretty, fairly well-spoken, and has lovely clothes. But she sleeps with men for money or gifts, and according to the dictionary, that makes her a prostitute.

That’s how Ruta Sepetys’ second YA novel starts out, and that intro pretty much tells you whether or not this coming-of-age novel set in the 1950′s about a girl who’s desperate to get out of NOLA is the right kind of book for you. I liked it—with reservations.

Let’s get the reservations out of the way first. The obligatory homosexual subplot and gay minor character are forced and awkward. I’m tired of authors notching their figurative diversity belts by shoehorning in a gay character or an episode in which their authorial lack of homophobia is displayed. But I expect to see more and more of this sort of thing in books just as I’m seeing it in TV series and movies. Skim time.

Some of the other characters are rather stereotypical, too. Our protagonist, seventeen year old Josie, has a mother-substitute, since her own mother is a witch. Of course, the maternal figure is a brusque, sharp-tongued madam with a heart of gold. Maybe madams with hearts of gold exist in all “respectable” brothels, I wouldn’t know, but they are a little too cliche to be believed. Then, there’s the old quadroon servant/chauffeur, Cokie, who knows his place but turns out to be the the most intelligent and dependable person around. Again, possible but hackneyed.

Nevertheless, these drawbacks can be overlooked because Josie herself is such a wonderful character. She lives and works in a bookstore in the lower class part of New Orleans. She loves to read. She also cleans the cathouse every morning, and she knows she wants to do and be more than her mother, more than her friends in the NOLA underworld, and more than New Orleans can ever give her. When Josie gets the bright idea that she could apply to go to the prestigious Smith College in far-off Massachusetts, she gives the application and the preparations her best effort, even when her mother’s cruelty and criminal connections threaten Josie’s dream.

Out of the Easy was one of the books nominated for the 2013 YA Fiction Cybils Award, and I liked it a lot more than I liked the winning book, Yaqui Delgado Wants to Kick Your A–. Rose Under Fire was the best of the shortlisted books, by the way. What all three books have in common is the rough, filled with evil, poverty and hardship, settings. There’s not a whole lot to choose between the barrio, the New Orleans underworld, and Ravensbruck. OK, Ravensbruck is much worse, but on the other hand, Rose Under Fire is a much more tragic, and ultimately redemptive, story than either Out of the Easy or Yaqui Delgado. Anyway, I would recommend Out of the Easy with the above caveats, and if you’re able to stomach another book with a truly horrific mother.