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All the [Micro-verse] Is a Stage: A Review of Rod Rees’ “The Demi-Monde: Winter”

“All the world’s a stage, / And all the men and women merely players“~William Shakespeare, As You Like It

Perhaps in this instance, it is better to say that all the computer program is a stage, and all the NPCs—not to mention several humans—are merely players. Because that is the case in Rod Rees’ hugely entertaining, if slightly mistifying, debut sci-fi adventure novel The Demi-Monde: Winter.

The novel revolves around dancer and jazz singer Ella Thomas, recruited by the U.S. military to execute the rescue Miss Norma Williams, a captive in the Demi-Monde, a cyber world developed for the most immersive combat training the not-too-distant future can afford. And inside the Demi-Monde, we follow a cast of characters painted not in the blacks and whites of villainy and goodness (as far as the protagonists go), but in wonderful shades of gray bound to entertain audiences of adventure, science fiction, and revisionist history over the (presumed) planned series.

Built with the aesthetic of steampunk, a mishmash of historical elements ranging from World War II to the American Civil War to biblical times, and a cultural integration intended to be a powder keg, the titular cyber realm is, to this reader, one of the most well constructed fictional worlds of late. It takes the basic concept of The Matrix‘s setting—the ability to enter and exit, to befriend be fooled by the essential artifice of its denizens—and makes it not just the prison of the Wachowski siblings’ films, but also sprinkled with the occult trappings and playfulness of Indiana Jones. And the mechanics feel plausible, which is definitely a plus. We believe that, of couse, Ella would have an implant giving her expository information about most, if not all, supporting characters when she needs it. Of course we believe that she can interact with the Demi-Monde on occasion. We believe these because Rees has the sense to build a world planned so meticulously that even its flaws are there on purpose. Oh, and is that a hint of mysticism there? Even better.

The same applies to the characters—well, the protagonists anyway. Ella is the forthright hero, but susceptible in ways the reader must discover. Norma is the victim, justifiably and annoyingly whiny. Trixibell Dashwood (now there’s a name) the Daddy’s girl who has to grow up fast. Vanka Maykov, the opportunistic drifter who, for now at least, has a heart of gold. They’re fun characters, and great to watch more because of their internal struggles, even though their occasionally predictable plot lines are well written and engaging too. As for the villains? They’re pretty much as mustache-twirly as you can get. But if you really wanted to, you could explain it away as an ingredient that helps produce the book’s pulpy charms.

One element I can’t and don’t want to overlook, however, is a hastiness in the characters’ individual arcs. While the characters all have definable problems that change or escalate as the story proceeds, the actual arc occurs very quickly. This might be intentional, a choice by the author to have his protagonists face different internal obstacles while pursuing a consistent external goal, but the connective tissue between points in the realization of those arcs seems thin, almost non-existant. Put simply, changes in certain characters’ personalities or thought processes are sudden and awkward. It makes the story raise questions when it should be focusing us on the rising suspense, but I have a feeling this is an issue the author will smooth out—or become better at—the longer he stays in his characters’ company in this fantastic and dangerous world.

Bottom line:

The Demi-Monde: Winter is a great start to a promising adventure series in the vein of films like The Matrix and Indiana Jones. However, while associating it with such classic stories is high praise, it still has to prove it’s got the staying power to truly belong in their ranks.

BUY IT: Amazon / B&N

NOTE: This book is technically adult fiction, but could be an awesome read for older teens. Just beware of some strong language and sensuality, if you’re a stickler for that sort of thing.

Book to Film: My Thoughts on Martin Scorcese’s “Hugo”

Oh hey again! Hope everyone had a good Thanksgiving, replete with family, food, and a lack of getting trampled beneath the feet of Black Friday shoppers. I, for one, will say I had an excellent Thanksgiving weekend. I got to see Hugo.

If you’re up on your YA and children’s lit, you know Hugo is the beautiful amalgam of graphic novel and silent movie The Invention of Hugo Cabret, by writer / illustrator Brian Selznick about the titular orphan living in a Parisian train station, winding the station’s clocks while stealing gears from a toy stand so he can fix the gleaming automaton he keeps as bearer of the last message from, and legacy of, his father. This sounds like the setup or a steampunk take on Dickens, but in the book, and in the film, the story evolves into much, much more.

I won’t compare the book to the film, since the book’s been out for years and fans on either side of the divide are usually impossible to convince, but I will say that Hugo was an amazing experience for me.

First, Hugo is just plain beautiful. From the cinematography to score to art direction to 3D (the best use of the medium I’ve seen since James Cameron’s blockbuster Avatar), director Martin Scorcese transforms this story from as dazzling page-turner to a gleaming clockwork treasure. And better still, in my opinion, is John Logan’s fanastic script, which gives the entire family not only an intensely moving love letter to early film history, but a story that courageously falls outside the familiar themes of friendship and good prevailing over sinister forces. Don’t mistake me—those messages are intact here—but they take a back seat to a more intricate, nuanced, and touching realization: that the world can break us, and as fellows in the human condition, it is our calling to fix each other the best way we know how.

I have a slight suspicion that Hugo could be easily forgotten amongst the glut of quality cinema coming out in November and December, like The Muppets, War Horse, The Descendants, The Adventures of Tin-Tin, and The Artist. It should not be. So if you haven’t seen Hugo yet, go yesterday, and share like you would an amazing holiday gift…with everyone.

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The Tangled Webs Lit Weaves

Have you ever had one of those experiences where you find out you have the opportunity to do something totally awesome, but just won’t allow for? It’s like getting your acceptance letter to Hogwarts only to be told, “Actually, that was late in the Owl Post, and you’re one day too old to go now. So. Yeah. Oops.”

I had one of those today! As we who love awesome YA lit know, Martin Scorcese’s Hugo comes out in theaters tomorrow, based on The Invention of Hugo Cabret by writer / illustrator extraordinaire Brian Selznick. Well, the Museum of Moving Images in NYC had an advance screening tonight with Selznick and screenwriter John Logan in attendance to do a presentation and Q&A discussion before the movie. Flavorpill had a giveaway, and yours truly unexpectedly won. Unfortunately by the time I found out, I couldn’t grab a train in the city to get there on time. Thus, not only did I miss the opportunity to get a book signed by the wonderful Mr. Selznick, but I feel doubly horrible because the unfortunate timing means I potentially cheated another eager fan out of the opportunity to experience such a wonderful event. For this, I apologize to the world at the large, and hope karma doesn’t back and smack me too too badly in the future.

But reading about the event, and the movie itself, did make me realize just how entrenched in the cinematic tradition Hugo Cabret is. See, not only is the film about early French cinema (which, for those unaware, is the ancestor of all the Hollywood classics and not-so-much-so films we have today), it’s also by an author directly associated with classic American film (Brian Selznick is the descendant of the great David Selznick). And once I knew that, it raised all sorts of interesting ideas about the stories of stories.

For example, now that I have that context for Hugo Cabret, I feel as if it enriches the literary experience, as is there’s some new innate truth to it because of the fiction’s association to the reality of an art form I greatly enjoy. I don’t know if I’d go so far as to say that’s possible with every book, but knowing the time, the attitude—in other words, the sensibilities—alter my understanding of the work itself. Its like the extra information is a freakish spider web that has the potential to bog down the work it affects, or, inversely, to become trapped itself, embedded in the affected work and enriching that story as a result. For example, reading news articles about the 1970s and then reading Tom Perotta’s Bad Haircut, or looking at the work of modern illusionists and then watching examples of older magic in Christopher Nolan’s The Prestige.

Have you had experiences like that with your YA lit? Or lit in general? What were they? And do you think having that information is good, bad, or irrelevant?

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Where Have All the Blog Posts Gone?

Where have all the flowers blogposts gone?

Long time passing,

Where have all the flowers blogposts gone?

Long time ago?

 

So where have I been this week? Typically, I’m trying to do two blog posts a week, a random book-related post, and a review / thoughts related to something I’m currently reading. However, as I share my blog time with the bill-payer (hereafter referred to as THE JOB), and this week was crazy! Projects need redoing, late nights were had, and alas, in Diane Keaton / Jack Nicholson fashion, something had to give.

But in other news, I love Net Galley! I know I’m a little late to that party, but that wonderful site for requesting ebook galleys may be the thing that finally tips me over into the Nook / Kindle owning portion of the America’s literary demographic. There’s something seriously appealing to the almost instantaneous reponse I received from the publishers I made requests to that makes me think it’s some kind of magic, some technology evolved to the point of seamless, joyous applicability.

So what does that all mean? Basically, I’ve got galleys to keep me going well into the 2012! And that’s a happy day for this reader, and the continued and future awesomeness of YAvolt!

Coming up soon, as promised, my review of The Chronicles of Harris Burdick, my thoughts on my first time nominating something for anything, and in December, The Demi-Monde!

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Books from Books from Books

As an English / Creative Writing major in college, I had an awesome professor–the guy who’s honest about your work, but constructive, the teacher who, even if your work isn’t the greatest, can see the kernel of an amazing story in there and help you draw it out. He helped me figure out what it meant to be a writer, and how writers truly live their work.

One way he did that was by making us use other books for inspiration, particularly Gregory Crewdson’s spectacular tome Beneath the Roses*. Within are full-page photographs of empty streets, of a old crone sitting alone at her kitchen table, of lovers on a mattress beneath the sky. But no words. Just a picture, and all the stories my professor assigned us to write. At the end each one was different, although some looked at the exact same picture.

This is what I thought of today when I picked up my very own copy of The Chronicles of Harris Burdick. If you haven’t heard of the book, it’s a collaboration of 14 contemporary authors to give voice and story to the cryptic illustrations supposedly created by the titular Harris Burdick; in fact, Chris Van Allsburg is the true artist, having drawn the images and paired them with sometimes fantastic, sometimes ominous, and always odd sentences. I haven’t read the book yet, but I’m going to start tonight, and I can’t wait. Along with Van Allsburg’s story, Burdick contains works from Cory Doctorow, Kate DiCamillo, Lois Lowry, M.T. Anderson, Walter Dean Myers, Sherman Alexie, Stephen King, Louis Sachar, Tabitha King, Jon Scieszka, Gregory Maguire, Linda Sue Park, and Jules Pfeiffer. If that ain’t a literary all-star cast, I don’t what is. Oh, and it’s got an intro from Lemony Snicket himself. Aces.

The best thing about this book, though, is that it, like the writings my class produced, resulted from the work of another book. Van Allsburg’s illustrations are not native to this new collection, but to a book he wrote 25 years before. And even better? These authors aren’t the first to interpret the illustrations. Hundreds of thousands of children all over have had the opportunity to do the same. It is, after all, this legacy that’s led to The Chronicles of Harris Burdick in the first place.

Using this kind of inspiration for writing is great, in my opinion, because the creative act can be seem so difficult to writers, and when the path seems difficult, many writers may choose poorly between what is right and what is easy, creatively speaking. And if they only choose what’s easy, won’t we just get the same stories over and over again? However, if we as readers, as artists, and as storytellers look at other great works with a critical eye and an active imagination, perhaps there will be more works with such a wide-reaching positive effect.

Like I said, I haven’t read The Chronicles of Harris Burdick yet, but when I do, I definitely want to post some thoughts on it. But until, I want to hear from you. Have you read it yet? What did you think? And better yet, what did it make you think of?

*NOTE: Beneath the Roses, while excellent, is not recommended to Young Adult readers.

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The Voice That Says I AM: A Review of Rick Yancey’s “The Monstrumologist: The Isle of Blood”

You cannot be human and not see it, feel its pull, hear its whisper like thunder. You would flee from it, but it is you, and so where might you run? You would embrace it, but it is not-you, and so how might you hold it?”

~Will Henry, The Monstrumologist: The Isle of Blood

Among the joys and sorrows of growing up and growing old, one of the most persistent and troubling realizations is that we aren’t the people we were the day before and, worse yet, we may not like the people we see ourselves becoming. The innocence of childhood recedes farther backward into inky memory, the luxury of honesty stripped away by circumstance, the committing of our hearts to another transformed into our ruin.

But is it possible to step back from that brink, to live the lives we know we should?

Such are the weighty questions asked and answered by protagonist Will Henry in Rick Yancey’s The Isle of Blood, the chilling, enthralling, and heart-wrenching third volume in Rick Yancey’s Printz-winning Monstrumologist series. This adventure finds young Will Henry now 13 years old and still in a relationship of conflict with monstrumologist–monster hunter–Pellinore Warthrop. He is devoted to the doctor, yet enraged by him, bouyed by his slightest praise, yet crushed by his perceived betrayals.

Such is Will Henry’s situation when the story opens. But adventure swiftly steps in, in the form of an Englishman bearing a gift from Dr. John “Jack the Ripper” Kearns, the famed culprit of the Whitechapel murders, and one-time ally of Will Henry and the doctor from Yancey’s first Monstrumologist book. And what a grisly gift it is. In a box borne by an Englishman, the psychopathic Kearns sends a nidus, a nest built of human remains drenched in the bile of a faceless creature, the Holy Grail of monstrumology, the magnificum. The appearance of the nidus sends the monstrumologist in to the frenzy of adventure, but when he goes to hunt the magnificum he leaves a consequently devastated Will Henry behind. With the doctor’s departure, Will can live the life of a normal boy, but his thoughts return ever to the doctor. Then, when word returns that Warthrop is dead, Will Henry refuses to believe it, and begins down a road that could end with the greatest discovery in the monstrumological world, and the ruin of Will Henry’s soul along with it.

Put simply, I haven’t been this engaged or excited in a series since I fell in love with the adventures of a certain boy wizard many years ago. By this outing in his series, Yancey clearly knows his characters to a “T”, from their nineteenth century dialect to the conflicted inner workings of their hearts. And that conflict is what makes this series, and The Isle of Blood in particular, such a spectacular read. It has been a through-line of the all the books so far–Will Henry’s insecurities over the doctor’s feelings toward him in The Monstrumologist, and the readers’ uncertainty over the doctor’s emotional / romantic state in The Curse of the Wendigo. Now, in The Isle of Blood, the conflict is two-fold in that Will Henry is conflicted over both the doctor’s need of him, and of who he is becoming as the monstrumologist’s assistant. Or is it his apprentice? Yancey draws a fine line in this book between the two roles–Will Henry as the assistant who distances himself from and is disgusted by the monstrumologist’s work, and Will Henry as the apprentice whose evolution is fraught with decisions that threaten to bring him closer to the edge of a spiritual abyss into which he would tumble forever, his innocence falling away like rot from the sky.

And what better paper to wrap the drama in than some of the finest suspense and gore ever committed to the printed page? The Monstrumologist series must be known for nothing if not the horrific scenes both the protagonists and the readers must endure and The Isle of Blood, while not as gruesome to this critic as certain, later scenes in Curse of the Wendigo, are still just as capable of making your heart burst with fright. From heart-wrenching executions to emergency amputations to oozing monster hordes, this one has it all.

Bottom Line

Rick Yancey is an author that has always delivered the goods, and The Isle of Blood is no exception. This is a book readers should cherish not only for its sheer (and enormous) entertainment value, but also for the beautiful prose on display, the rich characters, the intriguing world Yancey’s built, and the darker approach to themes of the parent-child relationship (between Warthrop and Will Henry) and loss of innocence so rarely and, here, beautifully, on display. I can’t wait to read The Isle of Blood again.

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Impromptu Post: The Glimmers Off Their Eyes

This avid reader and writer hated learning how to read. See, my mom had these little books she used to teach us, and on the very first page, the page that would normally be the front end paper, there would be three or four columns of words like “zipper,” “run,” and “smooch.” OK, not “smooch,” but other words that would be useful for later life.

Anyway, I hated that page because I was impatient to reach the book’s meat, its substance, its story. And once I finished learning to say the words, I quickly moved through all the little books my mother had, and onto my first chapter book, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.

I know everyone isn’t as interested in moving through material quickly like that, and that everyone has a different pace at which they learn. But, to me, a child’s learning pace or interest doesn’t speak definitively toward their intellect or the maturity with which they can handle the big lessons of the world, so when I saw the excellent post on Guys Lit Wire about this NY Times  article, I had to throw my two cents in.

The GLW post responds to the article to the effect that, “Yeah, there’s a lot of dark, dystopic lit on the market, but it’s good to have it because it shows us the world isn’t as sucky as we occasionally think it is.” The NYT article, meanwhile, by the brilliant Maria Tatar (seriously, read her work on fairy tales if you ever get the chance), posits that yes, darkness exists in the world, and in literature, but perhaps modern YA lit has forgotten how to leaven that darkness with a child’s sense of wonder.

These are both noteworthy and legitimate points of view, but it’s not like there’s a war and each viewpoint is on opposing sides. I admit, I think some of the dystopic lit today is incredible, but I also admit that I think there’s too much of it, and not enough with the singular originality of voices like Paolo Bagiculpi (Ship Breaker) or Suzanne Collins (The Hunger Games). But it seems to me that darkness is there for more than showing how rosy our world is (it isn’t) or to ignore a child’s wonder (it doesn’t).

If our world was a basket of roses, for example, I don’t think the nation’s unemployment rate would continually hover around 9-10%, or that Zuccotti Park would be a veritable village of the sign-wielding unhappy. And while Tatar was close to something when she said the old villains like Hook had a touch of the horrific, citing the “clock ticking inside a crocodile reminds us that time is running out,” I felt she should have continued to explain how Peter Pan is also about a young girl who runs to the world of childhood wonder to avoid growing up, only to face the world’s darkness and, through that childhood lens, realizes she must leave that childhood behind. None of this is to say these writers didn’t know or understand said information, but I feel it’s an error to omit it.

Why? Two reasons:

1. The Seeing Stone

In literature like Harry Potter or The Hunger Games, to use Tatar’s examples, viewing the world through Harry’s and Katniss’ eyes is like the Seeing Stone in The Spiderwick Chronicles. Without them, we see a world saddled with deadly bigotry and a murderous government’s iron fist, but as the authors position us in the heroes’ minds, we a boy who leads a a diverse world against evil and a girl who can give a rival dignity in the face of a the Capitol’s humiliating Games, and a beautiful death–impossible glimmers of light in the otherwise impenetrable dark.

2. Blown, Their Minds Would Won’t Be

To quote GLW‘s sage words, “I want the youth of today prepared to deal with the zombie menace, you know?”

And in other words: I think kids should be prepared for waits outside the classroom, the family home. It’s a great wide world they’re gonna get swept into, and they should know that there’s darkness, there’s difficulty, there are people who are only going to look out for themselves and sabotage others to meet their ends. And there will be sadness. And betrayal. And pain.

But if they read those messages with a grain of salt of salt over their shoulders, through those wonder-filled seeing stones inside their head, they can take the hard stuff our writers and the world dish out. And they’ll be OK.

Oh Spooky Day: Some Thoughts On Halloween

Happy Hallowen! Although in some parts of the country it’s gettin’ to feel a lot like Christmas. Seriously. Everywhere I go.

Halloween, wintry or not, raises several interesting thoughts. For example, my costume. When planning out our costumes, we question, often without realizing it, “What kind of me will I be?” Much like the writer may not consciously think, “What genre is my book?” The decision seemingly springs from us unbidden, an extension of ourselves, just as the genre is a descriptive extension of the story the author creates.

But a September article from The Millions suggests the Genre Decision comes from a less pure, more commercial place. Author Kim Wright ponders on the shift of literary fiction writers like Tom Perrott (Little Children) and Colson Whitehead (Sag Harbor) from literary fiction to genre fare, which includes (but isn’t limited to) YA. Her reasoning?

Once upon a time, genre was treated as almost a different industry from literary fiction, ignored by critics, sneered at by literary writers, relegated by publishers to imprint ghettos. But the dirty little and not-particularly-well-kept secret was that, thanks to the loyalty of their fans and the relatively rapid production of their authors, these genre books were the ones who kept the entire operation in business….But while genre authors were always the workhorses of publishing, lately they’ve broken out as stars and are belatedly receiving real recognition. In 2010, there were 358 fantasy titles on the best seller list, more than double the number in 2006. Publishers, always the last to recognize a literary trend, are pursuing top genre writers who, for the first time, have not only bigger paychecks but genuine clout.

So genre’s finally getting it’s day in the sun. Hooray, says I!  And in a YA context, Wright’s statement feels especially prescient. Genre writers have tons of clout. I’m pretty sure a little thing called Stephanie Meyer happened, right? Then again, the clout and popularity recognized and promoted by publishers don’t necessarily speak for quality, or for everyone’s taste.

Sure, when Twilight happened, publishers probably saw the clamor for every sequel and realized there a market for similar material-a huge one-and they began accepting and publishing manuscripts for those tastes, and at the end of the day, that’s a job well done for them. On the flipside, it also means that we have to show publishers that we are the market for our tastes by buying those titles and ordering them for our libraries.

And lest we become too scared that anyone’s tastes are being disregarded, we should be heartened by this article at Publisher’s Weekly, in which  agent and bookseller Jennifer Laughran says,

Everything in my in-box is paranormal, but the problem is, I’m not interested,” Laughran says. “It can’t be just two shiny guys and a girl anymore.” Instead, the books that are going to be successful, she believes, are the ones that do something different with the paranormal elements. She cites Maureen Johnson’s just-released The Name of the Star (Putnam) as an example. “There’s a paranormal element, yes, but it’s super funny on one page and super scary on the next.

So no matter the genre, agents and editors are still looking for originality, for a WOW factor that makes them sit up and participate in the story with their brains, and their hearts. And that’s not scary at all, is it? It seems pretty great to me.

But what are your thoughts? What would be scary to you, in the literary sense? And what kind of books would it terrify you to see gone from your bookstore shelves?

Coming up this week, my first time nominating something (yay!), and YAvolt!’s first review, Rick Yancey’s The Monstrumologist: The Isle of Blood.

 

Welcome to the Trench

Welcome to YAvolt! I’m currently in the process of reading up for my first review, and I’m still setting up the particulars of the site (social media access buttons, minor layout details, etc.), but I thought I’d take a quick minute to talk about what YAvolt! is all about, and expand on the information already living on the About page.

So what is YAvolt!? Sounds like German. Will there be brachts?

Let’s start here: YAvolt! is a title of two parts:

First, YA. What is it? Well, if you’re here, you either already know, or, as Obi Wan put it, you’re taking your first steps into a larger world. YA stands for Young Adult, particularly Young Adult literature. In my opinion, it’s home to some of the best books around. Who, for example, will ever forget the mysterious and tragic Severus Snape? Who didn’t get choked up at the end of Where the Red Fern Grows, or wriggle with disgust and suspense as Stanley Yelnats of Holes fame horked down those wild onions to survive?

Those classic titles endure, and will forever. But where are the new classics? The new stories whose plots make our hearts race, soar, and break in equal measure? That make us scratch our heads in wonder, drop our jaws, and inspire use to tell stories of our own?

The second part of YAvolt!: volt. Is that “volt”, like, the volt that shocks? Partly. “Volt” also belongs to the word “revolt”. So when you consider that a volt is something that shocks, a revolt is a rebellion, and the prefix “re” signifies a repetition, you could use my wacky, unofficial word logic to say that to revolt means “to shock again.”

Now the question is: If YAvolt! is a combination of “Young Adult lit” and “to shock again”, why would anyone need to shock YA lit again?  Has it become lazy? Did it die? Is it on the literary ambulance and needs a defibrulator, STAT?!

No. Nothing–nothing–is wrong with YA lit. Our literary niche is chocked full of fantastic voices like Kenneth Oppel, Meg Cabot, Sarah Dessen, M.T. Anderson, Libba Bray, Rick Yancey, and Laurie Halse Anderson. Such voices grace our bookshelves and constantly accrue the accolades they so rightly deserve.

Then what’s a YAvolt! and why should I do it?

However, when I peruse my local bookstore, I feel like the content within has shrunk to an increasingly select few types of stories. Maybe that’s my taste and mine alone, but if you find yourself returning to YAvolt!, perhaps you and I think the same.

Therefore, we need to re-shock each other, and ourselves in a literary way, and thats what YAvolt! is all about. Let’s shock ourselves as a reading community with all the amazing and unique YA content we can find. It’s my goal at YAvolt! to shine a spotlight on the awesome, cool, quirky, and insane work from writers that think outside the box, both past and present, and to be a resource for readers who do the same. Think of it as a spin on the adage about having lemons and making lemonde, except there are no lemons, just lemonade and a ton of great books to read while we drink it.

So this is me, raising my glass of lemonade to you and saying pick up a book, read with me, and let’s start a YAvolt!