November 30, 2009

Turning Pages - Don't Judge A Book, Part II

You already know how little control most authors have over the covers of their books, so you would think this would steer you to err on the side of mercy. But does it? No, it does not. You are still just as bad as I am. This is why I love you.

Enjoy with me, my opinionated amble through The Covers of Infamy.

The Demon's Lexicon by Irish debut writer Sarah Rees Brennan is a edge-of-your-seat, nervy little debut novel. Nick Ryves does the heavy lifting in his household -- fixing the sink, wielding a sword, protecting his brother from demons -- it's his thing. Since he's the strong, big, dangerous one, the one who isn't good with expressing himself or words, it's okay that he does all the dirty work and gets all the girls, and Alan gets all the brains and persuasive speech -- and does the cooking. Nick's big brother, Alan, is too good, too kind, and would give any old stupid person the shirt off his back, and the talisman that protects against demons from around his neck. He protects their mother, whom Nick could care less about, and keeps the family together through sheer force of will. It's Alan's thing, and no matter how much he scowls or postures or roars, he can't intimidate his big brother the way he can everyone else.


Now two stupid classmates of Nick's have crashed into their lives -- at a really bad time -- with problems of their own. Jamie's managed to get himself demon-marked, which means that he's a demon's gateway into the world. It's a death sentence: Nick can't believe Alan's trying to help them anyway. When he gets demon-marked in the process himself, Nick is furious -- beyond furious. What makes other people so important to his brother? Why does Alan do the things he does? Nick does a little digging -- and what he finds out blows his mind.

And changes everything.

I kept reading along thinking, "Okay, I'm going to put this down." And I did. When I was done. A thorough-going black-eyed beastie for the main character, and I liked him. Yes. I did.

But, why did he have to look like some kind of hottie heartthrob? I mean, seriously? Just this once, it might have been REALLY NICE for Nick to look... mad, bad, and dangerous to know. No, seriously dangerous. Like, someone you'd cross the street for, not Bad Boy Heartthrob With Petulant Lips. Yikes.

The head beneath the curtain pretty much says it all.
Actually, wait -- it doesn't say anything.
The cover of Bad Girls Don't Die, by Katie Alender tells us nothing about the main character, Alexis, whose hobby and escape from her parent's dysfunctional marriage is photography, and whose pictures occasionally show balls of light in them that no one else notices. Nor does it tell us anything about her little sister, Kasey, who used to be halfway normal, and who after the divorce became clingy and whiny, and started collecting... dolls.

It also tells us nothing about the drawers opening and closing in the house, the changing color of Kasey's eyes, and the strangely archaic speech patterns she's picking up.


From the cover, could you even tell this was a ghost story? I couldn't. Fortunately, I read it, and am here to report:

This is a ghost story.
This is a sister story, a friendship story, a story about not making assumptions about people based on their clique in high school, and most of all a story about surviving the things that go down in a family. If you like creepy haunted dollhouse novels, this one is for you.

The first scenes of Academy 7 by Anne Osterlund, takes place in a spaceship, where a starving refugee girl is looking at her father's bloodstains, realizing her emergency beacon and call for help has been answered. Next, we discover who she is, and how she was saved. Instantly, the reader is drawn in to her plight, and understands her terrified silence, her preemptive defensive prickliness, her determination to survive, her fear of failure. The next few chapters introduces us to her reckless, wealthy classmate-to-be, Dane Madousin, and we understand instinctively that they're going to be at war with each other, just by virtue of who they are. In just a few broad strokes, Osterlund has created this intriguing world -- and yet, as I read through the first pages of this book, I had to keep stopping to look at the cover.

I kept trying to figure out who was depicted on the cover. At one point in the novel, Aerin Renning, the refugee girl, and Dane, the rebellious-wealthy-diametrically-opposite-antagonist-romantic-foil-classmate end up socializing together. She wears a red velvet dress that is left out for her, she thinks, by the gracious host of the dinner. This dress is a Big Deal - it is a catalyst that swiftly brings together another series of events that are the highlight of the book.

And yet... the dress on the cover is black... and they look like they're angsting out at her 8th grade dance. I don't know -- I grew up with Star Trek. I want the body suits and the super-synthetic fibers. I want space wear. I want The Future. Somehow, the couple on the cover just doesn't cut it. This is a neat book - a quick read, a bit of glossing over of actual technology, but for those who like their sci-fi light with a bit of drama and romance, this will be a book to enjoy. Unfortunately, the cover doesn't say "science fiction" to me. It says something very generic and even generically romantic, which is kind of a shame.

Still, great books, plagued by mediocre or downright weird covers, are everywhere. The trick for me is not to read jacket flap copy -- editors write that most of the time, and you're not paying to read what they wrote, are you? -- but to sample the first chapter of a book. Writers are told that we have three paragraphs in which to hook a reader -- I'd say, give it a whole three pages, if you've got the time. You might find yourself surprised. And lucky to have in hand a great story.

You can buy The Demon's Lexicon, as well as Bad Girls Don't Die, and Academy 7, all 2009 Cybils YA SFF Nominated Books, from an independent bookstore near you!

Stay Tuned for Umpteen Million Reviews

OH, my lands.
The Devil's Lexicon.
Sarah Rees Brennan rocks.

Many, many books being read. Not so many reviews being written.
Will get back to it... soon.

Meanwhile, Farida's short story will be published in the debut edition of The Enchanted Conversation -- for money. How exciting is that? They're not open to new submissions for their next issue just yet, but keep checking back, writers of fairytales and get your Q&A on with their guidelines!

November 26, 2009

November 25, 2009

October-November Reading Roundup...and a Funny Story

I'm going to try to keep this short. Know why? Because I cannot seem to motivate myself to sit down and get caught up, no matter how many bizarre ploys I attempt in order to make the job quicker (FAIL, by the way) or the product more interesting (possibly successful if it hadn't made things more complicated). I'm talking here about my ludicrous idea (see my earlier post) to audio-record my thoughts on the books while riding the exercise bike, which has to be one of the weirder types of multitasking I've ever attempted, and then transcribe them, ideally having made my job easier by doing the thinking first. Unfortunately, I evidently forgot about the fact that I really hate transcribing stuff. I also did not relish the idea of listening to myself gasping for breath as I semi-coherently blathered into the recorder.

So, instead I'm just going to limit my thoughts to a few sentences about each title, and call it a day. And I shall valiantly attempt never to descend to quite the same nadir of weirdness as the one which spawned the above wastage of (quite literally) breath. And now we shall never speak of it again.

Zoe's Tale: A later book in the Old Man's War series by John Scalzi, this installment makes a particularly good crossover book because the narrator's a young woman--and Scalzi's pretty darn convincing with his first-person depiction. Zoe, at seventeen, is the adopted daughter of John Perry (the narrator of Old Man's War, and their family's part of a colonization landing party for a brand-new colony world. Unfortunately, their colony, Roanoake (har), is also the center of an intergalactic dispute, and the actual colonists are caught in the middle. Not only that, Zoe's importance to the situation is a tad bit...complicated, as she's sort of...a role model for an entire alien race. Again, good space adventure.

Katman: In this graphic novel about a misfit teenage boy finding his place--and finding friends (both feline and human), Kevin Pyle manages to tell a story that's both edgy and endearing. Kit is fifteen and doesn't feel like he even fits into his family, let alone at school, so he takes to feeding stray cats, which leads him to meet some interesting characters and creates some meaning in his life. The nearly-monochromatic, somewhat jagged illustration style fits the story well, and the subtle use of one or two colors throughout does a lot to enhance the emotion behind the story. AND, there's a crazy cat lady. This one's also a 2009 Cybils graphic novel nominee.

Peeps: This is by no means a NEW book, but that totally never stops us from posting reviews around here. Though I love Scott Westerfeld (his BOOKS, people, his books), I had put this one aside for a while because of my general non-love for vampire books. However, I'm happy to report that it goes into the "good vampire books I actually like" pile. In Westerfeld's scenario, vampirism is a contagious parasite, and Cal Thompson--a carrier--has unwittingly infected a bunch of ex-girlfriends. Now he has to hunt them down before they go all bonkers-crazy-homicidal. Fun (and somewhat gruesome) suspense, including many informative factoids about real-life parasites that you probably never wanted to know. I may even read the sequel.

Skulduggery Pleasant: The Faceless Ones: You may remember our recent interview with Derek Landy, quite bodacious author of the Skulduggery Pleasant series, whom we fawned over most embarrassingly. This third book in the series continues to raise the stakes for both the skeleton detective and his protege, the young Valkyrie Cain (formerly known as Stephanie Edgeley). Some of the ongoing plots continue to thicken in this adventure; meanwhile, Valkyrie and her friends go up against some of the creepiest bad guys yet. Packed with action and humor, it's surely not going to disappoint fans of the series.

Tuning in Momentarily...Yet Again...

Okay, honestly, I have this review post just waiting for me to actually enter it, the only thing stopping me being the fact that I dictated it into a digital voice recorder while I was on the exercise bike, hoping to save time, and am now realizing that perhaps I have made this endeavor take even LONGER. (It is a ludicrous scenario! I know! Do not laugh! Okay, laugh.) Anyway. Sometime in the next couple of days I'm putting up a reviews roundup. For now, please enjoy this audio interlude.

If you've never listened to the podcasts of Bat Segundo (aka Ed of Ed Rants), now's a good time to check it out--the latest installment is an interview with notable kidlit personage Laurel Snyder, author of Any Which Wall and Inside the Slidy Diner. She's got some interesting and highly amusing things to say about, among other things, intrusive authorial narrators and eating spaghetti without a fork. Click on the fabulous adorable bat graphic (sorry, Ed, but I have a bat "thing" and HAD to nab it) to check it out.

November 24, 2009

Turning Pages: Stepford Teens, Gods & Monsters

When I was in high school, I saw a news special on a town in Florida that could have been called... Du Lac (Remember the song? Welcome to Du Lac, such a perfect town/ Here we have some rules, let us lay them down...). That town was Celebration, Florida, built and settled by Disney, a strikingly beautiful, classic Americana town. Beautiful. And, a little spooky, actually, with the HOA from hell and those white picket fences and perfectly paint-coordinated houses, as far as the eye could see, and the 87.3% single-race culture all shiny clean and homogeneous, thanks to the Magic of Disney.

It could have been Du Lac. Or, it could have been Pam Bachoz's Candor.

Candor's citizens are upstanding. Their families are tight, and content to be together. And their teens are amazing.

The founder's son, Oscar Banks, actually works at a model home every Sunday, passing about flyers about his beautiful town -- just to help out his Dad! Never mind that dreams of sleeping in, devouring a stack of pancakes and crispy bacon, and longs for just an hour of unscheduled time. He's a Candor boy, and he knows that academics is the key to success. He also knows that the great are never late, so no matter what he's dreaming about, he'll always be to work on time.

Candor's not just got beautiful homes, it's got a strong community. I'm pretty sure that the words "family values" are used in the beautiful promotional brochure, which gives more details on sensational Candor, Florida.
Wouldn't anyone want to live in a town like that? There's always such great music playing there... sure, you want to go, right?

Smile. Nod.
There's only one right answer.

*run away*

Tera Lynne Childs' Goddess Boot Camp is a quick-paced and surprisingly low saccharine sequel to the Oh. My. Gods, which, like the Percy Jackson series reminds us, makes it clear that it's just not that easy being the children of perfection.

Phoebe's Mom has remarried, and the family now lives in Greece on Serfopoula Island, where the new stepdad, Darrin, is the headmaster of a Phoebe's school. Phoebe now knows she's a minor goddess with a more than mortal family tree, which means her life is a bit unusual - and far from perfect. Though she's finally found some great friends and a boyfriend she mostly trusts, Phoebe has got zero control of her hematheos powers. Routinely, she zones out, imagines things, or her temper gets away from her -- leaving beetles crawling over her stepdad at dinner, minor whirlwinds that float the furniture, and her sister covered in frosting -- when there's no cake anywhere.

As much fun as it is to be annoying to Stella, Phoebe would actually like to have a little control. Scratch that: she'd like a LOT of control. And soon. There's a reason Phoebe's got a stepdad -- her birth father crossed the will of the gods, and used his power when he should not have. Phoebe is rightfully terrified that she could accidentally anger the gods in the same way. She's been training for the Pythian games for weeks -- what would happen if she forgot what she was doing, and suddenly sped up? Or turned her fellow competitors into bugs?

Dynamotheos Boot Camp is her stepdad's answer to Phoebe's problems. While her friends vacation, Phoebe is studying control. It would really help a lot if a.) the other girls at Goddess Boot Camp weren't all 10, b.) if Phoebe's boyfriend wasn't hanging out so much with his ex, and c.) if her step sister weren't the head of the Boot Camp.

Even a goddess can't always get what she wants.

I remember reading author Carrie Jones' comments about how the idea for Need came to her -- seeing someone scary looking/pointing at her and seeing glitter on the ground around him, and being freaked out by the juxtaposition (plus the guy: Creepy.) (And obviously this is not exactly what she said, but what I remember.) Well, I am now officially terrified of glitter.


And pixies.

Zara - whose name means "queen" -- doesn't care about pixies. She doesn't care about much of anything, and she's been sent to Maine to live with her grandmother, Betty, because of it.

The day her father died -- the day they came in from running, and he collapsed on the floor, his heart giving out -- was the first time she thought she saw the man in the window, staring in at them. She thinks her father saw him too. But what Zara mostly sees is that she couldn't save him. That she stood there, and watched it happen, and ...let him go.

Zara would like to save somebody. She writes earnest letters every free moment for Amnesty International. She doesn't care if she dies anymore -- she feels that's probably what she deserves. But she desperately wants someone else to live. Someone good. Someone like her father.

Teen boys are disappearing in her grandma's town, and people are scared. Zara wishes there was something she could do about that, but her grandma says that sometimes kids just run away. It's just one more thing to add to the list of things that are wrong with the world. Nowhere seems safe, not even Betty's small town.

But little by little, life gets lived. Zara becomes curious about things. It is a bit odd that the man she thought she saw outside the house the day her father died is the same man she sees on the road from the airport to her grandma's house. And again, on the side of the road where her car gets stuck in a snowdrift.

It's a bit much that he shows up at her high school, and points at her. And it's just beyond enduring when he arrives in the woods near her house, and she hears him calling her name.

What. The. Heck?

In time, Zara learns that the guy following her is ...a pixie. And pixies = monsters, monsters who have uncontrollable need to feed on human beings. Deprived of his queen, and thus his power, the Pixie King is weak, and the court is growing restless. Somehow, Zara is the key to changing things for him. He's following her. He's calling her. Should she sacrifice herself so no more boys will disappear? Is it right to be controlled by another's need?

There's an allegorical feel to this novel -- a hint of a truth beneath the glittering layers of fiction, about relationships, about the way we control what we think we need, and about choices. Somehow, the glitter hiding bloodshed makes it that much worse.


Fans of the spooky will be thrilled to know that the sequel will be out in January.

Find the very disturbing Candor, the frothy but sweet Goddess Boot Camp, or the doubly disturbing Need at an independent bookstore near you!

November 21, 2009

Turning Pages: Supersweet Superheroes

This is a favorite genre subdivision -- epic heroes and heroines. Not quite as good as X-men, or the MiB, none of these novels have quite the same feel as comic book pages beneath one's fingers... but you've gotta admit, they're pretty darned close.

Warrior priestesses are pretty much superheroes.

Of course, Zira doesn't think of herself as that. She has just as much practice to do as anyone in learning swordplay, and her teacher, Deo, would soon correct any arrogant attitude on her part. She's just one of the other novices, living at the House of God, doing her best to worship in the proper spirit and help train the refugee children at the temple, who are now homeless because of the Sedorne invasion. The Rua royal family has been decimated, and all the Rua people can do is pretend to be harmless and pacifist and in the meantime train, prepare...and survive.

Noirin Surya, the high priestess and keeper of the Flame of God, loves Zira as much as her own mother once must have, before she was killed by the Sedorne so long ago. When Surya takes Zira with her on business to a nearby village, she's glad to help. Their cover as harmless priestesses is blown when Zira saves the life of a Sedornese noble - leaping into the fray, swords flying.

The outlaws were going to burn him alive in his carriage...something which Zira, with her own burn scars, could never have faced in silence. Her impetuousness costs her more than she knows -- and gives her a greater gift than she could have ever found on her own.

This is a satisfying adventure story that never feels hurried, even though it's epic, and sweeping, and there are tons of details. It's very superhero.

(One cover complaint -- although the flame is outstanding, the character has a facial scar. She's not knock-down dead gorgeous. How hard is it to show that on a cover? Oh, wait, what am I saying? LIAR, anyone?)

Lisa Haines poses a very serious question of "what if" in Girl in the Arena. What if bloodsports were legal? What if war wasn't something faceless old men sent young warriors to do, but it was a mano-y-mano, on-screen thing? What if Roman gladiators had never died out?

Lyn's whole life has been GSA -- Gladiator Sport Association. Her mother, one of the first Gladiator Wives, has been married now SEVEN times, and all of Lyn's stepdads have been fighting men. Caesar's, the GSA association company, has rules. The rules say that Allison has married her last warrior. When Tommy, Lyn's seventh stepfather dies, it's going to be all over.

For various reasons, none of them like to think about that.

There's a ceremonial aspect to the gladiator life. There's the reverence for the old Roman warriors, there's attention paid to the right clothes, the proper gladiator footwear with fifteen leather straps and buckles, and the right attitude. And then, there are the bylaws:Always lend ineffable confidence to the gladiator. Remind him constantly of his victories. And most importantly: Never leave the stadium when your father is dying. Lyn isn't hot on Gladiator culture, but she always expected to go to Gladiator Wives College, like the other Glads daughters she knows. Her friendships within the Glads fade and she is fast waking up to the heavy toll that being a gladiator girl has on everyone -- her mother, Allison, her seer brother, Thad, and worst of all, Tommy, and the strapping young lad, Uber, who vanquishes him.

What if violence like this were an everyday part of life?
What would the media do to keep the bloodletting going?
How far would they go... until people said, "Enough"?

Americans are addicted to spectacle. This novel explores the concept of bloodsport as just another reality show. (And though the cover looks not at all like the character, it has a certain sense that reflects the contents of the book. Props to the graphic designers.)

How much do I love Dull Boy by Sarah Cross?
Oh, a whole lot.
Rarely do I pick up a book that makes me laugh all the way through -- even when the characters are in SERIOUS DIRE STRAITS. Even when they're in pain. It's like reading the best comic book/buddy movie/sidekick novel ev-ah. And I do mean that in all the best ways.

Avery Pirzwick is fifteen, and previously, he was okay with life. He was... like his friends, like everyone else in his high school -- dull and content and dead mediocre. Until one day, in an emergency, he lifted a car off a toddler's leg. He got some attention, then, and he was -- cautiously thrilled. It wasn't so bad to stand out, and wow -- he was super strong that day.

Wouldn't super strength be cool?

Avery thinks so, until he breaks a guy's arm on the wrestling team. And the figured out he could bench press his mother's car. And fly.

It makes him want to do something with himself. Something good. Something cool. Something...heroic. Unfortunately, all the pieces of Avery's life are crumbling in his hands -- just like his cell phone.

Instead of using his powers to be a hero, Avery's supergeeking gets him put in an expensive private school for delinquents where he meets the most unusual people. Nicholas. Catherine. Darla. And ...Jacques.

Who are they? What does Jacques' mother, the icy cold Cherchette, want with him?

Tune in next week when our superheroes...

Find Daughter of Flames, the thought-provoking Girl in the Arena, or the hilarious Dull Boy at an independent bookstore near you!

November 20, 2009

Turning Pages - A Wing and a ...Prayer. Sorta

This year's Cybs have popped out an unusual crop in the paranormal teen novel category -- angels. Maybe it's only unusual to me -- I never thought of angels as having lives, romances, disputes, but hey -- science fiction and fantasy is all about "What If," right? We had Starfire Angels who were kind of vaguely sci-fi, Strange Angels wherein no angels actually even appeared and then two books where the angels were a little more... unexpected. Here are the two titles that stuck with me.

Coffeehouse Angel by Suzanne Selfors, is one of my favorites in the angel genre -- and because the first Selfour book I read was about a mermaid in a bathtub, I knew she was good at "what if" scenarios, and she shines with this zany little romantic comedy.

Katrina is just your average working stiff -- trying to help her grandma keep a roof over their heads by working all the hours she can at the Norwegian coffee shop they own. It's a stodgy old place where they only make coffee one way, there's no Wifi, and the sandwiches have sardines and pickled onions. I said Norwegian, right? Unfortunately for Katrina, there's a really hip coffeehouse next door -- and it's about to run her grandma out of business.

There's a lot more bad luck on the way, but Katrina's still got the heart to do a good deed. A homeless guy in the alleyway outside of the shop gets a bag of chocolate covered coffee beans, some day old danishes, and a big cup of coffee, on the house. It's the least she could do for someone who's had to sleep in the cold.

One selfless act.

It's amazing how much trouble that can get you into.

The homeless guy -- when he's awake -- is actually a gorgeous kilted "messenger" named Malcolm. And not particularly easy to get rid of. He just wants to repay Katrina for her kindness -- to give her what her heart desires. That can't be so bad, right?

Hush, Hush, by Becca Fitzpatrick introduces us to Nora Grey, who has no interest in high school romance. Her friend Vee is the one with stars in her eyes, and Nora has no problem turning off the charm, until Patch, the darkly seductive and broody new guy...

...who seems to be sort of everywhere. And for a new guy, he knows an awful lot about her. Now, why is that?

Nora's a little shaken -- granted, Patch is cute, and really intense, but there are weird things that happen around him. Almost accidents, near misses -- Nora's beginning to wonder if Patch isn't out to hurt her. Or, is he there to help?

Secretive, manipulative and obsessive, Patch has a lot of similarities to a.) vampires, and b.) other evil characters who mistake obsession with relationship, but in his case, there's (somewhat of ) a reason for it -- a reason that's been going on for thousands of years. Critical readers might raise a brow at a few of the stock characters and a few "Oh, please, she isn't going to do that is she??" moments, but for those looking for a "spooky dark lover" fix and who aren't turned off by the hype the novel's received, this will go down like candy.

You can find Coffeehouse Angel, and Hush, Hush, as well as Starfire Angels at independent bookstore near you!

Winter Blog Blast Tour: Five Questions for Sheba Karim

- from Macmillan Books:

If Nina Khan were to rate herself on the unofficial Pakistani prestige point system – the one she’s sure all the aunties and uncles use to determine the most attractive marriage prospects for their children – her scoring might go something like this:

+2 points
for getting excellent grades
–3 points for failing to live up to expectations set by genius older sister
+4 points for dutifully obeying parents and never, ever going to parties, no matter how antisocial that makes her seem to everyone at Deer Hook High
–1 point for harboring secret jealousy of her best friends, who are allowed to date like normal teenagers
+2 points for never drinking an alcoholic beverage
–10 points for obsessing about Asher Richelli, who talks to Nina like she’s not a freak at all, even though he knows that she has a disturbing line of hair running down her back.

Funny. Disturbing. Nina.

In our review of Sheba Karim's debut YA novel Skunk Girl, we wrote: "[T]here really isn't much (if any) teen literature out there that deals with the quirks of growing up as a Pakistani girl in America, with Muslim parents who are conservative, even restrictive in some ways, but still close and loving." As a portrayal of the general angst of growing up, the book was equally spot-on, and we were eager to ask the author about her writing process, her favorite reads, and her thoughts on the role of religion and culture in the story of Skunk Girl's main character, Nina.

We had limited time to spend with this busy New York born author, as she is in the process of recovering from an international move. We appreciate the time she took away from her boxes and bags to speak to us!

Finding Wonderland: Many of our readers are writers. Can you talk a bit about your process? What was the original first line of Skunk Girl? Did it change, or stay the same? What are your revisions like? Do you do flowcharts, outlines, or a flurry of Post-It notes?

Sheba Karim: The first line of Skunk Girl remained unchanged. In terms of writing process, I tend to think of structure first, and outline a chapter before I write it, at least the major plot points. It's very hard for me to start writing without having an idea of the direction I'm heading. My revisions for the book were across the board—some chapters I barely changed, while I rewrote the second half of the book entirely.

FW: As a follow up: From your blog we learn you were previously a lawyer before becoming a writer, and you received your MFA from the Iowa Writers Workshop, and did a residency at Hedgebrook. How did your family feel about your decision to move from something solid like law, to something chancy like writing? Do you feel that having an MFA made a difference to you as a writer?

SK: I think it was easier for me to switch career tracks because I applied to MFA programs, so rather than quitting my job and heading into some great creative unknown, I was simply transitioning into graduate school, and the fact that I was fully funded helped a lot. My parents still worry about me, as parents are wont to do. It's hard to make a career as a writer, and there's a lot to be said for a stable paycheck, but I haven't once looked back.

FW: We're definitely glad you haven't looked back!

What were your favorite books when you were a child, and who are your favorite writers these days? Any multicultural YA authors we should be on the lookout for?

SK: My absolute favorite book when I was very young was Are You My Mother? followed some years later by the complete Sherlock Holmes and, later, Jane Eyre. I love Margaret Atwood, and two of my all-time favorite books are A Fine Balance and Midnight's Children. In terms of multi-cultural YA writers, I've heard good things about Meja Mwangi, Sharon Flake, and Neesha Meminger.

FW: Neesha is one of our favorites, too!

What was your family's response to Skunk Girl? Knowing that you are a woman with a Muslim background, and that you're familiar with the religion, what was it like to write about Muslim religion from an outsider perspective? Did you feel any pressure to present a particular picture of Islam, or did you simply write what you know?

SK: I didn't feel any pressure to convey a particular picture of Islam, though obviously I didn’t want to demonize it in any way. In my mind, I was writing a novel about one particular Muslim girl’s experience, which would undoubtedly have similarities and differences to the experiences of other Muslim-American girls. My focus was on discussing certain aspects of growing up female and Muslim in the US (as it pertained to Nina) rather than conveying some broader message about the religion itself, though I did try to convey that, like most religions, there's a fluidity to Islam in terms of people’s beliefs and practices.

FW: The choice Nina makes about her relationship with Asher at the end of the book might not be one that every reader can relate to. Can you talk a bit about your decision to end the book with her choosing to stay closer to the dictates of her culture and family than "following her heart," so to speak (something very much lauded in mainstream American culture)? What do you think the ending conveys to readers of Pakistani or Muslim background? To non-Pakistani or non-Muslim readers?

SK: I think the decision Nina makes is more of a practical one. Some readers would have probably preferred that Nina be determined to pursue a relationship with Asher no matter what the cost. I think it's a lot easier to do such things when you're older and more independent. I'm not saying it's not possible, I'm just saying it’s a lot more difficult.

Some Muslim readers might be taken aback at the fact that Nina never questions the morality of dating, while some non-Muslim readers might be upset that Nina seemingly panders to cultural mores by deciding not to date Asher. But I don't want readers to come away thinking Nina's decision is meant to convey some kind of message, because it's not. It's just one character's individual decision in a complicated situation. For Nina, it's more of a timing thing. Of course, who knows, when school starts again, Nina's resolve might not be so strong.

Bonus Question: Will you continue writing in the YA genre? Can you talk a bit about what you're working on now?

SK: I'm currently working on a historical fiction novel set in 13th century Delhi, India, and I just started working on a YA fantasy book. It's quite new, so I won't say much about it, except that it involves djinns.

FW:Thank you so much again for taking time out of your busy schedule for us! We can't wait to read more of your work, and wish you the very best.

Gotta love the djinns, huh? And we're always HEARTILY in favor of multicultural fantasy here at Wonderland, so GO, SHEBA KARIM! If you want to read another fun, quirky interview, check out Sheba's toe-to-toe chat with the Longstockings (Yum, chocolate peanut butter ice cream!), or check out her author essay at Some good reading on women and identity in Islam, which is what Skunk Girl is about in a smaller, less academic fashion.

And, don't forget to check out the rest of today's awesome WBBT author/illustrator interviews:
Lisa Schroeder @ Writing & Ruminating
Alan DeNiro @ Shaken & Stirred,
Joan Holub @ Bildungsroman
The amazing Pam Bachorz @ Mother Reader
R.L. LaFevers @ Hip Writer Mama

November 19, 2009

Turning Pages: Bring on the Shorts

It's sort of an open secret, my obsession with anthologies.

I love short stories and think there should be way, way, WAY more short story collections for young adults and teens, and heck, adults and science fiction lovers and fantasy fiends. I think genre fiction has kind of stolen the short story, handed it to Raymond Carver, and effectively blocked out everyone else. I mean, think about it: the words "short story" make some people break out in a graduate-school induced pox, a flash-fiction induced fever. They hear the words and expect Pretentious. Insanely ambiguous. Boring. And that's not right. After all, a short story's just like a novel, only... shorter. Beginning, middle, end. Engaging characters, subtle tensions. Depth. Conclusion.

My favorite short stories are those which are pieces of the author's heart that they couldn't leave behind when they finished writing a novel. Minor characters are fleshed out and briefly given life -- it's a wonderful gift to be allowed into a world one last time. (J.K. Rowling should have considered doing something like that instead of the whole "I control this world and will now tell you exactly what happens to everyone their whole lives, thus ruining the whole Potter mystique permanently." I mean, a short story. OR three. It would have helped get him out of her system.) Select and savor the story collections in the SFF genre group for the Cybils this year:

The Eternal Kiss: 13 Vampire Tales of Blood and Desire, edited by Trisha Telep actually didn't grab me right off -- mainly because the cover depicts Eyeless Head Girl, and her mouth is open. Whether she's meant to be gasping with that aforementioned Desire or not, she looks like she's dead, with her neck situated limp-awkwardly. Which would be just right for vampirism, but eek and ewww.

Never mind. The collection is chock full of awesome -- freaky, disturbing, arresting stories, told by some of the most loved names in YA fiction. Sword Point by Maria V. Snyder tells the story of obsessed fencer, Ava, who dreams of Olympic gold, and is on her way to being trained by the best. Never mind that loitering outside of the karate studio next door to the fencing school gets her doused with water -- what was up with that?? Her fencing trainer has an unlocked room full of swords, and a GREAT BIG CRUCIFIX on the wall in his inner sanctum. He's Italian - obviously serious about his religion. Who cares if everyone at the school looks at her a little weird, and the karate guy thinks she should learn self-defense? Everything's cool...

Undead Is Very Hot Right Now, by Sarah Rees Brennan is horribly ironic and funny and sad and poignant. Like a lonely rocker vampire in a boy band, searching yearningly for his one true love, and never finding her. Yeah, exactly like that.

Kat, by Kelley Armstrong is my FAVORITE, and anyone who's read Darkest Powers series will be lured by this one, too. The Edison Group: they're baaaack... And chasing people down. Again.

In the terrifying category are Cecil Tell-It-Straight Castellucci with Wet Teeth (Yes. Your stomach. Turning. Got it.) and Cassandra Clare's Other Boys. Egads. There's a woman whose imagination I don't want to meet some dark night in an alley. Yikes. And Libba Bray's The 13th Step?? Talk about disturbing. Vampires: some scary people. Things. Whatever.

Sharon November heads up the Firebird imprint at Puffin, and since it's just her month all over anyway (How much do I love her name? And the brilliantly autumnal shade of her hair...), I've got to give props to the newest in her triumvirate of speculative fiction anthologies. Firebirds Soaring is a much meatier collection that the previous one, twenty tales which fill over five hundred meaty pages. This collection will appeal to adults and teens who love speculative fiction. Firebirds has a more literary mien, and readers will have to work a little for the gems of story concealed in its pages, but it's good, satisfying work, and pays high dividends.

Some of the numerous highlights of the collection are Ellen Klages' scary Singing on a Star, wherein a very young girl finds her way into a new world by way of a friend's closet -- and has to make a decision about whether or not she'd be better off where she is, as the song says.

Jo Walton's Three Twilight Tales opens up the delicious possibilities of reversal that most fairytales often don't broach. What would happen if the handsome King came to the village and met the shy maiden, and, instead of making her the Queen, became something else himself?

Dolly, the Dog Soldier by Candas Jane Dorsey is a powerful story about pack behavior, the gifts that innocence and childhood give us, and the strength it takes to fight incandescently for something else -- not to be an obedient puppy, looking for puppy love, but for bigger, better, and more.

The collection is rounded out by Something Worth Doing, Elizabeth E. Wein's meticulously written tale of a true flygirl, whose feckless but much loved younger brother is run down by a van in the spring of 1940, just a month shy of his eighteenth birthday. Bereft and infuriated by her parents who can only nod in agreement at the sympathetic murmurs of "what a waste," in reference to her brother's life, Kim is bound and determined to memorialize her brother better than that. She finds a way to make him live again - with her own life. This is an absolutely smashing piece with which to end an all-round pleasing anthology, and Firebird readers are already looking forward to the next dose of intelligently written fictional shorts, I'm sure.

More anthologies, people! Short stories make good reading. Bring 'em on.

Buy The Eternal Kiss and Buy Firebirds Soaring from an independent bookstore near you!

Turning Pages: Don't Judge the Book by its Cover

Science Fiction and Fantasy, my peeps, can produce some staggeringly bad, bad, BAD covers.

Not that they're not the apex of graphic design. Not that they're not a genius of artistic achievement. No, nothing like that - and props to all of your graphics people out there. It's just sometimes? I think that whomever gives you the "this is what the book is about" write-ups should do just a tad more work. That might make a difference.

With their carefully arranged dead in bright primary colors, the Generation Dead books look... amusing. Comedic. Yet Kiss of Life, the one I just read was not. Folks in Phoebe's town are used to the dead -- they don't call them zombies, though. That's not PC, even though that's what the "differently biotic" call themselves. Adam, a boy who had a major crush on Phoebe, who even took a bullet for her when an angry classmate had tried to shoot her for being the first to date across the lifeline, is now dead -- and he's not recovering well. It takes him months to learn to speak and move again, and in the meantime, Phoebe -- whom shooter Pete calls Morticia Scarypants -- is giving her whole life to him, trying to help him cope, thinking they're a couple, and that she owes him this. After all, he gave up life for her. Never mind that she really still loves Tommy, who, in an effort to be a guiding light to other differently biotic kids, is traveling across the United States to Washington to help change the world.

Kiss of Life, by Daniel Waters is a book that deals with the political and emotional ramifications of a minority group -- and the ghostly pale diva in the coffin with the football player mooning over her -- supposedly Phoebe and Adam, which is bizarre, since Phoebe is alive, and Adam is the one who is dead -- doesn't really do much to advertise the book. But, maybe that's just me.

Watersmeet, by Ellen Jensen Abbott looks like that Costner thing. Waterworld. The girl on the cover has wet hair... and one iridescent green eye.

Despite the cover, Abisina does not spend most of her time in the water. She's an outcast in her village because she has green eyes. Most days she's getting pounded on and beaten. Everyone in the village is poor, they're being hunted by centaurs, and are in constant danger. They're also hyper-religious and it's a hard, cold religion that brings no one comfort. Only the presence of her mother, the village healer, preserves Abisina from being driven away. They live on the outskirts of town, with the other strange ones who are dark and not blonde.

It's only an accident of birth, maybe, but Abisina believes that something is wrong with her. That she is wrong. And when the charismatic new leader comes to Vranille, the first thing he does is turn the villagers against the outcast.

Abisina convinces her mother to run, to leave the village, but it's too late. The healer dies at the hands of a mob, as do many of the outcast. All that is left is her mother's necklace, a strange metal amulet that Abisina finds on the heap of her ashes. The necklace is a key to finding her father -- of braving centaur attacks and coming to an uneasy friendship with another who has lost his home. This is a story of a person finding their strength and going on a quest, and coming out whole on the other side.

Too bad the cover just shows another alluring looking girl.

I can't actually argue that the cover of Pastworld is inaccurate. It's not. It's definitely as dark and confusing as the contents of the book. There's a Victorian looking street, gas lamps, and ... a dirigible overhead?

The world has become so enamored of the idea of the past, that the future has recreated it. London has lost its use as a modern metropolitan center, and has been recreated as Victorian -- a living, breathing theme park call Pastword where for a sum, people of the present can dress in costume and gawk at the people of the past. London in Victorian times was a place of obscenely rich as well as obscenely poor people, and all the technology of 2048, and all the power of the Buckland Corporation has been bent toward recreating an exact replica.

Down to the last knife-wielding, mad-eyed inhabitant.

Oh, yes. You didn't think they'd forget to include the most infamous London inhabitant of them all, did you? The problem with a theme park is that the people who "work" there are supposed to be "actors." The Buckland Corporation isn't paying any actors. Some of the people in London think it's Victorian times. Some of them haven't been told what it is that they're in Pastworld to do.

And some of them, they just do what they're born to do...

This is a classic Technology Gone Oh-So-Wrong novel. I look forward to seeing what the cover will be in paperback; maybe it will get even darker and creepier.

Here's hoping, anyway.

May all your books match your covers; barring that, may you continue to ignore the covers, and read all the words.

Pick up Buy Generation Dead: The Kiss of Life, the epic Watersmeet, or Pastworld at an independent bookstore near you!

Winter Blog Blast Tour, Day Four

The Tour Rolls On

I get a real kick out of reading the blog blast tour posts -- especially Hip Mama Writer's interview of Cynthia Leitich Smith, who I think is such a phenomenal person. The video interview of Dan Santat at Fuse #8 was by turns hilarious and ...well, more hilarious, because two such silly people just can't help being funny. And, there are hand puppets. Nova Ren Suma at Shelf Elf made me excited for a book I hadn't yet heard of, and Ann Marie Flemming at Chasing Ray was just phenomenal -- an unusual use of family history and stick figures in memoir. Love it.


Sy Montgomery, Part II @ Chasing Ray is all pigs and birds,

Laini Taylor @ Shelf Elf wants a positive future,

Jim DiBartolo @ Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast shares the contents of his breakfast: Clementine Pie. Of course.

Amanda Marrone @ Writing & Ruminating uses vampires as a catalyst for change. It works! And then some...

Thomas Randall @ Bildungsroman has tricked me into reading a Christopher Golden novel. Wonder how he did that?

Michael Hague @ Fuse Number 8 owes it all to Mad Magazine. And Prince Valiant, of course.

Read and enjoy, and stay tuned for a brief chat with Sheba Karim, author of Skunk Girl here, tomorrow!

November 18, 2009

Winter Blog Blast Tour: Sarwat Chadda

Aquafortis here. On my recent travels, the Mr. and I visited the Church of Vera Cruz in Segovia, Spain (a city an hour away from Madrid which I HIGHLY recommend). This church reminded me of Sarwat Chadda, and his novel, The Devil's Kiss--because, according to legend, the church was founded by the very same Knights Templar that Chadda's main character, Billi, is so conflicted about being a part of.

As it turns out, the legend that the Templars founded the church is just that--a legend. In reality, the Church of Vera Cruz was evidently founded by the Knights of the Order of the Holy Sepulchre and/or the Order of Malta--and the Knights of Malta are the Hospitallers mentioned in The Devil's Kiss. How cool is that? (And, honestly? It sounds just as fascinating as the Knights Templar!)

The church is named vera cruz because the Knights allegedly kept vigil over a sliver of the true cross. This slightly blurred (oops) photo shows the interior of the church, and the banners of the various Orders, just as they appeared in medieval days (only with brighter colors). And that's your bonus don't-you-wish-you'd-been-in-Spain-with-me travelogue! And now, on with the show!

Finding Wonderland: Hey, Sarwat! Welcome to Finding Wonderland!

According to your website, you studied Engineering at your university (yay for another YA author who is also an engineer! Varian Johnson finally has company!). Where do you get your love for history and research? Did you study deeply into Templar and Muslim mythologies and traditions, or did you mostly loose your imagination when writing The Devil's Kiss?

Sarwat Chadda: Oh, the engineering was the classic day job while the history, mythology and religion was what I really loved, but couldn't find a way to earn a living out of it until recently.

So while I did spend a long, long time doing research, it was all stuff I would have read anyway, whether or not I was a writer.

The basis of DK came from a visit to a pediatric intensive care unit and it was that event that led me to write about the Tenth Plague. If there is a God, why does he let innocent children die? I'm not convinced by the 'moving in mysterious ways' get out clause.

FW: Yeah, that's a tough one for a lot of people, and it's interesting to see that you came to this book with such serious thoughts in mind.

So, what was your family's response to The Devil's Kiss? What did the Vicar have to say? Knowing that your parents are Muslim and that you're familiar with the religion, what was it like to write about Muslim religion and mythology from an outsider perspective? Did you feel any pressure to present a particular picture of Islam, or did you simply write what you know?

SC: My parents love that I'm a writer. I think deep down they knew I never really enjoyed the engineering. In fact, they took a large box of my books over to Pakistan last month to hand out to all the relatives and it appears to have gone down well. As to my father-in-law, the vicar, I've not really spoken to him about the book. I don't think he's read it!

I would consider myself a British-born Muslim and I find Islamic history fascinating, be it the Crusades, the Ottomans or the Islamic rule of Spain. That said the Napoleonic wars where a major influence on my writing, so it's difficult to draw the line over what influences me most. I think the best way to avoid getting stale is to spread your interests as wide as possible. I just love history, be it Greek, Roman, Mongol, whatever.

Actually, it never occurred to me I was presenting a picture of Islam, or any religion in particular. I've travelled a lot and live in a very ethnically diverse are of London (though you could argue it's all ethnically diverse) and the more you travel, the greater are the similarities. What's also so interesting is the common themes in what appear to be hugely different cultures. Ancestral memories or universal Jungian archetypes, it shows how the same stories and themes pop up over and over again, everywhere.

What's interesting is the feedback I've had from some schools regarding the religious and ethnic mix of the characters. Again it was just how I see the world, so that's what I wrote.

FW:This book has a lot of action -- and a lot of bloodshed and loss. What reaction did you have from editors and publicists in regard to the violence? What was the original first line that you wrote for this story? How much did it change in the published version?

SC: The violence is there for a reason. I'm hoping it affects you because it is brutal and leads to loss. I hate the 'kill and quip' style of comedy violence where brutal things happen and the hero walks away with a smart one-liner. Death has consequences. I needed to establish that on the first page, on the first line. The original line was an different scene altogether, it was a big werewolf fight rather than a spooky encounter in an derelict playground. The boy on the swing scene fitted the mood of the tale perfectly. Some people really hated it but I think that's because I don't present Billi as a sympathetic character. Hey, her first thought is about killing a little kid, so I can see how it might be awkward to put her in a 'good gal' box. But as long as you understand why she is who she is, empathize rather than sympathize, that's great.

FW: Oh, I don't know! I think Billi was really a sympathetic character there -- she obviously didn't want to do what she had to do. That conflict continues -- and grows.

As Billi gripes to herself about her father's world and rules, readers might be tempted to tell her, "Well, just leave, then!" but the Knights Templar in this novel are a group bound by devotion to duty -- though not necessarily devotion to God. If you could distill the Knight Templar's underlying reason to be into a single sentence, what would it be? To what in the modern world can your readers compare this concept of duty? Do you think young adults today have a concept of duty like Billi's -- unattached to politics or religion or emotion?

SC: The Templars have no single underlying reason. They are ultimately the great contradict of all warriors, peace through violence. It is way too easy to say it's the struggle between good and evil because working out who is good and who is evil is a tricky business at the best of times. This is something I develop more in Dark Goddess, where it's clear the Templars are wrong, but Billi must see things through nevertheless.

Billi questions her beliefs, which I think is no bad thing, and is very wary of any dogma, hence her desire to quit. But then what? She knows no other life. Whatever she feels, she's a Templar, through and through. What she isn't is a mindless soldier. She questions the morality of her actions and has not become blinded to believing her cause is the 'right one'.

Of course she could quit, but then who would be left? Arthur is too blinkered by his own damaged past to see clearly that he's leading the Templars to destruction, and Gwaine is too backward looking to see the Order must evolve to survive. Billi, despite her personal desires, realizes she greater role within the community. Simply put she is realizing what it is to be an adult. That is not to live in the land of do as you please.

As to concept of duty, that's a hard one. I don't think most adults have any concept of duty. Given the mess we're making of things I'd hesitate to advise anyone what theirs should be!

FW: Billi - a lone girl among men - obviously struggles. What would Billi have been like as a boy? How difficult was it to get into the head of a teen girl? What role or character would you like to challenge yourself with next?

SC: If Billi had been a boy I think he would have been a lot less questioning of Arthur. He would have relished the Templar life because he would have felt he'd belonged from day one. But that would have made him a follower, not a leader. Billi's destiny is to make her own path, not follow in the footsteps of anyone, even her father. Being the only girl is merely an external symbol of her individuality as a Templar.

I have daughters, my first reader is my wife, I have two female editors and my agent is also a woman. They made sure I stuck within the head of a 15 year old girl. But some issues are sexless. The key one is deciding your future. At 15 you're on the verge of adulthood. You have to decide what sort of adult you're going to be. Not easy.

Bonus Question:We know that the next book in your series you're almost finished with (!!) - The Dark Goddess - and we're excited! According to your website, you were a newbie to the YA genre when you started writing The Devil's Kiss. Now that you're in the know on the YA scene, who are you reading? Any multicultural authors or new voices we should know about?

SC: Can I admit I don't read much YA fiction? Obviously I've read Phillip Pullman (it was the Dark Materials that got me thinking about becoming a writer) and with regard to genre, I was a huge Anne Rice fan back in the day. I read a lot of historical fiction but recently I've been reading some Lehane, crime fiction set in Boston. I'm trying to be more varied in my reading habits to keep a bit fresh. If any of you are planning to become writers, don't spend all your time just reading your chosen genre, there's a risk of becoming myopic. That goes double for anyone writing a vampire story.

Right now I'm reading a lot of South Asian mythology. I've old copies of the Ramayana and Mahabharata, both by Rajagopalachari, and one by Narayan. They're not multicultural as such since they're writing about their own culture but they're great books and I thoroughly recommend them.

FW:Thank you so much for dropping by - we can't wait for the next book in Billi's world, and we wish you the best in your writing!

Behind every great author is a lot of heart. If you haven't checked out Sarwat's blog, and his website (and yes, he said we could call him by his first name, so we're totally name-dropping here) -- you simply must. It's funny and thorough and gives a little glimpse into his personality. (And his prowess with Photoshop.)

For another great interview, check out Sarwat at The Enchanted Inkpot.

And, don't forget to check out the rest of today's awesome WBBT author/illustrator interviews:

Sy Montgomery Pt 1 @ Chasing Ray,
Jacqui Robbins @ Bildungsroman,
Cynthia Leitich Smith @ Hip Writer Mama:
Beth Kephart @ Shelf Elf, and the bonus interview,
Annie Barrows @ Great Kid Books

Cover images courtesy of the author.

November 17, 2009

Turning Pages - Disturbed Obsessions

The Cybils books continue to pile up in a happy fashion, and I try to pack two or three of them into each weekend, and at least one a day. I've found another amusing thematic bundle into which to gather my reviews - the theme of obsession.

The thing about obsessions are that they begin so normally -- as a fine appreciation for a person or a thing. And then it morphs into a thing of sheer horror. These books flirt with horror -- some more than others -- and take the reader into obsession, and back again.

Fire, by Kristin Cashore
Take the case of Fire.
She's just a girl whom everybody wants.
Well, not really. She's not actually a girl, per se. But everybody -- even people who are supposed to be her trusted friends -- want what they can get from her. Women stare at her enviously, and then hatefully. Men stare at her lustfully -- and then get really scary. And, just to top things off? Monsters would like to eat her.

Fire is the last of the human-shaped monsters in the kingdom of Dells. She can change minds. She can exert her will on others. She can get into their heads. She really, really would rather not.

The only one who ever truly loved her for herself is her father - a psychotic monster who nearly brought down the kingdom as he tormented the old king. Fire believes that no one will ever truly see past their obsession with her blinding beauty. Not her guardian, not her good friend, Archer, not even the King...

Fragile Eternity, by Melissa Marr
Ash, who at the end of Wicked, Lovely married Keenan, the Summer King, yet kept her mortal love, Seth, is beginning to wonder if anyone really loves her - not just the warmth and life that flows from her. What seemed such a perfect compromise -- to be the King's consort, but only bear the title Queen in name, has backfired incredibly badly. Keenan is pushing -- pushing -- for them to get together, since having the King and Queen together strengthens the Summer Court. Seth is hiding his hurt, but anger and jealousy are just under the surface as Keenan takes all of her time and the Court holds more and more of her attention. Donia, the Winter Queen whom Keenan had loved for so long, is growing stronger -- and more jealous. Seth is soon left in the unenviable position of not being sure of Aislinn's love, feeling unable to protect her or guard her, and hating his mortality. Love has been twisted, and only trouble can follow. Seth is sure he's got the right answer -- if he were fae, wouldn't everything be just fine...?

The threads of possibility wind tighter and tighter...

Waking Dreams of the Dead, by Thomas Randall
Kara is sixteen, and new to Japan, and desperately wanting to fit in, forget the car accident that claimed her mother's life, and create new, happier memories in a new world with her father. Befriended by tough girl, Sakura, Kara finds a kindred spirit in another struggling person, as Sakura copes with her sister's unsolved murder. Oddly, it seems that no one cares that Sakura's sister is dead. And then the nightmares start. It seems that a bodiless entity is escaping to the waking world -- and killing students at Kara's new school. Is it Sakura's sister? Or has Sakura somehow herself started this? Is there any way to convince either girl to let things go?

The Tear Collector, by Patrick Jones
Cassandra Gray really just wants you to let it all out. Just cry it out. You'll feel better for it, really. Most of the kids at Lapeer High who are friends of hers do. They cry on her shoulder, sob noisily as she breaks up with them -- for the third time -- and pour our their hearts to hear at peer counseling. And she wipes up their tears with a monogrammed handkerchief, and stows it away.

Go on, cry. You can trust her with your secret pain.

Cassandra is obsessed with the sadness of others. It feeds her. It keeps her moisturized. It's perhaps killing her friends. It's so hard to tell anymore, what's Cassandra's fault, and what's not. She just needs tears to survive, is it her fault that the world is such a painful, awful place...? the other end of the theme of obsession is... well, zombies. The Forest of Hands and Teeth has already been ably reviewed by AF, so I won't go into it again. It was ...definitely horrifying, yet inspired, in an awful way. Zombies. Obsessed with breaking through the Fence. Sisters, obsessed with secrets and silence... creepy.

Of all of these books of obsession, I enjoyed Fire the most, after I reminded myself that the Graces would show up in due course, and it was not a sequel to Graceling, but a companion book. Cashore's skillful writing created another great story and Fire made up for any disappointment I might have felt. The Tear Collector is possibly even creepier than the zombies. If you're afraid you're a little vampire obsessed, try emotional vampirism. Yuck. Nothing romantic about that at all.

You'll find Buy Fire, Fragile Eternity, The Waking: Dreams of the Dead and The Tear Collector -- all 2009 Cybils YA SFF Nominated Books -- from an independent bookstore near you!

...and the fun continues!

Ann Marie Fleming @ Chasing Ray.

Laurie Faria Stolarz @ Bildungsroman,

Patrick Carman @ Miss Erin

Jacqueline Kelly at Hip Writer Mama,

Dan Santat at Fuse Number 8,

and Nova Ren Suma at Shelf Elf

Click! Read! Enjoy

November 16, 2009

Winter Blog Blast Tour: Brilliant Derek Landy

Skulduggery Pleasant is kind of a hottie.

Yeah. We said it. Skulduggery is a hottie. And it's not just that he throws fireballs, either. There's something way too attractive about a guy who knows how to wear a hat, who is dangerous and witty and funny, and has -- face it -- really, really good bones.

What Harry Potter was to many American kids, Skulduggery Pleasant is to many British kids, and his popularity in the U.S. is definitely on the rise. We're also Skulduggery fanatics at Wonderland, and are fascinated by the sly sense of humor, fast-paced action and cleverly-named characters in all of the books. Imagine our glee (and, okay, Tanita's outright breathless squee-ing) to have gotten to talk to the man behind the magic. We were so tickled -- or, chuffed, as a Brit might say -- that author Derek Landy agreed to speak with us. He's one of those brilliantly creative people who does all kinds of things -- and he started with zombies. As a screenwriter he wrote Dead Bodies in 2003 ("Every situation is a grave situation."), and Boy Eats Girl in 2005, and then moved right on from zombies to... skeletons.

He's an exceptionally intelligent writer, so we were quite flattered when he told us, "These are, without a doubt, the best questions I've ever been asked. Well, almost. The best question I was ever asked was in my second ever school event in 2007, when a kid put up his hand and asked 'Have you ever been in a fight with another writer?' Pretty hard to beat THAT one, I think you'll agree."

Right. Guess that IS a hard one to beat. (And now we kind of wish we'd asked it ourselves...) But we asked him just about everything else--and he rose to the challenge with wit and charm and candor.


FW:Welcome to Finding Wonderland!

Mr. Landy, most of our readers are also closet writers, so we always have to ask: what is your writing day like? You get up, feed your cat menagerie (we heard about the cat thing), and then --...? How much of your daily life has changed since becoming such a successful author? How did your family respond to having a writer in their midst?

Derek Landy: My life has changed utterly since Skulduggery. He has allowed me to buy my own house, stop working on the family farm, and basically live the life I've always dreamed of living. My family is thrilled about everything that's happened, and you can especially see it in my parents' faces. For years, I was the kid they had to worry about, the kid who refused to focus in school, who got kicked out of college, who spent his days dreaming... And now, suddenly, I'm the one whose dreams have come true. For months after I got the news that Harper Collins wanted to publish the book, I'd walk into the kitchen and my parents would instantly break out into the biggest smiles I'd ever seen.

That was back in 2006, of course, when it all began. These days, I've settled into a new routine which I find quite agreeable. I like to get up a little before noon, wander around the house for a bit, check emails, saunter off, eat a couple of apples (apple-eating is my new thing), and drive over to my parents' place (they're only 5 minutes away) and take the dog for a walk.

Three days a week I'll do a little light shopping, mostly buying DVDs and games and comics and books, and I'll return home and answer more emails. Maybe I'll play a video game for an hour or two.

I'd usually start writing anywhere from 3 to 4 in the afternoon, then stop at 6 and drive to my parents' place again (my mother told me she didn't mind me moving out, just as long as I dropped by at least twice a day to have a chat...!) So I have my dinner there, and have a laugh with my folks and my brother, and I take the dog for another walk, and I'll get back to my house at about 7:30.

From this point on, this is when I really write, and I'll write until 3 in the morning. I prefer to write at night because people stop sending emails, and they stop calling, and I'm generally left alone.

Bear in mind, however, that this routine can change drastically. When I'm between books, I force myself to not write anything, so I can build up enthusiasm. But when I'm in the MIDDLE of a book, when I've become obsessed by it, from the moment I wake up to the moment I sleep, I'm writing. With several breaks to walk the dog, naturally.

FW: In so many ways, that's just an ideal schedule. Who else schedules time for both the importance of video games and apples? And writing while everyone else is asleep definitely cuts down on the email interruptions!

What was the biggest challenge in going from writing horror films for an adult audience to writing fantasy for a MG audience? Did you feel you had to sort of tone down the gorefest? How long did it take you to develop the world setting for the stories?

DL: Bizarrely, I haven't really changed my approach now that I'm writing for a younger audience. The only concessions I've made is that nobody curses. I have a healthy respect for the Skulduggery readers, and I'm pretty sure they can handle whatever is thrown at them. There are some pretty gory scenes in these books, but I don't really dwell on that aspect. If someone's head explodes, for example, the only thing I'm going to say is "His head explodes"- I'm not going to describe the blood or the brain matter! It's up to each individual reader to conjure up an image to suit the words- those who want to see gore will grin happily and see gore, those who don't, won't.

When I started writing, I decided early on that these books should be set in a realistic world. This way, all the magic and freaky stuff will seem even weirder, if it's set in a world we recognise as normal. From that, logic told me that all these sorcerers live in an underground society with their own rules, laws, and authorities. The world evolved as I wrote, quite frankly, and it's still evolving today.

FW: Valkyrie Cain (Seriously - Might have to give that name to a child or cat or something), Tanith Low and China Sorrows, all in their own way are an amazingly diverse crop of strong female characters. What were your influences, in the fantasy genre? And do you feel that there's still a noticeable gender gap in terms of strong female heroines in fantasy? Also--we have to ask--are the names Tanith and China deliberate nods to other fantasy/sci-fi authors?

DL: To be honest, populating these books with strong female characters never occurred to me--this was never the objective. The fact is, this is merely how I see most women, and these are the only kinds of women that interest me. My mother is fiercely intelligent, my sisters are formidable, my female friends are admirable--I have been surrounded by strong women my entire life, and this is the only thing I know.

Valkyrie is actually based on a friend of mine, so I know I'd get a slap if I ever wrote a scene where she curls up on a forest floor and cries herself to sleep after a boyfriend breaks up with her...!

From Ripley, in the Alien movies, to Catwoman, to Agent Scully and Buffy, strong female characters are a huge part of the fantasy genre. Gone are the days when the girl would scream and cry and wait for the handsome hero to decide what to do.

Well, they're ALMOST gone...

Oh, and as for China and Tanith, China was the first character to pop into my head after Skulduggery, so her name wasn't based on anyone- but I've always thought that the writer Tanith Lee had the best name EVER, and so when I needed a cool name for a cool girl, Tanith Low was born...!

(Strong women are the only thing he knows, people. That. Is. Awesome.)

FW: We're sure everyone asks -- knowing that the first Skulduggery Pleasant was quickly optioned for film -- any news on a Skulduggery movie? As a screenwriter, are you anxious about that -- have concerns that they might totally screw up your story, or are you pretty much blasé on the topic of your books going to film?

DL: The Skulduggery movie is progressing... slowly. There are no guarantees it will ever get made, but we have an excellent screenwriter who has taken over the script, so hopefully we'll end up with something that everyone likes.

Obviously, Skulduggery Pleasant is close to my heart--these books have changed my life, and I owe these characters so much. I want the film to be great. We've seen good books get turned into dreadful films again and again, and that is always a real and genuine risk. But the fact is, nobody sets out to make a bad film, so the object of the game must be that we spot the flaws, we communicate, and we listen to logic. Respect the material and respect the audience, and just pray that we get it right.

FW: There's so much humor in your Skulduggery Pleasant books. Do the jokes come naturally or do you spend time agonizing over them? Is it challenging to balance the humor with the more serious, dramatic elements? Do you think that the sense of humor in the book translates well to other English-speaking countries like the U.S., or do you think we're separated by a common language, and edit accordingly?

DL: I think the humour translates into different cultures without much of a problem, and the books are doing well in other languages too, so it would appear that we all laugh at the same things...!

The jokes come naturally to me. Too naturally, in fact. I have tried writing without jokes, I have tried serious stories, but by page three the jokes start to creep in and suddenly I'm writing another comedy. It's really annoying! I honestly don't think I'll ever be able to write something without humour, but I'm still going to try!

As far as balancing the humour with the more serious aspects of the story, it IS a tightrope. Too many jokes, and the tension and the sense of danger are lost. Too little, and the whole thing becomes far too grim. The fact is, I make jokes at really inappropriate times--I made jokes when I was being mugged, for example, and I actually made a few of the muggers laugh. So I tend to throw jokes into moments when most people wouldn't open their mouths--but thankfully I have an editor who looks out for these things!

I am getting better at it, though. I hope.

FW: It's just not everyone who can make jokes while being mugged...

The fight scenes in the SP series are vivid, detailed, and realistic, and we know from your blog that you’re a black-belt martial arts dude. Did you have to learn any other techniques, like staging, for instance, in preparation for the writing process? (Please don't say you learned necromancy!) Alternatively, have you ever unexpectedly used any real-world knowledge from previous jobs or activities in your writing? (Much like all the teachers said we'd use Algebra someday, we'd like to know if picking cauliflower and cabbage on your parents' farm prepared you to write about animated skeletons and zombies.)

DL: The reason I include martial arts in such a prominent way is that I was getting so tired of reading fight scenes by writers who have obviously never been in a fight. Fights are awful, and messy, and desperate, and things move so fast and one mistake could end it. For the best fight scenes in books, I recommend Joe R. Lansdale, who also happens to have the best tough guy banter you're ever likely to read. And for the most terrifying fight scene in the last few years, "The Girl Who Played With Fire" would get my vote, when the boxer goes up against the blond giant. Just brilliant.

I'm trying to think of skills that I've learned that I've included in my writing, and I really can't think of any. That Algebra thing is a CON!

(Hah! *WE* thought that Algebra thing was a con, too!)

FW: Part of the beauty of Stephanie being able to put off her Stephanie-ness and put on her Valkyrie life by turns is that she is able to, in some ways, put off actually coming to conclusions about her identity, and delay participating in the day-to-day minutiae that make a do you see young readers relating to the idea of being able to take on a different persona? Was there a deliberate thematic choice to include so many characters in disguise? Do you intend this to convey anything about good masquerading as evil (were the Guild ever the "good guys?") or the idea of a centralized "good" in terms of authority figures or government?

DL: I think we'd all like a secret identity, we'd all like a name or a mask to hide behind while we do the kinds of things we wouldn't normally do. Valkyrie's situation is pretty much a prime example of how this would work out. On the one hand, she has her reflection to go to school in her place, and to tidy her room and do her homework and generally live the normal life she would otherwise be living, while she's out there saving the world. The downside, as she is going to discover more and more, is that there are elements of normal life that she's going to miss out on. She's growing up under Skulduggery's wing, but this means she doesn't get to bond with her parents the way she really should at her age.

The idea of the reflection, however, seems to have struck a chord with many readers. I get truckloads of letters and emails telling me how much they would love to send their own reflection to school while they did other, more exciting things. There's a part of me that wonders if, maybe, I should be more responsible, and tell these kids that they really should appreciate school and all they can learn there, but the fact is I tend to grin when I read these letters... This PROBABLY makes me a bad influence on an entire generation of kids, but hey, if you're going to be an influence, why not be a bad one?

Besides, Valkyrie is the real role model here. Skulduggery has his ups and downs, but Valkyrie has an incorruptible code of honour that she will not break. I think it's very important that she does not automatically respect authority, but rather that she questions it and tests it until breaking point. Respect, in Valkyrie's eyes, is earned, not given, no matter the job, the uniform, the title or the badge.

I suppose the question of authority keeps popping up in these books. Everyone has an agenda, and nobody can be trusted, not even the people who say they're protecting you. Even our good guys look like bad guys--we have a skeleton and a man covered in scars, we have a beautiful ice queen and the most powerful man on Earth, who just happens to be also one of the scariest. And they are our HEROES.

One of the nicest things about writing these books is that most of the characters are hundreds of years old, so that gives me hundreds of years worth of motivations and secrets to explore as the story progresses. If I were to rewrite these books from the villains' perspective, their goals would be just as honourable as the heroes, just with a different set of standards.

There is no good, there is no evil--there are just people who want what they want.

FW: Huh. That gives us a bit to think about.

So, following up to the last question, these books explore the role of outsiders in whatever society--both the role of those who keep the world safe, who are revered and feared, and those on whom society turns. Skulduggery is, himself, kind of a... um, ghoulie. He is something scary and posthuman whose constant battle is to keep humans safe. Do you see a parallel between the idea of monsters and the idea of outsiders in general?

DL: The fact is, monsters and outsiders are the best kinds of characters to write! Practically every cop movie is about a cop who plays by his own rules, because that's the only way to bring down the bad guy. And so the cop becomes the outsider, doing what he has to do. Skulduggery and Valkyrie and their friends are the outsiders of the magical community, who in turn are the outsiders of our normal society. So, really, Skulduggery is the outsider's outsider--and he's also the monster...!

He's a lot of things, is our Skulduggery...

We have our rules and our laws, and these are good and necessary things, because they keep us safe. But whenever we have a law, we will have a lawbreaker. Whenever we have a rule, we will have something that lives beyond it. The truth is, it takes an outsider to catch a monster. They think alike, they act alike, and the only difference between them is a matter of degrees.

FW: It's hard to say who we're more in love with -- Skulduggery or Valkyrie. They kick butt! They take names! They make quips! They're always out there, fighting Ultimate Evil! Steph/Val does all the cool stuff we dream about, but since she's growing up into those tricky teen years... should we expect her to become suddenly tolerant of vampires watching her sleep and/or... want to date one? Just asking. You don't have to answer this. Or say if you're in favor of either werewolves, or vampires that sparkle, or anything like that. We just... wondered.

DL: This is a popular question I'm asked- "When will Valkyrie get a boyfriend?"

I've had suggestions, both practical and downright unsettling, from readers all over the world! Everyone, it seems, has an opinion on this, and they're not shy about letting me know!

Valkyrie WILL get a boyfriend--she is a teenage girl after all, one who tends to get all kinds of attention from all kinds of people! And in future books, she might even embark on relationships that are not exactly healthy. A lot of girls do go through the "bad boy" phase, and I'm sure Valkyrie will be no different.

However--this isn't some wilting wallflower we're talking about here. This is Valkyrie Cain, the coolest character I've ever written, based on the coolest girl I've ever known. You can rest assured she would not be happy to learn that sparkling vampires have been watching her from outside her window every night...!

(*muffled snickers*)

FW: *cough* Right. Good to know, good to know.

You are quoted as saying, "Without Harry Potter, I wouldn't have seen children's books as a viable career move, and so I would have tried to shove Skulduggery into some other framework where he wouldn't have fit." Now that you've had time to explore more of the children's lit world than the Potter books, what are some of your favorites? What does it take to feed the kind of creative mind that comes up with people named Ghastly Bespoke?

DL: I tend only to read books by writers who are better than me. I don't see the point of reading anything by someone on the same level, and it's infuriating to read anything by someone who's not as good! So, really, the books I love are by writers who make me look drab and boring by comparison.

"The Graveyard Book" and "Coraline" by Neil Gaiman are two books I wish I was good enough to write. I wish I had an imagination as immense as Clive Barker's, so that I could produce something like "Abarat", or that I was as intelligent as Philip Pullman so that I could dream up "His Dark Materials". Books like these inspire me every time I glance at them on my shelves. I want, one day, to be as good as these people, and that's what I'm working towards.

FW: You want to be as good "someday"? We're happy to tell you, we believe that "someday" started in 2006. You are CLEARLY already there.

So, what's one question interviewers never ask, and you wish they would?

DL: I wish interviewers would ask me how did I get to be so brilliant. But they never do.

FW: It is just tragic that they don't ask that. We suspect most interviewers don't ask because they already know the answer. It has something to do with clean-living and apples. Right?

Clearly, at the end of The Faceless Ones, you've left events open for a sequel. We've heard that there are plans for NINE Skulduggery novels. You just had to go one better than the Potter series, didn't you? Why not an even ten? What can we expect from the next book, if you can tell us anything? Are you working on any other projects for young people or adults?

DL: The fourth Skulduggery book is called Dark Days, and it's out in most countries next year--I'm not sure when it's out in America, though! I'm hesitant to talk about it, but I will say that it's all about revenge...!

I've always seen the Skulduggery series as three sets of trilogies. The first trilogy, which is now over, is about the Faceless Ones. The second trilogy, which begins with Dark Days, is about the Necromancers. And the third trilogy will be about what the entire series has been about all along--something I can't tell you about just yet...!

I'm writing the fifth book right now (at least, um, I SHOULD be...) so hopefully next year I'll be able to take a break and write something completely new. Our plan is for one Skulduggery book a year, and we’re sticking to that, but I'm hoping to get something else done in between. Whether it will end up being for a younger or an older audience, I haven’t decided.

You can be pretty much guaranteed, however, that it's going to have jokes in it. Because I can't get away from those damned jokes...

FW:We can't wait for the next book! And we're so grateful to you for fitting us in to your busy schedule -- right between the apples and the video games, no doubt. Thank you for making us think, as well as making us laugh. We wish you joy in your writing, and the best of everything.

DO check out the lovely U.S. versions of the Skulduggery covers. Check your local bookstores, please!

Was that NOT as entertaining to read as a Skulduggery Pleasant book? Are you still wondering, "How DID Derek Landy get to be so brilliant?!" If you're not done swooning (Okay, that swooning thing could just be Tanita, but we won't ask) (Nope, it's not just Tanita--swoon city around here) (Thank-you, AF, it is kinda pathetic to swoon alone) and want to read more about Derek Landy's multiple cats, or how screenwriting helped him write strong dialogue, or how much fun he had helping make the Skulduggery audiobooks, click and read on.

And, don't forget to check out the rest of today's awesome WBBT author/illustrator interviews:

Jim Ottaviani at Chasing Ray
Courtney Sheinmel @ Bildungsroman
Mary E. Pearson @ Miss Erin
Megan Whalen Turner @ Hip Writer Mama
Frances Hardinge @ Fuse Number 8!