October 31, 2011

Monday Review: ALCHEMY AND MEGGY SWANN by Karen Cushman

Happy Halloween, Celtic New Year, Day of the Dead, and so forth!

No matter what your plans are, we hope you enjoy yourself.

This book was a Cybils nominee for Middle Grade Fiction last year, in 2010.

Reader Gut Reaction: I am not necessarily a huge fan of historical fiction--I only read it occasionally--but I've enjoyed every book I've read by Karen Cushman. Alchemy and Meggy Swann is no exception; it joins the other wonderful books she's written about life in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. This one takes place in Renaissance London, the Elizabethan era, just before the time of Shakespeare. The setting is brought to life in vivid detail--not sparing the unpleasant aspects such as, er, defenestration, though not making so much of them that it distracts from the story itself. You can see, smell, and hear the bustle of the streets and gain a sense of what daily life was really like in an era that has inspired many somewhat romanticized portrayals and reenactments. But don't fear--this story has its share of intrigue and dastardly doings, too.

Concerning Character: As one might glean from the title, this is the story of Meggy Swann, a girl in her early teens who comes to London to live with her father. Her gran, who mostly raised her, has died, and her mother has no use in her country tavern for a lame girl who must walk with the aid of sticks, and even then only painfully. So Meggy is sent to the house of Master Ambrose, an alchemist who cares only for his work. Left mostly to fend for herself when not helping in the laboratorium, Meggy learns that, far from being helpless and alone in London, she is quite capable and plenty smart enough to survive, and even thrive. I love stories about plucky heroines; Meggy certainly is one, and comes into her own in characteristically sharp-tongued and determined fashion over the course of the novel.

Recommended for Fans Of...: Historical fiction masters like Ann Rinaldi, Michael Cadnum, and Elizabeth Wein.

Themes & Things: One of the themes I like most in this book is the idea that when we get old enough to do so we make our own families--in contrast to the ones that we're born into and may or may not even get along with, even if we care about them, we also make our own lives and surround ourselves with people we love whom we've chosen to be with. Meggy ultimately finds friends, even family, in her father's erstwhile apprentice Roger, Roger's troupe of fellow players, and the printer Master Allyn. Opening one's heart is also a major theme here—along with the rewards of doing so, as well as the tragedy of not being able to do so. And, of course, Meggy's story also embodies the idea that a physical disability does not define a person or prevent them from accomplishing great things.

Review Copy Source: Purchased from independent bookstore

You can find Alchemy and Meggy Swann at an independent bookstore near you!

October 29, 2011

2011 Cybils: GLOW, by Amy Kathleen Ryan

Our Cybils panel doesn't discuss specific books before a certain period, but we have some general exchanges about themes and trends. This novel is another of those "threatened womanhood" dystopias we've discussed, wherein a young woman's fertility is a treasured, protected, envied, and stolen commodity.

Dystopias, according to the Guardian today, reflect the chaos and stress of a young reader's life. A new wave of dystopian fiction at this particular time shouldn't come as a surprise to anyone. It's the zeitgeist. Adults write books for teenagers. So anxious adults – worried about the planet, the degradation of civil society and the bitter inheritance we're leaving for the young – write dystopian books." So, perhaps dystopias related to the commodification of female fertility reflects adult writers who are worried about the next generation? Who knows? It's a creepy, creepy topic, one which sets the tone for some very dark and disturbing novels.

Reader Gut Reaction: Utterly. Terrifying. Those are my gut reactions. I'm a private person. I am private about my beliefs, and private about my body, and those privacies would be challenged aboard a space going vessel -- a vessel with fertility issues and plenty of young women coming of age in the midst of a generation of older couples and single men. Even on a ship as large as the Empyréan, aboard which Waverly and Kieran fly, there are problems. A rendezvous with New Horizon should have been simple - an exchange of supplies, or whatever it was they needed. Instead, there's no exchange, but theft. And much, much bigger problems left behind. Suddenly day-to-day survival is all a matter of life and death.

Concerning Character: Waverly and Kieran both are earnest and trying very hard to be the best they can be - but both have working against them lack of experience and age. Kieran is immature and self conscious -- but he's the captain's favorite and he knows it. He expects to take over from him someday. He cuts corners now and then, but knows he'll be forgiven. His family is religious and he expects that his wife will come to that way of thinking. The only problem is Waverly, the girl he expects to marry, is fifteen to his sixteen, and not ready to be marry, no matter the fertility issues, or the concerns for the landing generation of spacers. It's a lot of pressure, and Waverly is a girl with her own opinions. As it turns out in time of crisis, Kieran is more mature than expected, and Waverly has a core of pure steel. Both of them make mistakes - Kieran still doesn't really hear people when they speak, and Waverly, frightened and disgusted by the manipulation of belief, makes a tactical error that could divide the loyalties of everyone, just when they need to stick together. Both characters make tough choices, and come through when it counts.

Recommended for Fans Of...: fiction with strong female characters and major choices made in times of stress. If you enjoyed ACROSS THE UNIVERSE by Beth Revis, this is the more active, running around version.

Themes & Things: Religious faith can seem a big, threatening thing to those people who don't grow up with it. Charismatic or evangelical people who seem to want to proselytize can be kind of terrifying. Faith in this novel is really manipulated by an evil, evil woman, who does all manner of things in the name of God -- or, her lowercase g, false version of said. There are a lot of YA novels which sort of beat the drum of "all religious people are nutters!" I'll be interested to follow this series to see if there can be some sort of middle ground on this - not all nutters, but not all holy and righteous and correct, either. Maybe a "some are, some aren't" balance, that more reflects real life?

Despite the words "heart-stopping adventure!" trumpeted on the cover, this novel is all about good and evil - and what constitutes good, in a tricky, gray area. (Evil here is pretty self-explanatory.) Is there ever a "for your own good," that is really all about good, and just "because I said so?" Is there ever any justification for making your ideas the ideas everyone else should hold?

Authorial Asides: This is Wyoming-ite Amy Kathleeen Ryan's fourth book - but her first foray into SFF. She has come out swinging.

Cover Chatter: The last Sparkly Star Peeps book I read was ACROSS THE UNIVERSE, so I laughed - then groaned - when I saw the hardback's trend-similar cover. Though this book shares some similarities - hey, it's space! - GLOW couldn't be more different...both covers feature couples on the covers in a field of stars, but the model depicting Kieran is on the back, while a bluish Waverly is on the front. The audio book version is much cleaner, with only the letter O depicting a girl who looks slightly despairing or depressed.

Seeing as this book covers a bunch of huge and heavy topics, the cover seems a little downplayed and space-generic, but there's probably no "perfect" cover for "geez, you're going to commodify my fertility, huh?" So, let's just say, "Those stars are sure pretty," and leave it at that.

You can find GLOW and other books by Amy Kathleen Ryan, at an independent bookstore near you!

October 28, 2011

2011 Cybils: The Gathering, by Kelley Armstrong

Here's a guilty secret: I will read just about anything by Kelley Armstrong. I started off with one of her older, not-marketed-to-YA novels years ago, picked up at the library to read on a long flight. She made me laugh. She caused me to ignore a layover. She kept me entranced the whole ride, turbulence, annoying fellow passengers, rude airport personnel, weird food, and all. This Was Good. For what I term "entertainment reading," - which is really the whole urban fantasy genre - I was hooked.

Fortunately, her writing has depth and humor and is sometimes pretty thought-provoking. I was actually pleasantly surprised when she started writing for YA. I didn't entirely love her last trilogy - I felt that the second book fell prey to the dreaded Middle of the Trilogy Disorder, and the conclusion was not as strong as it could have been, but -- it's Kelly Armstrong. It's a new trilogy. Am I game to go again? Of course.

Reader Gut Reaction: I want to LIVE where Maya does, in a wee-tiny town on a Vancouver Island. Sixty-eight kids from grades 1-12 at the school? That works. A population of about 200 people, with "town" an hour - and a ferry ride - away? Totally works. Maya has great hobbies like track and chorus, awesome hobbies, like saving battered wildlife, and amazing parents. She also has Serena - her captain-of-the-swim-team best friend who takes a dive in a calm lake -- and, within minutes, drowns.

Wait, what?

So, nothing is really as it seems in this small town. Everyone seems to have moved past Serena's death, and a year later, Maya should have started on that path. But, there are so, so many questions she's never had answered... questions brought up again by the appearance of an alleged "reporter" named Mina Lee.

Maya's questions about her own life - her birth mother, the strangeness of the paw shaped birthmark on her hip, and a nasty run-in with a strange old woman - are not being answered to her satisfaction either. But, soon, what's not right in Maya's life is not something she wants to focus on. An amazingly hot new guy has stumbled into their teeny-tiny school and community. All she'd like to do is have a real boyfriend - for more than a summer fling - without feeling like she's dating a brother, and she's not really excited about fighting off back-stabbing Hayley for him. Maya knows he's a player, and wonders if she should even be interested -- especially now that Daniel's started "sensing" things... like, vibes about how safe everyone is, at a given moment.

Is everything in the safe, slow, poky little town that she's always known going to come apart at the seams?

Concerning Character: Maya is such an easy character to like, characteristic of Armstrong's easy way with writing strong female characters. She grieves - but moves forward. She thinks - always with the snarky internal monologue that makes me smile. She loves - her big heart embraces her three-legged bobcat, the over-familiar cougar that hangs around, and Daniel, who once was Serena's boyfriend, but has now practically moved in with she and her parents. The people in Armstrong's books are why I read them - that, and the sense of community among them that she creates.

Recommended for Fans Of...: the paranormal-meets-the-present novels fronted by strong female characters, like Claudia Gray's Fateful or Witches of the East, by Melissa de la Cruz.

Themes & Things: Once more there's a dystopian feel of Mad Scientists Doing Things, and Reporters Sneaking Around, and ... innocence lost. Plus, romance.

Cover Chatter: The UK cover of this novel is mostly "meh." I'm not quite sure what's going on, with the girl-within-girl thing; it looks like those 80's prom pictures where there are two exposures. The US cover is also weird; a non-Native-looking, blue-faced girl -- I am guessing it's supposed to be nighttime? -- wearing a shiny, dangly earring that I don't recall from the story. The shine on the earring is reminiscent of the prominently displayed jewelry in Armstrong's last series - but while that's great for cover continuity, unlike that pendant, the shiny earrings don't seem to link back to the narrative. Why not some of Maya's animals, or a shot of the town sign with the population, 200 listed? Oh, well. Nobody pays me to be a book designer.

You can find THE GATHERING and the rest of Kelley Armstrong's great-for-airport books at an independent bookstore near you!

October 27, 2011

Thursday Review: AMERICUS by MK Reed and Jonathan Hill

This book is a 2011 Cybils nominee for graphic novels.

Reader Gut Reaction: This is a graphic novel about a book challenge, and the valiant readers who fight that challenge. So I was already predisposed to like it. Main character Neil Barton lives in a small town in Middle America, and one of the few things that alleviates his boredom is reading his favorite fantasy book series, The Adventures of Apathea Ravenchilde, a series that inspires rabid fandom. Even the public librarian, Charlotte, is a rabid fan, and therefore one of Neil's few friends. Sadly, his best friend Danny gets sent away to military school by his conservative Christian mom, who thinks that a series of books about a witch is "unholy filth" that shouldn't be in the library to corrupt impressionable youth. Danny's mom sets out to get the books removed from the library--but Neil and Charlotte rise to the challenge.

I think my only reservation about this book is that it did strike me as having an agenda and being a little message-y--not that I didn't totally sympathize with the agenda OR the message, but I don't know whether that's something that will jump out at YA readers. It might not. I just felt that the authors were very much trying to make a point with the story, though it sure is a point that needs making--and I like the idea of using fiction to make that point, too.

With respect to the artwork, the spare, black-and-white line art really suited the story, and worked well for conveying the humor of this piece. It reminded me quite a bit of the artwork in Raina Telgemeier's Smile and Baby-Sitters Club graphic novels, or Chris Schweizer's Crogan Adventures. The use of tone only in the scenes depicting Apathea's adventures gave them a nice contrasting feel, and provided the interesting implication that the fantasy world was more vivid in some ways than real life. And it's got a pretty awesome cover--very striking, with the hands tearing pages.

Concerning Character: As a freshman in high school, Neil is faced with the same old platitudes about high school being the best years of your life, blah blah blah, and is understandably underwhelmed by them, and by the reality of high school life. The authors portrayed the atmosphere of a small-town high school in believable and hilarious fashion, and did a great job of fleshing out Neil against that backdrop. Neil is really kind of a regular kid--a bit bookish, but he's got a few good friends, and new friends flock to his side in defense of the Apathea Ravenchilde books. I liked that Neil is the kind of guy who gets along better with kids who are a little older than he is--he starts to learn about cool bands from his older cousin's boyfriend Devin, who sees it as his duty to enlighten Neil about music. (This seemed like an amazing excuse to come up with hilarious band names.)

As far as side characters go, there are a lot of positive role models in this book without those role models seeming unrealistic. As many ignorant doofuses as there are in Neil's world, there are a lot of just plain NICE people, too: Neil's mom, Devin, Charlotte the librarian (I LOVE that there's a cool librarian!). That helped make this kind of a feel-good story all around.

Recommended for Fans Of...: Chris Schweizer's Crogan Adventures (first two reviewed here) will probably like this one—it's got a similar sense of zany humor and a similar visual storytelling style. Fans of graphic novels about real life will also like it--one with comparable themes is Kevin C. Pyle's Katman (reviewed here).

Themes & Things: This book tackles a LOT of topical issues as far as book challenges and conservative politics are concerned, but don't think that means it isn't a good, engaging story. It approaches the issues in a somewhat over-the-top, satirical way, which, for me, helped lighten what could have been an overly serious tone. I also liked how the themes and plot action were echoed by what was going on in the Apathea Ravenchilde books, but without being painfully obvious about it.

I did have a moment of worry that the depiction of the conservative Christian book challengers might be combining a whole bunch of stereotypes into one person (not that I'm defending anyone here) and that that might hurt the very important messages that this book in fact contains, but ultimately I decided it was part of the satire. After all, the fantasy series that is being challenged is equally over-the-top in its own way—I mean, really: Apathea Ravenchilde? Bwahahaha! I love it. Possibly my favorite theme of all, though, is how the sharing of something like a great book or good music can bring all sorts of people together in lively dialogue—this story isn't saying that books are Neil's friends; rather, it's showing how books (and music, too) can help you MAKE friends.

Review Copy Source: requested from First Second (publisher). Interior images also courtesy of the publisher. (You can read an excerpt and check out media info here.)

You can find Americus at an independent bookstore near you!

October 26, 2011

2011 Cybils: Divergent, by Veronica Roth

You know how some novels are like a long nightmare? That's my best description of this one -- a long, claustrophobic nightmare. Factions? Groups that have rules you're supposed to obey, and lifestyles you're supposed to emulate? There are two words for that: high school.

No, seriously.

The claustrophobic factions fascinated and repelled me -- but mostly repelled. I found myself wondering about the factionless - what happens if you don't fit in, anywhere?! - and lo and behold, that's in large part what the whole novel is about. Those of us who are divergent rebels will find this a fast-paced, absorbing, disturbing little trip into an unbearable future.

Reader Gut Reaction: Ah, dystopia. It can make even the nicest concepts into something twisted and completely wrong.

The world in which Beatrice lives is simple - to her, anyway. It's a stratified society, made up of factions which best embody the virtues of dauntlessness, amity, candor, abnegation and erudition - in other words, fearless, friendly, truthful, selfless and wise. All good things -- or, at least, they're supposed to be a society which reflects these good things. In Beatrice's case, it a life in which she feels trapped and not ever at her best. Her family is Abnegation - wearing gray, eschewing mirrors, living quietly, avoiding differences or showiness, and helping others. Their symbol shows open hands - always helping. All of this is supposed to come automatically, but each day for Beatrice is an exercise in self-restraint. Unlike her perfect, patient brother, Caleb, people piss her off. She's supposed to give and give and give, but she'd also like to give some people a swift kick.

Fortunately, she's days from her sixteenth birthday - and Choosing Day. She'll be tested -- surely, she'll find out what faction suits her best, and at last feel at peace.

Except...rarely do things work out simply.

Concerning Character: Beatrice is the reason to read this book. She's real. Even as Tris, clothed in the new colors of her new life, she remains someone true to herself, and seeking answers. I like her because even internally, she goes her own way. Her cohort are intriguing - and surprising, in some respects. although not everything revealed in the narrative came to me as a shock. Though paralleling some typical dystopian storylines, the pacing is good, the romance has zing, and readers will come away wanting to find out what happens in the rest of the trilogy.

Recommended for Fans Of...: teamwork stories, in which kids band together and deal with themselves, like Scott Westerfeld's UGLIES, or Melissa Marr's CLOCKWORK series. If you like the MAZE RUNNER series, by James Dashner, you'll enjoy this.

Authorial Asides: Veronica Roth reportedly finished this novel while in college at Northwestern, and then had the entire series snapped up by film producers. Cheers for her!. The bigger challenge will be to continue the series with the same intensity and drive, and not let the second book - which so often is substandard in a trilogy - sag.

I was practically twitching by the time Beatrice did her testing and made her choice -- and then, I found myself with questions about the factionless who squatted in the city, looking for handouts and simply staying where they were not wanted... surely the whole world wasn't full of "taken" property. Surely a person could strike out and create a family-faction elsewhere, grow a garden, be self-reliant for food...? Artificial constructs are part and parcel of the dystopian experience, however, so I became willing to suspend disbelief in this story - I'll be interested in how some of my questions are later answered.

Cover Chatter: The symbol in fire is the symbol of the Dauntless - which is perfect for this novel - it's clean and refers directly to the narrative. The tagline, "One choice can transform you," is true on a number of levels. Less inspiring for me was the paperback novel, which has the silhouette of a seated girl and three stylized crows, with the dramatic-sounding tagline, "She turns to face the future in a world that's falling apart." Hm. Well, most of us do that each morning, but the crows do have something to do with the narrative, so points for that.

You can find DIVERGENT at an independent bookstore near you!

October 24, 2011

Monday Reviews: Mystery Mania!

Today I'm going to take a break from following our usual review format so I can squeeze in a trio of books that crossed my desk recently, all YA mysteries from Kane Miller Publishing.

Firstly, a treat that I devoured rapidly: the next two books in Canadian author Norah McClintock's Chloe & Levesque series (I reviewed the first two here). This would make a great mystery series not only for reluctant readers, but for anyone looking for a fast-paced murder mystery that's also got good ongoing character development. Narrator and budding investigative journalist Chloe Yan (who is, incidentally, half Chinese) is back, along with her police-chief stepfather Louis Levesque, in books 3 and 4: Scared to Death and Break and Enter. In the small town of East Hastings, sometimes it seems like everyone knows everyone else, but when the people you know start acting strangely—or when someone new in town starts stirring up trouble—the potential is ripe for mysterious goings-on. And, somehow, Chloe can't resist getting into the thick of things, even when her stepdad tells her to quit meddling.

In Book 4, this ultimately results in her life being in serious danger--the stakes aren't always minor in these books. And the author doesn't ignore the interpersonal difficulties that sometimes occur when you're the daughter of the chief of police in a small town, nor does she avoid the ongoing discomfort that Chloe feels at referring to Levesque as her father rather than her stepfather, a subtle issue that I really appreciated. While the focus is on plot in this series, issues of family, friendship, and personal growth are not ignored by any means. Though a bit light on backstory, they're very fun, and very skillfully written.

The third mystery I received was from Kane Miller Australia: Dying to Tell Me by Sherryl Clark, an author from Melbourne. This one had a bit of a supernatural element, as narrator Sasha is revealed to have some unusual extrasensory powers. When her family—that is, she, her dad, and her sister—move to the small town of Manna Creek to start their lives over after her mom left, Sasha is hoping she can leave her disturbing past behind her. But then some strange things start happening. Why does that falling-down shed in the backyard, which used to be the town's old jail cell in historic times, give her such a creepy feeling? Who's behind all the break-ins at the fancy rich people's houses? Why do so many people in this town act so weird? And why is Sasha suddenly able to communicate mentally with the new family dog, King? (If you don't care for books where people have a telepathic bond with animals, then this one might not be for you. Just sayin'.)

At first, Sasha thinks it's because, when they first moved to town, she slipped and hit her head. Maybe she's freaking out, or imagining things. Or maybe she really does have an unusual ability that makes her the only one able to really get to the bottom of the nefarious doings in Manna Creek. This one's another quick read with plenty of supernatural suspense for fans of paranormal fiction.

Review Copy Source: Publisher (Kane Miller) via Raab Associates Publicity.

You can find Scared to Death, Break and Enter, and Dying to Tell Me at an independent bookstore near you!

October 23, 2011

Marc Tyler Nobleman's Edward Ormondroyd Interview

Some days, you have just GOTTA love the internet.

A random squee I left on Charlotte's blog MONTHS ago garnered me an email from author Marc Tyler Nobleman (BOYS OF STEEL: The Creators of Superman) and a link to his Edward Ormondroyd interview!

Edward Who, you ask?

Edward Ormondroyd (I love that last name) is the author of my favorite 1963 (reissue, Purple House Press, 2003) time travel novel TIME AT THE TOP, which Charlotte so ably reviewed for an August TIMESLIP TUESDAY feature, and to which, I must admit, I wrote a very fangirl-y sequel at about the age of twelve. (And no, you cannot see it, it's undoubtedly dreadful.)

Mr. Ormondroyd's first novel, DAVID AND THE PHOENIX, has seen a resurgence of popularity due to The Boy Wizard -- a lot of boys+magic novels are going into reprint, which is All To The Good -- and as the Phoenix novel is a favorite of Marc's, he tracked the author down. Discovering that somehow Edward Ormondroyd had never before been interviewed, Marc set to it with forty-one questions. Forty-one!! The interview is - for obvious reasons - in two parts; Part the first, here, followed by its conclusion.

Thank you Charlotte, for reviewing an old favorite of mine, and thank you, Marc, for going the extra mile to actually finding the author and letting him know how much his works are loved.

It's the internet: for once using its powers for good.

October 22, 2011

2011 Cybils: WITHER, by Lauren De Stefano

Oh, science, you have SO screwed up.
Dystopian fiction is always so amusing to me, because In The Future, science has become so very important -- and it sort of controls and compels the characters in the novel. In this case, it's All Out Of Control. And I mean, ALL out of control. What was meant to be a brilliant scientific coup is responsible for a race made up of the very old -- and the very young. And somehow, what science hath wroth, science can't make go away...

I had a few questions about this one - mainly, I'm confused as to how only North America has survived the world wars, and I want to know more about the science behind the "Yay, we eradicated all diseases!" vs. the "Oops" that occurred next; there must have been some scientists who knew and protested, and were silenced, or something. Scientific theorists are never as homogeneous as all agreeing on one way to do anything. Some interesting underlying premises to this novel.

Reader Gut Reaction: This book actually made me queasy at times - not because of any blood and gore, necessarily - although people coughing and spraying blood Is Not Cool - but because of the emotional aspects of the plot. People in a gilded cage are still imprisoned... and because of the gilding, it's harder than it should be to pull themselves together and get out.

Human nature is by nature deranged; Stockholme Syndrome happens, when we identify and love our captors... and when the only thing they're doing is stopping us from going out the door, isn't it okay to love them? A little, maybe?

The pacing is dreamy and measured, and even as Horrific Things Are Going Down, and people are being carted off to Parts Unknown, there's a sort of distance to the prose that at times made me reeeeeeallly twitchy. A sweetly treacly day in and day out for three girls in a beautiful home, waiting on by servants, reading what they want, playing games and swimming -- and they only have to do one little thing: bear children, and live out their brief lives in the scented, gilded hell.

This is pretty close to being a horror story for me. ::shudder::

Concerning Character: Rhine Ellery was kidnapped to be a bride - because childbearing needs to start as early as possible, in a world where one's lifespan is limited. Captured by the Gatherers and taken from her twin brother, Rhine tries not to stand out -- but she already does, and through no real doing of her own, her husband, Linden, is infatuated with her. He's oddly childlike, and cannot conceive of why she'd want to live anywhere else... His father, on the other hand, knows very well the reasons why Rhine would desperately like to leave.

Rhine's sister-wives are definitely different - one older, taken from her sisters, and too close to her final year to care anymore, and one so much younger that she only ones to have all the attention, love, money, food, and clothing piled on her that she can get, because before now, she's had nothing.

Only Rhine seems to understand with any clarity that they're all slaves to one man's ambition - and even her understanding is fuzzy. Without her sister-wives to support her, will she be able to remember that the objective of every prisoner is to escape?

Recommended for Fans Of...: Post-apocalyptic fiction, like Julie Bertenga's Exodus, Veronica Roth's Divergent, or Ally Condie's Matched.

Cover Chatter: It's dark, which underscores a bit of the opulent-yet-old-fashioned Gothic feel. The cover model's lips are pale, her hair is wild, and her feverish cheeks speak of illness. She's ripping her floofy skirt in a desultory fashion. The bird in the cage is just a silent exclamation point on the whole Help, I'm Trapped Here theme. Claustrophobic and disturbing, the cover does the job it came to do.

You can find WITHER: Book 1 of the Chemical Garden Series at an independent bookstore near you!

October 21, 2011

When She Woke, by Hillary Jordan

When She Woke is not a young adult novel (the protagonist, Hannah Payne, is 25), but it will definitely cross over. Many teens, after reading the Hunger Games, Divergent, or Blood Red Road, will naturally gravitate to this dystopian thriller. The novel is a provocative story, rife with highly charged themes, that will undoubtedly get banned in many states. I found my copy in the Young Adult section of my local bookstore in San Francisco—and as my friend who works at the store pointed out, the book is packaged to look like a YA book with its narrow size and gorgeous cover, black with a young woman’s profile, expressionless, washed in crimson.

When she woke, she was red.

With that first line, author Hillary Jordan immediately throws us into a world where criminals are “chromed,” injected with a virus to change the color of their skin to reflect the severity of their crime: yellow, orange, and red. The book opens with Hannah Payne sitting in a cell, flanked with cameras, filmed for the entire country to watch her serve her penitence. There is no privacy, not even on the toilet or in the shower. Her skin and hair have been genetically altered to a deep red to match the class of her crime: Murder. She has had an abortion, a capital crime in the state of Texas. Worse, she refuses to name the father of her unborn child or the doctor who performed the operation.

Opening in such a bleak setting, I felt a brief sense of relief when Hannah gets released from prison a chapter or so later, only to discover her prison cell is merely the first small step of a long nightmarish journey Hannah must endure as a red Chrome—a fast, compelling, page-turning read I couldn't put down.

Concerning Character: Raised in a strict, deeply religious home in Texas, Hannah has led a simple, reverent life, yet she always feels different, internally questioning whether she wants to follow her parents’ expectations for her: a life of child rearing, marriage, and church. But when she falls in love with Aiden Dale, the married pastor of her church, her questioning intensifies as their affair ensues. From the beginning, Hannah’s love for Aiden shadows any doubt she might have about his character. Even after she goes to prison while he grows in both power and popularity, first becoming a televangelist and later the U.S. Secretary of Faith, she continues to defend him internally to herself while protecting his anonymity to the world. Her unwavering faith in him is frustrating and maddening—I kept waiting for her to finally see the truth—and yet so believable and compelling. I’ve known many friends like Hannah. I’ve been Hannah, stuck in the same bad relationship, giving someone I loved another undeserved chance because I wanted more than anything to believe he felt the same way. It’s the kind of lesson one only learns the hard way, and Jordan perfectly captures that lovesick innocence, stretching it across the span of the novel, until Hannah discovers her own inner strength and self-worth at the end.

Recommended for Fans Of...: Dystopian stories depicting the hero’s journey and self-discovery like Blood Red Road, by Moira Young, Divergent, by Veronica Roth, and classic novels that question politics and social mores such as George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, and of course, Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter.

Themes & Things: When She Woke explores numerous themes: abortion, freedom of choice, questioning one’s faith, the politics of evangelical Christianity, the public’s right to know of their neighbors’ criminal pasts (such as Megan’s list in California), female sexuality, adultery, love.

But because it’s an adult book and not YA, Jordan can explore female sexuality in depth. The sex itself may happen off-camera, but Hannah feelings are shared in painstaking detail. This is one of the first books I’ve read in a long time where the female protagonist initiates a sexual experience with someone she doesn’t love and no terrible consequences happen to her. She does not end up in a relationship with that person, nor does she acquire some horrible disease or become wracked with guilt, worried her actions make her a slut. Her sexual experimentation happens toward the end of the book, and Hannah, wiser after her harrowing ordeal, doesn’t become consumed with self-judgment and self-hatred as a result. She tries a new experience, learns about herself in the process, and moves on—something that rarely, if ever, happens in YA.

You can find When She Woke at an independent bookstore near you!

2011 Cybils: The Dark & Hollow Places, Carrie Ryan

Me and the zombies don't get along. These books have traumatized me for what seems to be forever - people die in some of the grossest ways in this series. However, this book is my favorite out of the whole series... because I am a fan of the happy ending. Is this a happy ending? Well... it's a Happy Ending For Now. And sometimes, in life, that's as good as it gets.

Reader Gut Reaction: Painful manipulations, losses and gains, romance and realism - this is a strong finish for the Forest trilogy, and readers who have followed it will really enjoy it.

Concerning Character: Annah is scarred - and as a twin who is scarred, she has lost something more than others, perhaps. She doesn't truly believe that anyone actually cares for her, but Elias rescued her, and has stuck by her since she was a little kid. Everything she does, she does with the bright spot that is Elias in her heart.

Life in the Dark City is unremittingly hard, and when Elias leaves her to join the Recruiters, who protect them all, her life simply becomes one of survival and waiting... because he's got to come back for her. Without him, there's no point in doing anything but lying down and dying.

When the Unconsecrated break through the barrier that protects the town, Annah realizes that she's waited for too long. Elias left her sister, when they were children... why did she think he was going to save again?

Maybe Elias is too busy living for her sister now - perfect and unscarred. Maybe Annah needs another hero, like Catcher, to live for. Or, maybe Annah needs figure out how to live for herself.

Recommended for Fans Of...: James Dashner's Maze Runner series - teamwork, bad choices, and worse outcomes. Plus, romance! Also, If I Stay and Where She Went.

Cover Chatter: I am not as fond of the American covers for the last two books of this series, which feature a series of Dead Girls lying vacant eyed and ...well, zombie-like. Which is fine, we gotcher zombies right here, but those Dead Girl covers tell me nothing... I like instead the symbolism of the UK covers. A flower, a shell - these work with the story. Here we see barbed wire made into a heart; Annah's scars gained by falling into razor wire being given meaning and depth. Stark simplicity, this one really works for me.

You can find THE DARK AND HOLLOW PLACES, the very last book in the Forest of Hands and Teeth series, at an independent bookstore near you!

October 20, 2011

Toon Thursday: Better Late Than Never

I normally set things up to post in the morning, but just couldn't quite get to the cartoon yesterday like I'd planned to. Still, it's done, and in many parts of the world it's still Thursday, so here you go--in honor of a couple of recent rejections, another toon on the Subject That Never Gets Old! You'll have to click this one to view it larger and read the good stuff.

For more writing-related cartoon goodness, check out the Toon Thursday Archives.

October 19, 2011

2011 Cybils: Savannah Grey, by Cliff McNish

Reader Gut Reaction: This is a weird one... the sort of ghost story that someone could tell you when you were half asleep, and it would scare the bojangles right out of you.

Concerning Character: Savannah is fifteen, and kind of awkwardly placed in her community. She doesn't feel like everyone else - and never acts like them. She's a foster kid, restless, and apt to contact her social worker and have herself moved. It's not anyone else's problem - the fosterers are all kind -- it's just her. Savannah is shocked when she's drawn toward a good-looking new boy named Reece. He, too, is restless, and odd -- and oddly drawn to Savannah. A scar across his throat explains his sometimes very odd, croaky voice.

Savannah's voice is croaky, too. Her persistent sore throat turns a doctor visit into a terrifying incident. SOMETHING is GROWING in her throat -- and she's making odder and odder noises at night, in her sleep. And then the nightmares come, horrific visions that seem to follow her into the waking world. The wind blows on Savannah, pulling her toward the woods. Leaves follow her in great drifts. The world seems to be pulling at her, shoving her, pushing her -- into what?

There is a ...thing of darkness out there. What does it want? What the heck is going on?? And what does it have to do with Savannah Grey?

Recommended for Fans Of...: This isn't horror like Caroline B. Cooney and R.L. Stine do horror - this is a purer, cleaner narrative thing that brings to mind Poe and Lovecraft. Cliff McNish hasn't introduced a lot of fluff into this - and yet, there's a touch of romance and softness...which makes the horror all that much worse.

Cover Chatter: Leaves, a window, moonlight, and wind. A perfect combination of sleepwalking and wakefulness, this UK cover depicts the confusing - yet oddly beautiful elements of the world of Savannah Grey... not giving too much away, and yet holding back on the spooky. This one works. The American cover is absolutely freaktastic. It works, too, in that horrifically uncomfortable way in which you want to keep clearing your throat. Eep!

Just in time for your October reading, you can find SAVANNAH GREY: A Horror Story at an independent bookstore near you!

October 18, 2011

2011 Cybils: Texas Gothic, Rosemary Clement-Moore

Finding a novel titled, "Texas Gothic" in a library in downtown Glasgow made me snicker. As we're all about the boot-scootin' boogie here in Scotland (No, seriously. People love The Man in Black here. It's kind of scary), I had to race and throw myself down on this one bodily before someone else snatched it.

It was so worth the elbow rug-burn.

Reader Gut Reaction: This book cracked me up. When I finished it, I started again. What (aside from its awesome Texas-ness) made is so eminently readable? The pace - is quick, quick, the heroine is full of snarky goodness. Things happen - funny things - one on top of the other. There's a goofy sister, itchy-butted cows, Victoria Secret lingerie and boots, and banter with a really cute cowboy, all within the first ten pages or so.

Concerning Character: Amy Goodnight is... compartmentalized. On one side of the line, is her whacked-out family - her socially clueless but charmed sister, Phin, her abrasive cousin Daisy, her hard to find (REALLY hard to find) Uncle Burt, kind, bossy, and slightly dotty Aunts Hyacinth, Iris, and all the rest -- and on the other side is sanity, sweet sanity. It would be nice if we could all put our families and their shenanigans on one side, and school, life, and everything else on the other... it would be nicer still if it would work. Normally, it works better than this, but Amy - whose real name is Amaryllis - has landed in the thick of crazy this time, and it seems there's no way out. She and her sister, Phin -- Delphinium - are house-goat-and-garden sitting for their herbwitch aunt, and it seems that the neighbors have a ghost. Who better than Phin to take her mad scientist medium skills down to the neighboring ranch and see what the ghost wants?

And who better than Amy to run afoul of the hottie neighbor -- in her underwear -- and come across as Crazy Public Enemy #1?

There are shallow graves, old bones, and treasure to be had. In the end, for Amy, it's not so much about believing in the family business -- the psychics, mediums, and witch thing. It's about believing in herself.

Recommended for Fans Of...: books with fully rounded minor characters, a charming girl-meets-boy-hates-boy-immediately storyline, wonderful and loving families, who drive each other bug nuts, and did I mention romance... if you enjoyed Once A Witch/Always A Witch, by Carolyn MacCullough, or the Paranormalcy series - with snarky and strong female characters, you'll enjoy this.

Cover Chatter: Now, it's clear I love this book, but for me, the cover is a Great Big Fail. Amaryllis Goodnight is so much bigger a character than what's shown on the page. Just hair and eyes? No, our girl is mucking out boots, feeding goats, and oh, the odd finding and speaking to ghosts. In Spanish, yo. Hair and eyes don't begin to cover it. Not that the cover isn't pretty, but it's not Amy. Honestly, the whole of the Goodnight clan is so strongly realized that I think the author could revisit them repeatedly, and not wear us out -- so we need a cover that lives up to that.

Authorial Asides: Rosemary Clement-Moore is fast becoming one of my favorite YA authors. Her novels are perfect for older teens who prefer novels which deal with family relationships and personal growth, rather than high school drama. The romantic aspects are pretty intense and realistic, and yet you won't find parents complaining about her. (How does she do that?) If you haven't read The Splendor Falls or any other of Clement-Moore's novels (the Maggie Quinn: Girl vs. Evil series is cute), do check them out.

You can find the funny and surprising TEXAS GOTHIC at an independent bookstore near you!

2011 Cybils: Demonglass, Rachel Hawkins

Another fun and confusing aspect of being the lone SFF Cybils panelist in the UK means finding books which have varying titles. I picked this book up when I was grabbing a bunch of other actual Cybils books, because it was by Rachel Hawkins, and I thought, "Sheesh, how does she manage to write other Hex Hall related novels in the middle of the series!?" Um. She doesn't. She just has publishers who manage to rename them to confuse my slow self. I kind of hate the cover (you should have seen the first one - oy!) and am pretty "meh" on the title of the UK one, but the words inside are thankfully the same.

Reader Gut Reaction: I enjoyed the first book in this series, and to avoid spoilers I will not basically recap anything much, except, Sophie Mercer is not who she thought she was. This is a basic premise for so many great novels, and this series is no exception. As Sophie discovers who she is -- and what's important to her -- she has to balance her own personal desires against what appears to be the needs and desires of the larger community...

Concerning Character: It was bad enough finding out that there was this whole Other World going on, and that Sophie was a part of it, as a witch. But now... she's found out that witchiness is NOT the problem. Sophie's time at Hex Hall - the school for those who are both monsters and rejects - has come to an end. She's spending time in England, - getting to know her father, who is supposed to teach her all she knows about being a demon. After all, they're the only two in the world... except, they aren't. Someone else is raising demons, and it's going to take an all-out war to stop them.

Recommended for Fans Of...: Kiersten White's Paranormalcy series, Thirteen to Life, by Shannon Delaney, and any other school stories of girls trying to deal while the world goes to bits around them.

Cover Chatter: I've whined about the cover before, but the UK one is a tiny bit egregious to me, because it shows a girl with purple markings on her face. That's what happens to a person when they've gone through Removal - when their powers have been sucked out of them. As it hasn't happened to Sophie in Book 2, the cover showing a girl with those lines on her face is somewhat disingenuous.

And what is with the glint-y eyes?

In my opinion, the American cover of this novel hits closer to the mark in reflecting the story behind it.

With whichever cover, you can find DEMONGLASS - or RAISING DEMONS at an independent bookstore near you!

October 17, 2011

Monday Review: THE CLOUD ROADS by Martha Wells

Reader Gut Reaction: I wasn't familiar with SFF author Martha Wells, but I was intrigued by the refreshing premise of her YA fantasy novel The Cloud Roads. You'll find no vampires or werewolves here, but you will find shapeshifters who can morph into flying beings both beautiful and terrible. In a starred review of an earlier novel by Wells, Kirkus Reviews said, "In a field teeming with clones, retreads, and solipsistic doorstoppers, Wells dares--and gloriously succeeds--to be different." And different this one is—but the story rests on a solid foundation of some of my favorite fantasy tropes. Moon, the protagonist, is an orphan with an enigmatic past, who finds out he is not alone in the world but rather a member of a race of shapeshifters, the Raksura. Neither he nor the Raksura know it yet, but they need him in order to save their entire race from another set of shape-shifters: the violent, destructive, and unscrupulous Fell.

Concerning Character: Moon, the narrator of the novel, strikes a perfect balance between the novelty of being a shapeshifter and the familiarity of emotions and reactions that characterize just about any young man coming of age. He's relatable yet also mysterious and sort of awe-inspiring. Over the course of the novel, his character development is satisfying--at the beginning, we see Moon as a decent guy, but sort of hapless, and cursed with misfortune, mainly stemming from the fact that he is so different and forced to hide his difference. If you happen to be a shapeshifter, but the only other shapeshifters the groundling races know about are the Fell...it's just not a good idea to let them find out what you are.

At the beginning of the novel, this is what happens to Moon--yet again. But this time, his exile leads him to more of his kind. The only problem is...he doesn't quite trust them, doesn't quite trust their motives toward him. At the same time, it's his status as an outsider that puts him in a unique position to help the seemingly doomed colony of Raksura.

Recommended for Fans Of...: Tightly written traditional fantasy and sci-fi with great characters and lots of attention paid to the different cultures in the world at hand, like Kage Baker's fantasy books or Tamora Pierce's Tortall novels.

Themes & Things: One of the ongoing arcs in this story is Moon learning what it means to not be stubbornly solitary and closed off—learning that there are times when it's okay, even right, to trust and rely on others. And, of course, a big part of the book is Moon's journey to finding out who he really is, and figuring out what he should do with his life aside from all the people around him telling him what they think he ought to be doing.

This is an action-packed and exciting adventure with a high ratio of Neat Stuff Per Chapter without trying too hard or being overly dense with new information. And, can I just say how much I appreciated it that the author dealt very early on with the question of just what happens to your clothes when you shape-shift. (Hint: they don't rip into tatters like the Incredible Hulk.) A highly recommended read for fantasy fans.

Review Copy Source: Author/publisher

You can find The Cloud Roads at an independent bookstore near you!

October 14, 2011

Just a Wee Reminder

That Uncle Sam. He gets around.

This is it, kids! The twenty-four hour countdown has begun. The nomination polls close on the 15th at MIDNIGHT, Pacific Time (I think), so get on it if you haven't nominated yet for the Cybils. We're cracking the 1,000 book barrier very soon (if we haven't already, and that counts for all categories).

Nonfiction MG/YA has some really great nominations @ The Cybils this year - I think of Dear Bully, which was started from a seed Carrie Jones planted almost two years ago, talking about bullying in school, and asking authors to think of their worst times, and write about it, in a "it gets better" kind of way, I think of Can I See Your I.D.? True Stories of False Identities, which is by the very brilliant and good looking (and you should hear him talk - goodness) Chris Barton. Maybe my favorite nonfiction nomination is Unraveling Freedom which Susan quoted yesterday @ Chicken Spaghetti.

Did I mention how much I love the Cybils? And young adult and children's books?
Did I mention you have a limited time to get involved with this?

Uncle Sam thanks you.

October 13, 2011

Graphic Novels Galore

In honor of the fact that I'll be a Round 2 Judge for Graphic Novels during this year's Cybils Awards, I thought I'd post a roundup of some great graphic novel-related links that have come my way in recent days/weeks. Also, rather fortuitously, the theme for next week's ALA Teen Read Week is Picture It @ Your Library. Hope there's a little something of interest to everyone here!
That should be plenty to keep you busy this weekend. And, if you haven't already, don't forget to nominate your favorite GNs and other kids' and teen books for the Cybils! (Yep, we're just going to keep harping on it until nominations close.)

October 11, 2011

Is It Just Me, Or...

Soooo, Charlaine Harris announced to USA Today that she's soon leaving the whole Sookie Stackhouse/vampire/HBO True Blood thingy behind, and... guess what?

Aww, you guessed. Writing a YA novel - a graphic, in collaboration with Christopher Golden.

While I don't argue with any writer's urge to write the next thing -- heck, I hate anyone trying to limit me to the last genre I dabbled in -- I do have a question: is it just me, or lately does it seem like YA is everyone's next career move? And what sort of baffles me/chaps my hide is the description of said YA novel:

Cemetery Girl will combine fantasy and paranormal mystery to tell the story of a teenaged girl with amnesia who has grown up living alone in amid the gravestones.

Again, is it just me, or did Our Neil already write a novel with basically the same premise called The Graveyard Book...?

Publishers are said to be counting on Stackhouse's huge, massive, NYT-Bestselling-for-weeks-on-end following to follow her to YA graphic novels.


Via Heroes & Heartbreakers.

Postscript: In MUCH COOLER NEWS, Shannon Hale has come out with a SEQUEL to THE PRINCESS ACADEMY!!!

Color me pleased.

Herr Einstein says, "Nominate!"

I love the Cybils also because they give me an excuse to dig up silliness I posted on the blog in 2008. Yes. I have been involved with the Cybils for that long...

How long have you been participating?

What do you like best about it, seriously? If you could give a piece of feedback to the Powers That Be within the organization, what would it be?

October 10, 2011

Monday Review: YOU ARE MY ONLY by Beth Kephart

You Are My Only will be available Oct. 25, 2011. This review is based on the electronic ARC available from NetGalley.

Reader Gut Reaction: I'm just going to come right out and say it: I'm always, always left breathless by Beth Kephart's writing. Regardless of what the book is about, I will start reading and fall in love with it because of her gorgeous prose and subtle but clear and honest portrayal of human emotions—from the more painful times of grief and loss to day-to-day moments of quiet joy. Even when I read the jacket copy and think to myself, well, I don't know if this is a story I would normally gravitate toward, I not only end up reading it and liking it, I end up surprised, enthralled, and impressed that she was able to weave a tale that drew me in despite my uncertainty.

In alternating chapters, You Are My Only tells the parallel stories of Emmy, a very young mother whose baby was stolen while her back was turned, and Sophie, a teenage girl who has spent a rather unconventional life moving from place to place with her mother, being homeschooled and never getting to settle in. It is obvious from the beginning that there is a connection between the two, one that you can probably guess simply from this brief description.

Concerning Character: One of the things I love most about this book are the characters—they are quirky, they are mysterious, they are flawed, and they are all very real. As a result, it is impossible to mistake this for just another book about a teenage mother, or just another suspense novel about a missing child. Emmy's emotions at the abduction of her baby are unflinchingly raw, and so are Sophie's as she discovers more and more about the life she could be living, the life that her mother has been keeping from her. Sophie begins to venture outside of the house, spending time with her neighbors: the boy her age, Joey, and his dog, Harvey; his guardians, Aunt Cloris and Aunt Helen, who are a couple but whose relationship is never harped upon or spotlighted, simply shown for its warmth and honesty and love. These are the things that are missing in Sophie's life: true friendship, unconditional love, and stability, and it's up to Sophie to find out why.

Recommended for Fans Of...: Novels about family secrets and finding out that all is not what it seems, like Mary Pearson's The Miles Between (reviewed here), Nancy Springer's Somebody (reviewed here) and pretty much anything by Caroline Cooney. Its literary feel and storytelling subtlety would also make this a great crossover title for adult readers. It might be a more difficult sell for readers looking only for a tale of suspense.

Themes & Things: Friendship and family, honesty and love—these are the themes that weave through both Emmy's and Sophie's stories. But I would be remiss if I didn't also mention that desperation is a part of this, too—the desperation that drove Sophie's mother, that wouldn't leave Emmy alone, and that eventually spurred Sophie herself to action. This book raises the question of whether there are things that we, as humans, instinctively need and cannot be whole without...and makes us consider the right ways and wrong ways to satisfy those needs.

Authorial Asides: Beth Kephart keeps a wonderful, thoughtful and always-interesting blog over at Beth Kephart Books, with ruminations on writing, literature, and the writing life. And she's a lovely person, and one of our longest-running author blog buds. Read more thoughts about You Are My Only on Chasing Ray, here and here.

You can find You Are My Only at an independent bookstore near you!

October 08, 2011

The 2011 Cybils: Pegasus, by Robin McKinley

Reader Gut Reaction: I wish Robin McKinley would write the never ending story.

No, not that one, from which they made the awkward 80's movie with the big fakey flying dog, and all, which was supposed to be like a dreamscape but which I remember more as kind of mawkishly twee nightmare. No, I mean a real never-ending story. That I could walk to. Because her worldbuilding is bar none, and I want to LIVE in Rhiandomeer. Or maybe even set up a tent beneath The Singing Yew. Robin McKinley breathes life and breadth into her stories, and I always hate when they're all over.

I hated it a lot more in THIS case -- (but more on that later) but I loved being in this story, and the gradual expansion of the characters from unknowing and incurious separate beings, to being heart-awakened and arms-wide-open creatures who wanted to be more than the representatives of two countries in treaty, but they wanted to be true friends.

And yet, having said that, it's not one of those stories, wherein a girl and her animal pal are embarking on "a beautiful friendship." There's nothing gag-inducible, twee, or "aw'fuly sweet" here. Promise.

Concerning Character: Sylvii -- whose formal name is Sylviianel, princess of the line of Gohasson, daughter of the sixth in that line, Corone IV, and his queen Eliona, fourth child of them I call my parents -- is just a spare heir -- the fourth child of her father, who will, like the other children of the royal line and of marginal political importance, upon her twelfth birthday, be bound to a Pegasus. Sylvii is a rather young girl, as the story begins -- young in her perceptions, in the way she takes her elders' word for everything -- but as the story moves forward, she grows and changes, as does her young Pegasus friend. Her eyes are opened to the way that the world is -- and the way that it could be. She is a strong female character, and yet can't really be characterized in a heroine fashion. She is frightened and unsure of herself, full of dread and whimsy at times, just like anyone might be who sees the world change. Though she's the fulcrum upon which much of the change in her universe sits, she doesn't feel that way.

Recommended for Fans Of...: If you like slow, quiet stories which grow on you - like The Two Princesses of Balmarre, by Gail Carson Levine, or The Blue Sword -- unsurprisingly by Robin McKinley as well -- then you'll enjoy this one. It is an indirect meander of a story which suddenly begins to roll forward... and by the last page, it's all but hurtling down a slope.

You might want to hold off of this one if you're not a fan of the cliffhanger-to-sequel. The tale hurtles off not exactly a cliff, but into a wall -- it seems as if the editor simply said "STOP," midway through an argument -- a crucial, terrible argument at court, between powerful people and others -- and the book ended when there were words still echoing in the room and fragmenting to the floor. It's a bit frustrating, really... but it's all to a purpose. We are immediately aware: the battle may have reached a standstill, but the war is just beginning... on myriad levels.

There is much I cannot tell you, because I want to give you no spoilers. It's a slow, steady, book that blooms.

Themes & Things: Throughout eight hundred years of history between the two peoples -- because the Pegasus indeed are a community with laws and language and art and education -- there have been very few who could directly communicate. Though the Magician's Guild has come up with a means for them to do so, through a binding ceremony, few humans learn their whuffling, whinnying verbal language, or the subtle sign-language and no Pegasus Sylvii has ever met can use his horse-ish mouth to speak words like a human.

And then it all changes.

People. Hate. Change.

That's really the theme of the whole novel. People hate change. People who like to hold power and lord it over those who they consider beneath their notice or "little" people especially hate change, and are threatened by it. Those who embrace change have a special gift - and a power to do a great deal with their acceptance. Sylvii is overwhelmed at times at changing the course of recorded history -- but now that she is stepping through the doorway of change, will she have the courage to see herself -- and her kingdom -- through to the other side?

Authorial Asides:About that ending: on her blog, Ms. Robin says that Pegasus II is coming in 2012. And may I say? It had better. That is all.

You can find PEGASUS, by Robin McKinley -- and very soon, its sequel! -- at an independent bookstore near you!

October 07, 2011

Ready... Set... Cybils

The Cybils: You can even find us in the dictionary under "Cool."

I got such a kick out of seeing an announcement for the Cybs come up the other day in my Google Reader from Tor.com. Thank-you, Tor, as always, you rock!

If you weren't already aware of it, the Cybs have gone up-tech! As they do every year between sessions, the behind-the-scenes team has worked on the website, the logo, the databases. The cool little form you fill out for nomination will come back to you if your nomination has already been nominated. If you're on a judging panel, the nominated titles which have cleared vetting for year and genre are even now populating the database list -- you can start looking them up by title, author or ISBN! Who cares that the cut-off date is the fifteenth! Last night I placed twenty-five holds with the library... and that's just the tip of the iceberg. This year I see a definite trend already in Damsel in Distress novels, a bit of steampunk, a couple of horror, and lots and lots of angel fiction.

(I think those are classified under horror as well, but I shall not judge before I read. Much.)

We already have a hundred-and-twenty-five nominations in YA SFF. Those people who said that picture books were drying up in the children's publishing world? Haven't seen the list of nominations yet for the Cybs in Fiction Picture Books. It's a good thing those books are short!

I'm afraid to even count YA Fiction.

Have you nominated?
(You do realize I'm going to keep bothering you about this?)


You know, it's like this EVERY SINGLE YEAR:

The Cybs open on the first of October. I'm ready. I'm focused. I'm determined.

...I choke.

Yes. I have tons of books I want to nominate, but I choke.

Why? Because you can only nominate one novel in every category.

How can I limit myself to ONE, when Habibi, the graphic novel by Craig Thompson, looks so good (That one might be a crossover and not eligible... must check... but still! So good!), and Flight of Angels (also maybe not YA) looks great, too? For Middle Grade SFF, should I nominate Phoenix & Fox or The Inquisitor's Apprentice? for YA SFF should I nominate the dystophia-rescue-adventure novel, Blood Red Road, Carrie Vaughn's Steel, or Welcome to Border Town or Coronets & Steel by Sherwood Smith, or The Name of the Star by Maureen Johnson, or The Gathering, the first in a new trilogy by Kelly Armstrong? For YA Fiction, should I nominate Moonglass by Jessi Kirby, or go with the intriguing sounding historical Daughter of Xanadu by Dori Jones Yang, or try All the Earth, Thrown to Sky for boy-narrated Depression-era historical fiction instead?*

It is amazing and wonderful that there are so many great books.
It is amazing and wonderful that we have so many great books to tempt us, tantalize us, teach us, trip us out, drag our imaginations and senses into new dimensions, and to take us places where we've never been. We have the books of AWESOME in this time - it's like the golden age of children's lit, all over again.


UPDATE: A little help: Charlotte has up a list of worthies not yet nominated, and Doret will have a list up next week at Color Online of worthies by and featuring people of color.

Have you not yet nominated? Are you a dork like me who ends up doing it the last day? The clock is ticking...ticking... ticking...eight days left...

*NB: when I pre-posted this Tuesday those titles were not nominated; they may be now. Double check before nominating! Also, full disclosure: I'm a Panel 1 Judge for SFF; A.F. is also a judge for Graphics. We are Professionals (Hah) around here, and still agonize over the nominating. You go and do better, kay? Thx.

October 06, 2011

Toon Thursday: Authenticity Revisited

As always, click the cartoon to view the larger version.

Look...I'm sorry for posting a rerun. The drawing just didn't go well today. I had what I thought was a pretty good idea for a fourth installment of "Two Writers Walk into a Bookstore...", but when I sat down to start sketching it out, it didn't seem so funny after all, and I didn't like the sketch paper I was using, and I couldn't draw a lumberjack to my satisfaction (although I did find this rather amusing picture of one). Rather than risk providing you with a crappy cartoon, I've posted this rerun of a still-topical (and hopefully not crappy) toon on telling authentic stories, as a sort of postscript to the Blogging Diversity discussion at last month's Kidlitcon.

If that's not sufficient, you can always visit the Toon Thursday archives, and I promise I'll have a GOOD new toon next time, two weeks from today.

Also, don't forget to nominate for Cybils! See Tanita's great post on the subject from a couple of days ago.

October 04, 2011

Adding Our Voices...

As the woman says, "Ya gotta play to win." Blogger Paula Chase Hyman at The Brown Bookshelf brought up a point the other day that we have to underscore: if you don't throw your hat in the ring for a thing, you won't be involved.

There's a huge, massive, horrific, monolithic imbalance in diverse children's books. There aren't nearly as many stories of characters of color having adventures, meeting werewolves, fighting evil, rescuing the baby hedgehogs, or otherwise having romances or emotions, or actions that don't involve standing around and being the felon/henchman/victim or the jive-talking sidekick. There's just not.

Further, there are fewer bloggers of color blogging children's books.

And, ever year, we get to the Cybils, and some people have a lot to say about that. "Why don't we ever see any ___? Why didn't ___ get nominated? How could ____ not have won?! How come ____ and ____ aren't involved in the judging?"

Ya gotta play to win, guys.

Also: the books with diverse characters by authors of color have to be nominated to be read by the panels and perhaps win.

So, PLEASE, please, please nominate as many books as you've loved, in as many categories as you've enjoyed. If the book you love is already nominated, do a little digging. Find a book which sounds interesting - and nominate. If it has diverse characters and setting, so much the better.

If you've already used up all your nominations, call your mother.

And just like you get a little sticker and a cookie when you give blood, after you nominate for the Cybils you'll have a little happy glimmer that says, "I PARTICIPATED!" and know that you're doing a good thing, and giving excellent books for a diverse children's and young adult audience a chance to shine.

Do it now.

Thank you.

October 03, 2011

Monday Review: GUNNERKRIGG COURT VOL. 2: RESEARCH by Tom Siddell

The first volume of this series, Gunnerkrigg Court: Orientation (reviewed here), was last year's Cybils winner for YA graphic novels. So I was pleased to find Vol. 2 in my library and continue the tale of Antimony Carver and her friend Kat at a very mysterious school—one which happens to adjoin a wild forest populated by faeries, spirits, animal-gods, and other non- and quasi-human inhabitants.

Reader Gut Reaction: As before, I was immediately engaged by both the artwork and its visual style as well as the surreal setting and wide range of quirky characters, each with their own story. I love the references to various different mythologies, whose coexistence is never quite explained—at least, not yet. We don't yet know the secrets of this odd place, of this setting which contains magical (or "etheric") elements as well as science. Though fans of school stories like the Harry Potter books would probably enjoy this one, Gunnerkrigg is no Hogwarts. Though it, too, hides secrets everywhere and has a few ghosts hanging about, nothing is quite as clear-cut; there's no easy division between wizards and muggles, no complete separation between life and death and clockwork, between human and faerie.

Concerning Character: Antimony has a preternatural connection with the magical realm—but, by contrast, Kat is somewhat of a mechanical gadget-building and robot-repairing genius, so they make a good team. Their personalities play off one another nicely, with the more solemn and reserved Antimony balanced out by bubbly, energetic Kat. And the range of side characters, as before, is fascinating, though not overwhelming—the serial nature of the story means that we don't get too many new people introduced all at once. Each installment brings a new layer to the overall arc, but each one stands alone nicely. And in this volume, we learn more about Antimony's late parents, and their connection to this place and to Kat's parents. What exactly we learn is a bit enigmatic, but it does become clear that Antimony has a destiny to fulfill—and Gunnerkrigg intends to train her for it.

Recommended for Fans Of...: Fantastical school stories like Harry Potter and Percy Jackson—-but this one's told from a female character's perspective. Fantasy that combines the modern or scientific and the magical, like, oh, anything by Diana Wynne Jones, or Jaclyn Dolamore's Magic Under Glass. Fans of the Sandman comics, which also bring together various mythological elements that seem disparate but somehow come together.

Themes & Things: You'll find a lot of classic adventure-story themes in this one: friendship, loyalty, not judging people by their outward appearance (even if they look kinda scary), learning who you are at the very core, having your mettle tested through unexpected trials. One of my favorite themes from this series, though, is the idea that we can create our own family—our friends and companions, the ones who are loyal to us and care about us, the ones who have our backs when things get hairy or weird. Antimony has lost her family, but she has found a new one in Kat and her parents, in the fox-spirit Reynardine, in the sweet little ghost Mort, in her second shadow. An odd assortment, to be sure, but it's what's inside that counts...

Authorial Asides: Check out our Blog Blast Tour interview with Tom Siddell for a Q&A with the author-illustrator. Volume 3 of Gunnerkrigg Court is also available now (though, sadly, not at my library yet).

Review Copy Source: Library

You can find Gunnerkrigg Court: Research at an independent bookstore near you!