December 31, 2012

Are You Ready?

It's December 31, 2012. The end of the old year.

Are you ready for a new year? Or do you want to run screaming into a cave?

Are you ready to attack your writing and reading with new vigor and fresh eyes?

Are you ready to persevere with the old, or try something new? Or both?

Are you ready for tomorrow's announcement of the 2012 Cybils finalists? (Don't forget to tune in--the announcement gets posted at 12:00 a.m. PST!)

Are you ready to commit to some resolutions--or does the R-word make you want to scream, too?

I'm still working on my plans for the upcoming year, so, at this rate, I suppose Item #1 for me will be Make Plans for New Year. What about you?

December 27, 2012

Thursday Review: PARALLEL VISIONS by Cheryl Rainfield

Reader Gut Reaction: My next book has psychic powers in it, and I've always enjoyed reading books about ESP and such (HUGE Lois Duncan fan, here), so I was excited to read Cheryl Rainfield's latest YA novel, Parallel Visions. I was also happy to see that it's well-reviewed on Amazon, because this one was a gripping and fast read that was tough to put down. Although in some ways I feel like it was almost too fast of a read—my reader greed (and perhaps just personal taste) made me want certain aspects of the story to be expanded upon, but regardless of that, the premise is an intriguing one: Kate is a girl who sees visions of what might be the present or even the future—but only when she has an asthma attack. As her body spins out of control and her breath begins to leave her, the visions come: a scary prospect to envision. But her visions might be able to save people, too. Kate is faced with the difficult choice of how much she's willing to endanger her own life to, perhaps, save someone else's.

Concerning Character: Kate is easy to relate to, and her asthma attacks are described with dizzying, alarming, vivid detail—many readers, I'm sure, will recognize how it feels. Though I'm not an asthma sufferer myself, I think this is a great trait for a character to have, not only in the sense of creating realism but also with respect to demystifying and normalizing asthma—it makes for a good addition to the realm of diversity literature, in my opinion. And with respect to side characters, I loved that she has a friend in Gil—one she trusts and who knows about her ability.

Recommended for Fans Of...: I think this would be a great one not only for suspense fans but for reluctant readers, too. Caroline Cooney fans, people who love the combination of suspense and problem novel (and they do tend to go together these days).

Themes & Things: Like other books by Cheryl, this one deals sensitively with the topic of abuse. This time, though, it's told not from the abuse victim's perspective, but from the viewpoint of a family member—Kate—who faces the same decisions most anyone in her situation does: When and how is it appropriate to intervene? How can we save someone who doesn't want to be saved, and what if it puts a life in danger? In Kate's case, using the one (supernatural) power she does have over the situation means considerable sacrifice. There's a lot of suspense and danger in this one, but it's also hopeful, too—Kate is brave and loyal and willing to risk a lot for her friends and family, and ultimately, even though her power is strange and dangerous, she has friends and family who stick by her, and that's a heartening thing.

Review Copy Source: Author.

You can find Parallel Visions by Cheryl Rainfield as an ebook from Amazon!

December 24, 2012

Holiday Thoughts

Winter, Alphonse Mucha, 1896
Today I will be with family--mine, and my husband's too; we will be stuffing ourselves silly and watching our nephews cavort and exchanging some gifts a day early; we'll travel, and then return home and snuggle up against the winter weather that has been dumping rain on us, off and on, for weeks now.

Tomorrow we'll exchange a few more gifts with my parents, enjoying a quiet morning at home; then we'll see a movie, have a nice celebratory homemade dinner, and feel sated and thankful to be able to have all of these things and people in our lives, to have had the good fortune of another year, replete with both work and play.

And then we'll start again.

Our best to you whether you're celebrating a religious or secular Christmas, Hanukkah, or simply sharing the joys (and tribulations--let's be real here) of family and friends at the end of another year. The end of the Mayan calendar did not herald a wrathful apocalypse, but rather the need to chisel another ginormous stone thingamabob to last another few thousand years, and so we again have--as always--the opportunity to make the most of what's to come. Let's do it, writers!

December 21, 2012


Ezra Jack Keats, SNOWY DAY, 1962

The darkest day has arrived; it all gets lighter from here on out. Er, that is, if we survive the Mayan apocalypse today, you know.

Look forward to more reviews, more cartoons, more chitchat of a bookish flavor, after the end of the month, but at present, Cybils duties loom as well as holiday responsibilities, so it might get a bit quiet from me for a bit! Stay well - and stay tuned...

Calvin & Hobbes say, "Let it snow."

December 20, 2012

Toon Thursday: This Is What My Desk Looks Like

The one on the right, that is, not the one on the left. SIGH. I've gotten a little closer, though. I do have a beautiful desk made from an antique sewing table. But it still resembles the one on the right.

Yes, this one's a re-run...but I really wanted to do a Toon Thursday and due to circumstances beyond my control involving a temporarily missing external hard drive, an emergency trip to Barnes & Noble, and me being totally behind on Christmas stuff*, most of today slipped by me.

(*I live in a Grinch house, by the way. If it weren't for me, there would be no Christmas. No presents, no cards, no baking, no nothing. Probably just video games, TV, and pizza boxes. Just kidding. My husband is a very good cook. So we'd eat well while watching TV.)

Happy Thursday, and I promise you I have ideas in the hopper for new cartoons, just no time to execute or even mildly torture those ideas.

December 19, 2012


I'd mentioned already being leery of Book Reboots, and how I wasn't sure if I could read another version of Jane Eyre. Well, never fear, it's time now for another Austen reboot!

Wait, wait - don't go. There are no zombies. NONE! Instead, this novel treads perilously close to sacred ground - my favorite book of all time of the Jane Austen panoply is PERSUASION, and this is a reboot of that very treasured story.

To be clear, Jane Austen set the gold standard in Romantic era fiction for me. NOTHING will ever be as good as the original PERSUASION. However, this novel is gold in its own postmodern way.

Reader Gut Reaction: This is not a retelling - it's an Austen tribute. If you keep that in mind, the novel works much, much better.

This is straightforward science fiction, a futurist world in which, as a result of The Reduction, a genetic experiment gone horribly wrong, there is an automatic servant-class, and everyone who survived otherwise are Luddites. There is a rigid compliance with what is assumed as "God's will," and natural law to keep them safe from more massive die-offs and retardation - no technology. No new discoveries. Even something as simple as cross-breeding plants for a stronger yield is anathema. Luddites ... and servants. An entire class of people are lifetime servants, as a result of The Reduction; they seem to suffer from mental challenges. Some of their children, however, do not. Post-Reductionists want to live and breathe and be real citizens, not second-class people. But, they can't do it on Eliot's father's land...

Concerning Character: Eliot North could be thought of as a girl who has everything - except she's not. She's the girl who does everything, to keep the servants on her father's land fed and cared for. He - and Eliot's spoiled older sister - wants to live large on the money the estate makes, but has zero interest in doing the work and good stewardship that it takes to make it. Eliot steps in time and again to save things - and her father resents her in a childish fashion. He hurts her through hurting the servants, and tries to control her - when he isn't ignoring her entirely. (In an otherwise nuanced and subtle novel, their relationship is the one false note for me - I found myself asking for more "whys" behind his behavior.)

Malakai Wentforth - a clever, self-educated boy is a Post-Reductionist, a second generation non-Luddite who was Eliot's childhood friend and love. He went away to seek his fortune, for there's nothing left on the North's estate for him. When he asks Eliot to go with him, she refuses. It breaks her heart to stay away from him, to choose to keep cleaning up her father's messes, but to Eliot's mind, to whom much is given, much is required. Her genetics are pure. Her mental acuity is sharp. Her responsibilities, therefore, are much greater. She refuses to live her life solely for herself, as do her father and sister - which is a positive and strong-minded, mature choice. After nearly five years, Eliot is terrified that Kai's dead. She actually mourns him as if he IS dead. But, now, he's back. Brilliant and accomplished and different - and utterly hateful toward Eliot, Malakai's return is the worst and the best day of Eliot's life.

Peterfreund adds a touch of Brontë to this novel's hero that I don't think Austen ever did. Kai is a right butthead at times, prickly and quick to temper, moreso than Frederick Wentworth ever was - and I'm not sure his behavior should have been accepted without a confrontation. Eliot is just as passive as her predecessor, Anne, but for very different reasons, but she makes abrupt decisions, especially at the conclusion of the novel, which came across as impetuous, which some readers object to, but which was, I think, deliberate. There is immense care taken with the narrative, and with the story, showing Peterfreund's love of the original story as well. She subtly twists the new tale into a tribute which doesn't cleave too closely to the original, yet has much of its charm.

Recommended for Fans Of...: Novels of the romantic era, such as Jane Austen's PERSUASION, Star-crossed romances like BEAUTY AND THE BEAST, and novels wherein the lowly hero scores the high-class heroine.

Themes & Thoughts: Because Eliot doesn't fit in with the wealthy Luddites in her society, she finds her home among the servant-class. One of her friends is a Reduced girl who is simple and sweet, and Eliot adores her. The adoration is difficult - though the girl sometimes tells what she shouldn't and sees and mimics what she should not, Eliot kind of has to love her. They were born the same day. She's the last link to her childhood, and Kai. The emotions and drawbacks and rewards of loving a differently-abled person is one of the things I wish the novel had taken more time to explore. We don't often run across a lot of teen differently-abled characters in YA now, especially not in SFF, where everyone in the brave new world is brilliant.

Speaking of brilliant, there are a few ethical questions in this Luddite society I wish could have been covered more thoroughly. I know the point of the novel was romance, but the worldbuilding really intrigued, and I'd love to see another novel in the same universe that digs in deeper to the world, caste systems, class, and the fabulous genetic advances that had been made - and which ruined the world....

This book has so, so much good going on with it, that it's easy to be forgiving of the moments which were not delved into as deeply as I might have liked! It's only one book - I think if I wrote it my way, it would be three...! Which leads to the question, is this a single volume, like PERSUASION? It appears that the answer is yes, which is killing a lot of people, but be of good cheer: there's a bonus novel prequel on Diana Peterfreund's website, at least.

Cover Chatter: At first I wondered if I had imagined that Kai was described as quite fair with specifically arresting eyes, and Eliot was plain and dark, but no -- I reread. Eliot has long dark hair, and brownish tan - or, in the winter - sallow skin. She's kind of a farm girl, and does the farmer tan. What I didn't know is that apparently some people consider this cover to be white-washed. I don't read it that way. I love the stars and galaxies which appear through the character's dress, and I think the cover is gorgeous. I don't recall Eliot really ever wearing that awesome of a dress, but even farm girls have a yen to dress up every once in awhile.

FTC: Review copy courtesy of the publisher, unsolicited review.

A novel both exasperating and endearing, you can find FOR DARKNESS SHOWS THE STARS by Diana Peterfreund at an independent bookstore near you!

December 17, 2012

Monday Review: TRAITOR'S SON by Hilari Bell

Reader Gut Reaction: I enjoyed the first book in this duet, Trickster's Girl (reviewed here) a lot more than I expected to, so I was pleased to find the second book was available in my library so soon after I read the first one (no waiting ages for sequels! yay!). I found that this second book defied my expectations, but in a good way. MINOR SPOILERS to come….

At the end of the first book, when Kelsa throws the medicine bag across the Alaska-Canada border and into the hands of a strange boy, it turns out that her quest also becomes his. Now, Jason is the one who must heal the land, and with his native roots, he seems to be the perfect choice. …Or is he? Like the first book, this one's got plenty of adventure and angst, danger and daring.

Concerning Character: So, this second book in the Raven Duet is Jason's story. At first, it felt jarring to suddenly leave Kelsa behind and continue the quest with a new hero. I mean, that's an unusual choice from a writing perspective, and surprising for the reader. But once I got used to the new setting (and—minor spoilers again—the new, ravishingly feminine form of Raven), Jason really fit well into the story. He's a reluctant hero, even more reluctant than Kelso, and he's got his aims in life, and his Native heritage is far more of a source of conflict than he'd like it to be. In fact, there's a rift between his father and the rest of the family, and most of them are holding Jason's father's behavior against HIM—sins of the father and all that. Jason is a very layered character whose backstory has appropriate repercussions for his own development and growth, as well as being integral to the plot.

Recommended for Fans Of...: Realistic fiction with a dose of fantasy. If you enjoy Charles de Lint, who incorporates North American and European mythological elements into his books, or other books about Trickster-y characters like those by Tamora Pierce, you might like this one.

Themes & Things: Jason is a mixed-race character, and his heritage is a major theme throughout the book. His self-identity and self-acceptance are tied into how he relates to the various parts of his family—his father, who has been ostracized by the Native community, and his grandparents, who live a more traditional lifestyle. And now he's got this whole quest thing to deal with. It's very satisfying to watch Raven break down Jason's reluctance and skepticism about healing the environment, and win him over to the idea that this earth is all of ours and we are all responsible, no matter how small or how large a part we play.

Review Copy Source: Library.

You can find Traitor's Son by Hilari Bell online, or at an independent bookstore near you!

December 15, 2012


I've got school story-itis. I LOVE and adore school stories. Boarding school stories are EVEN BETTER. I don't know why - I went to boarding school and know it to be a peculiar sort of hell, but somewhere in my head I'm still expecting to find interesting haunts in the second floor west bathroom, or maps to hidden rooms. Nope, nope, nope. I know better. But, still.

This is a school story, a military school story. I think the school bits are what kept me reading, that, and the engaging voice. It's a review I held onto for awhile, ambivalent about the book and unsure I should post it - but, whatever. Sometimes you just have to write about enjoyable books with plot holes, so here goes:

Reader Gut Reaction: This story started off with a character who was both funny and awful - and in an awful position. I'm always rooting for the underdog, so that hooked me. And then when there is a school in the offing, a tough girl, and Things Not Being What They Seemed I was definitely in. This novel is flawed and slightly readalike for a few written in the past several years, but I like that it has a male protag who is blind in some predictable ways - but it remains my hope that, with the remaining volumes left in the series, that there is redemption for this character. A lot can change in a book, if the main character is allowed to open his eyes...

Concerning Character: Presenting Tom, underdog, downtrodden, bitter and fronting. He's intimidated by the world in which he lives, and yet contemptuous of it, as he sharps and hustles and slides to stay alive. Goodness knows he has to; his father, once a brilliant man, is a well-known gambler, and entirely a mess now. Tom - short, pale, spotty - does what he must, he tells himself. He listens to his father's paranoid rants, skips school, and becomes an amazing gamer as a way to make money. He has inherited his father's brilliance - which causes him attention he's not sure he wanted. His father is POSITIVE the attention is unwelcome and unwarranted, but all Tom can see is what they're offering him - a place to belong, steady meals, and the attention - maybe even the friendship - of a girl...

I don't even have to tell you that All Is Not What It Seems. You get that automatically, right?

Recommended for Fans Of...: READY PLAYER ONE, by Ernest Cline, ENDER'S GAME, by Orson Scott Card, DIVERGENT, by Veronica Roth, and the very awesome HEIR APPARENT, by Vivian Vande Velde.

Themes & Thoughts: A little disclosure: I love The Book Smugglers. I read their reviews on everything and generally lurk around their site. I read Ana's review of this book for Kirkus, and can see her points - but I want to say that I was not, I don't think, unduly influenced. See, if you read this novel critically, you'll see that there are holes. Holes you might be able to get past - the voice is engaging, and there's a lot to like - but that's up to you.

Some of the holes were obvious - you would think there might be greater computer security at this school, seeing as everyone is so into computers, to the point of having one onboard in an android fashion. There were some hazing scenes that surprised me - and other problematic fixations in this book on little things - wrong little things that never really get resolved. ****MINOR SPOILERS****

Okay, the "man-hands" girl gets a boyfriend she isn't sure she wants... and that solves her issues? Is a man the key to her confidence? And, okay, Tom finds a way to bring down the enemy - but it's not through superior plotting and his super-brilliant intellect. No, it's because of a specifically feminine fear. whose dreams?


The character arc that includes growth and coming to grips with things? Is kind of missing. From everyone. Especially in light of the conversations going on in the gaming world about the role and the reactions to female gamers, there is some stereotype dependence and some missteps here.

I'm going to go so far as to say the issues raised made parts of this novel anticlimactic and disappointing. This story is written in an easy and engaging style, which leads me to hope that there can be some course corrections in the plot and characterization - I believe it's supposed to be a trilogy, so a.) maybe this was deliberate and b.) maybe there's time to fix it?

Time will tell.

Cover Chatter: I can appreciate very much that the book designers avoided faces on the cover! The cover color is striking, the sort of formal coat-of-arms/school insignia was a wise choice to go with. Apparently this kind of cover is what book designers feel appeal to boys - strong colors and simple designs. *I* like it, and hope to see more designs like it.

FTC: Unsolicited review of a library book

You can find INSIGNIA by S.J. Kincaid online, or at an independent bookstore near you!

December 14, 2012


I judge.

I should be ashamed to say it, but I'm not. We all do it. We judge books by their covers, even though there's a clear "don't" in that saying. And, okay - there's a reason, in this case.

I'm not a very girly girl, try as I might. If I see The Big Dress of Hopeless Foofiness on the cover of the novel, nine times out of ten, I'm out. The niecelet meanwhile will RUN ME OVER trying to get to it, and I'll just hand it to her, and say, "What? Like I'd try to KEEP that from you." The Dress of Hopeless Foofiness = Niecelet. Possibly, the Girl In Tank Top With Weapon and Tattoo = Me.

( Not that either of us have those - foofy dresses [Niecelet has refused to wear dresses since she was eleven] nor weapons and tatts [guns and needles, Sorry. I do say YES to knives, though]). Our internal landscapes lead us to our books, which is why it's so funny that today I'm reviewing a Niecelet Book, complete with geez, louise, big-old-foofy-dress. But, I was so happy to read it, because it was like a milkshake - a bit frothy, a LOT predictable - I mean, it's a milkshake, right? - but at least some flavor was there.

Reader Gut Reaction: Foofy. This book has its own Pinterest page, okay? Seriously foofy. And yet, I was reminded of my favorite fish-out-of-water trope when I started the story: a girl who DOESN'T want to be a princess? Who has MET her Prince Charming? Who goes in with the intent to FAIL, after a few good meals? Who prefers to wear PANTS? Oh, yeah. Bring it on.

Concerning Character: America Singer is just that - a singer in the land of Illéa, which is some subset of post-apocalypse America (no, the country, not the girl). Her family is in the class of entertainers and artists, Class 5, and it's rough - people are poor, flat out. There's not much money or time for entertainment, except in the warm summer months. Families and clans must stick together for their survival. (With the notable exception of America's poseur artist brother, who has not only moved up, but who pressures America to name-drop him to the prince. I'm wondering if there's some purpose for him, and if we'll see him again.)

It could be worse. America could be a Six, like her secret boyfriend, Aspen. Sixes are servant class, and the lowest caste there is, except for the homeless who aren't even in-caste. Not just money, but food is even more scarce for them. America sneaks him food, and they sneak time together. But all of this comes to an abrupt halt - because of The Selection. A once-in-a-lifetime application process to choose the newest queen of Illéa, The Selection is all anyone can talk about. America isn't into it, but her mother pressures her. And then, her boyfriend pressures her - and dumps her. Angry at the limited choices in her life, she goes. She is, of course, chosen immediately as one of the thirty-five finalists.

There are uses for being a square peg in a round hole. With nothing to lose, America stands to gain everything.

Recommended for Fans Of...: The Purim Story (of Queen Esther), in the Torah and in the Bible, THE PRINCESS ACADEMY, by Shannon Hale, MATCHED, by Ally Condie, DIGNITY, by Eva Caye, THE HUNGER GAMES, and any number of princess fairytales, including Cinderella, by Strabo and all the others who retooled it.

Thoughts & Things: With some of the clichéd readalike bits of THE HUNGER GAMES dress-up scenes and the basic tool-worthiness of both love interests, this isn't the strongest book I've ever read, and yet, I still was able to enjoy parts. It attempted originality with its post-apocalyptic angle. There's a war going on, with rebels and deaths and attacks on the palace. Maxon, the prince, seems to have only the vaguest idea of what it's all about, and it seems to be America who is allowing him to understand the concerns of, you know, "real people." The fact that this book, with only one volume published and two to go, is already a in the process of being a TV series makes me uneasy for it - it could get better, or it could all get a lot worse. Hard to tell how this will go!

I wanted to have more of a discussion of the sociological impact of royalty on an already poor society - there is so much history against the idea of a seriously rich monarchy and a seriously starving populace (Hello, France? Anyone?) that it seems that Maxon is kind of stupidly just going along. What happened to The U.S.? Yes, it fell, but how/why? Also, Maxon is presented as loveable, but he's so dumb. Is America - remember now, non-royal, caste-stuck entertainer - really going to be the one to Show Him The Way when she, too, is painfully naive at times? I found myself wondering, of Maxon, "Why doesn't this man have advisers, or at least, you know, duties?" When it comes down to it, the entire royalty is a teensy bit one-dimensional -- But. This is a first book - and I know that Niecelet will love it. I'll look forward to explanations on the rebels and who/what they're fighting for, how Illéa became segregated by caste - which is only something that works in one or two societies even now - and etc. There are quite a few things for the author to explore in the sequels other than big dresses.

Cover Chatter: I mentioned foofy, right? In this new and post-futuristic Illéa, apparently there are only people of the dominant culture left. Since the dominant culture in the U.S. at present is Latino, and America admits to our country being her land of origin, I'm wondering how there are no brown-skinned ladies on the cover of the book...? Just a thought.

FTC: Review copy received from the publisher, unsolicited review.

You can find THE SELECTION by Kiera Cass at an independent bookstore near you!

December 13, 2012

Thursday Review: THE LAST DRAGONSLAYER by Jasper Fforde

Reader Gut Reaction: I adore Jasper Fforde's Thursday Next books, so I was excited to read that he was making a foray into YA—although from the pacing and content, I'd consider this one suitable (and perhaps more appealing) to MG readers. Like his other books, I'd describe it as a quirky fantasy adventure with a good dose of silliness, although instead of having the detective/mystery component that his adult books have, The Last Dragonslayer is more of a coming-of-age story…or, more precisely, it's a young-woman-thrust-unwillingly-into-various-positions-of-weighty-authority story. Because not only is Jennifer Strange the acting head of Kazam Mystical Arts Management since the head of the operation vanished, she's also just found out that there's Big Magic afoot, and with recalcitrant, cranky wizards to employ, a brand-new indentured foundling to train, and the last of the dragons to contend with, her hands are more than full. And it's about to get even crazier…

Concerning Character: Jennifer Strange is an intriguing individual—born a foundling, now the de facto head of a magical talent agency for aging sorcerers afraid of obsolescence in the face of technology. However, for my taste, the book didn't give me quite enough depth of character—despite being written in first person, I felt like I didn't have a very strong sense of the narrator. She acted, she reacted, but her emotions and even her thoughts about her own self and her past were a bit of a mystery. Nevertheless, it's quite a fun, fast-paced read, and being the first in a series, presumably we'll get to know Jennifer a bit more over the course of future books. Oh. And I love the Quarkbeast. That is all.

Recommended for Fans Of...: Not unlike Monday's review, if you like books about orphans or foundlings who have a great destiny to fulfill, particularly if those books have a slightly off-kilter sense of humor (like the books of Terry Pratchett, perhaps) then you'll want to check this one out.

Themes & Things: This book's pretty much got all the themes a good adventure should—friendship and betrayal, mysterious doings and shocking revelations, and lots of rushing about from one catastrophe to the next. And because it takes place in a sort of alternate present, it's got plenty of fun and unique elements that make it stand out from your average fantasy. For instance, Jennifer may live in a world with magic, but they've also got TV. So when something like, oh, a prophecy of the last remaining dragon's death gets broadcast on every psychic wavelength, rest assured that it's going to mean a big media circus, too. Very wry and funny, with a nice twist at the end.

Review Copy Source: Library.

You can find The Last Dragonslayer by Jasper Fforde online, or at an independent bookstore near you!

December 12, 2012


Periodically I share things with my writing group that I think are a great idea to share with people across the board, as it were. So, from us to you: your periodic Bechdel Public Service Announcement.

A quick refresher for those who don't know what I'm talking about - the Bechdel Test came from a 1985 comic strip called "Dykes to Watch Out For," written by one Alison Bechdel. One of the characters in the strip, which is entitled "The Rule," talks about how she only sees a very specific sort of movie, ones in which female nad male actors interact in specific ways. The Rule has been taken and morphed to touch on not just movies but books and media of all kinds. So, on to what was shared in our writing group:

Every once in awhile, I reread what this Bechdel thing means. I desperately want ALL of my work to pass this test, and so it's important to me to remind myself to not fall into the easy tropes and cheap shot stereotypes. Multiple, developed, relevant female characters who advance the story is the goal. Multiple, developed, relevant male characters who advance the plot are also good, even from the periphery.

DEFINED:The Bechdel test is used to identify gender bias in fiction. A work passes the test if it features at least two women who talk to each other about something other than a man.

And, of course, there's the Bechdel Test for Race in Popular Fiction. Does your story have at least two characters of color in it? Do they talk to each other? About anything other than the character from the dominant culture?

Multiple, developed, relevant men and women of all genders, ethnicities, and sexes is what will make your fiction great -- tougher to write at times, with no lazy in-group shorthand, more critically observed, walking the line between inclusiveness and condescension, but with the potential for excellence. And what more can we really ask from our writing but this?

Go forth and write outside of the box, people. Si, si puede.

December 11, 2012

CYBILS F/SF: Partials, by Dan Wells

One of the rare straight SF novels of the Cybils season (not that rare overall, but this year has some better science than last, I think) this book was meant to be a quick sip whilst doing something else, and I ended up putting off whatever else it was I was doing to finish it.

Reader Gut Reaction: The book reads a great deal like a Scott Westerfeld novel of old - there are Stakes, there are True Friends, and there is action all over the place - running, ducking, escaping, shooting, and lying like bad rugs. And it all takes place in ... Long Island. Which seems like a sort of odd setting, I mean, it's a suburb. But, that's where the action's at.

It's not a perfect novel, by any means - I can see Ill-Fated Romance coming, but fortunately it doesn't show up in this book, and there's definitely hope it won't happen - I may just be cynical. I don't buy Kira's boyfriend's place in the novel - he's A-freaking-nnoying, and he seems only there to be the representative for Teh Establishment (TM) - I don't see his übermicromanagement as caring, anymore than I'd see an overhanging cliff that could collapse on my head as a sign of love, but some people read things differently. Anyway, it's a diverting book with some good examples of amazing friendship, hacker-tech (the Mp3's Kira's friend collects are great), and interesting intellectual issues of a woman's control of her body (there's a LOT of that in YA lit lately).

Concerning Character: Kira is sixteen, a medical assistant, and not really keen on her job, which is, at this point, collecting data about dying babies. Humanity is failing, because the mortality rate for infants is at 100% - babies are dying right around the two week mark, because of a RM, a virus that was unleashed by the Partials - factory made, partially human supersoldiers who rebelled - as an act of war -- and which decimated most of the world population. In this haven of population, those who choose to live there, live by the rules of the Council - who keeps lowering the age of consent for women to have babies. The Hope Act isn't just ASKING people to have babies. They've lowered the age to sixteen now, and it's every girl's DUTY to have a child. Someone's baby HAS to survive. The science behind the deaths has to break at some point.

Obviously, not everyone is going to agree with what the council wants. People on outlying farms are being killed - in acts of terror by dissenting people. Everyone is in fear, everyone is obeying the council without question - everyone but Kira, and a few of her friends. Kira desperately wants to save humanity, and to that end, she's decided she needs to find a Partial, and study it. After all, they unleashed the virus. They survived. Something in their blood must be the answer...

Recommended for Fans Of...: The Scott Westerfeld UGLIES series, Battlestar Galactica, The Hunger Games trilogy, especially CATCHING FIRE, by Suzanne Collins,

Cover Chatter: If there were a virus that had decimated Long Island, most of its buildings would be standing. Most of its malls would still be filled with clothes. Its only issue would be the unfortunate piles of the dead. This is reflected pretty well on the cover of this novel - a road, still paved and painted. Fences, still standing. And a faraway city that only looks good from a distance.

While still not a fan of the woman-on-the-cover thing, and while I think showing an actual partial - faceplate and all - might give this more of an edgy, SF feel, this cover is one of those "does-the-job" types that just produce a shrug. Not great, but not awful, either.

You can find PARTIALS by Dan Wells everywhere, including at an independent bookstore near you!

December 10, 2012

Monday Review: DODGER by Terry Pratchett

Reader Gut Reaction: OK, bear in mind that I am a big Terry Pratchett fan. I think he's an amazing fantasy writer, and I say this as someone who is not really huge on the Discworld series. So I was extra happy to run across another stand-alone of his in the library a couple of weeks ago: Dodger. His stand-alones, including the Discworld-related (but not fully Discworld-immersed) Tiffany Aching books, are the awesomesauce.

So is this latest one. A period piece—well, really, a sort of alternate-history-fantasy kind of thing--Dodger follows the adventures of the pseudonymous young Dodger, who scrounges for lost change and jewelry in the sewer to eke a meager living. But apparently fate was just waiting for an extraordinary event to test Dodger's mettle and lift him literally out of the sewers and into a whole new intriguing life wherein he meets Charles Dickens, Sweeney Todd, and Benjamin Disraeli and is caught up in adventures beyond his control. It's sheer craziness, and it takes place in dirty, nasty, fog-infested Victorian London, and I love it.

Concerning Character: Dodger is another one of Pratchett's memorable characters: a charming mixture of naïve and cunning, loyal and scrupulous yet incorrigibly criminal, but above all, someone who seems real from virtually the first page. Dodger is, yes, a tosher—a sewer rat—but he's also not going to stand by when someone innocent is getting hurt, especially when that innocent person is a very, very pretty golden-haired girl. And that sets the tone for his behavior throughout the book: simply by being himself, following his instincts, he is led on an adventure that tests his ethics and loyalties as well as molding him as a man. So he's very easy to cheer for, even in clothes covered in muck.

The other characters are equally engrossing, but my favorite of the rest of the cast has to be Dodger's mentor/roommate, the elderly gentleman Solomon Cohen. Solomon may be a poor old watchmaker, but has taken Dodger under his wing and made of him somewhat of a project, taking every opportunity to clean him up a little here, give him a life lesson there. What's more, he's got Dodger's back, and keeps an eye on him as things start to get dangerous and Dodger gets unwittingly mixed in with larger events. This being Pratchett, all the primary characters are well realized and deftly drawn with both humor and sympathy, even the bad guys, who of course eventually get their comeuppance. (No, not really a spoiler.) Oh, and I have to say I loved the Charlie Dickens character…such a writer…

Recommended for Fans Of...: Books about orphans or foundlings who have a great destiny to fulfill and go off on character-molding adventures: the Monster Blood Tattoo books by DM Cornish, for instance, or the Bloody Jack series by LA Meyer.

Themes & Things: For me, a primary theme that weaves throughout this book is the meaning of loyalty and friendship—and the fact that it takes many guises and can be found in some truly unexpected places. And there's also the idea of what it means to be A Good Person, even if you are A Good Person Who Occasionally Does Dodgy Things, as many of us are. I'm a sucker for that particular trope, apparently—the fallible, very human hero.

Review Copy Source: Library.

You can find Dodger by Terry Pratchett online, or at an independent bookstore near you!

December 07, 2012

CYBILS F/SF: Seraphina, by Rachel Hartman

As I was trying to think what this book reminded me of, I realized it nothing less than a medieval mystery. The detail of the plot and the elegance of the writing made this a take-it-in-one-sitting book for me. I had a library copy, but I may need to find one of my own, and read it again. This is a quiet book, but I am very eager indeed for the sequel.

Reader Gut Reaction: It seems amazingly that the more complicated and organized the culture, the more definitive and specific the class stratification, and Goredd indeed does have the class structure down. Despite their own power and intelligence and the brilliance of the musician dragons at court, they are seen as defeated and dumb, and never as good as the humans. There are beings which are even lower - lower than dragons. Who cares about the peace treaty between the dragons and the peoples of Goredd? The humans have formed cults to speak out against them, and a lone dragon, newly wearing human form - or a lesser wyrm - might easily be struck down. It's been years since the great peace -- so, why isn't it peaceful?

Concerning Character: Musician Seraphina Dombegh walks through this uneasy peace, trying to keep her balance. She's a brilliant musician - but must keep her talent quiet, to avoid provoking too much public opinion. She feels sometimes a little mad, but her teacher has taught her to quiet her mind, using a series of little exercises she's started to call "tending her garden." It is a real garden, though, that only she can see, peopled with... mutants.

Seraphina feels different. She works for the palace, and isn't quite common, but she's not quite one of the royals, either, like her student, the princess. Falling somewhere in the middle of common folk and others, it's easier, perhaps, for her to find something in common with the dragons. Having known one since childhood, she can be logical and emotionless, and they can understand her. It makes her seem odd, though -- and then, when there's a murder that appears to be done by a dragon, understanding them so well doesn't look good at all. It's just before a major state visit from the king of the dragons, and the perceptive captain of the Queen's Guard is looking for help -- and villains -- everywhere...

Recommended for Fans Of...: DRAGON'S BAIT by Vivian Vande Velde, DEALING WITH DRAGONS, et al, by Patricia C. Wrede, VOICES OF DRAGONS, Carrie Vaughn, A WIZARD OF EARTHSEA, by Ursula LeGuin, DRAGONHAVEN, and THE HERO AND THE CROWN, by Robin McKinley, DRAGONSONG, by Anne McCafferty, GUARDS, GUARDS, by Terry Pratchett, and other fine dragon books

Cover Chatter: The US/North American cover is, happily, a woodcut - all sepia detail and loveliness. Seraphina is a restrained character, deep and layered, but there's nothing on the surface. The provincial restraint of the little city there matches her character, and the way that technology is disguised in beauty also pairs nicely with the soaring buttresses, etc. etc..

Understandably, buttresses would not go over as well with the British public! That cover is a bit lurid for me - do not love the red eye, and the girl looks a bit glam. Also, the stylized dragon ends up looking like a particularly anemic butterfly, which doesn't convince anyone of their fierceness.

The German cover is interesting - but it looks like she's drowning in hair, and her visible eye makes her look just that wee, tiny bit mad, does it not? Yes. I think so. The Italian cover is gloriously simple and stark, but the North American cover remains my very favorite, because despite the striking colors and simple design the dress on the Italian cover... looks a bit hard to walk in, and like something with scales is sneaking up on her??? Lacks a bit of subtlety, for me.

It's always such an interesting thing to see what book designers thought would sell best in various countries.

FTC: Book source, public library. Unsolicited review.

You can find SERAPHINA by Rachel Hartman everywhere, including at an independent bookstore near you!

December 05, 2012

CYBILS F/SF: MM9, by Hiroshi Yamamoto

Dear Television,

I don't watch you anymore. You disappoint me constantly. You misspell Sci-Fi to something dumb like "Sy-Fy." You're unreliable and you cancel all the best shows -- seriously, there's just no excuse for that. When I actually want moving pictures and sound with my stories, I rely on my laptop like most people. NetFlix saves us the trouble of bothering with you. But. If you give Hiroshi Yamamoto an American TV show with lots of special effects and huge monsters, I will come back. Cross my heart. With my bowl full of popcorn, and my heart full of hope. I will come back.

You have my word.

Reader Gut Reaction: I have many quirks. One of them is my deep love for Kokopelli - well, mainly, my deep love for other people's hatred of Kokopelli. Another quirk is my love for my salon scissors, with which I'm going to hack off a fun six inches of Tech Boy's hair. The third is a deep and biased love for Japan. Three of my favorite people in the world were born there, and one of them draws me scribbly pictures of water dragons on my yearly Christmas card, now that he can sort of draw. And Totoro lives in Japan. ... so, when I saw that we had two books from VIZ Media/Haikasoru Publishing. I was eager to jump in, and I was right to be. This series of interlinked short stories has a serious mien, reminiscent of watching some of the very best b/w monster movies from the 60's, with the nearly apocryphal well-dressed scientists, sentimental loners, screaming, cigar-chomping chief, and sweating, terrified geek. And the really hilariously jerky monsters who rise up out of the sea and roar. A gently tongue-in-cheek mockery of the very best in monster movies from Japan.

Concerning Character: Hard-bitten, serious Chief Kumihama, analytical Yojiri, and soft-hearted Yuri - these are but a few of the stellar characters from MM9, upholding the thankless task of making Japan safe. These stalwarts work for the Monsterological Measures Department, or MMD, and stand alone against the Kaiju threat. What is a kaiju, you ask? Well, you've met Godzilla, right? Sometimes larger, sometimes smaller, sometimes überhuman looking, kaiju are monsters. Unless they're a threat to the lives and livelihood of the Japanese people, they are left strictly alone, as they are relics from an earlier time. But, sometimes, when they're tromping through downtown Tokyo... well. You've gotta do what you've gotta do.

Recommended for Fans Of...: Godzilla, Mothra, and other excellently cheesy movies, monster-killer movies and games.

Cover Chatter: Of them all, I think my favorite cover is the iTunes cover - the shadow of the dragon head on the highrise reminds me of a particularly scary shadow puppet show. My second favorite is the Japanese cover, with the perfectly round bite taking out of the building. I even have a soft-spot for the American one. The dark, murky scene of a busy metropolis viewed from above is relieved only by the faraway head of a monster, peering above a high rise. Each cover has something to offer, but the American one takes the mayhem with a serious, post-apocalyptic feel, whereas the other two covers seem more lighthearted. I always thought that in the monster movies, the Japanese populace certainly took the post-atomic mutant monsters better than American people took things like, say, giant ants.

Authorial Asides: Hiroshi Yamamoto allegedly came up with the the idea from this book after an amusing conversation as to who names the monsters he'd seen in a TV show. He came up with the idea that the meteorological agency had to have done it - as they were usually the ones in monster movies to report the phenomenon. Apparently inspiration struck, and he imagined an entire agency dedicated to doing nothing else -- seeing, naming, and neutralizing these monsters. After all, everyone always complains about the gigantic monster crushing cars in the city center, but how often does anyone DO anything about it?? Mr. Yamamoto does do something about it, and what he does with them is good fun.

FTC: Books courtesy of VIZ/Kaikasoru. Unsolicited review.

You can find THIS BOOK by Hiroshi Yamamoto from the iTunes store, or from Haikusora, or in ebook form. Hopefully more widely available in the U.S. soon.

December 04, 2012

THE NEXT BIG THING!: Elizabeth Wein

Q: THE NEXT BIG THING! - what is it?

A: Originating in the UK (we believe) it's an author meme which offers a sneak peek at what's going on with a writer's Work In Progress, what they've just shot off to the editor, and what readers can get excited about. AF and I were tagged for this author meme by Elizabeth Wein, author of the EXTREMELY excitingly well-regarded CODE NAME VERITY which we obviously loved and wanted to take to prom. Off you go, read what she's working on now!

(And no, it is not a sequel to CNV, so don't even ask.)

I've posted my own NEXT BIG THING this week, followed in the next weeks by AF and a few others I've tagged, including the great Sherri L. Smith (when her deadline is met). No idea who AF has tagged, but stay tuned for more of THE NEXT BIG THING! throughout the next several weeks.


Oh, Publishers. You need to look at this self-pubbed author, and at this book. LOOK HARD. Movie people, LOOK HARD.

That is all.

Reader Gut Reaction: I am not a fan of post-apocalyptic novels. They never seem to work for me. Either there's some mega-volcano, and people cannibalizing each other the next week. (Seriously? The fall of a six-eight-ten-twelve thousand year old civilization just ... happens in a week?) Or, there's some running and dodging, and eew, blood, and then people start hooking up. Um, again, really? The world ends, and I'm worrying about my hair, and how to edge closer to some guy? Or, better still, I'm macking on some guy in a world spattered with blood and gore, yet without toothbrushes??? Can I at least chew on a mint leaf and maybe wash my face first??? So, yeah - the post-apocalypse thing: rarely does it for me. Until this one. I started reading, and ... it was like ... falling down a well. I entered the book with a soundless splash, and didn't come up 'til it was over... and I was very near tears. It was THAT GOOD.

Concerning Character: Madeleine Cost is working - the Archibald Prize requires this, and really? School is just in the way, and despite her parents' insistence on her focusing on the practical...artists have to create art. Period. The one day Madeleine cuts and goes to her cousin Tyler's house for his portrait sitting, she is in the WORST place on earth when things go wrong. Ironically, she still - after everything - feels she has to lie to her mother about where she is, when she finally gets phone coverage. See, there's been some kind of disaster... and she's not safe, not at all, and guess what? No one is coming to save her. Everyone is hermetically sealed inside, looking at her with wide eyes, and terror. The most prosaic, non-panicking, non-self deluding heroine EVER, Madeleine extracts herself from where she is, steps over the bodies (!!!) and gets a move on -- saving the collapse into hysterical tears - and any other feelings, all the way through the book - until it's safe(ish).

I love how Madeleine ...sees the world. She's an outsider, an observer, and she peeps out from behind a mask. A sketchbook in hand keeps the world at bay. She can kind of categorize people into Blonde Girl, Red-Haired Guy, Science Guy... it's as much a surprise to her as us when Science Guy turns into someone more real. I also love how Madeleine loves -- she takes her friends and makes them family; she takes her cousin, whose fame allows other people to create their version of him, and loves the him she knew as a child - who is still the same person, despite wardrobe and makeup changes. I wanted to hug them all as they fought and huddled in fear and had their hearts broken as those they loved were taken away from them.

There's a lot of love in this book - a lot of fierce, hold-hands-and-jump sort of stuff that happens when everyone's lives are on the line. Parents are far, far away... :sigh: But, I'm approaching spoilers. This was such an all-round satisfying book! Just, go. Read.

Recommended for Fans Of... : THE HUNGER GAMES, by Suzanne Collins, POD, by Stephen Wallenfels, ROT AND RUIN, etc., by Jonathan Maberry, Alien Invasion & Other Inconveniences, by Brian Yanksy.

Cover Chatter: I don't normally pay any mind to ebook covers, but this one is STRIKING.

For a person who doesn't like face-covers, for me to unreservedly like this one says a lot. For one thing, the girl's face is flawed. I don't just mean that you can see some of the galaxy under her eye, but I mean that her hair is completely out-of-control curly; it borders on full-on frizz. She hasn't over-plucked - or at least salon-plucked - her brows, and she has moles. Her face is not perfectly symmetrical. If you have to use a face on a novel cover, I think imperfect (yeah, okay, she looks perfect in that they Photoshopped pore-free skin on her, but...) faces work best. She looks real. She also looks unsure - maybe frightened. Maybe hiding everything behind a blank stare. This model matches well with the main character - she appears self-possessed, but there are Things Going On behind those eyes. I have a lot of appreciation for cover models who don't look utterly vapid.

Authorial Asides: I always find myself curious about authors who self-publish. Until I read a blog post by Sherwood Smith about her, I hadn't even heard of her - but from her novel I knew she was Australian - her sense of setting is spot-on and the casual dialogue and attitudes of her characters match my Australian friends well. On her blog she says, "I am an Australian author. I write what I like to read: stories about worlds where magic is real, women aren't relegated to the background, and expectations are twisted slightly out of skew." I like that.

FTC: Source: NetGalley ebook, courtesy of the author. Unsolicited review.

You can find AND ALL THE STARS by Andrea K. Hösth (pronounced, and for simplicity, spelled Höst) at Smashwords, or at an online bookstore near you!

December 03, 2012

Monday Review: FROI OF THE EXILES by Melina Marchetta

Reader Gut Reaction: I love this series, and it is absolutely killing me that some people have gotten to read Book 3 already (luckily, there's a companion short story available now--which I plan to devour). Froi of the Exiles is the second book, the sequel to Finnikin of the Rock (reviewed here), and it continues the story of the formerly-cursed land of Lumatere in a most interesting fashion. In this volume, we learn more about Froi, the young man who Finnikin and Isaboe brought back with them from a life on the streets in Sarnak. Froi can't remember who he is or anything about his life before he ended up in Sarnak, but he's devoted to the Queen Isaboe and her consort Finnikin, so when they send him on a secret mission to assassinate the King of neighboring Charyn, he agrees and sets off, in disguise as a Charynite noble. The only thing he's not counting on is being inexplicably drawn to the Princess Quintana…a princess everyone agrees is not quite sane…

Concerning Character: I can't go into too much detail lest I give away spoilers, but I was just as drawn in by Froi's tale as I was by Finnikin's in the first book. It takes longer to get to know Froi—things were a little slower in the beginning—but if you like a highly developed fantasy with complex characters you can truly believe might exist, then this is an amazing series. I am in awe of Melina Marchetta's ability to create a cast of characters that all ring true, that all have their own issues and motivations and hangups and dreams. Even the side characters are fleshed out, entirely convincing. And don't worry, we don't just follow Froi on his adventure; we also get to read about the continuing saga in Lumatere as well as the fate of some rather misunderstood refugees at the border of Charyn. ALL of it riveting, in my opinion.

Recommended for Fans Of...: Thoroughly developed, fully realized fantasy worlds like those in the books of Tamora Pierce, Terry Pratchett, D.M. Cornish, and any number of traditional grown-up fantasy authors.

Themes & Things: I'm a big fan of how classically EPIC these books are—epic in the sense of sweeping epic fantasy that fully immerses you in a detailed world, but also in the sense of dealing with classic story themes that you'll find in fairy tales—those dark, tangled versions, not the happy-sappy ones. The princess who needs rescuing, but not in the way you'd think…The suitor who isn't what he seems…The overarching journey/quest to find out who you are, and then the answer isn't what you thought it was going to be. The effects of trauma and abuse, of oppression both individual and on a widespread scale; the meaning of love, of loyalty, and of family; of nature versus nurture; of healing and discovering your inner strength and drawing on it, no matter how difficult the challenge may be.

Review Copy Source: Library.

You can find Froi of the Exiles by Melina Marchetta online, or at an independent bookstore near you!