November 28, 2013

Happy Turkey Day! Reviews in Brief, Part II

Did you read my explanation of Reviews in Brief? No? Go check out Monday's post! More information about my neurotic thought process than you could ever want!

Are you back? OK. Some more reviews. And, I daresay, maybe these will help some of you with your holiday book shopping? Yes? No? If not, don't tell me. Let me live in my illusory happy-land. *Waves tiny drink umbrella at you from my cabana next to the swimming pool* More review catch-up to come next week. I'm getting there. Slowly but surely. Happy Thanksgiving!

For Darkness Shows the Stars by Diana Peterfreund. I'll keep this short, because Tanita already reviewed this one for last year's Cybils much more ably and knowledgeably than I—the Austen heathen who has only ever read Pride & Prejudice in graphic novel format and whose other Austen experience is limited to movies (but how much do I love the BBC thing with Colin Firth?? SO MUCH). Anyway, that meant I had very little urge to make direct comparisons between this book and its inspiration, Persuasion, other than on the most general level of the story being "Austenesque." To make this short: Sci-fi. Love it. Luddites vs. Those Who Want to Recoup Tech: Love it. (And writing it. Soon. Next, in fact.) Prickly heroine and equally prickly hero: Fun. Love it. Class and genetic warfare: Yes, even more sci-fi love. Post-apocalyptic stuff: Yes, yes, I love that, too. I enjoyed the whole book much more than I thought I might.
Review copy source: Library ebook | Buy from Indiebound

Days of Blood and Starlight by Laini Taylor. This is the sequel to Daughter of Smoke and Bone, which I enjoyed for its artistic, quirky heroine as well as its truly unusual take on the whole battle of good-vs.-evil, angel-vs.-demon scenario. I don't normally gravitate towards angel/demon fiction, but the way it's done here, it's much more complex than the usual reiterations of Biblical-type winged seraphim and whatnot, which you'll know if you read the first one. In this second volume, we have Karou, former apprentice to the missing, presumed-dead monster resurrectionist, feeling betrayed by the one she thought she loved and assuming their youthful dream of peace between the opposing sides is hopeless and gone forever. Can hope be rebuilt? How much can love and forgiveness be tested? I don't want to give any spoilers away, but it's an excellent sequel if you enjoyed the first one—I actually think I might have liked it even more.
Review copy source: Library ebook | Buy from Indiebound

Spirit and Dust, by Rosemary Clement-Moore. This one's also been reviewed by Tanita—go check out her detailed writeup for more info. As always, though, I adored this one, and I loved reading another book in the same general universe as Texas Gothic, with some overlapping characters. This time we're following Daisy Goodnight, equally immersed in the supernatural, but a totally different personality than her cousin Amy in Texas Gothic. Fun with ghosts, magic, witches, suspense, a Hot Guy, and plenty of hilarity, which is something the author does really, really well.
Review copy source: Library | Buy from Indiebound

City of a Thousand Dolls by Miriam Forster. I really liked the premise/setting of this one. If you've ever visited the Forbidden City in Beijing, it's kind of like that—in the City of Thousand Dolls, the abandoned orphan girls of the empire are raised to be productive citizens: healers, wives, courtesans, musicians, depending on which House they are apprenticed to. It's even said that there's a House of Assassins…which sets the plot in motion. One of the girls in the City has been murdered. Whodunit, and why? Sixteen-year-old Nisha, assistant to the Matron of the City, is determined to find out, but as the mysterious crimes continue, she herself is in danger, too. Oh, and she can talk telepathically to cats. (I had trouble with that at first. It seemed to come out of nowhere, and I have to admit I had a moment where I thought, oh, no, but it turns out to be not only important to the plot, but leads to a much more interesting twist than I could have envisioned.)
Review copy source: Library | Buy from Indiebound

November 27, 2013


Skyway Drive 117

Whether they're in the pot, or running through your neighborhood, we hope the turkeys this Turkey Day find you well. Be safe, stay warm, and enjoy your loved ones! Back to your regularly unscheduled nonsense shortly!

November 25, 2013

I'm Back—and Catching Up Once and for All

By "once and for all," that probably means "for the time being," if I'm truly honest with myself. But still: my goal with today's post is to carry over that amazing sense of completion that I'm still riding high on after YES! TURNING IN MY REWRITE! I would so love to enter the holidays and the new year with at least the illusion that I'm on top of things, instead of the feeling that I'm scrambling just to get through the day-to-day stuff. That's a bad feeling. That is a feeling that gives me hives if I don't address it for months on end, which has happened before. So. To that end—and with my ghost story put to bed for the time being—I present you with some Reviews in Brief.

Why in brief? Simple: I need to start fresh. I need, actually, to completely rethink the way I write about books (this is not going to come as a surprise to those of you who have read my previous posts on burnout). Part of that moving forward, for me, includes meeting a totally self-imposed responsibility of at least mentioning the books that were noteworthy for me over the past few months that I've been unable to review regularly. Going forward—I'm not sure yet, but I'll be figuring it out very shortly. Anyway, some Reviews in Brief. (As opposed to Reviews in Boxers…just kidding.) Part II to come on Turkey Day for your comatose reading pleasure.

The 5th Wave, by Rick Yancey. Really riveting page-turner about alien invasion. Highly, highly recommended, couldn't put it down, yadda yadda. If you like post-apocalyptic sci-fi, it's a great addition to the genre. Lots of twists I couldn't predict (which I love), and best of all, it's only book one! Yay! I tend to have mixed feelings about alien invasion plots, because so many rely on overused tropes that I don't find all that compelling in the first place, but Yancey has come up with a fascinating twist on the invasion scenario itself (not to mention how the characters have to cope), and you'll keep reading just to find out what Waves 1 through 4 were (which is part of the whole mystery). Go! Read! Now! Also, Rick Yancey, hurry up and write more!
Review copy source: Library e-book | Buy from Indiebound

Yesterday, by C.K. Kelly Martin. I've been itching to read this one, and bought it on my Kindle earlier this fall. CK is an online friend/author buddy and past Cybils finalist for I Know It's Over (reviewed here). That one was realistic fiction and this one's dystopian sci-fi—radically different genres, but in both books she shows an amazing sensitivity for character. Yesterday has a time-travel element and also one of those futuristic settings that's all-too-imaginable, and then there's the run-for-your-life suspense angle…very intriguing. It did leave me with some questions here and there of the "but wait a second" variety, but overall, an ambitious story, and I'll be looking for Book 2.
Review copy source: Purchased e-book | Buy from Indiebound

Strings Attached by Judy Blundell. Historical fiction! I was putting off this one, which I had received an ARC for ages ago, because I go through these moods where I'm totally into historical fiction, and I hadn't had one of those moods in a while. (Okay, I did, but they were completely occupied by the Bloody Jack books.) Anyway, in this one, protagonist Kit Corrigan is a 16-year-old chorus girl in 1950s New York, lied about her age to get her sketchy job, and even more sketchy, she's made what may perhaps be a devil's bargain with the mobster father of her on-again, off-again boyfriend. It's fun and suspenseful, and Kit's choices are realistically flawed, making her a relatable narrator and making the story much more than just "mobster fiction." I ended up enjoying it a lot more than I thought, and I was willing to go along for the ride even when the situations weren't as credible as they could have been.
Review copy source: Publisher ARC | Buy from Indiebound

Stained by Cheryl Rainfield. Cheryl's books fit well into that category gatekeepers tend to call the "problem novel"—but that does not, by any means, indicate that they are teachy or preachy or didactic in any way. You FEEL for her characters, they are sensitive and real and show so much growth and heart. Stained was an incredibly suspenseful story of kidnapping and escape on top of being a book about narrator Sarah's own internal journey of learning to love and forgive herself and extend that compassion to those people who are important to her. The love story angle, with geeky but goodhearted Nick, was as heartwarming as the kidnapping aspect was disturbing and awful. With the idea of inner beauty and strength as an overarching theme connecting everything, beginning with Sarah's port-wine stain and obsession with attractiveness and extending throughout the story, it's not only well constructed but meaningful. The author's own love and compassion for her readers is visible in the writing as well.
Review copy source: ARC from Author | Buy from Indiebound

November 22, 2013

CYBILS REVIEW: Beautiful Decay, by Sylvia Lewis

This book is a 2013 Cybils YA Speculative Fiction nominee.

I think the cover on this book attracted me initially. I love all things autumn, and, okay, if you're going to get real with it? It's all about the half-life, decay-state this time of year. It's all rot. It's pretty rot, yeah, but... decay. Decomposition. Death. Yay, Autumn! So, the cover is all gorgeous swirls of type and a tree trunk silhouette in rust, tans, siennas and brown, with tiny threads of green. It is really gorgeous, and it's really wonderful that they didn't attempt to pictorially depict the characters or the details of the book in any other spoiler-y way. Love it, way to go design team!

Admittedly, I didn't know what to think when I started this book. I thought, "Okay, I have lunch in half an hour, I'll give it a shot..." Well. Now lunch is half cold, but the book still has me. While there's some tired tropes - Mean Girl who never gets a real confrontation, a weird loose end about a grandmother, which may or may not be tied to a sequel, baffling, single-dimensional parents who aren't adequately explained, and a sort of lockstep feel in how Ellie is treated at school - no school population is ever 100% behind a certain activity or attitude, so I find Stepford students hard to buy. But -- this novel's speculative "power" was fresh and unusual, and thought this is more drama than humor, this novel reminded me it's about time to reread Hold Me Closer, Necromancer, because... well, decay, right? It's that kind of thing. An intriguing debut from Sylvia Lewis.

Concerning Character: Ellie Miller has a ...condition. It's not something that gives her much of her life. Her Dad works eighty hours a week, her mother makes sure she's out of the house unless Ellie is asleep, or separated from Ellie by a layer of latex and a spray bottle of bleach. They communicate with series of notes -- Mom writes, Ellie ignores. She's pretty sure she could pick both parents out of a lineup... maybe...

It's not any better at school. Everybody knows who she is -- Typhoid Mary. Everybody knows not to sit anywhere near her, because around Ellie, things happen. They ...fall apart. Literally, like. Dissolution. Decomposition. Decay. She has a pair of gloves that must be kept dry. Sweaty hands make accidents. She has a one-desk circumference of silence and distance her peers and classmates keep from her. Even her teachers are afraid of her.

You'd think that would mean she wouldn't be bullied. I mean, no one wants some Ebola-by-touch thing happening. But, Amber - aka Supreme Bitch-Queen From Hell - knows that Ellie is good, that she wouldn't infect someone with a flesh-eating virus just because they pissed her off. She sucks up all the insults, the hurtful nickname, the thrown food, and the tripped Goth kids, and just... endures. Her upbeat mother is sure she'll be able to live a normal life someday -- and her father is kind, but...distant and clueless and, even with his kindnesses, usually really behind the ball. Ell is sure they'd love to imagine a life without her -- or, a better life for her. Or something. But, she can't possibly figure out how that could ever, ever be...

If it weren't for computers, Ellie would have nothing and nobody -- but she has Mackenzie, a true blue buddy who cheers her up with insults and funny fan fiction when she's sad. At least Mac's not afraid...but, she would be too, if she was with Ellie in person. It's not easy to be alone in a world where everyone fears what you can do. Ellie can't see the point of her life.

Until one day, fate, in the form of a new student, sits in the desk next to hers.

Nate McPherson cannot be discouraged, disgusted, or deterred. She can't warn him, snark him, or scare him away. He keeps coming back... and Ellie has the mind-boggling experience of, for the first time in her life, finding someone who maybe might ...understand? But, Nate's got secrets of his own, secrets that bring Ellie right out of her comfort zone. Most of us would risk a lot, for a friend. If it's the first friend you've had who knows what you are, and doesn't care? Then, maybe you'd risk everything...

WARNING: Every single-celled animal wants to multiply. Knowledge is power. A grandmother can be a literary loose end. Reading while operating heavy machinery is hazardous to your health. All things must die. "Ashes to ashes" is really inaccurate; it should be dirt to dirt. Bleach is not the answer.

This book came courtesy of its publisher. You can find BEAUTIFUL DECAY by Sylvia Lewis online, or at an independent bookstore near you!

November 21, 2013

CYBILS REVIEW: Shadows, by Robin McKinley

This book is a 2013 Cybils YA Speculative Fiction nominee.

Here is a Thing that happens when I see a Robin McKinley book.

I mentally rearrange my life, clearing any necessities away so I might have uninterrupted time to read.

Then, I disappear.

Much like Charles de Lint is to another generation, for me, Robin McKinley is fantasy. And, almost every novel of hers, I have a tiny cry that the worlds she builds do not actually exist. I'm serious. I get weepy.

While this book has no real parallel, it reminds me of SUNSHINE, my utter and absolute, must-go-back-and-read-it-periodically fave McKinley book that isn't the BLUE SWORD or THE HERO AND THE CROWN. (Those have their own categories, thanks.) Yes. It is THAT GOOD. And I am writing this sentence when I am in the middle of the book, just so I can type it into my blog later. I believe, even not knowing how this is going to end, that it is going to be a must-go-back-and-read-it-periodically fave.

If you find yourself thrown off by slang you don't understand (like in FEED, for instance), you know by now to be patient with it, right? FEED was worth the bother, yes? THIS is twice worth it. If you're over love triangles? There are none in this book. There are few, if any times you feel like you're in a horror movie screaming, "No! Don't go in there!" to someone oblivious who should know better. There are no dumb characters here. Maggie is a perfectly normal girl, but she's not this year's candidate for Teen Queen 2014. She's just ...normal, and this is set in practically a parallel Western world to this one -- and then it all changes. The tension is, at first, like thinking you hear whispers in the next room. And, then, it gets louder and louder, as the tension is drawn tighter and tighter. It's such a good read.

Concerning Character: Maggie isn't normally hostile. I mean, she's not good-goody-good, in that way she was after her father died, when she was afraid that the Universe would take her mother, too. No, she's gotten over that. She's not super-good, but she's not super bad, either. Like her bestie, Jill, she mostly follows the rules in Newworld, including the rules about Run and Report, which is what you're supposed to do if you see silverbugs, or any of the other things that indicate a cobey, or a break in reality. Maggie fits into her society, which is a lot like our society, except for the slang, the super-saturated technology/science thing (worse than us, even) and the police who guard against break-ins from other worlds. She's not a problem child, which is why her mother can't figure out what the deal is with Maggie and the new stepfather. Granted, the whole "wicked step" thing is pretty well known, but he's just some totally dead battery from Oldworld, where they still use magic. Yeah, he has a thick Oldworld accent and hairy arms, and really questionable dress sense, and sure, all of these things could make her go "Eeew," but -- not turn her into a hostile, flinching, then running, screaming sobbing mess. Maggie just doesn't freak out that easily...

As it turns out, stepdad Val has something worse going on with him than just wearing plaid socks with sandals and his Oldworld mangling of the new slang. He has shadows that clump around him, dripping and scuttling, creeping and sliding and making him look like forty people instead of one. What's the deal with him? And, what the heck does it mean that Maggie can SEE this??

Newworld doesn't use magic. There's no such thing. It's been genetically ...hacked out of people's gene sequences. Or, it's supposed to have been... but right now, it seems like it's coming out of the shadows... and knocking, with many hands, on the door...

WARNING: You must take what you fear, and from that, remake the world. This book has dogs in it - and their hair. And their hyperactivity. And their lawn-bombs. Prepare to deal.While we may all want to, we cannot live in a Robin McKinley book. Do not read while operating heavy machinery. Warranty void across state lines. Your mileage may vary. You don't really want a sheep dog, unless you want to be herded. Gruaa are a many-legged tribute to Makkuro kurosuke in My Neighbor Totoro and Spirited Away, which is just one more reason you'll not want this book to end. There is more than one way to fall in love with Algebra. Beware of interesting times.

I found my copy at the library (but I'm gonna have to go to a bookstore). You can find your copy of SHADOWS by the amazing Robin McKinley online, or at an independent bookstore near you!

November 19, 2013

Cover Reveal: The last book from Dame Diana - Will you be reading?

Finished by her sister, Ursula Jones, and published posthumously by her loving editor, this is the last book in the pipeline from Dame DWJ. Via the DWJ tumblr, here are the US and UK covers.

I admit that posthumous publishing always does my head in. I'm not sure if I think it's a scam or a brilliant invention. How would I feel about all of the unpublished and unfinished stories on my hard drive being brought into the public eye? All those jotted notes on drifts of paper, cobbled together to make something... that maybe I didn't intend. What about you? Does this feel like a ... bit of cobbled-together nonsense, or a final gift from a friend? Are you excited, or apprehensive? Do you think you'll read it? Is it a library borrow, or a bookstore buy? Inquiring minds are eager to find out...

TURNING PAGES: Ten Thousand Truths, by Susan White

Here's a novel from the great North - a good story to read on a rainy afternoon with a box of gingersnaps and a cup of tea.

Did you read A CHILD CALLED IT? or THEY CAGE THE ANIMALS AT NIGHT, or perhaps Torey Hayden's BEAUTIFUL CHILD? Did you, at one point, LOVE Lurlene McDaniels and read and reread RUNAWAY by Wendelin Van Draanen? If so, you had an overabundance of imagination like me. We grooved on THE LITTLE PRINCESS by Frances Hodges Burnett or THE GREAT GILLY HOPKINS, by Katherine Paterson, expecting to be orphans, and to find horror and hardship, and then, one day -- a secret garden... For some reason, there's a phase of adolescence that includes reading novels about runaways, broken homes, orphanages or foster kids, and trauma, and ... I dunno. We used to call it 80's ABC After School Special YA lit, but it's bigger than that. It's like the horse phase, I guess. Some of us just have to go through it.

Some of the books are mawkish sentiment, and they don't hold up over time. And, others of the books... are like magic.

This is one of the magical ones.

Maybe it's because I've always wanted to live on a farm. Maybe it's because I'm a sucker for a modernized Anne of Green Gables. Maybe it's because, at the heart of this novel is a truth I've discovered: that not only do we learn from our caretakers, from the superhero people who teach and heal and pick us up and put us back together, but that they can learn from us.

Poignant and vividly detailed, this novel has moments of sadness, stories of pain and grief leavened through time and chores and staring out at a glorious lake. There's an overarching theme of redemption, and the healing effect of time, listening, and, at last, hearing. A beautifully simple, silhouetted cover makes use of the clearest of evening light - a gorgeous cover, I might add. I should also include this caveat: if you pick up this novel, give yourself a couple of hours of uninterrupted time. You won't want to put it down.

Concerning Character: Rachel struggles. Her caseworker does her best, but she's run out of placements. The last place where Rachel was kicked out came with a lot of screaming and fury. She'd been careful, after getting arrested for breaking and entering, for essentially stalking a family until they left on vacation, and staying overnight in their home. She was only going to pick herself up a treat - a pack of Juicy Fruit, as a little relief from having to share her room with yet another new girl... but she got busted... and, since she was being brought home by the police at the very same moment her social worker was right there, with the new girl, away she went, her former foster mother's curses resounding in her ears. Rachel went back to the holding pattern that has been her life for the last five years, since her mother and brother were killed in an accident. Rachel is mouthy, stubborn, and very, very angry -- about everything, with everyone, all the time. It's not much of a life, and it's a little life that looks like it's going to get smaller... because her next placement is out in the BOONIES -- in the sticks. On a farm in the middle of nowhere, in the great, empty North. Walton Lake. Who'd even ever heard of that?

The place is straight out of the 1800's. Rachel's afraid they don't even have electricity and running water.

She'd run away, if she could figure out where the heck she came from...

The other kids are circus freaks - Balloon Boy is so immensely fat that she's surprised he doesn't blow away, and the twins, Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum are just unnervingly twinnish and silent. The ringmaster in this little sideshow is the nastiest, wartiest-faced old woman Rachel has ever seen, and she spouts facts like she's a Guinness Book of World Records. Rachel has no idea what she's doing there. She doesn't belong. She's not a freak, and there's no way anyone can make her stay. And the rules are STUPID. She's required to spend an hour a day alone, at the lake? And "do your part" - what's that mean?

Before long Rachel realizes it's too complicated to just leave -- there's that whole prairie, for one thing. And, it turns out, the home isn't so bad. Nobody yells, for one thing. And, the circus freaks aren't so bad. Even Amelia, the woman she'd once called Warty is... okay - she just has a disease, it's no big deal. The food is pretty tasty, and there's tons of it. The dogs are so cute! And the lake -- the lake ...

Before long, it looks like what Rachel's come up with is - a life. A real life, and people she cares about, who care about her. She finds something bigger than her own, small world in her dreams for Amelia, and far from being threatened by echoes from the past, she's finding the courage to face them, one truth at a time.

WARNING: Becoming snappish with those who interrupt your reading may damage relationships. Not everyone should attempt to drive to British Columbia. Tissues not included in the purchase of this book. Avoid reading while operating heavy machinery. Memorizing trivia may preserve your memory, but will not save you in every social situation. When a dog gives you a stick to throw, he has given you his whole world.

I gratefully received this book courtesy of the author and her publicist, in return for one Canadian penny's worth of thought. You can find TEN THOUSAND TRUTHS by Susan White online, or at an independent bookstore near you!

November 18, 2013

Toon MONDAY: Revision Extravaganza

Listen: my deadline is Monday the 25th. Therefore, I have been blogging less than usual. I have been completely submerged under this rewrite. But I do owe you a cartoon or two, and therefore I've rounded up a handful of toons all about the revision process. (Evidently this has preoccupied me on more than one occasion...) So, here you go, and I'll be back with original thoughts on or around next Monday!

November 13, 2013

Interview with Sarah Beth Durst, Author of CONJURED, VESSEL, and More!

When we selected Sarah Beth Durst's CONJURED as our first candidate for Reading In Tandem, AF and I had no way of knowing that we'd be so full of questions by the time the story ended! We both genuinely admired Durst's ability to both keep us in bewildered suspense and keep us with the character, completely in-step despite ourselves. We both admired the way that this novel is both clear-cut police procedural AND red-herring thriller, both romantic AND speculative. CONJURED, to us, is one of Sarah Beth's best, and so we are delighted to have her to come along and chitchat with us today.

If you'd like to catch her book giveaway at Cynsations, and read a little more about her take on balancing light and dark in a tension-filled mystery, please, hop on over to Cyn's place. Meanwhile, welcome, Sarah Beth!

Finding Wonderland: Can you tell us where Eve's story first began, in your mind, as you wrote Conjured? How did her story change (if at all) during the writing process?

Sarah Beth Durst: Eve was supposed to be a minor character in a gritty urban fantasy novel about federal marshals in the paranormal witness protection program. She was supposed to be their first witness, an example of one of their cases. But as I began to develop her case, I couldn't stop thinking about her, this girl with zero memories and tons of bizarre powers... As soon as she made the painted birds in her wallpaper detach from the wall and fly around the room, I was hooked. I ditched everything I'd written so far and started an entirely different kind of book, more of a psychological thriller fall-down-the-rabbit-hole kind of story. I think of CONJURED as the book that crept up on me.

FW: Love that idea, that it crept up on you. It kind of crept up on AF and me, too! What was the most difficult aspect of writing this book? Did you find it tough to write a character who knows so little about the fundamental fact of who she is?

Sarah: Writing this book felt kind of like jumping out of an airplane. Except instead of breaking a ton of bones, I broke a ton of writing rules. For example, Eve is a true blank slate character. She doesn't just have no memories; she also has no identity. So instead of the reader discovering who the character is, the reader comes along with Eve as she creates who she is. I found that I had to write and edit this novel chronologically because Eve's ability to think and feel develops along with the plot. I really wanted the reader to feel the same sense of claustrophobic chaos that Eve experiences.

FW: Tanita and I really enjoyed the thematic depth of this book--you don't shy away from ideas such as the shifting meaning of good and evil, or the nature of friendship. As the author, what theme ended up being the most resonant or most important for you personally?

Sarah: For me, the most important one is: be the true you. You choose who you are. You define yourself. No one else has that right. And you can be more than what others think or say you are.

FW: True. Love that. So, this novel is a LOVE STORY - all the blurting and unexpected emotions and confusion. We love love stories! What's your favorite part of the relationship between Zach and Eve?

Sarah: I loved writing the Zach and Eve scenes. Especially Zach's dialogue. He's a babbler. He also is a perfect fit for Eve -- he only tells the truth, and everything about her is a lie. Even though they seem so different, they need each other.

FW: Right. And, this is also a novel that is a COP NOVEL - all the gritty, serious-eyed drama of a police procedural, like CSI. We love cop novels, too - and you wrote about specialized law enforcement. Were there issues (copyright or otherwise) writing about WitSec, which is a real thing? How did you find your information about them? Do you have an "in" with the U.S. Marshals?

Sarah: I adore doing research! I think the more real details you can put in a story, the more believable the fantasy will feel. Plus I'm fascinated by the intersection of fantasy and reality. I love the idea that the magical can be just around the corner from the mundane and the impossible can be hiding beneath a thin veneer of possible.

For this book, I did do a fair amount of research into WitSec. My favorite research book was WitSec: Inside the Federal Witness Protection Program by Pete Earley. But the people and the office in Conjured are completely fictional. Kind of wish Malcolm wasn't fictional, though...

FW: HAH! Not gonna lie, I wish Malcolm was real, too. When's the last time a middle-aged African American man was that interesting and engaging in a YA novel!? He was a lot of fun.
Okay, so this novel is also a MYSTERY - at least AF and I count it as such - and we love mysteries. What was the hardest part about keeping the secret from the readers? When did you know that this was how it was all going to end - from the beginning, or did the conclusion sneak up on you, too? Are you a "pantser" or a "plotter," (to use the writing groupie vernacular)?

Sarah: I'm a plotter. So I knew how I wanted the story to end before I started. But I didn't know exactly how it was going to get there. My process is to start with an outline -- really, just a vague bulleted list of events that often includes "something cool happens next" -- and then write a first draft. Then I toss the outline and write a new outline based on what worked and what didn't in that draft, and write the story again. Rinse, lather, repeat until it feels right.

Hardest part in keeping a secret is that by draft fifteen, the secret feels like the most obvious thing in the entire world. You have to trick yourself into reading it with fresh eyes. Sometimes I blast music while I edit to distract the part of my brain that wants to skip ahead.

FW: HAH! "Something cool happens next." That's about my skill level in outlining, only, sadly, I don't always know what that cool thing is... At its heart, this novel is also a FANTASY - and AF and I both really love the air of the fantastic in this novel. You talk about this book as having been part of a nightmare you had... and, now none of us want to be in your head while you're asleep, so well done, there. But, seriously, this was a dream? How much of your original opening - nightmare framework - ended up in the finished book?

Sarah: I love dreams. As often as I can, I try to lie still when I first wake up in the morning and remember whatever I dreamed about. Sadly, often my dreams center around forgetting to pack for a trip until the last minute and then missing my plane, or taking a plane instead of a train, or trying to drive a car without any wheels. Or else they involve lots and lots of spiders. But sometimes I can have really wonderful nightmares with creepy mist and rundown carnivals and aliens shaped like Gonzo... Some of those dreams ended up directly in Conjured. Okay, not the Gonzo alien dream, though that was one of my most common nightmares when I was a kid. It featured robot Gonzos that shot M&Ms out of their noses, but the M&Ms were robotic bugs that would burrow into people's foreheads and kill them, leaving only the M&M symbol behind... Again, not in the book. But several of the carnival scenes were either drawn from dreams or showed up in my dreams after I wrote them.

FW: *Note to self: Stay out of Sarah Beth's dreams...*
Seriously, this book has major crossover capabilities, in that we come to care just as much about the adult characters as we do the young adult characters. Is writing for adults within your plans, or are you going to stick with just writing, and let whomever read whatever?

Sarah: Starting next year, I am going to be doing two books a year: one for teens and one for adults. But I am happy for whomever to read whatever. I love that so many adults (including myself) are reading YA these days, and I know that I read tons of novels marked for adults when I was a teen. I think you should read whatever speaks to you, regardless of your age or the book's intended audience. For me, my first love is fantasy. So long as the book has a sense of wonder to it, I will happily read it regardless of where it sits in the bookstore.

FW: WOW. Yay, you, for just writing along! And, your fans THANK YOU for sticking with fantasy, you really do it justice. So, what do you most want readers to take away from this story?

Sarah: I want readers to feel like they've just been on a roller coaster ride, maybe even in the dark and mostly upside down, and to feel like they've been delivered safely home again, filled with memories of the ride.

FW: Are you planning to write more books in this setting, either sequels or just related books? What are you working on next?

Sarah: I'm working on two projects right now. My next novel, THE LOST, will be coming out from Harlequin/Mira in June 2014. It's my first novel for adults and the first in a trilogy. My next YA novel, MIND OVER MAGIC, will be coming out from Bloomsbury/Walker in fall 2014. I'm really excited about both!

FW: NOVELS FOR ADULTS! Wow, we're totally excited with you. Sarah Beth, it's been a pleasure to read your books over the years, and it's been awesome to have you by to chat. Thanks for being one of our fave authors, and a good interviewee. We wish you all the best.

Sarah: Thanks so much for interviewing me!

Hey, reader! Thanks for dropping by, and don't forget to pick up a copy of CONJURED by Sarah Beth Durst, available online, or at an indie bookseller near you.

November 12, 2013


This book is a 2013 Cybils YA Speculative Fiction nominee.

It feels horribly ironic to be writing this review as the aftermath of Typhoon Haiyan reverberates. So, here's my PSA: Post-apocalyptic fiction is no fun at all, when it's not fictional. There are places to support the survivors in South and East Asia: Oxfam International, The Red Cross, and disaster relief groups such as The World Food Programme. All of these are international organizations who can stay mobile and follow the path of the devastation. Thanks for reading.

First came the storms.
Then came the Fever.
And the Wall.

This was a tough book to like, but an easy book to love. I don't like books about disease; I'll just put that out there. They are, to me, TERRIFYING. I had nightmares about this. Considering what happened with Hurricane Katrina in truth, this book has an edge of veracity that makes me deeply, deeply uncomfortable. Why wouldn't we abandon this poor, minority part of the world, again, like we did before? What's stopping us, when we had no shame the first time? Again: nightmares, and I HATED them for making me revisit the ignorance and darkness and death of Katrina. But, what I loved is the book itself. It is darkly atmospheric, and written with an urgency and tautness that drives the narrative. It is so horrifically descriptive that I could imagine being there, breathing the stenches and roiling heat, fly-blown, terrified, and miserable. There was just -- eerie noise and awful smells, and death and bloodshed and memorable, amazing, gobsmacking, terrifying characters.

It was Orleans - no longer so new, or shiny, but just a place to survive.

Concerning Character: Fen de la Guerre - whose name is so amazingly prescient it kind of kills me; fin de la guerre, anyone? End of the war? - has lived in the trenches for what seems like all of her life. She remembers only flashes of what things were like before - before the endless hurricanes, that flooded and devastated the South, before the Delta Fever that sucked the life out of what was the city of New Orleans; before the government - and the Army Corps of Engineers - and the world - gave up on them and withdrew to the Outer States and left them to die.

Life has a way of continuing, even in the most primitive and dire of circumstances. The South still survives, with open-air markets, food, hidden camps, and -- a tribal way of life. Oddly, race is no longer really a huge deal in Orleans - everything is divided by blood type, and who can survive the blood-borne virus called Delta Fever. Stripped to the basics, the world turns around trade and survival... and war, for there are some who hunt and farm the Universal Donors for their blood...

Tribe is life, in Fen's world. Her parents are gone, her world is gone, but through her Tribe, she survives. The OP - O-Positive blood type - tribe Fen lives with is almost like family, if family is fierce and serious and constantly watchful and working, and not big on displays of affection or rest. They're organized, and well-led, but danger is everywhere. It strikes without warning - and without mercy, leaving Fen homeless and in charge of a newborn infant. Her promise to the last member of her tribe, to get the baby out and over the Wall, so that she will have a chance at a new and better life is now the only thing that matters...

When she meets Daniel, an outsider, a blind idealist, and a scientist from the Outer States who has managed to creep over the wall, Fen is both curious and disgusted. He's an idiot - unprepared - and maybe going to get them both killed. But, he also might represent a way out...

We say "edgy" and "dark" a great deal about post-apocalyptic fiction. These words are actually true of this novel. There is no young love, to lighten the narrative (and make you deeply irritated with the main character as she goes off into la-la land at inopportune times). There is nothing about appearance - Fen is vain about her braids, only because her best friend braided them, and all she has left is the memory - but she keeps the memory, and sells the hair, because she has to... there is nothing uplifting nor romantic about dirt and disease and death. There is endless struggle, filth, blood, injury, wild animals, vicious, cannibalistic murderers, and the constant specter of violence. It's drama around every turn, and it's scary and tough and brutal - and worth reading, because it's about the WILL. TO. SURVIVE. And doing whatever it takes. This is a book about hope in not just the dark, but in hell. I hope it makes readers rethink themselves, and promise themselves to be survivors, no matter what.

WARNING: This book may have you swatting mosquitoes which are not there. Do not read while operating heavy machinery. No matter what that twitching is in your eye, you do not have Delta Fever. Learning your blood type in biology was just the beginning. Nobody can "bust" anyone back to the Stone Age. Newborns really don't do anything but eat, sleep, and poop. You are not hardcore enough to be named "end of the war." Survival cannot be overrated.

This is also my entry for A MORE DIVERSE UNIVERSE. Check out Aarti's Mr. Linky to see more diverse speculative fiction choice for this weekend.

I found my copy at the library. You can find ORLEANS by Sherri L. Smith online, or at an independent bookstore near you!

November 11, 2013

KidLitCon '13 Recap, Part I: The Part with the Pictures

There may only be a Part I, actually. I should probably self-flagellate back into my Work Cave of Exile for the next 2 weeks, and in fact, it's possible you may only see me briefly after this until Nov. 25, the Deadline Date of Doom. (Yes, I like giving things dramatic titles.) However, I did want to post some pictures from KidLitCon Austin this weekend while I'm still riding high on the fabulousness of having gotten together with my blogging kindred spirits to compare notes on two of our favorite things: kidlit, and sharing kidlit.

Jen and Pam at the registration table
You are all the most lovely people. We have such an amazing community, I can't believe it sometimes, but Kidlitcon always reminds me how incredible it is.

"Kindred spirits" is the two-word phrase Leila used when I asked my roundtable panel to describe what they felt was the greatest thing about the kidlitosphere. And I couldn't agree more. It's one of my favorite parts of the Kidlitcon experience. This year was no exception: sharing SFF opinions (and cringeworthy first lines) with roomie Charlotte, getting caught up with Lee Wind on his many wonderful projects (and his gorgeous family), meeting Paula of Pink Me's book-toting sons, renewing good friendships with regulars like Pam and Jen and Maureen and Melissa and Sheila and Kelly and Camille and Katy, finally meeting old blogging friends Chris Barton and Leila Roy and finding out that kindred spirits are everywhere. Oh, there's more, much more. Great conversations abounded. I met Jennifer Donovan of 5 Minutes for Books, Kelly's blog partner Kimberly Francisco over at Stacked, Sherry Early of Semicolon, Rosemond Cates of Big Hair and Books, authors Margo Rabb and PJ Hoover, serious blogging bigwig and all-around amazing person Jen Bigheart, Guys Lit Wire frequent commenter Liviania--aka Allie--of In Bed With Books.

Cynthia enlightens us on writing and blogging--a perfect start to the day
Really, that isn't even all of it. Did you know many a kidlit blogger is addicted to Candy Crush Saga? I seriously cannot start on that. I had a major Tetris addiction growing up, and have loved games like Mean Bean Machine and Jewelbox and Columns and whatnot. I'd lose weeks of my life.

Cynthia Leitich Smith is a GEM. We all knew that. But her keynote, "Blogging on the Brain," was not just a throwaway inspirational speech but full of heart and full of fantastic tips for all of us bloggers from someone who is an inveterate blogger herself, devoted to sharing information. I especially liked these:
  • Re: her own writing: "It was time to change perceptions or I couldn't write many of the stories I wanted to write."
  • Re: building a successful blogging platform: "We associate consistency with credibility," and "You can build an audience by playing to your strengths." 
  • Re: the potential dangers of engaging with critics online: "Blogs are a battlefield, so pick your battles and pick them wisely." 
Kimberly and Kelly of Stacked discuss the importance of critical reviewing
Jen and I presented on Fighting Blog Burnout, and hopefully sharing our stories and strategies was something others could relate to and benefit from. I moderated a panel on where we've been and where we're going, us folks in the kidlitosphere community. I learned about Soft Sell Marketing from Molly Blaisdell, who knew just how to pique my interest by using Malcolm Gladwell's The Tipping Point as a point of departure. And I broadened my knowledge of Critical Reviewing and Middle Grade Books.

Blogging the Middle Grade Books with Katy, Charlotte, and Melissa
And, of course, I came out of it feeling energized about blogging again, which is always one of the great benefits of attending. I feel like one of my big goals for after my rewrite is turned in will be to spend time thinking about my own blogging and what I want to do going forward, and to get my blog READING under control, too--getting back into it a little more, even if it's just in small ways.

Lastly, not to get overly sentimental here--because the curmudgeon in me hates that--but I got a little teary last night when I got home, thinking about how I have all these wonderful online friends and yet we live so far away from each other geographically speaking. At the same time, without our blogging we would never have met at all, would never have found this community of kindred spirits.

November 04, 2013

It's Almost Here!

KidLitCon '13, that is. I'm all a-bustle this week getting ready for the 7th (can you believe it?) annual Kidlitosphere Conference taking place in Austin, Texas this weekend. Tanita and I have been part of the organizing committee this year, helping from afar. And it's promising to be a fun time: a Friday afternoon pre-conference where local kidlit folks and attendees can mix and mingle and swap books; an evening kidlit dinner and drink night; keynote speaker Cynthia Leitich Smith on Saturday morning, and a day full of amazing breakout sessions that cater to kidlit bloggers and blogging authors/illustrators.

It is literally one of the most enjoyable conferences I've ever been to. There's nothing like meeting someone in person for the first time after "knowing" them for years online and realizing you really ARE kindred spirits in your unholy ravenous appetite for children's and YA books. If you're local to the Austin area, I highly, highly recommend it, and you can still register. The pre-con mixer on Friday afternoon is free, but the conference itself is only $65 including lunch, so it's a bargain and there's no excuse not to go. At huge conferences, I always feel like a freaked-out, people-phobic, neurotic lurker in a corner, trying to shove my bookmarks at people before I run away in mortification. At Kidlitcon, I actually connect with people.

Evangelizing aside, this year's prep has been quite a bit of work! Jen Robinson and I will be doing a breakout session on Fighting Blogger Burnout (which stemmed in part from the conversation we had in the comments of a post I did earlier this year), and I'll be moderating a panel discussion on Kidlit Blogging's Past, Present, and Future, which is another (somewhat related) topic that I've been pondering. Given the proliferation of blogs and other types of social media, and blogs that do different types of things like giveaways and contests versus those that do reviews, etc., how has the kidlitosphere changed, and where are we headed? Is blogging still relevant? These questions keep me up at night, because they are connected with that feeling of burnout--wondering whether it's worthwhile to keep doing what I'm doing. So I'm excited to get to throw the conversation out to a real, live, in-person crowd of bloggers, and also get some heavyweights to weigh in: my panelists are Lee Wind, Leila Roy, Jen Bigheart, and Sheila Ruth, people from various corners of the blogging universe with a collective crap-ton of experience.

My job is just to ask the hard questions. :) Hope to see you there!

November 01, 2013


Gather round, children, gather round, with sugar skulls clutched in your wee sticky hands. 'Tis El Dia de los Muertos and have I got a suitably wintry, suitably creepy, suitably grrrl power tale for you! Based ever so loosely on the tale of Persephone and Hades, this is an absolutely atmospheric, fable-feeling piece of epic fantasy with a lovely old world feel from Russian-Armenian author Vera Nazarian, who is a two-time Nebula award finalist. Technically, this isn't marketed as a YA novel, which is too, too bad, because it would have been easily eligible for a Cybils nomination this year. Ah, well, never mind. It's enough that you know that it exists, and that you GO OUT AND FIND IT NOW. Go. I'll wait...

*** *** *** *** ***
"Bring to me my Cobweb Bride. Bring her to the gates of Death's Keep that stands in the Northern Forest. Only then will I grant relief and resume taking your kind unto me. Until then, none shall die.

Concerning Character: The main character in this novel, at least at first, is ...well, Death, and the three kingdoms of the Imperial Realm, one of which is the southern kingdom of Lethe. Our tale begins with the Queen Mother of Lethe - on her deathbed, surrounded by her son, the Prince, and his bride. She, after a visit from a faceless and nearly bodiless presence, demanding his bride, is suddenly both still dying, and no longer dying. The world has just hit Pause.

At the same moment, far to the north, a grisly battlefield becomes a hideous farce, as soldiers of the Duke of Chidir, armed with pikes and swords hack and bludgeon at the soldiers of the ancient enemy, the Duke of Goraque, removing limbs and heads... unceasingly. Yet, no one falls, and the battle, which was stupid to begin with, becomes a nightmare of horror and stupidity. Meanwhile and all at once, in a tiny peasant cottage in the northern village of Oarclaven, in the Dukedom of Goraque, Percy's beloved grandmother lies dying... and dying. Sixteen-year-old Percy has never been her mother's favorite daughter - and the tension the household is under makes sharp words even sharper. Percy, seeing a bodiless ...presence standing in the corner, says so, and that makes everything worse. Gran's last breath goes on, and on, and on...

Suffice it to say, everything is horrible. And it spreads - the butcher cannot kill the pig he set out to, because it, too, will not die... and, to his twelve-year-old daughter, Jenna's horror, he keeps trying. And then, far to the South, in the Silver Court, there's been a murder in the Emperor's palace... only, the victim has pulled out the dagger and stood up...

SOMEONE has to do SOMETHING to right the world -- someone must bring back Death's bride, and in turn, death. But, who? The clumsy, cloddish Percy, whose own mother wishes she hadn't been born? The runny-nosed, klutzy Jenna, who is only good for helping her father with the butchering - which isn't even a job anymore? The obedient son of the Duke of Chidir, who has sworn to be his father's man, despite the fact that his father, the Duke, has... changed? And where is this Keep of Death's? And who is the Cobweb Bride? Someone has to set things right - and fast, or everyone will starve to... a horrible, endless life. So, together with the hapless maidens of the kingdom, Percy sets out... and the whole world stands in her way...

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

This absolutely riveting novel reminds me of Keturah and Lord Death, by Martine Leavitt, Emily Whitman's Radiant Darkness and less so Meg Cabot's Abandon - but none of these novels has quite the satisfying old-world European/epic fantasy feel. I like the starlight on the cover - and the dreamy, sort of neo-Classical damsel as well - who we assume must be Death's Bride? The whole thing is mysterious and otherworldly, a kind of immediately immersing world where you're not even sure what you should hope for, but you're just glad to be along for the ride. The writing is clear and lyrical and lovely. I can't wait to read the sequel - the recently released COBWEB EMPIRE. I believe it's a trilogy.

WARNING: Sugar skulls will leave your hands dyed and sticky. Gravestones are not meant to be sat upon. Do not run with lit candles. Or scissors. This novel will make you LONG for Death. Life without Death is like zombies with no brain appetite, thus no real purpose but to annoy and putrefy. Do not read while operating heavy machinery. Not every girl in epic fiction must be a damsel in distress, neither beautiful, willowy, fresh-faced, nor blonde. Reading while eating in bed will leave crumbs.

You can find THE COBWEB BRIDE by Vera Nazarian online, or at an independent bookstore near you!