February 28, 2013

What's In My TBR Pile?

Since I didn't yet manage to finish the book I wanted to review today, I've instead decided to devote this space to a booklist, since I don't do very many of those. And today's booklist theme is What's in Sarah's TBR Pile Right Now? Call it a random sampling of stuff I want to read in the coming months/year. Not counted in the list: stuff I'm in the middle of reading. And yes, some of you will no doubt see books you've sent and/or lent and think, Jeez, you haven't read it yet?? The answer is clearly no...
  • Seraphina by Rachel Hartman (Cybils SFF Teen winner; found at library) 
  • Paper Valentines by Brenna Yovanoff (a random fantasy find from the library) 
  • Gadget Girl by Suzanne Kamata (multicultural YA w/biracial protag) 
  • Bad Girls by Jane Yolen et al. (nonfiction graphic novel profiling infamous ladies of history) 
  • Under Shifting Glass by Nicky Singer (YA randomly sent to me by Chronicle) 
  • The Golden Shore by David Helvarg (history of California's coastline lent to me by Colleen) 
  • You Are Free by Danzy Senna (literary short stories by biracial author) 
  • The Unnaturalists by Tiffany Trent (has a super awesome steampunk cover) 
  • Just My Type: A Book About Fonts by Simon Garfield (Xmas present from Mom) 
  • Red Handed: The Fine Art of Strange Crimes by Matt Kindt (graphic novel I forgot I requested from First Second and which showed up in the mail to my delight) 
  • Pirate Cinema by Cory Doctorow (ebook I got as part of Humble Bundle) 
  • Magic for Beginners by Kelly Link (ditto) 
There are also a handful more books that I'm embarrassed to admit I haven't read yet, books which have been sitting in my office for ages. And then I anticipate a few more showing up because I just today heard our county library has started doing e-book lending. Squee!

What's on YOUR TBR  pile?

February 27, 2013

Turning Pages: The Summer Prince, by Alaya Dawn Johnson

Oh, my gosh, this was a hard book to review. Maybe because I kept kind of having to shudder, because I knew what was going to happen - what had to happen. I mean, hello, title. It's clearly there. The. Summer. Prince. People who read enough mythology - both Greek and English - and soak it up through international fairy tales know the score - the minute you put a season to some royal son's name, you've doomed him to die as a sacrifice at harvest time.

What made this a good book to review? The language - the nuanced sentence structure, the realization that, though this novel is directed to the YA market, that it will cross to the new adult and adult markets with relative ease. The author doesn't water anything down - not vocabulary, not theme, not the complicated cat's cradle of desire and reaction - it's all there, real life, in all its permutations. There are no easy explanations - no definitions, no hand-holding. Further, the book defies easy categorization - it's neither dystopian nor utopian, it's just... kind of post-apocalyptic cultural continuation. It's a hopeful, disturbing, haunting, book about the things we take as survival, and what changes them - and us.

And, it's about love - power - sacrifice, and endings. It kept me up late, and gave me weird dreams, because, in the end, it's kind of a book about everything.

Reader Gut Reaction: As I said, the idea of a summer prince wasn't a happy one - that's typically an Arthurian sort of fey and faeries thing, and after Holly Black and Melissa Marr, I'm pretty happy to leave that urban fey thing along. But! I took a chance that this was by an author whose work I respect, and boy howdy am I glad. And may I just say again that I so appreciate SFF authors of color writing for younger readers? I am truly excited.

This novel also touches some on the future of sexuality - with ideas of family and gender painted on a changing canvas. The author knocks cockeyed some perceptions, and will hopefully leave readers not only longing for new dialogue on that topic in the future, but seeking ways to make it happen now.

Concerning Character: June is quicksilver. For all that she's named after a fairly benign, sweet month of sunshine and loving promises, she's a heady, impetuous fireball - chomping at the bit to live life, dance hard, play hard, and defy her mothers at every turn. Her live-wire personality is in part because of the culture in which she lives - the pyramid of Palmares Tres, build with Japanese technology after nuclear winter rendered much of the land water-covered, inhospitable, or radioactive desert. Four hundred years into this new future of what was Brazil, the country is run by red-turbaned Aunties - because was it not man's foolishness that plunged the world into war? - and as a sacrifice to the land, and to the traditions, and to the gods, perhaps, every five years a young summer king is crowned. He is chosen in the spring, despite the summery name, and it is this king who dances the season away - a god of virility, sexuality, and charisma. It is he who chooses the next queen to reign. Though he has to die, the summer king's power is the embodiment of the hope of the wakas or young people of Palmares; he embodies the strength of its grandes, too, like tenacious tropical vines, clinging to life, and rising up again, even after nearly being wiped from the face of the earth.

Youth is important in Palmares - but not in the way you might think. Their ties with the Tokyo pyramids have benefited the Palmares folk greatly - they now have tech and body mods which allow them to live for up to three hundred years. This causes a lot of shudders in the waka - who in their right mind wants to live that long? Their lengthened childhood and adolescence causes them to chafe at the restrictions the Auntie place - restrictions on technology, social and societal restrictions on what behaviors a young person can do - there aren't many ways in which to distinguish oneself in such a society. There's nothing to strive for, when some of the Aunties have been in power for fifty years or more. Every other goal is so far from their grasp... and so young men dream of being summer kings, and young girls dream of being their consorts.

It's not much, but sometimes, a little can be everything.

Palmares is a sophisticated city, in its way - the city has AI which moves elevators up and down the pyramid levels - the top is where the Aunties live, including "the Auntie of Aunties," the Queen. The bottom is where the poor workers live - people with no connections, whose tech is spotty, and who take care of the algae pits which give oxygen to the massive living structure which supports life in this place. Social strata follows the levels of the pyramid - the Aunties don't like to think about the ones who live below, who are dark - so dark-skinned, who are poor, and dress in the clothes that remind them that once in their historical past, the people of Palmares were slaves. Unbelievably, there's a summer prince from the bottom tier of Palmares Tres society in the running this year for king - a gorgeous dark boy named Enki. June, together with her very best friend, Gil, is going to help Enki win.

And Enki... well, Enki is going to change everything.

Recommended for Fans Of...: Melissa Marr's Wicked Lovely, Julie Kagawa, The Iron King, and Karen Healey's really disturbing The Shattering. We gotcher summer kings right here, yo.

Themes & Things: Oh, the themes, we have them. Parental love, when your mother might live forever, might also mean that you can still fight with her about things that happened years ago, like they happened yesterday. How does one go about remembering? Forgetting? There's an exploration of death and grieving in a society pressing for ever greater longevity - which feeds into the themes of the importance of the dreams of our youth, and what makes our growing-up years vital.

June is an artist. She expresses her art in her body - from her hair to the bodymod lights embedded in her skin. She draws, she paints, but mostly, June wants to live as art... but is addiction to the spectacle actually art? What is art in a culture trying to forget the past, and clinging to the present so hard that it almost denies its children a future...? There is a journey to our art - a process - and it is deeply personal, and sometimes torturous, as we see in June's case.

The theme of revolution - of who has the power to change things, and of what gives us the knowledge to needs change, and the courage to take the first steps -- there are so many amazing thematic kick-off points for conversation right here. This is a multi-layered novel that offers so much to the reader - readers who can truly engage are going to find a lot here.

NPR has a bit from the first chapter of this book, and don't miss the Q&A with the author.

Cover Chatter: When a character in a novel has such a hugely DEFINING thing like a tattoo - or, heck, even hair color, a specific weight or height or birthmark - you kind of expect to see it on the cover. That doesn't always happen. FORTUNATELY, this novel had a great book designer. You get a sense of tech - movement - dance, even, in the dark background, which gives movement and color to the lights creeping across June's skin - especially visible when the lights go out in Palmares Tres. No face, but a suggestion of crinkled hair and brown skin - lots to like, here. I wonder if there will be a different cover for the paperback - eventually she got pretty daring with those lights...

Authorial Asides: This is Alaya Dawn Johnson's first book for young adults - but not by any means her first book. She was featured in the YA anthology, Zombies vs. Unicorns, and also has published short stories just about everywhere. Total bibliography list here.



FTC: This is an unsolicited review, ARC courtesy of NetGalley.

After March 1st, you can find THE SUMMER PRINCE by Alaya Dawn Johnson online, or at an independent bookstore near you!

February 26, 2013

Wicked Cool/Turning Pages: Dragon Time & Other Stories, by Ruth Nestvold

Technically? This is a WCOB - one of those wicked cool, overlooked books. The technicality surfaces when you realize this anthology is made up of previously-published pieces by author Ruth Nestvold. Asimov’s Science Fiction mag, Realms of Fantasy, Sci Fiction, Strange Horizons -- the list goes on. She's kind of everywhere, and is a two-time contributor to the Year's Best Science Fiction collections. And writing isn't even her day job.

I just happened upon her book of shorts because it was a one-day Amazon special. I was gobamacked when I zipped through the stories and found one which included the famous Aphra Behn. Being a Mills-girl studying the English Restoration in grad school and being a reader on some restoration thesis projects, I got to learn all about this fascinating woman - the first professional female writer in the English language - and it was fun to see someone else celebrating Behn's awesome creativity with a bit of her own.

Each story bears a little bit of history - fictionalized, of course - but these little nibbles of fact and realism create lovely settings for the cast of unique, complex characters. Nestvold has a deft hand with even such limited word counts - I would love to see some longer pieces by this author (ooh - a short Google, and I found some). While this book isn't marketed specifically to young adults, any SFF loving teen will appreciate them. I'd love to see what she'd write specifically for YA; there's shades of Tamora Pierce here, people.

But - I digress. On with the stories!

Reader Gut Reaction: If you were asking basic questions, I guess you could say that Dragon Time and Other Stories is a 30,000 word short fiction collection, made up of four quirky, creative stories that are intentionally side-stepping tradition. They're supposed to be, kinda-sorta a touch on the romantic side. They're all about strong female characters, and ...they're about staying strong. Sometimes that means hanging onto who they are with all they've got. Other times it can mean holding their horses -- no, all of them. And everyone else's...

Concerning Character: Katja, grand-daughter of the finest clockmaker in Unterdrachenberg, would love to practice that craft. She knows that she knows how - her grandfather has let her have a little set of tools, and a workroom all her own, even if he won't let her actually do anything to fix time - not for real. But, then, her opportunity comes - the dragons, who gave Unterdrachenberg its time, have suddenly taken it back. Does life stop, if time stops? And, is it worth putting aside your fears to make sure that nothing ever stays the same?

Ai Kyarem is bold as brass - all tough sinew and tanned strength and a long horsetail braid. The Great Mare is her goddess, and she bows to no man. However, her days of freedom might soon be over... This story reminded me of the steppes of Russia, and the Cossacks. Great fun.

Brilliana sets the stage on fire - and has the eye of Bonnie Prince Charlie. She has everything to lose if she admits that she's a witch, but someone is plotting to kill The Age of Magic.

Priscilla is perfectly able to run the kingdom by herself - God knows she's been doing that just fine for most of her life, since her father, the King, is a well-meaning but perfect dolt. However, fairy godmothers are around to make sure that princesses marry - even when they don't want to. Epic battle of wills, film at eleven.

Sound intriguing, don't they?

Recommended for Fans Of...: Tamora Pierce, Robin McKinley, Shannon Hale, and Kristin Cashore.

Cover Chatter: Covers for self-pubbed books can go a variety of different ways. Heck, any covers can be a train wreck, thanks to the overuse of Photoshop, but there are times when self-published writers really do themselves no favors, and I wish they'd had some better advice. This cover I like, because it shows an appropriately immense and terrifying dragon, contrasted with the teeeeensy tiny silhouette of a person in a doorway far, far away. It makes one feel reasonably frightened for poor Katja. ☺

Authorial Asides: From her website: Her novella “Looking Through Lace” made the short list for the Tiptree award and was nominated for the Sturgeon award. In 2007, the Italian translation won the “Premio Italia” for best international SF novel. Her “Big Fat Arthurian Fantasy” Flamme und Harfe (“Flame and Harp”) appeared with Random House Germany in 2009, and has since been translated into Dutch and Italian as well. Ruth Nestvold, international woman of mystery... or something like that. I'm happy to find a new author short fiction appeals to me, and I think Tech Boy will like them, too.



FTC: This is an unsolicited review; all opinions are my own.

You can find DRAGON TIME AND OTHER STORIES by Ruth Nestvold @ online retailers. Look for her other works here, at Gardner Dozois’s Year’s Best Science Fiction, and in several other anthologies.

February 25, 2013

Monday Linky Goodies, including Medieval Humor

Since I just got this rather large packet of printed proofs from my publisher on Saturday, ready for my proofreading perusal, this week has suddenly become rather busy. Therefore, today I've just got a round-up of interesting links that have come my way recently.
  • Giving back: Via the Goodreads newsletter (BTW do NOT be checking my Goodreads updates right now because I am sooooo behind) comes another wonderful-sounding book charity called Raising a Reader, which helps out by training parents to help kids be readers and by giving kids bags of books. I just loved the photo on the Goodreads blog with those cute kids holding their book bags, faces full of glee.
  • Marketing Multicultural Books is going to be the next topic on the CBC Diversity blog's It's Complicated series. Local Oakland librarian Nina Lindsay will be one of the contributors, and it promises to be another exciting conversation. (One in which Tanita and I, of course, have a vested interest.)
  • Do You Remember Bridget Zinn? She was a kidlit blogger and writer, and she died tragically early of colon cancer, and she was a truly lovely sweet person whom I had the pleasure of meeting at Kidlitcon in Portland some years ago. Her husband, Barrett, and her many blogging friends are trying to get some buzz going for the posthumous release of her fantasy novel Poison, which comes out in March. If you're interested in helping, as an author, blogger, reader, tweeter, parent, or whatever, check out more information here.
  • Graphic Novel Goodies! I owe my ability to stay abreast of this topic to GraphicNovelReporter's wonderful newsletter. In their last edition, there were a couple of  items I got excited about, including a monograph of Daniel Clowes' (author of Ghost World) art, and an interview with Lucy Knisley, who just wrote a food-related memoir-ish graphic novel called Relish: My Life in the Kitchen.
  • Hey, Teachers: Have you seen Edutopia? It just looks like a super cool site and they very  nicely have a rotating feature on bloggers who join their community.
  • In LGBT News, my blogging friend Lee Wind alerted me via his newsletter to the good, as well as the bad and somewhat ugly. And then, if you want cheering up after reading that last item, just read any of Lee's book reviews or his recap of his many wonderful and inspiring school visits.
  • More Cheer: Minh Le of Bottom Shelf Books never fails to crack me up, from medieval-inspired library admonishments to snarky book cover comparisons to Willems Shakespeare presents: Hamlet (starring the Pigeon).

February 24, 2013

February 21, 2013

Toon Thursday: Psycho Babbling

With apologies to any Monster-of-the-Week fans.


February 20, 2013

The Nominees Are....

Yep, it's time for the second big dance for SFF ...okay, well, it's slightly bigger than the Cybils, but only slightly. *cough* But, either way, the nominees have been announced for YA SFF, and I'm chuffed to see that we've got some good Cybils overlap once again:

The Andre Norton Award for Young Adult Science Fiction and Fantasy


Iron Hearted Violet, Kelly Barnhill (Little, Brown) Black Heart, Holly Black (S&S/McElderry; Gollancz) Above, Leah Bobet (Levine) The Diviners, Libba Bray (Little, Brown; Atom) Vessel, Sarah Beth Durst (S&S/McElderry) Seraphina, Rachel Hartman (Random House; Doubleday UK) Enchanted, Alethea Kontis (Harcourt) Every Day, David Levithan (Alice A. Knopf Books for Young Readers) Summer of the Mariposas, Guadalupe Garcia McCall (Tu Books) Railsea, China Miéville (Del Rey; Macmillan) Fair Coin, E.C. Myers (Pyr) Above World, Jenn Reese (Candlewick)

HUZZAH for Sarah Beth Durst on the list again, and David Levithan, whom I believe is a first-timer. Cheers to everybody who made the cut; what a lot of talent! I'm excited because I've read all but two books on the list, which is lovely, as my TBR stack is somewhat teetery.

The Forty-Eighth Nebula Awards Weekend will be held May 16-19th, 2013, in San Jose at the San Jose Hilton. Hat tip to SFWA blog for the news.

February 19, 2013

Turning Pages: FREAKS, by Kieran Larwood

Well, this one has a nice, succinct title, doesn't it? FREAKS. Misfits. Mutants. This is a strangely compelling but freakish little work, first published in Britain in 2011, and winner of The Times/Chicken House Publishing Children’s Fiction Competition 2010. FREAKS is surprising and adventurous, and... simply unlike a lot of other books I've read recently.

Reader Gut Reaction: I was surprised that this book is marketed to middle graders, but the majority of grubby Victorian novels which I've really enjoyed have been directed toward younger readers. The city itself comes across fabulously - the descriptions of the absolute stench, the mudlarks, the weirdness of Victorian London come through beautifully. Characterizations as a whole work beautifully, and the freakish heroes are imbued with a sort of madcap adventuring spirit that enlivens the best of middle grade literature. And, truly, this book is as WEIRD as any kid could want. I mean, rats named after the apostles? And, a WOLF GIRL!?

Concerning Character: It's just not every novel that has a narrator with hypertrichosis... but, this one does. And a polycephalic sheep. All of those things which really and truly "graced" Victorian sideshows are represented - an Asian "exotic" whose skill is dancing with sharp knives and throwing stars, a disgusting and very disturbing Monkeyboy, whose mad skills are sculpture with snot and earwax, a pipe-puffing old dame with her brilliant vermin, an incredibly ugly strong man... and the ringmaster, Mr. Plumpscuttle is the fattest, ugliest, and most awful smelling of them all.

Together, they are Plumpscuttle's Peculiars; hideous, horrid, and humongous. And with them, Sheba the wolf-girl, is tired of being stared at, poked, prodded and gasped over. Is this any kind of a life? She has faint memories, of a hot place, marble floors underfoot, and curtains blowing in the breeze. And a faraway Mama... somewhere... but none of that matters now. Her life is every night, the chair in the curtained room, striking a pose, holding it - fangs out, pink nose squinched, claws extended: a freak show.

When one day, a mudlark girl wanders in - skiving off from her work mudlarking, skipping past the cove at the door, and not paying the entry fee - Sheba finds a friend, of sorts. She goes out of her way to be scary, flashing her fangs, drawing up her hands, the nails of which are like claws... and finds somebody impressed not with her hideousness, but with her skill. And, when Sheba finds out her young friend is in danger? Nothing will stop her trying to help. Not scary men with face tattoos, not clanking, wheezing mechanical automaton. Nothing. And the crew of Plumpscuttle's - rats and all - is right behind her.

Recommended for Fans Of...: THE EXTRAORDINARY AND UNUSUAL ADVENTURES OF HORATIO LYLE, by Catherine Webb; CORALINE, by Neil Gaiman; A DROWNED MAIDEN'S HAIR, by Laura Amy Schlitz; THE SPIDERWICK CHRONICLES, Holly Black and Tony DiTerlizzi; the THEODOSIA books, by Robin LaFevers

Cover Chatter: Right, then. Let's talk about these covers.

My very favorite one is the American one, which appears first in this post. I know, rare choice, when usually British book covers do a better job in presenting unusual faces. Sheba is our storyteller; Monkeyboy and Sister Moon are her equal partners in adventure. I like the way they're balanced on the American cover, equal versions of Weird Superhero. Having Monkeyboy so prominently displayed raises the chances of a boy picking up this book - it looks like it has action and adventure, does it not? Contrasted with the UK cover, which, in featuring Sister Moon out front and leaving Monkeyboy so far behind, not to mention almost obscuring Sheba entirely, makes FREAKS seem like yet another girly book, when usually middle grade fiction's strength is that it appeals more equally, and doesn't have that huge gender divide that YA seems to be unable to avoid. It's a real shame that they didn't more fully embrace the freakishness of the subject matter.

Now, I LIKE the German cover, just for it's weird factor, but I've got to admit that it's an unusual featuring of Sheba... the full lips make her look older than she is characterized, and also, a full-frontal stare isn't something we, as the reader get - only the sideshow participants. Sheba has very few memories of her "self" and never looks in a mirror. Also, obscuring her nose is a shame, as her sense of smell is one of the most wolf-y parts of her, and her pink lupine nose is a Thing. Still - full points for greatly, greatly weird, and I'm sure tons of kids will pick that up in Germany.

This is a fun book with a story that doesn't have neatly tied ends... leaving room for a sequel? This is a jumping off point for sure for curiosity about Victorian England, sideshows, and all sorts of "freaks." For more information about the human parts of the sideshow, check out Human Marvels, a site that separates the silly from the serious in terms of sideshow characters, and gives you the real names of the diseases from which most or at least some of the so-called "freaks" suffered.


FTC: This is an unsolicited review, book courtesy of NetGalley and the author. Poster and cover images courtesy of the author's site.

After March 1, 2013, you can find the American reprint of FREAKS by Kieran Larwood online, or at an independent bookstore near you!

February 18, 2013

Monday Review: CHOMP by Carl Hiaasen

Reader Gut Reaction: I don't post about too many middle grade titles—to be perfectly honest, I don't read as many MG books as I do YA—so it's kind of ironic that I read this book a couple of weeks ago and then realized I should wait to post about it, because it was a Cybils finalist this year and I'm the Cybils blog editor, conflict of interest, and so on. Anyway, one of the MG authors I've really been enjoying is Carl Hiaasen, who invests all of his mysteries with a larger-than-life hilariousness that just really works for me.

His latest, Chomp, has some elements that are even sillier than normal—for one, the main character is a boy named Wahoo and his friend is a girl named Tuna. Tuna, on the lam from her bad-news dad, decides to join Wahoo and his dad on a weekend job. The job's a bit unusual…Wahoo's dad is an animal wrangler, and he's supposed to help reality TV star Derek Badger—a phony in every way—with his "survival" program being filmed in the Everglades. But then Derek Badger goes missing and all hell breaks loose.

Concerning Character: The main characters in Chomp are believable and down to earth, and for me that's the cherry on top—as outlandish as Derek Badger is, as ridiculous and over-the-top as some of the action is, we get to see it through the eyes of perfectly reasonable people like Wahoo, his dad, and Tuna (and even Derek's long-suffering production assistant Raven). Though they have their quirks (what kind of crazy person grows up to be an animal wrangler? you find out over the course of the story, don't worry), there is plenty of realism here, and the vivid and fully-realized characters really bring it all to life.

Recommended for Fans Of...: Middle-grade novels with a lot of quirky humor, like, say, Tom Angleberger's The Strange Case of Origami Yoda. (I'm looking back and realizing that "quirky humor" describes about 90% of the MG novels I review on this blog…)

Themes & Things: What I like about the humor in this one is how it offsets some of the more serious issues like Wahoo's family's money troubles and Tuna's terrifying dad. At the same time, the author strikes a balance so that the heavier themes aren't trivialized. It all takes place against a light mystery backdrop, in which the mystery is the disappearance of Derek Badger, but the reader gets the vicarious enjoyment of watching Mr. Badger's side of the story while Wahoo & co. try to locate him in the swampland. So the reader ends up being a bit more of a spectator for all the havoc, and that's fitting, given that the story involves a reality TV show. Another fun and funny one from Hiaasen. Honestly, I can't see why these wouldn't be great crossover reads for YA and adult readers, too.

Authorial Asides: I just now learned on Amazon that Carl Hiaasen is an award-winning journalist. Who knew? (Obviously not me.)

Review Copy Source: Library.


You can find CHOMP by Carl Hiaasen online, or at an independent bookstore near you!

February 15, 2013

Sequel Season!

So, remember Karen Sandler's TANKBORN? And how much I loved it? And the endless gushing of my review?

Sequel season, coming SOON to a shelf near you...

Hat tip, Lee & Low Blog.

Not a sequel, but another YA SFF featuring characters of color is Sherri L. Smith's ORLEANS. I read all about it when Sherri (:cough: FINALLY) did her NEXT BIG THING blog post. And then? I went out and requested a review copy. I have every expectation that it will be AWESOME: another storm in the Gulf, government-raised quarantine walls, tribal societies... yeah. Sounds like it'll be a sweet read.

February 14, 2013

Go Forth and Read!

Toon Thursday is officially postponed until next week, because today is CYBILS DAY and you should all be glorying in this year's fabulous winning titles and rushing to the library or bookstore or your chosen intertube-based reading material purchase depot to add the winners to your ever-growing TBR pile. (If your TBR pile is anything like mine, it's slowly engulfing your house like a ravenous amoeba.)

So, in the interests of book love and preventing TBR-pile-related disaster, go forth and read! Oh, and Happy Valentine's Day to those who observe it.

February 13, 2013

Waiting on Wednesday: Some GENE LUEN YANG Love

Wait a minute, didn't I say I never do the WAITING ON WEDNESDAY meme? Well, here I am again anyway, because J'ADORE GENE LUEN YANG. Seriously. We are hardcore ABC fans, we enjoyed a blog blast interview with Mr. Yang in 2007 before the National Book Award folks even knew how awesome he is. I will read anything the man draws/writes, which means I'm doubly excited about his historical foray into The Boxer Rebellion. Yes! Historical fiction and comics meet: perfect graphic novel content, to my mind.

So, a little backstory, if you don't remember: Screwed over completely by imperialism, occupied by Germans, stuck with a non-modern government that turned over their traditional faith temples to Catholic priests, the Chinese of that time really and truly wanted out of all foreign interference. A secret society called I-ho ch'üan or The Righteous and Harmonious Society of the Fist, began meeting for political rallies, and in late 1898, they struck -- killing thousands of non-Chinese and Chinese people, especially Catholic missionaries. Welll... killing missionaries never goes over well, because along with their God/gods the West always brings a big fat dose of ...well, Western-ness. Call it trade, goods, language, culture... and money. Anytime there's a disruption to the money, folks, blood will flow; that's what my history teacher always said.

Blood did indeed flow, and the summer of 1900 was a bad one in China. The secret society went mainstream when the Dowager Empress of the Ch'Ing Dynasty ordered all foreigners killed in June. Foreign ministers to China, whose families did not heed the social unrest died, but by August, American, British, Russian, French, Italian, and Japanese soldiers took Peking, and ended the alleged "rebellion."

And here's the story: a people divided. Choose their country, their nation, what some saw as their Chinese-ness, or stick with the new religion and culture they had come to know via the missionaries, who, while Western, weren't entirely all bad? Gene Yang chronicles the journey of two characters that goes in two very different directions... but is much the same, in a way. It is VERY worth your while to check out Wired's interview with Gene Yang, because there be sneaky peeks there, and a lot about the history and thought behind BOXERS and SAINTS from First:Second.

Hat tip, as usual, to the awesome that is Tor.com, who also included teaser excerpts!

February 12, 2013

WCOB: Through the Hidden Door, Rosemary Wells

Well, sure we all know who Rosemary Wells is. She's the one who does the bunnies! The adorable bunnies! The cuddly bunnies! The fabulous Ruby and Max! Oh, and Nora, Yoko, and McDuff, too, but mostly we know her from Ruby and Max.

So, how did we go from cuddly Bunnycakes and other cutenesses to a novel which, nominated for the 1988 Edgar, gives Cormier's THE CHOCOLATE WAR a run for its money in the dark and vicious category? An author whose skill encompasses both bunnies and psychological torment - for middle graders? I was intrigued... It's another Wicked Cool Overlooked Book!

Reader Gut Reaction: This book was first published in 1987, and for the first few pages, you know it. Good grief, Sperry Topsiders. Polo cologne. The names of the students are also a little dated - I don't know the last time I've met a Barney, do you? I mean, at least one under seventy or so. But, names and name brands fall away after the first few pages of this novel. You're very much grounded in time at The Winchester School for Boys, with the operative word being grounded. Our main character has never been able to get up off the ground, and an opportunity to eat yet more dirt comes within the first few pages...

Concerning Character: Poor Barney Penniman is never going to achieve greatness. To hear his father tell it, greatness is all about going to the Right School in the Right part of the country, graduating with Honors and going on to do what you want, and the world is your oyster. Unfortunately, oysters are kind of like gobs of snot to Barney, and there's a lot of doing what other people want before you ever get to do as you please. At thirteen, Barney fears a future of ordinariness, so he falls in with his father's plan, leaving his life in the West, and going back East for polish and class, as once was the tradition. Unfortunately, along with polish, Barney is gaining tarnish. He fears being diliked, being tormented about his lisp, being the bottom of the heap and being alone, so once he's at Winchester, where old money and snobbery prevail, he does what others do - which is to side with the bullies and do what it takes to stay off the receiving end of their pranks.

While Barney has a good heart, he's occasionally really dense. What it means to be a friend, and what it means to be a total TOOL are confused concepts for him. He's one big, sweaty, anxious ball of reaction, instead of action. Tell him to eat a random mushroom in the woods - he'll do it, and then have to go to the ER to have his stomach pumped. Bullied into a "study" session the next test, he not only gives away his notes, but teaches his so-called friends to write the answers on the insoles of their shoes. But, when his so-called friends sadistically attack a helpless dog, Barney can't keep silent. The headmaster finds out, and it's over: Barney can either save himself, or everyone else. He tries to take the blame for what he hasn't done, knowing what's coming to him, but a wise headmaster knows his students. To his horror, he tells the truth - and that's it, game over. The life of a snitch at Winchester is one big bruise.

Meanwhile, there's Snowy Cobb. He's only a sixth-grader, and without his coke-bottle thick glasses, he's legally blind. He's secretive, weird, and has skulls all over the bookshelves in his room. Barney isn't inclined to seek him out, but he's the only one Barney feels safe with, secreted in the back of the library. It turns out that Snowy knows things - more than anyone suspects. He's willing to share what he knows of a secret, magical place, if Barney is willing to be brave, get cold, filthy, and blindfolded... and keep his mouth shut. So far, Barney's not batting a thousand with choice of friends. Is it worthwhile to trust anyone...?

Recommended for Fans Of...: brutal boarding school novels, like The Chocolate War, by Robert Cormier, Looking for Alaska, John Green, and Black Boy, White School, by Brian F. Walker; moody bad-friend novels like Tangerine by Edward Bloor; mysterious books, like The Westing Game, by Ellen Raskin, and archaeology books like the Theodosia novels, by Robin LaFevers, Blossom Culp, And the Sleep of Death, by Richard Peck, The Serpent's Shadow, by Rick Riordan, and more. Adventure and peril for the win!

Themes & Things: I find it amusing that so many of the novels of the 80's were about how CRAPTACULAR the boarding-school experience can be. "The more expensive a school is, the more crooks it has - I'm not kidding," says Holden Caufield of Pency Prep, in The Catcher in the Rye. Clearly, by the Potter years, the American public had forgotten how much they used to hate boarding schools, but man, for awhile there, every boarding school was Pure Evil - at least for the boys. (LORD OF THE FLIES, anyone? They were a boarding school not boarding.) Before there were Mean Girls, there were mean boys, and they are comprehensively more brutal and more frightening this time around. There's a real sense of menace from both Mr. Silks - the new headmaster, who has tormented Barney from the start - and from the boys - top of their fields in whatever sport, with well-moneyed parents who donate this and that to the school to keep their wee darlings out of trouble. There's a pivot point in the book where Barney is so unjustly treated, on top of being bruised and battered, when he's offered an out - a clean slate - and a chance to go on to the high school his father longs for him to attend. It's dirty pool, however; he knows he's being offered a bribe. Politics, old money, and viciousness are the watchwords of boarding school - and there's a clear division between people from Out West and Back East deal. Aside from being an archaeological mystery is also an interesting study of class in America in the early 80's.

Cover Chatter: Oh, 80's Covers, how loathsome you can be - but surprisingly, not this time. The Spanish language cover is fabbity-fab - a crazy-eighties pastiche of detail. Snowy is not quite blonde enough for his nickname, but still - there's those coke-bottle glasses, there's the blindfold, and aha, a cobra! The original Puffin cover isn't bad, either - two boys with flashlights and indeterminate brownish darkness. The more modern Kindle cover featuring a silhouette in a cave tall enough to stand in with light behind are a little misleading, as it's kind of a scramble to get INTO the cave, but the silhouette kind of gives a vague feeling of menace - you don't know who they are, or what you'll find down there. The most generic is the 2002 paperback cover - someone running in the woods. While at Winchester there were woods outside/around the hidden door, the cover doesn't really lend much to the story. Still, it works as blandly mysterious, and might make older readers pick this up.



You can find THROUGH THE HIDDEN DOOR by Rosemary Wells in any library, or at an independent bookstore near you!

February 11, 2013

Random Revision Ramblings

"Whoooo wants to finish
this revision for me?"
Fresh off a weekend where I did nothing but edits, I find myself shockingly brain-fried. And, since I'm waiting on posting a few reviews until Cybils winners are announced (I got all excited, went and read a few finalist titles, and then realized I should probably do as the panelists do and avoid posting about them for now) I thought this might be a good time to put down a few thoughts on writing. Specifically revision, since I'm doing a lot of that right now.

One of the things I talked about with CitySmartGirl over the weekend was the proliferation of blogs with writing how-to advice--regardless of the experience/knowledge level of the person giving the advice. And yes, there ARE a lot of blogs that are happy to dispense wisdom about writing. I know because one of my time-honored time-wasting methods is Googling for random writing help when I'm feeling stuck. But that makes me think: I may well have more writing and publishing experience than some of those giving the advice that I'm reading, and yet here I am feeling like I know nothing and I'm still looking around for help. To needlessly quote Kenan Thompson on SNL, What's up with that?

The more I learn, the more I realize I don't know squat. That's one problem. But what else is stopping me from dispensing wisdom of my own? It's very hard to articulate the stuff I do know; there's that. But also, as a visual artist, something I came to realize which is also true in writing is that every writer is different and every project is different, and has different demands. It can be very hard to figure out what those are. It's always tempting to think that, once you've finished the process of writing and revising one novel, all you have to do with the next one is lather, rinse, repeat.

So far, I have not found lather, rinse, repeat to be especially helpful advice, except insofar as one must, at a minimum, spend plenty of time with Butt In Chair, and Just Work, Dammit. I have realized that, for every project, something slightly (or radically) different started me on the road to writing it; my goals are not the same; its strengths and weaknesses are different; and it takes a discerning eye and patience and plain old teeth-gritting determination to embark on the revision process and figure out what needs to be done and in what order.

I'm still trying to figure that out for my next project. But I'm curious: what do other writers do? Do you have a step-by-step revision method that you utilize, in the same order, without fail? Or are you like me and fumble around in a panic until you've got it semi-figured-out? Or something in the middle? Discuss.

February 07, 2013

Teaser Thursday!

OK, so I just made up "Teaser Thursday." But it's an apt description of today's post, which is all about teasing you regarding NEXT Thursday.

What's next Thursday? What ISN'T next Thursday, you might well ask. Firstly, it's that commercial candy-gorging holiday named after poor St. Valentine, may he forever be able to rest his soul without dodging chubby naked Cupids soaring about everywhere. But wait--there's more!

  • On February 14, dum-dum-DUM, the Cybils Awards will announce their winning books for 2012.
  • February 14 is also International Book Giving Day 2013 (check out the adorable poster here) and--hey--why not give a Cybils winner or finalist?
  • Besides those bookish events, it's also the second day of the Roman festival Lupercalia, as well as Statehood Day for Arizona and Oregon.
  • It's National Cream-Filled Chocolates Day according to Foodimentary, although that too sounds like a dubious invention of commercial origin. (I much prefer Feb. 13, which is allegedly National "Eat Italian Food" Day.)
  • It's the day Henry IV was excommunicated by Pope Gregory VII (1076), the day Native Hawaiians killed Captain Cook (1779), the day the League of Women Voters was founded (1920), and the day Salman Rushdie had a fatwa issued against him for The Satanic Verses (1989). 
  • Some random notable birthdays on Feb. 14: Jack Benny, Jimmy Hoffa, Florence Henderson, Paul Tsongas, Michael Bloomberg, Maceo Parker, Gregory Hines, Terry Gross, and Simon Pegg.
  • Some random notable deaths on Feb. 14: King Richard II, General Sherman, P.G. Wodehouse, and Dolly the cloned sheep.
Most of these random factoids brought to you by Wikipedia and my irresistible urge to procrastinate.

February 06, 2013

Waiting On Wednesday: Some Karen Healey Love

On what should have been the best day of sixteen-year-old Tegan's life, she dies—and wakes up a hundred years in the future, locked in a government facility with no idea what happened. Tegan is the first government guinea pig to be cryonically frozen and successfully revived, which makes her an instant celebrity—even though all she wants to do is try to rebuild some semblance of a normal life. But the future isn't all she hoped it would be, and when appalling secrets come to light, Tegan must make a choice: Does she keep her head down and survive, or fight for a better future?

Now, I don't typically do Waiting on Wednesday, because I have a memory like a sieve, and for extemporaneous things, I honestly cannot keep track of all of the books that I love. Various genres, various series and for varying ages - unless I'm going to employ a secretary or actually spend time on a spread sheet, it's just too hard to keep track. Tor.com usually does it for me, at least for SFF - from providing novel excerpts to the much beloved Fiction Affliction roundups, I'm mostly up to date. Which is a great thing, because one of my faaave, fave, favorite Kiwi authors, Karen Healey, is getting my Cybils list for next year started early. Coming in March, a YA cryonics novel!!

Thankfully, Tor.com provides an excerpt.

Are you waiting on Wednesday, too? Here's hoping you have more patience than I do - or forget as easily as I do...


P.S. - if you need a good laugh, check out Willems Shakespeare - no, really, Mo Willems & Shakespeare. Bottom Shelf Books strikes again... ☺

February 05, 2013

Turning Pages: Fire Horse Girl, by Kay Honeyman

I think historical fiction needs better PR. People would read it, if they could truly believe that it would help them choke down dry centuries of dates and places, the things in history classes which traditionally trip people up. Well, history is just a STORY - and a darned interesting one, if you've got a good storyteller. A good storyteller ensure there's nothing dry in this historical fiction about China and California - there's superstition and tradition pitted against action, aggravation, and a fiery girl just bursting to BREAK OUT take it from being a tame story of old China to something more.

Reader Gut Reaction: My interest in this book kindled when I read the words Angel Island in the description. Unlike Ellis Island, of New York Harbor fame, Angel Island is tiny - a small, green jewel, just off the coast of San Francisco. It has no real amenities - you're out there with the fog and the shorebirds, and at night back in the day, it must have been darkdarkdark. Nowadays, the lights of the bridge come from afar, but on the island itself you're surrounded by nothing but the sound of the sea. It was, in the 1800's, a tiny Alcatraz - just as imprisoning as that edifice - for immigrants to San Francisco. As progress pushed California's prosperity into the stratosphere - prospecting, bridge-building, rail laying - people moved there in droves - everyone did. Free white males, escaped slaves, and Asian immigrants fleeing war and change and poverty in their own lands. Unfortunately, Manifest Destiny gave voice and form to the fears people had about Us against Them. Laws prohibiting the free immigration and peaceful lives of Asians, especially the Chinese, were passed to slow the tide of immigrants, and to prevent Them from Taking Our Jobs (sound familiar)? While the immigrants certainly knew the score, many Chinese back home believed that the hilly streets of San Francisco were indeed the Golden Mountain, and they desperately wanted to climb. Few of them knew what difficulties they would face - they prepared as best they could, but bribery, graft, and racism were against them. Many were detained at Angel Island for months and years, and many died there, rather than go home.

Concerning Character: Into this turbulent piece of history came a young woman called Jade Moon. Now, neither China nor America had much room for girls. The captains of industry were men; women were to be at home, minding the babies. Jade Moon's life was worse. Intelligent but unregarded, because of her birth, born under the sign of the Fire Horse as she was, she seems destined to be unable to mind, unable to please anyone but herself, unable to be anything but fiery, willful, stubborn, and wrong. Her mother dies bringing her into the world, no one bothers to try and educate her, her father and grandfather avoid speaking to her, and she's already seventeen - well past her prime marrying age. It's agreed that her only prospects are a middle-aged bricklayer. Except for the tough love of the family's servant, that's it - her whole life is contaminated by an accident of birth, the unluckiness clinging to her which took her mother from the world, lost her brother to death, and is assuring the death of her family line. Jade Moon is cursed, as any Fire Horse girl is cursed - and there's no getting around it.

Jade Moon desperately wants another chance. A do-over. A life. And when a stranger strolls into the village, waving the tantalizing hope of America beneath her father and grandfather's noses, it is Jade Moon who is most enticed. Though Sterling Promise is not in her father's house to offer her the trip, Jade decides she HAS TO get to America. It's imperative that she have her chance to live in this place where there is room enough for every kind of person, and where new beginnings are promised. She'll do whatever it takes to get there. Even marry the stranger. Even betray a trust. Even turn her back on her name, her family, her gender... because without this chance, there will be nothing left of this Fire Horse Girl but ashes.

Recommended for Fans Of...: The Dragon's Child: A Story of Angel Island, by Laurence Yep and Dr. Kathleen S. Yep; Kai's Journey To Gold Mountain: An Angel Island Story, by Katrina Saltonstall Currier and Gabhor Utomo; Coolies, by Yin and Chris Soentpiet, Landed by Milly Lee and Yangsook Choi. There's not a lot of older YA fiction on Angel Island, but the Yep books are always good.

Themes & Things: Jade Moon is NOT entirely likeable. There are times when things happen, and the reader thinks, "Well, if you'd SHUT UP for once, or try to get along..." It's easy to blame her for her attitude, because she constantly thinks things like, "Well, I am a Fire Horse girl, I cannot help it." We're not used to thinking so fatalistically - that things are out of our hands because of circumstances of birth or gender or otherwise. The "American dream" so automatically instilled is much like the lyrics of the song New York - "If I can make it there, I can make it anywhere." We're given to understand that if we work hard, our dreams will come true.

This is not always true. When Jade Moon learns the tremendous amount of things against her as a woman, she quails... and then, she comes up with Plan B. If there's any thematic backbone to this story, it is this: confronted with absolute and utter failure, and the prospect of returning to her home as a fool, Jade Moon digs in and grabs her future. Kicking and scratching and stepping on the fallen bodies of those she's mown down, yes. There are definitely some ethical questions about what she does and how she gets by - but I think those questions are worth considering, as the reader asks themselves, "What would I give up? How far would I be able to go... to save myself?

Cover Chatter: Now, by now most people know me: not a fan of faces on book covers. HOWEVER. When we a.) have a chance to see the representation of a person of color, whom we don't often see, and b.) when the design is so very, very clever, we can do nothing but say TWO THUMBS UP! I love this cover. The freshness of it, the color, the subtlety. It's the type of thing that doesn't scream Dreary Historical Fiction Here and will actually encourage readers to yank it off the shelves. Well done, design team!



FTC: Unsolicited review, ARC via NetGalley, courtesy of the author.

You can find FIRE HORSE GIRL by Kay Honeyman online, or at an independent bookstore near you!

February 04, 2013

Bits and Pieces--and Good News

There is never a bad time for good news, and if we can start the week off with good news on a Monday morning, so much the better.

I heard via Colleen @ Chasing Ray that our very own TANITA, of THIS BLOG RIGHT HERE, is on the ALA's 2013 Rainbow List of LGBTQ titles for young people for her latest book, Happy Families. Knowing as I do how much heart, sincerity, and perseverance went into the writing of this story, I couldn't be happier to hear the news. (And I was already doing a little happy dance after seeing Happy Families prominently featured on the New Teen Books shelf at my local library.) Congratulations!!



A few other items that crossed my virtual desk recently:

"No matter what type of novel you’re writing, there had better be some kind of suspense in it. The reader must be asking, 'How will this turn out?'—a question preferably followed by: 'I have to find out, and I can’t go to bed until I do!'"  Jeff Gerke wrote a guest column for Writer's Digest about How to Raise the Stakes in Your First 50 Pages so that your reader can't help but keep turning the pages. We all know how important this is, but it never hurts to read some well-written reminders.

Also, via Laura Atkins' Twitter feed, I found this SLJ article in which librarians respond to a recent New York Times piece claiming there's a lack of Latino characters in children's lit. Librarians respond: "there is actually a wealth of resources currently available to these kids, and librarians have the power (and the responsibility) to make those meaningful connections." Hear, hear. Lamenting the fact that there aren't MORE Latino characters is one thing, but doing it without giving due credit to those authors and illustrators who do portray Latinos in literature is a disservice to those out there who ARE making the effort. ...End Diversity Soapbox.

Lastly, how much do I wish I could go to the Clarion Writers' Workshop this summer? Kelly Link? Cory Doctorow?  SIGH. Unfortunately, there's just too much other stuff going on and potentially going on this summer already. NOT THAT I AM COMPLAINING about my June book release! :)

February 01, 2013

Pssst! It's February, and...

It's started! Pop over this month to The Brown Bookshelf's annual celebration of some of the best, and brightest in "brown" books for children and teens. 28 Days Later launches today with British-born Malaika Rose Stanley. Go!

TURNING PAGES: The Twelve-Fingered Boy, by John Hornor Jacobs

FIRST, you should read John Scalzi's hilarious chat with the author of this book, John Hornor Jacobs, and find out a little more about it. There's his crusty old man, Grumps, there's talk of Southern Gothic, there's poetry, and a whole lot more.

No, go on. Read it. I'll wait.

...

Back now? Great.

To be honest, it's kind of a hard book to review. Not because of the plot - the story's rock solid - but because it's hard to convey whose side we should be on. Do the bad guys really mean harm? Is the narrator - in juvie - at all trustworthy? Can you be sure of what you see? This is the first salvo in the INCARCERADO trilogy and is fast-paced, intense, and gritty. Without the lift the humor provides, this book could be seriously depressing - because it's a lot about reality. To add a little balance to my gushing about this novel, I'll say that some scenes near the middle could have been shortened - but there's also this ambiguity for the reader about Shreve's behavior near the around then, too. Who knows, maybe it's perfect as it is! I can see this novel being well received by those not interested in the usual YA speculative fiction fare. It's got a "buddy movie" blend of stupid behavior, bad language, and depressing realities - with a surprising bit of heart.

Reader Gut Reaction: Welcome to Casimir Pulaski Juvenile Detention Center. It's here that residents learn the truth: "We’re born into pain, and we leave in pain, and we cause it along the way too, it seems." There are varying levels of theft, graft, and ways of gaming the system - as there are anywhere. There are people you can trust - for a price - and there are people who can't be bought at all. There are people who look like they have your best interests at heart - and they might. In spite of everything Casimir is a safe place - three square meals, a place to sleep, activities, the occasional piece of candy. It's not that bad a place, if you absolutely have to stay. Unless it gets to the point where you absolutely cannot stay...

Concerning Character:Shreveport Cannon is fifteen and ...screwed. His mother is a staggering drunk, his father... wait, what father? All he has is his Little Dude, and his girlfriend, whom he adores to pieces and bits. All that he cares for, he slams in the crapper by doing one stupid thing.

And isn't that always the way it goes?

So, yeah. He's in D, as my students used to call the state detention facilities, but it could be worse. He could be at The Farm, where his side business would never work out, where there's nothing but work from dark to dark, and where he really does not want to go. So, he games the system, but he also makes a point of showing up clean, smiling big, and not rattling the cages of the staff too hard. Shreve's got a gig worked out pretty well by the time new roomie shows up. Jack Graves is weedy, short, skinny. He looks like a bawling mama's boy - or as Shreve calls it, a "titty-baby," - and Shreve isn't thrilled. Still, there's something about him... he's sure interesting to a lot of people. Shreve, who knows that the best currency is information, determines to find out all about Jack that he can.

Shreve's even further squicked out when he sees Jack's hands. FREAK ALERT! Twelve fingers? Jack's hands are an embarrassment to him, humiliating, and infuriating. At Casimir, having something you care about that much is about as good as painting a target on your back.Though Jack asks Shreve not to tell, he knows the others will see them. Though Jack keeps his hands jammed in his pockets, it's only a matter of time.

The thing about Casimir, though, is that it's all about keeping your head down, being just like the other guys, not drawing too much attention. If you stick up like a nail, you'll get hammered down, right? The big boys are there to humiliate the little boys, especially weirdos like Jack.

The thing about Jack, though, is that what happens to other people when he's humiliated...

Shreve tries to help Jack keep control, but it's his own big mouth that makes everything really hit the fan. Jack's little ...oddity brings Casimir to the attention of a terrifying man name Quincrux and his partner - a woman with way more teeth than is comfortable to look at, and dead, scary eyes. When Quincrux zeroes in on Shreve, well, pretty basically all hell breaks loose. Three square meals a day and safety are a thing of the past, as Shreve and Jack break out and go on the run. And with Quincrux in the mix, there's nowhere to hide...

Recommended for Fans Of...: THE OUTSIDERS, by S.E. Hinton; HOLES, by Louis Sachar; THE INFECTS, Sean Boudin; THE KNIFE OF NEVER LETTING GO, by Patrick Ness; UNWHOLLY seriers, by Neal Shusterman, INCARCERON, by Catherine Fisher, and other "buddy movie" types of novels, with a bunch of guys, swindling people and saving the world. Kind of.

Cover Chatter: Taking a look at this book from the outside in, I can't say that I love the cover - it's striking, but there's a certain horror movie aspect to the Great Massive Hands Of Doom erupting from the dark woods and hovering above the skyline... that never happened. On the other hand, red, black, and gray work well, and at least there's no pink. For a book with an all-guy cast, that's reasonably good.



FTC: No payment was advanced for this unsolicited review; NetGalley ARC received courtesy of Lerner Publishing.

After February 1, you can find THE TWELVE-FINGERED BOY by John Hornor Jacob online, or at an independent bookstore near you!