November 20, 2014

Thursday Review: MORTAL HEART by Robin LaFevers

Summary: Mortal Heart is the final book (SAD FACE) in Robin LaFevers' His Fair Assassin trilogy (Book 1 reviewed here; Book 2 reviewed here). The books take place in medieval Brittany and France, a setting which the author has obviously researched well in order to write these stories in such vivid detail. (I'm always impressed by that.) They combine some of my favorite genres and themes: historical fantasy, adventure, political intrigue, strong female heroines—and throw in a bit of romance to boot. And, assassin nuns! Who serve the death god, St. Mortain! Oh, and don't forget the Website of Gorgeousness if you want to learn more about the series.

I don't want to give away too many spoilers if you haven't read the first two books. (I seem to be saying that a lot lately—lots of trilogies and series I'm finishing up, I guess.) But here's a quick run-down. In the first two books, we followed the stories of two of Mortain's handmaidens, Ismae and Sybella. Book 3 is the story of their friend Annith, the one who got left behind. As Ismae and Sybella get dispatched on their first missions as assassins for Mortain, Annith waits for her first assignment back at the convent…and waits…and waits, only to find that the nuns have another future in store for her, and NOT one that involves getting to do fun assassin things.

Being one of their star pupils, Annith is enraged by this, and begins to question the logic behind the abbess's decision. Is something else going on? The only way to find out is to take her fate into her own hands, a choice that brings Annith adventure, unexpected love and friendship, and throws her right into the heart of the conflict between Brittany and France.

Peaks: As mentioned above, these books have All The Things that I happen to like. One of my faves is the underlying idea that the strong female heroines are exacting revenge for the horrors the world has wreaked upon them. In Annith's case, she was abandoned as a child and brought to the abbey of St. Mortain. Her story, like the others', is fleshed out well and the fact that we are acquainted with her from the first two books means we're fully behind her before the book even begins. This makes it even more egregious when she begins to feel betrayed by those who raised her and cared for her.

I particularly enjoyed the romance in this book, too. Without giving too much away, it includes everything I like about paranormal romance and deletes all the stuff I hate that tends to go along with that genre, like boring heroines and saccharine, codependent relationships.

Something else that impressed me: how well these books stand alone. While the events of the larger story arc do roughly take place in a specific order from Book 1 to Book 3, reading them out of order would not be a huge problem, and the time that passed between each book's release ended up not mattering so much. They're very well crafted in that way, and I felt like there was enough information about the meta-plot to remind me what had already happened in the first two books, without deluging me with unnecessary detail.

Valleys: I remember reading the first book and noticing a few things that felt anachronistic—not enough to really bother me, but a few teeny things jumped out at me, mostly just the occasional language choice. I didn't notice that in this book. I was fully absorbed in Annith's story from beginning to end. Now I'm just sad they're over, and feel like I want to read them all again…OH I CAN BECAUSE I OWN THEM ALL!

Conclusion: I love these books—they are so much fun and I want to live there. Well, maybe not quite. But if you enjoyed books like Graceling, or anything by Tamora Pierce—stories about powerful and independent heroines who stride through the world kicking ass—you won't want to miss these.


I bought my copy of this book as soon as it was humanly possible. You can find Mortal Heart by Robin LaFevers at an online e-tailer, or at a real life, independent bookstore near you!

November 17, 2014

Books I'm Excited About Today

I'm still not quite back on a normal blogging schedule--I don't quite have the brain space for a review today (though the book currently on deck is an exciting one: Mortal Heart by Robin LaFevers!). But I did want to share a few books which arrived on my desk that I really cannot wait to read. First up, yesterday a friend loaned me a copy of the recently-released graphic novelization of the new Ms. Marvel--if you haven't heard about her yet, she's a 16-year-old Muslim Pakistani-American from New Jersey named Kamala Khan. I was definitely excited about the idea, but I didn't realize how amazed and...moved I'd feel just holding it in my hands. What if there had been Pakistani-American superhero girls when I was growing up? How might I feel differently about my own identity? Possibly it wouldn't have changed anything, but those questions zoomed across my mind as I flipped through it.

Another one I just got in the mail is the ARC for Nova Ren Suma's upcoming book The Walls Around Us, due out in 2015. It sounds suspenseful and creepy and all-around awesome, with ghosts and a whodunit and multiple viewpoints. Also just found out that the author is teaching a Workshop/Residency on YA novel writing here in the area at Djerassi artist colony in the Santa Cruz Mountains. That's next summer, with an end-of-Feb deadline...something to consider...

Lastly, I bought a book that's supposed to be my reward when the semester is over and my teaching-related work is on a winter hiatus: the final book in the Bloody Jack series by L.A. Meyer. You know I loves me some Bloody Jack stories and I will be both happy and sad to read this one. On the other hand, I have a lot of respect for authors who are able to bring their characters through a long-long-term story arc like this one, having them grow and change and remain interesting throughout. And, in this case, the author keeps me laughing at Jacky's outrageous doings, managing to ride the line between preposterous and believable, and create a fully fleshed-out historical setting that happens to contain quite a few incorrigible rogues. Viva Jacquelina, indeed. (Viva Jacquelina being the title of the penultimate Bloody Jack book, which I believe I've lagged on reviewing...sigh.)

November 14, 2014

TURNING PAGES: EUPHEMIA FAN: SPY GIRL by Cassandra Neyenesch

I received this book courtesy of Full Fathom Five Digital and while normally I prefer digital books which have paper counterparts, I made an exception this time, for Reasons. FFF Digital is an imprint of Full Fathom Five, the content creation company founded in 2010 by best-selling author James Frey, so this should tell you something about the authors they work with - they're no slouches in the make-the-most-of-interesting-stuff department. I picked up this novel because a.) the name Euphemia, b.) EUPHEMIA!? and c.) "Spy Girl" in a title is a great hook.

Also, Euphemia. If that's your name, what other options present themselves in your life, outside of occupying a 19th century English white parasol movie, but to be a spy?

Cassandra Neyenesch lived in China and Taiwan and learned Mandarin, and did some really odd jobs... all of which were possibly preparation for writing a spy novel.

Summary:

"Then there's the guy with the Rottweilers two doors down. The dogs always run to the end of their chains when you walk by, and they bark like they want to rip out your thorax and use it for a chew toy. Their owner is this huge muscly guy who always waves like Hey, I'm super friendly but he doesn't do anything to make his dogs less scary - at least he could shorten their chains. I started bribing them with Jiu Jiu's offal, sneaking it out of the house in a napkin. Pretty soon they were as tame as bunny rabbits - I call them Tweedledum and Tweedledee - and they let me look in the windows of the house. Now I know why the big guy has them: so no one can sneak up on him while he's in the middle of watching a Beyoncé video and copying her moves. Though the sight of an Arnold Schwarzenegger look-alike skipping around in a unitard and belting out the lyrics to "Single Ladies" is much better entertainment than anything on TV."

- Euphemia Fan: Spy Girl, by Cassandra Neyenesch

At times the voice is engaging, confiding, and amusing. There are loads of detail, ranging from the first impressions appearance of things to revelations and explanations to imaginative assumptions about the people the protagonist meets. From the first page, you dive head first into action, and, while you're not sure where you'll land, you're immediately entertained.

Now that her sister, Lillian, has gone off toe college in New York, Euphemia Fan is the only Chinese-American girl in back-of-beyond, Brackybogue, Long Island. It's a tiny, touristy town that looks like Main Street American, and the fact that she's just seen her elderly uncle commit MURDER while she was being nosy and trying to follow a guy she thought was following HER... is kind of a problem. For a number of reasons.

It seems like all she has to do is pull on one thread, and suddenly the whole cozy and safe blanket of warmth that made up her family and her history and her world unravels in big, messy threads. Tyler, the guy who's been following her, has information and warnings about her father that Pheemi doesn't want to hear -- nor does she really want to know how he got his information! Her suddenly distant and snobby sister, Lillian, doesn't believe her until it's almost too late, and by then, the bullets are flying, and all they can do is cling to one another as their lives implode. The only way out is to keep one step ahead of danger. Are Euphemia Fan, her co-spy Tyler, and her sister Lillian together smarter than a criminal? Well - they'll have to think fast to find out.

Peaks:It's clear that the author has been intimately involved in Asian communities and has experienced being an outsider looking in. The scenes of Pheemi landing in a busy, crowded Asian neighborhood in Flushing where she rarely or doesn't understands the roar of languages she hears and is just barely holding her own with people crowding her - priceless. There's so much to enjoy in this headlong rush through a week in the character's life - an incredibly busy, dangerous, intense week -- and the breathless action keeps readers plowing forward. I find this book to be a great homage to Harriet the Spy who also looked in windows and skulked around. Pheemia uses what she knows of her neighbors from her window-peeping to great advantage and for awhile, her observation of the character and temperament of the neighbors help keep trouble at bay.

While the plot ties up neatly, to my mind, there's room for another Euphemia adventure - it's certainly the colorful, cinematic type of thing which older middle graders and younger YA readers will enjoy.

Valleys: A diverting book with quick-paced narrative, it periodically suffers from an excess of plot instead of characterization. The characters are hard to "see" for me. Additionally, while I am glad to read a novel with an Asian protagonist, it was odd to read about Euphemia's description of her Chinese-American sister as having "tilted" eyes described as "black" - that felt like an oddly self-conscious and "othering" moment - especially since eyes aren't black. The moment and the description felt false from the point of view of a narrative of another Asian character.

It seemed odd to me that Euphemia didn't seem to have feelings about her name, no one wondered really why she had it - why her Chinese-American parents chose it -- and except for a comment by a neighbor, it's left unexplored. Since it's such an unusual name, that seems odd; I expected everyone she met to have a comment or a pause, but...nada. There is also a bit of telling what Pheemi is feeling and thinking instead of showing and allowing readers to experience her inner mind with her. Additionally, there are a few odd word choices (with disappearances and goons around, a fifteen year old describes herself as being "in a pickle?") that make Euphemia sound a little non-modern for a teen, but those are fairly minor.

There is a romance in the novel; this is not a spoiler, as the jacket describes Tyler as "swoon-worthy." It's ...definitely something the reader is told, not shown or felt; frankly there's so much going on in the breakneck pace of the action that there's not actually really time to fall in anything more than crush. The budding romance between Euphemia and Tyler has a soupçon of predictable inevitability in its execution - I was pretty gobamacked at some of the declarations in the end. A crush made sense, but something lasting longer than the danger I didn't at all expect - and left me with some pesky questions about Tyler I wouldn't have otherwise had.

Conclusion: A slightly uneven book but fun; a quick and entertaining read for a dull autumn afternoon.


I received my copy of this book courtesy of the publisher. After November 19th, you can find EUPEHMIA FAN: SPY GIRL by This Author at an online e-tailer, or at a real life, independent bookstore near you!

November 13, 2014

Read All Day? Sign Me Up!

I just heard word in my inbox of a new upcoming event for all of us voracious readers. In case MotherReader's 48-Hour Book Challenge isn't enough for you--or if, like me, it's sometimes too much--maybe this will suit: Penguin Random House, the National Book Foundation, GoodReads, and Mashable are teaming up for National Readathon Day, a brand-new collaboration.

The date in question is Saturday, January 24th, 2015, from Noon-4pm. Kind of like a walkathon, participants in the Readathon sign up for their own fundraising page on FirstGiving, and the money donated helps the National Book Foundation promote reading and literacy in America.

I may be terrible at setting aside a weekend to read (much as I'd like to), but even *I* can surely manage four hours for a good cause. If I can do it, so can you! You can even organize a fundraising team or a "reading party" (sounds like my kind of party). I'm kind of wishing we could do something as a Kidlitosphere group, but I'm not sure how...

November 11, 2014

TURNING PAGES: THE BODY ELECTRIC, by BETH REVIS

When I first saw that Beth Revis had self-published a new novel, I wondered why. After all, her ACROSS THE UNIVERSE series was three successful books long, published in twenty languages; she had contacts and contracts and didn't really need to do the work of putting things out there by herself, did she? Interestingly, the book is a thank you - full of characters readers loved and couldn't let go. With a striking cover, it's set to fill that last little corner fans of the ACROSS THE UNIVERSE series didn't know needed to be filled. It's backstory, and kind of a prequel.

A standalone, the novel shows what was on the Earth that the space-faring families had left behind in ACROSS THE UNIVERSE, and it also has its own definite plot. It reminded me a great deal of the Will Smith movie based on the Asimov novel I, Robot, (but not the novel; the film really had very little to do with it at all), with a lot of action, a lot of confusion, and a LOT of androids and scientists. Nefarious doings, bees, frightened teens, and rampaging nanobots - a bit of romance, a bit of betrayal - just another day in SFland.

I felt this novel lacked in the characterization typical of a Revis novel; the author, however, did some things deliberately which you'll have to read to discover. I did feel like the ending summed up everything a little too sweetly; all the screaming of "what do we do, WHAT DO WE DO!?" and threatening to do something drastic, ala Jack Bauer from 24 was suddenly unkinked - all was revealed, all understood, no one else died, they prepared to sail into the future... a little tidy for me, but fans will really love having more of this universe.

Summary: Ella Shepard's brilliant scientist mother is all she has left. Her father was killed by terrorists - the price of the peace the country now enjoys. The United Countries, rather than the United States are part of the new world, and the seat of the government is in New Venice on Malta - where the most important of peace accords have begun in modern times. Ella is happy - or would be, if only her mother wasn't dying. The nanobots which her father's research created to stem the tide of her disease are no longer working... her brain and her body are shutting down. Before long, Ella will be alone, except for her mother's best friend and partner in the Reverie Spa, a place where through dreams, wealthy patrons relive their best memories. Her mother is in pain and dying - Ella wants to give her just one more good memory of her father. She does something she's not sure anyone can do -- it's based on a theory... and it messes up her brain completely. Suddenly, she's hallucinating her father, hearing bees, and catching the attention of the government. She's working for United Countries now, and she may have found the terrorists who killed her father. Or, maybe they're not terrorists at all.

Ella's not sure what her brain is telling her. She's not sure she can believe what her eyes - what her brain - tells her is true. Why does she keep hallucinating her father telling her to wake up? From what?

Peaks: The author's worldbuilding and engaging style are seen here, propelling the story along at a good clip. Though there are ... loops, where the narrative seems to repeat itself, the reader is still drawn forward, in the hopes that something more will be revealed. It's almost a mystery, what's going on, and the tale-withing-a-tale construction is well executed.

Valleys: I had some light quibbles - very light - with characterization in the novel, but most of my difficulties were with the science. I know that SF deals in pseudoscience based on the real. I think this novel lacked a clear enough explanation of the science for me to enjoy it as much as I could have. The body operates on electricity, indeed, and there's a lot of interesting applications of that within the brain that Revis ran with, and I was fine with that for the most part. The ideas in the novel of androids and sentience seem to have been pretty well covered in Star Trek, and in the I, Robot film, however the description and explanations of it all felt so fuzzy it seemed like all we were missing with Mary Shelley and some lightning. A small quibble, but there you go.

Also, one of the pivotal moments of the novel didn't work for me. As to not provide spoilers, I'll simply say that staring into the eyes of an android in hopes that you can see its soul doesn't seem to me to be a reliable way to ascertain if it has one... but, that's just me.

Conclusion: Fast-paced, with a smart girl who punches a boy for presumption (YEE HAW, that was a good moment) and a complex and slightly dizzying plot, this is a novel which will appeal so much to Revis fans. I found it diverting, though it's not my favorite book she's ever written.



I received my copy of this book courtesy of NetGalley. You can find THE BODY ELECTRIC by BETH REVIS at an online e-tailer, or at a real life, independent bookstore - Malaprops Bookstore & Cafe in NC!

November 10, 2014

MONDAY REVIEW: REBELLION (Tankborn Book 3) by Karen Sandler

Summary: In the interests of full disclosure (and a little bit of self-satisfied squee-ing), I met Karen Sandler in person at this year's KidLitCon in October, and was able to get my copy signed and chat with the author. How awesome is that? Anyway, I was fairly new to the Tankborn books, in that I didn't get to that part of my TBR pile until earlier this year, but I'd been looking forward to reading them ever since checking out Tanita's review of the first book, Tankborn. Once I started it, I was hooked, and quickly binged on both the first book and the second, Awakening. Because this is the third and final (I think) volume of Kayla and Devak's story, I'm going to keep it brief and as spoiler-free as possible. Still, if you haven't read the first two, I'd still perhaps avoid the remainder of this review, just in case...

Okay, for those of you who aren't living in fear of spoilers (for whatever reason--I have a friend who really just does not care about spoilers and will regularly read online synopses of TV shows before watching them, which to me is just bizarre)--

By this third volume, both Kayla and Devak are deeply embroiled in the growing social revolution on their planet. They've learned a lot about themselves and each other, and about the origins of their class-based society of genetically engineered non-humans (or GENs) and the various castes of trueborns. But although their own personal sense of empowerment grows, the danger grows with it: Kayla has now been brought to the headquarters of the mysterious F.H.E. movement, only to find that her movements and activities are just as restricted here in the heart of the alleged social rebellion. Why? And will finding out put her in even more danger?

Meanwhile, Devak doesn't even know Kayla is still alive. The last time he saw her, she was engulfed by an explosion set by FHE, her body carried away by mysterious strangers. As he heals, and comes to terms with the ever-diminishing social status of his own family, he tries to find out what happened on the day of the explosion. With the help of his friend Junjie, he starts tracking down some information...and what he finds shocks him: Kayla might still be alive somewhere. But where? And even if they do find each other, what will happen to their society, their world, if everything they ever knew is torn down?

Peaks: Like the other two books, this one caught me up right away in the action, intrigue, and danger for both Kayla and Devak. The stakes for the trilogy have reached their grand climax in this volume, not just on the level of each character's personal struggles, but also with respect to the social and political forces that have been roiling ever since the first book. I won't give away too much, but the author ties everything together in a satisfying way while still throwing in some extremely fun and rewarding surprises for the reader.

Valleys: I can't say there were any major valleys for me. I always find this part awkward when discussing the work of someone I know or have met, but truly, even the sparse minor quibbles I noted in the first book have dwindled over the course of the trilogy, as the writing seems to have gotten even tighter from book to book. I think fans of the Tankborn books will be really pleased by how everything concludes.

Conclusion: I'm so glad I read these, and feel privileged to have met the author and gotten to hear her speak on the #WeNeedDiverseBooks panel. Here's a writer who practices--in writing and in life--what she preaches in terms of getting more books out there with diverse characters in ALL genres. As a fan of Spec Fic, I couldn't be happier to see books like these which tackle the topic of what really makes us HUMAN, an indefinable something that is much, much more than skin deep.


I purchased my copy of this book at KidLitCon. You can find Rebellion by Karen Sandler at an online e-tailer, or at a real life, independent bookstore near you!

November 06, 2014

Toon Thursday: Oldie but Goodie

Featuring everyone's favorite place to write, "Le Cafe Snooty." I'm pretty sure it's reappeared in several of my cartoons by now. Any resemblance to actual places is definitely coincidental.