Friday, October 29, 2010

Dark Goddess by Sarwat Chadda

Dark Goddess (A Devil's Kiss Novel)Cool cover, huh? I read Dark Goddess by Sarwat Chadda (already out in the UK, I believe, and coming out from Hyperion in January) because it's nominated for the Cybils. I probably would have read it anyway; its predecessor, Devil's Kiss, is recommended highly by a friend of mine (though she didn't recommend it to me, thinking that I might not like some of the theme). I considered, strongly, finding some time to read the first book--but then I thought, what the heck, I have an advance copy anyway, let's read a little of the beginning and see if I like it. Ah, rarity: a second book in a series that very much stands alone.

But a little of what's gone before is appropriate. In Devil's Kiss, we (must have been)/are introduced to Bilqis SanGreal, whose heritage is English and Pakistani. I understand that religion plays a big role in this book, particularly as Billi becomes part of a reinvented Knights Templar; their current-day mission is to battle all that is Unholy, which might mean werewolves, ghul (vampires), and evil angels. As a fun fact, Chadda has stated that Billi is inspired by his daughters--their father was raised Muslim, their mom is a vicar's daughter, and so heroine Billi too navigates real-life cultures in addition to those that are the fantasy of the books.

Billi has had a rough time in book one, and book two opens with her discovery of Vasilisa, a very special young girl who can manipulate and is manipulated by nature. She and the Knights Templar, in between kicking werewolf butt Buffy-style, need to find a safe place for Vasilisa to learn to control her powers so that she doesn't, say, cause an apocalyptic natural disaster. Vasilisa is kidnapped by werewolves, though, and taken home to Russia at the command of the greatest, most powerful witch ever, ever, ever:

Baba Yaga.

The Knights need to find Vasilisa quickly, because in three days, Baba Yaga is planning an end to the world as we know it. Whether it's on the streets of Moscow with the Bogatyr, the Knights Templar's Russian counterparts, or on a cross-country chase through ancient forest with the valiant Ivan (who's meant to lead the Bogatyr one day), or right in the werewolves' camp, Billi's risking her life with every breath. Whose life would she trade to save us all?

Billi kicks ass in this book. She's battered, broken, bleak, but moving, moving. It reminds me of running long road races, when you're on autopilot, but you know that the cutoff bus is coming to pick you up and take you off the course. I adore her strength and vulnerability. I especially adore, though, that there is no authorly apologizing for Billi being Billi, just as she is. If she wants to die, well, she chose to fight her fight. If she wants to fall in love, well, she can choose to, and not just because there was some guy who makes her feel safe and protected. She exists as part of larger teams, but she exists as herself first. Can you tell I really, really like this girl?

Wondrous Reads has an interview with the author where he talks about his research for this book and Billi as an old-school heroine, as well as fearsome females; I've been thinking about female monsters lately, so I have some new tangents to think about.

I read this book as a first-round judge for the Cybils Awards, which means that I may have received a review copy from the publisher (or not; I own a lot of the books in this category). I read some books nominated for the YA fantasy and science fiction category in 2010 before the nomination period, and may have already reviewed them or declined to make a public review; these books might not have a Cybils post tag. As a first-round judge, I was tasked with helping create a shortlist of books. My personal reviews do not reflect any actions or discussions of the judging committee.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Brain Jack by Brian Faulkner

Brain JackBrain Jack by Brian Falkner (Random House - Books for Young Readers) is one of the best science (or speculative--you pick the term) fiction books I've read this year.

Sam wants a new computer, and one of those neuro-headsets, so he hacks into Telecomerica, steals a bit of money, and marks himself as the sort of guy that can get an invite to Neoh@ack Con, the replacement for Defcon, which was blown up in a nuclear attack by an unknown perpetrator. He takes up the challenge of attending a meetup on the White House servers, and receives a visit from the government--and lands in jail.

Breaking out of jail, though, is just a test to see if he's smart enough to join the Cyber Defense Division of the Department of Homeland Security. Instead of working for himself, he can work to protect nuclear power plants and communications systems from the bad guys. That feels good; it's good to be part of a team. And maybe that team could be better, faster, if it didn't have to rely on keyboards and mice; maybe they should use neuro-headsets. The thing is, any connection to the Internet means that someone can review and manipulate what's on your hard drive, so what happens when you are the hard drive? What if the human brain were open to viruses and misdirection? What if it led to war?

Part action flick, part meditation on the powers and perils of technology, Brain Jack is a fast, fun read. It leans heavily on technology, but the story unfolds in a way that even technonewbies can follow. Even better, it's got smart kids and a smart plot--but there's no sense that the author has put on a teenager suit to give us a  lecture. Very much recommended.

I read this book as a first-round judge for the Cybils Awards, which means that I may have received a review copy from the publisher (or not; I own a lot of the books in this category). I read some books nominated for the YA fantasy and science fiction category in 2010 before the nomination period, and may have already reviewed them or declined to make a public review; these books might not have a Cybils post tag. As a first-round judge, I was tasked with helping create a shortlist of books. My personal reviews do not reflect any actions or discussions of the judging committee.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Bleeding Violet by Dia Reeves

Bleeding VioletI finished Bleeding Violet by Dia Reeves (Simon & Schuster - Simon Pulse) the other night, and I have to be honest in thinking that I don't know what to think about it.

Hanna shows up on her mother's doorstep in Portero, Texas, not knowing if she killed her aunt before she came. She does know that she's, in her words, crazy, bipolar, manic-depressive. More than anything, she wants her mother to love her, to touch her with kindness, but Rosalee gives Hanna two weeks to fit in in Portero if she wants to stay, and that isn't guaranteeing love.

And it's tough to fit in in Portero. If Sunnydale is the Hellmouth, Portero is the rotting, gangrenous pustule on the Hellbutt. Newbies like Hanna aren't usually alive in a year's time. Not only are there monsters, some of which get hunted by Hanna's new boyfriend Wyatt, but it's hard to tell what Hanna sees and what she hallucinates. She's not afraid, though, and even death doesn't scare her enough to keep her from protecting her mother from the very worst monster in Portero.

I think that I saw a review of Bleeding Violet as "brutal," and that's a fair description. Hanna--and some of the other characters--seem to be on the verge of spinning out of control at any moment (I wouldn't be surprised to find out that Hanna's first cousin is Micah from Liar). Portero shares more with the Evil Dead franchise than it does with Harry Potter's wizarding world. There is violence, gore, horror. A lot of it. It's not limited to killing monsters, either, and the emotional tension in Hanna's relationships is very raw, reflecting how untraditional--some would say dysfunctional--those relationships are.

It's not a light, easy read, but I admire what the author did in creating a cohesive world and in creating a very, very nontraditional heroine. In particular, it's nice to see a heroine who is biracial; I also found it interesting that Hanna's mental illness is part of her strength, and that it's part of her identity separately as well. On top of that, she has a strong relationship, if a weird one, with both of her parents.

As with a lot of YA I've read recently, the first section of the novel is devoted to building the world and characters, and it's pretty late in the game before we know what the central plot question is, though some of that is due to book design--the square, sparse layout means that the book appears deceptively long. It's a fast read.

I read this book as a first-round judge for the Cybils Awards, which means that I may have received a review copy from the publisher (or not; I own a lot of the books in this category). I read some books nominated for the YA fantasy and science fiction category in 2010 before the nomination period, and may have already reviewed them or declined to make a public review; these books might not have a Cybils post tag. As a first-round judge, I was tasked with helping create a shortlist of books. My personal reviews do not reflect any actions or discussions of the judging committee.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010


Nominations are closed, and I believe that approximately one gazillion books got a nomination nod. I nominated some books I've read--and some that I know enough about to think that they warranted a nomination.

Ninth WardFantasy and Science Fiction - middle/elementary: Ninth Ward by Jewell Parker Rhodes (I nominated it in a different category, but it's being considered here)

Brain JackFantasy and Science Fiction - teen: Brain Jack by Brian Falkner

SubwayFiction Picture Books: Subway by Christoph Niemann

Trickster: Native American Tales: A Graphic Collection (Fulcrum Press)


Graphic Novels - middle/elementary: Trickster: Native American Tales: A Graphic Collection by Matthew Dembicki (I think I nominated this for YA graphic novels, but it's being considered here)

Bamboo PeopleYoung Adult Fiction: Bamboo People by Mitali Perkins

Since I haven't reviewed any of these on this blog, I'm not going to spill which are my already-reads and which are my to-reads. Well, I will spill one: I read a sample copy of Subway this summer, and I kept wavering between Subway, Push Button, and Too Purpley, the latter two important to me because they are picture books about kids, and if I didn't know better, I'd think they were about kids I know. I thought about Memoirs of a Goldfish and Oh No!: Or How My Science Project Destroyed the World too, because of the funny factor, and both of those were nominated. In the end, I went with Subway as having a very different look from what else I've seen lately--and you can see it on the Greenwillow blog here.

I was going to copy in a listing of all the books nominated in the YA division of the fantasy and science fiction category, with pretty pictures and everything, but wow: there are 152 nominated books. (That's one long blog post!) I think I'll wait until around the end of round one and post the list and links to other first round judges' reviews.

In the meantime, you can see all of the middle grade and young adult fantasy and science fiction books here. I'm sad that I won't be able to read all of them (I might have made it before the end of December back when this genre wasn't clocking in at 400+ pages so often), but I'm going through books that I have and haven't read as quickly as I can. If I can, I'll pull out some reviews that I made off-blog that I haven't had time to post here yet.

Also in the meantime, for something pretty, check out the Printz Previews blog. It's a fan-made book trailer project created by teachers, librarians, and teens.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

The Eternal Ones by Kirstin Miller

The Eternal Ones I have Kiki Strike on my shelves, but I've never read it, only heard good things. So when I noticed that I had a copy of The Eternal Ones by Kirstin Miller (Penguin - Razorbill), and that it was a Cybils nominee, I moved it up the to-read stack, even though I wasn't terribly excited about the concept. What I got was a surprising and unique romantic suspense novel.

So let's get the bits I wasn't fond of out of the way first: the romantic interest pushed some buttons for me, and not good ones. Because we're in the heroine's head, we don't know what he's thinking (which is, admittedly, important to the plot), and his interference and romantic aggression bothered me in a way reminiscent of the relationship between Bella and Edward in Twilight. At the same time, the heroine has, and knows she has, the ability to remove herself from the situation for most of the story (with a few notable exceptions, and at least one is important for plot reasons), and she has considerable agency over her participation in romantic liaisons.

But let me back up, because this was an enjoyable read. Haven Moore lives in a small, conservative town, where her visions of a past life in 1920s New York City are thought to be the work of the devil. Her best friend, Beau, helps her make beautiful dresses for her fellow students, which is the only thing that keeps her from being a total outcast--until she destroys her pastor's office during a vision. Haven's strict grandmother wants to lock her up, and her grieving mother is afraid to protect her. Only Lizzie, whose Pentecostal faith gives her a different view on Haven's visions, and Beau, her staunch supporter, are there for her, but all of her dreams and sudden lapses of consciousness are for someone named Ethan that she's been talking about since she was a little girl.

Haven goes to New York to find the Ouroborous Society, thinking that their work in reincarnation may provide her with some answers. She also goes to track down Iain Morrow, a star who knows her instantly, and whose memories match hers of being Constance and Ethan in years past. He whisks her away to Rome in a whirlwind of romance and fun, but people are following them, and it's not just paparazzi. Iain keeps disappearing, and the DA has questions about the death of his friend. Maybe he's seeing that artist whose whereabouts are unknown, or the president of the Ouroborous Society, who wants Iain to keep up his duties to the secretive order. Haven doesn't know whom to trust: her head and her heart don't agree at all. She's had a tragic death as far back as she can remember. Can she survive this life, or will she keep repeating her past?

The Eternal Ones draws heavily on the romance genre, and the mix of fantasy and reality is one that many paranormal romance books could aspire to. The main character could very well have been aged up a few years, and this story published for adults. I think it's important to point out that many teenagers read adult romances, and that it's a function of the YA category that several scenes to fade to black, leaving the rest to imagination. I mused a little bit on romance on this blog recently, and we have a new contender for romance-as-romance; with her past lives, Haven needs to solve a mystery more than she needs to experience personal growth.

The first section of the story, before Haven goes to New York to meet Iain, fits my definition of the "B story" in some ways, in that it's about the main character, but not directly related to the main question ("Is Iain trying to kiss me or kill me?"). Typically, the B story gets mired down when it's introduced and focused on heavily in the first fifty pages, and serves to put off addressing the main question--and, sadly, to pad the book's word count. In The Eternal Ones, it's (in my copy) 134 pages before Haven leaves town, but the first third of the book is well-spent in exploring the religious themes of the book, which tie into the middle and end. Usually, the B story just kills time until the real story starts, if the author isn't able to weave it into the whole arc. Here, I found it to be a little longer than necessary, but worthwhile for the way it sets up the tension between faith and those trading on others' faith for their own ends.

I read this book as a first-round judge for the Cybils Awards, which means that I may have received a review copy from the publisher (or not; I own a lot of the books in this category). I read some books nominated for the YA fantasy and science fiction category in 2010 before the nomination period, and may have already reviewed them or declined to make a public review; these books might not have a Cybils post tag. As a first-round judge, I was tasked with helping create a shortlist of books. My personal reviews do not reflect any actions or discussions of the judging committee.

Monday, October 18, 2010

The Enemy by Charlie Higson

The EnemyYou might know the author for the Young Bond series, but in The Enemy, Charlie Higson (Hyperion) reaches for the tradition of Lord of the Flies and mixes it up with zombies, a touch of gladiator heritage, and the rough and tumble of a good action movie.

The story starts with a group of kids who have been living in the Waitrose grocery store, and they've built defenses and eaten up most of their food and figured out how to live, and that's striking in and of itself; a lot of the science/speculative fiction written for teens would have taken us through weeks of strange things happening and the downfall of society. Here, society's fallen already. Grown-ups stumble through the streets, their bodies disintegrating as they search for someone to eat, and while they're dangerous beings nowadays, they're slow and stupid, which gives the kids a fighting chance.

...they climbed one of the twin stairways. At the top was a statue of Perseus holding the Gorgon's severed head. Maxie was struck by how young Perseus looked, and how old Medusa looked. Maybe that was what the story was about. A boy killing an adult. The new world killing off the old.
When a strange kid shows up and tells the Waitrose group that they'll be safe at Buckingham Palace, they decide to take the chance and go with this Pied Piper. Once there, though, they'll have to grapple with a young leader who's got the royal zombie family captive--and who has plans to take over London. The thing is, the safer area around the palace is starting to be re-inhabited by grown-ups, and they're not as stupid as they used to be...

Higson doesn't pull punches: kids and zombies die, they use the kind of language you'd expect, there are no trustworthy adults to be found anywhere, they've fallen into roles prescribed by society--and they're not sure if or how to subvert these traditional roles. But there are also amazing moments of bravery, kids questioning evil, and breathtaking action scenes, and while I'm tagging this as SF (to me meaning anything in the science or speculative fiction family), there's a lot that closer to horror--and I'm not a fan of horror (or of zombies!), but I was engrossed from beginning to end.

The one thing lacking for me is some character connection; toward the end of the book, I felt that I knew a few, but I didn't want to; the chance that my favorites will be wiped off the page is high. The emotional moments fell a little flat in my reading as well. But I'm very interested in reading The Dark, the sequel that's already out in a U.K. edition.

I read this book as a first-round judge for the Cybils Awards, which means that I may have received a review copy from the publisher (or not; I own a lot of the books in this category). I read some books nominated for the YA fantasy and science fiction category in 2010 before the nomination period, and may have already reviewed them or declined to make a public review; these books might not have a Cybils post tag. As a first-round judge, I was tasked with helping create a shortlist of books. My personal reviews do not reflect any actions or discussions of the judging committee.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Finnikin of the Rock by Melina Marchetta

Finnikin of the Rock
The best way for me to start this review is to link you to another: here is the one at Angieville. When I got to page 60 and realized that I couldn’t describe this book to another person, I went looking for reviews, and it took reading another for me to put the pieces together. It all sounded familiar, and made more sense, but perhaps not enough. 

And Finnikin of the Rock by Melina Marchetta (Candlewick) doesn’t always make a lot of sense. I have a feeling that I’ve picked up the second book in a series—that I’ve missed the entire history somewhere. The characters spend a great deal of time talking about the time when their kingdom fell apart. Between the references to people and places that we don’t see in the present of the narrative and the difficulties of juggling multiple characters of the same gender in the same scene (To whom does that “he” refer?), I found the story confusing more often than not. 

I usually like it when authors dump me right into a world and leave me to swim (see: my great love for Incarceron and Sapphique), but I wished for more streamlining in Finnikin of the Rock--or the prequel, which exists only as several prologue pages of italicized backstory. I also wished for some sort of linguistic pattern that might indicate something about Finnikin’s world; there’s Finnikin and Trevanion, a Kristopher (Topher), Evanjalin, Beatriss, Perri, goddesses Lagrami and Sagrami, an August and a Froi. I was looking for a pattern—maybe prefixes or suffixes in names that would help me keep track of people, but the names seemed chosen at random.

There are some really cool things happening in Finnikin of the Rock. Though Finnikin acts quite mature, is older than your average YA protagonist, and even references his desire for the one present-time female character pretty bluntly, it’s not at all out of range for a teen reader. Hero Finnikin and his father have an interesting and close relationship, rare when teens, especially fantasy teens, lose both their parents to terrible fates. There’s reference to a multi-part goddess worshipped in Finnikin’s kingdom, which also acts as a metaphor for divides in the residents. There’s consideration of large-scale war and class and gender-relations issues and politics in the story’s world, without miring down in any of those. I think that there’s interesting exploration of the “band of brothers” dynamic in the warriors trying to re-gather themselves after being scattered to the wind. Evanjalin is one of the most awesome girls in a story that I’ve ever met where that girl is not the protagonist: she has agency and she’s not afraid to use it, even though she lives in a paternalistic world. The last quarter of the book is incredibly strong and vibrant, taking on not only the "final battle" but the aftermath and rebuilding following (all without resorting to an epilogue!).

Parts of Finnikin of the Rock are fantastic, gripping reads, but they’re scattershot with some very confusing stretches and too much reminiscing for my taste. Still, my misgivings about the first half of this book were flipped by the ending. I’d match this book with someone who really likes high fantasy; fans of The Lord of the Rings and A Wizard of Earthsea might enjoy Finnikin very much.

What’s your take?

I read this book as a first-round judge for the Cybils Awards, which means that I may have received a review copy from the publisher (or not; I own a lot of the books in this category). I read some books nominated for the YA fantasy and science fiction category in 2010 before the nomination period, and may have already reviewed them or declined to make a public review; these books might not have a Cybils post tag. As a first-round judge, I was tasked with helping create a shortlist of books. My personal reviews do not reflect any actions or discussions of the judging committee. 

A book trailer with a bombastic soundtrack:

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Plain Kate by Erin Bow

First: I am in a state of return! Sirens was exhausting but fantastic. I managed a little reading while I was there, and I'll be writing up and scheduling those reviews soon. (I also have many hundreds of e-mails to read, much to my dismay!) Next year's guests will be Justine Larbalestier, Nnedi Okorafor, and Laini Taylor, and the theme will be monsters and the monstrous, so it should be fascinating.

Next: I recently finished Plain Kate by Erin Bow (Scholastic - Arthur A. Levine Books).

Plain KateA friend of mine thinks that I love fairy tale retellings, and maybe I do. I’ve tried writing one, and it’s better buried in the sands of time, in its plot holes, and in its overly flowery language. Yeah, I wrote what I tend to dislike: a too-ornamented historical elsewhere that doesn’t bring anything much new to a traditional tale. I’m not the first, or the only one to have done so, however, and that means that exceptional fairy tale- or folklore-inspired (not the same thing) stories stand out.

Plain Kate is one of those stand out books. I kept waiting for the shoe to drop, for some eyeroll-worthy moment to come and give me a reason to stop reading. I kept waiting for the cringeworthy language. I kept waiting for the magic to provide an easy out. But that didn’t happen.

Katerina--Plain Kate--is already a woodworking prodigy when her father dies. Without funds to purchase an apprenticeship, her only choice is to huddle in her father’s old market stall and carve when she can. Bad weather has the locals nervous, and when rumors that she’s a witch start to circulate, she must find a way to disappear. A pale stranger, Linay, offers her help in exchange for her shadow, and in return, Plain Kate gets necessary travel gear and a companion: her cat, Taggle, can talk to her. (I hate books where animals talk, but this year both Taggle and Onion, the camel in Shadow Speaker, really won me over.)

A family friend puts her in touch with the Roamers (Romani), who take her in, but expect her to earn her keep, learn their ways, and stay out of trouble. Trouble comes, though, when her new friend Drina tries to use magic to help Plain Kate get her shadow back, and they’ll have to figure out how to get away from the rusalka that’s killing people--and figure out what Linay is really up to.

I loved the voice in this book: quiet, lyrical, but not in the way of the plot. I love what the author did in terms of making Plain Kate the hero of her own story without being the sole hero of the story; Plain Kate is the point of view character, but the story is well-split between the interests of Kate, her friend Drina, Drina’s mother’s memory, Taggle, and Linay. No one here is entirely good or evil, and this is crucial to the story working, in my opinion. Plain Kate doesn’t find out that she’s a pretty-pretty princess, but must work with the rules and magic of the world she knows. A young adult fantasy novel with no romance, but a strong friendship? A pleasant change!

I think my one wish while reading would have been, perhaps, that the story might have been Drina's instead of Kate's, with the advantage of being an insider to the Romani culture for Drina; I think she would have made just as strong a point of view character, though obviously the story would have been somewhat different overall.

My overall take is a positive one. Have you read Plain Kate? What did you think?

I read this ahead of its nomination, but Plain Kate has been nominated for the 2010 Cybils, and my review will (probably) be published during the first-round vetting period. Thus, the first appearance of this disclaimer:

I read this book as a first-round judge for the Cybils Awards, which means that I may have received a review copy from the publisher (or not; I own a lot of the books in this category). I read some books nominated for the YA fantasy and science fiction category in 2010 before the nomination period, and may have already reviewed them or declined to make a public review; these books might not have a Cybils post tag. As a first-round judge, I was tasked with helping create a shortlist of books. My personal reviews do not reflect any actions or discussions of the judging committee.  

Edit: Book trailer!

Monday, October 11, 2010

Fade to Blue by Sean Bedouin

Fade to BlueI read Fade to Blue by Sean Bedouin (Little, Brown) in tiny gulps--just a few pages at a time. Each chapter is very short, so it worked. And I'm not sure I could have read it any other way.

Take the Matrix. Add a dash of Beetlejuice. Try mixing in, say, Ellen Page in black lipstick, and Groundhog Day, and maybe some Michael J. Fox in his Back to the Future days.

Sophie Blue is pretty sure that a popsicle truck is trying to kill her. Kenny Fade--well, he's not himself lately. Everything is dipped in the surreal, and Sophie just wants to figure out what happened to her dad, who disappeared on her birthday. There's a hole in her elbow, and she's supposed to go back to the laboratory where it all went down. Is anyone--real? If she's offered the chance to plug in and take it with her when she goes, what will she do? In this story, something completely and utterly bizarre.

Fade to Blue is an experimental narrative, and won't be for everyone, but even though I didn't know what was going on half the time--and the other half of the time, Bedouin was pulling the rug out from under me--I really enjoyed this read. If you're interested in the nature of reality, concerned about consuming, and curious about science future, this might be for you too.

Friday, October 8, 2010

How Betsy, Tacy, and Tib Taught Me to Read

Betsy-Tacy (Betsy-Tacy Books)Recently, I had the chance to relate one of those stories that only works written down. In my application essay for the Denver Publishing Institute, I told part of one about being, I don't know, four or five years old and seeing a sign, and telling myself that I could read that sign, and therefore, I could read anything.

This is an example of an unreliable narrator.

I'd been reading for years at that point, but the words sounded so good in my head (internal monologue!). It was dramatic.

When I was small, I: I really don't know much about bookstores when I was small. We had a Waldenbooks in town, the only bookstore I knew of within at least an hour's drive. Sometimes, a trip to Seattle would mean that I'd see something like a B. Dalton. I longed for a $20 gift certificate to buy books with, and I longed to have that much money for a rare trip to Portland, where Powell's was lots of bookstores and so many books it hurt my head.

Today, I buy most of the books I read. Another chunk I pick up as advance copies. A few are borrowed from friends. I'm thankful that I have these options, because I like to keep the ones I like best (though I absolutely hate moving hundreds of books when I change residences and keeping up with the dusting). I keep a lot of books for reference reasons and to make reading lists with, and for some books--maybe evidenced by the pickup in advance copies from summer 2008 that I've been reading and reviewing lately--I need to be roommates with a book for a while before it draws me in.

When I was little, my main source of books was a Carnegie library. I checked out books by the shelf, practically. I wanted to read everything in the children's room. I didn't quite get there, of course, and my plan was rumpled by a library remodel during my tween years, after which time all of the books were in a big room on one floor. I sometimes ask people what they think (reading) life would have been like if YA lit had been such a strong category in those times that start stretching backward about a decade ago. My library had a teen section after the remodel, but its contents were nothing like what's on offer today. The other big, big question is this: what would my life have been like if I hadn't had to dig into everything else?

I read some truly fantastic books. Some truly fantastic older books. I know that if I looked at them today, I might see their flaws and problems, and some of my old favorites now sit in an uncomfortable space between nostalgia and embarrassment. I can't remember anything else interesting about a book in which a witch's spell is saying the alphabet backwards, but I can still recite it that way in under three seconds. I read some book about a girl who figured out how to kiss her own elbow and thus learned to fly, and another about a girl with silver eyes. I read all about Cherry Ames's adventures in nursing. I read about Laura Ingalls and living next to Plum Creek. I read about Baby Island and islands where a Swiss Family might live.

One series, in particular, was about Betsy, Tacy, and (sometimes) Tib. They lived in Minnesota in the early 1900s. They started as playmates, finding their way to a bench at the top of a hill, putting on shows, singing and dancing. Best of all, best of all, they grew up. Each book was a new year, new adventures. The reading level and thematic depth increased, matching the characters' growth.

Maud Hart Lovelace's books were dusty and creaky when I first found them on the bottom shelf in the far corner of the library, but I read them again and again. The last time I read them through from beginning to end, I was in high school, and I didn't have much hope of ever owning copies of my own.

I look at English papers from high school and college, and I know I must have been able to get along in those courses well enough based on my grades. For every good grade I sat in dozens of discussions feeling lost, like I'd never see the things my classmates did, never be able to analyze and describe beyond gut instinct. And while there's more story in the middle, it doesn't start up again until I have the first couple of Harry Potter books in my hands. The first was cute, but when I opened the second and third books, I saw a pattern in the subtle changes in vocabulary and emotion that signaled a series that would remind me of the Betsy-Tacy books. I predicted that I was in for an epic coming-of-age adventure.

It all clicked.

I read differently now than I used to, conscious of applying or rejecting analysis of structure, plot, character, themes, and so on. These are the reader's tools I was missing out on. I wouldn't presume to say that I do pick up on every little nuance that I might, but I am able to read critically, even if I tend to read for entertainment most of the time.

Anyway, today, I'm putting all of the Maud Hart Lovelace books on my wish list.

What book taught you to read?

Thanks to Mitali Perkins for the heads up about the reissues! I knew that the first couple of books were out again, and she's contributed the foreword to Emily of Deep Valley, another of Maud Hart Lovelace's books.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

The Demon's Lexicon by Sarah Rees Brennan

The Demon's LexiconThe Demon's Lexicon by Sarah Rees Brennan (Simon and Schuster - McElderry) almost went awry for me. A number of friends of mine have reviewed this book, with mixed feelings, and for the first fifty pages or so, I was grasping for what I think is the author's strength: snatches of nervous, awkward, cynical, wry, and sometimes just silly humor. While I think wickedly funny, sarcastic, and quick-witted teens can be tough to write, much less make realistic and integrate into a story like this, the characters in The Demon's Lexicon show those traits, and they do eventually turn up here.

Nick and Alan, and their mother, have been running from the magicians that killed the boys' father nearly all their lives. When Alan is marked by a demon, they have to find and kill a magician to save Alan's life. But it gets much more complicated when Alan agrees to help siblings Mae and Jamie, because Jamie's been marked for death as well. The story is told from Nick's point of view--angry, out-of-place Nick. He's still sympathetic, though, as you follow his adventures in trying to keep his brother safe.

While reading this, I appreciated a couple of things very much. First, the story starts where it ought to start. I've read a half-dozen YA fantasy books lately where there's an extra 50 pages at the beginning that don't really belong. Sure, we get some backstory, some characterization, but it's almost separate from the overall plot: everyone talks on the phone and does normal teenage things, but has a bad feeling or notices strange things happening. We get hints, but it's the hint that the real story might start soon.

Second, the story is self-contained. Far too many YA series lately are using the first book to set up the next book. There's some tension, or there's some task or puzzle to solve, but it's nothing high-stakes, really; at the end of the book, some high-stakes problem is finally revealed, and the problems in the first book are revealed to be minor. In that case, maybe we could just skip to book two! The Demon's Lexicon doesn't wrap up every little detail, and is certainly open for (and is) a series, but the first book is self-contained in terms of story arc.

Third, and finally, I'm finding lately that I have epilogue fatigue. Ends of stories are rushed, and then there's an epilogue covering months or years--but somehow, these don't create a feeling of winding down to a satisfying ending. Instead, I find myself wishing that any really important bits were in or implied in the final chapters. Perhaps I don't need to know the character's life story--just the character's story for now. The Demon's Lexicon ends in a satisfying way, without detailing all that happened in the future.

Have you read this one? Whether you have or have not, are you feeling any book structure fatigue lately?

Monday, October 4, 2010

Getting Books Signed--Almost a Hiatus

I usually write my posts and reviews and schedule them for later, and I've got some lined up, but I'll be around less than usual in the next week and a half to comment on other blogs or answer comments here. Why? One of my volunteer projects is organizing conferences (you can find links on the right-hand side of the blog), and one of those conferences is coming up in October.
Inspired by the daring adventures of women characters and compelled by the brilliant works by women authors, Sirens is dedicated to women in fantasy literature. Our conference, part scholarly examination and part networking retreat, welcomes academics, authors, professionals, and readers—and encourages all attendees to provide their perspectives on fantasy books by women, female characters in fantasy works, the market for fantasy by and about women, and how to support women in fantasy literature.

Within our focus on women in fantasy, each year Sirens selects a type of female character to feature—and in 2010, we will feature faeries of all kinds: powerful and mischievous, helpful and ruthless, kind and vengeful. Our guests for 2010 are Holly Black, Marie Brennan, and Terri Windling, each of whom has written of myriad fey, faery courts, and even mortals. Sirens will take place October 7–10, 2010, at the Vail Cascade Resort and Spa in Vail, Colorado. You can see this year's programming here.
Last year's theme was warriors, and Tamora Pierce, Sherwood Smith, and Kristin Cashore were the guests of honor. When I get back, I'll post something about the 2011 theme and guests. In the meantime, I'll be running around like a confused chicken, doing things like checking on how chairs are laid out, making sure everything's plugged in as it ought to be, and  if I can find a moment to breathe, talking about fantasy and getting books signed!

Also, when I get back , I'm planning a "flyover states" giveaway of a signed copy of Only the Good Spy Young. Economics of traveling mean that some states don't get visited on author tours as often, so I'm planning a giveaway for people in the perceived-as-hinterlands.

See you on the other side of a few busy weeks!

Friday, October 1, 2010

Can You Recommend a Good Book?

It's time for Cybils Awards Nominations!

You, as anyone who reads a book, get to be a judge, in a way--nominate a great book that was published between Oct. 16, 2009 and Oct. 15th 2010 to get it into the next round, where speed-reading judges, including me, will narrow down the offerings into a shortlist. You can nominate easy readers, short chapter books (for younger readers, I think), fantasy and science fiction for middle grade and for young adults, fiction picture books, graphic novels for both older and younger readers, middle grade fiction, nonfiction picture books, both middle grade and YA nonfiction, poetry, and young adult fiction. For the moment, I'm having trouble deciding which fiction picture book I want to nominate...

You might also have a suggestion for The Brown Bookshelf's 28 Days Later Celebration. From their website:
During the twenty-eight days of Black History Month, we’ll profile a different children’s or young adult author and children’s illustrator. On March 1st, we’ll announce the winner(s) of books donated by our featured authors.
We need your help. We’re looking for the best new and unnoticed works by African-American authors. From picture books to novels, books fresh off the presses to those that have lurked in the background unsung for months or years–whatever books you like, we want to know. We’re specifically looking for new books and books that have “flown under the radar,” that are children’s or Young Adult written by an African-American author published by a traditional publisher for the trade market. Nominations accepted from September 30th to October 31st.
Finally, if you know of a good, less-known fantasy or science fiction book published in 2010, please hop over to Sherwood Smith's blog and suggest it for consideration for the Andre Norton Award.
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