Monday, January 31, 2011

The Total Tragedy of a Girl Named Hamlet by Erin Dionne

The Total Tragedy of a Girl Named HamletHamlet Kennedy in The Total Tragedy of a Girl Named Hamlet by Erin Dionne (Penguin - Dial) likes to stay under the radar. It's tricky when your name is Hamlet, your parents are flamboyant Shakespeare scholars and Elizabethan enthusiasts, and your little sister (Desdemona "Dezzie" the seven-year-old genius) is your new classmate.

Eighth grade brings Hamlet into the limelight in ways she didn't expect--two queen bees take a sudden interest in (bothering) her (sister), her ability to read Shakespeare with flair makes her the wonder of the eighth grade Shakespeare project, and someone is leaving cute but mysterious origami pigs for her. All she really wants is freedom from all the scrutiny.

Between parents who are not just involved but come with cloaks, a little sister who knows facts but not how to use them socially (and who's hitting that first horrible, embarrassing awareness of what she doesn't know), and the possibility that those cute notes are a big joke rather than gifts from a secret admirer, Hamlet thinks her life really stinks.

Charming, clever, about growing up and competing with your sister, about attention and how much of it we want, and has the best family fight makeup line ever:
"Honey, open up." Dad's voice came through. "We want to talk to you."
I didn't say anything.
"Please," Mom said. "We want to listen."
Mom's got it right, and if only we were all so thoughtful about what a girl wants. I liked the Shakespeare nods, and appreciated that it wasn't just one more "let's re-tell Shakespeare to give our story some structure" book.

Friday, January 28, 2011

Paranormalcy by Kiersten White

ParanormalcyParanormalcy by Kiersten White (HarperCollins - HarperTeen) is a neat twist on the many urban fantasies that line the shelves--though perhaps I really need to use the term paranormal, despite the feeling that this is closer to the former term, even if we don't see cities much here.

Evie doesn't know much about where she came from; she was a foster kid who was "adopted" by the International Paranormal Containment Agency when they discovered that she could see past the glamours and tricks used by werewolves, vampires, hags, and other things that go bump in the night. Even though she wishes that she could live the life of a normal teenager, her life revolves around tutoring, the underground IPCA facility where she's just about the only human being, and faerie transports out to bag and tag the paranormals, who will be tracked by the IPCA and kept out of trouble.

Usually, paranormals want to break out, but someone breaks in. Lend is more of a borrower: he's nearly invisible, but he can take on the appearance of others, and does so. No one quite knows why he's at the IPCA facility or what he wants, and only Evie is willing to give him a chance. Before Evie can find out what's going on with the mysterious lend, bigger problems come to the forefront, like the faerie Reth who wants to keep her for his own and an unknown being who's killing paranormals. Only Evie, armed with no more than her supervision, a knife, and "Tasey" (a sparkly pink taser) can unravel everything that's going on.

Evie reminded me of Buffy the Vampire Slayer (TV version) in a good way. It often seems that people think Buffy was all about the quips, and Evie has a few choice ones, but the best part of Buffy was her outlook on the world: it's full of weird things, but she has the tools to combat the bad guys. I also enjoyed how Evie--as Buffy did, in her own way--questions the authorities in her life, and figures out how to proceed when she finds them wanting. Saying that I didn't hate (and sometimes liked) the love interest is a huge compliment, as I never like the love interests, though I did wish for more on the love interest's abilities and how the love interest expressed his abilities, which was ripe for some psychological analysis. The anti-love interest was realistically threatening, and I think the villainy expressed there was an interesting parallel to situations that a lot of teen girls find themselves in. The big bad was more nuanced than many. My big wish? More time with best friend Lish, because I thought that storyline could have been stronger.

At any rate, I found this to be a surprisingly good read, and much more fun that I had expected.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Ombria in Shadow by Patricia McKillip - Read in 2005

Congratulations to Big Pine Lodge-type Debbie: a random number generator tells me that you won my extra copy of Blue by Lou Aronica. Look for an e-mail on how to get it coming your way over the weekend.

Ombria in Shadow A few spare moments this week sent me back to my old blog to work on cleaning it out, and while it was a year in which I listed books I read more than I reviewed them, I did find a review I wrote of Ombria in Shadow by Patricia McKillip (Penguin - Ace). I liked this book, and it grew on me the more I thought about it. It's been a long time since I read this historical court intrigue mixed with fantasy, and I'm going to mark it as adult fantasy, though one I'm sure many YA readers would like.

Even though this book is nothing like the next two I'll name, it reminds me of them. It's like Pullman's His Dark Materials in that the author starts where the story starts--there's no handholding or explaining what is different about this universe. It also reminds me a little of Yann Martel's Life of Pi. And I hesitate to say why if you haven't read that one!

McKillip plays with spatial, temporal, perceptional (okay, I made that word up) and moral ambiguity, but the spatial and temporal are the ones that can make you a bit dizzy. I felt like I wasn't entirely sure what was going on, sometimes, or what had happened, or how.

The writing style of Ombria in Shadow is ornate, but not overwhelmingly so. McKillip uses words in ways people often forget to use them, or uses words that are dusty but still fine, or to uses words suit her own ends. The only thing that made me a little wriggly is that many things are described as being pearls when one of the characters is named Domina Pearl; when I read this last, I couldn't find anything unifying all the references. Handily, that might mean that it's time for a re-read.

Royalty dies, leaving behind his mistress and a son; Domina Pearl, ageless and sort-of evil...person holds the fate of the kingdom in her hands; Ducon Greve can see across this and a shadow world; and Mag, of unknown origin, has a foot in both. The complicated plot could easily have held romance or even erotica, and that's where many stories would go, but instead, the characters' lives intersect along the way to the kingdom's final fate and the relationships--self-history, mother-daughter, allies-foes--are far more compelling and complicated for their tight focus.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Weekend Giveaway

BlueIn the last couple of weeks, I featured an interview with Lou Aronica and a review of his new book, Blue. I mentioned that I ended up getting a second copy, so now I have one to give away. I use a random number generator to pick winners.

Here are the rules:

  • The giveaway is open from the time you see this post until 11:59 p.m. Pacific on Sunday, January 23.
  • You must be a follower to enter. This is on the honor system; I know that there are a lot of RSS followers, for example.
  • You must leave me three sentences on the idea of "blue." For example, what makes you blue? How do you combat the blues? What's your favorite shade of blue? Your favorite get-over-the-blues book or song?
  • You must leave me your contact e-mail. I highly recommend that you use something like myaddress AT someprovider DOT com to hide your address from spambots. I'll e-mail you later in the week.
  • Unfortunately, winners will need to provide me with a U.S. mailing address to win (AFO-type addresses and P.O. boxes are okay). I get to the post office about every other week, sometimes every three, depending on weather.
Good luck!

White Cat by Holly Black

White Cat (Curse Workers)If you're Holly Black, I am your favorite sort of reader (or maybe more accurately, book buyer). I go into book stores and go, oh, I'm missing a book out of that series, but is it #3, or #4, or #5? And then I buy a copy and get home and wonder how I have three copies of #3, but I'm still missing #4. Keep an eye out to win some of these extra copies in a weekend giveaway!

On the other hand, I am a bad, bad reader, because White Cat (Simon and Schuster), the first in a new series, has been in my to-be-read pile for months. My only excuse is that the pile got far too big for a while. I didn't read it until last month even though I heard Holly speak about the story of the white cat at Sirens and loved it. In the post I linked, Holly also talks about characters that have to straddle worlds, and that's absolutely how Cassel, the only non-magical person in a family of magical people--curse workers, to be precise--has to look at his world.

In White Cat, Cassel is hanging out at boarding school, running betting rings and taking it easy. Well, he's taking it easy to avoid thinking about Lila, his best friend, his girlfriend, the girl he killed. He can't remember how it happened. But he's just a regular old criminal, it seems, in a world where everyone wears gloves as a courtesy: touching another person could help them or harm them, all through magic. Still, something odd is going on. Someone's out to con him--and someone's out to get him. His only choice is to beat the bad guys at their own game.

When Tithe came out, I think it started a phenomenon that's visible today in the many books with fairies and other paranormal romancey beings. If I had to pick something from White Cat that I hope catches on, it would be the masterful plot work. While I have a hard time giving you a summary, the plot works like this: The author ties red ribbons to the ends of each finger, and crumples the ribbons in her hands. Then, she laughs and throws the ribbons, and somehow they fly into the air in a tight braid. It's a neat trick how all the ribbons tie together in White Cat, and a good read.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead

When You Reach Me (Yearling Newbery)I have to make a terrible, terrible confession.

I haven't found a book that I like by Madeleine L'Engle. I've wanted to; when I was wee, I checked out her books over and over. They had beautiful, memorable titles: A Wind in the Door, A Swiftly Titling Planet, A Ring of Endless Light. I think I just read some of these at the wrong age, wrong place. I wish that I had that secret glow so many people get when they say Madeleine. Someday, I'd like to take a look at some of her other work, but those oft-mentioned titles are the ones I've tried and had recommended to me.

So, terrible confession #2: It's probably good that when When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead (Random House - Yearling) was getting all that non-specific buzz a while back, I got it confused with other books. I didn't know it was set in late 1970s Manhattan--set in a decade I'm really not all that fond of. That's it's written in homage, really, to A Wrinkle in Time. It's probably good that I didn't know a thing about this book going in except that everybody loved it.

And terrible confession #3: A couple of years ago, I read a great article in Scientific American that explained time as a flexible dimension in a way that I understood for all of a couple of hours. I perceive time as passing, and I am amazed and awed by theories like presentism. Otherwise, I just hang out and enjoy Back to the Future every now and then.

When You Reach Me is a whole bunch of these things. Miranda is just a sixth-grader who likes to read A Wrinkle in Time a lot. Her mom has a new boyfriend, and her mom wants to go on the $20,000 Pyramid. Miranda's best friend wants to pull away a little, now that he's hanging out with other boys. The biggest disruptor in her life, however, is a series of strange notes that claim to be about her future. Miranda has to unravel the story of her changing family, an unpredictable neighborhood bully, a homeless man, and a new and more complicated peer group all while figuring out the source of the mysterious notes.

There are so many really great things about When You Reach Me that I don't know where to begin. The story is told in Miranda's voice, and there's the dual experience of discovering the story as you read and discovering the story as Miranda has, as she slips in the details from a position of understanding at some later date; together, this creates a very satisfying forward motion and a fascinating narrative structure. As I mentioned earlier, A Wrinkle in Time plays a strong role in Miranda's story, and it adds another interesting layer as the characters discuss time travel, but knowledge of A Wrinkle in Time is not necessary to understand When You Reach Me. What I may have liked best is that Miranda and her friends were able to move within the story: with MG books, I often find that the characters depend entirely on adults--or that there are no adults at all, or that every tough choice doesn't need the characters' input, or...

Reading When You Reach Me felt like going back to the classics like Harriet the Spy and Anastasia Krupnik, where the presence of adults was important, but the child characters were separate and important beings. It's a truly worthwhile read, and a truly memorable one.

When You Reach Me and Ninth Ward brought me back to reading middle grade books. I would love recommendations for more outstanding books like these.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Find Your Dreaming of Books Winner Matchup

Wow! What an amazing weekend. Thank you again to Martha's Bookshelf and I Am a Reader, Not a Writer for hosting the blog hop and doing the tough job of organizing it all. I spent most of my weekend in bed with sniffles and chills, but every now and then, I peeked in to see what everyone's favorite scary stories were. Here's a roundup:

Steph of Book Junky mentioned The Legend of Sleepy Hollow as her scariest story pick, as did Indigo (who also liked "A Christmas Carol" and anything by Edgar Allen Poe), Rosa, Lora1967, Tina, Bella and Megan. Janelle gave "The Severed Hand" by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle a mention. Laura H. liked "The Gargoyle."

Nicole P. of Thebookbandit remembered a classic sleepover scare: Bloody Mary! MadamMarsee said that the Candy Man was her childhood fear. Maria (pronounced Mariah) thinks that her mom's haunted school house stories were the scariest. Karina's scariest story is "The Green Ribbon." Chloe picked "The Woman in the White Wedding Dress." jecca likes Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark.

pepsivanilla said that Blue is for Nightmares really creeped her out. MannaB picked Morpheus Road: The Light by D.J. MacHale.

Michelle said that "In a Dark Place by Roy Garton was one of the scariest I've read." Tressa avoids scary stories, but mentioned Phantom of the Opera and Nine Coaches Waiting. msdarcy said that the Harry Potter books were scary enough for her!

Katie, Taffy, and RhiReading voted for Poe's "The Tell-Tale Heart." sablelexi's pick was "The Mask of Red Death." Alyssa picked "Berenice."

Book Nerds remembered the heyday of R. L. Stine and Christopher Pike. BJ and Chi Kittie (who also liked The Shining) are R. L. Stine fans too.  (Does anybody want to predict a return to that style of paranormal story in the future?) Lexie at The Book Bug named the demons in the Mortal Instruments series as creepiest. latishajean picked Shadow Hills as scariest.

aurora M. mentioned Tommyknockers and It (my eighth grade teacher used that for a read-aloud!). Jules at One Book Shy of a Full Shelf thought Christine was the scariest. debbie said that a Stephen King short story, "In," is the scariest. hense1kk voted for Desperation. BLHmistress and Meredith picked Cujo. throughthehaze, tetewa, Jolene Allcock, Sherry, Khyla and SiNn agreed with It. Shannon at Books Devoured named The Stand as her favorite (and it might be mine too, as I first read it when I was at home with a cold...) and Linda Henderson picked The Shining. Donna picked some Poe stories and Salem's Lot. ##Dawn##, missreener, and Carol M. all chose Pet Sematary. samantha35 voted for anything by Mr. King, and MommyWantstoRead mentioned a bunch of King favorites.

Debbie said that Intensity by Dean Koontz was her scariest read, and invited folks to check out a scary story on her blog. Connie Black mentioned Poltergeist. AEKZ2 gave her pick to Bently Little's University.

Ricki and Vivien liked The Devouring by Simon Holt.  lkvoyer named one nobody else did: Let Me In by John Ajvide Lindqvist. ferretvamp14 said that Where the Wild Things Are is scary no matter how old you are.

Lexie of Poisoned Rationality picked "The Halloween Tree" by Rad Bradbury as a spooky story. brendajean said that "I couldn't sleep alone for a month after reading The Omen."

Charlie mentioned both Dracula and old, original versions of fairytales as gruesome reads; mbreakfield also went for Dracula. For more modern, but still classic, vampires, Julie S. names Interview with a Vampire as scary. Belle Découverte went with Grimm's fairy tales as perhaps not scary, but favorites. Asenath picked Frankenstein.

SusieBookworm brought up "The Croquet Player" by H.G. Wells.

Michelle L., Reading Between the Wines and CMS professed to not read such scary stories. Eek!

The scariest, scariest story I read in the last year is not a short one, but it still keeps me awake: Riptide by Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child. I'm not sure if I'm more scared by the death of a child at the beginning or the (I'm not going to give you a spoiler through adjectives) sword at the end. Oh boy. The scariest YA I read is Living Hell by Catherine Jinks; the idea of being inside a living spaceship was terrifying to me. I'm afraid to give someone nightmares with my scariest short story (really, an urban legend), so I'll give third or fourth scariest: any of the variations of drinking wine or spirits, and later finding that the cask was someone's coffin. Eeeeew!

I visited a random number generator and Indigo is the winner of Nevermore. I'll e-mail later this week for a mailing address. Congratulations!

If you didn't win, check back later this week for a different giveaway. Have a great week!

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Dreaming of Books Giveaway

I hope this is the first of many, many giveaways for me this year. I have too many books, and 2011 is going to be my downsizing year. I love books, and I want to give a bunch of the ones I have to new and loving homes. To kick off this year, I'm participating in...

I'm giving away a copy of Nevermore by Kelly Creagh (Atheneum). The flap copy reads as follows:

Cheerleader Isobel Lanley is horrified when she is paired with Varen Nethers for an English project, which is due--so unfair--on the day of the rival game. Cold and aloof, sardonic and sharp-tongued, Varen makes it clear that he'd rather not have anything to do with her either. But when Isobel discovers strange writing in his journal, she can't help but give this enigmatic boy with piercing eyes another look.

Soon, Isobel finds herself making excuses to be with Varen. Steadily pulled away from her friends and her possessive boyfriend, Isobel ventures deeper and deeper into the dream world Varen has created through the pages of his notebook, a realm where the terrifying stories of Edgar Allen Poe come to life.

As her world begins to unravel around her, Isobel discovers that dreams, like words, hold more power than she ever imagined and that the most frightening realities are those of the mind. Now she must find a way to reach Varen before he is consumed by the shadows of his own nightmares. 

His life depends on it.

This giveaway lasts until 11:59 p.m. on Monday, January 17.

To enter, tell me your favorite scary story, and leave me an e-mail address (messed up to avoid robots and spam is fine!); you must be a follower to win, and that's on the honor system, as you might follow an RSS feed or privately. I will only be able to ship to the U.S. for this giveaway. I'd really love to see your review of the book, if you write one, so please link me if you do!

Check out more blogs in the giveaway:

Blue by Lou Aronica

BlueLast week, I had an interview with Lou Aronica, who kicked off a new imprint with Blue, a book he authored. I enjoyed reading Blue (The Fiction Studio Imprint), which is sort of Inkheart for grownups; I think it’s going to confound some bookstores, too, because it works in part as a YA fantasy and in part as an adult fantasy.

At the beginning of Blue, we're introduced to Chris, who is watching old home movies of his daughter Becky and reminiscing about the close relationship he had with her before he and his wife divorced. Chris and Becky used to share stories, weaving a secret otherworld called Tamarisk just for the two of them, to while away long nights when Becky was ill. Now, though, Chris and Becky hardly see each other, and this loss manifests as a borderline creepy parental obsession for Chris and a keen sense of abandonment on Becky's part.

Then, Becky starts having nosebleeds, warnings that her childhood leukemia is no longer in remission. Something strange and wonderful starts happening: we are offered a glimpse into the life of Miea, a young woman struggling with a troubling agricultural mystery in Tamarisk: why has the Blight returned, and can she do anything to stop it? The Blight, Miea, Becky, and Chris are intertwined in more ways than they know, but they’re going to have to figure out how to hold on--and how to let go--if they want to solve any of their problems.

Two things stood out to me in Blue. The first was Chris and Becky’s relationship; the emotional focus was less what I’d expect from fantasy and more what I’m used to pulling off the general adult fiction shelves, and fantasy and science fiction tends to push character development under the rug to make room for world-building. The second was Tamarisk itself. That world felt vibrant, magical, and modern in all the best ways, and I’d have happily read an entire book set there. (Dirt that smells like chocolate? Count me in!)

Some odd circumstances left me with two copies of Blue, so keep an eye out here for a Blue giveaway in the next week or two. I’ve already committed to a different giveaway coming up this weekend, but please do stick around for this one!

Monday, January 10, 2011

Ninth Ward by Jewell Parker Rhodes

Ninth WardI wanted to make that image bigger, but it looks like it makes it blurry. So, oh well.

I first ran across Ninth Ward (Little, Brown Books for Young Readers) at some iteration of ALA. A promotional postcard. I saw a girl and a flower and a boat first, and discreetly snatched it as I walked past a booth, trying my best to look innocent. Oh, it's okay; there were lots of postcards and they were giving them away.

Later, I read the title and wondered what this book would be about. I put off reading it for a while, because I have a complicated relationship with New Orleans. In brief, I was one of its first tourists after Katrina, there to look at meeting spaces, and the people there, reliant on tourism--but more importantly, damn proud of their city--made me welcome and invited me back. Since then, I've had a crush on New Orleans, and I find excuses to visit every now and then, mostly haunting the French Quarter and smelling that good/bad odor of a layered history where so many things have collided, of debauchery contrasted fine dining, of triumph over trouble.

Reading Ninth Ward was a very visceral experience for me; the words jumped off the page and made shapes and colors and smells, and the whole time, I was on edge. I thought about live blogging a re-read instead of doing a traditional review, but I would rather convince you to read the book yourself, if you haven't yet, especially today, when it just got a nod as a Coretta Scott King honor book.

Lanesha was born with a caul, a membrane covering her face, and twelve years later, she still can see that veil between worlds. She sees ghosts of New Orleans, including her mother, who died in childbirth, but who hangs around as a silent specter. Lanesha might wonder about her mother, but she's been mothered by Mama Ya-Ya, the midwife who took her in--and who showers her with love to make up for a lack of money, who teaches her to navigate all the worlds Lanesha knows, and who teaches her to rely on herself by modeling wisdom and compassion.

The story spans just over a week, the time before, during, and just after Hurricane Katrina makes landfall. In that space, Lanesha comes of age in her own way by grasping the idea that she will make her own future, by making a friend, and by discovering that she not alone, but part of a community.

Jewell Parker Rhodes's writing is simple but really, really amazing. Even in the first few pages, there are moments that are filled with light and that foreshadow despair at the same time. If you've never been to New Orleans, I can't imagine that you could read this book and visit later and find fault with her descriptions; even the air is a character in this book. Lanesha and Mama Ya-Ya have one of the most beautiful adult-child relationships I have ever seen, and one of the most poignant, as Mama Ya-Ya holds Lanesha tightly but also gently loosens the strings of their relationship so that Lanesha controls her own destiny.

I love how Lanesha thinks in dictionary entries and mathematical symbols. I love how she looks also for symbols in how people act, and colors, and things that happen, things she's learned from Mama Ya-Ya are the things that organize the world. Lanesha versus Hurricane Katrina is appropriately scary and sad--and hopeful, too.I think it is an age-appropriate look at one of the United States's greatest natural disasters, and that it is a compelling and thoughtful read for adults who remember the storm.

Because of the ghost element of the story, people interpret Ninth Ward in a lot of ways--as general middle grade fiction, as science fiction/horror, as magical realism. I think it will appeal to readers of all genres, who may decide for themselves.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Nancy and Plum by Betty MacDonald

Nancy and PlumNancy and Plum by Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle author Betty MacDonald (first published in 1952, and recently re-published by Random House with illustrations by Mary GrandPré and an introduction by Jeanne Birdsall) was one of the books I checked out of the library over and over again as a child. I can tell you that before the local library’s remodel--creating an open plan with all the sections on one floor--I went down the dim stairs, made a left into the children’s room, went past the circulation desk, and off toward the right-hand corner, I’d grab the red-covered book from the bottom shelf, where it lived near the Betsy-Tacy books and Cherry Ames. I suspect I was the only one, or one of very few, who was still reading any of those.
I received a Nook for Christmas and exchanged it for a NookColor (I’ll review that later on), and as I’d seen a recent mention of Nancy and Plum on Twitter, I decided to make that title my first search. (I’m also trying to revisit or discover more middle grade books, because I haven’t been as heavy of a reader of those in the past few years, often because I get frustrated with the lack of stakes in a lot of books “suuuuitable for chiiiiildren ages 8-12.”) To my great surprise, I could get an electronic edition, illustrations and all, and I read it on a holiday plane ride. A little research and I discovered that the author lived in the Seattle area (city and out on Vashon Island) and also south of Port Townsend on the Olympic Peninsula, places I know well. While she’s probably best known for The Egg and I (and Ma and Pa Kettle), I really only know her work for children.
Nancy and Pamela (“Plum”) Remson are orphans, and bachelor Uncle John has sent them to be boarded with the terrible Miss Monday, the home of an astonishing number of children, Miss Monday’s horrible niece Marybelle, and Old Tom, the man who works around the boarding home (and eventually turns out to be Miss Monday’s brother). At the beginning of the book, Nancy and Plum have been left behind while everyone goes into the city for Christmas, and the sound of jingle bells prompts a giggly rush into the snow to catch a glimpse of the sleigh. Unfortunately for the sisters, they are locked out, and because of a tall iron fence, locked in. Their adventures truly begin when they spend the night in the barn, drinking fresh milk and eating potatoes they roast themselves.
In the next 160 or so pages, the girls struggle with Miss Monday and their nemesis, Marybelle; Miss Monday not only misappropriates the boarders’ funds, but actively thwarts the girls' attempts to contact their Uncle John. The few other adults in their lives are ineffectual: a Sunday school teacher doesn’t notice when they skip out on a picnic, their benevolent teacher Miss Waverly can do little more than complain to the principal, and their kind librarian has no idea what’s happening at home. Even Old Tom, who’s happy to have them sneak out and visit the barn, is afraid to make waves. Still, Nancy and Plum keep trying, keep cheerful by entertaining the other children and dreaming of a better life. Finally, they run away, and are taken in by a farmer and his wife, realizing their dreams of a comfortable, loving household.
I am undecided on whether or not I am glad I re-read Nancy and Plum. I think I am, because the good parts are still good. A few moments don’t hold up at all today, like a couple of references to “wild Indians” and the glorification of cowboys as something versus the former. The gender roles for everyone are pretty rigid, and I found it odd that while Plum is adventurous physically and Nancy more verbally, they (later on) take on even more traditional girl/boy roles so that their adoptive parents can each have a child they adore best. The moment when the farmer approaches them after they’ve run away (at his wife’s behest to find the two girls who slept in the haystack the night before) takes place when the girls are swimming unclad, giving the scene an ominous feel--and even Nancy and Plum are unsettled, though that’s not further explored.
Otherwise, some of the things that don’t completely hold up are simply things that wouldn’t be written the same way today, or are quirks that I suspect have to do with MacDonald’s lifetime. There are long passages where the girls describe the things they might someday have in great detail, whether that’s dolls and accessories they dream of or how it would be if they could do this or that. When I first read this book, I would have been much more aware of having and not having, and it’s still easy for me to see how this is a wish fulfillment tale. (Ms. Birdsall explains that MacDonald had a history of telling stories to her sister, and I remember how Hallielocks, Lorilocks, and the Collinbreadboy had adventures in the Jell-O bounce house--just like in the movie of Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs!--when I was small, so I see those influences, too: detailed lists that sound best spoken in a dreamy thread to lull one another to sleep...and to give you time to think of what comes next.) I also suspect that having the Depression hit when one was twelve or thirteen might prompt an author to luxuriate in a dream of perfection and modest wealth.  And, today, child welfare laws require that authorities report even suspicion of abuse, and there are more governmental controls on child supervision, but it’s also doubtful that two tween girls would have such a happy ending once in any system.
At the same time, I do still love some things about this story. I love that Nancy and Plum have a lot of agency. They make plans, they make things, they escape through windows, and they care about their friends. I love that Plum is a little bit of a bully, but that she uses her bullying against another bully. I love the occasional pointed lines of humor, and I love the adventure inherent in two girls who know that they don’t have to be treated badly. I think I’ll always have a soft spot for Nancy and Plum.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Author (and Publisher!) Interview: Lou Aronica

BlueLate last year, Lou Aronica kindly let me interview him about his new book, Blue. I'm reading it now, and really enjoying Miea's world. Check out a little more about Blue and The Fiction Studio Imprint below.

BLUE is the first publication to come out from The Fiction Studio Imprint. In a nutshell, what's it about?

Blue is about a bedtime-story fantasy world that comes alive for hugely important reasons at a point long after the stories have been told. The three main characters are Becky, a fourteen-year-old girl whose parents divorced when she was ten; Chris, her beleaguered father, and Miea, the queen of Tamarisk, the world Becky and Chris imagined when Becky was much younger.

Each of the characters is at a crisis point as the novel opens. When Becky suddenly finds herself able to travel to Tamarisk, this seems to offer new promise to all involved. Things aren’t nearly as simple as they seem at first, though.

Ultimately, Blue is about the power of imagination, the necessity of hope, and the possibilities that open when one loves absolutely.

On the Fiction Studio page for Blue, you mention that this is the first time you've ventured into fantasy fiction. What fantasy books and authors have inspired you?

No one has inspired me more as a writer than Ray Bradbury. I was a huge fan of Ray’s when I was a teenager. I then had the distinct pleasure of working with him at Bantam Books and Avon Books. Ray’s ability to make the ordinary magical and to celebrate wonder had a profound influence on me. When I was at Avon, I also had the opportunity to work with Neil Gaiman whose enormous sense of humor and incomparable way of looking at the world resonated with me.

Interestingly, as much as these writers inspired me, they also prevented me from writing fantasy for a long time. When you’ve worked closely with two of the true masters of the genre, the idea of even attempting to do what they do can be rather intimidating.

The Fiction Studio Imprint is brand new, and you're heading it up. What is your vision for the imprint? What kinds of books will you be publishing? (Hey, I am one of those readers who checks the colophon!)

The imprint will publish seven books this spring, and they range from a time travel adventure for teens to a literary novel set in small-town Canada. Right now, the imprint is defined exclusively by my personal tastes, which tend to run fairly broadly. I’m a huge fan of fantastic fiction, so there are several of these books on the list. What I love most about fiction, though, is stories with great characters. If there’s one unifying element to the books on the Fiction Studio list it is that all of the books are filled with memorable characters.

Where can readers find out more about Blue?

They can get a longer description of the novel at, and they can read an excerpt from the novel at

And, of course, they can always go to the online booksellers as well.

What question do you wish I'd asked?

How about this one: You spent six years writing Blue. Why so long?

It took me nine months to write my first novel, and three months to write my second. I knew Blue was more ambitious and that it was going to take a bit longer to write, but I was guessing a year or fifteen months. What happened was that the novel developed in layers. I had the basic story right from the start, but everything else kept going deeper. I didn’t even fully realize what I was writing about for three years (and no, I’m not going to say what that is here; I’d like readers to decide for themselves). Then the world kept getting richer and the characters more nuanced. The ending went through multiple changes, I added a critical secondary character four-and-a-half years into the process, and another secondary character changed completely late in the game. When I thought I was finally ready to publish, I did one more pass on the novel and wound up making several more changes. This novel means more to me than anything I’ve written before, and I just wanted to make it as strong as possible.

I don’t think the next novel will take me nearly as long to write. But then again, I missed my estimate on Blue by quite a considerable margin.

Thank you, Lou! Best wishes for your book's debut.

Keep an eye out here next week for my review of Blue.

Monday, January 3, 2011

Cybils Roundup

So, the 1285 (!) Cybils nominations have been turned into shortlists of finalists. That’s a lot of books. A lot. And something like 98% of them were read to at least page 50 by at least one person between October 15 and December 31.

But let’s back that up a little: books were still being analyzed and moved around once the nominations period ended, so let’s say that the reading period really got going in earnest around October 21--and let’s also say that people were re-reading passages and sorting favorites to prepare for committee meetings and such at the end of the month, so let’s call the end of it December 21. Essentially, two months to read as much as you could. For YA fantasy and science fiction, that was 147 eligible books, in the end, and really, a few more got read as they were evaluated for fit with the nominated category. I think we had one book that wasn’t read by at least one person, and that book wasn’t available to any of the judges. I’m not just talking not at the library; I’m talking not available in the judges’ regions.

While every panel is different, I think this post by Kelly Jensen gives you a pretty good idea of what it’s like to try to narrow down hundreds of books to five-ish.

And having been around the internet a bit, heh, and having been more than a lurker, heh, I know what happens next: armchair quarterbacking! Let me be the first to say a couple of things, then. No process is perfect. That’s just how it is. You set up general rules and let things go how they go. I think that everyone on my fabulous committee had some favorites that they would have liked to see become finalists, if only we had a few more slots--and I thought that the pool was strong enough that we could have had two or three times as many finalists. And: how can you compare something that has just a hint of fantasy or science fiction to a book with a richly detailed and fully developed world? Can you compare the conventions of fantasy to those of science fiction? What about books that seem to cross genres? Where does magical realism go? Ooh, what about this cool book that had a terrible cover and miserable cover blurb and bad design that’s hiding an awesome story?

In the end, it’s down to gut feeling. To holding two books side by side and asking tough questions about structure and appeal and voice and characterization, and then facing the fact that your committee isn’t going to be in complete agreement...on anything, maybe. To arguing for your favorites and accepting that others have favorites too. I’m thrilled to have worked with the YA fantasy and science fiction first round panelists for this year, though. I really enjoyed the lively discussion about all of the books, and it certainly helped me to know that even when I was the only one who loved, loved, loved a certain book, the other panelists understood where I was coming from.

Speaking of nominations, two of my nominations became finalists. The first, The Ninth Ward by Jewell Parker Rhodes, I nominated in MG fiction, and it was moved to MG fantasy and science fiction. I came across a promo postcard for this book at...ALA midwinter, maybe? BEA? ...and I’ve been fascinated by it ever since. The second, Brain Jack by Brian Falkner, was--I will now confess--a book I hadn’t even read yet, but when I was looking at the YA fantasy and science fiction nominees, all of the books I had read that I wanted to nominate had been nominated, and I wanted to expand the science fiction side of the nominations.

Three other nominations didn’t become finalists, but I’d like to highlight them for you anyway. First, Subway by Christoph Niemann is a picture book that doesn’t look like anything I’ve seen on the shelves in a long time. I’ve never been on the subway, but the fantastic illustrations transported me there. (Fiction picture book honorable mentions: Too Purpley by Jean Reidy and Push Button by Aliki, both of which I gave as presents this year.) Next, Mitali Perkins’s Bamboo People is just a must-read; if you think that YA fiction can’t be complicated and sophisticated and timely, you should take a look at this contemporary novel set amid war in Burma. Finally, I got to visit the publisher and look at graphic novel Trickster, edited by Matthew Dembicki, and see the many iterations of the cover art and hear how Fulcrum Publishing helped bring together 21 American Indian authors to write the tales.

So, the YA fantasy and science fiction finalists! The first round committee wrote a blurb for each book, which you can read here.

And I’ll give you three words for each:
1. Brain Jack: Hackers get hacked.
2. The Wager: Grimy Don Giovanni.
3. Rot and Ruin: Swordslingers versus zombies.
4. Plain Kate: Help! Lost shadow.
5. Pod: Aliens haaaaaate you.
6. Ship Breaker: Ecopocalyptic corporations=evil.
7. Guardian of the Dead: Paranormal New Zealand.

How I read the nominated books:

Usually, except for when I get advance copies of some sort, I do pretty careful screening of the books I read, because nearly everything I read, I buy. (Libraries aren’t really an option for me at present, and that’s a long, boring story.)

For the Cybils, I started each book the same way. First, I looked at the cover. I looked for a blurb on the back, and then took a quick look at flap copy, including the author’s bio. My eyes skim over recommendations, unless it’s an author whose recommendations I respect very much, and even then, that sentence (or half-sentence!) doesn’t mean much to me. I look at the colophon and copyright page information to get a sense of how this book was produced; I think that the publishing industry, on the whole, doesn’t capitalize on the idea of imprints for marketing to the casual reader (the big exception for me being Harlequin, despite the fact that I can never remember which lines I like and which I don’t). I glance at the dedication, if there is one, and any other notes at the beginning of the book (and I usually find that I’d rather have these as a paragraph or two at the end, because the “I wrote this for my awesome cat/cousin/hometown” is less important to me than the result).

But as much as all of the above items can get me excited--or not--about a book, they’re not make or break. Instead, it’s the first sentence, paragraph, page. I see text in chunks, so a first sentence that’s just okay might redeem itself in the first paragraph. On the other hand, a disastrous first sentence, whether that means a mess grammatically or a humdinger that’s exciting but not really related to the story, well, that’s very telling about what’s going to come next.

I knew on page one if I was going to read a book past page 50. I think I was wrong twice in 118 books, and that wrong guess was overturned before page 5 by good writing, a compelling storyline, or an interesting voice or character.

Someone reading this is probably saying hey, you’re not giving these books a chance! You need to hang in there, because it doesn’t get good until... But here’s the thing. A couple of things. First, the Cybils process ensures that books get read to (at least) page 50. For a lot of books, that was a quarter or more of the story. Second, sure, there will be peaks and valleys in a story, parts of it that won’t be as strong or enjoyable, but I’d ask this: How much of a book should a reader expect to be sub-par? Should they pay for a book that doesn’t get good until the second half? (Would you stay for the second half of a movie that was terrible? Would you feel like you got your money’s worth buying an entire album, only to find out that there was only one good song on it?) That said, a fireworks beginning still needs a strong story the rest of the way through!

So that brings me to where some, maybe a lot, of books didn’t work out. Or, to look at things from the positive side, where they did work. This observance list isn’t just about the Cybils, by the way--I don’t want anybody cringing and going oh, that’s my book. It really, seriously isn’t. I read 160-odd books this past year, and it’s easy to see trends there. Also, for every clichéd scene, there’s probably someone out there doing it in a fresh way. Right now. Here’s what I loved to see:

1. The spool unwound.

There isn’t one perfect plot, and there isn’t a rule that things should happen in some way that neatly segments scenes and their emotional impact. For me, though, reading a good book was like having a spool of thread unwinding before me. Heck, let’s call me a cat with a ball of yarn; as I turned pages, the yarn ball was always unwinding at the length of an outstretched paw. I don’t know what to say about those books that had very little plot, except that it takes some real talent to keep a story going without one.

Bonus points: if you introduced your fantasy or science fiction-y premise in a way that felt fresh. I recognize, as I mentioned earlier, that there are only so many ways to say “Yer a wizard, ‘Arry.”

Points off: if every time there’s some real action, it ends in “and then everything went black.” You don’t know how many people fainted, or fell down into darkness. I am concerned that at least 50% of YA fantasy and science fiction protagonists have been suffering from concussions.

2. And it unwound.
I’m curious and I want the spool to move. I should know by the time I get to page, oh, let’s say somewhere around 25-30, exactly why I’m going to keep reading a book. Maybe there’s some compelling question that the character is facing--or maybe the book is approaching an everyday question in a compelling way. Maybe the world-building is like a magnet. Maybe there’s something about the writing, the voice, the structure that speaks to me. And now that I’m trapped, I keep coming to turning points, where the story must choose a path; now I want to know what’s down that path.

Bonus points: The best books I read had a coordinated series of stakes. They were connected; they weren’t emotional or dangerous just to make the book exciting.

Points off: I turned a page--often well after page 100--and said oh, well, we finally got to the point of the book. Points off also for 50-100 pages of teenagers just being teenagers: talking on the phone (every word faithfully transcribed), going to school, waking up, checking themselves out in the mirror, and once in a while noticing that something odd was happening.

3. I cared about your character.
Characters don’t have to be likeable, no matter what anybody says. It’s entirely possible for me to dislike a character and care about them all the same, to want to know what happens to them. I’ll stick with a character if they feel like a whole person--if even if it’s not in the story, I know that they have likes and dislikes, strengths and weaknesses, kindnesses and cruelties. And I appreciated the whole person in particular when it was important to the story that the character be witty, or smart, or snobby, or whatever trendy characterization could have made your character feel like a poorly-sewn sockpuppet.

Bonus points: your character was complicated but believable, particularly in a way beyond “I’m a stereotypically whiny teenager”--because I don’t really believe in that characterization (and though that person exists in real life, it’s not usually a full-time personality).

Points off: your character was a grown-up in a kid costume, particularly coupled with a message, issue, or political motive. I think agenda books don’t give readers enough credit for figuring it out on their own.

4. You gave me the benefit of the doubt.
You explained what I needed to know about your fantasy world, your speculative setting, or your scientific imagining. You also gave me what I needed to know at just the right time, without telling--unless telling was right for the story. At the same time, you let me figure it out. Best of all, you didn’t treat me like I was incapable of understanding; you weren’t condescending.

Bonus points: for just enough of the world threaded through the narrative.

Points off: infodump, particularly in those critical first fifty pages.

5. There was a satisfying beginning and ending. And middle. I’m not asking for much, am I.
This doesn’t mean that there was a happy ending, or an ending I liked. It’s not enough for the book to just run out of pages, and a book that does nothing but serve as setup for another book can be very disappointing. Even if threads are left open, my favorites gave me a sense of closure.

Bonus points: for starting the story where it really should start and providing backstory if and when needed. Extra bonus for concluding in a strong way. (There were rare exceptions, but most of the time, the prologues and epilogues I saw could have been integrated into other chapters or excised entirely.)

Points off: for making book one just the first act, so I really got half a story.

If you’re going to have a book eligible for the Cybils next year, which means published between October 16, 2010, and October 15, 2011, hurrah! I hope someone nominates it for you, but if they don’t and you don’t like to toot your own horn, grab any human being and ask them to nominate you. (If you do like to toot your own horn, be aware that most bloggers have stats tools that mark you as the author of that anonymous note when you show up to comment on reviews.) Give your publisher and publicist a heads up; they’ll be contacted and asked for review copies. I’d recommend that publishers provide copies as soon as possible, if they’re going to do so. It’s really hard to discuss a book that you haven’t been able to acquire, and I am really sad about the books that are showing up after the finalists have been announced. (Electronic copies are fine--I didn’t have an e-reader but I barreled through a lot of books on a cell phone.) I read a lot of books I owned and borrowed from friends (other panelists were heavy library users), as well as advance copies that I’ve been hoarding (I like them almost as much as signed or collector editions!), but I certainly couldn’t have read so many books, or so widely, without publisher support. So, again, thank you to those publishers who went out of their way to support their nominated authors--I know that it’s not free to send review copies, and I know that just because it’s an electronic edition, that doesn’t mean that a book is magically cheaper.

Finally, I’m going to skim down the nominees and point out cool features, as I know some folks are looking for books with particular features for challenges, lists, personal enjoyment, and curricula. I know I will miss some features, especially for those nominated books I didn’t read and for those I know only by reputation (the mentions below don’t necessarily reflect my reads), and I am sorry for any mistakes or omissions; if you see a nominated book that I should add to a category, leave me a comment and I’ll add it to my list. I’m sure I will forget some books. And I’m sure I’ll get something wrong, so please do your own checking. Categories in no particular order, but books alphabetically, more or less:

Books set all or in part in Washington state (I guess I get to thank Twilight for that): The Candidates (Delcroix Academy, Book 1), The Clearing, Epitaph Road, Pod, honorable mention for being set in N. Oregon is Thirteen Days to Midnight

Books highlighting brothers: Bruiser, The Demon’s Covenant, Rot and Ruin

Books highlighting sisters: Before I Fall, Mockingjay, Toads and Diamonds, Wish

Books with dragons: Dragons of Darkness, Dragons of Noor, Firelight, Voices of Dragons

Books with aliens and questions about whether aliens are something you’d actually want to contact: Alien Invasion and Other Inconveniences, I Am Number Four, Pod, Living Hell Black Hole Sun, Inside Out, Living Hell

Books with fiendishly immoral superheroes: The Rise of Renegade X

With dead or about to be dead or maybe dead people: Beautiful Dead: Arizona, Before I Fall, Chasers, The Deathday Letter, Chasing Brooklyn, The Clearing, The Eternal Ones, Everwild, Picture the Dead, Plain Kate, Prince of Mist, anything with zombies

With an environmental theme: Carbon Diaries 2017, Ship Breaker

With boats or sailing: Everlasting

With vampires: Cat the Vamp, Fat Vampire, Solace and Grief, Spirit Bound (Vampire Academy, Book 5), Try Me

Funny: Alien Invasion and Other Inconveniences, Cloaked in Red, The Deathday Letter, Fat Vampire, The Rise of Renegade X

With werewolves: Claire de Lune, Linger, Raised by Wolves

With zombies: Chasers, The Enemy, Rot and Ruin, Zombies vs. Unicorns

With killer unicons: Ascendant, Zombies vs. Unicorns

With all manner of monstrosities, in groups and/or unusual, or even unique among recent releases: Bleeding Violet, Bruiser, Draw the Dark, Living Hell, Monster High, My Soul to Save, Stork

With a talking cat that appeals to people who don’t like talking cats: Plain Kate

Technology focus: Brain Jack, Girl Parts, The Unidentified

In verse: Chasing Brooklyn

With some Shakespeare: Darklight, Freaksville, When Rose Wakes

Fairy tale-influenced (as opposed to including fairies): Cloaked in Red, Plain Kate, Sisters Red, Toads and Diamonds, The White Cat (bet you didn’t know that last one!)

People on the wrong side of the law: Starcrossed, The White Cat

Fantasy without the paranormal: Brightly Woven, The Exiled Queen, Green Witch, I Shall Wear Midnight, The King Commands, Mistwood, Plain Kate, Starcrossed, Toads and Diamonds, Wildwing

Just plain different: Bleeding Violet, Bruiser, The White Cat

With particular focus on school setting: Before I Fall, The Candidates (Delcroix Academy, Book 1), Hex Hall, Spirit Bound (Vampire Academy, Book 5)

With a scene at Comic-Con: Fat Vampire

Arthurian-influenced: Song of the Sword (Book 1 of the Shards of Excalibur)

Including characters of color in important roles (I could use some more details and more specific information for some of these, if you know it): Alien Invasion and Other Consequences, black secondary character; Bleeding Violet, black female main character and secondary character; The Deathday Letter, black best friend; Guardian of the Dead, Maori best friend; Magic Under Glass, undefined, but perhaps SE Asian female main character; The Mermaid’s Mirror, and I could use a reminder, I think had an Asian male love interest, perhaps Hawaiian?; The Scorch Trials, several important secondary characters, black and Asian; Ship Breaker, protagonist and secondary characters are Hispanic, black, and SE Asian; Toads and Diamonds, all characters Indian; Rot and Ruin, protagonist half-Japanese, brother is Japanese

Including gay characters: Ascendant, secondary female characters; The Deathday Letter, secondary male character; Zombies vs. Unicorns, main male characters in a story

Ass-kicking girls: Ascendant, Bleeding Violet, Dark Goddess, Mistwood, Mockingjay, Paranormalcy, Rot and Ruin

What have I missed?

Coming up later this week: an interview with Lou Aronica, and a review of his new book, Blue, as well as the return of the giveaway
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