Tuesday, February 15, 2011

The Cybils Awards, Finally!

Rot & RuinThe winners of the Cybils awards were announced yesterday. I wasn't sure how I was going to get through the last day of waiting--and then I had a migraine and skipped ahead an entire day. If I hadn't, I would have predicted winners...and only been right about Rot and Ruin by Jonathan Maberry.

I think I was the first person in the first-round panel to read the book--reluctantly, I might add, because it had a dead guy on the cover. It was one of the first books I read because I happened to have a copy on hand, and I was hooked. Now, off to strongarm some more readers into buying a copy.

I also think that it was a strong year for young adult fantasy and science fiction, in numbers and in content. There were about 150 books considered, and as I (think I) mentioned before, I would have loved to have had more room for finalists. I would have loved to honor another dozen or so books. A book by an author whose story structure isn't quite there yet, but whose voice is the heir to Diana Wynne Jones. A fairy tale that reminded me of warm places and spice and the sound of humming. A funny book about death. A con (almost) gone wrong. A superhero who isn't. One of the best techno-books I've read. A needling look at colonialism. A girl who defeats the most fearsome witch ever. A girl who just might be crazy. A couple of books I didn't like very much, but that I'd very much like to recommend to others. And that's not even mentioning the other finalists!

But that's the way awards go.

And I'm certainly not unhappy--Rot and Ruin has all of the elements I was looking for in a winner, and was the one I suspected had the appeal and elements I would have looked for in a winner: adventure, high stakes, pitch-perfect teen questioning, character diversity that's not a "message," romance, complications, samurai cowboy philosophy, drama. And zombies, but I didn't know I was looking for zombies.

Congratulations to Jonathan Maberry. Thanks to the many Cybils judges, administrators, and supporters.

You can see the books I read and wrote about here.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Gideon's Sword by Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child

Gideon's SwordIt's Valentine's Day, and instead of something schmoopy, I thought that I'd like today's review to be anything but--so a review of Gideon's Sword by Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child (Hachette - Grand Central), which comes out in hardback on February 22. It should be available for pre-order in the United States.

I've been a fan of Lincoln and Child for ages. I remember being riveted by Relic, enthralled by The Cabinet of Curiosities, intrigued by The Ice Limit, and more recently, RipTide gave me nightmares. When I want to think of something icky and scary, I think of Rip Tide.

To be blunt, I don't think this is Preston and Child's strongest. The protagonist, Gideon Crew, doesn't seem as vibrant as some of the pair's past characters, and the story isn't quite as high-concept, edge-of-your-seat as some of their other offerings. That said, it's still a strong start to a new series, and there's a time element inherent in the plot that I think will boost the books to come; fans will want to add this one to the Preston-Child collection.

Gideon Crew has a fairly unremarkable life, nowadays. His father's death in a government shootout over his father's whistleblowing activities is a hazy memory, his mother is gone, he's given up his habit of secret heists, and his job at Los Alamos provides him with time for peaceful fishing retreats in an out-of-the-way mountain cabin. Someone from the Department of Homeland Security shows up and before Gideon knows it, he's making a "choice" to spend the rest of his (short) life serving his country. That means investigating the death of a defecting Chinese scientist, using prostitutes for cover, sneaking into secure facilities, wearing disguises, and secretly liking the whole thing. Think government intrigues, rogue agents, spy cameras, and just a little cutting-edge technology that could ruin the world--or save the day.

CIA agent Mindy Jackson can be counted on in scrapes, Gideon thinks, and she may have the most surprises of the secondary characters. Nodding Crane, a Chinese operative, is also a worthy antagonist.

In some ways, Gideon is the ultimate frustrating thriller alpha male, blundering through action hero stereotypes. As the book goes on, he does seem to become more aware that he is not the only intelligent person in the world, and more aware of his assumptions and prejudices. It will be interesting to see where Gideon goes in terms of character development, as Gideon's Sword sets up an opportunity for more--more chapters, more adventures, and a deeper storyline.

*Review copy provided by Hachette. Thanks!

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Weekend Giveaway: Embrace by Jessica Shirvington

No, you probably haven't heard of it yet, unless you're in Australia. Embrace is a Lothian book from Hachette Australia, and I don't believe it's available in the United States (yet). Embrace is also the first book in the Violet Eden Chapters series. I believe that this is one of a sudden storm of books I received as a Cybils judge--before I realized I could and should be better at tracking such things.

While I didn't review this one here, I can tell you a little about it. It's about star-crossed romance, angels, epic battles between good and evil, and sacrifice. Does it sound up your alley? Leave me a comment to win it.

*You must be a follower to win. It's on the honor system--I know I have a number of people who follow privately or through an RSS reader.

*I can only ship to U.S. addresses at this time.

*To be entered, tell me your favorite star-crossed lovers story. Also, please give me an e-mail address where I can reach you to arrange shipment. I very much recommend that you mangle your address (like writing out "at" and "dot") to prevent your address being harvested by spambots.

This giveaway ends at 11:59 Pacific time on Sunday, February 13. I mail books every 2-3 weeks. Good luck!

The Lying Game by Sara Shepard

The Lying GameThe Lying Game by Sara Shepard (HarperCollins - HarperTeen) has a really intriguing cover, and I'm going to nominate it for "best hint at the contents" that I've seen in a long time. There are two girls, but they're one and the same girl; it's a girl who can show you one face or its opposite.

The book starts with a Kurt Vonnegut quote: We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be. That's a hint too: there are big and little lies threaded through the entire book, but pretending to be someone other than yourself is the most important of the lies.

Sutton wakes up in a bathtub, far away from her home in Arizona, and no one notices. Not even Emma, the girl who comes into the bathroom next, the girl who looks exactly like Sutton. Sutton knows everything about Emma, from the years in foster care to Emma's wish for a loving family, but Emma doesn't know anything about Sutton--not even that she's shadowing her. Not at first. But soon, though they can't communicate with one another, they're sharing the same space.

Specifically, they're sharing Sutton's space. When Emma sees a snuff video with a girl who looks just like she does, she starts investigating, and finds a girl on Facebook who could be her long-lost sister. There's nothing left for her as she ages out of foster care, and so she goes, at Sutton's invitation, to Arizona. The problem is that she's immediately mistaken for Sutton, and finds herself living Sutton's life--and Sutton is not quite the same girl Emma is, for all the outward similarities. Sutton's one of those girls, who pulls humiliating pranks on classmates, whose friends are more like frenemies. The longer Emma is Sutton, the more she thinks that someone might have killed Sutton as revenge for Sutton's macabre sense of humor and power. The more she wonders if she's next to die.

The Lying Game feels like a throwback in a good way. If you read Christopher Pike, R. L. Stine, or Lois Duncan (remember Down a Dark Hall?) years ago, you'll appreciate the thriller aspects here. I was also fascinated--okay, fascinated--by the point of view switching. I need to go back and look again to confirm my impressions, but there are relatively fast switches between Sutton and Emma in first person, and then, when they're talking about the other person, there's either third person--or the equivalent of third--in between. I wasn't confused 99% of the time, and the other 1%, I thought that the ambiguity worked very well.

My one complaint isn't really directed at the book. As I headed into the ending, I noticed that there were fifty, then thirty, pages remaining, and that it was a bit on the short side of YA to start with. I hadn't figured out whodunnit yet, and I wondered how Shepard was going to wrap it all up...and then I came to the end and caught on that this is a series. I know the economic reasons why, but every book I pick up seems to be the first in a series, and I long for a complete (as far as stories are ever complete) story in one installment.

*Review copy provided by HarperCollins. Thanks!

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Giveaways Out

All of the giveaway books are in the mail. Several rounds of bad weather (in particular, bad weather between me and the post office) and illness has delayed my efforts to get things shipped--but if you won something, it's on its way.

Today was a sick day, but when I'm feeling better, I'm going to review Devilish by Maureen Johnson, Gideon's Sword by Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child, and The Lying Game by Sara Shepard. I've figured out the rotation among those books that are stacked up in front of things I need to clean, galleys, e-books, and the shelves that I'm trying so hard to purge. It's funny how a little extra reading time can help me get my house cleaned!

Monday, February 7, 2011

The Astonishing Adventures of Fanboy and Goth Girl by Barry Lyga; Before I Die by Jenny Downham

The Astonishing Adventures of Fanboy and Goth GirlThe Astonishing Adventures of Fanboy and Goth Girl by Barry Lyga (Houghton Mifflin) was not at all what I thought it would be about; I imagined something along the lines of Nick and Nora--and it was, sort of, but it wasn't, sort of.

Donnie, aka Fanboy, is an outsider at school; only his friend, Cal, gets his love of comic books/graphic novels, and a lot of the time, Cal is busy being a popular jock. (Of interest: Cal is black. I kinda wished this had been Cal's story of juggling his nerd and jock identities.) One day, Donnie is approached by Goth Girl--Kyra--and she prompts him to not give up on his dream of going to a local convention, showing off part of Schemata, his first great graphic novel opus, and Getting Discovered.

The Astonishing Adventures of Fanboy and Goth Girl isn't a romance. Rather, it's a relationships story: Donnie wants more from his relationships with his mom, stepdad, Cal, and--to an extent--Kyra. It's also about a) being a nerd, a geek, whatever term you like, and self-identifying as one, b) being bullied, and how all of the school programs in the world don't teach people how not to bully or be bulled, and how it's difficult to deal with in school settings (I am cynical about human nature, but that's a post all its own), c) learning to be an equal in relationships, and d) creating. I found Donnie to be one of the most sympathetic of the "I'm a guy AND I'm a jerk sometimes but I'll grow up" characters I've read, too.

Before I Die

I read about half of Before I Die by Jenny Downham (Random House - David Fickling Books) and skimmed the ending. Tessa is young and dying of cancer; before she goes, she's got a bucket list of things she wants to do, including drugs, sex, crime, and saying yes to everything for a day. I thought the saying yes part of the list was interesting for how Tessa navigated it, particularly because of her younger brother's involvement, but the Tessa of the beginning didn't capture my heart enough to hold me for the whole book. I liked what I read of the ending, which sounded real and raw; I am always reminded, when I read about the "death rattle," how it's impossible to describe unless you've heard it for yourself. I remember that there was a run of books narrating by dying protagonists when I was a teenager, and I read some of them, but I suppose that I'm just not up for these sorts of books right now; instead, I have to save up all that thinkspace for coming to terms with the deaths of people I know.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Beastly by Alex Flinn

BeastlyI've been thinking about Beauty and the Beast a lot lately. The first reason has to do with books and libraries. Books have been some of my most valued possessions--sometimes individual books, but I really mean books as a whole. One of the most decadent things I can imagine is to have an entire room of one's home devoted to books, particularly if that room has maroon walls and dark wood shelving and a rolly ladder and a fireplace and a table and soft leather chairs and intricately-patterned carpets and tall, narrow windows that let strips of dusty sunlight angle down onto the floor.

I've never read a retelling of this story that doesn't place a great deal of importance on the Beast's library, and at least some time and effort into what comprises the contents, whether that's books out of time or something else. Is it because retellers envision the library as equivalent to paradise? Because the stories in the library are a convenient way to add layers of meaning? Because there's a whiff of apologizing to the reluctant bride that her husband may seem beastly, but he is learned and rich in knowledge? But we can come back to that.

I've also been thinking about Beauty and the Beast because a week or so ago, I got the worst haircut I've ever had. I've had iffy, so-so, and unflattering cuts, but I've never before had one that was so terrible. I saw that the cut had gone wrong early on, and decided to wait it out; after all, there was no fixing it. I find it freeing to not have to spend more than a few minutes on my hair (though short hair is said to come with a need for more makeup, and that's true for me), but the silhouette in the mirror, especially in low light, is not good for my self esteem. I don't have any deep revelations other than "It'll grow." But, I suppose, that's not the solution for a Beast.

Beastly by Alex Flinn (HarperCollins - HarperTeen) is an interesting retelling, though it doesn't break a lot of new ground in terms of story structure. The bones of "Beauty and the Beast" are all there: the taking of the young man's looks to punish him for arrogance; the ticking clock of death; the roses and libraries; the "animal husband" trope; Beauty's forced companionship; love that breaks the evil spell. A bratty, upper-class teen in NYC annoys a witch--who, in this version, doesn't make a Beast and run off entirely--and gets two years to live and plenty of excess body hair for his trouble. When a drug dealer breaks into the Beast's brownstone's backyard rose garden, Kyle, who's changed his name to Adrian (he had a reason for this, but I've forgotten why he thought the meaning was more appropriate, though all I find today are "from Hadrian" meanings; at any rate, he wanted a new name for his new outside), makes the dealer bring his daughter, Lindy, to stay at Adrian's. Madga, the maid, and Will, Adrian's tutor, round out the household.

I notice a variety of interesting things about this version. First, though the story is told entirely from the Beast's point of view, it's packaged very much like today's paranormal romances; I wonder if different packaging might have made this a "boy read." Published in 2007, the technology is a bit nostalgic, but several chats between the Beast and other star-crossed fairy tale characters are charming. The city setting also brings an update to the tale. I have looked at the movie tie-in cover but I don't think it's particularly exciting.

There are aspects that I like less in a modern setting, however, than I do in historical else-times. The Beauty character is forced into confinement, and I wondered why such a smart girl couldn't come up with other alternatives, particularly in terms of taking care of her father. I don't like a few moments where the Beast oversteps his bounds in a way reminiscent of Twilight's Edward in terms of restricting Beauty's movements. I don't like the moment when Beauty decides that the Beast is nice to her, and therefore not acting like a kidnapper; I don't know that there's a way of removing the creepiness of that in a modern setting.

And then there are all the elements that are worth considering; why this, not that? The evil witch is a "monster" because she's fat and ugly, but interestingly in terms of the Beast's personality and story, her "worst" traits may be that she's outspoken and uncharmable. The Beast fears a loss of status--and he's never met someone he couldn't buy--and so he falls quite hard, but it's a long time before he can accept that Beauty is beautiful within and that she's not any sort of different human being. Tutor Will is blind, reinforcing that what you see is not all there is, and while he would prefer to have his sight returned, he's able to enjoy life without it.

I tend to think that animal bridegroom stories dredge up what is largely a distant and unknowable situation for the readers of this book--that an evil, arranged husband isn't as bad a situation as you thought it would be, and that you can learn to love this person. That connects to the relief of being loved and cared for, warts and all. In that, there's the fairy tale that everything always turns out right, even though in real life, endings are much more uncertain.

My favorite part of the book is a realization I've had myself. Lindy observes: when you love someone, you see them not just with your eyes, but with yourself--they just look like themselves. Love means seeing people from the inside out rather than the outside in.
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